What if D-Day failed? The speech Eisenhower never had to give
On the night of June 5, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower sat at his desk at Allied Headquarters in London, England, composing a message. He had just received word that the weather the following day was going to be somewhat favorable for launching Operation Overlord — the largest, and most dangerous amphibious invasion in the history of warfare.
The fate of his men rested on his shoulders, and as he sat, likely chain-smoking cigarettes to calm his nerves, he composed the following message to the 175,000 men ready to invade German-occupied France:
“You are about to embark upon the great crusade… The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you… You will bring the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people’s of Europe, and security for ourselves in the free world. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely… I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”
Eisenhower then retired to his trailer that served as his personal quarters, and unknown to the world at the time, he wrote another message. This time, he let his mind wander into the unfathomable, and after thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong with the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, he wrote this message:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone. July 5”
Eisenhower, after completing the unbelievably selfless message, appears to have been so lost in thought that he got the date wrong. He then laid in his bed and tried to go to sleep. When that didn’t work he did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep — he read from a novel about the Old West.
“His mental state was very, very taut,” says senior director of research and history at The National WWII Museum, Keith Huxen. “To a degree, he was also nervous, but he was always the type of guy who understood that he needed to project confidence.”
Eisenhower actually felt much worse earlier on June 5, 1944. That day was supposed to be the “day of days” as remembered by history, but bad weather caused him to delay the invasion, stopping the motion of about a million moving cogs in the enormous wheel that churned toward the Allied invasion of Europe.
Now, his three-day window to launch the invasion with favorable weather was shrinking, prompting him to say, “The question is, just how long can you keep this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there.”
Eisenhower’s June 5th started at 3:30 a.m., as he drove through blinding rain to Allied Headquarters. After delaying the invasion the previous day, he ordered his men to be ready early. At Allied Headquarters, a report revealed that a 36-hour window of good weather was about to open up. Eisenhower paced the room, furrowed his brow, and contemplated all the logistical challenges they faced.
As his men waited in muted anticipation, a blank look came over his face as he turned toward the men, “Okay, we’ll go,” he said.
Later in the day, Eisenhower did what came naturally and visited the troops,.
“It was indicative of his leadership that he would instinctively go to the young men who were about to carry out the operation,” said Huxen. “He’s given the order to ‘go,’ so there’s nothing really for him to do until the shooting starts… He knows it’s these young men who have to make it happen, and many of them are going to be dead within hours.”
At Greenham Common in Berkshire, where the 101st Airborne was camped, a scene unfolded where Eisenhower showed what leadership was all about. It’s no accident that he chose the 101st Airborne to visit on the eve of battle, as a British Air Marshal had previously warned him that the 101st would likely endure a murderous 80 percent casualty rate. He put this information in the back of his mind as he laughed and joked around with the men.
“In order for people to believe in the operation and do their best,” said Huxen. “They needed a commander who appeared to believe it. He had a mask that he had to put on sometimes.”
After visiting with General Eisenhower, the paratroopers loaded into transport planes and one-by-one took off into the night. Eisenhower stuck around and watched every single plane rise into the sky. Finally, when the last transport disappeared in the distance, he turned to his driver Kay Summersby, who noticed a very perturbed look on his face, and said, “I hope to God I’m right.”
“If the D-Day invasion hadn’t succeeded, we can pretty logically state that Hitler’s regime would’ve survived,” Huxen said of the stakes of the invasion. “Democracy would’ve been stamped out entirely across all of Eurasia, and Hitler would’ve most certainly expanded the holocaust.”
With all of this at stake, with the fate of the world riding on the shoulders of the men he ordered into combat, Eisenhower sat in his trailer and had to do the unthinkable… Fathom what would happen if they failed. When we examine the “failure message,” we can see that Eisenhower wasn’t ever going to accept failure by his men — if there was a failure, it was his to own, and his alone.
Eisenhower crossed out the benign phrase of “this particular operation,” and took ownership of the failure by changing it to, “My decision to attack.” He further showed his selflessness when he made zero indication of an excuse, closing out the message with, “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” He also underlined, “mine alone.”
“It says a lot about a leader when even at the end of the day,” said Huxen. “After doing everything he could for an incredibly complex operation, he thinks, ‘What if it doesn’t work? What if it fails?’ And he blames himself. All these troops and all these men have done their best, if there’s fault, it lies with him. It’s the mark of a true leader.”
Eisenhower folded the note and placed it in his wallet. The Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, certainly faced a number of challenges and resulted in 10,000 casualties, but at the end of the day, 155,000 Allied troops were on the beaches of France.
Some days later, an aide found the speech and decided to keep it. It now resides in the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas, where it reminds readers what good leadership is all about. In the face of unimaginable odds, at a time when the fate of the world hung in the balance, a person was able to stare failure in the face and take responsibility. That’s a winner.