General Dwight D Eisenhower the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces on D-Day
It has often been said that the ultimate place where leadership is needed is on the battlefield and in a war. What is there that we can learn from 1944 and is it still relevant today?
- An Autonomous Chain of Command
General Eisenhower and his Generals knew that once their sailors, airmen and soldiers went into battle, junior officers would command them; there wouldn’t be the “top brass” alongside them in the initial landings. The officers and men of the Allied Forces were allowed and empowered to work on their own initiative. At times they may have found themselves fighting without an officer or NCO in place or even on their own. They didn’t wait for someone to tell them what to do – they were proactive because they were allowed to be.
On the other hand, the Germans were crippled with the way that Hitler had effectively taken over command of the military forces and soldiers were too scared and not allowed to act unless they had direct orders from above. Elite German troops and tanks were not committed until it was too late because Hitler was asleep. Nobody woke him and therefore in the critical first few hours they lost the opportunity to repel the Allied invaders.
The Germans had a top down structure, whereas by now the Allies were bottom up.
- A Great Team
General Eisenhower commanded one of the largest and almost certainly the most complicated military forces ever. He had, however, in his career very rarely even been in earshot of battle, let alone command and fought in a front line unit. He wasn’t your traditional “up and at them” leader he was more of a “chairman of the board”. He built a team of experts below him that were more capable than him at dealing with front line issues and planning. Eisenhower used his statesman’s skills (that would enable him to have two terms as the President of the USA) to build a team that was not only across the three services, but also from different nationalities. He was an American in charge overall, but he cleverly made the next level of command all from the British Services. He was protective over his team and famously “sacked” one of his best American officers that was heard to moan about the “limeys”. He managed to placate the famously prickly General Montgomery and even the aloof General de Gaulle.
Before the likes of Belbin and Myers Briggs, Eisenhower instinctively knew how to build a balanced team, understand people and wasn’t afraid to surround himself with those more expert then himself.
The Allies had invested a huge amount of time and money in intelligence and deception by the time the landings took place. Alan Turing and his famous team at Bletchley Park had cracked the German codes and could listen in on their enemy’s communications. Fake armies were created using dummies of tanks, planes and trucks to deceive the enemy. Even the radio traffic of “phantom” armies was created knowing and allowing the Germans to listen in.
Hobart’s “funnies”, a whole division of mechanized tanks and vehicles, were created and deployed with the exact intention of overcoming the German defences. Specialized landing craft, and in particular the Higgins boat, were also developed to land troops on the beaches, and of course the incredible Mulberry Harbours were produced.
When the Allies landed, the Germans were amazed at the amount of vehicles that they had. The Germans were still using horses as their primary mode of transportation.
All of the above and much more was cutting edge technology of its time. An environment had been created that allowed people to come up with solutions to overcome problems by the use of the latest ideas and materials.
- Have a plan
Eisenhower was an expert in planning and logistics. The Allies spent years planning the invasion. When the Americans entered the war in December 1941 after the attack by the Japanese on Hawaii you would think that the Pacific War would be their priority. They, however, realised that the true threat to world peace came from the Germans, and even though the Americans did fight prior to D Day in the pacific and North Africa they always knew that their No 1 strategic goal was the invasion of Europe and the defeat of Germany. They used specialized expert committees to come up with plans that were then brought into the main overall plan for the day.
The planning was cascaded down to commanding officers of regiments, battalions and companies. The best plans were those that weren’t too complicated – such as the taking of Pointe du Hoc or Pegasus Bridge – as opposed to the incredibly intricate detailed plan for the taking of the Merville Battery.
The British & Commonwealth forces and the Americans were aligned with one common main objective: the defeat of Nazi Germany. They knew what they had to do first. Overall, it was a simple plan and they committed to it.
It is said: “you cannot go into battle without a plan, but as soon as you go into battle, out goes the plan”. The world doesn’t behave in the way that we always want or plan. On 6th June a lot of things went wrong: gliders and paratroopers landed in the wrong places, poor weather, bombers missed their targets or were ineffective, wrong intelligence, equipment not arriving, timings going wrong and friendly fire (there’s nothing friendly about being killed by your own side). The Allies ultimately overcame these problems and even had an acronym for it: SNAFU – Situation Normal All F*@$!d Up. They knew things would go wrong, but they just got on with it. They didn’t stop and wait – this was life or death.
They were versatile and proactive.
- Training & Constant Development
Eisenhower was a student of the American military academy at West Point. He graduated in 1915 middle of the class. He did, however, stick out as someone that was open minded and self motivated. He spent all of his life learning. He put himself forward, willing and able for a variety of postings and positions. He realised that the future and key for an officer in the modern army would be clear orders and the moving of supplies and men. He learnt from the people around him and allowed them to help him. He looked for and used mentors such as General Fox Conner, an army intellectual who would persuade Eisenhower that the future of land warfare was the tank.
This attitude of constant learning resulted in Eisenhower being open minded and willing to listen to new ideas and opinions, whether it was from a General or a Private.
- Learn from the Past
By the time of the D Day landings, the Allies had a lot of experience to call on. Eisenhower was appointed not just because of his character, but he also had experience from being involved in and commanding amphibious invasions in North Africa and Italy. He was the best man for the job.
The allies had also learnt from the debacle of Dieppe that they couldn’t attack a port and needed specialised equipment to succeed in a tri-service operation.
They had learnt the better ways to structure and command units. The old “Officer Class” was being replaced with a new system of reward and promoting people on a meritocracy, not based on their old school tie or time spent. It was now a system of character development and training with some of the best officers and men involved in that training.
It is very easy to look back today and believe that the D Day landings were always going to be a success. At the time, however, it was an incredibly difficult and uncertain endeavour. Eisenhower had even written a letter that would be released in the event of the invasion floundering “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone”.
It was a massive risk to take; there had been nothing like it before. The allies could have waited longer until they had more men, more tanks, more equipment and better weather. Eisenhower took a huge risk landing on 6th June knowing the weather was poor and that his aircraft wouldn’t have good visibility. However, if he had delayed the invasion for perfect weather, the next opportunity with the correct tides and moonlight would have been the 19th June. As it happened, on that day there was a huge storm and the invasion would have been impossible. This would have meant that the invasion would have been delayed yet again. At this point the Germans would have been even better prepared and in a better position to repel the invaders.
Eisenhower and his staff knew that to wait for perfect meant not starting at all – and if they had the world would be a very different place today.
It’s ok to have all of your plans in place and orders written, but the leaders on D Day were judged by their actions. Of course Eisenhower couldn’t be with the frontline troops, but the day before he spent time visiting his airborne troops at Greenham Common; chatting with them, reassuring them and generally helping improve morale.
When the troops were in a hopeless situation on Omaha beach it was some of the senior and junior officers on the beach that assessed the situation, took the initiative and started to lead men off the beach. These were ordinary men that the world has now largely forgotten. When the troops on Utah landed in the wrong place, the son of Theodore Roosevelt took control and said, “The war starts here”. It wasn’t just officers – Sgt Hollis VC led British troops off of Gold beach.
They were present though, by being visible and by setting an example to their men. They weren’t being judged by their words alone, they were being judged and followed because of their actions – what they were doing.
It was said that the Allies were lucky and there does appear to be some truth in it – that Hitler was asleep, that the Panzers were in the wrong place and not mobilised, it was Rommel’s wife’s birthday, that explosives weren’t placed on Pegasus Bridge, the list goes on. Equally however, the allies had their fair share of bad luck – the weather was poor, the German crack 352nd unit was at Omaha, bombers missed their targets and troops landed in the wrong places.
The truth is that luck does play an element, but because the allies had learnt from the past, invested in technology and training, had built great teams, had taken risks, delegated, been flexible and had a plan in place they were able to overcome their bad luck, exploit their good luck and create their own luck.
Many of today’s leaders would do well by looking at the Lessons of Leadership from June 6th 1944.
Paul Adlam October 2017
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