In this first of five exclusive excerpts from his new historical work, Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States, Conrad Black describes the backstage bickering that was taking place on the eve of one of the greatest invasions of all time.
ON THE EVENING of June 5, 1944, as Roosevelt spoke to the world about the liberation of Rome, and welcomed Italy back into the civilized world, Churchill and de Gaulle were having the most severe of all their many disputes.
Churchill had advised de Gaulle two days before that in any dispute between France and America, Britain would always side with America. This was not a surprise, but was a rather insensitive comment. De Gaulle considered that Eisenhower's statement, to be given a few hours later announcing the Allied landings in France, effectively referred to France as if it were enemy territory, and that the Allies proposed to flood France with "counterfeit money," dispensed by the Allied soldiers.
Eisenhower had made the point to Churchill and Roosevelt on June 3 that he was about to set forth to liberate France without the active support of the only Frenchman who could be of any military assistance to the Allies. De Gaulle, in the circumstances, had withheld the French officers who were to accompany the Allied airborne divisions and assist them with the local populations, and was declining to address the French people on the invasion unless France were treated like an ally and he were treated as the spokesman for France that Britain had officially recognized him to be for nearly four years.
De Gaulle's ambassador to the British, Pierre Vienot, was trying to smooth matters over and fetched up in Churchill's bedroom with Eden at one in the morning on D-Day, June 6. There was a frightful scene as Churchill, on one of the most momentous nights of his life, had consumed more alcohol than usual and had retired earlier than usual. Vienot said that there was a misunderstanding and that de Gaulle would certainly speak to the French people through the BBC.
Churchill harangued Vienot for nearly two hours, accusing de Gaulle of "treachery in battle" and of not appreciating the sacrifice of the young British, Americans and Canadians who were already embarked to go forth and liberate France. Vienot finally declared that he would not be spoken to in this way and left at 3 a.m., returning to de Gaulle, who was staying in the Connaught Hotel. Churchill then awakened an aide and shouted down the telephone to him that de Gaulle would not be allowed into France and would be returned to Algiers, if need be, he added in a magnificent flourish, "in chains."
The aide ignored this and went uneasily back to sleep as if after a nightmare, but de Gaulle, advised by Vienot of Churchill's tirade, was satisfied at having inflicted on his host such an uncontrollable and sleep-depriving rage, and told Vienot to assure the British that of course he would speak to the French and send whatever support people he could. (Most of the initial airborne divisions were already over France, approximately 13,000 men.)
When Eisenhower's statement was broadcast at 3:32 a.m. Eastern Time in the United States, as the British were making their way to work, de Gaulle issued a statement entirely supporting the invasion and announcing his presence in "this old and dear England; where else could I be?" The BBC announced all day on its French service that de Gaulle would speak in the evening, although de Gaulle refused to show his remarks in advance to the British.
The landings went better than had been feared, other than with unforeseen problems for Americans scaling cliffs at Omaha Beach. The Allies took about 6,000 casualties on the day, but landed successfully at all five beaches (two British, two American and one Canadian), and penetrated inland beyond their initial targets. Casualties were not heavy among the airborne troops, for whom a casualty rate of up to 80 percent had been feared. The remarkable total of over 132,000 Allied soldiers landed on D-Day.
Roosevelt had been awakened by his wife, to whom Marshall's telephone call at 3:30 a.m. was directed by the White House switchboard, as she was unable to sleep. Roosevelt had White House employees called in to work at 4 a.m. Throughout the United States, church bells and school bells pealed constantly, large crowds gathered in almost all public squares and houses of worship of all denominations held almost continuous services in favor of the cross-Channel operation on D-Day and succeeding days.
De Gaulle spoke to the French, with Churchill listening in his office, prepared at any moment to pull the plug on his obstreperous colleague by telephone hookup with the BBC. It was soon clear that there would be no need for such a draconian and almost unthinkable intervention. De Gaulle summoned "the sons of France" to do their "simple and sacred duty to fight the enemy by every means in their power." He was generous in his references to the Allies, spoke as the civil and military authority of France, and said to his countrymen: "From behind the cloud so heavy with our blood and our tears, the sun of our greatness is reappearing."
Churchill, well over his violent rage against de Gaulle 18 hours before, with tears streaming down his face, demanded of an incredulous aide: "Have you no sentiment?" Roosevelt gave one of his greatest addresses a few hours later, beginning "Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor" and ending with the prayerful hope that America's sons and allies would produce "a peace invulnerable to the scheming of unworthy men."
The landings achieved complete surprise and the ruse that Normandy was only a diversion was assisted by conspicuous air and sea activity in the nearer Channel ports, and by large numbers of dummy tanks and trucks and tent camps. And the conspicuous presence of General Patton, the Western general the Germans feared most, around Dover was successful and played a role in Hitler's withholding two armored divisions from the real invasion area.
In Normandy, overwhelming Allied air and sea superiority made it difficult for German counter-attacks to take hold or the torrential influx of men and vehicles and stores to be interdicted or contested at all. There was fierce fighting in the bocage hedge country of the Norman interior, but it became clearer each day, and certain within 10 days, that the Allies could not be evicted. The German theater and Atlantic defense commanders, Field Marshals von Rundstedt and Rommel, told Hitler on June 17 that it would be impossible to contain the Allies in their beachhead. Within three weeks, more than a million men, 172,000 vehicles, and over 600,000 tons of supplies had been landed. By September 5, the Allies had landed 2.1 million men and 3.47 million tons of supplies, and the Americans continued to send two divisions a week to the front, and could do so almost indefinitely.
Excerpted from Flight of the Eagle. Copyright © 2013 Conrad Black Capital Corporation. Published by Signal, an imprint of the McClelland & Stewart Doubleday Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.