Dwight Eisenhower was the Allies Supreme Commander in the lead up to D-Day and in the actual landings in Normandy. He commanded the Allied forces in the last great counter-attack by the Germans in World War Two – the Battle of the Bulge. Eisenhower was one of the most important generals of World War Two and one who went on to greater success as president of America from 1953 to 1961.
Dwight Eisenhower was born in 1890 in Texas. In 1891, the Eisenhower family moved to Abilene in Kansas – "the very heart of America" as Eisenhower was later to describe Abilene.
At school, Eisenhower proved to be a star athlete excelling in both baseball and American football. While he had minimal interest in academic subjects, he did enjoy History.
In 1911, Eisenhower passed the entrance exams for West Point, the premier military academy in America. At this particular moment in his life, he had no wish to be a soldier – but he did wish to be educated at college level. Unable to afford to go to a normal college, West Point offered free higher education – hence his application to join. Eisenhower gave no indication of the leader he was to become. At West Point, he was an average student who nearly gave up his course due to a sports injury. He graduated from the college in 1915, ranked 61st out of 164 men.
Eisenhower was promoted to captain in 1917 when America joined World War One. Just two years into his army career, Eisenhower had already been identified by his superiors as a young officer with very good organisational skills. For this reason, Eisenhower was not posted abroad but sent to Camp Colt, Gettysburg. At this camp, one of America’s first tank units was being formed and it was Eisenhower’s task to train this unit. Such was the impression that he made that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal even though he had not seen combat in Western Europe.
Eisenhower was to continue working on tanks and he met the then Colonel George Patton at Camp Meade in Maryland. In 1922, Eisenhower was posted to the Panama Canal Zone where he served under Brigadier General Fox Connor. Connor was an expert on military history and he taught Eisenhower both military history and the lessons that could be learned from previous military campaigns, and international affairs.
Connor used his influence to get Eisenhower posted to the Command and General Staff School based at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This college was for those young officers deemed to be destined for the top ranks in the American Army. In 1926, Eisenhower graduated from it as the top student out of 300.
Eisenhower also graduated first in his group at the Army War College in 1928. With such a pedigree and aged only 38, Eisenhower was destined for the top.
In 1932, he was made aide to General Douglas MacArthur, chief of staff. In 1935, with a rank of major, Eisenhower joined MacArthur in the Philippines where the Americans were trying to organise a Philippines defence force in preparation of the region being given its independence.
Eisenhower stayed in the Philippines with MacArthur until 1939. In this year he returned to America with the rank of lieutenant colonel to take up a staff position.
It is possible that Eisenhower’s chances for further promotion would have been small at this time. In 1939, the American army was small (compared to the size of the nation) and the higher up the commissioned ranks Eisenhower went, the fewer opportunities there were for promotion – too many talented men were chasing too few positions. This changed with the outbreak of World War Two.
In 1940, America began to draft men into the army. Though not yet in the war itself, many believed that it was only a matter of time until America was drawn into the war and that as a nation she had to be prepared for this. The increasing size of the army meant that senior officers were needed who were skilled in organisation – and Eisenhower had a reputation for this. In 1941, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general.
On December 7th 1941, Pearl Harbour was attacked and on the following day, America declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy (the so-called Axis powers). General George Marshall, the army’s chief of staff, put Eisenhower in charge of the War Plans Division based in Washington DC – in effect, making Eisenhower the senior war planner for the American Army.
America was faced with fighting a war on two fronts – Europe and in the Far East. Eisenhower favoured putting Europe first in front of the Far East war front. His plan was for Germany and Italy to be defeated first and then the Allies could turn their full might on to the Japanese. Eisenhower’s logic in supporting his own plan so impressed General Marshall, that he promoted him to major general in March 1942. In June 1942, Marshall put Eisenhower in charge of the US Army’s European Theatre of Operations based in London and promoted him to lieutenant general. This put Eisenhower in charge of leading the American fight against the Germans in Europe.
‘Ike’ wanted an attack to start on occupied Europe in 1943. However, the American army was not ready for this and Churchill persuaded Marshall that a victory in North Africa would start the ball rolling against the Germans. Eisenhower was put in charge of the Allied forces in North Africa in November 1942. The North African campaign was not always successful as in the first few days of a counter-attack by Rommel at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, the Allies were caught unprepared. However, added by the British led victory at El Alamein, Eisenhower, assisted by Bernard Montgomery, succeeded in pushing the Afrika Corps out of North Africa in May 1943.
Eisenhower was given command of the Allied forces that fought in Sicily and mainland Italy. The campaign in Sicily took a month but it linked up Eisenhower with George Patton once again. The attack on mainland Italy was not easy going. The Germans had established sound defensive positions throughout Italy and the Allies experienced major problems at Anzio and Monte Casino. The drive up Italy would be slow and painful for the Allies.
In December 1943, Eisenhower was put in charge of Operation Overlord – the long waited for attack on mainland Europe. Such an attack would require detailed and meticulous planning – which is why Eisenhower was picked to lead this plan by the combined chief of staffs. Eisenhower was given the title Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. He told the combined chiefs of staff that "we cannot afford to fail".
Eisenhower planned to use Normandy to land Allied troops and not the Pays de Calais region. To ensure that the Germans could not reinforce their men during the initial landings, he ordered that all railheads and any rail line in northern France should be destroyed. Bomber Command objected to their planes being used for this purpose as they wanted to continue to concentrate on German cities and industrial plants. However, Eisenhower got his way when he threatened to resign if Bomber Command did not comply with his wishes.
On D-Day itself, the Allies faced a total of 50 German divisions lead by Rommel whereas the Allies could only land 8 divisions at a time – hence Eisenhower’s desire to isolate Northern France. D-Day was on June 6th 1944 when 150,000 soldiers crossed the English Channel and set up a large beachhead in Normandy. The meticulous planning Eisenhower had been responsible for overseeing had paid off. Compared to the numbers involved, few Allied troops were killed on D-Day, the exception being the casualties at Omaha Beach.
From Normandy, the Allies pushed out and Paris was freed in August.
On December 15th, 1944, in recognition of the work he had done, Eisenhower was promoted to the highest rank in the American army – General of the Army. Just days later, Eisenhower had to fight back the Germans counter-attack in the Ardennes – the so-called Battle of the Bulge. Despite high casualties, the Allies did push back this counter-attack but it did show up disunity between the Americans and British with the American senior commanders accusing Montgomery – in charge of the British land forces in Europe – of being too cautious in his tactics. Whereas Patton wanted the Allies to get up and take on the Germans, Montgomery wanted a more planned approach. It was not the first time the Americans and British had had differing approaches as to how the war should be fought. ‘Monty’ had been accused of being too cautious in the breakout at Normandy. To counter this, Montgomery claimed that Eisenhower favoured Patton over the British in terms of supplies and that the British forces were not being treated the same as the Americans.
Eisenhower and Montgomery clashed one last time as the end of the war approached. Eisenhower wanted the Allies to concentrate on the industrial heartland of Germany and leave Berlin to the Russians. Montgomery wanted the Allies to use the power they had to get to Berlin before the Russians. Eisenhower believed that the nearer the Allies got to Berlin, the more fanatical the fighting would become. This would only cause more Allied casualties. This proved to be correct with the Russians losing 100,000 men for the battle to take Berlin.
The Germans surrendered on May 7th 1945.
After the war, Eisenhower served as chief of staff for the American army and saw the size of that army drop from 8 million to 1 million as a result of demobilisation. In 1948, he retired from the army but became head of NATO in 1950. He then stood for the US presidency. He was first elected president in 1952 (though sworn in as president in 1953) and re-elected in 1956 (inaugurated in 1957)
Dwight Eisenhower died in 1969.