By John Antal
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Forces Europe, talks to paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, on the evening of June 5, 1944. In a few short hours these Soldiers would be parachuting into Nazi occupied France and engaged in one of the most desperate and decisive battles of WWII. (US Army Photo)
June 6, 1944, was the Day of Days.
It was a very different time: A time when the world was cascading into chaos, war and death on a scale that is nearly unimaginable. A time when ruthless totalitarianism was on the march and winning at almost every turn. It was a time when a few brave men and women stood in defiance of tyranny and their actions and leadership made all the difference.
In the waning hours of the 5th of June 1944, American and British paratroopers were flying over the English Channel to embark on the “Great Crusade” against Fascism and defeat the terrible Nazi gospel of hate and conquest. These brave paratroopers were the vanguard of an immense military force that was to enter the continent of Europe and bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany. At the same time, the largest armada in history, made up of more than 4,000 American, British, and Canadian ships, sailed over rough seas, cleared paths though the minefields in the Bay of the Seine, and prepared to land assault troops on the coast of Normandy, France. In spite of heavy waves, the Allied ships launched their landing craft and as daylight dawned, Allied tanks and infantry assaulted the beaches against determined German defenses.
D-Day, 7:40 am, “Into the Jaws of Death,” U.S. Soldiers from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, land on “Easy Red” Sector of Omaha Beach against a deadly storm of German fire. (US Coast Guard photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent)
On June 6, 1944, the D-Day operation was far from a forgone conclusion. The Allies could have lost on D-Day. A million things could have gone wrong and the plan could have ended in a colossal defeat for the Allies. The Germans could have learned of the attack and reacted in time. They could have massed their remaining U-Boats to sink the Allied ships. They could have massed their superior Me-262 jet aircraft to attack the landing areas. They could have used their V1 flying buzz bombs to pummel the invasion beaches. They could have moved their panzer divisions closer to the coast and immediately counterattacked the invading Allies. They could have used poison gas on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The Germans could have done all of these things and many more, but they didn’t and the Allies took away these options through careful preparation and planning. More importantly, the Allies could have been engulfed in fear over all of these possibilities, but they weren’t.
The Allies moved forward with courage, adapted, improvised, and overcame the enemy. When the assault troops were stalled on the beaches, their courage and leadership moved them forward to crack Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The Americans, British, Canadians and other Allied forces of Eisenhower’s Allied Expeditionary Force never quit. They generated options, pressed forward against tremendous odds and seized victory.
Leadership was the decisive element on D-Day. It is easy for us today, in our relatively secure and comfortable lives to forget the sacrifice of the heroes who dropped into the dark sky and rushed onto the beaches on June 6, 1944. Imagine if this had been you – if you had been asked to take on the responsibility of fighting and leading in this desperate battle. Every Soldier, Sailor and Airmen involved in D-Day understood the risks. Many expected to die and 4,413 Allied personnel, according to the latest assessments, died on D-Day. You only have to visit the American Cemetery in Normandy, at Colleville-sur-Mer, to understand impact of their loss. In spite of the heavy casualties, the Allies would hold onto all five beachheads on the first day and then move forward and begin the inexorable march to free Europe from the oppression of Nazi brutality and dictatorship. For them, there was no alternative but victory.
If D-Day had failed on June 6, it may have taken the Allies another year to launch an invasion. By that time, the Germans might have produced an atomic bomb. In that time, millions more would have died in Nazi concentration camps. Such an outcome would be, in General Eisenhower’s own words, “too terrible to contemplate.”
Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision. From General Eisenhower down to the private soldier, the Greatest Generation showed tremendous courage and exceptional leadership on D-Day. They chose courage. It is estimated that between 50-80 million people died in WWII. The scale of this carnage is unimaginable, yet we must understand it if we are to lead in our own time. Today we can barely understand nor sense what was at stake on June 6, 1944, but it was nothing less than our “today.” In the noise of our hurried lives, it would do us all well to take a moment to remember the men who sacrificed so much for our freedoms in Normandy some 73 years ago.
Leadership is something that can be learned. We should never forget what the heroes of D-Day sacrificed for us. We should take every opportunity to take their gift and use it and learn from their courage and leadership. By reading about the past, we can grow our understanding of leadership and create a better tomorrow for those who follow us. By studying the leaders of D-Day, we can raise our own leadership and apply that leadership to our daily lives.
John Antal is a soldier, military historian, and leadership expert. He served 30 years in the US Army as a combat arms officer, senior staff officer, and commander. He has commanded units from platoon level through regiment and served on corps and multinational staffs. In his post-Army career he has become a video game producer, military consultant and author of thirteen books and hundreds of articles on military and leadership subjects. His newest book is 7 Leadership Lessons of D-Day: Lessons from the Longest Day – June 6, 1944
7 Leadership Lessons of D-Day
The odds were against the Allies on June 6, 1944. The task ahead of the paratroopers who jumped over Normandy and the soldiers who waded ashore onto the beaches, all under fire, was colossal. In such circumstances, good leadership can be the defining factor in victory or defeat. This book is about the extraordinary leadership of seven men who led American soldiers on D-Day and the days that followed. Some of them, like Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., and Lieutenant Dick Winters, are well known, while others are barely a footnote in the history books.
All of them made a dramatic difference during Operation Overlord. All understood that they had a mission to accomplish and that if they failed to lead, that mission would fail and more men would die. When things did not go as planned, they took action, adapted and overcame – they were leaders. Leadership was the only ingredient that would get them through the storm of death surrounding them and their men.
This book is not a full history of D-Day, nor does it cover the heroic leadership shown by men in the armies of the Allies or members of the French Resistance who also participated in the Normandy assault and battles for the lodgment areas. It is, however, a primer on how you can lead today, no matter what your occupation or role in life, by learning from the leadership of these seven.
A critical task for every leader is to understand what leadership is. Socrates once said that you cannot understand something unless you can first define it in your own words. This book provides the reader with a means to define leadership by telling seven dramatic, immersive and memorable stories that the reader will never forget.
Coming soon in print & eBook from all booksellers.