It’s March 1944, and the Second World War rumbles on. At this time, the Allied assault on northern France is just a matter of weeks away. But all is not well with the invasion force’s supreme commander, five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower. You see, the man many would come to know as Ike is in a bitter dispute with Britain’s wartime leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And Eisenhower is so angered by the clash that he’s contemplating drastic action – a maneuver, in fact, that could entirely change the course of WWII.
Yet D-Day – the famous attack by sea and land on Normandy – did of course go ahead on June 6, 1944. The massive operation had been meticulously planned for months on end, too. But discussions about the precise timing of the invasion had been intense – at times even acrimonious. And that’s perhaps not a surprise, as tentative geopolitical alliances were at stake.
What’s more, these issues threatened to cause bitter divisions between the main Allied countries opposing Hitler: the U.S., Britain and Russia. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was keen to see the invasion of France happen as soon as possible, for instance, so that his eastern troops could be given some respite. Given the bitter fighting taking place on Russian soil, this was entirely understandable.
And earlier in the war, Britain had stood up against the Nazis without those other two Allied nations. Even after the Germans had overrun Western Europe in 1940, the U.S. had been reluctant to commit troops to what it deemed to be a European conflict. Back then, Russia had also been in a pact with the Germany that pledged neither country would attack the other. As WWII scholars know, though, the international geopolitical scene changed drastically during the course of 1941.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler double-crossed Stalin by breaking their pact and invading Russia. That left the Soviet Union to join the war on the Allied side. Then, a few months later on December 7, the Japanese launched their unpredicted attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. This, of course, was the act that brought the U.S. into the conflict – and left the fault lines of WWII now more firmly defined.
But before we explore the build-up to the D-Day invasion and the bitter dispute that split Churchill and Eisenhower, let’s find out a little more about the two men themselves. Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, to give him his full name and title, came into the world in 1874 in the aristocratic splendor of England’s Blenheim Palace.
Churchill was born to parents of considerable social standing, too. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, who was a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) and senior grandee of his party. His mother, Jennie Spencer-Churchill, on the other hand, had been born in Brooklyn, New York, and became renowned as a society beauty. She wed Lord Randolph in 1874 at Paris’ British Embassy, and Winston – the couple’s first son – arrived under eight months later.
And when Churchill was later questioned about his own birth, he gave a famously pithy response that William Manchester recorded in his biography The Last Lion. “Although present on the occasion, I have no clear recollection of the events leading up to it,” the great man is reported to have replied. But the young Churchill apparently saw relatively little of his mother after that. As was commonplace among members of the English aristocracy, the child was principally raised by nannies.
Initially, too, it seemed that Churchill wasn’t exactly set for greatness. Even though he was clever, he was also a somewhat shambolic student who fared badly in exams. After finishing at the exclusive Harrow School, though, Churchill gained entry to the Royal Military Academy, following which he saw service in Sudan, India and Cuba. The future prime minister then had a spell as a journalist before choosing – like his father – to enter into the political arena.
Churchill saw success in the field, too, as he was elected as an MP in 1901. Four years later, he also earned the role of Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. And before the army veteran went on to win the country’s top job, he held other high offices of state – including the positions of Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Churchill’s rise to the summit of British politics wasn’t entirely smooth, though. In 1929 his Conservative Party lost the general election, leaving him and his colleagues once again out of power.
Yet even during his time away from the front lines of politics, Churchill still recognized the looming threat posed by Hitler’s Nazi regime. And when he finally clawed his way to the post of prime minister – on the very day that the Germans invaded France, in fact – he went on to prove arguably Britain’s greatest wartime leader. It was during this period, moreover, that Churchill worked alongside – and sometimes argued fiercely with – Eisenhower.
And this brings us neatly on to David Dwight Eisenhower – as he was originally known before his mother switched his names to avoid him being confused with his dad. But Eisenhower’s background was in stark contrast to that of Churchill. Yes, while the British premier was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Eisenhower’s clan had had to work hard for their money.
Eisenhower entered the world in 1890 – so, 16 years after Churchill – into a Pennsylvania Dutch family in Denison, Texas. Before his birth, his father, David, had been a store owner in Kansas; as the business dwindled, however, he found himself forced to take on various jobs to put food on the table. Fortunately, David ultimately managed to haul his family out of hard times.
The Eisenhowers were by no means wealthy, mind you. When college beckoned for the future president, in fact, he agreed with a brother to take turns studying and earning money to pay for tuition. But before Eisenhower had his own chance to hit the books, he changed tack. In 1911 he decided to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Then, after leaving the academy in 1915, Eisenhower spent time at army bases in Georgia and Texas. A spell overseas seemed to beckon, too, when the U.S. joined WWI in 1917. But this wasn’t to be. Mere days before Eisenhower was due to travel to France, you see, peace broke out – thus denying him his chance of active service.
After the conclusion of WWI, Eisenhower continued as a captain in the army, although he was upgraded to major in 1920 – a rank he maintained for the decade and a half that followed. And in the early 1920s, he worked on the development of modern tank warfare, during which he became something of a specialist in the field. That said, Eisenhower and his colleagues’ vision of what future conflict may look like wasn’t exactly met favorably by his commanding officers.
The major’s superiors viewed tanks as merely back-up tools for soldiers, after all, and took a dim view of Eisenhower and his co-workers’ notion that the vehicles could be used in offensive tactics. This clash of ideas even saw Eisenhower face a potential court-martial when he failed to give up on proposing his apparently avant-garde theories.
And as the 1920s rolled into the 1930s, Eisenhower’s career in the army was in the doldrums. At one point, he was pushed towards a role in the American Battle Monuments Commission that hardly made the best use of his talents. Nevertheless, in fall 1941 – just weeks before Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into WWII – the serviceman earned the rank of brigadier general.
Then Eisenhower began to prove his mettle. Following the Pearl Harbor assault, he joined the U.S. Army General Staff and was entrusted with coming up with schemes to ultimately thwart both the Nazis and the Japanese. In 1942 he also traveled to London to take up residence at the Allied Force Headquarters, upon which he became head of military operations in North Africa and Europe.
And November 1942 saw Eisenhower command Operation Torch – a joint British and American assault on the North African countries of Morocco and Algeria. The Nazi-backed Vichy French authorities occupied these territories, with the attack designed to help the Allied troops who were facing down Axis powers in Egypt.
Operation Torch made history, too, as it marked the first time that U.S. forces had ever engaged in a large-scale airborne attack. And if the mission went well, it would not only assist Allied soldiers, but it would also make way for a later invasion of Italy and the nearby island of Sicily. Fortunately for all concerned, then, Operation Torch was a triumph.
After that, the British Eighth Army, led by General Bernard Montgomery, pushed the Germans out of North Africa – which proved to be a huge setback for the Nazis. Eisenhower was the man superintending that operation, and he also acted as commander for the subsequent takeover of Sicily.
Then in January 1944 President Roosevelt honored Eisenhower with the position of the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force – a role he would hold until the German capitulation in May the following year. The scene was now set for the argument between Eisenhower and Churchill that we heard about earlier. And the dispute was bitter enough, in fact, that it could actually have derailed the planning and execution of D-Day.
Eisenhower actually played a key part in the plan to invade northern France, and he believed that there was one element vital to the success of an air- and seaborne invasion of Normandy. In his view, finding a way to stop the Germans ushering in powerful reinforcements to the scene of the landings was absolutely essential.
And as it happens, Eisenhower had an answer to this problem: destroy as much key transport infrastructure in France as possible. Indeed, he believed that the full force of the Allies’ aerial bombing capabilities should be directed towards the endeavor. This strategy came to be known as the Transportation Plan.
The Transportation Plan was principally the brainchild of a military planner called Solly Zuckerman. Perhaps unusually, he had been a zoologist before war had broken out; during the conflict, however, he became the British Bombing Survey Unit’s scientific director. And it was Zuckerman, it seems, who came up with the idea of destroying French railroads to hamper the Nazis in responding quickly to the Allied invasion of France.
Eisenhower wasn’t the only one to give his support to the Transportation Plan, either; his deputy chief commander Arthur Tedder also concurred with such a measure. But there were others who had considerable reservations about the scheme. Naysayers even gave the Transportation Plan a cutting nickname: “Zuckerman’s Folly.”
The British Royal Air Force air marshal Arthur T. Harris certainly wasn’t enamored with Zuckerman’s idea. He believed, by contrast, that the war could be won for the Allies through so-called “area bombing.” And as that name suggests, this method did away with any attempt at picking out specific targets; instead, it involved trying to annihilate a city’s entire war manufacturing effort as well as its workforce. Not for nothing did the military leader earn the name of “Bomber” Harris.
Speaking to the History network’s website in March 2019, The National World War II Museum’s Robert Citino described the views of Eisenhower and his supporters on the matter. “Eisenhower wanted to use our heavy strategic bombers – the big four-engine planes that were built to destroy German cities and the economy – and send them to wreck the French roads and railway system,” the historian said.
According to Citino, however, Harris and his opposite number in the U.S. Air Force, General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, “wanted to keep bombing German cities.” He added, “[Harris and Spaatz] thought that was the quickest way to end the war. That might seem like the height of naivete today, but people believed it at the time.”
“The air forces wanted to prove that they could win the war on their own. You want to bomb Berlin, and instead you’re being told to bomb some podunk French village because it’s got a railway crossing,” Citino continued. And it seems that Harris was once fairly scathing about Zuckerman and his scheme. Author Peter Gray related the air marshal’s thoughts in his 2012 volume The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945.
Focusing on Zuckerman’s previous work as a zoologist and in particular his studies of monkeys, Harris disparaged him with the words, “Our worst headache has been a panacea plan devised by a civilian professor whose peacetime forte is the study of the sexual aberrations of the higher apes.” This choice insult exposes the bitter depths to which the debate had reached.
If it had only been Harris and Spaatz who had opposed the idea of transferring the bombing from German cities to French railroads, Eisenhower and Tedder may well have prevailed easily enough. But the two air commanders had the support of none other than Churchill himself – thus making their position all the more formidable.
What’s more, Churchill opposed the idea of bombing France from more than one angle. To begin with, such a strategy had the potential to kill a lot of innocent people. And while it was one thing to attack a key enemy such as Germany in this manner, it was quite another to subject a country that was ostensibly a wartime ally to this fate.
Churchill also threatened that alienating the French population by bombing them may push them towards joining forces with the Soviets after the war. Yet Citino has claimed that any humanitarian concerns played second fiddle in the prime minister’s decision-making process. He told History, “The real question was who could win the war more quickly.”
Meanwhile, the likes of Harris were claiming that bombing German munitions and supplies factories could finish the war within just six months. That was a powerful argument if it held any water. But Eisenhower was determined that the Transportation Plan was the way forward. Nothing, as far he was concerned, was more important in giving the D-Day invasion the best chance of success.
And Eisenhower had a powerful ally in the arguments for and against bombing France: Charles de Gaulle. In particular, the future president of the European nation claimed that the sheer importance of achieving the Normandy invasion outweighed any concerns about civilian losses. The dispute continued, though, and so Eisenhower sat down to further express his views about the matter in a memo.
As Eisenhower dictated his message in March 1944 and outlined how the arguments about D-Day had originated, he became increasingly frustrated by the way in which events had unfolded. Indeed, it’s said that by the time he’d completed his memo, he’d actually worked himself up into a towering rage. And at the conclusion of his note, he had harsh words for the reader.
Eisenhower claimed that he intended “to take drastic action and inform the combined chiefs of staff that unless the matter is settled, at once I will request relief from this command.” And he even apparently said to Tedder, “By God, you tell that bunch that if they can’t get together and stop quarreling like children, I will tell the prime minister to get someone else to run this damned war. I’ll quit.”
So, in the face of this warning, Churchill seemingly backed down. At any rate, the Transportation Plan went ahead, as did D-Day on June 6, 1944. And what would have transpired if Eisenhower had indeed walked away from the job of commander is one of the great unanswered “what ifs” of history. Perhaps, in fact, the invasion of Normandy could have turned out quite differently minus the Transportation Plan and without Eisenhower at the helm.