Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Our only possible chance will be at the beaches - that's where the enemy is always weakest." Erwin Rommel

Whenever I have the opportunity to teach about the D-Day landings, students are always impressed and fascinated by Hitler’s Atlantic Wall – the formidable series of obstacles that were erected on the coast of Europe. Once a possible invasion of England was foregone and the Russian front was proving to be a challenge, Hitler ordered that an indestructible wall be built, “a belt of strongpoints and gigantic fortifications … to make this front impregnable against every enemy”. Thousands of slave laborers worked around the clock, pouring millions of tons of concrete and utilizing incredible amounts of steel (a material facing a shortage in Germany, all to create a defense that would repulse and invading force. These defenses were mostly concrete bunkers with large armaments to defend the coast, ensconced in an elevated position on the cliffs on the coast.

When Field General Erwin Rommel examined the fortifications, in the middle of the war, he felt that Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” was actually too weak, and he ordered additional barriers of anti-invasion obstacles – the ones made famous in the movies “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Longest Day”. Rommel pushed for the installation of mine tipped rods, huge steel “hedgehogs”, concrete cones, and huge gates of steel, all planted at the high water and low water marks. Rommel wanted to stop the enemy from reaching the beaches by decimating them in the water. Not to be too cautious, he had the beaches loaded with obstacles as well, heavily mined (17,000 or so mines in all), and lined with barbed wire. The result - 37,000 obstacles along the Norman coast, or one obstacle every two yards. Imagine facing this combination of defensive structure and elevated firepower on an open beach with no cover save a few obstacles and multiple dead comrades. I hope I will get a small sense of what the Allied soldiers saw when they landed on June 6, 1944.

There are still remnants of the Atlantic Wall that I will be able to see and experience on my trip. I am not sure what I will feel when I sit in one (or more) of the German concrete bunkers that remain on the Norman coast. I also am excited to visit Le Grande Bunker Musee de mur de l'Atlantique in Ousitreham on my first morning in France.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die." Charles de Gaulle

"Throughout France the Resistance had been of inestimable value in the campaign. Without their great assistance the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves." Dwight D. Eisenhower, after WWII

Another topic I am excited to research through my reading and while in France is the French resistance. I have limited background on the topic, mostly what I have gleaned from conversations with Francine. I know they faced many challenges during the occupation of their country – they were more loosely organized than a typical military group with unclear lines of authority, supplies and arms were limited at best, communication was difficult, and it was often difficult to get support of the French people due to their desire to not stir up trouble and face repercussions from their Nazi occupiers. As author Dan Van Der Wat put it, the resistance “not only had to elude capture by the Germans – which could mean torture and death – but also needed to be diplomats as well as weapons, intelligence and wireless experts.”

Facing those obstacles, the Resistance played an essential role in the liberation of their homeland. While they had been active since occupation in 1940, their actions of 1944 were essential to Allied success. Prior to the invasion, they provided the Allies with essential information concerning Nazi strength and movement and also helped with misinformation. They planned and carried out sabotage on the electrical power grid, transportation facilities, and telecommunications networks, helping to cut off the German divisions from each other. I have read countless examples of small acts of assistance for the Allied troops on and after June 6, some by the Resistance, and many simply by the citizens of France. They also helped shield political dissidents and assisted some French Jews to escape the horrible fate that awaited them if deported.

I plan to focus (in part) on the resistance movement when I take the Paris World War II Walk on the final day of my excursion. I have never been to Paris, and I am hopeful that this tour will quench my historical WWII thirst – so I can come back with Cathy (my wife) in the future and do the dining, shopping, wine, and entertainment tour!"

Friday, July 1, 2011

“This is the best officer in the Army”

Douglas MacArthur spoke these words in regard to the Supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, and I have found them to be very prophetic ... and spot on true. As I read in preparation for my trip, I am continuously struck by the reverence authors give to Dwight Eisenhower – and it is all deserved. I didn’t go into this trip thinking I would develop a keen interest in Ike, but it’s almost impossible not to recognize that he was a (if not the) driving force behind the success of Operation Overlord, and that he is an example of the tenets needed to succeed as a leader.

What can we learn from Eisenhower’s leadership as the Supreme Commander of SHAEF?

Motto - Eisenhower had a favorite motto that he kept inscribed on a stone on his Presidential desk, but also fits his leadership in World War II - “Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re” (attributed to Claudio Aqua) “ - Gently in Manner – Strongly in Deed

Optimism – Optimism (and pessimism) were infectious and spread rapidly, according to Eisenhower, especially coming from the position of a commander of men. Victory is unattainable without optimism, and Eisenhower strove to display such optimism in public, and “that any pessimism and discouragement I meet ever feel would be reserved for my pillow.”

Teamwork – In Overlord, Eisenhower developed a strong team of subordinates and carefully listened to their suggestions before going through with a plan. Even until the final minutes of ordering Overlord into action, Eisenhower consulted with his subordinates for the invasion (from different countries) before making the difficult decision to proceed with the invasion. Not every commander in SHAEF agreed with all aspects of the operation, but Eisenhower was able get everyone behind him through consensus and logic in his decisions.

Example – The best leaders dive in, roll up their sleeves, and lead by example. The hours that the staff of SHAEF kept were painful – but Eisenhower matched them. He would only ask his staff to do what he himself would do. Eisenhower himself put it very concretely - "The art of leadership is deciding what to do, and then getting men to want to do it."

Modesty – Although he was a man of considerable talent and power (in Europe and eventually in the White House), Eisenhower did not flaunt or abuse his status. He was able to connect with all – the difficult personalities of Montgomery and Patton, the confident assistants like Bradley, and the foot soldiers, the men he cared for and was concerned for the most. Ike spent time with the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne the day before their jump, told stories from home, shared a smoke, and became “one of the boys” if only for a short time. Perhaps the best sign of Ike’s modesty? His handwritten note taking full blame for the possible failure of the invasion, prepared before the first paratroopers left England.

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham may have said it best about Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander. Speaking with Ike about the difficulty of successfully leading such a vast operation and combining men with different ideas and approaches, Cunningham stated “I do not believe that any other man than yourself could have done it.”
As I travel to England and France, I will be looking for more information and perspective about Eisenhower and his leadership during the Overlord Invasion and the war in general. I hope to bring along a biography of Ike to reference more examples of his leadership as well. I know there is a planned memorial for Eisenhower near the Department of Education building along the Mall at Washington D.C. – a must see once it is completed!