Could D-Day Have Happened One Year Earlier?
On June 6, 1944, the Allies unleashed on land, air, and sea the largest invasion force in world history in an enormous effort to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. Code-named Operation Overlord, the invasion consisted of five divisions, more than 7,000 ships and landing craft, and 195,000 naval personnel from eight countries. The massive invasion of the European continent included 133,000 troops from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.
A month after D-Day, over 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles, and 570,000 tons of equipment and supplies had been landed on the Normandy coastline. Less than a year later, on May 7, 1945, German General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional Nazi surrender at Reims, France.
An invasion of Nazi-held Western Europe had been considered as early as 1943, but the decision to delay the cross-Channel operation and conduct the peripheral strategy advocated by the British was perhaps the defining strategic decision of World War II. More than six decades have passed, and speculation still remains whether the Normandy invasion could have been conducted a year earlier, thereby securing a German surrender sooner.
In hindsight, historical and strategic considerations seem to fully justify postponing the Normandy invasion from 1943 to 1944. Only in 1944 had three fundamental objectives for a cross-Channel invasion been achieved. The Allies had agreed on a coherent, viable strategy. They had achieved peak strength in terms of combat experience, naval and air supremacy, military intelligence, and logistical readiness. It had also been decided that the German war machine had been sufficiently weakened.
Although the potential rewards of a 1943 cross-Channel invasion in 1943 were significant, it is conceivable that such an operation would have proven premature, exposing Allied forces to unacceptable levels of risk with an array of potential outcomes that could prove catastrophic.
The 1943 cross-Channel invasion of the European continent proposed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, and General George C. Marshall, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attracted support with the plan’s straightforward logic. Eisenhower and Marshall developed a plan that would require a concerted effort to determine the nature of the war prior to mobilizing forces.
Two main assumptions dominated their approach. First, it had previously been decided that the European Theater would take priority over the Pacific. Second, the initial engagement of the campaign to liberate Europe required a decisive blow against the Germans. The timing and location of the invasion, therefore, became the predominant considerations of American strategy.
In 1941, justifying a 1943 invasion of Europe hardly seemed necessary. The American planners argued that Europe’s increasingly desperate situation mandated an early cross-Channel invasion. Indeed, the Soviet Red Army was in danger of collapse under the weight of the Nazi juggernaut on the Eastern Front. American planners were convinced that opening a second European front offered the best chance to defeat Germany and avoid a protracted war in Europe.
The appeal of such a 1943 invasion strategy was enhanced by its basis in a distinctly American way of waging war: seizing the offensive, concentrating forces at the decisive place and time, and attacking from a secure base along the shortest lines of communication. The wisdom of such a strategy, embodied in an operation code-named Roundup, could hardly be disputed.
The only alternative offered was a British strategy of peripheral, nondecisive operations and slow attrition. Winston Churchill advocated the conduct of such peripheral operations in Africa and the Mediterranean.
Both plans were framed in a long debate that rendered them distinct and mutually exclusive. Proponents of a 1943 invasion feared that a peripheral strategy in a nonessential theater would sway the Allies from the war’s main strategic objective, victory in Europe. The resulting diversion of crucial resources from a concentrated effort in Europe, they argued, would at the very least prolong the war or cause it to end in a stalemate. Critics of the peripheral strategy were quick to label it as speculative “wait-and-seeism” and as merely “doing something for the sake of doing something.”
Perhaps more scathing and divisive were the allegations of British political opportunism, asserting that the underlying motives for such a strategy were to relieve endangered British colonial enterprises along Europe’s Nazi-occupied periphery. Most compelling, however, was the argument that American public opinion could not be buoyed with a strategy that would ultimately prolong the war in Europe. An incidental perception that emerged from the “Europe First” strategy was that prolonging the war in Europe was also synonymous with postponing the war in the Pacific. Taking this passive course was more and more unpalatable to the U.S. Congress and to the people whose memories of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor were still fresh.