A Lesson in Leadership

by Anita on June 6, 2013

Posted by Anita Folsom

Sixty-nine years ago today–June 6, 1944–the Allies of World War II landed on the beaches of Normandy, in what is called the D-Day invasion. The Allies’ goal was to land over 160,000 men in one day, on five beaches and in strategic areas behind the German fortifications. Counting the Navy and the Army Air Corps, almost 200,000 men from many different nationalities were involved.

Estimates by military planners before the battle told a grim tale:  They expected as many as 10,000 dead Allied soldiers by the end of the first day, with tens of thousands of wounded. As the top Allied commander, U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower was ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the invasion. He knew that if D-Day proved to be a disaster for the Allies, he would be blamed. On the afternoon before the landings, he sat in an Army tent in southern England, and composed the message he would send if the worst happened on June 6th:

Our landings. . . have failed. . . and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Eisenhower put the note in his wallet, where he could find it quickly if necessary.

Early the next morning, Americans attacked the German defenses at Omaha and Utah beaches, and British forces landed on Sword and Gold beaches. Canadian regiments on Juno Beach came under heavy fire, suffering 50 percent casualties in the first wave ashore. The Americans on Omaha Beach also had heavy casualties.

Paratroop regiments and gliders carrying commandos had landed several miles inland from the beaches before daylight; their goal was to capture bridges and vital transportation hubs, and hold those points until relieved by troops from the beaches. Fighting in many of these areas was intense.

By the middle of the afternoon, despite poor weather and high waves, despite smoke from the Navy bombardment that was so heavy the landing craft couldn’t find the right beaches, and despite heavy crossfire from German forces, all five beach heads were secure. Allied soldiers began moving inland as part of a strategy that would ultimately liberate France and much of western Europe and end with Germany’s surrender eleven months later.

At the end of that first day, the United States had 2,499 dead, with over 6,000 wounded. Casualties (dead, wounded, and missing) for all Allied forces totaled about 10,000.

General Eisenhower didn’t have to read the announcement he carried in his wallet. The D-Day landings proved to be successful, but Eisenhower’s example of a leader who was ready to shoulder responsibility still inspires us today.  He didn’t intend to blame his subordinates, bad weather, or lack of information.  He knew that real leaders can’t hide behind flimsy excuses when problems arise.  Instead, they admit mistakes and work to correct errors.  Their character helps to give them the wisdom to command others.

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House of Eratosthenes
June 6, 2013 at 9:21 am

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