Leadership Lessons: D-Day

Leadership Lessons: D-Day

D-day represents a major turning point in WWII.  Many of the struggles and triumphs of the past show lessons that can be learned by today’s leaders, ensuring mistakes are not repeated.

On June 6th, 1944, the Allied forces consisting of American, British, and Canadian soldiers, seamen, and airmen rallied on the northern French coast to take back the country from Nazi forces.  This assault was the largest amphibious assault ever planned in modern warfare, involving nearly 7,000 naval vessels, over 20,000 paratroopers, and over 132,000 ground troops.  This day I am referring too would of course be known as “D-Day” in the history books.  It has many emotions associated with it ranging from deep pride of the brave individuals who turned the tide of the European front to the intense sorrow of the loss of so many brother’s lives.  This moment in history is full of examples of effective leadership, leading to a successful campaign and ultimately victory in World War II.


To implement this plan, Allied planners needed to not only plan the landing forces, but all of the operations to support the landing of troops on the French shores.  The overall invasion plan went by the name of Operation Overlord, but smaller strategies by the name of Operation Bodyguard, Operation Neptune, and Operation Pluto were just as necessary to the success of Allied forces.

Operation Bodyguard

Operation Bodyguard is the overarching deception strategy used by Allied forces.  This strategy included many operational misdirects of both time and place for an Allied invasion of different parts of France and Norway (Operations Fortitude and Ironside), and political misdirection through neutral parties such as Sweden, Spain, and Turkey.  Results were very positive, with intercepted communications showing Nazi High Command fully buying the ruse and creating a theater of confusion for Nazi defenders who did had to spread their forces over a wide stretch of coastline.  The success of Operation Bodyguard was measured in the delay of Nazi reinforcements to Normandy and the relatively lighter defenses allied forces faced in establishing a beachhead front.

Operation Neptune

The landing operation and establishment of a beachhead from which the Allies could begin their advance into France was named Operation Neptune.  Consisting of diverse military forces from three countries and coordinated sabotage from La Résistance, the operation consisted of preparation, execution, and followup.  The preparation for the operation required Ally superiority in both air and naval theaters, and softening of the Normandy beaches through bombardment starting the hours before landing parties touched the beach.  The Allies needed to coordinate simultaneous bombardment along with sneaking their 6,939 naval vessels into position in the English Channel during choppy waves.  The sheer logistics of executing an operation of this scale was never conceived before and would be difficult to do again.

Operation Pluto

Even after the Allies secured Normandy beach, there were still operations that needed to happen.  Operation Pluto represented the Allies attempt to resupply their war machine with desperately needed oil.  Instead of using oil tankers, a team consisting of British engineers, oil companies, and armed forces settled on an underwater oil line to span the waters between England and France.  This oil source would become a lifeline that could not be sunk by the enemy, often being camouflaged in inconspicuous ways as the Allies slowly extended it and pushing all the way to the Rhine River.


As described in an earlier post, having an adaptive strategy to respond decisively to changes in conditions can be the determining factor in success or failure.  For D-day this was doubly important since failure could mean that we would be looking at a drastically different world today.  The first step of Operation Neptune required air forces to bombard the beach defenses, softening the defenses for the eventual ground assault.  However, due to bad weather, many of the bombers missed their targets, combine this variable with reinforced Nazi lines, the bad weather sinking much of the Allied tanks and sending paratroopers off course meant the Allied invaders were met with more resistance than they were planning for.

On Omaha beach, the bloodiest of all sections of the assault, engineers struggled to clear defensive fortifications, causing landing craft to bunch up and inflicting massive casualties on the American forces.  Seeing the immense difficulties being faced by ground forces, destroyers from the original bombardment team risked grounding themselves to further attack the Nazi defensive lines.  However, leadership elements that landed in the subsequent waves expecting a fortified beachhead, only found disorganized and scattered groups with no way to organize into an effective, large fighting force.  With the original strategy is tatters, the Allied forces did what they could to improvise and overcome, they created ladders to scale the bluffs, utilized engineers to break enemy lines, and eventually took two locations on the beach by the end of day one.


The two most iconic leadership lessons from D-day come from the two leaders on either side of the battle, Adolf Hitler and Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Prior to the landing of Allied forces, many of Hitler’s generals were split on how to deal with the imminent threat of an Allied advance into Europe, specifically in the placement of their venerable panzer divisions.  General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg was in favor of keeping all panzer divisions well back in reserve near the North of Paris, choosing to reinforce after an invasion has already begun.  He argued this strategy allowed the Germans to respond quicker to a variety of scenarios and kept the panzer divisions well out of areas of bombardment.  General Erwin Rommel argued that moving 1400 tanks would not go unnoticed by Allied air power and would open the panzer divisions up to attack well before they would even be used.  He advocated for a spread of the forces across the beachheads, allowing the tanks to attempt to stop any landing forces before they could establish a base of operations.  Both deployment options had their merits, but the decision came down to Adolf Hitler, who required direct decision making in all military matters, despite his non-background in military strategy.  In the end, he ordered Rommel three divisions of the ten available (only one of which was within striking distance of Normandy), assigned three divisions to the Army Group G in the South of France, and retained four divisions in the West to only take orders directly from him.  This micromanagement and eventually led to the panzer divisions being wildly misplaced and out of any position to respond to any Allied attack, a result that was worse than either option presented by his generals.

On the Allied side, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower displayed incredible foresight and leadership.  General Eisenhower issued a letter to all Allied troops to improve morale and inspire them to greatness, stating:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.  The eyes of the world are upon you.  The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.  In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world…I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.  We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

The language that is used is inspiring encouraging and moving, showing the General’s dedication to his troops.  The picture above shows how close he was to his troops, moving with them and taking note of their wants, desires and fears, showing the leadership that would lead the Allied armies back to Berlin.  However, a not well known letter was also written by the General Eisenhower in case D-day did not go as planned:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold 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.

Note there is no finger pointing, no excuses, but full acceptance of the blame and the consequences that came with it.  These letters show a true leader, inspiring and announcing victory will be because of their bravery in one letter, while the other accepts fully responsibility for the failure of the mission on himself.  If there is one leadership lesson to take away from this post, please re-read this section.  The difference between the micromanagement displayed by Hitler versus the direction and support given by Eisenhower in this battle was one of the contributing factors to the outcome of Normandy.


D-day was the beginning of the end for The Third Reich, but could have been completely different if the leadership was different, if the bravery of Allied troops faltered, or if the innovation and creativity of the Allied forces was crushed under the despair of an overwhelming enemy.  On this day, we remember the sacrifices that were made to establish the foothold needed to end an evil system.  The parallels from 76 years ago can still be drawn today in these troubled times.  Innovation and change are still very valuable, as is dedication to a cause, and a leader to guide, serve and inspire.

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