Remembering World War II: Eisenhower Arrives in Europe

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Dwight D. Eisenhower was serving as Chief of Staff of the 3rd Army. Because of his exceptional leadership during the hectic, initial phase of the war, he leapfrogged the ranks to become a major general, head of the Operations Division, by mid-March 1942. Gen. George C. Marshall witnessed Eisenhower’s skill in staff work, military administration and organization, strengths he shared and valued. Eisenhower’s experience in war planning and operations, gave him an appreciation of war on a global scale - a major necessity as American forces began wartime operations.

By spring 1942 the Axis powers continued striking heavy blows against the Allies. The Soviet Union was in a desperate fight with the German Army. German submarines sank hundreds of ships off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and in the Caribbean. Imperial Japanese forces stalled at Midway and New Guinea, but continued their advanced toward India. The Allies sought means to break the Axis initiative.

Eisenhower, who was called on as a strategist as well as an organizer, believed the Allies should prioritize defeating Germany. He believed that when facing two foes one should defeat the weaker one first. Though Germany was materially stronger all three Allied countries could attack Germany directly, therefore weakening her overall position. 

Eisenhower said at the time - “We've got to go to Europe and fight—and we've got to quit wasting resources all over the world—and still worse—wasting time. If we're to keep Russia in, save the Middle East, India and Burma; we've got to begin slugging with air at West Europe; to be followed by a land attack as soon as possible.”

To relieve the Soviets and speed defeat of Germany, Marshall and Eisenhower backed the plans for an early Anglo-American invasion of France in 1942, known as Operation Sledgehammer, and considered a smaller alternative plan, known as Operation Roundup. In concert, they planned Operation Bolero, the buildup of almost 1.3 million American troops in England. Realizing that Allied forces were not adequately prepared for the invasion of France, they canceled Sledgehammer, but continued with Bolero. Eisenhower played a key role in creating these, and other strategic plans.

In late May Eisenhower accompanied Generals Mark Clark and Henry “Hap” Arnold to England for an inspection of U.S. Army Forces in the British Isles (USAFBI). The results disappointed Eisenhower. On June 8, 1942 after returning to Washington, Eisenhower provided Marshall with his report. Marshall responded by telling Eisenhower he should become the new commander of American forces in Europe.  On June 25th he assumed command of the European Theater of Operations U.S. Army (ETOUSA). Eisenhower fully appreciated that ability and hard work would be required by all.  He wrote the following to a friend in August 1942.

“This is a long tough road we have to travel. The men that can do things are going to be sought out just as surely as the sun rises in the morning. Fake reputations, habits of glib and clever speech, and glittering surface performance are going to be discovered.”

From December 1941 to June 1942 Eisenhower’s rise was meteoric in rank and responsibility. By December 1943 he became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, leading him to oversee the planning and execution of the invasion of Western Europe in 1944. This plan proved similar to what he had advocated for in 1942. On the General Staff or as a commander, Eisenhower built upon previous experience that enabled him to command ever increasing forces on ever more complex operations. In 1957 President Eisenhower remarked on the role of planning at the National Defense University.

 “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything…. So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven't been planning you can't start to work, intelligently at least.

That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve—or to help to solve.”