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To General Dwight D. Eisenhower
February 10, 1944 [Washington, D.C.]
My dear Eisenhower:
Up to the present time I have not felt that we have properly exploited air power as regards its combination with ground troops. We have lacked planes, of course, in which to transport men and supplies, but our most serious deficiency I think has been a lack in conception. Our procedure has been a piecemeal proposition with each commander grabbing at a piece to assist his particular phase of the operation, very much as they did with tanks and as they tried to do with the airplane itself. It is my opinion that we now possess the means to give a proper application to this phase of air power in a combined operation.
I might say that it was my determination in the event I went to England to do this, even to the extent that should the British be in opposition I would carry it out exclusively with American troops. I am not mentioning this as pressure on you but merely to give you some idea of my own conclusions in the matter.
With the foregoing in mind and seeing the proposed plan for OVERLORD in Airborne troops, General Arnold had Brigadier General Fred Evans, Commanding General of the Troop Carrier Command, and Colonel Bruce Bidwell, the OPD Airborne Consultant, make a study of the proposition for OVERLORD.
They first presented to us Plan A, which utilizes the airborne troops in three major groups with mission to block the movement of hostile reserve divisions as now located. This was not acceptable to me. On paper it was fine; but on the ground it would be too few men at the critical points with almost the certainty that the Germans would circumvent them in vicious fighting. I saw exactly this happen in the great German offensive of March, 1918. In preparation for the attack the Allies organized their forces in depth, the various points of resistance being staggered. On a map it was perfect pin-ball set-up to disrupt the enemy’s effort. On the ground it was a series of quick collapses where small groups of lonely men were cut off and surrendered.
I then had them reconsider their plan more in accordance with my conception of the application of airborne troops on a large scale. This resulted in two plans.
Plan B — This establishes an air-head in the general Argentan area approximately thirty miles inland from Caen, with mission to seize two airfields and restrict the movement of hostile reserves that threaten the beach landing area from the east and southeast.
This plan is not satisfactory to me because the airfields are small and not capable of rapid expansion and we could not take heavy planes in to provide a quick build-up. Moreover, holding this particular locality would not pose a major strategic threat to the Germans.
Plan C — Establishes an air-head in keeping with my ideas on the subject, one that can be quickly established and developed to great strength in forty-eight hours. The area generally south of Evreux has been selected because of four excellent airfields.
This plan appeals to me because I feel that it is a true vertical envelopment and would create such a strategic threat to the Germans that it would call for a major revision of their defensive plans. It should be a complete surprise, an invaluable asset of any such plan. It would directly threaten the crossings of the Seine as well as the city of Paris. It should serve as a rallying point for considerable elements of the French underground.
In effect, we would be opening another front in France and your buildup would be tremendously increased in rapidity.
The trouble with this plan is that we have never done anything like this before, and frankly, that reaction makes me tired. Therefore I should like you to give these young men an opportunity to present the matter to you personally before your Staff tears it to ribbons.1 Please believe that, as usual, I do not want to embarrass you with undue pressure. I merely wish to be certain that you have viewed this possibility on a definite planning basis.2
Document Copy Text Source: George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, Selected Materials, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.
Document Format: Typed letter.
1. Brigadier General Frederick W. Evans and Colonel Bruce W. Bidwell (U.S.M.A., 1924) presented their airborne plans to General Eisenhower at his headquarters on February 16. They presented their plans to Eisenhower’s staff on the seventeenth and to General Sir Bernard Montgomery, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, and Major General Matthew B. Ridgway on February 18. Evans and Bidwell reported that on February 21 Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith announced that “decision had been made not to use the airborne effort initially as we were proposing, but to use it directly to assist the beach landing and main effort particularly to capture Cherbourg as soon as possible. Later, upon successful establishment of the beachhead, it might then be desirable to reform the airborne means and execute a vertical envelopment en masse, in connection with the inland advance.” (Evans and Bidwell Memorandum for General Marshall, March 1, 1944, NA/RG 165 [OCS, 381].)
2. “My initial reaction to the specific proposal is that I agree thoroughly with the conception but disagree with the timing,” Eisenhower replied on February 19. “Mass in vertical envelopments is sound—but since this kind of an enveloping force is immobile on the ground, the collaborating force must be strategically and tactically mobile. So the time for the mass vertical envelopment is after the beach-head has been gained and a striking force built up!” He maintained that “the initial crisis of the Campaign will be the struggle to break through beach defenses, exploit quickly to include a port and be solidly based for further operations.” The one condition that must never be forgotten, Eisenhower noted, was “the enemy’s highly efficient facilities for concentration of ground troops at any particular point. . . . Our bombers will delay movement, but I cannot conceive of enough air power to prohibit movement on the network of roads throughout northwest France.” He would, however, study the plans. (Papers of DDE, 3: 1736-39.)
On March 3 a copy of General Henry H. Arnold’s February 29 reaction to Eisenhower’s letter was sent to Eisenhower with no covering letter. In the files is a short cover letter of March 2 for Marshall’s signature, which is stamped “not used.” The unused cover letter stated: “I am sorry that you do not see your way clear initially to commit the airborne effort en masse.” General Arnold remained convinced that “with the capture of the airfields we have planned, our masses of airborne forces can be made tactically mobile which should prevent them from becoming isolated and defeated in detail.” He concluded: “I do not like to think of a static beachhead slowly building up before an offensive blow is struck. This was our trouble at Anzio. On the contrary, I like to think of a fluid situation wherein prongs or fingers are constantly and swiftly reaching out, joining and reaching out again. If we have this view, the beachhead and the air-head will soon join.” (Arnold Memorandum for General Marshall, February 29, 1944, and “Not Used” Marshall to Eisenhower, [March 2, 1944], NA/RG 165 [OCS, 381].)
General Eisenhower responded on March 10: “Please tell General Arnold that in spite of the glowing prospects he has painted for his particular type of airborne operations, the ground situation we are facing is one that will yield only to stern fighting. The fact is that against a German defense, fingers do not stab out rapidly and join up in the heart of enemy held territory unless there is present solid tactical power and overwhelming strength. . I think that Arnold might restudy his analogy with the Anzio beachhead by simply realizing that that beachhead is not repeat not a separate operation but had the same purpose as would have had a very strong airborne operation.” (Papers of DDE, 3: 1766-67.)
General Marshall later recalled that he “was very strong” for the airborne unit. “I’ve always felt, for instance, in the final battle in Normandy, that the plan they had worked out in detail for the air, but which Eisenhower’s people didn’t think they could safely risk, was the quick way to end the battle—and that was to seize a field near Paris with glider planes, with parachute troops, and then fly in these small tractors and other things, and then gather in all the motor transport of the surrounding country and, of course, all the French undercover units would have joined us and built up there with the ammunition. . . . We could put in 105 [-mm] guns and build up a force there right behind the German line before they had time to get things together, and make it almost impossible for them to do anything but to fight you with small groups. However, that was a hazard. It was a brand new thing and Eisenhower’s staff and Eisenhower, I guess, himself didn’t feel that it was proper to take the risk. But I always thought it was wrong to divide up the men into little groups everywhere. . . . I believe the air could have been used with great effect in splitting up the Germans very quickly at the start.” (Marshall Interviews, pp. 465-66.)
Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 4, “Aggressive and Determined Leadership,” June 1, 1943-December 31, 1944 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 282-285.