Episode Archives

Operation Overlord: Planning the D-Day Invasion

Mark begins his series of podcasts dedicated to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, discussing Operation Overlord, the planning of the D-Day invasion. He includes excerpts from  WWII lectures that historian Stephen E. Ambrose gave at the University of New Orleans, covering the preparation the Allies made for Operation Overlord. By December of 1943 the United States and Great Britain agreed that they were going to open a front in northern Europe with an invasion of France.

Choosing the Supreme Allied Commander

When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Josef Stalin in Tehran that November, the Soviet leader expressed his anxiety and asked them who is going to command the invasion? When they replied that they had not yet chosen, he didn’t take them seriously. “If you don’t have a commander, you don’t have an invasion.” However, they were planning and the first obstacle was to pick the commander.

Roosevelt wanted General George C. Marshall or else his distinguished career may be forgotten and the President felt he deserved a field command. Dr. Ambrose used the analogy that “everyone remembers U.S. Grant, but how many today revere his chief of staff?”*

However, as chief of staff, that would mean moving him from Washington, D.C. to London and it would actually position him as a subordinate to General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, who would take over as chief in Washington. It would create a situation that would be diplomatically untenable. Roosevelt asked Marshall directly who the commander should be and Marshall said, “That’s not my decision to make.”

General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower

Ultimately the choice was General Eisenhower and Roosevelt even had Marshall pen the message to transmit to Stalin (Marshall actually saved the original handwritten note to give to Eisenhower as a souvenir). With the choice made, in January 1944, “Ike,” who had the perfect temperament to deal with the major Allied players, arrived in London to take over as Supreme Allied Commander.

Eisenhower and his staff were to resolve four major issues: first, where to stage the attack? Second, how do we keep the Operation a surprise? Third, when do we launch the invasion? And finally, the Allies had to devise a deception plan to ensure that the Germans are surprised.

Eisenhower and the other British and American officers at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) accomplished these tasks. How they got it done is the subject we study in depth on the Operation Overlord and D­-Day to the Rhine Tours.

*Lincoln’s Chief of Staff was Henry W. Halleck. Dr. Ambrose did his doctoral dissertation on Halleck and subsequently turned it into his first book, Halleck: Lincoln’s Chief of Staff (1962).

What Potent Blood Hath Modest May: The Civil War

In this episode, Mark takes a look at some significant events that took place in May from the Civil War era. He considers these events in light of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous (yet unrelated) quote, “What potent blood hath modest May,” which Mark will show is an applicable description when considering the outcome of some such events from this time in history.

1856

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an outspoken abolitionist, gave an oration attacking not only the institution of slavery, but two Senators personally, Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina for supporting it in his “Crime Against Kansas” speech. Three days later, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks, Butler’s cousin, entered the chamber and severely beat Sumner with a cane. The bleeding and unconscious Sumner had to be carried from the floor, while Brooks walked away unscathed. The “Caning” incident made Sumner a martyr in the North, while many Southerners proclaimed Brooks a champion for defending the honor of his relative.

1863

On 2 May in the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, General Stonewall Jackson executed a brilliant flanking attack on the Union right. In a surprise attack, his Confederates smashed into and routed the Union XI Corps under General Oliver O. Howard. That night, while leading a group of officers on a night reconnaissance ride, Jackson was mistakenly wounded by friendly fire.After the wounding, the ambulance wagon took him some twenty miles away to a home at Guinea Station. The surgeons amputated his left arm, but the bed-ridden Jackson subsequently contracted pneumonia and died on 10 May.

Photo: Battle of Chancellorsville–May 2-4, 1863–Union General Hooker, Confederate Generals Lee and Jackson (United States Library of Congress’s Prints)

Ghost Army of WWII – Part II

Mark continues his discussion with Rick Beyer about the 23rd HQ Special Troops, aka the Ghost Army, and the series of deception operations that took place once we had American troops on the ground in Europe. As an author and filmmaker Rick gives an excellent portrayal of the vital and technologically amazing work this unit produced in WWII. Wizardry is a more than apt term for it and one need not wonder why the U.S. Army kept it under wraps for so long.

A story about the Ghost Army by correspondent Kelly Cobiella ran on NBC Nightly News Sunday, April 28, 2019. The piece featured veterans Bernie Bluestein and Gil Seltzer, as well as video from the area along the Rhine River where Operation Viersen took place.

The Ghost Army of WWII

This week, I return to an interview I did with historian Rick Beyer, who co-wrote, The Ghost Army of World War II, and produced and directed an award-winning PBS documentary, The Ghost Army. It was just announced that Ben Affleck will direct and star in a Ghost Army movie based on Rick’s book and documentary. The book follows a group of young GIs, including fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, artist Arthur Singer, photographer Art Kane, and others, who conduct a secret mission. Their job was to create a traveling road show of deception, armed with inflatable tanks and sound-effects records.

The film will tell the true story of this squadron of recruits from art schools, ad agencies and other creative businesses who were tasked with fooling the Nazis into thinking the U.S. had larger troop numbers than it actually did.

The Ghost Army was a little-known operation, and it was extremely secretive. Not even the soldiers, in close proximity on the front lines, knew anything about what the men of the 23rd were doing. They conducted twenty-one different deception operations as, with “stagecraft and sleight of hand.” Everything they did was top secret—certainly during and for decades after the war. Their operations called for creative imagination, and often artistic interpretation that worked in concert with the brute military force enacted by the armed units. The Allies absolutely needed military force, and success in the field of battle. The Ghost Army helped our advancing forces be successful.

To put it succinctly, “miltary deception is much like a successful magic trick. It is about fooling people into believing that something is happening that isn’t.”

This is the first of a two-part interview. In part two, as a writer and producer, Rick provides an excellent portrayal of the vital and technologically amazing work this unit produced in WWII. It sometimes bordered on WIZARDRY, and there is little wonder why the U.S. Army kept it secret for a long time after the war.

Listen to The Ghost Army of WWII Part II>>

Learn more about Rick Beyer>>

Travel with Rick Beyer on the Ghost Army Tour

Rick Beyer leads our sponsor, Stephen Ambrose Historical Tour’s Ghost Army of WWII: Secret War Tour. This is a special edition of their popular D-Day to the Rhine Tour. As you follow the path of the American boys who liberated Europe, you will also discover the top-secret story of the deception troops known as “the Ghost Army” who made their own important contribution to ultimate victory.

This “traveling road show of deception” used inflatable tanks, sound effects and illusion to fool the Germans more than 20 times from Normandy to the Rhine. Their very existence was a military secret until the 1990s, and a U.S. Army analysis categorized their exploits this way: “Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign.”

The itinerary includes key sites in Great Britain, a channel crossing, the Normandy Beaches, the besieged city of Bastogne and much more.

Travel with Rick on the Ghost Army Tour>>

 

Garth Ennis: “The Night Witches”

Renown graphic novelist, Garth Ennis, visits with Mark to discuss his new book, The Night Witches, about the young women who flew night bombing raids for the Red Army in WWII.  As the German army smashes deep in to the Soviet Union and the Red Army retreats in disarray, teenager Anna Kharkhova quickly grows into a hardened combat veteran flying obsolete bi-planes. As death and destruction grows exponentially, she deals not only with the Nazi enemy, but the terrifying threat of her country’s secret police.

The Civil War in April

During the Civil War, April lived up to the moniker later bestowed by T.S. Eliot as the “Cruelest Month.” The start of hostilities at Fort Sumter in 1861 initiated the war that defined America and President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 both occurred in April. The Battle of Shiloh and the Fall of New Orleans both in 1862, certainly proved to be cataclysmic events. Shiloh was so bloody and destructive that it set the stage for the terrible things to come. Later that month, the Fall of New Orleans proved to be a mortal blow for the Confederacy.

Photo: Shiloh Church at Shiloh National Military Park, 2006. The original church building did not survive the battle. The present-day structure is a reconstruction erected in 2003 on the historical site by the Tennessee Sons of Confederate Veterans organization.

Abraham Lincoln: Youth to Civil War

President Abraham Lincoln fell victim to an assassin’s bullet on Good Friday, 14 April 1865 and died the next morning. Mark and Professor Gerald J. Prokopowicz discuss Lincoln from his youth and early career to the presidency and Civil War. They delve into some of the popular questions readers ask about the sixteenth president and explore other facets of Lincoln’s life that may be more obscure.

 

Replica of Lincoln's birthplace near Hodgenville, Kentucky

Replica of Lincoln’s birthplace near Hodgenville, Kentucky

 

Admiral Gorshkov

Mark returns to the Cold War in this interview with Admiral Thomas Brooks about his co-written book, Admiral Gorshkov: The Man Who Challenged the U.S. NavyThey discuss the man who led the Soviet Union Navy for 30 years. He survived Stalin’s purges, fought the Nazis in WWII and engaged the American Navy in a tactical chess match until his retirement in 1985.

NOTE: In our discussion, Admiral Brooks makes reference to the naval officer, strategist and teacher, “Mahan.” Alfred Thayer Mahan (right) was perhaps the most influential Naval theorist of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In his published lectures, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, he argued for the paramount importance of sea power in national historical supremacy.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1840-1914

March Events: French and Indian to Civil Wars

Mark covers some key historical events that took place in March, the month that comes in “like a lion” and goes out “like a lamb.” We see that this may depend upon where and when. George Washington in 1777, may have felt threatened by the British lion. Or the British soldiers in the French and Indian War had a rough St. Patrick’s day at Fort William Henry ten years earlier. In the Civil War, one might say Nathaniel Banks went into his Red River Campaign thinking he was a lion, but definitely finished as a slaughtered lamb.

Photo: “The Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West

Leadership: Band of Brothers

Historian Chris Anderson joins Mark to discuss leadership and the company that became known as the Band of Brothers, Easy Company of the 101st Airborne in WWII. As an expert and interviewer of that close-knit group of veterans, Chris highlights Major Dick Winters, their commander.