WWII

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).

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.

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.

Winter Events in History

Mark reviews some significant events that occurred at during winter in history. We go from the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century to Europe’s worst winter in history in 1940. The Civil War was brewing as the states of the Deep South seceded to form the Confederacy in 1861 and the last battle of the War of 1812 that took place right downriver from the city of New Orleans. We see Finland stand up to the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution and we even share a few notes about collaboration and treachery.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

Joel Bius’s new book, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em: The Rise and Fall of the Military Cigarette Ration, is a treatise on the relationship between the American Military-Industrial complex and the cigarette. Mark and Joel discuss the story of how the cigarette and the soldier relationship evolved, developed and devolved during the twentieth century—and the consequences.

About Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

The American military-industrial complex and accompanying culture are most often associated with massive weapons procurement programs and advanced technologies. Images of supersonic bombers, strategic missiles, armor-plated tanks, nuclear submarines, and complex space systems clog our imagination. However, one aspect of the complex is not a weapon or even a machine, but one of the world’s most highly engineered consumer products: the manufactured cigarette.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em describes the origins of the often comfortable, yet increasingly controversial relationship among the military, the cigarette industry, and tobaccoland politicians during the twentieth century. After fostering the relationship between soldier and cigarette for more than five decades, the Department of Defense and fiscally minded legislators faced formidable political, cultural, economic, and internal challenges as they fought to unhinge the soldier-cigarette bond they had forged.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em is also a study in modern American political economy. Bureaucrats, soldiers, lobbyists, government executives, legislators, litigators, or anti-smoking activists all struggled over far-reaching policy issues involving the cigarette. The soldier-cigarette relationship established by the Army in World War I and broken apart in the mid-1980s underpinned one of the most prolific social, cultural, economic, and healthcare related developments in the twentieth century: the rise and proliferation of the American manufactured cigarette smoker and the powerful cigarette enterprise supporting them.

From 1918 to 1986, the military established a powerful subculture of cigarette-smoking soldiers. The relationship was so rooted that, after the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report warned Americans that cigarettes were hazardous to health, a further 22 years were needed to advance military smoking cessation as official policy, and an additional 16 years to sever government subsidies providing soldiers low-cost cigarettes. The role of wars and the military in establishing and entrenching the American cigarette-smoking culture has often gone unrecognized. Using the manufactured cigarette as a vehicle to explore political economy and interactions between the military and American society, Joel R. Bius helps the reader understand this important, yet overlooked aspect of 20th century America.

November Events in History

We review some significant November events in history from WWI to the American Revolution as well as the American Civil War and WWII. We include the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 and the 1918 Armistice that ended the bloodshed of WWI as well as the last action of the Civil War with the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah and a brief glimpse at one of the Confederate government’s most interesting characters. For WWII we have the scuttling of the French fleet in 1942 while the Germans watched their potential prize of warships sink to the bottom of the sea.

Photo: Marshall Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander during World War One.

CSS Shenandoah

CSS Shenandoah destroying Union whaling vessels in the Pacific.