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Posted on Jun 13, 2005 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

What if D-Day Had Failed?

By Carlo D'Este

What if D-Day Had Failed? June 6, 2005: A Look Back at What Might Have Been

"Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."


Nothing was a sure thing on D-Day. (National Archives)

General Dwight D. Eisenhower scribbled these chilling words on a piece of paper shortly before D-Day, June 6, 1944. Ike’s naval aide, Captain Harry C. Butcher, found it crumpled in his shirt pocket weeks later and saved it for posterity. In contrast to a message of hope that Eisenhower had recorded before the invasion, which was broadcast on the BBC the morning of June 6 announcing the invasion of France, the world never knew until years later of its existence – and then only as an insight into Ike’s remarkable character.

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Another anniversary of that historic day is upon us – the 61st of the greatest military operation of its kind in the history of warfare. This was the date when American, British and Canadian troops launched the greatest battle for freedom ever fought. They called it Operation Overlord, and it marked the beginning of the most important western battle of the Second World War. The success or failure of Overlord would determine the course of the war in Europe.

Hindsight and the passage of time often evolve into the deepening of already established beliefs about historic events. And, while the focus of our remembrance is quite properly on the drama of the invasion, it also leads to, I believe, a tendency to take the success of D-Day too much for granted. Of course, we are fully cognizant that D-Day was a costly and bloody military operation; that Omaha Beach was nearly lost the morning of June 6 and held only by the bravery of the GI’s pinned down there under murderous fire. Such scenes are etched into history and our collective memory through photographs, books, oral histories and films such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan.

History, however, can sometimes mislead us into false perceptions. D-Day might have failed for any number of valid reasons. One of its perceptions is that it was always destined to succeed; yet what is rarely ever discussed or written about is the compelling possibility that D-Day might actually have failed – and what the consequences of that failure might have been.


Is it possible Rommel could have forced an Allied surrender, as he did in 1940? (National Archives)

What follows is not a fanciful supposition but a sobering look at the inevitable consequences of an Allied failure on June 6, 1944.

The truth is that it was never a certainty that Overlord would succeed. Of course, no commander undertakes a military operation of the magnitude of Overlord without confidence in its success. However, given the enormous obstacles that had to be overcome, Eisenhower unquestionably not only recognized that failure was entirely possible but also prepared in advance to accept full responsibility.

A brief look at the daunting challenge Eisenhower and his planners had to accomplish in 1944 reveals why failure was possible. If the D-Day landings were to succeed, each of the following criteria had to be fully met:

  • Plan and successfully carry out the largest amphibious operation in the history of warfare.
  • Land over 150,000 troops on D-Day by sea and by air on a strongly defended hostile shore.
  • Accomplish this while at the same time deceiving the Germans over where the Allies would invade.
  • Successfully execute this extraordinary operation even though – until the very last minute – the actual site of the invasion was the most heavily guarded secret on the planet, kept from all but the key invasion force commanders.

Individually, each of these prerequisites held the potential to fail; collectively, they represented a very high risk. World War II amphibious operations were all perilous. Sicily, Salerno and the numerous landings in the Pacific were all testaments to the complexity of such endeavors, particularly when the unpredictability of Murphy’s Law was added to the mix. The Sicily landings, for example, were plagued by numerous unexpected and unforeseen problems that included inexperienced transport pilots and lack of aerial discipline, so-called "friendly fire" from Allied ships at sea, high winds and smoke from fires burning on the island. Likewise, Salerno was nearly lost as the result of faulty planning and Mark Clark’s decision not only to ignore the advice of his naval commanders and forego a pre-invasion bombardment, but also to embark the landing craft from far too great a distance from the beaches.

Before the Normandy landings, D-Day was nearly postponed until at least July by bad weather and it was only thanks to the most important and accurate meteorological forecast in the history of warfare that Eisenhower was able to sanction its launch under minimally acceptable conditions.

On this 61st anniversary I’d like to share with you some rather different thoughts about D-Day, written in 1994 by the esteemed British historian, Alastair Horne in his book, Monty: The Lonely Leader, 1944-1945 (published in the US by HarperCollins and in the UK by Macmillan, 1994).

On reopening the files on Overlord, 1944, one’s immediate reaction is: What a staggering risk! Across the years, it now comes across as a much nearer-run thing . . . than one had previously realized. There was absolutely no margin for error, and the penalties for failure would have been inestimable . . . With the brilliance of hindsight it seems inconceivable today that the Allies could then still actually have lost the war. Yet history has a way of springing surprises. There were at least three ways in which the OVERLORD landings could have been defeated: by misfortune, by lack of resolve or by a bad plan incompetently executed.

As we know, there was neither lack of resolve, a bad plan or incompetence in its implementation. Misfortune, however, was always the X-factor in the D-Day landings. As Horne notes, a sudden change for the worse in the weather could have swept away the invasion force much like it did the Spanish Armada in 1588. Rommel’s presence might likewise have made a difference. For example, it is doubtful he would have waited for Hitler to awaken late on the morning of June 6 to request permission to move the panzer reserves to the beaches. Moreover, even good plans go awry and each of these and other factors singly, or collectively, could have defeated the invasion.

Consider the consequences of defeat on D-Day. The Allies would have lost their almost irreplaceable fleet of landing craft . . . Britain would have sacrificed her last available army. It would have taken at least another year, well into the summer of 1945, before another invasion could have been mounted . . . largely by Americans . . . Hitler would have been developing his deadly new jet aircraft, and new technology would have enhanced the striking power of his U-boats. Possibly (though improbably) his scientists might have developed an atomic bomb. But, with certainty, Britain would have been hammered unmercifully by Hitler’s V-weapons, constantly increasing in numbers in the Pas de Calais and the Low Countries and largely immune to air attack.


The face of Europe would be much different if D-Day had failed (National Archives)

By the late summer of 1944, the V-1 and V-2 "buzz bomb" attacks would have left Britain’s morale shakier than at any time since the Blitz. With the West temporarily neutralized, it is not inconceivable that the German Army might have fought the Red Army in East to some sort of bloody stalemate.

. . . if an Allied repulse on D-Day did not actually lead to some form of victory for Hitler, at best it would have meant another costly year of war, ruinous for Britain, the extinction of the last remaining remnants of European Jewry through completion of the Final Solution, culminating almost certainly with the employment of the first atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 — on Germany, not Japan. Sweeping through a ‘nuked’ Germany, the victorious Red Army would have stopped nowhere short of the Rhine. Lost to Communism, Europe, and the world, would have been a very different place today.

This chilling scenario and its dire consequences is all the more reason to reflect – and to marvel – at the success of the remarkable event which took place in Normandy that fateful June day in 1944 when valiant soldiers, sailors and airmen changed the course of history.

22 Comments

  1. A Red Europe and the US reverting to isolationism. What a different world it would have been.

    Just imagine… America losing it’s (NATO granted) strategic edge during the inevitable Cold War…

    Fascinating, yet terrifying.

  2. try reading a book called “the twilight men,” by otto basel. translated from german, it’s a difficult read. it depicts a world in which the axis won the war. it was scary. the us was divided between germany and japan. this could have been the outcome of a failure at normandy.

  3. The Soviets would have finished off the war, and taken over the rest of Germany, or in otherwords.. germany would have been dimished greatly by the soviets. !Soviet Russia!

  4. The result of a failure on D-Day: nuclear weapons detonated over Dresden and Stuttgart on August 6 and August 9, 1945.

  5. The Russian spring offensive would have still occurred, the Allies might have still been able to launch a second offensive later in the summer with German divisions transferred to the East weakening their western defenses and the Americans would have had an atomic bomb to drop on the Ruhr in August 1945.

  6. D-Day was never in doubt. I offer my commentary on WABC’s John Batchelor Show:

    http://wabcradio.com/FlashPlayer/default.asp?SPID=33447&ID=2426402

    D-Day was indeed a remarkable event, but as executed on June 6, it was simply not going to fail. I fully understand how myth demands transcendence against all odds, but all odds were with us that day.

    • And you, sir, are an absolute fool to think that virtually any commander (save for MacArthur) wouldn”t at least privately been concerned with failure.

  7. The Red Army would have eventually defeated Germany, even if DDay failed.

    In Mein Kamph, Hitler says that after the mental defectives and Jews are eliminated, ALL the Slavs are to be killed. ALL the Poles and Russians were destined to be killed if the Red Army lost.

    Its very strong motivation to win a war, knowing that if you lose, all of your extended family is destined to be killed.

    • Maybe the Red Army would have been victorious, maybe. But it is worth mentioning that the Germans pulled the bulk of their armored forces from the East to fight in France just at the moment when their forces were dangerously overextended, a disability that gradually became apparent that summer in Stalingrad. It wouldn’t have taken much to prevail in the beginning of that battle, when the German army faced only 30k largely ill-trained and disorganized troops.

  8. i must add that in “the twilight men, the us east of the rockies was called “the united vassal states of america.” it was run for the germans by the kkk. ’nuff said.

  9. First time I’ve heard this kind of take on the consequences of an axis victory at Normandy, the fairly limited amount of related fiction I’ve read imagines some kind of stalemate or cold-war between the US and Germany. This scenario of potential soviet advantage looks more plausible at first glance.

    I wonder, though, if the Allies were repelled on D-Day could it also be likely that FDR would have lost the ’44 election, with the ironic buck stopping there? Perhaps the resulting tensions between FDR and the military could have opened the door to public allegations of the President’s foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, true or not.

    Would a Dewey administration continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars rapidly developing the atomic bomb whose design was largely still on the drawing board? Faced against Me-262′s, V-1s, and V-2′s, perhaps the US would redirect resources to development of more conventional and reliable weapons, e.g. jets and higher yield incendiaries. The bomb would still get done, but at a pace reflecting a delayed imminence of an invasion of Japan due to losses in Europe.

    Victory would still be achieved by the continued destruction of German industry while America continued to increase war production and efficiency, which Dewey was an advocate for in official capacity.

    Fractures may have also formed in the alliance with the Soviets, due to a changed mood in Washington less sympathetic to Communists. Either from a change in politics or the simple matter of W. Europe and the Mediterranean taking complete precedence over support for the USSR. With the Russians caught in offensive formations, there could even have been a repeat of Barbarossa, though on a more limited scale closer to German frontiers.

    And finally mix in a very possible dead HItler by Summer of ’45. Maybe sooner. he would not have tunneled himself underground so quickly and maybe even resumed public appearances/speeches following a failed D-Day, making him an easier target for assassination. If not, given what’s known about his medical care, a victory at the Atlantic Wall would not have cured his Parkinson’s. There would still be a race to see who gets to surrender first to the West once it was confirmed that he was really dead this time, for sure.

    An increasingly war wary US, a desperate England, a Russia left to fend for itself, and a legitimate and recognized Flensburg gov’t-type regime in a post-Hitler Germany suggests a brokered peace/ “conditional” surrender may have been possible between the West and Germany, more so than the US nuking western Europe. Even if they showed Ike the door after D-Day failed, I doubt there was any American general who would have supported the use of atomic bombs in Europe unless as a matter of last resort. So, we’re back to the old hypothetical US-German cold war again.

    Sorry for hijacking the page like this, this was just a really fun premise to think about. I have a new addition to my bookmarks, great site!

  10. I believe the Americans would if D day failed have a cold war with either a German or Russian dominated Europe just like the book Father
    land. The other option being the American using Atomic bombs dropped
    by B29bombers while the Germans would use He177 bombers, V 1 and V 2 missals to deliver nerve gas on European and British cities. In which case the British, Germans and other Europeans should be thankful they where not gassed nor nuked.

  11. It’s true if D-Day failed,then the U.S would have been forced to use those Atomic bombs on Germany first and forcing another Hittler asasination attempt from the Germany military High Command that would have popular support after the second bomb that would have succeeded .Finally wherever the Red Army might have been at the time the first dropped would have stopped them dead in their tracks ,giving Stalin pause and maybe deterring him from even touching Germany if the Red Army wasn’t there already,so starting the Cold War early and getting his spies to acererate the theft plans for copying the Manhattan project and production of the stolen B29 bomber.

  12. Finally perhaps a second limited landing might have occurred,but certainly without Eisenhower as th leading general,However those Atomic bombs are the key for the west to force enough internal chaos for the german military to rise up and kill Hittler themselves with forcing the SS to surrender or die or better yet leave them for the Russian to deal with.Finally on a conventional war for not the he Russian were going to have to finish mauling down the Germans on the battlefield down to defeat even with more lost of life and a Cold War still on the table without them having any part if Germany to use in the game.

  13. D-day was far more important in relation to the cold war (here I exaggerate a bit), the Russians were pretty much knocking on Hitler’s door by the time the allies made landfall on Germany.
    however the absence of western control in Europe would have very likely would have returned america to the principle of minding its own.
    This would have left Britain and a few capitalist states isolated in Europe, probably soon to fall to communism from USSR influence. Eventually this would lead to communism becoming a major power and threatening the USA. Eventually this could lead to the world becoming communist.

  14. A very interesting read, but as with any “what if”, once you start speculating there are so many different roads a different story might go along.

    If D-Day had failed, it most likely only could have failed within the first 24 hours of the invasion. Once the beachheads were secured there was nothing the Germans could do to dislodge the Allied forces on a strategic level. Different choices there might have shortened or lengthened the campaign. Henceforth, I believe if a German victory in Normandy would have happened it had to happen within the early hours of the battle. As Rommel pointed out, to defeat the enemy at the waterline.

    It is hard to imagine what the consequences would have been in terms of casualties, moral, politics, strategy and momentum. Amongst the casualties I suppose would have been most members of the 82nd and 101st US Airborne divisions, as they would have been the most difficult to extract. British 6th Airborne possibly might have been able to reconnect to the beaches and pull out that way, but then again, that flank would have been the flank that the Germans had to press through in order to secure victory, so I imagine most of the division would have been capture or destroyed. The assault forces possibly would have gotten out, in some form of a bloodied nose.

    The degree of defeat might vary on how the retreat was conducted. A hastly evacuation from Omaha for example towards Utah beach might have isolated the beachheads, allowing the Germans to defeat the British sector, but possibly allowing the Americans to settle in further North. The question then would be, would they be able to hold and expand the beachhead or also be forced to retreat. This might have been a costly defeat, whereas returning the units back to the ships along the entire coast might have speared a lot of men and equipment to fight another day.

    Morale however would be on an ultimate low with the Allies. V1 and V2 rockets soon would have joined in to dampen the mood in England. Clarke’s march on Rome would have been forgotten and it is hard to tell what would have happened there, if the Germans felt they could reinforce that sector with units from France.

    I suppose that there would not have been any campaigning in France for at least a year. New commanders would have to be found, I suppose Patton might have profitted and would have been involved in divising new plans for a new attack the next summer. As I read before, FDR’s re-election might not have been as easy, possibly giving different priorities to the war effort as a consequence. Maybe the Allies would have decided to widen the conflict to Spain and to lure the Germans that way – as a form of re-enacting Wellington’s campaign there against Napoleonic France.

    At the same time, it might not have been certain whether Britain was able to continue the war effort. Before D-Day it was apparent to the British war planners, that once the Normandy campaign was over, that they had to disband units in order preserve the fighting capability of the army. Possibly, the British would have recalled units from Burma, once the Japanese offensive towards Imphal was stopped and the front there secured. However, I doubt that Indian Army units could have arrived in Britain in significant numbers before ’45. Once more, Churchill might have been forced to resign and a different War Cabinet might have preferred to end the conflict and preserve what is left of the British Empire and concentrate on its oversea areas instead, if it could guarantee peace in Europe. This naturally would have meant that American forces would have to leave Britain to respect British neutrality in the matter. America would then have been required to find a new stepping stone into Europe, if it cared to continue with the Germany first policy. The Italian theater would have regained importance, but due to terrain reasons would not have served the purpose for fast maneuverability. Moreover, supplying units there would remain awkward. France or Spain would remain preferential targets, yet assembling a sizeable invasion force to breach the Atlantic Wall and to take the gamble a second time at possibly worse odds would take greater courage, more preparation and in general would have been even more challenging and less likely to succeed.

    On the Eastern Front, it is hard to say what exactly would have happened. The Russian Spring Offensive would have taken place shortly afterwards, yet it is questionable how it would have feared with a changed strategic situation. Germany at that moment could focus on a one front war, possibly reinforce the front soon enough after the offensive started and had the chance to bring the front to a stalemate possibly. The essential question here is, how likely was Germany to completely overstretch itself. It was doing so since Kursk in ’43 and as both the Allies and the Soviets were kicking their doors in the summer of ’44 it became a matter of time, but with a one-front war, a stalemate might have been a chance. Possibly with extraordinary luck, the Germans might have turned a retreat into a tactical victory by being able to mount strong counterattacks that could have made things difficult for the Russians. It is doubtful though, that Germany would have been able to mount another stategic offensive on the Eastern Front in ’44/’45 as manpower as well as resource shortages and I believe a continuation of the Allied bomber offensives on Germany would have kept German industrial output under control (at some stage the German war economy would not be able to improve its efficiency faster than what was being destroyed by the Allied bombers).

    With regard to the nuclear bomb, as far as I know, the Allies relied to some extent on German uranium in order to manufacture the bombs for Japan, as the Allies themselves were still not able to mine the required amount quickly enough themselves. A bomb on Germany might not have happened before ’46, but once the Allies had it and if the war was still going on, they would have used it on Germany. The question here is, in coordination with Russia or not.

    Also then the question is, how would have German morale developed. The army would have been in high spirits after defeating the long awaited Allied invasion. The Western Front would have been secured for the time being. Further fortifications would have been added to the one’s in place. The possibility of also halting the Russian offensive somewhere in Eastern Poland and possibly destroying large Russian armoured formations could have added to jubilant Germany in the summer of 1944. Yet, as bombing continues and the war continues despite the promise of a final victory, German morale might have dampened quickly in the autumn and winter to pre-invasion levels. Nuclear threat might have added, but then I wonder if anybody in Germany or in the world what the real dangers of a nuclear bomb were and are, and therefore could this have effectively influence moral? I doubt Germany would have surrendered despite having nuclear bombs being dropped on them. It might have caused fraction within the state, between those who felt the game was up and those who fanatically believed in the final victory. Some sort of weird civil war within German might have erupted, as different fractions would seek to gain power, in order to end the world war to save what remains of Germany. Hitler possibly would lead the SS and other fanatical units against elements of the Wehrmacht. I doubt that Berlin would have been the target, as neither was Tokyo. The Ruhr area would be an obvious choice and possibly Munich, a city that had not been hit much by the strategic bombing campaign in order to highlight and illustrate the destructive value of the nuclear bomb.
    So for certain can be said, that Allied victory at D-Day preserved Germany from complete destruction and spared Europe at least a year of war, if the waring parties had not come to an alternative settlement before the Allied forces at developed a nuclear bomb. The victory in Normandy was a victory for democracy in Europe. It is needless to say that the post-war order would have been entirely different.

  15. It seems apparent that if D-Day were to fail, the Red Army would clean things up for us. D-Day was engineered so that if we were to fail, we would have plenty of breathing room. Besides, most of the faults were in the orginization and transportation of troops and supplies.

  16. A failed D-Day likely means the Soviets on the Rhine. Make no mistake: by 1944 the Russians are no longer the inept bumblers they were in 1941 and early-42. Three years of war, lend-lease, and total industrial mobilization of the USSR’s resources had turned the Red Army into a massive, well-armed, well-led, well-motivated, and experienced Juggernaut that out-and-out annihilated the German forces in its path during the Summer of 1944. Ultimately, they were halted by their own supply difficulties after huge and rapid advances more then German resistance.

    The Germans on the Eastern Front did not even manage a retreat, they were simply obliterated and had to be rebuilt from scratch. Even with a failed D-Day, the transfer of German forces would be insufficient. Such forces would be thrown into battle piecemeal and be annihilated by the massive quantities of tanks and artillery the Soviets were now regularly and skillfully concentrating in huge numbers against the Germans.

    Germany survives longer, but more of it falls to the Reds.

  17. I’ve read a lot of the books published on the Normandy fighting, including one of D’Este’s, and I don’t find much credibility in the notion that the invasion could have failed entirely. Could the Germans have defeated the invasion forces of one of the five beaches at the water’s edge? Yes. All of them? No. The Allies were going to get a lodgement; it was only a question of how large it would be.

    • Agreed, once it was decided to do a “broad front assault” instead of a “narrow” assault, or a market garden type operation (as proposed and lobbied for by Montgomery) it was extremely unlikely the German forces being able to push all 5 beaches. With allied air superority and naval superority… I think it was just unlikely. However, that doesn’t mean that weather couldn’t have done what the Germans military couldn’t.

  18. I think an interesting scenario would have been the west not invading at all. Let the Russians attempt to invade. Germany, after losing many key fronts, diverts forces from France and Italy to support it’s overwhelmed Russian defenses, then Allied forces launch the attack on the beaches of Normandy. Worst case scenario, the Berlin wall doesn’t go up.

  19. The big winners of any D-Day failure would have been the Russians. The tide was already turning in the East and a demoralised US and UK (politically as well as militarily) would have opened the door for Russia to steam across Europe until they reached the English Channel.

    All in all the war would have been extended by 3+ years. Some kind of secondary invasion to at least save France and the Low Countries from Russian occupation would have happened once it became apparent where the war was headed and would probably have succeeded given even more Nazi weaponry and men would have been moved Eastwards to battle Stalin’s forces.

    As it is, the Nazis were fatally compromised by fighting on two fronts. Holding such a wide defensive posture as ‘Fortress Europe’ would inevitably fail for as soon as the Allies gained any kind of foothold on French soil (combined with their near total dominance of the air), the war was as good as over.

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  2. FRC Blog » D-Day then and now - [...] this, Ike drafted a communique for release in the event of a failed invasion. Eisenhower biographer Carlo D’Este provides …
  3. D-Day then and now | Foundation Life - [...] this, Ike drafted a communique for release in the event of a failed invasion. Eisenhower biographer Carlo D’Este provides …

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