Postscripts To History

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The supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, Gen. Dwight D. Elsenhower, was an old tank man himself, and his very first inspection trip after arriving in London was to see the new British device. Elsenhower, Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, and the other admirals and generals assembled at a lake where the DD Tank was put into action. Eisenhower became so excited that he got on board one and steered it around the lake.

Gen. George C. Marshall had already approved the use of the DD Tank by the Americans, but because Eisenhower wanted to be sure this new weapon would be available in time, the day after the demonstration a special plane flew a British engineer with a complete set of blueprints to the United States. The tanks were manufactured in Ohio and shipped to England. This pleased Winston Churchill, who believed the floating tanks would be a vital part of the invasion and had pleaded for more of them. For the first time in history armor could precede infantry in an amphibious assault.

But not everyone liked the new weapon. The British Admiralty contended the DDs were unseaworthy. U.S. Maj. Gen. Charles (“Cowboy Pete”) Corlett, who had successfully commanded invasions in the Pacific, warned Eisenhower and the commander of the U.S. 1st Army, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, about the DDs’ instability. Corlett claimed he was “brushed off”; he “felt like an expert according to the Naval definition—a son-of-a-bitch from out of town.” Despite his experience, Corlett’s recommendations were ignored, nor was he given a D-day command. One of those who was, Gen. Joseph (“Lightning Joe”) Collins, had been assigned thirty-two of the swimming tanks, to be manned by the veteran 70th Tank Battalion. Collins, too, was concerned about the new wonder weapons. He was to lead the assault on Utah Beach, and when he saw the tanks launched from Navy landing craft during an exercise, he concluded there was “too small a margin for safety” in case of high seas. He asked that the DD Tanks be launched as close to shore as possible. The request was ignored.

Maj. Gen. Leonard Gerow, an old friend of Eisenhower, was to command the forces invading Omaha Beach, the toughest section of the fortified coast. Gerow had little combat experience, and the sixty-four DD Tanks he had been allocated were to be manned by the untried 743d and 741st tank battalions. Unlike Collins, Gerow never protested the use of the new weapons, even though when he and the deputy chief of staff for plans, Col. Benjamin B. Talley, went to inspect them, the exercise was canceled with the explanation that even the moderate weather was too rough. Talley warned Gerow that such a fragile and sensitive weeapon would not be of much use in an invasion. But both Eisenhower and Bradley were enthusiasts as well as his superior officers; Gerow accepted the DD Tanks despite the most severe misgivings.

Two other officers raised serious doubts. Col. William Duncan, commandant of the DD Training School, and Lt. Dean Rockwell, the naval officer in charge of the DD Tank landing craft flotilla, issued official reports that the tanks could not withstand high seas and were very vulnerable to rough weather. Each member of the tank crew was issued a Mae West life vest, an air lung containing seven minutes of precious oxygen, a small rubber raft similar to those used by fliers, and a huge knife to cut through the seven-foot-high canvas collar. In theory, then, if a tank sank, the men inside had seven minutes to fight through the hundreds of pounds of pressure and out through the collapsed wet canvas into the freezing waters of the English Channel.

 

The GIs assigned to the project had little more than a month to be transformed into sailors, submariners, and navigators. D-day was scheduled for June 5,1944, but bad weather forced its postponement. Elsenhower felt he could not delay it again, and when the meteorologist predicted a short period of clearing, he decided to take the chance. The weather was still so poor that the Germans canceled their field exercises and a scheduled alert. The skies were clear enough for the planes to fly, but the seas had been whipped up into a frenzy by the previous day’s storm.

General Bradley was particularly worried about the DD Tanks assigned to Omaha Beach, but all he could do was hope that either the weather would improve or the commanders beneath him would manage to avoid a disaster. Both the Navy and his own staff had warned Bradley that the weather could doom the DD Tanks, but he failed to take action.

Bradley had insisted that the Army, rather than the Navy, decide when to launch the tanks from the landing craft. The fates of many men would be determined that day by very young Army captains. The commanding officers of the tank battalions had requested permission to accompany their men so they could make the crucial decision rather than leave it to junior, inexperienced men. The Navy turned them down.