The Delta Phi Epsilon Fraternity House on Prospect Street was packed Monday evening as renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert discussed D-Day and the challenges American and British forces faced in its planning.
Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill and the author of more than 70 books, has been referred to as “one of the most eminent historians of our time” by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Gilbert opened his lecture by describing the extreme attention to detail that was necessary to make D-Day, the amphibious landing carried out by the Allied forces on June 6, 1944, a reality.
“It took more than six years to prepare and it was the largest amphibious effort ever mounted by a group of allies,” he said.
According to Gilbert, American commanders were adamant that the invasion would be a failure unless at least 1 million men, 10,000 allied aircraft and thousands of landing craft were used to carry out the mission.
As a result of the large number of armed forces needed, an unprecedented effort had to be made to create the infrastructure necessary.
“The planning itself was done by a joint Anglo-American group in London,” Gilbert said. “The command structure was closely integrated and the Allies had to be absolutely certain of what they’d have to face physically when troops landed.”
Although German forces had constructed a series of obstacles around potential landing sites to prevent or deter the Allied force from invading, the Allies worked to counteract this problem, Gilbert said. The British and Americans sent secret special forces units to determine “exactly what there was along the entire 150-mile front.”
Although they were eventually able to invade, Gilbert went on to explain the problems that remained for the Allies.
“It became clear that on any day after D-Day the Germans could have sufficient fresh divisions to drive the allied army into the sea,” he said.
To resolve this, the Allies had to verify that they lured German forces away from their positions. Gilbert spent much of his presentation discussing the methods of deception Allied forces used to trick the Germans.
Rumors were spread to trick the Germans that an army led by the legendary U.S. General Patton was assembling in eastern England. Rubber tanks and bogus airfields validated the lies, Gilbert said.
The Allies also engineered a number of other schemes including one in which, after dropping behind enemy lines, forces would play loud noises out of speakers to trick the Germans into thinking an attack was occurring.
Although Gilbert characterized much of the fighting as being “bitterly contested,” the Americans and British had the advantage of having decrypted the infamous Enigma system used for communication by the Germans. This enabled them to clandestinely monitor enemy actions.
“If Enigma hadn’t been broken we would have simply lost the war,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert ended his presentation by taking audience questions dealing with the Enigma system and Winston Churchill, among others.
Most members of the audience said they enjoyed the lecture.
“He was a superb lecturer and it was a great pleasure to hear him speak,” Michael Homan (COL ’06) said.
The Alpha Chapter of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Fraternity sponsored the event.