Saturday, 28 June 2014

THE VERSATILE MR CONNORS



Chuck Connors as the Rifleman, 1962
(United States Public Domain)
In the history of sports only a dozen athletes have played in both Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. That in itself is quite an accomplishment. But only one of those 12 took the next step in the entertainment world by becoming an actor, too, and a darn good one. This person became a much sought-after star in the Fifties and Sixties. I should also mention that he was drafted by a National Football League team, although he didn’t report. He had too many other things going on. He was Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors, otherwise known as “Chuck” Connors.

Connors was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1921 to Newfoundland immigrants from the Dominion of Newfoundland as it was called then before it became a Canadian province in 1949. Growing up in Brooklyn’s west side, Connors loved the Brooklyn Dodgers and hoped to play for them one day. He hated his first name of Kevin. Well into his teens playing baseball as a first baseman, he used to yell to his infielders, “Chuck to me, baby! Chuck it to me!” After a while, his teammates called him Chuck. The nickname stuck, and Connors liked it a lot better than Kevin.

Connors grew up tall, and powerful with big shoulders. By adulthood, the natural lefty stood a towering  6-foot-6 and weighed around 200 pounds of solid muscle. He signed with the Dodgers in 1940 and played D ball for them at Newport, Arkansas, but left after only a handful of games for a baseball scholarship at Seton Hall College in South Orange, New Jersey. Two years later, in the midst of World War II, the New York Yankees signed him as a free agent and sent him to Norfolk, Virginia for a season. Then he joined the wartime US Army, where he spent most of his time stateside as a tank instructor. During the Second World War, he moonlighted by playing pro basketball for a handful of teams in the American Basketball League, then, after his Army discharge in 1946, joined the Boston Celtics of the newly-formed NBA.

Also in 1946, the Dodgers reacquired Connors. By 1948 he worked his way up to their top farm club, the Triple A Montreal Royals of the International League where he spent three seasons as their regular first baseman. At one of the games he met a local woman named Betty Riddell, whom he married in October 1948 and razed four sons with until they divorced in 1961. And one of his sons was even named Kevin. Connors’ best season in Montreal was 1949 when he hit .319 with 20 homers and 108 RBIs. Earlier in the season, Connors had a good shot at making the Dodgers. The first base position was down to Connors or a converted catcher named Gil Hodges. The Dodgers chose Hodges. Connors’ only official at-bat as a Dodger was in a pinch-hit situation (for right fielder Carl Furillo) where he grounded into a double play.

After the 1950 season, Brooklyn traded him to the Chicago Cubs, who promptly sent him to their Triple A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, the Los Angeles Angels. In July 1951, after clobbering 22 homers in only 98 games combined with a .321 batting average, he was called up to the Cubs and played most of the way from then on at first base as well as an occasional pinch hitter. His unimpressive totals of two homers and a .239 average led him to be sent  back to Los Angeles, however.

Then he got his big break in the movie business in 1952 when he was spotted by an MGM casting director who happened to be a big baseball fan. When he saw Connors on the playing field, he liked his tall, rugged good looks. Up close, Connors had a deep voice and cold blue eyes. Perfect. Connors signed on for a policeman’s role in the movie Pat and Mike, a comedy starring Spencer Tracey and Audrey Hepburn. At $500 a week, Connors soon realized that acting was his new profession. And the money was a whole lot better than his last Los Angeles Angels baseball contract for $5,500 a season.

After several more movies, including South Sea Woman, where he starred with Burt Lancaster; The Big Country with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Burl Ives; and Old Yeller, a Walt Disney production, Connors was hand-picked out of 40 actors for a new Western Series called The Rifleman, about a widowed New Mexico rancher in the 1880s named Lucas McCain who raises a young son, while fending off bad guys with a customized Winchester lever-action repeater rifle.  But when Connors found out what they were paying for a two-year contract on the show, he turned the role down flat because he was making more than that freelancing.

Then, as the story goes, two of the show’s production staff saw Connors playing his  strong father-figure role in Old Yeller at a local theatre and contacted Connors. They raised the contract amount, plus kicked in a five percent share of the profits. Connors accepted and the rest is history. The series ran for five years, from 1958 to 1963, a show we seldom missed in our house. My parents didn’t mind it either. We were prairie people and liked Westerns. 


1950 World Wide Gum card of Chuck Connors, Montreal Royals (United States Public Domain)

The Rifleman was my all-time favorite Western. It was one of the first prime time series on US television showing a widowed parent raising a child, Mark McCain, played by Johnny Crawford. (Then, wouldn’t you know it--a year later, Bonanza appeared on TV with Lorne Green playing a widowed father of three lively young men). My friends and I loved that repeater rifle, which McCain used almost like a machine gun. In reality, it was a modified Winchester 1892 carbine that could fire a round every three-tenths of a second. In the 168 episodes of The Rifleman that ABC ran, Lucas McCain killed 120 desperados with the weapon. And every one of them deserved it. At least we all thought so at the time.

Chuck Connors as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1949
(United States Public Domain)
After “The Rifleman,” Connors did more movies and guest appearances, and a couple TV series, including the Civil War-based Branded in the mid-Sixties, where he pulled in a cool $12,000 a week. One of his best roles was an Emmy Award nomination as a slave owner in the 1977 miniseries Roots.
Married and divorced three times, Connors smoked heavily for decades, peaking at three packs a day before he cut back in the 1970s. He passed away 10 November 1992 in Los Angeles of pneumonia linked to lung cancer. He was 71 years old.
To his dying day, Connors was very proud of his Rifleman role. Once asked in the late 1950s, “If it wasn’t for Gil Hodges, you might still be playing for the Dodgers.” To which Connors replied, “Shhhh! He’d be the Rifleman.” On the 20 June 2004 TV Guide list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads,” Connors was rated #32.

To sum it up, Chuck Connors was a pro baseball and basketball player. He was drafted by the NFL Chicago Bears, although he never played any pro football. And he was a movie and TV actor for 40 years. But he will always be known as “The Rifleman,” where he didn’t take any crap from anybody.

We loved him…and that lever-action Winchester.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

A GENTLEMAN’S CAR, BUILT BY GENTLEMEN, FOR GENTLEMEN

1950s Packard dealer postcard (United States Public Domain)

Packard Motor Car Company used to be a name synonymous with class. Outside of Rolls-Royce, they may have been the best car ever built. From 1903 to its demise, Packard manufactured automobiles from inside a 3.5 million square foot plant at East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. On a 40-acre site, this state-of-the-art, first-ever reinforced concrete buildings in Detroit housed the most modern car manufacturing site in the world, handling 80 different trades.

President and General Manager from 1916 to 1939, James Alvan Macauley put Packard on the map. The business code states that people in high places have to hire the right people to make a buck. Macauley was no exception. He brought aboard engineer Jesse Vincent--an employee since 1912--as the company’s head designer to oversee the technical side of the company. The outcome was the highly-successful 1916 Twin-Six Touring car with the first 12-cylinder engine in a production car, a 424-cubic-inch monster. Selling for $4,000--a hefty figure at the time--it set the standard for luxury American automobiles. Over 10,000 were purchased, helping to set company profits at a cool $6 million. The engine was also used in US Army Air Force World War I aircraft, as well as record-setting motorboats in the 1920s.

In 1923 an eight-cylinder Packard model called the Single-8 appeared and quickly became the favorite of European royalty for years. It was lighter than the Twin Six, with 20 percent better gas mileage, and 10 percent more horsepower. Company profits now jumped to $12 million. By 1928, Packard was the dominant luxury car in the US, outselling Cadillac and all the others combined. Profits reached $25 million, with international sales playing a large part. In 1931, Japan’s royal family owned 10 Packards. By then, the company slogan, “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” had been firmly entrenched by Macauley. According to auto historian Beverly Rae Kimes, Macauley made Packard “a gentleman’s car, built by gentlemen, for gentlemen.”

When the Great Depression hit, the luxury vehicle market was the first to be negatively affected. Like so many other businessmen, Macauley thought the good times would be back in a couple years. But as time went on, the Depression deepened. Unemployment and business closures soared. Bread and soup lines were established around the country. As luxury car sales continued to plummet, Macauley fixed that problem when he went after the mid-range market by hiring a team of several engineers from the Big Three--Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors--to design two cars called the 110 and 120 that sold for under $1,000, hundreds of dollars less than any other Packard. While many other luxury companies such as Cord-Auburn-Duesenberg, Stutz, Pierce-Arrow, Peerless, and Franklin, folded in the 1930s, Packard remained intact. In  1937, they sold 109,000 vehicles, their best ever to that point.

In June 1940, with World War II less than a year old, Great Britain was seeking a deal with Edsel Ford (Henry’s son) of Ford Motor Company to build 6,000 Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines for Britain’s war cause (mainly for the Spitfire and Hurricanes fighters) and another 3,000 for American use. But the deal fell through when Henry Ford stepped in and demanded his company only wanting the home use part of the deal and nothing for overseas. Feeling betrayed, Rolls-Royce chose Packard instead. Ford lost out on a $130 million contract.

Once the United States became involved in the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, vehicle manufacturing was brought to a standstill in February 1942, forcing car companies into military production. By the end of the war, Ford Motor Company was facing bankruptcy, despite manufacturing B-24 Liberator bombers in their Willow Run, Michigan plant (a logistics mess at first), while Packard cashed-in building the V-1650 Packard-Merlin. Over 55,000 were manufactured for use in the North American P-51 Mustangs and Curtiss P-40 fighters, plus the Canadian-built Avro Lancaster bombers and the de Havilland Mosquitos over the border in Ontario. Packard also built 20,000 V-12 marine engines for American PT boats, and British patrol and rescue boats. In 1943, at the height of its dominance, Packard had over 36,000 employees, almost all at the East Grand Boulevard plant.

Some World War II historians believe the Allies would never have won the air war without the Packard-Merlin, nicknamed the “Cadillac of the Skies.”  A liquid-cooled, V-12 piston engine, with 1,500 horsepower and a two-stage supercharger for excellent performance and very decent fuel consumption at high altitudes, the P-51 fighters could escort American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers from English bases all the way to Berlin, and still have enough fuel to engage  enemy German fighters en route.

Following the war, Packard in excellent financial shape, went right back into the car business, producing mid-range and luxury cars. But Cadillac was quickly replacing Packard as the top luxury-car builder in North America. Head designer Jess Vincent retired in 1946, then Macauley, as chairman of the board, resigned in 1948. With the company’s two best people gone, the future suddenly didn’t appear that bright.  

Reconditioned 1939 Packard Twelve in Laval, Quebec in 2011 (Worldwide Public Domain)

Up until 1952, Packard designs took on the looks of “Bathtubs.” Although made well and dependable, they were bulky and boring to the eye. Once their bodies became more streamlined, sales had already slumped, despite new ownership and getting back into the luxury market fully again to compete against Cadillac. Up to 1954, Packard had outsourced their body-building to Briggs Manufacturing (owned by the family who sole-owned the Detroit Tigers baseball team from 1935-1956). But when Chrysler bought out Briggs in 1954, Packard had to convert to in-house body-building at a new Detroit plant that ended up being two small. It took two years to straighten that out. More time and sales lost.

It was now a changing scene in Detroit. For years, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler had gobbled other car companies to become bigger and better. In the Fifties, Kaiser merged with Willys. Nash and Hudson became American Motors, after a four-way merger attempt with Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and Packard didn’t materialize. One of the reasons was Studebaker’s plant being too far away--in South Bend, Indiana--from the common Detroit base. In financial trouble following World War II, Studebaker also had high labor costs. Out on a limb, Packard merged with the non-progressive Studebaker--a company barely hanging on--in 1954. Actually, it was more like a Packard buyout or a shotgun wedding, at best.

By 1958, Packards were starting to look like Studebakers so much so that people were calling them “Packardbakers.” They were ugly as sin. By year’s end, Packard was gone. Bankrupt. Studebaker closed its South Bend, Indiana complex and continued on in Hamilton, Ontario, where it had been since 1948, at the doorstep of Canada’s steel industry. There, Studebaker hung on, surviving until 1966, before it closed the doors. By 1967, Studebaker was officially out of business.

The old Packard plant built on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit in 1903 is still there today, the largest abandoned factory in the world, surrounded by a slum, miles from downtown. Closed to auto manufacturing since 1958, it’s been a half-mile length of crumbling bricks and concrete, neglected and defaced by looters and vandals. But there may be hope in the future. On 12 December 2013, Fernando Palazuelo, a 58-year-old real estate investor from Lima, Peru purchased the old Packard plant for $405,000 cash. That comes to 15 cents per square foot. Private security patrols are now on duty twenty-four seven to prevent trespassers from entering the 40-acre site and defacing it even more.

Palazuelo has plans to renovate the site over the next 10 years to entice various businesses to occupy the buildings, hopefully even a Big Three auto manufacturer, in exchange for free rent. So far, a car company has shown interest, as well as a distillery. According to people he’s working close with, they say the reinforced concrete edifices are still structurally sound.  His cost estimates are at least $350 million to fix up the old plant. Palazuelo even has more-immediate plans to convert a second-floor area inside one of the buildings into a combination office-apartment for himself as early as sometime this year.

If only there were more such people as Fernando Palazuelo stepping forward. There’s still another 75,000-plus abandoned buildings in the once-great Motor City to renovate and occupy.
While car companies have come and gone in the last one hundred years (with some of the quality ones during the Great Depression), very few have left an impression quite like Packard. It’s the ultimate American-built car to own. A true-blue collector’s item.

When an owner drives his reconditioned Packard around the block on a beautiful, bright sunny day, he’s a somebody.

ASK THE MAN WHO OWNS ONE.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

LOOKIE, LOOKIE, LOOKIE, HERE COMES COOKIE!


1964 AFL Topps football card of Cookie Gilchrist,
Buffalo Bills (Courtesy The Topps Company, Inc.)
That’s what they used to say about Cookie Gilchrist, one of the toughest, most talented and versatile football players to ever play the game. He was imposing. He was fast, powerful, and punishing. A sportswriter once called him the “American Football League’s Jimmy Brown.” At the peak of his career, Gilchrist stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 250 pounds of solid muscle. Add to that, a 20-inch neck. He was a controversial figure on and off the field, and always seemed to be in the headlines, whether he was feuding with someone, demanding more money for his services (which he probably rightly deserved) or was standing up for himself or others of his African-American race.

Born Carlton Chester Gilchrist in 1935 in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, excelled in both the Canadian Football League and the American Football League. In fact, he was an All-Star in nine of his first 10 years of professional ball. That is, the first five of the six years he played in Canada, plus his first four years in the States. As a teenager, Cookie was a star running back at Har-Brack High School in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb. Upon graduation in 1953, he was approached by a Cleveland Browns scout and although he was underage at 18, he signed a professional contract without ever playing college. But at training camp, he didn’t make the team. So, he headed north into Canada with the Ontario Rugby Football Union, a senior league where he played two seasons--for the Sarnia Imperials in 1954, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in 1955. He was the team’s MVP both years.

Remaining on this side of the border, Gilchrist turned pro with the CFL Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1956, running for 832 yards on 130 carries for an excellent 6.4 average. He also caught 18 passes, and intercepted two passes on defense. This was the age of the grueling two-way football, which he relished. The next season, he ran for 958 yards and scored seven TDs. In the 1957 Grey Cup Game that year, he rushed for two TDs as the Cats whipped the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 32-7, but was sold in the off-season to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for $5,000 following a contract dispute with Hamilton management, his first of many squabbles with the higher-ups. In Regina, he ran for 1,254 yards, his best rushing season in his entire career. He also returned 17 kickoffs for 436 yards. One afternoon in particular stood out, a game against the BC Lions on 1 September, in which he ran for 173 yards on 15 carries.

Cookie was then traded in the off-season back east to the Toronto Argonauts. In his three seasons in TO, his best performance was 1960 where he was an All-Star on both offense as the fullback (rushing for 662 yards and receiving for 346 yards), and defense as a linebacker. Plus, he was the team’s place-kicker, with five field-goals and 43 converts. He was the team’s “Mr Everything.” Cookie’s six years in the CFL saw him net 4,911 yards on the ground, another 1,068 in the air, plus 12 interceptions on defense, in which he ran two picks in for TDs. In addition, he kicked 19 field-goals and 64 converts.

With Toronto in 1961, he signed an unprecedented five-year player contract, in a season where he ran for three-straight 100-yard rushing games. He finished with 709 yards on the ground and a 6.8 average. Trouble brewed the following year when he was suspended for violating a curfew after an exhibition game in Edmonton against the Eskimos. He was then placed on waivers, but no one took him, not with four years remaining on his contract, even though the waiver price was a low $350.

The NFL Los Angeles Rams wanted Gilchrist something fierce, but Cookie took the one-hour trip south from Toronto to sign as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills of the fledgling, new American Football League which had started up in 1960 and were looking for stars to fill the seats. All the Bills had to do was reimburse the Argos the $5,000 they had advanced Gilchrist on his 1962 salary. That done, Bills Coach Lou Saban built his offense around Gilchrist’s strength and power up the middle. If there wasn’t a hole, he would run up a lineman’s back. “And that would hurt,” Bills Hall of Fame guard Bill Shaw once said in a recent interview.

Gilchrist would soon become the first of the marquee AFL players, this before “Broadway Joe” Namath signed his huge $427,000 contract in 1964 with the New York Jets. Gilchrist was actually Buffalo’s Plan B because they had drafted Syracuse University’s Ernie Davis (the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner), hoping that he would sign with them. Instead, Davis inked a three-year, $200,000 contract with the Cleveland Browns, but died from leukemia in 1963 before he could play any pro football.

Playing the full 14-game regular-season schedule in 1962 for Buffalo, Gilchrist was the AFL’s first 1,000-rusher with 1,096 yards for a 5.1 average. He had six 100-yard rushing games. He booted five field-goals and eight point-afters (as they call converts in American footbal). He set the AFL all-time record with 13 rushing touchdowns, plus two more TDs in the air. He was also voted the league’s MVP. In 1963, despite a rib and ankle injury, he was only 21 yards shy of another 1,000-yard season. In a single game that year on 8 December against the New York Jets, in which the Bills won 45-14, he set a then-record of 243 yards rushing, along with five TDs on the ground, while carrying the ball 36 times. He finished the year with 12 TDs on the ground and two more in the air.

In the first two seasons Gilchrist spent in Buffalo, the Bills finished with identical 7-6-1 marks. Then, in 1964, the Bills--quarterbacked by Jack Kemp--came alive with a stunning 12-2 season, a league-leading 400-242 for/against, and a league championship to boot by beating the San Diego Chargers 20-7. In the regular season, Gilchrist ran for 981 yards and six TDs and caught 30 passes coming out of the backfield. In the championship game, he exploded for 122 yards, with individual runs of 32 and 36. Unfortunately, it was Gilchrist’s last game in a Buffalo Bills uniform. By now, he understood a player’s value--especially his own--to a football team. In the off-season he wanted a new contract where he would receive a percentage of concessions. In response, management sent him packing to the Mile High State of Colorado.

All three years in Buffalo, he was the team’s leading point-getter. He scored 31 rushing TDs, still third highest in team history, with 23 of those from inside the 10-yard line. With the Denver Broncos in 1965, he ran for 954 yards, his fourth straight season leading the AFL in rushing yardage. He played sparingly for Miami in 1966, then back to Denver in 1967 for only one game before hanging up the spikes for good at 32, with knee problems getting the best of him.

Off the field, the outspoken Gilchrist was a civil rights activist. He led a boycott by refusing to play in the 1965 AFL All-Star Game held in New Orleans over racist treatment to him and the 20 other black players who had a hard time getting cabs from the airport, along with being turned away at hotels and restaurants. The white players supported Gilchrist and the other blacks. So, AFL Commissioner Joe Foss 
moved the game to Houston, instead. This boycott may have been responsible in desegregating New Orleans, a move that helped the city in getting an NFL franchise in 1967. Speaking later of the boycott, Gilchrist remarked proudly that it was “better than anything I did playing football.”

Still in the news after retirement, Gilchrist was the only player to turn down induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame when he was asked to join in 1983. “It’s a very confusing thing,” the Hall of Fame’s managing director Bill McBride told Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. “We have never before had a player who said he did not want to be a member of the hall. The others are always gracious and happy about it.”

Gilchrist’s reasons were racism and financial exploitation from management. Throughout his career, he managed to tick off members of management, one being Hamilton Tiger Cats coach Jim Trimble, before Gilchrist left for Saskatchewan. The two of them almost came to blows. That would have been a good fight because they were two tough characters. Forever feuding with Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Gilchrist also refused to appear at Buffalo Bills alumni functions, including his enshrinement at the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame because he wanted to be paid for his trips.

Despite beating the throat cancer he had been diagnosed with in 2007, Cookie Gilchrist died on 11 January 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania of complications from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease brought on by head injuries. He was 75. He and Ralph Wilson had reconciled their differences the week before by telephone.

Gilchrist is not only in the American Football League Hall of Fame, he is on the league’s all-time team at the fullback slot. Despite his many troubles, they still remember him with fondness in Buffalo, as they do here in Canada. In fact, he left an impact everywhere he played in his short career. On all six pro teams in his 12 years. If you count his two seasons in the senior ORFU, that’s eight teams in 14 years. I guess you might say he was one well-travelled athlete.

No matter how you look at it, he was something special. He was Cookie Gilchrist. A fighter to the end.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

REMEMBERING D-DAY



Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower with US paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division
on 5 June 1944, the day before D-Day (United States Public Domain)







You know what they say, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Seventy years ago this week the World War II Allied invasion of Europe was poised to deploy on a grand, unimaginable scale. According to British and American military meteorologists, the days 4-6 June 1944 held the best combination of full moon (night visibility for airborne drops) and low tide (to expose the German beach obstacles) for the Allies to take full advantage of their enormous force successfully crossing the English Channel. All they needed was the third factor--clear skies. The month of May had been beautiful across southern England. But, by the first couple days of June, the weather grew nasty with gusty winds and pelting rain. It turned out to be some of the worst Channel weather in 40 years. 

Supreme Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower of the Allied Expeditionary Force smoked cigarette after cigarette those nervous first days of the month, as thousands of troops were being assembled on England’s south coast, all geared up to go, waiting for his word to move out and engage Adolf Hitler’s forces on the beaches of Normandy, France. Already postponed for  5 June, a Channel crossing appeared out of the question now. If the weather didn’t improve in the next day or so, “Ike” would have to reschedule the operation until the next time period of an acceptable moon-tide combination, which was another two weeks away.

That could be disastrous.

Two weeks was too long. By then, word would certainly leak back to the Germans. All Eisenhower and his military staff could do now was hope and pray for a miracle. To prepare for a 6 June invasion, the point of no return had to be by the evening of 4 June, at the latest. By that time, Eisenhower would have to decide on whether to go…or don’t go, keeping in mind he held the fate of over 250,000 men in his hands.

The clock was ticking…

Then…early evening, 4 June, Royal Air Force Captain James Martin Stagg, the chief meteorological officer for Operation Overlord--the codename for the Allied invasion of Europe--approached Eisenhower with some fast-breaking news. At a closed-door meeting at Allied Headquarters on the south coast of England, Stagg informed  Eisenhower and his high command that a temporary break in the deplorable weather was coming within the next 36 hours, time enough to allow the assault  force to invade the Normandy beaches and, even more important, stay planted on French soil. However, it would still remain overcast during those 36 hours, but with less-choppy seas. Stagg didn’t really have a whole lot to go on back in 1944. With no satellite imagery, no computers or no weather radar, he could only take an educated guess based on weather reports from forecasters in the north Atlantic and as far away as the southern coast of Greenland. Someone out there saw a small window of opportunity for 48 hours.

With this latest breakthrough, Eisenhower turned to his trusted staff, a joint Anglo-American group of high-ranking naval, army, and air force officers whom he trusted. He wanted to hear what they had to say. A couple of men stated it would be “chancy,” at best. Two of them voiced the opposite. In particular, General Bernard Montgomery of the British 21st Army Group, the commander in chief of all land forces, didn’t hesitate. “I say--Go!

His people split, Eisenhower knew it was now up to him. He carefully lit another cigarette, and inhaled a few times, before finally uttering, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is. I don’t see how we can possibly do anything else.”

 
US Army troops invading Omaha Beach the morning of 6 June 1944 (United States Public Domain)

With those words the largest amphibious invasion force in the history of mankind was launched…5,000 ships, 2,300 landing craft, and 13,000 support aircraft. It began with an airborne assault of 24,000 troops shortly after midnight on Tuesday, 6 June, followed by the naval bombardment from 195,700 navy personnel off the shores of Normandy, then the amphibious force of 160,000 well-armed infantry and armored divisions--61,700 British, 73,000 Americans and 21,300 Canadians who disembarked at 6 AM on a 50-mile stretch of land consisting of five codenamed beaches. On the east end, Gold, and Sword were assaulted by the British, and Juno by the Canadians; and on the west end, Utah and Omaha by the Americans.

The Americans had the easiest sector and the worst. The landing craft slated to hit Utah were pushed off course by strong winds and missed their target by more than a mile. Staying put and meeting only slight resistance, the commander in charge, General Teddy Roosevelt Jr, the eldest son of the “Rough Rider” ex-president, decided to change tactics. He radioed back for the rest of the Utah invasion force to be dropped off at the same spot.

“We’ll start the war from right here,” Roosevelt told his commanders.

On the other hand, Omaha was a near disaster, at first. Aerial bombing that week had not taken out the German defenses as expected. The surprised Americans were pinned down, with no place to go, while more of their soldiers were piling off the invasion crafts, causing a jam-up. By noon, General Omar Bradley, who commanded all American land forces, considered pulling back and trying another invasion beach somewhere between Omaha and Utah. But his men finally broke through in early afternoon. By the end of the day, the Allies had established themselves on all five beaches. Within the next few days, they began moving inland at a steady rate thanks to a well-organized supply line.

In retrospect, Eisenhower made the right move ordering the invasion for 6 June because during the week of the next available moon-tide dates--19-21 June--Normandy was socked in with a vicious storm that destroyed the artificial harbors at Omaha Beach. But by then the Allies were firmly entrenched in France.


Allied weatherman RAF Captain James Martin Stagg
(United Kingdom Public Domain)
The D-Day landings proved successful for a number of reasons. Two, however, were most significant. Aided by a detailed, well-conceived intelligence operation, the Allies had fooled the Germans into believing that the invasion would occur at the shortage distance across the English Channel--the 22 miles from Dover to Calais--and not Normandy, thus keeping thousands of battle-hardened German troops and three entire Panzer units sitting around in Calais, their boys sipping schnapps, waiting for an invasion that never came their way. That’s a story in itself. This I wrote about in an earlier blog called “Operation Fortitude” dated 17 August 2013, under the World War II section. The other significant reason was the weather, the most deceptive operation of all, something out of everyone’s hands. Caught off guard, the Germans never expected an Allied invasion in such awful weather.

Less than a year later, with the Russians closing in from the east and the other Allies from the west, Nazi Germany collapsed, bringing an end to the Second World War in Europe. Without D-Day and the decisions made by Captain Stagg and General Eisenhower on the evening of 4 June 1944, the war would have gone on much longer and cost more lives.

On 6 June 1944, the weather--and what the Allies did in spite of it--meant everything to the European war effort. Instead of complaining about the conditions confronting them, the Allies made the wind, rain, and overcast work to their advantage.