Seventy-five years ago today, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, left his London headquarters for Southwick House. For the next four days, the three-story, Georgian-style mansion built at the turn of the 19th century would be the nerve center for the final decision-making that would lead to the outcome of the most critical battle of the 20th century: the assault against Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall — the invasion of Normandy, D-Day.
Just 5 miles north of Portsmouth was a critical assembly area for ships waiting to cross the channel, with a large library room for meetings and high walls for map displays. Southwick House was ideally suited to its role as advance command headquarters. It was not, however, suited to Eisenhower’s idea of command.
While the mansion housed numerous support staff and was the site for the critical weather updates and forecasts, Eisenhower traded the elegance of the mansion for a mobile field command center he ordered established in the woods.
It was there, under camouflage netting, in a compound consisting of tents and trailers that the top decisions were made. The accommodations were sparse, but that’s the way Ike wanted it. He could have chosen to sleep in the main house but instead got what little sleep he did in a simple trailer he nicknamed his “circus wagon.”
Not even the great egos were spared. History records that both French Gen. Charles de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the compound to meet with Eisenhower. Yes, it was from these woods, not a palatial mansion, that the commander of the largest amphibious assault in human history would communicate with President Franklin Roosevelt and staff in Washington, D.C., and Churchill and crew in London. After the invasion, the area was still used to communicate with commanders on the ground in Normandy. Considering the communications technology at the time, it was quite an accomplishment in its own right.
Because of its sheer size and scope, the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, is forever synonymous with the term “D-Day.” Yet while England saw the next four days consumed with Normandy and the upcoming battle, in Italy, another campaign was finally coming to a close.
It was a lesser-known D-Day that brought forth the landing of Allied troops on the beaches of Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944. An initial success, command incompetence quickly turned it into one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war. By the time Eisenhower left that London day for Southwick House, there were 7,000 dead and 36,000 wounded or missing Allied soldiers.
The bright spot was the fall of Rome on June 4, and the official end of the battle of Anzio on June 5 quickly disappeared as the next day, news of the invasion of Normandy began reaching the American home front. The relief of mothers coast to coast that they had not gotten an Anzio telegram was soon replaced by the fear of others that they could soon be getting one from Normandy.
So overwhelming was the “D-Day” description for Normandy that there was actually a term — “D-Day Dodger” — applied by some to the troops in the Italian campaign. Somehow by being in Italy and not part of the invasion of France, they had “dodged” the real combat.
A rumor of the time attributes the spreading of the term to Lady Nancy Astor, who while discussing a letter from a disgruntled soldier in Italy said he’d signed it a “D-Day Dodger.” However the term originated, it gained enough traction that lyrics were put to a popular song of the day “Lilli Marleen.”
The lyrics are bitingly sarcastic to start:
We’re the D-Day Dodgers out in Italy
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
8th Army scroungers and their tanks
We live in Rome — among the Yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, over here in Italy.
... The Volturno and Cassino were taken in our stride.
We didn’t have to fight there. We just went for the ride.
Anzio and Sangro were all forlorn.
We did not do a thing from dusk to dawn.
For we are the D-Day Dodgers, over here in Italy
But they end with the bloody, bitter truth:
When you look ’round the mountains, through the mud and rain
You’ll find the crosses, some which bear no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone
The boys beneath them slumber on
They were the D-Day Dodgers, who’ll stay in Italy.
As we rightfully prepare to recognize the 75th anniversary of that most incredible military undertaking that author Cornelius Ryan dubbed “ The Longest Day,” we must never forget those who never came back from their own personal D-Day. Because no matter the theater, Pacific or Euope; no matter the battle, land, sea or air; no matter the famous, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Bastogne or the unknown, there were no dodgers. D-Day or otherwise.
Thank God they answered the call.
Geoff Caldwell lives in Joplin. He can be reached at email@example.com.