Normandy Research Foundation

Boston, MA

© 2019 Normandy Research Foundation

The General With a Secret - A Man Out of Time

December 7, 2015


The chain smoking General looked older than his years. Deciding the fates of thousands of soldiers had weighed heavily upon him for many months. He seemed to concentrate on every word the weatherman said to him. Incredibly, after all these months of planning and training it had apparently come down to the weather. But as the General listened to the weatherman, there was something much more important to occupy his thoughts.  He had a secret that made the weather near meaningless. The weather was only a distraction to the General with a secret, a man out of time.

I imagine a smoke filled room. Men, important and powerful, are quietly seated around a table in an old English Manor house named Southwick. Wind-blown rain is lashing the windows and a constant reminder of why they are gathered. A fire place burns away the dampness and cold on this early English morning. A clock can be heard punctuating the silent moments like a Metronome keeping time at this historic gathering. It is a haunting reminder that the hour of decision has arrived. The scene is tense as the military men sit weighing their options. It is 4:00 AM on June 5th, 1944.  


No one is tired, and no one is distracted. They understand the fate of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers rest upon their conclusions. The clock keeps ticking.

They are listening to a weatherman from Scotland, Captain Stagg, a British Army weather expert. Captain Stagg had determined that some of the meteorological criteria for the planned invasion of Normandy will appear on June 6th. A narrow, fortuitous window of only 24 hours will be opened. Far from what was needed or even hoped for, it offered just enough time to a man who was running out of time. 

The General questions his subordinates, one final round of opinions. Seeking their counsel, he listens intently as they stand together on the precipice of history. The decision made that morning would change the world in ways inconceivable to some of the gathered. Some of the military men still believe that the weather is an obstacle, but others want to grab at this limited opportunity.  Voices fade into silence and closing his eyes, the general breathes in deeply and slowly exhales.


The moment had arrived that the General both feared and embraced. Waiting for the General to speak the powerful men seated around the large sturdy table seemed frozen in time. For weeks the General had lived on 3 packs of cigarettes and 20 cups of coffee a day. In the smoke filled room the General heard the sounds of the endless rains, crackling fire, and ticking clock. But loudest of all were the voices that carried the secrets he could not share. 


Finally the General slowly speaks, “I am quite positive we must give the order.”1 His words are measured, as he laments, “I don’t like it, but there it is.”1 He could have stopped there. Those two sentences underpin all the concerns over the weather and infuse his responsibilities with his understandable doubts. They are enough for the moment, but not for the historic event, or the secrets he carried into that room. The general draws another breath, and continues. 

His next words tell a story beyond the weather, words that open the door to his secrets. It is the message within the message. His words will be quickly overshadowed by the events that followed in Normandy on D-Day. His chosen words carry a tone of desperation, as the General states, “I don’t see how we can do anything else.”1 These are the words all but lost in history. Every word is deliberate and calculated, chosen by the General with a secret, the man out of time.

He looks up at the gathered.  Quietly and confidently he speaks the pragmatic words history remembers. Eisenhower unleashes the climactic battle of World War II with these words, “OK, we’ll go.”1 With three words, the General released the world’s most powerful military force of the pre-nuclear age. The room quickly empties; all have their missions for D-Day.

I imagine General Eisenhower sitting alone in that moment with his thoughts. The burden of his secret nearly overpowering him. Perhaps he was wondering if anyone had a tomorrow, or what that tomorrow would look like. In the empty room the rain still hits the windows. The fire still burns, creating shadows that dance on the walls. And the insidious clock still ticks away, a reminder to the General with a secret, he may be - Out Of Time.

Just two months earlier, while deep into his planning and training for D-Day, General Eisenhower received a visitor. Major A.V. Peterson met with Eisenhower in London on April 8, 1944. The meeting was arranged by Eisenhower’s boss, General George C. Marshall, US Armed Forces Chief of Staff.  General Marshall was the top military man in the United States throughout World War II. Once President Roosevelt said to Him, “I feel I could not sleep at ease with you out of Washington.”2  

Marshall had sent Major Peterson to brief Eisenhower on the then top secret program to develop the atomic bomb - The Manhattan Project.  The development of the US Atomic bomb itself was nothing Eisenhower should be concerned with, but it was the opening to a problem that Eisenhower had never imagined. It was a secret he could not share with even the commanders participating in the D-Day assaults. A secret that finds its roots in Germany before the Second World War ever began.

In December of 1938 German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann split a Uranium Atom. It was the beginning of the Atomic Age.  And with a world marching to war some scientists deliberated the use of this new nuclear energy as a weapon. 

Nine months later Hitler’s forces invaded Poland and the war had begun. Poland fell in a matter of weeks. The victorious Hitler went on the radio and warned Britain and France of, “a weapon against which there is no defense”3  It was a threat taken seriously, and led the Allies to many assumptions, including the unthinkable - the Germans were working on Atomic weapons.

Both the Allies and the Germans quickly surmised that you did not have to build an Atomic bomb, you could build a radiation bomb. In the United States, as early as 1941, the National Academy of Sciences recommended, “using radioactive fission products as a potential military weapon”4  This could be done by dropping bombs filled with radioactive materials onto water supplies, food supplies, battlefields, cities, etc. Allied commanders asked the logical question: Had the Germans or Japanese arrived at the same conclusions?


The Germans had arrived at a similar conclusion. That message was brought to the United States in 1940 by a Hungarian immigrant, noted physicist, Leo Szilard. Szilard was so concerned with the development of Germany’s Atomic research he visited his friend, the world’s most famous scientist, Albert Einstein. Dr. Einstein was at that time teaching and researching at Princeton University, in New Jersey. Szilard discussed his fears with Einstein and convinced him to write to President Roosevelt. Einstein wrote his first letter to Roosevelt in August 1939 telling the President,
“It may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction…This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of extremely powerful bombs…A single bomb of this type… exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”5


Einstein would send two more letters to Roosevelt. One on March 7, 1940, and the last on April 25, 1940. From these letters Roosevelt would form the committee that would recommend the US create an Atomic Weapons program. The US program to design and build an Atomic bomb was code named, The Manhattan Project.

The German nuclear threat was very powerful during the war. As an example, by 1943 the US Army had placed devices built by Manhattan Project scientists to detect nuclear radiation in US cities. By the summer of 1943: Washington, DC, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston all had these detection devises installed to warn of a radiation explosion.6  


The Allies always feared the Germans were ahead of them when it came to the development of Atomic and Radiation bombs. The Allies also knew by 1943 that the Germans were working on rockets and missiles. These would be the perfect delivery devise for the world’s most toxic and dangerous weapons. So as 1943 became 1944, London, with its proximity to the European mainland, was the focus of Allied concerns. 


In the spring of 1944 there were more Geiger counters in London than the rest of the world combined. All over England millions of soldiers were training for the invasion of Europe, while their commander worried about radiation bombs poisoning them as well as civilians.


 US Navy Captain W.S. Parsons and Joseph Rotblat a Polish scientist were both working on the Manhattan Project. They were worried that the Germans would use their dirty bombs on the troops that invaded France. Captain Parsons sent an urgent letter to Leslie Groves, the General in Charge of the Manhattan Project. General Groves was convinced by the Polish Scientist that the Germans could use radioactive materials transported in special lead cases to battlefields. General Groves was warned, “…they [radioactive materials] could be combined with ordinary explosives and detonated over beaches or on advancing troops…”7  Groves immediately informed General Marshall, urging him to tell General Eisenhower of these potential catastrophic circumstances.


A memorandum dated October 30, 1943 to General Groves illustrates that the US Army had already considered the consequences of facing or deploying radioactive weapons. Classified until June of 1974 it states that the US Army,


“[should] Make theoretical studies…disseminating radioactive materials as a weapon of warfare…material would be ground into microscopic size to form dust and smoke distributed by ground-fired projectiles…inhaled by personnel. The amount necessary to cause death…is extremely small…one millionth of a gram… there are no known methods of treatment… ”8  


In practical military terms this meant a completely new form of warfare had emerged. One millionth of a gram, or a microgram is indiscernible to the human eye. The application of this type of weapon was stark and devastating. The uses of radiation bombs as cited by the US Army could,


“ … Make evacuated areas uninhabitable…contaminate small critical areas such as rail yards and airports [beaches, harbors, towns, villages, etc.]…radioactive poison gas [can be used] to create casualties among troops… [and can be used against] large cities, to promote panic, and create casualties among civilian populations…”9  

On April 8, 1944, Major R. V. Peterson delivered to General Eisenhower these very real prospects. Eisenhower was told that the US Army’s answer for this was to insert special troops into his D-Day landing forces. They would appear as chemical and gas warfare personnel, code named Operation Peppermint10. They were specially trained soldiers using specially built detection devices  and would come ashore in the Normandy beach landings. In the event that the detection devices failed, these special troops carried undeveloped film rolls. Radiation will damage undeveloped film, so it was an inexpensive backup. Trained soldiers would often wear film strips like badges on the outside of their uniforms. Never telling anyone the real reason why. 


Eisenhower had another secret meeting, this one in May of 1944, just a month before D-Day. In London Eisenhower met with Vannevar Bush. Vannevar Bush was not a soldier. He was the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II. According to his biographer G. Pascal Zachery, Bush was a 20th Century visionary. Bush was a researcher, inventor, and an MIT professor who helped launch the Manhattan Project. He was instrumental in creating the junction of America’s military, academic and industrial worlds that powered the Allied war effort. Throughout World War II, Bush was President Roosevelt’s hand-picked advisor on all matters of military technology. Bush was ordered to London to tell Eisenhower that along with Atomic bombs and radiation bombs there was another concern he must face as D-Day approached: German Missiles and Rockets.11


Bush told Eisenhower how the Allies had knowledge of the German Missile program, (V-1) and Rocket Program (V-2). By the spring of 1944 the Allies feared these weapons were ready to be used by the Germans. Eisenhower was told that not only was London a target, but so too would be the troops invading Normandy. Time was running out, and the Allies expected the missiles and rockets to be used at any time. Eisenhower was told that once these missiles and rockets were launched there was little defense to shoot them down. Eisenhower asked Bush what he could do to counteract these weapons. Eisenhower was told he could bomb the launch sites of the missiles and rockets.12   He did bomb some of the suspected launch sites, pulling valuable aircraft from the task of bombing sites in France critical to the Invasion. For Eisenhower it was another secret and a reminder, Time was running out.


Eisenhower had nearly two million men under his command preparing for the D-Day invasion. Yet, he was allowed to share these new problems with only a few members of his staff. These included Chief of Staff, Lt. General Walter Bedell Smith, as well as the heads of Intelligence and Operations. Deeply concerned that the news would panic the troops, none of the assaulting forces and their commanding generals were told of the possible use of radiation weapons by the Germans.  Eisenhower’s secret would remain a secret. 


Some present day historians dismiss the German nuclear threat. They rely on myths that surfaced after the war, developed to safeguard the public at large in the early stages of the Cold War. Providing peace of mind that the Germans were never a nuclear threat and that only the Allies could develop Atomic weapons. That was not the truth, and yet it is still believed by some to this very day. But a report filed in the London Daily Mail is closer to the truth. Writing on July 13, 2011 reporter Allan Hall claims,  “More than 126,000 barrels of nuclear material lie rotting over 2,000 feet below ground in an old salt mine[in Hanover, Germany]….nuclear waste from Hitler’s secret atom bomb programme... [it was] thought that the German atomic programme was nowhere near advanced enough in WW2 to have produced nuclear waste in any quantities”


The article continues with a quote from Mark Walker, an expert on the German nuclear developments during World War II. Walker the author of,  Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, and the German Atomic Bomb, was quoted in the article as saying, “it isn’t safe to say the Nazis fell short of enriching enough uranium for a bomb… documents remain top secret to this day.”14  Revelations hidden for over 70 years, reminding this author of an adage as old as war itself.  In war - truth is sometimes the first casualty.

Thinking back to the room I imagined on that stormy June 5th night at Southwick House, I cannot believe that the weather was Eisenhower’s only concern. The thought that Atomic and radiation bombs delivered perhaps by missile and rockets against civilians or his forces landing in Normandy, must have been overwhelming. It must have been breathtaking to acknowledge how everything changed so quickly in the spring of 1944. General Eisenhower came into the US Army in 1915 and in just 29 short years he had gone from horse drawn soldiers to facing the threat of Atomic annihilation. 

With the ending of the war in Europe in May of 1945, so too ended the threat of a German atomic or radiation bomb. Eisenhower refused to meet with or sign the surrender document with the Germans. I wonder how much of his distain for the Nazis was driven by the Nuclear threat they imposed upon the world Eisenhower was fighting to keep free. Eisenhower’s  accomplished Chief Of Staff, General Walter Bedell Smith was given the duty of meeting with the Germans. General Smith would go on to become the first chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. Seems he became an expert on secrets…


The German scientists who created the V-1 missiles, V-2 rockets and the German Atomic program were collected as the war ended. Some went to the United States, and others went to Britain, France and the Soviet Union.  The war ended but not the secrets. Eisenhower had one more meeting, one more secret to hear. 


In July of 1945, Secretary of War, Henry Stimson informed General Eisenhower that the United States had successfully tested an Atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. Stimson then stated that the United States was going to use the Atomic bomb on Japan. The author Benjamin P. Greene described Eisenhower as he approached his meeting with Secretary Stimson. Writing in 2007, Greene described the war’s impact on Eisenhower. The General was, “... deeply depressed… at the human and societal costs…”15   Eisenhower had witnessed the unparalleled suffering and destruction of a continent and the General feared, “… civilization would never recover from another global conflict…”15


Greene continues noting that Eisenhower pointedly and directly expressed his pessimistic thoughts on Atomic weapons to Secretary of War Stimson. Eisenhower, Greene wrote, “… hoped that we would never have to use such a thing against any enemy...”16   The General labeled Atomic weapons as, “…something horrible…”16 

General Eisenhower’s words to his civilian boss the Secretary of War, were forged by his experience of facing a potential holocaust of missiles, rockets and atomic bombs. Reflective words by the General with a secret, A Man Out of Time

Amelia McNutt
Normandy Research Foundation, Inc.
October 2015.

Cannot be reprinted without permission.


1. Kingseed, Cole, C. Col (Ret).“Three great decisions that shaped World War II”. 

2. Baldwin, Neil. The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War.  New York: Macmillan. 2007. Print.

3. Szasz, Ferenc. Peppermint and Alos. Volume 6 Number 3.1994.  The Quarterly Journal of Military History. Pages 42-47. Print

4. Ibid

5. Strickland, Jeffrey. The Men of Manhattan: Creators of the Nuclear Era. Raleigh: Lulu 2011
Page 9. Print.

6 Szasz.  Peppermint and Alos.

7. Ibid

8. Drs. Conant, Compton, and Urey. Memorandum to: Brigadier General L.R. Groves From, War Department United States Engineer Office, Manhattan District, Oak Ridge Tennessee, October 30, 1943. Declassified, June 5, 1974. Retrieved Oct. 2015.

9. Ibid

10. Szasz.  Peppermint and Alos.

11. Zachery, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. New York: Free Press. 1997. P. 177 Print

12. Ibid

13. Hall, Allan. “Nazi nuclear waste from Hitler's secret A-bomb programme found in mine”. Daily Mail Online. 13 July 2011. Print accessed October 2015.

14. Ibid

15. Greene, Benjamin P. Eisenhower, Science Advice, and the Nuclear Test-ban Debate, 1945-1963. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.  2007. P-10.  Print.

16. Ibid


Ambrose, Stephen. Eisenhower. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1983. Print

Baldwin, Neil. The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War.  New York: Macmillan. 2007. Print.

Greene, Benjamin P. Eisenhower, Science Advice, and the Nuclear Test-ban Debate, 1945-1963. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.  2007. Print.

Hall, Allan. “Nazi nuclear waste from Hitler's secret A-bomb programme found in mine”. Daily Mail Online. 13 July 2011. Print accessed October 2015.

Kingseed, Cole, C. Col (RET).“Three great decisions that shaped World War II”. 
Szasz, Ferenc. Peppermint and Alos. Volume 6 Number 3.1994.  The Quarterly Journal of Military History. Pages 42-47. Print

Strickland, Jeffrey. The Men of Manhattan: Creators of the Nuclear Era. Raleigh: Lulu 2011 Print.

Walker, Mark. Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, and the German Atomic Bomb. Medford, MA USA: Springer. 2013. Print.

Zachery, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. New York: Free Press. 1997. Print

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