- Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2010 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 02 June 2010 05:00
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For most of us, the weather forecast, while of interest and certainly important if you’re deciding whether or not to get the car washed or take the kids to the beach, is rarely a life or death matter. It’s the weather. As Mark Twain said, “everyone talks about it, but no one can do anything about it.” But, that’s not always the case. There are times, when the weather, and the weatherman’s forecast, can be far more important.
Sixty six years ago, during the first week of June 1944, those familiar with life along the English Channel, while taking note of the bad weather and poor seas, probably didn’t consider it all that out of the ordinary. However, while the weather might not have been of that much interest to the casual observer, it was, to the planners of the still top secret invasion of France, an all consuming matter. The decision, after two years of planning and preparation to give the order to “go” was in the hands of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, and everything, depended on the weather.
His principal advisor in this decision was Group Captain James Stagg. Stagg, a Scotsman, was an RAF meteorologist. He was also a University of Edinburgh trained scientist who was highly regarded in his field. But he was also an enthusiastic outdoorsman and had commanded the British Polar Year expedition in 1932. He had an uncanny understanding of natural forces, and in the era before advanced computer modeling and simulation, had an intuitive ability, using the scantest of data, to forecast how weather systems might behave. He also understood the gravity of the advice he was giving. He had to get it right.
Favorable weather conditions were critical to the Allies. The Air Forces needed clear skies so they could bomb the German beach defenses and deliver the Airborne soldiers to their drop zones, the Navy needed relatively calm waters for the landing craft, and just as important, the Army needed sand on the beaches that wasn’t so wet that it wouldn’t support tanks and equipment. This latter point was a major controversy in the Allied Command.
What the Allies were hoping for was something rare over the storm prone English Channel, and that was a calm, clear day. What’s more, the weather patterns Stagg was observing were disturbingly similar to those that might usually occur in mid-winter. A series of low pressure systems to the north and a large high pressure system to the south were working together to produce high winds and rain. This wasn’t good news. However, the invasion preparation continued. The men were loaded on the ships and they waited. Ike, based on Stagg’s forecast, delayed the invasion by a day. If he had to delay it again, as looked likely, the next time the tides would be right, would be July. That kind of delay would probably have given the Germans time to anticipate what was coming next. Indeed, it could well have forced a cancellation of the invasion and lengthened the war considerably. Ike needed some good news. Stagg however was in a position not uncommon for a weatherman – he just didn’t have any good news to offer.
That is, until Stagg’s team received a report from a British weather observation ship off Iceland. The data was sparse, but it indicated that there was a high pressure system forming over the Atlantic that was headed towards England and the English Channel. It wasn’t a lot of data to base a forecast on, but if Stagg was right about the speed and timing of the system’s movement, it meant that he could assure his boss of a tiny window, 24 to 48 hours, of calm weather. It was, given the unusually bad conditions of the prior week, almost a miracle. Eisenhower, listening to the pouring rain outside his Portsmouth headquarters had trouble believing the forecast, but he trusted his weatherman and gave the order to launch the invasion. With that, the massive armada of ships and planes left their ports and airfields to begin the invasion of Europe. Some 160,000 men would make up the initial landings.
The weather the Allies faced on D-Day wasn’t ideal. The bombers had trouble seeing their targets and the seas were choppier than the Navy would have liked. But it was still calm enough, just barely, for the landings. Andost of all, the Germans, who still considered conditions too poor for an amphibious assault, were caught almost completely by surprise.
The men who ventured on to the beaches on the morning of June 6, those who survived that is, are now in their late 80’s and early 90’s, if not older. It’s doubtful that in the pre-invasion hours that they thought too much about the weather. Save to say that that it was lousy; they were cold, wet and seasick and tired of the long wait. Most of the men just wanted to get going. No matter what fate awaited them.
Most of the time, if the morning weather forecast is off a bit, if it rains instead of being sunny as predicted, we shrug our shoulders. Meteorology, even with satellites and computer models, is still an inexact science. But, on June 6, 1944, it was a life or death matter, and this time, the weatherman got it right. It was, perhaps, the most important forecast in history.