“Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower – June 6, 1944
Our lives are shaped by the decisions that we make. Some are marginal. “Shall I have tea or coffee this morning?” “Shall I take a coat today”. Others are far wider reaching. “Shall I buy this house or that one?” “Shall I marry this person or another?” There are some decisions however that are so important, so all encompassing that they affect not just our lives but also the lives of others and their children and grand children and their overall destinies far into the future..
One such decision was made on the 5th June 1944 by two men - one from Abilene Kansas and the other from Kew.
On 5th June 1944, after nearly 5 years of total war around the globe, Operation Overlord, the invasion of mainland Europe and Hitler’s Third Reich, was ready to go. A vast Army of 156,000 allied soldiers was standing by ready to invade France supported by nearly 7000 vessels assembled from 8 different navies and 12,000 aircraft. The allied forces had a full moon in their favour and a high tide that would carry them over the German defensive obstacles waiting on the Normandy beaches. The troops were in their landing craft and the aircraft were fuelled and lined up on the airfields. Frogmen had already gone ashore under cover of darkness to check the state of the landing beaches. Everything was as good as it could be save for one small thing… the weather. High winds, an overcast sky and a boisterous sea stood in their way. The landing craft couldn’t sail. The assault troops couldn’t get ashore on the exposed beaches. Paratroopers couldn’t jump in the high winds and low clouds obscured the targets that the air support aircraft had been briefed to destroy.
The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight D Eisenhower, had two choices. Either stand down the entire invasion, pull the troops out of their landing craft and send them back to their bases - a logistical nightmare - or hope that his meteorologists might find a break in the weather. The man he turned to was a dour, irascible Scot, Group Captain James M. Stagg.
In 1939 Stagg had been appointed superintendent of the Kew Observatory, the home of the Meteorological Office. In 1943, he was commissioned a Group Captain in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and appointed the chief meteorological officer for Operation Overlord. Stagg was the senior staff meteorologist working with input from three separate forecasting teams - the Royal Navy, the Met Office and the US Air Force. The teams didn’t have the sophisticated observation, recording and computing systems that meteorologists have today. Their forecasts were built upon simple measurements of air pressure, temperature, wind direction and cloud cover. Then they would try to find similar situations in the past which might give an indication of how the weather would develop. Stagg’s job was made doubly difficult by differences of opinion between the various teams of meteorologists working under him.
On 4th June 1944, with continuing disagreement between the meteorologists Stagg received reports of a ridge of high pressure developing over Spain and Southern France. He thought that it would offer the Allies a break in the weather, long enough to get the invasion ashore. Eisenhower came to see Stagg.
“What did you think, Stagg?” “I hold to my forecast, Sir, breaks after dark tonight.”
Eisenhower clapped Stagg on the shoulder,
“Good. Stagg. Hold to it.”
Eisenhower exited smiling.
Encouraged by Stagg’s analysis the teams of weathermen gradually accepted that Tuesday 6th June might offer the weather window the Allies needed. Although Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, remained pessimistic Field Marshall Montgomery commanding ground forces said the invasion should go ahead. Admiral Ramsey, Naval Commander in Chief of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force, felt the same. He said that a decision should be made immediately. Eisenhower agreed.
“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 do anything else.”
At 4.15 on the morning of June 5th Eisenhower received another optimistic assessment of the weather situation from Stagg.
“The fair interval had now begun in Portsmouth and will probably last into the forenoon of Tuesday. During this interval, cloud will be mainly less than 5/10 with base 2,500-3,000 ft. Wind on the beaches in the invasion area will not exceed Force 3 in this interval and will be westerly. Visibility will be good… the time of year suggests that changes after Wednesday may be expected to be in the direction of improvement rather than renewed and further deterioration to the present intensity.”
The Germans were taking a different reading of the weather. They believed in such stormy conditions no invasion would be possible for several days. Some of the defending troops were sent off for military exercises and many senior officers were enjoying a long weekend. Even Field Marshal Erwin Rommel went back home to Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday. In Britain better informed heads were working on the final details.
There was only one thing needed now to set the D Day landings into action, an operation upon which so many hopes for the future rested and so many lives had already spent. That was a decision that only Eisenhower could make, a decision that many people say Eisenhower was born to make.
“O.K. We’ll go.”
And so Operation Overlord went ahead. Less than a year later, on 8th May 1945, the war in Europe was over.
For his work during the planning of D-Day Stagg was appointed an Officer of the US Legion of Merit in 1945 and appointed an OBE at the same time. He returned as Superintendent at Kew Observatory between 1946 and 1947 and in 1951 was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In1954 he was knighted - Sir James M Stagg - and appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath - a very appropriate award for someone who helped set up D Day and all that splashing about. In 1959 he was elected as president of the Royal Meteorological Society. Stagg worked as director of services at the Meteorological Office until 1960. He died in 1975.
On June 5th 1944, after telling Eisenhower of his optimistic forecast. Stagg was visited by General Morgan, Chief of Staff to the Supreme Commander. This is what Morgan said…
“Good luck Stagg: may all your depressions be nice little ones: but remember, we’ll string you up from the nearest lamp post if you don’t read the omens aright.”
– from Martyn Day