Con McGrath’s Role of the Irish in WW2 Series
Perhaps the one ‘science’ that most people ‘give out about’ is meteorology. If the weather service forecasts a ‘dry day’ and instead it ‘rains down’ on our planned schedule, we are not happy to say the least. Incredibly, despite all the satellites and computer technology today, predictions can still often be mistaken.
Back in the days of World War Two the science of meteorology was incredibly less precise. Yet it was never more vitally needed than in June of 1944, for that was the month when it was hoped that the invasion of Europe might be successfully launched.
It should never be forgotten that in the days leading up to the actual attack, despite all the planning, the leaders knew that the Allied invasion would depend on one crucial and uncontrollable factor–the weather. With good reason too, for in the annals of history, many of the best laid plans came to ruin on account of the weather.
So when Irish Coast Guardsman and lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney sent his hourly weather observation, just after 2am on June 3, little did he realise that the lives of more than 150,000 Allied troops would hang on his words.
Although Eire was officially neutral during the war, Ireland continued to send meteorological reports to Britain under an arrangement which had been agreed since Independence. (Irish weather reports, however, were not passed on to Germany.) Blacksod, so placed, was the first land-based observation station in Europe where weather readings could be professionally taken on the prevailing European Atlantic westerly weather systems.
In 1943 British meteorologist, James Martin Stagg, was commissioned a Group Captain in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and appointed the chief meteorological officer for ‘Operation Overlord’ as the invasion of Normandy was codenamed.
Interestingly, in August of 1940 Stagg, then representing the British Met Office, had visited Irish met observation stations. Then in early 1944, with planning well advanced for D-Day, a Captain Robert Bundgaard, a meteorologist with the United States Army Air Force, reputedly visited Valencia Weather Station in Co Kerry.
The Normandy invasion was originally planned for June 5. On that day this enterprise would involve 5,000 ships and landing craft; 11,000 aircraft; and 156,000 troops going into battle across a 60-mile beachfront.
However, British and American forecasters could not agree on the likely weather conditions for the planned date.
According to the memoirs of Scotsman James Stagg, by June 2, the Americans were optimistic to ‘go’ on June 5, whilst the British were “unmitigatedly pessimistic”. An agreement could not be reached.
Then at Blacksod, in the early morning hours of June 3, as Ted Sweeney watched the barometer fall precipitously, he sent his weather observation report which contained the warning of “a Force 6 wind and a rapidly falling barometer”.
Group Captain Stagg, stationed at Southwick House outside Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, studied the Blacksod report and advised General Dwight D Eisenhower to postpone for 24 hours. Eisenhower heeded the advice and postponed to Tuesday, the 6th of June.
Eisenhower also faced the strong possibility of having to postpone the invasion altogether until July when moon and tide conditions might once again be suitable but, as he later reminisced, that was an option “too bitter to contemplate”.