Friday 11 May 2012

War and The Weather

The recent and regular deluges of rain have forced Neil and I to cancel a couple of our scheduled Sunday walks and it is fair to say that we have been thinking of renaming our business 'Blitzwaders', so bad have things become. However, the recent interventions of the weather are a ready reminder of how easily the best planned operations of war can fall foul of the elements and also how good or bad fortune with forecasting of the weather could easily spell the difference between an operation running smoothly or going catastrophically wrong, with all of the associated implications.

Group Captain JM Stagg RAF
Perhaps the best known example of weather forecasting affecting an operation of war was during the run-up to 'Operation Overlord' - the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. So important was the impact of the weather on this monumental operation, that General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had a meteorological department attached to his staff. The man chosen to be at the head of this organisation was Group Captain JM Stagg RAF, a somewhat dour Scotsman, upon whose shoulders the success or failure of the mission rested, surely just as much initially as the military prowess of Eisenhower, his planners at SHAEF and any of his field commanders. The operation was originally scheduled for June 5th but on this day, the winds were at hurricane force, with low cloud making flying operations impossible and seas too rough to ensure that the vast naval convoys would reach the other side of the Channel in the right order, or at all. It was therefore, an easy decision to postpone the operation but not so easy to decide how long to postpone for. This is where Stagg's expertise came in. At 4 a.m. on the morning of the 5th June, the planners met again; it was still blowing a gale outside and the rain was lashing against the windows, yet Stagg was able to predict a break in the weather the following day, allowing a brief period of acceptable weather for the invasion to proceed. The alternative was to wait another fortnight until the 19th June, which was the next time that the tides would be favourable enough to repeat the operation. It was a huge risk - the weather on the 6th June that Stagg was forecasting was barely acceptable - but to wait another fortnight was unthinkable and so with the simple words "OK, we'll go", Eisenhower gave the go ahead for the operation. The rest, as they say, is history. The Allies got ashore, established a bridgehead and gave themselves a springboard to liberate occupied Europe and cleanse Germany of the Nazis.

What is perhaps not so well known is what happened on the alternative date of the invasion. On the 19th June, the most violent storm for over 40 years swept up the Channel and combined with the spring tide, created a tempest that the locals had never seen the like of before. The temperatures were the equivalent of November - a cold one at that - and the storm ripped apart the American 'Mulbery' temporary harbour and severely damaged the British one, thus causing major disruption to the Allied supply lines. The storm raged for three days and had the invasion been attempted during this period, it would surely have ended in disaster. Had Group Captain Stagg got his weather forecast wrong and had Overlord failed as a result, the implications for Western civilisation do not bear thinking about.

Four years earlier, the weather was also generally kind to the Allies during 'Operation Dynamo', the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940. Despite the success of this operation, a huge number of British, French and Polish troops remained to be evacuated from France and so 'Operation Cycle' was put into effect. From the port of Le Havre, a further 15,500 British and French troops were successfully brought back to Britain but at the small fishing port of St Valery en Caux, the weather intervened and demonstrated just how much operations of war, as well as anything man-made, was at the mercy of the elements. It had been hoped to bring out the 51st Highland Division from this port but this crack division had been delayed in falling back and by the time the reached the port, some twenty four hours later than scheduled, patchy fog and reduced visibility ensured that the vessels sent to rescue the soldiers lost contact with each other and the shore. The delay caused by the weather and also by the late arrival of the troops at the port meant that the Germans captured the high ground overlooking the port and evacuation proved impossible. Fewer than 2,500 soldiers were evacuated, mainly wounded and other troops but the bulk of the 51st Highland Division were forced to surrender, the majority of whom were to spend five long years in German captivity.

Another famous example of the weather intervening to destroy an operation of war was during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, although it is fair to say that this was only the final nail in the coffin for the ultimately ill-fated 'Operation Barbarossa' as the invasion was officially known. Indeed, it could be argued that the weather became a factor precisely because the wheels were already coming off the German advance. Hitler had been confident, indeed over-confident of a quick success, so much so that he had discounted the need for his soldiers to be equipped with clothing suitable to withstand the severe Russian winter weather. The harsh weather also affected machinery as well as men; weapons malfunctioned, engines froze and the whole operation ground to a halt. The casualties on both sides were enormous but the Soviets prevailed and the 'Battle of the Century' was slowly but relentlessly won by the Red Army.

At sea, poor weather could sometimes ironically be a help. Many an Allied convoy prayed for rough seas to keep the U-Boats away. Relying on their surface speed during daylight hours to shadow the convoys and pounce at night, rough seas meant that the submarines had to remain submerged and fall out of contact with their prey. Poor weather, especially in the days before radar and full air cover, meant that ships could 'hide' in the vast expanse of the North Atlantic whilst their hunters searched fruitlessly for them. This could cut both ways though; the chances of survival in an open boat following a torpedoeing in a North Atlantic gale were slim. On the Arctic convoys, the weather could be ferocious in the extreme. Convoy RA64 in February 1945 sailed in the most appalling weather throughout and was scattered by hurricane-force winds. In such conditions, it was not unknown for ships to simply break apart. In such conditions, the chances of being picked up were remote and the chances of survival in the boiling seas were even slimmer.

In the air war, operations were equally at the mercy of the elements. Bombing, especially at the start of the war, was not an exact science. Poor visibility meant that bombs would miss their targets, although when bombing a large target such as London or Berlin, this was not especially important, as bombs dropped over an urban area would invariably find a target of sorts. When the weather did intervene, it could sometimes mean the salvation of a target and saving of lives on the ground. On the 29th December 1940, the Luftwaffe set the City of London ablaze in a great fire raid that became known as the Second Great Fire of London. The damage wreaked was enormous but a planned second wave of bombing mercifully did not materialise due to poor weather back in France that prevented the aircraft from flying. The weather again intervened in the summer of 1943 during the so-called Battle of Hamburg. The bombing of this great Hanseatic port city has been covered many times, including this blog and was given the macabre title of 'Operation Gomorrah' by Sir Arthur Harris, C in C of RAF Bomber Command. From an Allied point of view, the raids were largely a successful operation. The human cost was appalling but on the night of 2nd August 1943 - the fourth and final British raid of the operation - the elements combined with the RAF bombers to produce a truly apocalyptic scene. The RAF bombers appeared over the city in the midst of a huge thunderstorm, and to the beleagured citizens of Hamburg, the combination of bombs falling, lightning flashing and thunder echoing amid the explosions of the bombs, produced scenes more hellish than ever. 

Apart from Group Captain Stagg mentioned above, meteorologists played a prominent part in the Second World War on both sides. The Germans had U-Boats stationed in the North Atlantic on weather ship duties, passing on the prevailing conditions to the Wolf Packs. They also had a weather station on Spitsbergen until it's capture by the British in 1941. The British weather station there was subsequently shelled by the German battleship Tirpitz in 1943 thus demonstrating the importance attached to these low-key but vital outposts. As would be expected, RAF Bomber Command also had it's own meteorological staff, headed by Group Captain Magnus Spence, another seemingly dour Scotsman. Appearances were deceptive however, as when questioned about his christian name by Bomber Harris, Spence merely replied that at the time of his birth, Spence's father had been suffering "from a severe attack of Norse mythology!"

In the early days of the Third Reich, the sun shone regularly at the great Nazi rallies, so much so that the German people used to call warm sunshine 'Fuhrer Weather.' Although the elements themselves favoured neither side, we have huge reason to be thankful for the likes of Group Captain Spence and all of the Allied meteorologists during the Second World War. Their works, largely unsung and behind the scenes laid the path for the ultimate victory.

Printed Sources:
The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977
BEF Ships, before, at and after Dunkirk - John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999
Bomber Harris: His Life and Times - Air Commodore Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2001
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy - Anthony Beevor, Viking 2009
Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind - Sean Longden, Constable 2008
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Viking 2007
The Lonely Leader: Monty 1944-1945 - Alistair Horne with David Montgomery - Pan 1995

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