In Pursuit of the Forecast

Perhaps the science most publicly maligned is meteorology.  If a forecast calls for partly cloudy weather and it rains instead on our picnic, we blame the weatherman. Despite satellites and computer technology, predictions often miss their mark by an inch or hour or two.  Seventy years ago, the science was incredibly less precise. 

Observations then were gathered by hand. What if, say, the air pressure reading was off by 100 millibars or the wind out of the west southwest instead of the west? Computer modeling was virtually non-existent. Not only was the data sometimes of questionable accuracy, but so too was its interpretation.  Dominant US Army Air Force meteorologists held that weather repeated itself in predictable patterns and that they could forecast the weather weeks in advance. The British thought this was pure hokum and tended to rely on the murky emerging field of atmospheric physics. In World War II, weather forecasting was intensely subject to human frailty.

So the questions in my mind were these:  Was Ike “lucky” as so many have claimed when he postponed D-day for 24 hours, or had he, the consummate manager, assembled a team of meteorologists in which he had supreme confidence?  If so, who where they?

In 2003, I set off to find out. My first lead was Forecast for Overlord  by James Martin Stagg, Ike’s chief meteorologist.  For a few bucks, I bought a copy on-line.  That led me to Weathering the Storm by Sverre Petterssen, a principal forecaster with the British Met Office. The books provided details of the forecast for D-day, but I wanted to know more.

I got lucky.  On the eve of D-day anniversaries, television networks were broadcasting interviews with Bob Bundgaard, an Army Air Force captain who helped prepare the D-day forecast.  I looked him up.  Ever gracious he agreed to be interviewed.  He gave me more participants: Charles Bates, John Crowell, Larry Hogben, and others.  A researcher in England found that Stagg’s widow as still alive.  I flew over and interviewed her and spent several days at the British National Archives. A trove of meticulously preserved documents, some bound with purple yarn,  opened the door.

Learning of a secret agreement between the neutral Republic of Ireland and Great Britain to exchange weather data in the event of war, I found that Maureen Sweeney who recorded observations crucial to Ike’s decision was living on Blacksod Point in County Mayo.  Alive as well were Harold and Jean Checketts, who plotted weather data at Ike’s advanced headquarters.  After our interviews, Maureen poured me two stiff fingers of Irish whiskey, and Harold and Jean told me of how they read Chinese poetry to each other when off watch and fell in love.

Soon after taking a job as a newspaper reporter, my editor told me that people like to read about people.  And, along with the specifics of preparing the most important weather prediction in history, I hope The Forecast for D-day… is, above all else, the story of the men and women who made it.