NZ meterologist helped D-Day invasion

Last updated 17:19 06/06/2014

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A New Zealander who was one of only six meteorologists involved in providing weather forecasts for the Allies D-Day landings 70 years ago today has given a striking account of how they nearly got it wrong.

Auckland-born Lawrence Hogben, 98, is only one of two surviving meteorologists from the six man team who advised General Dwight Eisenhower on the weather for the landing.

Writing in the London Review of Books ( ) Hogben notes how difficult the forecasting was in 1944 and around Normandy, which was being hit by a storm.

“In 1944 we only just got the most important weather forecast in history right. But we steered the invading army away from a potential disaster at sea and helped to make ultimate victory feasible,” Hogben writes.

He says at the time the D-Day planners assumed meteorologists had total control of the elements. 

“Just name us five fine, calm days and we’ll go.”

Hogben says the six men worked out four possible days in June 1944 but worked out the odds on the weather on any one of these four dates conforming to requirements as being 13 to one against.

“So meteorologically, D-Day was bound to be a gamble against the odds.”

He writes vividly of how the D-Day forecast became a “telephonic affair”: the six forecasters would stay in three separate centres, joined to one another and to Eisenhower’s headquarters by GPO telephones (which worked). 

‘‘A non-forecaster would moderate our debates and then explain our agreed forecast to Ike and his staff. ‘‘

Hogben said the military were astounded to discover that, despite all the scientific expertise simultaneously available on his phone, an agreed forecast never emerged easily, even after hours of discussion.

He was one of two Royal Navy officers part of the six man team: “Geoffrey Wolfe, an urbane Cambridge man from Hove, on the English Channel, who not surprisingly turned out to be quite the most consistent forecaster of the six, and the youngest, myself, a New Zealand Rhodes Scholar and the first ever Naval Instructor to have won a DSC [Distinguished Service Cross] in battle.”

As the weather deteriorated ahead of D-Day, Hogbed says the telephone debates went on furiously if inconclusively. 

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“We all agreed that the key depression whose front had caused the postponement would move north-east and threaten no more. But what would it leave behind?”

The gamble they made on a good day paid off.

“Although my naval colleague and I happened to forecast correctly for the two critical days, our forecasts were as much the fruit of our discussions with the others as of any singular ability. The team forecasts saved us, and the invasion.”

Hogben questions whether today’s weather forecasters would do any better.

“They certainly should, with their satellites, computers and weather models. 

“Fifty years ago our only satellites and computers were in our heads and we could find no analogue in our past records for what the Americans afterwards described as ‘a meteorological situation unique in the annals of June weather’,” he says.

“I am sure that in weather like that of May 1944 today’s experts would improve on us, and make reasonable five-day forecasts. But when one type of weather is changing to something radically different, as it did the following month, I am not so sure.”

Now living in France, Hogben says the timing and nature of a total change in the weather continue to pose questions which often are not satisfactorily answered. 

“For shorter periods, the accuracy of today’s forecasts is most impressive.”

Hogben grew up in Auckland and attended Auckland Grammar School. He was the top mathematics graduate of all New Zealand universities and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at New College Oxford in 1938. 

His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. 

After training at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, he served on the cruiser HMS Sheffield as a lieutenant commander. He was a training officer, intelligence officer and meteorologist. 

After over three years at sea, Lawrence was awarded the first DSC ever given to a Royal Navy Instructor Officer.

- Stuff


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