“Without a doubt, chain of command is one of the most durable concepts in military organizations.” 
Clarity: It is critical that each warrior be responsible to a single set of orders; and that those orders ultimately flow through a single person: a designated leader. Often, it is likewise with briefing and council of such leaders: well considered, well delivered and filtered information is better than too much information; it must come through a single responsible person.
“Red Sky at night: sailors’ delight.
Red sky at morning: sailors take warning.”
Not long ago. ‘Twas before weather satellites. Before weather apps sent us instantaneous forecasts and updates – for free. Before flocks of powerful computers, powered by speedy powerful, parallel processors, loaded with forecasting programs and access to over a century of meteorological data. Before all that, people relied on little bits of wisdom, like that captured in this poem couplet, to help foretell the weather.
The insight of this this poem has been used for millennia. One of the earliest written records is this reply to a demand for a sign from heaven:
It is one thing to gage likely weather for smallish things like picnics and hikes, and larger things, such as if a ship should leave the safety of port. It is something completely different when the future of the world depends upon predictive correctness. Yet, decades before the space age, satellite imagery and the internet, a small group of people – led by an enigmatic man – made the most important and unlikely, yet correct, two-day weather forecast in the history of the modern world. Working with similar information, teams of weather scientists only a few miles away made different forecasts. The world-changing consequences were immeasurable.
The enigmatic man was James Martin Stagg. He was born to a plumber and a homemaker at the dawn of the 20th century, June 30th, 1900. His first name was that of his paternal grandfather; his middle name matched his mother’s maiden name. Hometown: Dalkeith, a small market town, some 15 miles south-southeast of the big city of Edinburgh, quite near the Firth of Forth – close by the North Sea. It’s a place where one becomes accustomed to the capriciousness of weather.
His parents were stern Scots. They raised him to be disciplined, thorough, hard-working, and accountable. He was also considered rather bookish and unemotional. Humorless. These were all traits that would serve him, and the world, well.
By age 15 James had received as much local education as possible in Dalkeith. Clearly bright and promising, he was sent off to further his education, in Edinburgh. By 1921 he had earned a master’s degree from prestigious Edinburgh University. His career began as a teacher and science master at George Hariot’s School (primary and secondary boarding school), also in Edinburgh. He also began post-degree research in a field that would fascinate him for the rest of his life: Geophysics. In particular, he studied the earth’s magnetic properties.
Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not.
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot.
We’ll weather the weather,
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!
Weather forecasting was improving steadily during the first few decades of the 20th century, well beyond simple poems, owing largely to the development of powered flight – for commercial and, later, military purposes. Reasonable forecasts – wind, precipitation, cloud cover – were invaluable to pilots and navigators. And flight gave opportunity for a bonanza of further atmospheric data collection and observation.
The century had already dealt humanity horrible calamities due to inaccurate forecasts. In the US this included deadly hurricanes (such as Galveston, 1900; and the Long Island Express, 1938) and lost aircraft: commercial, private and military.
A mixture of art and science, weather forecasting was evolving rapidly. Some schools of thought promoted using centuries of meticulous records (even Thomas Jefferson kept detailed weather logs) and then trying to fit current readings with known patterns observed over time. Others were promoting a rigorous science-based approach, with the belief that given enough data the weather could be forecast days in advance, based solely on atmospheric data and physics-based mathematical models. Without high speed digital computers and data base programs, both approaches were handicapped as World War II broke out, September 1, 1939, and continued for six years.
Even in the 1940s, Americans who dwelt in the Midwest, or in the east, would be astonished at how feeble weather forecasting was for the British Isles and much of western Europe, from the coasts of France to those of Norway.
Why? Two major factors.
Factor one: Geographic location. Americans from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast reaped some under-appreciated major benefits here. One was the mid-latitude Westerlies: a general motion of west-to-east wind and weather patterns between 30 and 60 degrees latitude. Another geographic benefit was the sheer immenseness of the continent. From across the country – from cities and towns and airports and major rail stations – weather observations were constantly wired to the National Weather Service. Usually throughout each day.
Formed in 1890, the NWS was staffed with hundreds of dedicated hands-on human data processors who would manually amalgamate an astounding mountain of data – air pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, cloud cover and type, precipitation amounts and rates – and concoct a pretty reasonable weather forecast for the few days ahead. The country – from farmers to aircraft – relied on these forecasts.
The second fact simply is that the North Atlantic is not a continent. There were very, very few weather reports from which to synthesize forecasts in “the pond.” It is as much a weather generator as it is weather receiver. Any details gleaned from shipping vessels were invaluable. Weather reports from Maine to Newfoundland, from Goose Bay, and from Thule to Iceland, were scrutinized for every possible detail. Remote stations in Ireland, Scotland, islands in the Irish Sea and along the Welsh coast could provide, perhaps, at most, a half day’s alert. The Atlantic dynamically battles with the Arctic here: ocean currents, the Jetstream, and vagaries of high latitude weather formation over a cold swirling ocean were simply not fully understood.
Although degreed in Geophysics, James Martin Stagg’s eclectic career and training earned him high praise, and he received an appointment at Britain’s Meteorological Office (usually just called “the Met”) in 1924. His responsibilities, experiences in travel, life and career, and the respect of other scientists continued to grow. For example, in 1932 he led a one-year expedition to arctic Canada, where he gained first-hand experience of weather variability north of “the Westerlies.”
His career flourished. In 1943 Stagg was appointed the Chief Meteorological Officer to Allied forces in Western Europe. The main mission: learn enough history and patterns of north Atlantic weather sufficiently well to make predictions for an invasion – the invasion to liberate western Europe. Today we call this D-Day and Operation Overlord.
Stagg’s partner and righthand man at this task was Donald Yates, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. The US Military has always been great at identifying and developing potential: as an officer, Yates went on to earn a master’s degree in Meteorology from CalTech before joining Stagg.
Chain of Command. The allies were blessed with capable generals from many backgrounds; – yet, more than a few were prideful and bullheaded. Think Patton and Montgomery. They also had widely varying backgrounds. But only one person could be the supreme leader of all Allied military operations in Europe. President Roosevelt, counseled by eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner George Marshall, and Prime Minister Churchill chose wisely. They quickly settled on Dwight D. Eisenhower (affectionately known as “Ike”) for the singular role, even though he had only minor actual leadership experience in battle.
Ike was just one of hundreds of possible candidates. Scores were more senior and battle-hardened; and many of those looked askance at this choice – and at Ike.
But Ike was gifted. He understood logistics and intelligence; he possessed superior organizational, administrative and people skills. Above all, he showed excellent judgment. In many ways he was likeable, and considered jovial and friendly; in times of critical decision he was pensive, careful and largely unemotional.
Likewise, the allied Allied weather staffs were full of capable yet strong headed individuals from various backgrounds. But only a single person could be responsible for advising General Eisenhower. The person selected was James Stagg. Assisted by Yates – the two acted largely as equals – Stagg’s job was to assess and make recommendations based on input from three independent teams of meteorologists.
Those three teams represented: (1) the United States Army Airforce; (2) the British Meteorological Office (or the Met); and (3) the British Royal Navy. Stagg – like Ike – was seemingly unqualified for the job to many close observers. His appointment as the single person responsible for meteorological advice – like Ike’s – was unappreciated by many highly trained and more experienced meteorologists, most of whom considered themselves to be superior. Yet – like Ike – Stagg had a long reputation for exceptional judgment, and a record for careful, unemotional decisions.
Single person chain of command. Ike on the overall mission to take Normandy and western Europe. Stagg on weather forecasts presented to Ike. Simple.
A quick overview on D-Day, judgment, and the weather. Since early 1942 Europe and Stalin awaited the opening of a military front on the Third Reich’s west. They would have to wait until at least the spring of ’44, before Ike and his staff thought they could pull it off. In fact, Ike was not formally in charge of European operations until January of that year. The secret chosen location was a 50 mile stretch of beaches in Normandy, west of the Seine estuary near La Havre, and east of the Cotentin Peninsula.
What were the required conditions (besides secrecy and overwhelming force) for success of the largest landing invasion in history?
First and foremost, relatively calm seas so the landing craft could navigate the English Channel and get to the Normandy coast. Upon this hung any chance of success. And this depended almost solely on Stagg and the teams of meteorologists.
Second, dawn tidal conditions to suit the Higgins Boats (landing craft): a rising tide shortly after a low tide. The rising tide would help carry the craft into shore; the lower tide would help them avoid German defense obstacles. This condition could be met with a nearly full moon, or nearly new moon.
Third, mostly clear, calm skies. This would assist pilots and their cargo – about 14,000 paratroopers and 4,000 glider troops – and give the best chance to hit drop zones. These would come in the dark pre-dawn hours; the first jumps came shortly after midnight. Again, this depended on Stagg.
Fourth and finally, as a “nice to have”, but not a requirement: a full, or near full moon; again, to help paratroopers and their pilots.
May was an extraordinarily calm month, yet Ike did not think they were quite ready yet. June 5th, one day before a full moon, was chosen. All Allied – and German – meteorologists watched the weather, collected data and daily drew hundreds of charts by hand.
The glorious, calm, balmy western Europe spring suddenly turned nasty on June 4. Stormy skies and seas, with high winds and waves, and driving rain, pelted the British Isles and the Channel.
Stagg consulted with his three teams. There was bitter debate and ridicule among and within the teams on the weather outlook. The USAAF team, led by Irving Krick – who, coincidentally, had also earned a PhD in meteorology from CalTech – was “gung ho” for June 5th. The two British teams weren’t so sure: one cautiously optimistic, the other firmly against. The situation looked unsettled.
Outside of the weather, everyone really wanted to go June 5th. To stand down could be most discouraging. The men were mentally and spiritually as ready as they could be. Many craft were already loaded and in the water. The battleships were ready, staffed and ready to cruise. The planes were all checked out. Infantry, paratroopers, coxswains and pilots wrote wills; they wrote what could well be their last letters to family, wives and girlfriends.
Ike called in Stagg. What about the weather? Quite possibly the outcome of the entire war in Europe hung on Stagg’s shoulders. On one hand, if he recommended a No-Go, i.e. a postponement, then the invasion might not occur for weeks, or even months. The weather looked to be settled in for a long stretch of ugliness. Could the Allies maintain the surprise that long? What, meanwhile, would befall the beleaguered civilians in occupied Europe? On the other hand, if he recommended a Go for June 5, it was possible that the weather could cause catastrophe for the invasion – in fact, it might self-destruct.
Stagg recommended a postponement. Ike pushed him: really? Are you sure? Yes, he was. Like everyone, Ike really wanted to go. But, he acquiesced: he’d give the order to stand down. But what about the next day, June 6? There was a likely window of a few hours in the morning when the landings would be possible. Standby.
German forecasters, with similar access to history and data – although not quite as extensive – came to a similar conclusion. There would be no invasion on June 5. The weather looked so bad, in fact, that they forecast no likely invasion for at least two more weeks. Consequently, many German officers left their posts for personal leave, or to attend war games in Rennes. Many troops were given leave also. Erwin Rommel, the famous German general (The Desert Fox) who had been made commander of all Atlantic defenses even went home for a few days, in order to surprise his wife on her 50th birthday.
Krick’s team was so disappointed in the June 5th stand-down order that they tried to go around Stagg and get to Ike through back-channels. Good thing it didn’t work: the tradition of military chain of command stood firm. That day, as it turns out, would have resulted in a tragic outcome for the Allies. The German defenses would have barely had to fire a shot. Weather would have thwarted most flights, and tossed the Allied boats and ships to-and-fro all over the Channel. Battleships in the channel, pitching and rolling, could not have shelled the German bunkers with their big guns along the coast.
Later that night, Ike called for Stagg again. So: what about June 6th? To varying degrees all three meteorological teams supported taking the chance; each with differing and various concerns and caveats – except Krick, who was still gung-ho. It seemed that a high pressure was edging up from the mid-Atlantic, with just enough relief to offer a good possibility for the morning of the 6th.
Would it be perfect? No. Mixed, intermittent clouds (scattered in east Normandy, thick in the west), ground fog, and breezes would surely make it rough on paratroopers and their pilots (most sticks did miss their DZs — drop zones). But the landing craft could probably get to the beaches. Ike considered Stagg’s and Yates’ inputs, concerns and recommendation.
Ike conferred with his top leadership team to consider Stagg’s report. The three highest ranking members of this team were all Brits: Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (British Army); Commander-in-Chief of Naval Operations, Bertram Ramsey (Royal Navy); and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder (Royal Air Force). The first two leaned toward GO. But Tedder was against June 6th — the possibility of cloud cover was too risky. Ramsey then reminded Ike that the 7th could not possibly work, as many sea vessels would have to return to port to refuel, postponing a possible attack many days.
Ike considered all inputs an opinions. Then announced: June 6th was a GO.
Had Stagg or Ike been more cautious and postponed yet again, the next possible dates were June 19 & 20. The tides, of course would cooperate, but it would be moonless.
The Allies continued to put similar effort into weather forecasting after the successful June 6th landings. Air Force sorties and trans-channel crossings with supplies went on almost daily, quite dependent on their dependable forecasts. June soon turned stormy again. Yet the forecasts for June 19 were for relatively calm skies and seas.
Had the Allies stood-down again on June 6th, then almost surely the three teams, Stagg and Yates would have recommended that Ike go ahead with a June 19th invasion. Especially after postponing twice. Ike would have accepted that and issued the invasion “Go” order.
That would have been one of the worst disasters in military history. It was called “A Storm from Nowhere.” Tremendous winds and waves lashed across the Channel and crashed into Normandy. The large temporary Mulberry harbors were damaged, one of them destroyed completely.
Sometimes you need to be good AND lucky. June 6 was a good choice. And it was a lucky choice. Ike and Stagg were the right choices for their roles. They played the odds, trusted their guts, rolled the dice and chose well. The world is better for it.
After the war, Ike of course went on to serve two terms as US President. Between the war’s end and the presidency he held multiple leadership roles, first as Governor of the American Zone in occupied Germany; here he is most noted for ordering thorough photographic evidence of Nazi death camps, as well as organizing food relief for German civilians. Ike also served as Army Chief of Staff (succeeding Marshall), the first Supreme Head of NATO, and President of Columbia University.
Yates was awarded membership in the US Army Legion of Merit, and France’s Legion of Honor. He ended up a career military man, transferring to the newly formed Air Force in 1947. Through his career he held leadership and technological positions, working in both weather and rocket research. He also commanded Patrick Air Force Base, in Florida. He retired in 1961 as a Lieutenant General (3-star).
Stagg, the hero of this essay, was awarded membership in both the United States Legion of Merit, and in the Order of the British Empire. After the war he served as a director in the British Meteorological Office, until his retirement in 1960. He also was an elected a member of the prestigious Royal Society of Edinburgh, and president of the Royal Meteorological Society.
There were many heroes and personalities from the European Theater of WW2. Some are obvious; they will never be forgotten. Here’s to some lesser known heroes, including the Scotsman James Stagg and the American Donald Yates.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Joe Girard © 2020
 Army War College publication, by Michael Piellusch & Tom Galvin
Book: “The Forecast for D-Day”, by John Ross
And some good internet sites (there are so very many)
Some omitted but cool items:
- I left out some stuff about airmen flying (and dying) out over the Atlantic and Irish Sea in order to provide weather data. Good stuff here ==> Weather airmen Tiree: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-48498383
- The Norwegian weatherman who provided invaluable understanding of North Atlantic-Arctic weather … Sverre Petterson, who had some conflicts and differences with Stagg ==> http://www.meteohistory.org/2004proceedings1.1/pdfs/08fleming.pdf
From Krick to Petterson, many senior Allied weathermen later wrote disparagingly of Stagg. But not of Yates. Regardless, Stagg made the right calls, and the responsibility fell on his shoulders.