- D-Day: Those Who Were There by Juliet Gardiner
Collins and Brown, 192 pp, £16.99, April 1994, ISBN 1 85585 204 7
- D-Day 1944: Voices from Normandy by Robin Neillands and Roderick De Normann
Orion, 320 pp, £5.99, April 1994, ISBN 1 85797 448 4
- Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack by Paddy Griffiths
Yale, 286 pp, £20.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 300 05910 8
- The D-Day Encyclopedia edited by David Chandler and James Lawton Collins
Helicon, 665 pp, £35.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 09 178265 1
- D-Day 1944 edited by Theodore Wilson
Kansas, 420 pp, £34.95, May 1994, ISBN 0 7006 0674 2
- Decision in Normandy by Carlo d’Este
HarperCollins, 554 pp, £10.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 06 092495 0
For Tolstoy and Hemingway, as for Homer, writing about war was the natural thing. They did not exactly worship the demands of ‘hateful Ares’, as Homer calls him; but they knew that war as hell was the proper field of the heroic, and thus of narrative itself. The story of what happens in a football match today is our equivalent of yesterday’s battle; and it can be established later, as game, in the same heroic sequence. Who is taking care of the left flank? What is General Grouchy up to, and how soon can the Prussians be in action? At the height of his description of the Battle of Borodino Tolstoy breaks off to imagine a spirit of the pities, who cries to the combatants: ‘Just a moment!’ and ‘Consider what it is you do!’ But having satisfied, as it were, the requirements of amazement and revulsion, Tolstoy the narrator, and the soldiers he writes about, go right back to the business in hand. That is the world’s business after all, as it is the tale of what happens in the world.
Vol. 16 No. 12 · 23 June 1994
John Bayley refers (LRB, 26 May) to the American ‘occupation’ of Britain in the last war and goes on to deplore the fact that ‘miles and miles of the best East Anglian farmland were devastated to provide a concrete home for the B17s and 24s which, unlike the RAF Lancasters (which none the less carried more bombs), could not be allowed to rest their massive wheels on grass.’ What an awful picture. Poor little England, occupied by Americans presumably as the Channel Islands were by Germans, and buried in American concrete for the benefit of their monstrous bombers, in comparison with the good little green British Lancasters, which nestled in the grass like plover.
Well, I was a Lancaster navigator during the war and I can assure Bayley that these aircraft and the green grass were not the best of friends. On one of the very few occasions on which my Lancaster did touch the grass, the result was nearly fatal. We were coming in to land at Syerston in Nottinghamshire (concrete runways and dispersals). We made an error of judgment and omitted one step in the cockpit drill, with the result that we overran the extent of the concrete, went off the end of the runway and charged towards a steep drop into the Trent. The landing wheels, however, dug into the mud up to the axles and brought the Lancaster to an abrupt stop with not very much weight on the tail wheel.
There were a lot of American runways in East Anglia but there were a lot of British ones too, and the British bomber runways were to be found all the way from Cambridge to Darlington as well.
There have been a number of accounts of the problems faced by Allied meteorologists in forecasting the weather during the build-up to the invasion of France, and for the actual D-Day landings themselves. It is unfortunate that we do not have the same level of knowledge about events on the other side of the Channel. Lawrence Hogben (LRB, 26 May) reiterates the account given by H.C. Butcher in My Three Years with Eisenhower that the forecasts made by the German meteorologists indicated that the weather would be quite unsuitable for a seaborne assault during early June, and that on 4 June Rommel was advised by Major Lettau, his chief meteorologist, that there could be no invasion during the next fortnight. It is alleged that as a result of this advice he decided to return home for a spell of leave. However, the accounts given by Lettau himself, and by the head of the Zentrale Wetterdienst Gruppe, Werner Schwerdtfeger, suggest that whatever failings there may have been on the German side, they were not meteorological. Indeed, Schwerdtfeger’s own account claims that the Channel coast forecasts for 6 June that were issued by ZWG were, in fact, correct. Unfortunately no relevant official ZWG documents survived the war so it is impossible to settle this point, but an appropriate level of doubt concerning Butcher’s account should be noted.
After the war Schwerdtfeger and Lettau both moved to Madison in the United States, where they became professors at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Schwerdtfeger died in January 1985. My last contact with Professor Lettau was in December of that year, at which time he was still living in Madison.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
Vol. 16 No. 13 · 7 July 1994
Heinz Lettau, Rommel’s chief meteorologist (Letters, 23 June), did not move directly to Madison. I admired, and still admire, his meteorological research and I visited him in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1954. He was at that time a keen player of badminton. He recalled that, after his capture by US forces, he and his fellow prisoners of war habitually drank Aqua Velva aftershave, the only alcohol they could put their hands on. Professor Lettau is still alive and in retirement in Madison.
Trinity College, Cambridge
Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994
My letter of 7 July took on faith J.M.C. Burton’s account (Letters, 7 July) of Heinz Lettau as Rommel’s chief meteorologist responsible for D-Day forecasts; but faith has been shaken. My friend Dr Paul Frenzen tells me that, according to Lettau’s son, Heinz’s quite different charge in the spring of 1944 was forecasting low-level winds affecting V-1 bombs aimed at London.
Trinity College, Cambridge
Vol. 16 No. 16 · 18 August 1994
J.M.C. Burton (Letters, 23 June) is quite right to find excuses for the German D-Day meteorologists because Zentralwetterdienstgruppe data for the period, whose existence Burton denies and which I have examined, demonstrate that their short-range forecasts of the weather elements were reasonably accurate. But for operational success, more than this was needed – the implications of a forecast for action purposes had to be clear. German meteorological weaknesses lay not in the forecast but in, among other things, faulty operational interpretation by naval and military executives who lacked suitable criteria on which to base their orders and actions. For example, the German Navy set the outside wind limit for the Allied landing-craft at Force 4, whereas in fact Admiral Ramsay accepted a Force 5 with an occasional 6. This error was important, because the Germans were reading their wind Force 5 forecast for 6 June as meaning ‘invasion not possible’ while we, with a fairly similar forecast, were saying ‘marginally possible’. So we surprised them. If like Eisenhower they had put a couple of real sailors in their forecasting team they might have done better, but being badly briefed, and unmilitary and unnaval, they can, I think, be excused. The main lacunae were naval and military, not meteorological.
Their confident long-range forecasts were, however, less excusable. Before June 1944 the Allies had found that our own five-day efforts were operationally unacceptable. But the German High Command still actually believed such long-range views as Lettau’s, mentioned by Burton, which anticipated no invasion in the weeks ahead. Scientifically unsound and operationally naive, this gave no fewer than five of the High Command an excuse to absent themselves in body and spirit from Normandy. To make such a long-range operational forecast was unwise and to believe it was military folly.
Is the following quotation relevant? ‘When riding en route to the Inauguration ceremonies Jack Kennedy asked Ike about D-Day. To his surprise Ike didn’t credit his success to the epic’s grand design. Instead Ike said the Allies probably prevailed because they had superior meteorologists.’ We meteorologists thought it was because of superior soldiers and sailors, but who are we to query what Ike said?
Vol. 16 No. 17 · 8 September 1994
I am intrigued by Lawrence Hogben’s statement that he has examined the forecasts issued by the German Zentralevetterdienstgruppe (ZWG) for the period of the D-Day landings (Letters, 18 August). The late Werner Schwerdtfeger, at that time head of ZWG, has stated quite categorically that no ZWG documentation survived the end of the war. According to Schwerdtfeger, ZWG headquarters moved from Potsdam to Neubiberg in Upper Bavaria during February and March 1945, and later to the vicinity of Berchtesgaden, where it was disbanded. All ZWG records were left under the care of another eminent meteorologist, Hermann Flohn, at Neubiberg, where they were captured by advancing US forces. Flohn was taken prisoner but was unable to persuade the local American commander of the value of the records under his charge. Schwerdtfeger gave a poignant account of how he later found out that these valuable documents were being used as wrapping paper. I would be grateful to Mr Hogben if he could say where the ZWG documents he studied are located since I, and doubtless others, would very much like to see them.
That being said, I feel his account is rather less than fair to the German meteorologists. Schwerdtfeger recorded from a diary note that the forecast issued at noon on 4 June 1944 for 5-6 June ‘specified prevailing winds of Beaufort Force 5, varying between 4 and 6, equivalent to 15-23 knots’. This was similar to advice provided by the Allied forecasters at 0415 on 4 June, which was modified at 1745 that day. The Supreme Commander’s briefing at 2100 indicated winds of Force 3-4 for Monday evening (5 June) along the French coast. In fact, actual winds over the Channel and Normandy beaches were recorded as Westerly Force 4-5 at the start of Monday 5 June, decreasing 3-4 overnight but increasing 4-5 again by the evening of 6 June, D-Day itself.
Schwerdtfeger also gave an account of the forecast he was pressurised into making the following December, prior to the launching of the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes. He was ordered to provide a forecast of five continuous days with weather below operational limits for the Allied air forces. Such a sequence had never been recorded there at that time of year but, and quite unexpectedly to Schwerdtfeger himself, his forecast succeeded in satisfying its unrealistic specification. The result of this admitted fluke was instant promotion.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire