Sunday 25 August 2019

Irish weather forecaster who helped win the war profiled in new RTE documentary

A new RTE documentary tells the story of a County Mayo weathergirl who played an invaluable part in the success of World War II's D-Day, writes Donal Lynch

Maureen Sweeney played by her granddaughter Eva Sweeney
Maureen Sweeney played by her granddaughter Eva Sweeney
Maureen Sweeney filed weather reports from Blacksod for D-Day landings

The lonely, windswept lighthouse at Blacksod, near Mayo's most westerly point, seems an unlikely focal point for European history. Yet it was from here, 75 years ago on June 3, that a weather forecast was delivered which defined the start of D-Day and, with it, the course of World War II.

For a brief, terrifying moment, 150,000 Allied troops, as well as the governments of much of the Western world, held their breath for news from a young Irishwoman named Maureen Sweeney.

She hadn't especially wanted to be a lighthouse keeper.

"I meant to go to America but I didn't get that far so I went for a job in the Post Office instead," Maureen, who now lives in a retirement home in Mayo, recalls.

Maureen Sweeney filed weather reports from Blacksod for D-Day landings
Maureen Sweeney filed weather reports from Blacksod for D-Day landings

"I answered an ad for a post office assistant and there wasn't a mention about weather. It took me two full days and a part of the third day to get here (to Blacksod). I always loved the sea and the strand and when I saw them I said I'd give this a try."

Part of Maureen's duties involved making written weather observations, and she carried these out with professionalism and some trepidation.

"There was no learning in that, you learned on the job," she recalls. "I used to be afraid that the Germans would come over us at night."

Fear of the Germans was quite a normal emotion to have, for, although Ireland was officially neutral during the war, it was a neutrality which leaned heavily toward surreptitious cooperation with the Allied Forces. De Valera was relying on the power of the Royal Navy and the RAF to protect the country. Hitler had said that possession of Ireland could lead to the end of the war. Plans had been made by the Germans to land troops in the north and the south. In that scenario the Germans said they would then allow a sovereign 32-county republic at the mercy of the German state.

De Valera walked a fine line to maintain Ireland's neutrality. In Britain he was coming under pressure to openly join the war effort, but he resisted this. In private there was intelligence cooperation and planning information. In 1939 it was agreed that data from six locations would be shared with the British and American meteorological services. The Irish weather reports were assigned codes, which were in turn generated by the Americans.

The Americans and British understood that wars, from The Armada to Napoleon's invasion of Russia, were won and lost by an ability to factor in the effects of the weather.

Blacksod's pivotal importance was due to the fact that it was the first land-based observation station in Europe where weather readings could be professionally taken on the European Atlantic westerly weather systems.

The science of weather reporting was less sophisticated in the those years, and no other country could accurately predict the weather coming in from the Atlantic over the west coast of Ireland. During the war the American team used pattern recognition - predicting weather by seeing what usually happened in the past. The British constructed charts which showed where the low and high pressure centres were moving - this was a more accurate method, but, still great emphasis was placed on getting reports from stations experiencing the edges of weather systems.

Generals from the US Army visited both Valentia Island, in Kerry, and Blacksod during 1942; they understood the significance of having these tiny, secret outposts of the war effort onside.

By 1943 World War II was building inexorably to its climax. The Soviet Union was pressuring Allies to open a second front. At the Tehran conference in December 1943, Stalin put pressure on the Allies to name a general who would reinvigorate the war effort. The Americans nominated Dwight Eisenhower.

"He had an enormous ability to rationalise different viewpoints into a common ground," Susan Eisenhower recalls of her grandfather. "He had a conciliatory nature, even though he could also be tough-minded. He was the middle child of seven boys. He was the kid who had to compromise."

The ability to compromise would be essential to Eisenhower as he attempted to coordinate a huge international coalition against the Axis Forces. That same month - December 1943 - Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery of the British Army began to plan what would become the pivotal moment in the history of the war - the Normandy landings.

Eisenhower continually emphasised the part that even the smallest cog in the war effort had in the overall victory. "Teamwork wins wars," he said in one famous public address. "Teamwork among nations." And this included a tiny Irish weather station.

Eisenhower arrived in London on June 2, 1944. At that point he was receiving two weather reports per day, one in the morning, one in the evening, both of which were relayed by the chief British meteorologist during the war, a flinty Scotsman named James Stagg.

Stagg knew the reasons for the importance of the forecasts. Calm weather was needed for the landings. The troops would be carrying heavy backpacks, so if they jumped out of the boats in bad weather they would be turned over very quickly by strong waves. They needed clear skies for the bombers so they could see their targets. Without calm seas and clear skies the assault may have had to be delayed another few weeks and, by then, the Germans might well have been better prepared. Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, was already making speeches in which he suggested that the Germans would welcome a summer invasion by the Allied forces.

June 3, 1944 was Maureen Sweeney's 21st birthday. Unlike most young people celebrating that milestone, she was not out drinking and dancing in the evening. Instead she was at her desk in the lighthouse watching a barometer that was showing atmospheric pressure was falling. The unsettled weather that she observed would have reached Normandy in the early hours of the morning on June 5.

Stagg was disturbed at the reports of rapidly dropping pressure. Maureen received a call from "a lady with an English accent" asking her to confirm the reports she had sent. An hour later, the phone rang again. "It was the same lady," Maureen recalls. "The lady with the English accent and she asked if we could please check and repeat the very latest weather observations we had sent from Blacksod."

Maureen was oblivious to the importance of her reports but by the following afternoon the fall in pressure began to slow and then it began to rise.

The heavy rain and drizzle cleared, and visibility on land and sea became very clear. A full clearance of the weather would actually arrive at Blacksod one hour later.

James Stagg would later say that Eisenhower already knew the weather forecast by examining his (Stagg's) facial expression: "He used my face as a barometer."

At 4.15am, on June 5 the Joint Chiefs of Staff met Stagg to discuss the weather prospects. Based on Maureen's reports, he understood that there would be an interlude in the gloom of the preceding days.

Eisenhower discussed the matter with the British and American generals, particularly Montgomery, and it was finally agreed that they would begin the landings on June 6.

The machinery of war kicked into high gear and ships began to move through the still-stormy weather toward the beaches of Normandy.

The German forecasters had no ships or stations in the North Atlantic, and so, although they had similar forecasting expertise to the British, they were blindsided about the brief and unlikely break in the bad weather.

Several of their top brass took short holidays during this time. "They believed it would be impossible for the Allied forces to attack.

Susan Eisenhower says: "I don't think Nazi Germany in their wildest dreams thought we would declare war on that day."

The invasion of northern France in 1944 was the most significant victory of the Western Allies in World War II. American, British and Canadian forces established a foothold on the shores of Normandy, and, after a protracted and costly campaign to reinforce their gains, broke out into the French interior and began a headlong advance.

The German Army suffered a catastrophe greater than that of Stalingrad, the defeat in North Africa or even the massive Soviet summer offensive of 1944. The war, effectively, had been won. The sharing of weather reports might not have seemed like the most momentous part of the war effort, but the Irish contribution was nonetheless crucial.

Maureen Sweeney is coming up to her 96th birthday and has a touch of dementia, but her long-term memory is largely unaffected. Speaking three years ago, she said: "I was reading a piece in an English paper recently and it said that if Eisenhower had gone to war that night (June 3, 1944) it would have smashed America.

"That weather report from Blacksod - of all places - changed the war. Who would have thought it?"

'Storm Front in Mayo' is on Thursday June 6 at 10.15pm RTE1

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