Lord knows I don't want to add to the mountain of material in our culture glorifying war, and particularly the Second World War, but I find this non-combat related tale irresistible for some reason. That reason may be that it is awesome.

Most westerners, and certainly Brits and Americans, are familiar with the tale of the "D-Day" landings at Normandy, the focal point of Operation Overlord. Briefly, the strategic importance of Overlord cannot be overstated. It was the Allies' all-in effort to establish a foothold on the continent, the success of which directly precipitated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Had the landings failed on June 6, 1944, the war in Europe could have been prolonged by as much as a year as the Allies regrouped, rearmed, chose a new landing site, and so on. In those additional months/years, hundreds of thousands of additional civilians, Nazi death camp inmates, and combatants who survived the war might have ended up dead.

One crucial element of war that historians and popular consciousness never seem to appreciate is the weather. It's a wild card, and the history of war is a history of good or bad fortune with weather; anyone familiar with the American Revolution, for example, knows the number of occasions on which the tiny Continental Army was saved by "divine providence" – particularly at the Battle of Long Island, where a miraculous, dense fog allowed Washington's 9000 man army to escape siege and eventual destruction by a large, concentrated British force. Yep, we basically won that war because of fog (and the massive balls of pre-treason Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island, but that's a story for another day).

The D-Day landings needed specific weather conditions to succeed. First, a low tide was essential. In deep water, men and vehicles would be drowned before they even reached the beaches. Second, clear skies were required to permit air cover, shelling of German defenses, and so on. Finally, and coincidental to the low tides/clear skies, a full moon was needed for night operation. OK? OK.

The moon/tide schedule in June 1944 allowed for a brief window from June 4-6. Weather on June 4 was rough and stormy. June 5 was not much better. The massive movement of ships, men, and supplies toward Normandy was already underway, and Eisenhower needed to decide if they should be turned back (no small feat) or proceed with the invasion – which, again, would probably fail spectacularly if the weather was adverse. So he turned to his meteorologist, Group Captain J.M. Stagg, a cantankerous Scotsman whose uniform included specially made pants to house his balls.

A few points.

First, weather forecasting over the English Channel today, using computers, radar, and satellites, is dead wrong 50% of the time. Not "a little off" but completely wrong. Stagg didn't have satellites and radar. Meteorologists of that era drew pressure maps by hand, searched their archives to find similar looking maps from past dates, and then predicted that whatever weather followed that pattern previously would happen again. It was…not a great system. It was what they had. They made the best of it. But it wasn't exactly a science.

Not pictured: giant balls

As Group Captain Stagg (side note: use any "Group Captain!" quote from Dr. Strangelove here) surveyed the nasty weather on June 4 and 5, he looked at his crude data and came upon the idea that there would be "a break" in the violent seas and thunderstorms on June 6. Stagg has stated, as most meteorologists of his era no doubt knew in their hearts, that this was based on "a hunch" and experience. Basically, the fate of the largest invasion force ever assembled was subject to the hunches of a Scotsman with a hand-drawn map of weather fronts. Eisenhower had grown to trust Stagg and accepted his forecast. So it was a hunch about someone else's hunch; Ike went with his gut and went with Stagg's gut. It really is a miracle that the invasion force was not consumed by a hurricane and the Kraken.

I have to wonder what, aside from liquor, was going through the Group Captain's mind as he put his balls on the table and said, "No worries, this weather will clear up by the time they reach Normandy." Surely he knew what a disaster awaited them if he was wrong. Thousands of men could have died. The Allied war effort could have been set back months or years. And if that happened, he would have been the goat for all of it. Stagg recalled one General Morgan telling him, "Good luck Stagg. May all your depressions be nice little ones. But remember, we'll string you up from the nearest lamp post if you don't read the omens right." That may have been putting it kindly.

Salut, Group Captain Stagg! Salut, giant balls!


  • The hallways of the British Meteorological Office still echo with the sound of his balls clanking together.

  • cwyatthouston says:

    I can't remember the details, but another part to this story is that Allied troops in the months/years leading up to the invasion had retaken far northern lands (maybe Greenland) from which they could monitor weather patterns that would ultimately affect Europe as they were forming. It was this data that allowed meteorologists to more accurately predict the Normandy weather.

  • duck-billed placelot says:

    So because this man made a wild guess that risked, oh, millions of lives and got lucky, you think he was courageous and super masculine and awesome? If you don't want to glorify reckless, awful masculinity-as-reckless-murderous-awfulness type behavior, then, you know, don't.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Holy Cow!
    Talk about timing!

    I just took out a novel about exactly this subject from the library and started it last night.
    It's called "Turbulence," and it's by the same author who wrote "The Last King of Scotland."

    I'm only about 70 pages in, but so far, so good.

    Also, too, on the Big Balls chart – Ike!
    He had a letter ready to go out accepting ALL blame if D-Day turned into the catastrophe that everyone feared it might.

    Oh God, for Republicans like Ike again…

  • So because this man made a wild guess that risked, oh, millions of lives and got lucky, you think he was courageous and super masculine and awesome? If you don't want to glorify reckless, awful masculinity-as-reckless-murderous-awfulness type behavior, then, you know, don't.

    Nice job of completely ignoring why anyone might want to invade Normandy–or hurry the job the fuck up–for the sake of scolding the author of a blog you're visiting.

  • Also, there is a huge difference between "wild guess" and "educated guess with a calculated risk, using the best information available".

  • anotherbozo says:

    What a great NPF story to wake up to! Ed as Paul Harvey. Oops, nobody knows that name any more.

    And, on a more thoughtful note, just more evidence to support vigorously anti-war policies—-in the sense of stemming the foreign acts of aggression that lead to wars. But silly me. We're talking about the human species here. Crisis management is our only m.o.

  • A condensed version of John Keegan's book Operation Overlord:

    Stagg: The weather will be fine for the landings tomorrow.
    Ike: How can you be sure, Stagg? HOW DO YOU KNOW!
    Stagg: Balls.
    Ike: Well, OK then.

  • 1. @cwyatt: It was mainly Iceland, but Greenland probably had a weather station in the mix, I don't remember.
    2. @placelot: are we reading the same thing, because, you know, filtering everything through your prejudices doesn't help reading comprehension. That's the sort of thing that's going on in the GOP right now.
    3. @Ed: He's a Scot, for goodness' sake! He used no pants, merely a set of industrial-strength, reinforced, lattice-work truss supports under his kilt. The strain on his back was terrific, but like a true Scot, he managed it by drinking approximately 4 quarts of decent single-malt every day of his adult life. That also makes his accurate weather-forecasting that much more impressive.

  • Fifth Dentist says:

    Great post.
    Personally my favorite war story is the Christmas Truce during WWI when the soldiers came out in no-man's-land and traded chocalate and smokes and played a massive match of football (soccer for USians).
    Of course the overlords threatened serious repercussions for anyone who engaged in that type of behavior again.

  • but like a true Scot, he managed it by drinking approximately 4 quarts of decent single-malt every day of his adult life

    No true Scotsman knows what a quart is.

  • Monkey Business says:

    Earlier in the war, Group Captain J.M. Stagg was injured when a grenade went off nearby, resulting in his testicles being destroyed. He requested that they be replaced by a pair of brass balls inside a leather pouch.

    After that, it was only a matter of time.

  • This story makes me particularly happy given that my grandmother spent WWII as a meteorologist. She still bitches about the fact that they wouldn't let the women fly over the Gulf and thus earn hazard pay, though.

  • Duck, my point is that he was forced to make a decision based on information so limited that it basically amounted to flipping a coin and hoping for the best. There was no way to make a better, more informed decision in that era except to call the Germans at the landing site and ask them if it was sunny.

  • FWIW, it was also well portrayed in the 1962 classic, "The Longest Day". The weather was an important feature and Group Captain Stagg featured prominently.

  • duck-billed placelot says:

    Ed, (et al.) yeah, I got that. Yes, this is absolutely an interesting historical tidbit, a moment that could have gone either way and changed the world forever. And yet, his humongous balls were what you focused on. Because it's so amazing and amazingly masculine, to….make guesses? To personally valorize this guy in the breath after saying you don't want to add to the cult of war/soldier is below your usual standard of excellence.

    (and et al.: calm the fuck down, sons.)

  • Elder Futhark says:

    What you youngsters need to know is that (and you will eventually find out) probably 99% of your important decisions are coin-flip moments. This is not to detract from Stagg's, or Ike's, call. Merely that, wow, this shit happens a lot more often than you realize. If you don't believe me, try the next week just calling heads or tails on shit.

    (And thank goodness for positive outcome bias, otherwise a a lot of nutsacks would be far more shriveled and wrinkledy and flapping in the breeze than they normally are).

  • D-B placelot: Calm the fuck down, sons? Just who the fuck are you? Talking like that will get you tons of credibility around here… way to go, hypocrite.

    Elder Futhark hit it right on the head. This happens a lot, and I would add, thankfully we tend to focus on the times someone guessed right and was was either persuasive enough or lucky enough to get others to go along with his decision.

    If Ed wants to call it 'balls' because it makes for a little more interesting read, then fine. I read enough depressing shit all week – sometimes this style is a nice diversion.

  • I said SON, calm the ^&%$ down, I said SON.

    That sounds like the Geezinslaw Brothers Blue Album when Sammy was trying get Dewayne (Son) under control :-)

    That or Foghorn Leghorn….


  • Last summer I read Ike's account of the invasion, Crusade in Europe. Anyone who thinks he was unable to string together a coherent sentence ought to read that book. Clear, lucid prose.

    I don't recall if it was there or in another book about WWII, but part of the weather prediction for the invasion came from planes flying over the north Atlantic. As I recall, Hitler had more or less decommissioned any planes capable of that sort of flight, so the Germans had no idea that there was a clearing moving in. So important commanders went to birthday parties and were otherwise away from the site of the invasion when it happened.

    And it was Ike who had the balls to go with Stagg's best advice. One of the reasons to not postpone was that they would have had to bring the ships back to port, let the soldiers off, and it would be impossible to guarantee that none of them would spill the beans about what they had been up to. The element of surprise was as important as the weather.

  • Would it have been more palatable if Ed had used the word "courage" instead of "balls"?

    To be fair, Stagg was in a position where he had no choice but to take a stand. After weighing all the evidence and exercising his judgment, it all came down to saying "Go" or "No Go" to Ike. As the background makes clear, saying "I don't have enough data, let's wait a day or two" was simply not an option.

    My take on this is that Eisenhower was the one who showed real courage. Stagg's weather forecast was just one more piece of information guiding *his* decision, and he had to decide whether to accept or ignore that input.

    Sometimes one brave man has to stand on the shoulders of many others. D-Day was one example of such.

  • bingobangoboy says:

    Um, yeah, I'm 100% in agreement with Placelot.
    I mean, I don't even know where to begin….

  • Another Luke says:

    Lots of examples of these kind of coin flip weather events changing the course of warfare. There were the kamikaze storms that sank fleets off of Japan twice, the storm that sank the Spanish Armada, and the damp fields at Waterloo delaying Napolean. Of course, big weather events are such a huge impact on human life generally, and people are at war so often, that it makes sense that they would exert a decisive influence every once in a while at an auspicious time.

  • Given the survival rate of the first few waves of soldiers coming ashore, I prefer not to speculate on what D-Day could have been like if the Germans had been EXPECTING the landing. During my stint at the local VA hospital (twenty four years) I had the privilege of meeting and shaking the hands of a few D-Day survivors (and one Tuskegee Airman).

    My respect to the Group Captain, but those men who waded ashore under fire had plenty of testicular fortitude themselves. My own father made a landing at Peliliu in the South Pacific, and was so exhausted by the time he got to the beach he lay down in the sand and caught his breath. Under fire, with twenty pounds of explosives in his pack. He didn't like talking about it. I am VERY glad to have never seen combat myself.

  • Eisenhower knew going in that the whole massive effort of D-Day was risky at best. Had the Germans reacted quickly and appropriately, the invasion could have been the worst disaster in Western military history, comparable to the failure of the Spanish Armada.

    The statement that he wrote to be delivered in that event, has always struck me as the bravest and saddest in American history. Sadder still is the fact that in 2011 there is no one on the American political scene with the character to write such a thing.

    'Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.'

  • D-day planners wanted low tide because then the obstacles and mines placed there to destroy the landing craft would be exposed.

  • Magnificent web site. Lots of helpful information here. I?m sending it to a few pals ans additionally sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you in your effort!

  • I want to get across my appreciation for your kindness supporting people who have the need for guidance on this one area. Your very own commitment to getting the message along had become remarkably useful and has in every case enabled ladies just like me to attain their goals. Your amazing warm and friendly guide entails a lot to me and substantially more to my office workers. Thanks a lot; from each one of us.

  • Simply desire to say your article is as surprising. The clarity to your publish is just nice and that i can suppose you're knowledgeable on this subject. Well together with your permission let me to seize your feed to stay up to date with impending post. Thanks 1,000,000 and please continue the rewarding work.

Comments are closed.