Belmont Club

The Longest Day

But as May wore out, June dawned dark and stormy with a gale over the Channel. Up at Shipmate—code name of the Advanced Command Post on the bluff—we shivered in our tents and trailers. The meteorologists in their Nissen huts near Admiral Ramsay’s headquarters worked desperately, searching the fronts for clearer skies. They were not only trying to predict the weather, they were trying to make it. Commanders’ meetings at Southwick House were charged with worry. The sober fact was that the worst June storm in twenty years was whipping the Channel.

There was no promise of a break in the weather that evening. With all their alchemy, the weather wizards could not lift the blanket of cloud that hung over our heads and our spirits. We drove back through the blackout after the ten o’clock meeting June fourth with dull realization that if we could not go on June sixth, we should almost certainly have to postpone our assault for another two weeks, the earliest date when the tide would again be right. Although June seventh would still have met our conditions if the weather cleared, some of the ships which had come down from northern ports would have insufficient fuel to carry through the assault phase if it were postponed. …

It was still drizzling outside the trailer when I got up to attend the meeting set for 0400 on the morning of June fifth. … All the commanders were there when General Eisenhower arrived, trim in his tailored battle jacket, his face tense with the gravity of the decision which lay before him. Field Marshal Montgomery wore his inevitable baggy corduroy trousers and sweat shirt. Admiral Ramsay and his Chief of Staff were Immaculate in navy blue and gold.

The meteorologists were brought in at once. There was the ghost of a smile on the tired face of the tall Scot. “I think we have found a gleam of hope for you, sir,” he said to General Eisenhower, and we all listened expectantly.

That was how Bedell Smith remembered the conference at which it would be decided to launch, or not to launch, D-Day. That “gleam of  hope” the Scottish meteorologist provided was based on the information supplied by a network of weather stations and interpreted by analysts. Rarely, if ever, in military history would so much hinge on the data analysis and modeling of so few. The situation was not helped by the fact that some weathermen, like other human beings, wanted to tell clients what the clients wanted to hear. One would have thought they were pollsters. Like the weathermen,  pollsters had to provide accurate forecasts of the climate in order for the political consultants to chart strategy.

The weathermen were right about June 6, 1944. But the Wall Street Journal reports that a pre-mortem is already under way among those close to President Obama. Why did they cast their strategy thus? On what information?  “Some high-level Democrats are calling for President Barack Obama to remake his inner circle or even fire top advisers in response to what many party strategists expect to be a decisive defeat on Tuesday.”

Among the complaints: Mr. Obama conveyed an incoherent message that didn’t express what Democrats would do over the next two years if they retain power; he focused more on his own image than helping Democratic candidates; and the White House picked the wrong battle when it attacked Republicans for using “outside” money to pay for campaigns, an issue disconnected from voters’ real-world anxieties. ….

Another senior strategist who participated in a meeting with Mr. Axelrod said the White House hadn’t grasped the economic concerns voters have — something he says Republicans seemed to understand. “We ignored what voters were actually feeling and thinking,” this strategist said.

An American election, when viewed close up, is the story of groups of people making political decisions on the basis of information supplied by surveys, robocalls, focus groups and just plain holding up a finger to the wind. On that basis messages are crafted, decisions are made, money is spent. What the meteorologists and commanders of D-Day grasped was that nothing was permanent. They understood, far better than the politicians of today, that they were only partly in control. Bad weather was in evidence, yet it would not continue unbroken. A fair clime might present itself, but only for a moment. Unlike the politicians of today who believe in permanent majorities and unending periods at the trough, the men of June 6 knew that they lived in the weathers of the world; that all Providence ever gave you was a chance; a chance to be taken — or missed.

But toward evening of June sixth, his charts showed, there would be a recurrence of bad weather, with high winds and rough seas. It was impossible for the experts to predict how much longer the bad weather would last. They were giving us about twenty-four hours of reasonable weather. That was all.

General Eisenhower inquired how many hours he could count on for the attack and just when bad weather would resume. The morning will be fair,” the Scot said. “Good weather may last through the afternoon.”

All the questions had been asked, and then there was silence. No one broke it. … The silence lasted for five full minutes while General Eisenhower sat on a sofa before the bookcase which filled the end of the room. I never realized before, the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his judgment alone. He sat there quietly, not getting up to pace with quick strides, as he often does. He was tense, weighing every consideration of weather as he had been briefed to do during the dry runs since April, and weighing with them those other imponderables.

Finally he looked up, and the tension was gone from his face. He said briskly, ‘Well, we’ll go!”

The great wonder of November 2, 2010, was that millions of voters, unled by famous political figures, weighed the weather on their own and by an alchemy that no one understood decided on the basis of their instinct to say, “Well, we’ll go.” Let us see what the morrow brings.


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