Looking at weather forecasting in wartime.
Meteorology goes to war.
Being able to forecast the weather was of fundamental importance in World War II: just think of the damage Typhoon Cobra did to Task Force 38 or how the D-Day landings had to be postponed. One theater of operations where weather was a particularly cruel mistress was the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. Planes were flown from America to Britain via Greenland and Iceland. Convoys crossed the Arctic to supply the Soviet Union with vital war material. U-boat wolfpacks roamed the Atlantic in search of Allied convoys. A change in weather could spell fortune or disaster: fog could hide an Allied convoy from the Luftwaffe or a storm could swallow ferried fighter planes or hinder the navigation of U-boats. Both sides in the war went to great lengths to acquire accurate weather forecasts.
Weather patterns in the North Atlantic usually move west to east, so whoever could take measurements in a western location would learn of changes sooner. One way of doing so was to use weather ships.
The concept was proposed in the early 1920s to facilitate Atlantic shipping and passenger flights. Off America, the Coast Guard and the Atlantic Weather Observation Service maintained such ships from 1939 and 1940 onwards, respectively. The Coast Guard used small, quick cutters at first that spent three weeks at sea followed by 10 days in port. By 1942, however, the cutters were needed for the war effort and were replaced by six cargo ships equipped with weather balloons. These ships were unprotected and one of them, the USS Muskeget, was lost with all hands on board on September 9, 1942 after being torpedoed by a German submarine. All crewmen were immediately awarded a posthumous Purple Heart but the four civilian meteorologists only in 2015.
The British and the Germans also used weather ships. Of the four German vessels, three were sunk by late 1940, prompting the Kriegsmarine to use converted fishing trawlers and sealer ships as disguise. These ships, however, were still considered important targets by the British not only to deny the Germans weather information, but also for what they carried onboard: Enigma machines and codebooks which they used to receive orders. The machine and the book could be quickly thrown overboard when attacked but a British cryptologist correctly guessed that the ships would also carry next month’s codebook in a safe, which might have been captured if the crew panicked during a raid. Two task forces of cruisers and destroyers were dispatched to raid two of these “fishing ships,” successfully netting several pieces of the Enigma machine and codebooks, greatly helping Bletchley Park in cracking the more secure naval version of the code.
Belligerent nations also took to the air to retrieve meteorological data. Flying out of northern Scotland, RAF pilots took Flying Fortresses, Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers and smaller craft on Atlantic sorties lasting up to 11 and a half hours, following exacting paths that involved descending to 50 ft. above the water and climbing to 18,000 to gather readings at various altitudes. Flying so far from shore and often in bad weather took its toll and 10 planes were lost in 1944 alone.
The Luftwaffe’s job was even harder, as they had to contend not only with dangerous weather and Arctic waters that could kill a man in minutes but also the RAF. The Wekusta, short for Grossraum Wettererkundungsstaffel (Greater Weather Reconnaissance Squadron) flew a motley assortment of converted military planes from bases along the German coast.
Flying northwest from Germany towards the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, Wekustaplanes had to fly past Fair Isle and between the Orkney and Shetland Isles north of Scotland, well inside British radar range. To avoid detection, they had to maintain an altitude of 30-50 ft above the ocean for much of the 9-hour trip and then had to climb 22,000 ft above the Faroes. The dangerous adventure was recorded in the insignia of the first Wekusta squadron, depicting a rainbow over Fair Isle: one of the few cases in history when a military unit’s insignia depicted enemy territory.
By early 1941, the British became aware of the clandestine flights and started hunting for the planes, causing mounting casualties to the weather squadrons. As the war progressed, the Wekusta took on new roles, such as Arctic meteorological flights after German-controlled weather stations were destroyed on the Svalbard Islands (we will talk about this in more depth in the next part of our article) as well as ice recon, supply runs to hidden weather stations and, in 1945, evacuations. Throughout the war, their flights were characterized by constant losses, not so much to enemy fighters as the cruelty of the very weather they were trying to gauge even at the cost of their own lives.
The second part of this article will detail the operation of and intrigue surrounding the known and clandestine weather stations on Atlantic islands, featuring several unique achievements of the war.