The Irishman who gave the D-Day go-ahead

The Normandy beach landings were deferred on the say-so of the Blacksod lighthouse keeper, and victory was assured, says Dan McCarthy




SEVENTY years ago yesterday, at 6am on June 5, 1944, off the coast of Normandy in France, 150,000 Allied troops prepared to launch the biggest seaborne invasion in the history of warfare. The objective was to defeat Hitler’s army in the north-east of France and push it back to Germany, since the drive on the Italian, eastern European, and north African fronts had begun to swing the outcome of the war in favour of the Allies.

The Normandy invasion was crucial to ending five years of war and an incomprehensible loss of life. The choice of day hinged not on the say-so of the joint commanders, generals Dwight D Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery (brigade major in Cork in the war of Independence), but on the word of the softly-spoken Ted Sweeney, the keeper of Blacksod Lighthouse, in the Erris peninsula, Co Mayo.

June 5 was to prove one of the most important days in World War Two. But, hold on a second, shouldn’t that be June 6, 1944, the day every schoolchild knows, off by heart, as the day the tables were finally turned on Adolf Hitler in the Normandy landings?

Ted’s son Vincent is now the keeper of Blacksod lighthouse and it was Ted who supplied the crucial forecast to the Allied forces on June 4, 1944. Vincent takes up the story. “The invasion was planned for June 5, 1944, and my father was requested to give the weather forecast from Blacksod, being the most north-westerly point and weather station, so he gave it. But that weather forecast was not suitable for an invasion, as it came across Ireland, down through England and into the English Channel, and it was blowing a near gale, so the D-Day landings, Operation Overlord, was delayed for one day and it went ahead on the morning of June 6, 1944, and that is as a result of the forecast from Blacksod,” says Vincent.

On the morning of the crucial day, June 6, the Allied forces won a decisive battle that finally had Hitler on the back foot and ultimately proved his downfall. Hitler never recovered and the war was over a year later. The Allied army, comprising British (and Irish), US, Polish, Czech, Australian, Belgian, French, Greek, Dutch, Norwegian and New Zealand soldiers waited on amphibious troop carriers as minesweepers attempted to clear the seas before them. Awaiting them were 50,000 German troops, dug into an 80km (50-mile) stretch of coastline in a formidable defensive line under field marshal Erwin Rommel (famous for his command in North Africa and nicknamed the Desert Fox) and Gerd von Rundstedt.

The invasion area was split into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.

Today, these beaches look innocuous, predominantly comprised of pebble. When the tide is in, there are no beaches at all. All that lies between them and the overlooking small cliffs is a few hundred metres of open ground: the killing ground. The memorial at Omaha beach, and the adjoining American cemetery, are incredibly moving and a testament to the horrors.

On the first day, 12,000 Allied troops were killed — shot to pieces in the water, or cut down on the beaches.

By the end of June, one million troops had landed on the bridgehead created by the original force. German supply lines were stretched, equipment was worn out, and manpower was seriously diminished. The local population in Normandy suffered terrible reprisals — entire villages were wiped out. The cities of Caen, Bayeux, and others were devastated.

From the 1930s to the mid-1950s Blacksod Lighthouse doubled as a meteorological station. It measured rainfall, wind-speed, wind-direction and cloud formations.

“During the war, then, as 1944 approached, he (Ted) was requested to give the weather forecast every hour on the hour, and every hour on the half hour. And, in hindsight, now, we know it was because of Operation Overlord, which was the Normandy invasion, D-Day,” says Vincent.

“The end result of it was that Europe was liberated. Only for that, if there were any more delays the tides wouldn’t have been right and it would have given the Germans time to bring extra troops and more panzer divisions into Normandy, if they had got wind of an invasion,” he says.

In the London Times newspaper, a reviewer of Anthony Beevor’s celebrated book, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, wrote: “Never has history turned so much on the predictions of one man and his met charts.”

Video film ‘Keepers of the Light’, by Fergus Sweeney (grandson of Ted), is available from fergswee@gmail.com.



Breaking Stories

As Karlie Kloss marries Joshua Kushner, here are 8 of her biggest fashion moments

This clever new app can help new parents decide if their baby needs to see a doctor

‘Acne won’t stop me living my life’ – Millie Mackintosh on how she got her skin under control

'Jesus, did I paint them?’; Robert Ballagh reacts to the nude portraits to him and his wife

More From The Irish Examiner