D-Day forecast fictionalized

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Faber and Faber: 2009. 368 pp. £16.99 9780571205226 | ISBN: 978-0-5712-0522-6
Secret wartime plans included building giant ships from ice. Credit: ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS/MARY EVANS

Fluid dynamics and weather prediction seem unpromising material for a gripping story. But Giles Foden has ingeniously dramatized what is perhaps the most important weather forecast ever made: that for the D-Day landings, the invasion of continental Europe at Normandy by the Allied forces towards the end of the Second World War. The result is a compelling tale, with meteorologists as the unlikely heroes and the turbulence of the title providing the central metaphor.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in command of the operation, had to be sure that the crossing of the English Channel would not be disrupted by bad weather. And he needed that assurance five days in advance — a length of time that stretches today's forecasting techniques to their limit, and which was beyond the capability of meteorologists in 1944. Add to that the need for a low tide to evade the German sea defences, the task confronting the Allies' weather experts seemed insurmountable.

In Turbulence, Foden tells this story through the eyes of a fictional character, Henry Meadows, a young academic attached to the forecasting team that is led, as it was in reality, by the British meteorologist James Stagg. The decision-making process of Stagg and his fractious colleagues, including the brash American entrepreneur Irving Krick and the arrogant but astute Norwegian Sverre Petterssen, occupies the last third of the book. Stagg and Petterssen each published their own accounts in the 1970s. Although Foden's tale is steeped in that history, he allows Meadows to make the crucial, unrecognized contribution.

The story begins with Meadows being sent to rural Scotland to glean clues about forecasting from the leading authority of the day, the difficult genius Wallace Ryman. Ryman is a fictionalized version of Lewis Fry Richardson, known for his work on fractal coastlines, who Foden rightly calls “one of the unsung heroes of British science”. Like Richardson, Ryman is a Quaker whose experiences in the Friends' Ambulance Unit during the First World War convinced him that war must be avoided. He shuns collaboration with the military, so Meadows must pursue his mission by stealth — an attempt that he mostly bungles.

In Scotland, Meadows runs into the second wayward genius in the book, this time without a pseudonymous disguise: Geoffrey Pyke, the man behind the Habbakuk project to build aircraft carriers out of ice reinforced with wood pulp. This 'Pykrete' is extraordinarily resistant to impacts and melting. Also making a fleeting appearance is Julius Brecher, a doppelgänger for biochemist Max Perutz, who assisted Pyke during the war. This part of the plot would seem far-fetched if you didn't know that it is true.

Yet the Habbakuk story, however entertaining, seems tacked on. It is not central to the plot even though it supplies a framing device: Meadows recounts his wartime exploits while on board an ice ship built in 1980 for an Arab sheikh. When Meadows joins Pyke in wartime London only to see the Habbakuk project terminated, it feels like a cul-de-sac. One could carp at a few other points of creaky plotting or narrative, but that seems churlish given how splendidly the book animates a buried story of scientific endeavour and triumph.

One must also ask whether the author succeeds in creating scientists who are fully fleshed individuals. Foden complicates his task by making Meadows callow and withdrawn as a result of a childhood trauma in Africa. Meadows's fixation on his research and his social awkwardness could make him a caricature of the diffident scientist. Brecher also refracts everything through the prism of his own research topic of blood, while Ryman is the crabby boffin and Pyke the dotty one.

But Foden has a motive in shaping Meadows this way, using him to capture a sense of the dour, buttoned-up character of wartime Britain. And unlike so many fictional scientists, Meadows is believable: his discourses on turbulence and hydrodynamics are assured, even uncompromising, without the breezy 'beginner's guide' flavour that is the usual hallmark of undigested authorial research. Here Foden had the immense benefit of advice from his father-in-law, Julian Hunt, a leading expert on turbulence and meteorology and, fittingly, a recipient of the Lewis Fry Richardson medal for nonlinear geophysics. Skilfully balancing fact and fiction, Turbulence is dramatic, intelligent and convincing.

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Ball, P. D-Day forecast fictionalized. Nature 460, 799–800 (2009) doi:10.1038/460799a

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