On June 6, 1944 — 69 years ago today — nearly 15,000 Canadians joined the long-anticipated D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. They attacked overland, from the sea and through the air. The 10-kilometre stretch of Normandy beach which Canadians wrested from the German defenders that day was code-named “Juno.”
As those Canadians engaged the enemy in a fierce campaign that would, 11 months later, see the surrender of a defeated Germany, they had no idea that one of their countrymen had played a small but critical role in bringing D-Day about.
(Full story published in the National Post, June 6, 2013)
It had started the month before, and was one time Bob Dale didn’t mind a superior officer pulling rank. In May 1944, Dale finished his second full tour of operations. Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett, with 8 Group (Pathfinders), called the air force navigator into his office. Bennett told Dale that RCAF headquarters in London had decided his two tours were enough. They were about to repatriate him home to Canada.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve told them you’re not available,” Bennett said.
Dale waited for the other shoe to drop.
“You know as well as I do that big things are about to happen,” the Air Vice Marshal explained.
Flight Lieutenant Dale admitted to Bennett that he knew something major was up and he wouldn’t want to miss it. It didn’t matter that this would be Dale’s third operational tour and that the odds of survival were not good. The two agreed that the repatriation request would be turned down.
The Canadian navigator’s third tour of operations would cast him and his Mosquito aircraft pilot partner, Nigel Bicknell, in one of the most critical air operations of their war.
It was the Sunday afternoon of June 4, 1944.
Just after 2:30, Dale and Bicknell met in the operations room of RAF Wyton Station, in central England, for a briefing on the day’s solo mission. The duo was to fly a weather-reconnaissance flight east out over the North Sea, inland over Holland, south and west across the northern coastal region of France, south as far as Brest, then back across the English Channel as quickly as possible. Their Mosquito aircraft, a two-man plane, built of wood, known for its long-range and exceptional speed, excelled in many roles during the war, but was a particularly good reconnaissance aircraft. The chosen route was nothing out of the ordinary for either Mosquito crews inspecting the western edge of German-occupied Europe, or any German defenders who might observe such aircraft on their radar. No mission over enemy territory is ever routine, but such Mosquito flights were certainly common.
But this time, the stakes were higher. This was not just another scouting mission over occupied Europe. Along the roughly 1,000-mile flight path, Dale was directed to make standard weather recordings and report his findings in a debriefing when he landed later that day. What Dale and Bicknell didn’t know right away was that as they took off, a high-level intelligence meeting related to their flight was convening near Portsmouth on the south coast of England. As they had throughout the month of May, the chief British and American meteorologists arrived at Southwick House to present to Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, their long-range weather forecasts. Gen. Eisenhower badly needed these reports. The Allies were ready to begin their invasion of Europe. Millions of men and their war machines were ready for action. All that was left to do was choose a date when the weather would co-operate.
The success of D-Day depended on the two meteorologists’ forecast for good weather
And a preliminary date had indeed been picked. The SHAEF brass had decided that on June 5 the greatest land, sea and air invasion ever attempted — Operation Overlord —would begin. The Allied armies would open a second front by breaking through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and invading the coast of France … if conditions were good. In other words, winds had to be the right direction and velocity; skies had to give maximum visibility to permit air operations and naval bombardments; and conditions on the Channel had to allow a massive invasion force to cross and land relatively easily. Responsibility for the correct decision, whether or not to launch, rested on the two meteorologists’ shoulders. The success of D-Day depended on their forecast for good weather.
But uncharacteristically favourable weather in May had suddenly deteriorated. On Friday, June 2, winds had picked up and were blowing in the wrong direction. Low cloud and fog had reduced visibility. And a series of low-pressure cells was moving east across England and over the Channel. During the weekend SHAEF meetings at Southwick House, the inside atmosphere became as gloomy as the forecast for outdoors.
Conditions over the British Isles had not changed on the Sunday afternoon when airmen Bicknell and Dale directed their Mosquito out over the Channel towards Holland and then south across France. They climbed up through the heavy cloud cover, entering clear sky above 20,000 feet. All along the flight path they recorded the cloud thickness, winds and the conditions below the ceiling of the weather system.
“We saw the front at its maximum intensity, low cloud and rain,” Dale recounted years later. “We marked front stems on our chart. … They wanted to know the height of the cloud and the cloud base. So we went down and figured we were in solid cloud at 8,000 feet or so. Then down to the base at about 500 feet. … The weather was really bad.”
After three hours’ flying time, the duo was back out over the Bay of Biscay, off northwestern France, and heading home across the Channel. However, instead of returning to RAF Wyton, their Mosquito was diverted to an air base on England’s south coast. Immediately after landing, Dale was hustled into a room and plugged into a telephone conference call. There were few pleasantries, just a short and to-the-point debriefing of the crew’s findings. In a few brief minutes, the Canadian navigator gave his superiors all the details of the nasty weather system they’d encountered.
“I got the feeling they already had the picture of things in their minds,” said Dale, who clearly heard resignation in the officers’ voices on the other end of the telephone line. “I think we just confirmed their thoughts about what conditions would be like in the next 24 hours over the Channel.”
Dale’s weather readings were apparently confirmed by other reconnaissance aircrews who had flown similar missions that afternoon, and by Royal Navy vessels strategically positioned at points around the British Isles. Strong southwesterly winds were now blowing over the English Channel. Cloud and rain were lying low along the coast of western Europe. All the data seemed persuasive. Gen. Eisenhower officially confirmed that the invasion would not happen as planned. A coded message, “Ripcord plus 24,” was issued to all the units across southern England and at sea, waiting for the order to begin the attack.
Dale didn’t realize it immediately, but his weather information had helped determine that D-Day for June 5 was off for at least 24 hours. As a consequence, his readings changed the lives of more than a million people waiting for the green light to launch the invasion. Operations — in the air, at sea and intended for the beaches of the French coast – originally planned for Monday, June 5, were postponed. Gen. Eisenhower, describing the situation, wrote, “The mighty host was tense as a coiled spring.” Perhaps none was more tense than he was.
If the gravity he heard on the telephone line during his stop at Ford fighter station hadn’t confirmed for Bob Dale that, as Air Vice Marshal Bennett had previous told him, “big things” were about to happen, what Dale saw when he got back to Wyton station later that afternoon certainly did. As he and Bicknell taxied their Mosquito to a stop on the flight line, they discovered that the station was a hive of activity. Ground crews swarmed over every aircraft on the tarmac. But they weren’t conducting their regular rigger and fitter duties.
Every plane tasked with flying missions during the battle was being given the special markings to prove that they were really the good guys
“They were starting to paint black-and-white stripes on the wings and fuselages of all the aircraft,” Dale said. And he knew these zebra stripes were a definite signal. To prevent any chance of Germany using captured Allied planes against the invasion forces, every plane tasked with flying missions during the battle was being given the special markings to prove that they were really the good guys. Dale knew instantly that this was it.
Just 24 hours later, the two chief meteorologists spotted a break in the weather. Winds shifted favourably. Clouds broke to yield sufficient visibility for bomber crews, naval gunners and an armada of 7,000 ships waiting for the word to go. Gen. Eisenhower launched on the night of June 5. Early the next morning, on June 6th, 1944, tens of thousands of American, British and Canadian troops landed on Normandy’s beaches. The liberation of Western Europe had, after a brief weather delay, begun at last.
Bob Dale returned to the skies to participate in the history he had, in part shaped. When he passed away recently, aged 92, the minister at his memorial summed up his contribution on D-Day and the rest of his life aptly.
“Robert Dale made a difference in the lives of so many,” she said. She was right.
Ted Barris is an author and professor at Centennial College.