David Ludlum – American weather warrior
Communities across the nation recently celebrated Veterans’ Day, a national holiday that honors those who have served in the armed forces. Until his death in 1997 at age 86, Dr. David M. Ludlum was America’s preeminent weather historian. A former Princeton University professor who spent much of his life teaching about how weather influences history, Ludlum founded Weatherwise magazine and wrote many books on the subject. Dr. Ludlum had many achievements, but he once told me his greatest challenge occurred during World War II, in his role as a weather warrior. The story begins in early March 1944 as Allied forces stood poised to bomb the strategically important town of Cassino, Italy, which was largely in German hands at this stage of World War II. For three weeks, a vast assemblage of bombers, troops, and tanks had been ready to attack the city that was holding up the Allied advance toward Rome. British and American fighting forces had invaded southern Italy in early September 1943, but as winter commenced, wretched weather, mountainous terrain, and stubborn German resistance had stalled Allied progress into February along an east-west line southeast of Rome. The bombing campaign against Cassino was assigned to the U.S. Fifth Army, commanded by Lt. General Mark W. Clark. The New Zealand Corps (two divisions with more than 15,000 vehicles) commanded by General Bernard C. Freyberg, would provide the ground attack. Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, who was in charge of the Mediterranean Air Force, insisted that a ground attack against Cassino was impossible because incessant heavy rains had washed out bridges and turned the local floodplain into a muddy quagmire. But Gen. Eaker’s protests were overruled and the air/land assault was approved for late February 1944.
Gen. Freyberg wanted three consecutive days without rain in order to give Allied air force pilots good visibility and his tanks firmer ground. The responsibility for this critical “go or no-go” weather forecast was assigned to one man, 34-year-old Capt. David Ludlum, a member of the 12th Weather Squadron of the 12th Air Force. Ludlum was also Gen. Clark’s weather officer and a veteran of the North African and Sicilian campaigns. Capt. Ludlum’s crucial forecast assignment was an especially difficult one. Due to the climatic variations in the rugged topography, fair skies might prevail over the bombing target of Cassino, while zero visibility plagued Allied air bases with fog, rain, or low clouds. It was the challenge of a lifetime, even for a man with weather in his blood. As a 12-year-old boy growing up in East Orange, N.J., young David was already receiving daily reports from the U.S. Weather Bureau and making forecasts while a student in elementary school. He constructed his own weather station in the backyard and continued to develop his meteorological expertise in high school. Recalling those early boyhood days, Ludlum later said “My interest was in snow – measuring snow, anticipating snowstorms, then getting out and enjoying the snow – snow transforms your neighborhood completely …you wake up in the morning with snow on the ground, why, it’s a completely different place.” Making a critical battlefront weather forecast during winter in mountainous Italy is light-years from predicting snowfall as a school kid in New Jersey, but Ludlum had the mettle for the job. Ludlum, along with his associates in a mobile weather station, set about monitoring the weather conditions that would launch the massive air and ground attack. For several weeks, stormy or cloudy weather prevailed while the anxious generals strained at the bit, impatiently waiting to unleash their troops and weapons on the Germans. As the days wore on, the generals told Ludlum that they were ready to attack without ideal weather, but even under intense pressure by the military, the young captain held his ground. There would be no invasion until Ludlum saw at least some respite in the hazardous weather conditions. Finally, on March 14, Ludlum predicted a brief break in the stormy pattern and the attack order was given, despite his concern that the weather would be far from perfect and prone to clouds and rain within a day or so. He even included a proviso to cancel the invasion by midnight should conditions deteriorate sooner than expected. But the weeks of delay was straining troop readiness and morale. When the forecast for fair weather held overnight, wave after wave of American bombers roared over the German-held portion of Cassino in the greatest massed air attack in direct support of ground forces to that date. More than 550 aircraft dropped 2,500 tons of bombs, followed by 85,000 shells from the most intense artillery barrage of the war.
Unfortunately, clouds began streaming into the Cassino area late in the afternoon, and heavy rain fell throughout the night, forcing the Air Force to call off more bombing strikes. Debris and mud from weeks of rain halted the New Zealand troops’ mechanized advance into Cassino, and a tenacious defense by entrenched German paratroopers forced the Allied troops to call off the offensive after six days of fighting and many casualties. In analyzing the bombing mission’s limited success at dislodging the enemy from Cassino, the generals concluded the Allies struggled because the German paratroopers were tougher than anticipated, and the rain had appeared sooner than expected. However, in Ludlum’s defense, the muddy conditions were caused by weeks of persistent rainfall and he had not been told that Gen. Freyberg wanted three consecutive days of good weather to launch the attack. In fact, Ludlum’s forecast called for cloudy and showery weather on two out of the three days. But the war was far from over, and with better conditions during May, the Allies reached Rome on June 4, 1944. The bombing raid on Cassino was code-named “Operation Ludlum,” the only military operation in World War II named after the meteorologist behind the forecast. Despite fierce German resistance, Operation Ludlum was hailed as a success by the generals involved. Not one Allied plane was lost, and no German plane got into the air to strike back. Before he joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, David Ludlum was a mild mannered high school history teacher in New Jersey who happened to love weather. After the war, Paramount Pictures made a 50-minute movie depicting Operation Ludlum and its chief meteorologist.
The New York Times wrote, “Dr. David M. Ludlum is probably one of the few World War II veterans to have a movie made of his life because he kept a pack of generals waiting impatiently while he made an all-important decision.” David Ludlum was a mentor and friend of mine, and I salute him.Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.
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