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Volume 10 (2017)

Lawrence Hogben D.S.C.

Royal Navy Officer and Meterologist at the D-Day Landings in 1944.

by Roger Strong

Lawrence Hogben had a remarkable war however you look at it.

Born George Lawrence Hogben in Thames in 14th April, 1916 his father was Julius McLachlan Hogben, a barrister and solicitor who came to Thames around 1912. Some accounts of his life claim Lawrence was born in Auckland but records clearly show he was born in Thames.

The Thames Star of 30th May, 1912 recorded:

‘Mr Julius Hogben, LLD (son of Mr George Hogben, M.A., Inspector- General of Schools) is now associated with the well-known legal firm of Miller and Son. Thames. Mr Hogben who, we understand, will undertake the Court work, was formerly associated with the firm of Alexander Dunn and Co., of Wellington.’
His father (Lawrence’s grandfather) George had also been headmaster of Timaru Boys’ High School for many years.

In early February, 1914, Julius married Miss Kathleen Mary Lawrence at Merivale in Christchurch. Lawrence spent his early years in Thames. Julius must have found the Great War a trying time. As a married man with a child, Julius would almost certainly have been low on the list to be conscripted but his elder brother George, who was a year older, was killed in action 8th August, 1918 while serving with the Canterbury Infantry Battalion and after having served in Gallipoli. The next youngest brother, Herbert who had been a farmer prior to the war, died on the Somme 27th March, 1918.

The family certainly knew tragedy as two younger brothers Collet (born 1890) and Randel (born 1893) had both died in childhood - both aged 12 years.

Certainly Julius threw himself into the fund-raising for the war and was prominent in various Queen carnivals that ran in Thames. Some of the money raised seemed to have been used for the war memorial. A younger brother, Edward Noel Hogben (born 1895) is listed in the 1915 war census as a teacher living at his parent’s address in Khandallah, Wellington. In 1922. Julius then moved his family to Auckland, possibly with a view to Lawrence’s education.

Lawrence (also known as Larry) attended Auckland Grammar School, graduating in 1933 and then went on to study mathematics at Auckland University College where he received the highest final grade for mathematics in New Zealand on his graduation in 1938. Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in the same year, Lawrence was at Oxford at the outbreak of the war and enlisted in the Royal Navy as an instructor-lieutenant, serving first at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich and then for three years as an intelligence officer, radar operator and meteorologist aboard the cruiser HMS Sheffield. When in 1941 the Royal New Zealand Navy was established Lawrence was proud to join it.

The ‘shiny’ Sheffield was a Southhampton-class cruiser completed in August 1937 and was the first naval vessel to have all brass fittings made from stainless steel – hence it was named the ‘shiny’ Sheffield. She was a town-class cruiser of some 11,000 tons, with a top speed of 32 knots and mounting 12 six inch guns, 8 x four inch and six torpedo tubes and other armament. A formidable fighting ship of her day, she carried a crew of 748.

In the early days of the war, the Sheffield was patrolling the Denmark Straits, and from April 1940 was engaged in the Norwegian campaign. After a short spell in the English channel while there was a threat of invasion, she joined Force H which was based in Gibraltar and saw action in Operation White: an attempt to deliver much needed aircraft to Malta using the almost obsolete aircraft carrier HMS Argus and the more modern HMS Ark Royal.


HMS Sheffield – British Light Cruiser WW2

Just prior to this action, the British using Swordfish torpedo carrying aircraft had crippled or destroyed much of the Italian fleet while it was anchored in Taranto harbour. The early operations to fly replacement aircraft to Malta failed when the carriers launched their aircraft too soon and many were lost including seven pilots. At the battle of Spartivento Sheffield was part of the British fleet which engaged the Italian battleships Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare. The Italians were determined to starve Malta of supplies of food, fuel and ammunition with the British equally determined to keep the island which was a major base to disrupt the German and Italian supply lines to Rommel in the desert. The action off Cape Spartivento lasted some 54 minutes and resulted in damage to both sides but the British retained the initiative.

By now, Lawrence must have been a well-trained and vital part of an important warship in the British Navy. They saw even more action in May of 1941 when HMS Sheffield took part in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. Sheffield was attacked by Swordfish aircraft from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and narrowly escaped by avoiding eleven torpedoes. This was only possible because of some defective warheads and the superb handling of the ship. One can only imagine the reaction of the men of the Sheffield as Bismarck had one funnel and Sheffield two, so quite how the mistake happened is hard to imagine.

Lawrence was part of the effort to pinpoint the position of the Bismarck and witnessed its destruction on 27th May, 1941. Lawrence was also on board HMS Sheffield during the Battle of the Barents Sea which was a naval engagement at the very end of 1942 and involved elements of the British navy who were escorting the convoy JW 51B to Russia. The convoy of 14 merchant ships was carrying huge tonnages of war materials and included 202 tanks, 2046 other vehicles, 87 fighter planes, 11,500 tons of fuel as well as 54,000 tons of addition supplies. Sheffield, along with HMS Jamaica was providing distant cover while the Germans bought out some of their big heavy cruisers including Admiral Hipper and Lutzow. The resulting sea battle was fought under extreme conditions with incredibly poor visibility, mostly because of the short days in winter. It was, in many ways, a turning point in the war as the loss of one destroyer, the Eckholdt and the considerable damage caused to the Admiral Hipper meant that Hitler, because of his anger at the poor performance of his surface navy, shifted his emphasis to U boat warfare and accepted the resignation of Admiral Eric Raeder. He then appointed Admiral Karl Donetz, a U Boat expert, as Commander of the German Navy in his place.

The weather has always played a vital role in warfare, and Lawrence’s experience as the metrological officer on the Sheffield lead to his most important role in the war effort, with his involvement in D-Day.

The invasion of Europe, so long planned, was always going to be a 'close run thing', and the weather had to be as near-perfect, along with suitable tides, for the invasion to be a success. Had the invasion not been successful, it might have been many months or even a year before another attempt could be made. The technology of 1944 meant reliable weather forecasts could only be made for some 48 hours into the future but the Allies needed a greater degree of certainly than that. Not only did the tide have to be low on the right day to avoid the obstacles on the beaches but it was necessary to have a full moon. The Allies needed calm weather with at least moderate seas and winds and relatively clear skies.

In the summer of 1944, Lawrence Hogben was a meteorologist at Southwick Park, near Portsmouth. This was Eisenhower’s headquarters for Operation Neptune, the largest amphibious landing of WW2.

Hogben later said:

'It took courage for us to say NO to the original D-Day on June 5th but it also took courage to forecast YES for June 6th. I was scared - I think we all were - of getting it wrong. We knew we were making history.

So much hung on the success of the invasion – even more now we have knowledge in retrospect of the progress that the Germans had made in weapons development. By D-Day, there was some realisation when firstly, the V1 or ‘buzz bombs’ the the Germans could to some extent remotely control, began falling on Britain. Then came the V2 rockets, from which there was absolutely no defence. The V2 had a much heavier payload of bombs with the potential to cause death and damage on a much great scale than Britain had suffered since the blitz. It was only the territorial advances made by the Allies that pushed back the launching sites to where they could not longer reach England that would finally eliminate the threat. What was unknown at the time was the potential of early jet aircraft and other weapons that were only narrowly avoided and whose development was so undermined by the lack of resources in all vital supplies but especially oil, to say nothing of the bombing that was so devastating the industrial heart of the German Reich.

Not only would a good forecast favour the Allies but a poor forecast by the Germans could make them less likely to be on full alert. They, after all, had to cover all possibilities since they were unaware just where the invasion would be.

The German's apparent lesser ability to make reliable weather forecasts meant that the Germans were sure it was an unsuitable five day period for the invasion and stood-down troops while Rommel went home on leave.

Had the landings not been made when they were, then the next available date of June 7th would have likely resulted in great losses of landing craft due to rough sea conditions. I they had been made any later still, the landings would have run into the severe weather that was experienced on D plus 13 when some of the worst weather in the Channel for more than twenty years occurred. As it was, this severe weather from around June 18th until June 22nd held up several vital advances into enemy territory because sufficient materials could not be landed to supply the troops.

Lawrence Hogben worked with a team that included American and British meteorologists and was led by Group Captain James Stagg. Air superiority over the invasion beaches was of prime importance to the Allies who had to be able to command the skies, needing reasonably clear skies both for air attack of enemy ground troops and armoured brigades, and also so that airborne troops could be landed safely.

After the invasion, Stagg sent a memo to Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, noting that, had D-Day been put off until later in June, the Allies would have encountered some of the worst weather occurring in the English Channel in decades. Waves would have been too high for landing craft and winds too strong for paratroopers to have been used.


Lawrence Hogben (right) being presented with the Bronze Star.

After D-Day, Lawrence Hogben was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

After the war, Hogben joined the Rank Organisation as a meteorologist and studied for a PhD at Imperial College, London. Two year later, he joined ICI and worked for them for the next 35 years both in Britain and overseas.

When he retired, he was apparently denied British citizenship and settled in France with his wife Elaine Carter whom he had met at Oxford. She died in 2010 and Lawrence on January 20th, 2015. They had a son and a daughter.


George Lawrence Hogben
Source: The New Zealand Portrait Gallery.

Lawrence Hogben’s ability to forecast weather along with the team that he worked for, was accomplished without the aid of satellites, computers or weather models. Even today, with all our advances, meteorologists struggle to make 5 day forecasts. How much harder must it have been to make even two or three day forecasts in those days.

George Lawrence Hogben was a New Zealander born in Thames whose war record is certainly unique.

References

  1. Ramsay At War by David Woodward. Kimber & Co 1957.
  2. Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph
  3. New Zealand Who Forecast D-Day Landings has Died. Stuff 28 Jan 2015.
  4. NZ Meterologist Helped D-Day Invasion Stuff 6 June 2014.



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