The Scientific Genius Behind The Brave Men Of D-Day

By Heather Ramsey on Friday, May 15, 2015
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“Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt, prayer on D-Day

In A Nutshell

One of the greatest oceanographers in history, Walter Munk was the scientific genius behind the success of the brave men of Operation Overlord landing safely on the shores of Normandy in 1944. Even into his nineties, Munk continued to work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, an organization that has specialized in ocean research since 1903. Munk and his mentor, Harald Sverdrup, developed the Sverdrup-Munk wave prediction method to help the Allies get safely to shore during amphibious invasions such as the one that began the Battle of Normandy on June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day. Munk has also made significant contributions to astronomy and biology.

The Whole Bushel

One of the greatest oceanographers in history, Walter Munk was the scientific genius behind the success of the brave men of Operation Overlord, who landed safely on the shores of Normandy in 1944. Even into his nineties, Munk continued to work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, an organization that has specialized in ocean, earth, and atmospheric research since 1903.

Munk was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1917 to wealthy parents. As a teenager, he attended boarding school in New York to prepare for a banking career. Fortunately for the Allies, he didn’t like banking. Instead, he decided to get a physics degree from the California Institute of Technology. A short love affair brought him to La Jolla the summer after his junior year and set him on the path that would contribute to changing history. “I needed a job in order to date [my girlfriend] and Scripps was the only option!” said Munk in 2014. “My love affair with her ended the following year, but my love affair with Scripps has lasted 75 years to date.”

At Scripps, Munk was introduced to his mentor, Harald Sverdrup, who was the institution’s legendary director from 1936 to 1948. Sverdrup could get other people to listen to his ideas on the strength of his reputation alone. That was instrumental in Munk’s later achievements in wave prediction for the Allies.

It was World War II that led to Munk’s involvement with the US Armed Forces. When the Nazis occupied his native Austria in 1938, Munk became a US citizen and joined the army. He was eventually excused from service to pursue the wave prediction ideas that would boost the chances of success for the Allies’ amphibious warfare. Then based in Washington, DC, Munk called Dr. Sverdrup for help.

Together, the two men spent months devising the Sverdrup-Munk wave prediction method. Its goal was to increase the chances of a safe landing on shore for Allied troops engaged in amphibious invasions. It would also help them to minimize the number of failures. Munk’s research had shown that waves over 1.5 meters (5 ft) would break into the landing crafts and cause injuries.

Along with other scientific analysis, the Sverdrup-Munk wave prediction method was first used in World War II’s Operation Torch, the successful American-British invasion of French North Africa. After that, Sverdrup and Munk started a school to teach their method to meteorological officers of the US Army and Navy. It’s the same method still used today.

But its biggest test came when the Battle of Normandy began in France on June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day. Although Munk and Sverdrup weren’t directly involved, men trained by them predicted the waves that day. It helped the Allies get safely to shore during the amphibious invasion. One of the largest such invasions in history with approximately 156,000 men landing on five beaches, it began the final battle that would ultimately free Western Europe from the forces of Nazi Germany. Many people don’t realize that D-Day was postponed a day due to poor weather and the conditions of the waves. However, despite the less-than-favorable conditions on the following day, June 6, General Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the assault so as not to lose the element of surprise.

Munk earned his PhD in oceanography at Scripps in 1947. He continued to pioneer work in oceanography with awards too numerous to mention. But many people don’t realize that Munk has also made significant contributions to astronomy and biology. For example, he showed that the friction of the tide has the greatest effect on Earth’s rotation, causing an almost imperceptible slowing. That gradually makes the days on Earth longer which is why we add a “leap second” to our time in some years.

Munk also was concerned about global warming before it became fashionable. “Two-thirds of the heat that’s been added in the last 50 years has gone into the ocean, and only one-third in the atmosphere,” said Munk. “If there wasn’t [an] available ocean on this planet for heat storage, the warming of the atmosphere would have been three times as big.”

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Prolineserver
CBS: Walter Munk: One Of The World’s Greatest Living Oceanographers
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Walter Munk
History: D-Day
Scripps Institution of Oceanography: Renowned Oceanographer Walter Munk to Receive Crafoord Prize & Scripps and the Science behind the D-Day Landings