JUNE 6, 1944 – a date that will be forever known as D-Day.But it is lesser-known that June 5, 1944 was the day the son of a plumber from Dalkeith changed the entire course of the Second World War, paving the way for the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.
Rewind almost 70 years, and the Allies have a mighty armada of vessels ready to take 150,000 soldiers across the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy in northern France, where they plan to launch a major offensive against the enemy.
After months of meticulous planning, military commanders are confident they have the solutions to all the obstacles that could stand in their way – bar one. The weather.
The decision to go ahead with the invasion rests on what has since been called ‘the most important weather forecast ever made’.
A team of meteorologists will advise Operation Overlord’s overall commander, General Dwight D Eisenhower, on the most opportune time to launch the invasion.
James Stagg, head of the Allied Forces Meteorology Unit, has a lot resting on his shoulders, then.
A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, it is he who has to advise General Eisenhower on when conditions would be suitable to launch the largest amphibious invasion in world history.
As the history books show, Captain Stagg, who has been described as ‘a terse Scot with a long, thin, pale face’, was able to persuade the operation leaders to delay the launch of the operation by 24 hours to allow the weather to improve.
He managed to do so despite being put under enormous pressure from senior Allied military figures, who believed any delay could impact on an element of surprise, which was seen as crucial to the operation’s success.
The decision to delay the Allied invasion of north-west Europe proved to be the correct one – and saved the lives of thousands.
Now the extraordinary and little-known story of the Scot who changed the course of the war is being told in Pressure, a new play written by highly-acclaimed actor David Haig, who is also playing the lead role during its month-long run at The Lyceum.
“The Lyceum were looking for a Scots story and John Dove, who directed my other stage play (My Boy Jack), rang me up and we talked about James Stagg, who I thought was absolutely fascinating,” says Haig, an Olivier Award-winner, best known for his roles in the film Four Weddings And A Funeral, TV series The Thin Blue Line and stage production of The Madness of King George III.
“Then I started to research Stagg, Eisenhower and Eisenhower’s relationship with [chauffeur, confidante and lover] Kay Summersby. So they became the three main characters.
“But my main interest was a fascination with this unsung hero and the extraordinary fact that what he achieved, in his own quiet way, was so fundamental to the success of D-Day. And therefore, to ending the war quicker and saving thousands and thousands of lives.
“It’s a story that needs and deserves to be told.”
What makes Stagg’s story all the more remarkable, for Haig, is the fact that he persuaded Eisenhower to delay the invasion against the advice of all the American meteorologists.
“The American Met men were gung-ho and this guy, Irving P Krick, was saying it was going to be a gloriously sunny day,” he explains. “But Stagg knew British weather.
“He was a reticent guy who had huge integrity, huge honesty and actually a lot of warmth. And he stood his ground against all the American men and saved probably 70-80,000 lives by doing so.
“He was looking at his charts and noticed that a storm east of Newfoundland had slowed down, and he identified on this chart something like an eight-hour gap before it came into the British Isles.
“So he went back to Eisenhower and he said, ‘I know I told you to postpone yesterday, but if you go tomorrow morning there will be an eight-hour gap to get the troops ashore before the bad weather continues’.
“That was his true moment of genius, really. The Germans absolutely thought the weather was too bad for the invasion to happen. So they weren’t ready for it – thanks to Stagg’s extraordinary prescience and knowledge.”
Haig had no doubts he had to write the story, but had no intention of playing the lead role when he started putting pen to paper.
“I certainly didn’t, and wouldn’t have presumed to play someone from Dalkeith in front of an audience of 500 people from Edinburgh, which is what I’m doing every night now,” he laughs.
Haig goes on to add that the decision to play Stagg was one of the best he has made. “I’m very thrilled to be playing the part now,” he says. “The audience reactions have been absolutely terrific so far – and they’ve really sort of empathised with this man.
“Ultimately, the play is about these three human beings within that astonishing period of our history – Eisenhower, Summersby and Stagg – who are tremendously engaging people in their own right. And that’s what the audience actually share at the end.”
• Pressure, The Lyceum, Grindlay Street, now until 24 May, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.45pm (matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2.30pm), £12-£27.50, 0131-248 4848