Interview With Erich Süssenberger
The Directors of the Deutscher Wetterdienst (the German National Meteorological Service) in Offenbach have always been scientists who have studied and specialized in meteorology. This is one of the reasons why the Service enjoys a high reputation and why its Presidents have always been elected to serve on the WMO Executive Council.
The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) devoted a significant amount of time to meteorology. At the age of 68 years he addressed these words to the Hungarian singer Feriencik, who had not heeded Goethe’s warning and had been caught in a thunderstorm2.
You the younger generation, you do not believe us. However, if I were as young as you are, I know what I would be doing. I would devote myself fully to meteorology, where achievements can yet be made.
Now let us return to our interviewee. Erich Süssenberger was born in 1911 in Undenheim, not far from Offenbach and Frankfurt. Erich’s father died during World War I and the family later moved to Offenbach, where he finished his primary and secondary school before entering the University of Frankfurt. He obtained a Ph.D. in 1935, specializing in meteorology.
In 1935, he took a job at the Navy observatory of Wilhelmshaven and served on board a ship for two years before being offered the position of chief of the Synoptic Division of the Marine Observatory. When World War II broke out, Erich was engaged as a consultant meteorologist attached to the operational command responsible for naval warfare. He worked in Paris before being transferred to Hamburg to lecture at a training centre. In 1944, he was transferred to Navy command in Norway, where he met Dr Georg Bell and they became close friends, as well as colleagues. At the War’s end in May 1945, Erich became a prisoner of war. He returned to Germany only in February 1946. He could not find a job as a meteorologist and accepted an offer to work as a storekeeper for almost two years, just to earn a living. Then came the blockade of West Berlin by the Soviet forces and the setting-up of an airlift to provide supplies. There was an urgent need for meteorologists and Süssenberger was offered a job as an aviation meteorologist.
The next important phase of Erich’s life started in 1952, with the establishment of the Deutscher Wetterdienst. Dr Benkendorff was appointed first President of the Service. The Federal Republic of Germany became a Member of WMO in 1954. After the departure of Dr Benkendorff, Dr Bell took his place. He had already called upon Erich Süssenberger in 1952 to assist him. Dr Bell retired in 1966 and Erich Süssenberger became President of the Deutscher Wetterdienst.
Under Süssenberger, the work of the Deutscher Wetterdienst changed enormously. For the first time, meteorologists were able to observe from space the atmosphere in its entirety. They could make measurements of its movements and phenomena. They could use high-speed computers to analyse the vast information gathered by precise and sophisticated instruments. Numerical weather prediction models were formulated, which became more and more sophisticated. Süssenberger saw all these developments, not only as an observer or as a consumer, but as a contributor. He had the good fortune to have first-hand experience of events which improved the work of meteorologists and the Meteorological Service.
He was involved in WMO activities for more than two decades. One of his most valuable contributions to international meteorology was planning and shaping the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF)—an excellent example of collaboration among European countries. Erich Süssenberger maintained high standards. He was always highly respected by his colleagues in WMO and was referred to by the then Secretary-General of WMO and his staff as the “gentleman”.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Süssenberger on numerous occasions in the WMO Secretariat and was proud to have the opportunity of conducting this interview which took place in Offenbach in October 2001.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank wholeheartedly Mr Detlev Frömming, Head of the Staff Division, Office of the President and International Affairs of the Deutscher Wetterdienst, for the invaluable assistance he provided me during the preparation and finalization of this interview.
Dr Süssenberger celebrated his 91st birthday in February. We wish him much happiness in the years to come.
H.T. — Tell us about the early days of your life.
E.S. — I was born in Undenheim on 13 February 1911—a calm and gloomy winter day with temperatures around freezing point. Undenheim was a small place in Rheinhessen, about 20 km from Mainz and less than 70 km from Offenbach. Who could have imagined that one day I would settle and make a career in Offenbach and perhaps end my days there. The road to Offenbach was not a direct one but circular, via Mainz, Wilhelmshaven, Paris, Oslo, Hamburg and Bonn. My father died in action, just before the end of World War I, having served four years in northern France. My mother moved to Offenbach in 1927, where I finished my schooling.This was long before the Meteorological Service moved to Offenbach—indeed, a nationally integrated Weather Service did not exist in Germany at that time. It came into being in 1934, while I was studying in Frankfurt.
H.T. — How did you first become interested in meteorology?
E.S. — Before attending university, I knew for sure that I wanted to study natural sciences. Young people often decide early on to study a specific subject and, frequently, certain experiences influence their decision—this is how it was for me. In the summer of 1927, while we were still living in Mainz, my class went on an excursion to the nearby Taunus Mountains. We hiked up the highest mountain, the “Feldberg”, with an altitude of around 800 m. The observatory was already an important weather station for aviation weather at Frankfurt airport. It was well equipped with instruments, and also made measurements of solar and cosmic radiation. In addition, it operated a seismological station with an array of large instruments to register Earth movements and earthquakes. This was very interesting and impressive to us students. I guided tours through the observatory myself seven years later while carrying out measurements for my doctoral thesis in 1934.
H.T. — What about your university studies?
E.S. — Since I did not have much money, I had to study in Frankfurt, which I could reach from Offenbach by bicycle. I started my studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in 1930. As it happened, however, Frankfurt was one of the locations that provided the most comprehensive training in meteorology and enjoyed an excellent reputation. I came across an announcement in the university calendar of a lecture to be held on seismology by Prof. Gutenberg at the Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics. It was the last lecture to be given by Gutenberg prior to his acceptance of a chair at Pasadena University in the USA. The intimate character of the small auditorium significantly motivated me to devote myself to meteorology. However, I had first to take courses in mathematics, physics and geography. I changed to meteorology after completing my basic studies and attended all lectures, practical exercises, seminars and colloquiums. My physics teacher was Prof. Wilhelm Meissner, while Profs Linke, Mügge and Stüve were my teachers in meteorology and geophysics. The assistants were Drs Möller and Landsberg3, who later became highly regarded professors both in Germany and the USA. One of my fellow students was Junge from Mainz, who later became Professor of atmospheric chemistry. I was a happy student in spite of the financial limitations and earned some pocket money by giving private lessons.
H.T. — Tell us about your doctoral thesis.
E.S. — I received the degree of Dr Phil. Nat. in 1935. The topic for my thesis “investigations of actual nocturnal radiation under varying zenith distances”, was suggested by Prof. Linke, who was a leading scientist in atmospheric radiation research. During two separate measurements carried out in 1934 and 1935 in Frankfurt and at the Taunus Mountains observatory, I ascertained the amount of radiation given off to space by a black body on clear nights by using highly sensitive measuring equipment and compared it to the moisture content of the atmosphere on the basis of ascents in the neighbouring city of Darmstadt. This work showed a definite correlation between humidity levels and radiation that is of significance for weather forecasting. This work brought me an award of distinction, concluded my university studies and opened the way to the profession of meteorologist.
H.T. — What was your first employment?
After two years of on-board activity that took me across all stretches of water in Europe, the assessment was favourable and I took over the Synoptic Division of the Marine Observatory of Wilhemshaven until the beginning of World War II.
In 1934, the previously fragmented meteorological activities were transferred to the Reich Authority for Weather Service that was under the authority of the Air Transport Ministry. It was largely a military weather service integrated in the structure of the Air Force, but was also responsible for all civil tasks, including the marine weather service (Deutsche Seewarte). An agreement between the Air Force and the Navy granted the Navy the right to operate its own weather service on land and at sea exclusively for requirements of the Navy. The two weather services worked closely together; the Army did not have its own synoptic service.
H.T. — Then World War II broke out and meteorologists were required for advising all military sectors. What was your role?
E.S. — At the beginning of the War, I joined, as a consultant meteorologist, the operational command that was responsible for naval warfare in the North Sea, including submarines. My previous sea-going experience was very useful. No weather reports were available from the west of Europe or the North Atlantic. Weather analysis became a haphazard activity. Submarines received some support from the Atlantic in terms of atmospheric pressure and wind, but mostly in non-synoptic time only. The weather reports from pilots who regularly flew up to the northern part of the North Sea for this purpose were extremely helpful. Regular weather observation flights over the Atlantic and the North Sea took place after the occupation of France and Norway. All this was helpful for short-range forecasts. The weather situation over the North Atlantic, which is decisive for medium-range forecasts, remained unknown on the whole. There was an urgent need for accurate weather reports for the passage of auxiliary cruisers in the North Atlantic between Scotland and Norway and the Danish passage between Iceland and Greenland under cover of bad weather. This was difficult, given that this passage took several days. Support vessels actually reached the North Atlantic unseen during the first year of war. A further major responsibility was providing weather advisories to battleships penetrating the English Channel on their return to domestic waters from Brest in February 1942. The continuous weather observations made by a submarine stationed south of Iceland were decisive for accurate weather reports on that occasion.
Initially, I was the consulting meteorologist for the Navy group command west of Wilhelmshaven. Later on, I worked in Paris. After three years of operational management, someone took over from me and I was transferred to Hamburg to lecture younger meteorologists at a training centre on weather forecasting in naval warfare. Scientific research for long-range forecasts under the guidance of Dr Wagemann was taking place at this time, but without success, given the limited knowledge and technical means of the time. My most vivid memory of the War dates back to this time—my young wife (we had just got married) and I sheltering in the cellar of our house during the heavy bombing raids on Hamburg in July 1943. Most of Hamburg was destroyed, but our house was spared.
H.T. — You were sent to Norway. What were you duties there?
Meteorological staff regularly made weather observations and flew weather radiosondes in eastern Greenland (Shannon Island), Spitzbergen and Nowaja Semlja, with the help of submarines or fishing vessels in order to deposit them and pick them up again at these locations. Their role was purely synoptic and observations were sent as coded messages by radio. The observations were extremely useful for weather forecasts for operations in the Arctic Ocean and for the assessment of the overall weather situation.
H.T. — What happened when the War was over?
E.S. — After capitulation in May 1945, English troops landed in Norway and we became prisoners of war. No prison camps were installed, so we remained in our quarters, guarded ourselves and lived on the supplies stockpiled by the German Army. The British showed themselves to be fair victors and there was no oppression or stress. The Norwegians wanted to be rid of the German prisoners of war as quickly as possible, but there was insufficient space on board the ships. I was finally taken back to Hamburg on a cargo ship and released from captivity one day before my 35th birthday in February 1946. I was reunited with my wife and children who were safe and well in our apartment, if a little cramped, as other family members had sought refuge there. I was aiming to contact the meteorological authority in north-western Germany that was being developed in Hamburg under the supervision of the British occupation force. Few positions were available, however, and most of the posts were already occupied by other returning German meteorologists. In this way, I shared the hardship of many fellow students and war comrades. I did not want to remain idle and took a job as storekeeper for almost two years and was at least able to feed my family.
The Weather Service of the Reich had been dissolved after the War and each of the four occupation forces had established their own weather service in their respective zones. Hamburg was in the British zone and was home to the Meteorological Authority of North-Western Germany (MANWD).
As the financial situation improved and after the currency reform, MANWD offered me a job, consisting of analysing ships’ logbooks from the period when sailing vessels were used to gather and consolidate climatic data in areas of the seas which steamships did not normally cross. I supervised the analysis of recordings from current-measuring instruments carried out in the Norwegian fjords during the War. This was the first time since the War that I had worked in my specialized field, and life became easier.
H.T. — When did you return to the Weather Service?
E.S. — A major political event brought about my return. The USSR imposed a blockade on West Berlin, which was occupied by the allies, and closed all land-based access routes, cutting off supplies from the west. The western allies decided to set up an airlift that provided supplies to the population of West Berlin with flights from West German airports passing through the existing narrow air corridors. One of the departure points was Hamburg airport and there was a substantial need for meteorological advice around the clock for a minute-adjusted smooth running of the airlift. As the British Royal Air Force was calling back its own weather service staff, the employment of German meteorologists became necessary. At the beginning of April 1949 I accepted an offer to work as an aviation meteorologist at Hamburg airport and was once again a member of the Weather Service. It was under the authority of the British Air Force of Occupation (BAFO), but the German staff were responsible for the actual running of the entire service. As part of a team of five meteorologists, I was integrated in the routine service, including night shifts. We provided advisory services to pilots of the airlift and flight crews of the emerging international air traffic. Our supervisor was the British meteorologist Mr Lack, who was friendly and let us work freely.
The Federal Republic of Germany gained increasing sovereign rights during those years, with the elaboration of a constitution and a parliament. The Weather Service passed into German hands, although still on the basis of the occupation zones. At the end of May 1951, BAFO handed over the aviation weather observation posts of Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel, Düsseldorf-Lohausen, Hannover and Wahn to the German civil administration, which was placed under the authority of MANWD.
H.T. — This was the beginning of a new phase in your career that required your leadership skills?
E.S. — The newly created Ministry of Transport took the initiative to draft a law on the Deutscher Wetterdienst and called Dr Bell to head the section responsible for the Deutscher Wetterdienst. The Weather Service Law went through parliament and entered into force in November 1952. After that, the weather services of the former three occupation zones were combined to form the new Service. So, in the autumn of 2002, the Deutscher Wetterdienst will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in Offenbach. I applied for the position of assistant to Dr Bell and was selected. I had not seen Dr Bell since 1945 in Norway, but assume that our teamwork there significantly influenced his decision. Dr Benkendorff, who had been in charge of the Weather Service during the War and who had built up the Service in Hamburg in the British zone, became the first President of the Deutscher Wetterdienst.
I took up my duties on 24 November, two weeks after the coming-into-force of the new Weather Service Law. More than two years went by before my family could come from Hamburg to join me in Bonn. As a representative of Dr Bell, I was closely involved in the process of rebuilding the Weather Service.
The Federal Republic of Germany became a Member of WMO in 1954. This was our first contact with the UN and its specialized agencies and we were not yet a member of the United Nations.
When Dr Benkendorff retired on 31 October 1955, the Government appointed Dr Bell as his successor. I took over from him in 1956 as Head of the Section in the Ministry of Transport responsible for the Deutscher Wetterdienst and remained in that post until 1966. I was responsible for looking after the interests of the Weather Service, to defend its budget vis-à-vis the Ministry of Finance, to promote smooth cooperation with other ministries and to participate in joint activities of the Service with the provinces and university institutes. It was an interesting and exciting time. My excellent working relationship with Dr Bell considerably facilitated the task.
I had two outstanding colleagues who helped me tremendously during my time in Bonn: Dr Hinrich Voss, who later worked with the WMO Secretariat, and Dr Ernst Lingelbach4.
H.T. — You paid your first visit to Geneva in 1959. What were your impressions?
Dr Bell was elected a member of EC at Fifth WMO Congress (1963) and I was his alternate. Thanks largely to Dr Bell, the Deutscher Wetterdienst gained international respect.
H.T. — Dr Bell retired in 1966; you took over and embarked on a challenging and interesting phase of your life.
E.S. — I became the President of the Deutscher Wetterdienst on 1 August 1966 and the Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Germany with WMO. Prof. Lingelbach became my successor in Bonn and was also my successor in Offenbach 11 years later. I devoted myself to following up the developments started and implemented by Dr Bell: the domestic development of numerical weather forecasting models, developing Offenbach into a Regional Telecommunications Hub in the Global Telecommunication System of the World Weather Watch and the RSMC function in Europe. The start of the European weather satellite programme was a major achievement. The ozone-measuring programme at Hohenpeissenberg started at the same time. The main-trunk long distance weather communications to Beijing, Nairobi and Bet Dagan were established.
H.T. — You played an important role in the creation of the ECMWF. Could you expand on this?
Finally, all agreed on the project of a medium-range weather forecasting centre—an issue close to the heart of all weather services, but one they could not realize alone because of the lack of scientific ability and computer capacity. The European Community had the economic viability of this project analysed by an economist and gave it the green light when the assessment turned out to be favourable. Mr Patrick Meade (United Kingdom) and Dr Heinz Reiser (Germany) developed a project study that formed the basis for the installation and sequence of operations of the Centre. The British Government provided a suitable piece of land near Reading where the Centre was built. Of course, I regretted that the Centre was not based in Germany, but the location was a political decision in which even the Chancellor and the Prime Minister were personally involved. In the meantime, until the ratification of the agreement, I was interim President of the Council and then President of the Council once the Centre was completed and the convention came into force on 1 November 1975. Prof. A. Wiin-Nielsen8 became its first Director. The Centre was supported by 17 countries during its construction, including those who only worked with the EEC in the technical and scientific fields (COST). Now the Centre is 25 years old and, in addition to meeting all expectations under the guidance of outstanding scientists and very capable staff since the time it was built, it has also gained worldwide recognition as a place for further education. This is an example of the excellent cooperation and success when different nations hold back national interests and look at common scientific interests. For me personally, my participation in this project was one of the most satisfying tasks in my professional career.
H.T. — You should normally have retired at the age of 65 on 13 February 1976. Why did you stay on?
E.S. — In 1972, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) became a Member of the United Nations and therefore had the right to join WMO without being subject to a two-thirds majority vote. The Federal Republic of Germany feared that, at Seventh WMO Congress in 1975, it might lose its seat on the Executive Council to the head of the Meteorological Service of the GDR, once the Head of the Deutscher Wetterdienst had retired. It was a high-level political decision of the Government to extend my time of service until February 1977.
H.T. — Satellite technology developed tremendously during the time you were President of the Deutscher Wetterdienst.
E.S. — During my time in office, the Americans launched a weather satellite into orbit with image transmission capability for the very first time. The cloud pictures from the satellite could be retrieved by all the countries it crossed. On perfect pictures of the world, meteorologists saw cloud systems for the first time that previously had to be pieced together using ground observations. This started a revolution in synoptic meteorology. That such pictures could be recorded with such precision caused a sensation. The Soviet Union soon launched its own weather satellite. The Europeans were slow to act in spite of pressure by the Americans, but France took the initiative and presented a project of a European weather satellite at the WMO Congress in 1971 for the first time. This laid the foundations of the European Space Agency (ESA). The European weather satellite Meteosat has since been integrated into the worldwide system of weather observations from space and is currently operated by the international organization EUMETSAT located in Darmstadt, Germany. The North Atlantic observing ships, an invaluable weather observation system, obviously fell victim to this modern technology. I personally very much regret this from a scientific perspective, as stationary weather observations in the North Atlantic would have contributed considerably to the current intensive observations of climatic variations.
H.T. — The Deutscher Wetterdienst has long played an important role and your scientists have shown skilled expertise in the development of numerical weather prediction .
E.S. — Under the guidance of Prof. Ludwig Weickmann, a group of meteorologists worked on the mathematical principles of weather forecasting. This group was formed during the days of the weather service in the American zone. However, the work of Prof. K. Hinkelmann9 and Drs Edelmann, Hollmann and Reiser suffered from the lack of access to a high performance computer. American colleagues heard about it and decided to assist us to continue research with their financial contributions and by making computer time available on an American computer installation. The Deutscher Wetterdienst took over the group and under the guidance of Hinkelmann took the necessary action to obtain a computer. Meanwhile, the research group was developing even better models for the calculation of weather forecasting charts. Dr Bell purchased a high-performance computer to enable the service to produce machine-calculated analyses and forecasts previously made by hand. It required a great deal of courage and confidence to bring about such changes, as there was little experience of this new method. There was also resistance among the ranks of traditional synoptic analysts, who gave up manual analysis unwillingly. However, the new development could not be stopped and all forecast charts were produced by machines during my time and made available to regional and foreign outlets. Prof. Hinkelmann and Dr Reiser and their colleagues deserve the credit for this revolutionary development. This method has now taken hold in all highly developed weather services. The purchase of the next generation of supercomputers was decided during my time in office.
H.T. — Would you recount one of the most unforgettable events of your professional life?
E.S. — I can think of several. However, the one most relevant to the context of this interview is perhaps the following. When the Federal Republic of Germany became a member of WMO in 1954, we entered unknown territory. My generation had no experience and when we participated in a WMO Congress for the first time in 1955, we felt most susceptible. We felt it was too early for our active participation just 10 years after the War. However, this situation changed during the following Congress in 1959. We felt that Members were less reserved and more approachable. A number of the newly independent nations also participated for the first time. Most of the discussions were led by personalities who had played major roles in founding our Organization in 1949, such as Reichelderfer, Sutton, Fedorov (USSR)10, Postma (the Netherlands), Fareira (Portugal), Van Mieghem (Belgium) and Gilead (Israel)11 During my contacts with WMO, I admired the efficient work of Dr D.A. Davies12, Secretary-General of the Organization, and his staff, and enjoyed my friendship with him.
Finally, unforgettable memories for me were the IMO and WMO centenary anniversaries in Vienna and Geneva and those of the National Meteorological Services of the USA in Washington DC, of Canada in Toronto, of Portugal in Lisbon and of India in New Delhi—all shortly before my retirement. I also remember with much pleasure my two weeks of stay in Peru as the guest of the Peruvian Government to inaugurate some development projects to assist the Meteorological Service.
H.T. — The day of farewell arrived for you on 28 February 1977, when you retired at last. What are you doing nowadays?
E.S. — For the last 25 years, I have been able to devote myself to my family. My three children are married and have produced several happy grandchildren. I have travelled and visited friends, including former colleagues with whom I worked during the course of my international activities. A trip to Australia on a cargo ship was very impressive. We had to be hired as employed crew for insurance reasons in order to be able to travel. Most impressive was a journey by car across the USA from New York to Los Angeles with a visit to Dr G. Cressman13 in Washington. I have read a lot all my life—this is a hobby for which one is never too old. I enjoy buying books, although I am aware that I will no longer have the time to read them all. However, it is a satisfying feeling to collect them. I still correspond with many of my former colleagues, but the circle is gradually dwindling. I enjoy being with young people and feel more than ever that meteorology is one of the most interesting sciences one can study at university. Our profession combines geosciences that can be described mathematically and physically, the personal pleasure of seeing beautiful or violent weather phenomena and the feeling of providing humanity with weather warnings or climatic information are extremely satisfying.
H.T. — It has been a pleasure and an honour to conduct this interview and to find you in such good health and spirits. Your achievements are a source of inspiration to all—old and young alike.