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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 08/17/2010

Weather and war throughout history

By Don Lipman

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By Don Lipman

Few need to be reminded, especially those in the military, how important the weather factor is during combat operations. Foul weather, of course, has hindered, delayed, and prevented some battles and surprisingly, even enabled others.

Here are some prominent examples from conflicts over the last 800 years...

Kamikazi, 1281: Almost 800 years ago in the year 1281, Kublai Kahn, grandson of Genghis Kahn, who had already conquered much of Asia, set out to extend the Mongol Empire east to Japan. However, a ferocious typhoon ultimately destroyed most of his140,000 troops and 4000 ship fleet. Japan was saved from Mongol domination. Ever since then, the Japanese have considered the typhoon as their divine wind, their savior. For those who don't know, the Japanese translation of "divine wind" is kamikaze, a term referring to the Japanese suicide dive bomber pilots who wreaked havoc on allied warships during the closing stages of World War II. Told they were honoring the original divine wind, the pilots were convinced that their land would again be favored by the gods as it was in 1281 and not be invaded.

Keep reading for more examples of weather impacts on war...

Treaty of Bretigny, 1360: The following century, during the Hundred Year War between England and France, King Edward III of England was set to renew hostilities in 1360 when a series of vicious hailstorms raked the English countryside. Since this was considered a bad omen, instead of making war Edward proposed and signed a peace treaty with France; it was called the Treaty of Bretigny.

Spanish naval disaster, 1588: In 1588, King Philip II of Spain, upset with the rule of England's Queen Elizabeth I, organized the now famous Spanish Armada to overthrow Elizabeth's regime. The Armada, with more than 150 ships and 26,000 troops was no match, however, for Sir Francis Drake and the North Sea storms which, together, contributed to one of Spain's greatest naval disasters.

Hail and the French Revolution, 1788: The seeds of the French Revolution had been sown long before it actually began in 1789. However, it is thought that a series of crop-ruining hailstorms in 1788, much like those which hit England in 1360, brought the Revolution about somewhat earlier due to the great food shortages they caused in a country already beset with great hardships.

Harsh Russian winter thwarts Napolean, 1812: In terms of the weather factor and its effect on military campaigns, 1812 is long remembered as the year that Napoleon was finally stopped in his tracks, unable to conquer Russia before being overtaken by the cruel and unusually early Russian winter that year. And for those of you who recall our colleague Kevin Ambrose's story, "The thunderstorm that saved Washington," two years later, on August 24, 1814 during the continuing War of 1812, the British set fire to our nation's capital only to have the fires extinguished the next day by a series of severe thunderstorms and possibly tornadoes. The storms were so fierce that the Brits, awestruck and surprised by the storm's intensity, may have actually abandoned their positions prematurely.

Foul weather again hampers Napolean, 1815: In 1815, Napoleon was still in power but his reign was about to end when he was badly outmaneuvered at the Battle of Waterloo (in present day Belgium) by an allied army of English and Prussians, among others. The weather seemed to be a major factor as Napoleon's horses became mired in mud on low ground, easy prey for the allies, who were higher up.

Miracle of Deliverance, 1940: In 1940, after the amazing water evacuation of more than 300,000 allied troops from the French coast at Dunkirk (portrayed in the movie Atonement [2007]), Churchill said that it was a "miracle of deliverance." In actuality, the weather played a major role in the rescue:

(1) waters in the English Channel, known for their turbulence, were unusually calm, allowing for more than 700 "little ships" and many larger ones to cross back and forth relatively easily;

(2) although the weather was good at the coast, clouds and rain near the German lines hindered the Luftwaffe from conducting many "sorties";

(3) the muddy terrain from previous rains prevented the Panzer tanks from rolling in.

Pearl Harbor, 1941: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was what President Roosevelt called "a date which will live in infamy." But the devastation suffered by the U.S. might have been far less if the weather had been different. (Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec 10, 2004) For one thing, low clouds concealed the Japanese fleet, a great advantage for them. As the main strike force approached Oahu, it was hidden by a 5,000 foot cloud deck, another great advantage for the Japanese. But this advantage could have turned into a disaster (for them) if clouds didn't break around the target zone. They did, allowing the dive bombers excellent visibility to execute their mission. (Reportedly, Japanese pilots had worried that they might totally miss Oahu if low clouds had persisted.)

D-Day, 1944: Operation Overlord (D-Day), the codename for the Allied invasion of western Europe, was planned for the first week of June, 1944 in order to attain maximum benefit from the moon and the tides. The British Meteorological Office two-day weather forecast for the English Channel on June 4th,1944 was for stormy conditions on the 5th but more placid conditions the next day, although still not ideal. Since the Germans never expected the invasion to begin at Normandy in the first place nor expected it to begin in less than ideal weather, they were caught completely off-guard. And so, it would seem that in this case, foul weather, or at least less than perfect conditions was a distinct advantage for the Allies.

The above examples, of course, represent just a small fraction of the countless times that weather has affected, for better or worse, the execution of military operations over the last 800 years. Are there others that you've experienced or read about that you'd like to mention?

By Don Lipman  | August 17, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education, Lipman  
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Comments

Don, nice report!

An important aspect of weather/war history is that the influence of weather on the outcome of battles has been a function of pure chance. In the examples above (except for D-Day) plain good luck determined the winners and losers as a function of weather. There were no reliable means to predict weather elements of consequence (wind, rain,fog etc) in planning or conducting military campaigns.

With advances in the reliability and accuracy of weather forecasting, weather has become a crucial ingredient in the military decison making. The goal is to use weather dependent actions to your advantage and/or the disadvantage of an adversary. Have no doubt that weather continues to be a major contributor to the conduct of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. and its allies have a clear advantage.

More generally, progress in forecast capabilities and maximizing the value of weather information by the military is an issue of considerable current interest.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 17, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Another was the Battle of the Bulge, where bad weather hindered Allied recon aircraft and allowed the German attack to go forward initially without fear of attack from the air. Once the weather cleared, though, the Allied fighter-bombers made further progress much more difficult, and was one reason the campaign ultimately failed.

Posted by: tagryn | August 17, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

There's an old WW2 Time-Life book called "War In The Outposts" that talks about the U.S. Coast Guard capturing a German weather team in Greenland (I think?).

Posted by: Juan-John1 | August 17, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

The Russia winter also played a large part in stopping the German advance on Stalingrad in 1941. Once again it was an early winter that basically brought the German Army 2 a halt.

Posted by: VaTechBob | August 17, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

World War II: An unusually severe and early winter helped defeat the Germans during the Battle of Stalingrad. If the Germans had been able to get supplies (including winter weather gear) and reinforcements, there's a chance they could have at least fought the Russians to a draw that winter and eventually broken through to the oilfields they were so desperately seeking to reach.

We tend to focus on the battles that took place on western front, but their losses on the eastern front are what ultimately doomed the German army. Napoleon redux.

P.S. My uncle fought in and survived the Battle of the Bulge, so I'm keenly aware of the courage the U.S. and other Allied Forces demonstrated on the western front.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | August 17, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

A very interesting example of weather and war occurred at the location of Fairfax Town Center on September 1, 1862. The Confederate Army was chasing the Union Army towards Washington after the Battle of Second Manassas. The armies engaged in a battle at Ox Hill. A heavy thunderstorm during the fight made the black powder weapons unserviceable and stalled the battle. It also stopped the momentum of the Confederates push eastward to Washington.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | August 17, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

pouring in silver spring!

Posted by: gjjg4dgd | August 18, 2010 3:18 AM | Report abuse

Weather and tides saved Washington's bacon at the Battle of Brooklyn, which very easily could have been the end of the Revolution.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Brooklyn

Posted by: Christopher Dean Hopkins | August 18, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Actually the Buddhist monk Nichiren [1222-1282] predicted the Mongol invasion as one of the "seven disasters" set to strike Japan for not placing the Lotus Sutra first in Buddhist practice, then prayed for the "kamikaze" as a means of lightening the karma of the Japanese people.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | August 19, 2010 12:25 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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