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War and Weather

One perceptive author opened his history of the American South with a suggestion: “Let’s talk about the weather.”

When assessing the comparative strengths of opposing armies, the tactical brilliance of opposing generals or the effectiveness of opposing weapons systems, it’s easy to forget about the least predictable of “opponents”—the conditions in which a battle was fought. Some examples have achieved legendary status: Russia’s howling winters defeated both Napoléon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée and Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht. In other conflicts, adverse conditions—blizzards, cyclones, floods, downpours, drought, dust, mud, bugs, impenetrable jungles, mountain heights, extreme heat or cold—have proven deadly and even decisive. To infantry soldiers deep in New Guinea, it must have seemed that the jungle and mountains themselves were their worst enemy. To flyers in the Aleutians or the Himalayas, it must have felt that fog and snow squalls were their direst threat.

• On Rendova Island in the Solomons in 1943, U.S. Naval Construction Battalion 24 (“Seabees”) built a road through a swamp in unceasing rain and mud so pervasive that, according to Commander H. Roy Whitaker, “The men ceased to look like men; they looked like slimy frogs working in some prehistoric ooze.”

• At Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in 1950, thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines were weather casualties. “Siberian cold descended on the plateau,” wrote author Edward L. Daily. “Marines watched in utter amazement as the thermometer plunged to 10, 20, even 30 degrees below zero. The cold numbed fingers and toes, and it froze motor oil and weapons.”

• In northern Burma in December 1944, the British 14th Army’s “advance of nearly 200 miles in 20 days was an astonishing feat,” recalled Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, “not so much because of the opposition but because of the difficulty of the country. For most of the distance there was no road; the earth track built through the hills by the Japanese for their invasion of Assam had largely disappeared during the rains.…Guns and lorries had to be winched and man-hauled up steep slopes.”

• Near Tiberias, in what is now Israel, crusading knights led by Guy of Lusignan perished in droves under a merciless July sun in 1187, when Saladin’s archers trapped the armored knights on a waterless plain.

And so on. Weapons and tactics change, but weather is eternally a factor in military history.