5 Times Weather Played Foul For An Invading Army

Apr 1, 2024 0 comments

Throughout history, weather has played a significant role in military campaigns, sometimes altering its course and reshaping the destiny of nations. From the icy depths of Russian winters thwarting the ambitions of emperors to the ferocious storms of the open sea swallowing armadas whole, weather has often posed a formidable adversary alongside armies and navies during military conflicts. In this article, we explore some of these pivotal moments where nature's fury have halted conquests and unforeseen meteorological forces have crippled invasions.

A dejected Napoleon retreats from Moscow after failing to capture it during the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Oil on canvas by Adolph Northen, 1851.

Napoleon's Invasion of Russia (1812)

In the summer of 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, the indomitable Emperor of the French, embarked on what would become one of the most infamous military campaigns in history: the invasion of Russia. With his Grande Armée, a force unparalleled in its size and prowess, Napoleon sought to bend the vast expanse of the Russian Empire to his will and secure his dominion over Europe. Yet, as his legions marched eastward, they unwittingly advanced towards an adversary more relentless than any opposing army: the unforgiving Russian winter.

Napoleon's invasion began auspiciously, with his forces swiftly advancing into Russian territory, winning several key battles along the way. However, as summer turned to autumn, and the Russian winter loomed on the horizon, the fortunes of war took a dramatic turn. The Grande Armée, ill-prepared for the harsh conditions that awaited them, found themselves facing not only the Russian army but also the merciless elements.

Napoleon's army during a blizzard. Painting by Vasily Vereshchagin.

As the temperature plummeted and snow blanketed the countryside, the logistical challenges of supplying such a vast army became insurmountable. Food shortages were exacerbated, and the lack of proper winter clothing led to widespread suffering and disease among Napoleon's troops. The once-mighty Grande Armée, which had set out with dreams of conquest, now found itself weakened and demoralized, its ranks decimated by the bitter cold and the relentless Russian resistance.

The turning point came with the Battle of Borodino in September 1812, where despite winning a costly victory, Napoleon failed to decisively defeat the Russian army. With winter fast approaching and his supply lines stretched thin, Napoleon made the fateful decision to march on Moscow, hoping to force Tsar Alexander I into submission. Yet, upon reaching the ancient city, Napoleon found it deserted and in flames, set ablaze by retreating Russian forces.

French retreat from Russia. Painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov.

As the harsh Russian winter tightened its grip, Napoleon's army, now trapped deep within enemy territory, faced a desperate retreat. The retreat from Moscow became a harrowing ordeal, marked by relentless Russian attacks, starvation, and freezing temperatures. By the time Napoleon's tattered remnants reached the safety of the western border, the Grande Armée had been all but annihilated, its once-mighty ranks reduced to a fraction of their former glory.

The Spanish Armada (1588)

In the summer of 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail from the ports of Spain with the grand ambition of securing naval supremacy and bringing England to its knees. Commanded by the formidable Duke of Medina Sidonia, this armada, consisting of over 130 ships and almost 20,000 soldiers, swept majestically across the Atlantic Ocean towards the shores of England. However, as the Armada entered the narrow confines of the English Channel, it soon found itself relentlessly harassed by the English navy, and many of its ships were damaged. Nevertheless, the English were unable to penetrate the Armada’s defensive formation, and the Armada reached Calais on the coast of France, where Medina-Sidonia hoped to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma’s invasion army.

It was in Calais that the English fleet, under the command of Sir Francis Drake and Lord Howard, was able to inflict real damage when they managed to set fire to several Spanish ships. The sudden conflagration caused a wave of panic to descend over the Armada. Several vessels cut their anchors to avoid catching fire, and the entire fleet was forced to flee to the open sea.

“Destruction of the Invincible Armada” by Spanish painter Jose Gartner

With the Armada out of formation, the English initiated another naval offensive known as the Battle of Gravelines, where the Spanish Armada suffered heavy losses. With no support from the Duke of Parma and their anchorage lost, Medina Sidonia decided to retreat back to Spain, but their journey home proved to be far more deadly. The armada sailed intending to keep to the west of the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, but the Gulf Stream pushed them into the North Sea. Off Scotland and Ireland, the fleet ran into a series of powerful westerly winds which drove many of the damaged ships further toward the lee shore. Because so many anchors had been abandoned during the escape from the English fireships off Calais, many of the ships were incapable of securing shelter as the fleet reached the coast of Ireland and were driven onto the rocks. By the time the remnants of the Armada limped back to Spain, it was a shadow of its former self. It had lost more ships and men to cold and stormy weather than in direct combat.

Mongol Invasions of Japan (1274 and 1281)

In the thirteenth century, the Mongol Empire, under the leadership of Kublai Khan, sought to expand its dominion across the known world. One of the empire's most ambitious endeavors was the invasion of Japan, a land perceived as a strategic prize and a gateway to further conquests. However, despite the overwhelming might of the Mongol forces, these aspirations were dashed not by the swords of samurai or the walls of fortresses, but by the wrath of nature itself.

Defeat of the Mongol invasion fleet during 1274-1281.

The first of the Mongol invasions of Japan occurred in 1274 when a formidable fleet of Mongol and Korean ships consisting of an estimated 900 vessels set sail towards the Japanese islands. As the Mongol armada approached the shores of Kyushu, it was confronted by a fierce typhoon, known as a "kamikaze" or "divine wind" in Japanese folklore. The storm struck with devastating force, scattering the Mongol ships and inflicting heavy casualties upon their crews. An estimated 13,000 men drowned and around one-third of the ships sank. The Mongol invasion force, weakened by the storm, was forced to retreat.

Undeterred by their initial setback, the Mongols launched a second invasion of Japan in 1281, this time with an even larger fleet —more than 4,400 ships and 140,000 men. In the interim, the Japanese had built a sea wall to protect themselves from future assaults. The Mongols were unable to find any suitable landing beaches due to the walls, and the fleet stayed afloat for months depleting their supplies as they searched for an area to land. After months of being exposed to the elements, another great typhoon struck that decimated the Mongol fleet, sinking hundreds of ships and drowning thousands of men. The Mongols never attacked Japan again, and more than 70,000 men were said to have been captured. 

Nazi Invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa, 1941)

The Nazi invasion of Russia, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, commenced on June 22, 1941, with the aim of conquering the Soviet Union and securing vital resources for the German war machine. While the invasion initially saw rapid advances by the German forces, ultimately, the harsh Russian winter played a significant role in thwarting their ambitions.

Initially, the German forces made good progress as they pushed deep into Soviet territory. Helped by the Luftwaffe's bombing of Soviet airfields, artillery positions and troop concentrations, they quickly captured large swathes of territory including Kiev, Kharkov, Sevastopol, and the naval port of Odessa on the Black Sea. For Leningrad, Hitler had a particularly devilish plan—he ordered the city starved into submission. The epic siege would last 890 days.

After laying waste to Crimea and Leningrad, Hitler’s troops moved towards Moscow. But as they reached the approaches to Moscow, the German formations slowed to a crawl. Autumn rains had turned dirt roads into rivers of mud. This period, known as "Rasputitsa" or "mud season," severely hampered the mobility of the German army. The muddy terrain made it difficult for vehicles to maneuver, bogging down tanks and trucks and slowing the advance of the German troops. Supply lines became stretched thin, and resupply efforts were often delayed or disrupted by the challenging conditions.

Photo credit: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

The rains were followed by the Russian winter that brought extreme cold temperatures, often dropping well below freezing. German soldiers, ill-equipped for winter warfare, suffered from frostbite, hypothermia, and other cold-related injuries. Equipment and machinery also struggled to function in the frigid conditions, leading to mechanical failures and breakdowns.

Taking advantage of the harsh winter weather, the Soviet Union launched a counteroffensive against the German invaders. The Red Army, better acclimated to the winter conditions and equipped with winter clothing and gear, mounted a series of successful attacks that pushed the German forces back and inflicted heavy casualties. The harsh weather conditions compounded the difficulties faced by the German army, contributing to their eventual retreat and the turning tide of the Eastern Front.

The English invasion of France (or Black Monday, 1360)

Edward III, King of England, launched a military campaign against France in 1360 as part of the ongoing conflict known as the Hundred Years' War. The English sought to expand their territorial holdings in France, and Edward III led his army towards the city of Paris. However, all attempts to lure the defenders of Paris, led by Charles, Dauphin of France, into open combat proved futile. The French staunchly refused to abandon the safety of their city walls, frustrating Edward's ambitions. Infuriated by the French refusal to engage in battle, Edward's army laid waste to the surrounding countryside as they marched towards the cathedral city of Chartres.

On Easter Monday, April 13, Edward's forces arrived at the gates of Chartres, only to be met with yet another refusal from the French defenders to confront them in the field. Instead, the French retreated behind their fortified walls, leaving the English army to establish camp in the open plain outside the city.

King Edward III kneels down and vows that he will make peace with the French. Painting by James William Edmund Doyle in 1864.

As night descended, the skies begun to grumble and a thunderstorm of unprecedented ferocity broke out. Rain began to fall in torrents and a great barrage of huge hailstones crashed down upon the English camp. The hailstones, some as large as chicken's eggs, pummeled the army with destructive force, tearing apart tents and wreaking havoc on baggage trains. With little shelter from the tempest, the English soldiers suffered heavy casualties, with nearly 1,000 men and up to 6,000 horses falling victim to the relentless onslaught.

Convinced that the storm was a divine sign against his military endeavors, Edward III is said to have knelt in prayer towards the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres during the height of the tempest.

The following day, Androuin de La Roche arrived at the English camp bearing peace proposals. Humbled by the catastrophic events of the storm, Edward III agreed to negotiations. Three weeks later, a much chastened Edward signed a peace treaty with the French, renouncing his claim to the French throne and bringing an end to the initial phase of the Hundred Years' War.


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