The weather has always played a key role in the history of the human race, particularly during times of conflict, as it can mean the difference between victory and defeat. In the 20th century, gathering weather data became even more important when planning battle strategies due to the use of aircraft.
During World War 2, the Allied and Axis forces depended on the meteorologists of the 1940s to present an accurate picture of the impending weather conditions. While they lacked the modern technology of the 21st century, they could still make a fairly accurate assessment of approaching weather fronts up to three days in advance.
History of the weather in times of war
The earliest recorded documentation of the weather affecting the outcome of conflict dates back to the 13th century, during the Mongol invasions of Japan. Emperor Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty, led his military forces in a planned invasion of the Japanese archipelago in 1274.
The massive Mongol fleet comprised up to 900 ships, carrying around 30,000 to 40,000 men. First, they conquered the Japanese settlements on Iki and Tsushima islands but were then caught up in a devastating typhoon as they tried to land on Hakata Bay in Kyushu.
Coupled with fierce resistance from the resident Samurai warriors, the Mongol forces had to retreat. Many of their ships sank and the troops drowned. It was written that around one-third of their ships were stricken, leading to the deaths of 13,000 men. The remaining ships were storm-damaged and had to limp home.
At this time, the Japanese called the typhoon “kamikaze” (which meant “divine wind”), as this was a time when Zen Buddhism had been discovered among Samurai warriors. They felt it was a divine intervention, due to the timing and the force of the winds.
Undeterred, Kublai Khan attempted a second invasion of Japan in 1281, this time backed by the biggest naval fleet in history, totalling more than 4,000 ships carrying up to 140,000 men.
The fleet’s magnitude wasn’t matched for 700 years, until the Allied forces’ D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944, at the height of the Second World War, eclipsed it. Around 5,000 ships landed more than 150,000 troops on the shores of France to combat the Nazi occupation.
Today, Kublai Khan’s fleet in 1281 still remains the second-largest naval invasion in world history. Unfortunately for the hapless Mongol invaders, they were thwarted by the weather again. After the first invasion, the Japanese had built high walls to protect themselves from future invasions.
The Mongol forces couldn’t find anywhere to dock their ships and instead, they had to stay afloat, with depleted supplies, for months. Eventually, the fleet was destroyed by another great “kamikaze” typhoon, which sank most of the ships. The 70,000 survivors were captured by the Japanese and succumbed to an unknown fate. The Mongols never attempted another attack on the region.
What role does the heat play in warfare?
The heat played a major role in the defeat of French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte’s army during his disastrous Russian campaign, which was badly organised in terms of the weather conditions.
The French Grande Armée was soon laid low by the sweltering heat of summer, after the campaign began on 24th June 1812. The massive army comprised 685,000 soldiers, who had a long march through western Russia. Although the French narrowly won a few minor skirmishes, the Russians deployed “scorched earth” tactics. This meant they burned their own crops in the fields, and even evacuated and destroyed villages, leaving the French forces without anywhere to stock up their depleting food and drink supplies.
Coupled with the scorching summer heat of June, July and August 1812, the French troops were soon exhausted and under-nourished, but things were to get even worse as winter set in. As the weather soon changed to freezing cold, they had no food for themselves, nor fodder for their horses. The phrase, “An army marches on its stomach,” proved correct. The weakened French army suffered massive losses in subsequent battles. By November 1812, only 27,000 soldiers were left.
How did heat affect WW2?
In modern times, the military has learned to respect the weather. During WW2, at times of extreme heat, the soldiers were given a break from attacks, as both sides would retreat to recover and hydrate, realising the dangers of carrying on in a heatwave.
When the Battle of Britain began in the summer of 1940, reports suggested the weather was fine, warm and sunny. Many days of almost cloudless skies continued.
Squadron Leader Peter Browne, a fighter pilot during the battle, wrote a book in 2004 about his experiences. He said the weather conditions, including cloud cover over south-east England, worked in the RAF’s favour.
The Germans were trying to wipe out the RAF and gain control of the skies. The first aerial battles on 10th July saw the Luftwaffe attack British ships in the English Channel to draw out the fighter pilots. The RAF attacked the Luftwaffe, which suffered heavy losses.
Coming out on top, as the battles continued, Browne described how the “vagaries of the weather” helped the Allies. The weather was relevant because the German pilots, in their ME109 aircraft, needed continual visual contact to enable them to get into formation. They also needed to see their targets from a height of thousands of feet.
Broken cloud was needed by the RAF to enable the pilots to attack the vast number of Luftwaffe bombers and their escorting fighter planes. During a 17-day period, from 25th July to 10th August, Browne said the weather was mixed, with sunny days, the odd rainy day and variable cloud cover. Perfect conditions for the RAF, not only did it prevent the Luftwaffe from going into formation and seeing their targets on the ground, but it also enabled the RAF pilots to spot their German counterparts first. During this period, the RAF lost an average of three planes a day, while the Luftwaffe lost six.
Between the 11th and 23rd August, the weather worked against the RAF. It changed and became continually warm and dry. In fact, it was one of the driest Augusts in the 20th century in England. With clear skies and good visibility, the German heavy bombers launched attacks on the airfields in Kent. In a 13-day period, sadly, the RAF suffered heavy losses of 148 aircraft.
In his book, Honour Restored, Browne described how the unsettled and mainly cloudy weather in September 1940 again helped the RAF, as flying conditions were poor and the Luftwaffe lost 50 aircraft on 15th September alone. He concluded: “Their inability to obtain mastery of the air over England meant Hitler put off the invasion of Britain – permanently, as it turned out.”
The weather also played a big part in planning the most high-profile operation impacted by the elements, the D-Day landings. When Allied forces planned to invade Nazi-occupied France by sea and air, (originally intended for 5th June 1944), on the advice of James Stagg, the UK’s chief meteorological adviser, they were delayed by 24 hours because a heavy storm was due to hit the English Channel.
Weather in post-WW2 Britain
During World War 2, as the weather was so important to the British forces’ strategies, it was forbidden for broadcasters on the radio to give weather reports. They must be kept top secret, as it was believed German intelligence would be listening and this may give them an inkling of the Allied plans.
Finally, on 8th May 1945, after six years of secrecy, national weather forecasts for the public returned, for the first time since the outbreak of war in 1939. Once the war was over, the British public could again enjoy the balmy summer days in their garden, without the fear it would make their cities a sitting duck for the German bombers.
The rebuilding of the nation began – and with the new-found hope after the end of the war came housing improvements that saw people aspiring to better themselves. Air conditioning became something of a status symbol after World War 2. In 1947, the British scholar and politician Sir Sydney Frank Markham wrote, “The greatest contribution to civilisation in this century may well be air conditioning!”
Today, we take AC units for granted, but in post-war Britain, they were considered new technology – and as such, they became amazingly popular very quickly. During the subsequent economic boom, residential air conditioning became another way of “keeping up with the Joneses”. Window units were highly sought-after, with more than one million units sold in 1953 alone as everyone clamoured to have one installed in their home.
A study in 2018 suggested air conditioning in homes was likely to become the norm in Britain in future, due to the likelihood of more heatwaves in the summer because of global warming. A report in Parliament suggested heatwaves could kill an additional 5,000 people every year by 2050, on top of the existing 2,000 deaths in the UK annually caused by exceptionally hot temperatures.
Lest we forget
At the 11th hour on 11th November, the Klima-Therm team will be observing the 2-minute silence as a mark of our respect for the brave men and women who fought for our freedom. We will remember them.