Weather and war - 3 ways that weather changed the course of history

Throughout history the effects of extreme weather on society have been well documented. From tsunamis to hurricanes, when these most devastating varieties of weather wreak havoc on populated areas, they can alter the course of whole civilisations.

In this week's 'Weather Through Time' inspired delve into the Met Office archives, we will be looking at 3 instances where extreme weather has had an impact on warfare, both naval and land-based, in such significant ways as to change the path of history.

1. The English defeat of the Spanish Armada  - 1588

van Wieringen's 'The Spanish Armada off the English coast' van Wieringen's 'The Spanish Armada off the English coast'

Although this event pre-dates Met Office records, the English defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the best examples of weather influencing warfare and more than worthy of inclusion in this list - described by some as one of the most decisive battles in Western civilisation.

In 1588 King Philip II of Spain planned an invasion of England, one which was influenced largely by the Pope, who wished to make the Protestant England a Catholic nation once more.

The Spanish Armada, a well-drilled and powerful fleet, sailed from Spain to Calais in August 1588 to join up with the Spanish army. This combined force is considered by many to have been capable of successfully invading England.

It was whilst anchored off Calais and out of their usual formation, that the Armada was attacked not just by the English, but by dreadful storms that forced them to flee northwards from the channel. Blocked by the English fleet and buffered by the strong winds, what remained of the Armada was forced to attempt a circumnavigation of Britain to return home to Spain.

This journey proved disastrous, with low supplies and fierce storms ensuring that less than half of the Armada's 130 ships made it back to Spain, with over 20,000 Spanish sailors and soldiers lost.

The proposed invasion of England was thwarted and Queen Elizabeth pronounced that the victory proved that God wanted them to win, inscribing the medals that commemorated the triumph with the phrase "God blew and they were scattered".

Spanish Armada medal reading 'God blew and they were scattered' Spanish Armada medal reading 'God blew and they were scattered'

2. Operation Barbarossa - 1941

Operation Barbarossa, Adolf Hitler's attempt to invade the Soviet Union, proved to be the crucial turning point in the Second World War. Much like the D-Day landings, the next event in our list, the weather played a huge role in affecting part of the WW2 which could have changed history.

Operation Barbarossa - signs in Minsk, Belarus Operation Barbarossa - signs in Minsk, Belarus

Much in the same way that being an island nation gives Britain an element of natural defence, the Soviet winter has always played a protecting role - Napoleon's army were decimated from 600,000 to 150,000 by the -40 °C weather, when he attempted to march on Russia in 1812.

With these famous examples in mind it should have been clear to Hitler that a Russian winter was not to be trifled with. We found examples in our archive of the German Daily Weather Reports from December 1941, which shows -24 °C degrees temperatures outside of Moscow.

German daily weather map from December 1941 German daily weather map from December 1941

Whilst the German armies started Barbarossa strongly in June, their advances slowed due to Soviet counter-attacks and supply issues and by October they were still 250 km from Moscow. It wasn't until December, deep into the cruel Russian winter, that German forces reached the gates of the capital.

Underprepared with no winter clothes and few supplies, the German forces were forced into a retreat. Nazi Germany now faced a war on two fronts, a war that it could not win.

3. D-day Landings - 1944

When it comes to the influence of weather forecasting on warfare, there is no more significant event in the history of the Met Office than the D-Day invasion in 1944.

Critical decisions about when to send the allied forces across the channel were made based on the weather forecasts compiled by the Allied meteorologists.

Chart supplied by Met Office. Allied Forces chart for 6 June, 1944 at 1300 (click to expand) Chart supplied by Met Office. Allied Forces chart for 6 June, 1944 at 1300 (click to expand)

One of the most interesting parts of this forecast is that, having broken the Enigma code, the allies were able to use decoded German weather observations information in their forecasting - giving them a vital edge over their enemy when it came to accuracy, as they were able to factor in weather data from German held territory.

Below is a short video about the forecast that inspired the decision to launch the D-Day landings on the 6th of June 1944, produced for the recent 70th anniversary of the invasion.

D-Day Landings - 6th June 1944

With the German's forecasting that weather conditions would remain unsuitable on the 6th of June for an allied assault, the Allied forces had sufficient extra information to advise that conditions would be marginal but sufficient to launch the invasion. In doing so the D-Day forecasters made perhaps the most important forecast in Met Office history.

Last updated: 19 June 2015

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