The surprising impact of weather on war

Terry Lloyd Avatar
A special operations weatherman with the 125th Special Tactics Squadron takes various readings during training at Fort Carson, Colo., April 21, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

History is replete with examples of how weather directly affects the outcomes of military operations and causes planners to attempt to negate and avoid those effects.

Here is the impact of weather on war:

Wind and waves

One of the earliest recorded stories of unusual weather in war comes from the two attempts by the Mongols, under Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai, to invade Japan. In the autumn of 1274, a fleet between 500 to 1,000 Mongol ships appeared off the east coast of Japan, carrying over 30,000 troops. A typhoon struck the fleet, killing thousands and sinking or damaging most of the ships. Again in 1281, another attempt with over 4,000 ships and almost 150,000 troops was made. Shore defenses prevented an easy landing by the Mongols, and the invasion fleet remained offshore for several months until another storm struck that fleet. It is estimated that half of the invaders were killed or captured, with most of the ships destroyed. 

These saving storms became known as the “Divine Wind,” or Kamikaze in Japanese history, and were the basis for the Japanese suicide aircraft attackers of World War II.

In the Summer of 1588, a mighty Spanish fleet of over 130 ships, the Armada, sought to invade England. After being thwarted by small English fleets, a strong storm bringing unfavorable winds forced the Armada to sail around Scotland and out into the North Sea, and then south to attempt to return to Spain. Subsequent storms and unfavorable winds pushed the Spanish ships to the west coasts of Ireland and England, either sinking or being captured upon landing. Very few ships made it back to Spain.

spanish armada impact of weather on war

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, August 8, 1588 – painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1796).


Two examples of defenders believing attacks on their locations could not be made from certain directions due to the heat and its effects on terrain both involved the British. They are the Arab attack on Aqaba in World War One and Singapore in World War Two.

Aqaba, now a part of the Kingdom of Jordan, was a Turkish Red Sea port key in the defense of the Arabian Peninsula from British attack. The large expanse of waterless desert east of the port was considered “uncrossable” by most, including many of the Bedouin Arabs that made up a pro-British guerilla force led by T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia.”  Despite the impressions from the epic 1960 movie of Lawrence being a novice to the desert, he had, in fact, spent much of his life in the Middle East, training himself to adapt to the desert by walking for months while conducting archeological surveys.  Lawrence was able to convince the leaders of his native force to risk that part of the desert, which resulted in the capture of Aqaba with very few Arab casualties and allowed British forces to land and threaten Turkish control of the region.

At the start of World War II in the Pacific, the British considered their fortress on the island of Singapore on the Malaysian peninsula to be as secure as their long-held fortress of Gibraltar on the Iberian peninsula. Apparently, none of them had been involved with the attack on Aqaba in the previous war. Powerful long-range coastal artillery precluded invasion from the sea, and the tropical jungle on the land-side was also considered impenetrable by the defenders. In a little over one week during February 1942, a smaller Japanese force took the island fortress, resulting in one of the largest surrenders of British and Commonwealth forces in any war.


Both Napoleon and Hitler encountered what the Russians call “General Winter” in their disastrous attempts to invade that country. Both began their attacks in summer, hoping to achieve victory before winter set in. Both times the Russians delayed the invaders by grudgingly trading land for defense until winter arrived, leaving the invaders to suffer and die, literally “out in the cold.”

impact of weather on war in world war ii
A Finnish Maxim M/09-21 machine gun crew during the Winter War.

Military weather today

Weather is still such an important military factor today that the U.S. Air Force has Special Operations Weathermen Teams (SOWT)– meteorologists with unique training (HALO parachuting/scuba, etc.) to operate in hostile or denied territory. They gather, assess and interpret weather and environmental intelligence from forward deployed locations, working primarily with Air Force and Army Special Operations Forces. SOWTs are also attached to Marine MARSOC and Navy SEAL teams when required.

The Air Force’s 2nd Weather Group referred to as “Global,” is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and monitors worldwide weather 24 hours per day and provides global weather information to the Department of Defense, national agencies and Allied nations. Understanding space weather, such as solar winds and magnetic storms, has become more critical as many intelligence and communications capabilities have migrated to orbital satellites. Global operates four solar observatories, located in Australia, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Hawaii to provide data for space weather forecasts and warnings.