Cold-weather warfare

Cold-weather warfare
Part of War
Navy Seals Winter warfare at Mammoth Mountain, California, in December 2014.jpg
Navy SEALs training for winter operations

Cold-weather warfare, also known as Arctic warfare or winter warfare, encompasses military operations affected by snow, ice, thawing conditions or cold, both on land and at sea. Cold-weather conditions occur year-round at high elevation or at high latitudes, and elsewhere materialise seasonally during the winter period. Mountain warfare often takes place in cold weather or on terrain that is affected by ice and snow, such as the Alps and the Himalayas. Historically, most such operations have been during winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Some have occurred above the Arctic Circle where snow, ice and cold may occur throughout the year. At times, cold or its aftermath—thaw—has been a decisive factor in the failure of a campaign, as with Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 and the German invasion of Russia during World War II.


Northern and Eastern Europe were the venues for some well-documented winter campaigns. During World War II several actions took place above the Arctic Circle. Recent cold-weather conflicts have occurred in the Himalayas.


In 1242, the Teutonic Order lost the Battle on the Ice on Lake Peipus to Novgorod. In 1520, the decisive Battle of Bogesund between Sweden and Denmark occurred on the ice of lake Åsunden.[1]

Sweden and Denmark fought several wars during the 16th and 17th centuries. As a great deal of Denmark consists of islands, it was usually safe from invasion, but in January 1658, most of the Danish waters froze. Charles X Gustav of Sweden led his army across the ice of the Belts to besiege Copenhagen. The war ended with the treaty of Roskilde, a treaty very favorable to the Swedish.[2]

During the Great Northern War, Swedish king Charles XII set off to invade Moscow, but was eventually defeated at the Battle of Poltava after being weakened by cold weather and scorched earth tactics. Sweden suffered more casualties during the same war as Carl Gustaf Armfeldt with 6,000 men tried to invade Trondheim. Three thousand of them died of exposure in the snow during the Carolean Death March.[3]

19th Century

The Night Bivouac of Napoleon's Army during retreat from Russia in 1812.

During the Finnish War, the Russian army unexpectedly crossed the frozen Gulf of Bothnia from Finland to the Åland Islands and, by 19 March 1809, reached the Swedish shore within 70 km from the Swedish capital, Stockholm. This daring maneuvre decided the outcome of the war.[4]

Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 resulted in retreat in the face of winter[5] with the majority of the French army succumbing to frostbite and starvation, rather than combat injuries.[6]

20th Century

Finnish ski troops during the Winter War.
US Army tanks and infantry during the Battle of the Bulge.

The Finnish Army used ski troops during the Winter War and the Second World War, where the numerically dominant Soviet forces had a hard time fighting mobile, white-clad ski soldiers.[7]

In Operation Barbarossa in 1941, both Russian and German soldiers had to endure terrible conditions during the Russian winter. The German-Finnish joint offensive against Murmansk (Operation Silver Fox) in 1941 saw heavy fighting in the Arctic environment. Subsequently, the Petsamo-Kirkenes Operation conducted by the Red Army against the Wehrmacht in 1944 in northern Finland and Norway drove the Germans out of there. In late 1944, Finland turned against their former cobelligerents, Nazi Germany, under the Soviet Union's pressure and pressured the Germans to withdraw in the ensuing Lapland War.[8] While use of ski infantry was common in the Red Army, Germany formed only one division for movement on skis.[7] From June 1942 to August 1943, the United States and Canada fought the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands Campaign in the Alaska Territory.[9]

The Battle of Chosin Reservoir was a stark example of cold affecting military operations in the Korean War. There were many cold injuries and malfunctions of materiel, both vehicles and weapons.[10][11]

The Siachen conflict is a military conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed Siachen Glacier region in Kashmir. The conflict began in 1984 with India's successful Operation Meghdoot during which it gained control over all of the Siachen Glacier.[12] A cease-fire went into effect in 2003.[13]

World War II in the Arctic

Rime ice on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser, HMS Sheffield (C24), escorting an Arctic convoy to the Soviet Union in World War II.

The following actions were fought in the Arctic by land and naval forces between 1941 and 1945 in the following theaters of operations:

Arctic Ocean

The Winter War was a military conflict between the Soviet Union (USSR) and Finland. It began with a Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II, and ended three and a half months later with the Moscow Peace Treaty on 13 March 1940.

The Lapland War was fought between Finland and Germany from September 1944 to April 1945 in Finland's northernmost Lapland Province. It included:[16]

Northern Russia

Historical lessons learned

In his 1981 paper, Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies, Chew draws on experiences from the Allied-Soviet War in Northern Russia during the Winter of 1918–19, the destruction of the Soviet 44th Motorized Rifle Division, and Nazi–Soviet Warfare during World War II to derive winter warfare factors pertaining to military tactics, materiel and personnel:[26]

  • Tactics – Defensive positions are highly advantageous because of the ability to maintain warmth and protection, compared to attacking in extreme cold. Mobility and logistical support are often restricted by snow, requiring plowing or compacting it to accommodate wide-tracked vehicles or sleds. Infantry movement in deep snow requires skis or snowshoes to avoid exhaustion. Sound carries well over crusted snow, diminishing the element of surprise. Explosives are useful for excavating foxholes and larger shelters in frozen ground. Attacking field kitchens and encampments deprives the enemy of food and shelter. Rapid removal of the wounded from the battlefield is essential to their survival in the cold.
  • Materiel – Weapons and vehicles require special lubricants to operate at low temperatures. Mines are unreliable in winter, owing to deep snow that may cushion the fuse or form an ice bridge over the detonator.
  • Personnel – Proper winter clothing is required to maintain body heat and to avoid such cold injuries as frostbite. Troop efficiency and survival requires either making use of available shelter or providing portable shelter.