“Here are some of the most frigid and wintery battles on record.”
THIS PAST WEEK, much of North America was in the grip of a record-breaking, deep-freeze, thanks to a phenomenon meteorologists have been calling a “Polar Vortex”. Schools and business throughout the U.S. and Canada closed Monday and Tuesday and air traffic ground to a halt as the mercury dipped as low as -35 C (-31 F) and even lower in some regions. Yet sub-zero temperatures, driving snow and winter storms didn’t stop some of history’s armies from soldiering on. Here are some of the most frigid and wintery battles on record.
More than 70 years ago, the German and Soviet navies faced off in brutal Arctic conditions during the far-flung Battle of the Kara Sea — also known as Operation Wunderland. Launched in the late summer of 1942 by Hitler’s Kriegsmarine, the mission was an attempt by the Nazis to cut off Soviet summer convoys that were moving war materiel from the Pacific Ocean to ports on the Barents Sea via the polar shipping lanes. In August of that year, three German destroyers and the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, along with a number of U-boats, steamed northeast from bases in Norway towards the distant, sub-zero Kara Sea, attacking what enemy shipping they encountered along the way. A handful of Russian gunboats and even a prison ship carrying 300 Soviet dissidents were destroyed by the raiders. By Aug. 19, the Axis fleet had crossed the Barents and rounded the northern most point of Cape Zhelaniya, a small peninsula located above 76 N latitude. In fact, the German vessels shelled a remote Soviet outpost on the headland there. Afterwards, the flotilla steamed across the Kara Sea to the Vilkitsky Strait, where the warships attacked the armed Soviet icebreaker Sibriakov and even fired on the harbour at Port Dickson. Mindful of the approaching winter and thickening ice floes, the Admiral Scheer’s skipper turned for home at the end of August, but the subs remained in the Russian Arctic to search for more prey. After another week of shelling remote shore targets, the U-boat commander put about and made for Norway as well. The final result: only six Allied ships were destroyed. All in all, Wunderland failed to deliver a decisive blow for the Axis, but it does stand out as the northernmost operation of the Second World War. Here are some other icy moments from military history.
In the winter of 1777-1778, General George Washington’s rag-tag Continental Army shivered and starved for months on end at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. After defeating the British in late autumn at the nearby Battle of White March, more than 12,000 American troops, many without winter coats or boots, made camp in flimsy tents and ramshackle bivouacs. They were there from December to March. Records kept in nearby Philadelphia that winter tell of temperatures dipping as low as -14 C (6 F). Heavy snowfalls were followed by sudden thaws, torrential downpours and then flash freezes, all of which left soldiers soaking wet, chilled to the bone and frostbitten. As many as 2,500 starved, perished from disease or froze to death that winter. For many Continentals, the winter at Valley Forge was one of the darkest periods of the War of Independence.
Russia’s Secret Weapon
The death toll at Valley Forge pales in comparison to that suffered by Napoleon’s Grande Armée following its disastrous retreat from Russia. After pushing deep into Tsar Alexander’s empire in June of 1812, Bonaparte’s 650,000-man invasion force was effectively halved in a series of costly battles on the road to Moscow. A raging typhus epidemic cut even further into his army as the summer wore on. After the French ruler’s dwindling legions seized Moscow in September, the conqueror decided to torch the city and pull back to the safety of Central Europe. Bad decision. The early onset of winter that year decimated his retreating divisions as they trudged west throughout waist deep snow drifts. Temperatures dropped to a breathtaking -40 C (-40 F) at times as Russian Cossacks picked off stragglers by the thousands. By December, what was left of the French army was back in friendly territory, but fewer than 50,000 were still standing.
Nearly 130 years later, Adolf Hitler would make a similar catastrophic blunder. After kicking off Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941, Axis forces, many still dressed in light-weight summer uniforms, were halted the very gates of the Soviet capital five months later by the sudden arrival of the Russian winter. As the mercury dropped to -40 C (-40 F), the fuel in German plane, truck and tank engines froze solid, weapons failed to function and troops died of exposure in vast numbers. It was the Third Reich’s first major setback of World War Two. But rather than retreat like Napoleon, Hitler (who was warm and cozy back in Berlin) ordered his troops to dig in for the winter and weather the cold.
The Frozen Chosin
More than 30,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines along with a detachment of British troops faced equally punishing temperatures during the first winter of the Korean War at the Chosin Reservoir. That’s where the UN’s X Corps, which had pushed communist forces far above the 38th parallel in the fall, was surprised and surrounded in late November by a Chinese army more than twice its size. For nearly three weeks, Allied forces held the line as the mercury dipped below -30 C (-22 F). Nearly 14,000 Americans became casualties – half as a result of combat, the other half from prolonged exposure to the extreme cold. The remaining soldiers were boat-lifted from the port of Hungnam in late December.
On Top of the World
Minus 15 C (5 F) – that’s the average year-round temperature at 20,000 feet above sea level, which is where the Siachen Glacier War of April of 1984 raged – the highest battlefield on the planet . The brief conflict was fought between long-time enemies India and Pakistan for control of a massive Himalayan ice field in the disputed Kashmir border region. The Indian army launched a pre-emptive assault on the rugged 2,500 sq. km (1,000 sq. mile) territory after its intelligence division suspected that the Pakistanis might be planning their own attack up there. It turned out that both armies ordered their mountain equipment and cold weather gear from the same British supplier. When the Indian military learned of a huge purchase made by Islamabad, commanders quickly mobilized 3,000 troops to capture the summit first.  Pakistan’s army later tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the Indians. They lost more than 1,700 soldiers in the attempt. Indian casualties were lighter at 800. New Delhi has occupied the heights ever since.