Those who know me know that I am fascinated by the idea of how weather affects human behavior and human history.
Yesterday, while I was reading David Garnett’s 1941 book War in the Air: September 1939 to May 1941 at the Morgan Library & Museum, references to weather’s affects on the outcome of World War II kept popping out at me. We all know the important role weather played in the scheduling of the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy, but weather played a vital role in the war at many other times as well.
The period of the so-called Phoney War, the first eight months of Britain’s involvement in WWII, was one of them. From September 1939 to April 1940, the general public in Britain and France expected their governments to launch an all-out air attack on Germany, but that didn’t happen. It turns out that neither the Germans nor the Allies was prepared for such a move.
Ultimately, both sides saw the Phoney War as advantageous, according to Garnett. And for the Brits, weather played a part in that advantage. Since the prevailing winds of Western Europe come in from the Atlantic, Britain’s Royal Air Force was almost always in a better position to know weather conditions — and plan around them — than the German Luftwaffe, which had to send aircraft out on weather reconnaissance missions, costing them time and money.
Garnett also explains that the winter of 1939-1940 was particularly hard. Bomber crews suffered frostbite, and planes were lost because of icing. However, the weather had more severe consequences for Germany than for either England or France. Freezing weather halted traffic on the Danube, caused the overworked German railways to break down and caused a coal shortage as well. The cold winter weather made the estuaries of Germany’s rivers and shallow sea around the Friesian islands fill with floating ice. This then made it impossible for sea planes to take off or land on the water without risk of damaging their floats.
It also prevented the Germans from laying more magnetic mines designed to blow up British vessels made of steel as they traveled above them. In November of 1939, Hitler had predicted that these mines would be his “secret weapon” and would be responsible for Britain’s quick defeat. The bitter cold of that winter prevented that from happening.
The cold probably delayed the invasion of the Low Countries and the attack on the Western Front by one or two months as well, thus making it impossible for German forces to invade England in the summer of 1940 as planned.
November 1940 was full of clear days and cloudless skies in the south of England, tempting the German Air Force to begin a new form of annoying daylight raids. During these raids, weather conditions were also right for the high-speed, high-flying German aircraft to leave a trail of white vapor behind them. That allowed the people of Kent and East Sussex to watch the planes’ progress as they headed south across the English Channel.
A number of factors combined to make Germany’s May 1940 invasion of France a success. Chief among them was the weather. A spell of dry and perfect weather lasted from the beginning until the end of the attack. As Garnett wrote:
A week of rainy or foggy days in the middle of May might easily have saved France (100).
Read more about the rest of my time at the Berg for my NYPL Short-Term Research Fellowship on the Bloomsbury pacifsts:
- Day 1 at the Berg: Reunion with the lions, February 7, 2012
- Day 2 at the Berg: Tips from a librarian, February 8, 2012
- Day 3 at the Berg: Leads from the curator, February 9, 2012
- Day 4 at the Berg: Maternal concerns of Vanessa, February 10, 2012
- Day 5 at the Berg: Visit to an exhibition, February 12, 2012
- Day 6 at the Berg: Move to the Morgan, February 14, 2012
- Day 7 at the Berg: Rare books at the Morgan, February 15, 2012