Russian Winter

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"General Winter" redirects here. For the German general, see August Winter. For other uses, see Russian Winter (disambiguation).
"General Winter", from a 1916 front page illustration of the French periodical Le Petit Journal

Russian Winter, General Winter, General Frost, or General Snow refers to the winter climate of Russia as a contributing factor to the military failures of several invasions of Russia.[1] Another similar factor is "General Mud" ("rasputitsa").

The impact of these factors has been controversial. An American military study of winter warfare in Russia concludes that "General Winter" is a myth perpetuated to rationalize the defeats of "invincible" Western military genius by "inferior" Russians.[2] In fact, both Napoleon's and Hitler's plans started failing well before the winter. At the same time it is undeniable that severe winter conditions contributed greatly to their subsequent troubles.[2]

Medieval Russians used skis to ease transport in their winter campaigns.

Case studies[edit]

Swedish invasion of 1707[edit]

In the Great Northern War, Charles XII of Sweden invaded the Ukraine in 1707. The Russians retreated, adopting a scorched-earth policy. This winter was the most brutal of the 18th century, so severe that the seaport of Venice froze. Charles' 35,000 troops were crippled, and by spring only 19,000 were left. The Battle of Poltava in late June 1709 sealed the end of the Swedish Empire.

French invasion of 1812[edit]

Charles Minard's graph showing the strength of the Grande Armée as it marched to Moscow and back, with temperature (in Réaumur) plotted on the lower graph for the return journey. –30 degrees Réaumur = –37.5 °C = –35.5 °F

Napoleon's Grande Armée of 610,000 men invaded Russia, heading towards Moscow, in the beginning of summer on 23 June 1812. The Russian army retreated before the French and again burnt their crops and villages, denying the enemy their use. Napoleon's army was ultimately reduced to 100,000. His army suffered further, even more disastrous losses on the retreat from Moscow started in October.

The French blamed the weather for their defeat, and as early as in 1835 Denis Davydov published a military-historical article, titled "Was it Frost Who Devastated the French Army in 1812?", where he demonstrated that the French suffered casualties in battles during relatively mild weather and listed actual reasons. He used not only his own observations as arguments, but foreign opinions as well, including French authors.[3]

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

According to a more recent American military study, the main body of Napoleon's Grande Armée, initially at least 378,000 strong, "diminished by half during the first eight weeks of his invasion, before the major battle of the campaign. This decrease was partly due to garrisoning supply centres, but disease, desertions, and casualties sustained in various minor actions caused thousands of losses. At Borodino on 7 September 1812—the only major engagement fought in Russia—Napoleon could muster no more than 135,000 troops and he lost at least 30,000 of them to gain a narrow and pyrrhic victory almost 600 miles inside hostile territory. The sequels were his uncontested and self-defeating occupation of Moscow and his humiliating retreat, which began on 19 October, before the first severe frosts later that month and the first snow on 5 November."[2]

Allied intervention in Russia, winter 1918–19[edit]

During the Northern Russian Expedition of the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, both sides, the Allied forces and the Bolshevik Red Army knew or quickly learned the principles of winter warfare and applied them whenever possible. However both sides had their resources strained and at times one side or other suffered the severe consequences of underpreparedness, but General Winter did not provide a decisive advantage to any of the sides.[2]

German invasion of 1941[edit]

During World War II, the Wehrmacht lacked necessary supplies, such as winter uniforms, due to the many delays in the German army's movements. At the same time, Hitler's plans for Operation Barbarossa actually miscarried before the onset of severe winter weather: he was so confident of a quick victory that he did not prepare for even the possibility of winter warfare in Russia. In fact his eastern army suffered more than 734,000 casualties (about 23% of its average strength of 3,200,000) during the first five months of the invasion before the winter started. [2] On 27 November 1941, Eduard Wagner, the Quartermaster General of the German Army, reported that "We are at the end of our resources in both personnel and material. We are about to be confronted with the dangers of deep winter." [2] Also of note is the fact that the unusually early winter of 1941 cut short the rasputitsa season, improving logistics in early November, while weather still being only mildly cold.[2]

Effects on warfare[edit]

Main article: Arctic warfare

A number of factors must be taken into the consideration.

  • Mobility and logistics in winter is greatly restricted, especially cross-country, both for infantry on foot and for transport [2]
  • Firearms and motors freeze up without special lubricants.[2]
  • Adequate shelter for personnel is a must, both for able-bodied and wounded personnel.[2]
  • Casualties from frostbite may be extremely high.[2]

As a result, the defensive is in overall more advantageous than the offensive due to all of the above.[2]

Viktor Suvorov, writing about the Soviet-German War noticed that the real reason of the defeat of the invaders was not the Russian Winter per se; rather it was rooted in the fact that the invaders' military genius was overestimated: smart planning of a military campaign would have envisioned all possible obstacles: expanses of Russia, its terrain, and the Russian Winter as well.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Russian Winter". Adventure Travel and Activity Tours in Caucasus and Central Asia (ADVENTOURER). Yerevan, Armenia: Coherence Works LLC. 2014. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Chew, Allen F. (1981), "Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies" Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. "CSI" (pdf). Retrieved 2013-01-20. 
  3. ^ Denis Davydov, "Мороз ли истребил французскую армию в 1812 году?"