Arctic warfare

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For the family of sniper rifles, see Accuracy International Arctic Warfare.

Arctic warfare or winter warfare is any armed conflict that takes place in an exceptionally cold climate, usually in snowy and icy terrain, sometimes on ice-covered bodies of water.


Finnish ski troops during the Winter War.

The most well-recorded cold winter battles have taken place in northern and eastern Europe.

In 1242, the Teutonic Order lost the Battle of 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.

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 favourable to the Swedish.

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, and 3,000 of them died in a blizzard on a snowy mountain named Öjfjället.

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 manoeuvre decided the outcome of the war.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 is another example of winter warfare, as most of the French army died of frostbite and starvation rather than from actual combat.

Another famous example is the use of ski troops by the Finnish Army 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.

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 Nazi Germany under the Soviet Union's pressure, their former cobelligerents. While use of ski infantry was prolific in the Red Army, Germany formed only one division for movement on skis.

During Operation Zitronella in World War II, German and Allied troops fought over control of the island of Spitsbergen. This marks the highest latitude at which a land battle has ever been fought. However, given the extreme conditions, the German and Allied troops were at times compelled to assist each other to survive.[1]

From June 1942 to August 1943, the United States and Canada fought the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands Campaign in the Alaska Territory. Elsewhere, Operation Rösselsprung and Operation Wunderland were Arctic naval battles in World War II.


The following factors must be taken into the consideration.

  • Mobility and logistics in winter is 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]


Arctic warfare is very dependent on equipment.

Weapons can be fitted with an arctic trigger guard, an enlarged trigger guard which permits firing while wearing heavy mittens, or the trigger guard can sometimes be removed.

Motorized vehicles are often unfit to stand freezing temperatures. Special procedures can be used to ensure they perform in the cold, such as running them continuously or starting them at regular intervals. Studded tires or tire chains are useful equipment for maintaining traction of wheeled vehicles. It is also possible to design special vehicles for operation specifically in arctic conditions, such as the Sisu Nasu, BvS 10, M29 Weasel or Aerosani.


Troops acclimated to harsh conditions have better chance.[2]

For survival, troops need warm clothing and footwear, extra nutritious food, white camouflage, tents with sleeping bags, heaters and fuel.

Individual mobility can be increased by skis, cleats, and snowshoes. Troops must be well-trained in the use of the above.[2]

Training by nation

File:Cold Response DV dag.jpg

Perhaps five of the most prominent nations to continuously practice arctic warfare in peacetime would be Canada, Russian Federation (formerly the Soviet Union), Sweden, Finland and Norway, with the latter one hosting the annual, multi national winter exercise Cold Response. Standard Canadian Forces practices calls for combat arms and combat support arms members to undergo a least two weeks of winter warfare training, in addition to yearly refresher course. The Canadian Forces is the only member of NATO to outfit all its personnel with arctic survival equipment[citation needed]; this is in addition to all Canadian Forces equipment being able to operate effectively in arctic conditions with minimal changes.

See also


  1. Keegan, John (1993). A History of Warfare. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. p. 69. ISBN 0-394-58801-0. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 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. 

Further reading