Many tragedies throughout history have been justified by the excuse “I was only following orders.” The international community has sought to solve this problem. Regulations governing the behavior of armed forces were expanded to cover the entire world following the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials after World War II. However, there have been a number of critical battles fought throughout history that were only won because someone didn’t follow orders. Sometimes disobeying orders can turn the tide of major battles which might have affected the course of entire wars.
Although discipline is crucial for the performance of any military, there are those rare times when it was important to not follow orders. In the interest of accurate information, we have limited this list to events that occurred since the 18th century. Here are ten of the most famous instances since then. As Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew something about military life, said in 1817, “Insubordination may only be evidence of a strong mind.”
10. Battle of Copenhagen – Napoleonic Wars, 1801
Horatio Nelson has frequently been called Britain’s finest sailor. In addition to his unequalled ability to motivate those under him, he was a tactical wizard who didn’t let minor details like ‘orders from his superiors’ constrain him. By not obeying orders, Nelson was able to win critical battles. The Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 is one illustration of this habit.
In 1801, the British were fighting a critical battle against Denmark. Admiral Sir Hyde Parker was named commander of the the British forces. Since he was unable to take the larger ships too close to his enemy because of shallow water, Parker sent Nelson, his second in command, ahead with the lighter ships. When Parker thought things were going badly, he sent a signal to withdraw. One of Nelson’s favorite ways to not follow orders, and thus win critical battles, was his unmatched ability to not see unwanted messages.
According to witnesses, when he he saw the signal, Nelson turned to Thomas Foley, his flag captain, and said “You know Foley, I have only one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes.” He then raised his spyglass to his blind eye and said “I really do not see the signal.” You’ve probably heard the phrase “turning a blind eye” when ignoring something obvious. If you ever wondered where it came from, thank Horatio Nelson and his willingness to ignore orders.
9. Battle of Hampton Roads – American Civil War, 1862
Captain John Marston of the US Navy provided a perfect example of how an officer can save a battle and probably a war by not obeying orders.
Early in the American Civil War, the Confederate Navy began converting the USS Merrimack into an ironclad warship. This would have made her essentially invulnerable to the Union forces which were blockading the southern ports. If she got loose and destroyed the Union blockade, there was an excellent possibility of Great Britain entering the war on the Confederacy’s side.
The Union’s only chance was to build an ironclad of their own to stop the Merrimack (as noted by Edward L. Beach in The United States Navy: A 200-year History). Both sides raced to complete their vessels. While the Union’s ironclad, the USS Monitor, was en route from New York, the Merrimack got under way and proceeded to massacre the Union’s wooden ships guarding the critically important Norfolk harbor.
Against all logic, Gideon Welles, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, insisted the Monitor must avoid battle and guard the Potomac River. When the Monitor arrived, her commanding officer reported to Marston for instructions. Despite Welles’ hysterical orders to have the Monitor avoid battle, Marston sent the Monitor to attack the Merrimack when she came out in the morning. Tactically, the next day’s “Battle between the Ironclads” was a draw. However, strategically it was a crucial Union victory which maintained the blockade and kept Great Britain out of the war. By disobeying orders, John Marston kept the south from winning the war.
8. Battle of Tannenberg – World War I, 1914
At the Battle of Tannenberg, the Imperial German Army encircled and crushed an invading Russian Army. Germany won this great victory because General Hermann Von Francois saved thousands of his troops by not following orders multiple times.
Initially, Von Francois was ordered to attack. He knew an assault by his forces before their supporting artillery arrived would have been suicide. He also knew he could afford to wait because he had seen intelligence reports which said the Russians wouldn’t be moving yet. His superiors, despite having the same information, wanted him to go ahead anyway. Von Francois stalled them long enough to save many of his troops. He began his attack when he was ready, and was able to cut off a substantial part of the Russian Army.
Von Francois’ was later given another panicked order which he ignored, allowing him to completely encircle and trap most of the Russians. General Herrmann Von Francois had saved the day by not obeying idiotic orders.
7. Battle of Cowpens – American Revolutionary War, 1781
In 1781, Daniel Morgan was leading part of the American forces in the south. His commanding officer, General Nathaniel Greene, ordered him to limit operations to harassing the superior British Army. However, Morgan gained a huge victory for the Continental Army by not following orders. He learned that his major opponent would be the British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Despised by the rebels for previously slaughtering American troops who were in the process of surrendering, he was called “Bloody Tarleton.” Morgan knew Tarleton could be overly aggressive and had little regard for the abilities of the rebel forces.
Despite his orders, Morgan saw an opportunity for a major victory. He set a trap, and Tarleton fell right in, barely escaping with his own life and a handful of his men. By not following orders, Daniel Morgan was able to dramatically change the entire course of the American Revolutionary War. In the process, he also greatly raised the morale of his troops by sending the hated Tarleton running away in disgrace.
6. Battle of Gettysburg – American Civil War, 1863
Captain William Miller’s actions are an excellent example of how not obeying orders can turn the tide of a battle. In this case, winning the day most likely decided an entire war.
At the beginning of July, 1863 the Union Army won the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Robert E. Lee was leading the Confederate Army on an attack north into Pennsylvania where a major victory might have forced President Abraham Lincoln to quit the war.
In the third day of a battle that the south appeared to be winning, Miller had been ordered to hold his cavalry company in position. However, he could see the Confederate cavalry attacking the Union flank. Recognizing the danger, Miller knew he had to act, despite orders. He turned to his adjutant and asked for his support at the court martial Miller feared. When the lieutenant agreed, he ordered a charge.
Had Miller not violated orders, Lee’s cavalry would have reached the side of the Union line and turned their flank. Because of Miller’s quick action, the Confederate infantry was not supported, and their charge was crushed. This broke the back of the Confederate Army. Had they succeeded, the south probably would have won the battle and the war.
5. Sicilian Campaign – World War II, 1942
After defeating the Germans in North Africa, the Allies next planned to invade Sicily. Although the US Army had improved considerably since General George Patton’s arrival, General Sir Harold Alexander, the British general in overall command of the operation, was unimpressed. US forces were assigned only supporting tasks, while British expected the leading role. To make matters even worse for the US Army, when the British ran into some difficulty, Patton was ordered to give up control of the road they were using. Patton’s generals expected to see an explosion of his well-known temper. However, he calmly said these were the orders and that was that. Alexander authorized him to move his forces slightly to the west.
In addition to his other skills, Patton never failed to take advantage of an opportunity. Instead of slogging through difficult terrain just west of Montgomery’s troops, he continued to the west coast and captured Palermo, which was a prize that was supposed to be reserved for the British. Just after Patton secured Palermo, an aide handed him an order from Alexander, which forbade him from taking the city. Patton replied “Ask him if he wants us to give it back.” He then turned north and captured Messina, which was also supposed to become a British prize, thereby trapping the remnants of the German forces. By not obeying orders, Patton drastically shortened the Sicilian campaign and demonstrated the US Army’s abilities.
4. Battle of New Orleans – American Civil War, 1862
Admiral David Farragut is best remembered for exclaiming “damn the torpedoes” when the led the US Navy at the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Despite that, his actions two years earlier at the Battle of New Orleans were far more important. At New Orleans, Farragut had been ordered to enter the Mississippi River and capture the city “after reducing the defenses which guard the approaches.” After thousands of shells had landed inside the fort with no apparent effect, Farragut realized the equipment he had would never be effective, and it would be impossible to “reduce the defenses.”
Since it was vital to get up the river in order to fulfill his important mission, and he lacked the proper weapons to disable the forts guarding the entrance, Farragut would have to disobey orders and proceed past the forts anyway. Although he defied written orders, thanks to his success Farragut was made the US Navy’s first admiral. His superiors realized he won only because he didn’t follow their orders.
3. USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere – War of 1812
The infant United States knew they could never hope to match the mighty Royal Navy in number of ships. Their only hope would be to build a small number of frigates which could be successful against the British in individual combat. By the War of 1812 a few of of these ships had been delivered. A nervous President James Madison had no intention of risking his tiny fleet in this manner. The US Navy would never learn if their plan would work. However, the United States was fortunate to have an officer who knew when not to follow orders.
Captain Isaac Hull, commanding the USS Constitution, one of these new frigates, had barely escaped into Boston harbor while being trailed by a force of five British warships. He knew as soon as Madison learned he was in Boston, Hull would be directed to remain in port. Rather than wait for this unwelcome order, he reprovisioned as rapidly as possible and put out to sea. The Constitution soon met the British frigate HMS Guerriere in combat. Hull would shock everyone by defeating the Guerriere. By not following orders, he gave America its first naval victory and proved the quality of its ships.
2. Battle of the Sinai Desert – Yom Kippur War, 1973
General Ariel Sharon was one of Israel’s most successful, and also most controversial commanders. You probably also remember him as the former prime minister of Israel. As a general, his superiors struggled, and usually failed, to control him. Once, when he was rebuked for not following orders, he yelled back “Don’t bother me with those things.”
Although he was infuriating to his superiors, Sharon’s men loved him. He was known to everyone by his nickname, “Arik.” Some of them scrawled “Arik, King of Israel” on the sides of their tanks. By not obeying orders, Sharon frequently turned impending disasters into Israeli victories.
Sharon’s finest hour came in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Egypt and Syria were able to launch a surprise attack. The Israeli forces guarding the east bank of the Suez Canal were overwhelmed. Two entire Egyptian armies were soon across the canal. Not long after Sharon arrived in the Sinai with a portion of his division, one of his patrols found a seam between the two Egyptian Armies, then massed in the Sinai Desert.
Naturally, Sharon suggested an attack there, which would split the Egyptian armies. His superiors told him to wait. After feuding with his commander, Sharon got his permission and crossed the canal. Once across, he was able to surround the entire Egyptian Army. The Egyptians soon agreed to a cease fire. By disobeying orders, Sharon turned an impending disaster into an Israeli victory.
1. Battle of Cape St. Vincent – Napoleonic Wars, 1797
As noted in entry 10, Horatio Nelson was a British sailing legend. In addition to his unequalled ability to motivate those under him, he was a tactical genius. Nelson didn’t just think “outside the box.” In his mind, there was no box. By disobeying orders, Nelson was able to win critical battles that seemed lost. He first came to fame by his audacious actions at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. During the entire age of sail, it was accepted practice to place the largest warships in a line so the maximum number of guns could be brought to bear.
Admiral Sir John Jervis, commanding the British fleet, ordered the British to form a line and engage the Spanish fleet. You never, ever, would intentionally break your line of battle. Unless, of course, your name was Horatio Nelson and you saw a way to win by breaking the cherished rules. Despite risking his career, when Nelson saw the Spanish fleet was about to escape, he swung his ship out of the line to cut them off. By not following orders, Nelson gave Britain a desperately needed victory.