The main purpose for studying history is not to see who ruled over what lands and when, or who fought against whom, how many they were, or who won in the end. This way of looking at things today will only flare up spirits between otherwise peaceful people, making them hate others who they haven’t even met. The purpose for studying history should be to see what made a society work, what didn’t, and learn from our past for a better tomorrow.
With that being said, there are some instances of conflict in the past which deserve a mention, not because they teach us something particularly useful for our own betterment, but because they were ingeniously implemented during some really hard times. One sure thing we can gather from most of these examples is that those who did not have the advantage of superior numbers on the battlefield, were forced to come up with some clever strategies to somehow even the odds, and if possible, even win the battle.
10. Vlad the Impaler and his Night Attack
Our first story takes us back to the 15th century and to a particular conflict between two of the most fascinating historical characters of Eastern Europe. Nine years after Constantinople fell to the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror set his sights on Wallachia, one of the three Principalities that make up present-day Romania, after Vlad the Impaler refused to pay the annual jizya (the tax on non-Muslims). As a region, Wallachia had always been regarded as a “buffer zone” between the Ottoman Empire to the South and the Hungarian Kingdom to the North, constantly forced to pay tribute to one or the other.
In the early spring of 1462, Mehmed gathered a force of roughly 90,000 soldiers, in an attempt to overthrow the rebellious Wallachian ruler. Throughout this time Vlad Dracula was ravaging the Bulgarian banks of the Danube, capturing Turkish prisoners. Hearing of the imminent attack and because of his inferior force of maybe 30,000, he retreated to the capital city of Targoviste, enforcing a “scorched earth” policy along the way. The Wallachian troops began a guerrilla war against the advancing Turkish forces, keeping them off balance. Peasants suffering from plague, tuberculosis and leprosy were disguised as Turkish soldiers and sent into the Ottoman camp, igniting an epidemic.
On June 16, 1462 the Turks made camp several miles south of the capital city. Dressed as an Ottoman soldier himself, and with intimate knowledge of the Turkish language and customs, Vlad the Impaler infiltrated the camp, scouting for the Sultan’s tent. During that same night, the Wallachian ruler organized a raid consisting of some 10,000 mounted forces, many also dressed in Turkish military uniform, in an attempt to assassinate the Conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmed II. The attack itself was successful, creating confusion and inflicting serious casualties on the Ottomans, but the assassination failed, with the Sultan managing to escape. Four days later, the Turks reached the city of Targoviste but found it completely deserted and with its gates wide open. Moreover, just outside the city walls and covering an area of about 1.2 sq. miles, was a literal forest of over 20,000 Turks on spikes, worthy of Vlad the Impaler’s name. Looking over this appalling site, the Sultan turned his forces around.
9. General Dan Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens
With every new or emerging state, the military is weaker, worse equipped, and far less trained and battle-hardened than the larger force of an Empire it usually has to battle against. Similar to today’s conflicts, the US during its own Revolutionary War for Independence was no exception. But in the latter half of the war, at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, the war’s Southern campaign saw a turning point in favor of the Americans. After several defeats at the hands of the British, the Continental army was divided in smaller divisions, making it easier for the local populace to feed them, and also to force the Redcoats to fight on multiple fronts; a wise strategy when facing a formidable force.
American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan took charge of 300 riflemen and 700 militiamen, in an attempt to take over the British controlled Fort Ninety-Six. In response, Banastre Tarleton was sent to engage him, leading a force of 1,150 highly trained Redcoats and Loyalists. The Americans decided to make a stand and face the British at the town of Cowpens. Relying on Tarleton’s tendency for quick action and his disdain for the militia (which were notorious for fleeing the battle at the first sign of trouble), Morgan instructed them to only fire two volleys and then retreat. Bolstered by the fleeing militiamen, the British charged, sure of their victory, only to find themselves under heavy fire from the remaining riflemen, coupled with a cavalry charge, as well as the returning militia. While the Americans suffered only around 100 casualties, more than 800 British troops were killed, wounded or captured. The battle was just the first of many game-changing victories, and an important morale boost for US troops.
8. Fritz Klingenberg and the Capture of Belgrade
Because of the failure of the Italians to secure their control in the Balkans during WWII, Hitler’s Germany was forced to intervene and secure their left flank from any Ally incursion coming in from Greece. The treacherous terrain and armed resistance hindered the Nazi advance, with supply lines hardly being maintained along the way. This was also their first encounter with guerrilla fighters, winter fighting, and mountainous terrain. In charge of the Nazi motorcycle reconnaissance unit, responsible for gathering intelligence quickly, was a 26-year-old captain Fritz Klingenberg. During the French campaign the previous year, his former company commander stated in a report that, “Klingenberg is intelligent yet headstrong, loyal yet not above correcting his superiors, brilliant under pressure, yet arrogant to the point of insubordination.”
Belgrade went through a four day series of airstrikes and most of the government officials fled, with the Yugoslav army within the city beginning to collapse. Shortly after, when on a reconnaissance mission, Klingenberg discovered an abandoned motorboat on the banks of the Danube on the opposite side of the city. He decided to take it, and together with six of his men crossed the raging river. Highjacking a few vehicles and freeing a German tourist who also spoke Croatian, the SS captain managed to enter the city with little to no opposition. He then quickly ordered the Yugoslavian flag be replaced with Nazi colors and had his men patrol the city in order to give the impression of being in charge.
When faced with the mayor of Belgrade, Klingenberg told him that he was leading the point team of several SS tank divisions and came to organize the city for their arrival. If the mayor was not willing to surrender Belgrade to the Nazis, a lengthy siege would take place, together with a two-week long bombardment, followed by massive artillery and armored attacks. The mayor was relieved to hear that no further harm would come to his city and its citizens if he complied, and so he did. When the rest of the German army finally reached the city, they were surprised to see that they weren’t opposed by anyone, initially believing Klingenberg’s radio message to be a hoax intended to draw them into an ambush. In fact, Klingenberg, together with six other soldiers and a German tourist who acted as an interpreter, managed to talk his way into capturing a capital city of 200,000 citizens and a force of 1,300 soldiers, sparing them from an imminent onslaught.
7. Haile Selassie and the Feast in Honor of his own Commander
Haile Selassie, initially known as Tafari Makonnen, was the regent ruler of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930, and then Emperor up until his death in 1974. Throughout his life, he was regarded as forward thinking and a competent monarch, implementing many social, economic, and educational reforms, even making it on the cover of Time magazine in 1930. But as with all such reforms, those who stood to lose the most (in this case the nobility) opposed him. One such noble – and famous military commander – was Balcha Safo. To be fair, Balcha did improve administration in the Sidamo province, where he was governor. But on the other hand, he paid no taxes to the central government, he regularly exploited the peasantry, and refused to outlaw slavery.
In 1928, Haile Selassie invited him to his palace in the capital for a feast in Balcha’s honor. When he arrived, he didn’t do so alone. He was accompanied by several thousand soldiers, who he then left outside of the city. To the banquet, Balcha took 600 men with him and spent the evening “generally insolent and threatening in conversation,” especially with the 30-year-old regent. But while the dejazmach – Ethiopian military commander – was feeling sure of himself and acting out at the palace, Selassie sent an emissary to his camp outside of the city and paid them off to abandon Balcha. At the same time, the Emperor appointed someone else as governor of the coffee rich Sidamo province. Both of these two simultaneous acts left Balcha with few options, and no possibility to resist. He was forced to retire to a monastery, until 1935 when he rejoined the military after the outbreak of the Italian-Ethiopian War.
6. Zopyrus and the Reconquering of Babylon
This following story may be more closely tied to legend than anything else, since the veracity of the account is debatable. The events were written down by Herodotus, several decades after they supposedly happened, and have a similarity to Homer’s description of Odysseus (Ulysses), who spied on Troy in The Odyssey. Moreover, there are no currently available cuneiform sources of the account, even though the affair took place in Persia, circa 500 BC.
In any case, the events took place during the reign of Darius the Great, ruler of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire between 550–486 BC, when the Empire went through a series of revolts. In order to bring the city of Babylon back into the fold, Darius amassed a large army with the hopes of reconquering it, if need be. On his arrival, he was met with closed gates, extra defenses put in place and taunting from the rebels, including the famous saying, “Oh yes, you will capture our city, when mules shall have foals.” Despite his many efforts and various strategies, the Emperor was unable to penetrate the city and was forced to hold a year and a half long siege. According to Herodotus’ account, a Persian nobleman by the name of Zopyrus presented himself in front of Darius with an idea on how to take back the city.
Prior to his arrival before the Emperor, Zopyrus had whipped himself, and even cut off his own nose and ears, making it look like he was punished for a serious crime. His plan, as he told Darius, was to present himself in this condition before the gates of Babylon, saying that the Emperor punished him for his failure in retaking the city, and he was now seeking asylum within the city walls. Darius agreed to the plan and Zopyrus was allowed access within Babylon. Being of high rank, the mutilated nobleman gained the Babylonians’ trust and before long became commander-in-chief of their army. Acting as an undercover agent, Zopyrus began to weaken the city’s defenses and led an attack against Darius’ forces, deliberately falling into an ambush where they were utterly defeated. With the Babylonian walls undefended, the city was quickly recaptured and Zopyrus made governor.
5. Sun Pin and the Battle of Maling
Sun Pin (also referred to as Sun Bin) was a military strategist who lived during the Warring States period in China. An alleged descendant of none other than Sun Tzu himself, Sun Pin was tutored in military strategy alongside P’ang Chuan; a colleague soon turned bitter rival. As P’ang Chuan grew ever more envious of Sun Pin’s talents and expertise, he framed Sun Pin on charges of treason and reported him to the Wei ruler. As a result, Sun Pin had his feet cut off and his face branded as punishment, never again being allowed to serve under the king. However, another of the warring states, Ch’i, learned about Sun Pin and engaged his services in secret.
After many years as military strategist for the Ch’i, Sun Pin was finally presented with a chance to challenge his rival in battle when the two states went to war against each other. In 354 BC the Wei were waging war against another state, Zhao, and were besieging their capital, which in turn asked for help from the Ch’i. Leading the Ch’i forces was Sun Pin, who decided to attack the Wei state directly, in order to force their hand and bring back their forces from Zhao, which were led by none other than P’ang Chuan. Before the two armies met, however, Sun Pin feinted a few defeats as to make P’ang Chuan believe that the Ch’i were weak and unable to achieve victory. Also knowing P’ang Chuan personally, Sun Pin laid in a trap for him. As the two armies drew closer, Sun Pin ordered 100,000 cooking fires be lit during the night. The following night he ordered just 50,000 and 20,000 after that. They even left some of their heavy artillery behind, further enforcing the idea of dwindling numbers. Hearing these reports, P’ang Chuan was eager to attack the Ch’i, believing them to be on the point of desertion; thus falling for Sun Pin’s ruse. He took only his swiftest cavalry and went in pursuit.
Sun Pin chose the highly restrictive Maling Pass to exercise his trap and set 10,000 crossbowmen to wait in ambush. On a large tree he had written the words “P’ang Chuan shall die in Malingdao, under this tree.” When the Wei army reached the tree during the night, they noticed the writing and lit a fire to better see the words. This act was also the signal for the crossbowmen to fire, taking the Wei army by surprise and totally overwhelming them with sheer numbers. What happened to P’ang Chuan is speculation, with some saying that he committed suicide at the realization of his defeat, while others believe him to be among the first to die under the heavy volley of arrows.
4. Operation Scherhorn
Operation Scherhorn took place during WWII, between August 1944 and May 1945, where the Soviet NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) successfully fooled Nazi high command into freely giving them regular supplies. The operation was proposed by Stalin himself and involved a clever ploy where the Nazis were led to believe that a large group of German soldiers were operating behind enemy lines in what is now Belarus. The nonexistent group was to be under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Heinrich Scherhorn, a real German prisoner of war forced to cooperate with the Soviets.
Scherhorn made contact with Berlin, telling them of his apparent situation, alongside 2,500 other German troops. Plans were set in motion to rescue the stranded forces, sending in several small groups of commandos and supplies via airdrops. All of the men and supplies were seized by the Soviets, who continued on with the ploy. After a few failed rescue attempts, where the Russians “seemed” to appear out of nowhere and at the exact time to stop the evacuation, the German high command opted to send only regular supplies. Up until the end of WWII in Europe, the Germans kept up radio contact with “Scherhorn,” showing their support for his situation. Heinrich Scherhorn was even named a national hero in March 1945 and awarded the Knight’s Cross by the Nazis, for his ability to lead a troop of acting soldiers behind enemy lines.
3. William Washington at Rugeley’s Mill
Another cleverly deceitful ploy of the American Revolutionary forces came about on December 4, 1780 when Colonel William Washington (George Washington’s second cousin), in charge of about eighty dragoons (cavalry units) in South Carolina, received reports of a group of Loyalists intercepting Patriot supply trains, and decided to investigate. Hearing of this new force coming towards them, the 114 Loyalists, led by Col. Henry Rugeley, retreated to their fort (Rugeley’s Mill), which was no more than a fortified barn surrounded by a ditch and abatis. With no artillery on hand, William Washington ordered his men to fire their muskets at the barn, but to no effect.
The Loyalists, feeling secure inside their makeshift fort and having the advantage of numbers, soon realized their dire situation when Washington (who was also key in the victory in the Battle of Cowpens, by the way) came forward with a cannon, placing it in view and requesting them to surrender or be blown apart. Seeing no way out, Henry Rugeley accepted. Only after they were disarmed and rounded up did the Loyalists realize that Washington’s cannon was no more than a painted log on wheels and that they were fooled into coming out. The name used for such a “weapon” is Quaker gun. Used primarily by the Confederates during the American Civil War, Quaker guns played a small but significant role, like in this case here. The word “Quaker” is a byname for the Society of Friends, a Christian group that arose in mid-17th century England and founded several colonies in the US, among other places.
2. Cambyses II of Persia at the Battle of Pelusium
The Battle of Pelusium during the 6th century BC is of high historical importance, where the Persian Empire successfully invaded and defeated the Egyptians. Another of Herodotus’ accounts, the battle itself and what actually happened there, is up for debate. The story goes that Emperor Cambyses II requested Pharaoh Amasis’ daughter in marriage, but the pharaoh refused, fearing that she would be made to be his concubine and not his actual wife. He sent Nitetis instead, the daughter of the previous ruler, disguised as his daughter. The Persian Emperor discovered the plot, however, and vowed to enact his revenge.
By the time Cambyses reached the eastern borders of Egypt with his army, the Pharaoh had died and was replaced by his son, Psamtek III. The details of the battle are quite vague, but it seems that Cambyses made use of a bit of psychological warfare to take advantage and achieve victory. Knowing the Egyptian religious beliefs in animals-shaped gods, and their worship for the feline goddess, Bastet, the Persians had their shields painted with her image, psychologically paralyzing the Egyptians (who were not willing to strike the holy image of their goddess). Another account concerning the battle can be found with Polyaenus, a 2nd century BC Macedonian author, who wrote that the Persians employed live animals, sacred to the Egyptians, and placed them in the front lines. Whatever the case may be, we may never know what really happened there, or what kinds of hijinks “warrior cats” were capable of getting up to.
1. Vietcong’s Tet Offensive
The Vietnam War, sometimes called the Second Indochina War, or even Resistance War Against America by the Vietnamese themselves, was one of the most drawn-out conflicts of the past century, lasting for almost 20 years. A Cold War-era proxy war against the spread of communism, it devastated the entire region, taking place over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. All throughout the eight years of US involvement, communist forces were waging a guerrilla war, lacking air, land, and sea superiority. Up until the beginning of 1968, the American public was mostly in favor of the war, strongly believing in their superiority and close victory. The Vietnam War was also the first one to be televised, with people watching daily reports straight from the battlefield. And since not much direct fighting was taking place, US citizens were feeling comfortable with their government’s involvement in Southeast Asia.
All of this would change on January 30th 1968, when the North Vietnamese launched a massive wave of attacks all across South Vietnam, striking more than 100 towns and cities simultaneously. A total of over 80,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops were deployed, and several cities fell under their control. However, as far as military strategy goes, this was a bad decision since the US and South Vietnam had the necessary forces to push back the advance (which they eventually did). But from a propaganda standpoint, the Tet Offensive was a success, bolstering North Vietnamese morale. But more importantly, it severely lowered it back in the States, shocking the US public.
Constantly being reassured by their government that North Vietnam was incapable of launching such a military operation, US citizens lost faith, and their support for the conflict declined. With ever increasing internal pressure, the US government decided to withdraw from the conflict five years later, and two years before the war officially ended with a North Vietnamese victory. In the end, even if the communists lost that particular battle, it was key to them eventually winning the war.