In the past, we’ve covered just how expensive war can get and, as many people know, the defense budget of a country like the United States or Russia is enough to make Elon Musk break into a sweat. But not every victory has to break the bank and there is more than a little precedent to suggest some effective and devastating tactics don’t need to cost very much money at all. Let’s take a look at ten of history’s cheapest but most creative military tactics.
10. The WWII Ghost Army
Anything known as a Ghost Army is probably going to be cool no matter what it entails, but in the case of the Ghost Army most famously deployed during the Second World War, it’s also incredibly creative and more than a little sneaky.
Otherwise known as tactical deception, the Ghost Army was a tool meant to deceive Hitler and the German forces during the war and it relied not on the strength of soldiers and weapons so much as the creativity of artists.
Known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, this division built fake armies. Inflatable tanks and rubber airplanes were combined with radio transmissions that were designed to be intercepted by the enemy. They featured actors playing out parts, making it seem like troop movements and deployments were happening when, in reality, everything was for show. They even set up speakers in forests to broadcast the sounds of war and make it seem convincing to those on the ground.
This army of fakers numbered around 1,100, but their work was able to create the illusion of around 30,000 soldiers. Their work was effective enough that they were able to draw German forces off and save lives as a result. Records obtained from Germany after the fact indicate the deception was a total success, meaning tens of thousands of lives and millions worth of equipment were spared. It was also kept secret from the public stateside until 1996.
9. Aerial Ramming
The deadliest fighter pilot of all-time was Erich Hartmann, who has been credited with 352 kills in the air. Now, many of his victims were Soviet fighters, but, for the sake of argument, let’s say he took out 352 P-51 Mustangs, one of the most common US fighter planes of the war (pictured above). At a cost of about $58,000 at the time, he would have destroyed over $20 million in fighter planes. That’d work out to over $340 million today. Obviously, shooting the man down didn’t work out very well at the time, so what else could have been done? One lost cost alternative to a traditional dog fight is the extremely dangerous technique known as “air ramming.”
Like running another car off the road, air ramming involves hitting an enemy plane with your own plane. You can see why this is a tactic that isn’t done often. The goal is to not get yourself killed in the process, so it takes a steady hand, a keen eye and nerves of something a little harder than steel. And it’s a tactic about as old as flight itself.
Rumors of the tactic date back to even before WWII, but many people considered them wholly unreliable. After all, what kind of maniac could or would do such a thing? But consider if you’re out of ammunition, head to head against an enemy in the air and fully expecting to be shot down, what do you have to lose?
Back in 1956, two Soviet fighters took on two Hungarian planes and witnesses on the ground watched one of the Soviet pilots very clearly maneuver his plane into the enemy, destroying them both in the process but allowing the Soviet, who knew when he’d need to jump ship, float safely to the ground with his parachute. The pilot denied it was intentional, but witnesses say his intent and the result were very clear. The pilot later admitted that, when his guns failed him, he rammed the plane to take it out.
8. Quaker Guns
Sometimes your best chance for victory is just to make the enemy think you’re going to win, even if you can’t. Like the Ghost Army, you can achieve this by making them believe you have more resources than you really do. And in the American Revolutionary War, this took the form of Quaker cannons, named for the pacifist religious group.
From a distance, a Quaker cannon looks like any other cannon. But get close enough and you’ll notice it’s less a powerful piece of artillery and more of a painted log. Colonel William Washington had his men turn a pine tree into a fake cannon and threatened to take out men in a fortified barn if they didn’t surrender. They all gave up. Nearly 100 years later, the same trick was being used during the Civil War.
7. Chu Songs from Four Sides
In the year 202 in China, the Chu army had reached a place called Gaixia and were trapped in a canyon. They were surrounded by the Han army. Many of the Chu army were destroyed or captured and as night fell, only a small force remained. The leaders of the Han army had their soldiers, and the captured Chu army begin to sing traditional songs of Chu.
The Chu army, confronted with songs of their homeland on all sides, began to fear that Chu had fallen and they were all that remained of their people. Many soldiers deserted and the leader of the Chu army is said to have taken his own life, causing the remaining forces to surrender.
6. Hammering U-Boats
German U-Boats were a powerful force during WWI and sank upwards of 5,000 ships. Defeating them was a serious priority, and detecting them was not easy. Sonar did not exist at that time, so a vessel hidden underwater was all but invisible. Sometimes the most low-tech methods prove surprisingly effective.
For a time, the best way to deal with a submarine was to detect and disable the periscope. At night, small boats would go out on patrol with just a couple of soldiers on board, hunting for periscopes. When they found one, they’d cover the periscope with a bag and then smash it with a hammer. If the U-Boat wanted to see anything, it had to surface, and that left it open for attack.
5. Operation Christmas
They say war is hell, so if you can make the enemy focus on something better, maybe they’ll give up the fight, right? There’s evidence it works. Just look at Operation Christmas.
In an effort to counter the guerilla forces in Colombia, the military opted to decorate some Christmas trees. Deep in the jungles where the guerilla forces were known to move about, soldiers would pick massive trees and drape them in thousands of Christmas lights. They even filmed it to make commercials. The lights would activate on a motion sensor and a banner would light up that said, “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you too can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.”
The tactic resulted in about 300 guerillas, 5% of their total force, giving up and going home. They tried a similar tactic the year after and another 180 packed it in.
4. King Harald Faked his Death
King Harald Siggurdson’s life is steeped in unbelievable tales of heroism and strength. It’s said he triumphed in countless battles against countless enemies through strength as well as intelligence and few stories exemplify that as well as the tale of his Sicilian campaign.
It’s said that he laid siege to four different towns during the campaign, often under-manned compared to his enemies. If he couldn’t starve his enemies out, he’d use some trickery to gain the upper hand, which happened during the fourth campaign.
The town was well fortified and seemed unbeatable, so he began to spend his days in his tent. Eventually rumor spread that he was gravely ill and, finally, his men gave word to the enemy that he had died. His final wish? As a Christian man, he wanted to be laid to rest on church grounds. Inside the town.
So the town opened its gates and a coffin containing Siggurdson was brought in by his men who used it to block the gates, allowing the whole army and a very much alive Siggurdson to sack the town.
3. Zhuge Liang’s Victory by Shame
No one likes a show off but, as it happens, showing off and rubbing someone else’s face in your greatest can apparently save lives if you do it enough. That was what happened when Zhuge Liang, military strategist and Prime Minister of the Chinese state of Shu back between 221 and 263, was tasked with defeating Meng Huo, an enemy chieftain.
The story of Meng Huo’s defeat has become the stuff of legend because it kept happening. According to those legends, Liang captured Huo on the field of battle. Instead of killing or torturing the man, he gave him a tour of his army, showing off how great it was and asked what he thought, Meng Huo was not impressed, so Liang released him. They did this a total of seven times.
After seven captures, Meng Huo realized that Zhuge Liang’s forces were superior, and he voluntarily surrendered himself and ended up joining the other side.
2. The Battle of Pelusium
Getting into your enemy’s head can be invaluable and turn the tide of any battle. But what does that mean in a practical sense, and how could it best be exploited? Arguably one of the greatest examples of this occurred when Cambyses II, a Persian king, met the Egyptians during the Battle of Pelusium. This was a major battle that essentially put Egypt in the hands of Persia and started Egypt’s 27th Dynasty.
Cambyses II was taking on the forces of Pharaoh Psametik III, and he was an experienced tactician. He was also aware of the Egyptians’ beliefs and, in particular, their reverence for all forms of life, in particular those creatures that they viewed as earthly representations of their gods.
For Egyptians, cats were associated with the goddess Bastet. The goddess was both nurturer and fighter and had a prominent cult of followers. Few Egyptians would dare harm a cat lest they earn the goddesses ire. So Cambyses littered the battlefield with them and painted their images on the shields of his men.
The Persians carried cats into battle, which caused the Egyptians to fear loosing arrows against them. Cambyses let loose dogs, ibises, sheep and any other animals he thought the Egyptians would be too afraid to harm. The tactic worked, and the Egyptians either fled or were slaughtered.
1. The Whistling Sound of Falling Bombs
Psychology has a lot of impact in war as we’ve seen. Dive bombers used to mount Jericho trumpets on the front of their planes so that when they went into a dive, the plane would blare out that iconic wailing sound we associate with them and cause panic. Likewise, most of us recognize the high pitched whistling sound of a bomb being dropped if from nowhere else than old movies and even cartoons. It’s even the sound a cartoon will use for a character falling.
If you’ve watched any modern footage of war zones as bombs are deployed, you would not have heard that telltale whistle. Like the dive bombers of WWII, only certain bombs made that sound because an actual whistle was attached to the casing.
The sound and pitch change as the bomb drops, thanks to the Doppler effect. This meant that, on the ground, you had an audio warning of the speed and distance to the bomb, which you have to assume played havoc with a lot of people’s minds. Knowing your potential destruction is closing in fast would have chilled even the hardest soldier and severely shaken the nerves of all who survived. All that for the cost of a whistle.