We’ve been fighting wars ever since we started having disputes with others and had enough people on both sides willing to fight for it. Even if warfare has changed quite a bit from its early days, the basic rules have always remained the same. It’s usually the side with conventional numerical and technological superiority that wins, regardless of other factors. Well, usually.
In a handful of cases, armies without a clear advantage on the battlefield (or even with an outright disadvantage in some rare instances) have prevailed over their numerically/technologically superior foes because of their on-the-fly, clever military tactics. While some of these battle maneuvers are still studied in history classes around the world, some have been forgotten due to the larger outcomes of their respective wars.
8. The Matchbook Tactic
The Second World War was full of creative military tactics from both sides, though only some of them turned out to be successful. One of them was Britain convincing German soldiers to abandon their posts and get sent off for medical reasons. As they couldn’t exactly just go up to them and tell them about it, they decided that the best way to do it was printing it on matchbooks and airdropping them behind enemy lines.
The matchbooks contained specific instructions on how to fake illnesses, like skin inflammations and lung problems. They were counting on German soldiers to go with the plan, too, as almost anyone would take sitting in a hospital bed somewhere over fighting a war. To everyone’s surprise – as it was admittedly a rather far-fetched plan – they were largely successful, though probably not in the way they had intended.
The German commanders got wind of the idea and refused to send anyone to quarantine or medical care… except some German soldiers really were sick, as wars tend to do that to people. Those soldiers were forced to stay and fight, and ended up spreading real disease among the German army. This tactic also sowed mistrust between the German soldiers and their commanders.
7. Fake Your Own Death
If you know anything about the history of Norway, you know of Harald Sigurdsson (also known as Harald Hardrada). Perhaps the most well-known Norwegian King, he was known for his military successes in Eastern Europe after his brother got usurped by Cnut (popularly known as Cnut the Great). He spent quite some time in the Eastern parts before he got the throne, working as a mercenary for the Byzantine Empire. He was good at it, too, proven by his clever tactics and victories on the battlefield.
One particularly striking instance was when he besieged a minor settlement that just wouldn’t give up. While most people would get frustrated and go home or rush in to fight, he came up with an ingenious plan.
He asked his men to place him in a coffin and tell the besieged forces that he was dead. In a spectacular lapse of judgement, the townspeople believed them, and even allowed him to be buried inside the city walls. To no one’s surprise other than the villagers’, he burst out of his coffin with a sword with a few of his men as soon as they were inside city walls. He was able to take the town with the help of just a handful of his soldiers, presumably pointing and laughing at his enemy through it all.
6. Operation Uranus
Enough has been talked about the German defeat in the Second World War, though mostly in the context of its battles in the West. The most the majority of us know about their Russian campaign is that it was brutal, and that you should never attempt to invade Russia in the winter. While that’s accurate, we forget that the Nazis were actually well on their way to success in the beginning, and if it wasn’t for some dynamic thinking by Stalin and Soviet leadership, the war would have ended very differently.
The flashpoint of the Eastern Theater was the Battle of Stalingrad, which was by far the biggest confrontation of any war in history because of the sheer numbers involved. It wasn’t always going well for the Russians, though, as the Germans were quite comfortably winning, as long as their supply lines remained intact. Stalin knew that, and asked his generals to undertake a risky-yet-smart maneuver to encircle the Germans.
Known as Operation Uranus, it redirected the supplies needed for the Russian forces fighting in the city to two forces from the north and south of the city. Their aim was to get behind the German flanks and cut off their supply lines, and then encircle them in a classic pincer maneuver. Perhaps it was love for the motherland or fear of what Stalin would do to them if they failed, though the Russian forces turned out to be successful. They cut off the German supply chain and had them surrounded, which proved to be the turning point of the battle.
Again, we cannot emphasize the importance of this maneuver, as the German forces winning Stalingrad would have been catastrophic for the Allies (and the world).
5. The ‘Empty City’ Tactic
What do you do when a force of 150,000 troops is marching on your town and all you have to defend it is a lose unit of about 100 men? If a genius ancient Chinese military commander is to be believed, the correct answer is ‘open the gates and sit on top of the walls playing your lute’.
The feat was accomplished by Chuko Liang (also Zhuge Liang), who was commanding the Shu Kingdom’s forces against the Wei’s in the War of the Three Kingdoms. Now the situation wasn’t as dire on other fronts, as the Shu’s commanded a sizable army of their own. They just didn’t anticipate an advance on this town, as Liang had already sent the bulk of his forces to fight elsewhere. Faced with the full might of his enemies, he had to come up with a plan.
What he did would eventually be known as the Empty Fort Strategy, which has since been used to great success in a few other battles in history. Counting on his reputation for cunning and military prowess (he is also credited with quite a few military inventions, including a repeated crossbow named after him), he asked his men to take down the city flags and retreat. He then proceeded to climb atop the walls, and started playing his lute.
Sima Yi, the general commanding the Wei forces, recognized him, and ordered a retreat of his own forces. He thought that Liang had an ambush set up, as he wasn’t known to be the sort of man who would be caught unprepared without any plans of his own. It worked, and the Wei army left them alone.
4. Battle Of Ilipa
The success of the ancient Roman Empire could be largely attributed to the competence of its military leaders. Some of the most famous military maneuvers in history were executed by ancient Roman commanders, and war history students still study them to this day. One of them was Scipio Africanus in his victory over Hannibal’s forces in the Battle of Ilipa in Spain.
Both of their forces were made up of Iberian mercenaries and well-trained forces of their own. While Scipio did a lot of things right in that battle, one of his best decisions was reversing the order of his formation exactly when the Carthaginians weren’t expecting it.
Commanded by Hannibal’s brother Mago and one of his best commanders, Hasdrubal Gisco, the Carthaginians had initially arranged their lines in the same way as the Romans. They had their well-trained soldiers in the middle, and the mercenaries on the flanks, as it was the best course of action. While the battle continued as a stalemate for a few days, it changed when Scipio suddenly decided to reverse the order, placing his mercenaries in the middle. They did a great job at holding the center of the Carthaginian forces, while the Roman flanks harassed and eventually broke their flanks.
Despite being outnumbered by some 10,000 men and on a sort of a losing streak to Hannibal in the recent past, the Roman forces prevailed. The battle marked a turning point in the Roman war against Carthage, and is still celebrated as one of the best military maneuvers of all time.
3. Battle Of The Hydaspes
Alexander was by far one of the most brilliant commanders in history. Owing to his prowess on the battlefield, he would regularly engage numerically-superior enemies and win. He never lost a battle, and took Macedonia from a tiny city state to one of the largest empires in all human history.
What we don’t know, however, is how close he came to defeat during his Indian campaign. Defeating Persian and Greek kingdoms was one thing, though marching on Indian kingdoms – which, at the time, commanded the largest forces on Earth, including war elephants most soldiers in the West had never even seen, let alone fought – was a whole different game altogether. That didn’t dissuade him, and he marched on the forces of King Porus of Punjab near the Jhelum river.
With the clearly-numerically-superior enemy army on the other side of the river blocking his way, he had to come up with a plan, and he promptly did. In one of the best maneuvers in history, he left a part of his forces to face Porus, and took the majority of his army to cross the river some 17 miles away. Porus got wind of this plan, and moved his position to face the bulk of Alexander’s forces. He didn’t know it then, but he had already set himself up for eventual defeat. Alexander marched on Porus’s forces (including 200 war elephants) with his trademark phalanxes, and sent some cavalry to further outflank him.
While Alexander was losing in the beginning, the flanking maneuver – including the arrival of the rest of his remaining forces from earlier – completely routed the massive army of Porus.
2. Using Your Own Bad Reputation As An Advantage
Ancient China was an especially-bloody period of world history, with many independent states as well as big factions fighting for control of its vast lands. One of those independent states was Ch’i, facing off against the mighty Wei forces. The Ch’i forces were renowned for their incompetence, as they weren’t particularly trained, were known to desert a lot and were overall bad soldiers. The Wei forces, commanded by P’ang Chuan, knew that, and probably didn’t think much of the advancing army once war was declared between the two.
What he failed to realize was that the Ch’i forces had a particularly brilliant military tactician for this war, Sun Bin, on their side. A descendant of the probably best strategist of all time, Sun Tzu, Sun Bin had an old rivalry against Chuan, which is probably why he was keen to help. He devised a brilliant strategy to make it seem like his forces were deserting by reducing the number of fires lit at night in his camp during the advance. The Wei forces, presuming that it was because of classic Ch’i deserters, didn’t think much of it, and waited for the advancing army.
As you’d have guessed, the Ch’i forces overwhelmed the Wei army easily, as they had no idea that they were facing a full army of 100,000 men. Chuan even committed suicide by slitting his throat by the end of it.
1. Inventing A Whole New Formation On The Fly
Napoleon can be safely placed on any list of the best military tacticians of all time. It’s an especially-noteworthy achievement, as all the armies he was fighting were on equal footing with him in terms of technology and military experience, unlike others like Alexander and Genghis Khan.
While he has a long list of impressive military maneuvers to be mentioned here, we’ll focus on his Egyptian campaign. The Mamluks had a formidable cavalry, which outnumbered his own cavalry by at least two to one. Where most other European armies would have faced certain defeat, Napoleon won due to his ingenious hollowed-square formation.
He placed his artillery, cavalry and baggage in the middle of the square, which were more rectangles than squares as they had twice the number of soldiers on their length than breadth. The formation was insanely-maneuverable and difficult to flank, as it was able to respond to flanking tricks from nearly all sides. He barely lost any soldiers, and by the end of it, all the Mamluk forces were routed as he successfully marched on Cairo.