War, what is it good for? Gaffes and blunders, apparently. Whether it’s overconfidence, miscalculations, a disobeying of orders, or lack of preparation, you can be sure to find a ton of errors which result in some kind of military disaster. As long as imperfect, error-prone humans run wars, one can expect boo-boos of these sorts to continue happening.
World War II saw a lot of firsts – atomic bombs, unprecedented slaughter, massive mobilized armies spread throughout multiple continents and the largest casualty rate of any war since the dawn of humankind. But the War to end all Wars also had a ton of gaffes, many times resulting in unnecessary deaths and often times shifting the entire momentum of the war.
Hitler, in all of his madness, was especially prone to making awful tactical decisions. On June, 6th, 1944, Operation Neptune, the Allied Normandy Invasion, opened up with Operation Overlord, the invasion of Nazi Western Europe. The largest amphibious assault in history was one of the turning points of the war, but it may have never succeeded, if not for Hitler’s sleeping habits.
Erwin Rommel, in charge of all coastal defenses, had several panzer tank divisions under his charge. But while the allies pushed further inland, all the tanks could do was wait in place. This was because Hitler, a notorious night owl, was asleep and no one dared to wake him. This proved to be disastrous, since he had the final word on moving the tanks. If the panzer divisions were given the nod earlier, they very likely would have repulsed the invasion at the beach heads.
9. The Invasion of Moscow
Again, we return to Hitler for our second gaffe. Any historian can argue that Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, was the biggest fubar of all, as the last great invasion of Russia proper was done by Napoleon and his forces in the summer of 1812. By the time he retreated and returned to France, most of Napoleon’s forces, reputation and ambitions were destroyed. Hitler should have studied Napoleon, because the parallels between their failures are so close its scary.
But unbeknownst to some, thanks to Uncle Joe purging the best leaders from the Red Army, the Germans were destroying the Russians in the early part of the invasion. The Russian soldiers didn’t know what the hell to do and it got so out of hand that whole armies of Russian soldiers were easily encircled and quickly decimated. This became so commonplace it became almost comedic. Within three weeks of the invasion the blitzkrieg destroyed 28 Russian divisions. The Red Army was nearly destroyed, suffering millions of casualties.
The final nail in the coffin was to be Moscow. If captured, Moscow — the capital and transportation hub for the USSR — would have most likely knocked Russia out of the war. In the spring of 1942, German Generals urged Hitler to attack Moscow, which at one point was only 100 miles away. Instead Hitler disagreed, transferred troops from Moscow to the Southern Front, stalled the army and gave the Russians time to fortify Moscow. When they finally attacked in late fall and colder weather arrived, guess what? The Germans had no cold weather gear because Hitler thought the war would have been over in one summer.
8. Custer’s Last Stand
What is now known as “Custer’s Last Stand” or more commonly “The Battle of Little Big Horn,” was a skirmish that was part of a larger conflict: the Long Plains Indian War. The conflict began in 1875, when the U.S military infringed their treaty with the Sioux and Cheyenne when they found gold in the black hills of South Dakota. This led the tribes to coalesce in Montana by the Little Big Horn, which violated government rule.
The government sent forces to deal with this issue. In June of 1876, US soldiers attacked and were repulsed by over a thousand natives. Afterwards, General Terry ordered Lt. Col. Custer and the 7th Calvary to recon the area. Here is the beginning of Custer’s mistakes – he disobeyed orders, marching straight ahead instead of around Wolf Mountain, fatiguing his men and arriving so early that he missed linking up with reinforcements. Then, instead of resting and waiting for backup from the 2nd Calvary and their Gatling Guns, he decided to go ahead with his tired, 600+ men of the 7th Calvary.
Finally, he vastly underestimated his enemy as he marched right into one of the largest Native encampments, containing thousands of natives. Splitting up the 7th Calvary, under the commands of Major Reno and Captain Benteen, Custer took the rest of the Calvary to Battle Ridge, where they were promptly ambushed and decimated. This resulted in 268 dead, including Custer, his two brothers, his nephew, and his brother-in-law.
7. Pearl Harbor
December 7th, 1941 is the day that will forever live in infamy. It is the day that the Empire of Japan decided to attack the United States with a surprise and preemptive strike, by taking out the United States Pacific Fleet. The result was over 2,000 killed and over 1,000 wounded.
But let us quickly look at the mistakes the Japanese made that could’ve ended the war even before it began. First, the Japanese should have known to not attack on a Sunday morning. Nine out of ten sailors and personal were on shore leave, ensuring that at the time of the attack, the ships were understaffed. Instead of over 2,000 dead, the numbers, if the ships were fully stated, could’ve run well into the 30,000’s.
Second, the Japanese glaringly overlooked the means of repair for the ships – the dry docks. If those docks were knocked out, all of the ships would have been sent to be mainland US, but as they were not, the ships were repaired right in base. Third, a mere five miles away from base were tankers which contained the entire fuel supply for the Pacific Fleet. If the Japanese had the foresight and attacked the tankers, the Pacific Fleet and campaign would’ve been cropped.
And finally, the Japanese made the most fatal mistake of all – they brought the formerly isolationist United States into the war. And they were pissed.
6. Dien Bien Phu
After World War II, Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh decided to declare Vietnam a free country, even though the ink on the Japanese surrender forms was not yet dry. This apparently made France kind of upset, since Vietnam was one of their colonial possessions and they wanted to keep it.
But Ho Chi Minh was not at all in agreement with this plan. In 1949, war broke out between the Vietnamese guerrilla army, the Vietnam Minh, and the French. The Viet Minh, led by General Giap, was very successful in their crusade against the French. Dien Bien Phu was a French outpost, isolated by the border of Laos. The French believed that they had a military advantage, due to the natural geography of the region. Commander Henri Navarre had chosen this old outpost because one of the other French military bases, Na San, had been attacked by the Viet Minh, and it held up, forcing the Viet Minh to retreat. He was hoping of a repeat.
But Navarre made some bad calculations, which led to disaster for the last remaining French and European presence in the region. Navarre selected a disadvantageous location by choosing Dien Bien Phu, which was so isolated that it was very difficult to supply by the air, which came back to haunt the French troops. His peer commanders in the French military had warned Navarre about this problem, but Navarre refused to listen and went ahead with his strategic plans.
In addition, the French were truly isolated, as the jungles around the outpost were not secured by the French and they were teeming with Viet Minh forces. Lastly, the position of the outpost made it an easy target for Vietnamese artillery, which was well hidden by Giap. The French enjoyed the easy targeting of the Viet Minh exposed artillery, but after they were hidden, this took away the French advantage.
Essentially, the French were sitting ducks. Starting their attack on January 31st, 1954, they ended it with an encirclement and direct charge that led to the capture of 11,000 men and caused 1,000 to 3,000 deaths.
5. The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
The Romans always had problems with the pesky border regions of their Empire, along with the equally pesky people occupying the lands right outside those borders, such as the German tribes, whom always had animosity with their Roman neighbors.
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest of 9 AD was one of these little conflicts between the two, which occurred during the Roman-Germanic Wars of 113 BC-439 AD. The battle was fought between Arminius, the Germanic commander, who had 12,000 soldiers at his disposal. The Roman side had Publius Quinctilius Varus and the 36,000 men serving under him. Publius Varu, in 6 AD, oversaw Germania. To make a long story short, the people didn’t like him. Being cruel to the people you are overseeing will do this to you. After the tribes began to revolt, Publius took three legions: the XVII, XVIII, and XIX. Arminius, a former hostage, advised Publius to take care of revolts and, to get there as quickly as possible, go through the Teutoburg Forest.
Of course, it was a trap, and Arminius was a traitor loyal to the tribes. So hook, line and sinker, Publicus took the bait. And like any good gaffe, of course he was warned beforehand about Arminius by Segestes and of course he flippantly dismissed it. And of course, as he was traveling in unknown terrain, and didn’t bother to send scouts ahead of the legions that would have caught the inevitable ambush. And of course the Germanic warriors went on a slaughter orgy, killing 15,000-20,000 Roman soldiers and destroying the three legions, permanently. And, of course, Publius committed suicide.
4. War of the Triple Alliance
Can you find Paraguay on the map? If so, then pat yourself on the back. Now, see how small the country is? Take a look at Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Now imagine that this small country went to war with these other, giant countries. It’s kind of like a chihuahua fighting a pit bull, a rottweiler, and a bulldog, all at the same time.
This is what the “War of the Triple Alliance” was, with the same results of that rhetorical dog brawl. The War of the Triple Alliance is one of those dumb conflicts in history that was both ultra-destructive and utterly meaningless. All the official reasons were just plain dumb, like wanting ownership of the Río de la Plata region, anger over meddling by other countries in Uruguayan life, and boundary arguments.
Oh, and we cannot forget the ego of Francisco Solano López, the President of Paraguay. This is all you need to know in regards to how inane this thing was. And the worst part of all is that Paraguay lost most of its male population to the war. If casualties are measured by a death-to-combatant ratio, this war was among the deadliest in all of modern warfare.
Not only was Paraguay defeated straight-up on a ground combat basis, to add insult to injury, it turned into a protracted guerrilla war, with the other countries laying absolute waste to the country, with 60% of its population slaughtered.
1870’s Battle of Cerro Corá saw President Lopez on the run from the Brazilian army. Rubbing salt in the wound, his detachment abandoned him and became scouts for the Brazilians. When they caught up with him, he tried to make a heroic last stand, and was promptly cut down. At that point, he probably regretted starting the war. But maybe not — after all, we are talking about a man who had his 70-year-old mother flogged and executed.
3. The Battle of San Jacinto
The state of Texas can owe its entire existence to the Battle of San Jacinto, along with an enormous blunder. The Battle of San Jacinto in April 1836 was a turning point of the Texan Revolution. General Sam Houston led the attack that took General Antonio López de Santa Anna and his army completely by surprise. The attack was so swift, as a matter of fact, that the entirety of the battle only lasted a mere 18 minutes. In that time span, the Texans were able to kill 630 soldiers of the Mexican army and capture 730 additional soldiers. Only nine Texans perished in return.
This battle had reverberations felt far beyond mere fighting. The Mexican President was taken prisoner by the Texans the following day, and he submitted to the Texan army as he was held. The President recalled the Mexican army, which initiated the formation of the Republic of Texas as a sovereign state. And what led to all of this? Taking a rest break. Seriously. Santa Anna, who knew the Texan army was in the vicinity, ordered his army to take a rest and, worst of all, he failed to post guards, even though the enemy was virtually next door. So it was no surprise that Sam Houston attacked directly, in broad daylight.
2. Battle of Peleliu
Operation Stalemate II, otherwise known as the Battle of Peleliu, was a conflict between the United States and the empire of Japan. The attack commenced with an amphibious assault by the First Marine Division. In addition, the United States Army also sent soldiers from the 81st Infantry Division. The goal was to reach and take the Peluliu airstrip. The Japanese on the small island put up savage resistance due to their well-manned fortifications and positions.
The battle in itself was savage, and after it was all said and done, the result was the highest death toll (1,794) for any amphibious assault by the Americans, and the highest death toll for any American operation in the Pacific Theater. Even though the battle was estimated to be over in two days, in actuality it was fought between the two forces for approximately two months — from September to November of 1944.
The worst part of the carnage? After the battle was over, it was deemed that capturing Peleliu was probably not necessary after all! Too bad this was not determined when it really mattered – before the battle. Talk about a face full of cold water.
1. Battle of Zama
Hannibal Barca of Carthage was the great villain of the fledgling Roman Empire. There was no room for two superpowers to coexist, especially two superpowers — Carthage and Rome — that were practically neighbors. So one had to go.
Hannibal wanted nothing more than to crush Rome. He almost did just that, as he famously invaded the mainland of Italy by crossing through the north with his army, which included war elephants. In the Second Punic War (218 BC – 201 BC,) Hannibal took the fight to Rome’s front door, but was unable to complete the conquest, languishing for 16 years, as his supplies ran out and Carthage refused to re-supply or send reinforcements to Italy to replenish his ranks.
Hannibal’s plan to turn various provinces against Rome failed, as most remained loyal. In addition, he lost most of his technology, such as siege works, on the long journey from Carthage to Italy, which was absolutely necessary for the siege of Rome. As Hannibal attempted to return to Carthage, he became embroiled in the Battle of Zuma. Hannibal had at his disposal 80 war elephants, 50,000 infantry, and 4,000 cavalry, while Scipio Africanus, his Roman counterpart, had 34,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 6,000 Numidian cavalry.
Hannibal figured his elephants would be the great equalizer in the battle. But Africanus had a brilliant-yet-simple way to neutralize their power – as they charged, he commanded the infantry to simply move out of the way and let them pass, as the elephants kept going straight ahead without turning around. The Romans routed the Carthaginians to the tune of 20,000 dead, 11,000 soldiers wounded, and 15,000 captured. This battle effectively ended Carthage as a major power as they submitted to the power of Rome, which grew from that point forward.