In war, there are winners and losers. Sometimes an army is defeated because they simply faced a larger and more powerful foe. Other times they lose because of some bizarre set of circumstances no one could have foreseen, or because they were simply outwitted by a cunning adversary. Sometimes an army is even dealt a defeat because of bad weather (as happened to the Mongol fleet of Kublai Khan in 1281 AD, which was destroyed by a typhoon as it tried to cross the narrow strait between Korea and Japan.) However, there are also those battles that were lost due to the sheer incompetency of a leader, which is the source for this list.
Of course, even a good military leader can have a bad day. As such, this list is not about leaders who simply lost a battle, but those who either snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory or were classic incompetents that somehow managed to be given command of entire armies. A few are on this list because they are perceived as being far more capable than history demonstrates them to have been; in other words, besides the worst leaders, this list also contains the most overrated leaders who, while competent to a degree, do not rightly deserve the level of credit given to them by history. Finally, this is not a list of Generals only, but of men—some of whom may not even have been in uniform—that made the decisions that ultimately led their armies to utter catastrophe. And so, without further ado, here is my list for the top ten most incompetent, overrated, or just plain unlucky military leaders in history.
10. (Tie) Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, U.K.
Okay, not really a bad field commander. In fact, a pretty fair one. The only reason he’s on the list is that, like a British version of Macarthur, he too may be one of the most overrated commanders of World War II. While Monty is credited—and rightfully so—for his victory at El Alamein, Egypt in October of 1942, it must be remembered he was fighting an exhausted and over-extended German Afrika Korps that lacked significant air support and was running on fumes. The British and their allies, in contrast, massively outnumbered Rommel in almost every category, making victory—pending some remarkable chain of events—eventually inevitable. Unfortunately, unlike his predecessors, Monty choose not to follow up on his victory by pushing the Germans out of Africa immediately, waiting until May of 1943 to finally accomplish what should have been done months earlier. But Egypt wasn’t Monty’s real problem.
That came later, first with the over-planned and under-executed landings in Sicily (Patton’s forces beat Monty’s British Army to Messina even though they had twice as far to go), followed by his dismal attempt to capture Caen, France on D-Day. (The city was not taken until July 18, 1944, six weeks after the initial landing.) Then there was Operation Markey Garden in September, 1944, the attempt to take three key bridges in Holland that would make a breakout into the Ruhr Valley possible. Great idea; just poorly implemented, the result being the surrender of 6,000 British paratroopers at Arnhem and a temporary stalemate that was to last until that next spring. Monty had good intentions; it’s just that he tended to be too timid when aggressiveness was called for, and too aggressive when caution would have been more advisable.
10. (Tie) Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Germany
This is easily my most controversial pick, and I do it with some reluctance only because of the esteem the “Desert Fox” is looked upon with today. In my defense, I do not maintain that Rommel was a bad General. In fact, considering the circumstances he had to deal with—lack of supplies, harsh conditions, being perpetually outnumbered—he did a remarkable job as arguably Germany’s most successful—or, at very least, most popular—general. Plus, the fact that he was implicated in the plot to kill Hitler—though pretty late in the game—makes him a hero to both sides.
However, in terms of actual accomplishments, the man may not quite live up to his reputation. While an aggressive and capable commander, he tended to be abrasive, intolerant, unteachable and rash to the point of foolhardiness, which might be one of the reasons he was defeated by the British in North Africa not once, but twice (the first time at the hands of British General Auchinleck, the second time by Montgomery) and finally pushed off the continent.
Afterwards given the task of securing the French coastline from allied invasion (the Atlantic Wall) he oversaw the construction of a formidable barrier of bunkers and gun emplacements that prevented the allies from taking the beaches at Normandy on June 6, 1944 for about half an hour or so, thereby demonstrating the futility of depending on fixed defenses to stop invasions (a lesson the Germans should have remembered from France’s futile efforts to hold the Maginot Line in 1940). Obviously, not all of this could be laid at Rommel’s doorstep as he did have to work under the limitations imposed upon him by der fuehrer, but when one considers his almost legendary reputation, it seems he should have been able to do more to stop the allied advance in France.
9. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, Japan
This is a case in which a successful commander enjoyed an overwhelming victory, only to almost immediately squander the priceless opportunity it afforded him. Admiral Mikawa was an up-and-coming Japanese admiral known for his intelligence and sound judgment when he assumed command of the Japanese 8th fleet at Rabaul in July of 1942. Just a month later, he was to lead this same fleet to one of Japan’s greatest naval victories of World War Two when, during the night of August 8-9, 1942, he slipped into the waters off Guadalcanal and sent four allied cruisers to the bottom in a little under one hour. In doing so, he left the Marines on Guadalcanal without sea protection and rendered the transports anchored off shore sitting ducks. However, just as complete victory—and the routing of the American forces on Guadalcanal—was all but imminent, the Admiral inexplicably broke off the attack and headed for home, thereby saving the U.S. Navy from further humiliation and destruction.
Had the man shown a bit more aggressiveness and sank the hapless transports, very likely the U.S. would have been forced to evacuate the Solomon Islands and the war would have been extended by months or, possibly, as long as a year. Rightfully criticized by his superiors for his timely blunder, he was given increasingly smaller and more isolated commands throughout the remainder of the war until being forcefully retired by the Japanese Navy in June of 1945, three months before the war ended. Not a bad officer, but an officer with bad timing.
8. Saddam Hussein, Iraq
People don’t normally think of the Butcher of Baghdad as a military leader (though he liked to wear uniforms), but for the twenty-four years he called the shots in Iraq, that’s exactly what he was. Like Hitler, every military operation was overseen by him personally and in great detail, though, again like Hitler, he left the day-to-day tactical operations to a group of hand-picked incompetents known more for their loyalty to him than for their battlefield prowess.
Consider that during his reign, Saddam oversaw three major conflicts (the invasion of Iran and Persian Gulf I & II) all of which he lost soundly (although the Iranian conflict dragged on for 8 long years before Saddam finally sued for peace.) His inept defense of Kuwait in 1991 against U.S. and coalition forces almost cost him his entire army—not to mention his head—while the follow-up war just eleven years later (the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003) cost him both. Perhaps his best idea was convincing the world he had WMD in an effort to discourage an invasion, thereby encouraging the very conquest he was trying to avoid.
Worst, he forgot to tell his own generals his WMDs were merely a figment of his imagination, much to their consternation as they were counting on using them to slow the American march on Baghdad. Truly it could be said that no American military commander ever had a better ally than the madman from Tikrit.
7. General George McClellan, USA
While there were a host of bad generals serving on both sides during the American Civil War—mostly on the Union side unfortunately—the one that usually gets the most credit for dragging out the war as long as he did is Union General George McClellan. McClellan wasn’t the worst general in the Union army—that title probably belongs to men like Joe Hooker or Ambrose Burnside—but he was the most cautious which, in war, can be as dangerous as being too bold. In command of the Union Army from November, 1861 until he was dismissed by Lincoln after the bloody and inconclusive Battle of Antietam in September, 1862, McClellan was famous for his take it slow approach that resulted in interminable delays and missed opportunities to hit the rebels hard and potentially shorten the war.
To his credit, some of his biographers write that McClellan was hesitant to commit to battle out of concern for the lives of his men—which is admirable—but missing opportunities to potentially and soundly defeat the smaller Confederate Army on several occasions may have inadvertently extended the war by years, actually resulting in an even greater loss of life than might have been experienced had he simply been more aggressive. The man’s personal contempt for Lincoln was also unwise (he once refused to see the president when he visited his home in Washington, claiming he had gone to bed and could not be disturbed) while his political ambitions—he ran against Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election—made him more of a publicity-hound than the type of quality commander the Union Army needed. Again, not a terrible general—just the wrong man for the job.
6. General Robert Georges Nivelle, France
What Douglas Haig was for the British Expeditionary Force in France during the First World War (see no. 5), Robert Nivelle was for France. A French artillery officer who took command of the French Army in December of 1916, he immediately set about doing very little but sit by and watch his men and the Huns slaughter each other on an unimaginable scale. At the Battle of Verdun (21 February to 18 December, 1916) Nivelle went through French troops like pork through a sausage factory, racking up an impressive half a million casualties before it was all over.
But it was his ill-fated and poorly planned “Nivelle Offensive” in the spring of 1917 that was his undoing. Promising a quick and decisive victory over the Germans, in April of 1917 Nivelle sent over a million French soldiers against a German army half its size and got his proverbial butt kicked. By the time the French government finally pulled the plug on the thing three weeks later, over a quarter million French had been killed or wounded and the army was on the verge of wholesale mutiny.
It was only his quick sacking that prevented the French soldiers from turning on their own officers and the whole allied front from collapsing, handing victory to the Germans by default. (On the other hand, had the Germans won in the summer of 1917, there would have been no Hitler and no Second World War and history would have taken a much different track. Oh well…) Unlike his British counterpart, Sir Douglas Haig, Nivelle did not return home a hero but slinked off to some outpost in Africa—the French equivalent of being sent to Siberia—to finish out what little was left of his career. He died in 1924 and was buried with full military honors…and then promptly forgotten.
5. General Sir Douglas Haig, U.K.
The Commander of British forces in France during the disastrous Battle of the Somme in 1916, Haig has the distinction of overseeing the greatest single day loss of British lives in history: on the morning of July 1, 1916, 60,000 troops—20% of the entire British fighting force engaged—was killed or wounded (including all but 68 men of the 801-man strong 1st Newfoundland Regiment) in an offensive that failed to gain a single one of its objectives.
Haig, ever the optimist however, did not consider the enormity of the casualties inflicted all that bad and even wrote in his diary the next day “…the total casualties … cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.” Of course, today such incompetency would result in the immediate sacking of the offending buffoon, but things were different back then. In fact, Haig would continue to oversee the British forces for the rest of the war and even was promoted to Field Marshall for his fine work.
Under his auspicious leadership, some 800,000 British soldiers would ultimately die. Remarkably, Haig came home a hero after the war and is still considered to have been a competent military commander by many today (mostly by people who never served under him, one might assume). While no commander on either side during that war comes off looking good when it came to incurring casualties, what makes Haig stand out is his seeming indifference to the carnage and an unwillingness to learn the hard lessons required to fight a twentieth-century war. He had his moments of brilliance, to be sure, but by-and-large he was definitely not the right man for the job.
4. George Armstrong Custer, USA
The dashing Custer may have made a fine 1940’s-era Western hero, but in real life he was the sort of military leader enlisted men desert for. Brash, intelligent, and personally courageous, his great undoing was his indifference for the welfare of his men—or their safety for that matter. (As one of the youngest Generals in the Union Army during the Civil War, his cavalry unit had the highest casualty rate of any in the Army). He was also savage when it came to dealing with the Indians, whom he would slaughter without remorse.
His recklessness finally caught up with him, however, when he led his famous 7th Cavalry to disaster at Little Big Horn in June of 1876, losing almost his entire command in the course of a few hours when he attacked an Indian encampment with several thousand Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in it. Somehow, he became a legend as a result of this debacle—largely through the tireless efforts of his widow, Libbie, who went on speaking tours on his behalf the rest of her life—demonstrating the old adage that Americans tend to honor their defeats (Little Big Horn, the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, 9/11) more than their victories.
While adored as a martyr by millions of Americans for generations, Custer has not fared well with historians of late, who have come to see him as the publicity-seeking, Indian hating, ambitious huckster he really was, dulling his sterling reputation considerably. Does he deserve such scorn? Ask any of the 267 men who died alongside of him (not to mention the hundreds of Native Americans he dutifully slaughtered).
3. Douglas MacArthur, USA
What? Doug MacArthur has made it onto my top ten losers list? The hero of the Pacific Theater and the mastermind behind the Inchon Landings? Impossible!
Not if you look at the record. Start with his incoherent strategy to defend all of the Philippines that ended in the disastrous surrender at Bataan in April of 1942 (the largest mass surrender of American troops in U.S. history). Follow that with an antagonistic ego that made him frequently unable to work with the Australians defending New Guinea and the ill-advised decision to invade Peleliu (a Japanese stronghold of no immediate strategic value that cost 10,000 U.S. casualties and took two months to secure). Then there is his insistence that Roosevelt invade the Philippines—despite the fact the archipelago had no real strategic value—so he could keep his promise to the Pilipino people that he “would return” (as though they cared). The operation at Leyte Gulf took up so much in terms of military assets that Doug may have single-handedly extended the war by months.
But what about Korea, you ask? Wasn’t he the mastermind behind the Inchon landing that broke the back of the North Korean Army and (almost) secured victory on the peninsula? Yes he was, but considering that Inchon was defended by only a small garrison of Korean troops—the rest being locked in battle with U.N. forces around Pusan—meant that only the most incompetent commander would have failed to take it. It’s what happened later, however, where Doug shows his true nature; ignoring intelligence reports that a million Chinese troops were massing along the Korean border ready to invade, he suddenly found himself overrun by Mao’s best and brightest and was forced to retreat well past that pesky 38th parallel. Only his timely firing by Truman (probably Truman’s best decision as President) and General Ridgeway’s (his replacement) tactical sense saved Korea from becoming another Soviet satellite state.
Okay, he was a decent military governor in Japan after their surrender and kept the Russians out of Japan, but beyond that, there’s not much that can be said for him, either as a general or a person. Unfair appraisal, you say? Consider that this is the man who had to pull in favors and lobby Congress to get them to award him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his inept defense of the Philippines in 1942. Talk about gall.
2. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Mexico
This colorful character should never have donned the uniform of a Mexican General (or any uniform for that matter). Whenever he did, bad things always followed for his hapless army. Yes, he took the Alamo in 1836 (losing twice as many men as the Texans), but he lost his entire army and was captured at San Jacinto just a few weeks later in a Battle that lasted all of fifteen minutes. Still popular in Mexico (Santa Anna liked to refer to himself as the “Napoleon of the West”), after a brief exile he returned home to once more be given command of the Mexican Army and the task of pushing a small French force out of Veracruz.
He lost the battle, along with a leg, which resulted in the Mexicans being forced to capitulate to the French, but he returned home—with his prosthetic cork leg in tow—more popular than ever. After a short stint as dictator (he was to serve in this capacity several times during the course of his illustrious career) he found himself again at the head of the Mexican Army as it was repeatedly trounced by American troops during the Mexican-American War of 1846. (It was during this war his cork leg was captured by American forces and put on display.) Returning home to Mexico after yet another ill-fated foray as a military strategist, Santa Anna once again took over the government and spent the next few years lining his pockets before the people finally got tired of him and sent him fleeing into exile to Cuba in 1855. Clearly in Santa Anna the Mexican people had a man that was both a military and political catastrophe, yet who managed to remain popular with millions of Mexicans for years, just as he does to some degree today, demonstrating that competency is not a prerequisite for fame in some countries.
1. Adolf Hitler, Germany
Many may be surprised to see der fuehrer on a list of failed military leaders, largely because he was not a military officer. However, this is a list about failed leaders—not necessarily officers—which, given his role in ensuring Germany’s long awaited defeat in World War Two—makes him top on the list. While it is true that Hitler never commanded soldiers on the field, in the last three years of the war he increasingly took over day-to-day control of his armies, telling his generals where and when to attack and then refusing to allow them to retreat when defeat was inevitable.
While he was content to leave the tactical details of running the armies to his generals, he set the strategic objectives, oversaw the allocation of resources, and all but drove the first tank into each battle after 1943, ensuring that no matter how well the Germans fought, they were doomed to failure. With the former World War One Corporal at the helm, allied success was practically assured. Of course, all of this was a good thing in hindsight, for it’s scary to think what the Germans might have accomplished had Hitler kept a hands-off policy and left it to his generals to figure out how best to vanquish his enemies (as he did in the first three years of the war). Additionally, this was the single biggest difference between Hitler and his nemesis, Joseph Stalin; Stalin knew he wasn’t a military strategist and let his Generals run the show.
Hitler, assuming his time spent in the trenches of France in the First World War made him an expert, never figured that out, much to his—and an entire generation of Germans—detriment.