A Brief History
On January 14, 1943, the Japanese Navy began their operation to successfully evacuate the remaining Japanese land forces from the Island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands of the Pacific Ocean. Called Operation Ke, the withdrawal of the Japanese forces is used to start us off on our list of 10 Famous or Infamous Withdrawals or Retreats. The military calls such operations “retrograde operations,” the opposite of an attack or an advance. Comedians refer to these actions as “attacking in a different direction.” Far from being funny, retrograde operations, especially while still in contact with the enemy are possibly the most difficult of all military operations. The success or failure of such operations can lead to the success or failure of a large battle or campaign, or even the success or failure of the entire war. Our list is not necessarily the “greatest” such operation, just 10 we think you will find interesting, including a notable failure to retreat at all . Feel free to nominate your own choices for inclusion on the list. (Note: The order listed does not indicate the order of importance or fame.)
1. Evacuation of Guadalcanal by the Japanese, 1943.
In August of 1942 the United States Marines landed in the Solomon Islands in the first offensive land actions by the US in the Pacific of World War II. The main target of Operation Watchtower was the Island of Guadalcanal, a much larger island than you might think, given its relative obscurity prior to the famous battle there, about 136 kilometers long and 48 kilometers wide (in miles, about 84 miles by 30 miles) for a total land area of around the size of Delaware, although sparsely settled (current population just over 109,000). A long and hard battle over the island was fought by the Japanese, who reinforced the original garrison and the Americans, who added US Army forces to the Marines that made the first landings. The 6 month battle was waged between about 60,000 US ground troops and 36,000 Japanese ground troops and cost the Japanese 19,000 dead and 1000 captured, earning the island the Japanese nickname, “Island of Death.” Of course the sea and air battles were also intense, as evidenced by the loss of 38 Japanese ships and 29 American ships, as well as 615 American airplanes lost and 700 to 800+ Japanese planes lost. When the Japanese realized they could no longer contest the Americans for ownership of Guadalcanal, they began Operation Ke, the evacuation of remaining troops on the island. The evacuation plan called for the insertion of a fresh battalion of ground troops to be inserted onto Guadalcanal on January 14, 1943, in order to set up and hold a rear guard action to protect the withdrawing troops. Over the next couple weeks, Japanese destroyers traveled as close to the island as possible to take off the weary troops, eventually evacuating 10,652 men, a remarkable feat in the face of superior American forces. Despite the successful withdrawal from Guadalcanal, the Japanese usually decided to fight to the last man in defense of other islands during the War in the Pacific subsequent to the Solomon’s campaign.
2. Russian evacuation of Moscow, 1812.
In the face of the invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée of the Empire of France (a force of about 685,000 men) the Russians began a long retreat, fighting along the way only to delay the French and to protect their withdrawal. When Napoleon triumphantly entered Moscow, the biggest Russian city, he found the place abandoned and soon on fire! The Russians had set the buildings with flammable substances and delayed fuses to start the fires, and had removed all foods and other provisions useful to the French. The French were faced with oncoming winter and no supplies of food, and also limited shelter and plunder because of the Russian “scorched earth” policy of leaving nothing useful to the French as they retreated. The Russian tactic of strategic retreat worked beautifully, and Napoleon grudgingly was forced to march his army back to France in October of 1812 through the fierce Russian winter, harassed the entire way back, constantly losing troops along the way and nearly losing his throne.
3. Napoleon and the Grande Armée retreat from Russia, 1812.
As described above, the Russian retreat was a spectacular success in allowing Napoleon and the French to travel beyond their ability to sustain themselves. When Napoleon realized his own retreat was the only option other than starvation in Moscow, he and the French began the long walk back to France. Along the way, the Russians made the retreat a living hell, with raids and attacks, using hit and run tactics. The corridor of retreat was stripped of food and useful supplies so that the French were not only freezing and without shelter, they were also starving. Even their horses were starving, as there was no fodder or forage for the horses to eat along the way, leading to the death of the horses and their consumption by the starving French. No more French cavalry, and no draft animals to pull wagons, meaning the staggering troops had to carry whatever they could on their own backs and keep walking or die. Napoleon is said to have reentered France with only about 22,000 of his men, a mere shadow of his once Grande Armée, although the exact number of survivors that made it back to France is contested. The loss of around 400,000 trained men, most of the French artillery, thousands of trained horses (200,000!), and thousands of wagons weakened Napoleon’s ability to mount further campaigns when he got back to France and reduced his political viability. Among the elements of Napoleon’s forces, those allied forces from Austria and Prussia fared somewhat better than the French. While the tremendous defeat did not cost Napoleon his Empire, the huge losses certainly contributed to future French failures on the battlefield.
4. US evacuation of Saigon, 1975.
In April of 1975, the long and sorry history of the Vietnam War came to an end for the Americans as the last Americans and allied personnel were evacuated from the American embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, a hectic and embarrassing melee called Operation Frequent Wind. The Vietnam War (for the United States) had gone on from 1964 to 1973, until the communist forces of North Vietnam finally overran the capital of South Vietnam in 1975. Pandemonium reigned in Saigon as anyone with ties to the US or the South Vietnamese regime panicked and struggled to find a place on American helicopters to get away from certain death or imprisonment by the communists. Despite the chaotic appearance and bitter taste of defeat, Frequent Wind was in reality a tremendously successful military operation that resulted in the evacuation of over 7000 Americans and allies of the US with the loss of only 2 US Marines and another 2 US Marines missing. Many aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters were lost, either abandoned to the oncoming North Vietnamese forces or even pushed off the decks of US Navy aircraft carriers to make room for incoming flights. Some fixed wing planes made water crash landings when not given permission to land on carrier decks. While a sad day for Americans and a graphic display of defeat, the evacuation of Saigon is also a shining example of a successful evacuation operation, despite the optics created by the video of the operation.
5. British evacuation of the BEF at Dunkirk, 1940.
Did you see the 2017 feature film, Dunkirk? The movie graphically depicts the story of the evacuation of over 338,000 British and allied soldiers from France in the face of certain death or capture by the Germans in May and June of 1940. The German army had been rolling over France, and the British and French forces were left in a mad retreat toward the Channel city of Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French). The decision was made by the British to evacuate their troops from the European mainland to save them for the defense of the island of Great Britain to resist the expected German invasion to follow. The troops involved would be vital to the United Kingdom remaining in the War, with the very survival of the nation at stake. Called Operation Dynamo, the British assembled an enormous fleet of over 800 small ships and boats, merchant vessels, fishing boats and even luxury yachts capable of seagoing operations, assisted by 39 British destroyers and 4 Canadian destroyers to get their men off the beaches and onto the waiting ships for transport across the English Channel to Britain and safety. French forces fought a rear guard operation to hold off the Germans while the evacuation took place over the course of 2 weeks. Most British heavy equipment and weapons were abandoned, but the vital manpower was saved and those troops were important in future battles against the Germans. The Germans for their part contributed to the success of Operation Dynamo by halting their advance to refuel, rearm, regroup and rest their exhausted troops. German Air Marshall Herman Göring insisted his Luftwaffe (air force) could finish off the British troops and destroy the British ships, but of course, he and his Luftwaffe failed. The Dunkirk evacuation remains as perhaps the most famous successful retreat in military history.
6. United Nations retreat and evacuation from Chosin Reservoir, 1950.
After North Korea, a communist dictatorship, invaded South Korea in 1950, South Korean and allied American troops were pushed all the way down the peninsula to a perimeter around Pusan. General Douglas MacArthur was sent from Japan to take over the United Nations effort to keep democratic South Korea out of the hands of North Korea. Brilliant maneuvering led to a rout of the North Korean army and UN forces drove North into North Korea, spurring the Communist Chinese to send almost a million soldiers to assist their North Korean allies, secretly entering North Korea in October of 1950. When the Chinese offensive started in November of 1950, MacArthur and the Americans were taken by surprise and the Chinese/North Korean forces began overwhelming United Nations forces. Around the Chosin Reservoir area a large contingent of Americans, both US Marines and US Army troops were surrounded by the fresh Chinese troops in the freezing cold of the Korean winter. Out of about 150,000 troops available in the area, the Chinese committed 120,000 or more to the battle of Chosin, while the US and their South Korean and British allies had about 30,000 of their 103,000 troops in the area became encircled by the Chinese. Marine General Oliver Smith, the commander of the UN forces encircled, when ordered to have his Marines breakout of the encirclement made his famous statement, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” With enormous difficulty and courage, the Americans broke out of the perimeter and began the trek to Hungnam where they were to be evacuated by ships. While US Army units retreated under pressure from the Chinese and facing terrible privation from the cold, the Marines had it even worse, having to break through the encircling Chinese. With the help of Marine fighter bombers (F4U Corsairs from World War II) and the timely drop of portable bridge sections by Air Force cargo planes, the Army and Marines were able to make the 50 mile (or so) trek to Hungnam where they were successfully evacuated. Although the Battle of Chosin was a crushing and humiliating defeat for the Americans, the evacuation of their troops prevented a total debacle and in itself is one of the great retreats and evacuations in military history. The Americans had suffered over 4500 men wounded and over 1000 killed, but casualties from frostbite and other non-combat reasons numbered around 7338. Another approximately 5000 Americans were taken prisoner. The Chinese suffered an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 casualties, more than half of which were from frostbite and other non-combat reasons.
7. German failure to retreat from Stalingrad, 1942-1943.
In 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union despite the 2 nations having a “Non-Aggression Pact.” Called Operation Barbarossa, the invasion was the largest in the history of mankind. By the first winter, the German attack had stalled in the face of poor weather and poorer roads. In 1942, the offensive started anew, and a major target of the Germans was the city of Stalingrad, partly because of its name being tied to the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin. In August of 1942, the German attack nearly succeeded in taking the city, but the Soviet defense never gave up. Massive and bitter fighting lasted into the winter of 1942-1943, and once again, as in the previous winter, the German forces were not well prepared for the bitter cold. Nor were they prepared for the dogged Soviet defense of Stalingrad and the massive reinforcements constantly sent to the Stalingrad battle area by the Red Army. On 19 November 1942, the Soviet Red Army launched a massive attack against the Germans called Operation Uranus, pitting well over a million Soviet troops against only 280,000 men of the worn out German 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army, and their 700,000+ allied troops (Rumanian, Italian and Hungarian). German supply lines were overextended and much of the German equipment was failing for lack of maintenance. The Soviets had 3 or 4 times as many serviceable aircraft and many more armored vehicles and artillery pieces, and the fuel and ammunition needed to keep their forces going. The Germans lacked ammunition, food, fuel and everything else except extreme courage in the face of overwhelming odds. When the Soviets encircled the German 6th Army under the command of Field Marshall von Paulus, he was ordered by German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler to fight and die in place, and no retreat or surrender was authorized. Nearly 300,000 Axis troops were encircled, most of them Germans. Luftwaffe commander Herman Göring boasted that his air fleet could supply the encircled German troops through air drops, but his efforts were pathetic compared to the totals needed, delivering less than 20% of the needed amount of supplies during the best portion of the airlift. While the German soldiers starved and froze, they also were running out of ammunition. An effort to breakthrough to the men in the encircled area came too late and was nowhere strong enough to force the breakthrough. Firmly ordered not to surrender, and the opportunity to retreat to a more defensible position long gone, Von Paulus did what no German Field Marshall had ever done before and surrendered his remaining forces. The decision to forbid a retreat led to the loss of 300,000 German and Axis troops killed and captured, losses the Germans could not very well sustain, making the blunder of not allowing a retreat at Stalingrad one of the pivotal points of World War II in Europe.
8. Highway of Death, Kuwait-Iraq, 1991.
Finally done with the long war with Iran, Saddam Hussein turned his (Iraq’s) attention to his other neighbor, Kuwait, and invaded the little oil rich country in 1990, completely overrunning the nation and occupying it. The US led a coalition of troops and forces that built up power in Saudi Arabia while warning Iraq to immediately vacate Kuwait. Of course, Hussein did not comply, and his army stayed in Kuwait, promising the Americans and the allied forces of “The Mother of All Battles” if the Iraqi Army in Kuwait would be attacked. Attacked they were in 1991, first with devastating airstrikes, including the use of giant B-52 bombers carpet bombing Iraqi Army defensive locations in Kuwait. The Allied assault on Kuwait started and by February 26th and 27th of 1991, the Iraqi Army had seen the light and tried to escape on Highway 80 back to Iraq to avoid the Allied onslaught. Unfortunately for the hapless Iraqis, American jets ruled the skies and unleashed a merciless assault on the convoys of Iraqi vehicles and troops trying to flee Kuwait. Television news channels carried the grim pictures of hundreds of destroyed vehicles along the road dubbed “The Highway of Death.” As many as 10,000 fleeing Iraqis were killed on the road, and as many as 2700 vehicles of all types were destroyed. Another 2000 Iraqis, stunned and in shock for the most part, were captured. The slaughter of the retreating Iraqis did not cost a single American or allied life!
9. The Long March, China, 1934-1935.
From October of 1934 to October of 1935, Chinese communist forces under Mao Tse Tung (aka, Mao Zedong) were in retreat from Chinese Nationalist forces under President Chiang Kai-shek. The communist forces numbered almost 70,000 when the retreat and pursuit began and were left with only 7000 true believers by the end of the Long March. How long? About 5600 miles over the course of just over a year! And the hike from hell was over terrain in many places that included steep hills and unforgiving rocks. The incredible feat of endurance and perseverance allowed Mao and his close companion Zhou Enlai to keep their revolutionary communist movement alive with their core followers, a movement that survived the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and through World War II until its ultimate success and the eviction of Chiang in 1949. The nearly constant retreating in the face of superior numbers and power was a successful tactic in this case, proving the adage, “Run-away today and live to fight another day.”
10. Bulgars, Pliska, 811.
Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I had decided to retake the Balkans from the Bulgars led by Khan Krum. The Byzantines joyfully invaded Bulgar territory and seemingly won great victories, taking the Bulgar capital of Pliska in 811. The Bulgars retreated to the hills outside the city, and the Byzantines made the mistake of pursuing the Bulgars. The Bulgars had meanwhile set up an ambush of the Byzantines who marched right into the trap, striking the pursuing Byzantine columns from the sides. Virtually the entire Byzantine army of perhaps 80,000 men were slaughtered, including Emperor Nicephorus I. Khan Krum had the skull (cap portion) encased in silver and used the skull as a drinking cup for his wine. The Battle of Pliska is a cautionary tale of pursuing a seemingly defeated enemy that is in “retreat” as that fleeing enemy may be leading you right into a trap. Pliska became the worst defeat in Byzantine History.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which of these campaigns do you believe had the most impact on their respective war? Which of these retrograde operations were you not familiar with? What other retreats can you think of? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Cleaver, Thomas. The Frozen Chosen: The 1st Marine Division and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. Osprey Publishing, 2016.
D.H.M. The Two Great Retreats of History. I. The Retreat of the Ten Thousand. II. Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow. Leopold Classic, 2017.
Markham, J. David and Matthew Zarzeczny. Simply Napoleon. Simply Charly, 2017.
Shuyn, Sun. The Long March: The True History of Communist China’s Founding Myth. Anchor, 2008.
The featured image in this article, a U.S. Army Signal Corps photograph showing the crew of U.S. PT boat PT-59 inspecting the wreckage of Japanese submarine I-1 at Kamimbo on Guadalcanal, February, 1943, is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. I-1 had been sunk during January 1943 by HMNZS Kiwi and HMNZS Moa. This image is held in the National Archives and Records Administration Still Pictures Unit, citation number 111-SC-243966. Its official caption is: “A small boat party sent out by the Army Intelligence looks over a sunken Japenese submarine off the west end of Guadalcanal Island. The submarine was sunk during naval operations off the island and was one of largest type to be build by the Japanese. Date: 2-11-43.”