A Brief History
On June 8, 1966, while test flying the monstrously expensive XB-70 Valkyrie, the U.S. Air Force managed to knock the Mach 3 bomber from the sky when an F-104 “chase” plane got a little too close and bumped into it, resulting in the crash of both aircraft and the death of two pilots and severe injury to another. The XB-70 had cost about $750 million to develop and build, quite a fortune in those days. Military history is rife with such blunders, miscalculations and general screw ups. Here we list 10 such incidents in no particular order. Note: The military term SNAFU is an acronym for “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up!”
10. XB-70, Crash, 1966.
This costly high-tech bomber could fly at an altitude of over 70,000 feet and at a speed of over Mach 3, but it could be shot down by the latest Soviet anti-aircraft missiles and the MiG-25 Foxbat that had been specifically developed for this purpose. The test flight on which the plane crashed was actually only a photo opportunity that had been staged to photograph the fancy bomber flying alongside 4 jet planes. Only 2 prototypes were ever built; the surviving one is located at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB outside of Dayton, Ohio.
9. USS Iowa, Turret Explosion, 1989.
Brought out of retirement by bellicose President Ronald Reagan, this World War II battleship was 1 of the 4 Iowa-class ships, the greatest battleships ever built and the last to serve in any navy. During gunnery practice, a massive 3-gun 16-inch turret exploded, killing 47 crewmen. At first, the U.S. Navy accused a sailor of having sabotaged the ship as a result of personal problems in a contrived homosexual relationship, but another investigation found no homosexual connection. Further investigation by a private contractor, Sandia, showed the explosion was probably an accident that had been caused by an “over ram” of the powder bags being shoved into the breech behind a projectile. A possible cause of the accident was the inadvisable firing of a turret’s guns over another turret, the concussion of which might have shredded the powder bags. The gun crews had apparently complained about this, but were ignored. Additionally, new projectiles were being tested with “super charged” powder bags, another possible source of the problem. Prior to the incident, some among the gun crews had refused to continue to fire with the experimental shells.
8. USS Maine, Ship Explosion, 1898.
An armored cruiser or 2nd class battleship, the Maine had only been in service for 3 years when she blew up and sank off Havana Harbor, Cuba where she had been showing the flag in the Spanish colony due to tensions between the U.S. and Spain. Her blowing up for unknown causes was the impetus for the Spanish-American War. 5 tons of gunpowder were found to have exploded, sinking the ship and killing 266 men. Investigations failed to determine with certainty why the powder had exploded, but the U.S. blamed a Spanish mine, an unlikely cause since no water splash was seen or dead fish were observed. The best guess of a 1974 investigation was that spontaneous combustion of coal dust in the coal bunker adjacent to the powder probably caused the explosion. A costly accident that helped start a war.
7. Loss of the Mary Rose, 1545.
Most of the 400 British seaman aboard this heavily armed and top heavy sailing ship died when the ship rolled and water rushed into open gun ports. Armament of the ship had been increased to 91 guns from the designed 78, and so heavily laden with the extra guns and gunners, the Mary Rose must have been riding a bit low. As a consequence, the order to keep gun ports closed til immediately prior to firing became an important drill in the British Navy. Exacerbating the disaster was the anti-boarding rigging that had been strung around the deck to keep enemies from boarding, which inadvertently trapped British seamen and prevented them from escaping the rapidly sinking vessel.
6. Russian Tank demonstration Fiasco, 2015.
Showing off military equipment on Victory Day is a Soviet and Russian tradition. In the 2015 parade, the Russians showed off their new T-14 Armata tank, supposedly the one to beat the American M-1 Abrams. Unfortunately for the “Ivans,” the tank broke down during rehearsal and had to be towed during the parade, quite an embarrassment! Hopefully, this high-tech weapon will also suffer other fatal flaws like the T-72 that preceded it. Another Soviet/Russian demonstration blunder occurred at the Paris Air Show in 1989 when a MiG-29 advanced fighter plane crashed during the show. Soviet officials said the pilot who had ejected was “more or less” ok.
5. U.S. Drops Nukes (Not in Combat), 1957.
Incidents involving bombers that had been carrying nuclear weapons had already occurred, but this time a cargo plane (C-124) was carrying 3 nuclear bombs when it suffered a power loss, forcing the crew to drop 2 of the bombs to lighten the plane. Luckily, the bombs fell into the Atlantic Ocean, but they were never recovered. Other incidents involving nukes that were accidentally dropped were in Spain and in the U.S. All together, the U.S. has dropped a total of 2 nuclear bombs in combat but many more by accident! A total of 8 U.S. nuclear weapons have never been recovered.
4. HMS Tradewind Sinks POW Ship, 1944.
Not knowing it carried 8 American, 64 British and Australian and 1,377 Dutch POWs as well as Indonesian slave laborers, this British submarine torpedoed a Japanese cargo ship that was on its way to Sumatra. In all, 5,620 people lost their lives, one of the greatest maritime disasters in history! There have been other cases of prisoner ships being sunk occurring during World War II. Less than a year later, RAF Typhoons shot rockets, cannons and bombs into the Cap Arcona, sending 5,000 people into the water, many of whom were prisoners from German concentration camps.
3. Exercise Tiger or Operation Tiger, 1944.
U.S. troops in training for the D-Day landings were accidentally shelled by the British cruiser HMS Hawkins while practicing landing at Slapton Sands. With 308 casualties, more U.S. soldiers died in the poorly planned exercise than on Utah Beach itself! Making matters worse, the landing ships partaking in the exercise were attacked by German E-Boats, bringing the death toll to 946 Americans. As one might expect, the incident was covered up and received little press.
2. USS Thresher, 1963.
A design flaw in the system used to blow ballast water out of the ballast tanks cost 129 sailors and shipyard workers their lives when the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine sank with all hands during a deep diving test. Apparently, moisture in the compressed air tanks allowed ice to form when the ballast water was being blown out, which clogged up the valves, causing the ship to sink to a great depth where the pressure hull was crushed. This was not the first case of an accidental submarine sinking; back in the Civil War, the CSS Hunley was accidentally sunk 3 times!
1. Operation Cobra, Bombing Friendly Troops, 1944.
Frustrated by the stalemate in the hedgerows of Normandy, Allied planners decided to bomb their way through German lines, dedicating large bombers for a massive attack. During the bombings on July 24, 25 Americans lost their lives and 131 were left wounded. As if this blunder were not enough, Allied bombers again bombed Americans the next day, killing another 111 Americans and wounding another 490! Despite great efforts to avoid such incidents, cases of friendly fire have occurred quite often throughout military history, be it through aerial attack, artillery or normal gunfire.
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For more information, please see…
Donald, Graeme. Loose Cannons: 101 Myths, Mishaps and Misadventurers of Military History (General Military). Osprey Publishing, 2009.
The featured image in this article, a National Museum of the U.S. Air Force photograph of the North American XB-70A Valkyrie (s/n 62-0207) after the collision, 8 June 1966, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.
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