A Brief History
On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to join the US Army to put down the rebellion known later as the American Civil War. He was so far off on the number of troops needed it would be laughable if not so tragic. Often times politicians or military commanders have greatly underestimated the manpower or resources needed to succeed, and today we list 10 of those miscalculations. What other instances would you add to the list?
1. Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers, 1861.
So how many men did Lincoln really need to put down the rebellion and keep the Confederate States from secession? About 2.2 million in the military and another 669,000 in the Revenue Service, or close to 40 times what he originally thought he needed! At the beginning of the War, the US Navy had a whopping total of only 42 ships, but by the end of the War it could boast 671 ships. (These numbers do not count the hundreds of river boats and gunboats operated by the US Army.)
2. Napoleon invades Russia inadequately supplied, 1812.
Napoleon Bonaparte was certainly a confident person, and his prior successes led him to believe he could win wars just about anywhere. He set his sights on Russia, grossly underestimating the amount of supplies it would take to travel the 1546 miles from Paris to Moscow, especially considering the mode of transportation is walking. Such an enormous distance meant the need for many troops to provide column security, and at such a long route such a bleeding off of troops greatly weakened the Grand Armee, and was still not enough to provide adequate security for the supply train. Once arriving in Moscow, he found the Russians had burned local supplies of food, leaving Napoleon’s army starving. Turning around and walking back to France while being harassed the entire way was ruinous. Napoleon started with a strength of about 685,000 troops against a Russian army of 488,000 with about equal numbers of cannons. The French suffered attrition from battle and disease, while the Russian numbers nearly doubled with conscripts and militia. The disaster cost Napoleon as many as 530,000 killed, wounded, and missing (taken prisoner or deserted) while the Russians lost 410,000 men, men Russia could replace far easier than the French could replace their losses.
3. Hitler underestimates the number of submarines needed, 1939.
Germany started World War II in 1939 with a submarine fleet of only 57 U-boats, though the Navy believed a fleet of 300 subs was necessary to successfully prosecute a naval war to isolate Britain. Hitler, one who was prone to grandiose ideas and was in love with physically large weapons, whether ships, guns or tanks, had embarked on a massive program of building large warships (such as the Bismarck, Tirpitz and others) instead of concentrating on submarine production. German ship production would have ultimately failed to match British and/or American surface naval power anyway, and the oversight by Hitler and his sycophant planners cost the Kriegsmarine an opportunity to win the Battle of the Atlantic. By the end of the war Germany had lost 821 submarines, showing clearly how important the greater numbers of submarines were to the German war effort, but too late to win the war quickly. Admiral Donitz, the German U-boat commander, had only 12 long range submarines available to attack US shipping off the American East Coast when the US entered World War II in December of 1941. If he had 10 times that many, German victory may have been assured.
4. Hitler underestimates the number of military planes needed, 1939-1940.
Adolf Hitler truly believed in himself, and apparently also believed in Hermann Goring, his Luftwaffe (Air Force) chief who carelessly promised an easy victory over the British Royal Air Force. The Luftwaffe had proven the superiority of the Bf-109 during the Spanish Civil War but did not face first rate competition such as Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires there. In 1939 the Luftwaffe wiped out the Polish Air Force, but in 1940 it faced the RAF’s 1963 available planes with only 2550 German warplanes. In offensive operations, a decisive advantage in numbers is normally necessary for success, and the Germans did not have enough nor the right kind of aircraft for the mission. Hitler had limited research and development of promising new fighter planes in favor of continuing reliance on the Bf-109, a fighter with inadequate range for the mission over Britain. The Germans constantly underestimated the number of airplanes they needed to produce until it was too late in the war to make good on necessary production due to Allied bombing and materials shortages. Germany began the Battle of Britain in 1940 with Hitler believing the war was already won after quickly conquering France and chasing the British army off the continent. He was wrong, and his failure to take the long view cost him and Germany the war.
5. Hitler miscalculates manpower and equipment needed to subdue the Soviet Union, 1941.
In spite of Germany’s failure to subdue Britain in 1940, Hitler decided to go ahead with an enormous invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, once again, grossly underestimating the task at hand. Hitler and his henchmen failed to realize the toll such vast distances would take on men and equipment (the vast majority of the German Army had to walk to Russia) as well as on German horses, which died by the thousands, especially when the weather turned cold. Inadequate numbers of trucks and reliance on captured French and Polish vehicles with no spare parts supply available meant German troops did not get properly and quickly supplied. A lack of cold weather clothing and preparation for equipment was disastrous as well. Although the Germans had qualitative superiority in aircraft and some other systems, the numbers tell just how desperate the gamble was. Germany invaded with their allies fielding 3.8 million men against a Red Army of 2.9 million, far less than the textbook 3 to 1 advantage needed for an attack. The Russians ended up losing 4.9 million men, showing the incredible reserves of manpower the USSR had available. Germany invaded with around 3600 tanks (many obsolete) against the Soviets’ 11,000 tanks! Aircraft disparity is also telling, with the Germans fielding between 3000 and 5000 aircraft and the Soviets 7000 to 9000. Even with superior performance, German aircraft were subject to rough conditions in forward areas with no indoor hangars for maintenance and a lack of spare parts and materials. Like Napoleon, Hitler underestimated the vast distances and human resources of the largest country on Earth.
6. Japan declares war on the US and UK.
You have to ask, “What were they thinking?” Sure, the UK was tied up in Europe, but they still had vast resources in the Far East. Only the most optimistic of the Japanese could think Singapore would fall so easily. How could the Japanese know MacArthur would fail to heed war notices and lose his air force on the ground in the Philippines? With even a tiny bit of luck, the Pearl Harbor attack could have gone badly for the Japanese. Japan started the war already heavily invested in China, with a hostile Soviet Union staring across the border of Manchuria. At the time of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) the naval imbalance was as follows: Japan had 10 battleships (11 by the end of the year), 6 fleet carriers, 4 light fleet carriers, 36 cruisers, 113 destroyers and 63 submarines versus the US Navy’s 17 battleships, 7 aircraft carriers, 37 cruisers, 6 anti-aircraft cruisers, 171 destroyers and 113 submarines. Royal Navy (UK)- 15 battleships and battlecruisers, 184 destroyers (plus another 50 older destroyers from the US), 60 submarines and 7 aircraft carriers. To be fair, the Royal Navy was not in the Pacific War in strength until around late 1943 early 1944. Still, the other factor was the incredible capacity for production that the US and UK had over Japan. Many more large ships were already being built in the allied countries compared to Japan’s relatively meager naval construction plan. The Japanese battle plan was to seize a far flung Empire of island outposts covering an enormous area of the Pacific, far too much water and land for the Japanese military to hold. Japanese overly ambitious plans also included taking over China, Burma, Southeast Asia, Korea, Indonesia and India, far more land with way too many people for Japan to ever seriously be able to hang onto. Plus, the Japanese attacked the US before the US was at war with Germany. Had the Americans not gone along with the British “Europe First” plan, Japan could have faced an even more dire situation.
7. George A. Custer does not take all his men and firepower to fight at Little Big Horn, 1877.
US Civil War hero and Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer had ambitions of someday running for President of the United States, and how better to build on his Civil War record than to whip the Indians (Native Americans) into submission? Unfortunately for Custer and his men, the Native Americans were not so eager to be whipped. Custer took a force of 700 men (US Cavalry troopers plus Indian scouts) against at least 2500 Native American warriors (and even more counting women and children). The Lakota, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors led by their spiritual leader Sitting Bull were planning a Sun Dance, something the White Americans did not want them to do as it drew tribes off their assigned reservations to attend. Although other American Army units had run into surprisingly large numbers of Indians (Battle of the Rosebud, June 17, 1876), and Custer’s scouts reported the target village being the largest Native American camp they had ever seen, Custer pressed on, splitting his force into 3 main bodies, one of which he personally commanded. Aggravating the situation for Custer was his refusal to take along Gatling guns, wheel mounted and towed weapons that Custer thought would slow his movements. Custer, more concerned that the Native Americans would escape him than the daunting odds he faced, continued to press ahead even when a scout advised him the “enemy” force numbered 1500 to 2500 warriors. The battle that ensued did not go well for the Cavalry. Custer’s entire third of his force under his own command was killed to a man, 210 dead. Another 53 soldiers in the other 2 detachments were killed and a further 55 were wounded. Native American losses were estimated at 31 to 300 killed and as many as 160 wounded. The Native American forces were armed with a variety of firearms as well as traditional weapons, and those firearms included everything from muzzle loaders to lever action repeating rifles. Custer’s men were armed with Colt Single Action Army revolvers, powerful but achingly slow to reload, and single shot “Trapdoor” Springfield rifles. Against massive numbers, the more accurate but slower rate of fire provided by the Troopers was not enough to stop the warriors. The only surprise is that any of the force of Cavalry survived at all, a testament to their training. Custer of course died along with his entire detachment, and those men were horribly mutilated by the victorious Native Americans after the battle, as well as stripped of clothing and belongings. Native Americans were baffled to find many of the troopers had used their last bullet to take their own life rather than risk being tortured to death by the Indians.
8. Argentina retakes Falkland Islands/Las Malvinas from UK, 1982.
Argentina had a population of only about 28 million in 1980, compared to the 56 million residents of the United Kingdom. Although population is not a sure prediction of the outcome of a war, it is one of the clues to be considered. Britain had control of the Falkland Islands (called Las Malvinas in Argentina) since 1841 and considered them sovereign British territory. Argentina chafed under the idea that islands in the South Atlantic right off their coast would be ruled by a former colonial power an incredible 7800+ miles away. In 1982, the Argentine government thought the time was right to make good on their disputed claim, and they mounted an amphibious assault of the islands, taking them from the small British garrison in 2 days starting on April 2, 1982. On April 5, 1982 the UK dispatched a naval force that included amphibious ground troops and 2 small aircraft carriers equipped with Harrier VTOL jet fighter/bombers. The British task force numbered 127 ships (43 Royal Navy, 22 auxiliary vessels and 62 merchant ships) including the ocean liner SS Canberra carrying 3 Commando Brigades and the ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 carrying an infantry brigade and 23 destroyers. A force of 3nuclear powered submarines and 3 conventional subs was also deployed by the Royal Navy, along with 8 landing ships. Against this British armada the Argentines could muster only 1 submarine, 1 cruiser, 1 supply ship and 1 submarine. All 3 Argentine surface ships were sunk, and the submarine was damaged so severely it had to be abandoned. Argentina committed about 8500 ground troops to the battle, opposed by about 4800 British troops. The combined Army and Naval air forces of Argentina did outnumber the British air wing, with 43 A-4 Skyhawks (light attack), 4 Super Etendard (strike fighters carrying anti-ship missiles), 54 fighter planes (Dagger and Mirage), 35 Pucara turbo-prop (light attack), 35 Mb-339 (trainer, light attack) and 10 Canberra light bombers. The British had about 42 Sea Harriers available on their 2 aircraft carriers along with a couple dozen helicopters. Long range support was provided by Vulcan bombers flying all the way from Ascension Island, about 3889 miles one way. The outcome was never in doubt once the British made it clear they would not accept Argentina’s seizure of the Falklands. Although the British suffered heavy losses, the result was inevitable. The Argentine third world type of military was no match for the modern and efficient British military and to have thought otherwise was foolish. British losses were over 1100 killed, wounded and captured, while the Argentines lost about 2300 killed and wounded with another 11,000 captured. The Royal Navy lost 2 destroyers, 2 frigates, a landing ship, a landing craft and a container ship, the heaviest naval losses suffered by a nation since World War II. The Argentine Navy lost pretty much their entire navy save its smallest vessels. British air losses included 24 helicopters and 10 fighter planes, along with 1 bomber. Argentine aerial losses included 25 helicopters, 35 fighters, 2 bombers, 4 cargo planes, and another 34 trainer/light attack planes.
9. The Children’s Crusade, 1212.
People believe some funny things when they think God is on their side, and this time 30,000 Christian children decided to up and leave France and Germany to march to the Mediterranean Sea on their way to the Holy Land where they would peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. The main thing these children underestimated was the need for transportation across the sea, reportedly thinking the sea would part for them and they could simply walk across the dry seafloor to North Africa and the Middle East. They were wrong, and when they got to the coast and had no way to cross the Mediterranean, unscrupulous scalawags offered them rides in ships and boats, but actually took them to slave market where the hapless kids were sold. Some historians believe the Crusaders were not all children, but were poor people fooled into believing they would be going on a Crusade.
10. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld think Iraq War will be quick, 2003.
Donald Rumsfeld cavalierly brushed off a reporter’s question as to how long the war in Iraq would take with the ever so regrettable, “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he said. “It won’t be a World War III.” Well, he was right in one way, it was not World War III, but it lasted longer than the US participation in World War II! Starting in 2003, the US invasion of Iraq officially ended in 2011, long after George W., Dick Cheney, and Donald “The Underestimator” Rumsfeld were out of office. The Iraq War, which is kind of not even over today, lasted longer than any other American War, or about as long as the American Revolution. The after-effects of the disastrous War in Iraq are still being felt today with US involvement in the Syrian Civil War and the War with ISIS. Beating a depleted Iraqi military was not as easy as the American brain trust (oxymoron) thought it would be, but trying to manage a conquered country is what really took much more men and effort than was realized.
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For more information, please see…
Regan, G. Air Force Blunders. Carlton Publishing Group, 2003.
Regan, G. Great Military Blunders: History’s Worst Battlefield Decisions from Ancient Times to the Present Day. Andre Deutsch, 2012.
Regan, G. Great Naval Blunders: History’s Worst Sea Battle Decisions from Ancient Times to the Present Day. Andre Deutsch, 2012.