A Brief History
On December 6, 1969, the motorcycle gang known as The Hell’s Angels were contracted to provide security at a Rolling Stones concert, a dumb decision that resulted in the Angels killing a concert goer, an incident we previously discussed in our article “December 6, 1969: 10 Dumb Decisions (Epic Blunders!).” Not content with pointing out blunders with a limit of only 10 massive mistakes, we expounded on the subject by listing “10 Business Blunders (Corporate Decisions Gone Bad!,” “April 15, 1861: 10 Times Military Needs Were Underestimated,” and “August 2, 1916: 10 Italian Military Catastrophes, Blunders, and Disasters”). Today we expand our list of epic fails to include yet another 10 dumb, foolish, misguided, idiotic, mistaken, stupid, wrong-headed, ill-advised, and so forth decisions and actions taken over the years, choices that have proved to be without a doubt the WRONG choice when pursuing military goals. Of course, military blunders are so prolific that a list of 10 is sure to leave many egregious mistakes out. Hitler and his henchmen alone could fill a book with blunders! As always, what bad choices would you add to this list? (Note: Some other military blunders have been covered in those other lists.)
Questions for Students (and others): Which of these blunders have you previously been aware of? Do you disagree with any of the analysis portrayed here? Why do you think Saddam Hussein thought he could invade Kuwait with impunity? Was it ever actually possible for Germany to win World War II? The US was heavily criticized for invading Grenada. Was the invasion justified?
1. Hitler and Germany Invade Russia, 1941.
The largest invasion in human history, Germany led by dictator and leader of the “Master Race” tried to take over the Soviet Union, the largest country in the world in order to first enslave and then eradicate Slavic people in order to make room (“Lebensraum”) for Germans to repopulate. Instead of the great victory he expected, Hitler and his homeys ran into a buzz saw of Soviet tanks and troops that wore down his Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe to shreds, eventually leading to the destruction of Germany and almost 45 years of being occupied half by the Soviets and half by the Western Allies. The Russians and other Slavic nationalities that Germany spoke of as sub-human out fought and out produced the mighty German war machine. Expecting a short war with total victory in a matter of months, the Germans instead found themselves woefully short of men and supplies, including the trucks and other transport needed to cover the vast distances involved in warfare in the Soviet Union. The German army tried to use captured trucks from France and Poland to support their invasion, but a lack of spare parts and the infrastructure to support those trucks made them basically throw-away, which is what they became when the trucks broke down (soon enough). Failing to account for Russian mud in the Fall and Winter made German attack timetables unrealistic, and a lack of warm clothing cost untold thousands of German soldiers their lives and limbs, let alone combat effectiveness. Even German horses froze when sturdy Russian horses survived.
2. Hitler declares War on the United States, 1941.
Shortly after committing one of the great blunders in military history (see above), Adolf Hitler, megalomaniac and egoist reflexively declared war on the United States after Japan initiated war with the US by their sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. Germany was under no obligation to declare war on the US, as their only treaty of mutual defense with Japan was to come to the aid of the other country if that country (Germany or Japan) was attacked by a third country. Although the US was irritating the Germans immensely by supplying the enemies of Germany with war materials, bringing the might of the US along with another 150 million people to oppose Germany was a massive blunder. Fighting too many enemies at one time is a violation of the principal of war of using mass, that is, greater numbers of men and weapons than your enemy at a given place and time. While the German planners toyed with the idea of someday being able to attack the US mainland, they were horribly shy of that goal when Hitler declared war on the US and never did achieve any realistic threat to the American mainland.
3. Germany fails to develop long range fighters and heavy bombers, then tries to make every airplane a dive bomber, 1939-1945.
The German military think tank just prior to World War II and going into the war thought their medium bombers that were fast and agile would be sufficient for the bombing role and that these superior aircraft could defend themselves against enemy fighters. Like other military planners of the era, the Germans greatly underestimated the ability of fighter planes to shoot down bombers of all types. Germany did not develop a superior long range fighter such as the North American P-51 Mustang or Lockheed P-38 Lightning to escort their medium bombers in the Battle of Britain, the air war meant to subdue the British people and end the war in Europe, allowing the Germans a free hand to invade the USSR. Not only were the German bombers easy prey for Spitfires and Hurricanes, the German mainstay of the fighter fleet, the Bf-109, was so short ranged that it could only provide a few minutes of combat time over Southern England before having to return to base for fuel. Thus, the German air campaign was limited to the Southern part of Great Britain, leaving much of the island free from the terror Hitler meant to unleash on the British people. Without long range heavy bombers and long range fighters to protect them, the Germans left much of Great Britain and later the Soviet Union safely out of bombing range. Later, when the tide of the air war had turned against the German aviators, Hitler was reluctant to stop making bombers and increase the fighter production needed so desperately to defend Germany. On top of that blunder, German reliance on dive bombing was almost religious in nature, since dive bombing had proven so effective in the earliest part of the war. The German dive bomber was the iconic Ju-87 Stuka, which was effective when not challenged by enemy fighters, but obsolete in the face of aerial opposition. Hitler also insisted all his bombers must have a dive bombing capability, which meant lots of extra weight added to the planes in order to strengthen the airframes for the rigors of dive bombing. This unnecessary capability lowered performance and decreased the bomb load of the planes. On top of these blunders, when the world beating Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow) was being developed, this best fighter of World War II (it was jet powered) was delayed because Hitler insisted it also be given a dive bombing capability when the speedy jet was desperately needed for air defense duties. The delay in mass producing the Me-262 meant the jet was a footnote instead of a game changer. Complicating everything else was a lack of perception as to the future needs of the Luftwaffe for aircraft, and planners woefully underestimated the number of planes that had to be manufactured to support the war effort. The lack of quality long range bombers also hurt the ability of the Germans to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic, relying on the mediocre Fw-200 Condor for such duties. Overall, the German aircraft production and development program of World War II was a disaster of infighting and turf wars as well as interference from Hitler.
4. Japan builds super-battleships instead of more aircraft carriers and submarines, and poor planning in use of aircraft carriers and submarines, 1941-1945.
While Japanese military planners were ahead of most other nations in regards to the appreciation of the importance of aircraft carriers in the coming war, they were still mesmerized by the siren song of the mighty battleship, and they built the two biggest and baddest battleships ever to sail the seas, the Musashi and Yamato. The immense expenditure of materials and man-hours building these ships was nearly a total waste, as events proved the day of the battleship had already expired by the time Japan went to war with the US and the UK in 1941. To illustrate the point, these 2 behemoths displaced a stunning 71,000 tons apiece (loaded), compared to the largest American battleships (Iowa class) that displaced only 55,000 tons fully loaded during World War II. The biggest British battleships, the King George V-class, displaced even less, at 43,000 tons. The Japanese Navy would have been far better served by building additional aircraft carriers and submarines, 2 types of ships that proved incredibly valuable during World War II. Compounding the error was the failure of the Japanese training infrastructure to resupply aircraft and pilots to replace losses of airplanes and aircrew on the aircraft carriers they did have. Instead, hastily trained pilots with minimal training and experience were thrust into combat where they were slaughtered by American pilots and planes. Ultimately, Japanese carriers were left without pilots and planes, good only for use as a decoy. Japanese submarines had a warrior ethic that led them to attack American and British warships whenever possible instead of troop and cargo carrying ships. Somehow Japanese naval planners missed the point that the cargo, troop and fuel transports were much more valuable to the Allied war effort than the warships. American submariners, as did the Germans in the Atlantic, concentrated on destroying shipping and thus crippled Japanese war transportation of men, equipment and supplies, even food transported between Japanese islands.
5. Iraq invasion of Kuwait, 1990.
After engaging neighboring Iran in a ruinous was from 1980 to 1988, Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein next turned his military eye toward a smaller, seemingly easier target, his neighbor to the South, Kuwait. While overrunning Kuwait went well enough for the Iraqi military, what Saddam had not counted on was the reaction by the United States and many other nations that would not accept Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, a country the Iraqi’s saw as an historic province of Iraq. During the Cold War (1945-1990) Iraq had been a client state of the Soviet Union, and perhaps Hussein thought Iraq could still rely on the USSR for protection against the Western nations expected to protest the invasion. Saddam was apparently not counting on the crumbling nature of the USSR and the political instability making any sort of strong support of Iraq out of the question. Hussein also underestimated the resolve of the Western Allies, led by the United States to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty. The Americans and their allies built up an enormous and highly capable force in Saudi Arabia in 1990 and still Hussein did not back down and withdraw from Kuwait, promising instead “The mother of all battles” should the US led forces be silly enough to attack the mighty Iraqi military. Hussein and his advisors were wrong. When the US led coalition did attack in January of 1991 with an immense opening aerial bombing campaign, the Iraqi forces were nearly defenseless. The land attack that followed was just as devastating to the Iraqi’s, resulting in as many as 50,000 Iraqi’s killed, 75,000 Iraqi’s wounded and another 80,000 Iraqi’s captured. Coalition forces lost less than 300 dead, and only half of those were caused by combat! Only 31 coalition tanks were destroyed or knocked out of service, while a massive 3300 Iraqi tanks were destroyed. Saddam Hussein had grossly underestimated the American response to his invasion of Kuwait, apparently thinking the US would not want to risk the disruption of oil supplies in order to wage a war on Iraq. Hussein also grossly underestimated his own Arab neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia and Syria, thinking perhaps these countries would never allow huge American forces on Arab soil to attack other Arabs. He was wrong about that, too.
6. American fighter plane design, 1939-1941.
American aerial warfare planners had great expectations concerning their own heavy bombers and the ability of those bombers to protect themselves with an array of machine guns bristling around the planes. These war planners also did not expect the US mainland to be attacked by enemy bombers, and thus developed fighter planes that did not have the range to protect our own bombers and did not have the high altitude capability to defend against enemy bombers. The P-40 Warhawk and P-39 Airacobra fighters available to the US Army Air Corps (later US Army Air Forces) at the beginning of World War II did not have the 2 stage turbo-supercharges needed for adequate performance at higher altitudes which was necessary to compete in the air war over Europe. Nor did they have the range to escort bombers. This oversight was quickly rectified by the introduction of the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang fighters with longer range and better high altitude performance. The P-38 Lightning twin engine fighter had been introduced in July of 1941, but failed in its introduction to European combat for the British, not because of any fault in the design, but because the British insisted on having both engines rotate the propellers in the same direction instead of the American specification of having separate “right” and “left” engine with contra-rotating propellers. The British also blundered by ordering their P-38’s without the high performance turbochargers needed for better high altitude performance, thus missing out on what could have been an excellent addition to the Royal Ari Force early in the war.
Note: Virtually all nations went into World War II with inadequately armed airplanes, relying on rifle caliber (.30 caliber mostly) machine guns instead of the heavier .50 caliber and 20mm guns later found to be the minimum effective calibers for fighter planes. The American installation of the 37mm low velocity cannon on the P-39 was also a mistake, and this auto-cannon should have been replaced with either a 20mm cannon or a higher velocity 37mm gun.
7. Gallipoli Campaign, 1915-1916.
History has generally been kind to Winston Churchill, the half-American, half-English Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during most of World War II, but his earlier foray into government service during wartime was not so illustrious. Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of the Great War (World War I) and as such was responsible for getting the Royal Navy on a war footing. As a member of Parliament as well as his cabinet post, Churchill was a major government player in early war planning and conduct. Churchill was fixated on the Dardanelles, the water strait that separated the Black Sea from the Mediterranean Sea that was controlled by Turkey in the guise of the Ottoman Empire. In command of the mightiest navy in the world, Churchill presumed his fleet could blast its way through any opposition, and he thus pitted his mighty ships against the shore installations in this strategically important area. Churchill’s ships could not defeat the Turkish defenses all by themselves, so Churchill championed a planned invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, the bit of land that when properly manned and armed with large bore artillery could deny entry and exit through the Dardanelles. The invasion commenced in February of 1915 and lasted until the evacuation of British troops (largely Australians and New Zealanders) from the sorry land they had occupied for almost 11 months. The campaign not only failed to seize the peninsula from the Turks and failed in the larger goal of moving on to capture the Ottoman capital city of Constantinople (now Istanbul), but was also an embarrassment of bad planning and execution. Inadequate supplies of water and food, miserable evacuation of wounded, and fierce Turkish defenses left the British/ANZAC forces stranded with no real prospect of success. Terribly incomplete intelligence preparation, inadequate maps, not enough artillery, and a poor choice of terrain (leaving the defending Turks on the high ground) all made for a epic fail of an operation. At least the Ottoman counter attacks failed to throw the British back into the sea. A few historians consider the battle a stalemate, but even that generous evaluation means the goals of the British were not met. At all. Most military analysts see the campaign as a victory for the Turks and a disaster for the British.
8. SEAL Team 6 Mission during Operation Urgent Fury, 1983.
The entire American operation to invade Grenada with the purpose of liberating American and other medical students from a small island that had just suffered a political coup and had been getting cozy with Cuba came in the immediate wake of the shocking devastation of the terrorist bombing of a US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. In the face of the humiliation and rage at the Beirut bombing, the American government led by President Ronald Reagan and the American military was eager to quickly chalk up a “win.” The situation in Grenada provided a seemingly perfect opportunity to show the world the US and its military was still on top of things. Unfortunately, all branches of the military wanted to get involved in the heaps of glory sure to come from a successful operation which resulted in a series of snafu’s (military term for messing up). Failed communication between branches of the service, friendly fire incidents, and one of the most glaring failures was the waste of 4 valuable SEAL team members in a misguided attempt to force their insertion during foul weather. The SEALS were to be dropped with inflatable boats by a C-130 transport plane 2 days prior to the landings (October 23, 1983), but the bad weather and delays caused the drop to happen at night and off course into miserable weather. One of the teams drowned in the rough surf and was never seen again, killing 4 very fine SEAL commandos. Another pair of inflatable boats were swamped trying to evade a Cuban patrol boat and its engine died, unable to be restarted. That crews had to be picked up, their mission aborted. After abject failure of the incredibly well trained and equipped SEALS, another SEAL mission was launched on October 24, 1983, but that mission was also foiled by bad weather. Yet another mission allocated to the SEALs was foiled by the defending Grenadians already being aware of the invasion underway when on October 25, 1983 another SEAL sent to rescue Governor General Paul Scoon the rightful leader of Grenada from the mansion in which he was being held captive. Scoon had been removed from the mansion and the SEALs were trapped under heavy fire for the next 24 hours. The SEALs at the mansion were rescued by a company of Marines. The apparent mistakes involved were not due to blunders generated by the brave SEALs involved, but in their higher ranking leaders that committed the men to missions without proper planning and support, seemingly in haste and by at least some (ie, mine) analysis because of a desire to gain political capital.
9. Argentina invades the Falkland Islands, 1982.
Argentina, as the closest continental country to the Falkland Islands (called the Malvinas by the Argentines) had long claimed sovereignty over the islands and chafed under the British possession of islands so far away from Britain (over 8000 miles) in the cold South Atlantic. The Falkland Islands have been a British territory since 1841, and the sparse population is almost exclusively British. Demands by Argentina to Britain to return possession of the islands to Argentina went unheeded. Thus, when Argentinian military forces invaded the islands in April of 1982, Argentina claimed the righteous stance that they were merely taking back what was rightfully theirs. The British disagreed, and a 10 week war ensued, with the Argentines not only losing possession of the islands they had seized, but also suffering humiliation before the world. Argentina lost 649 killed, 1657 wounded, and a staggering 11,000+ captured when the soldiers garrisoned on the islands could not be adequately supplied and supported by Argentine naval and air forces. The Argentines also lost a cruiser (the pride of their fleet), a submarine, 2 patrol boats, a spy ship, 4 cargo ships, 75 fixed wing aircraft, 25 helicopters, and other equipment. The British did not get off easy, however, and lost 255 killed, 775 wounded, 115 taken prisoner, 2 destroyers, 2 frigates, 3 other ships, 24 helicopters and 11 fixed wing aircraft. The failure of the Falklands invasion led to the disintegration of the Argentine military government and democratic elections held in Argentina in 1983 to replace the old government.
10. Third Servile War (Spartacus), 73-71 BC.
Also known as The Gladiator War because it started with only 70 gladiators rebelling against their masters, the slave revolt led by Spartacus against the might of the Roman Empire went rather well for the escaped gladiators and slaves for a time, until treachery by pirates contracted to transport the slaves out of Italy left the slave army (and its families) stranded on the Italian peninsula. Spartacus had argued with other slave leaders about whether or not to leave Italy and go to lands where the people could live free, but sentiment among many of the slave army soldiers was to stay in Italy and keep fighting and looting Roman cities. This ill-considered plan was doomed to eventually fail as the exasperated Romans eventually amassed enough legions to ensure the defeat of the slave army. A last ditch mass assault by the slave army against overwhelming odds resulted in the slaughter of virtually the entire slave army and crucifixion for the 6000 slave soldiers that were captured. The much wiser course would have been to leave Italy when the slave army was at its peak and the Romans had not built up sufficient strength in Italy to stop the slaves from leaving.
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For more information, please see…
Regan, Geoffrey. Great Military Blunders: History’s Worst Battlefield Decisions from Ancient Times to the Present Day. Andre Deutsch, 2012.
Regan, Geoffrey. Great Naval Blunders: History’s Worst Sea Battle Decisions from Ancient Times to the Present Day. Andre Deutsch, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of elements of the German 3rd Panzer Army on the road near Pruzhany, June 1941, from Большая онлайн-библиотека e-Reading, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.