Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Military blunders

David Lawrence-Young, a retired history teacher and author originally from the UK, gave a lecture on "Military blunders" at Netanya-AACI.   He first defined what is meant by a military blunder, either a mistake by an individual or group or a misunderstanding of orders, or a mistake in intelligence.  Very often blunders occur thru the under-estimation of the enemy. 
He then gave examples that have occurred throughout history. He started with the Battle of Bannockburn of 1314, that resulted in the defeat of the numerically superior English under King Edward II and led to the establishment of King Robert the Bruce as the King of an independent Scotland.  King Edward's blunder was that through his arrogance he understimated the Scots, he chose to attck thejm with cavalry in a conficned space that was marshy.  As a result his cavalry was decimatd and England lost ca. 10,000 men.  Fourteen years later his successor chose to give Robert the Bruce Scottish independence that lasted until 1775 with the Union with England (although that is now subject to a referendum). 
A similar mistake was made by the French King against the English under King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  The English after marching for weeks were tired and desperate.  They had no armor, but they boasted the best Welsh archers who could shoot 10 arrows a minute.  It is estimated that 25,000 French were killed and the Englsh who were out-numbered about 5 to 1 were successful because the French cavalry had to charge into a narrow marshy area where the English could pick them off.  Although this victory enabled the then-English (formerly Norman) King to hold onto his domains in France, they were eventually doomed to be taken over by the French.
The famous "Charge of the Light Brigade" took place at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 in the Crimean War, that pitched the English and French against the Russians.  The debacle resulted largely from military incompetence of the commanding British generals and stupidity on the part of the local commanders.  Lord Raglan was the General in charge, he gave the order for the Light Brigade to attack the guns of the Russians that were at the end of a long defile.  He later siad he did not intend for them to attack head-on, but by the time the local commanders got their orders that is what they interpreted, and so they did and 475 out of 670 were killed.  As the French General famously remarked "C'est marveilleux, c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."   This was one of the first occasions when a war correpondent who was present exposed the incompetence of the Generals.
A well-known American example was the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, also known as "Custer's last stand."  The US Cavalry was sent to pacify the Lakota Sioux tribe under Chief Sitting Bull.  There were 286 soldiers under the command of the unorthodox, arrogant Gen. Custer who was driven by personal ambition.  He divided his forces and although he was warned that he was outnumbered and in a dangerous position, he ignored the advice and grossly understimated the Native Indian opponents.  He was surrounded and his whole force was wiped out.  Unfortunately this only increased the US suppression of the Native tribes.

During WWI in France the two sides were bogged down in trench warfare.  At the first Battle of the Somme in 1916 the British fired shells for days at the German lines, but the Germans had well-defended underground bunkers, while the British had shallow muddy trenches.  Thinking that the Germans must be devastated, the British forces went forward without due caution and were mowed down by well-entrenched machine guns.  It was the worst day of warfare in British history, they lost 60,000 men killed and wounded.  They gained only 13 km, it was a great disaster.   

Under Winston Churchill the British then decided to try to remove the Turks from their alliance with the Germans during WWI and they concocted a plan to invade Istanbul.  But as the British Navy approached through the narrow Dardanelles strait they lost two ships to mines.  So instead they retreated and it was decided to attack Istanbul by land.  Big mistake.  They did not know the terrain and they grossly underestimated the Turkish forces under Gen. Kemal Attatuk.  The Battle of Gallipolli in 1917 at the narrowest point of the Dardanelles was the starting point to capture in order to head inland.  But, it was heavily defended and the Allied troops, including many Australia and New Zealand Armored Corps (ANZAC) were sent into battle completely unprepared.  Hundreds of thousands were killed and wounded and Australian Gen Monash was brought in to organize a strategic retreat.  It was another great disaster. 
During WWII, The Battle at Dunkirk in 1940 was perhaps the German's greatest blunder.  They had the complete British Expeditionary Force and the French forces completely surrounded and in retreat.  Strangely, the German General Staff with Hitler's agreement decided to stop their attack, that allowed the British forces to be rescued by hundreds of boats off the beaches and returned to England.  Altogether ca. 200,000 British and ca. 140,000 French soldiers were saved to fight another day. It is not generally realized that this mistake cost the Germans dearly later in the war.  The Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-3 was another great mistake by Hitler, he continued to order his troops to press the attack when they were already frozen, starving and without supplies.  Around 850,000 German and Axis soldiers were killed or wounded and Gen. Paulus was forced to surrender what was left of the German 6th Army.  This was the turning point of WWII.
In Israel, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 represented the biggest blunder of Israeli military intelligence.  All the information pointed to an Egyptian attack along the Suez Canal, but the military intelligence chiefs in Israel totally underestimated the Egyptian capability and refused to believe the obvious.  The Egyptian forces under Pres. Anwar Sadat planned a surprise attack on a broad front with up-to-date military technology, including Russian SAM ground-to-air missiles providing an air defense umbrella and troops with anti-tank missiles that blunted the Israeli counter-attack.  It was only with great losses (for Israel) of ca. 3,500 men that the tide was turned and the Israeli soldiers and tactics allowed Israel to score a great victory.
There have been major military blunders throughout history and it is likely that in the future these will be repeated, for after all war is a human activity and men are fallible. 


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