List of military disasters

List of military disasters

A military disaster is when one side in a battle or war is unexpectedly and soundly defeated, and often changes the course of history.

A military disaster can range from a strong army losing a major battle against a clearly inferior force, to an army being surprised and defeated by a clearly superior force, to a seemingly evenly matched conflict with an extremely one sided result. A military disaster could be due to bad planning, bad execution, bad weather, general lack of skill or ability, the failure of a new piece of military technology, a major blunder, a brilliant move on the part of the enemy, or simply the unexpected presence of an overwhelming enemy force.


Ancient era

Medieval era

  • The Battle of Yarmuk in 636. The Monophysite Ghassanid contingents in the Byzantine army, brutally persecuted by the Orthodox authorities, defected en masse to the Muslim side thus guaranteeing a Muslim victory.
  • The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah in 636 - The Arab Muslim army decisively defeated the larger Sassanid Persian army resulting in the Islamic conquest of Persia.
  • The Battle of Acheloos in 927. An enormous 110,000 Byzantine army was tactically outwitted by a smaller Bulgarian force, causing the death of 90,000 soldiers, 70,000 of whom were Byzantines in one of the bloodiest battles in the Middle Ages. The bones of tens of thousands perished could be seen on the battlefield 75 years later.
  • The Battle of Hastings in 1066. The Anglo-Saxon King Harold is slain in battle with the Normans led by William the Conqueror, resulting in the Norman Conquest of England.
  • The Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine Empire suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Seljuks, resulting in the capture of Emperor Romanos IV.
  • The Battle of Hattin in 1187, where overconfident Crusader forces from Jerusalem became trapped in a waterless desert area, and thus became easy prey for the Saracen forces of Salah-ud-din (Saladin)
  • The Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. English Earl John de Warenne's well-equipped army were trapped on a narrow bridge by William Wallace's 15,000 unarmored, lightly armed Scots, bearing the traditional long spears of lowland Scotland. The bridge had been chosen as the point of engagement by Warenne, even though the river could easily have been forded just a few miles upstream.
  • The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 - A large force of French knights were mown down by English longbowmen.

16th century

  • The Battle of Flodden Field - A Scottish invasion of England is defeated, resulting in the death of the King James IV of Scotland
  • The First battle of Panipat - Babur sacked Delhi and defeated Ibrahim Lodhi.
  • The Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Holy League's fleet defeated the Ottoman fleet in one of the largest naval battles of human history. The Ottomans lost 240 ships (out of about 300), while the League lost 12 of their 210 ships.
  • The Spanish Armada in 1588. An English fleet sends fire ships into the Spanish invasion fleet destroying some and scattering the rest effectively ending the invasion threat. The Armada would later run into storms and almost half the ships never returned to Spain, as well as more than half the troops.
  • The Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598. An English force of 4000 is ambushed by Irish defenders under Hugh O'Neill and defeated. This temporarily put Ireland out of English control, allowing the rebellion to spread throughout Ireland.

18th century

  • John Burgoyne's British Army is captured after the Battle of Saratoga by the American Army under Horatio Gates. The victory humiliates the British Army, and brings France into the war on the side of the Americans.

19th century

20th century

  • The Battle of Tsushima – the Russian Baltic fleet was sent halfway around the world in a suicidal attack on the Japanese in the Tsushima Straits in 1905.
  • The Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 and early 1916. A combined British, Commonwealth and French attempt to capture Istanbul fails completely at the Gallipoli peninsula.
  • The Battle of the Somme - an attempt by Allied forces to break the German line during WWI, remembered most for the incredibly high casualties suffered by the British Army. Over 19,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the battle, due in part to ineffective artillery preparation of the objective and a gross underestimation of German fortifications.
  • The Battle of Annual in 1921. A 20,000-man Spanish-Moroccan force in the Rif was annihilated by Abd el Krim's much-smaller rebel force, initiating the Rif War.
  • The Maginot line - although from a strictly technical viewpoint the line itself functioned as designed, it was emblematic of a deeply flawed defensive strategy.
  • The Battle of France in 1940 - the French Army moved to meet the Germans inside Belgium, believing the Maginot Line would force the Germans to rerun the Schlieffen Plan, but was cutoff by a German advance through the Ardennes, which the French had believed was impassable for tanks. Unlike World War 1 when trench warfare caused Paris to stay French for four years, the entire Battle for France was over in 2 months.
  • Operation Compass in North Africa during winter 1940/41. The Italian army built their forts too far apart so they were not mutually supporting, and lacked tanks or other mobile forces. A British force of 35,000 men was able to rout the Italian army of 150,000, forcing them back 800 km (500 mi) and capturing around 3 times their own number for almost no losses.
  • Operation Typhoon, the failed German drive towards Moscow in 1941 was exacerbated by the German decision to not bring along any winter clothing and vehicle antifreeze.
  • The Attack on Pearl Harbor seemed a serious victory against the U.S. Pacific Fleet for the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941. However, the attack came to be a long term strategic blunder that inflicted little significant lasting harm on American forces while provoking an overwhelming response that led to Japan's crushing defeat.
  • The fall of Singapore (believed to be an impregnable fortress) in February 1942 to two Japanese divisions was the largest surrender of British-led troops in history and destroyed the linchpin of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command. The British Commonwealth overestimated the size of the Japanese invasion force which was ⅓ of the size of the defending force and surrendered.
  • The naval Battle of Midway. Admiral Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy attempted to invade the American navy base at Midway Island. U.S. Navy intelligence broke his codes and anticipated the attack. The Imperial Japanese Navy lost four fleet carriers in three days partly due to the decision to refuel their aircraft simultaneously on the flight deck, making the fuel hoses and aircraft vulnerable to bombing.
  • The Allied Dieppe Raid on German-occupied France in 1942 ended with ~60 % of the attacking force being lost in battle without any of the major objectives of the raid achieved.
  • The Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43 was one of the turning points of World War II. The German General Friedrich Paulus failed to keep a mobile strategic reserve and the entire (and formerly invulnerable) 6th Army was surrounded on all sides by a rapid Russian flanking attack. Rubble caused by excessive bombing and artillery by the German troops had left their tanks unable to effectively enter the city. The German troops in Stalingrad surrendered even though Adolf Hitler had promised that they would never leave the city.
  • Operation Bagration (1944) the Soviet summer offensive sliced through the Germans and reached Poland within two weeks, the offensive also destroyed army group centre, the backbone of German forces in the east.
  • Operation Market Garden A British plan to encircle the Ruhr Area and end the war by Christmas. The plan failed due to the entire army having to advance along a single road, making them vulnerable to attack on both sides, costing over 15,000-17,000 Allied casualties.
  • The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which forced the French to withdraw from northern Vietnam in 1954.
  • The Bay of Pigs Invasion, a United States-backed 1961 attempt to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro with 1,500 Cuban exiles. Not only were the exiles heavily outnumbered when they reached the bay, but the US-promised air support never came to aid the exiles.
  • The Six-Day War, in response to Arab threats of invasion, Israel launched surprise air attacks which almost completely destroyed the Air Forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, then launched a series of ground, air, and naval attacks which saw the capture of the Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria, and heavy Arab losses in personnel and material.
  • USS Liberty incident, the U.S. Navy Technical Research Ship USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli jets and torpedo boats on June 8, 1967, after the ship was supposedly mistaken for an Egyptian vessel. A total of 34 sailors were killed and 171 wounded, and the ship was heavily damaged.
  • 1967 USS Forrestal fire – a disastrous fire broke out aboard the aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, killing 134, injuring 161, destroying 21 aircraft and costing the Navy $72 million. John McCain was a U.S. Navy pilot aboard the aircraft carrier at the time and his aircraft was one of the first involved in the fire.
  • Tet Offensive an offensive started by North Vietnam and Vietcong in 1968. Although the offensive was a military defeat for the communists, it had a profound effect on the US government and shocked the US public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the communists were, due to previous defeats, incapable of launching such a massive effort.
  • The Battle of Longewala - during the western theater of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Pakistan launched a large-scale offensive (involving of 2,800 soldiers, 65 tanks and more than 130 other military vehicles) to capture a small Indian Army post at Longewala manned by 120 personnel and one jeep-mounted RCLR. Despite numerical inferiority, the Indian Army successfully repelled the invasion and destroyed or captured more than 100 Pakistani tanks and military vehicles.
  • Operation Eagle Claw, a U.S. attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. This operation was marked by a series of mechanical and communication failures that lead to the deaths of eight American servicemen, and failed to rescue the hostages.
  • The Battle of Mogadishu was a mission under Operation Gothic Serpent, conducted by U.S. special operations forces with the primary mission of capturing two lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Though the operation was technically successful in that the mission objectives were achieved, it was regarded as a disaster because of significant losses: eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed, seventy-three were wounded, one captured, and two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down in what was considered to be the most intense close fighting U.S. forces have faced since the Vietnam War. The battle is portrayed in the book Black Hawk Down, as well as the film of the same name, and the Novalogic video game Delta Force: Black Hawk Down

21st century

See also


Further reading

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