Just before the Titanic sailed from Southampton to New York on April 10th, 1912, its operators replaced the second officer, David Blair, with the more experienced Charles Lightoller. However, Blair never got around to giving, and Lightoller never got around to asking for, the keys to a locker that contained the ship’s binoculars. So the Titanic sailed on its maiden voyage with lookouts who lacked binoculars.
Astonishingly, at no point during the days-long voyage before disaster struck, did anybody in charge figure out that binoculars might be necessary for lookouts. Or if they did, then in an even more astonishing display of mistaken priorities, they did not deem the safety of the ship worth breaking the lock to get the binoculars. That poor cost-benefit analysis would produce tragic results.
Four days into the Titanic’s voyage, around 11:40 PM on the night of April 14th, 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg in the ship’s path and alerted the bridge. The officer in charge ordered the engines stopped and the ship steered around the obstacle. Unfortunately, given the distance to the iceberg when the alarm was sounded, the Titanic’s speed at the time, and the ship’s mass, disaster was inevitable. Basic physics made it impossible for the mammoth ship to maneuver away in time to avoid a collision. The “unsinkable” Titanic struck the iceberg, and sank.
Of the 2224 passengers and crew aboard the ship, over 1500 lost their lives, making it one of modern history’s worst peacetime maritime disasters. In the subsequent investigation, lookout Frederick Fleet testified that he would have spotted the iceberg sooner, and the ship would thus have had more reaction time to steer away from a collision, if he’d only had binoculars.
The French Bit Off More Than They Could Chew at Dien Bien Phu
France conquered Vietnam in the 19th century, added it to her colonial empire of French Indochina, then proceeded to exploit the country and its people. Living under foreign rule led to nationalist resentment, which eventually broke into an armed bid for independence after WWII – the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954). As that conflict wore on, France’s grip on Vietnam was loosened by the increasingly assertive Viet Minh nationalist forces.
While the French had superior firepower and technology, they were unable to bring the lightly armed Viet Minh to offer the type of stand-up pitched battle in which such superiority could prove decisive. Ever elusive, the Viet Minh conducted a masterful guerrilla campaign. They launched hit and run attacks, interdicted French supply lines, and overran isolated French garrisons. Then they melted into the jungles and countryside before the French could bring their superior firepower and technology to bear.
As things went from bad to worse for the French, they reasoned that if they could not take French superior firepower to the Viet Minh, then they would bring the Viet Minh to French superior firepower. A plan was concocted to entice the guerrillas into massing for a pitched battle by offering them an irresistible lure. That lure would be French paratroopers airdropped into an isolated base, Dien Bien Phu, which they would garrison. The French reasoned that the Viet Minh, unable to resist the opportunity to destroy an isolated garrison, would flock to the area. The garrison, kept supplied by air, would resist. That would draw in increasingly greater numbers of Viet Minh into a battle of attrition, during which they would be destroyed by superior French firepower.
The French paratroopers were dropped into Dien Bien Phu, whose main feature was an airstrip in a valley encircled by hills. Things quickly went wrong, as many French assumptions turned out to be mistaken. The French had assumed the guerrillas lacked antiaircraft capabilities. However, the surrounding hills were soon studded with flak guns, forming a deadly gauntlet through which aircraft had to fly when taking off or landing from the airstrip. So many aircraft were shot down that the French were forced to rely on airdrops for supply, many of which missed their targets and landed within enemy lines, instead.
The French had also assumed the Viet Minh would have no artillery. The Viet Minh commander, general Giap, organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line that hauled disassembled guns over rough terrain to the hills overlooking the French. There, the guns were reassembled, ingenuously dug in to shield them from counter-battery fire, and the porter supply line kept them adequately supplied with shells.
The besieged French were shelled nonstop, and began to run low and supplies and munitions. Relentless Viet Minh attacks captured French fortified positions, one after another, and the defensive perimeter shrank steadily. Within two months, the Dien Bien Phu garrison was forced to surrender. After losing 4000 dead and missing, and nearly 7000 wounded, the survivors, numbering nearly 12,000, were herded into Viet Minh captivity.
Alexander Fleming Discovers Penicillin by Accident
Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955), was an unprepossessing Scottish doctor, pharmacologist, and microbiologist. There was not much in his decades-long career, prior to 1928, that indicated he would revolutionize medicine and save millions of lives worldwide. Until that year, his greatest career accomplishment had to do with research on enzymes. But in 1928, Fleming would discover penicillin, the antibiotic that would revolutionize medical care. As a result, untold millions of lives were saved in the decades since from fatal bacterial infections. And it happened by accident.
Fleming’s life was marked by lucky breaks and twists of fate. Born in Scotland, Fleming moved to London, where he graduated high school before getting a job in a shipping office. That might have become his career, but an uncle died four years later, and left Fleming an inheritance which allowed him to go to medical school. He initially intended to become a surgeon. But while serving in a reserve regiment, he became recognized as a great marksman. To become a surgeon, he would have had to leave his medical school and move away – which would have meant leaving his unit. His commanding officer did not wish to lose the promising reservist. So he introduced Fleming to a prominent researcher and immunologist, who convinced him to become a researcher instead.
During WWI, Fleming served in the Army Medical Corp, where he observed the deaths of many soldiers from uncontrollable infections. Antiseptics were used to fight infections, but they often did more harm than good. Fleming conducted research, which showed that antiseptics did nothing to stop the proliferation of anaerobic bacteria in deep wounds. It was initially rejected, but Fleming plugged on.
One day in 1922, while infected with a cold, he transferred some of his snot to a Petri dish. A slob, he then put it on his cluttered desk, where it was forgotten for a couple of weeks. When he finally remembered and examined it, the Petri dish was full of bacterial colonies. However, the microscope revealed that one area of snot was free of bacteria. Further examination revealed that it was due to the presence of an enzyme, which he called lysozyme, which had some antimicrobial properties. That laid the groundwork for his discovery of penicillin.
In 1928, Fleming, still a laboratory slob, left an uncovered Petri dish next to an open window, where it became contaminated with fungus spores. When he checked it under the microscope, Fleming discovered that the bacteria near the fungus were dying. He managed to isolate the fungus, and discovered that it was effective against numerous pathogens that caused diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, gonorrhea, and many more. Thus, penicillin was discovered. As Fleming put it: “I did not discover penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident“.
Japanese Admiral Kurita Chickened Out of Destroying a Defenseless American Fleet
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23 – 26, 1944, was history’s biggest naval battle. It was the culmination of a complex Japanese plan, featuring many moving parts and attacks from various directions. Collectively, they were intended to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf, and send it on wild goose chase. At that point, a powerful Japanese naval force would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf and devastate the Americans there.
The deception plan actually worked. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as decoys for Admiral William F. Halsey, whose powerful 3rd Fleet was guarding the amphibious landings at Leyte. Halsey took the bait and steamed off with his powerful fleet to sink them, without telling anybody. He left behind a small fleet of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties. That fleet had little in the way of anti-ship weapons.
While Halsey was off chasing the Japanese decoys, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1-inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf. It steamed towards the American landing sites, under the command of Admiral Kurita. The Americans were caught by surprise, as it was assumed that Halsey was in the north guarding against attack from that direction.
The only thing standing between the Japanese and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was an underwhelming collection of escort carriers and destroyer escorts. The northernmost American contingent, which first came in contact with the Japanese, was known as “Taffy 3”. It consisted of 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection, under the command of rear admiral Clifton Sprague.
Sprague knew that his destroyers’ 5-inch guns stood no chance against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte Gulf. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached the unprotected ships in Leyte. So Sprague ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge. The desperate attacks of the American “tin cans” were supported by planes flying from the escort carriers. Those planes made strafing attacks or dropped high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When the American planes ran out of ammunition, they continued to brave Japanese antiaircraft fire by making dry strafing and bombing runs, just to discomfit the enemy.
So reckless and incessant were those gadfly attacks that the Japanese admiral lost his nerve. Kurita convinced himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence. So Kurita, who had an overwhelming victory in his grasp if he simply steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away. In so doing, he gifted the Americans in Leyte Gulf with a miraculous reprieve.
An Austrian Army Was Panicked Into Destroying Itself Without an Enemy in Sight
The Austro-Turkish War of 1787 – 1791, between the Austrian Habsburg and Turkish Ottoman empire, saw history’s most catastrophic, and farcical, friendly fire incident. It occurred in the Battle of Karansebes, in 1788. During that engagement, an Austrian army killed and wounded over 10,000 of its own men, routed itself, and scattered in panicked flight without an enemy present.
The Austrian Habsburgs ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire. Its army, reflecting that diversity, was made of units drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages. During the night of September 21-22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout. They found no Turks but found some Gypsies who sold them schnapps. Soon, the hussars were rip-roaring drunk.
While the hussars were having a good time getting smashed, back in their camp, the Austrian commander became concerned when the scouts were late coming back. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. The infantry found the hussars and demanded a share of the schnapps. The hussars refused, a brawl ensued, and it escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During that fight, an infantryman had the clever idea of pranking the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That caused the inebriated hussars to pick up the cry, and flee in panic while screaming “Turci! Turci!“. They were joined by many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm had been a prank shouted by one of their comrades.
While that fracas was going on, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams across the river. When the mob of panicked hussars and infantry neared the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, they were challenged by sentries, who shouted at them to “Halt! Halt!“. That was misheard by some non-German speaking soldiers as people shouting “Allah! Allah!” In the ensuing tumult, an artillery officer reasoned that the camp was under attack, and ordered his cannons to open fire.
As soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, startled and confused, some began firing wildly, and within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread and engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered in panicked flight. The Turks arrived two days later and captured the Austrian camp, where they found 10,000 dead and wounded Habsburgs.
A Translation Mistake Led to the Atomic Bombing of Japan
In the aftermath of WWII, a myth grew that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was on her last legs, and about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have held water if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, both for the Japanese and for hundreds of millions of conquered subjects in Japanese-occupied territory, that was not the case.
At war’s end, Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a barbaric occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and subjected them daily to brutal treatment. In short, every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. From that perspective, America and her allies were not mistaken in treating Japan as a formidable foe who was inflicting significant harm every day, and would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.
So the Allies were not mistaken in dealing with Japan as a menace that needed putting down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.
It began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt statement calling for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. It was an ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.
The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. It was a Japanese word which meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language – sometimes too subtle – in which the same word could convey a variety of meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore“, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Harry Truman. 10 days later, the Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Hitler Wasted Scarce Resources in “Wonder Weapons”
Luckily for humanity, Nazi Germany’s defeat in WWII was helped by some major mistakes by Adolf Hitler. One such mistake was the Fuhrer’s foolhardy investment of scarce German resources in so-called “Wonder Weapons” or “Vengeance Weapons”. While some of those weapons were marvels of technology for their day, they did not bring Germany any closer to winning the war. Instead, they took away resources from more reliable weapons that could have done more to stave off eventual German defeat.
The German V2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2“, was a prime example of Hitler’s misplaced priorities. It was the world’s first ballistic missile, which carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a brilliant, advanced, and revolutionary feat of technology. It was also one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons. It inflicted relatively little damage, and thus did not justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into its production. It detracted from more effective weapons programs or other uses that might have better served the German war effort.
From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September of 1944, to Germany’s surrender nine months later, roughly 3000 V2s were fired. A significant percentage did not reach their targets. But even if they all had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been a total of 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months. By contrast, during that same period, the Royal Air Force would routinely drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single bombing raid. US bombers also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids. And the Allied explosive delivery tools, bombers, were reusable and thus far more economical. Most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to once again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities. They repeated that process dozens of times.
Moreover, during its nine months of deployment, V2s killed 2754 people. Most of them were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V2. That gave the rocket the tragic distinction of being the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when contrasting the cost with the results, the V2 literally produced little bang for the buck.
Another example was the Panzer VIII Maus super-heavy tank. It was the heaviest tank ever built, measuring about 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet high, and weighing nearly 200 tons. Its secondary armament was a 75 mm coaxial gun instead of a machine gun, while its main gun was a 128 mm monster capable of destroying any Allied tank at ranges of up to 2.2 miles. That was increased at Hitler’s insistence to a 150mm gun, because he thought the 128 mm looked like a toy gun on the Maus.
The huge size and heavyweight came at a correspondingly heavy price that made it nearly useless. The Maus was too heavy for most bridges, so it had to cross rivers either by wading through fords, or driving over the river’s bottom while using a snorkel for ventilation. Additionally, getting the Maus moving was a problem in itself. It was difficult to develop an engine and drive train powerful enough to propel 200 tons of metal on the ground at any appreciable speed, yet small enough to fit inside the tank. In the end, the maximum speed achieved during trials was 8 m.p.h. on a hard surface.
The Maus was intended to spearhead German attacks by smashing through opposition and destroying all enemy armor it came across, while impervious to damage from enemy tanks. With 9.4 inches of turret armor, 8 inches of hull front armor, 7 inches of hull side armor, and 6 inches of rear armor, the Maus was immune from Allied tanks, whose shells would simply bounce off the behemoth. However, it was built in 1944, by which time the Allies had well nigh complete aerial supremacy over the battlefield. The Maus did not have sufficient armor up top to protect it from armor-piercing bombs or rockets from above.
Ultimately, the Maus was symptomatic of Hitler’s irrational obsession with big things and super weapons. He was indifferent, or unable to understand, the concept of relative cost-effectiveness compared to other “normal” weapons that could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost. Using such normal weapons instead would have freed up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort.
Early in 1812, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte bestrode Europe like a Colossus, and was at the height of his power. By year’s end, he had suffered an epic defeat, and began the downward slide that would culminate and two years later in his exile to St. Helena. In between that great start to 1812, and its dismal conclusion, lay Napoleon’s catastrophic invasion of Russia.
Napoleon’s first mistake was his poor choice of subordinates. In invading Russia, his strategic aim was to bring the Tsar to heel by decisively defeating the Russian army as soon as possible. However, Napoleon appointed his unqualified stepson, Prince Eugene, to a major command. Early in the campaign, Napoleon maneuvered the Russians into a situation in which they would be forced to give battle, but the inexperienced Eugene screwed up and allowed the Russians to retreat.
Napoleon then plunged into Russia, chasing after the Tsar’s army for hundreds of miles as it retreated, refusing to give battle and scorching the countryside behind it in the path of the French. The Emperor had planned to halt at Smolensk, go into winter quarters, and resume the campaign the following year. But once in Smolensk, he committed his second mistake, when he decided to continue on to Moscow.
Near Moscow, the Russians finally offered battle at Borodino, where Napoleon won a hard-fought engagement. However, at the decisive moment, he committed his third major mistake, when he wavered and held off from his usual tactic of sending in the elite Imperial Guard, kept in reserve, to finish off the reeling Russians. That prevented the victory from becoming decisive, and allowed the battered Russians to live to fight another day.
When he reached Moscow, Napoleon assumed that the Russians would sue for peace, so he committed his fourth big mistake by waiting for their peace feelers, even as winter drew near. The Russians strung him along, but no more than Napoleon strung himself along with wishful thinking of peace negotiation long after it became obvious that the Russians were not interested. By the time he gave up and marched back to Smolensk, it was too late, and his unprepared army was caught by winter during the retreat.
That was exacerbated by his final mistake, in the choice of route. Napoleon had two options and ended up picking a route that was struck by severe winter storms. The route he did not take saw little snow that year. Most of Napoleon’s army starved or froze to death, or were killed by Cossacks who harried the rear and flanks of the retreating columns.
Napoleon had marched into Russia with 685,000 men – at the time, the largest army the world had ever seen. He came out with only 35,000 Frenchmen still under his command, with the remainder either dead (over 400,000), deserting, or switching sides. Reflecting upon the catastrophe, Napoleon commented: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is only one step“.