A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups

Khalid Elhassan - October 11, 2020

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
The Chateau de Chantilly at the time of Francois Vatel and his boss, The Grand Conde. Wikimedia

12. Minor Mistakes at a Major Banquet

Francois Vatel was put in charge of a grand banquet for 2000 people, scheduled at the Chateau de-Chantilly for April 25th, 1671, in honor of King Louis XIV. The banquet was scheduled on short notice, and Vatel, who had only 15 days to prepare, got stressed out by a series of minor mishaps and mistakes.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
Francois Vatel. History Blog

During a preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet, there were more guests than expected, and two out of twenty six tables went without roast. A mortified Vatel wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Reassurances that the dinner had gone great, and that the king was pleased, did not comfort Vatel, who kept obsessing about the roast-less tables. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended. That depressed Vatel even further.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
Francois Vatel’s suicide. Le Parisien

11. Mistake Leads to Suicide

The next day, things went from bad to worse for Vatel. Early on the morning of April 24th, one day before the banquet, the master chef encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish, and asked him if that was all. The supplier, unaware that Vatel was referring to all fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept for two weeks.

He had a nervous breakdown, and went into fits of histrionics, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake!” Unable to endure what he was sure would be a humiliation when the royal banquet flopped, Vatel grabbed a sword and ran himself through. It did not take long before the mistake was clarified and the misunderstanding resolved itself: fish from other suppliers began arriving soon thereafter. It was too late for Vatel, however. As the master chef lay dying of his wound, wagon loads of fish trundled their way into the Chateau de-Chantilly.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
The Son Tay prison camp. Wikimedia

10. Major Mistake Dooms the Vietnam War’s Most Ambitious Raid

On the night of November 20th, 1970, a raiding force of 56 US Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, assembled at an American base in Thailand. They made their final checks to make sure that all was good to go for their upcoming mission. The equipment passed muster, and the men were fired up and ready for one of the Vietnam War’s most ambitious raids.

The Green Berets then clambered aboard HH-3E “Jolly Green Giant” and HH-53E “Super Jolly Green Giant” helicopters, that flew them from their Thai staging base to execute Operation Ivory, a daring rescue mission. Their goal: free an estimated 65 American prisoners of war, held at Son Tay prison camp, about 20 miles west of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. The plan was great, and its execution was impeccable. However, as seen below, it turned to be all for nothing, because of a basic mistake.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
Special Forces assault group inside a helicopter before taking off for Son Tay. Wikimedia

9. The Son Tay Raid Was Executed Brilliantly

The Son Tay Raid was an exceptionally hazardous operation, whose success depended upon speed and precise execution. There were about 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers within 5 miles of the camp, so it was vital that the raiders complete their mission quickly, and fly away before the enemy could react and bring overwhelming numbers to bear.

Three raider teams landed in Son Tay. The first intentionally crash landed its helicopter at 2:19 AM in the middle of the camp, to get into position as quickly as possible. A mistake caused a second helicopter to land 400 yards away, at the guards’ headquarters. Its Special Forces attacked the headquarters, and killed or wounded an estimated 100 guards. The third helicopter disembarked its attackers outside the camp complex, and they swiftly secured the perimeter, then helped secure the camp’s facility. So far, so good. Then they hit a snag: the prison held no prisoners.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
The Son Tay Raid. Warfare History

8. Tactical Success Undone by Major Intelligence Mistake

Operation Ivory was a brilliant tactical success. It accomplished its objective of seizing control of the camp within minutes of touching down, with the attackers sustaining only two injuries: one shot in the leg, while another broke an ankle. The absence of prisoners to rescue, however, made that tactical success meaningless. As it turned out, the mission was based on outdated intelligence. Months earlier, the POWs had been moved from Son Tay, which was adjacent to a river that was prone to flooding, and relocated to another prison camp. Within 26 minutes of landing, the Green Berets were airborne again, headed back to base.

So notwithstanding that the assault had succeeded tactically, the mission was an abject failure. The blame fell squarely on the shoulders of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the other entities involved in the gathering and dissemination of the information upon which the raid was planned. In Operation Ivory’s aftermath, criticism of the intelligence mistakes that led to a risky operation to rescue prisoners from a prison camp that held no prisoners, led to an extensive overhaul and restructuring of the intelligence apparatus.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
Popeye gaining super strength. YouTube

7. Math Mistake Leads to Confusion About a Miracle Plant

Generations of children grew up on and were entertained by Popeye the Sailor Man. Thanks to him, many kids have dreamt at some point in their early years that they could gain super powers by overcoming their distaste for spinach. Popeye’s love of spinach was popularized to a receptive public, primed by a widespread belief that spinach was an extraordinarily beneficial food item.

Sadly, Spinach is nothing special – at least insofar as bestowing super powers upon those who eat it. Kids who mastered their gag reflexes long enough to swallow the green stuff were not rewarded by an explosive increase in strength, prowess, or other abilities and talents. However, there was a silver lining, as the kids learned one of life’s early lessons: don’t believe everything you see on TV. As it turns out, the perception of Spinach being a super was caused by a math mistake.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
The mistake that gave rise to the spinach-is-a-super-food myth. Weltmurksbude

6. Decimal Point Placement Mistake Turns Spinach Into a Super Food

Popeye’s passion for spinach, as well as the popular faith in its exceptional qualities, was caused by a simple mathematical mistake. In 1870, German scientist Erich von Wolf was conducting research into the amount of iron in Spinach and other vegetables. He discovered that spinach had an iron content of 3.5 milligrams per 100 gram serving.

However, when Wolf wrote his findings, he misplaced a decimal point, putting down spinach’s iron content as ten times greater than what it actually was: 35 milligrams of iron per 100 gram serving, instead of 3.5 milligrams. It was not until 1937 that somebody double checked Wolf’s math, and spotted the error. By then, Popeye was already a cultural icon, and the spinach myth had taken hold.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
Hitler. The International Churchill Society

5. Hitler Mistakes Big Weapons For Effective Ones

Fortunately for mankind, Nazi Germany’s defeat in WWII was helped by some major mistakes by Adolf Hitler. One such was the Fuhrer’s foolhardy investment of scarce German resources in so-called “Miracle” 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 V-2 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.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
V-2 rocket. Rare Historical Photos

4. An Expensive Way to Deliver Explosives

Another factor highlighting Hitler’s mistake in putting so much faith in the V-2 rocket is its terrible cost effectiveness. From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September, 1944, to Germany’s surrender nine months later, roughly 3000 V-2 rockets were fired. Many did not reach their targets. However, 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. Americans 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.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
V-2 rocket launch. Quora

3. A Weapon That Killed More of its Makers Than the Enemy

During its nine months of deployment, the V-2 rocket 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, over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V-2. 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 V-2 literally produced little bang for the buck.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
A Maus captured by the Soviets. Wikimedia

2. A Giant Mistake

Another of Hitler’s mistakes stemming from his obsession with big weapons 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. 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 heavy weight came at a correspondingly heavy price. 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 of 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.

A Surgeon With 300% Mortality Rate From a Single Operation and Other Historic Screwups
Panzer VIII Maus size comparison. WWII in Pictures

1. Hitler’s Mistakes With Super Weapons Helped Hasten His Defeat

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 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 to, or unable to understand, the concept of relative cost effectiveness. He had trouble grasping other “normal” weapons could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost. Using such normal weapons instead of turning to super weapons would have freed up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort. Fortunately, Hitler persisted with his mistakes, which only helped to hasten his defeat.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Atlantic, The, October 24th, 2012 – ‘Time Me Gentlemen’: The Fastest Surgeon of the 19th Century

Bartov, Omer – The Eastern Front, 1941-1945: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (2001)

Business Insider, June 16th, 2017 – Spinach Doesn’t Have As Much of a Key Nutrient Needed in Your Blood as You Might Think

Clark, Alan – Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945 (1985)

Cracked – How a Surgeon Once Killed Three People in One Operation

Daily Mail, July 3rd, 2013 – Sorry Popeye, Spinach DOESN’T Make Your Muscles Big: Expert Reveals Sailor’s Love of the Food Was Due to a Misplaced Decimal Point

Dungan, Tracy D. – V-2: A Combat History of the First Ballistic Missile (2005)

Erenow – 100 Mistakes That Changed History: A Math Error, 1492

Extreme Tech – Tech Wrecks: Lessons From Some of the Biggest Hardware Screwups

Gargus, John – The Son Tay Raid: American POWs in Vietnam Were Not Forgotten (2007)

History Net – The Truth About Tidal Wave

Montefiore, Simon Sebag – Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2005)

Murphy, David E. – What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa (2005)

Pangeanic – The Worst Translation Mistake in History

Searching in History – Tragic Death of Francois Vatel

Tank Encyclopedia – Panzer VIII Maus

Telegraph, The, August 29th, 2007 – Key That Could Have Saved the Titanic

Time Magazine, September 28th, 2015 – How Being a Slob Helped Alexander Fleming Discover Penicillin

Wikipedia – Operation Tidal Wave

Wikipedia – V-2 Rocket

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