Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era

Khalid Elhassan - August 13, 2017

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
French prisoners herded into captivity after surrender at Dien Bien Phu. Pinterest

Dien Bien Phu

As the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954) wore on, France’s grip on her Southeast Asian colonies was loosened by the increasingly assertive Viet Minh nationalist forces. While the French had a decided edge in firepower, they were unable to bring the lightly armed Viet Minh to offer the type of stand-up pitched battle in which superior firepower could prove decisive. At wit’s end, a plan was hatched 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. The Viet Minh, unable to resist the opportunity to destroy the isolated French, would flock to the area. The garrison kept supplied by air, would resist, and draw in more and more Viet Minh into a battle of attrition in which they would be wrecked by superior French firepower.

The paratroopers were dropped into Dien Bien Phu, whose main feature was an airstrip in a valley encircled by hills. Things quickly turned sour, as many French assumptions were proven mistaken. The French had assumed the guerrillas lacked anti-aircraft capabilities, but the surrounding hills were soon studded by flak guns, forming a deadly gauntlet through which aircraft had to fly when taking off or landing from the airstrip. So many planes were shot down that the French were soon 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. Their commander, general Giap, organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line that hauled disassembled howitzers over rough terrain to the hills overlooking the French, ingenuously dug them in to render them immune from counter-battery fire, and kept them adequately supplied with shells.

The besieged French were bombarded nonstop, and began to run low and supplies and munitions. Relentless attacks reduced fortified positions one after another, and the defensive perimeter shrank steadily. Within two months, the French were 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.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Israeli soldiers guarding Egyptian prisoners during Six Day War. Greenville Post

Arab Defeat in Six-Day War

In the runup to the Six-Day War (June 5th – 10th, 1967), tensions between Israel and her Arab neighbors climbed steadily. Raids from Palestinian guerrillas based in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, increased, eliciting massive Israeli reprisals. That put Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in a bind. He was the Arab world’s most popular politician, a hero of the masses for his defiance of Britain, France, and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956, but he was now being criticized for failing to aid those Arab states against Israel. He was also accused of hiding behind a UN peacekeeping force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Nasser knew that the Egyptian military was in no shape to fight Israel, but he sought to regain his stature in the Arab world by bluster and bluff. He broadcast increasingly heated speeches threatening Israel, and sought to convey his seriousness with demonstrations short of war. However, Nasser got carried away with his own rhetoric, and escalated the demonstrations beyond the point of prudence. He began by massing Egyptian forces in the Sinai. A few days later, he requested the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers separating the Israeli and Egyptian forces. A few more days, and he closed to Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. A week later, Jordan’s king arrived in Egypt to ink a mutual defense pact, followed soon thereafter by Iraq.

Unfortunately, what might have been intended as bluff seemed all too real from an Israeli perspective. Moreover, the Israelis, who actually were prepared for war, had long been itching for an excuse to cut Nasser down to size. So on June 5th, 1967, they launched preemptive airstrikes that destroyed 90 percent of the Egyptian air force on the ground, and put pay to the Syrian planes as well. Then, having secured aerial supremacy, the Israelis launched ground attacks that routed the Egyptians and seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula within three days, and routed the Jordanians and seized Jerusalem and the West Bank within two. Egypt and Jordan accepted a UN ceasefire but the Syrians unwisely did not, so the Israelis attacked Syria on June 9th, and captured the Golan Heights within a day. Syria accepted a cease-fire the following day.

The defeat was humiliatingly lopsided: about 24,000 Arabs killed vs 800 Israelis, with similarly disproportionate rates for wounded and equipment losses. Nasser’s prestige in the Arab world, which he had sought to burnish with warlike rhetoric and demonstrations short of war, took a severe hit from which it never recovered.