Stalin fancied himself a talented generalissimo and meddled too much. Among his poor decisions were ordering to counterattack, issued to units that were in no position to do so. Later, he insisted that units stay put in untenable positions and fight to the last man. That led to a series of massive encirclements, in which the Germans sometimes captured up to 700,000 Soviets per encirclement. By the end of 1941, the Germans had captured 3.4 million Soviet POWs, most of whom died in captivity.
The Soviets suffered over 6 million military casualties, plus millions of civilians, in the first 6 months of the war. That was more than any country has ever suffered in a similar period. It took superhuman efforts and sacrifice for them to recover, claw their way back up, and win in the end. Stalin deserves much credit for keeping the USSR in the fight long after any other country would have thrown in the towel. But Stalin also deserves the blame for the catastrophe at the war’s beginning.
Stalin did not have a monopoly on catastrophic mistakes: Hitler was seemingly determined to match his Soviet counterpart screwup for screwup. Nothing highlights that better than the Fuhrer‘s disastrous decisions in 1942, which transformed what had started off as a promising campaign into an utter disaster.
The 1942 German summer offensive sought to capture the Soviets’ oil fields in the Caucasus. The city of Stalingrad on the Volga River was intended as the easternmost anchor for a line stretching between the rivers Don and Volga. That line would be manned in order to protect the German advance into the Caucasus from attack in the rear by Soviets advancing from the north. However, the symbolism of the city being named after Stalin grabbed the attention of the egomaniacal German and Soviet warlords. Thus, what began as a relatively mundane contest for Stalingrad morphed into a major showdown.
Hitler unnecessarily poured more and more resources into capturing Stalingrad. The Soviets’ fierce resistance, as with the Germans’ fierce attacks, was initially based on the symbolism of the city’s name. However, the Soviets soon saw potential that went beyond the fight for the city, while Hitler did not. Therein lay the seeds that germinated into a German debacle: the story of the battle could be summarized as the Germans thinking small, while the Soviets thought big.
The Germans focused on fighting for the city, with its capture being an ultimate end. The Soviets saw the defense of Stalingrad as just a means to a more ambitious end. The Red Army fed enough forces and supplies into Stalingrad to keep the battle going and the Germans engaged, while massing huge armies on the city’s flanks.
The Soviet military buildup north and south of Stalingrad was the prelude to a pincer attack, Operation Uranus. Its aim was to bag the Germans inside the city, and the Axis armies guarding their flanks. Operation Uranus went like clockwork, as the Soviets smashed through the Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian armies protecting the Germans in Stalingrad. Within four days, the Soviet pincers had met.
The disaster was made worse by Hitler’s insistence that the Germans inside Stalingrad stay put and fight it out until relieved by a rescue force, rather than try and break out. No rescue came, and by the time the last Germans in Stalingrad surrendered in February of 1943, the Axis had suffered 728,000 casualties, and the German spell of invincibility was broken.
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, the French hatched a plan 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. Things did not go as the French had planned.
21. Catastrophically Underestimating the Enemy’s Strength
The French military dropped paratroopers 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 catastrophically wrong. The French had assumed the Viet Minh lacked anti-aircraft capabilities. The surrounding hills were soon studded by flak guns, forming a deadly gantlet 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 Vo Nguyen Giap, organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line that hauled disassembled howitzers and the ammunition over rough terrain to the hills overlooking the French. There, they were ingeniously dug in to make them immune to counter-battery fire.
The besieged French in Dien Bien Phu 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.
The debacle was so humiliating, it forced the French government to resign. It was replaced by a new administration, which concluded that Indochina was a lost cause. Shortly after the guns fell silent at Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 Geneva Accords were signed, whereby the French agreed to withdraw their forces from all their colonies in Indochina.
Qin Shi Huangdi (259 – 210 BC) was a megalomaniac who wanted to live forever. In a catastrophic twist, his megalomania ended up killing him, instead. The founder of the imperial Qin Dynasty, Shi Huangdi was king of the Chinese state of Qin during the Warring States Period. He ascended the throne as a child, and soon as he became a teenager, he wrested power from the regents who had governed during his minority.
Shi Huangdi consolidated his power by massacring palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives, then went on the warpath. He pushed back the northern barbarians, conquered all neighboring Chinese states, and consolidated them under his rule. He capped that off by declaring himself the first emperor of a unified China.
18. Imposing Equality By Treating Everybody Like Dirt
Qin Shi Huangdi set out to unify his newly conquered empire by standardizing the currency, weights, and measures. He also introduced a system of government known as Legalism, which was based on strict laws and harsh punishments. He ended the feudalism which had led to the centuries of warfare that gave the Warring States Period its name, and replaced it with a centralized bureaucratic government in which advancement was based on merit.
To keep the nobility in check, Shi Huangdi kept those he favored in the capital. There, he controlled them with pensions and fancy titles, and transformed them from an uncontrollable warrior class into dependents and tame courtiers. Then, abolishing all aristocratic titles and ranks, except for those created and bestowed by him, he had the rest of the nobility killed or put to work.
Qin Shi Huangdi had everybody working. With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, he grew megalomaniacal. He launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor, such as 700,000 workers toiling on his tomb for 30 years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The rest is yet to be unearthed.
Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build Shi Huangdi over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China. It did double duty: keeping out the northern barbarians, and keeping in the Chinese seeking to flee Shi Huangdi’s heavy taxation and oppressive rule.
Another manifestation of Qin Shi Huangdi’s megalomania was his pursuit of immortality drugs. He lavishly funded searches for a “Life Elixir”, including an expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”. It was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to inventing the Life Elixir, but their R&D was hobbled by a lack of funding – a problem which Shi Huangdi generously put to rights.
One of those charlatans gave the emperor daily mercury pills. Swallowing mercury every day, the emperor gradually poisoned himself and gradually grew insane. He became a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, listened constantly to songs about “Pure Beings”, ordered 400 scholars buried alive, and had his son and heir banished. Rather than prolong his life, Shi Huangdi shortened it in his pursuit of immortality, and died of mercury poisoning at the relatively young age of 49.
Charles II of Navarre, AKA Charles the Bad (1332 – 1387) was a powerful French magnate, with extensive holdings throughout France. From 1349, he was also the king of Navarre, a small kingdom on the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. He earned the nickname “the Bad” because of his propensity for intrigues, bad faith dealings, betrayals, dishonesty, and double-crosses as he attempted to expand his kingdom at the expense of France and Spain.
During the Hundred Years’ War, he plotted with the English to betray France, and was arrested and imprisoned by the French king John II when his treachery came to light. Charles escaped from prison in 1357, and began a series of intrigues with a variety of French parties, betraying nearly all, one after the other. After John II’s death, his successor forced Charles to renounce most of his holdings in France.
14. Don’t Double Cross Somebody Known as “The Cruel”
In 1378, Charles the Bad was forced to cede nearly all of his remaining French holding when evidence of new treachery was discovered. It proved that Charles not only planned to again betray France to the English, but plotted to go one better this time, and poison the French king.
To the south, Charles’ poor reputation was no better in Spain. There, he allied with Peter the Cruel of Castile against Peter IV of Aragon in 1362. He turned around and betrayed Castile the following year, allying with Peter IV against Peter the Cruel. In 1378, Castilian armies invaded Navarre and Charles was forced to flee. Out of allies, having betrayed them all, Charles was forced to agree to a humiliating treaty that defanged his kingdom and reduced him and his realm to Castilian clients.
Karma caught up with Charles the Bad in a big way in 1387. He came down with an illness that impeded the use of his limbs, and a physician prescribed that he be swaddled from head to foot in linen cloth steeped in brandy or other spirits of wine. A maid, tasked with securing the swaddling cloth snugly around the king’s body by sewing it in place with yarn, realized when she was done that she had no scissors with which to snip the excess yarn. She decided upon an expedient that ended in catastrophe.
Resorting to a common alternate method for thread cutting, the maid reached for a candle to use its flame to burn off a section of yarn. The alcohol-infused cloth caught on fire, and Charles the Bad, tightly swaddled in the burning linen, was unable to escape. He suffered horrific burns all over his body, and lingered for two weeks in extreme agony before he finally died.
George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449 – 1478) is best known for his weird death. It came about after he engaged in a series of ill advised conspiracies against his brother King Edward IV of England. George was the younger son of Richard, Duke of York, whose struggle to secure power precipitated the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster.
After his brother broke the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461, deposed the Lancastrian king Henry VI, and had himself crowned as Edward IV, George was made Duke of Clarence. The following year, although only thirteen years old, he was also made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As he grew into early manhood, George idolized and came under the influence of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, AKA “The Kingmaker”. George married Neville’s daughter in defiance of the king’s plans to marry him into a European royal family to secure a dynastic alliance.
11. Siding With a Sketchy Father in Law Against One’s Own Brother
Neville, the Kingmaker, had been instrumental in deposing the prior Lancastrian king Henry VI and replacing him with Edward IV. He eventually fell out with King Edward and deserted to the Lancastrians. George rewarded his brother’s earlier generosity with betrayal, took his father-in-law’s side, and despite being a member of the York family, switched his support to the Lancastrians.
With the Kingmaker’s machinations, George’s brother Edward IV was deposed and forced to flee England in 1470. The once-deposed Lancastrian King Henry VI was restored to the throne. However, George started to mistrust his father-in-law, the Kingmaker, and switched back to his brother. Edward IV returned to England in 1471, defeated the Lancastrians in a battle during which the Kingmaker was killed, and was restored to the throne. He ensured that the twice deposed Henry VI would trouble him no more by having him murdered, after having already executed Henry’s son and sole heir.
10. A Conspiracy Too Many Turns Out To Be Catastrophic
King Edward IV pardoned his younger brother George and restored him to royal favor. However, George was catastrophically addicted to intrigues and plotting. Worse: he was not very good at concealing it, and kept getting caught. In 1478, George once again betrayed his elder brother, and was caught plotting against the king.
Finally fed up with his wayward sibling, Edward IV ordered George arrested, jailed him in the Tower of London, and had him tried for treason. Personally conducting the prosecution before Parliament, Edward secured a conviction and a Bill of Attainder against George, who was condemned to death. On February 18th, 1478, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, was executed by being dunked into a butt, or big barrel, of Malmsey wine, and forcibly held under its surface until he was drowned.
Canadian lawyer Gary Hoy was a respected senior partner at a Toronto law firm. Before going to law school, Hoy had gotten a degree in engineering, and the robustness of modern building techniques was a subject of particular interest to him. He was peculiarly proud of the tensile strength of the windows at his office in the Toronto Dominion Center, a downtown high rise, and habitually demonstrated the windows’ sturdiness by body checking them. As things turned out, it was an ill-advised habit.
One evening, Hoy was at a welcoming party being thrown for a group of incoming law student summer interns, in a conference room on the 24th floor. Wishing to impress the interns with the office windows’ strength, Hoy sought to demonstrate that they were unbreakable by throwing himself at a glass wall. He had done so many a time before, and always ended up bouncing off harmlessly. Not so this time.
As Toronto’s police put it: “At this Friday night party, Mr. Hoy did it again and bounced off the glass the first time. However, he did it a second time, and this time crashed right through the middle of the glass“. He fell to his death 24 floors below. His unfortunate death could have been averted had he left window tensile strength testing to the experts. As a structural engineer told the Toronto Star: “I don’t know of any building code in the world that would allow a 160 pound man to run up against a glass window and withstand it“.
Hoy’s auto-defenestration made the obscure law partner a greater celebrity in death than he had ever been in life. His unusual demise became the basis for sundry urban legends that were actually based on a true factual foundation. His death was featured in episodes of the TV shows Mythbusters and 1000 Ways to Die, garnered him entries in Snopes and Wikipedia, and won him a 1996 Darwin Award.
Austrian-born French tailor Franz Reichelt (1879 – 1912) was fascinated with flight since childhood. After the invention of the airplane, he sought to invent a device that would allow pilots to parachute safely to the ground should they run into trouble aloft. His efforts were spurred on when, in 1911, the Aero Club de France offered a 10,000 Franc prize to the first inventor of a successful parachute.
Reichelt’s design took the form of a suit featuring a cloak with a big silken hood. It weighed about 20 pounds, and had a surface area of around 340 square feet. He tested the design several times on dummies thrown out of his 5th floor apartment, but without success. So following an inexplicable chain of logic, he decided to test on himself what had failed to work on dummies.
Franz Reichelt seemed undaunted by his contraption’s repeated test failures, and petitioned the Paris police for permission to test his invention on a dummy from the Eiffel Tower. After securing a permit, he proceeded to drum up interest among journalists and the public to witness the test at 8 AM, February 4th, 1912. On the appointed day, Reichelt arrived wearing his parachute suit, and was met by a crowd of onlookers gathered at the Eiffel Tower, as police cordoned off the drop zone.
Accompanied by journalists, he ascended the tower, while two film crews positioned themselves, one on the ground to catch the drop from the tower, and another at the tower to film the dummy being thrown. People were perplexed however because they could see no dummy. It gradually dawned on them that Reichelt had not brought one, but intended to test his design by jumping off the tower in person.
A guard stopped Franz Reichelt, but the inventive tailor convinced him to let him proceed. Friends and journalists also tried to talk him out of it, but to no avail, as Reichelt was impervious to good advice. Climbing the stairs, he paused to give the crowd a cheery “A bientot!“, before continuing to the tower’s first deck. There, as the cameras rolled and people shouted for him to stop, he climbed on a stool placed atop a table adjacent to the guardrail, and jumped at 8:22 AM.
The suit was a flop, literally and figuratively. Reichelt fell about 200 feet to his death on the frozen ground below, with an impact that left a 6 inch crater and crushed his spine and skull. Unbeknownst to him, just two days earlier, an American had successfully parachuted 225 feet from the Statue of Liberty, using what would become the standard half-spherical backpack parachute.
Al Musta’sim Billah (1213 -1258) was the last ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate, and Islam’s last Caliph. A weak ruler ruling a weak rump of what had once been a mighty empire, Al Musta’sim was surrounded by ineffectual advisors who offered conflicting advice when the Mongols demanded his submission. He rejected the demands, ignoring some and answering others with bluster and empty threats, but failed to prepare adequate defenses against what was sure to follow such rejection.
The Mongols first erupted into the Islamic world in the 1220s, when Genghis Khan destroyed the Khwarezmian Empire and conquered as far west as western Persia up to the edges of Mesopotamia. That outburst was followed by a decades-long relative lull, as far as the Middle East and the Islamic world were concerned. During that stretch, the Mongols directed their energies elsewhere, against China, Kievan Rus, Eastern Europe, and in internal squabbles amongst themselves.
The lull ended in the 1250s, when a new Mongol ruler, Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke, turned his attention to the Middle East and sent his brother, Hulagu, to assert Mongol power over the region. Hulagu began by first destroying the Assassins, a murderous cult led by a shadowy mystic known as The Old Man of the Mountain. They operated out of a string of mountain fortresses, from which they terrorized the Middle East for over a century and a half.
Completing that task by 1256, Hulagu turned his attention to the Abbassid Caliphate, based in Baghdad. He ordered its Caliph, Al Musta’sim, to submit to Mongol suzerainty and pay tribute. The Caliph made a catastrophic mistake by misreading the situation, overestimating his own power and influence, and underestimating the Mongols’ might.
The Abbassids had once been a powerful dynasty that had ruled the world’s largest, strongest, and most prosperous empire. However, they were centuries removed from their heyday by the time Al Musta’sim became Caliph.
By the 1250s, the Abbasid Caliphate’s sway did not stretch far beyond Baghdad. As to the Caliphs, they had been reduced to mostly ceremonial figureheads, puppets of Turkish or Persian sultans wielding real power and acting in their name. What Caliph Al Musta’sim s still had was a remnant of spiritual and moral authority, and enough pride to refuse Hulagu’s summons to submit.
1. The Caliph Discovers Just How Catastrophically Wrong He Had Been
Al Musta’sim was not prepared to face the Mongols, who had conquered bigger and tougher opponents than the small rump which still remained in the Abbasid Caliphate. However, Al Musta’sim believed that the Mongols would not be able to seize Baghdad, and that if the city was endangered, the Islamic world would rush to its aid. He turned out to be catastrophically wrong.
Hulagu marched on Baghdad, the Islamic world did not rush to its aid, and after a 12-day siege, the city fell. The Mongols sacked Baghdad, massacred its inhabitants, burned its vast libraries, and put the city to the torch. Al Musta’sim was captured, but the Mongols had a taboo against spilling royal blood. So they had him executed by rolling him in a carpet, over which their army rode when it marched off to further conquests, their horses trampling the last Caliph to death.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading