Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History

Khalid Elhassan - March 30, 2021

In 1906, a Swedish sailor was shipwrecked in the Southwest Pacific, and washed ashore on an island inhabited by cannibals. Instead of ending up as dinner, he was invited to dine with the local ruler. He made such a favorable impression on the locals – and they on him – that he settled down amongst them, married the king’s daughter, and eventually became king himself after his father-in-law died. Following are thirty things about him and other enterprising people from history.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
The Bismark Archipelago, with Tabar Island north of Rabaul and east of Kavieng. Holger Behr

30. The Enterprising Swede Who Went From a Marooned Sailor to Sovereign… of a Cannibal Island

Most of us are familiar with the old saying that “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade“. It is great advice about taking the adversities dealt us by fate and making the best of them, turning negatives into pluses, and so on. However, like a lot of great life advice, it is easier said than done. The thing about many of life’s adversities and negatives is that they are, well… adverse and negative, and seldom lend themselves to getting turned into positives.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Carl Emil Pettersson’s life helped inspire the Pippi Longstocking children’s books. Penguin Books

However, it is doable, as illustrated by the example of Swedish sailor Carl-Emil Pettersson. In 1906, Pettersson was aboard the Swedish freighter Oakhaven as it sailed from Sydney to the Bismarck Archipelago. On December 25th, the Oakhaven’s crew experienced a memorable – memorably bad, that is – Christmas when their ship sank. Pettersson survived and made it to Tabar Island in the Ireland Province of today’s New Guinea. Unfortunately, Tabar was inhabited by cannibals. Fortunately, Pettersson was an enterprising sort. Instead of becoming the locals’ dinner, he ended up becoming their king. His adventures inspired the Pippi Longstocking series of children’s books.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Carl-Emil Pettersson, circa 1890. Wikimedia

29. Heading Out to Sea at Age Seventeen

Carl-Emil Pettersson was born in a small rural community north of Stockholm in 1875. In 1892, he left home at the age of seventeen years for a life at sea as a sailor aboard merchant ships. Family and friends heard nothing from him for a decade and a half, until a now-fully-grown Pettersson suddenly showed up out of the blue at his mother’s door in Stockholm. He had spent years in the Southwest Pacific, in and around the Bismarck Archipelago, and boy did he have a tale – or tales – to tell.

During that time, Pettersson had experienced multiple shipwrecks and sinkings. He survived them all, coming through healthy and hale, and little the worse for wear. The most dramatic of his shipwrecks took place in 1906, and he eventually washed up in Tabar Island. It was inhabited by cannibals, but Pettersson got along well with them. So well in fact that he had not returned to Sweden to stay, but just to say hi, see his mother, take care of some things, then head right back to the cannibal island.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Carl-Emil Pettersson with his family, circa 1918. Svenska Oden

28. Becoming a Hit in Cannibal Island

When Carl-Emil Pettersson washed up in Tabar Island in 1906, he was met with a group of hostile cannibals. He convinced them to take him to meet their ruler, King Lamry. Pettersson convinced him that he could make him rich if he would just give him a chance to demonstrate how. The trick was to take advantage of the island’s amenable climate and soil to produce coconuts. As in a whole lot of coconuts, for wholesale trade, by clearing ground for coconut plantations.

King Lamry was game, so he let Pettersson try his hand at transforming Tabar from a cannibal island into a coconut one. The enterprising Pettersson’s revolutionizing of Tabar’s economy not only pleased and impressed King Lamry, but also pleased and impressed his daughter, Princess Singdo-Misse. Soon the Swedish sailor and island princess were madly in love. Her father was eventually talked around into blessing the union, and the duo got married, and settled down to raise a family of nine children.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Carl-Emil Pettersson and family. Listerious

27. Becoming King of Cannibal Island

When King Lamry died, he was succeeded as ruler of Tabar by his son-in-law, Carl-Emil Pettersson. Over the years, Pettersson sailed back to Sweden from time to time, to trade and tell tales of his “cannibal island”. The new ruler was dubbed “King Carl the First” and “Prince Pettersson”, and his subjects affectionately nicknamed him “Strong Charley”. Pettersson did not become famous until 1913, when Swedish diplomat Count Brigen Moerner visited Tabar, and took photos of the Swedish sailor and his growing family, which were published back home.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas. Amazon

The earliest Pettersson stories were published the following year, in 1914, and featured sharks, pirates, and rollicking adventures – he did not mind stretching the truth in order to tell a good yarn. The story of the Swedish sailor who traveled the high seas and ruled over a faraway island-inspired Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking. Just like Pettersson ruled a faraway island, Pippi Longstocking’s enterprising father also sailed the high seas and ruled a faraway island as king.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Mongols in action. Pinterest

26. An Enterprising Steppe General Who Pulled Off Stunning Upsets

Mongol warrior and general Muqali (1170 – 1223) was one of Genghis Khan’s chief lieutenants. He is relatively little known today, often eclipsed among those with an interest in Mongol history by better-known commanders such as Subutai and Jebe. Muqali rose from humble beginnings, having been born into a clan of hereditary serfs. They were freed by Genghis Khan after he conquered their tribe, and absorbed it into his nascent Mongol nation. From such lowly origins, Muqali rose to become one of Genghis’ main generals and played a leading role in defeating the Jin Dynasty and conquering northern China.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Medieval illustration of the Battle of Yehuling. McGraw Hill

Muqali had a major part in the Battle of Yehuling in 1211. It capped a multi-staged and months-long campaign that pitted 80,000 Mongol invaders against a combined defensive force of 950,000 Chinese guarding mountain passes and fortifications along a 300 kilometer frontier. It ended with a decisive Mongol victory over the Jin, with over half the defenders killed, followed by the Jin emperor’s assassination by one of his generals. That paved the way for the dynasty’s demise and the Mongols’ conquest of northern China. Muqali distinguished himself with an enterprising cavalry charge over mountainous terrain to seize a vital pass.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Statue of Muqali. Wikimedia

25. Genghis Khan’s Most Trusted General?

Muqali’s enterprising feats against the Jin in northern China cemented his reputation and the esteem of Genghis Khan. When war broke out with the Khwarezmian Empire of Central Asia in 1218, Genghis took most of the Mongol army west to conquer Khwarezm and named Muqali his viceroy in China. He gave his trusted general a royal title, showered him with more lavish praise and gifts than he had given any of his other generals, and left him behind with 20,000 men to keep the Jin in check until Genghis’ return.

In the Khan’s absence, Muqali exceeded expectations. He not only held off the Jin, whose armies still numbered in the hundreds of thousands but went on the offensive against an enemy that outnumbered him by more than 10 to 1. He repeatedly wrong-footed the Jin and kept them off balance by feints, rapidity of action and aggressiveness, and attacks from unexpected directions. By the time Genghis returned in 1222, Muqali had conquered most of northern China. He died of illness the following year, while besieging a Jin fortress.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Operation Bertram. Obscure Histories

24. An Enterprising Campaign of Deceit That Fooled the Desert Fox

The strip of land over which the 1942 Battle of El Alamein was to be fought was bounded to the north by the Mediterranean Sea, and to the south by the Qattara Depression. It was impassable to armor and wheeled vehicles. Operation Bertram was a British misdirection plan to deceive Erwin Rommel about the direction of their upcoming attack. That was important because Rommel faced fuel shortages that made redeploying most of his troops, especially the Italians, difficult or even impossible once fighting began. Wherever Rommel deployed his forces, that is where most of them would remain during the battle.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Frame of a dummy tank to be used as part of Operation Bertram’s deception. Imperial War Museum

The British planned to attack in the north, and set out to convince Rommel to deploy his troops in the wrong place. A specialist unit, known as the Camouflage, Development, and Training Centre (CDTC) was cobbled together by filmmakers, stage magicians, painters, and sculptors. Its task: to flummox the Desert Fox. The CDTC set out to hide the actual troop and materiel buildup in the north, and make what buildup could not be concealed appear slower than it actually was. Most importantly, it sought to convince Rommel that the main attack would fall upon the southern sector of his line, not the northern.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Making a tank look like a truck. Obscure Histories

23. This Misdirection Plan Flim-Flammed the Axis Into Defeat

The British fed the Germans misinformation via turned spies. Borrowing from stage magic, they built wood and canvass contraptions to fool German aerial reconnaissance by making concentrations of armor appear like trucks, and make transport trucks look like menacing concentrations of tanks. To misdirect the buildup of supplies and munitions, the CDTC set up fake ammunition dumps. Water was the most precious resource in the desert, and its concentration offered strong indicia of intent. So the CDTC built a 200-mile dummy water pipeline to the southern sector of the Alamein line.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Dummy vehicles and a fake water filling station behind British lines in 1942. Wikiwand

The enterprising deception worked. When the Battle of El Alamein commenced on the night of October 23rd, 1942, enemy commanders were surprised that the British Eighth Army’s main thrust came in the north, and not in the south as had been expected. As had been predicted, fuel shortages prevented the Axis from effectively redeploying troops from the southern sector to reinforce and meet the threat to the north. The battle ended in a complete British victory, and a retreat that ended six months later with the surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Sir Francis Drake. Wikimedia

22. Elizabethan England’s Most Enterprising Hero Was Also Its Most Enterprising Pirate

Sir Francis Drake (circa 1540 – 1596) was Elizabethan England’s most celebrated and enterprising seaman. A privateer and admiral who led an adventurous seafaring career, Drake became his era’s greatest pirate, and earned a fearsome reputation for preying upon Spanish shipping and coastal settlements. He was the second man to circumnavigate the globe after Magellan’s expedition, during which endeavor he combined exploration with opportunistic plunder. A few years later, in 1588, he played a leading role in defeating the Spanish Armada.

Drake went to sea at an early age. In his teens, he was enlisted by his relatives, the Hawkinses, a clan of privateers who preyed upon French coastal shipping. By the 1560s, Drake had risen to command his own ship and entered the slave trade, smuggling shackled captives illegally into Spain’s New World possession. During one such trip, Drake was cornered by the Spanish coast guard. He managed to escape, but only with heavy loss of life among his crew. That experience left Drake with a lifelong hatred of Spain.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Route of Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, and that of the earlier Magellan expedition. Encyclopedia Britannica

21. The Around-The-World Piratical Expedition

In 1572, Francis Drake received a letter of marque from Queen Elizabeth, authorizing him to plunder any property of the Spanish crown. Armed with that authorization, the enterprising seaman raided Panama but was wounded and forced to retreat. After recovering, he raided Spanish settlements around the Caribbean, and returned to England in 1573 with a rich haul of gold and silver. Four years later, in 1577, he led an expedition of five ships to raid the Pacific coast of Spanish South America, which was wholly undefended in those days.

Braving storms, Drake passed through the Straits of Magellan in his flagship, the Golden Hind, then sailed up the coasts of Chile and Peru. Near Lima, he captured a Spanish ship that yielded 25,000 gold coins. Soon thereafter, he captured a fabulously rich prize, the Cacafuego, a Manila galleon that carried a treasure of 80 pounds of gold, 13 chests of coins, and 26 tons of silver. His holds full of loot, Drake crossed the Pacific, Indian Ocean, rounded the tip of Africa, and returned to England on September 26th, 1580, having circumnavigated the globe.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Fire ship attack on the Spanish Armada. Flickr

20. From Pirate to Saving England From the Spanish Armada

In 1585, Francis Drake led a fleet that harried Spanish shipping, captured Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, and plundered Spanish settlements in Florida and Hispaniola. In 1587, he conducted preemptive raids against Spanish fleets assembling in Cadiz and Coruna for an invasion of England. He inflicted significant damage that prevented their sailing that year. The following year, the combined Spanish fleet, the famous Armada, set sail. Drake played a leading role in its dispersal and eventual destruction, particularly on July 29th, 1588. That night, Drake organized fire ships against the Armada assembled in Calais, forcing its ships out of that port and into the open sea.

Once on the open sea, the Armada was scattered by a combination of English warships and nasty weather. Drake’s enterprising life finally ended in 1596, when he died of fever during an expedition against Spain’s Caribbean possessions. His career, with its turns from soldier and sailor to outright pirate, illustrates the era’s murky lines between piracy and legalized piracy, also known as privateering. Governments back then issued their seafaring subjects letters of marque during times of war, authorizing them to prey upon enemy shipping. That piece of paper was the fig leaf of legality that separated privateers from outright pirates.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
The grounding of the USS Philadelphia off Tripoli in 1803. Wikimedia

19. America’s War Against the Barbary Pirates

Early in the United States’ history, the young country fought the First Barbary War (1801 – 1805) against the Barbary States of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli. At issue was the Barbary pirates’ habit of preying on American merchantmen, and America’s refusal to pay tribute to halt the attacks. A US Navy squadron sailed into the Mediterranean to confront the Barbary pirates and to protect American shipping. The naval detachment included the USS Philadelphia, a 1240-ton sailing frigate with 36 guns, which was quite powerful for its day.

On October 31st, 1803, while chasing a pirate ship, the Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef just two miles from Tripoli’s harbor. All attempts to refloat the frigate failed, so her captain ordered her bottom holed, guns thrown overboard, and gunpowder spoiled before surrendering the ship and crew. Despite her captain’s efforts to render his ship useless, the Tripolitanians managed to refloat the Philadelphia, and towed her into their harbor for salvage and restoration. The ship was too powerful a prize to allow to remain in the pirates’ hands, so the US Navy decided to recapture or destroy it.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Stephen Decatur leading a party of American sailors to board a Barbary vessel. Naval Historical Center

18. A Daring Sneak Attack in the Heart of an Enemy’s Harbor

The mission to recapture or destroy the USS Philadelphia was given to an enterprising US Navy Lieutenant named Stephen Decatur. Earlier in the war, American seamen had captured a Tripolitanian ketch and renamed her the Intrepid. The captured ketch was restored to its original condition to look like a local ship. On the night of February 16th, 1804, with the captured vessel disguised as a Maltese ship flying a British flag, Decatur and a contingent of volunteers sailed into Tripoli’s harbor.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Burning of the USS Philadelphia. Naval History and Heritage Command

The American sailors feigned distress, claiming to have lost all anchors in a storm. The pilot asked and was granted permission to tie up next to the Philadelphia. Once tied up to the captured frigate, Decatur and his men overwhelmed her guards, using only cold steel without firing a shot so as not to alert the authorities. Upon confirming that the ship was repairable and seaworthy, but unable to sail her away themselves, Decatur and his men destroyed the Philadelphia by setting her on fire, then made their escape.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Ju 52 transport planes based in Tatskinskaya Airfield, en route to airlift supplies to the besieged Germans in Stalingrad. Ebook Fiebere

17. Red Christmas: The Surprise Soviet Attack That Sealed the Nazis’ Fate at Stalingrad

On Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1942, the Red Army carried out the Tatsinskaya Raid, also known as “Red Christmas” or the “Christmas Raid” because of the date. It was an enterprising armored raid deep into the German rear to destroy the Tatsinskaya Airfield, from which Luftwaffe transport planes were frantically airlifting supplies to the besieged German 6th Army in Stalingrad. Planes flying out of Tatsinskaya were the surrounded Germans’ only lifeline, so its destruction, along with its irreplaceable Ju 52 transport planes, would seal the besieged Germans’ doom.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
A Red Army tank column in WWII. Alchetron

Conducted by the 24th Tank Corps, the raid hit the airfield from three sides and caught the Germans by surprise. T-34 tanks rolled down the tarmac, machine-gunning and shelling facilities and installations, as well as the precious planes. Some planes were still in crates on railway cars that had recently brought them to Tatsinskaya. When the T-34s ran low on ammunition, they simply rammed the airplanes, smashing through their aluminum frames and crushing them and their engines beneath tens of tons of armor. German pilots and crews, desperately racing to their airplanes to try and get them airborne and away to safety, were ruthlessly cut down or ran down and ground into pulp beneath Soviet tank treads.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
The Tatsinskaya Raid. Pinterest

16. These Enterprising Raiders Were Virtually Wiped Out, but Not Before They Had Won a Strategic Victory

The Tatsinskaya raiders ended up cutoff. Encircled and unable to breakout back to Soviet lines, they suffered heavily: the 24th Tank Corps lost most of its tanks, was nearly destroyed, and had to be reconstituted. However, the mission had been accomplished, and the result was a Soviet strategic victory. The attackers claimed 300 aircraft destroyed, while the Germans admitted to the loss of 72 irreplaceable Ju 52 transports. Whatever the figure, the destruction of the airfield and the loss of transport planes and their trained pilots, crews, and maintenance personnel, were severe enough to seal the fate of the Germans surrounded in Stalingrad.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
German soldiers of the 6th Army in Stalingrad. Encyclopedia Britannica

The supply situation of the besieged 6th Army had already been dire before the raid, despite Luftwaffe transports operating at full capacity to keep it supplied. The besieged Germans’ situation became impossible after the destruction of so many transports and their base of operations. With aerial resupply virtually cutoff, German resistance inside Stalingrad began to crumble. The last survivors were forced to capitulate a month later in the greatest German defeat of the war until then. That altered the balance of the conflict. The Germans were placed in the strategic defensive, while the Soviets went on a strategic offensive that culminated two years later with the capture of Berlin.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Farinata Degli Uberti, by Andrea del Castagno, depicting typical condottiero attire in the days of Francesco Sforza. Wikimedia

15. Renaissance Italy’s Most Enterprising Mercenary

Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466) might have been the most enterprising mercenary of the Renaissance. An Italian condottiero, or soldier of fortune, Sforza’s life was full of twists and turns. He started off as a mercenary, then a mercenary general, during which career he turned on his employers and switched sides multiple times. By the time it was finally over and the dust had settled, he had made himself duke of Milan, and founded the Sforza Dynasty that ruled that city and strongly influenced northern Italy and Italian politics for a century.

Sforza was the illegitimate son of a mercenary commander. He got his start in the family business at age seventeen, when he began accompanying his father on campaigns. Sforza quickly developed a reputation for toughness and strength, and became famous for his ability to bend metal bars with his bare hands. Following his father’s drowning during battle against a rival in 1424, Sforza took command. Proving himself a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander, he went on to win the battle and killed his father’s rival while he was at it.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Italian Renaissance mercenaries in action. Lion Rampant

14. Francesco Sforza Did Not Let Family Ties Get in the Way of Business or Keep Him From Fighting His Kin

After becoming a mercenary commander in his own right, Francesco Sforza embarked on a soldier-for-hire career that saw him sign on to fight for multiple Italian rulers. His clients included the Pope, the Neapolitans, and Duke Visconti of Milan. The latter played a key part in Sforza’s career, as the enterprising mercenary fought alternately for and against him during the next two decades. In 1433, during one of the intervals when he got along well with Milan’s duke, Sforza got engaged to Visconti’s illegitimate daughter and only child.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Francesco Sforza. Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

Sforza’s betrothal to the Duke of Milan’s daughter did not stop him from switching sides a year later. He abandoned his prospective father-in-law’s employ to sign up with his rival, Cosimo de Medici of Florence. In 1438, Sforza fought for Florence against Duke Visconti, and inflicted crushing defeats on Milan. In 1441, he patched things up with Milan’s duke, and finally married his daughter. Two years later, in 1443, he once again switched sides and fought against his now-father-in-law.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Italian Renaissance mercenaries in action. Tansini

13. An Enterprising Soldier of Fortune’s Rise From Mercenary to Duke

Francesco Sforza’s enterprising career received a heavy boost in 1447, when his father-in-law Duke Visconti, the ruler of Milan, died without a male heir. The people of Milan rose up in rebellion, proclaimed a republic, and hired Sforza as their military commander. A three-sided struggle then ensued between the Milanese republic, the rival city of Venice, and Sforza. When the Milanese signed peace with Venice in 1449 against Sforza’s wishes, he turned on his employers and switched sides.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Francesco Sforza. Wikimedia

This time, Sforza backed himself, and besieged Milan. He eventually starved the city into submission, and entered it in 1450 as its new duke. Sforza’s shrewdness, opportunism, and successful deviousness caught the attention of Niccolo Machiavelli, who modeled his Prince after the enterprising mercenary. Sforza was Machiavelli’s ideal ruler. He won his state by dint of exceptional ability and skill rather than through luck or inheriting it by winning the lottery of birth, then went on to consolidate his gains and secure them sufficiently to found a dynasty.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
The targeted Ruhr dams. Dambusters Org

12. An Enterprising Plan to Flood the Nazis’ Industrial Heartland

On March 21st, 1943, a special Royal Air Force unit, 617 Squadron led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, was formed to destroy dams in the Ruhr Valley. Bombers were to fly at night along a dangerous route that left them exposed to deadly antiaircraft fire until they reached attack positions. Then they were expected to accurately deliver their ordnance to the targeted dams, despite the presence of protective torpedo nets that shielded the concrete structures. The result was Operation Chastise, one of WWII’s most enterprising and daring air raids, against the Edersee, Sorpe, and Mohne dams, conducted on the night of May 16-17, 1943.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
A Grand Slam, or Earthquake Bomb. Wikimedia

For years, the British had explored the feasibility of destroying the Ruhr dams in case of war. Various proposals were examined, but none produced a plan that stood a reasonable chance of success. The problem was accuracy. Theoretically, a big enough bomb, such as the 10 ton Grand Slam, or Earthquake Bomb, that burrows deep underground before exploding, could destroy a dam by seismic waves if dropped from 40,000 feet. However, no bomber existed at the time that could carry such a heavy bomb to the required height, then drop it close enough to the targeted dam.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Barnes Wallis. Surrey Live

11. Skipping Bombs Over the Water Like Stones

Technological limitations in 1943 prevented the dropping of a big enough bomb with enough accuracy to damage the Ruhr dams. A smaller bomb – if it went off against a dam wall at a sufficient depth – could destroy a dam. However, the Ruhr dams were protected by underwater torpedo nets to prevent that. Enterprising British scientist Barnes Wallis finally figured out a solution: bounce a bomb over the water’s surface and over the torpedo nets like a skipping stone until it struck the dam’s wall. It would then sink down the dam’s wall, and once at the requisite depth, explode.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Bomb skipping technique. Imperial War Museum

The surrounding water would concentrate the resulting blast against the dam, resulting in a breach. In order to get the explosive to skip on the surface, then sink along the dam’s inner wall after striking it instead of bouncing back, Wallis devised a spinning drum filled with explosives. A bomber would approach the dam flying low above its reservoir, and at the proper height and distance from the target, release the explosive drum, which a motor had set to spinning counterclockwise. The bomber’s speed would propel the drum skipping over the water surface, bouncing over the underwater torpedo nets.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Barnes Wallis and others watch a practice run with a skipping bomb. Imperial War Museum

10. The RAF’s Enterprising Aerial Commandos

Once Barnes Wallis’ rapidly rotating drum bombs skipped across the water, over the anti-torpedo nets, and struck the dam, the drum’s counter-rotation would ensure that it hugged the dam’s wall while sinking. Once the bomb reached the proper depth, hydraulic pistols would set it off, and basic physics would take care of the rest. Wallis’ science was good and his theory was sound. Next was getting pilots and aircrews with enough skill and courage to conduct the night time raid.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Skipping a rotating drum bomb against a dam’s wall. Wikimedia

24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson was personally selected by RAF Bomber Command’s chief, Arthur Harris, to form and lead 617 Squadron for that and similar missions. It was essentially a unit of elite aerial commandos. Gibson’s enterprising aircrews trained in modified Lancaster heavy bombers, fitted with a motor in the bomb bay to spin the explosive drum. The drum had to be released at a height of 60 feet to properly skip on water. To determine the correct height, an ingeniously simple technique was adopted: two spotlights were placed on a bomber’s front and rear, and angled so their lights would meet at the water’s surface at a height of 60 feet.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Guy Gibson, commander of 617 Squadron and the Dambuster Raid. Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund

9. These Enterprising Raiders Began Suffering Losses Before They Had Even Reached Their Targets

Correct distance for releasing the bombs against the Ruhr dams was determined by lining up two sticks on the windshield with two towers to the sides of a dam. As the bomber flew in, the sticks would visually be to the outside of the dam towers, sandwiching them. As the bomber drew nearer, the angle between the bomber and towers would grow wider. As seen from the windshield, the towers would “move” closer to the sticks until, at the correct distance, sticks and towers lined up.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Rotating drum bomb under Guy Gibson’s Lancaster. UK National Archives

On the night of May 16th, 1943, nineteen Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, divided into three formations with separate assignments, flew out along routes chosen to avoid known flak concentrations. Losses began soon as the enterprising flyers reached Europe’s coast. Two bombers had to turn back after one flew too low and struck water, losing its explosives. Another had its radio damaged by antiaircraft fire. Soon thereafter, a third bomber was shot down, a fourth went down after striking electric pylons, and a fifth crashed after flying into power lines.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
A Lancaster making its bomb run during the Dambusters’ Raid. Pinterest

8. The Dambuster Raid Caused Significant Damage and Boosted Allied Morale

Guy Gibson made his attack run against the Mohne Dam, then flew his Lancaster across the dam to draw antiaircraft fire while other bombers made their approaches. One bomber was lost and another damaged, but the dam was finally breached after the fifth bombing run. Gibson then led the Lancasters that still had bombs to the Edersee dam. It was undefended, but the angle of approach was difficult, and was made even more hazardous by fog. After repeated aborted runs, it was finally breached. The attack on the Sorpe dam failed.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
The breached Mohne Dam after Operation Chastise. Wikimedia

Flooding from the breached dams killed about 1700 civilians, of whom 1000 were forced laborers. The greatest impact was the loss of hydroelectric power in the Ruhr for two weeks, as two power stations were destroyed and seven more damaged. Coal production also dropped, declining by 400,000 tons that month. The damage was temporary, however: within two months, Ruhr production was back to normal. Still, the raid boosted British morale as an impressive feat of enterprising derring-do. Guy Gibson was awarded a Victoria Cross, and 617 Squadron, known thereafter as the “Dam Busters”, went on to fly further successful special raids.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
A 6th century BC Athenian silver obol coin. CNG Coins

7. When the Ancient Greeks Loved Tyrants

For the ancient Greeks, the word “tyrant” did not carry the modern connotations of brutal oppression. It had instead a narrower meaning of a populist strongman who, with a support base of commoners excluded from power by an aristocracy, overthrew an oligarchy and replaced it with his own one-man rule. Many tyrants were wildly popular – except with the aristocracy. Commoners had little power in the aristocracy-dominated system, so they were no worse off ruled by one tyrant than when they had been ruled by a clique of nobles.

Additionally, with the power of an overbearing aristocracy reduced, government under tyrants was usually fairer, rather than heavily stacked up to benefit the nobles. Economically, commoners also tended to do better under tyrants, who usually encouraged commerce and crafts and manufactures – activities viewed as socially gauche by the aristocracy. The aristocrats also feared that such commercial activities would destabilize the social order by making jumped up commoners as rich as, or richer than, their social betters.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Peisistratos entering Athens with his fake goddess. Wikimedia

6. The Poor of Athens Invited an Enterprising General to Seize Power and Rule the City as a Tyrant

An ancient Greek tyranny was often a predicate for democracy because it removed from its path the barrier of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had a strong interest in weakening the power of the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries. So when they seized power, tyrants usually adopted populist policies that appealed to commoners, whose support was necessary for the tyrant’s continued hold on power. Only after the aristocracy had been weakened, and its stranglehold on power broken, would there be an opening for democracy.

That is what happened in Athens. Its path to democracy was paved by a tyranny that weakened the power of the city’s aristocrats, who had monopolized power for centuries. Athens’ poorest and most populous region, the Hill District, teemed with impoverished residents. They received little benefit from recent reforms that had averted a civil war, other than a meaningless vote. So the Hill people invited an enterprising general named Peisistratos to make himself tyrant. With their support, he marched into Athens in a procession headed by a tall girl dressed up as the goddess Athena, who blessed Peisistratos and declared it her divine will that he be made tyrant.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Peisistratos returning to Athens, this time without a fake goddess. Encyclopedia Britannica

5. If a Fake Goddess Doesn’t Work, Try Again, This Time With an Army

Peisistratos’ mummery with the fake goddess did not work. The other Athenians saw through it, and chased him and his followers out of town. In exile, Peisistratos bought silver and gold mines in northern Greece, and got rich off their proceeds. Investing his wealth in mercenaries, he returned to Athens and tried again, this time with a well-equipped private army instead of a girl dressed up as a goddess. It worked, and in 546 BC, he overthrew the government and had himself proclaimed tyrant. Peisistratos suppressed the feuding factions, and championed the lower classes. His tyranny was a wild success.

Peisistratos exiled his aristocratic enemies. He confiscated their land holdings, broke them up into small farms, and redistributed them to his followers, thus cementing their support. He also loaned small farmers money for tools, lowered taxes, standardized currency, and enforced the laws even-handedly. He promoted the growing of olives and grapes, encouraged commerce and craftsmen, built an aqueduct, implemented a public buildings program, and beautified Athens. Culturally, he funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia and promoted theater and the arts. By the time Peisistratos died, circa 527 BC, Athens was peaceful and more prosperous than it had ever been, with a growing and increasingly affluent middle class.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
The killing of Hipparchus. Encyclopedia Britannica

4. An Enterprising Ancient Athenian’s Scheme to Free His City From Tyranny

Cleisthenes, born circa 570 BC, is known as “The Father of Athenian Democracy” for creating the system that, with incremental reforms, governed Athens during the Classical era. Before that, Athens had been governed by two tyrants, Hippias and Hipparchus, brothers who had inherited the position from their father, Peisistratos. The siblings governed Athens competently and with a light hand, until Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC in a private feud stemming from a romance that went bad. After his brother’s assassination, Hippias grew paranoid, and his rule became oppressive, and well… tyrannical.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
A young Cleisthenes chariot racing at the Olympic Games. Eon Images

Hippias lashed out indiscriminately at enemies real and imagined, and his descent into violence eroded the popularity the tyranny had enjoyed since the days of Peisistratos. The number of victims and exiles forced to flee Athens grew, and they included Cleisthenes, who began plotting with other exiles to overthrow the tyranny. Invasion was considered, but Hippias had a well-equipped army, while the exiles did not, and lacked the funds for an army of their own. So they sought to enlist the help of Sparta, which had the Greek world’s best army, to liberate Athens. To secure Sparta’s help, Cleisthenes came up with the enterprising idea to bribe the gods.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Petitioners consulting the Oracle of Delphi. Project Delphi

3. Bribing the Gods to Put in a Good Word For One’s Cause

To induce help from the Spartans, who were known for their piety, the enterprising Cleisthenes bribed the priests of Delphi, the Greek world’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi. For centuries, Ancient Greeks had turned to the Oracle for answers, and it typically replied to petitioners with cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Once Cleisthenes bribed Delphi’s priests, however, every Spartan petitioner who showed up received the very clear and not at all cryptic answer: “Liberate Athens!” So the Spartans marched into Attica in 508 BC, liberated Athens, then marched back home.

Left to govern themselves, the Athenians immediately split into rival camps. Oligarchs, led by Isagoras, wanted the government returned to the hands of the wealthy. Populists, led by Cleisthenes and comprising a majority of Athenians, declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly. Cleisthenes’ camp prevailed, but the oligarchic faction solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy. Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Cleisthenes. Wikimedia

2. An Enterprising Solution to Geographic and Nepotistic Tribalism

Cleisthenes and democracy’s supporters did not stay exiled for long. They armed themselves, returned to Athens, and the population rose up in revolt. The city’s aristocratic faction and the Spartan garrison that was there to support them soon found themselves besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels’ beef was not with Sparta, so they allowed the Spartans to leave and return home. The aristocratic anti-democracy Athenians were shown no similar mercy: Cleisthenes and his supporters massacred them to a man. Having decisively dealt with the oligarchic threat, Cleisthenes set about establishing the Athenian democracy.

The major reform was the reorganization of the citizen body (demos) of Athens. Athenians had been grouped into four tribes, based on kin groups. Cleisthenes argued that such grouping lent itself to factionalism. He replaced it with an artificial classification system that divided the citizen body into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. Each tribe thus contained a representative sample of the entire population, including all classes and regions. That reduced the incentives for parochialism because no tribe had cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole.

Insane and Inspiring Enterprising Stories from History
Broken bits of ancient Athenian pottery, or ostra, with the names of those being proposed for ostracism. Grethexis

1. Ancient Athens Adopted a Creative Method to Get Rid of Unpopular People Without Killing Them

In addition to creating at-large tribes whose members were drawn at random from the citizens of Athens, Cleisthenes continued his enterprising reforms by creating a new council, the boule. It was a democratic body, in which all of Athens’ citizens had the right to speak and voice their opinions on public matters and the affairs of the day. Cleisthenes thus eliminated the parochialism that had plagued Athens for generations, and granted the entire male citizen population access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy.

Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was ostracism. An annual vote would be held in which each citizen could name any person, whose name he wrote down on bits of broken pottery known as ostra, whom he thought was too dangerous or was becoming too powerful. The citizen receiving the most votes would be exiled for ten years, without prejudice to his property while he was gone, or to his citizenship rights upon his return. Cleisthenes’ reforms thus established basic democracy in Athens, and created the constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms were made in future years to transform Athens into a direct democracy.


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

Coote, Stephen – Drake: The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero (2005)

Cracked – The Guy Who Shipwrecked on a Cannibal Island Then Took it Over

Daily News, The, April 30th, 1938 – Cannibal Capture May Open Way For Sweden in the Pacific

Ehrenberg, Victor – From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries BC (2010)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Muqali, Mongolian General

Encyclopedia Britannica – Peisistratos

Forczyk, Robert – Red Christmas: The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid, 1942 (2012)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Hastings, Max – Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II (2020)

O’Neil, James L. – The Origins and Development of Ancient Greek Democracy (1995)

Plutarch – Parallel Lives

SBS News, October 28th, 2019 – The Little-Known Family Story That Helped Inspire the Pippi Longstocking Books

Stroud, Rick – The Phantom Army of Alamein: How the Camouflage Unit and Operation Bertram Hoodwinked Rommel (2012)

Wikipedia – Francesco I Sforza

Wikipedia – Operation Bertram

Wikipedia – USS Philadelphia (1799)