31. How a Last Minute Laundry Run Changed the History of Rock & Roll
February 2nd, 1959, was a school night, but 1100 teenagers crammed into the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, for a pair of sold out shows. They screamed for budding stars like Buddy Holly (of “That’ll be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” fame), Richie Valens (“La Bamba” and “Donna“), and the Big Bopper (“Chantilly Lace“), who were making their way through the Midwest as part of the Mid Winter Party tour. The musicians had been travelling by bus for over a week, and it had already broken down. Between sets, Buddy Holly asked people to join him on a charter plane he had hired to fly him to Fargo, North Dakota – the closest airport to their next show in Moorhead, Minnesota.
It was the 11th night of the tour, they were tired, had not yet been paid, and were feeling grimy, because nobody had yet had a chance to clean their clothes. Holly’s pitch for a plane ride that would get them to Moorhead early so they could do laundry and catch up on some rest was appealing. It was a small plane with only enough space for three passengers, so Holly’s bass player gave up his seat to the Big Boppa, who had a cold, while his guitar player lost a coin toss to Valens for the final seat. At midnight, the musicians boarded the plane, piloted by an exhausted but star struck 21 year old, who agreed to fly them. They flew into a blizzard and crashed, killing the three emerging stars in what came to be known as “The Day the Music Died”.
Most people have no clue who Stanislav Petrov is. Which is unfortunate, because everybody alive today, anywhere in the world, irrespective of race, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, political persuasion, or any other distinction, owes him a huge debt of gratitude. The man, acting on a gut instinct and placing a huge responsibility upon his own shoulders, saved the world from a full blown nuclear holocaust. In a nutshell, if not for Petrov, most of us would not be alive today, and the relative few still alive would be struggling for survival in some barbarous and radioactive Mad Max hellish environment.
It began early in the morning of September 26th, 1983, when Soviet early warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the US. Computer readouts confirmed the warning, and advised that several American missiles had been launched. Soviet protocol for such a scenario called for an immediate response by launching their own missiles in retaliation. Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer in charge, and his job was to immediately alert the Soviet leadership to launch their own missiles. As he described it an interview decades later: “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it“.You are able to read this today because, as seen below, he chose a different course of action.
Cold War tensions were high in September of 1983. Soviet leaders feared US president Ronald Reagan, and they suspected that a major NATO training taking place at the time might be a ruse, intended as cover for a surprise attack against the Warsaw Pact. In short, it was a bad time for nuclear attack warnings to go off in the USSR. By nuclear warfare logic, the protocols of immediate missile launch upon receipt of warning that the enemy had launched their nukes made sense on “use it or lose it” grounds. Given the short window – under half an hour – between missile launch detection and impact, the side that failed to immediately launch its own missiles risked having them destroyed in their silos. Stanislav Petrov job was to sound the alarm up the chain, which almost certainly would have led to a decision to launch Soviet missiles.
Petrov declined to alert his superiors. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it … A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike‘“. Petrov trusted his instincts – and the advise of radar operators who told him they registered no missiles – and dismissed the alert as a false alarm. Instead, he called the duty officer at Red Army headquarters, and reported a systems malfunction. If he was wrong, mushroom clouds would have erupted all around the USSR within minutes. They did not. A few days later, Petrov received an official reprimand – not for what he did that night, but for mistakes in the logbook.
The years after the French Revolution were tough for French king Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. The absolute monarchy had been drastically weakened, and in October of 1789, the unwashed masses had burst into the Palace of Versailles, and forcibly transferred the royal family to Paris. Ever since, king and queen lived as virtual captives of their subjects. Feeling increasingly humiliated as they were forced to adjust to the role of constitutional monarchs, they finally decided to slip out of Paris. The plan was to flee to the citadel of Montmedy, roughly 200 miles away, where 10,000 men under a royalist general awaited. Having regained his freedom of action, the king would then launch a royalist counterrevolution, and restore France to pre-revolution days. On the night of June 20th, 1791, Louis and Marie Antoinette gathered their family, and prepared to slip out of the Tuileries Palace.
Behind, Louis left a document addressed to the National Assembly, letting them know his intent to roll the clock back to the royal concessions granted in 1789, before the Revolution began. In private correspondence, Marie Antoinette took a more reactionary line, with an intent to go back to the old order, without any concessions at all. To carry the royal family and their close intimates, a Swedish Count Fersen had arranged for two fast light carriages, that could have made it to Montmedy relatively quickly. However, that would have entailed splitting the family, which the king and queen refused to countenance. Instead, Louis and Marie Antoinette decided on a different ride at the last minute: a bigger and more conspicuous carriage drawn by six horses, that could accommodate everybody. It was a bad choice.
Around midnight on the night of June 20-21, 1791, Louis XVI, entered the carriage disguised as the valet of a Russian noblewoman – the governess of the royal children, who pretended to be her’s. Marie Antoinette pretended to be a governess, while her sister acted like a nurse. They made it out of Paris unchallenged, but they soon rued their last minute change of ride. Their heavy carriage was slow, and it had to stop for repairs when its traces broke. The king and queen’s disguises were also flimsy, and they were recognized by many along the route. Finally, at the small town of Varennes, just 30 miles shy of their destination, the local postmaster recognized Louis from currency bearing his likeness, and the royal family were arrested and returned to Paris.
It was a disaster for Louis and Marie Antoinette. Before his flight, the revolutionaries had accepted Louis as a constitutional monarch, and took his assurances that he agreed with them at face value. His flight, coupled with the document he had left behind telling them what he really thought, changed their minds. Until then, abolishing the monarchy and declaring a republic had been a fringe position advocated only by radicals, but it soon gained in popularity. Finally, in December of 1792, Louis XVI was tried for treason, convicted, and guillotined a month later. His wife met a similar fate, and was guillotined in October of 1793.
26. The Courageous Last Words That Helped Change a Country
Henry VIII took England out of the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce, and established the Church of England, appointing himself its head. However, he kept many doctrines and practices of Catholicism. Hugh Latimer (circa 1487 – 1555) became a Catholic priest in 1515, but switched to Protestantism in 1524, and became a zealous advocate and defender of his new faith. He gained renown as a Protestant preacher, and was appointed a bishop by Henry VIII, but then resigned when the king refused to adopt Protestant reforms. Henry was succeeded by his staunchly Protestant underage son, Edward VI, during whose reign England became decidedly more Protestant. Latimer regained royal favor, was appointed court preacher, and became the young king’s chaplain. However, Edward died young and without issue, and was succeeded by his sister Mary, a staunch Catholic who was determined to restore England to Catholicism.
Mary had prominent Protestants charged with heresy, and Latimer, along with bishop Nicholas Ridley, was tried in 1555. Refusing to renounce his faith, he was convicted, and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Latimer was chained to the stake alongside Ridley. When the fire was lit, Ridley cried out in anguish, but Latimer sought to comfort him even as he himself was being consumed by the flames. He told his colleague: “be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out“. It could be argued that the candle still burns. Queen Mary’s efforts to restore Catholicism failed. When she died in 1558, she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, and England has been Protestant ever since.
25. The Last Minute Change of Plans That Changed WWII in the Pacific
Early on June 4th, 1942, Japanese aircraft carriers launched a strike against Midway Island. They inflicted significant damage, but a second strike was necessary. While preparing that strike, the Japanese discovered there were American carriers nearby. Reasoning that Midway was going nowhere, Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo ordered that bombs be switched from ones intended for ground targets, to anti-ship bombs and torpedoes. That took time, and while that was going on, the American carriers launched their own planes against the Japanese. First to arrive were Devastator torpedo bombers, which had to fly low, slow, and steady, to launch their torpedoes. 41 Devastators attacked the Japanese carriers without fighter escort. 35 were shot down, without scoring a hit. The Japanese carriers resumed refueling and rearming to strike the American carriers.
While the American torpedo bombers were getting slaughtered, a flight of American Dauntless dive bombers was desperately searching for the Japanese fleet, while running low on fuel. Then they spotted a lone Japanese destroyer below. Guessing that it was heading to rejoin its fleet, the flight’s commander, Wade McClusky, used its wake as an arrow. It led him straight to the Japanese fleet, which was caught with its pants down. The carriers were srefueling and still switching munitions, so their decks were full of bombs and torpedoes and gas. They also lacked fighter protection: the Japanese fighters had not yet regained altitude after slaughtering the American torpedo bombers that had attacked at low level, when the American dive bombers suddenly appeared above and dove down. Within five minutes, three of four Japanese aircraft carriers were burning, and the fourth was sunk later that day.
24. The Tsar Killed by a Spur of the Moment Decision
People’s Will was an underground 19th century Russian revolutionary organization dedicated to overthrowing Tsardom. It began in radical student study groups in the 1870s, that tried to spread socialist ideas to peasants and industrial workers. However, the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, swiftly arrested and jailed the agitators. So the students reconsidered, figured that only revolutionary violence could overthrow Tsarism, and decided to adopt more aggressive tactics: specifically, “propaganda of the deed”, or terrorism. The result was Land and Liberty, a radical organization that advocated political assassinations as self defense and justified revenge against oppressive officials, but stopped short of viewing terror as a means of political struggle against the government.
People’s Will split off from Land and Liberty as a more radical splinter group, that viewed terror as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime, and not simply as a reactive means of retaliation. People’s Will called for violence, and declared an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government. They also issued a proclamation declaring a death sentence against Tsar Alexander II, whom they condemned as an enemy of the people. People’s Will established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began publishing underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers. They tried real hard to get the Tsar, but suffered failure after failure, until the Tsar himself inadvertently helped them by acting on the spur of the moment.
People’s Will tried to kill Alexander II Tsar in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later with a bomb in his palace, but he was not in the room when it exploded. The frightened Tsar declared a state of emergency and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, People’s Will attempted to assassinate the commission’s head. Amid mounting repression, including the hanging of People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets, the group doggedly persisted in its efforts to get the Tsar.
They finally succeeded on March 1st, 1881, when a People’s Will assassin, waiting in ambush along a route frequently taken by Alexander II, threw a bomb under his carriage. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, the Tsar was unhurt, and the bomb thrower was captured. Acting on the spur of the moment, the shaken Tsar stepped out of the carriage whose armor had just saved his life. As he inspected the damage and carnage, Alexander crossed in gratitude for his narrow escape. A second assassin, hidden in the gathering crowd, spotted him. Shouting “it is too early to thank God!“, he threw another bomb, that exploded directly beneath the Tsar’s feet. A third assassin in the crowd, ready with yet another bomb in case the first two failed, had no need to throw his explosives.
22. Kennedy’s Decision to Go Against the Pentagon and Refuse to Invade Cuba
The Pentagon strongly urged President Kennedy to invade Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in order to remove Soviet nuclear missiles from the island. Indeed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale invasion was the only solution. They presented JFK with two invasion alternatives: Oplan 316 for a full invasion, and Oplan 312 for aerial strikes to take out the missiles, followed by an invasion if necessary. The hawks, led by Air Force general Curtis LeMay, preferred Oplan 316, because there was no guarantee that air strikes alone could take out all the missiles, or that one or more of the missiles would not be fired at the US.
Military planners expected about 18,500 US casualties in the first ten days of the invasion, assuming no nuclear explosions. However, unbeknownst to planners, Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had preauthorized the Soviet commander in Cuba to use them at his discretion if he thought it was necessary. As the crisis intensified, Khrushchev withdrew release authority for tactical nukes, and forbade their use without his express permission. However, whether the modified orders would have been followed, is debatable. In the meantime, as the clock ticked, Kennedy faced a dilemma: heed his generals and admirals, or go with his gut instincts and own judgment?
21. Things Could Have Gone Seriously Sideways If Kennedy Had Ordered an Invasion of Cuba
As the Cuban Missile Crisis intensified, Khrushchev modified the orders regarding the use of tactical nukes in Cuba, and forbade their use without his direct authorization. However, in practice, those weapons were dispersed throughout the island to various Soviet units, under the control of officers as low down the chain of command as captains. Soviet forces had trained to use those weapons, and in the heat of battle, as they were subjected to overwhelming US aerial strikes, naval bombardment, and ground attacks, there would have been intense pressure to use them.
It is easy to envision a desperate local commander, perhaps cutoff from communications with higher authority, resorting to tactical nukes to save his command, or at least ensure that its demise did not come cheap. If the Soviets used nukes in Cuba, the US intended an overwhelming nuclear response. Things could have escalated thus to a full blown nuclear exchange that would have devastated both countries and Europe, irradiated the Northern Hemisphere, devastated the planet, and set humanity back centuries. Fortunately, JFK finally firmed his decision to resist the pressure from his military men. Relying instead on diplomacy, back channels, and blockade, he successfully diffused the crisis and averted WWIII.
20. Last Minute Timidity Causes Japanese Admiral to Snatch Defeat From the Jaws of Victory
Japanese Admiral Takeo Kurita had a stunning victory in his grasp during WWII, until a last minute bout of timidity made him let it go. It happened in 1944 at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, history’s biggest naval engagement. The battle was the result of a complex Japanese plan with numerous moving parts and attacks from various directions. Their collective goal was to draw off the main US fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf, and send it on wild goose chase. Then, a powerful Japanese naval contingent under Kurita would fall upon Leyte Gulf, and devastate the unprotected Americans there. The deception part of the plan worked well. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as bait for Admiral William F. Halsey, and he steamed off with his powerful Third Fleet to sink them, without telling anybody.
Halsey left behind a small fleet of escort carriers and destroyer escorts, repurposed for ground attack and support duties, and lacking anti-ship weapons. While Halsey was chasing the Japanese decoys, Kurita showed up north of Leyte, steaming towards the landing sites with a powerful fleet of 23 battleships and heavy cruisers. They included the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1 inch gun Yamato. The Americans were caught by surprise, having 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. Their northernmost contingent, which first came in contact with the Japanese, consisted of 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection. Known as “Taffy 3”, they were commanded by rear admiral Clifton Sprague.
Taffy 3’s commander, Admiral Sprague, knew that his destroyers’ 5 inch guns stood no chance against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached the unprotected ships in Leyte Gulf. So Sprague ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge. The desperate attacks of the American “tin cans” were supported by planes flown from the escort carriers. They made strafing attacks and dropped high explosives suitable for ground attack, but that were mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When they ran out of ammunition, the American planes kept making dry strafing and bombing runs to disrupt the Japanese.
While those gadfly attacks inflicted little real damage, they were so reckless and incessant that they caused Admiral Kurita to lose his nerve at the last minute. He ended up convincing himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and that his opponents must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence. So Kurita, who had an overwhelming naval victory in his grasp if he had just kept steaming south for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away. That last minute bout of timidity gifted the Americans in Leyte Gulf with an unexpected and seemingly miraculous reprieve.
18. The Improvised Last Minute Tactic That Worked – Until it Didn’t
When Seleucid king Antiochus IV banned Jewish religious practices and ordered Jews to worship Zeus instead, the Maccabean Revolt (167 – 160 BC) erupted. Judas Maccabeus sparked the rebellion by killing a Hellenized Jew who had sacrificed to Greek idols, then fled into the wilderness with his five sons and began a guerrilla campaign. After his death, his son Judah took over the revolt, and in 164 BC, he entered Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship at its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukkah. However, Jerusalem’s conquest was incomplete, as a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress inside the city, facing the Temple Mount. Judas besieged that fortress, but a Seleucid army of 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. Judas lifted the siege and marched out at the head of 20,000 men to intercept the Seleucids.
In the resulting Battle of Beth Zechariah, 162 BC, Judas abandoned guerrilla tactics, and formed his men to meet the Seleucids in formal battle. It was a mistake, as Judas’ forces were outmatched by the Seleucid heavy infantry phalanx, professional cavalry, and especially the armored war elephants that unnerved the Jewish defenders, who began to panic and break. Judas’ younger brother Eleazar Avaran sought to encourage his comrades by demonstrating the elephants’ vulnerability with an improvised tactic. He charged at the biggest elephant he could find, got beneath it, and thrust his spear into its unarmored belly. He killed the pachyderm, but did not get to savor his success for long: the dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar and crushed him to death. His comrades did not rush in to emulate him, and the courageous demonstration did not suffice to keep the Jewish army from breaking soon thereafter.
17. The Last Minute Attack of Pride That Got a Poet Killed
Abu al Tayib Ahmad ibn Hussayn, AKA Al Mutanabbi (915 – 965) is probably the most influential and prominent Arabic language poet, and his verse is widespread and proverbial throughout the Arab world. Most of his work was odes to patrons, but he was also an egomaniac who managed to turn a significant portion of his panegyrics into odes to himself, his talent, and his courage. However, he crafted it with such consummate skill and artistry, that his poems are commonly deemed to have attained a pinnacle unequaled in the Arabic language before or since. As things turned out, his bombastic words about his own courage were the equivalent of a big check, whose cashing would one day cost him his life.
During Al Mutanabbi’s youth, the Qarmatians, a heretical cult that combined Zoroastrianism and Islam, began pillaging the Middle East, and he joined them in his teens. Claiming to be a Nabi, or prophet, at age 17 he led a Qarmatian revolt in Syria. The rebellion was suppressed and its teenaged leader was captured and imprisoned, until he recanted two years later. The Nabi claim earned him the derisory nickname Al Mutanabbi, or “would-be prophet”, by which he is known to history. After his release in 935, he became a wandering poet, travelling around the region’s courts and composing poems in praise of their rulers in exchange for patronage.
Al Mutanabbi was often handsomely rewarded with gifts of cash, but his greatest hope was to get appointed governor of a province. He impressed as an unsurpassed poet, but failed to impress as a potential governor, as his personality was prickly and his overweening pride was often off putting. Such traits, combined with the dramatics frequently accompanying creative genius, gave his patrons pause, and his ambitions of ruling a province were never fulfilled.
The flip side of Al Mutanabbi’s praise was his propensity to compose devastating verse insulting those who rubbed him wrong – typically rival courtiers competing for a patron’s attention, but sometimes patrons who failed to reward Al Mutanabbi as richly as he thought he deserved. Such insulting poetry got him killed in 965, when one of the victims of his verse waylaid him near Baghdad. Outnumbered, he fought through his attackers and broke free. Then his attackers derisively shouted some of Al Mutanabbi’s bold lines, in which he had boasted of his courage. Stung by his own words, the poet halted his flight, turned around in order to live up to his verse, and was killed in the fight that followed.
15. Last Minute Wet Sound Check Turned Out to be a Bad Idea
Scottish guitarist Leslie Harvey (1944 – 1972) was the brother of 1970s glam rocker Alex Harvey. Leslie played for a number of bands in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most notably the blues rock band Stone the Crows, which he had co-founded in 1969. Born in Glasgow, Leslie’s career was full of mishaps and misfortunes, culminating with the final one that took his life. He had been asked to join The Animals in the 1960s, but he turned down the opportunity in order to stay with his brother’s band. The Animals went on to become superstars, with hits that became classics such as House of the Rising Sun, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. The gig with his brother’s band did not work out, so Leslie joined another band, Blues Council.
However, soon after making their first album, the band’s tour van crashed, killing its lead vocalist and bassist, and the survivors split. In 1969, Harvey co-founded Stone the Crows, which steadily climbed the rock ladder. By 1972, fresh off a successful 1971 album, Teenage Kicks, and managed by Led Zepplin’s legendary Peter Grant, Leslie and his band were about to break out. Then on May 3rd, 1972, the band was preparing for a show before a crowd in Swansea, Wales, when Leslie’s bad luck struck one last time. It was a rainy day, with puddles on the stage, when the unfortunate guitarist made a last minute sound check while tuning his guitar, and came in contact with a poorly grounded microphone. Touching the microphone with wet hands, Leslie Harvey was electrocuted to death, live onstage before thousands of horrified onlookers.
Nasir al-Din Muhammad Humayun (1508 – 1556) had a roller coaster of a life. The second emperor of the Mughal Empire, Humayun ruled what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northern India from 1531 to 1540, then lost his realm to a rebellious noble. He regained his empire 15 years later with help aid from the Safavids rulers of Persia, and ruled from 1555 until his death a year later. By then, Humayun had reestablished the Mughal dynasty, and managed to pass its throne on to his son, Akbar the Great. However, if not for a last minute act of piety, Humayun might have enjoyed the throne he had just won back for longer than a measly year.
Humayun was the son and successor of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. Following Babur’s death, his son inherited a restless realm, with many subjects – most notably the Afghans and Rajputs – not yet fully on board and reconciled to Mughal supremacy. He spent his first 9 years on the throne shuttling from one end of his realm to another, putting down revolts and fighting off intrigues. Then in 1540, an Afghan adventurer with a power base in Bengal, Sher Shah, defeated Humayun and chased him out of India, while the rest of his realm rose up in revolt and threw off Mughal rule.
Overthrown, Humayun hit the road, and became a homeless wanderer until he ended up in Persia in 1544. There, he convinced its Shah to give him military aid. With Persian assistance, Humayun set out to regain Afghanistan, and after 6 years of protracted campaigning, including the seizure of Kabul three times from a disloyal brother who had turned on him, he secured that country in 1550. By 1555, back in India, Sher Shah had died and a civil war had broken out amongst his descendants. Seizing the opportunity, Humayun invaded what is now Pakistan, and captured Lahore, then continued on and seized the Punjab. Plunging on, by July of 1555, Humayun had regained Delhi and Agra as well, and finally completed the restoration of the realm he had lost a decade and a half earlier.
Unfortunately for Humayun, he did not enjoy it for long. On January 27th, 1556, only half a year after regaining his throne, he was walking down the stairs from his library with his arms full of books, when he heard a nearby mosque’s azan, or call to prayer. For some reason, Humayun chose to pray then and there on the stairs. When he knelt during the ritual, he got his foot tangled in his robe, tripped, and tumbled down the flight of steps to the stone ground below. He struck his head, and died of his injuries three days later.
12. The Last Minute “Shortcut” That Doomed an Army
Hermann (circa 18 BC – 19 AD) was a Romanized German of the Cherusci tribe, who rose to command an auxiliary cohort in the Roman army. He was admired and trusted by the Romans, who granted him citizenship and high social status, and enrolled him in the equestrian, or knightly, class. Hermann was posted to the Rhine, where he served under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general related by marriage to the emperor Augustus, who tasked him with completing the conquest of Germania up to the Elbe river. Varus was heavy handed, however, which triggered a German revolt. That was when Hermann realized he was more loyal to his fellow Germans than to his Roman employers.
Roman Legions Annihilated
In 9 AD, Varus was leading three legions under his command to winter quarters, when Hermann convinced him to make a last minute detour and take a shortcut through the Teutoburg Forest. There, Varus was led into ambush by Hermann’s Cherusci tribe and their allies. The Roman legions were annihilated, and Varus committed suicide to escape the shame of capture. The catastrophe shocked Rome, and in its aftermath, Augustus took to roaming his palace, banging his head against the wall while wailing “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” Aside from wrecking the tranquility of Augustus in his twilight years, the disaster halted Roman plans for expansion into Germania. Germany and Central Europe were thus never Latinized like Gaul was. The resulting differences were reflected in centuries of antagonistic relations between the French and Germans, that played a key role in shaping Europe.
11. A Pirate’s Last Minute Change of Sides Helped End the Golden Age of Piracy
Benjamin Hornigold (1680 – 1719) was licensed with letters of Marque to legally prey upon French shipping during the War of the Spanish Succession. After the war, he switched from privateering to outright piracy. Eventually, he became one of the Caribbean’s most notorious pirates, and by 1717, he commanded the most powerful ship in the region: a 30 gun sloop, the Ranger,which allowed him to prey on shipping with impunity. His first mate was Edward Teach, later known as Blackbeard, and his proteges and acquaintances included other future notorious pirates such as Black Sam Bellamy and Stede Bonnet. Hornigold operated mainly near the Bahamas, and his base of operations was Nassau, which had become a notorious pirates’ nest. Hornigold and a bitter rival, Henry Jennings, transformed Nassau into a de facto Pirates’ Republic, governed by its own code of conduct and regulations.
The End of the Pirates’ Republic
In 1718, a new British governor offered a royal pardon to all who turned themselves in abandoned piracy. Hornigold came in at the last minute before the offer expired, and the governor commissioned him to hunt down those who had failed to accept the pardon. Accepting the commission, Hornigold turned upon his former friends and fell upon them with a will. He turned out to be an even better pirate hunter than he had been a pirate, and by December, 1718, Hornigold had captured 10 recalcitrant pirate captains, of whom 9 were executed. His actions effectively brought the Pirates’ Republic in Nassau to an end, and reestablished British control, and law and order, in the Bahamas. He was sailing about, hunting more pirates, when he drowned after his ship was caught in a storm and wrecked on an uncharted reef in late 1719.
10. The General Whose Repeated Last Minute Switches Roiled Ancient Greece and Wrecked Athens
Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was Ancient Athens’ most dynamic, fascinating, and catastrophic leader. Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler. Raised without firm guidance, Alcibiades grew into a self-indulgent man, whose brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by narcissism, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery. Early in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Alcibiades gained a reputation for courage and military talent. By 420 BC he had become a general, and in 415 BC, he persuaded Athens to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. Soon before departure, however, statues of the god Hermes were desecrated, and suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose immoral clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. The expedition sailed to Sicily, with a cloud hanging over its leader. When Alcibiades was eventually summoned to stand trial before the Athenian Assembly, he fled and defected to Sparta.
Athens’ Catastrophic Defeat
Following his last minute defection, Alcibiades advised the Spartans to adopt a strategy that annihilated the Sicilian expedition – the army he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he had once led. It was the most catastrophic defeat suffered by Athens during the war, and of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a handful survived. The rest were either killed outright, or enslaved and worked to death in Sicilian quarries. Alcibiades also persuaded the Spartans to alter their strategy of marching into Athens’ Attica region each year, burning and looting, then withdrawing and repeating the process the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent base in Attica, from which they could pressure Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred Athens’ allies and client states into revolting.
Alcibiades wore out his welcome in Sparta, when he was caught in bed with Spartan king Agis II’s wife. He fled again, this time to Persia. There, Alcibiades convinced the Persians to intervene in the war in order to prolong it, and thus keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests in the region. In the meantime, Athens fell into chaos, that culminated in an oligarchic coup. However, Athens’ fleet, composed predominately of the lower classes, remained pro democracy. In the turmoil, Alcibiades saw an opportunity, ditched the Persians, and convinced the Athenian fleet to take him back.
From 411 to 408 BC, Alcibiades led the Athenian navy to a series of stunning victories that turned the war around, and suddenly it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. Alcibiades returned to a hero’s welcome in Athens, his earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten. However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat during his absence from the fleet. He fled again, and having burned bridges with all sides, took refuge in Phrygia. There, a Spartan delegation persuaded Phrygia’s Persian governor to murder Alcibiades in 404 BC.
8. Cyrus The Great Accepts a Battle He Should Have Left Alone
In the 6th century BC, the Massagetae were nomads roaming the Central Asian Steppe between the Caspian Sea and China. Their raids into Persian lands galled Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, so he led an army to bring the Massagetae to heel. He won an initial victory against nomads commanded by the son of the Massagetae queen, Tomyris, following a ruse in which the Persians “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. The Massagetae captured the wine, and unused to the drink, got smashed. Cyrus then turned around and fell upon the intoxicated nomads, killing many, including Tomyris’ son. Having taught the nomads a lesson, Cyrus and his men marched back towards home, until Tomyris sent a message, challenging them to a second battle. Cyrus was inclined to keep going, but changed his mind at the last minute and accepted the challenge.
First Hand Account
That turned out to be a huge mistake. As Herodoutus described the ensuing battle, fought circa 530 BC: “Tomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been…. They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too.”The Persian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, Tomyris had Cyrus’ corpse beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, she is quoted as having addressed Cyrus the Great’s head as it bobbed in the blood: “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall!”
7. Acting as Peacemaker Between a Dog and Monkeys Cost a King Dearly
King Alexander of Greece was strolling through the Royal Gardens with his dog on September 30th, 1920, when monarch and pooch came across a Barbary macaque monkey. The dog took off and attacked the monkey, which fought back. In hindsight, the king should have kept out and left them to get on with it, but on the spur of the moment, he decided to play peacemaker. Alexander rushed in to separate the brawling animals. What Alexander did not know, however, was that the monkey had friends.
As the king struggled to restore the peace, another monkey came in howling, eager defend his buddy. Seeing what appeared to be Alexander and a dog ganging up on his pal, the newly arrived monkey joined the fray, and fell upon the king, biting him in the leg and upper body several times. Alexander’s entourage heard the commotion, rushed to his aid, and chased the monkeys away, but by then the damage had already been done. The monkey bites became inflamed, and the king developed a serious infection. Amputation of the leg was considered, but none of the doctors wanted to take responsibility, so it was left until it was too late. By the time amputation was taken up again as a serious option, the infection had spread into the king’s body. Three weeks after the monkey fight, king Alexander died of sepsis, at age 27.
6. King Xerxes’ Last Minute Decision to Accept Advice From an Enemy Lost Him a War
King Xerxes of Persia set out to conquer Greece in 480 BC. After defeating a Spartan force at Thermopylae, the Persians captured a nearly deserted Athens, razed the city’s walls, and burned the place the ground. They then assembled their navy of about 600 to 800 warships on the beaches south of Athens, near the island of Salamis to the west. An allied Greek navy of about 375 warships, mostly Athenian, awaited them, guarding the eastern entrance of a strait separating Salamis from the Greek mainland.
The Greek navy was under the nominal command of the Spartan Eurybiades, but in practice, the true commander was the Athenian Themistocles. Athens’ Greek allies wavered, and called for a retreat from Salamis. Themistocles convinced them to stay by threatening that the Athenians would defect to the Persians if the allies refused to fight. However, as it was clear that the other Greeks’ commitment was shaky, Themistocles decided to force a battle as soon as possible.
A Fragile Greek Alliance
All Xerxes had to do to win was keep his fleet in place, until the fragile Greek alliance fell apart, or they launched an unwise attack against his more numerous ship. The one thing he did not need to do, and should not have done, but ended up doing at the last minute, was to attack the Greek fleet in Salamis. To get the Persian king to commit that monumental mistake, Themistocles sent Xerxes a secret message claiming friendship, and informing him that the Greeks were demoralized. To trap them, Themistocles advised, the Persians should send a naval detachment to block the western exit of the strait, then attack from the east. The bottled up Greeks would then either surrender, or put up a poor show. Either way, Xerxes would emerge victorious.
Xerxes accepted Themistocles’ advise, and the Greeks panicked the next day when they discovered that the Persians had bottled them up in the strait. Themistocles calmed them down, and devised a plan whereby the Greeks retreated far up into the narrows. The Persians wanted to fight with their ships on an east-west line facing Salamis, which would have allowed them to attack on a broad front, and use their numerical superiority to overlap and envelop their foes. Instead, Themistocles drew them into a battle whose lines ran north-south, along the narrow front of the strait’s width. That canceled the Persian numerical superiority at the point of contact, while drawing the maximum number of Persian ships into the restricted waters, before the Greeks counterattacked. Essentially, by getting the Persians to cram their huge navy into a tight space, Themistocles turned the Persians’ numerical superiority into a disadvantage.
Persian ships found themselves packed in an ever tighter space, fouling each other and unable to properly maneuver. All the while, more and more Persian captains, seeking to impress Xerxes, who was watching the battle from a nearby hilltop, rushed in, adding their ships to the growing jam ahead. To add to the Persians’ woes, the waters off Salamis were tricky, and while the Greeks knew their secrets, the Persians did not. All those factors combined to bring about a decisive Greek victory, in which the Greeks lost about 40 ships, while the Persians lost about 300. Casualties were even more lopsided than the ship losses, as many Greeks who ended up in the water swam to the safety of nearby Salamis. Persians, by contrast, were either shot by arrows as they neared Salamis, or were slaughtered as soon as they reached shore.
4. Thomas Stanley’s Waiting Until the Last Minute to Make Up His Mind Had Momentous Consequences
English magnate Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby (circa 1435 – 1504), had extensive landholdings in northwest England, which he ran like a semi-independent ruler. As a result, Stanley’s allegiance was sought by both the Yorkist and Lancastrian contenders during the Wars of Roses (1455 – 1487) – a conflict that Stanley effectively ended by waiting until the last minute to make a huge decision. This occurred during the reign of Yorkist king Richard III. Richard had been crowned in 1483 after the death of his older brother, king Edward IV, who had named Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s son and successor, 12 year old Edward V. However, Richard declared Edward IV’s sons illegitimate, imprisoned them in the Tower of London, where they disappeared and were likely murdered, and crowned himself king.
Henry Tudor, the last viable male descendant of the competing Lancastrian line, challenged Richard for the throne, and after years of exile, landed in England in 1485. Richard gathered his forces, which included a big contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, a major Yorkist loyalist and supporter, and marched out to meet his challenger. Stanley was conflicted, however: his family had been Lancastrians, but he had defected to the Yorkists. He was handsomely rewarded for that betrayal with lands and estates, and was appointed to powerful positions in the royal government. Stanley was thus indebted to the Yorkists, but there was a hiccup: he also happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, so the challenger was his stepson. As a result, Stanley did everything possible to put off a decision until the last minute.
3. Waiting Until the Last Minute Worked Out Great For Stanley
Stuck between the rock of loyalty to Richard III, and the hard place of peace in his own home, Thomas Stanley decided to play both sides. While professing loyalty to Richard, he secretly contacted Richard’s challenger, Henry Tudor, to explore defection. Richard found out about the double dealing, however, and seized Stanley’s son as a hostage for the Earls good behavior and insurance against treachery. He then ordered him to join the Yorkist army with his contingent, which Stanley reluctantly did. The challengers met at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485, but Stanley remained undecided, and kept his men out of the fight, while waiting to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message, threatening to execute his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians, only for the Earl to coolly reply: “Sire, I have other sons“.
Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and soon, it was too late. At last, Stanley made up his mind that king Richard was losing the battle, and ordered an attack – against Richard and the Yorkist forces. That tipped the scales against Richard III, who launched a final desperate attack seeking to reach and cut down his challenger, only to get cut down himself. After Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty. Stanley’s stepson and new king of England generously rewarded the treacherous earl for procrastinating until the last minute.
The murder of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, by the Serbian terrorist group The Black Hand, was history’s most impactful single act of terrorism. It almost never came off, and only succeeded at the last minute, after a comedy of errors involving a series of failed attempts. The parade of follies included a terrorist who threw a bomb that failed to kill the target, and who then made a failed suicide attempt by swallowing expired cyanide. He then made another failed attempt at suicide by drowning himself in a river, that turned out to be only only inches deep. One of the terrorists, Gavrilo Princep, gave up, and went to grab a bite at a cafe. To his astonishment, the Archduke’s convertible, whose chauffer had taken a wrong turn, suddenly came to a stop just a few feet away.
A World Changing Move
As the driver attempted to reverse, Princep stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots, killing the Archuduke and his wife. A swift chain of events followed, culminating in calamity. Austria declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally. Germany’s entry brought in France, Russia’s ally. That prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. German violation of Belgian territory brought in Britain, a guarantor of Belgian sovereignty. Over 70 million men were mobilized in the ensuing war, and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. An age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a fervent and fast paced era of democracies, juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism, took its place.
1. The Last Minute Personnel Switch That Sank the Titanic
Shortly before the Titanic sailed from Southampton to New York on April 10th, 1912, the liner made a last minute personnel change, and replaced its second officer, David Blair, with the more experienced Charles Lightoller. Unfortunately, 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 on its maiden voyage, the Titanic sailed with lookouts who lacked binoculars. In the days before disaster struck, nobody seems to have reasoned that lookouts might need binoculars. Or if anybody did, nobody decided that the ship’s safety might be worth breaking the lock to get the binoculars. It was a bad cost-benefit analysis, that resulted in tragedy.
A Tragic Mistake Revealed
Around 11:40PM on the night of April 14th, 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg in the Titanic‘s path, and alerted the bridge. The officer in charge ordered the engines stopped and the ship steered around the obstacle. However, 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, so the “unsinkable” Titanic struck the iceberg, and sank. Over 1500 passengers and crewmen lost their lives, making it one of history’s worst peacetime maritime disasters. In the ensuing 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading