Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Last Minute Decisions That Changed History

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History

Khalid Elhassan - September 2, 2019

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Taffy 3 destroyers laying a smoke screen while under fire from admiral Kurita’s ships. Pintrest

19. Leyte Gulf Saved by an Attack of Nerves

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Eleazar Avaran taking on an elephant. Wikimedia

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Al Mutanabbi. Amazon

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Al Mutanabbi statue in Baghdad. Wikimedia

16. Al Mutanabbi’s Last Minute Turnaround

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Leslie Harvey, left, and Stone the Crows. Alchetron

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Humayun. Quora

14. Deadly Last Minute Piety

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Humayun’s death. YouTube

13. Humayun’s Last Minute – and Last – Prayer

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Battle of the Teutoburg Forrest. Wikimedia

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Patrick Lyster as Benjamin Hornigold in ‘Black Sails’. Pintrest

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Destruction of the Athenian army at Syracuse. Wikimedia

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Bust of Alcibiades. Capitoline Museum

9. Alcibiades’ Further Last Minute Switches

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Queen Tomyris and the head of Cyrus the Great. Ancient Records

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!

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
King Alexander I of Greece. Alternate History Wikia

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Barbary macaque monkeys. Julia Mathewson

Monkey Business

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Themistocles. Ancient World History

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Battle of Salamis. Ancient Warfare

5. Xerxes Accepts Themistocles’ Recommendation

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.

The Demise

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby. British Museum

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.

A Betrayal

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Battle of Bosworth, by Philip James de Loutherbourg. Wikimedia

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Wikimedia

2. The Wrong Turn That Changed History

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
RMS Titanic. New York Post

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.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
The Titanic’s port bow. National Geographic


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

History Net – Field Marshall Erwin Rommel‘s Defense of Normandy During World War II

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Battle of Teutoburg Forst

BBC, September 26th, 2013 – Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who May Have Saved the World

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

History dot Com – When Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in 1912, a Speech May Have Saved His Life

Ancient Origins – Tomyris, the Female Warrior and Ruler Who May Have Killed Cyrus the Great

Business Insider, June 6th, 2012 – Here‘s the Chilling Letter General Eisenhower Drafted in Case the Nazis Won on D-Day

Council on Foreign Relations – TWE Remembers: Secret Soviet Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Cuba (Cuban Missile Crisis, a Coda)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Al Mutanabbi

Forbes, August 27th, 2013 – How Martin Luther King Improvised ‘I Have a Dream’

Ancient Warfare – The Battle of Salamis

History Today – Latimer and Ridley Burned at the Stake

Hornfischer, James D. – The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the US Navy‘s Finest Hour (2005)

Jewish Encyclopedia – Eleazar

Lord, Walter – Incredible Victory (1967)

New York Times, August 7th, 1995 – Kokura, Japan, Bypassed by A-Bomb

Ranker – 13 Last Minute Decisions That Changed World History

Republic of Pirates – Benjamin Hornigold

Royal Central – The King Who Was Killed by a Monkey

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

Time Magazine, February 3rd, 2009 – The Day the Music Died

Ultimate Classic Rock – Les Harvey, Electrocuted During a Concert

History of War – Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby c. 1433 – 1504

Unofficial Royalty – Assassination of Alexander II, Emperor of All Russia

Wikipedia – Flight to Varennes

Wikipedia – Humayun