17. The Berlin Wall Fell Because a Bureaucrat Misspoke
For decades, the Berlin Wall stood as both a literal dividing line, and the Cold War’s ultimate symbolic separator, marking off a dour communist East from a vibrant capitalist West. There was a reason why Ronald Reagan’s admonition in speech delivered during a 1987 visit to West Berlin, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” resonated so well back then. At the time, few could have predicted that, little more than two years later, the Berlin Wall would come down with such suddenness so as to catch politicians and pundits alike off guard.
As the late 1980s saw communism begin to crumble in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, East Germany’s communist leaders began to grudgingly ease their citizens’ travel restrictions. On November 9th, 1989, East Berlin’s communist party boss Gunter Schabowski held a press conference to explain some minor revisions to the travel code. However, he flubbed it, and mistakenly implied that travel restrictions were being completely removed. When a reporter asked when the changes would take effect, Schabowski shrugged and replied: “immediately, right away“. That hit the news, and when East Germans heard it, they swarmed the border, demanding the promised free passage. The border guards had received no such instructions, but rather than deal with a riot, they stepped aside, and the wall came down in a rapturous celebration – Berlin’s greatest citywide party, ever.
American dancer Isadora Duncan (1878 – 1927) was famous in the late 19th and early 20th century for dance themes derived from Greek art, and for wearing long flowing scarves. Her career began in childhood when she started giving dance lesson to neighborhood kids, and from early on, she demonstrated a free-spirited style that set her apart. By her late teens, Duncan was performing in Chicago and New York, but felt constrained in America, she emigrated first to London, then to Paris. Overseas, her career took off and she quickly became one of the world’s most famous dancers. She won high acclaim and garnered accolades, and ended up living in Western Europe and the Soviet Union from age 22 until her death in 1927.
On September 14th, 1927, Duncan was testing out a new car in Nice, France. As she almost always did, she was wearing one of her signature long and flowing hand-painted silk scarves. That was unfortunate because a gust of wind blew one of the scarf’s ends out of the car. There, it got tangled in a wheel, and yanked Duncan out of the vehicle and onto the roadway, breaking her neck. Duncan’s death was but the latest, and final, the episode is an unfortunate history with cars: in 1913, her two children, aged 3 and 5, had drowned when a car carrying them plunged into the Seine. Later that year, Duncan was injured in an automobile accident, as she would be again in a car crash in Leningrad, in 1924. On another occasion, she narrowly escaped death by drowning when her car plunged into the water.
15. Japan Might Have Gotten Nuked Because of a Translation Error
After World War II, a myth grew that the atomic bombing of Japan had been unnecessary because Japan had supposedly been on her last legs, and on the verge of surrendering at any moment. As the myth’s purveyors put it, all the Allies had to do was simply blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. There might have been something to that line of reasoning – if the war had been confined solely to Japan, where the Japanese could have been isolated in their home islands. Unfortunately, that was not the case: at war’s end, Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a barbaric occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and the Pacific.
Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs and subjected them daily to brutal treatment. In short, every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. From that perspective, America and her allies were not mistaken in treating Japan as a formidable foe who was causing serious harm every day, and would keep doing so until stopped. So the Allies dealt with Japan as a menace that needed to be put down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.
History’s most consequential translation error took place against the background of the Potsdam Declaration, in the summer of 1945. The Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945, just ten days after the Manhattan Project bore fruit, and America had successfully tested history’s first atomic bomb. The United States, along with her allies, issued a blunt “or else” statement, calling for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. It was an ultimatum, warning the Japanese that if they did not surrender – and surrender soon, at that – they would face “prompt and utter destruction“. The Potsdam Declaration’s terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“.
Mokusatsu was a Japanese word which meant that Prime Minister Suzuki had received the message and that he was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language – sometimes, as in this case, too subtle – in which the same word could have a bunch of different meanings. One of the possible different meanings for mokusatsu – and one which the Japanese Prime Minister did not intend – is to “contemptuously ignore”. It was that latter meaning that American translators gave to President Harry Truman. International news agencies reported to the world that the Japanese government responded that the ultimatum was “not worthy of comment”. 10 days later, the B-29 Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A few days later, the Bockscar dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
13. Putting Too Much Faith in Gentlemanly Niceties
In 1805, Napoleon had been camped out with his Grand Armee across the English Channel from Britain, waiting for an opportunity to invade, when he got word that the Russians and Austrians had declared war on him. So he shelved his plans to invade Britain, struck camp, and conducted quick march south that ended with the capture of an Austrian army in the Ulm Campaign. The Austrians’ Russian allies retreated to the north bank of the Danube, and hoped for breathing space to regroup by putting that river between them and the pursuing French. To that end, all bridges spanning the Danube were either blown up or prepared with explosives to detonate at a word of command to prevent their capture by the French.
In the meantime, peace negotiations were underway as the French neared the Austrian capital of Vienna, on the Danube. So as not to cast a pall over the negotiations, and because it might prove unnecessary should the negotiators succeed, Austrian authorities refrained from blowing up Vienna’s bridges. Instead, they rigged them up for detonation, in case the French attempted to seize them. One such was the Tabor Bridge, entrusted to Count Auesberg. As things turned out, the Austrians would have serious cause to rue the day when they decided against simply blowing up the bridge and getting it over with. They would have even greater cause to rue their choice of commander to guard that bridge. In turn, that commander would have greater cause to rue his mistaken reliance on the conventions of gentlemanly honor and niceties when dealing with an enemy.
Against a backdrop of uncertain hostilities that might end at any moment with an armistice and peace treaty, the French vanguard neared the Tabor Bridge on November 13th, 1805, and halted. Two of Napoleon’s more enterprising commanders, Joachim Murat and Jean Lannes, then casually ambled to the bridge, seemingly without a care in the world. While confused Austrian guards aimed their muskets at their breasts, Murat and Lannes acted nonchalant, laughing and expressing their pleasure with the “just concluded” armistice and peace treaty. Once they reached the other side, still maintaining a carefree air, they asked to see Count Auesberg and wondered if he had already gone to attend the peace signing ceremony.
As a messenger was sent to fetch Auesberg, the French Marshals chatted with the guards to distract their attention from French soldiers who were now casually crossing the bridge. An Austrian sergeant suspected a ruse and lit the fuse to the explosives, but Lannes extinguished it, berated the sergeant for trying to destroy public property, then sat on a cannon as he smoked a pipe. When Count Auesberg arrived, he bought the story. When the suspicious sergeant protested, Murat berated Auesberg for his soldiers’ indiscipline and for allowing an underling to mouth off and jeopardize the armistice. Auesberg was browbeaten into arresting the sergeant, then turned control of the bridge over to the French. They used it to cross the Danube, and less than a month later crushed the combined Austro-Russian armies at Austerlitz, the masterpiece battle of Napoleon’s career. The hapless Count Auesberg was tried for incompetence and shot.
11. The Garrison That Was Royally Screwed Because Its Commander Failed to Read a Warning
The Patriots’ bid for independence was not going well as 1776 drew to a close. They had been outgeneraled, outfought, and soundly beaten, most notably in New York City, where only a near-miraculous escape had saved them from annihilation. Morale was low, so George Washington planned a surprise raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence. From Pennsylvania, Washington sought to cross the Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, New Jersey. On the night of December 25th – 26th, cold, hungry, and demoralized Americans got into boats on a freezing winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. Bad weather and icy river conditions prevented two detachments from crossing, so Washington made it to the far bank with only 2400 men – 3000 fewer than planned for.
Fortunately, they were unopposed as they marched 9 miles to Trenton without alerting the enemy, who had lowered their guard. Early on December 26th, 1776, the Patriots surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, the Americans killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand foes, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. The Hessian commander, Johann Rall, was mortally wounded. In his pocket was discovered a note from a Loyalist farmer, who had spotted the approaching Patriots and sent a warning. Fortunately for the Americans, Rall had not bothered to read the warning, and the note was still unopened when it was recovered. Trenton was a small battle, but one with far-reaching consequences. It inspired the Patriots when they needed a morale boost, saved their army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many veterans to stick around.
Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing, as England’s naval authorities discovered with the Mary Rose. Commissioned in 1511, the Mary Rose was among the earliest ships that revolutionized naval warfare by using cannons in a new way. Instead of placing her guns on the top deck and firing them from there, as had been the norm for generations, the Mary Rose and her ilk placed their guns in the lower decks, and fired them through portholes cut into the hull. As such, she was among the pioneering ships that transformed naval warfare and helped usher in the shift from the era of fighting at sea via grappling and boarding or ramming, to the classic Age of Sail, in which fighting ships relied on massed gun broadsides.
The Mary Rose was a success and gave the Royal Navy decades of solid service. Then in 1536, she underwent an unfortunate redesign and upgrade. The logic and thinking behind the upgrade seem to have boiled down to “since cannons are good, it follows that more cannons must be better“. In of itself, that was not a bad line of reasoning. However, the English were about to discover that adding more cannons to a ship could prove problematic if that ship had not been specifically designed to accommodate more cannons and bear their additional weight. The Mary Rose was a ship that had not been specifically designed to accommodate more cannons and bear their additional weight.
The Mary Rose‘s redesign and upgrade entailed the addition of a new gun deck. However, the addition of more and heavier cannon ended up increasing the ship’s weight from 500 tons to 700. That caused the Mary Rose to ride lower in the water, which in turn brought her lower deck – and the portholes cut in it for the guns to fire through – closer to the sea’s surface. This revealed a downside in the 1545 Battle of the Solent. In that engagement, the Mary Rose joined a fleet of English sailing ships that found themselves becalmed in the Solent. The fleet became unable to maneuver for lack of wind, when suddenly set upon by a fleet of French rowing galleys. The English ships found themselves in trouble, and the French galleys seemed on the verge of a victory over the immobilized English sailing vessels.
Fortunately for the English, the wind finally picked up. Sailing out in a stiff breeze, the Mary Rose led the English counter-attack, and the outgunned French galleys were now the ones in trouble. Unfortunately for the Mary Rose, her first broadside caused her to heel – that is, lean over – to her starboard side. That caused her gun portholes, now lower and closer to the water’s surface because of the additional weight from the 1536 upgrade, to dip into the water. The sea rushed in through the gun openings, and the crew was unable to correct the sudden imbalance. Guns, ammunition, and cargo shifted to the submerging side of the ship, causing it to tilt even further. The tilt became uncontrollable, and the Mary Rose sank rapidly, taking nine-tenths of her crew with her.
8. Cascade of Small Mistakes Brings Well-Planned Air Raid to Grief
In 1943, American air commanders planned a raid on the Ploesti oilfields and complex in Romania, which furnished the Nazis with a third of their fuel. B-24 Liberator heavy bombers, without fighter escort, would head on a 2000-mile trip north from Libya across the Mediterranean, then turn northeast towards Ploesti upon reaching the Greek coast. On August 1, 1943, known as “Black Sunday”, 177 Liberators took off from Libyan airfields. Maintaining radio silence and flying at 50 feet or lower to avoid German radar, they skimmed over the Mediterranean, then flew at treetop level upon reaching land. Alerted, the Germans took control and the raid came to grief because of a cascade of mishaps. First, a navigation error took some bombers directly above a German position. Then, a lead navigator crashed, and the bombers following him arrived over the target staggered, instead of simultaneously.
A bomb group leader, seeing all formation hopelessly lost, broke radio silence to order the scattered B-24s to make their way to Ploesti individually and bomb as best they could. Alert defenders met The Liberators. Hundreds of antiaircraft guns, heavy machineguns, and a specially designed train whose cars’ sides dropped to reveal flak guns, opened up on the bombers, while fighter aircraft savaged them. The low-flying B-24s also contended with industrial chimneys suddenly looming in their path amid the billowing smoke. 177 B-24s took off that day, 162 reached Ploesti. Of those, 53 were shot down, for the loss of 660 crewmen. Only 109 Liberators made it back, 58 completely beyond repair. They quickly repaired the damage to Ploesti, and within weeks, the oil complex’s production rose higher than before the raid.
7. A Daring Raid to Free Prisoners of War Hits a Snag
It was the night of November 20th, 1970, as a raiding force of 56 US Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, assembled at an American base in Thailand. They made their final checks to make sure that all was good to go for their upcoming mission. The equipment passed muster, and the men were amped up and ready for one of the Vietnam War’s most ambitious raids. The Green Berets then clambered aboard HH-3E “Jolly Green Giant” and HH-53E “Super Jolly Green Giant” helicopters, that flew them from their Thai staging base to execute Operation Ivory Coast, a daring rescue mission. Their goal: free an estimated 65 American prisoners of war, held at Son Tay prison camp, about 20 miles west of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
It was an exceptionally hazardous operation, in which speed and precision of execution were a must. There were an estimated 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers within 5 miles of the camp, so it was vital that the raiders complete their mission quickly, and fly away before the enemy could react and bring overwhelming numbers to bear. Three raider teams landed in Son Tay, with the first intentionally crash-landing its helicopter at 2:19 AM in the middle of the camp to get into position as quickly as possible. A second helicopter mistakenly landed 400 yards away, at the guards’ headquarters. Its Special Forces attacked the headquarters and killed or wounded an estimated 100 guards. The third helicopter disembarked its attackers outside the camp complex, and they swiftly secured the perimeter, then helped secure the camp’s facility. So far, so good, but there was a snag: the prison held no prisoners.
Seen from a tactical perspective, Operation Ivory was a brilliant tactical success. It completely accomplished its objective of seizing control of the camp within minutes of touching down. The attackers sustained only two injuries: one shot in the leg, while another broke an ankle. The absence of prisoners to rescue, however, made that tactical success meaningless. As it turned out, outdated intelligence comprised the mission’s plans. Months earlier, the POWs had been moved from Son Tay. This camp lay adjacent to a river prone to flooding; they relocated to another prison camp. Within 26 minutes of landing, the Green Berets were airborne again, headed back to base.
The assault had succeeded tactically, but the mission had clearly been an abject failure. The blame fell squarely on the shoulders of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). And the other entities involved in the gathering and dissemination of the information upon which the raid was planned. In Operation Ivory’s aftermath, there was much criticism of the faulty intelligence that led to a risky operation to rescue prisoners. Especially considering it was from a prison camp that held no prisoners. This led to an extensive overhaul and restructuring of the intelligence apparatus.
Throughout much of his career, there was little to indicate that Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955) would someday change the world. He was an unprepossessing Scottish doctor, pharmacologist, and microbiologist. Not much in Fleming’s decades of work prior to 1928 heralded his revolutionizing medicine. Until that year, his greatest accomplishment had to do with research on enzymes. But in 1928, Fleming discovered penicillin, the antibiotic that would upend medical care. As a result, millions of patients in the decades since survived deadly infections thanks to penicillin. Incredibly, it all happened by accident.
Lucky breaks and twists of fate marked Fleming’s life. Born in Scotland, he moved to London, where he graduated high school before getting a job in a shipping office. Fleming may have resigned to stay in this position. But an uncle died four years later, leaving Fleming enough of an inheritance to pay for medical school. He initially wanted to become a surgeon. However, while serving in a reserve regiment, Fleming became a great marksman. To become a surgeon, he must leave his medical school and move away – which meant leaving his unit. His commanding officer did not wish to lose the promising reservist, so he introduced Fleming to a prominent researcher and immunologist. He convinced him to become a researcher instead.
Alexander Fleming served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I. There, he observed the deaths of many soldiers from uncontrollable infections. Antiseptics were used to fight infections, but they often did more harm than good. Fleming conducted research, which showed that antiseptics did nothing to stop the proliferation of anaerobic bacteria in deep wounds. Initially rejected, Fleming, plugged on through his research and kept at it, until war’s end and beyond. One day in 1922, while battling a cold, Fleming transferred some of his snot to a Petri dish. A slob, he then placed the dish on his cluttered desk, where he forgot it for a couple of weeks. When Fleming finally remembered and examined it, the Petri dish was full of bacterial colonies. However, the microscope revealed that one area of snot was free of bacteria.
Further examination revealed that it was due to the presence of an enzyme, which he called lysozyme. The enzyme had some antimicrobial properties. That set the stage for the discovery of penicillin. In 1928, Fleming, still a lab slob, left an uncovered Petri dish next to an open window. It became contaminated with fungus spores. When he checked it under the microscope, Fleming discovered that the bacteria near the fungus were dying. He managed to isolate the fungus and discovered that it was effective against numerous pathogens. It affected diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, gonorrhea, and many more. Thus, penicillin was discovered. As Fleming put it: “I did not discover penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident“.
3. Misunderstanding Makes Master Chef Kill Himself
French master chef Francois Vatel took charge of a grand banquet for 2000 people. They scheduled the banquet at the Chateau de-Chantilly for April 25, 1671. The banquet honored King Louis XIV. The plans were made only 15 days prior, and Vatel became stressed by a series of minor mishaps. During a preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet, there were more guests than expected. Two out of twenty-six tables went without roast. A mortified Vatel wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Reassurances that the dinner flowed smoothly, and that it pleased the king, did not comfort Vatel. He continued obsessing about the roast-less tables. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended, which depressed Vatel even further.
The next morning – one day before the banquet – Vatel encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish. He asked him if that was all the fish. The supplier, unaware Vatel was referring to the fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept for two weeks. Vatel broke down, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake!“. Unable to endure any future humiliation from a failed royal banquet, Vatel took a sword and ran himself through. Sadly, it did not take long before the misunderstanding resolved itself; fish from other suppliers began arriving soon thereafter. As the master chef lay dying of his wound, wagon loads of fish trundled their way into the Chateau de-Chantilly.
2. A Cascade of Little Mistakes Made an Army Defeat, Rout, and Flee From Itself
History never witnessed a combination of little mistakes that produced such catastrophic consequences as the Battle of Karansebes (1788). This calamity of screwups occurred during the Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791. It produced what might have been history’s most catastrophic friendly fire incident. During this engagement, an Austrian army somehow managed to kill and wound up to 10,000 of its own men. In addition, they retreated and scattered to the four winds in panicked flight, without an enemy being anywhere near.
The Hapsburgs were never known for military prowess. Instead, they managed to accumulate and maintain an empire through a series of strategic marriages. Empress Maria Theresa aptly summed up her empire’s strategy: “While other nations do battle, you, lucky Austria, you shall marry“. It was probably well that Austria’s rulers seldom went out of their in search of military glory. The Hapsburgs ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire, and that diversity showed in their military. The Hapsburg army created units drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each other. That would prove a key factor in the farce that occurred on the night of September 21-22, 1788. Read on for the hilarious story of 100,000 Hapsburg troops terrifying themselves.
1. From Small Things Mama, Big Things Someday Come
At dusk on September 21st, 1788, Austrian hussars came from Karansebes to scout across the Timis River. They found no Turks, but found some Gypsies, who sold the hussars enough schnapps to get them royally drunk. While they partied, the commander who had sent them outgrew worried when his scouts were late in returning. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. The infantry found the hussars, and demanded a share of the schnapps. When the hussars refused, a brawl ensued, and soon escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During that fight, an infantryman decided to prank the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That panicked the drunk hussars into wild flight while screaming “Turci! Turci!“. Unfortunately, many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm was a jest by one of their own, joined the panicked flight.
In the meantime, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of tumult across the river. When panicked hussars and infantrymen reached the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, sentries challenged them, shouting at them to “Halt! Halt!”. Some misheard the shouts as “Allah! Allah!”. In the ensuing confusion, an artillery officer concluded the camp was under attack, and ordered cannons to open fire. As soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, startled and confused, some began firing wildly. Within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread and engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II barely survived the rout, and someone pushed him off his horse into a creek. The Turks arrived two days later, and found up to 10,000 dead and wounded Habsburgs in the abandoned camp.