Everybody likes an underdog. Especially an underdog that wins. This is especially true in military history, where one side is outmanned, outgunned, or both, but makes use of good terrain, clever tactics, or suicidal bravery—can win the respect and admiration of both sides.
The most popular example of this would naturally be the Spartans at Thermopylae, which is why we’re not going to mention the Spartans at Thermopylae because at this point everyone is totally sick of references to that movie. Here are ten stunning military victories against incredible odds.
A critical turning point in the Hundred Years War, the Battle of Agincourt set an English force mostly comprised of longbow archers against a larger force of French knights, men-at-arms (typically professional soldiers wearing medium to heavy armor) and crossbowmen.
Although sources differ on how greatly the French outnumbered the English, it’s generally agreed that the French had more mounted and armored troops, making them feel pretty confident in their chances against a bunch of scruffy guys with arrows.
During the battle itself, however, the armor proved a liability when trying to slog across a muddy ploughed field, and cavalry attacks failed to flank the archers because of their careful positioning. At the days end, the English lost just over a hundred men and killed between seven and ten thousand attacking French.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was one of the largest naval battles in history, stretching over three days and involving hundreds of aircraft, dozens of destroyers and escorts, and the IJN Yamato, the largest battleship ever built.
The Japanese were outnumbered and outmatched by this stage of the war, but on the second day Admiral Ozawa successfully tricked Admiral Halsey into sending the powerful Third Fleet after Ozawa’s light force of carriers, allowing a squadron of heavy cruisers and battleships under the command of Admiral Kurita to creep undetected past Samar Island where it stumbled upon the Taffy 3 carrier group, comprised of lightly armored CV-E escort carriers (popularly nicknamed “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable”) and a number of older, slower destroyers.
No part of Taffy 3 could realistically take on Kurita’s battlewagons even with advance notice, but Lt. Commander Ernest E. Evans took his fragile destroyer USS Johnston into the fray at full speed, crippling one of the heavy cruisers with a torpedo attack and prompting a general attack by all the escort ships of Taffy 3 in an attempt to cover the escape of the CVE’s.
The carriers launched every airplane they carried, even planes that could only drop depth charges or strafe with machine guns, and the overall ferocity of the attack convinced Kurita that the Americans must have had reinforcements on the way. The Yamato and its escorts turned back in defeat.
In June 1993, the multinational UNOSOM II nation-building mission in Somalia hit a bit of a snag when Pakistani soldiers attempting to inspect an alleged weapons cache were ambushed and slaughtered by troops loyal to ostensible Somali presidential candidate Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who clearly had a backup plan ready if he didn’t carry the swing voters.
As part of the military campaign against Aidid’s forces, Delta Force operatives planned a daring raid on one of his intelligence offices to capture two high-ranking lieutenants. The operation depended on the use of helicopters for maximum surprise, speed, and safety, as at the time it was believed the popular RPG-7V rocket-propelled grenade launcher couldn’t be pointed directly upwards (the backblast could set your legs on fire) and weren’t fuzed properly to detonate against an airborne target.
Unbeknownst to the American troops, Aidid had been studying the accounts of Afghan mujahideen, who had developed primitive anti-air fuzes, and had dug special trenches throughout the city where someone with an RPG could direct the dangerous backblast. As first one and then two Blackhawks fell from the sky, American commanders lost the ability to tell what the hell was going on and the supporting Army Ranger ground convoy became trapped within the maze-like city, falling prey to even more RPGs.
The Rangers spent the night under siege, short on drinking water and medical supplies, until an armored column of Pakistani and Malaysian tanks and APCs carrying the American 10th Mountain Division punched through to their position.
While the Rangers killed at least ten of Aidid’s milita for every loss suffered (even based on Aidid’s fanciful suggestion of as few as 315 Somali casualties) the damage to the mission’s reputation was done, and UN troops engaged in strictly defensive operations until being pulled out the following year.
The British Empire’s invasion of Zululand must have looked like an easy lay-up for the British general staff. English troops were armed with the Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle (capable of firing ten rounds a minute) and supported advanced heavy artillery, while Zulu troops fought with short spears, leather shields, and a handful of obsolete firearms they didn’t really know how to use.
This analysis of Zulu fighting potential failed to take into account that their people had a remarkably well-developed understanding of strategy and movement, and that their deliberate focus on hand-to-hand combat was allied with an understanding of the need to move swiftly and with maximum surprise to within stabbing range.
A series of clever diversionary attacks drew much of the British army away from their central camp at Isandlwana, and the British commanders’ failure to adequately patrol the area allowed a huge formation of Zulu warriors to encircle the camp.
When the Zulu were finally discovered, they attacked with incredible speed and determination, overwhelming the poorly prepared British defenses, killing the 1800 troops (at this stage of the war, civilians were spared) and capturing vast amounts of rifles and ammunition.
The rout was so profound that the British had to pull back to South Africa and await reinforcement; unfortunately for the Zulus, the humiliating loss made the British even more set against a diplomatic solution.
The old trading post of Irishman James Rorke (currently serving as an Anglican mission) was so well established as a part of the Zulu kingdom that it was known as “kwaJim” or “Jim’s Land.”
This made it a natural fit for a British military outpost and staging grounds, but when the invasion of Zululand was in full swing it became a backwater manned by only 141 British troops. These men became some of the first to learn of the incredible defeat at Isandlwana when a handful of reinforcements returned to warn them of an oncoming force of four thousand Zulu reserves.
The tiny force immediately set to work building crude fortifications and ensuring proper ammunition distribution—two things the commanders of Isandlwana failed to do—and set up to lie in wait for the incoming Zulu force. Late in the afternoon, Zulu troops engaged British “native forces” who had already been through the wringer at Isandlwana and subsequently retreated to South Africa regardless of orders.
Despite the well-laid defenses, the British had to fall back to the farms and buildings of the Rorke’s Drift settlement. The local hospital became an especially fierce battleground where British troops couldn’t even poke their rifles through windows and loopholes without Zulu warriors yanking the guns out of their hands.
Unlike Isandlwana, the attack on Rorke’s Drift was basically an unplanned “target of opportunity” raid, and after hours of savage battle proved that British soldiers were at least as insane and lethal as any other African force they had fought.
The Zulu commanders pulled back to allow both sides to lick their wounds. At that point seventeen British or allied native troops were killed or mortally wounded against 351 confirmed Zulu dead.
Realistically, the whole of the Russo-Japanese War constitutes a major military upset, if only because racist European attitudes towards Asian cultures in general and the Japanese military in particular tended to assume that the one-year war between the two imperial dynasties would certainly result in a victory for the whiter side.
As it turned out, the Japanese army and navy (both of which had been restructured along Prussian lines) was more than a match for the underpaid, unhappy, and largely unfaithful Russian troops on land and sea, but conservative Europeans were unconvinced until the naval action at Tsushima between Admirals Togo Heihachiro and Zinovy Rozhestvensky.
While the Russians had twice as many battleships as their opponent, the Japanese fleet had far more cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats, all of which featured much better range-finding and communication technology than the Russian fleet.
The battle ended with only three Japanese torpedo boats sunk to a grand total of 21 Russian warships destroyed (including seven of their eight battleships) largely due to the Japanese superiority in communication and coordination.
DIEN BIEN PHU
Any good student of military history knows that French soldiers have been and remain among the best and most capable in the world, but French commanding officers have far too often been aristocratic ninnies unwilling to listen to the advice of their subordinates and generally unable to adapt to inconvenient facts on the battlefield.
Case in point: the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a pivotal moment in France’s failed attempt to cling to its colonial possessions in “French Indochina.” France’s strategy was fundamentally flawed. The idea was to reinforce the isolated Dien Bien Phu outpost in order to draw the Viet Minh into a conventional battle, where they assumed that European tactics, weapons, and bravery would certainly prevail against a raggedy-ass guerilla army.
This plan fatally underestimated both the Viet Minh’s access to Soviet and Chinese heavy artillery and their surprising talent at moving these cumbersome weapons through rough terrain.
Dien Bien Phu was surrounded by mountains that the Vietnamese used to set up artillery positions so far-reaching and unassailable that after they opened fire the French artillery commander killed himself with a hand grenade.
For two months, the French government tried to maintain the position through airdrops of men and supplies, resulting only in the death or capture of over ten thousand brave French troops and the creation of North and South Vietnam.
Historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was the first time a non-white colonial independence movement had reached the level where it could engage a European army in conventional battle and win.
German East Africa (now known as Tanzania) was one of the strangest sub-theaters of the First World War, and the only one where German troops successfully captured Imperial British territory.
This was all down to the brilliant tactics and strategy of Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, a pioneer of guerilla tactics well-loved by both his German troops and his native Askari recruits and officers. Lettow-Vorbeck’s solitary campaign against the Allies began with the bungled British amphibious assault on the important seaport of Tanga.
While a British cruiser poked cautiously around the harbor searching for mines, a company of Askari took positions hidden within the city and surrounding jungle and German rifle companies were brought in by train.
A British force eight times the size of Lettow-Vorbeck’s eventually landed and were allowed to move a short way into the city before the Germans and Askari sprung their trap, flanking the enemy in the jungle and engaging in pitched urban combat through the streets and alleys of Tanga.
The ferocious defense, mass casualties, and unbelievable chaos of the battle (including several incidents where both sides ended up having to retreat from huge swarms of angry bees) led the British to abandon the field of combat in droves, leaving behind so much equipment and munitions that Lettow-Vorbeck was able to re-equip three whole companies of Askari troopers with modern British rifles.
Lettow-Vorbeck went on to tie up over 300,000 Allied troops with his guerrilla warfare, despite never leading more than 14,000 men.
THE TANNENBERG LINE
The Eastern Front during World War II was the scene of so many titanic land battles that it can be hard to remember “smaller” engagements compared to epic slugfests like the Kursk Salient.
The Battle of Tannenberg Line (not to be confused with the original medieval Battle of Tannenberg) deserves special mention for two major reasons: One, that most of the “German” troops in the battle were either native Estonians or SS volunteers from other acceptably-Aryan ethnicities. And two, that just over twenty thousand men withstood an armored assault of over 136,000 Soviet troops.
With the Axis troops dug in on the three hills of the Sinimäed, the Russians first launched preparatory artillery strikes so powerful the local forest was completely obliterated, yet unable to affect the carefully fortified defenders.
Heavy tanks led massed infantry charges only to encounter fanatically strong resistance, many armed with the revolutionary Panzerschreck anti-tank rocket launcher.
For more than a week, control over the three hills flipped back and forth, with the Axis troops at one point encircled on a single hill, until finally the massive Soviet offensive began to peter out and eventually retreated to form a defensive line.
Next: Items We Can Thank The Military For Inventing
The Battle of Julu was the beginning of the end of the Qin Dynasty in China as well as a revolution in motivational techniques. Rebel leader Xiang Yu and 30,000 troops from the Chu kingdom held the city of Julu (now Xingtai in the Hebei province), but a Qin army of 200,000 was on the way.
The promised reinforcements from other revolting kingdoms were dragging their feet and generally seeming reluctant to march to their deaths to get Xiang put in charge of the empire. Xiang Yu didn’t have quite as great a grasp of military strategy as his uncle Xiang Liang, but he knew how to get reluctant soldiers to fight hard against seemingly impossible odds.
He had the boats that had taken the Chu forces to Julu sank, then after ordering each soldier to take three days of food, destroyed all other food supplies and field kitchens. This meant that his soldiers could hide in their fortifications and starve to death, attempt to surrender to the Qin forces (not likely to work out in their favor), or go out and fight at ten-to-one odds for the next three days and eventually capture the enemy food supplies.
In the ensuing battle something like 200,000 Qin soldiers were killed and a further 200,000 surrendered, only to be buried alive later to commemorate good ol’ Uncle Liang. T
he memory of the Battle of Julu persists in the Chinese saying “smash the pots and sink the boats,” meaning “I’m going to get this done no matter what the cost” or alternately “I’m going to bury an enormous number of people alive.”