Reckless charges into danger make for great action movie scenes, but not good battle strategy. Every great military mind can tell you that victory is all about knowing when to back down, to come back at a time when the advantage is in your favor.
These men disagreed.
#5. Eric James Brindley Nicolson Keeps Flying -- and Fighting -- While on Fire
In 1940, WWII was going badly for the British. They stood alone against Hitler, and Winston Churchill used every bit of his oratory talent to keep his people going. Famously, in his "This Was Their Finest Hour" speech, he swore the nation would fight to the last breath, if necessary, against the impending Nazi invasion.
"I've discovered fascism's lone weakness: alcoholic courage."
Royal Air Force fighter pilot Eric J. B. Nicolson listened to every word, and boy did he take the advice to heart.
On August 16, 1940, Nicolson was part of an attack against German bombers that were trying their level best to relocate British soil into British atmosphere.
While swooping in on a formation of Nazi planes, he was suddenly strafed by a Messerschmitt fighter. The hail of cannon fire ripped up his Hurricane and wounded his legs.
Also, his cockpit was now on fire.
That isn't a euphemism, but it probably should be.
In pain, blinded by the blood from a gash in his forehead, and guided only by survival instinct (and probably also by the fact that the glass on his control panel instruments was starting to pop from the intense heat) Nicolson scrambled out of the cockpit to a section in the back of the plane where it was safe to bail out.
Then, just as he was about to jump to safety with his parachute, he saw the German plane that had hit him and remembered Churchill. Wounded and bleeding profusely, he climbed right back into the burning cockpit, brought the plane under control and went on the attack.
The Spitfire Story
"Burning alive ain't nothin' but a thing."
He gave fiery chase to the German plane, and shot it down. While wounded. And while his own body was engulfed in flame (we really feel can't mention that part enough).
Only when he saw the German fighter crashing to the ground did Nicolson (who was now also on fire) have the presence of mind to bail out of his plane (on fire) and jump (on fire).
As he floated to the ground, the British ground forces took a look at him and reasoned that this flaming sky-creature could only be some kind of Nazi hellbeast. So they opened fire on him.
Then the commander spilled his coffee, so really the whole thing was a total disaster.
But he made it to the ground alive, somehow, where he was extinguished by the suitably embarrassed ground troops. Nicolson realized that the day's collection of wounds had been increased by some pretty serious burns and a couple of friendly fire bullet holes, and also holy shit the glass of his wrist watch had actually melted in the intense heat. Did any of this matter? Hell no, he had just shot down a German!
Nicolson shrugged away his various life-threatening injuries in less than a year and was right back in the action in the fall of 1941, one Victoria Cross and a hell of a lot of bragging rights richer.
#4. Ernest E. Evans
Ernest Edwin Evans was the commander of the Fletcher class destroyer USS Johnston, which he used to play a Bronze Star's worth of merry hell on the Japanese. He was also, as will soon become apparent, completely oblivious to the concept of "odds."
"A kamikaze attack? Good, that's one bastard down."
The Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944 was the largest naval battle in WWII, and was on the verge of being an utter disaster for the American ships. There were a bunch of unarmed troop transports carrying General Douglas MacArthur's invasion fleet toward the Philippines being guarded by other American ships. But the Japanese navy managed to trick the vast majority of the ships into following a decoy fleet. This left a shitload of defenseless American troops as sitting ducks in their transport ships, ready to be blown to bits by the approaching real Japanese fleet.
All that was standing between the enemy and the ships full of troops was Taffy 3, a task force of a few shoddy destroyers, near-defenseless escort carriers and planes that were good at bombing submarines and absolutely useless at everything else.
Except being on fire.
Luckily, one of the destroyers happened to be Ernest Evans' very own USS Johnston. And Evans was insane.
Evans reacted to the impossible situation with the glee of the biggest kid in class who has just heard there's a fight behind the corner. He immediately took his ship -- affectionately nicknamed "Tin Can," as it was practically unarmored -- into a direct attack on the Japanese. That is, he attacked the whole goddamn fleet.
"Before we serve together, men, you should know I have a death wish. If anyone's got a problem with that, well, you know where to find me. In my quarters, sleeping with a basket of live hand grenades outside my unlocked door."
What followed would go down in history as one of the greatest mismatches in naval warfare. USS Johnston zigzagged up and down, performing needle attacks on the enemy like a crazed mosquito. Evans scored numerous sneaky hits on enemy ships, engaged in several happy duels with much larger Japanese vessels and generally behaved like a gremlin in a toy store.
Eventually, though, his ammo was all gone and the Japanese were able to return the favor by landing a direct hit on the bridge of the ship, where Evans was positioned. The impact wounded him, singed his hair and blew away his clothes.
While most men would at least take five after that, Evans actually told the ship doctor rushing to his aid to piss off and stop bothering him. Then he started shouting steering orders through an open hatch to men below decks, telling them how to steer the ship's freaking rudder by hand.
Sailors on the other ships stared with their mouths open as the Johnston continued getting shelled and Evans, butt naked, bloodied and smoke rising from his singed hair, continued to bark orders to his crew as if nothing was happening. He was still steering the Johnston at the enemy as it disappeared below the waves. Even the Japanese saluted the man and his crew as the ship went down.
"Well, that's decent. I wish we could do something for them."
Evans' relentless attack, supported by other ships of Taffy 3, actually managed to convince the Japanese that the American force was way stronger than the laughably few ships that they actually had at hand -- the logic behind this being that there's no way anyone would pull a stunt like that if they didn't have some serious backup.
So the Japanese commander got cold feet and called off his fleet. And that, friends, is how General MacArthur's troop transport ships were kept afloat because of one naked captain and his ragtag group of unarmored tin cans.
#3. Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck Forms a MacGyver Army in the Jungle
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was a German general in World War I. He was in command of the German forces in what is now Tanzania, in an era when military officers had style.
Even his medals have medals.
As his forces were dwarfed by the surrounding Allied armies, the German high command didn't think he had a chance and told him stay out of the war. Lettow-Vorbeck, however, chose to mishear his orders and immediately went to battle, handing the British their asses at the Battle of Tanga even though he was outnumbered eight to one.
Well, that was a good time to call it a war; his army was now getting comically small, the enemy still greatly outnumbered him and he could easily get to safety. Oh, and his superiors had specifically told him not to fight. Most men would have kicked back and taken it easy. But Lettow-Vorbeck was not most men. His solution was to cut his army off the grid completely and go guerrilla ... for years.
"Men, make good friends with either the horses or your right hand, 'cause no one is gettin' any for a while."
His men found a sunken ship and stole the guns off of it, then found some wheels and MacGyvered them into cannons. Lettow-Vorbeck and his army became a nomadic tribe, with no supply lines or place to evacuate the wounded, tromping around the woods with their improvised artillery and whatever they could carry. They then went on to perform successful, frequent and annoying precision strikes against the Allied troops.
And boy, did it work. The British in particular were livid with Lettow-Vorbeck's actions. Multiple times they got so close to him they even announced that they had finally defeated the man -- only to have him embarrassingly pop up somewhere else, entirely unharmed, and blow some more shit up.
"We use the hot barrels to cook our bacon."
Lettow-Vorbeck didn't really need to do any of this, remember. He was specifically forbidden to fight by his superiors, severely outnumbered and also already hidden and safely tucked away. What's more, his troops could only perform small, but still incredibly dangerous strike and flee missions that were technically unable to hurt the enemy much. But he still fought on, nagging at the Allied morale with his "anytime, anywhere" tactics, just because he could.
Oh, and he did this for the remainder of the war. That's four freaking years lugging artillery in the jungle, while also living in said jungle.
... on freaking zebras.
When the German Kaiser in the distant fatherland finally ended the war, Lettow-Vorbeck was still out in the bush. The second he heard the war was over, he happily surrendered to the British, presumably by stepping out of the bush right next to them and making them crap their pants. At that point, he was the only German commander to successfully invade British territory during WWI, and also one of the very few commanders in World War history who managed to go through the whole thing undefeated -- a notable achievement for someone fighting on the side that, you know, lost.
"I'm not too fond of fascists, but I goddamn hate losing."