#3. Syracuse Wins With a Giant Chain of Boats
Those of you who've read the books that HBO's Game of Thrones is based on know there's a famous naval battle won in a particularly unlikely way: by stringing a gigantic chain across the mouth of a river in order to keep an invading navy from leaving. It seems like the kind of cartoonish war tactic that only a fantasy author would dream up. But, as we've seen already on this list, military commanders are willing to try just about anything once.
Around 431 B.C., the Peloponnesian War broke out between Sparta, Athens, and the allies of both sides. Athens had one of the best naval forces in the world, and you can be damn sure they took advantage of it. In one battle, they sent over 100 ships across the Mediterranean to launch a surprise attack against Syracuse, one of Sparta's allies. The scale of the attack reads like it involved half the population of Europe at the time.
U.S. Army Cartographer
"At least we were honest about it all being a dick-measuring thing." -Athens
The defending Syracusans couldn't muster even half the military that the invading Athenians had coming their way, but hey, neither could Tyrion Lannister, damn it!
Aided by Spartan reinforcements, the Syracusans were able to hold off the Athenian navy for a while. The Athenians decided to fall back and get reinforcements ... and found that they couldn't leave. Joining their relatively shittier ships together with iron chains, the Syracusans had created a military-scale pool divider that prevented the invaders from getting away that easily.
Forced to stay and fight, the Athenian invaders buckled down and prepared to board their enemies' ships and simply use superior manpower to ax all their enemies in the face. But the Syracusans had covered their ships with animal hides, which deflected the grappling hooks and other Batman-style utilities the Athenians tried to use to get across. In the end, this makeshift barrier that the Syracusans MacGyvered together wound up winning them the battle. The entire Athenian host was killed or captured, resulting in a whopping 30,000 casualties for the aggressors and a whole bunch of free slaves for the winners. It was "the greatest reverse that ever befell a Hellenic army" and one of the most surprising turns of fate in military history, never mind naval history.
And the lack of pants at the time led to the greatest victory tea-bagging.
This was far from the last time somebody would use the gigantic anti-boat chain as a defense, which meant it was just a matter of time until somebody found an equally ridiculous way around it ...
#2. The Russians Equip Ships With Wheels
The city of Constantinople, now Istanbul, is widely regarded as one of the most well-defended cities in world history. It had huge walls, was surrounded by water on three sides, and had the chain:
The chain was a giant boom that blocked access to the channel beside the city, and therefore prohibited invading assholes from sailing warships right up to the gate. If you wanted to take Constantinople, you'd have to leave your ships behind and just get out and walk. That was the challenge that the Russians faced when they tried to invade the city around the year 907, but they weren't about to let a length of shitty chain get between them and glory.
According to historians at the time, who admittedly tended to have rather fertile imaginations, the leader of the Russian invaders, Oleg of Novgorod, came up with a novel way of circumventing the chain and still keeping his ships for the battle ahead. Although he probably wished he'd left Russia with a giant pair of bolt cutters affixed to his ship, he was forced to improvise.
Viktor M. Vasnetsov
"OK, so Karl's 'bite it' suggestion was bullshit. Any other bright ideas?"
The story goes that Oleg landed his ships and proceeded to wreak devastation across the countryside, presumably out of the kind of tantrum that would be expected of the ancient Russians, who were after all closely related to the Vikings. But after there was nothing left to kill and the bloodlust began to well up again, Oleg commanded his troops to build wheels for the ships. Using their horses, the wind on the sails, and sheer proto-Viking strength, the legend goes that Oleg and his army hauled their newly land-borne naval fleet over the damn countryside until they'd gotten around the chain, leaving Constantinople to face the one thing they never thought they'd have to -- a naval attack.
The accounts say that Constantinople surrendered upon seeing Oleg's approaching forces, and they negotiated a peace treaty that basically amounted to "We'll give you anything you want if you don't burn our city down," terms that Oleg graciously accepted. Granted, it's a colorful story, and today's historians still can't fully separate truth from bullshit, but scholars do agree that the invasion occurred, and we know the chain existed because it's on display in a museum, so they got around the damn thing somehow. It's either this, or the ships could fly.
#1. Finnish Soldiers Beat the Soviets With Snow Skis
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As the Germans would eventually discover, the Soviet army in World War II was a werewolf that gained its powers from the brutal Russian winter, instead of a full moon. So when the Winter War broke out between the mighty Red Army and tiny little Finland, the Soviets got all cocky about it, being that their invading force was more than four times the size of Finland's, they had a shitload of tanks, and it was called the Winter War.
It turned out that the Finnish army had one secret weapon that kicked Mother Russia's ass all over the tundra -- superior skiing skills.
"Hurry up. After this we still have to beat the Italians, in the downhill race, to save the rec center."
Again, this seems like the sort of thing that would be horrifically unhelpful in a mechanized war fought with tanks and machine guns. But during the critical Battle of Kollaa, when the Soviets began rolling into Finland, they found to their distress that there were hardly any roads in and out of the region, which were kind of critical for moving thousands of ground troops and a bunch of tanks into the frozen country. The Finns didn't give a shit -- where they were going, they didn't need roads.
So the Finnish army figured out that the best strategy to use against the Soviets as they trudged through the snow was literally to annoy them to death, buzzing in and out of their camps constantly like gremlins on skis, sabotaging their food supplies and generally keeping them from sleeping. When the Soviets were exhausted and starving, the Finns launched full frontal attacks with submachine guns and Molotov cocktails, overwhelming their attackers, who were relying on their big, slow vehicles to get around.
"This is just getting sad."
In the end, the Finnish army managed to hold their borders against wave after wave of hardened Soviet infantry, whose giant tanks and machine guns couldn't defeat the cast of Disney's Frozen. Ultimately, the Soviets decided that conquering Finland wasn't the most important thing on their to-do list, and they signed a peace treaty. And that's why Putin is giving Ukraine such a hard time instead of challenging Finland to a rematch.
For more military badassery, please preorder Jacopo della Quercia's upcoming book, THE GREAT ABRAHAM LINCOLN POCKET WATCH CONSPIRACY, which he wrote with the help of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point! Also, for non-historical fiction, please check out Bjorn's first attempt at an Amazon novel.
Related Reading: Hey, did you know one battle was won thanks to the use of cat shields? Yes shields with cats on them. And if you haven't heard about the legendary battle of the bees, you probably ought to. Oh, by the way Uruguay once won a naval battle thanks to cheese.