The 6 Greatest Twist Endings in the History of Battle
There's a reason Hollywood makes more movies about war than, say, wine tasting competitions. Horrific human suffering aside, these are history's greatest dramas, and you never know how they're going to turn out. To quote Sun Tzu, "War? That shit is bananas."
For examples of war stories with ridiculous twist endings, look no further than ...
A Civil War Battle Is Won With Painted Trees
Our favorite war stories are the ones that easily could have occurred in the universe of a particularly wacky cartoon. For instance, while the American Civil War was a spectacularly brutal and awful situation for everyone involved, that just makes it even crazier that somebody once turned a battle by painting a bunch of trees to look like cannons.
That absolutely happened in 1862, when Union General George B. McClellan was marching his massive 100,000-strong army toward the shoddy fort at Yorktown being defended by Major General John B. Magruder and his pitiful 13,000 men. It should have been a minor speed bump along the way for the Union army, if not for the power of shenanigans.
"Our backup plan was tomfoolery."
Magruder was a playwright by trade, and he often put on stage shows to entertain his men. That's the sort of skill that doesn't come in super handy in a brutal, primitive war of attrition, but as Union soldiers descended on Yorktown, Magruder knew it was time for him to put on his greatest show yet for this new audience from the North.
With McClellan's forces gearing up to attack the fort, Magruder had his men scurry around inside and make a lot of noise, to make it seem as though there were more of them than there really were. They then hauled rocks around randomly so that, through McClellan's binoculars, it looked as though they were moving supplies around the fort that they didn't actually have, presumably while shouting, "Damn it, there's nowhere to sleep with all of these EXPLOSIVE CANNONBALLS laying everywhere! Go stack them next to the dragon's cage!" When the Union soldiers got too close, the Confederates fired haphazardly, to make it seem like they had plenty of ammunition to waste.
"Shouldn't we at least try to hit someone?"
"No ... that's just what those Yankees are expecting."
But Magruder's most ingenious innovation was probably the so-called "Quaker cannons" -- ordinary wooden logs carved and painted to look like cannon turrets. By lining dozens of these faux cannons up along the borders of the fort, Magruder was able to make it look like his forces were armed to the teeth and ready to rumble, when in fact they were relatively helpless and desperately hoping their crazy general wasn't about to get them killed.
"Uh, he knows that's not real, right?"
But the theatrics worked -- McClellan and his men were sufficiently confused to hold off their siege for a month while they tried to figure out what the hell was going on. This was long enough for Magruder's army to summon reinforcements, and eventually they were able to sneak away under cover of night to join the larger Confederate forces that would go on to drive the Union back. And that was how the South won the Civil War! Or kept it going for a few more years, anyway.
The Dutch Deliberately Flood Their Own Country
As anyone who has ever witnessed a schoolyard brawl can tell you, if you're smaller and weaker than your opponent, it helps to be crazy. Just ask Holland, which once thwarted an invasion by intentionally flooding their own fucking country.
Back in the 1500s, the small Protestant country found itself at war with the much larger and more powerful Spanish Empire, which had been stuffing Catholicism hand over fist down the throats of the Dutch by way of the Spanish Inquisition. The Dutch eventually got tired of this and started the Dutch War of Independence to reclaim their homeland. The problem with this was that Spain was one Sith Lord away from the Galactic Empire, while Holland was, to keep the analogy, a tiny nation of moisture farmers. Their navy ships were nicknamed "water beggars," because to the Spanish, they were basically the hobos of the sea.
They were so scruffy, they didn't even have nerf to herd.
So the Spanish sighed and geared up for a good old-fashioned imperial beatdown, figuring that after having already subdued half the world, they should have been able to conquer Holland half-asleep and hung over.
What Holland lacked in military strength, they made up for in ingenuity and/or insanity. The ingenuity part was a necessity, as it just so happened that their country was below sea level, and the only thing keeping it from doing an Atlantis was the system of levees and dikes that they're famous for. Although the sea was their mighty adversary, they were also better at dealing with it than the Spaniards, which is why the leader of the Dutch rebellion, Prince William of Orange, made the brash decision to tear down the dikes and deliberately flood Holland. It's kind of like when you ask a little kid for some of his candy and he quickly licks it all so you won't want any.
"We peed in the water, too. Because fuck 'em, that's why."
But there was more to it than just making their country all soggy and gross so the Spanish wouldn't want it. Those tiny, shitty ships in the Dutch navy could navigate around the shallow floodwaters just fine, whereas the big fancy Spanish warships could not. And since the Spanish infantry didn't have Aquaman powers, they were kind of at an impasse. Although the war continued to rage for some years, the Spanish were never again able to penetrate Holland's borders, and eventually they gave up trying.
"You're all clear, kid, now let's *blow* this thing and go home!"
The Soviets Invent Warplanes That Are Too Slow to Kill
When the Germans decided to invade Russia during World War II, they started off strong, kicking Soviet ass until they reached a region known as Caucasus, which was the Russians' last stand before the Nazis started rocking up on the doorstep of Stalingrad. Up to that point, the only defense the Soviets had was basically throwing technologically inferior soldiers at the enemy, like trying to smother a fire with dry kindling.
And the fire has a flamethrower.
Outgunned and on their heels, the Soviets were starting to run out of options. And then, someone said, "What if we could attack the enemy with a weapon so shitty that they don't even know how to kill it?"
As we've mentioned before, the Soviets were one of the first nations to allow women into major combat roles, mainly because they were running out of men to send to their deaths. One of the all-female combat teams Stalin put together was an air force division called the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. The Soviets didn't actually have a lot of warplanes to go around, but what they did have a shitload of were slow, creaky crop dusters.
"Oh, we're not giving you parachutes either."
These were biplanes made of plywood and probably held together with twine and chewing gum that were designed mainly for dusting fields and terrorizing Cary Grant. Nevertheless, the Germans weren't laughing for long -- the biplanes were so shitty in comparison to the German air force that their maximum speed was slower than the Nazis' minimum speed. In other words, the Germans couldn't go slow enough to engage them without falling out of the sky.
The Germans came to refer to the women pilots as "Night Witches," because the relatively silent aircraft attacked under cover of darkness, and presumably "Night Bitches" didn't have the same ring to it. The Witches were instrumental to the war effort during the Battle of Caucasus by basically annoying the Germans into retreat, swooping in silently at night, and bombing their frontlines. Even when they were shot down, the wooden planes crashed so delicately that the pilots often survived to scurry back and get on another biplane.
Not Wright brothers footage.
The Nazis held on to Caucasus for two years, trying desperately to push into Stalingrad, before Hitler eventually cried "fuck it" and pulled them back.
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.
"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 ...
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.
"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.
Finnish Soldiers Beat the Soviets With Snow Skis
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.