10 of the Strangest Military Units in History

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History

Alexander Meddings - January 2, 2018

Since early man first fought side-by-side, he’s exploited every possible avenue to make sure he’s on the winning one. The most obvious relates to weaponry. From having longer, pointier sticks as hunter-gatherers to sharper, more durable blades in Antiquity and the Middle Ages right through to bigger, better and more numerous Dreadnoughts in the First World War, humans have done their utmost to make sure their group of combatants can outperform and outgun their rival group of combatants. But another vital strategy, lesser considered, is to change what constitutes a group of combatants and play around with different unit types.

Examples of different legionary groupings are, for want of a better word, legion. The Norsemen had blood-baying Berserkers who channeled their inner wolves (to the terror of their friends and foes alike). The Prussians of the late seventeenth century had their grenadiers recruited solely on the basis of their height and reserved for the king’s personal pleasure rather than for actual military encounters. Even today, the Israeli Defence Force has a modern reconnaissance unit made up of hyper-intelligent autism sufferers.

Though almost every conceivable variation of military unit has been tried and tested, the degrees of success have varied considerably. Yet between the successes and the failures, what remains consistent across all of military history, however, is the historical interest. So read on, and you’ll see that from modern bands of brothers to an ancient band of lovers, history is full of weird and wonderful military groupings.

The Sacred Band of Thebes

It goes without saying that the ancient world and the post-Christian world had wildly differing views on homosexuality. In ancient Greece sexual relationships between men were regarded as natural, even to be encouraged, in certain situations. Young boys and adolescents would exchange sexual favors for the education provided by their older tutors, and soldiers away on campaign would form close, sexual relationships with one another. Far from exclusive to classical Athens, this was a feature across many city-states: from the Spartans and the Thebans to the Macedonians of Alexander the Great.

Thebes provides perhaps the most famous example of institutionalized homosexuality in the army with its Sacred Band. Composed of 150 couples, an older erastês (lover) and a younger erômenos (beloved), this fearsome regiment fought in several pivotal fourth century BC battles, including the Battle of Tegyra and the Battle of Leuctra. At Leuctra, they were instrumental in achieving victory for the Theban general Epaminondas (who also fought, and was eventually buried, beside his male lovers), holding the Spartan infantry in place while the Theban infantry flanked and smashed their right-wing.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
The Sacred Band of Thebes. Google Images.

The Sacred Band was eventually annihilated by Philip II of Macedon and his teenage son, Alexander the Great, at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. But their idea lived on; not least in Plato’s Symposium. The short text is essentially about a group of the most prominent Athenians of the day (Socrates, Aristophanes, Alcibiades) getting together at a drinking party and deciding that, because they went so heavy the night before, they should lay off the drinking and discuss some philosophy.

The topic of their conversation of the nature of love, and has given us many terms we still use widely today. Finding your “other half”, for example, comes from Aristophanes’ comic suggestion that we used to be formed of two heads, four arms, four legs etc. and roll around everywhere. Then we got too arrogant and tried to scale Olympus, so to literally cut us down to size Zeus cleaved us in half. Thus we spend our lives searching for our natural companion “other half”.

The idea of the Sacred Band appears in a speech given by Phaedrus, who says that an army made of lovers and their favorites would be the most effective fighting unit of all. We don’t know if the Sacred Band was formed before or after Plato’s Symposium. But what matters is that Plato’s Symposium shows how widespread and accepted the idea of militarily institutionalized homosexuality was in ancient Greece.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
On the right, the woodcut of a helmet plate from the Vendel Era (550 – 790) shows a weapon carrier followed by a berserker. On the left, a berserker flanked by his totem animals. blogs.nottingham.ac.uk

Norse Berserkers and Wolfskins

They might look more at home in epic Norse sagas than in the realms of history, but the famously destructive Berserkers and Wolfskins belong firmly in the latter. These ferocious bear or wolf-pelt clad warriors, who felt no pain and made little differentiation in battle between friend and foe, were thought to be the warriors of Odin. And for the unfortunate coastal inhabitants of Northern Europe during the Early Middle Ages, they were the stuff of nightmares.

More than just setting them apart aesthetically, the animal pelts signified these warriors’ totem animals. The identification was more than just skin deep. They believed they were endowed with the spirit of the animal. This might explain their bloodlust and apparent lack of fear in the midst of battle. It might also go some way in explaining why when berserk they would howl like wolves.

As you might expect from Norsemen, the Berserkers were formidable marine fighters. They would often be stationed at the prow of a ship so they were the first to engage the enemy, like at the naval Battle of Hafrsfjord (c. 872) when Harald Hårfagre used berserkers as his marine shock troops. But they weren’t always so effective as part of a military force on land; stripped of their shields and armor and relying entirely on individual prowess and brute strength, they were infamous for breaking ranks and leaving gaps in the line.

We should be careful to separate the Berserkers themselves from the process of going “berserk.” At the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, for example, the Danish king Harald Hardada “went berserk”. He wore no armor and abandoned his shield in favor of a longsword. It did him little good though; an arrow pierced his throat early in the battle, denting his men’s morale and contributing to their eventual defeat.

It was a grey area however. Berserkers needed to go berserk (or experience berserkergang as the early English and Danish word calls it) to be at their most effective. And going berserk was physically and emotionally exhausting: not only involving howling and battle frenzy but also biting into shields—something represented on a 12th-century chess piece found on the Outer Hebrides.

Countless theories have been proposed for what exactly it was that sent these Norsemen berserks. Hallucinogenic drugs, alcohol, and even the rubbing of henbane petals onto the body have all been suggested. One of the most popular modern theories however, which draws upon studies in contemporary psychology, is that the trance-like behavior they felt during and debilitating fatigue they felt after can be explained as the effects of post-traumatic stress.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
Potsdam Giants. Realmofhistory

The “Potsdam Giants” of Frederick I

He might have been portly, but the Prussian king Frederick I (1657 – 1713) liked his men tall. And in uniform. So much so, in fact, that he once confessed, “The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers they are my weakness.” To satisfy his penchant, the militarily obsessed Prussian monarch created an army of giants: the Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam.

These “Potsdam Giants” never actually saw action. Instead, they were put to ceremonial use to the gleeful delight of their paymaster. In fact, it seems Frederick relied on them a great deal for his emotional wellbeing. When he was particularly upset he would order a couple of hundred grenadiers to lead a bizarre procession around the palace—consisting of tall turbaned moors and an enormous tame bear—to cheer him up. And the taller the better; to show how much their appearance was valued, Frederick adjusted the soldiers’ pay scales according to their height.

Frederick went to extreme lengths to procure recruits. In 1730, the Prussian ambassador to London tricked his footman, Irishman James Kirkland, into boarding a ship bound for Prussia. Kirkland unwittingly went on to become the tallest member of the regiment. But he wasn’t the only one to be pressganged. The most sinister story comes from when the Prussian major general Baron von Hompesch spotted an enormous German carpenter in the German town of Jülich.

Hompesch ordered him to make a large packing crate measuring six-foot, six inches; the same height as the carpenter himself. When the job was complete, Hompesch refused to pay for it, saying the crate was too small. Desperate not to lose Hompesch’s custom, the carpenter climbed inside to prove the dimensions were correct at which point a couple of henchmen dashed in from outside and sealed the container shut with the carpenter inside. They forgot one small detail though: air holes. When the box was finally opened it transpired that the poor man had suffocated en route.

The Potsdam Giants didn’t enjoy the longest innings. No longer seeing the point in paying for the upkeep of a ceremonial regiment numbering 2,500 men, Frederick I’s son, Frederick the Great, dissolved the Potsdam Giants in 1805. The regiment’s lifespan may have been short. But as the product of Prussia’s first experiment with eugenics, they left a long historical shadow.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
George Ottinger’s “The Mormon Battalion at Gila River, Arizona”. Church History

The US Army’s Mormon Battalion

As driven home in the remarkable story of Desmond Doss—recently immortalized in Mel Gibson’s film “Hackshaw Ridge”—internal religious conflict is nothing new in warfare. While Doss’s internal conflict brings him up against the institutional inflexibility of the US Army, however, almost a century earlier it was the Army that adapted to meet the needs of its soldiery, creating the only doctrinally selective regiment in US military history: the Mormon Unit.

Their acceptance into the US Army was far from an act of charity. In May 1846, a few days after US Senate had declared war on Mexico, Mormon Elder Jesse C. Little arrived in Washington to offer the government the support of his persecuted men if they would help them migrate west to the Rocky Mountains and Salt Lake Valley. President James K. Polk ultimately acquiesced, but his decision to incorporate them was conciliatory rather than voluntarily, making sure they didn’t join the war on Mexico’s side.

Bingham Young, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, saw recruitment into the unit as a wonderful PR opportunity for the Latter-day Saints to prove their patriotism. Within three weeks, five companies had been raised consisting of over 500 men. But it wasn’t just male soldiers (aged between 14 – 67) who made up the motley band. Thirty-three women and 51 children also embarked on the 1,900-mile march west from Iowa to San Diego on July 16, 1846.

The Mormon Battalion only ever fought one battle. And it wasn’t, as you might expect, against Mexican forces, but against a rampaging herd of bulls. On their approach to the San Pedro River in modern-day Arizona, the Battalion was forced to engage the cattle as they ran amok amongst their wagons, destroying supplies and wounding two soldiers. The Mormons won. Obviously. The final death toll was 10 – 15 bulls. But the unit also indirectly helped prevent further bloodshed between Californios and Luiseño tribespeople by intervening after the Temecula Massacre and standing guard while the Luiseño collected their dead.

Of the 534 – 559 men who enlisted in the battalion, 22 died of disease during the campaign. All but 80 of the others were discharged in Los Angeles on July 16, 1847. In terms of their military legacy, the Mormon Battalion has left little trace. After all, their only military engagement was against wildlife. Instead, their main legacy is as pioneers for positive relationships between the US government and Mormon immigrants and as colonizers of California in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
Women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment standing in front of their aircraft. The Atlantic

The Soviet Army’s “Night Witches”

On the Eastern Front of the Second World War, there was a Soviet unit so fearsome that any German soldier who downed one of their planes would automatically be awarded the Iron Cross. Under the cover of darkness, its soldiers carried out continuous bombing missions—anywhere up to 18 in a single night amounting to 30,000 between 1942 and 1945. And all of their recruits were women volunteers in their late teens and early twenties who decorated their aircraft with flowers and used their navigation pencils as lip color.

For this all-female unit, silent but deadly was the order of the day. The aviators would idle the engines of their plywood and canvas Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft so they could operate under complete stealth as they dropped their bombs on the unsuspecting Germans. But try as they might, they couldn’t be completely silent. As the Germans noted, the swooshing sound of their plywood planes dipping down made the noise of a witch’s broomstick. Hence the name of the unit: the Nachthexen or “Night Witches.”

It may look like forward-thinking today, and to some extent Stalin’s decision to allow a total of three military units to be composed entirely of women was. But although the generalissimo’s decision was heavily influenced by Soviet aviation heroine Marina Raskova, putting it down to a drive for gender equality on Stalin’s part is a little too generous. The creation of these units is better understood as part of his policy to mobilize as many able-bodied Russians as possible in desperate defense of the Motherland.

Being made of plywood, their aircraft were particularly susceptible to tracer bullets and would go up in flames if hit by one. During missions bullets flew all around; as Nadezhda Popova, one of the regiment’s most famous members recalled, every mission was like “sailing through a wall of enemy fire.” And to compound things further, none of the women carried parachutes—owing to the weight of their bombs the altitude they were flying at was too low. Yet by Soviet standards, the Night Witches lost relatively few of its members. Thirty women were shot down from the skies: a remarkably small number given what they were up against.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
Soldiers of the “Ghost Army” carrying an inflatable tank. Timeline

The US Army’s “Ghost Army”

For over 40 years, the role of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops in the Second World War was shrouded in mystery, kept from the public as a matter of classified military intelligence. Then, in 1996, the unit’s story came to light, immortalizing the 1,100-man unit’s achievements and establishing them in the annals of military history as the “Ghost Army” that tricked Hitler, saved thousands of Allied lives and contributed to countless victories on the war’s Western Front.

The idea for the Ghost Army came from a trick the British played in 1942 in the prelude to the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa. In a deception mission, they called Operation Bertram, they used dummy tanks, fake munitions depots and false radio signals to trick the Germans into thinking they would mount an attack much further south than they actually did. In the short term, it was a roaring success. In the long term, it inspired the Americans to follow suit four years later.

Recruitment into the Ghost Army was unusual, to say the least. Rather than be pulled from military camps, they were sought out through ad agencies and art schools. Brain over brawn, it was creativity that was needed to hoodwink Hitler. And there was no shortage of that; it’s no coincidence that amongst their ranks were men who would go on to have outstanding careers in the art and fashion world: Art Kane, Bill Blass and Ellsworth Kelly just to name a few.

Much of the deception the Ghost Army used against the Germans was visual: achieved by poorly camouflaging inflatable tanks, transport vehicles and artillery pieces so they would be spotted by air reconnaissance or by parading them in the distance. It wasn’t just smoke and mirrors though. The Ghosters also poured resources into sonic deception. They armed themselves wire recorders, the most cutting-edge technology available at the time, to record the sounds of infantry and armored units before blasting them in the enemy’s direction from speakers and amplifiers mounted on half-tracks. Their range was phenomenal; the effects could be heard from up to 15 miles away.

But this wasn’t the only means of tricking the Germans through sound. The Ghosters also used what they called “spoof radio”, mimicking radio operators and sending Morse code to misdirect the enemy towards certain spots. On one occasion, they managed to convince Mildred Gillars—an American-born woman better known as Axis Sally who worked for the Axis as a radio propagandist—into falsely broadcasting the movements of an entire Allied division where there was in fact nothing.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
Paradog prior to the Normandy landings. Getty Images

The British Army’s Paradogs

In times of total war, deep in the heart of enemy territory, few comforts are available to man. The threat of capture, injury or death either of oneself or of one’s comrades lurks around every corner making home seem a world away. But at least the men of the 13th Lancashire Parachute Battalion could say they had their best friends there with them. For in the lead-up to the Normandy landings of the Second World War, the British Army trained a unit of dogs that were to act as the eyes, ears (and tails) of the troops on the ground.

The training of these dogs was left to Lance Corporal Ken Bailey, a military man with a veterinary background. We are fortunate enough to have been left his official notes documenting how he went about doing this. These dog soldiers were taught to freeze if they heard loud sounds and were trained to familiarise themselves with the smell of the explosive powder, cordite. Before jumping, their food was considerably rationed so they would be hungrier than usual while up in the air. Then, once over the landing point, the men of the parachute division would jump out of the aircraft holding pieces of meat, leading their keen canine companions to throw themselves out after them.

“She looked somewhat bewildered but showed no sign of fear”, Bailey reported of one dog, Reena, who accompanied him down on a dummy run. Landing a few moments before Lance Corporal Bailey, she apparently made no attempt to resist the landing, rolling over once before getting to her feet, looking around, and wagging her tail. The real thing didn’t go quite so well. When Bailey landed in Normandy, he lost his Alsatian-Collie-cross, Bing, up a tree. Several soldiers of the regiment were needed to get him down.

The Paradogs fared better during Operation Varsity when the British landed over Germany. Sent to explore a house, Bing managed to alert British paratroopers to German soldiers within. Fortunately for bing, his valiant actions in Operation Varsity earned him a Dickin Medal: the canine equivalent of the Medal of Honour (or, in this case, Victoria Cross). Unfortunately for Bing, the medal wasn’t edible.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
Tunnel Rat soldier with his gas mask and gun. The Chive.

The US Army’s Tunnel Rats

When US ground troops arrived in Vietnam in the mid-sixties, they found a tunnel system stretching to around 250 kilometers. The Vietnamese had begun construction in anticipation of a Japanese invasion during the Second World War, and since then it had grown exponentially. It was an innovation that would force the US Army to adapt its style of warfare if it were to have any chance of taking on guerrilla forces in the Vietnamese jungles.

First, the US tried other tactics to target soldiers in these tunnels: sending in sniffer-dogs, carpet-bombing, flooding them with gas, and even flooding them with water in an attempt to either flush enemies out or entomb them within. As time went by, however, the US Army realized that in extreme circumstances more direct action was needed. So they called upon volunteers known as tunnel rats.

These men were tasked with entering these tunnels and pursuing that light at the end of it—normally a Viet Cong with a candle—hopefully leading to them locating and destroying the enemy’s resources and cutting off their supplies. Some of the things the tunnel rats came across were baffling. On one occasion they discovered an M-48 tank, buried six-feet underground and being used as a Viet Cong operations center.

The tunnel rats had to be brave, mad or a mixture of both. And small too, given the tunnels were designed by the shorter-on-average Vietnamese. They would often enter the tunnel in pairs so that if the man at the front triggered a mine or encountered an enemy the one behind would avoid the same fate. Or support him, depending on the lethality of the encounter.

Though rudimentary, the training tunnel rats received was designed to help them in these close quarters. This was especially the case with CEAIT—Combat Engineer Advanced Individual Training—which taught them how to use and detect explosives, identify booby traps (responsible for around 11 percent of US casualties during the Vietnam War) and orientate themselves around these terrifying labyrinths.

A communist wasn’t the worst thing you could encounter in the tunnels. From fire ants to venomous snakes to giant rats, there was no shortage of terrifying Vietnamese wildlife and the Viet Cong exploited this well, priming booby traps that released creepy crawlies. One tunnel rat triggered a trap that released dozens of scorpions, damaging his morale so badly he refused to enter another tunnel. Another was bitten and strangled by an enormous snake; his violet-colored corpse dragged out by his traumatized partner.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
Unit 9900. IDF Blog

The Israeli Defence Force’s Unit 9900

Otherwise known as the “Visual Intelligence Division”, the Israeli Defence Force’s Unit 9900 is unique amongst today’s military in that all of its recruits have autism. The unit specializes in aerial reconnaissance, scanning and analyzing high-resolution satellite images to identify anomalies and suspicious movements. And the fact that its members are gifted with exceptional capabilities when it comes to such visual analytics and attention to detail makes Unit 9900 remarkably effective.

Those that serve in the Unit have little difficulty analyzing what they see before them. Communicating it, however, can come as slightly more of a challenge. Recruitment into the unit is no small feat though; candidates must pass three phases—testing their abilities to analyze data, adjust to the IDF’s rigid structure and work in such a way that they pose no threat to either themselves or to the operation—before they are selected. Only 12 candidates out of several dozen who applied in 2016 made it into the unit.

But while those that make the cut don’t see any action on the frontline, they perform a vital role as the eyes of the troops on the ground—integral to ensuring the efficacy of sensitive operations. It’s vital that secrecy is kept with such operations, and to ensure it is the IDF has in place extensive training and support to ensure Unit 9900’s recruits don’t discuss any of their activities with those outside the army.

Part of the reason for the Unit 9900’s existence is that Israel implements mandatory military service for both men and women. Since 2008 this has also extended to those with autism, with potential recruits assigned roles on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, exemptions can be granted on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, or physical or mental health. But only in some cases. Unit 9900 can therefore be explained as a push to include as many of Israel’s population in the military as possible. The fact it enlists both male and female recruits suggests it’s doing just that.

10 of the Strangest Military Units in History
Women of the Norwegian “Jegertroppen” or Hunter Troop. Maxim

Just as in the political and economic spheres of human civilization, warfare has always operated on the basis of supply and demand. As Western forces have ventured into the Middle East and come into contact with gender-constrictive cultures, they have had to adapt to make sure. In countries like Afghanistan, cultural taboos preventing women from talking with men have made it difficult for western male forces to foster good community relations with local inhabitants and nigh on impossible to obtain intelligence from only half the population. And so out of this demand came the supply: the Jegertroppen or “Hunter Troops”.

Formed in 2014, this elite Special Unit is formed only of women. As mentioned, it was born out of the need to integrate the military more into conservative societies. But the unit’s operational role is by no way limited to interacting with women and children and gathering intelligence. Its recruits are trained for an active role as combatants on the frontline. So as you’d expect, their training is just as rigid and demanding as anything a male Special Forces unit would be put through.

Recruits for the Jegertroppen are made to go on grueling marches, carrying their own body weight in supplies and equipment. As part of their survival training, they’re forced to kill (and survive on) animals. And, of course, they receive the essential training in close-quarters combat, parachuting behind enemy lines and offensive driving—the latter, by the sound of it, sounding like something most of us in Europe are already pretty good at.

Out of this rigorous process, soldiers of the Jegertroppen form particularly strong and close bonds—more so than their male counterparts, according to the officer in charge of the training program, Captain Ole Vidar. That Norway has recognized this gender-specific strength and capitalized on it should come as no surprise for such a forward-thinking country. Norway has gone further than any other in tearing down gender barriers for its military. The 1980s saw Norwegian women become eligible for all military roles (something the US only allowed in 2013 and the UK in 2016) while in 2016 the country extended conscription to its female population, becoming the first NATO country to do so.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Extra – The Truth About Viking Berserkers

Russia Beyond – How GIANT Russian Soldiers Served in Prussia

Medium – The King of Prussia Hired, Kidnapped and Bred Giant Soldiers

History – Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis by Night

Medium – How U.S. Audio Engineers, Ad Agents, Set Designers, Film Directors, and Actors Outsmarted Adolf Hitler

The Independent – The Scottish Bagpiper, The Hollywood Celebrities and The Parachuting Dogs Who Took Part in The Normandy Landings

War History Online – 10 Important Facts About Operation Varsity – Crossing of the Rhine

History Collection – A Countdown Through History’s Most Elite and Deadly Warriors