Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About

Khalid Elhassan - October 12, 2021

We all screw up from time to time, but few of us have ever committed a blunder as great as some of those below. Take that time when a Kiwi jailbird convinced New Zealand’s intelligence service that a vast spy ring was about to wreak havoc across the country as a prelude to a Japanese invasion. Alarmed, the government contemplated martial law and the suspension of civil rights, before the whole thing was exposed as a hoax. Following are thirty things about that and other major blunders from history.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service, successor to the discredited WWII Security Intelligence Bureau. Wikimedia

30. A Spy Catcher on the Make

In 1905, Kenneth Barnard Thomas Folkes was born in Gloucester, England. By the time WWII began, he had worked for about twelve years as a law clerk for a firm that handled many criminal cases, before he got a job with a carpet manufacturer in the Midlands. In 1940, he enlisted as a private with the Corps of Military Police, but mentioned only the legal work in his background questionnaire. Between that, a keen mind, and a fair knowledge of French, he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps and commissioned as a second lieutenant.

A tireless self-promoter, Folkes claimed that within just a few months of joining the Army, he had interrogated a prisoner of war and outsmarted him “until he told me what he wanted to hide“. In what in hindsight turned out to be a blunder, nobody questioned his claims, and by late 1940, he was offered command of New Zealand’s fledgling Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB), and a promotion to major. Once in Wellington, Folkes conflated and inflated his employment background as a law clerk and Midlands carpet manufacturer employee. He presented himself to the locals as a former Midlands lawyer, now devoted to the security of New Zealand’s war secrets.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
New Zealand WWII poster. Amazon

29. The Spy Catcher and the Con

Major Kenneth Folkes wanted to earn a reputation, and he did – but not the one he wanted. His name would forever be linked to Sydney Ross, a small-time criminal and conman. Born in 1909, Ross held a series of short-term jobs, mostly as a laborer, and in the 1930s, he piled up 17 criminal convictions and did time behind bars for theft, burglary, false pretenses, fraud. In 1939, he was sentenced to nearly four years for breaking and entering and theft. During this prison stint, he befriended an older convict, Alfred Remmers, a former policeman who had been fired for committing burglaries while on night beat duty, and now behind bars for forgery.

Ross was released from prison on March 28th, 1942, with nothing but a battered briefcase, some clothes, and a train ticket. A day later, he had met New Zealand’s Prime Minister, had a car, money, accommodations, and the undivided attention of Major Folkes, who saw in the released convict an answer to his prayers and committed the grave blunder of trusting him. Between the spy catcher and conman, New Zealand was brought to the brink of martial law. The country would forever after retain a healthy skepticism of its intelligence services.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Members of New Zealand’s Home Guard drilling during WWII. Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

28. A Career in the Doldrums

Kenneth Folkes’ career in military intelligence had begun spectacularly well. He had enlisted as a private, and in less than a year, had risen to major and was in charge of an entire country’s counterintelligence. To be sure, New Zealand was a small and out-of-the-way country, but still – it was a rapid rise. Once he got to New Zealand, however, things began to turn sour for Major Folkes. He saw the New Zealanders as backward colonial bumpkins, ignorant of even basic security practices, and too intellectually lazy to want to change. In reality, his contempt for New Zealand’s practices was a reflection of his own intellectual laziness and unjustified arrogance.

Folkes had been trained in British military intelligence practices for only a few months, had limited experience, and held an imperialistic worldview that saw New Zealanders as inferior to the English. That mix was toxic, and left him unable to grasp that there might be ways to do things other than what he had learned in the few months of training he had received back in Britain. That was bad, but in a blunder that made things worse, Major Folkes let his disdain for the locals show. Unsurprisingly, the locals resented that and repaid his contempt for their antagonism of their own.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Kenneth Folkes, center, was compared by the New Zealand to Heinrich Himmler, both in attitude and physical resemblance. New Zealand Observer

27. New Zealand’s Fledgling Security Intelligence Bureau Was Ridiculed for Committing Blunder After Blunder

Many of Major Kenneth Folks’ New Zealander colleagues saw him as “aggressive, discourteous, and impertinent“. They leaked those assessments to the press, and within a few months of his arrival, local newspapers ran editorials that compared him to Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler, whom he slightly resembled physically. Newspapers also questioned whether Folkes’ Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB) was too much like the Gestapo – and an inept one at that. SIB men were derided as mediocrities, draft dodgers, and incompetent snoops given to blunder after blunder.

In one episode, Folkes’ men subjected an innocent American in charge of geophysical survey work to “stealthy pursuit” that was anything but stealthy. In another bungled endeavor, they ran a five-day operation to try and “trap a suspected spy” at a Wellington hotel, which was an open secret to “the innocent suspect, the hotel staff, and half the town“. The SIB and its head were widely ridiculed as hapless spy catchers who futilely spun their wheels in out-of-the-way New Zealand with no spies to catch. Then salvation and serious work seemed to arrive in the form of career criminal Sydney Ross.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Prime Minister Peter Fraser in 1942. Library of Congress

26. Pure Luck Sets the Stage for a Blunder

On March 29th, 1942, just one day after he was released from prison broke, homeless, and without prospects, Sydney Ross met with the Minister of National Service, Robert Semple. He told the minister that a Nazi agent, recently landed by submarine, had tried to recruit him to join a sabotage cell, part of a vast network whose tentacles stretched across the country. Semple immediately took Ross to see Prime Minister Peter Fraser – apparently, it was really easy to meet New Zealand’s leaders.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Reports that a spy network had been uncovered in Australia made it plausible that a similar network might exist in New Zealand. Radio New Zealand

By sheer luck, Fraser had just received classified reports from Australia, where real spy rings had been uncovered. He was thus primed to accept that his country could have similar rings. The prime minister referred Ross to Major Kenneth Folkes, and the head of the SIB saw the recently released felon as a godsend. Finally, here was a real threat and an opportunity for his men to round up real spies and shut up the critics. Folkes gave Ross money, a car, and accommodations, and set him up as an undercover agent with the alias “Captain Calder” to gather intelligence on the Nazi network.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Sydney Ross, alias Captain Calder. The New Zealand Truth

25. The Alarming Reports of a Vast Subversive Network Throughout New Zealand

For three months, Sydney Ross reported back to Major Folkes about the results of his undercover work. It was alarming information, which Folkes passed in turn on to the New Zealand government’s bigwigs. Apparently, enemy subversives were more widespread and dangerous than anybody had imagined. They planned to blow up key targets, kidnap or assassinate Prime Minister Fraser, Minister of National Service Semple, and other cabinet members, all as a prelude to a Japanese invasion. Ross claimed that the network was headed by his prison pal Alfred Remmers, now dying of leukemia and living in the countryside, and that Remmers’ house in Wellington was the conspirators’ base of operations.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Report by Major Folkes to Prime Minister Peter Fraser, based on jailbird Sydney Ross’s reports. Radio New Zealand

In July 1942, Folkes demanded that the government supply him with troops, declare martial law, and grant his SIB emergency powers to arrest and detain suspects without trial. Before he suspended civil rights throughout New Zealand, Fraser asked the police to investigate. In no time flat, they discovered that the supposed “Nazi headquarters” was occupied by an elderly government clerk, a dry cleaner, and three nurses, all innocent of any foreign contacts, let alone subversion and espionage. To Folkes’ horror, it began to dawn on him that the SIB might have committed yet another blunder, this one the worst yet.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Newspapers were not kind to Major Kenneth Folkes and the SIB after their embarrassing blunder came to light. The New Zealand Truth

24. The Security Intelligence Bureau’s Great Blunder

As his scam began to unravel, Sydney Ross grew desperate to hang on to his employment as an “undercover agent” and the gravy train that went with it. To keep the hoax alive, he resorted to yet another elaborate hoax to bolster his story. He dug a deep hole in a forest, lacerated his back with barbed wire, then staggered to the roadside, where he gave a passing driver £10 to summon help. He then claimed to have been tortured by Nazis and forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint, before he pulled off a miraculous escape. However, doctors who inspected his wounds figured out that they were self-inflicted. The story of the “Impudent Jailbird” who had hoaxed Major Kenneth Folkes and the Security Intelligence Bureau, whose men had been “blatantly hoodwinked” hit the newspapers in late July 1942.

The SIB’s latest blunder was the final straw. The embarrassed organization was taken over by the commissioner of police, and the now-thoroughly-discredited Major Kenneth Folkes was sent back to Britain in disgrace. Ross returned to prison, where he remained until his release in 1946, shortly before his death at age 37 of tuberculosis. It was an anticlimactic end for a man who had almost brought martial law to, and ended the rule of law in, New Zealand. After the war, Folkes returned to his job with a Midlands carpet manufacturer and died in obscurity in 1975. A self-promoter and fabulist to the end, his headstone described him as a recipient of the Distinguished Service Order. There is no record that he had ever received such an award.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Cuban exiles training in preparation for the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Imgur

23. The Self Delusion at the Heart of a Doomed Invasion

In the spring of 1961, American-trained Cuban exiles opposed to Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution readied themselves to overthrow the bearded strongman and his communist regime. In a fatal blunder, the exiles were convinced – or more accurately, convinced themselves – that Castro lacked widespread support, and that the population would rise up in revolt as soon the invasion began. In another blunder, they were convinced – or convinced themselves – that they would be supported by the US Air Force, and that US Marines would follow right behind them.

The aerial cover that actually promised to the exiles by the CIA was limited support from 16 WWII era B-26 medium bombers, that were to fly out of bases in Nicaragua. However, that number was halved to 8 bombers when the new US President, John F. Kennedy, insisted that the operation be kept minimal. On April 17th, 1961, over 1400 Cuban exile paramilitaries, divided into six battalions, set sail from Nicaragua and Honduras. That night, they landed on a beach in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Cuban exiles captured in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Flickr

22. The Final Blunder of the Bay of Pigs Invasion

The Cuban exiles overwhelmed a local militia, but once word reached Havana, a powerful counterattack, overseen by Fidel Castro personally, was organized. Pinned down, with their backs to the sea, no means of retreat, and no chance to advance into Cuba’s interior, the invaders were cut to pieces. The invasion had failed, but the next day, President Kennedy made a final gesture. With Castro’s forces now on full alert, any follow-up strikes by the B-26s would require fighter protection.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
A B-26 practicing in preparation for the Bay of Pigs Invasion. CIA

So JFK authorized 6 fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS Essex to fly cover over the Bay of Pigs for an hour on April 18th, 1961, to protect the bombers as they carried out another strike. However, the invasion, which had already gone from failure to fiasco, was destined to conclude with a farce. In a final blunder, the rendezvous between the carrier jets and the B-26s were missed: planners had failed to factor in the one-hour time zone difference between Cuba and the bombers’ base in Nicaragua.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
The British Army marching through the Bolan Pass into Afghanistan. Encyclopedia Britannica

21. The Disastrous British Evacuation of Kabul

Messy as the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan might have been, it was at least nowhere near as catastrophic as that of the British evacuation of Kabul nearly two centuries ago. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the British and Russians jockeyed for influence in Central Asia in a contest that came to be known as “The Great Game”. A game that often turned deadly, driven in large part by the Russians’ quest to expand into the region in pursuit of their version of “Manifest Destiny“.

That alarmed the British, who suspected that the Russians coveted India, the “Jewel of the British Crown” and Britain’s most vital colony. So they sought to keep the Tsarist borders as far away as possible from India. Things came to a head in the 1830s, when an Afghan ruler became too friendly with Russia for Britain’s tastes. The result was the First Anglo-Afghan War, in which the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839. It began well for the invaders, but in hindsight, as seen below, it was a blunder that ended disastrously.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
British forces in Afghanistan. Encyclopedia Britannica

20. The British Discovered That Their Attempt to Control Afghanistan Had Been a Blunder

The British deposed Afghanistan’s Russophile ruler, an Emir Dost Mohammad, exiled him to India, and replaced him in Kabul as Emir with a British puppet named Shah Shujah. They then garrisoned the Afghan capital and key cities to keep their new pet ruler in power. Things initially went well, the invaders made themselves comfortable in Afghanistan, and it seemed only a matter of time before the country was annexed to British India. However, the Afghans proved obstreperous, and Britain’s puppet ruler proved incapable of controlling the country.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
The British seizing an Afghan fortress during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Wikimedia

By 1841, discontent flared into open revolt as the Afghan tribes rebelled against the British and their client, Shah Shujah. As the countryside was lost and supply lines to India were cut off, British control shrank to the garrisoned cities, and soon, the British found themselves in control of little more than the grounds of their fortified garrisons. So they sought a face-saving measure to extricate themselves from an untenable situation: ditch their puppet ruler, restore the one they had deposed, and cut a deal with him. That only added blunder upon blunder.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
The shambolic British retreat from Kabul. British Battles

19. The British Evacuation of Kabul Began Badly

The British removed their puppet ruler, Shah Shujah, and dusted off the ruler whom they had deposed and exiled in 1839. They freed Dost Mohammad from his captivity in India, and reinstalled him as Emir in exchange for a promise to control the Afghan tribes long enough for the British to evacuate Afghanistan and withdraw in peace. It is unclear whether the reinstalled ruler deliberately betrayed the British, or simply lacked the influence to control the tribesmen, but things swiftly went sour.

On January 6th, 1842, amid falling snow, a British column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians set out from Kabul, which they had garrisoned for the past couple of years, to head back to India. The column barely made it a mile beyond the city before it began to take sniper fire from nearby hills. By that first day’s end, it dawned on the British that they might have committed a huge blunder. Emboldened Afghan tribesmen had begun to dash in and out of the column to loot the supply train and butcher whoever they could lay their hands on. That night, many froze to death as the column encamped in the open without tents.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Afghans attack the retreating British. Wikimedia

18. Blunder Piled Atop Blunder During a Disastrous Evacuation of Afghanistan

On the second day of the retreat from Kabul, some Afghan leaders arrived and insisted that the British halt while they tried to ensure the safety of the route ahead. The Afghans demanded a large sum of money, negotiated a British agreement to withdraw immediately from all of Afghanistan, and requested that they be given officers as hostages. In yet another blunder, the British agreed to halt as negotiations took place, rather than bull their way through to safety. The Afghans took advantage of the halt to further strengthen the forces that awaited the British on their route of march back to safety.

When the British finally resumed the march, many of their soldiers had become too debilitated by the cold to fight. British aspirations were reduced from an exit with dignity, to a simple hope that they would survive the hellish fix in which they now found themselves. That was driven home when the column entered a narrow pass and was fired upon by tribesmen from the rocks above. What little semblance was left of an orderly retreat vanished. The column, transformed into a panicked mob, stampeded its way through the deadly pass with no hope other than escape. 3000 were lost before they exited the pass.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Dr. Brydon, the only man to complete the British retreat from Kabul, arriving at Jellalabad. British Battle

17. The Only Man to Complete the Catastrophic British Evacuation of Kabul

The next day, and those after, the Afghans shook down the British for more hostages and more money. The British piled blunder atop blunder and agreed time after time to the Afghans’ demands, in exchange for empty promises to rein in the hostile tribesmen. On January 11th, 1842, the British commander and his deputy were forced to surrender in exchange for yet another promise of safe passage. Like the previous promises, it was worthless. Soon thereafter, the British found their escape path barred, this time for good, by entrenched Afghans who had blocked and fortified a pass. A desperate charge was made to try and breakthrough, but it was beaten back.

A Dr. William Brydon and five other British officers escaped as far as Fatehabad. There, hostile Afghans fell upon them, and all but Brydon were slain. On January 13th, 1842, a week after they set out from Kabul, the last armed survivors formed a tiny square and made a last stand. They put up a heroic fight but went under just the same. Later that afternoon, British sentries in Jellalabad, on the lookout for the arrival of the Kabul garrison, saw a single rider approaching. It was Dr. Brydon, wounded and on his last legs from hunger, thirst, and fatigue. He was the only one who completed the British retreat from Kabul.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Gunter Schabowski’s blunder at a press conference brought down the Berlin Wall. DW

16. A Bureaucrat’s Blunder Brought Down the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall stood for decades as both a literal dividing line and the Cold War’s ultimate symbolic separator that marked off a dour communist East from a vibrant capitalist West. There was a reason why Ronald Reagan’s admonition in a 1987 visit to West Berlin, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” resonated so well back then. At the time, few could have predicted that, little more than two years later, the Berlin Wall would come down so suddenly that it would catch politicians and pundits alike off guard.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Partying atop the Berlin Wall. CISG-Bonn

As communism began to crumble in the late 1980s, East Germany’s communist leaders began to grudgingly ease their citizens’ travel restrictions. On November 9th, 1989, East Berlin’s communist party boss Gunter Schabowski held a press conference to explain some minor revisions to the travel code. However, he committed a blunder and mistakenly implied that travel restrictions had been completely removed. When a reporter asked when the changes would take effect, Schabowski shrugged and replied: “immediately, right away“. That hit the news, and when East Germans heard it, they swarmed the border to demand the promised free passage. The border guards had received no such instructions, but to avoid a riot, they stepped aside, and the wall came down in a rapturous celebration – Berlin’s greatest citywide party, ever.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Members of Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will. Lemage

15. The Nineteenth-Century Russian Revolutionaries Who Set Out to Blow Up the System

Narodnaya Volya, Russian for “People’s Will”, was an underground nineteenth-century revolutionary organization. It sought to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. They were the early forerunners of bigger and more effective anarchist and socialist organizations. People’s Will are best known for their repeated attempts to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. In a nearly comical display of dogged tenacity, they tried to do him in time after time and met with failure on each occasion.

They finally succeeded in 1881 when, in what turned out to be a blunder, the Russian ruler gave them another shot to take him out in the immediate aftermath of yet another failure to kill him. It was a remarkable feat for an organization that had its genesis just a few years earlier in radical student study circles in the 1870s, that sought to spread socialist ideas to peasants and industrial workers. They were quickly repressed by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, who swiftly arrested and jailed the agitators. They bounced back, more determined than ever.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Russian revolutionary Mark Andreyevich Natanson, founder of Zemlya i Volya, from which People’s Will splintered and formed. Wikimedia

14. The Steady Radicalization of Nineteenth-Century Russian Students

The Tsarist secret police’s suppression of the radical student study circles led to a major think. The result was a growing consensus that attempts to preach socialism to the masses had been a blunder, and that they were doomed to failure because the Okhrana would simply arrest speakers as soon they opened their mouths. Instead, revolutionary violence came to be seen as the only effective means to overthrow Tsarism. So the students changed tactics to fit their new strategy, and turned to more clandestine and aggressive means – specifically, “propaganda of the deed”, or terrorism.

The result was Zemlya I Volya (Land and Liberty), a radical organization that advocated political assassinations as self-defense and justified revenge against oppressive officials. However, it did not view terror as a means of political struggle against the government. Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will, splintered off from Zemlya I Volya in 1879 after the latter was nearly wiped out by the secret police after a failed assassination attempt on the Tsar. It was more radical. It viewed terror as a proactive tool that could overthrow the regime, and not simply as a reactive means of retaliation against individual officials who happened to be exceptionally bad or unjust.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Tsar Alexander II. Wikimedia

13. People’s Will Went After The Russian Tsar With All the Determination of Wile E. Coyote to Get the Road Runner

People’s Will called for violence from the outset and announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government. It issued a proclamation in which a death sentence was declared against Tsar Alexander II, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. The organization established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began to publish underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers. People’s Will tried to kill the Tsar in December 1879, with explosives on a railway, but due to a blunder, they missed his train.

They tried again two months later and planted a bomb in his palace. To their consternation, Alexander II was not in the room when the explosives went off. The frightened Tsar declared a state of emergency and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. The repression was ramped up, and People’s Will activists who were caught with illegal leaflets were hanged. However, in a display of determination equal to that of Wile E. Coyote to get the Road Runner, the group doggedly persisted with its relentless efforts to assassinate the Tsar. Unlike the cartoon coyote, they would get their man.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
The assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Health in You

12. The Temporary Blunder That Got a Tsar Killed

On March 1st, 1881, People’s Will finally achieved their hearts’ desire. That day, one of the group’s assassins waited in ambush along a route taken by Alexander II every week and threw a bomb under his carriage. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, the Tsar was unhurt, and the bomb thrower was captured. Alexander was safe in his carriage, but in what turned out to be a blunder, he thought that the danger was over, and stepped out to survey the damage. As the shaken Tsar crossed himself at his deliverance from harm, a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd spotted him. He shouted: “it is too early to thank God!” and threw another bomb. This one exploded at Alexander’s feet.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
The execution of People’s Will members in 1881. Executed Today

A third assassin in the crowd was ready with yet another bomb if the first two failed, but his explosives were unnecessary. The assassins were arrested and hanged, and in the aftermath intensified repression effectively crippled People’s Will as its members were rounded up and executed or jailed. Terrorism was kept in check for years, but the repression created even more enemies for the regime and drove more opponents into underground clandestine resistance. The Russian Empire was transformed into a pressure cooker that finally erupted into revolution in 1905, and into an even greater revolution that finally did away with Tsardom in 1917. Veterans of People’s Will, who began to emerge from prisons at the turn of the century as their sentences expired, played important roles in both revolutions.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
The Mary Rose. Current Archaeology

11. The Revolutionary Mary Rose

The English ship Mary Rose, commissioned in 1511, was among the pioneers of a revolution in naval warfare. It relied on cannons that fired not from the top deck as had been the norm since guns were introduced to ships, but from portholes cut into the hull on lower decks. As such, she helped usher in the transition of naval combat from an era in which ships rammed each other before men grappled and boarded the enemy, to the age of massed gun broadsides.

The Mary Rose was a success, and gave the Royal Navy decades of solid service until 1536, when she underwent an unfortunate redesign and upgrade. The idea seems to have boiled down to “cannons are good, so more cannons are better“. That turned out to be a blunder. The logic was not bad in itself, but it could be problematic to add more cannons to a ship that had not been specifically designed to accommodate more cannons and bear their additional weight. The Mary Rose was such a ship.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
The Mary Rose heeling over. Trip Savvy

10. A Design Blunder That Doomed a Ship

The Mary Rose’s redesign and upgrade entailed the addition of a new gun deck, and with the addition of more and heavier cannon, increased the ship’s weight from 500 tons to 700. That caused the Mary Rose to ride lower in the water, which in turn brought her lower deck’s gun portholes closer to the sea’s surface. The consequences played out in the 1545 Battle of the Solent, when the Mary Rose was among a fleet of English sail ships becalmed in the Solent and unable to maneuver for lack of wind when they were set upon by a fleet of French rowing galleys. The English fleet was in trouble, and the French were on the verge of a victory over the immobilized English ships when the wind finally picked up.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Cannons and culverins recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. The Mary Rose Museum

Sailing out in a stiff breeze, the Mary Rose led the English counter-attack, and the outgunned French galleys were the ones in trouble now. However, the Mary Rose’s first broadside caused her to heel or lean over to her starboard side, and her gun portholes, now lower and closer to the water’s surface thanks to the additional weight of the 1536 upgrade, dipped into the water. That was when the ship’s design blunder caught up with her. The sea rushed in through the open gunports and the crew was unable to correct the sudden imbalance. Guns, ammunition, and cargo shifted to the submerging side of the ship, and caused her to tilt even further. The Mary Rose sank quickly, and took nine-tenths of the crew with her.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
A de Havilland Comet with square windows. Pintrest

9. The Design Blunder that Explains Why Airplanes Have Round Windows

Boeing dominated passenger plane manufacture for most of the commercial air travel era. In the early 1950s, however, reasonable people could have predicted that the future of passenger planes belonged to Britain’s de Havilland, with Boeing a distant second. The reason was the de Havilland Comet – history’s first commercial jet liner, whose prototype first flew in 1949, and that hit the market in 1952. Fast and sleek, with a pressurized cabin that was comfortable, relatively quiet, and featured large square windows, the Comet cut six hours of travel time between London and New York. It was the world’s most promising passenger plane when it made its debut.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
A de Havilland Comet with square windows. Imgur

The Comet’s designers opted for large, square windows, because of aesthetic: they looked better than the traditional round “porthole” windows. Unfortunately, designers back then did not understand metal fatigue well. Stresses piled up at the Comet’s square window corners, and caused catastrophic fuselage breaches mid-flight that led to fatal crashes. Since the Comets often broke apart at high altitudes and above water, it took time to figure out the problem. Once the culprit was identified, the entire Comet fleet was pulled out of service. De Havilland never recovered: while the Comet underwent redesigns with round windows and thicker fuselages, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 hit the market, and became hits with airliners.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
V2 rocket launch. Flickr

8. Hitler’s Fixation on Super Weapons

The German V2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was the world’s first ballistic missile, which carried a ton of high explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a brilliant, advanced, and literally revolutionary feat of technology. It was also one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons. The damage inflicted by V2s was relatively small and did not justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into their production.

The V2 program was a blunder that diverted scarce resources from more effective weapons programs or other uses that could have better served the German war effort. From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September 1944, to Germany’s surrender nine months later, roughly 3000 V2s were fired. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months. As seen below, that was a relative pittance.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Cologne, Germany, in 1945 after it was reduced to rubble by Allied bombers – V2s were revolutionary, but were no match for the destructive power of conventional bombers. US Department of Defense

7. A Revolutionary Weapon That Was Also a Blunder

In the same nine-month-stretch in which V2s dropped 3000 tons of explosives on enemy cities, British RAF bombers routinely dropped more than 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single nighttime raid. The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single daytime raids. Additionally, the Allied explosive delivery tools were reusable and thus far more economical. Unlike the single-use V2s, most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to again help drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities, and repeated the process dozens of times.

In nine months, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by V2s killed 2754 people. Most were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died as they manufactured V2s. That gave the rocket the tragic distinction of being perhaps the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when results are contrasted with cost, V2s literally produced little bang for the buck.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Winston Churchill flashing the ‘V for victory sign. Pinterest

6. A Huge Blot on the Reputation of an Otherwise Great Man

Winston Churchill was one of the twentieth century’s giants and a hero of the modern era. He is rightly celebrated for his tenacity and steadfastness early in WWII, when he rallied a reeling Britain and kept up the fight against Nazi Germany – the first step in the Third Reich’s defeat. However, Churchill was a complex man, and there was far more to him than the year or so when he and Britain held the line against the Nazis until joined by the USSR and USA. In a public career that lasted more than half a century, Churchill had no shortage of missteps, or outright villainous misdeeds, that contrast jarringly with the nobility of his heroics against Hitler.

One such misdeed was his WWII decisions about food distribution in India, which led directly to the deaths of roughly three million Indians in Bengal. Millions more were plunged into abject poverty as the crisis wreaked havoc upon the region’s economy and tore asunder its social fabric. Blunder after blunder lay at the heart of all aspects of the tragedy, from its avoidable start to policies that made things even worse, to a cruel indifference and reluctance to alleviate the resultant widespread misery.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Japanese soldiers advancing through Burma. History of Yesterday

5. British Authorities Destroyed the Rice That Fed the People of Bengal

The British Empire had long justified itself with the claim that it governed for the benefit of its colonized subjects. However, its conduct during the Bengal Famine of 1943 gave the lie to such pretenses. In the years that preceded the famine, many Bengalis had barely eked out subsistence from their lands, supplemented by imported rice, mainly from Burma. When the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, Bengal was cut off from those imports, and millions of Bengalis were brought to the edge of starvation. Then the British implemented measures that tipped them over into famine.

When Japan conquered Burma, the British feared that nearby Bengal might be next. So the colonial authorities adopted a scorched earth policy to deprive the Japanese of the region’s resources if they overran it. That entailed a “Denial of Rice” policy, which came down to the removal or destruction of rice and other foodstuffs in Bengali districts that had a surplus. As it turned out, the Japanese had reached their limits at India’s border, were in no position to advance further, and were hard-pressed to hang on to what they already held. The people of Bengal would pay dearly for their British overlords’ blunder in overestimating the Japanese.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Famished locals in Bengal, 1943. All That Is Interesting

4. Blunder Followed Blunder Throughout the Course of the Bengal Famine

In what turned out to be yet another huge blunder, British authorities also destroyed thousands of boats throughout Bengal, out of fear that they might fall into the hands of the Japanese. Unfortunately, those boats were vital to the local economy and the transportation of food. With traditional rice imports from Burma cut off, home grown surpluses unnecessarily destroyed by the alarmed British, and the means to transport what little food surplus remained wrecked, famine roared through Bengal. Relief efforts were hampered by Churchill’s decision to divert food shipments intended for the starving Bengalis to already well-supplied British soldiers in the Mediterranean.

Ships loaded with wheat sailed past Indian cities whose streets were littered with the corpses of those starved to death, in order to add to the stockpiles of food in Britain. Simultaneously, offers of Canadian and American food aid to the famished Indians were turned down by Churchill’s government, even as it prohibited India from using its own sterling reserves or its own ships to import food. Indeed, India was made to export over 70,000 tons of rice in the first half of 1943, even as millions of Indians starved to death.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Winston Churchill was indifferent to the suffering of starving Bengalis in 1943. Houston Museum of Natural Science

3. Churchill Disavowed British Responsibility for the Bengal Famine, and Blamed the Indians Instead

The colonial government in Delhi sent the British Prime Minister in London a telegram to inform him of the famine in Bengal and that millions of Indians were dying. Winston Churchill churlishly replied: “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” The Viceroy of India described Churchill’s attitude towards India as “negligent, hostile, and contemptuous“. Churchill was unrepentant, however. In addition to being shockingly callous about the millions of deaths sure to result from his orders, he seemed viciously gleeful about the predictable consequences when they actually occurred. As he put it, referring to the deaths of millions of Bengalis under his watch: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits“.

Nowhere in Churchill’s assessment was there any recognition of the fact that it had taken blunder after blunder by British officials to produce that famine. That was colonialism in a nutshell: an imbalance of power between colonists and colonized. It created dynamics whereby respected figures such as Churchill, widely praised for their moral virtues, could engage in morally reprehensible conduct without any qualms. It allowed the government that ruled both Indians and Britons to callously tolerate famine in India, yet remain sensitive to British views that bread rationing in wartime Britain was an intolerable imposition.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Gamal Abdel Nasser delivering a fiery speech. Madison

2. An Egyptian Leader’s Blunder in Provoking a War He Was Not Prepared to Fight

In the runup to the Six-Day War, June 5th – 10th, 1967, tensions between Israel and her Arab neighbors climbed steadily. Raids from Palestinian guerrillas based in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, increased, and elicited massive Israeli reprisals. That put Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser in a bind. He was the Arab world’s most popular politician, a hero of the masses for his defiance of Britain, France, and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Now, however, he was criticized for his failure to aid other Arab states against Israel. He was also accused of hiding behind a UN peacekeeping force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Nasser knew that the Egyptian military was in no shape to fight Israel, but he wanted to retain his stature in the Arab world by bluster and bluff. He broadcast increasingly heated speeches that threatened Israel, and sought to convey his seriousness with demonstrations short of war. However, Nasser got carried away with his own rhetoric, and escalated the demonstrations beyond the point of prudence. He began to mass Egyptian forces in the Sinai. A few days later, he requested the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers who separated the Israeli and Egyptian forces. A few more days, and he closed to Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. A week later, Jordan’s king arrived in Egypt to ink a mutual defense pact, followed soon thereafter by Iraq. Nasser had intended the whole affair as bluster, but it turned out to be a grave blunder.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Wrecked Egyptian airplanes after the surprise Israeli attack that kicked off the Six-Day War. Khaleej Times

1. Too Much Bluster Turned Out to Be a Grave Blunder

Unfortunately for Gamal Abdel Nasser and his allies, what might have been intended as bluff seemed all too real from an Israeli perspective. Moreover, the Israelis, who actually were prepared for war, had long been itching for an excuse to cut Nasser down to size. So on June 5th, 1967, they launched preemptive airstrikes that destroyed 90 percent of the Egyptian air force on the ground and put pay to Syria’s planes as well. With aerial supremacy secured, the Israelis then launched ground attacks that routed the Egyptians and seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula within three days. They also routed the Jordanians and seized Jerusalem and the West Bank within two.

Remarkable Historic Blunders these People Should be Embarrassed About
Israeli soldiers guarding Egyptian prisoners captured during the Six-Day War. Greenville Post

Egypt and Jordan accepted a UN ceasefire but the Syrians unwisely did not. So the Israelis attacked Syria on June 9th and captured the Golan Heights within a day. Syria accepted a cease-fire the following day. The defeat was humiliatingly lopsided: about 24,000 Arabs killed vs 800 Israelis, with similarly disproportionate rates for wounded and equipment losses. It was a huge blunder by Nasser. His prestige in the Arab world, which he had sought to burnish with warlike rhetoric and demonstrations short of war, took a severe hit from which it never recovered.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

BBC – How Churchill Starved India

British Battles – Battle of Kabul and the Retreat to Gandamak

Cracked – 6 Grand Mastermind Coups (That Fell Apart Immediately)

Darlymple, William – Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2013)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Narodnaya Volya

Extreme Tech – Square Windows That Changed the Aviation Industry

History Collection – 20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

History Extra – Mary Rose Facts: When and How Did Henry VIII’s Flagship Sink?

History News Network – Failures of the Presidents: JFK’s Bay of Pigs Disaster

Lampert, Evgeny – Sons Against Fathers: Studies in Russian Radicalism and Revolution (1965)

Macrory, Patrick – Retreat From Kabul: The Catastrophic British Defeat in Afghanistan, 1842 (2002)

New Scientist, September 3rd, 2014 – Myths and Reality of the Nazi Space Rocket

New York Times, November 2nd, 2015 – Gunter Schabowski, Whose Gaffe Helped Burst the Berlin Wall, Dies at 86

New Zealand History – Sydney Ross

Oren, Michael B. – Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002)

Radio New Zealand – Nazi Hoax: The Story of Syd Ross

Security and Surveillance History Series, 2018/1 – A Formidable Responsibility: The Rise and Fall of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Bureau 1940-1945

Tharoor, Shashi – Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017)

Time Magazine, November 29th, 2010 – The Ugly Briton

Wikipedia – 1842 Retreat From Kabul

Wikipedia – Assassination of Alexander II of Russia

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm – Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1955)