1. Battle of Thermopylae (480BC)
As with so much of history, we have been misled by Hollywood. The Battle of Thermopylae was not 300 Spartans against a million Persians, and I’m sure that not everyone had washboard abs. Instead, the battle, which took place at the narrow costal pass of Thermopylae (meaning, the Hot Gates) over 3 days in the late summer of 480BC was a defensive action by a Greek army of about 7500 men (including the famous 300 Spartans). The army was a coalition of Greek city-states and was led by King Leonidas of Sparta. Their purpose was to prevent the Persian invasion of Greece led by the Emperor Xerxes I. Persians had already tried to invade once, and were defeated at the Battle of Marathon ten years earlier. This time, in order to ensure victory, Xerxes sent an army that modern scholars estimate to be between 100,000 and 150,000 men. The Greek plan was to block the line of Persian advance at Thermopylae. For seven days, including three of actual combat, the Greeks held off the huge Persian army. A small force, led by Leonidas, literally blocked the only road that the Persians could use. After two days of fighting, the Greeks were betrayed by a local man called Ephialtes, who told the invaders of a small path that would allow the Persians to outflank the defenders. Once Leonidas realised he had been betrayed, he knew defeat was only a matter of time. He sent the bulk of his army away to fight another day and with a force of about 1000 men (in the front line of which were his 300 Spartans) he remained to guard the retreat. The small force fought fiercely to the death. In total Greek losses amounted to 4000 (including the 1000 engaged in the last stand), whereas the Persians lost about 20,000 men. Despite his victory at Thermopylae, the invasion proved costly for Xerxes. His fleet were destroyed at the Battle of Salamis later that year, and the flowing year, the rump of his invading army was wiped out by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea.
2. Battle of Agincourt (1415)
From 1337 to 1453 England and France fought the slightly misnamed Hundred Years’ War. The cause of the war was the succession to the French throne. For various reasons, the English kings claimed the throne of France, and wanted to take possession of it. The French resisted. After a few decades of relative peace, and after failed truce negotiations, the English once again went on the offensive in France in 1415, but disease took its toll and the English army was reduced to a shadow of its former self by October that year. The English commander, King Henry V, decided to withdraw back to England to rebuild his numbers. The army headed for Calais. The English numbered no more than 6000 men, of which about 5/6thwere lightly armed longbow men, and the rest armoured infantry, made up of dismounted knights. At Agincourt on 25 October, they found their way blocked by a French force of about 30,000 – 36,000 men – 10,000 of which were heavily armoured and mounted knights. The French were blocking Henry’s retreat and were happy to wait it out until Henry was forced to attack or flee. Given the unequal numbers, and the fact that the English were weary, hungry and sick, the expectation was that Henry would withdraw. But the French had chosen their spot poorly. The English were able to take the high ground and had time to drive wooden spikes into the ground to protect their archers from French cavalry charges. Henry advanced to start the battle. Personally leading his troops, Henry ordered the archers to target the French knights and cavalry. After an initial volley of fire, the French cavalry charged in a somewhat disorganised manner. Slowed by mud and the forest of defensive stakes, the cavalry was cut down by the accurate and unceasing fire of the English archers. When the charge had failed, the French decided to advance on foot (their own crossbowmen were largely out of range by this time). Again the mud, and the fact that the knights were in heavy armour, slowed them down and the English were able to pick them off before they got too close to Henry’s position. The French finally reached the English lines, but the archers continued to fire at point blank range. Once they ran out of ammunition, the English longbowmen attacked the, by now, exhausted and demoralised knights with knives and hatchets. Lightly armoured and relatively fresh, the English swarmed over the French army and finished a famous victory. The English had lost just 150 men. The French had lost 10,000, many of them from noble families. The French army lost its Constable, Admiral, Master of Crossbowmen, and the Master of the Royal Household, as well as an Archbishop. Henry returned to England unopposed.
3. Battle of the Alamo (1836)
In 1835 a force of Texians (which is the name applied to non-Mexican inhabitants of Texas at that time) drove out of Mexican-controlled Texas. The Texians garrison about 100 men at the former Catholic mission called the Alamo. With intelligence that a Mexican army under General Santa Ana were moving to retake Texas and headed in the direction of the Alamo, Texian reinforcements arrived, including the eventual co-commanders James Bowie and William B Travis so that the eventual total strength of the garrison was no more than 260 men. On 23 February 1500 Mexicans marched into San Antonio. There followed 10 days of skirmishing between the Alamo defenders and the Mexican army. Travis wrote letters begging for reinforcements as he was aware just how outgunned his men were, but few reinforcements arrived. In the early hours of March 6 the Mexicans advanced on the Alamo. The Texian defenders repelled two attacks but the Mexican broke through at the third attempt. The defenders retreated to the buildings of the compound and continued the fight. Any defender caught outside or any who surrendered was immediately killed by the Mexicans. The Mexicans pressed the attack and eventually overwhelmed the remaining Texians, all of whom were killed. In all 257 Texians were killed, taking with them some 600 Mexicans. The last stand at the Alamo had an electrifying effect on the push for Texan independence. People flocked to join the Texan army and inspired by a desire for revenge, they defeated the Mexican army at the Battle of Jacinto on April 21, 1836.
4. Battle of Rorke’s Drift (1879)
In 1879, the British Empire was at war with the Zulu people of southern Africa. It was not surprising as the Zulus generally wanted the British, particularly the British and Boer farmers, to go away and leave them alone. The Zulus had just won a huge victory at Isandlwana where they had caught the British in their encampment and with their back to the river and wiped out a whole column of what was the best army in the world at that time. Taking arms and ammunition from that battle, the Zulu’s moved on to the small Dutch mission at Rorke’s drift which the British column had used for a supply base. The garrison was 150 men. Many were sick and being attended to at the field hospital there. The rest was made up of the supply staff, the medical staff, some native porters, a few Boer policemen. It was commanded by Second Lieutenant GonvilleBromhead. Also present was a Royal Engineer, Second Lieutenant John Chard, who had commandeered some of Bromhead’s men to build a pontoon bridge. As luck would have it, Chard was the senior officer by a matter a few months, so command fell to him when, on the morning of January 22 1879, an army of 3,000-4,000 Zulu warriors appeared over a ridge and attacked the station. Chard had little time to organise a defence, but he built a defensive perimeter using overturned wagons and mealy bags. He ordered all the walking wounded out of the hospital to take part and ensured that his forces were concentrated at the point of the Zulus’ greatest attack. For 48 hours wave after wave of Zulu attacks wore the British down. The hospital was set ablaze, so the injured were moved to the church. The attacks came after dark as well at first light. Well supplied, the Britishcould keep firing, but the sheer weight of numbers made the position seem hopeless. Finally, Bromhead organised a redoubt in which a small force of men were able to arrange themselves so that they could provide continuousfire into the Zulu attackers (the British army used single shot rifles at the time). The Zulu losses mounted, and the Zulu commander, perhaps impressed with the bravery of his foe, but in any event not convinced that Rorke’s Drift was a tactically important target, withdrew his army. The Zulus lost at least 351 dead and 500 wounded. The British lost just 17 dead and 15 wounded. Since 1857 when it was introduced until today just 1357 Victoria Crosses have been awarded for valour and extreme courage beyond that normally expected of the British soldier in face of the enemy. Of that number, 11 were won by the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, including both Bromhead and Chard.
5. Custer’s Last Stand (1876)
George Custer, Lieutenant Colonel of the US 7th Cavalry was not a remarkable soldier. He graduated last in his class at Westpoint in 1857. But he was good in action and during the Civil War had risen to the rank of brevetted major general. After the war, he reverted to his formal rank of captain, which must have been quite a come-down. He worked his way back to half-colonel when he was given command of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. His unit took part in the 1876 campaign to return Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne back to their reservations following that year’s sun-dance season. Custer had about 700 men in total. On the morning of June 25, near the Little Bighorn river in the Black Hills of South Dakota Custer came upon a large Lakota village, and he prepared to invade in order to drive the inhabitants back to their reservation. Custer could not see many warriors and assumed that tey were sleeping. He estimated that there were no more than 800 people in the village. Fearing that movements he saw indicated that the village was about to break up, at noon, he prepared to attack. Custer had hugely underestimated the opposition, rather than being evenly matched, Custer was in fact outnumbered three to one. Custer, forced to reorganise his troops to cope with the new reality lost the initiative and found himself effectively surrounded by Crazy Horse and his men. It then became a matter of time as Custer’s force was overcome by the superior force. Custer and his men fought bravely against losing odds. Ammunition ran low. In a desperate attempt to fend of the attackers, Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and use the bodies as a defensive barrier. It did no good, in less than an hour the combined Lakota and Cheyenne force wiped out Custer and his men. It is believed that Custer himself was one of the last to die, fighting hand to hand at the end. Five of the 7th Cavalry’s twelve companies were annihilated that day, and along with Custer, two of his brothers, a nephew and his brother in law were killed. 268 US Cavalrymen were killed and 55 seriously wounded (of whom a further 6 died of their wounds). The Indian forces lost just 31 men.The name of George Custer has gone down in history as synonymous with incompetence and hubris.
6. Battle of Arnhem
After the stunning success of post D-Day advance by the Allies through France and Belgium the next target in the liberation of Europe was the Netherlands. British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery came up with a plan that involved a single armoured push over the branches of the lower Rhine and into the upper reaches of the industrialised Ruhr valley. It was believed that if successful, the advance could shorten the war and split the Nazi forces in the north of Europe. The plan involved dropping airborne troops into the areas around a number of key bridges. They were then to seize and hold the bridges pending the arrival of the Britishheavily armoured XXX Corp who were driving at full speed up the road from the border with France. It was an audacious plan, and it very nearly succeeded. All bridges were successfully seized with the exception of the bridge at Arnhem – the furthest bridge north in the plan. The British 1st Airborne Division supported by men of the Glider Regiment and the 1st Polish Parachute Regiment dropped into Arnhem to size the bridge over the Nederrijn river. Such was the confidence of the plan that Montgomery expected XXX Corp to reach Arnhem within 3 days. The British were quickly faced with unexpected resistance – especially from elements of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions. Only a small force was able to reach the Arnhem road bridge while the main body of the division was halted on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, XXX Corps was unable to advance north as quickly as anticipated due to the destruction of the bridge at Son, and failed to relieve the airborne troops according to schedule. The small British force commanded by Lieutenant-General John Frost took up positions in and around a house by the northern approach ramp to the bridge, There they were ceaselessly bombarded by German Panzers and mortars, as well as Nazi snipers positioned on the bridge itself. The Germans systematically demolished each house in the areas, corralling the British into a small and smaller position. Despite the huge odds the British hung on. By the afternoon of the fourth day, the British positions around the north end of Arnhem bridge had weakened considerably. Casualties, mostly wounded, were high from constant shelling. An acute lack of ammunition, especially anti-tank munitions, enabled enemy armour to demolish British positions from point-blank range. Food, water and medical supplies were scarce, and so many buildings were on fire and in such serious danger of collapse that a two-hour truce was arranged to evacuate the wounded (including Lieutenant-Colonel Frost) into German captivity.Then the resistance continued. There was no hope of reinforcements as the other part of the Arnhem force had itself been trapped in a pocket north of the city, and XXX Corps advance had stalled. The remaining British troops continued to fight on, some with just fighting knives but by early on the fifth day almost all had been taken prisoner. The last radio message broadcast from the bridge was “Out of ammo, God save the King!” It had been estimated that it would take 10,000 men to hold the bridge for the two days expected before XXX corps arrived. In the event just 750 men held it for twice as long, although no relief arrived. 81 British were killed and the rest went into German captivity. German losses amounted to about 1500-1700 in the battle for Arnhem. With no secure bridges over the Nederrijn, the Allies were unable to advance further and the front line stabilised south of Arnhem. The British 1st Airborne Division had lost nearly three-quarters of its strength and did not see combat again.
In the latter half of 1944, the Nazi forces of occupation in France were having a tough time. Against the odds, the Allies had successfully invaded France in June and had then begun the slow work of pushing the German forces back towards Germany. By December the frontline rand from Antwerp in Belgium to the Swiss border. In late November that year, Hitler decided that his army would try and break through the Allied lines. They could then make for the coast and divide the enemy. The plan was to pierce the line in the Bastogne region of Belgium and Luxembourg, advancing through the Ardennes Forest with 25 divisions and the objective of recapturing Antwerp. The plan relied on reaching the port before the Allies could regroup and bring their superior air power into the fight. The move did catch the Allies by surprise as they felt that the Ardennes was not suitable for large-scale troop movements, and besides, the weather by the beginning of December was atrocious with plunging temperatures and heavy snow. A key part of the German plan was for its mechanised division to seize all seven main roads through that part of Belgium. Due to heavy rainfall before the German attack, only one road could be used as a crossing point. The task of holding the line fell to the 101st Airborne Division’s Easy Company. Because of the powerful American defense to the north and east, the German commander General von Lüttwitz decided to encircle Bastogne and strike from the south and southwest, beginning the night of 20/21 December. German Panzer reconnaissance units had initial success, nearly overrunning the American artillery positions southwest of Bastogne before being stopped by a makeshift force. All seven highways leading to Bastogne were cut by German forces by noon of 21 December, and by nightfall the Americans were surrounded. The 101 were outnumbered approximately 5-1 and were lacking in cold-weather gear, ammunition, food, medical supplies, and senior leadership (as many senior officers, including the 101st’s commander—Major General Maxwell Taylor—were elsewhere). Due to the worst winter weather in memory, the surrounded U.S. forces could not be resupplied by air nor was tactical air support available due to cloudy weather. The German Panzer and artillery forces pounded the American lines, but the 101 stayed dug in and made the best they could of the atrocious conditions. The siege continued but on 27 December elements of General George Patton’s Third Army were able to break through and provide relief for the defenders.The 101st and its attachments had suffered 115 officer and 1,933 enlisted casualties. They had killed 7,000 Germans, captured 697 prisoners, and destroyed approximately 200 armored vehicles.
8. Battle of Arnhem
The Battle of Arnhem was a major battle of the Second World War fought in and around the Dutch towns of Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Wolfheze, Driel and the surrounding countryside from 17–26 September 1944.
After sweeping through France and Belgium in the summer of 1944, after the Battle of Normandy, the Allies were poised to enter the Netherlands. Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding the Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group, favoured a single thrust north over the branches of the Lower Rhine River, allowing the British Second Army to bypass the Siegfried Line and attack the Ruhr. To this end, the Allies launched Operation Market Garden on 17 September 1944. Allied Airborne troops were dropped in the Netherlands to secure key bridges and towns along the Allied axis of advance. Farthest north, the British 1st Airborne Division, supported by men of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, landed at Arnhem to secure bridges across the Nederrijn. Initially expecting a walkover, British XXX Corps planned to reach the British airborne forces in two to three days.
The British airborne forces landed some distance from their objectives and were quickly hampered by unexpected resistance – especially from elements of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions. Only a small force was able to reach the Arnhem road bridge while the main body of the division was halted on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, XXX Corps was unable to advance north as quickly as anticipated due to the destruction of the bridge at Son, and failed to relieve the airborne troops according to schedule. After four days, the small British force at the bridge was overwhelmed and the rest of the division became trapped in a small pocket north of the river – where they could not be sufficiently reinforced by the Poles or XXX Corps when they arrived on the southern bank, nor by the RAF’s resupply flights. After nine days of fighting, the shattered remains of the British 1st Airborne Division were withdrawn in Operation Berlin.
With no secure bridges over the Nederrijn, the Allies were unable to advance further and the front line stabilised south of Arnhem. The British 1st Airborne Division had lost nearly three-quarters of its strength and did not see combat again.