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8 invasions that failed horribly

Invasions are risky, costly operations that can cost the aggressor dearly. Here are 8 invasions that may have made some generals wish for a time machine:


1. Napoleon invades Russia

Painting: Public Domain/Viktor Mazurovsky

One of history's finest military minds, Napoleon Bonaparte, broke a strained alliance to invade Russia on his way to India in 1812. Estimates of his army's size vary between 450,000 and 600,000 men.

The Russian army, numbering only about 200,000, avoided most major battles. Instead, they let disease, weather, and desertion whittle away at the French troops until Napoleon successfully took Moscow Sep. 14. But Moscow had been abandoned and Napoleon was forced to retreat back to France that October with only 20,000 soldiers in fighting shape.

2. The French and Spanish Siege of Gibraltar in 1779

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar. Painting:  Public Domain/John Copley

France and Spain attempted to invade England via the English Channel and the Rock of Gibraltar. The English Channel fleet never bothered to attack anything the Gibraltar campaign was an abysmal failure.

Starting in 1779, the Franco-Spanish fleet attacked the Rock of Gibraltar for nearly four years, losing 6,000 lives and 10 ships without taking a bit of ground.

3. Operation Barbarossa

Photo: German army archives

When Nazi Germany sent its finest to conquer Russia in 1941, the plan was a summer invasion that would be complete before the dreaded Russian winter set in or Stalin could call up large numbers of new troops.

But logistical failures and mismanagement slowed the German army's advance despite a series of battlefield successes. The Soviets capitalized with a series of counterattacks and by raising 200 new divisions, four times what the Germans planned for. The Axis lost nearly a million men of the 4.5 million it sent to Russia and was then stuck in a two-front war.

4. Bay of Pigs

Members of the Cuban invasion force meet President and Mrs. Kennedy in 1962. Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

The Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 was supposed to be a covert American operation supporting Cuban exiles who would wage a guerrilla war against Fidel Castro.

Instead, Castro knew about the operation ahead of time, American involvement was exposed the morning of the first attacks, and the Cuban forces captured and killed nearly all of the Cuban exiles assaulting them.

5. Japanese invasion of Midway

The Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma shortly before it sank Jun. 6, 1942. Photo: US Navy

In the summer of 1942, Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku attempted to draw the surviving American aircraft carriers into a trap by invading Midway Atoll, a U.S. island near Hawaii.

But U.S. Navy had intercepted the Japanese plans and laid their own ambush. In the resulting battle Jun. 4, Japan lost all four carriers involved in the battle and a heavy cruiser while the U.S. suffered the loss of one carrier. The battle was a tipping point in the overall Pacific Theater of World War II.

6. U.S. invasion of Canada in 1775

Illustration: Public Domain/Charles William Jefferys

In its first major offensive, the Continental Army sent two major forces to take Quebec and convince the rest of Canada to join the rebellion.

Early successes were followed by catastrophe at the siege of Quebec City. One commanding general was killed and the other wounded before a hasty retreat gave the British back all the territory the Americans had taken.

7. The British invasion of Zululand

The Battle of Rorke's Drift. Painting: Public Domain/Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville

The British invasion of Zululand in 1879 suffered a major setback less than two weeks into the war when Gen. Frederic Thesiger led most of his men from their camp to attack what he believed to be the main Zulu force.

It wasn't, and the actual main Zulu force surrounded the camp and killed off over 1,300 of the approximately 1,750 defenders before destroying the army's supplies. The British were forced to withdraw but staged a new invasion that July that was successful.

8. Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939

Photo: Library of Congress

Though the Soviets would achieve victory in the Winter War of 1939-1940, their first thrust into Finland was a disaster. 450,000 Soviets with approximately 4,000 planes and 6,000 tanks and armored vehicles were stopped by 180,000 Finnish troops operating 130 outdated aircraft and 30 armored vehicles.

The highly mobile ski troops of Finland used effective camouflage and careful tactics to cut apart the Soviet formations dressed in dark uniforms that stood out against the snow. The Soviets eventually won but the war cost them nearly 130,000 lives with another 270,000 troops wounded and captured.