Sometimes the smallest thing can mean the difference between nations emerging triumphant or collapsing in defeat. Here are 7 moments from military history where the outcomes hinged on a minor detail:
1. A colonel didn't read a note, and his men were slaughtered by Washington
Col. Johann Rall was the commander of Hessian soldiers in Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas Day in 1776. Rall was partying with his officers when someone handed him a note that he shoved in his pocket without reading it. A few hours later, he and his men were effectively wiped out by Patriots fighting under Gen. George Washington.
The note Rall warning him of the attack was found in his pocket after he was killed. If he had read and believed it, the Hessians could have conducted an ambush on Washington's attacking forces, possibly ending the war. Instead, it was a huge Patriot victory that helped led to America being a thing.
2. A weather report and a birthday party changed World War II
The Seabees land at Omaha Beach on D-Day. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Nazi and Allied planners had forecasted potential dates for a summer invasion based on tides, phases of the moon, and weather trends. The best window for the Allies was June 4 to June 6, 1944. June 4 started with clear skies but Allied meteorologists believed it would turn nasty, which was true.
Allied Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower postponed the invasion, and Nazi commanders left their coastal defenses for war games. German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel even left for home to celebrate his wife's birthday. But the Allies had more Atlantic weather stations and found a lull in the bad weather that the Nazis didn't know about. The invasion was launched into rough seas and winds Jun. 6, but the weather cleared early in the day.
The Allied invasion was a success partially because a single meteorologist believed the weather would clear. Hitler slept in, Rommel went to the birthday party, and other senior leaders played war games because none of them knew the weather had broken and the invasion was underway.
3. World War I began because of bad driving directions
The Archduke and Archduchess before they were killed. Their assassination kicked off World War I. (Photo: Public Domain by Henry Guttman)
Conspirators attempted to kill the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 by attacking his car during a parade. One assassin threw a grenade but it bounced off the Archduke's vehicle before the royal was rushed to safety.
Reports vary about whether the royal couple attempted to leave the city after the attack or continue the parade, but they definitely were driving back along the route when they were spotted by another assassin, Gavrilo Princip. The car stopped directly in front of Princip as the occupants argued about the proper directions.
Princip took two shots, killing both the Archduke and his wife, which set off the powder keg that was 1914 Europe and began World War I.
4. Germany lost the Battle of the Marne (and maybe World War I) because of a rumor
(Photo: Public Domain)
Early in World War I, Imperial Germany was marching quickly towards Paris after forcing British and French forces into a series of retreats. At the Battle of the Marne in Sep. 1914, the British and French barely stopped the Germans through a series of desperate actions like using taxis to ferry troops to the frontlines.
Germany might have won if it had the two divisions it had sent to the Belgian coast. The Germans had believed rumors that Russian soldiers were forming in Britain for an amphibious assault. This false rumor was later traced by historians to either a shipment of 100,000 Russian eggs that was noted in a train report as "100,000 Russians now on way from Aberdeen to London" or a group of soldiers from Ross Shire being misheard by local train officials.
Either way, the rumor began circulating that large numbers of Russian soldiers were entering the fight on the Eastern Front and Germany redeployed troops to deal with them. Those troops then weren't available for fighting near Paris, and France was able to hold on, prolonging the war and allowing an Allied victory.
5. A slight time miscalculation ended the Bay of Pigs invasion
Fidel Castro became a close friend of the Soviet Union, something JFK tried to stop with the Bay of Pigs invasion. (Photo: Keizers)
On Apr. 17, 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and attempted to overthrow the Castro regime. If successful, this invasion would have led to the downfall of Communist Cuba and allowed America more influence over its southern neighbor. It also would've cut off Soviet access to the island, preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis and giving American a stronger hand in the Cold War.
The Bay of Pigs invasion went badly from the start, and America was quickly outed as a backer of the invasion. To save the botched operation, President John F. Kennedy authorized fighter cover for bombing missions on Apr. 18 but the bombers arrived an hour late, missing the protective cover of the fighters and leaving them exposed to the Cuban Air Force.
Later investigations showed that the bombers probably arrived late because someone miscalculated the time difference between the base and the destination. The bombers were shot down, the Cuban exiles were captured, and Castro was still in power a month later when the Soviet Union asked if he would be interested in hosting nuclear missiles as a deterrent to future U.S. aggression. That meeting led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
6. Nagasaki was destroyed because of a single cloud at the original target
The nuclear cloud spreads over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. (Photo: Hiromichi Matsuda via Public Domain)
There are two cities that are synonymous with the destruction from atomic bombs: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, America's target list actually included Kokura. On Aug. 6, Hiroshima was the primary target and Kokura was the backup. Since Hiroshima was clear, the bomb was dropped there.
On Aug. 9, Kokura was the primary target and Hiroshima was the backup. The B-29 crew (bomber nicknamed Bock's Car) flew over Kokura multiple times but had orders to only drop the bomb if they could physically see the targeted weapons factory beforehand. A single cloud kept blocking their view, and so they moved on to Nagasaki, sparing the city of Kokura.
7. Constantinople fell because of an unlocked gate
Mehmed II and the Ottoman Army approaches Constantinople with a giant "bombard," an effective cannon. (Painting: Fausto Zonaro, Public Domain)
Constantinople in 1453 was facing serious problems. The skilled conqueror Mehmed II was hammering at the walls with his cannons while the defenders fought among themselves about whether the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church of Byzantium was the true Christian faith.
These troubles got worse when somebody left an outer gate open and Mehmed's soldiers were able to pour into the city. If the gate had remained closed, slow-to-arrive reinforcements may have been able to break the siege and relieve the city. Instead, Constantinople was conquered and became Istanbul, and Islam gained a permanent foothold in eastern Europe.