List of military disasters

A military disaster, for this list, is the unexpected and sound defeat of one side in a battle or war, which sometimes changes the course of history.

Battle of Omdurman was one of the most one sided battles in history.
Battle of the Little Big Horn known as Custer's Last Stand.

Military disasters in this list can be a strong army losing a major battle against a clearly-inferior force, an army being surprised and defeated by a clearly-superior force, and a seemingly evenly-matched conflict with an extremely one-sided result. A military disaster could be caused by bad planning, bad execution, bad weather, a general lack of skill or ability, the failure of a new piece of military technology, a major blunder, a brilliant move on the part of the enemy, or simply the unexpected presence of an overwhelming enemy force.

One definition of military disaster describes the presence of two or three factors:[1]

  • chronic mission failure (the key factor)
  • successful enemy action,
  • (less significant) total degeneration of a force's command and control structure.

According to that definition, two particular characteristics are not necessary for an event to be classified as a military disaster:

  • enormous loss of life
  • having more casualties than the enemy.

Ancient era

Map showing Julian's journey from Constantinople to Antioch (in 362) and his Persian expedition (in 363), ending with his death near Samarra resulting in one of Rome's most catastrophic military failures in its history.[10]

Medieval era

16th century

The fall of Spanish Armada in 1588
  • The Battle of Lepanto in 1571.[24] The Holy League's fleet defeated the Ottoman fleet in one of the largest naval battles of human history. The Ottomans lost 240 ships (out of about 300), while the League lost 12 of their 210 ships.
  • The Spanish Armada in 1588.[25] An English fleet sends fire ships into the Spanish invasion fleet destroying some and scattering the rest effectively ending the invasion threat. The Armada would later run into storms and almost half the ships never returned to Spain, as well as more than half the troops.
  • The Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598.[26] An English force of 4000 is attacked by Irish defenders under Hugh O'Neill and defeated. This temporarily put Ireland out of English control, allowing the rebellion to spread throughout Ireland.

18th century

19th century

20th century

First World War

Second World War

Surrendering British troops held at gunpoint by Japanese infantry in the battle of Singapore

Cold War era

  • The Battle of Dien Bien Phu,[46][31] in which the French Far East Expeditionary Corps advanced deep into northwestern Vietnam near Điện Biên Phủ to cut off the Viet Minh's supply lines from Laos and force it into a confrontation. The Viet Minh besieged the French and smuggled heavy artillery through mountain terrain, preventing resupply by air with anti-aircraft guns. The defeat forced the French Armed Forces to withdraw from North Vietnam in 1954.
  • In the Six-Day War,[47] in response to Arab threats of invasion and low-level attacks, Israel launched surprise air attacks which almost completely destroyed the Air Forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, followed by a series of ground, air, and naval attacks which saw the capture of the Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria, victories which lead to heavy Arab losses in personnel and material.
  • The Battle of Longewala – during the western theater of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Pakistan launched a large-scale offensive (involving 2,800 soldiers, 65 tanks and more than 130 other military vehicles) to capture a small Indian Army post at Longewala manned by 120 personnel and one jeep-mounted recoilless rifle. Despite numerical inferiority, the Indian Army successfully held on to the post during the night. In the morning Indian Air Force aircraft were launched at first light. This air offensive halted the progress of the Pakistani regiment. The ensuing battle resulted in destruction and capture of more than 100 Pakistani tanks and military vehicles, with only two soldier's death from Indian side.[48][49]
  • Operation Eagle Claw,[50] a U.S. attempt to rescue hostages in Iran in April 1980 during the Iran Hostage Crisis. This operation was marked by a series of planning, mechanical and communication failures that led to the deaths of eight American servicemen, and failed to rescue the hostages and humiliated the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

See also


  1. McNab, C. "World's Worst Military Disasters". The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009. 978-1404218413
  2. McNab 2005, pp. 24–26.
  3. McNab 2005, p. 28.
  4. McNab 2005, pp. 32–34.
  5. McNab 2005, p. 38.
  6. McNab 2005, p. 42.
  7. McNab 2005, p. 46.
  8. McNab 2005, pp. 50–52.
  9. McNab 2005, pp. 54–56.
  10. Beate Dignas & Engelbert Winter, Rome & Persia in Late Antiquity; Neighbours & Rivals, (Cambridge University Press, English edition, 2007), p94, p131 & p134
  11. McNab 2005, p. 58.
  12. McNab 2005, p. 64.
  13. McNab 2005, p. 72.
  14. Golden, Peter B. Turks And Khazars. Farnham, England: Ashgate/Variorum, 2010. Print.
  15. Mikaberidze, Alexander. Conflict And Conquest In The Islamic World. Print.
  16. Alexander Mikaberidze, Miraculous Victory:’ Battle of Didgori, 1121, Published: May 14, 2008;"The size of the Muslim army is still a matter of debate with numbers ranging from a fantastic 800,000 men (“Bella Antiochena”, Galterii Cancelarii), 600,000 Turks (Matthew of Edessa) to 400,000 (Smbat Sparapet’s Chronicle) while the estimates of modern Georgian historians vary between 100,000-250,000 men."
  17. Nomads in the Sedentary World, p. 47, at Google Books
  18. McNab 2005, p. 82.
  19. McNab 2005, p. 86.
  20. McNab 2005, p. 90.
  21. McNab 2005, p. 98.
  22. McNab 2005, p. 106.
  23. McNab 2005, p. 123.
  24. McNab 2005, p. 128.
  25. McNab 2005, p. 136.
  26. McNab 2005, p. 140.
  27. Black, Jeremy (2002) Warfare In The Eighteenth Century (Cassell'S History Of Warfare) (Paperback – 25 July 2002)ISBN 978-0-304-36212-7
  28. James Grant Duff "History of the Mahrattas, Vol II (Ch. 5), Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1826"
  29. T. S. Shejwalkar, "Panipat 1761" (in Marathi and English) Deccan College Monograph Series. I., Pune (1946)
  30. McNab 2005, p. 174.
  31. Spilsbury, Julian (2015-04-02). Great Military Disasters: From Bannockburn to Stalingrad. Quercus. ISBN 978-1-78429-215-7.
  32. McNab 2005, p. 178.
  33. McNab 2005, p. 186.
  34. A. J. P. Opperman, The Battle of Blood River. CUM Books, Roodepoort, 1982. First edition, First impression. ISBN 978-0-86984-265-2. Page 27.
  35. McNab 2005, p. 210.
  36. McNab 2005, p. 214.
  37. McNab 2005, p. 206.
  39. McNab 2005, p. 228.
  40. McNab 2005, p. 256.
  41. McNab 2005, pp. 260–262.
  42. Willmott, H. P. (1983). The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Strategies, February to June 1942. United States Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-949-1. [page needed]
  43. McNab 2005, p. 268.
  44. McNab 2005, p. 276.
  45. Trigg, Jonathan (2020). D-Day Through German Eyes: How the Wehrmacht Lost France. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing. pp. 257–266. ISBN 978-1-3981-0323-8.
  46. McNab 2005, p. 292.
  47. McNab 2005, p. 296.
  48. Lal, Pratap Chandra (1986). My Years With The IAF. ISBN 978-81-7062-008-2.
  49. Palit, D. K. (1972). The Lightning Campaign: The Indo-Pakistan War, 1971. Thomson Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-897829-37-0.
  50. McNab 2005, p. 300.

Works cited

  • McNab, Chris (2005). The World's Worst Military Disasters: Chronicling the Greatest Battlefield Catastrophes of All Time. Rochester: Grange Books. ISBN 978-1-84013-808-5.

Further reading