Course Handout - Military Disasters

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First published online 16:56 BST 8th May 2001, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [HT.1 - transfer of copyright] dated 18:00 14th January 2010


This is a subfile of Study Unit HE1, an e-learning resource published and supported by Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). To return to the higher level file, click here.

Military Disasters

The Battle of New Orleans, 1815: In this encounter on 8th January 1815 during the Anglo-American War of 1812-1814 (the apparent contradiction in dates arises from the fact that the war had actually ended two weeks before the battle took place, but the news had yet to reach Louisiana), a British expeditionary force under Sir Edward Pakenham (1778-1815), brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, attempted to capture the city of New Orleans and thereby to deny the Americans free use of the Mississippi River.

Having landed from the Gulf of Mexico on 23rd-24th December, the British marched (some have said a mite too cautiously) up the east bank of the Mississippi, until they came up against a hastily constructed defensive line behind the (dry) Bayou Rodrigues at Chalmette, about 8 miles from the city. This was known as "Line Jackson", after the commander of the defending troops, General (subsequently President) Andrew Jackson. Here they began their build-up for a major attack by constructing a number of breastworks for the artillery they were bringing up.

Unfortunately for the British, Jackson was an experienced campaigner, and had chosen his defensive position well. He had a clear flat field of fire to his front, the Mississippi anchoring his right flank, and an impracticable swamp anchoring his left. Along this 1000 yard line, he had constructed a fortified rampart of earth and cotton bales, and distributed about 4000 men (better than one man per foot). He had also turned some brick kilns on the bank of the Mississippi into a forward strongpoint, and had eight artillery batteries with a total of 14 guns supporting the defences from behind. As if that were not enough, the Americans also had the sloop USS Louisiana (18 guns, of which 16 heavy) on the river itself, and General David B. Morgan had a further 1000 men and another 16 guns on the far (west) bank of the river. For his part, Pakenham had nearly 7000 troops, organised into two assault brigades, one on each wing, a headquarters brigade in the centre, and a flanking brigade ready to be ferried across to the west bank of the Mississippi to try and break Line Morgan and establish a line of fire into the American rear. Here is the British order of battle:

  • General John Keane commanded the left wing brigade, comprising elements of the 1st (West India), 7th (Royal Fusiliers), 43rd (Monmouthshire Light Infantry), and 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiments, and half of the 95th (Rifle) Regiment as a skirmishing line.
  • General Samuel Gibbs commanded the right wing brigade, comprising elements of the 4th (King's Own), 5th (West India), 21st (Royal Scots), and 44th (East Essex) Regiments, and the other half of the 95th as a skirmishing line.
  • General John Lambert commanded the headquarters brigade, comprising the 14th Light Dragoons (fighting on foot), and the remainder of the 5th, 7th, and 43rd Regiments.
  • Lieutenant-Colonel William Thornton commanded the flanking brigade, comprising elements of the 85th (Marquis of Buckingham's Light Infantry) Regiment, supported by 200 Royal Navy sailors and marines.

The attack actually began during the night of the 7th January, because it was vital that Thornton's brigade be got across the river by dawn on the 8th. However, this involved some rather substantial field engineering on Bayou Villeré, another of the dry irrigation ditches, some three miles away from Line Jackson .....

The Bayou Villeré Works: When the British first landed, they had used the seaward end of Bayou Villeré to bring up supplies, but they could not navigate through to the Mississippi itself because the bayou had been closed off from the river by a raised riverbank, or "levee". When the attack on the west bank was proposed it made good sense to turn the first few hundred feet of this bayou into a harbour of sorts, so that men and equipment could be loaded into their boats without risk of being swept away by the strong main stream current. 41 boats were duly assembled for this purpose on the seaward side of the levee. Unfortunately, the engineering was complicated by the fact that the water level in the bayou was lower than it was in the river. Had the levee simply been dug through, the boats would have been swept away into the swamp by the resulting surge. It was therefore necessary to build up the banks of the bayou beforehand, and this task was entrusted to the engineers on 3rd January.  It was easier said than done, however, because the surrounding land was naturally waterlogged and there was a shortage of timber for shoring, so that when Packenham took time out on the evening of 7th January to confirm that arrangements were going according to plan, he could only be half heartedly assured by the engineer in charge of the works that all was well. Sure enough, when the levee was breached at 2100hr, the workings collapsed under the strain, and it took the rest of the night to manhandle the boats over the levee. Thornton was accordingly many hours behind schedule, and was still disembarking his forces at dawn, 0730hr, when the signal rocket went up to start the attack. (See under Taking Things for Granted (2) below).

Things soon started to go wrong, despite the valuable additional cover provided by the morning mists. There was particular confusion on the right, where the 44th Regiment under newly promoted Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Mullins had been chosen to lead Gibbs' attack. Thanks to poor staff work and lack of supervisory diligence (for which Mullins was later court martialled), the 44th were unable, when they arrived in the darkness at their jumping off positions, to find the assault materials (ladders and bundles of wattle called "fascines") they had been ordered to take with them. They therefore had to backtrack some 500 yards and were still not in their proper positions when the signal rocket went up. As a result, they not only baulked the advance of the 4th and 21st Regiments, but interfered also with the covering fire being given by the skirmishers of the 95th. This, combined with a concentration of accurate enemy artillery fire and poor discipline, brought general confusion to the field, although some of the 21st and 95th began to establish a foothold on line Jackson at a point known as the bastion.

On the left, Keane's advance began more promisingly. He had sent a mixed battalion of light infantry under Colonel Robert Rennie along the bank of the river to attack the brick kiln redoubt, and these made relatively good progress, taking the redoubt and disabling the three artillery pieces they found there. This placed Keane momentarily in a position of significant tactical advantage, because from there the defence could easily have been "turned" (ie. outflanked and rolled up from one end). In the event, however, Rennie was killed before he could issue the necessary orders and Keane was too far away to take command personally.

In one final attempt to save the day, Keane was now instructed to divert the cream of his command - the 93rd Regiment under Colonel Dale - diagonally from left to right across the front to support Gibbs' attack on the bastion. Needless to say, they suffered high losses in the ever improving light, and, just as they got into position to deal a possibly decisive blow, both Gibbs and Dale were killed. This was followed shortly afterwards by a "wavering" - a loss of stomach for the battle - which resulted in the 4th, 21st, and 44th falling back in confusion (Burrows, 1923).

On the west bank meanwhile ......

The West Bank Defences: The American defences on the west bank of the Mississippi consisted of a number of artillery batteries protected by two defensive lines of infantry. For maximum effect, the batteries were situated directly across the river from the open ground in front of Line Jackson. This allowed them to fire into the left flank of the east bank assault units (a highly effective type of fire known technically as "enfilade"). Line Morgan was immediately in front of the batteries, and the advanced guard half a mile or so further towards Thornton's point of disembarkation. The Louisiana fought at anchor throughout, more or less opposite the end of Line Jackson, presenting her starboard battery of eight long 24-pounders. Her port guns had been removed before the battle and included in the shore batteries.

..... Thornton was warming to his task. It had taken him an hour after disembarking to move into position opposite the lightly defended American advanced line, but knowing that the American artillery was wreaking havoc on the flank of the main attack, he charged with the minimum of preparation, forcing 300 Louisiana and Kentucky irregulars to fall back to Line Morgan. Then, since it was already 0830hr and the main attack was already in substantial disarray, he regrouped his forces and mounted another all-out bayonet charge on Line Morgan, a miniature version of Line Jackson. This, too, was an outright success, thanks to a decisive "left hook" by the 85th Regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel Gubbins. Unfortunately, though they captured the American shore batteries, there was no longer any need to set up batteries of their own to enfilade Line Jackson because the main attack had already collapsed. Lambert simply ordered Thornton to disable the captured guns and then withdraw.

British losses on the day were 291 killed, 1262 wounded, and 484 captured or missing, against American losses of 13 killed, 39 wounded, and 19 missing (Hanger, 1999). As the song has it, the British had come off "rather ignominiously" (Donegan, 1959).

 Here are some of the contributory factors:

  • Sheer Incompetence: According to the 93rd Regiment's website (for such exists!), the admirals who had organised the expedition were only interested in the prize money which would accrue, Pakenham and his three brigade commanders were indecisive, and none of the staff knew his job. The attack was certainly uncoordinated to the extent that the west bank attack was not synchronised with the main attack, and such opportunities as did present themselves on the east bank were not capitalised upon.
  • Overlong Line of Supply: Because of the shallow waters around the Mississippi delta, and particularly in Mississippi Sound and Lake Borgne, the British fleet had to remain at anchor (off what is now Long Beach, Biloxi) some 60 miles away from their beachhead. As a result, Packenham was hampered throughout by a severe lack of heavy artillery and horses, and provisions for the troops were "coarse and scanty". All his heavy equipment had to be rowed in from the fleet, manhandled ashore, and then pulled across the throat of the delta by working parties. Similarly with the ammunition to serve the guns. Without artillery he had to delay his attack from 1st January to 8th January, and without ammunition he was unable to neutralise the American artillery, which was not just drawn up behind Lines Jackson and Morgan, remember, but on the Louisiana as well. The effect of this can be seen in the fact that of the total 2037 British casualties, 11 were from the 95th Regiment [source] and 557 from the 93rd, although both regiments had been equally exposed to American fire for about the same length of time. The difference is probably accounted for by the fact that the 95th were employed as loosely spaced skirmishers, whereas the 93rd fought in tight formation and therefore made a much better artillery target.
  • Morale: This is difficult to ascertain. Theoretically it should have been high because many of the British were seasoned campaigners from the Peninsular War against Napoleon. Time seems to have taken its toll, however, because one officer, Major Harry Smith, did not hesitate to describe the 21st and 44th as "sulky" and "not distinguished for discipline", and Mullins' court martial included the charge that he had used language "calculated to dispirit those under his command" (Burrows, 1923).
  • Conceptually Outdated - Fragile Command Structure: Time and again the British were punished for allowing their officers to stand out from the rank and file (they were not difficult targets, because they were usually the only ones mounted). Many unit commanders were killed by American sharpshooters, often at critical points in the proceedings. Generals Pakenham and Gibbs (the latter in mid-tirade at the unfortunate Mullins) and Colonels Dale and Rennie were killed, and General Keane wounded. Colonel Dale's death was probably the most serious individual loss because he would almost certainly have committed the 93rd to a possibly decisive dash for the bastion, instead of which the regiment stood indecisive until withering artillery fire forced them too to retire.
  • Conceptually Outdated - When is Gallantry Foolishness (and Vice Versa): It is also possible to criticise the 93rd Regiment for standing quite as firm as they did. By 1815, the rifle was already well on its way to replacing the smoothbore musket, with the result that the safe range for tall and tight formations of men in field manoeuvres was pushed out from around 150 yards to around half a mile. They were also easy pickings for the American artillery, especially when firing fragmentation shot. Certainly the 93rd's coolness under fire was to their credit, but their regimental pride was paid for in blood [they repeated the demonstration when they earned the epithet "The Thin Red Line" at the Battle of Balaclava half a century later - see next]. By contrast the loosely committed 95th Regiment were in the thick of the fighting throughout and suffered least (and being sharpshooters themselves, almost certainly caused the majority of the American casualties). Curiously enough, when "open order" rules of field manoeuvre were eventually introduced in 1877, they were found to have problems of their own, as amply demonstrated at the Battle of Isandhlwana Hill, 1879 (see below).
  • Taking Things for Granted (1): According to Pickles (1993), Mullins was at fault for taking things for granted rather than checking them. Having been told that the assault materials were in the "advanced redoubt", he took it for granted that this referred to his regiment's assembly point. Only in the minutes before dawn was this incorrect presumption detected, and by then the damage had already been done.
  • THE FIRST CRITICAL FACTOR - Taking Things for Granted (2): Pakenham made a similar error on the night of the 7th, by blindly accepting the assurances of one of the engineers that arrangements to ferry Thornton's brigade across to the west bank of the river were adequate, when in fact they were not.
  • Inflexible Decision Making: In his account of his exploits, Major Smith reports a conversation with Pakenham about half an hour before dawn, in which Packenham expressed grave concerns over Thornton's delay. Smith, when asked his advice, recommended calling off the main assault, but Pakenham was marginally more concerned about the possible consequences of a delay upon the morale of his troops, and decided to go ahead regardless. 

For further general detail click here, for more from the museum of the 93rd Regiment, now the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, click here, for an oil painted glimpse of the Louisiana in action click here, for a battle re-enactment society video click here, for Harry Smith's biography click here, and finally, if you want to see if you can do any better than Packenham, have a go at "Battle for the Bayous", by Liberty Games, Aloha, Oregon - get Thornton across the river on time, and you cannot lose!


Burrows, J.W. (1923). The Essex Regiment (1st Battalion) 1741-1919. Southend: Burrows.

Donegan, Lonnie (1959). The Battle of New Orleans. [To hear this Jimmy Driftwood ditty, click here. Lonnie Donegan marketed the UK cover version in 1959, with additional lyric as quoted, and got to Number 2 in the British hit parade.]

Hanger, K.S. (1999). A Medley of Cultures: Louisiana History at the Cabildo. New Orleans, LA: Louisiana State Museum. [Available online.]

Pickles, T. (1993). New Orleans 1815. Oxford: Osprey. [To see the publisher's blurb, click here.]

The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854: In this encounter on 25th October 1854, during the defence of Balaclava in the Crimean War, the Light Brigade, one of the British Army's elite cavalry units, was cut to pieces in an ultimately fruitless attack on a well-established and numerically superior Russian position. The Commander-in-Chief on the day was Lord Raglan, commander of all the forces at Balaclava, who 40 years previously had lost an arm at the Battle of Waterloo (legend has it that he called the surgeon back as he walked off with the severed limb, so that he could take the rings off his fingers one last time). The commander of the cavalry was Lieutenant-General the Earl of Lucan, and the commander of the Light Brigade was Lieutenant-General the Earl of Cardigan (Lucan's brother-in-law), who led the charge itself.

It was Raglan who first resolved that the Light Brigade should attack. A large Russian force had mounted a surprise attack from the east, and had captured some forts on the plain above Balaclava harbour, only to have their advance halted by dogged defence of the 93rd Regiment (again) and by an enormously well executed charge by Lucan's Heavy Brigade against a force more than three times its own strength. At this juncture, the Russians began to withdraw, and from his headquarters atop the plateau to the west (a vantage point described by the war correspondent William Russell as like a box at a theatre) Raglan worried that they would carry away with them the guns from the forts they had captured. He decided that the best way to counter this threat was to commit the remaining cavalry - the Light Brigade - to harrass and hurry their retreat. The disposition of the forces at this moment can be seen from the maps included on the Xenophon Group International website.

Raglan therefore sent down a written order, instructing Lucan as follows:

"The cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the heights. They will be supported by infantry, which has been ordered. Advance on two fronts." [House of Lords transcripts, 19th March 1855, as reported in The Times, 20th March 1855. Available online. By the term "the heights", Raglan was referring to the range of small hills across the plain where the forts were situated, not to the escarpment of the plateau to the west where he himself had his headquarters, nor to the Fedukhine Heights to the east where the Russians were.]

Having just committed his Heavy Brigade, and seeing little obvious activity on the heights, Lucan did not respond immediately, and so 45 minutes later Raglan impatiently sent down a second written order, as follows:

"Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop of Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." (The Times, 2nd March 1855.)

The orders were conveyed to Lucan by one Captain Nolan, and Raglan was so irritated with the delay that he explicitly directed Nolan to emphasise the need for Lucan to act immediately.  Lucan, however, was down on the valley floor, and could see far less of the strategic situation than could Raglan. Confused as to which "guns" the orders were referring to, he turned on Nolan .....

Lucan: "Attack, Sir! Attack what, and where? Where is your enemy? What guns are these we are to recover?"

Nolan [pointing angrily]: "There, my lord, is your enemy; there are your guns." [House of Lords transcripts, 19th March 1855, as reported in The Times, 20th March 1855. Available online. In the subsequent enquiry Lucan stated adamantly that Nolan pointed not at the forts Raglan had in mind, but at the main Russian position at the foot of the Fedukhine Heights to the east. However, the mistake would be an easy one to make, because Woodward (1962) estimates the difference between the correct and incorrect gestures at 20 degrees of arc, or about 12 inches at arm's length.]

Lucan then summoned Cardigan and conveyed the order, and recently discovered papers indicate that Cardigan protested strongly that the attack would be madness. Orders being orders, however, there was little Lucan could do to countermand his commander in chief, especially when he was in a better position to judge the totality of the situation. Cardigan was accordingly instructed to get about the task he had been given, and the advance began a few minutes later. The total strength of the five cavalry squadrons involved was 672 men, with Cardigan riding alone in front of the line. Nolan accompanied them for a short while, until killed in the early Russian barrage, and some reports (but not Cardigan's) claim that just before his death he began wildly waving his sword as if trying to gain Cardigan's attention in an attempt to correct the mistake. Half an hour later 113 of his men had been killed and 134 wounded.

Lucan subsequently described the event as "a most triumphant charge against a very superior number of the enemy's cavalry, and an attack upon batteries which, for daring and gallantry, could not be exceeded." Raglan, on the other hand, wanted Lucan court martialled for failing to respond at all to the first order, and responding incorrectly to the second. He insisted that his orders had clearly been "to take advantage of any opportunity" to reoccupy the heights and prevent the removal of the captured guns" [Raglan's Report; The Times, 13th November 1854; Available online]. In his defence, Lucan argued that his discretionary powers as a senior commander were on this occasion limited by Nolan's rather precise interpretation of Raglan's intentions. "To take upon myself," he wrote, "to disobey an order written by the Commander-in-Chief within a few minutes of its delivery, and given from an elevated position commanding an entire view of all the batteries and the position of the enemy would have been nothing less than direct disobedience of orders" [letter from Lucan to Raglan, 30th November 1854, published in The Times, 2nd March 1855. Available online]. The argument raged bitterly in the British press and parliament throughout the winter of 1854/5, and even The Times judged it "difficult to acquit" Lucan of "great slackness in the discharge of his duty" [Editorial, The Times, 9th March 1855; Available online].

Here are the two main object lessons:

  • Egocentrism: Raglan was insufficiently clear in setting down what he wanted done. Things made sense to him from his vantage point, but not to the units in the valley below, who could see far less of what was going on. The war correspondent William Russell put it this way: "I am persuaded," he wrote, "that [the disaster] was due first to the distance of Lord Raglan from the field, and secondly, to his failure to understand ..... that he saw more than his generals below could see" (cited in Knightley, 1982:11).
  • Lack of Professionalism: This was still the era when the British army was officered by royalty and nobility first, and by intelligence and aptitude second. Woodward (1962) describes Lucan as "unpopular with his troops, and ready to criticise orders from headquarters" (p280), and the hard-drinking Cardigan as "one of the most hated officers in the army [] narrow, selfish, and pedantic" (p281). Much of the blame must lie in the breakdown and corruption of effective communication which interpersonal animosity brings with it, and the remainder with the fact that Raglan was surrounded by "perhaps the worst collection of subordinate officers ever concentrated in one army" (Knightley, 1982:7).

For further detail of the inquests and enquiries, we thoroughly recommend David Kelsey's website.


Knightley, P. (1982). The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam - The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker (2nd Edition). London: Quartet.

Woodward, L. (1962). The Age of Reform 1815-1870 (2nd Edition). Oxford: Clarendon.

Little Big Horn, 1876: In this encounter on 25th June 1876, General George A. Custer and five companies of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment were surrounded by a superior force of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians and massacred to a man in what has gone on to be referred to as "Custer's Last Stand". The massacre came as part of the 1876 Indian War, a bid to subdue Indian resistance in the high plains south of the Yellowstone River.

Geographical Note: The Yellowstone rises on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains (in what is now the Yellowstone National Park), and runs an average east-north-east until it joins the River Missouri at Fort Buford, North Dakota, some 100 miles from the Canadian border. The Big Horn, Rosebud, and Powder Rivers all run northwards into the Yellowstone from the Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming; the Little Big Horn arises between the Big Horn and the Rosebud, and joins the Big Horn at a point some 30 miles away from the Yellowstone. [No e-map yet available.]

The campaign as a whole was under the strategic command of General Philip H. Sheridan in Chicago, and the June 1876 expedition under the local command of General Alfred H. Terry. The Indians were under the strategic command of the Sitting Bull, but usually fought under the field command of Crazy Horse. A three-pronged advance had been envisaged, with columns converging into the Big Horn Plains from the north west, the north east, and the south east. Unfortunately, the southern column under General George Crook had already been given a bloody nose at the Battle of the Rosebud on 17th June. They were engaged by a large force of Sioux and Cheyenne led by Crazy Horse, and fell back to await reinforcements. Crazy Horse returned to Sitting Bull's encampment somewhere in the Little Big Horn valley, and it was this encampment which was now sought. It was therefore decided to send the remaining two forces separately up the Rosebud and the Big Horn, timing their advances so that they would arrive in the Little Big Horn valley on the same day but from different directions, thus trapping the Indians between them (a double encirclement manoeuvre often known as "hammer and anvil").

At noon on 22nd June, Custer's column, consisting of 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, separated from General Terry's column at the point where the Rosebud joins the Yellowstone, and headed south. Terry's column, consisting of five companies of the 7th Infantry Regiment and four companies of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, supported by three Gatling guns, was ferried 50 miles further upstream to the confluence with the Big Horn. From there it, too, headed south, making for the junction with the Little Big Horn.

NB: In fact Terry's column was commanded by General John Gibbon until 23rd June, but he was taken ill and Terry assumed command in his stead. For the sake of simplicity, we have referred to this force as "Terry's column" throughout.

In the event, Custer's column moved too fast for its own good, and just after dawn on the morning of the 25th, his scouts reported a large Indian encampment on the south bank of the Little Big Horn some 15 miles further to the west. Unfortunately the Indians also spotted him, thus threatening to rob him of the element of surprise. This put Custer in a major dilemma, for he was at least two days ahead of Terry's column. Should he attack at once, or should he wait for support? Being Custer, he decided to attack, and now it was his turn to divide his forces. Major Marcus A. Reno took three companies along the south bank of the river, Captain Frederick W. Benteen took three companies and swept out more widely through the hills to Reno's left, and Custer retained five companies and set off along the high ground to the north of the river [for map, click here]. The remaining company was held back to guard the baggage train.

The advance began at 1212hr, and was within easy sight of the encampment by around 1500hr. Reno then drew his battalion up into battle order, and advanced on the village. The Indians, however, stood their ground, and soon outnumbered Reno. His men dismounted, becoming defenders rather than attackers, and fell back across the Little Big Horn to dig in on a bluff - now Reno Hill - overlooking the valley. Here they held out until relieved by Gibbon's infantry on 27th. This defensive response cost Reno his good name until exonerated posthumously by a Review Board in 1967.

Custer meanwhile had been advancing along the high ground to the north, and when he saw Reno falling back in disorder he sent a rider to hasten Benteen's battalion. Benteen arrived around 40 minutes later, at around 1600hr, and skirmished for a while with the Indians who had been harrassing Reno's retreat. But numbers were not in their favour, and by 1800hr they were forced to dig in alongside Reno and await rescue.

Having supported Reno as best he could, Custer pressed on along the ridge, but encountered fiercer Indian resistance all the time as the enemy organised their forces and switched braves up from the Reno engagement. By 1720hr, the remnants of his five companies had been pushed back onto a line of low knolls now known as Custer Hill, Battle Ridge, and Calhoun Hill, and by 1800hr all 210 of his command had been killed.

Here are some of the criticisms which have been levelled at this unsuccessful foray:

  • Failure to Concentrate Resources: The main force was twice divided, once into the three columns of advance (Terry's, Crook's, and Custer's), and then again into three battalions for the final attack (Reno's, Benteen's, and Custer's). For their part, the Sioux deployed their main force twice, once against Crook's column, driving it off, and then again against Custer's. The timing was also twice wrong. At campaign level, Custer arrived two days before Terry at the decisive point, and at battalion level, Benteen's initial sweep to the south brought his 120 men to the battlefield too late to be of influence.
  • Disobeying Orders: Although Custer did not actually disobey campaign orders because they had given him ample scope to advance at his discretion, he knew full well that a double encirclement was planned, and that Terry's was very slow-moving column. He had even been explicitly advised to kill a day or two on the upper Rosebud en route. Instead, he forced marched his column so that it arrived all of two days ahead of Terry's.
  • Functional Fixedness: On at least one previous occasion - the Battle of the Washita, November 1867 - Custer had attacked an encampment precipitately, following a forced march, and had got away with it. On that occasion, however, there had only been 150 warriors at most to defend it. In fact, he broke one of Sun Tzu's rules of war (number VI-28, to be precise), namely that you should never try the same high-risk manoeuvre twice!
  • Arrogance: Custer underestimated his enemy. The combined Sioux and Cheyenne encampment mustered perhaps 3500 fighting men, many with rifles. Custer's three battalions totalled 516 men.
  • Management Information: Only at around 1520hr, as he looked down at Reno's engagement from the bluff to the north did Custer first see the size of the enemy force.
  • Logistics: The US Congress had previously refused requests for funds to establish permanent military posts on the upper reaches of the Yellowstone River, thus extending the lines of supply when operating in those areas by some 400 miles (New York Times, 6th July 1876). One twelfth of Custer's command therefore spent the entire battle guarding the wagons!

For further general information click here, for selected New York Times articles from that period click here, for the story of Major Reno click here, for the story of the Far West, the steamer which did the ferrying back and forth, click here, and for the full set of Sun Tzu's observations on the art of war click here.

Isandhlwana Hill, 1879: The British invasion of Zululand began on 11th January 1879, with the strategic aim of clearing Zulu strongholds west of the Buffalo River. The invasion force was prepared in Natal, and consisted of three separate columns of advance, the centre column of which was under the command of Lord Chelmsford. This column consisted of 5 companies of the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot (hereafter 1/24th), 7 companies of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot (hereafter 2/24th), 6 companies of the Natal Native Contingent (hereafter NNC), some Natal Pioneers, some mounted irregulars, and a 6-gun battery of Royal Artillery.

The first challenge was to cross the river and climb up onto the Nqutu plateau beyond. The crossing of the river began at a mission station called Rorke's Drift at 0430hr on 11th January, mounted troops first. It took all day to get the column across, but they had to camp straight away while the pioneers improved the primitive roadway on the far side in readiness for the wagons. This proved to be a lengthy process, and even by noon on 20th January the wagons had only advanced some 15 miles, to Isandhlwana Hill, a promontory jutting out from the line of the Nqutu escarpment, and overlooking the valley below. Here, on a natural shelf, still several hundred feet below the plateau, they formed a forward supply camp. They omitted, however, to construct any defence works, contrary to standing orders and despite several experienced officers of the 24th expressing concern.

Chelmsford, meanwhile, had been patrolling ahead, trying to locate the main body of Zulus, and when one of these patrols reported having engaged a large concentration of Zulus he presumed that he had succeeded. At 0330hr on Wednesday 22nd January he went to this patrol's assistance, taking with him all bar one company of the 2/24th, some of the mounted irregulars, 4 of the 6 guns, and the Natal Pioneers. He left the base camp under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine (1/24th), an officer with 24 year's service but lacking significant combat experience. Without the patrols or Chelmsford, Pulleine had at his disposal the 5 companies of the 1/24th, "G" Company (and the cooks and quartermasters) of the 2/24th, some of the mounted irregulars, the NNC, and the remaining two guns. At around 1100hr they were reinforced by a rocket battery and 550 more native troops, of whom 250 were the mounted Natal Native Horse (NNH). These latter were commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Durnford, and were stationed on the right (eastern end) of Pulleine's defensive arc. Above and in front of them, on the edge of the plateau but free to fall back if pressed, was an inner screen of infantry outposts (provided by "G" Company, 2/24th) and an outer screen of mounted irregulars.

But the Zulus Chelmsford had gone off to engage were not the main Zulu army. That - around 20,000 men - had spent the night of the 21st hidden in a ravine some 6 miles distant. It had not been their intention to fight on the 22nd because it was the full moon, and that was deemed unlucky; but around mid-morning a British scout chanced upon them Wishing to retain the element of surprise, the Zulus immediately formed up into their regiments, advanced at the run, and were on the ridge above the British base camp at around midday.

There followed an hour or so of active engagement, with the British more or less holding their own despite the lack of fortifications. Then ammunition began to run low, and because the companies were still well forward it took valuable time restocking them. As a result, the intensity of the musketry slackened and the Zulus began to make progress. Their breakthrough cam a few minutes later when the NNC companies at the centre of the defensive arc broke and ran. This allowed the Zulus to flood through the gap and fan out behind the remaining British, who were then quickly surrounded and massacred almost to the man. Only 55 Europeans survived the day. Here are some of the criticisms which have been levelled at this unsuccessful foray:

  • Arrogance and Racism: The British grossly underestimated their enemy - subsequent movies about the Zulu Wars do not exaggerate the speed, cunning, and courage of the native warriors! The British also had a deal of contempt for the native troops on their own side - ie. the Natal Native Contingent. Durnford had raised 7 battalions of these troops, plus 250 Natal Native Horse, plus 300 pioneers. They were not as heavily armed or as well trained as the British units - the "imperial infantry" - but well suited for the climate and the terrain.
  • Too Many Cooks: Durnford's role had been ambivalent. Upon his arrival at the encampment he had been, strictly speaking, senior to Pulleine, but in the event he chose not to take command, preferring instead to station his forces too far to the right of the defensive line to offer much protection to the main encampment. The British also suffered a deal of ill-feeling between various commanders. Durnford, for example, had been explicitly reprimanded for being impetuous only two months previously.
  • Departure from Procedure: The defensive potential of the camp had not been maximised. Not only were no entrenchments set up, but the fighting units were outside the wagon lines in the open whilst the animals were within (rather than the other way around). Morris suggests that this was because Chelmsford was pestered by logistics and costs (see next): it had taken many weeks to cobble together enough wagons and draught animals, and the standing orders for encampments were more to protect the oxen than the infantry!
  • Logistics: The supply chain on the day was flawed. Not all authorities agree on exactly what happened, but Regan (1991) claims (a) that the whole process of ammunition release was slow, and (b) that the NNH were actually refused supplies by the quartermasters of the 24th. But even this would not have mattered had the expedition been stronger in the first place: Chelmsford had spent much of 1878 fighting his own government for additional resources
  • Faulty Conceptual Design: The 1877 edition of Field Exercises - the battle training manual in force at the time - had just approved "extended formations" as the normal rule of manoeuvre, rather than the tightly closed formations of earlier wars (eg. the 93rd at New Orleans, above). This made for greater mobility, but was in hindsight not the best tactic to employ against the "mass charge" tactic used by the Zulus.

For further general details click here, and for a history of the Natal native units click here.


Morris, D.R. (1965/1989). The Washing of the Spears (Revised Ed.). London: Random House. [To see the publisher's blurb, click here.]

Slapton Sands, 1944: In April 1944, in the run up to the Normandy Invasions, many training exercises were staged along the south coast of England. One of the largest of these was called Operation Tiger, and involved the main units destined to land on Utah Beach, Normandy, in the real invasion. Start Bay, south of Dartmouth, Devon, was chosen because its beaches were very similar to Utah Beach. In all, 25000 men and 2750 vehicles were involved. Two incidents of interest then took place, one during the mock assault landings on the 27th and another in the lead up to the mock second wave landings on the 28th.

The first incident is rumoured (but not officially acknowledged) to have occurred as US mock defenders took on assault forces from the US 4th Infantry Division and 1st Engineers Special Brigade. Because this was an attempt to provide lifelike combat experience, these troops had been expressly authorised by General Eisenhower to use live ammunition. The optional rumours are then (a) that the US defenders had not realised they had been issued with live ammunition, and instead of firing over the heads of the attackers were aiming directly at them, and/or (b) that Royal Navy units out at sea giving "lifelike" covering fire were in fact firing short, killing mock defenders and mock attackers alike. Alternatively, there was just general battlefield confusion in which it is the nature of things that people get hurt.

Rumours aside, worse was to happen that night as the mock second wave set off to practice a reinforcing landing. In this officially acknowledged incident in the early hours of 28th April 1944, a convoy of eight fully loaded and very slow LSTs ("landing ships, tank", rather like small reverse-in-roll-off car ferries; also known - not entirely affectionately - as large slow targets), escorted by a single Royal Navy corvette, was ambushed by a squadron of nine German E-Boats (light and fast patrol boats). This second wave contained engineers and quartermaster unit troops. These were not scheduled to perform a beach assault as such, but to practise beach clearing and the offloading of stores and transport vehicles. In the ensuing night action, three of the LSTs were torpedoed, two sinking quickly and one making it home. Most reports state that 198 US sailors and 551 US soldiers were killed. The incident was not officially acknowledged until June 1954.

Numerous contributory errors have been identified, including:

  • Training Errors: There was an often fatal lack of clarity on how to fasten the self-inflating buoyancy jackets. These were designed to be fitted under the arms, but many men had it fitted around their waist. When it inflated in this lower position it was below their centre of gravity and floated them upside down!
  • Quality and Speed of Decision Making: There was a decision to proceed with an under-escorted convoy. It had originally been intended for the Royal Navy to provide two escort vessels, but one of them, the destroyer HMS Scimitar, was damaged at the last moment and stayed behind for repairs. Nevertheless, there were other vessels in the vicinity which could have taken her place, but the Royal Navy were too short of staff at 2300hr to arrange the replacement (Regan, 2001). In hindsight, the decision to proceed with the single escort was unsafe .....
  • Defence in Depth: ..... as indeed was the decision not to have had a larger escort in the first place. There had, for example, been seven destroyers giving support fire during the landings on the 27th (Murch, Murch, and Fairweather, 1984).
  • Situational Awareness (1) - Lack of Diagnostic Data: The US ships could not communicate by radio with either the Royal Navy ships or with their control room ashore. This followed a typing error setting down the radio frequencies to be used. The sole remaining RN escort, the corvette HMS Azalea, received prior warning of the approach of the E-Boats but assumed - wrongly - that the LSTs had received it as well (Small, 1988).
  • Situational Awareness (2) - Lack of Progress Data: The commander of the one of the surviving LSTs complained that lack of information led him to believe that the flames and gunfire were part of the exercise and not enemy action (Small, 1988).

The most telling statistic of all is that roughly four men died practising for the Utah Beach landings for every one killed on the day itself. Ultimately, however, the point of staging the exercises in the first place was to identify precisely this sort of teething problem while there was still time to do something about them, and, given the eventual success of the Normandy invasion, the exercises clearly fulfilled this purpose. [For a detailed official history click here, and to see a picture of an LST click here]


Murch , M., Murch, D., & Fairweather, L. (1984). The American Forces at Salcombe and Slapton during World War Two. Plymouth, PDS.

Regan, G. (2001). SNAFU. E-Book. [The acronym SNAFU is US military slang for "situation normal - all f***** up". Geoffrey Regan is a specialist in the analysis of military blunders.]

Small, K. (1988). The Forgotten Dead. London: Bloomsbury. [To see the publisher's blurb, click here. Ken Small is the amateur historian who refreshed interest in the incident in the 1980s and worked for the creation of the official memorial which now overlooks the site.]

USS Vincennes Air Disaster, 1988: In this incident on 3rd July 1988, during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, an Iran Air Airbus A300 en route across the Persian Gulf was mistakenly identified as a hostile warplane, and shot down by a ship-to-air missile from the US cruiser, USS Vincennes. 16 crew and 274 passengers lost their lives. One good source of e-material is the book by Gene Rochlin of the University of California at Berkeley (Rochlin, 1997; available online). Parallel accounts are given by Cushman (1988), Barry and Charles (1992), and Evans (1993; available online). Here is a composite timeline distilled from these various sources, and incorporating the harsher accusations in some of them. Precise times are not always available because published testimony is often conflicting, suffers from a deal of "improving hindsight" and political position taking, and the full report remains classified. We have therefore had to show many of the timings as contentious. It may also help to refer to the map of the area before proceeding.

NB: Timings are given in Bahrain time, using the format BCnnnn if from Barry and Charles (1992) or EVnnnn if from Evans (1993). Rochlin uses Bandar Abbas time, and needs to be adjusted downwards by 90 minutes to give the equivalent Bahrain time. Cushman uses Omani time and needs to be adjusted downwards by 60 minutes.

  • Previous Year: A single Iraqi Mirage bomber surprise-attacked USS Stark with Exocet missiles. The aircraft had been tracked from 70 miles out, but no positive defensive action was taken until too late. The ship was struck by two missiles (one dud), causing serious damage and killing 37 crewmen. Not unreasonably, this made commanders much more sensitive to the risks of complacency and inaction. [We return to this point under the heading Availability Heuristic at the end of the section.]
  • Precious Year: In response to Iranian attacks on neutral tankers using the Kuwaiti oil terminal halfway along the Persian Gulf, the US promoted Operation Earnest Will, the escorting of tankers in and out of the Persian Gulf to protect them from further attack. Bahrain was chosen as headquarters. Less officially, the operation included the sustained use of covert operations by US Navy SEALS (special forces) against the Iranian minelaying units.
  • February 1988: Rear Admiral Dennis Brooks was removed from his post as commander of the Joint Task Force in the Gulf following protests at what he saw as too much interference from American military intelligence trying to promote said covert war. [The US was, of course, officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq War, and its sympathies (in that decade, at least) lay with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.] Brooks was replaced by Rear Admiral Anthony Less.
  • 14th April 1988: The USS Samuel B. Roberts was damaged by an Iranian mine.
  • 18th April 1988: The US carried out Operation Praying Mantis, a reprisal operation, against the minelaying vessels and their bases. This led to a period of confrontation in and around the Straights of Hormuz (at the mouth of the Persian Gulf), in which a fleet of small Iranian armed speedboats - referred to generically as "boghammers" - played a prominent role.
  • 29th May: USS Vincennes - a 9600-ton Ticonderoga class guided missile cruiser - arrived for a tour of duty in the Persian Gulf. She was commanded by Captain Will Rogers, and equipped with a state-of-the-art weapons control system known as AEGIS.

[AEGIS was conceived during the 1960s, developed in the 1970s, entered operations in the 1980s, and remains under phased development to this day. The system requires a large superstructure of AN/SPY-1 radar dishes, and is controlled from a windowless Command Information Centre (CIC), looking not unlike a "luxury video arcade" (Barry and Charles, 1982). The information provided by the individual equipment operators is collated and interpreted by a suite of computer software and the overall tactical situation displayed upon a large scenario display board for consideration by the Captain and his senior officers. They, together with the equipment operators and the individual weapons systems controllers, are linked by a voice communication network (more on which later). Another network, the Link 11 system, communicates electronically with other ships in the vicinity, providing they are similarly equipped. AEGIS itself was named after the shield of Zeus in the Greek myths, and was claimed to be able to track and destroy in prioritised sequence as many as 100 simultaneously approaching targets, in all weathers, on, above, or under the sea, and out to a range of 300 miles. Be that as it may, on its first time in combat it shot down a civilian airliner. In the wake of the Hainan Island Incident (see below, April 2001) there are as yet (and perhaps fortunately) no plans to sell the system to Taiwan (Reuters, 20th April 2001). For a fuller technical history of the system, including photographs, click here.]

  • Late June: US intelligence began receiving reports that there was going to be a high-profile Iranian attack of some sort timed to coincide with the US Independence Day celebrations on 4th July. [We return to this point under the heading Expectation at the end of the section.]
  • 2nd July: The boghammers were reported to be active in the Straights of Hormuz. The USS Elmer Montgomery was sent to patrol the straights, in Omani waters, with the Vincennes in support some 50 miles to the south west, nearer Task Force Command in Bahrain.
  • 3rd July; time contentious: [BC0630hr.] The Montgomery reported having spotted a group of seven boghammers.
  • time contentious: [BC0633hr.] Vincennes increased speed and steered north east.
  • time contentious: [BC0650hr.] Montgomery reported a second wave of boghammers, making 13 in all, perhaps threatening a passing tanker.
  • time contentious: [BC0711hr.] Montgomery reported hearing explosions near the tanker, and Task Force Command aboard the specialised fleet command vessel USS Coronado - at anchor in Bahrain - ordered Vincennes to launch her Seahawk helicopter to scout the area, but to keep away herself.
  • time contentious: [BC0722hr.] Vincennes' helicopter lifted off to scout ahead.
  • time contentious: [BC0838hr.] Vincennes caught up with Montgomery and took her under her tactical direction.
  • time contentious: [BC0840hr.] Bahrain challenged Vincennes over why she was now 40 miles further north than she should have been. Rogers replied that he was supporting his helicopter. Bahrain insisted that both ships return to the south west.
  • time contentious: Vincennes and Montgomery turned south west (towards international waters).
  • time contentious: The helicopter reported coming under fire from the boghammers.
  • time contentious: Vincennes and Montgomery turned north (towards Iranian waters) to investigate and assist.
  • time contentious: [BC0939hr; EV0939hr.] Vincennes asked for permission to fire at the boghammers if necessary.
  • time contentious: [BC0941hr; EV0940hr.] Vincennes entered Iranian territorial waters.
  • time contentious: [EV0941hr.] Permission to fire was given (despite the fact that Vincennes was inside Iranian sovereign waters and had herself not yet been fired upon).
  • time contentious: [EV0942hr.] The boghammers turned towards Vincennes .
  • time contentious: [BC0943hr; EV0943hr] Vincennes opened fire with her front gun on the boghammers, which returned fire, but at too great a range to score any hits.
  • time contentious: [BC0945hr.] Flight 655 announced to the tower at Bandar Abbas airport that it was ready for take-off.
  • time contentious: [EV0947hr.] Vincennes' front gun jammed. Flight 655, piloted by Captain Mohsen Rezaian, suddenly appeared on her radar, climbing out of Bandar Abbas. Vincennes turned sharply to bring her rear gun to bear.
  • time contentious: Vincennes began to challenge Flight 655 verbally on a military frequency, and electronically via the automated Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system. The radio challenges were ignored, and the automatic response was an IFF Mode II - the code for a military flight. However [click here] this was because the operator had earlier been challenging an Iranian military aircraft on the ground at Bandar Abbas, and had overlooked to change the range setting on his equipment. Flight 655 was actually transmitting IFF Mode III - the code for a civilian flight - throughout.
  • time contentious: Towards the end of a half circle turn, Vincennes' rear gun opened fire. The front gunners continued trying to clear the jam.
  • time contentious: Vincennes extended her challenges to the civil frequency as well. However, it is unlikely that Captain Rezaian heard any of the warning messages because he would have been interacting with air traffic control; and even if he had heard them he would have had no immediate reason to suspect they were intended for him.
  • time contentious: The front gun reported being clear for action again, so Vincennes started to come about again, thus completing a full circle turn.
  • time contentious: [BC0950hr] The IFF operator called "Possible Astro" - the codename for an F14 - on Vincennes' audio network . Flight 655 was also mistakenly described as descending. Vincennes sought permission to engage from Task Force Command.

RESEARCH ISSUE: The captain, his key officers, and the equipment operators, are constantly linked by headphones so it is not always easy to identify who is currently speaking. Indeed, the entire arrangement - many separate minds, all interlinked - raises some interesting psychological issues. One such issue is the relationship between the two cerebral hemispheres at such a moment. Normally, our auditory world (largely left hemisphere) and our visual world (largely right hemisphere) are comparatively easy to integrate one with the other, because normally what we hear are the sounds of the world we are looking at, not the sounds of the world someone else is looking at. This allows us to maintain a single coherent mental model of the world. Little is known, however, about how the cognitive system might apportion its resources when faced with the clamour of a command and control system such as that described. Indeed, in direct comparison to AEGIS, the human command and control system - ie. the brain - fails abysmally, having evolved to be able to track and destroy in prioritised sequence perhaps three simultaneously approaching targets, in most weathers, preferably on the flat, and out to a range of 300 feet! Our own analysis of the psychological processes involved in military signalling is set out in Smith (1997).

  • time contentious: [BC0951hr.] The front gun opened fire again, fired 11 rounds, and jammed again. Rogers ordered full rudder again, and CIC personnel were disoriented by the force of the resulting turn.
  • time contentious: [EV0951hr.] Radar monitoring continued, with the Tactical Information Coordinator (TIC) still mistakenly and loudly reporting Flight 655 as descending. Lieutenant William Montford, on the other hand, called "possible COMAIR", the code for a commercial flight, but was ignored.
  • time contentious: [CU0951hr.] USS Sides, a short distance away, judged Flight 655 as non-hostile, but had no reason to warn Vincennes.

[The Sides was under the command of Captain David Carlson, and over the years he and the military establishment (including Captain Rogers) have violently disagreed over many critical facts and timings. The bulk of the Internet material follows one or other of the two captains' accounts. The fact remains, however, that Vincennes and Sides were linked by the Link 11 system, so that each had exactly the same information available to it, yet fatally different conclusions were drawn from that information. Task Force Command on the Coronado was not on the Link 11 system, and so had no alternative but to rely blindly on the judgement of the two ships on the spot (Evans, 1993).]

  • time contentious: Permission to engage was received from Bahrain.
  • time contentious: [CU0952hr.] Vincennes locked her targeting radar onto Flight 655, and Rogers decided to shoot it down when it got to 20 miles range.
  • time contentious: [BC0954hr; CU0953hr.] Vincennes' TIC called again that Flight 655 was accelerating (true) and descending (untrue).
  • time contentious: [CU0954hr.] Two Standard-2 ship-to-air missiles were launched, resulting in the total loss of Flight 655. The FDR was never recovered.

This incident provoked international outrage and a personal apology by President Reagan, brought about the payment of $131.8 million reparations, and has become a major case study for students of human decision making, in particular as an instance of a phenomenon known as cognitive framing. This is what happens when preconceptions are allowed to distort subsequent perceptions. The official enquiry - the Fogarty Report (Fogarty, 1988) - remains classified.

Numerous contributory errors have been identified, including:

  • Inappropriacy (1): The AEGIS system was not doing what it was designed for. It was originally authorised at the height of the Cold War between NATO and the Soviet Union, and was designed for fleet action on the high seas. It was definitely not suited for cat-and-mouse action in amongst the islands of the Straights of Hormuz, or tucked in under a web of civilian flight paths.
  • Inappropriacy (2): Bennett (2000) points out that the AEGIS main display screen uses quite abstract display symbols such as circles and semicircles to denote the targets being tracked. Unfortunately, all of these are the same size, regardless of the nature of the target. Specifically, the symbol for an airliner is the same size as the symbol for a jet fighter. This is a retrograde step from the older analogue radars, where large aircraft got large blips and small aircraft got small ones.
  • Availability Heuristic: Bennett (2000) also emphasises the cautionary effect of the surprise attack on USS Stark the previous year. It is the nature of complex decision making, he argues, that we grasp any simplifying routine going, and recent high profile occurrences make excellent simplification routines. The Stark incident became the best available exemplar, whereafter every approaching radar trace tended to simplify to a surprise attack.
  • Expectation: Bennett (2000) also quotes the Fogarty Report to the effect that Captain Rogers was aware of the rumours that the Iranians were planning some sort of token Independence Day attack. Here, too, every approaching radar trace became the target of intense suspicion.
  • Cognitive Framing: On repeated occasions, Flight 655 was reported as a descending warplane, when Vincennes' own data tapes indicate that it was transmitting the correct Mode III signal continuously, steered a straight course for Abu Dhabi (its destination on the opposite shores of the Persian Gulf), and was climbing steadily throughout the proceedings.
  • Operator Error: All these fears and expectations combined with a simple operator error at around 0947hr to generate a false positive diagnosis.
  • Team Dynamics: The Anti-Air Warfare Commander (AAWC) was new to his post "and generally regarded as inexperienced and a weak leader" (Rochlin, ¶9.56). In fact, in Rochlin's judgement the situation aboard the Vincennes was "one of confusion and disorder" throughout.
  • Over-Enthusiasm (1): Evan's account blames Vincennes' helicopter pilot for approaching the gunboats more closely than he had been authorised to do. He had been ordered to stay 4 miles away, but went closer, thus inviting the gunfire which brought Vincennes herself to the rescue. Evans also points out that the helicopter was already safe when the Vincennes opened fire with her main armament.
  • Over-Enthusiasm (2): Evans also quotes one of Captain Rogers' former tactical training instructors as remembering him as "a difficult student," with "a disconcerting habit of violating the Rules of Engagement in the wargames." This source was horrified, but not surprised, when he learned what had transpired. We may see this over-eagerness come through in the nicknames the ship acquired: in her own eyes she was "Freedom's Fortress" [see ship's logo], but around the fleet she was routinely referred to as "Robocruiser" [readers for whom this allusion is not immediately clear may be enlightened by comparing visual profiles A and B - profile A is the Vincennes.] She also had something of a reputation for being "trigger happy" (The Daily Express, 4th March 2000).
  • Sheer Confusion: Rochlin quotes one of the de-restricted extracts from the Fogarty Report: "Since it appears that combat-induced stress [] may have played a significant role in this incident, it is recommended [that] further study be undertaken into the stress factor impacting on personnel in modern warships with highly sophisticated command, control, communications, and intelligence systems, such as AEGIS." (Rochlin, 1997, Para. ¶9.70.) Rochlin then points out that combat has long been known to be stressful, and laments the fact that the designers of weapon control systems spend so many years in development before starting to worry about such factors.

For further general information on this incident click here, for the history of naval automation in general (including fire control systems) click here, for a briefing on the Ticonderoga class guided missile cruisers click here, for a scorching attack on the iniquities of "Fort Pinocchio" (ie. the Pentagon) click here, for an update on the progress being made at testing AEGIS's ability to control the new Standard-3 missile click here, and for details of a recent experiment in serene decision making - in the newly fitted out "Disney Room" aboard USS Coronado - click here.


Barry, J. & Charles, R. (1992). Sea of lies. Newsweek, 13th July 1992.

Bennett, S. (2000). Tools of Deconstruction. Leicester: University of Leicester.

Cushman, J.H. (1988). 11 minutes to downing of an airliner. New York Times, 20th August 1988.

Evans, D. (1993). Vincennes: A Case Study. US Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1993. [Available online.]

Fogarty, W.M. (1988). USN Report 28th July 1988.

Rochlin, G.I. (1997). Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerisation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. [Available online.]

Smith, D.J. (1997). Chunking and Cognitive Efficiency: Some Lessons from the History of Military Signalling. Cardiff: UWIC. [ISBN: 1900666065] [Transcript of paper presented 27th March 1997 to the 11th Annual Conference of the History and Philosophy of Psychology Section of the BPS, York.]

USS Greeneville Submarine Disaster, 2001: In this incident on 10th February 2001, the US submarine USS Greeneville was practising surfacing in an emergency. This is something of a "show off" manoeuvre, in which 6000 tons of submarine leaps out of the sea at 30mph much like a dolphin. Unfortunately, the presence of a Japanese fisheries training ship had not been detected, and she was fatally holed as the submarine surfaced beneath her. Three crew, two teachers, and four students died.

In the subsequent Navy Court of Enquiry, Rear Admiral Konetzni was very clear where the responsibility lay: "The commanding officer," he said, "has the absolute obligation to make sure the area is free". The Greeneville's fire control technician had had signals that a ship was close, but had presumed that they were spurious when a periscope scan had seen nothing. He had been prevented from raising the matter explicitly due to the presence of 16 civilian guests in the control room. [When civilians are included on a training mission, it becomes known as a "tiger cruise".] He had also allowed to lapse into disuse the standing order requiring a manual plot be maintained of surface ships in the area of operation. There has been conflicting testimony as to whether one of these civilians was actually at the helm at the time of the collision. (Associated Press, 12th-19th March 2001.)

The Court's judgement was made public on 20th April 2001, and required both the commanding officer and the fire control technician to be dismissed the service for unprofessional conduct, but not court martialled for criminal negligence (Reuters, 20th April 2001). The presiding admirals had already commented that the captain had allowed an atmosphere of sloppiness and lack of discipline to prevail within his command (CNN, 20th March 2001).

Kuwait Friendly Fire Incident, 2001: In this incident on 12th March 2001, a US Navy F18 from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman mistakenly dropped a bomb on friendly forces while practising close air support, killing six soldiers. Investigations are under way, and will concentrate on the ground-to-air communications involved in targetting such missions. It has already been suggested, however, that the fault lies with the ground end of that link, and not with the pilot, David O. Zimmerman. Another possibility is that faulty data had been entered into the F18's computer systems prior to take-off. The forward air controller, Timothy B. Crusing, was injured in but survived the incident, and will be interviewed when fit to give evidence. (Associated Press, 12th and 15th March 2001)

Hainan Island Mid-Air Collision, 2001: In this incident on 1st April 2001, a US Navy EP-3E spy plane, on patrol along the fringes of Chinese airspace off Hainan Island, collided with a Chinese jet fighter sent up to monitor it. The fighter crashed, killing its pilot, and the EP-3E was forced to execute an emergency landing at a Chinese military airfield. Both countries are holding the others to blame for the aerial jostling which brought about the collision, but appear to agree that the incident took place in international airspace. The aircrew were released after sustained diplomacy on 12th April 2001.

There is also an emerging story of what might be an prolonged confrontation. Former US Defence Secretary William Cohen reported since the incident that the US had complained to the Chinese in January 2001 at the unnecessarily aggressive tactics of its fighters. This earlier complaint was lodged after Chinese aircraft came "within a matter of feet" of a surveillance aircraft, and another source reports that the pilot who died was "known for his aggressive tactics" (CNN, 5th April 2001). Details of these daily confrontations are, of course, classified. The US will not be giving up its surveillance flights (Reuters, 12th April 2001).

Unless and until details emerge, this case will contain little of direct value to the study of human error, save as an illustration of Finagle's Law, namely that if something can go wrong it usually will do, given enough time.


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