Course Handout - Military Disasters
Copyright Notice: This material was written and published in Wales by Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). It forms part of a multifile e-learning resource, and subject only to acknowledging Derek J. Smith's rights under international copyright law to be identified as author may be freely downloaded and printed off in single complete copies solely for the purposes of private study and/or review. Commercial exploitation rights are reserved. The remote hyperlinks have been selected for the academic appropriacy of their contents; they were free of offensive and litigious content when selected, and will be periodically checked to have remained so. Copyright © 2001-2018, Derek J. Smith.
First published online 16:56 BST 8th May 2001, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [2.0 - copyright] 09:00 BST 4th July 2018.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
[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.]
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).
[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).]
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:
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.