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You can have the mightiest of soldiers, the most weaponized battleship, the more adequate position, or even the most elite leader, but that doesn’t always win you the battle, let alone the war itself. Brawn can only get you so far, but brains—that’s how you leap into the minds of your enemies and tear them apart from the inside out. This is how some of the most important wars in human history were won, by using the enemy's mindset of victory against them and by making the opposition believe in a total farce. Much of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, one of many books recommended by the US military for aspiring soldiers, discusses this very attribute in warfare, which is the creation of a fictitious diversion in the hopes that your enemy falls victim to one of two things: hubris or stupidity.
Obviously, there’s much more that goes into it than simply using one's brain to counter the enemy's attack. The greatest military bluffs in history did not simply happen out of sheer luck, but entirely occurred from the ideals of retroactive intelligence; there are a great deal of similarly churning themes, such as misinformation, disinformation, manipulation, camouflage, decoys, etc. However, when it truly comes down it, what a real hard earned military bluff takes to become fool proof and historical is, of course, the heart of deception. Fool your enemies into believing you have the superior hand, and victory is yours for the taking. See how some of the most daunting military bluffs in history took place, and how some forces, seemingly too small or too under resourced, became victorious in the most hilarious or unbelievable ways...
Napoleon Seizes the Tabor Bridge
Following their defeat in the 1805 Ulm Campaign, Austria's Russian allies retreated to the northern bank of the Danube in order to resupply and regroup. They also intended to slow down Napoleon's French forces by essentially destroying each and every bridge that passed over the Danube.
Despite this, or simply due to the fact that the French were headed to Vienna for the drafting of a peace treaty, many of the bridges crossing into Vienna over the Danube were rigged, but not destroyed. The Tabor Bridge was one such example. Headed by Count Auesberg, who was away at the time of the French arrival, the Tabor Bridge was easily taken by Napoleon's forces simply by strolling across it. Joachim Murat and Jean Lannes, two of Napoleon's most elite commanders, simply talked to the guarding Austrians as other French forces crossed behind them. Later tried and shot for incompetence, Count Auesberg's loss of the Tabor Bridge would go down as one of the greatest military bluffs in history, for it lead to Napoleon's army to crush their armies at the Austerlitz, his most successful campaign.
Surrender of Fort Detroit
Simply by way of marching their forces in a circle around the area, British and Native American soldiers took control of General William Hull's Fort Detroit without firing a single weapon or shedding any blood. As remarkable as this may seem, this example of one the greatest military bluffs in history would also be one of America's most dimwitted surrenders amid the War of 1812. Although Hull was a veteran from the American Revolutionary War, the British forces seemingly outwitted him and his 2,000 man army, in addition to the Fort bearing a multitude of fire power.
Isaac Brock, the British general leading an army of 600 Native Americans, 400 Canadian militia, 330 Redcoats, and few supporting weapons, decided it was best to lead a quick attack on loose American morales. By way of letter and word of mouth, Brock effectively deceived Hull with the misinformation of his troops bearing 5,000 Native Americans, rather than the actual 600, and also dressed up Canadians in British castoff regimental attire. By way of expertly marching these fictitious numbers around the base, and lighting more fires than necessary at night time, Brock successively engineered one of the greatest military bluffs in history, and did so without firing a single shot.
Zhuge Liang's Empty Fort
Two opposing armies, set between the Yangtze River, faced off during the year 208 C.E., wherein Zhuge Liang prospered over China as a military strategist and chancellor. Known for his seemingly awkward and otherwise misdirected forms of defeating the enemy, Liang's army never looked twice when tasked with something absurd, such as filling a bunch of boats with straw and hay, then setting them off in the dead of night.
Upon a foggy night, as the story goes, Liang tasked his militia with beating their drums and clanging gongs as much and as ferociously as was possible. Roused from slumber and startled beyond belief, the enemy awoke to the flotilla off in the distance, for which they immediately fired upon with arrows, basically handing Zhuge the 100,000 arrows he needed to defeat them. One of the more prosperous and well known greatest history bluffs, provided by Zhuge, was his empty fort stratagem, for which he devised simply by opening up his fort to an impending battalion much larger than his. As they approached the open fortress, Zhuge himself played music atop the walls, and in believing this was a trap, the enemy no sooner left the wide open fort long behind him.
Siege of Baden-Powell's Mafeking
While he may be more well known for having started the Boy Scouts, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell is also the bearer of one the greatest military bluffs in history for his deception of the Boer at Mafeking, South Africa. His taking of the besieged town was a bluff, in of itself. The townspeople simply allowed Baden-Powell's 1,500 numbered force to enter, because he politely asked if guards could be kept there to protect his supplies, one of many tactics of misinformation he would devise. His response to the outraged citizens: "I never told you the actual size of the guard."
Later on, during which the Boers had grown innumerably (about five times larger than his own force), Baden-Powell began mysteriously planting boxes all around the perimeter of the town. Almost all of them had been filled with sand, except for a demonstration, in which he fitted with lots of dynamite and exploded in view of Boer sympathizers. Even his own troops had believed that the boxes all contained superior British landmines. Baden-Powell even tasked his men with the oddity of dropping and crawling near wooden posts, which in effect misled the Boer force into believing there was, in addition to sophisticated landmines, a whole line of protective barbed wire, for which Baden-Powell did not have. Because of these endeavors, he kept control of the town for 217 days until the British came to relieve him and his troops.
Great Star of Africa
Another one of the greatest military bluffs in history occurred in South Africa involving the world's biggest diamond at the time. Later coined the Cullinan Diamond, or the Great Star of Africa, it was discovered by Captain Frederick Wells and intended to be given to King Edward VII as a gesture of good faith in the culmination of the Boer War.
Ensuring its safe delivery, on the other hand, was the most derisive issue. While the South African government sent a fleet of military men and steamboats with the supposed diamond held safely within, the real Cullinan Diamond was actually sent to King Edward VII through post. Everyone had be misinformed about the travel route and even its final destination until the Star of South African arrived at the king. It would later be surpassed by the Golden Jubilee Diamond in 1985.
American Victory at Samar
It could have been recorded as one of the worst defeats in American military history, however, thanks to the cunning and derisive military stratagem upheld by Clifton Sprague. Not so much a stratagem, but more or less a blunder, the American's victory at Samar occurred after Admiral William F. Halsey was baited away from his post at Leyte Gulf. It still remains as one of the largest naval engagements in history, and one of the greatest military bluffs on the sea.
As Halsey was chasing off a Japanese decoy, the Americans were caught by surprise as 23 Japanese warships, intense heavy cruisers, and one of the world's most sophisticated battleships of its time, the Yamato, charged into the northern territory to take the Leyte Gulf. Sprague and his "Taffy 3" led a suicidal attack phase, drawing their "tin cans," or destroyer escorts, escort carriers, and seven destroyers into a direct charge of the enemy. Planes were also flown from the escorts in attempt to drop high explosives and strafe the Japanese into leaving. Thinking himself overwhelmed and outgunned by morale, the Japanese fleet powered away just as they were moments from victory. The American dismissal for life seemed too great for the Japanese to sequester.
Christopher Columbus' Lunar Eclipse
The founder of the Free World itself would find himself in a bit of trouble after he and his crew were beached upon a small Jamaican inlet in 1503. The Arawaks, natives of the land at the time, were very peaceful and homely for the first month or so, until Colombus' trip turned into a six month stay. After days of intensified fighting had broken out, with the Arawak moments from descending on the starving and marooned fleet to massacre them, Columbus discovered something from an almanac on solar and lunar eclipses from 1475 to 1506.
Noticing that an eclipse was just days away, Columbus met with the Arawaks' chieftain to settle the dispute once and for all. Claiming that his Christian God was angry with them for not feeding them, Columbus drafted one of the greatest military bluffs in history by making the Arawaks believe a lunar eclipse was the act of an angry deity. As is the case, after days of disbelief and scoffing, the Arawaks no sooner came running to Columbus and his men, bringing food and water, in the hopes that he would talk to God and bring the moon back to regularity. Months later they were rescued, but the Arawaks seemingly had no more qualms with the British fleet by that time, thinking them more superior in the light of God himself.
Thanks to this prized Russian counterintelligence operation, the Cuban Missile Crisis effectively began. It involved the secure deployment of over 60,000 units, ballistic missiles, and medium range bombers into the Cuban territory, and was devised by Anatoly Gribkov as a denial and deception campaign in order to foil American spies and to ensure delivery. Only until the missiles arrived and were made active did the Americans discover what had happened, which then led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The name itself was used as a countermeasure, for American intelligence analysts would never pick up on the name as being a covert operation as Anadyr is the name of a river that flows into the Bearing Sea, in addition to it being the title of the Soviet district capital. Additionally, upon each of their 11-stop arrivals, the ships were unloaded of their weaponry components at night, while during the day non-military equipment was brought off board. There was a host of diplomatic misdirections, as well, of which were mostly led by Anatoly Dobrynin and the KGB, which were highly effectively at turning information into counterintelligence. For this, Operation Anadyr became one of the greatest military bluffs in history.
Bias Ends the Siege of Priene
One of the oldest, yet still greatest military bluffs in history, involves a rather secret, ancient man named Bias, who would lead a form of ancient counterintelligence against the Lydians, who were led by King Alyattes. Most of what we know about him comes from Heroditus' Histories, and even that is slim to none. The outcome of Priene and the involvement that Bias has in that narrative has been shed from the likes of Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers.
Bias tricked King Alyattes into quitting his offensive sea-born launch against the Greek isles by way of a counterintuitive message. According to the story, Bias was one of the seven sages of Greece. With his unlimited popular opinion and intelligence behind him, Bias sent two flattened donkeys to Alyattes' camp in the hopes that it would steer him away from consistent fighting. This tactic, of course, worked, for King Alyattes decided against continuing his siege because the donkeys served as a sign that Priene could withstand and outlast much longer than he had initially intended, despite the fact that the city was moments away from surrendering.
Magruder's Seizure of Yorktown
John B. Magruder's 12,000 Confederates would find themselves up against a force nearly ten times their size when George B. McClellan landed north of Virginia in 1862 with 121,000 men behind him in the hopes of capturing Richmond. Magruder, known for his unruly tactics and military escapades, decided he would confuse McClellan and his forces in one of the greatest military bluffs of all time.
His strategy centered on the use of sound and numbers, effectively making the Union believe there were more Confederates than there actually was. He ordered his troops to make a clamorous din all throughout the area and, similar to the taking of Fort Detroit, devised a way for his troops to form up and duck into cover, then form again, making McClellan and his men fear the worst. It actually worked, as the Union soon halted their marching and dug in, waiting a month for Magruder to strike. The Confederate commander, however, had left to recommission forces and erect a more defensive power over Richmond, then toppling McClellan's advancing army.
British Oceanic Pyrotechnics
Sounds wild, but wait until you hear this story about how the British fooled the Nazis during World War II: saying they'd light the ocean on fire. Quite similar to Operation Mincemeat, inflatable tanks, and other British misinformation campaigns against the Nazis, their retroactive deceit of the Germans became a form of strategy when the British Petroleum Warfare Department was established. They were a military organization that intended to devise ways of using not only petroleum gas as a lethal weapon, but they also tried to coat barges in asbestos and sail them into pools of burning gasoline. Effective, to say the least, but not an official form of firepower that they ever wanted to really use. In theory, they hoped these plans (like practically everything upheld in WWII military secrecy) would be taken to the Germans eventually.
The rumor had reached the Nazi high command, leading many of them into believing that the British were in possession of a powerful magic mine that could ignite the ocean at the push of button. Outrageous, but as far as the greatest military bluffs go, it's just another well planned ruse. One year into WWII and most of the Germans were afraid of sailing into England for fear of moving into an engulfing tsunami of literal fire. While this tactic may have worked for a while, the British moved on to more flamboyant claims, like importing man-eating sharks from Australia. This was met with immediate disbelief, of course.