Days of Infamy: Great Military Blunders of the Twentieth Century

Days of Infamy: Great Military Blunders of the Twentieth Century

by Michael Coffey, Mike Wallace

A fascinating look behind more than fifty of the most historic military blunders of our century. Lively and engaging, in-depth and informative, this companion to an upcoming series on the History Channel goes beyond mere footage to delve into the facts of some well-remembered but little understood incidents and accidents of modern military history.  See more details below


A fascinating look behind more than fifty of the most historic military blunders of our century. Lively and engaging, in-depth and informative, this companion to an upcoming series on the History Channel goes beyond mere footage to delve into the facts of some well-remembered but little understood incidents and accidents of modern military history.

Editorial Reviews

Mark Schone

If you got all your history from the History Channel, you'd probably think World War II was the Hundred Years War. The power of the same endlessly reblended black-and-white footage to enthrall viewers of a certain age has kept that conflict a constant on the tube. The Greatest Generation never tires of flipping through its scrapbook.

A writer looking for a TV tie-in, then, would be dumb if he didn't make the Second World War the core of a book called Days of Infamy: Great Military Blunders of the 20th Century. Two years ago, author Michael Coffey edited The Irish in America, a companion tome to the PBS docu-saga of the same name, and since then he's led seminars on how to synergize. With Days of Infamy, he's got the requisite WWII reference in his title and the History Channel series link. He's even got an intro penned by Mike Wallace, a superstar to the gray-haired target demographic.

Evaluated as history, though, Days of Infamy fails. There are sins of commission, like implying that Britain granted India independence (rather than conceding it), and there are worse sins of omission. Should more than half a book about a whole century be devoted to one short stretch of it? For every German and Japanese battle Coffey cites, there are whole chunks of the globe missing. Lost, for example, are 50 years of Arab-Israeli bloodshed; there might not be much of a PLO today if not for catastrophic miscues by Egypt's President Nasser and Jordan's King Hussein. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, symbolic end of the age of colonialism, receives only two pages.

Coffey prefers anecdotes from the Last Good War and, failing that, any other English-speaking war. And even these stories he retells with little drama and perfunctory detail. In his hands, MacArthur's breach of the 38th parallel in Korea becomes a mere stumble instead of a near-Armageddon. Perhaps that's because Coffey is the sort of tone-deaf writer who can title a chapter, without irony, "World War II Gets Ugly."

His more serious problem is deciding just what constitutes a "military blunder"; he uses both parts of the term so inclusively that Days of Infamy ends up as a broad, shallow, high school-textbook account of the century's geopolitics rather than as a useful history of armed struggle. When the very existence of the Cold War is a "military blunder," then so is every unfortunate event of the past 100 years.

Days of Infamy fares better when assessed purely as a video-derived product aimed at a certain market. At least its omissions become understandable. Consumers want to hear and see stories about U.S. involvement in familiar wars. Though 20 Americans died in Somalia in 1993 (the how and why became the recent encyclopedically detailed treasure published as Black Hawk Down), Coffey's readers probably wouldn't have wanted to revisit Mogadishu any more than they'd have enjoyed reading about car-bombed Marines in Beirut or about HMS Sheffield getting shot up in the Falklands.

But a book with no higher ambition than riding shotgun to a TV series risks being compared to that show and found wanting. he History Channel's Great Military Blunders tells the same stories as the book with more vigor and greater detail, and with the benefit of eye-catching computer simulations. Coffey's last tube-tied book included such print-only extras as essays by Frank McCourt and other famous Irish-Americans. This time, there's no reason to follow along in the libretto.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From the chauffeur's wrong turn that helped start WWI to the (unexploded) nuclear bomb that the United States Air Force once dropped over Spain, this engaging set of brief cautionary essays--a companion volume to a History Channel series--presents some important and some amusing errors of wartime (and Cold War-time) judgment and execution. Coffey (The Irish in America), managing editor of PW, covers about two score blunders, in chronological order. The earliest concerns that swerving chauffeur (who accidentally brought Archduke Ferdinand face-to-face with his assassin); the latest is Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. About half the others concern WWII. Lost Luftwaffe pilots in 1940, though instructed to hit only military targets, panicked and let bombs go over London: thus did the blitz unintentionally begin. Later, in the Pacific theater, British "naval commanders blundered by underestimating air power's threat to major warships," and hence lost the Malaya peninsula, Singapore and two important battleships. Coffey's set of snafus and misjudgments extends, quite deliberately, from the nearly comic to the truly awful: some killed a few people and embarrassed top brass, while others (such as the Japanese loss at Midway) arguably changed the course of world events. A few of the errors (e.g., the Battle of Stalingrad) are staples of most textbooks. Others are less familiar, and less horrific than ironic: when the Allies decided to bomb the 1500-year-old Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy, they created precisely the shelter for German troops they intended to destroy. (The devout local German commander would not install his troops in an intact monastery, but had no qualms about occupying its ruins.) Like the best general history volumes, Coffey's book, in clean, muscular prose, expertly informs as it artfully entertains. (Aug.) FYI: The History Channel's Great Military Blunders of the Twentieth Century begins its 26-week run in August. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As the literary companion to the History Channel documentary series, this book is a superficial, erroneous, and somewhat revisionist view of a haphazard collection of nearly 50 historical events in the 20th century. Although the selections are characterized as military blunders, many are purely political miscalculations, like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (1914), the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the Yalta Conference (1945), and the abortive Gorbachev coup (1989). Several other events mentioned in the book, while military in nature, had no military significance and therefore cannot be considered "great." The two world wars receive the most coverage, with short chapters on the battles of Gallipoli, Jutland, Stalingrad, and Midway, while the entire Korean War gets just four pages, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam is virtually dismissed with one page. Most glaring, however, is the absence of truly significant military blunders that are not mentioned at all, such as the disastrous Battle of the Somme, the fall of Singapore, and the chaotic Suez Operation in 1956. The book offers no conclusions and no narrative to compare or analyze the nature and dynamics of military (or political) blunders in an overall historical perspective. With little depth and no new scholarship, this is not an essential purchase.--Col. William D. Bushnell, USMC (ret.), Brunswick, ME Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fun albeit shallow look by Coffey, managing editor of Publishers Weekly and editor of The Irish in America (not reviewed)—the companion volume to an upcoming History Channel series—and with a lengthy and rewarding introduction by 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace. Arranged chronologically within each war, Days of Infamy covers the greatest hits of military history in this century. There is nothing here that will come as a surprise to even a casual reader of modern history, but the accounts are written in light and casual style, with the facts always straight and clear, that makes the book an ideal occasional read. Coffey's definition of a military blunder seems to include any event that has happened during wartime, such as the Treaty of Versailles (more a diplomatic blunder than a military one) or the WWII bombing mission lost due to poor weather, but many of the tales certainly do fall into the genuine military blunder category, such as WWI's infamous Gallippoli (in which British and Australian troops were sent to attack a heavily defended Turkish beach); the story of the "Bridge Too Far" at Arnhem in WWII, in which the allies underestimated German capabilities in attempting to bring the war in Europe to a swift end; John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs disaster; the US bomber crash that brought four H-bombs plummeting onto Spain; and Jimmy Carter's attempt to free the hostages in Iran with a complicated military mission. Coffey is at his best when covering the large sweep of history in brief spurts, such as his introductions to the various sections into which the book is divided by historical periods. Brief, well-researched, and ultimately unenlightening, on a topic that involves thedeaths of millions and could go on for volumes. (16 pages b&w photos)

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Hachette Books
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1 ED
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6.37(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.12(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Part I

Europe Loses Its Way— The First World War from Sarajevo to Versailles

Can a war be started by a driver taking a wrong turn? It seems a facetious question, even if more than a few marriages have edged toward disaster for no grander reason. More seriously, though, historians and philosophers have long been fascinated by the mysterious chain links of causality, wondering just how large an outcome can be triggered by how small a cause. The First World War, perhaps, was inevitable. It could claim a thousand causes; and for every possible cause that didn't survive historical scrutiny, there would be another willing volunteer.

    As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, Europe was a roily community dominated by monarchies and growing increasingly unstable. The industrializing economies were looking increasingly abroad to find natural resources. Such a situation encourages opportunism and military adventurism. But still, the event that started the world's first world war, the assassination of an Austrian prince, seems so small in comparison to the five horrid years of conflict that followed, that one naturally prefers to see it as a blunder, in order to maintain the fantasy that war is not inevitable, that it requires a spark. After all, the refusal to see war as inevitable once we'd entered the nuclear age proved to be the key to the world's survival.

    World War I took an enormous toll on mankind. Nearly eight million soldiers were killed, and as many civilians. Three very old monarchies—ImperialRussia, the Ottoman Empire, and the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary—would disappear. The war was filled with heroism and courage and insanity, like all wars, and marked by many, many mistakes that would cost men their lives. From the killing of the archduke by 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip to the disastrous campaign by Allied forces in Gallipoli to the sinking of the Lusitania, with all those civilians on board, and on to the ill-conceived naval engagements at Jutland to the senseless slaughter of men in the trenches of France, and through so many stories too countless to detail in a book of this size, this Great War left its mark on what Man thinks of himself. It became, for a time, a dark and defining moment for world culture, or did so for at least the vast part of the world that was touched by its brutal demands. But in the end, when peace had been achieved, an irrepressible belligerence and dearth of contrition combined to make of the treaty that ended the war grounds for another conflict, a war that would reduce what had been known, with quaint optimism, as the Great War, into just the first in a series that as yet has not ended.

The Assassination of the Archduke

Standing at the very lip of the new century, a young Winston Churchill looked ahead and saw a violent future. "The wars of peoples," he predicted, "will be more terrible than those of kings." At the time—May 1901—Churchill was a Conservative member of Parliament serving in the House of Commons, and no stranger to war: he had experienced fighting on the British side in India, in the Sudan and in South Africa during the Boer War just a few years back.

    As always, tensions between traditional rivals threatened to erupt into conflict. France was still smarting over its surrender of its eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany after their war of 1870. Germany, amassing a large navy while building up its army as well, scowled disapprovingly at the expansionist ambitions of Imperial Russia. The Hapsburg empire of Austria and Hungary was trembling with its own internal convulsions, as the Slavs to the south, mostly Serbian, agitated for more direct access to the Adriatic, while Germany promised to support the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in whatever it did and Russia intimated it would unite behind the various Slavic peoples, whether independent states like Serbia or parts of the Hapsburg empire. And the Ottoman Empire had long-standing designs of its own to push northward, strategizing with Germany, agitating Russia.

     Such tensions were commonplace. Ancient, time-honored disputes marked the very character of nations and their people. What Churchill foresaw, however, was that in the new century an escalation of diplomatic disputes into military conflicts promised death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. The wars of horses and wagons and pikes would give way to a war of incendiary devices, chemical weapons, heavy cannon, air raids, and men floating perilously in engagements at sea. The threat to human life that these territorial and racial differences now posed was enormous. How right he would be.

    Still, the very forces that could escalate the level of warfare and enormously raise the stakes—economic might and industrial capacity—were the very forces that an optimist might hope would mitigate against warmongering. In much of Europe, and certainly in Britain, France, Germany, Austria, as well as in Russia, prosperity and profits seemed to counsel peace. What full-scale war might do to both corporate interests and government interests was hard to predict with any precision, but surely the effects would be dire.

    As the century moved on, war by no means seemed inevitable. There was always the hope that "family ties" would find a way to sort out differences. Would Queen Victoria's grandson, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, risk war with Britain, or with his cousin by marriage, Tsar Nicholas of Russia? Would the Kaiser allow his sister's husband, the King of Greece, to endanger himself by getting into a petty dispute with the Serbians?

    As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike, [but] every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And this unhappy European family of related royalty was unhappy in its own very complicated ways. Although in hindsight it appears that the tension that held Europe in its grip necessarily would have to have found some violent resolution, we can also look back at the very start of the First World War, in August 1914, and wonder what would have happened if a driver had just asked for directions to the hospital in Sarajevo. We will never know.

A long-standing dispute concerned access to the Adriatic coastline. In fact, so long-standing is that dispute that at century's end, 85 years later, the NATO alliance of nations is sending bombing sorties across the Adriatic, from Italy, into what is now Yugoslavia, in an attempt to bring resolution to an ethnic conflict between Serbs and Albanians. Back in 1912, the players were somewhat different, but the atmosphere eerily familiar. Italy had defeated Turkey in the Italo-Turkish War, a struggle for borders and regional domination. Italy's more specific ambition was to conquer Libya in order to get a colonial presence in Africa. After all, France had a formidable colonial empire there, in Algeria and Tunisia. The Italians bombed Tripoli and then invaded it against only token Turkish resistance. Italy also seized the Dodacanese Islands in the Mediterranean. At the Treaty of Ouchy in October 1912, Turkey ceded Libya and the islands to Italy.

    With Turkey reeling from the disgrace and the defeat, the Balkan Wars began. The "Balkan League," consisting of Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia, sought to eliminate Turkish power in the Balkans and increase their own territories. Eight months of skirmishing later, the Treaty of London took all of Turkey's European possessions but two peninsulas (one of them being Gallipoli). The victorious combatants squabbled over the disposition of the spoils, so much so that they had to have a Second Balkan War among themselves to try to get it right. Serbia got what it wanted—Albania, on the Adriatic coast. But not for long.

    Unfortunately for the Serbs, Austria-Hungary looked on the Serbian annexing of Albania as an occupation, and one that must be repulsed. In October 1913 the Austrians issued an ultimatum, demanding that the Serbs evacuate Albania within eight days. The Triple Entente powers—that is, France, Britain, and Russia—were not happy that Austria had seen fit to get involved. As one British diplomat, Eyre Crowe, put it: "Austria has broken loose from the concert of Powers in order to seek a solution single-handed of a question hitherto treated as concerning all Powers." Crowe's remark is inaccurate in one respect: Austria did not act alone. Kaiser Wilhelm had promised his support of the Austrian action. The Serbs complied. And, it might be said, a fuse had been lit.

    Or, it might be also be said that a lightbulb went on, at least for the Germans. They sensed that the continuing Serbian-Austrian conflict might very well bring Russia onto the scene, for the Russians maintained (and do to this day) a concern for Slavic peoples, including the Serbs. If Russia could be drawn in, and drawn in quickly, the Germans, backing Austria, could deliver punishing blows to its age-old eastern nemesis, first cousins be damned. Behind the scenes, during the spring and summer of 1914, the Kaiser worked on Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, then 83 years old, and on Franz Josef's heir apparent, his 50-year-old grand-nephew, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to precipitate a conflict.

    The Kaiser congratulated them for their triumph in forcing the Serbians to back down; he gave them diplomatic assurances that no "restraining advice" would be forthcoming on the part of Germany. After all, Franz Josef had been on the throne for 72 years, longer than any previous European sovereign had held royal authority. And the Kaiser was pleased to hear that Franz Josef and the Archduke both were annoyed by "the continuing Russification of Galicia," an eastern Austrian province.

    In June 1914, the Kaiser spent a weekend with the Archduke, just outside Prague. They hunted and dined, but also cleverly pressed their agendas. The Kaiser found occasion to express his admiration of the Hungarian prime minister, knowing that this would rile, and perhaps threaten, the Archduke, who did not care for Hungarians at all, much less the prime minister. The Archduke had publicly stated his disapproval of what he felt was the excessive Hungarian influence in his kingdom. In fact, when and if Franz Ferdinand ascended to the throne, he planned on lessening Hungarian clout and strengthening that of the non-Hungarian minorities, meaning the Serbs, Croats, and Slovaks. For the time being, however, the Archduke was unhappy with the trouble being stirred up by the Serbs, still seething after having to withdraw from Albania. The Kaiser assured Franz Ferdinand that Germany would back him in whatever had to be done, and told him not to worry about the Russian army. They were not ready for war, he said. But of course, that was just the point for the clever Kaiser, who would like nothing more than to provoke into conflict an unready foe.

    Two weeks later, on June 28, 1914, the Archduke and his wife were on a state visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. It was not a good day to visit.

    In the streets of Sarajevo that day were six conspirators, all determined to free Bosnia from the Hapsburg Empire and to reunite with the cowed yet still independent Serbia. And for many in the streets of Sarajevo it was a day of solemn memories, since it was also Serbia's National Day, commemorating the countrymen lost at the Battle of Kosovo in the year 1389. That's a long time to remember, and it was surely a sign of arrogance on the part of the Archduke to have forgotten that there might be better days to tool around in his open car.

    The Archduke and his wife were on their way to visit the Bosnian governor at his residence, and right away things turned bad. A bomb was thrown at the elegant archducal car; it banged off the side door before exploding. When it did, it left the Archduke and wife unharmed but injured two officers in the next car. The Archduke saw to it that his officers were taken to the hospital and then ordered his driver to continue to city hall. Unfazed, Franz Ferdinand derided the assembled with "So you welcome your guests with bombs?" After a formal ceremony, he asked his driver, whose name was Franz Urban, to proceed to the hospital so that he could visit the two injured officers.

    With this part of the state visit unscheduled, Franz Urban had no route mapped out to the hospital. Trusting that he could find his way based on a previous stay in Sarajevo, Urban set out from city hall with his royal passengers. The Archduke, rather impatient with the traffic and the warm weather, for which he was considerably overdressed, pressed Urban to hurry. A wrong turn down a narrow street irked him even more. When Urban realized his mistake, he was down a street so narrow that he had to back out slowly. Standing there in the small street, having visited a café to cheer his sunken spirits, was one of the six Serb conspirators, a 19-year-old named Gavrilo Princip. He had missed his chance earlier at sighting the Archduke, and he knew of the bomb that had missed its target. But there was the Archduke, in an open car, 30 feet away, moving slowly in reverse. And there was the gun in Princip's hand. He fired two shots.

    Franz Urban finally got the car turned around. Now he had a more urgent reason to find his way to the hospital, not to visit the wounded, but to deliver them. But the Archduke and his wife bled to death in the car. There was to be much more bleeding. Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia immediately. Within the next month, Russia ordered a mobilization, whereupon Germany declared war against Russia and, following an attack plan that had been finely honed, moved through Luxembourg and Belgium and into France and declared war there. Great Britain then declared war on Germany, and Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. Italy waited to see which side would gain the upper hand, while the U.S. would not get involved for another three years. Europe, like Franz Urban, had clearly lost its way, and history took a wrong turn into world war.

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