Passing it on: Learning From Military Disasters

"There is an inescapable necessity to study past mistakes, to avoid the same in the future. In particular, Higher Commanders should, and must study important military campaigns."

Passing it on: Learning From Military Disasters

Surprisingly, it is a fact that there exists a common thread of blunders which led to their disaster. In 1812, Napoleon after preparing for two years supported by his allies – Austria and Poland – with the largest force gathered at that time, failed to conquer Russia. He had to be escorted back to France by 2800 loyal troops. 120 years later, Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941.

The Germans employed 134 divisions (full strength) and 73 divisions in a holding role along the 1800-mile front. He too, failed, to defeat Russia. He made mistakes similar to Napoleon’s, and finally committed suicide. An analytical study of mistakes made by the commanders will not only enrich the minds of future military leaders, but make the formidable combat commanders.

In our case, 1962 Sino-India conflict is a benchmark. As to how a campaign should not be conducted. If our army suffered a shameful and humiliating defeat at the hands of China, we deserved it. India committed similar mistakes yet again, in the induction of unprepared IPKF (Indian Peacekeeping Force) in Sri Lanka, on 30 July, 1987, is one such example.

Second one is Operation Blue Star, in May-July 1984, to eliminate Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, the Chief of Damdami Taksal, from the Golden Temple. Even in Kargil, we were caught with our pants down in the initial stages.

There are many more examples, such as the failure of the Americans in Vietnam (Nov 1955-1975), or the Russian invasion and their inability to subjugate Afghanistan (25 Dec, 1979 – 15 Dec 1989). For that matter, the Third Battle of Panipat, between the Afghans and Marathas, which led to the end of the Maratha Empire.

Napoleon and the Russian Disaster

Representational image of Napoleon Bonaparte Looking over the Russian Campaign

The greatest military commander in history, while invading Russia, made three serious mistakes. One, faulty time plan. His appreciation was that Russia would fall in twenty days. But took supplies for thirty days. The campaign lasted five and a half months.

Troops were therefore, without rations, clothing, ammunition, for nearly three months. This led to frustration and ill-discipline. Troops started looting villages, and annoyed the civil population. Two, Russians avoided a pitched battle.

They followed a “scorched earth policy” and kept drawing French forces inside Russia. Except for two important battles at Smolensk, and Borodino (south-west of Moscow) respectively, no major battles were fought. Russians offered marginal resistance. When Napoleon entered Moscow, there was no representative of the Czar.

Three-fourths of the city had been burnt. Having stayed there for a month, as winter was approaching, they decided to withdraw with an exhausted, fatigued army, short of supplies, fuel and clothing. It was then that the Cossacks and Partisans played hell with the retreating army.

Raiding, looting and destroying what was left of the grand army. Three, in his ambition, Napoleon had underestimated Russia and failed to cater for contingencies.

Napoleon was not defeated by Russia, but by the Russian winter. Plague, typhus, and tick devastated the army. In one month, 80000 troops died. And as mentioned, the Emperor had to escape with an escort of 2800.

Operation Barbarossa – 22 June, 1941; and Hitler’s failure in Russia

Soldier aiming ordnance during Op Barbarossa

Fresh from the conquest of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland and then France, Hitler decided to invade Communist Russia. He abruptly terminated the German-Russian Non-Aggression Pact, signed on 23 August, 1939.

Germany invaded Russia in 1941, employing nearly 6,80,000 troops, with a large number of vehicles, tanks and even horses. This made it the largest invasion in modern history. Russia was caught unprepared, as Stalin had believed that Hitler won’t attack.

Hitler signed his first directive on 18 December, 1940. Three objectives were selected. Leningrad, first. And then the third being Moscow. He told his colleagues that Russia would collapse in three months.

German planners had studied and even rehearsed Napoleon’s campaign of 1812. They concluded that the Red Army would not retreat in Russia as they couldn’t afford to give up Ukraine, Leningrad and Moscow.

On the second day of battle, Soviet bomber groups had lost 600 aircraft, and by the end of August 1941, an estimated 5000 Russian fighters had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Panzer divisions advanced in three directions, and met initial victories. In fact, they had advanced 200 miles in the very first week.

Such was their initial success, but then in April 1945, the red flag was flown over the Reichstag in Berlin, under Field Marshal Zukhov’s leadership, and Hitler committed suicide.

What were the causes of failure? Firstly, Soviet resistance was fiercer than the Germans had anticipated. They were caught outside Stalingrad for nearly two years. Supply lines from Leningrad were cut. Russians again followed the scorched earth policy, by partisan bands, creating difficulties for Germans.

But winter returned before the fall of Moscow. Rain made the battlefield into swamps, frost came in with a vengeance. Severe blizzards grounded the Luftwaffe. Troops had inadequate clothing and supplies could not reach them, while guns could not fire.

In December 1941, there were thousands of cases of dysentery, frostbite and suicide. Attempts to reach Moscow, twenty miles away, and within reach of German forces, were abandoned.

Germans were widely outstretched and their forces were fighting in Africa, preparing for an assault in France and Europe by the Allies, besides looking after already conquered territories. They had failed to deal with such a situation.

Sino-Indian Conflict, 1962: What led to the Indian Army’s debacle, humiliation and collapse at China’s hands in 1962?

Now that excerpts are available from Henderson Brooks report on the 1962 war, and two top-secret declassified letters, dated 19 Nov 1962, from Mr. Nehru to President Kennedy of the USA, to intervene and save India are available, it is worthwhile to revisit this disastrous campaign, which must be read, and re-read again and again.

As details of battles and skirmishes at Dhola, Nyamkachu, capture of Towang, Walong, or Bomdila, etc, and Chinese advanced to the Brahmaputra valley in Sept-Nov 1962, and finally the capture of Indian troops and keeping them as POWs for eight months are available. Details of this missive focuses on the causes of the mistakes made.

Intelligence failure. Chinese started their preparations to teach India a lesson in May 1962. Troops and commanders were trained and acclimatized. Forward dumps were established at Le (north of Thagla ridge at Marmang and Tsonadzag). On the Indian side, there was no intelligence appreciation. If there was one, it remained in air-conditioned offices in Delhi.

At an operational conference in Tezpur in July 1962, the then DMO (Director of Military Operations), Brig. Palit informed the Chinese that they couldnot attack till their railway lines reached Lhasa in Tibet. That would take at least two years. There was as such, no plan to counter any Chinese invasion. Yet, the Chinese were ready and they attacked in Sept 1962.

Military leadership and Politicians

CDS Bipin Rawat with other senior military leaders

Except for Gen. Thimayya (the COAS), none of his successors had the courage to differ with Mr. Nehru’s forward policy, which aimed at established posts all along the McMahon Line. After Thimayya’s retirement, Gen. Thapar and his CGS (Chief of General Staff), acquiesced and ordered furtherance of forward policy.

Establishment of individual posts like Dhola, which was overlooked from Thagla ridge, was objected to by the Chinese. They tried to remove it. It was a trigger for the start of the Chinese invasion. Political leadership ignored military advice and considerations. Defence Minister ordered that no minutes would be kept of his meetings with Army commanders.

Command Structure

4 Corps was established on 4 Oct, 1962. Lt. Gen. Kaul, Nehru’s favorite, was appointed as the GOC. An ASC officer, who had never commanded a combat unit. He and his staff thought that Thagla was a plateau.

He intervened and gave direct orders to subordinate formations like 7 Inf Brigade, to move forward without informing his Division Commander. He was evacuated on 17 Oct 1962. During his tenure, he was running from forward areas to Delhi, to personally brief the Prime Minister and Raksha Mantri.

The Raksha Mantri had even ordered Kaul, that the last date acceptable for evicting the Chinese was 1 Nov, 1962. We can see that the 7 Inf Brigade, which was responsible for the defense of Tawang, was five days’ march from Thagla.

Div HQ was at Tezpur, 200 miles away. 33 Corps HQ at Shillong, another 200 miles away. And Command HQ at Lucknow, 600 miles away. There was no road from Tawang towards Dhola. Divisions’ 2nd Brigade was located in Nagaland and was shifted to Walong. As such, there were no reserves.

State of Army Units

Units were under strength. 400 men against 800 in a battalion. Clothing was inadequate. So was ammunition. Men had not done field firing, and yet, they fought well under junior leaders.

In conclusion, it can be said that the government took it for granted that the Chinese wouldn’t attack. Military commanders were influenced by political thinking, rather than military considerations.

They did not stand up to reject wrong decisions. Senior commanders had little or no knowledge of ground. And as such, gave wrong decisions. Military should take equal blame for failure of intelligence. Why did they not question, and ask for information they needed?

American Fiasco and the Embarrassment in Vietnam

American GI's during the Vietnam War

America’s Vietnam war, 1 Nov 1955 – 30 Apr 1975, was the longest and most unpopular intervention. Also known as the second Indo-China war, or resistance war against America. The United States had, at its peak, 500000 troops, and suffered 58119 killed and 53303 wounded, and withdrew on 20 Jan 1974.

Vietnam with its checkered history, was first under China, and then France. During World War 2, Japan ruled it. After 1945, the French returned, but left after the battle of Bien-Phu, in which they suffered 20000 killed from Viet-Minh.

Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh, the guerrilla leader had returned, and declared Vietnam a republic, with Hanoi as its capital. This was followed by the Geneva conference, at which Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam, along the 17th Parallel, with a demilitarized zone around it. Elections were to be conducted for the unification of Vietnam in 1961.

Americans were driven by the Domino Theory. In that, if one nation comes under communist rule, under countries will follow. While Ho Chi Minh was determined to unite North and South Vietnam into an independent Republic of Vietnam, but the Americans failed and had to withdraw. What were the causes for American failure? At the national level, Domino Theory did not work. As Russia and China, supported Vietcong indirectly.

United States underestimated the psyche and will of the Vietnamese, who fought against oppression. Two incidents, the Mylai incident of 1969, when innocent villagers were lined up by US troops, fired upon, killed and injured, besides the American policy of Americanization of Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam, which was the brainchild of President Nixon, did not work.

In fact, the hatred further strengthened the Vietcong resolve, and led to distrust between the government and the people. The worst was, the tactical concept of Gen. Westmorland, United States commander of all US forces in Vietnam, from 1964-68.

His philosophy of maximum attrition, penetration, search and destroy, and kill, body count, bombardment, and use of chemical weapons (Agent Orange), did the maximum damage. He cooked up casualty figures, briefed the United States Senate that all was going well.

He failed to understand the Vietnamese, and was the wrong choice to be appointed. He was replaced by Gen. Abrams. Finally, came the Tet offensive in Jan 1968. When 70,000 Vietcong attacked 100 cities in South Vietnam.

Its purpose was to draw out American soldiers. 2500 US soldiers and 3700 Vietcong were killed. But it strengthened the Vietcong’s resolve, and led to American withdrawal.

IPKF and its debacle in Sri Lanka

Indian Army Troopers as part of the IPKF in Sri Lanka

IPKF (Indian Peacekeeping Force) has been an inconvenient truth. Here was a disastrous campaign, like that in 1962. Reasons for intervening were Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 29th July, 1987. The Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka was having trouble and even danger, from the LTTE, who wanted an independent Tamil Elam.

India was invited to intervene to ensure peace, conduct elections, and a referendum to merge North and Eastern provinces, and to protect the President from a coup. An agreement was signed, on 29th July, 1987, between Rajiv Gandhi and the President, permitting Indian troops to be inducted.

The induction started on 30th July, 1987. LTTE was to lay down arms. However, V. Prabhakaran, the LTTE chief, did not agree with the terms. He said that the agreement was to bring Sri Lanka under India’s strategic influence. “We do not trust the Lankan government, and only Tamil Elam is acceptable”.

The Indian COAS (Gen. Sunderjee) advised the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, that the LTTE would be tamed within two weeks. But it took two years. 80,000 troops were inducted, and the IPKF’s role shifted from peacekeeping to peace enforcement. It cost 300 crores and India suffered 1200 casualties, and 3000 wounded.

Troops had no maps, nor any interpreters, nor any recce reports. The IPKF’s role was not defined, so field commanders were not clear. Sunderjee did not question political leadership, to give clear policy instructions and mandates. The force was withdrawn, finally, on 24th March, 1990.

Why did the IPKF campaign end in a disaster like in 1962? India had played a double game. It trained LTTE guerrillas at Chakrata, Deolali, Ahmednagar, at Paramilitary forces’ schools.

Regular army personnel, in civilian clothes, provided training in field craft, weapons, explosives, and so on. Training of two LTTE leaders, Kittu and Mahatya, was carried out at Bhopal and Indore for six months.

The Army transported nearly four divisions (54, 57, 36, plus two brigades) to Baticoloa, Trincomalee, and the eastern provinces, to fight 3000 LTTE, but without clear instructions. So there was confusion, peacekeeping, to peace enforcement. A role not clearly defined in the agreement.

There was no intelligence structure before the Indian troops landed in Sri Lanka, which was a serious mistake. There were too many cooks, who wanted to sort out issues with diverse solutions. On the military side, Gen. Kalkat (Force Commander), Harkirat (GOC 54 Div), and Deepinder Singh (GOC-in-Cd Southern Command).

And on the civil side, Natwar Singh and Dixit, and two centers of power, PM and the COAS. The army was caught between the LTTE and the government, and later, both wanted the IPKF to leave.

It can be said that the fault for failure lay at the top level, particularly the army. Troops were launched without preparation. The COAS should have sought a detailed intelligence appreciation from the government. He was in a hurry to implement political directions.

Operational commanders were not clear about their tasks. There were too many self-appointed leaders, trying to solve various issues. Determination to fight by the LTTE was underestimated. IPKF operations were, to say the least, a repeat of 1962.

Russian failure in Afghanistan

Mujaheddin faction combating Soviet invasion in Afghanistan

Russia invaded Afghanistan on 25th Dec, 1979, and withdrew after nine years, on 15th Dec, 1989. They suffered 15000 killed, and had large numbers wounded without achieving anything.

They had approximately 150,000 troops in Afghanistan. What led to the invasion and the causes of failure? These are interesting issues for a student of war.

At the strategic level, after World War II, there was a race for power and influence between super powers. The US chose Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Pakistan as allies. Primary concern being the safety of the Persian Gulf, and the availability of oil. Russia chose Afghanistan, with its emphasis and policy, and its conversion to a communist state. Prime Minister Amin and President Taraki of Afghanistan approached Russia for 80,000 troops, to support communism in their country.

Also, to fight Mujahedeen. President Leonard Breznov agreed. Russian paratroopers landed in Kabul on 25th Dec, 1979. Amin was killed, and so was Taraki. Barabak Karmal was appointed Prime Minister, but was removed, on account of how ineffective he was. He was subsequently replaced by Najibullah, later assassinated by Taliban.

To ensure that Russians did not succeed, and fearing a similar revolution to the Iranian Revolution, the US resorted to arming the Mujahideen/Taliban, and even supplying missiles and other weapons to them. Funds were provided by Saudi Arabia, US, and the training was conducted in Pakistan, and even China.

Causes for failure: The Russians misinterpreted Islam. Afghanistan has a population of 99% muslims. Soviet leaders saw Afghanistan through the eyes of Marxist/Leninist doctrine, which did not fit well in a tribal society that considered outsiders as infidels.

This led to non-cooperation and the support of Mujahedeen by the civilians. Russian commanders followed conventional World War II tactics, not realizing that they were against Mujahedeen guerrillas who would ambush and disappear, while avoiding pitched battles.

While the Russians employed large formations and units to attack them, such as in the Panjshir valley, where the Russians were successful, but did not stay on to hold their ground. Besides, the Russian forces were composed mostly of conscripts, who’d had training for 2-3 months only, fighting against seasoned guerrillas.

Their intelligence was poor, chiefly depending on satellite information, wireless intercepts, air reconnaissance, and so on. They seldom patrolled for ground recces. As such, they were seldom aware of ground positions.

Atrocities were committed on the civilian population, along with the bombardment of villages. This led to very hostile action by civilians. In fact, one-third of the population had fled to Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Overall, approximately 850,000 Afghans, including Mujahideen were killed. President Gorbashev came into power in mid-1987, and ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops, which was completed by 1989.

The aftermath of the war resulted in the weakening of the Soviet Union. The government was unable to look after its territories outside the Soviet Union; it emboldened them, leading to loss in confidence in the government.

But it did not end here. The Mujahideen, who were now well trained, took over Kabul, and the fight went on against the international security forces deployed in Afghanistan.

Operation Blue Star

Indian Army's Top Brass reviewing the ongoing situation during Op Bluestar

From 1st to 8th June 1984. Here is an operation of incredible courage, but political and military incompetence. Mistakes made (not analysed during planning) led to very serious consequences.

A question arises: Why with such elaborate planning, and abundant resources, the Army miscalculated the Blue Star horribly. What were the mistakes made, and consequences? Before that, a brief on the background.

The COAS, Gen. Arun Vaidya was directed by the PM Indira Gandhi, to clear Harminder Sahib and eliminate Jarnail Singh Bindrawale, Chief of Damdami Taksal, and Dal Khalsa, who along with his supporters (nearly 2000), had occupied Harminder Sahib, and who was able to motivate Sikh youth, was demanding Khalistan, and had established headquarters at the Golden Temple, which had been fully fortified with advice from his military advisor, Maj. Gen. Shahbeg Singh.

Operations were conducted by HQ Western Command (Gen. Sunderjee). Approximately 70,000 troops employed under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Brar included NSG, CRPF, BSF, police, in addition to army units.

The operation had three components. Operation Metal – confined to Harminder Sahib, and Akal Takht; Operation Shop – to seek Punjab countryside for any militants; and Operation Woodrose – to target those carrying weapons, etc. Tanks, artillery, helicopters, APCs were used.

The army lost 83 soldiers, and had approximately 220 wounded. 492 civilians were killed. Though this number, as per the media, was 5000 civilians killed. Bindrawale, Shahbeg Singh, and a large number of supporters were also killed. There was a media blackout, and Amritsar was placed under curfew.

Mistakes made: There was as usual, an intelligence failure. The defenses of the Golden Temple were organized into infantry battalion’s, Shahbeg Singh was no ordinary soldier. He had trained Mukti Bahini in Bangladesh operations. He had so organized the defenses (with LMGs, MMGs, and even a rocket launcher) to inflict maximum casualties, and gain time so that Bindrawale’s supporters could come from villages and converge to support him.

The Army was not aware of such strong fortifications. The planners and Generals gave into an erroneous belief that Bindrawale and his supporters wouldn’t fight. That they would either surrender or run away. So operations would be swift.

This conclusion shows bankruptcy of thought. Indira Gandhi was advised accordingly, but Bindrawale and his supporters fought until the very end. Inflicted maximum casualties until they were killed.

Army brass, short on facts, miscalculated during planning, and failed to appreciate the type of resistance that they would meet. Although, there was never any doubt as to who would win.

But the cost, anger and political consequences were not analysed. Indira Gandhi was not briefed objectively. Generals were in a disastrous hurry, like regimental officers, to finish the task swiftly, showing inability to stand up to the politicians. They took things for granted. Did not consider the likely resistance and difficulties that they would face.

What were the consequences?: The Sikhs felt that this was an assault on their religion. Harminder Sahib, and Akal Takht were badly damaged. There was mutiny in the Sikh regimental centre, and many Sikh units became difficult to control. Four months later, on 31st Oct, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two security guards. Vaidya too, was assassinated, two months after his retirement.

Sunderjee and R.S. Dyal, his Chief of Staff, were provided special protection, by NSG. Atleast five assassination attempts have been made on Brar. Finally, approximately, 3000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone. Could this have been avoided?

To conclude, here was another operation, which had great similarities to India’s failure in the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, or the launching of an unprepared IPKF in Sri Lanka in 1997.

Observations and lessons:

There is much to learn from past campaigns. Both which ended in a disaster, and those which succeeded.

A. Intelligence is a crucial factor, which has been neglected time and again. Not only about enemies’ strengths, dispositions and intentions, but also what is in the Army Commander’s mind. His strategy and tactics? Not only did Napoleon fail in this respect, but we neglected this factor while planning for Blue Star, or the induction of the IPKF.

In 1962, we had no warning regarding the Chinese invasion. Besides its own resources, the Army must be forceful in getting intelligence from the various agencies that we have created. If not, then we will get surprised.

B. Commanders must conduct and fight their adversary based on facts and military considerations, and not because a political leader wants it his way. To put it bluntly, military commanders must have the character and guts to stand up to political pressure, and not accept a wrong policy decision which would lead to casualties.

C. Commanders must study and reflect on the psyche of their opposing commander. They must not forget that all battles are fought and won in the minds of opposing commanders. Here, the example of Field Marshal Montgomery of El Alamein, who had even kept a photograph of his adversary, Field Marshal Rommel, in his caravan, as to how he would behave and react in various situations and circumstances.

D. There is a tendency to take things for granted. That Bindrawale won’t fight, that China will not attack, that V. Prabhakaran will lay down his arms, that Pakistan can’t attack in Kargil. We must realize that if I can’t do it, someone else can, and will do it.


Finally, there is an inescapable necessity to study past mistakes, to avoid the same in the future. In particular, Higher Commanders (Brigade to Corps) should, and must study important military campaigns. To do so, it is suggested that the Army War College could conduct a week’s capsule, which is specifically devoted to studying and analyzing campaigns of the past.

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')


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