Mad about Science: Wild and successful military tactics, part II

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

We’re back to examine some wacky warfare tactics used successfully throughout human history. Last week we learned about siege Oreos and the U.S. Army, French prisoners of war and the Wehrmacht fighting alongside one another to repel the SS. What kind surprises await us this week? Let’s find out.

An Army of Cats — Battle of Pelusium, 525 B.C.E.

The first Persian invasion of Egypt featured one of the most unusual uses of a war animal: cats. Dogs have been a faithful and predictable battle companion for humans since at least the time of the Romans, who helped develop the rottweiler breed to sic upon the Gauls. Persia and Carthage had long used elephants as war machines capable of trampling whole ranks of infantry in a charge, while their foes would light pigs on fire to frighten and scatter the beasts. 

Horses and camels have been used as trusty mounts and effective chariot motors for as long as they’ve been domesticated by humans. However, the use of cats in warfare is virtually unheard of beyond this battle.

A painting from 1872 by Paul-Marie Lenoir, which depicts Persian soldiers who apparently used cats against the Pharaoh’s army.

The effective strategy came down to Persian King Cambyses II understanding his foes. He knew that the Egyptians revered cats and would not even strike the image of one for fear of eternal torment from their myriad gods. The logical solution was for the king to order his soldiers to paint the image of cats on their shields and unleash hundreds, perhaps thousands of cats amid the ranks of his advancing infantry. 

The tactic proved successful, as the Egyptians refused to launch arrows against the advancing Persians for fear of striking the innocent felines.

By the end of the conflict, Persia had claimed the lives of 50,000 Egyptians, suffering only 7,000 casualties of their own.

You may be having visions of Xerxes’ army of Immortals coming to claim the lands of Sparta from King Leonidas leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae, which had been famously stylized by Frank Miller in a comic book, and later in the feature film 300. However, Cambyses II’s casus belli may have not been rooted in conquest or more land, but an act of besmirched honor. 

Legend has it the Persian king demanded a wife of one of Pharaoh Amasis’ daughters. The pharaoh instead sent the daughter of his predecessor in an attempt to dupe the Persian king, only to be double-crossed by the vexed woman when she revealed her true identity.

Antiquity was truly a bizarre time to be alive.

Dancing Distraction — China, seventh century C.E.

General Chai Shao found himself in a tough spot when warring with a Tuyuhun army from the steppes of central Asia. He and his comrades were on the low ground weathering a perpetual rain of arrows. The Tuyuhun forces knew they would win a battle of attrition, as well as a direct conflict if Shao chose to charge uphill. Attrition would be easier and safer, while also assuring a Tuyuhun victory.

But desperation broods cunning and creative tactics, as Chai Shao enlisted the help of a number of women from the war camp, including a musician capable of playing a Tartar string instrument. He sent the women and musicians singing and dancing straight toward the Tuyuhun soldiers, who ceased firing to enjoy the show. 

In a move that would have put Odysseus and his marvelous wooden horse to shame, Shao’s cavalry moved around the high ground once the arrows stopped and encircled the Tuyuhun army, butchering them to the last man.

Bike Warfare — fall of Singapore, 1942

The largest British surrender in history — and among the nation’s greatest military defeats — happened by way of bicycle in 1942. Singapore was under British colonial rule at this time and perhaps the most important English-controlled port in the eastern hemisphere. 

However, the Royal Navy egregiously underestimated the tenacity and mobility of the Imperial Japanese Army, which was closing in on the island, and pulled back to defend shores closer to home. 

The jungles were believed to be too thick for Japanese forces to maneuver through and strike the 85,000 British defenders. Had the Japanese used conventional motorized vehicles, the British would have been right.

Instead, Japanese soldiers employed bicycles, which allowed them to swiftly and effectively move squads through the jungle while preparing makeshift bridges for the soldiers who followed them. 

Bikes were so lightweight, easy to maneuver and repair that even when run ragged, the Japanese were able to continue pushing into Singapore and engage a force more than double their size. General Tomoyuki Yamashita had 35,000 soldiers at his disposal, but with experience in jungle fighting and rapid, albeit unconventional mobility, he was quickly able to encircle the haggard British forces and contain them to less than 1% of the island. 

The Japanese forced the combined British, Indian and Australian troops into an unconditional surrender, which ended in genocide as the Imperial Japanese imprisoned many of the soldiers while relentlessly slaughtering ethnic Chinese and Indian peoples. Many POWs from the fall of Singapore were transported to other areas of the Japanese Empire and forced into hard labor.

Justice came for General Yamashita in 1946, as he was tried for war crimes and hanged. The fall of Singapore has been considered by some to be the death knell of British colonialism.

Stay curious, 7B.

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