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The Unbelievable Tales of History’s Most Unlikely Victories

These three battles shaped the fate of the world—especially because their results were so shocking.

unlikely military victories
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

From the legendary Battle of Thermopylae to the whole American Revolution to the storming of the beaches at Normandy, history has been filled with battles where the outcomes seemed foregone, only to have surprising victories pulled from the jaws of defeat thanks to superior tactics, subterfuge, or simple luck. 

Related: 10 Civil War Battles That Shaped America's Bloodiest Conflict

While those conflicts listed above are famous, there are many more historical battles you may not have heard of where extraordinarily outnumbered or outgunned forces managed to pull off surprising victories that sometimes changed the course of entire nations. These are three of history's most shocking military victories.

The Fall of Qashliq

November 4, 1582

It’s hard to find many verifiable facts about Yermak Timofeyevich, a Cossack ataman (commander) who served under Ivan the Terrible and was instrumental in the Russian conquest of Siberia. Timofeyevich had been a pirate; he referred to himself in the royal plural and gave only sparse and conflicting details of his past when asked; some even say that he commanded an army of imps sent straight from hell. 

What we do know is that Yermak Timofeyevich went from having a price on his head in the capital to becoming a Russian folk hero virtually overnight when he and a small army of Cossacks conquered the city of Qashliq, the northernmost Muslim city in the world and the stronghold of Kuchum Khan, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.

Accounts of the battle are as conflicted as the accounts of Timofeyevich himself. Some sources claim that the Cossacks had no cannons or horses, while the defenders of Qashliq were mounted. Others argue that the Khan’s forces were armed with bows, arrows, and spears against the Cossack muskets. Still others claim that the defenders of Qashliq had cannons and muskets of their own.

Related: 10 Epic Medieval Battles That Shaped History and the World's Borders

What we know is that the Cossacks were outnumbered by at least three-to-one, with Timofeyevich in charge of fewer than 1,000 Cossack soldiers going up against an army that numbered more than 3,000 and had the advantage of a defensible position. Yet the Cossacks rode or marched over thousands of corpses to take the city in only a day of fighting.

The exact numbers of the dead are impossible to know, but sources cite the Cossacks as having lost only a little more than 100 fighters in the conflict, while the soldiers of the Khanate were wiped out almost to a man, with casualty figures nearing 3,000.

Yermak Timofeyevich did not survive the battle for long, however, dying just three years after his triumph. The forces of Kuchum Khan were able to retake the city in 1584, only to lose it again, forever this time, in 1586. Though it was once a palatial city home to mosques and Persian architecture, even the exact location of Qashliq is now lost to history. 

The Battle of Rorke's Drift

January 22-23, 1879

Battle of Rorke's Drift, unlikely military victories
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  • The Defence of Rorke's Drift, by Alphonse de Neuville

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the closing months of 1878, British forces invaded the Kingdom of Zululand in what is now South Africa. The resulting war, which lasted just shy of six months, was the scene of many brutal and bloody conflicts, some of which were won by the Zulu forces, while in others the British were triumphant. By the end of the war, nearly 7,000 Zulu fighters had been killed, with many more wounded, and the Kingdom of Zululand’s dominion was at an end.

One of the most unlikely battles in this lopsided war was actually one in which the British pulled out a surprise victory against vastly superior numbers of troops at the mission station of Rorke’s Drift. The station was defended by only 150 British and colonial troops, who faced a two-day siege from as many as 4,000 Zulu warriors, with only brief help from around 100 mounted soldiers.

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The success of the British defense can be laid mostly at the feet of superior firepower. The majority of the Zulu warriors were armed with short spears and shields made of cowhide, while the British defenders bore guns and had made “loopholes” in the walls of the station’s fortifications, through which they could fire. Of the 17 British and colonial soldiers who perished in the fighting, five were killed by antiquated muskets carried by the Zulu forces.

A vast discrepancy in firepower cannot fully account for the British victory at Rorke’s Drift, however, as equally superior firepower had not availed the British army earlier in the month, when they had lost more than 1,300 soldiers in the Battle of Isandlwana against a similarly larger Zulu force. As such, 11 Victoria Crosses were ultimately given to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift—the most ever awarded in a single battle.

The Capture of Belgrade

April 13, 1941

During World War II, German officer of the Waffen SS Fritz Klingenberg was part of the German invasion of Yugoslavia. Disobeying orders, Klingenberg pushed his forces deep into Yugoslavian territory, intending to reconnoiter the capital of Belgrade, which had already been severely weakened by more than 500 bombing runs from Luftwaffe planes.

One of the chief difficulties in invading the city was in getting troops across the Danube. Retreating Yugoslav soldiers had destroyed most of the bridges, and the river was swollen with floodwater. Klingenberg’s men were able to find a motorboat moored on the side of the river, and Klingenberg took it with the intention of using it to move a large contingent of troops across. However, the boat sank during its first return crossing, stranding Klingenberg on the far shore with only six soldiers.

unlikely military victories
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  • Belgrade after its April 1941 bombing.

    Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-1005 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Undeterred by his bad luck, Klingenberg took his six men toward Belgrade, capturing a number of Yugoslavian soldiers along the way. With the captured troops as show, and driving captured trucks, Klingenberg and his six soldiers—who were virtually out of ammo by this point—made their way into the heart of the city, where they replaced the Yugoslavian national flag with the German colors.

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The mayor came out to meet them, backed by city officials and wearing ceremonial dress. To the shock of his troops, Klingenberg bluffed, claiming to be part of a much larger German force that had already captured the city. He warned that if he did not report the city’s surrender by radio, the Luftwaffe attacks would resume, along with an artillery barrage. 

Klingenberg’s ruse worked, and on 13 April, 1941, the mayor surrendered the city of Belgrade to the handful of Germans, who had successfully taken a city of some 200,000 people, defended by more than a thousand troops, without firing a shot. The city militia stacked their weapons in the town square, and were quartered in the city’s largest hotels, each of which was watched over by only a single German guard.

When the main force of the German army received radio communications from Klingenberg and his men telling of the city’s surrender, they assumed that it was an enemy hoax, designed to lure them into a trap. They arrived in Belgrade on the evening of April 13 prepared for a protracted siege which was expected to cost thousands of German lives. Instead, they found the city already conquered and occupied, under the control of Klingenberg and a handful of his men.

Yugoslavia surrendered to German forces just a few days later, and Klingenberg received a Knight’s Cross for his stunning conquest of the city. When later asked by students at the German military academy of Bad Tolz how he had captured the capital, he replied simply, “I was not too preoccupied at the time, and found something to do.”

Featured photo of The Defence of Rorke's Drift by Lady Butler: Wikimedia Commons