Photo: Adam Cuerden / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Historical Turncoats We Just Learned About

Voting Rules
Vote up the historic turncoats with impressive twists.

Some of the most famous betrayals in history have come during warfare. Military commanders have been known to switch sides - from the most ancient conflicts up to today's wars. Commanders who do switch sides are often labeled turncoats, and many of them are remembered as the worst traitors in history, to the point where their own names become synonymous with "traitor." (Hello, Benedict Arnold.) 

But the truth is more complicated. Some of these turncoats definitely did earn the label. These were undoubtedly highly ambitious individuals who were willing to put their own glory ahead of their homelands. But with other "turncoats," it's more accurate to say they were forced into an impossible position where switching sides was the only way to survive. 

Here are some of the most noteworthy turncoats in military history. 

Photo: Adam Cuerden / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • Admiral Shi Lang Defected From The Ming To The Qing Dynasty And Captured Taiwan
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    33 VOTES

    Admiral Shi Lang Defected From The Ming To The Qing Dynasty And Captured Taiwan

    Admiral Shi Lang was a gifted naval commander born in the Fujian province in 1621 AD, which was then under the rule of the Ming dynasty. Around the time of his birth, the Jurchen tribe was consolidating northeastern China under the rule of what would become the Qing dynasty. The Qing and Ming would be at war for most of Lang's lifetime, and he served loyally in the Ming navy until that was no longer possible. The Ming heir, Zheng Chenggong, became jealous of Shi Lang's position in the government and relationship, and Chenggong had Lang imprisoned. The admiral escaped Ming custody and defected to the Qing side in 1651. 

    Shi Lang would serve the Qing dynasty for more than 30 years. By 1681, the Ming dynasty had dwindled to a stronghold on the island of Taiwan. In 1683, Lang led an expedition to capture the island. As a reward, the Qing dynasty appointed him the governor of Taiwan, which was incorporated into his home Fujian province. 

    33 votes
  • Ashikaga Takauji Was Sent To Crush A Revolt But He Switched Sides And Became A Shogun
    Photo: Urashimataro / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    52 VOTES

    Ashikaga Takauji Was Sent To Crush A Revolt But He Switched Sides And Became A Shogun

    Ashikaga Takauji was born in 1305 AD to a powerful warrior family that served under the Kamakura shogun, which ruled Japan for two centuries. In Takauji's time, the role of emperor was mostly a puppet until 1333, when Emperor Go-Daigo raised a revolt to take back power. The Kamakura dispatched Takauji to put down the rebellion. But instead, Takauji, who had become dissatisfied with his role under the shogun, joined the emperor and took the capital, Kyoto. 

    The emperor's hold on power was weak, and the son of the former Kamakura regent, Hoko Takayuki, led a coup of his own in 1335. At this point, Takauji turned on Emperor Go-Daigo, who probably should have seen it coming. At the Battle of Minatogawa, Takauji defeated two of the emperor's top generals, allowing him to declare himself shogun and install a puppet emperor of his own. The Ashikaga shogunate would last until 1578 AD. 

    52 votes
  • Soviet General Andrey Vlasov Defected To The Nazis And Led The Russian Liberation Army
    Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1984-101-29 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
    68 VOTES

    Soviet General Andrey Vlasov Defected To The Nazis And Led The Russian Liberation Army

    Soviet general Andrey Vlasov's military career started off well. He was the 13th son of a peasant family born in 1900 who became a military officer by 18 and was a top officer in the Soviet military. Stalin promoted him to lieutenant-general in 1942, and he helped defend Moscow from a Nazi attack. 

    In June 1942, six months into the Battle of Leningrad, Vlasov was in command of the 2nd Shock Army, part of the Volkhov defensive front. Vlasov's unit was cut off from the Red Army in a Nazi attack, and he was captured. 

    While Vlasov considered himself a patriot, he had never fully supported the communist revolution. His unit's abandonment at Leningrad finally drove him away from his home country and to the Nazi side. After Vlasov was captured, he was relocated to Berlin in late 1942 and served in a propaganda role until 1944, when he was allowed to form an all-Russian unit within the Nazi military, called the Russian Liberation Army. It was made up primarily of Soviet POWs and defectors. Vlasov and his troops saw little combat before they were captured by allied forces in Czechoslovakia, who handed them over to the Soviets. In 1946 the Soviet Union put him on trial and executed him. 

    68 votes
  • 4
    52 VOTES

    A United US-German Force Defeated The Waffen-SS At The Battle Of Castle Itter

    Castle Itter, or Schloss Itter, is a picturesque medieval castle in the Austrian countryside, and during WWII, the Nazis used it to house important French political prisoners. An SS unit guarded the castle for the duration of the war. 

    In May 1945, days before Nazi Germany's surrender, American tank units approaching the castle ran into a Wehrmacht unit led by a major named Josef Gangel. At some point in the war, Gangel claimed to have become disillusioned with the Nazi cause and began working with Austrian resistance units. Gangel and the Americans agreed to lead a joint US Army-Wehrmacht assault on the castle. The mission was a success and the POWs were rescued, but Gangel perished in the attack.  

    52 votes
  • Alcibiades Worked Every Angle Of The Second Peloponnesian War
    Photo: François-André Vincent / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Alcibiades was an Athenian general born in the middle of the fifth century BC. He was said to be charismatic and handsome, and one of his tutors was Socrates. The Second Peloponnesian War would put his personal charm and brilliant mind to the test. 

    Alcibiades first established himself as a military commander earlier in the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which began in the 430s BC. Athens and Sparta had agreed to a truce in 412 BC, but it wouldn't last. Later that year, representatives from Segesta, a Greek colony in Sicily and ally to Athens, came to the Athenians asking for help defending against an attack by its powerful neighbor, the independent city-state, Syracuse. Alcibiades argued that he should be put at the head of an Athenian military expedition to rescue Segesta, but the Athenians instead appointed his political rival Nicias. Alcibiades still participated in the expedition, but after his departure, his political rivals put him on trial for treason. Instead of returning to Athens, Alcibiades went outlaw and traveled to Sparta.

    There, he began advising the Spartan king Agis, informing him that the Athenians were planning on conquering all of Sicily. It's likely he exaggerated Athens' plans as a way to incite the Spartans into breaking their peace treaty. But Sparta was convinced, and Alcibiades exploited the situation to his advantage. The Spartans attacked nearby Greek cities, reigniting the Second Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades then acted on his own initiative to broker a peace treaty between Sparta and the nearby Persian empire.

    That ruined the relationship between Agis and Alcibiades, and Agis ordered Alcibiades's death. So Alcibiades switched for a second time, this time approaching the local Persian leader, Tissaphernes. While Athens and Sparta continued to fight, he advised Tissaphernes to start revolts in cities around the Aegean Sea to destabilize the Athenian empire. 

    But Alcibiades still wasn't done double-dealing. He approached the Athenian forces on the nearby island of Samos with an offer: He would rejoin the Athenians and bring the Persians over to their side against the Spartans. In exchange, Athens would have to abolish its fledgling democracy and create an oligarchy government, with himself in charge of the armed forces. The Athenians agreed to bring back the popular general, and he led his home city-state as the Second Peloponnesian War continued. 

    Eventually, Alcibiades's luck and charm ran out. After Sparta dealt Athens a crushing defeat at the naval battle of Notium in 406 BC, Alcibiades's political allies had him removed from command. He was assassinated two years later while trying to offer the Persians his services. 

    69 votes
  • Flavius Josephus Was A Jewish Military Leader Who Joined A Roman Emperor's Entourage 
    Photo: William Whiston / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    39 VOTES

    Flavius Josephus Was A Jewish Military Leader Who Joined A Roman Emperor's Entourage 

    Flavius Josephus was born Joseph Ben Matthias in 7 AD in Roman-occupied Jerusalem and served in various official and religious roles in Judea. When the Zealot revolt against Roman rule broke out in 64 AD, he was placed under its command. There's some doubt as to whether Josephus sympathized with the revolt, or whether he accepted the role to try and protect his people against a Roman military response. When the Roman general Vespasian conquered Galilee, Josephus was forced to surrender. In an act of self-preservation, Josephus claimed to have seen Vespasian become emperor in a vision. Vespasian spared his life and made him part of his entourage. Josephus served as Vespasian's translator as the Roman general crushed the rest of the Zealot revolt. 

    Vespasian did become the emperor of Rome in 69 AD, and Josephus left his homeland for Rome in 71, where he would live under Vespasian's patronage for the rest of his life. He took the surname "Flavius" from the Flavian dynasty. But even though he was taken from his homeland and people, he would go on to write several important works of Jewish history.

    One of Flavius Josephus' books contains what is considered to be the first known recorded incident of 'mooning' or displaying a bare buttocks as a protest, joke, act of provocation. In Book II, Chapter 12 The Jewish War, Josephus described an event where a soldier in the Roman army mooned Jewish pilgrims at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem who had gathered for Passover, causing a riot and massive death. The soldier “pulled back his garment and, cowering down after an indecent manner, turned his breech to the Jews, and spake such words as you might expect upon such a posture.”

    39 votes