Everyone loves an underdog story. When those stories involve tough little armies battling the odds against enormous aggressing forces, they make for some of the most exciting, moving stories of war heroism. Military underdog stories of small armies that defeated massive opposition come from all over the world, from Finland to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and span centuries of warfare. When forced to fight, small, poor, and otherwise powerless nations and ethnicities need to get creative to outsmart opponents. In some instances, small countries fighting big aggressors won simply by virtue of displaying tremendous courage under fire.
War is never pretty, but it occasionally serves and important purpose, such as defending a culture and way of life from massive invading forces bent on wiping out natives and their lifestyle. The startling military upsets on this list show the tremendous bravery and fortitude of those who took a stand against imperial invasion.
On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union’s Red Army set its sights on Finland, left the Petrograd District (now St. Petersburg), and headed north over the Russian-Finnish border with the goal of pushing that border into Finland, thereby expanding the Soviet Union. The USSR believed the sheer size of its one-million strong mechanized battalion would brush 400,000 Finns aside, and the conflict would be over within weeks. The Finns gave them hell.
When the Red Army attacked the eastern Finnish border, it encountered something unexpected: forest so dense it slowed Soviet progress. At the time, very few roads existed in rural Finland. Those that did exist were logging roads, which forced Soviet vehicles to travel single file.
The Finns harnessed their environmental advantage, trapping the Russians in pockets. This technique, dubbed Motti Tactics, named after a Finnish term for a measurement of wood, was a huge success during the month-long battle of Suomussalmi. For example, when Finns encountered a column of Russian tanks in single file, they destroyed the first and last tanks in the row, trapping those in the middle. With nowhere to go, these tanks and the troops were picked by camouflaged Finnish ski troops.
Extreme winter temperatures and a lack of an effective officer corps, which had been wiped out in Stalin’s purges, aided the Finnish cause. The Finns also did a bang-up job fighting the Soviets in the air - one Finnish pilot made headlines around the world for shooting down six soviet bombers in four minutes.
Suomussalmi, and the entire Winter War, for that matter, was the greatest and most surprising defeat for the Red Army in World War Two. It proved a million-man modern army with tanks and an air force could be defeated by an army less than half the size.
Greece and Italy go way back, and their relationship is a bit fraught. Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini dreamed of rebuilding the Roman Empire, and thus began invading other countries. In October 1940, the Italian army crossed the Greek border at several locations, intent on capturing a number of cities. Though the Italian army was small at the time, its size swelled to more than 500,000 troops, and was reinforced by armored units and the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica), while the Greek army numbered less than 200,000.
After about five months, the Italian army withdrew, having suffered several decisive defeats. Greek sovereignty was preserved. Several factors decided the outcome of this short chapter in World War II, including Italy's grave mistake of not informing one of Mussolini's top generals of the invasion of Greece until it had already begun. On top of that, attacking the opponent's position was incredibly difficult thanks to mountainous terrain and the rainy season, which created a deluge of mud. Greek familiarity with the terrain and weather, as well as home support, helped greatly.
Mussolini was known for being paranoid, as well as his tendency to change his mind quickly and often. In addition to scheming behind his generals's backs, the dictator rushed the Italian army into war without adequate preparation. Though outnumbered and at a technological disadvantage, Greece proved perfectly capable of dashing Il Duce’s plans to resurrect an empire in the Mediterranean and Aegean.
In annals of failed crusades, the Third Anti-Hussite Crusade takes the cake as the most embarrassing defeat for a major crusading force invading a small region. It was a small conflict in a series of engagements known as the Hussite Wars. The crusade was launched against Hussites, followers of John Hus in Bohemia (Czech Republic), by Pope ‘Oddo’ Martin V, who declared his opponents heretics.
In July 1420, a crusading force of 3,000 to 4,000 knights reached the walls of Prague and mounted an attack against a key point, Vitkov Hill. About 60 local soldiers, aided perhaps by some peasants, defended the position with an unexpected, very violent and aggressive push, which drove the surprised knights down a steep cliff, causing them to panic and flee, A relief force arrived thereafter and helped secure the area.
The most remarkable part of the Hussite victory was a peasant rebel army wresting independence from a professional crusader army and the Church in Rome. This rebellion gave birth to the Moravian Church, which has existed since 1457, and predates the Protestant Reformation.
The outbreak of World War I saw the invasion of several small nations by larger, more powerful foreign armies. Tsar Nicholas’s imperial army, for instance, invaded the East Prussian territory of the German Empire (now Poland). In August 1914, the German army, comprised of around 150,000 troops, attacked the invading Russian army, which was nearly twice its size.
After an initial encounter, the Russians advanced and the Germans retreated over the Vistula River to reorganize. While regrouping, the Germans eavesdropped, by radio, on Russian conversations about their next move. Realizing the Russians had stretched their forces too thin to coordinate maneuvers and stay supplied, the Germans attacked on multiple fronts, driving the enemy away.
The Russian retreat became a brutal route. The Germans lost around 20,000 soldiers, but captured close to 100,000 Russians and killed 30,000. Additionally, the smaller German force captured 500 artillery cannons and successfully destroyed an entire army. It's believed the amount of materiel and prisoners seized by the Germans was enough to fill sixty trains.
The decisive German victory demonstrated how a small army could adapt and outsmart a much larger invading force with a flexible order of battle. The German victory was so thorough distraught Russian general, Alexander Samsonov, walked into the forest and shot himself.