Feb 5

What to do when your commander burns his own perfectly good fleet?

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 12:01 AM


Hernando Cortez scuttles his ships

Hernán Cortés scuttles his ships (O. Graeff, 1892)

If you ever find yourself in command of an invading army, and surrounded by a numerically superior enemy hell-bent on your destruction, it is probably not a good idea to intentionally eliminate your only means of retreat. Yet that is what the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés did in 1519 when he sunk his own naval fleet to keep his men from deserting during his campaign to conquer the Aztec Empire. It was one of the biggest gambles in military history. He conquered the Aztec two years later, but things could have easily gone the other way. If Cortés had been defeated, choosing to destroy his own fleet would be remembered as one of the most foolish moves ever made by a military commander.

Earlier that year, Cortés sailed from present day Cuba to the Mexican coast with approximately 200 men to establish a colony for the Spanish crown. Soon after landing, Cortés faced stiff resistance from warriors of a vast civilization. However, armed with little more than arrows and spears, they were no match for the gun-toting, horse-riding Spanish. Cortés conquered several cities along the coast before venturing inland, seizing gold, silver, and other treasure along the way. The main seat of Aztec power, the city of Tenochtitlan, lay untouched just a few hundred miles to the west.

Hernan Cortes

Hernán Cortés 1485-1547 (Artist Unknown)

Cortés was at a decision point. He could have declared victory and returned to Cuba to take stock of his spoils and prepare for another invasion with a larger force better suited to take on the hundreds of thousands of Aztec soldiers under the command of Montezuma. But Cortés knew he had momentum on his side; the natives were already suffering from brutal defeats at the hands of the Spanish and divided by ancient rivalries. Nevertheless, many of his men thought the campaign to take on an entire empire with such a small force was an act of madness. They joined the mission for the adventure and spoils, and didn’t intend to lose their lives.

In the meantime, Cortés learned of a conspiracy among his men to seize 10 ships and return to Cuba. As long as the ships were anchored off the coast, the possibility of escape lingered in the minds of the conspirators. Cortés wrote to the Spanish king: “the means of escape were open, the timid and disaffected might, at some point in time, avail themselves” of the ships.

Cortés made his decision. Keeping his plan secret from all but a few of his most loyal lieutenants, he bribed the ships’ pilots to concoct a story that five of the ships were not seaworthy, having been damaged by the strong gales they encountered on the way to Mexico. Cortés then stripped the ships of their sails, riggings, and ironworks, and anything else that could be used on land. Finally the hulls were then scuttled. Four other ships were inspected in the same manner, and deemed unfit for a sea voyage as well. These were destroyed, leaving only one ship.

With their only exit route effectively cut off, Cortés and his men had only one option: to head into the interior and fight. The fate of the Aztecs and the rest of the native population was sealed. William Prescott, the great chronicler of Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, wrote in 1836 that Cortés’s gamble “was an act of resolution that has few parallels in history.”

Hernan Cortes entering Cholul, Mexico

Hernán Cortés entering Cholul, Mexico

Why would a military commander destroy his own fleet? For one, it simplifies campaign planning and execution by eliminating all options but one. It strengthens soldiers’ resolve to fight—once they know all possibilities for retreat are eliminated, they must fight for their lives. This tends to increase ferocity in battle and for the mission in general.

Aside from Cortés, history provides few examples of military commanders deliberately cutting off their own lines of retreat to force their men to fight. In 336 A.D., the Roman Emperor Julian sought to battle the Sassanid Persian kingdom in present day Iraq. He assembled a fleet of over one-thousand ships and sailed down the Euphrates River before marching across land and sending a portion of his fleet along a deep channel towards the Tigris River, the site of the Persian stronghold of Ctesiphon. Under the cover of darkness, he ferried his troops on ships across the Tigris towards Ctesiphon, but its strong defenses made it impervious to siege. Julian instead bypassed Ctesiphon altogether, aiming to draw the Persians into battles further inland. To force his army to follow him, he burned his entire fleet. Julian’s forces were now on the wrong side of the Tigris with no easy way of retreating. They must fight on. But the Persians eventually defeated Julian, who was wounded in battle and died a month later.

Emperor Julian

Emperor Julian 331-363

Julian’s reasons for destroying his fleet may have had less to do with boldness than the fact the ships had become a burden. Returning up the Euphrates would have been extremely difficult—against the current. Why try to sail your ships upriver through a series of cataracts when you can fight on land and return home another way? And if you’re going to abandon your ships and supplies, you might as well destroy them to prevent the ships falling into enemy hands. Because Julian was eventually defeated, his decision to burn his ships is remembered as foolhardy. But had his campaign been victorious, his move would be venerated today as one of history’s most successful gambles.

Could we expect modern military commanders to ever do such a thing? Maybe to prevent equipment from falling into enemy hands. But not to intentionally cut off retreat. For one, it would be tough to justify the waste of expensive equipment to a public that demands government accountability. Modern militaries also operate with a division of responsibility between naval and land forces, providing a check on a land commander’s power. Cortés and Julian were in charge of both and could do what they pleased.

In an era of instant communications and vastly superior transportation capabilities, an expeditionary force opposed to its commander’s orders could easily contact the rear for help, and be resupplied by air or by sea. Social media could act as another barrier. Imagine the live-tweeted complaints of the soldiers and sailors whose fleet were destroyed. I knew Twitter was good for something.