That question was the title of a scientific paper delivered by Edward Norton Lorenz at the 139th Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Washington D.C. in December 1972. It’s become known as the butterfly effect: “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.”
Jared Knott has taken that idea and run with it in an interesting book titled “Tiny Blunders/Big Disasters: Thirty-Nine Tiny Mistakes That Changed the World Forever“.
He examines events ranging from ancient empires to modern times, and shows how minor incidents or accidents led to major, even world-changing consequences. The vignettes he selects are interesting, informative and thought-provoking. I’ve selected a few of them at random.
The Death Of A Randy King
Alexander III, king of the Scots, was one of the greatest Scottish monarchs, his fame exceeded only by that of Kenneth MacAlpin (the semi legendary founder of the Scottish kingdom), David I, and Robert the Bruce. His reign, which lasted from 1249 to 1286, was the last of the Dunkeld dynasty, which began in 1034 and included such kings as Macbeth and David I.
Alexander succeeded to the throne at the age of seven, following the death of his father, King Alexander II, and was crowned at Scone on July 13, 1249. On December 26, 1251, he married Margaret of England, the eleven-year-old daughter of King Henry III (the son of “Bad King John,” who signed Magna Carta).
At a meeting between the two kings in 1255, Henry III attempted to force the young Alexander to recognize him as overlord of Scotland, but Alexander refused to submit. Alexander’s youth was dominated by a struggle between two noble factions—one pro-English, one not—for control of the boy king and the government of Scotland. In 1257, Alexander was kidnapped by the anti-English group, but a compromise was worked out, and the peace of the realm maintained.
Alexander became king in fact as well as name when he turned twenty-one in 1262. At once he declared his intention of winning for Scotland the Western Isles (the Hebrides and the Isle of Man), something his father had tried and failed to do. The isles had been ruled by Norway for centuries, a legacy of the Viking Age when Scandinavian fleets dominated the North Sea and terrorized the coastal towns of Scotland, Ireland, England, and France.
At the time, Norway was ruled by King Haakon IV (reigned 1217–1263). Norway was at the height of its power and influence, and Haakon’s fleet was the largest in northern Europe. Nevertheless, Alexander boldly laid claim to the islands and then sent an expedition to attack the Isle of Skye. Furious and determined to teach Alexander a lesson, in 1263 Haakon personally led a force that might have been as large as 200 ships and 15,000 men to the Western Isles.
Just how clever and resourceful the young Alexander was now becoming evident. In the summer of 1263, Haakon’s fleet anchored off the Isle of Arran. Unable to meet such a large force on equal terms, Alexander began negotiations. He artfully prolonged these until autumn, when stormy weather set in. When some of Haakon’s ships were driven aground off Largs in the Firth of Forth and the Norwegian forces made a landing, the Scots launched a surprise attack on them (October 2, 1263). The Battle of Largs was a draw, but the lateness of the season forced Haakon to return to Norway. The Norwegian king died at Orkney while on his way home, a great stroke of luck from Alexander’s point of view.
Alexander conquered the Hebrides in 1264, and by the Treaty of Perth in 1266, Norway ceded the islands to Scotland in return for a sum of money. In 1275, Alexander definitely won the Isle of Man for Scotland after the Scots were victorious at the Battle of Ronaldsway. The young king had added the Western Isles to his possessions, succeeding where his father Alexander II had failed.
After Alexander came to the throne, his relations with England and his father-in-law, Henry III, were amicable. This state of affairs continued under Henry’s son, the formidable warrior King Edward I (who succeeded his father in 1272 and was later to become known as the “Hammer of the Scots”). Alexander and Margaret had three children—two sons, Alexander (born 1264) and David (born 1272), and a daughter, Margaret (born 1261), who married King Eric II of Norway in 1281. At the time of his daughter’s marriage, Alexander III was just forty years old, and Scotland was prosperous and at peace.
Then, a series of disasters struck.
First Alexander’s youngest son, David, died. Then his other son, Alexander, the heir apparent, died in 1284. Prince Alexander had been married but died childless. The king’s other child, Margaret of Norway, died in childbirth in 1283, leaving an infant daughter, also named Margaret and later called the Maid of Norway. In Scotland the succession passed through the male line, but Alexander III persuaded the Scottish nobles to name little Margaret his successor. However, an infant girl as heir presumptive was leaving much to chance, so King Alexander decided to remarry and, hopefully, produce more sons.
Queen Margaret, the mother of the king’s three children, had died in 1275 when she was not yet thirty-five years old. That life in the Middle Ages could be cruel and harsh is clearly revealed by the many early deaths in Alexander’s family. Since the queen’s death, Alexander had not been lacking in female companionship. According to the Chronicle of Lanercost, a contemporary history, he was a womanizer who “used never to forebear on account of season or storm, nor for perils of flood or rocky cliffs but would visit, not too creditably, matrons and nuns, virgins and widows, by day or by night as the fancy seized him.” He was, in plain English, a randy king who took his pleasure with any woman he fancied.
Now, with his wife and all his children dead, the king resolved to remarry. He chose as his new wife Yolande de Dreux, the daughter of a French count. She was also related to the Capetian kings of France. Alexander and Yolande were married in October or November of 1285 (sources differ). She was twenty-two; he was forty-four.
In March 1286, Queen Yolande was staying at Kinghorn on the Firth of Forth, across the water from Edinburgh. The king spent the day of March 18 in council with his nobles. When their business was finished and the king had dined, he resolved to set out at once to see the queen, whose birthday was the next day. It was a dark and stormy night. The Chronicle of Lanercost tells us what happened:
“The protracted feast having come to an end, he would neither be deterred by stress of weather nor yield to the persuasion of his nobles, but straightaway hurried along the road to Queensferry, in order to visit his bride… For she was then staying at Kinghorn.
“When he arrived at the village near the crossing, the ferry master warned him of the danger, and advised him to go back; but when [the king] asked him in return whether he was afraid to die with him: ‘By no means,’ quoth he, ‘it would be a great honor to share the fate of your father’s son.’ Thus he [i.e., the king] arrived at the burgh of Inverkeithing, in profound darkness, accompanied by only three esquires. The manager of his saltpans, a married man of that town, recognising him by his voice, called out: ‘My lord, what are you doing here in such a storm and such darkness? Often, I have tried to persuade you that your nocturnal rambles will bring you no good. Stay with us, and we will provide you with decent fare and all that you want till morning light.’ ‘No need for that’ said [the king] with a laugh, ‘but provide me with a couple of bondmen, to go afoot as guides to the way.’
“And it came to pass that when they had proceeded two miles, one and all lost all knowledge of the way, owing to the darkness; only the horses, by natural instinct, picked out the hard road. While they were thus separated from each other, the esquires took the right road; but [the king] at length… fell from his horse, and bade farewell to his kingdom in the sleep of Sisara.”
Alexander’s horse had presumably stumbled and the king had been thrown, possibly falling off a cliff. His dead body was found on the morning of March 19. Soon after his death, it was learned that Queen Yolande was pregnant, but either she suffered a miscarriage or the child was stillborn or died in infancy. Scotland was without a leader. Alexander’s sole surviving heir, his granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, thus became queen of the Scots. She left Norway for Scotland in 1290 but died on the way at Orkney, just as her great-grandfather Haakon IV had done while returning from Scotland to Norway in 1263. She was only seven years old.
The death of Alexander III plunged Scotland into a difficult period known as the Wars of Scottish Independence, which lasted from 1296 to 1357. This was the time of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and the Battle of Bannockburn, a famous Scottish victory of 1314. The earlier part of this history is covered, with occasional accuracy, in the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart.
For the next 250 years, until the Scottish king James VI became king of England as James I, Scotland rarely knew the peace and prosperity it had achieved under Alexander III. King Alexander, keen to be with his new young bride, had committed a small blunder by riding out on a pitch-black and stormy night. The accident that followed and ended his reign was a great disaster for Scotland, one that took the Scots centuries from which to recover.
The Unopened Letter That Saved America
[In 1776] Washington conceived the bold plan of carrying out a surprise attack on Trenton. The army would cross the Delaware and execute a night march of about ten miles, arriving before dawn and, hopefully, surprising the Hessians in their beds. The night of December 25–26 was chosen for the attack in the belief that the Hessians would be even less alert because of the holiday. The password to be used that night, chosen by Washington himself, was “victory or death.”
The crossing of the Delaware (later immortalized in the painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze) and the march were performed with difficulty, for the night was stormy and bitterly cold. Two detachments failed to get across the river, reducing Washington’s attacking force to little more than 2,000 men (still larger than the Hessian garrison, however).
The difficulties of the march meant that the Continentals arrived at Trenton after daybreak rather than before, but no matter. The Hessians were taken by surprise, and after a brief engagement most of them surrendered. Only a few of the Hessians were killed, though among the dead was their commander, Colonel Rall, who was wounded by a musket ball and died later that day. The Americans suffered no battle deaths, though some men died later from frostbite. Five Americans were wounded at Trenton, including future president James Monroe.
The story is often told that the Hessians were taken by surprise because they were sleeping off an alcohol-laden Christmas celebration, but there’s no truth to the tale. In fact, a small blunder on Colonel Rall’s part cost him both the battle and his life while it gave new life to the American cause, which before the battle had seemed all but lost.
Colonel Rall was a capable professional soldier, the son of an officer. He was fifty years old at the time the battle was fought. He had asked for reinforcements, but these had been denied him. He had ignored recommendations to fortify Trenton, though it’s unlikely his forces could have done so in time because they arrived in the town less than two weeks before the battle was fought. Rall had received warnings about a possible American attack, but no definite information about the American plan reached him—until the day before the battle, that is.
On Christmas Eve, Rall was visiting the home of a loyalist in Trenton, a merchant named Abraham Hunt. A letter for Rall arrived at the house and was given to him. Unbeknownst to Rall, it contained information from a British spy about the upcoming American attack. The Hessian commander, distracted by a game of cards (or possibly chess) he was playing, absently put the letter in his pocket. Had he opened it then or after returning to his quarters, Rall could have prepared his troops to defend Trenton—and most likely inflicted a sharp defeat on the attacking Americans. But the letter remained in his coat pocket unopened and was found on his body after the battle.
Such a tiny blunder, mere forgetfulness—but what a disaster for the British cause! The American victory at Trenton, followed days later by another at Princeton, revived American hopes and morale. Above all, it secured the position of the one indispensable man on the American side—George Washington. It’s generally agreed by historians that Washington was vital to keeping the army, the Congress, and indeed the country together during the difficult years that preceded final victory. Had Washington been defeated at Trenton, both he and the cause of American independence might have been lost.
Hitler Saves Britain
Although the tide of war in Europe definitely turned against Nazi Germany with the Allied victories at El Alamein and Stalingrad in late 1942, Hitler’s best chances to win a complete victory in World War II occurred in 1940 and 1941. Had Hitler been able to conquer either the British Isles or the Soviet Union, any chance of defeating him would have been very slim indeed. There were three particularly dangerous moments in 1940–1941 when Hitler came within a hairsbreadth of complete victory.
Hitler’s first opportunity came at Dunkirk in 1940. He held back the German Panzers outside the French port for two days, probably because he believed the Luftwaffe could prevent any evacuation of the trapped British Expeditionary Force. When he changed his mind and ordered his armored divisions to resume their advance, the British had recovered sufficiently to prevent a breakthrough. Over the next several days, the Royal Navy and British civilian sailors ran the gauntlet of the English Channel under constant air attack to evacuate the beleaguered British troops.
When the port was finally taken, the 330,000 British soldiers were gone, having escaped to their home island to fight again. Had the BEF been annihilated or captured at Dunkirk, German paratroopers could have easily landed in southern England. Then the German Navy, covered by the Luftwaffe, would undoubtedly have risked a landing on the British coast. A successful landing would have doomed Britain to defeat and occupation.
The third opportunity for a total German victory occurred before Moscow in late 1941. German troops advanced to the very outskirts of the city—a reconnaissance battalion actually glimpsed the spires of the Kremlin before the Russian forces, aided by the early arrival of “General Winter,” saved the Russian capital from capture.
Between these two decisive events was a third and equally critical moment in which the fate of civilization hung in the balance. Once again Hitler made a decision that actually saved his most determined enemy, Churchill’s Britain, from defeat. While his halting of the Panzers before Dunkirk had proved to be a mistake, it was a decision taken coolly and rationally. It was not a blunder in the strictest sense of that term. Now Britain would again be saved by Hitler changing tactics when his forces were on the brink of victory. This mistake, however, was triggered by a blunder that no one could have foreseen or prevented—a tiny blunder that triggered a chain of events ending in disaster for the Nazi dictator, dashing his hopes of dominating first Europe and then the world.
German air attacks on Britain began even before the fall of France. But the Battle of Britain proper began on August 13, 1940, dubbed “Eagle Day” by the Germans. The Luftwaffe was tasked with defeating the Royal Air Force and gaining air supremacy over Britain, paving the way for a landing and the occupation of the British Isles.
German tactics were to attack Britain’s fighter airfields and radar stations, which would force British Fighter Command to commit its well-trained but numerically inferior forces (when the battle opened, Britain had about one thousand frontline pilots for its Spitfire and Hurricane fighters). If Fighter Command could be defeated, then the Germans would be able to bomb targets throughout Britain with impunity, making a successful invasion of the island virtually a foregone conclusion.
The campaign opened unpromisingly. Bad weather and ferocious resistance by the RAF prevented the Luftwaffe from delivering any decisive blows. But then the German air force hit its stride. In the two-week period between August 24 and September 6, it consistently pounded the airfields and radar stations of southern England, knocking some of them out. Repairs could not be performed quickly enough under the daily and effective attacks the Luftwaffe was delivering, and by early September, Fighter Command was contemplating the possibility of a withdrawal from its forward deployment areas in southern England. Such a move would have been the equivalent of an admission of impending defeat.
Worse, during this period, nearly one-quarter of Britain’s trained pilots were either killed or wounded. Losses among this precious cadre, barely one thousand strong when the battle began, could not be made good quickly. British aircraft losses during these two terrible weeks actually exceeded those of the Luftwaffe even though the latter was the attacking force. The German fighters, which had the double duty of protecting the German bombers and engaging the RAF’s fighters, were winning the Battle of Britain.
The British were now staring defeat in the face. But they were about to be saved by a tiny blunder committed a few days earlier—a blunder that would lead to a turning of the tide and the salvation of their beleaguered island.
On August 24, the very day on which Britain’s two terrible weeks began, a German aircraft accidentally dropped a few bombs on a residential area of London. Hitler had specifically ordered that civilian targets in London were not to be bombed. The docks of the East End were legitimate military targets, however, and the Luftwaffe did attack them. On August 24, for reasons that remain unknown, one German plane failed to release its bombs over the docks.
Perhaps it was a communications foul-up or a navigational error, or perhaps the pilot, having missed the docks, simply wished to unload his bombs before returning to base. In any case, a few bombs fell on central London, and a handful of British civilians were killed and injured. It was not a terror attack or retaliation for British raids on German cities (since May 1940, the British had carried out a few small air raids on towns in western Germany) but a blunder, pure and simple.
Despite the insignificant amount of damage done by the stray Luftwaffe bomber, the pugnacious British prime minister Winston Churchill ordered immediate retaliation. A small force of British bombers raided Berlin on the night of August 25–26, causing almost no damage. On the night of August 28–29, the British sent a further eighty-one bombers to the German capital. Some damage was done, and a handful of Berliners were killed. The raid embarrassed Reich Marshal Hermann Goering, the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, who had bragged that no British bomber would ever reach Berlin.
Hitler was not embarrassed but enraged. German prestige demanded a crushing response. On September 4, with the RAF reeling under the Luftwaffe’s daily attacks, the Führer ordered a change in tactics. London would now become the Luftwaffe’s main target.
The massive bombing of London began on September 7, 1940. Over the next week, London suffered a series of daylight attacks, with great damage and loss of life. But by concentrating on the British capital and neglecting the ravaged fighter airfields and radar stations, the Luftwaffe gave Fighter Command breathing space. Repairs could now be made, and the infrastructure of Britain’s fighter defense was saved from imminent collapse. At the same time, Fighter Command was not compelled to commit its forces against every wave of attacking German aircraft; it could husband its resources of men and planes even though doing so left London exposed to the fury of the German onslaught.
September 15, 1940 was the decisive day in the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe mounted its biggest daylight attack of the war, seeking to finally crush the RAF and the morale of the British people. But the eight days’ grace Fighter Command had been given provided the margin of victory. On this day, British pilots shot down fifty-six German planes against a loss of only twenty-six. The RAF was now master of the daylight skies over southern England. Britain would survive and fight on to eventually become the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” from which Allied bombers would mount their massive attacks on German cities.
The Germans now switched tactics again, turning to night bombing of London and other British cities. But this could not decide the war in Germany’s favor. The failure to crush the RAF had prevented Germany from conquering Britain. Hitler’s rash decision to bomb London in retaliation for minor British raids on Berlin had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. And what was the origin of this monumental mistake on Hitler’s part? A German pilot had accidentally dropped a few bombs on London. This small blunder set off a chain of events that ended, improbably, in the salvation of Britain. For Nazi Germany, of course, Hitler’s decision proved to be disastrous.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” said Winston Churchill in tribute to the fighter pilots who saved Britain in the summer of 1940. But if not for that small blunder committed by a German pilot, Churchill’s words might not have proved true.
Three mistaken decisions, each seemingly minor at the time, but major in their wider implications. The book describes many more mistakes, some catastrophic, some fortunate. I wonder how many others have occurred, but never been documented?