The opportunity to turn the tides of the battle after a seeming unavoidable defeat was rare and hard to pull off. A lot of factors could play to do this, be it weather, outside help, careful strategic planning, plain luck, or maybe the combination of all of these things. Throughout military history, there have been multiple times when sides managed to turn the tides of the war and defeat the enemy, regardless of how impossible it might seem. Here are some of those instances:

Battle of Saratoga

The Battle of Saratoga is considered a turning point in the American Revolution as it boosted the morale of the Continental Army and the Colonists at the same time, persuaded the Spanish, French, and Dutch to join the Americans against a common enemy.

Battle of Saratoga (September 19, 1777), print (MET, 33.104.2421) (Johann Martin Will, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The British wanted to cut off New England from the mid-Atlantic colonies and did so by sending huge amounts of troops to Albany. The Continental Army had just failed to invade Canada in what was known as the Battle of Quebec. They were beaten, sick, and in retreat: perfect timing for the British to try and squash the rebellion. They also wanted to stop any potential American allies like France from being part of the conflict.

While the troops were on their way to Albany, Sir William Howe, one of the leaders, decided to abandon the plan and instead try to invade Pennsylvania. On September 19, 1777, Howe’s group led by General John Burgoyne came face to face with the Continental forces on the abandoned farm of Loyalist John Freeman near Saratoga in New York. They battled for several hours resulting in the heavy losses of Burgoyne’s troops. The defeat of the British forces showed that the Colonists were not fighting for a lost cause and resulted in France’s decision to side with the Americans.

The Spanish Armada

It all started when King Philip II of Spain made a decision to invade England in 1584, and he immediately ordered the construction of a massive armada of ships capable of defeating and conquering Protestant England. The Spanish needed guns, cannons, powder, swords, and some other essential supplies from the open market from anyone who would sell them. Spain wanted to keep the Armada a secret to give their invasion an element of surprise.

Launch of English fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588. (Royal Museums Greenwich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

So the Armada, with its classic crescent formation, sailed from Lisbon Portugal up through the Bay of Biscay led by the newly appointed Medina Sidonia. Sidonia was considered good and very competent; however, he was new and inexperienced at sea. It comprised 120 ships with more than 2,500 guns, 8,000 sailors and 20,000 troops for the invasion. At that time, it was the largest fleet ever to put to sea in terms of sheer tonnage

On July 19, the news that the Armada was seen sailing reached the English forces. With this news, Sir Francis Drake set sail with his fleet from Plymouth to meet it, taking his sweet time that it took them 2 hours just to get his ships out of Devonport. When Drake’s group met the 7 mile long formation of Spanish ships. Drake’s fleet was larger but only 34 of them were actual warships, the other 163 were lightly armed merchant ships converted quickly for war. Their lighter guns had the range but at the expense of penetrating power.  Spanish ships had shorter ranged but heavier cannons and were relying on closing with the English ships and boarding them with infantry.  The battle at sea lasted for five days, with English cannonballs mostly bouncing off the Spanish ships and picking off a few here and there. But the running battle did manage to deplete the ready supply of shot and powder of the Spanish fleet. These ships were also packed with troops and their supplies, as a result, it was very hard to get the powder and shot up to the guns. The Armada anchored at Calais off the coast of France to await word from an allied army under the Duke of Parma in the Spanish-ruled Netherlands that was to accompany them on the invasion.  There, the English struck at them with eight “Fire Ships” loaded with gunpowder and manned by skeleton crews.  The crew would set these “Hell Burners” on a course in among the Spanish ships at anchor, light their fuses, and then take to a small boat rigged with sails and kite away back to the English fleet. By the time these ships got to the Spanish, they would be blazing from stem to stern and when the fire reached the stored powder they would explode in a giant fireball.  In a panic at the sight of these burning ships heading for them, the Armada fled the anchorage leaving behind any chance of linking up with the army of the Duke of Parma.

The scattering of the Spanish fleet destroyed the carefully kept crescent formation that protected them from the English fleet, as they sailed and it was now that Drake struck at the disorganized mass at a place called Gravelines.  There the English sank five Spanish ships and shot up dozens very badly.  The Spanish were forced to sail further up the coast. Any plans to add Parma’s forces to the Armada were now hopelessly wrecked.  The weather then took a turn, winds from the South forced the Spanish to sail North and away from Spain and home.  Their only choice was to sail around Scotland and Ireland and then try to head South again on the West coast of England. Running short of food and water and sailing battle-damaged ships, heavy seas and storms began to sink them or drive them onto the rocky coast of England. In the end only 67 ships would make it back to Spain, losing 20,000 men to battles, diseases, and the elements.