THINK YOU’RE HAVING an unlucky Friday the 13th? Well, whatever misfortune befalls you in the next 24 hours, it will more than likely pale in comparison to these famous (and not so famous) disasters from the pages of military history, all of which took place on this cursed of all dates. Consider the following:
Bad News from the Baltic
Friday June 13, 1952 was certainly a rotten day for Sweden. That’s when Soviet fighter jets destroyed an unarmed C-47 Dakota over international waters. The twin-engine military plane was on a routine intelligence-gathering mission at the time. All eight crewmembers perished in the attack. Hours later, Russian interceptors shot down a second Swedish aircraft – a PBY Catalina that was searching the Baltic for any sign of the first lost aircraft. Despite the fact that all hands of the rescue plane lived to report what had happened, Moscow denied knowledge of the incident until 1991.
The Fates dealt Robert E. Lee a cruel hand on Friday, Sept. 13, 1862, when one of his officers carelessly allowed a crucial battle plan to fall into enemy hands. Known as Special Order 191, the hand-written directive included 10 detailed instructions to units taking part in the Army of Northern Virginia’s invasion of Maryland. One of the many copies of the top secret document that were distributed to Lee’s commanders was inadvertently dropped in an abandoned campsite by a general named D. H. Hill on the morning of the 13th. Hours later, a sharp-eyed Yankee scout trailing the Reb army spied the paper in the grass. It was wrapped around three cigars. The young corporal dutifully passed it along to his superiors. The intelligence gleaned from the paper helped Union commanders defeat the Confederate army in the coming days at South Mountain and Antietam, one of the war’s most important battles.
A Dark Day For The Knights Templar
Friday Oct. 13, 1307 was downright lethal for the Knights Templar. Hundreds of members of the famous chivalric society were swept up in a series of mass arrests by French agents and then murdered. The bloody daylong crackdown came amid mounting suspicions by King Philip IV that followers of the ancient order were plotting against him. To win public support for his killing spree, the vindictive French monarch cynically claimed that the crusading knights engaged in blasphemous and homoerotic horseplay during their super secret meetings – think nudity, worshiping bizarre idols and even spitting on crucifixes. Confessions were beaten out of the suspects and many of those accused were summarily put to death. The Knights Templar massacre is often listed among of the reasons for our historic dread of Friday the 13th.
Britain’s Royals were certainly not amused on Friday Sept. 13, 1940 when German bombs rained down on London’s Buckingham Palace. The famous attack took place during the height of the Battle of Britain while King George VI and Elizabeth were in the residence having tea (of course). “It all happened so quickly that we only had time to look foolishly at each other,” the Queen later wrote of the incident. “My knees trembled a little bit.”  Her husband was unfazed by the incident. “I am glad we have been bombed,” the monarch famously declared. “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
The Battle of Friday the 13th
Japan’s admiralty hoped that fortune would similarly favour their emperor on Friday, Nov. 13, 1942. That’s when the IJN ordered a 39-ship task force under the command of Isoroku Yamamoto to blast its way through an American cordon around the island of Guadalcanal. Commanders planned to brush aside the U.S. flotilla and land 7,000 soldiers on the hotly contested island to retake a strategic airstrip located there: Henderson Field. The four-day naval engagement, which is remembered as the Battle of Friday the 13th, saw the smaller American force drive off or sink the Japanese fleet. Two of Yamamoto’s battleships and four other vessels were destroyed in the action. Seven fully loaded troop transports also went to the bottom of the Solomon Sea. America didn’t have all the luck however. Two admirals were killed in the epic clash, Daniel Callaghan and Norman Scott. They were the highest-ranking U.S. Navy officers to die in combat during World War Two.
To members of the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (aka “the Black Watch”), Oct. 13, 1944 would go down in history as Black Friday. During an operation that day aimed at clearing Holland’s Scheldt estuary of German troops as part of the larger Allied drive into Antwerp, the unit’s 1st Battalion ran headlong into a storm of enemy machine gun and rifle fire. After a furious 30-minute assault across 1,200 yards open ground, 145 of the Canadian infantrymen lay wounded or dead. One company suffered more than 90 percent casualties in the brief firefight. The terrain, which was hemmed in by marshes, canals and fortified railway embankments earned the grim nickname “the Coffin” following the slaughter.
An Empire Dies
As far as the people of the Aztec Empire were concerned, the world as they knew it ended on Friday Aug. 13, 1521. That’s when a Spanish army under the command of the conquistador Hernán Cortés marched into the capital of Tenochtitlán and slapped the shackles on Emperor Cuauhtémoc. The assault by 1,500 Europeans followed a bloody two-month campaign in which the 300,000-man Aztec army was steadily whittled down by the Catholic invaders and small pox. Once the city was safely in Spanish hands, the conqueror’s henchmen gleefully tortured the empire’s elites without mercy until they revealed the location of a hidden cache of treasure. According to some accounts, Cortés literally held Cuauhtémoc’s feet to the fire to get the humiliated monarch to confess the whereabouts of the missing gold. The ancient capital was renamed Mexico City and the Aztec emperor became a prisoner of the Spanish. Cortés had him executed in 1525.
(Originally Published March 12, 2015)