From dogs and witches to gay lovers and giants, the world’s strangest military units are, well, strange.
Though some saw combat and served with valor, others fulfilled ceremonial purposes only, while one never really existed at all, although the enemy was convinced that it did.
Good, because we’re about to take a look at 5 of the world’s strangest military units.
1. The Sacred Band of Thebes
The Sacred Band of Thebes was a unique Greek military unit made up of 150 “couples” that earned a fierce reputation for bravery, cunning and all-around battlefield prowess in the 4th century BC.
Oh, and they were all men.
These days we generally consider ourselves more enlightened than our historic counterparts, but in ancient Greece amorous relationships between men and men and men and boys were relatively normal, and soldiers sent to far flung corners of the empire on multi-year campaigns often formed intimate relationships with one another and their servants.
Not surprisingly, these relationships were rarely between men of the same age, wealth, social and military status.
On the contrary, couples usually consisted of older senior partners and younger junior ones, the latter of which were subject to social stigma in Greek society and often filled multiple subordinate roles like those of servant and concubine.
Nonetheless, these affairs often resulted in the formation of remarkably strong bonds, and in some cases they were even formalized in ceremonies in which vows were exchanged, either before, during or after the campaign.
In addition to keeping the men more comfortable and satisfied while away from their families for extended periods, it was discovered that soldiers fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with their lovers often fought harder to protect those that meant the most to them.
The first references to the Sacred Band surfaced in the writings of Plutarch decades later, but the Sacred Band was first sent into battle in 378 BC during the Boeotian War.
That said, their true worth wouldn’t be realized until later in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, in which the unit fought with fervor at the head of the Theban column against the Spartans.
In fact, the Band went largely undefeated until the Battle of Chaeronea, when a Macedonian army commanded by Philip II and his son Alexander (later Alexander the Great) obliterated the Greek forces which consisted of both Athenian and Thebian troops.
Plutarch’s account of the battle stated that upon surveying the decimated Thebians, Philip became overcome with sorrow and wept at their shredded, bloodied and twisted corpses, many of which were wrapped around one another as in one last eternal embrace.
To commemorate the Band’s successes and ultimate defeat, an impressive lion statue was erected in Thebes after the Battle of Chaeronea, but it wouldn’t be rediscovered until the 19th century when the remains were uncovered by archaeologists.
Below the monument was a large stone tomb that contained the remains of more than 250 men who were probably soldiers from the Sacred Band of Thebes.
2. The Night Witches
During the Second World War, one unit of Russian aviators on the Eastern Front struck terror in the hearts of German infantrymen more than any other.
Flying over the advancing Nazi’s heads in rickety planes made largely of plywood, the Night Witches were so despised that any German who shot one down was awarded a coveted Iron Cross.
Between 1942 and 1945 the all-female all-volunteer Night Witches carried out tens of thousands of bombing missions under the cover of darkness, and unlike their male counterparts who painted snarling teeth and other manly things on their warbirds, the Witches, most of whom were in their late teens and early 20s, decorated theirs with flowers and cartoon characters.
Relying primarily on stealth, the women pilots would often shut off the engines on their Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes so the German’s wouldn’t hear them approaching until the last minute.
Underpowered but rugged and maneuverable, Polikarpov’s could only carry a few hundred pounds of bombs on each sorte, but even with engines off their wings made telltale swooshing sounds that were often detectable from miles away on still nights, and by the time the Witches dropped their bombs the soldiers below were often safely ensconced in bunkers.
Due to their fabric and wood construction Po-2s offered little protection from ground fire and were particularly prone to catching fire when hit by tracer rounds.
But though they didn’t inflict particularly heavy damage in terms of men and material, the psychological effects they had on enemy troops were immeasurable.
After all, soldiers worrying about flying witches dropping bombs on them don’t tend to sleep well, and as a result they don’t fight particularly well the next day either.
It has been said that the fact that Stalin allowed and even promoted all-female units was evidence that he was a proponent of equality, but that’s just not the case.
Instead, Russian pilots were in painfully short supply and qualified aviators were being lost at an alarming rate.
Hence, women were an untapped labor pool, and without them, the missions they flew probably never would have gotten off the ground because there just weren’t enough men to go around, and the military situation was becoming more dire by the day.
All told the Witches flew more than 20,000 missions, dropped 3,000 tons of bombs and more than 20,000 incendiary shells on German troops.
Nearly three dozen Witches were shot down, and it was the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, with some pilots having flown nearly 1,000 sorties by war’s end.
Twenty-three Witches were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, and the last flight took place in early May of 1945 less than 40 miles (58 km) from Berlin.
Three days later, Germany officially surrendered.
3. The Potsdam Giants
Known as the “Soldier King,” Frederick William I of Prussia reigned for more than three decades in the mid-18th century, during which time his relatively small country flourished both militarily and economically.
A homosexual himself, Frederick did marry and father children children, but the rotund, unathletic man stood less than 5 ½ feet tall, and he had a penchant for handsome soldiers that towered over him.
Perhaps in a subconscious nod to his Thebian brothers, Frederick once purportedly claimed that “the most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers, they are my weakness.”
And since he was king and enjoyed nearly unlimited powers, he set about creating a unit of abnormally tall soldiers that would become known as the Potsdam Giants.
In the beginning height requirements were just a touch over 6 feet, or about 1.8 meters, though that would change later on.
In fact as far as Frederick was concerned, the taller the better, and to that end he instituted a pay scale that rewarded taller soldiers over shorter ones.
But ever the fickle commander, Frederick soon became dissatisfied with his so-called giants, and set out to procure even loftier recruits from all over the world.
Word spread, and foreign leaders eager to curry favor with the eccentric Prussian began sending soldiers from their own armies as gifts, and some even resorted to kidnapping civilians.
In one instance, the Prussian ambassador in London had his servant James Kirkland – an Irishman who stood more than 7-feet-tall – loaded onto a boat bound for the continent against his will.
But in an even more sinister story, a German carpenter who stood 6 ½-feet-tall was tricked into getting into a crate he’d just made for a nefarious Baron, after which his henchman slapped on the lid and nailed it shut before shipping it off to Prussia.
Upon arrival however, thanks to the lack of breathing holes, the man inside was dead, though it’s not clear whether this actually happened or was just a fanciful yarn.
Either way, unlike their Thebian counterparts, the Potsdam Giants never saw action.
Instead the tall, universally handsome and elegantly attired soldiers were reserved for ceremonial duties for the sole pleasure of the giddy king.
By the end of his reign Frederick had become downright infatuated with his giants and the unit ultimately swelled to over 2,000 men, some of whom he bred with tall women to ensure a plentiful supply of oversized children.
Sadly his experiment in human husbandry didn’t pan out the way he’d hoped, and serving no real purpose and costing a small fortune to maintain, the unit was quietly dissolved by his son and successor.
4. The Paradogs
Using animals for military purposes has always been relatively common.
In the early years of World War II, the British Army began asking dog owners across the country to “lend” their canines to the 13th Lancashire Parachute Battalion in what would become one of the boldest experiments of the war.
Army brass’ brash plan included training dogs to do everything from detecting landmines to tracking enemy troops, but to fulfill their roles they’d need to do the unthinkable – parachute into war zones like their human counterparts.
Shortly after thinking up the unique idea, the War Dog Training School was established, and the first class included a group of stout German shepherds named Bob, Ranee, Flash, Monty, Bing and Brian.
Training was long and arduous, and before their first real jump the dogs were forced to sit on board transport planes with running engines to get them acclimated to the noise and vibrations.
In addition, the dogs were trained to detect gunpowder and explosives using their ultra sensitive noses, follow enemy soldiers without being detected, and to get close to the ground if a firefight broke out.
Next came actual airborne training.
Outfitted with custom parachutes, prior to actually jumping from the airplanes the dogs were deprived of food then enticed out the hatch with juicy hunks of meat.
On each jump they were accompanied by their handlers, with whom they’d formed particularly strong bonds.
While in the air, dog and man were rarely more than 30 or 40 yards apart, and though they often appeared bewildered and anxious, trainers noted that they didn’t appear to be particularly scared, and that when their names were called mid-flight the dogs barked and wagged their tails normally.
After landing the canines stayed where they were until their parachutes were removed and they were fed and watered.
Then, training complete, just before D-Day in June 1944 three transport planes lumbered over the Normandy beaches.
When it was time to jump however, the planes were riddled with anti aircraft fire.
Though some of the dogs lept out on command, Bing was severely shaken by the noise and chaos and retreated into the fuselage, and a harried radio operator had to toss him out manually.
Bing’s parachute caught the branches of a tree before hitting the ground where he hung for hours until he was cut down.
He’d sustained severe but non-life threatening injuries from shrapnel, but others weren’t so lucky, including Ranee who was never seen after leaping from the plane.
During and after the war the dogs were exploited for propaganda purposes, and in many cases the stories of their valor in combat were embellished or downright fabricated.
But there’s no denying they did their duty, and at least one, Brian, was reunited with his original owners and lived a relaxed life for another decade before dying in 1955.
5. The Ghost Army
In times of war deception often plays a more critical role than absolute might, and though it remained shrouded in mystery for decades after World War II, the role of the American 23rd Headquarters Special Troops can’t be overstated.
Dubbed the “Ghost Army” and numbering just over 1,100 men, the unit succeeded in convincing the Nazis that their strength was significantly greater than it really was, and the ruse ultimately went down as one of the greatest stunts in military history.
In the end it tricked Hitler and his top generals, saved thousands of Allied lives, and contributed to numerous victories that may have otherwise ended in stunning defeats, but the idea wasn’t originally an American one.
Instead, the Yanks took inspiration from the Brits who’d used a similar tactic before the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in 1942.
Called Operation Bertram, the English forces in the desert used fake tanks, pretend munitions depots and misleading radio signals to trick the Germans into thinking they were on the verge of mounting an attack much farther south than the actual location.
It was a smashing success, and as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
To create their own deception on an even grander scale, the Americans recruited young talent from art schools, movie sets and other places where crafty creative types were found in great numbers.
The result was a gargantuan if non-lethal force consisting of inflatable tanks, cannons, jeeps, trucks, and airplanes that didn’t look particularly realistic up close, but when spotted by reconnaissance aircraft thousands of feet up they did.
In addition, the clandestine crews also used speakers to blast the sounds of tank tracks slapping the earth and marching feet in the enemy’s direction, and they were loud enough to be heard more than a dozen miles away.
They also used fake radio transmissions that they knew were being intercepted, all of which together convinced the Germans that the forces they were up against were larger than they really were.
As a result, armor, artillery and infantry were diverted to combat the non-existent threat, while the actual force was able to move with little resistance, saving hundreds or thousands of lives in the process.
On one occasion the Ghost Army convinced much-hated American Nazi sympathizer Mildred E. Gillars of false troop strength and movements, which she consequently rebroadcast to the Wehrmacht, which in turn sent a significant force to attack a non-existent Allied division.
At war’s end the Ghost Army had carried out nearly two dozen deceptive operations in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.