Plunder and Destroy: 12 of History's Most Daring Raids
Plunder and Destroy: 12 of History’s Most Daring Raids

Plunder and Destroy: 12 of History’s Most Daring Raids

Khalid Elhassan - October 21, 2017

Plunder and Destroy: 12 of History’s Most Daring Raids
Photo taken by Germans of the British destroyer that rammed and came to rest atop the Normandie dry dock gates. Falmouth

St Nazaire Raid

Operation Chariot, or the St Nazaire Raid, was a surprise attack launched by British Commandos and the Royal Navy on March 28, 1942, against the Normandie dry dock in St Nazaire, on the Atlantic coast of German-occupied France. That dry dock was the only Axis-controlled one on the Atlantic that could accommodate the giant German battleships Bismark and Tirpitz.

Its loss would ensure that should those battleships break into the Atlantic Ocean and suffer damage there, instead of returning for repairs to a convenient haven on the Atlantic, they would be forced to return all the way back to Germany, which could be reached from the Atlantic only by running the gauntlet of British-controlled waters in either the English Channel or the naval chokepoints of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap to the north of Scotland.

A raiding party of Commandos in a flotilla of 18 small craft, intended to be the raiders’ ride back home after completion of their mission, plus an obsolete destroyer, HMS Cambeltown packed with well-concealed delayed-action high explosives, sailed from British ports down the English Channel and into the Atlantic, and set course for St Nazaire. Upon reaching the target, the Cambeltown rammed the gates of the Normandie dry dock and came to rest above them at an angle.

The Germans, unaware of the destroyer’s deadly cargo, concentrated on fighting the Commandos, who had disembarked to attack and destroy other vital installations, facilities, and machinery around the port. In the ensuing heavy exchanges of fire, the Germans destroyed nearly all the British small craft that were supposed to take the Commandos back home, leaving them stranded. They attempted to make their way inland, but most were killed or captured after their ammunition ran out.

The Raiders suffered heavy losses: 169 were killed, and another 215 were captured, in addition to the loss of 13 motor launches, a torpedo boat, a gunboat, and two airplanes. It was worth it, however, and the mission became a resounding success, literally, later that day. Just when things had quieted down and the Germans began cleanup efforts, swarming aboard the HMS Cambeltown resting at an angle above the dry dock gates, the delayed action explosives within the destroyer detonated.

The massive explosion not only killed hundreds of Germans and wounded hundreds more, but also accomplished the mission’s primary objective: it put the Normandie dry docks out of commission for the remainder of the war, and for five years more beyond that.

Plunder and Destroy: 12 of History’s Most Daring Raids
Avro Lancaster of 617 Squadron practicing the skip bombing of drum explosives. Imperial War Museum

The Dambusters Raid

On the night of May 16-17, 1943, a specially trained bomber unit of the Royal Air Force, the 617 Squadron, flew 19 modified Avro Lancaster heavy bombers in a dangerous raid that utilized innovative weapons and deployed them with highly unorthodox tactics to attack three dams in the Ruhr Valley, the heart of German industry and wartime production. The dams were protected by torpedo nets to shield them from torpedo attacks, and no aircraft or delivery mechanism existed at the time to accurately drop a conventional bomb big enough to do damage.

An innovative British scientist, Barnes Wallis, came up with an unconventional solution: skipping a bomb across the water like a stone, thus bypassing the torpedo nets by going over them, until it struck the dam, at which point it would sink, and going off at a predetermined depth, the surrounding water would concentrate the blast energy against the dam’s wall, rupturing it and causing a breach.

Barnes Wallis then developed a drum-shaped explosive and affixed it to a motor in the bomb bay to make it spin counter-clockwise. Dropped at a precise height by a bomber flying low at a set speed, the drum would skip on the water’s surface, hit the dam’s wall, with the rotation causing it to sink while hugging the wall, against which it would explode at a predetermined depth.

Elite pilots from RAF Bomber Command were reassigned to 617 Squadron, specially formed under the command of Guy Gibson, a highly competent Wing Commander, and trained rigorously on the flying technique necessary to utilize Barnes Wallis’ special weapon. On the assigned night, the raiders flew low on a hazardous zigzag route intended to avoid known concentrations of antiaircraft guns, and losses started piling up long before the bombers neared their targets.

Before crossing the coast into Europe, one Lancaster was forced to turn back after it flew too low and struck the North Sea’s surface, losing its explosives. A second soon followed suit after its radio was destroyed by ground fire. A third crashed after running into electric power lines, a fourth was destroyed when it ran into an electric tower, and a fifth was shot down.

The survivors reached the first dam, where Gibson launched the opening attack in the teeth of heavy antiaircraft fire, then flew across the dam multiple times to draw enemy fire and distract the gunners from the following Lancasters, which attacked in turn, losing one bomber while another suffered heavy damage before the dam was finally breached and a wall of water came pouring out to sweep and flood all in its path below. Gibson then led the Lancasters that still had bombs against a second dam, which they also breached, causing yet more havoc and destruction.

The third dam survived intact. For his valor that night, Guy Gibson won a Victor Cross, and for their daring exploit, 617 Squadron earned the nickname “Dambusters”, by which they are known to this day.

Plunder and Destroy: 12 of History’s Most Daring Raids
Son Tay prison camp. Wikimedia

Son Tay Prison Raid

On the night of November 20th, 1970, a raiding force of 56 US Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, boarded HH-3E “Jolly Green Giant” and HH-53E “Super Jolly Green Giant” helicopters that flew them from a staging base in Thailand to execute Operation Ivory Coast, a daring rescue mission to free an estimated 65 American prisoners of war held at Son Tay prison camp, about 20 miles west of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.

It was an exceptionally hazardous operation, in which speed and precision of execution were extremely important: there were an estimated 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers stationed within 5 miles of the camp, so it was vital that the raiders complete their mission quickly, and be gone before the enemy had time to react and bring overwhelming numbers to bear.

Three raider teams landed in Son Tay, with the first intentionally crash-landing its helicopter at 2:19 am in the middle of the camp to get into position as quickly as possible. A second helicopter mistakenly landed 400 yards away, at the guards’ headquarters. Its Special Forces attacked the headquarters and killed or wounded an estimated 100 guards. The third helicopter disembarked its attackers outside the camp complex, who rapidly secured the perimeter, then helped secure the camp’s facility.

The raid was a brilliant tactical success, and wholly accomplished its objective of seizing control of the camp within minutes of touching down, with the attackers sustaining only two injuries: one shot in the leg, while another broke an ankle. There were no prisoners to rescue, however.

As it turned out, the mission had been planned based on outdated intelligence: the POWs had been moved months earlier from Son Tay, which was adjacent to a river that the North Vietnamese feared was prone to flooding, to another prison camp. Within 26 minutes of landing, the raiders were airborne again, en route back to base.

Plunder and Destroy: 12 of History’s Most Daring Raids
Blueboy assault team which deliberately crash-landed in the center of Son Tay camp, the faster to execute its mission. Psy Warrior

While a tactical success, the mission was clearly an intelligence failure by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and other entities involved in the gathering and dissemination of the information upon which the assault was planned. In the raid’s aftermath, criticism of the faulty intelligence that led to a risky operation to rescue prisoners from a prison camp that held no prisoners led to an extensive overhaul and restructuring of the intelligence apparatus.

Plunder and Destroy: 12 of History’s Most Daring Raids
Terminal building of Entebbe airport where hostages were held. Wikimedia

Entebbe Raid

The Entebbe Raid was a rescue mission by Israeli special forces carried out in the wee hours of July 4th, 1976. Its aim was to spring hostages taken from an Air France jetliner that had been commandeered on June 27th, while en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, after a stopover in Athens where it was boarded by four hijackers, two from a breakaway faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and two from a German Red Army Faction revolutionary cell. Seizing the airplane, the hijackers diverted it to Entebbe airport in Uganda, whose president, Idi Amin, was sympathetic to their cause.

Once landed at Entebbe, the hijackers removed the passengers from the airplane to a disused airport terminal building. There, they were joined by an additional 3 accomplices, and after sifting through the passengers’ passports, they released those who were not Israeli or Jewish and kept as hostages 94 who were, plus 12 members of the Air France aircrew. In exchange for freeing the hostages, the hijackers demanded the release of 40 prisoners held in Israel, plus another 13 held in other countries.

As the days passed and the prisoners were not released, the hijackers grew more strident and incessant, vowing to kill the hostages if their demands were not met. Fortunately for the Israelis, an Israeli engineer who had worked with Idi Amin in the 1960s passed furnished them with the blueprints of the Entebbe terminal building where the hostages were being kept, and they used those blueprints to plan a rescue mission. On the night of July 3rd, 100 Israeli special forces boarded C-130 cargo planes and, escorted by F-4 Phantoms, took off on a 2500 mile flight to Uganda.

Within 90 minutes of touching down at Entebbe, the commandos had killed all 7 hostage-takers, along with about 45 Ugandan soldiers, and destroyed 30 Ugandan jets at the airport, for the loss of 1 commando killed and 5 wounded, and 3 hostages dead and 10 wounded. Commandos and hostages then boarded the C-130 transports for a short flight to Nairobi, Kenya, where the planes refueled and the wounded were taken to an awaiting hospital plane, before flying back to Israel.


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