16 of History's Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks

Khalid Elhassan - September 20, 2018

In warfare, few things can increase a combatant’s chances of success more than a well executed surprise attack that catches an opponent off guard. The suddenness of an unexpected onslaught, especially against unprepared opponents who had let their guard down, can be devastating. Even more so if the surprise attack is followed through aggressively, without allowing its victims a breather to collect their wits and come up with an effective response.

Following are sixteen of history’s most successful and dramatic surprise attacks.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Battle of Chancellorsville. Wikimedia

1. Stonewall Jackson’s Surprise Flank Attack at Chancellorsville

In December of 1862, the Union’s Army of the Potomac suffered a bloody setback when it crossed the Rappahannock river and attacked the Confederates occupying strong defensive positions near Fredericksburg. The Union forces were given a new commander, Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Realizing that a frontal assault on the Confederates near Fredericksburg was doomed to fail, Hooker decided to get at them from the rear.

Hooker had about 134,000 men, while the Confederates, under Robert E. Lee, had roughly 61,000. On April 30th, 1863, Hooker left 28,000 men in front of Fredericksburg to keep Lee occupied, and marched westward with 106,000 men to cross the Rappahannock upstream from the Confederates. Hooker planned to fall on Lee’s rear, and catch him in a pincer between the forces under his command and those left behind at Fredericksburg.

Hooker stole a march on Lee, and got in his rear by crossing the Rappahannock in heavily wooded terrain north of Chancellorsville. However, Lee was not one to leave the initiative to his enemy if he could help it. When he discovered what Hooker had done, Lee divided his army, leaving a small rearguard behind in Fredericksburg, and took the bulk of his men, about 45,000 Confederates, to meet Hooker. In so doing, Lee violated conventional wisdom against dividing one’s forces in the face of a numerically superior enemy.

When he neared Chancellorsville, Lee doubled down on violating conventional wisdom by further dividing his already outnumbered army. He confronted 70,000 Union soldiers with only 13,000 Confederates east of Chancellorsville, and sent his chief lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, on a flanking march to fall on Hooker’s right flank. On May 2nd, while Confederate cavalry screened his flank to keep the Union force from observing him, Jackson led about 28,000 men on a 12 mile roundabout march that brought him, undetected, to Hooker’s right flank.

Late that afternoon, Jackson launched a devastating surprise attack against the XI Corps on the Union army’s right flank, just as its men were sitting down for dinner. It caught them completely off guard, and sent them on a panicked rout that soon sowed confusion throughout Hooker’s army. Jackson’s advance was only halted by the fall of darkness. Hooker, psychologically defeated and concussed from a shell that struck a post against which he was leaning, conceded defeat and withdrew. Chancellorsville would go down as Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle”, and is taught in military academies to this day.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
German tanks advancing through the Ardennes in 1940. Panzermanner

2. 1940 Ardennes Offensive Surprises and Discombobulates the French

Although victorious in World War I, the conflict left France exhausted, shaken, and gun shy. The country had suffered 1,358,000 killed, and 4,265,000 wounded, of whom roughly 1,500,000 were permanently maimed, plus another 535,000 missing or made prisoner. That equated to 73% of the 8,410,000 men mobilized during the conflict. And that was aside from the extensive property damage, as most of the fighting on the Western Front had occurred on French soil – and in the most productive French regions, at that.

To avoid a repetition in case of a future war, the French built the Maginot Line to fortify and secure the Franco-German border. They also stationed most of their mobile forces in the north, to plunge into Belgium – through whose territory the Germans had invaded in 1914 – and fight the invaders as far forward and away from French soil as possible.

However, while the French had fortified the south and stationed strong forces to the north, they paid little attention to a stretch of wooded and broken terrain in the center: the Ardennes Forrest. The French deemed that region impassable for enemy armor, and left it lightly defended. The Germans, adopting a plan devised by up and comer general Erich von Manstein, disagreed, and massed most of their tanks in that sector.

The Battle of France began on May 10th, 1940, with a German attack in the north through Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. According to plan, French and British armies advanced into Belgium to contest the issue there. On May 16th, once the Allies’ mobile forces were committed in Belgium, the Germans unleashed their surprise armored attack through the Ardennes.

The French and British were wrong footed. Their mobile forces were stuck in Belgium, and could not disengage and turn around to deal with the Germans in the Ardennes. Nor did they have reserves to stop the rampaging Panzer divisions that overwhelmed the local defenders, burst through their lines, and raced to the English Channel, to cut off the French and British armies in Belgium from the rest of France. On June 20th – only 40 days from the start of the German offensive – the French were forced to surrender.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
En route to Trenton – ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’, by Emanuel Leutze. Philadelphia Encyclopedia

3. George Washington’s Surprise Attack at Trenton

As 1776 drew to a close, the Americans’ bid for independence was not going well. They had been outgeneraled, outfought, and soundly drubbed, most notably in New York City, where only a near miraculous escape had saved them from annihilation. Morale was low, so the Americans’ commander in chief, George Washington, planned a surprise raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence to the Revolutionary cause.

From his base in Pennsylvania, Washington sought to cross the nearly frozen Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian mercenaries on the opposite bank, in Trenton, New Jersey. On the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, cold, hungry, and demoralized Americans clambered into boats on a freezing winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at his overweight artillery chief, Henry Knox, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!

It was no comedic gem, but any levity from the notoriously uptight Washington, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual. The men were stunned into looking at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and soon, contagious laughter rippled through the attacking force, as Washington’s comment was spread and repeated.

Washington’s unexpected humor lifted the Americans’ spirits, but they still had a rough crossing ahead of them. Due to inclement weather and icy river conditions, two detachments were unable to cross the river, and Washington made it to the far bank with only 2400 men – 3000 fewer than planned for. Fortunately, they were undetected as they marched 9 miles to Trenton without alerting the enemy, who had lowered their guard and had no long distance patrols or outposts.

On the morning of December 26th, Washington’s men surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, the Americans killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand of their enemy, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. It was a small battle, but one with far reaching consequences. It inspired the Americans when they needed a morale boost, and saved the Patriot army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many already in its ranks to stick around.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Battle of Lake Trasimene. Emerson Kent

4. Hannibal Surprises the Romans at Lake Trasimene

In 218 BC, Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca defeated two Roman armies in northern Italy. The following year, Rome sent both of her consuls for 217 BC to deal with him. One of the consuls, Gaius Flaminius, gathered the survivors of the earlier defeats, and reinforced by new recruits, assembled an army of about 30,000 men and marched south to defend Rome. Hannibal overtook and passed Flaminius, and got his own army between the Romans and their home city.

Hannibal thus pulled off one of history’s earliest strategic turning movements, to get between a defender and his base. To draw out Flaminius and goad him into giving battle, Hannibal began devastating and burning the countryside as he marched south. That forced Flaminius to hurry his army to catch up with Hannibal before the Carthaginian reached Rome.

Hannibal continued his march southward, with Flaminius in hot pursuit, until the Carthaginian came upon a suitable spot for an ambush at Lake Trasimene, about 80 miles north of Rome. There, a stretch of the road passed through a defile, between the lake’s northern shore and forested hills. Hannibal camped on the eastern end of the defile, within clear of sight of Flaminius when he got there.

The Carthaginian formed his heavy infantry in front of the camp, blocking the road down which the Romans would arrive, to challenge them into battle. He concealed his cavalry, light infantry, and Gaulish allies, on the forested hills north of the road, and waited. When Flaminius arrived at the defile’s western entrance on the morning of June 24th, 217 BC, and saw the Carthaginians arrayed in front of their camp to offer battle, he was relieved to have finally caught up with his quarry. Unwilling to risk Hannibal’s slipping away again, he immediately advanced upon the Carthaginian.

Flaminius in his eagerness failed to scout the hills north of the road before marching into the defile. The Carthaginian’s concealment was further helped by a fortuitous fog that morning, which reduced visibility. Once the last Roman entered the defile, trumpets were blown and the trap was sprung. The concealed forces rushed down from the hills to fall on the flank and rear of the Romans, who suddenly found themselves surrounded by the enemy on east, north, and west, while the lake blocked them to the south. Flaminius’ army was wiped out. Out of 30,000 Romans, about half were killed or drowned, and the rest were taken prisoner. In terms of the number of combatants involved, it was history’s biggest tactical military ambush.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Wrecked Egyptian airplanes in the aftermath of Operation Focus. Khaleej Times

5. Israeli Surprise Attack Destroys Egyptian Air Force at Start of Six Day War

Warplanes are among the deadliest weapons ever invented, but they are useless on the ground. That was amply demonstrated by Mivtza Moked, or Operation Focus, the code name for surprise airstrikes launched by Israel on June 5th, 1967. They destroyed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces on the ground, and disabled their airbases at the start of the Six Day War, setting the stage for a quick Israeli victory.

The operation was an all out attack by nearly all of Israel’s warplanes, which headed out westward over the Mediterranean, maintaining radio silence and flying low to evade radar, before turning south towards Egypt. The Egyptians were surprised by the sudden and simultaneous appearance of Israeli warplanes over 11 airfields at 7:45AM that morning. The time was chosen because the Egyptians routinely went on high alert at dawn to guard against surprise attack, but by 7:45AM the alert was usually over, the Egyptian airplanes were back on the ground, and their pilots were eating breakfast.

The first wave of Israeli attackers targeted the runways with special munitions: prototype penetration bombs that used accelerator rockets to drive the warheads through the pavement before detonation, resulting in a crater atop a sinkhole. The result was worse than that caused by normal bombs, whose damage could be repaired by simply filling in the ensuing crater and paving it over. The sinkhole caused by the prototype bombs required the complete removal of the damaged pavement in order to get at and fill in the sinkhole beneath. That was a far more laborious and time consuming process.

With the runways destroyed, the airplanes on the ground were stranded, sitting ducks for subsequent airstrikes. 197 Egyptian airplanes were destroyed in that first wave, with only 8 planes managing to take to the air. After striking an initial 11 Egyptian airbases, the Israeli planes returned home, refueled and rearmed in under 8 minutes, then headed back to wreck an additional 14 Egyptian airbases. They returned to Israel for yet another speedy refueling and rearming, and flew out in a third wave, divided between attacking what was left of the Egyptian air force, and striking the Syrian and Jordanian air forces.

By noon on June 5th, the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces were effectively wiped out. Israel’s enemies lost about 450 airplanes, and about 20 Egyptian airbases were seriously damaged. That crippled what was left of the Egyptian air force and prevented it from participating in the remainder of the conflict. It was one of the most successful surprise attacks in history, and left the Israeli air force in complete control of the skies for the remainder of the war.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Grierson’s Raid. Warfare History Network

6. Grierson’s Raid Threw Mississippi Into a Panic

As part of his Vicksburg Campaign, Union general Ulysses S. Grant wanted to divert Confederate attention from his main planned attack against Vicksburg, Mississippi. So on April 17th, 1863, colonel Benjamin Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1700 horsemen southward from La Grange, Tennessee, and plunged deep into Mississippi. Their raid would traverse the length of that state, and reemerge at the other side and the safety of Union lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The raiders discomfited the enemy and disrupted his communications by destroying bridges, tearing up railroad tracks, wrecking and destroying installations and facilities, and otherwise sowed confusion and wreaked havoc throughout Mississippi.

In addition to physical damage, the raid depressed the enemy’s morale, while boosting that of the Union – especially its cavalry. Until then, Confederate cavalry had routinely bested Union horsemen, literally riding circles around them. So Grierson wanted to demonstrate what Union cavalry could do, with a daring exploit to match the headline-grabbing ones of Confederate cavalrymen Nathan Bedford Forrest and J.E.B. Stuart.

Grierson, a former music leader who hated horses, was an unlikely cavalry leader, but proved himself a highly effective one. His men travelled light, packing only 5 days’ rations for what planners estimated would be a 10 day mission, plus 40 rounds of ammunition, and oats for their mounts. Preceded by scouts in Confederate uniforms, they rode for 600 miles through the heart of enemy territory that had never before seen enemy soldiers or felt the touch of war. Mississippi felt it now, and panicked as Union cavalrymen destroyed trains, tore up railroads and twisted them atop burning crossties, wrecked bridges, freed slaves, burned storehouses, and torched commissaries. Grierson added to the Confederates’ confusion by peeling off detachments and sending them on feints to baffle the enemy about his whereabouts, intentions, and direction of march.

Both figuratively and literally, Grierson’s raid was a smashing success. Union cavalrymen rampaged at will for 15 days deep in the heart of enemy territory, damaging property and enemy morale. Although vigorously pursued by Confederates, the Union horsemen eluded their pursuers while causing mayhem in the enemy’s heartland. After 15 days, during which they lost only 3 killed, 7 wounded, and 9 missing, Grierson’s cavalry reached the safety of Union lines near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The raid’s consequences went beyond the immediate impact upon property and morale. It demonstrated that Union soldiers could live off the land deep within Confederate territory. That started the gears turning in the mind of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman about the vulnerability of the Confederacy’s interior, which he compared to soft innards surrounded by a brittle shell. The result, a year and a half later, was Sherman’s March Through Georgia, and the even more devastating March Through the Carolinas that sealed the Confederacy’s doom.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
German armor advancing at the outset of Operation Barbarossa. History Key

7. The Suddenness of Operation Barbarossa Stunned the USSR

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin nearly brought his country to ruin in the years preceding the USSR’s entry into WWII, and in the first year of the conflict. It began with a massive Military Purge, that he launched in 1937. It wreaked havoc upon the armed forces, and threw them into turmoil by removing their most experienced leaders. The victims included 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars. Worse, Stalin’s homicidal housecleaning decimated the best middle rank officers.

In line with the communist state’s radicalism, the pre-Purge Soviet military had been radically innovative. Until 1937, the intellectual ferment within the Red Army, such as the Theory of Deep Operations, led to as much creativity as what was going in the Wehrmacht at the time. The Soviets had their equivalents of Germany’s Guderians and Mannsteins, brimming with ideas and confident that they would revolutionize warfare. The Purge fell heaviest upon the most creative and free thinking officers, since they stood out and were thus prime suspects of harboring the deviationist tendencies Stalin wanted stamped out. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and suddenly attacked the USSR on June 22nd, 1941, the Soviet military had not yet recovered from the Purge.

Stalin also ignored warnings of impending attack, and those raising the alarm were punished, as the Soviet dictator insisted the warnings were just a plot by the British to instigate a war between the USSR and Germany. Soviet commanders were prohibited from taking precautionary measures, lest they provoke the Germans. Even hours after the invasion had begun, Stalin disbelieved reports that Soviet units were being overrun, insisting that they were experiencing border incidents, not war.

The Soviet dictator also fancied himself a generalissimo, and meddled too much. Among his poor decisions in the war’s first year were orders to counterattack, issued to units that were in no position to do so, and demands that units stay put in untenable positions and fight to the last man. Such orders resulted in a series of massive encirclements, in which the Germans would capture up to 700,000 Soviets per encirclement. By the end of 1941, the Germans had captured 3.4 million Soviet POWs, most of whom died in captivity.

In the war’s first 6 months, Operation Barbarossa cost the Soviets over 6 million military casualties, plus millions of civilians – more than any country has ever suffered in a similar period. It took superhuman efforts and sacrifices for the Soviets to recover, claw their way back up, and win in the end. Stalin deserves credit for keeping the USSR in the fight long after any other country would have thrown in the towel, but he deserves even more credit for the catastrophe at the war’s beginning.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Raid on the Medway. Wikimedia

8. Dutch Surprise Attack Devastates the Royal Navy at Anchor

On June 9th, 1667, the Dutch launched a surprise raid that caught England’s Royal Navy off guard, as Dutch ships brazenly sailed up the Medway river in Kent to attack English warships anchored in dockyards at Gillingham and Chatham. It occurred during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), and resulted in one of the most impressive victories in Dutch history.

England had been faring poorly since the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665, suffering first the Great Plague of 1665 – 1666, then the Great Fire of London in 1666. By 1667, king Charles II of England was broke, unable to pay his sailors, and desperately wanted peace. However, the Dutch, sore about an earlier loss in the First Anglo-Dutch War, wanted to inflict a crushing defeat on the English to even the score, and negotiate from a strong position to impose punitive peace terms.

So the Dutch fleet, commanded by admiral Michiel de Ruyter, entered the Thames estuary, captured Sheerness at the mouth of the Medway, then sailed up that river. They overcame a barrier chain stretched across its waters, as well as fortresses along the way that were intended to protect the English battleships anchored at Gillingham and Chatham.

When the Dutch reached the English ships laid up in their dockyards, virtually unmanned and unarmed, they burned three capital ships and ten smaller warships. They also captured and towed away two major ships of the line, including HMS Royal Charles, the flagship of the Royal Navy, named after the reigning king. The Royal Navy lost 13 ships, while the Dutch lost none.

The demonstration that the English were unable to protect their own fleet within their own borders was one of the greatest humiliations ever suffered by England and the Royal Navy. So great was the debacle that there was speculation about the collapse of the monarchy, which had been restored only seven years earlier after a decade of rule without a king during the English Commonwealth. Chagrined, broke, and with a monarch seated atop a tottering throne, the English hurried to sign a peace treaty favorable to the Dutch the following month, and exited the war.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Operation Jericho. Aces High Gallery

9. Surprise Strike Springs French Resistance Fighters From Gestapo’s Clutches

Word reached Britain in 1944 that the Gestapo planned to liquidate hundreds of French Resistance prisoners held in the Amiens prison, starting with a mass execution of over 100 prisoners on February 19th, 1944. An air strike to breach the prison’s walls and allow the inmates an opportunity to escape was requested, and the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force drew up plans for Operation Jericho.

The Amiens prison was a conspicuous building with high walls, in an open area adjacent to the long and straight Albert-Amiens road, so finding it was easy. The difficulty, in the days before precision munitions, was to blast its outer walls and kill many guards, without destroying the prison and killing too many prisoners. Some prisoners would inevitably die in the bombing, but it was reasoned that they were doomed anyhow, and the risk of death in a breakout attempt was better than the certainty of execution.

The plane most suitable for the job was the de Havilland Mosquito multirole combat aircraft. The mission was repeatedly postponed because of poor weather, but on February 18th, 1944, one day before the scheduled mass executions, it had to be now or never. Despite heavy snow and fog, eighteen Mosquitoes took off from southern England and linked up with escorting fighters over the English Channel. Flying low, the attackers took a circuitous route until they reached the town of Albert, northeast of Amiens, then followed the long and straight Albert-Amiens road to approach the prison from that direction.

The leading Mosquitoes were to bomb and breach the prison’s outer walls, and the rest were to bomb the guard barracks and cafeteria. The raid was timed for lunchtime, to catch as many German guards as possible as they sat dining. The Mosquitoes arrived at noon, and dropping 500 lb bombs with delayed fuses to allow the raiders to fly out of the blast zone before detonation, breached the outer walls. Then the guardhouse was struck and destroyed, killing its occupants along with collateral damage prisoners nearby. Once prisoners were observed pouring out of the breached walls, the raiders flew back home.

It was a tactical success, but the results were mixed: the bombing was pinpoint accurate by the era’s standards, and the walls were successfully breached, allowing the prisoners an opportunity to escape. At the cost of three Mosquitoes and two escorting fighters, 50 Germans were killed, but so were 107 of the 717 prisoners. 258 prisoners escaped, but 182 were recaptured. Controversy erupted after the war when some in the Resistance disputed that the they had requested the bombing. Additionally, no evidence emerged that the Germans had planned mass executions of the Amiens prisoners.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Battle of Megiddo. Egypt Tours Portal

10. Pharaoh Thutmose III Surprises Canaanites at Megiddo

History’s earliest recorded battle for which reliable details exist was The Battle of Megiddo, 1457 BC, pitting Egyptians led by Pharaoh Thutmose III, and rebellious Canaanites seeking to free themselves of Egyptian vassalage. The rebellion was centered in the city of Megiddo, at the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, astride the main trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Thutmose marched with his army to Yaham. From there, he had to choose between three routes: a southern one via Taanach, a northern route via Yoqneam, and a central one via Aruna that would take him straight to Megiddo (see map). The southern and northern routes were longer, but safer. The central route was quicker but risky, with a passage through narrow ravines in which an army would have to advance single file, vulnerable to being bottled up front and rear.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Routes to Megiddo. History Bytes

Thutmose figured that the central route was so obviously dangerous that no reasonable commander would risk his army in its ravines. He also guessed that the rebels would leave it unguarded because they would not expect the Egyptians to court disaster by running such an obvious risk. So he chose the central route, and as he had guessed, it was unguarded. The Egyptians arrived at Megiddo sooner than expected, caught the Canaanites flat footed, and won a decisive victory that secured Egyptian hegemony over the region for centuries.

Over three millennia later, during WWI, British general Edmund Allenby, a student of ancient history, faced the same choice as Thutmose III as he led an army advancing from the south against entrenched Turks and Germans in the Jezreel Valley. He stole a march upon them and burst unexpected in front of Megiddo with an advance through the central route via Aruna.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
‘Taranto Harbour, Swordfish From the Illustrious Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November, 1940’, by David Cobb. Public Catalogue Foundation

11. Operation Judgment: British Royal Navy Surprises and Devastates the Italian Fleet at Taranto

The night of November 11th – 12th, 1940, was a defining moment for the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, and one that witnessed history’s first naval engagement in which planes flown from aircraft carriers attacked heavily defended warships. It was the night when 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers took off from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to strike the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto.

Italian ships in Taranto were dangerously positioned to sortie out at any moment, and interdict British supply lines across the Mediterranean. So plans to deal with them had been mulled by the Royal Navy for years before the start of WWII. The most promising plan, codenamed Operation Judgment, was an attack by torpedo bombers launched from an aircraft carrier.

The Italian fleet in Taranto was protected by torpedo nets, and surrounded by barrage balloons and antiaircraft guns, so its commanders thought it was immune. They were mistaken. RAF reconnaissance planes identified the locations of the various Italian warships, especially the battleships. Final plans were then formed, and a strike force was prepared.

A first wave of 12 Swordfish biplanes, half armed with torpedoes and the other half with bombs and flares, were launched from the Illustrious at 9PM, November 11th. They were followed by a second wave of 9 Swordfish, 90 minutes later. The leading Swordfish dropped illumination flares upon reaching Taranto, then bombed the port’s oil storage facilities while other Swordfish launched torpedoes at the anchored battleships. The second wave arrived shortly before midnight, dropped flares, and launched torpedoes. Italy lost half her capital ships that night. In less than two hours, the biplanes struck three battleships and several cruisers, and severely damaged the port’s installations, for the loss of only two planes and four crewmen. The following day, the Italians transferred their surviving ships to the greater safety of Naples.

Operation Judgment revolutionized warfare, and changed the course of history by ushering in the ascendancy of naval aviation and the aircraft carrier over battleships. Other navies paid close attention to what the British had done at Taranto, none more so than the Imperial Japanese Navy. The US Navy did not, to the America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
German paratroopers’ assault on Fort Eben-Emael. History Net

12. Airborne Special Forces Make Their Debut With the Capture of Fort Eben-Emael

Fort Eben-Emael was constructed on the Belgian-Dutch border in the 1930s to defend Belgium against a German attack. Overlooking the likeliest invasion route, with artillery dominating vital bridges and roads leading into Belgium, it was the world’s largest fortress, and one reputed to be impregnable and the toughest stronghold on earth. It took 80 German paratroopers less than 24 hours to capture the fort and its 1200 defenders.

It began in the wee hours of May 10th, 1940, at the start of the German blitzkrieg against western Europe. 80 elite German paratroopers, led by Captain Walter Koch, boarded gliders tethered to Ju 52 transport airplanes, which towed them to the vicinity of Eben-Emael and released them on an approach path to the fortress. They landed atop Eben-Emael.

The fort had been constructed to thwart attacks from land, but its designers had not contemplated an airborne assault from up above. Exiting the gliders and quickly forming into assault teams, the Germans threw explosives down ventilation shafts into the fortress’ vitals. An aggressive display of shock tactics, in which flamethrowers featured prominently, soon paralyzed the defenders, who found themselves trapped with the exits blocked.

The Germans followed up their rain of explosives with aggressive room clearing tactics with which the garrison was unfamiliar, and against which its members had not trained. The demoralized defenders were steadily pushed ever deeper into the bowels of Eben-Emael, and away from the guns commanding the roads and bridges leading into the Belgian heartland.

Other paratroopers then seized and secured the vital bridges the fortress had been built to protect. The Belgians counterattacked, but the Germans stubbornly held on, until relived by regular army units, which raced to secure the objectives seized by the paratroopers. With their situation now hopeless, Eben-Emael’s garrison surrendered on the morning of May 11th, less than 24 hours after Koch and his men had landed atop the fortress.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
Aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan Times

13. Japanese Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorably characterized December 7th, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy“, referring to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Early that morning, Japanese airplanes, laden with bombs and torpedoes and escorted by fighters, took off from carriers that had made their way in secrecy to launch positions 200 miles north of Hawaii.

The attack was intended to cripple America’s Pacific fleet and impede US interference with planned Japanese conquests of American, British, and Dutch territories. It was coordinated with other attacks that day against American possessions in the Philippines, Guam, and Wake, and against the British in Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong.

The Pearl Harbor attack caught the defenders off guard and wreaked havoc. Starting at 7:48AM local time, 353 Japanese airplanes, in two waves, devastated anchored American vessels. Armed with bombs designed to pierce thick armor and torpedoes modified for Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters, the Japanese sank four battleships and damaged another four. They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer, and a training ship. The Japanese lost 29 airplanes, 5 midget submarines, 64 killed, and 1 captured. In exchange, they killed more than 2400 Americans, wounded around 1200, sank or beached twelve ships, damaged nine others, destroyed 160 airplanes, and damaged 150 more.

However, the attackers concentrated on ships and planes, but ignored important infrastructure such as docks, power stations, and oil storage facilities. Had such vital installations been destroyed, it would have impeded the use of Pearl Harbor as a base for the ensuing American war effort in the Pacific. Moreover, there were no American aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor that day, so that arm of the US Navy remained intact. American carriers would end up playing the greatest role in thwarting Japanese plans and bringing about Japan’s doom.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
B-25s aboard the USS Hornet, en route to Japan. National Review

14. Doolittle Raid on Tokyo

On April 12th, 1942, sailors of Task Force 16, commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey and comprised of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and escorting cruisers and destroyers, linked up with the carrier Hornet north of Hawaii. Halsey’s men were startled to see the Hornet’s flight deck crammed with strange airplanes, bigger than anything seen before aboard an American carrier. The planes were US Army Air Forces B-25 medium bombers, and the surprise raid they carried out a few days later was to be their first major combat operation.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt wanted Japan bombed as soon as possible, both as payback and in order to boost public morale. America had no airbases within bombing range of Japan, however, so a plan was devised to bring an improvised airbase – an aircraft carrier – close enough for modified B-25 bombers to do the job. US Army Air Forces lieutenant colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle was put in charge, and he began training select aircrews on short takeoffs. Taking off from aircraft carriers was difficult but doable for B-25s, but landing back on their flight decks was an impossibility. So after bombing Japan, the bombers were to continue on westward and land in China.

Halsey’s task force was sighted by an enemy picket boat, 750 miles from Japan, on the morning of April 18th, 1942. The Japanese vessel was quickly sunk, but it got off a radio message before going down. It was decided to launch the bombers immediately, 10 hours earlier and 170 miles further from Japan than initially planned. Sixteen B-25s, carrying a mix of incendiaries and 500 lb bombs, lumbered off the Hornet and winged their way to Tokyo, flying low to avoid detection. They reached the Japanese capital around noon, and bombed military and industrial targets. None of the attackers were shot down. 15 bombers crash landed in China, while the 16th made its way to Vladivostok, where it and its crew were interred by the Soviets.

Of eighty American crewmen, three were killed, and eight were captured by the Japanese. Of the latter, three were executed and one died in captivity. Physical damage from the raid was minimal, but the psychological impact was huge on both sides of the Pacific. American morale received a well needed boost, while the Japanese high command lost a considerable amount of face. To regain face, the Japanese set in motion plans for what they hoped would be a decisive victory over the US Navy. Instead, it resulted in a catastrophic Japanese defeat a few weeks later, at the Battle of Midway.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
HMS Cambeltown wedged atop dock gates and being inspected by Germans oblivious to its deadly cargo. Bundesarchiv Bild

15. British Surprise Attack Wrecks Germany’s Main Dry Dock on the Atlantic

On March 28th, 1942, British Commandos and the Royal Navy launched a surprise attack against the Normandie dry dock in Saint Nazaire, on the Atlantic coast of German-occupied France. It was the only dry dock on the Atlantic that could accommodate the Kriegsmarine’s giant battleships Bismark and Tirpitz. Its destruction would mean that if those battleships broke into the Atlantic Ocean and were damaged, they would not be able to make repairs in a convenient port on the Atlantic. Instead, they would have to go all the way back to Germany. That would entail running the gauntlet through British-controlled waters in the English Channel, or the naval chokepoint of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap north of Scotland.

A flotilla of 18 small craft was assembled to take the Commandos to Saint Nazaire and back. They were accompanied by an obsolete destroyer, HMS Cambeltown, packed with concealed high explosives that were hooked up to delayed action timers. Upon reaching the port, the Cambeltown rammed the gates of the Normandie dry dock, and came to rest above them at an angle.

Unaware of the destroyer’s deadly cargo, the Germans concentrated on fighting the Commandos, who had disembarked to attack and destroy other vital installations and machinery around the port. During the fighting, almost all the British small craft that were supposed to take the Commandos back home were destroyed, leaving the raiders stranded. The surviving Commandos tried to make their way into the French interior, but most were killed or captured after their ammunition ran out.

The raiders’ losses were heavy: 169 killed, 215 captured, plus the loss of 13 motor launches, a torpedo boat, a gun boat, and two airplanes. It was worth it, however. Later that day, after things had quieted down and the Germans began cleanup efforts, swarming aboard the Cambeltown as it rested above the dry dock gates, its explosives went off. The ensuing blast killed hundreds of Germans and wounded hundreds more. It also accomplished the mission’s primary objective by putting the Normandie dry docks out of commission for the remainder of the war, plus five more years beyond that.

16 of History’s Most Devastating and Dramatic Surprise Attacks
A WWII Red Army tank column. Alchetron

16. Surprise Soviet Tank Raid Seals the Fate of Germans in Stalingrad

On Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1942, at the height of the Battle of Stalingrad, a surprise Red Army tank raid sealed the fate of the Germans in that city. That was the Tatsinskaya Raid – also known as the “Christmas Raid” – which sought to destroy the Tatsinskaya airfield, from which the Germans were frantically airlifting supplies to their besieged 6th Army in Stalingrad. The airfield and its planes were the surrounded Germans’ sole lifeline, so destroying it and its irreplaceable Ju 52 transport planes would drive the final nail in the 6th Army’s coffin.

Conducted by the 24th Tank Corps, the raid hit the airfield from three sides and caught the Germans by surprise. T-34 tanks clattered down the tarmac, machine gunning and shelling buildings and equipment, and destroying the precious planes – some of them still in crates on railway cars. When the attacking tanks ran low on ammunition, they simply rammed the airplanes, smashing through their aluminum frames and crushing them and their engines beneath tons of armor. German pilots and crews, desperately racing to their planes in an attempt to get them airborne and away to safety, were gunned down or run down and mangled beneath the T-34s’ treads.

The raiders were eventually cutoff, encircled, and sustained heavy losses. The 24th Tank Corps was all but wiped out, lost most of its tanks, and had to be reconstituted. It was still a Soviet strategic victory, however: the attackers claimed 300 planes destroyed, while the Germans admitted to losing 72 irreplaceable Ju 52 transports. Whatever the number, the destruction of the airfield and the loss of the transport planes and their trained pilots, crews, and maintenance personnel, doomed the 6th Army in Stalingrad. Its supply situation, already dire when Luftwaffe transports had been operating at full capacity, became impossible after the destruction of so many Ju 52s and their base of operations.

Aerial resupply was virtually cutoff, and German resistance in Stalingrad began to crumble. The last survivors were forced to capitulate a month later, in the greatest German defeat of the war until then. The Germans were forced on the strategic defensive, while the Soviets began a strategic offensive that culminated in Berlin two years later. The reconstituted 24th Tank Corps, renamed the 2nd Tatsinskaya Guards Tank Corps, was in on the kill, and took part in the final Berlin Offensive.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Alchetron – Tatsinskaya Raid

American Battlefield Trust – Battle of Chancellorsville Facts & Summary

Ancient History – Thutmose III at the Battle of Megiddo

BBC History – The Fall of France

Catton, Bruce – Bruce Catton’s Civil War: Three Volumes in One (1984)

Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust – Battle of Medway

Combined Ops – Operation Chariot: St. Nazaire, 28th March 1942

Encyclopedia Britannica – Battle of Trasimene

Encyclopedia Britannica – Operation Barbarossa

Foote, Shelby – The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 2, Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963)

History Net – Hitler’s Secret Attack on the World’s Largest Fort

Naval History and Heritage Command – Doolittle Raid

Warfare History Network – Grierson’s Raid: Wrecking the Railroad With the Butternut Guerrillas

War History Online – Totally Effective Surprise Attacks in Military History

Warfare History Network – Operation Jericho: Mosquito Raid on Amiens Prison

Wikipedia – Attack on Pearl Harbor

Wikipedia – Operation Focus

World War II Today – 11th November, 1940, Biplanes Smash Italian Fleet at Taranto

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