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

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.


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