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
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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