12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History

Khalid Elhassan - October 2, 2017

No matter the figures supporting the proposition that flying as a passenger in an airliner is statistically safer than driving your car, piloting an airplane, when you take a minute to stop and think about it, is a pretty daring thing in itself: we can get away with a lot more neglect, poor maintenance, plain stupidity, and flat out idiocy in operating our cars than we could if we were piloting airplanes. Seen from that perspective, the fact that we are not yet all commuting in flying cars like The Jetsons is a hidden blessing.

Flying is inherently hairy stuff, in which screwups by pilots or maintenance crews are often severely punished by gravity, which is an unforgiving mistress. Flying when others are energetically doing their level best to destroy your plane and yourself by firing all kinds of lethal things to blow you up in the sky or send you spiraling down to the ground in flames? That’s a whole other, and elevated, level of hairiness. Yet, that is what pilots conducting ground attack missions in the face of opposition do as a matter of routine, every time they climb into a cockpit to carry out an air raid.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Swordfish from HMS Illustrious Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November 1940, in Taranto Harbor, by Charles David Cobb. WWII Today

Yet, even within the realm of air raids, some have been significantly hairier than the inherently hairy norm. Following are some of history’s most daring air raids.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Photos of the Cuxhaven raid published in The Illustrated War News five days later. The Great War Blog

Cuxhaven Raid

From aviation’s earliest days, navies used airplanes for reconnaissance and observation. On Christmas day, 1914, the British Royal Navy used airplanes offensively for the first time, when aircraft carried by seaplane tenders to within striking distance of Cuxhaven, a German town on the North Sea shore, bombed Zeppelin sheds and German naval facilities. It was the first time that air and sea power were combined to attack land targets and was the first step towards the creation of aircraft carriers and the projection of force inland by naval aviation.

Zeppelins and their potential to bomb London loomed large in British imagination, spurred in no small part by pre-war apocalyptic fiction such as H. G. Wells’ The War in the Air, which envisioned fleets of German dirigibles devastating cities around the world with bombs and reducing them to rubble. Plans were begun for preemptive raids on Zeppelin facilities to destroy them before they began bombing Britain.

Raids had been carried out against Zeppelin sheds in Cologne, Friedrichshafen, and Dusseldorf, but Royal Flying Corps airplanes lacked the range to reach Cuxhaven. A plan was therefore devised for ferries converted into seaplane tenders, escorted by Royal Navy cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, to carry nine seaplanes to the vicinity of Cuxhaven.

The seaplanes were then lowered and launched to reconnoiter the area, and if they spotted Zeppelin sheds, to bomb them. Only seven planes managed to take off and head inland, each armed with three 20 pound bombs. Results were negligible because of antiaircraft fire, low clouds and fog, and the raiders’ miniscule bombload. However, the raid revolutionized warfare by proving the feasibility of attacking land targets with seaborne aircraft.

Related: Golden Age of Zeppelin Flight.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Battle of Taranto map. Military History

Battle of Taranto

On the night of November 11-12, 1940, the Royal Navy launched 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious against the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto. It was history’s first naval engagement that relied upon carrier aircraft to attack heavily defended warships and was a defining moment of the Royal Navy’s Fleet air arm.

Plans for attacking the Italian fleet in Taranto, which was well-positioned to sortie out and interdict British lines across the Mediterranean, had been mulled by the Royal Navy for years before the outbreak of WWII. The most promising plan, codenamed Operation Judgment, called for an attack by torpedo bombers launched from an aircraft carrier.

The Italian ships anchored in Taranto were protected by torpedo nets, surrounded by barrage balloons and antiaircraft guns, and thought they were immune. In the days preceding the attack, RAF photo reconnaissance confirmed the presence of the Italian fleet in Taranto and identified the various ships’ locations, especially the battleships. Final plans were then formed, and a strike force 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 9 PM, November 11, followed by a second wave of 9 Swordfish 90 minutes later. Reaching Taranto, the leading Swordfish dropped illumination flares, then bombed the port’s oil storage facilities while other Swordfish launched torpedoes at anchored battleships. The second wave arrived shortly before midnight, dropped flares, and launched torpedoes. In under two hours, the biplanes had struck three battleships and several cruisers, and severely damaged the port’s installations, for the loss of two planes and four crewmen. The Italians lost half their capital ships that night, and the following day, transferred their surviving ships to the greater safety of Naples.

It was a raid that revolutionized warfare and changed the course of history by ushering in the ascendancy of naval aviation and the aircraft carrier over battleships. Other navies took a keen interest in what the British had done at Taranto, and Japanese observers of the Imperial fleet, in particular, paid close attention. US Navy observers did not, to America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
USS Arizona sinking during Pearl Harbor attack. History Channel

Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack from aircraft carriers against the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Early that morning, Japanese naval bombers, laden with torpedoes and bombs and escorted by Zero fighters, took off from carriers that had made their way in secrecy and radio silence to launch positions 200 miles north of Hawaii, to execute a strike nearly a year in planning.

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

It was a daring strike that caught the defenders off guard. Starting at 7:48 AM local time, 353 Japanese combat aircraft, in two waves, devastated anchored American vessels. Armed with torpedoes modified for Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters, and with bombs designed to pierce thick armor, the attackers sank four battleships and damaged another four. They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer, and a training ship. It was a lopsided slaughter: for the loss of 29 airplanes, 5 midget submarines, and 64 personnel killed and 1 captured, the Japanese killed more than 2400 Americans and wounded around 1200, sank or beached twelve ships and damaged nine others, while destroying 160 airplanes and damaging 150 more.

However, the Japanese concentrated ignored important infrastructures, such as oil storage facilities, docks, power stations, and other installations whose destruction would have impeded the use of Pearl Harbor as a launchpad for the US war effort in the Pacific. Additionally, there were no US aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor that day, so America’s carrier arm remained intact. It was that arm of the US Navy which would play the greatest role in frustrating Japanese plans and bringing about Japan’s doom.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
A B-25 Mitchell taking off from the USS Hornet at start of Doolittle Raid. Defense Media Network

Doolittle Raid

On the morning of April 12, 1942, seamen aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and her escorting task force, which had just linked up with the carrier Hornet north of Hawaii, were startled to see the Hornet’s flight deck crammed with strange airplanes, bigger than anything seen before on the deck of a US Navy aircraft carrier. The planes were B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, and the daring raid they carried out a few days later was to be their first major combat operation.

The raid resulted from President Roosevelt’s desire, expressed soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, that Japan be bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale. America had no airbases close enough to bomb Japan, so a plan was hatched to bring an improvised airbase, an aircraft carrier, close enough for modified B-25 bombers to strike Japan. Execution was entrusted to US Army Air Force lieutenant colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who began training select aircrews on short takeoffs. Taking off from aircraft carriers was a stretch for the medium bombers, and landing back on their flight desks was an impossibility, so the bombers, after dropping their munitions, would continue on westward to land in China.

On the morning of April 18, 1942, the task force was sighted by a Japanese picket boat 750 miles from Japan. It was quickly sunk, but not before sending a radio message. Fearing loss of the element of the surprise, it was decided to launch the bombers immediately, 10 hours earlier and 170 miles further from Japan than initially planned. Sixteen B-25s, armed with a mix of 500lb bombs and incendiaries, lumbered off the Hornet and, flying low to avoid detection, winged their way to Tokyo. They arrived around noon, and bombed military and industrial targets. 15 bombers made it to China, where they crash-landed, while another made its way to Vladivostok, where it and its crew were interred by the Soviets.

Of eighty B-25 crewmen, three were killed, and eight were captured by the Japanese, of whom three were executed and one died in captivity. The raid inflicted little physical damage, but the psychological impact was huge on both sides of the Pacific. It caused the Japanese high command considerable loss of face, which they sought to regain by setting in motion what turned out to be a catastrophic attempt to seize Midway island a few weeks later.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Operation Vengeance flight paths. Thing Link

Operation Vengeance

On April 14, 1943, US Navy intelligence intercepted and deciphered a Japanese message that began: “On April 18 CINC Combined Fleet will visit RXZ, R__, and RXP in accordance with the following schedule…” CINC Combined Fleet was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Navy’s most capable commander and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the intercepted message revealed that he would fly from Rabaul to Bougainville in the Solomon islands on April 18, arriving at 8 AM, Tokyo time, in two medium bombers, escorted by six Zero fighters.

The information quickly worked its way up the chain of command to the President, and FDR’s response was “get Yamamoto“. Plans were immediately begun to kill the Japanese admiral blamed for the Pearl Harbor attack, and given the apt name Operation Vengeance. The operation, which sought to shoot down Yamamoto’s plane, had to be precisely timed. Fortunately, the Japanese admiral was known for his punctuality.

Yamamoto’s flight route was beyond the range of US naval airplanes, but was within the range of US Army Air Force P-38 Lightning fighters recently deployed to Guadalcanal. Accordingly, 16 Lightnings, equipped with drop tanks for extra range, were sent on a 600-mile roundabout flight to meet Yamamoto’s plane as it arrived from Rabaul at Bougainville on April 18, 1943.

It worked like clockwork. Skimming the ocean at 50 feet to avoid detection, which also required swinging wide of islands between Guadalcanal and Bougainville and watchers therein, the P-38s reached the planned interception point within one minute of Yamamoto. The Lightnings, armed with 20mm cannon and .50 caliber machineguns, attacked. While a kill team of four P-38s fell upon the two medium bombers carrying the admiral and his staff, the remaining Lightnings took on the escorting Zeros and flew top cover to fend off any fighters scrambled from local airfields. Within minutes, both Japanese bombers were sent spiraling in flames to crash into the jungle below, with no survivors.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
P-38 attack on Yamamoto’s plane. Aviation History Online Museum

The P-38s then broke off contact, and avoiding detection no longer a necessity, flew a 400 mile straight line flight back to Guadalcanal, which they reached after completing a 1000 miles long mission. Yamamoto’s crashed bomber was located by a search and rescue party the following day, and his corpse was recovered from the wreckage strewn around the crash site.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Barnes Wallis and others observing prototype bomb during trials. Wikimedia

Operation Chastise – Task and Means

On March 21, 1943, a special Royal Air Force unit, the 617 Squadron, was formed and tasked with destroying dams in the Ruhr Valley. Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, bombers were to fly at night along a dangerous route that left them exposed to deadly antiaircraft fire in order to come within viable attack positions, then accurately deliver their ordnance to the targeted dams notwithstanding protective torpedo nets shielding the concrete structures. The result was Operation Chastise, a daring raid against the Edersee, Sorpe, and Mohne dams conducted on the night of May 16-17, 1943, by 617 Squadron.

For years, the British had explored the feasibility of destroying the Ruhr dams in case of war, and various proposals were examined, but none produced a plan that stood a reasonable chance of success. The problem was accuracy: theoretically, a big enough bomb, such as the 10-ton Earthquake Bomb that burrows deep underground before exploding, could destroy a dam by seismic waves if dropped from 40,000 feet. However, no bomber existed that could carry such a heavy bomb to the required height, then drop it close enough to the targeted dam.

A smaller bomb, provided it went off against a dam wall at a sufficient depth, would destroy the dam, but the dams were protected by underwater torpedo nets to prevent that. British scientist Barnes Wallis finally figured out a solution: bounce a bomb over the water’s surface and over the torpedo nets like a skipping stone until it struck the dam’s wall, at which point it would sink down the wall, and once at the requisite depth, explode. The surrounding water would concentrate the resulting blast against the dam, resulting in a breach.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Bomb skipping technique employed for Operation Chastise. Wikimedia

In order to get the explosive to skip on the surface, then sink along the dam’s inner wall after striking it instead of bouncing back, Wallis devised a spinning drum filled with explosives. A bomber would approach the dam flying low above its reservoir, and at the proper height and distance from the target, release the explosive drum, which a motor had set to spinning counterclockwise. The bomber’s speed would propel the drum skipping over the water surface, bouncing over the underwater torpedo nets. Once it struck the dam, the drum’s counter-rotation would ensure that it hugged the dam’s wall while sinking. At the proper depth, hydraulic pistols would set it off, and basic physics would take care of the rest.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Aftermath of Operation Chastise. Geek Dad

Operation Chastise – Training and Raid

Barnes Wallis’ science was good and his theory was sound. Next was getting pilots and aircrews with enough skill and courage to conduct the nighttime raid. 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson was personally selected by RAF Bomber Command’s chief, Arthur Harris, to form and lead a special squadron for that and similar missions – essentially a unit of specially trained elite aerial commandos.

Gibson’s aircrews trained in modified Lancaster heavy bombers, fitted with a motor in the bomb bay to spin the explosive drum. The drum had to be released at a height of 60 feet to properly skip on water, and to determine the correct height, an ingeniously simple technique was adopted: two spotlights were placed on the bomber’s front and rear and angled so their lights would meet at the water’s surface when the bomber was 60 feet above the ground.

Correct distance would be determined by lining up two sticks on the windshield with two towers to the sides of dam. As the bomber flew in, the sticks would visually be to the outside of the dam towers, sandwiching them. As the bomber drew nearer, the angle between bomber and towers would grow wider, and as seen from the windshield, the towers would “move” closer to the sticks until, at the correct distance, sticks and towers lined up.

19 Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, divided into three formations with separate assignments, flew out on the night of May 16, 1943, along routes chosen to avoid known flak concentrations. Losses began soon as the bombers reached the European coast, and two bombers had to turn back after one flew too low and struck water, losing its explosives, while another had its radio damaged by antiaircraft fire. Soon thereafter, a third bomber was shot down, a fourth went down after striking electric pylons, and a fifth crashed after flying into power lines.

At the Mohne dam, Guy Gibson made his attack run, then flew his bomber across the dam to draw antiaircraft fire while other bombers made their approaches. One bomber was lost and another damaged, but the dam was finally breached after the fifth bombing run. Gibson then led the Lancasters that still had bombs to the Edersee dam, which was undefended but the angle of approach was difficult, and made even more hazardous by fog. After repeated aborted runs, it was finally breached. The attack on the Sorpe dam did not succeed.

The breached dams resulted in a flood that killed about 1700 civilians, of whom 1000 were forced laborers. The greatest impact was the loss of hydroelectric power to factories and residences in the Ruhr for two weeks, as two power stations were destroyed and seven more damaged. Coal production also dropped, declining 400,000 tons that month. The damage was not permanent, however, and within two months the Ruhr was back to normal. The raid nonetheless gave a boost to British morale as an impressive feat of derring-do, Guy Gibson was awarded a Victoria Cross, and the 617 Squadron, known thereafter as the “Dam Busters”, went on to fly further successful special raids.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
B-24 Liberators bombing Ploesti at low level. Wikimedia

Ploesti Raid

A vital component of American and British strategic bombing of the Third Reich was the “oil campaign”, which targeted facilities supplying Germany with fuel, such as oil refineries, synthetic fuel factories, storage depots and other supporting infrastructure. The Romanian oil field and refinery complexes surrounding Ploesti, some 30 miles north of Bucharest, were a vital source of oil for the Axis during WWII, providing them with roughly one-third of their needs.

The Germans, alerted by a small American bombing raid in June of 1942 that met little opposition and inflicted little damage, but highlighted the potential vulnerability, surrounded Ploesti with strong antiaircraft defenses and one of the world’s densest and best-integrated air defense networks. When American bombers returned a year later, Ploesti was far more hardened than it had been in 1942, protected by hundreds of 88mm flak guns and thousands of smaller ones, plus squadrons of Bf 109 and Me 110 fighter planes.

In 1943, American air commanders drew plans for Operation Tidal Wave, a more ambitious raid against Ploesti than the paltry affair of 1942. Unescorted by fighters on what would be a 2000 mile round trip, B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the Ninth Air Force, reinforced by bomber groups loaned them by the Eighth Force then forming in Britain, would head north from Libya across the Mediterranean, then turn northeast towards Ploesti upon reaching the Greek coast.

On August 1, 1943, which came to be known as “Black Sunday“, 177 Liberators took off from Libyan airfields for Ploesti. Maintaining radio silence and flying at 50 feet or less to avoid German radar, they skimmed over the Mediterranean, then flew at treetop level upon reaching land. However, the Germans were alerted and the raid came to grief because of a cascade of mishaps, ranging from a navigation error that took some bombers directly above a German position; a lead navigator’s crash that resulted in bomber groups arriving over the target staggered instead of simultaneously; and a bomb group leader, seeing that all formation was hopelessly lost, breaking radio silence to order the scattered B-24s to make their way to Ploesti individually and bomb as best they could.

Arriving at Ploesti, the Liberators were met by alert defenders who’d had time to prepare a warm welcome. Hundreds of antiaircraft guns, heavy machine guns, and a specially designed flak train whose cars’ sides dropped to reveal flak guns, opened up on the bombers, while fighter airplanes fell upon them. The low-flying B-24s also had to contend with smokestacks suddenly looming in their path amid the billowing smoke. Of 177 B-24s that took off that day, 162 reached Ploesti. Of those, 53 were shot down, for the loss of 660 crewmen. Of the 109 surviving Liberators that reached an Allied airbase, 58 were damaged beyond repair. The damage to Ploesti was quickly repaired, and within weeks, the oil complex was producing even more oil products than it had before the raid.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
B-17 Liberators in the Schweinfurt-Regensburg raid. Wikimedia

Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid

On August 17, 1943, the first anniversary of the commencement of its strategic bombing campaign, the Eighth US Air Force carried out an ambitious attack intended to cripple the German aircraft industry. The plan was to launch two simultaneous bombing raids against two vital targets in order to confuse and divide German air defenses, and disperse the Luftwaffe’s fighters by compelling them to protect both targets rather than concentrate against one bomber force.

The targets chosen were Regensburg, a center for the production of Bf 109 fighters, and Schweinfurt, which housed most of Germany’s ball-bearing industry. Both targets were beyond Allied fighter range, so the bombers would be escorted only part of the way, then continue on their own without fighter protection. The Schweinfurt bombing force would return to its bases in England after the raid, but to further confuse the Germans, the Regensburg force would fly south after dropping its bombs, and continue over the Alps and across the Mediterranean to land at airbases in Algeria and Tunisia. There, after refitting, refueling, and rearming, the bombers would return to England a few days later, bombing targets in Nazi-occupied France on their way back.

Seven groups of B-17 heavy bombers, totaling 146 aircraft, took off for Regensburg on August 17. Within minutes of crossing the coast into Europe, they were intercepted by German fighters, which harried them with mounting ferocity all the way to Regensburg. Of two Allied fighter groups scheduled to escort them part of the way, only one showed up on time to protect the lead bombers, while the other fighter group showed up 15 minutes late, during which time German fighters attacked the unprotected bombers with abandon. 15 bombers were lost before the German fighters, low on fuel and out of ammunition, returned to their airfields. The Regensburg force dropped its bombs against light antiaircraft fire, and turned south for North Africa. The Germans, not expecting that, did little to challenge their escape. Nine more airplanes were lost en route due to mechanical failures or running out of fuel, for a loss of 24 bombers, while another 60 of the 122 surviving B-17s were damaged.

The Schweinfurt force got it far worse. 230 B-17s, divided into 12 groups, took off that morning, but they had been delayed and started late. Thus, rather than fly simultaneously with the Regensburg force, overwhelming the German defenders with numbers, the German fighters had time to concentrate against the Regensburg force, maul it, return to their airfields to refuel and rearm, then take to the air again in time to challenge the Schweinfurt force.

The Schweinfurt bombers were further jinxed by weather, as high cloud masses compelled them to fly at lower-than-usual altitudes, where they were extra vulnerable to German fighters. Bf 109s and FW-190s fell on the B-17s with a ferocity never seen before, and which kept mounting the deeper the bombers penetrated into Germany, as over 300 German fighters attacked the Schweinfurt raiders. On the outskirts of Schweinfurt, the last German fighters, having already downed 22 bombers, returned to their airfields to refuel, rearm, and wait for another go at the bombers on their way back home. The Schweinfurt group lost 36 bombers shot down that day.

The targets suffered significant damage, but German industry was sufficiently resilient to soon make up the production shortfall. Ultimately, what the double raid demonstrated, particularly the Schweinfurt portion, was that daylight bombing raids deep inside Germany without fighter escorts were too hazardous and led to unsustainable losses. US Eighth Air Force commanders did not fully grasp that, however, until another bombing raid against Schweinfurt two months later, resulted in even heavier unsustainable losses.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
De Havilland Mosquitoes bombing Amiens prison. Military History Tours

Operation Jericho

In 1943, the Gestapo rounded up many members of the French Resistance in northern France and consigned them to the Amiens prison. Word made it out that the Germans planned to liquidate their prisoners, starting with a mass execution of over 100 Resistance and political prisoners on February 19, 1944. A precision airstrike to breach the prison’s walls and allow the inmates an opportunity for a mass jailbreak was requested, and the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force drew up plans for Operation Jericho.

Finding the prison was easy, as it was a conspicuous building with high walls in an open area adjacent to the long and straight Albert-Amiens road. The difficulty, in pre-smart bomb days, lay in dropping bombs to blast the outer walls and kill many guards, without destroying the prison and killing too many prisoners. It was accepted that some or many prisoners would die in the bombing, but it was reasoned that they were slated for execution anyhow, and the risk of death in a breakout attempt was better odds than the certainty of execution.

Planners determined that the plane most suitable for such precision work was the de Havilland Mosquito. Poor weather kept delaying the mission, but on February 18, 1944, one day before the scheduled mass executions, it was finally now or never. Notwithstanding heavy snow and fog, eighteen Mosquitoes took off from southern England and linked up with escorting Typhoon fighters over the English Channel. Flying low, the attackers took a circuitous route until they reached the town of Albert to the northeast of Amiens, then followed the long and straight Albert-Amiens road to approach the prison from that direction.

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

The mission was a tactical success, although the results were mixed: the bombing was pinpoint accurate by the standards of the day, and the walls were successfully breached, allowing the prisoners an opportunity for a jailbreak. At the cost of three Mosquitoes and two Typhoons, 50 Germans were killed, but so were 107 of the 717 prisoners. 258 prisoners did escape, but 182 were recaptured. Controversy erupted after the war when some in the Resistance disputed that they had requested the bombing. Additionally, no evidence emerged that the Germans had planned mass executions of the Amiens prisoners.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Operation Focus. Zionism & Israel

Operation Focus

A jet fighter or bomber is among the deadliest weapons ever invented, but on the ground, it is utterly defenseless. Mivtza Moked, or Operation Focus, was the code name given the preemptive airstrikes launched by Israel to destroy the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces on the ground and disable their airbases at the start of the Six-Day War, on June 5, 1967. Israel’s quick victory in that war largely stemmed from the success of Operation Focus in the opening hours of the conflict.

Operation Focus was an all out attack by nearly all of Israel’s 196 warplanes. Maintaining radio silence and flying low beneath the enemy radar, the Israelis headed out westward over the Mediterranean, before turning south towards Egypt, whose air force was surprised by the sudden and simultaneous appearance of Israeli combat aircraft over 11 airfields at 7:45 AM that morning – a time chosen because the Egyptians had fallen into the habit of going on high alert at dawn to guard against surprise attack, but by 7:45 AM the alert was usually over, the airplanes had returned to their airfields, and the pilots disembarked to eat breakfast.

In addition to surprise, success was due to the first wave of attackers concentrating on the runways with a new prototype of penetration bombs that used accelerator rockets to drive the warheads through the pavement before detonation, resulting in a crater atop a sinkhole. Unlike damage caused by normal bombs striking runways, which simply required filling in the bomb crater and paving it over, the sinkhole caused by the prototype bombs necessitated the complete removal of the damaged pavement segment in order to get at and fill in the sinkhole – a far more laborious and time-consuming process. With the runways destroyed, the airplanes on the ground were stranded, sitting ducks for follow-up 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 to base, quickly refueled and rearmed in under 8 minutes, then headed back to strike 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 at the Syrian and Jordanian air forces.

By noon on June 5th, the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces were largely destroyed, having lost about 450 airplanes, while nearly 20 Egyptian airbases and airfields were seriously damaged, which crippled what was left of the Egyptian Air Force and prevented it from intervening for the remainder of the conflict. It was one of the most successful preemptive strikes in history, and left the Israeli air force in complete control of the skies for the remainder of the war.

12 of the Most Daring Air Raids in History
Operation Opera. Defense Aviation

Operation Opera

Alarmed by Saddam Hussein’s construction of the Osirak nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Baghdad, and its potential use in a weapons program that would furnish the Iraqi dictator with nuclear bombs, his enemies sought to nip the problem in the bud. In 1980, early in the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian F-4 Phantoms bombed the reactor, but inflicted minimal damage that did little to derail the Iraqi nuclear program. Israel, also threatened by the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein, made its own plans to take out the reactor.

In preparation for the raid, Israeli pilots studied the power plant’s plans, paying special attention to the reactor building that housed the nuclear core. The most obvious route would have been a straight line from Israel to the reactor, but that would have crossed Jordan, whose radar stations would have detected airplanes approaching from the west. Taking a long curved route farther to the south was another possibility, but American AWACS planes operating from Saudi Arabia could have detected unusual aerial activity.

A third and risky alternative, which was followed, was to fly low, under the radar, while weaving a path between Jordanian and Saudi radar installations. On June 7, 1981, a flight of Israeli warplanes, comprised of bomb-carrying F-16s escorted by F-15s for fighter protection, took off for the Osirak reactor. At some point, the raiders were picked by a Jordanian radar and challenged by ground control, but an Israeli pilot, speaking in Arabic, convinced them that they were Jordanian planes on a training mission.

After 80 minutes in the air, the raiders approached their target and prepared to strike. The F-15s peeled off to provide fighter cover if needed, while the F-16s climbed before diving into the attack. The first F-16 bombs found their mark, as did those of all the following raiders. In less than two minutes, the Osirak reactor was completely destroyed. Israel insists that the pilots dropped simple iron bombs, but the accuracy with which the reactor was hit has led to speculation that the Israeli airplanes had deployed an early generation of smart bombs. Their mission successfully completed, the Israeli airplanes took a direct high speed back home.