The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History

Khalid Elhassan - January 31, 2023

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
The Osirak reactor before it was attacked. Wikimedia

Saddam’s Scary Nuclear Reactor

In 1976, Saddam Hussein began construction of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Baghdad’s suburbs. His enemies were alarmed by its potential use in a weapons program that could furnish the Iraqi dictator with nuclear bombs. So in 1980, early in the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian F-4 Phantoms bombed the reactor. They inflicted minimal damage, and did little to derail the Iraqi nuclear program. Israel, also threatened by the prospect of nuclear weapons in Saddam’s hands, made its own plans to take out the reactor.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Israeli F-16 fueling up before takeoff to execute Operation Opera. The Aviationist

In preparation for the raid, Israeli pilots studied the power plant’s plans. They paid special attention to the part of the reactor where the nuclear core was housed. The most obvious route was a straight line from Israel to Baghdad. However, that would cross Jordan, whose radar stations could detect airplanes approaching from the west. Another possibility was to take a long, curved route farther to the south. However, American AWACS planes operating from Saudi Arabia could have detected unusual aerial activity.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Operation Opera. Defense Aviation

The Raid that Kept Saddam from Getting a Nuke

The Israelis had a third, and riskier, alternative: fly low, under the radar, and weave a path between Jordanian and Saudi radar installations. That was the option they went with. On June 7th, 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. An Israeli pilot who spoke 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 Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Aftermath of the raid on the Osirak reactor. BBC

The F-15s peeled off to provide fighter cover if needed, while the F-16s climbed before they dove into the attack. The first F-16’s bombs found their mark, as did those of all the follow-on raiders. In less than two minutes, the Osirak reactor was completely destroyed. Israel insists that the pilots dropped simple iron bombs. However, the accuracy with which the reactor was hit has led to speculation that the Israelis had deployed early generation smart bombs. Their mission successfully completed, the Israeli airplanes took a direct high speed route back home.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Japan’s Most Formidable Military Leader in WWII

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, a prophet of the naval air power that devastated Pearl Harbor, was the Japanese Navy’s dominant figure. A determined and aggressive commander, he drew bold and imaginative plans. His strong leadership ensured that such plans were embraced by subordinates, who idolized Yamamoto and strove to execute his orders with vigor and skill. A chess champion of the Japanese Navy, he also became an excellent poker player while studying and serving in America. US intelligence deemed him “exceptionally able, forceful and quick thinking“. In short, American commanders realized that Yamamoto was a one-of-a-kind, and wanted to get him. That was about more than mere payback. Yamamoto was preeminent in all categories. If any harm befell him, any potential Japanese successor was bound to be personally and professionally inferior. Not to mention that Yamamoto’s death would both demoralize the Japanese, and simultaneously give Americans a huge morale boost.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Yamamoto and staff aboard the battleship Nagato in 1940. Wikimedia

However, to actually get Yamamoto lay more in the realm of wishful thinking and revenge fantasies, than in the world of the possible and probable. That changed with a fortunate break on April 14th, 1943. That day, US Navy intelligence intercepted a coded telegram sent in Japanese Naval Cipher JN-25D. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the JN-25 code had been cracked by a secret US cryptanalysis effort known as “Magic”. American cryptographers, whose ranks included future United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, deciphered the telegram to reveal a momentous message. It began: “On April 18 CINC Combined Fleet will visit RXZ, R__, and RXP in accordance with the following schedule…” CINC Combined Fleet was Yamamoto. The decrypted transmission stated that he and his staff would fly on an inspection and morale-boosting mission from Rabaul to the northern Solomon Islands.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
A P-38 Lightning. Lockheed Martin

A Raid that Required Clockwork Precision Timing

The intercepted message provided detailed departure and arrival information, mode of travel, the number of escort fighters, and contingencies in case of bad weather. The party would leave Rabaul in two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” medium bombers. Yamamoto’s would be escorted by six Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. The other, carrying his chief of staff, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, was assigned three Zeros. Takeoff was scheduled for 6AM, Tokyo time, for an 8AM arrival at Balalae Airfield, near Bougainville. That would be the closest Yamamoto had ever come to American front lines, and a golden opportunity not to be missed. President Roosevelt reportedly authorized Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to “get Yamamoto. Planning was immediately begun to kill the enemy admiral blamed for Pearl Harbor, and was given the apt codename Operation Vengeance. The intercept and shoot down of Yamamoto’s plane had to be precisely timed.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Operation Vengeance flight path. Thing Link

For American fighters to takeoff from a base and intercept enemy planes hundreds of miles away, a tight schedule had to be followed. If all went right, US fighters leaving Henderson Field in Guadalcanal at 5:25AM Tokyo time could fly a circuitous route that would intercept Yamamoto at 7:35AM near Bougainville. A few minutes’ deviation from the schedule by either side could doom the mission, with the Americans arriving at an empty patch of sky devoid of enemy airplanes. Fortunately for the Americans, and unfortunately for the Japanese, their target was known for his compulsive punctuality – a fact known to US intelligence from Yamamoto’s time in America. There was a hiccup, however: the flight route from Rabaul to Bougainville was beyond the range of US Navy airplanes. However, it was within the range of US Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning fighters, recently deployed to Guadalcanal.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
P-38 attack on Yamamoto’s airplane. Aviation History Online Museum

Getting Yamamoto

Eighteen P-38G Lightnings, each armed with four .50 caliber machineguns and one 20mm cannon, and equipped with drop tanks for extra range, were selected for Operation Vengeance. They were to be led by USAAF Major John Mitchell. A flight of four was designated as a “killer team” to go after the two bombers. The other Lightnings, whose numbers included two spares, were to fly cover above and keep the Japanese Zero escorts and swarms of other enemy fighters expected to take off from nearby airfields off the killers. Sixteen 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 18th, 1943. The mission went like clockwork. The P-38s skimmed the ocean at 50 feet to avoid detection, and swung wide of islands between Guadalcanal and Bougainville and watchers therein.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Wreckage of Yamamoto’s Mitsubishi Betty bomber in the Bougainville jungle. Wikimedia

They 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 other Lightnings took on the Zero escorts and flew top cover to fend off any fighters scrambled from local airfields. Within minutes, both Japanese bombers were shot down. One crashed into the jungle below, and the other made a crash landing into the ocean. The P-38s then broke off contact. Avoiding detection no longer a necessity, they 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.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
The Ploesti oil complex. Petroblog

The Oil Campaign that Sought to Starve the Nazi War Machine of Fuel

The Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany in WWII sought to destroy, or at least degrade, the Nazis’ ability to wage war. Key to that was the “oil campaign”, which went after facilities that supplied Hitler’s forces with fuel. Targets included oil refineries, synthetic fuel factories, storage depots and other supporting infrastructure. The Romanian oil field and refinery complexes around Ploesti, some thirty miles north of Bucharest, were a vital source of oil for the Axis, and provided them with roughly one third of their needs.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Supposed defenses of Ploesti on August 1st, 1943. US Air Force Museum

The Germans were alerted by a small American air raid in June, 1942, that met little opposition and inflicted little damage. What the raid did accomplish was to alert the Germans to their potential vulnerability. So they surrounded Ploesti with antiaircraft guns, and set up 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.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Operation Tidal Wave route. US Air Force Museum

A 2,000 Mile Raid

In 1943, as the Allies grew more focused on the Third Reich’s fuel, American air commanders drew plans for Operation Tidal Wave. It was to be a significantly more ambitious raid against Ploesti than the paltry affair of 1942. It would be carried out by Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the Ninth US Air Force, reinforced by bomber groups loaned them by the Eighth Force then forming in Britain. Unescorted by fighters, they would head north from Libya across the Mediterranean, then turn northeast towards Ploesti when they reached the Greek coast, for a 2,000 mile round trip raid.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
B-24s during the Ploesti raid. Air and Space Magazine

On August 1st, 1943, which came to be known as “Black Sunday”, 177 Liberators took off from Libyan airfields for Ploesti. To achieve tactical surprise and catch the defenders unaware, the American warplanes maintained radio silence. They also flew at 50 feet or less to avoid German radar. For hours, the heavy bombers skimmed over the Mediterranean, then flew at treetop level when they reached land. However, as seen below, the Germans were alerted and the raid came to grief because of a cascade of mishaps.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
B-24s bombing Ploesti at low level. Wikimedia

This Raid Did Not Go According to Plan

Various hiccups plagued and doomed Operation Tidal Wave before the bombers reached their target. A navigation error took some bombers directly above a German position, and thus gave the enemy a heads up. A lead navigator’s bomber crashed, and bomber groups that had relied upon him arrived over the target staggered instead of simultaneously. A bomb group leader, who saw that all formation was hopelessly lost, broke radio silence to order the scattered B-24s to make their way to Ploesti individually and bomb as best they could. Thus, when the B-24s arrived at Ploesti, they did not catch the Germans off guard and hit them with a concentrated and well-coordinated blow, as planners had hoped. Instead, the American heavy bombers arrived in separate groups, and were met by alert defenders who’d had time to prepare a warm welcome.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
A B-24 over Ploesti. Pinterest

Hundreds of antiaircraft guns, heavy machineguns, 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 smoke stacks that suddenly loomed 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. 660 crewmen were lost. Of the 109 surviving Liberators that reached an Allied airbase, 58 were damaged beyond repair. The damage to Ploesti was quickly repaired. Within weeks, the oil complex was producing even more oil products than it had before the raid.


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

Air Force Magazine, March 1st, 2006 – Magic and Lightning

Bowman, Martin W. – The Reich Intruders: RAF Light Bomber Raids in World War II (2005)

Burke, Davis – Get Yamamoto (1969)

Claire, Rodger William – Raid on the Sun: Inside Israel’s Secret Campaign that Denied Saddam the Bomb (2004)

Coffey, Thomas M. – Decision Over Schweinfurt: The US 8th Air Force Battle for Daylight Bombing (1977)

Coffey, Thomas M. – Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay (1987)

Fishman, Jack – And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1983)

Gailey, Harry A. – The War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay (1997)

Glines, Carroll V. – Jimmy Doolittle: Daredevil Aviator and Scientist (1972)

Groom, Winston – The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (2013)

Hampton, Dan – Operation Vengeance: The Astonishing Aerial Ambush That Changed World War II (2020)

History Collection – The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All

History of Manston Airfield – F/Lt Baron Jean de Selys Longchamps Attack on Gestapo HQ

Jablonski, Edward – Double Strike: The Epic Air Raids on Regensburg-Schweinfurt, August 17, 1943 (1974)

Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2010) – Operation Opera: An Ambiguous Success

National WWII Museum – Hellfire on Earth: Operation Meetinghouse

Oren, Michael B. – Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002)

Schultz, Duane – Into the Fire: Ploesti, the Most Fateful Mission of World War II (2007)

Scott, James M. – Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor (2015)

Smithsonian Magazine, April 15th, 2015 – The Untold Story of the Vengeful Japanese Attack After the Doolittle Raid

Stout, Jay A. – Fortress Ploesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler’s Oil Supply (2003)

Tanaka, Yuki, and Young, Marilyn Blatt, editors – Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth Century History (2009)

Traces of War – Selys de Longchamps, Jean

United States Army Center of Military History – Attack on Pearl Harbor

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

Warfare History Network – The Sinai Air Strike: June 5, 1967