The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History

Khalid Elhassan - January 31, 2023

A raid in 1945 that used air-dropped incendiaries was history’s deadliest aerial attack. It set a significant chunk of a major city on fire, and might have killed more people than both the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined. It was the brainchild of one of history’s most pugnacious air force commanders, ever. Below are twenty five things about that and other air raids from history.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
B-29s over Mount Fuji, Japan. World War Photos

History’s Deadliest Air Raid

What was history’s deadliest air raid?” Most people would assume it was one of the atomic bombings of Japan – Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Each killed tens of thousands at one go. However, neither of those has the horrific distinction of being history’s deadliest aerial attack. There was another World War II aerial attack that claimed more lives than either atomic bombing. Indeed, it might have killed more people than both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, plus the Dresden bombing, yet another horrific raid thrown in for good measure, combined. It took place on March 10th, 1945, when 279 Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers set Tokyo ablaze in a devastating attack. Known as Operation Meetinghouse by the US Army Air Forces (USAAF), and the Great Tokyo Air Raid by the Japanese, it inflicted 100,000 fatalities according to official figures. Modern research estimates that the actual death toll was much higher.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Aftermath of Operation Meetinghouse. Wikimedia

The raid was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay, who was given command of XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas, in January, 1945. B-29s had flown from there against Japan for months, but the results had been unpromising. US strategic bombing doctrine at the time emphasized high altitude precision attacks with high explosive bombs against key industrial targets. That is how the air campaign against Germany was conducted. Or at least that was how American air commanders in Europe tried to go about it. In practice, precision bombing proved difficult, so area bombing was used as often as not. High altitude bombing in Japan proved nearly impossible, however. A hitherto unknown high speed jet stream, whose like didn’t exist in Europe, scattered bombs released at high altitude, and dropped them miles away from their intended targets. So LeMay made some radical changes. The results, as seen below, were terrible.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
B-29s dropping incendiaries over Yokohama on March 29th, 1945. Wikimedia

An Inferno In One of the World’s Most Densely Populated Urban Areas

The way strategic bombing had been conducted in Europe, with high explosive bombs dropped from high altitude, did not work in Japan. So General Curtis LeMay ditched the explosive bombs in favor of incendiaries. He reasoned they would prove particularly effective against Japanese cities, whose buildings were mostly wooden. To improve accuracy, the bombs would be dropped from low altitudes, instead of high. The target, the Shitamachi district in northeast Tokyo, was among the world’s most densely populated urban zones. It housed about 1.1 million people in an area about 3 miles by 4 miles, most of whom lived in cramped quarters in wooden-frame buildings, as well as light industries that supplied the Japanese military. To torch that “paper city” was to be an experiment in the effectiveness of firebombing. The local fire brigades were undermanned, badly trained, and poorly equipped.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
The parts of Tokyo, in black, burned out on March 10th, 1945. US Strategic Bombing Survey

At 12:15 AM, March 10th, 1945, the B-29s reached Tokyo and began to release their bombs from heights of 5000 to 7000 feet. The raid lasted less than three hours, but in that time, it began an inferno, that was fanned by 30-knot winds into a firestorm that razed Shitamachi and spread to other parts of Tokyo. Hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians scrambled to escape the flames, but many were unsuccessful. Over a quarter million buildings were destroyed, and more than one million people were left homeless. Conservative estimates by the US and Japanese governments put the death toll at around 100,000. However, some modern scholars posit that 200,000 or more perished in the horrific raid. In 2009, history professor Mark Selden wrote that the fatalities were probably several times greater than the official figures of 100,000.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Baron Jean de Selys Longchamps. Alchetron

A Belgian Pilot’s Unlikely Path to the RAF

From history’s deadliest air raid, to a one-man raid, totally unauthorized. It was conducted in WWII by Baron Jean Michel de Selys Longchamps, a Belgian aristocrat who flew for Britain’s Royal Air Force. He earned his place in history for a solo raid against the Gestapo’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. The man had a beef with the Gestapo that went beyond the common detestation most people had for that organization, in that it was quite personal. He happened to have a formidable attack airplane, a Hawker Typhoon, and decided to use it to put some hurt on Germany’s dreaded secret police. His route to the RAF was a convoluted and unlikely one.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Longchamps’s solo raid against the Gestapo headquarters in Brussels. Clara Net

Early in the war, Longchamps was drafted into the Belgian Army, and was commissioned as a cavalry officer. Belgium fared poorly when the Germans attacked it in the spring of 1940, and the country was swiftly overrun. Longchamps was evacuated alongside British troops from Dunkirk, but immediately returned to France to continue the fight. The French surrendered soon after his return. He tried to rejoin the Allies, but was arrested by the French collaborationist Vichy authorities, and interned. Longchamps fled, made his way to Spain, and from there, managed to get to Britain. He wanted to fly for the RAF, but at age 28, he was too old for flight training. So he lied about his age. Training over, he was assigned to No. 609 Squadron, and soon established a reputation as an aggressive Hawker Typhoon pilot.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
The path of Longchamps’s strafing run against the Gestapo headquarters. Wikimedia

A Dramatic – and Unauthorized – Solo Raid Against the Gestapo

When the Nazis conquered Belgium, the Gestapo set up a headquarters at 453 Avenue Louise in Brussels. The building soon gained a sinister reputation, as its basement became a torture center for those who fell afoul of the Nazis. They included Longchamps’s father, who was tortured to death there by the Sicherheitzpolizei (SiPo) – Germany’s Security Police, a combination of the Gestapo and the criminal cops. Longchamps came up with a plan to strafe the Gestapo HQ, but his RAF superiors rejected it time after time. He decided to do it anyhow, on his own. On January 20th, 1943, he was sent on a normal mission to strafe a railway near Ghent. He took the opportunity to fly to nearby Brussels, to pay the German secret police a visit. Once the authorized mission was over, Longchamps set out to conduct an unauthorized raid.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Bust of Longchamps, erected after the war in front of the former Gestapo headquarters building. History of Manston Airfield

He ordered his wingman back to Britain, and set course for Brussels, about thirty miles away. Longchamps flew low to avoid detection, and reached Brussels without a hitch. He first flew down Avenue Louise, and gunned his engine as he passed the Gestapo HQ to draw the occupants to the windows. He then made a wide loop, and returned to the building, this time with four 20 mm auto-cannons blazing. Up to thirty Germans might have been killed. Their numbers included the chief of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) – the SS secret police – and other prominent security officials. Longchamp then scattered a bag of small Belgian flags over Brussels, and dropped a Union Jack and large Belgian flag at the royal palace. Upon his return, Longchamps was demoted for his unauthorized raid. He was also awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan Times

The Desperate Need to Hit Back at Japan After Pearl Harbor

As America reeled from the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt wanted Japan bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale. Unfortunately, a wide chasm lay between America’s desire to hit back, and its ability to do so. Indeed, it was America and her allies who absorbed blow after blow from the rampaging Japanese. It was vital for America to retaliate, and be seen to retaliate. It would take time before sufficient forces were gathered to take the offensive. Until then, couldn’t American airplanes at least raid Japan? The problem though was how? The US Navy had bombers that could be launched from aircraft carriers, but their range was short. So carriers needed to get within two hundred miles of Japan – within range of Japanese land-based bombers.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Japanese soldiers celebrate the capture of Manila, capital of the US possession of the Philippines, on January 2nd, 1942. WWII Daily

That risk was too high for what was ultimately a symbolic strike. The US Army Air Forces had long-range twin and four engine bombers, but no airbases close enough for them to take off, bomb Japan, and return. It seemed like an insoluble conundrum, until one day, US Navy Captain Francis S. Low flew over Chambers Field at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, and looked down. Below was a runway painted with the outline of an aircraft carrier’s deck. Carrier pilots routinely practiced takeoffs and landings on such simulated decks on the ground. That day, however, there were some twin-engine Army bombers parked nearby. In one of those sudden insights that strike military men from time to time, Low linked the Army bombers to the adjacent painted carrier deck outline. Why, he thought, not meld the assets of two services to launch long-range Army bombers from a Navy carrier’s deck?

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Jimmy Doolittle aboard his Curtis RC32 racing airplane, in which he won the Schneider Cup Trophy in 1925. Disciples of Flight

The Raid on Tokyo

The top brass of the Navy and the USAAF liked Low’s idea. To organize the raid Lieutenant Colonel James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle, a famous prewar airplane racer, test pilot, and aeronautical engineer, was selected. He chose the B-25 Mitchell, a twin-engine bomber that could carry a bombload of 3000 pounds to a range of 1350 miles. Two B-25s were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, and flew off its deck on February 3rd, 1942, without a problem. Doolittle selected 24 volunteer crews, and two dozen B-25s were sent for modifications in Minneapolis. When the planes were ready, the crews were sent to pick them up and fly to Eglin Field in western Florida. There, starting on March 1st, 1942, Doolittle gave the volunteers an intense three week crash course to prepare them for the raid.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
One of Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25s undergoing modifications in Minneapolis. NWA History

That done, sixteen B-25s and crews were loaded aboard the Hornet, and sailed out. They rendezvoused with the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise on April 12th, 1942, and the combined task force set course for Japan. A problem arose on the morning of April 18th, 1942, when the task force was sighted by an enemy 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. At 08:20, Doolittle flew the first B-25 off the Hornet’s deck. By 09:19, the other 15 bombers had followed him into the air. Flying low to avoid detection, they winged their way to Japan. They arrived around noon, and bombed targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, and Yokosuka.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Doolittle’s takeoff as seen from the USS Enterprise. U.S. Navy/National Archives

The Aftermath of the Doolittle Raid

The B-25s could take off from a carrier, but could not land on one. So 15 bombers continued westward, and made it to China, where they crash-landed. Another made its way to Vladivostok, where it and its crew were interred by the Soviets. Three of eighty crewmen were killed. Eight were captured by the Japanese, of whom three were executed, and one died in captivity. The raid’s physical damage was slight, but the psychological impact was huge. It boosted American morale by demonstrating the country’s ability to hit back. Doolittle was awarded a well-earned Medal of Honor.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Jimmy Doolittle receiving a Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. Standing, left to right, General Hap Arnold, Josephine Doolittle, and General George Marshall. National Museum of the US Navy

Simultaneously, the Japanese high command lost considerable face. They worked off their frustration with a collective punishment campaign against the part of China where the B-25s had crash-landed, and the crews had been helped by the locals. In an excess of violence known as Operation Sei-Go, the Japanese slaughtered an estimated quarter million Chinese. They also sought to regain face with an attempt to capture Midway Island a few weeks later. It backfired spectacularly, and ended in a catastrophic Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, which turned the tide of war in the Pacific.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Israeli Mirage III attacking Egyptian airplanes at the start of the Six Day War. Imgur

An Air Raid that Effectively Won a War on the First Day of Hostilities

A jet fighter or bomber is deadly in the air, but on the ground, it is utterly defenseless. That was the lesson of Mivtza Moked, or Operation Focus: a preemptive Israeli raid destroyed Arab air forces on the ground and disabled their airbases at the start of the Six Day War, on June 5th, 1967. Israel’s quick victory in that conflict largely stemmed from the success of Operation Focus, an all-out attack by nearly all of Israel’s 196 warplanes. In radio silence, the Israeli planes flew low below enemy radar, headed out westward over the Mediterranean, then turned south towards Egypt. The Egyptians were surprised by the sudden appearance of Israeli combat aircraft over 11 airfields at 7:45AM that morning.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Operation Focus, the surprise Israeli attacks at the start of the Six Day War. BBC

That time was chosen because the Egyptians had fallen into the habit of going on high alert at dawn to guard against surprise attack. By 7:45AM, however, the alert was usually over, the airplanes were back at their airfields, and the pilots disembarked to eat breakfast. In addition to surprise, the success of Operation Focus was due to technological innovation. The first wave of attackers concentrated on the Egyptian runways with a new prototype of penetration bombs that were specifically designed to render runways unusable. Those bombs didn’t just explode when they hit a runway’s surface. Instead, accelerator rockets drove the warheads through the pavement, before they detonated. The result was a crater atop a sinkhole.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Egyptian airplanes destroyed on the ground at the start of the Six Day War. Wall Street Journal

Stranding Enemy Planes on Unusable Airfields

Normal bombs that struck runways simply created a crater that could easily be paved over. The sinkhole caused by the prototype bombs required the complete removal of the damaged pavement, 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 followup airstrikes. 197 Egyptian airplanes were destroyed in that first raid. Only eight Egyptian airplanes took to the air. After they struck an initial eleven Egyptian airbases in the first few hours of the Six Day War, the Israeli planes returned to base. There, they quickly refueled and rearmed in under eight minutes, then headed back to strike fourteen more Egyptian airbases.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Results of Operation Focus, per Israel’s military. IDF

They returned to Israel to once again speedily refuel and rearm, and flew out in a third wave. This one was divided between attacks against what was left of the Egyptian air force, and strikes at the Syrian and Jordanian air forces. By noon on June 5th, the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces were largely destroyed. They had lost more than 400 airplanes, while nearly 20 Egyptian airbases and airfields were seriously damaged. That crippled what was left of the Egyptian Air Force, and kept it out of the conflict. It was one of history’s most successful preemptive strikes, and left the Israeli air force in complete control of the skies for the remainder of the war.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Boeing B-17F formation over Schweinfurt, Germany, on August 17, 1943. National Museum of the US Air Force

An Ambitious Double Raid

August 17th, 1943, was the first anniversary of the start of the Eighth US Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign against Germany. To commemorate the event, the Eighth carried out an ambitious twin raid, intended to cripple the German aircraft industry. The idea was to launch two simultaneous aerial attacks against two vital targets, in order to confuse and divide German air defenses. It was hoped that the Luftwaffe’s fighters would be dispersed, and their effectiveness thus reduced, if they had to protect both targets rather than concentrate against one bomber force.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
B-17s during the Schweinfurt mission. History Net

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

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
B-17s crossing the Alps en route to North Africa after the Regensburg mission. National Museum of the US Air Force

A Delay that Ruined a Good Plan

Seven groups of B-17 heavy bombers, with a total of 146 airplanes, took off for Regensburg on August 17th. Soon as they crossed the coast into Europe, they were intercepted by German fighters, which harried them with mounting ferocity all the way to Regensburg. Of two fighter groups scheduled to escort them part of the way, only one showed up on time to protect the lead bombers. The other fighter group showed up fifteen minutes late. In that quarter hour, German fighters attacked the unprotected B-17s with abandon. Fifteen bombers were lost before the German fighters, low on fuel and out of ammunition, returned to their airfields.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
The Regensburg portion of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission. Pinterest

The Regensburg force dropped its bombs against light antiaircraft fire, and turned south for North Africa. The Germans had not expected that, and 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. Another 60 of the 122 surviving B-17s were damaged. The Schweinfurt force got it far worse. 230 B-17s, divided into twelve groups, took off that morning, but they had been delayed and started late. Thus, they did not fly simultaneously with the Regensburg force to overwhelm the German defenders with numbers. Instead, 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 Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
One of nine B-17s of the 100th Bomb Group missing by the end of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission. Damaged, it crash landed near Zurich, Switzerland, where both plane and crew were interned. National Archives

Heavy Losses, for Little Gain

The Schweinfurt bombers were further jinxed by weather, as high cloud masses forced 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. That ferocity increased 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 and rearm. They then waited 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 raid against Schweinfurt two months later, resulted in even heavier unsustainable losses.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Route taken by the Japanese force that attacked Pearl Harbor. Wikimedia

The Raid that Thrust America in WWII

The attack that set in motion the chain of events that led to both the Doolittle Raid and the eventual devastation of Japan from the air occurred on December 7th, 1941. On that date, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack from aircraft carriers against the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Early that morning, Japanese warplanes, 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.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Some of the Pearl Harbor attack’s devastation. New York Times

The raid that the Japanese pilots executed that morning had been planned for almost a year. It was 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. As seen below, it was a devastating attack that caught the defenders off guard.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored in Pearl Harbor- a torpedo has just hit the USS West Virginia. US Naval History and Heritage Command

A Devastating Attack that Could Have Been Worse

Starting at 7:48AM local time, 353 Japanese combat warplanes, 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, they 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 2,400 Americans and wounded around 1,200.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
USS Arizona going down at Pearl Harbor. Wikimedia

The raid also sank or beached twelve ships, damaged nine others, destroyed 160 airplanes, and damaged 150 more. However, the Japanese had concentrated on warships and airplanes, and ignored important infrastructure, such as oil storage facilities, docks, and power stations. The destruction of those and other vital installations would have impeded the use of Pearl Harbor as a base for America’s 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 ultimately frustrate Japanese plans and bring about Japan’s doom.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
The Amiens prison. British Pathe

An Air Raid to Free Resistance Fighters from a Gestapo Prison

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

To find the prison was easy. It was a conspicuous structure with high walls, in an open area along the long and straight Albert-Amiens road. The difficulty, in pre-smart bomb days, was how to drop bombs to blast the outer walls and kill many guards, yet not destroy the prison and kill too many inmates. It was accepted that some or many prisoners would die in the strike. However, 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.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
A de Havilland Mosquito. ThoughtCo

The Right Plane for a Delicate Mission

Operation Jericho’s planners decided that the warplane most suitable for this mission was the de Havilland Mosquito. Nicknamed “The Wooden Wonder” because it was constructed almost entirely of wood, the twin-engine Mosquito was one of the most versatile and successful airplanes of WWII. It almost never get off the drawing board. Its basic concept was a bomber bereft of defensive weapons. It relied instead on speed and agility to avoid and escape danger rather than fight it off. That defied conventional wisdom at a time when bombers that bristled with machine guns to fend off fighters were the norm.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Mosquitos cross the English Channel en route to the Amiens prison. Pinterest

Poor weather repeatedly delayed Operation Jericho, but on February 17th, 1944, shortly before the scheduled mass executions, it was finally now or never. Despite heavy snow and fog, eighteen Mosquitoes took off from southern England and linked up with Typhoon fighter escorts over the English Channel. Flying low, the attackers took a circuitous route until they reached the town of Albert to the northeast of Amiens. They then followed the long and straight Albert-Amiens road, to approach the prison from that direction. The plan was for the first Mosquitoes to bomb and breach the prison’s outer walls. Other Mosquitoes would then bomb the guard barracks and cafeteria. The raid was timed for lunchtime, to catch as many German guards as possible as they sat down to dine.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Mosquitoes during Operation Jericho. SWA Fine Art

Controversy Engulfed this Successful Air Raid After the War

The raiders arrived at noon on February 18th, 1944. To start off the show, they dropped 500 pound bombs with delayed fuses to allow the Mosquitoes to fly out of the blast zone before detonation. The explosions were right on target, and 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 headed back home.

The Most Dramatic Aerial Attacks That Changed Military History
Aftermath of Operation Jericho. Ecos de Segunda Guerra

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 escaped, but 182 were recaptured. Controversy erupted after the war when some in the Resistance disputed that they had requested the attack. Additionally, no evidence emerged that the Germans had planned mass executions of the Amiens prisoners.

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