Didn’t See That Coming – Nine of Military History’s Most Incredible Surprise Attacks

Japanese zeros prepare to depart for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Japanese zeros prepare to depart for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“To this day, Pearl Harbor stands as one of history’s most famous surprise attacks. Here are some others.”

ON NOV. 26, 1941, six Japanese aircraft carriers supported by 42 other ships steamed from ports the Kuril Islands into the stormy north Pacific. For the next ten days, the fleet, which carried more than 400 fighter planes and bombers, would secretly sail 4,000 miles towards Hawaii. The armada arrived in the waters just north of Oahu on the night of Dec. 6. At dawn the following morning, the carriers sortied nearly 360 warplanes in two waves to strike at American naval and air forces at Pearl Harbor.

The USS Arizona burns, Dec. 7, 1941. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The USS Arizona burns, Dec. 7, 1941. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The attack, which began at precisely 7:48 a.m. local time on Sunday, Dec. 7, came without warning. In three frantic hours, Japanese planes had destroyed four ships including two battleships, crippled six others, and damaged nine additional surface vessels. Nearly 200 American aircraft were also in flames, having been bombed and strafed as they sat on their runways. Overall, the raid inflicted more than 3,500 casualties with 2,403 dead. For its part, Japan lost 29 aircraft. The disaster at Pearl Harbor is seen as the single worst intelligence failure in U.S. history. Amazingly, there was no shortage of signs that a strike was imminent. Army and navy code breakers noted an abundance of ominous chatter in the days and hours leading up to the raid. And that very morning, an American destroyer, the USS Ward, dropped depth charges on an unidentified submarine lurking at the harbour’s mouth. American radar operators at Opana even detected the Japanese warplanes as they approached Pearl from the north. Their warnings went unheeded.

Today, Pearl Harbor stands as one of history’s most famous surprise attacks. Here are some others:

A Dark Day for Rome

Three Roman armies are surprised and destroyed by Germanic warriors in 9 CE. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons.)

Three Roman armies are surprised and destroyed by Germanic warriors in 9 CE. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons.)

Nearly 2,000 years before Pearl Harbor, three entire legions belonging to Emperor Augustus were similarly surprised and overwhelmed by a massed barbarian army at the Teutoburg Forrest in northwestern Germany. On Sept. 9, 9 CE, 36,000 Roman soldiers were led into a deadly trap by a turncoat Germanic tribal warlord named Arminius. The treacherous chieftain urged the Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus to speed the 17th, 18th and 19th Legions from their winter camp through Teutoburg to put down a bogus rebellion in the west. Despite warnings of Arminius’ treachery, Varus marched his army right into the ambush. Up to 20,000 Roman troops were butchered in the ensuing attack. The disgraced Varus took his own life shortly afterwards. Upon learning of the disaster, the 70-year-old Augustus Caesar went mad, banging his head against a marble column crying aloud to his dead general to give him back his legions. Rome was so scandalized by the loss, the unit designations 17 and 19 were never used again, and it was years before another army marched under the banner of the 18th.

Harold’s Last Victory

The battle of Stamford Bridge. The other famous battle of 1066.

Stamford Bridge: The other famous English battle in 1066. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Just days before his crushing defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, England’s King Harold Godwineson mounted a devastating surprise attack on a Viking army at Stamford Bridge. The recently crowned Anglo Saxon monarch had been waiting for weeks in southern England to drive off an expected invasion by William of Normandy when news arrived that 300 Norse ships had landed an army in the north. Harold abandoned his channel lookout and raced his force of 15,000 peasant fyrdsmen and housecarl knights nearly 200 miles in just four days to meet the new threat. On Sept. 25, Harold’s army arrived at the edge of the Viking encampment. The Norse raiders, who were dozing lazily in autumn sun, never imagined that the English army could reach Stamford so quickly. The English fell on their unarmed prey and cut them down them by the thousands. Those Vikings not slain begged for quarter. The survivors later sailed home in disgrace aboard just 24 ships. Unfortunately, Harold was unable to fully savour his triumph — three days later, 12,000 Normans landed at Pevensey Bay. The English king hurried south towards Hastings to throw back this new invasion. Within two weeks, Harold was dead and William had claimed the throne.

Washington’s Finest Hour

A fanciful portrayal of Washington's Delaware crossing on Christmas, 1776. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

A fanciful portrayal of Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas, 1776. After landing on the New Jersey shore, the Continental Army surprised and defeated the Hessians. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

By December of 1776, America’s bid for independence was in very real danger of being snuffed out. The Continental Army under the command of George Washington had been on the run since its historic defeat at Brooklyn Heights in August. Now, with the winter snow flying, all eyes were on the American commander to turn things around. Finally, on Christmas night, Washington staked his rag-tag army in a desperate gamble save the rebellion. All evening long, the Continentals ferried itself across the frigid Delaware River at Titusville, New Jersey using an assortment of commandeered boats. Once reassembled on the opposite bank, the 2,400-man column set off through a driving storm towards Trenton were an army of Hessians was in winter quarters. At daybreak, the half frozen rebels had formed a battle line on the edge of town. The surprised enemy, still groggy from a night of revelry, stumbled out onto the field to give battle. Following a brief exchange of musketry, 22 Hessians lay dead and 83 were wounded; the Americans had suffered five casualties, but captured nearly 1,000 enemy prisoners. While a minor victory militarily, the impact of Trenton on the Continental cause was incalculable.

The Union Army Gets a Rude Shock

A dramatization of Stonewall Jackson's death following his brilliant attack on the Yankee lines at Chancellorsville.

A dramatization of Stonewall Jackson’s death following his brilliant attack on the Yankee right flank at Chancellorsville.

Union troops camped just west of the town of Chancellorsville, Virginia were relaxing by their cooking fires at sunset on May 3, 1863 when more than 25,000 screaming Confederate soldiers came sprinting out of the woods, their bayonets gleaming in the late day sun. While a handful of Union troops reached for their muskets and loosed a volley into the ranks of the advancing rebels, the vast majority of blue coats fled in terror leaving the whole of the Federal line in jeopardy. The audacious assault was the handiwork of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps and one of the South’s most brilliant and beloved commanders. All day leading up to the attack, the rebel general spirited his troops across more than 10 miles of wooded back country known as the Virginia Wilderness to arrive far right flank of the Union line. At 5:30 p.m., Jackson’s men struck in full force sending the Yankees reeling. As night descended onto the countryside, the Rebel advance petered out. Jackson galloped into the darkness in hopes of pressing the attack only to be shot by his own confused troops. He died a week later.

The Spring Offensive

German troops rolling towards Paris in the 1918 Spring Offensive. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

German troops roll towards Paris in the 1918 Spring Offensive. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

In the spring of 1918, Prussian strategist Erich Ludendorff spotted a chance to bring the bloody First World War to a rapid conclusion in Germany’s favour. Following a peace deal with Russia in early March 1918, the Kaiser’s top military mastermind rushed 50 battle-hardened divisions in from the east to roll over the Allied armies in France, in hopes of ending the war before fresh troops could arrive from America. The attack, which was dubbed Kaiserschlacht or the “Kaiser’s Battle”kicked off on March 21. It was preceded by a massive artillery barrage that hurled more than a million shells onto a 150 square mile patch of the Allied lines near the Somme. The bombardment was followed up by a frontal assault from the Sturmtruppen or “stormtroopers”. The specially trained shock battalions blew vast holes in the Allied lines through which the main German army quickly poured. The dazed British defenders crumpled amid the torrent of fire, sustaining 50,000 casualties the first day alone. The attackers swiftly cut 40 miles into Allied territory creating mass panic. For the first time since 1914, the Germans were threatening Paris. In fact, Ludendorff’s units closed to within 60 miles of the French capital. But by June, the attack fizzled; the German army was utterly spent, having lost more than 600,000 men in three months of all out attack. The Allies, now strengthened by U.S. troops, counterattacked. By the late summer, the British, French and Americans launched their famous 100 Days Offensive, which led to the final defeat of Germany.

Hitler Strikes Back

German troops advance in the Ardennes on Dec. 16, 1944.

German troops advance in the Ardennes on Dec. 16, 1944.

As 1944 neared its end, Nazi Germany appeared to be in its death throes. Yet all hopes for an early peace were shattered in an instant at dawn on Saturday, Dec. 16. At precisely 5 a.m., a quarter of a million Wehrmacht and SS troops supported by nearly 800 armoured vehicles and 2,000 heavy guns tore into the American lines along an 80 mile front in the rugged Ardennes. The offensive, which was preceded by the largest German artillery bombardment of the entire war, caught the Allied high command completely off-guard. Ironically, intelligence reports warned that the Germans were indeed marshalling for a strike through Belgium, yet the very notion was almost unthinkable to U.S. generals. After a morning of hard fighting, the Allied troops in the path of the Axis onslaught were in full flight. The Nazi advance, which the press later dubbed the Battle of the Bulge, had two goals: snatch the port of Antwerp, thus disrupting the Allied supply lines, and more importantly split the British and American armies apart and destroy them piecemeal. Hitler gambled that dealing the western Allies such a crippling blow might finally force London and Washington to the peace table, enabling the Third Reich to turn its full attention to the collapsing Eastern Front. All told, Hitler’s last Blitzkrieg killed more than 20,000 U.S. troops and wounded 50,000, making it the single bloodiest American battle of the Second World War. Within days, the German advance was halted, but it would take a full month for the Allies make good on the ground lost in the attack’s opening round

Pre-Emptive Strike

Israeli personnel examine the wreckage of Egyptian warplanes destroyed on the ground in 1967. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Israeli personnel examine the wreckage of Egyptian warplanes destroyed on the ground in 1967. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Tensions between Israel and its neighbours Egypt, Syria and Jordan had been steadily mounting for years leading up to the 1967 War. But with Arab armies massing on the Jewish state’s borders, Tel Aviv finally ordered an audacious pre-emptive surprise attack. Shortly before 8 a.m. on June 5, Israel committed 200 jets of its total 212-planes to a risky strike on Egypt. Within minutes of entering enemy airspace, the IAF Mirages were bombing and strafing more than a dozen Egyptian air fields obliterating much of that country’s air force as it sat helpless on the ground. After expending their ordnance, the strike wing darted back to Israel to rearm and refuel. Within minutes, the jets had mounted a follow-up raid. A third attack was soon ordered. By mid day, 500 Egyptian aircraft were holed or in flames on their runways. While Israel would still be forced to fight a ground war on three fronts, it would do so with near total air supremacy. After nearly a week of hard slogging, Israel was in control of the Sinai, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.


ARVN troops battle VC insurgents in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

ARVN troops battle VC insurgents in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite summed up the shock many Americans felt as communist guerrillas launched their surprise Tet holiday offensive on Jan. 30, 1968. “What the hell’s going on here?” the newsman reportedly declared upon hearing that fighting was breaking out all across South Vietnam. “I thought we were winning this war!” The first wave of the long-planned offensive, which was carried out by an army of at least 300,000 infiltrators, struck a gamut of American and ARVN military targets simultaneously in five provincial capitals as well as Saigon itself. A host of secondary objectives were also hit. One Viet Cong suicide team even stormed the U.S. embassy. It took the Americans and its allies eight months to overpower the insurgents at cost of more than 45,000 casualties. The communists lost 100,000 men in the campaign. Up to 14,000 civilians also perished in the crossfire. While seen as a crushing defeat for Hanoi, the Tet Offensive signaled to many Americans that the war in Vietnam was un-winnable. Public support for U.S. involvement in South East Asia evaporated throughout 1968 and Washington soon began a phased four-year withdrawal.

(A version of this article originally appeared on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Dec. 1, 2014)

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