Special Report

The Biggest Surprise Attacks in Military History

Source: Dietmar Rauscher / iStock via Getty Images

1. Battle of Megiddo
> Date: 1457 BC
> Location: Megiddo (present-day Israel)
> Combatants: Egypt, Canaanite rebels

Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and his Egyptian forces faced rebellious Canaanites in an insurrection that centered around the city of Megiddo in what is present-day Israel. The area was a crucial trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Thutmose, advancing northward from Egypt, had three routes to choose between to reach Megiddo. The northern and southern routes were longer but considered safer. The central route was shorter but the passage featured narrow ravines and an army could be easily cut off. Thutmose gambled that the Canaanites would not defend the shorter route because of the geographical challenge to an advancing army. He proved correct, catching the Canaanites by surprise and ended the rebellion.

Source: Alonso de Mendoza / Wikimedia Commons

2. Battle of Salamis
> Date: Sept. 26-27, 480 BC
> Location: Island of Salamis
> Combatants: Greek city states, Persian Empire

Even though Greek and Persian naval warships were squaring off near the island of Salamis in the fifth century BC, it was the trap that the Greek city states set for the Persian navy that qualifies as one of history’s greatest surprise attacks. The Persian navy outnumbered the Greek ships by about two-to-one and Persian emperor Xerxes intended to trap the Greek ships in the narrow straits around Salamis.

The Greeks, led by their commander Themistocles, had other ideas. They concealed many of their ships in hidden bays and waited for a favorable wind to strike. When the Persian fleet entered the strait, the Greeks emerged and smashed into their flank, plowing into the less-maneuverable Persian ships with their heavier vessels. They sank about 300 Persian ships, while losing only 40 of their own. The naval defeat delayed Persian land offensives, giving the Greek city-states time to unite against Xerxes.

3. Battle of Lake Trasimene
> Date: June 24, 217 BC
> Location: Lake Trasimene, in the Umbria region of Italy
> Combatants: Rome, Carthage

Led by Hannibal Barca, one of history’s greatest generals, a Carthaginian army marched south toward Lake Trasimene (now Lake Trasimeno), in the Umbria region of Italy, defeating the Roman legions that faced him in a series of battles during the Second Punic War. One his greatest victories, and one history’s most significant tactical triumphs, was about to occur.

Hannibal laid a trap for a Roman army of 30,000 led by General Gaius Flaminius by using smaller units of his forces to attack the Romans and retreat. The Romans pursued the invaders down a narrow road with Lake Trasimene on one side and a forest on the other. A Carthaginian contingent blocked one side of the road and Flaminius prepared for battle. The Carthaginians emerged from the fog-shrouded forest and attacked the shocked Roman troops. Half of the Roman legions were killed and the other half taken prisoner.

Source: zenaphoto / iStock via Getty Images

4. Battle of Teutoburg Forest
> Date: September, 9
> Location: Kalkriese (present-day Germany)
> Combatants: Rome, Germanic tribes

The destruction of three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest was one of the most shocking defeats in the history of the Roman Empire. In the first century, Rome was trying to pacify the regions of what is now Germany. The empire entrusted commander Publius Quinctilius Varus with subduing the rebellion.

Arminius, a German vassal who was Roman-educated and even attained the rank of a knight, advised Varus that a rebellion was brewing in the western section of the Germanic territory. It was a trap. As the legions marched through the narrow paths in the deeply forested area, they were set upon by an ever-increasing number of Germanic tribes. The legions were wiped out and Varus committed suicide.

The stunning defeat halted the advance of the Roman Empire northward, and led to the distinct cultural differences between northern and southern Europe that persist to this day.

Source: Medvedkov / iStock via Getty Images

5. Sacking of Rome
> Date: Aug. 24, 410
> Location: Rome
> Combatants: Rome, Visigoths

With Rome’s military glory all but a memory, Visigoth King Alaric I did something no leader had done until that time. He and his army, aided by rebellious slaves, breached the city gates and sacked Rome. The city that Alaric’s army pillaged was suffering from famine and starvation. The Visigoths spared churches (many of the invaders were Christian), but destroyed pagan temples and government buildings.

Though the empire would continue, the plundering of Rome was a psychological and political blow to the once-invincible empire.

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