Special Report

The Biggest Surprise Attacks in Military History

11. Grierson’s Raid
> Date: April 17, 1863
> Location: Mississippi
> Combatants: Union, Confederacy

The cavalry legends of the Civil War mostly sprang from the ranks of the Confederacy – men like J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest. But a daring raid by Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson earned him recognition and proved instrumental in General Ulysses S. Grant’s successful Vicksburg Campaign in the spring of 1863.

Grierson, a music teacher who disdained horses, led 1,700 horsemen southward from La Grange, Tennessee, deep into Mississippi and behind Confederate lines. They destroyed bridges, tore up railroad tracks, wrecked installations and facilities, and wreaked havoc throughout Mississippi. Their exploits also raised the morale of Union cavalrymen, who until Grierson’s exploits had been outclassed by the rebel horsemen.

Source: Joel Carillet / E+ via Getty Images

12. Battle of Chancellorsville
> Date: May 2-4, 1863
> Location: Chancellorsville, Virginia
> Combatants: Union, Confederacy

Among the many stunning victories authored by General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, the triumph at Chancellorsville might have been his greatest. Though outnumbered two-to-one by Union troops led by Major General Joseph Hooker, Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson flouted military convention by dividing their troops into two units to attack the Union army located just west of Chancellorsville, Virginia.

Jackson took 30,000 men, about two-thirds of the Confederate strength, on a 12-mile march on back roads and narrow trails intending to reach the right flank of federal infantry. Lee would use the remaining 14,000 troops to divert Hooker’s attention. Union scouts spotted Jackson’s soldiers hiding in the dense forest but when no attack came, Hooker figured Jackson’s troops had retreated. As Union soldiers began eating dinner in the early evening of May 2, Jackson’s men attacked, and the troops fled in a panic. This led to one of the South’s greatest victories, but it was a costly one. Jackson was shot by friendly fire and died a week later.

13. Battle of Aqaba
> Date: July 6, 1917
> Location: Aqaba, Jordan
> Combatants: Arabs, Ottoman Empire

About 5,000 Arab cavalry led by Sherif Nasir and Auda abu Tayi and advised by English Captain T.E. Lawrence crossed the unforgiving Nefud desert to surprise Ottoman Empire troops in Aqaba, Jordan, during WWI and captured the port city on the Red Sea. The seizure of Aqaba also relieved pressure on British forces in Palestine and created a route to takng the great prizes of Jerusalem and Damascus.

The astonishing victory helped forge the legend of Lawrence, whose derring do would capture the British public’s imagination. He would eventually be known as “Lawrence of Arabia” and would be lionized in newspapers, books, and movies.

Source: Hulton Deutsch / Getty Images

14. Attack in the Ardennes Forest
> Date: May 16, 1940
> Location: Ardennes, Belgium
> Combatants: Allies, Axis Powers

Even though France emerged victorious over Germany in WWI, the French still feared an attack from their ancient enemy in the following decades. Between the world wars, the French built an extensive defensive network of forts, obstacles, and fortifications called the Maginot Line on the border with Germany. If war came, and Germany attacked through Belgium, French war plans called for the French army to move into Belgium and halt a German attack there.

The Germans had other ideas. They invaded the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, and six days later, mechanized armor burst through the Ardennes Forest in southern Belgium and Luxembourg, believed to be impassable for tanks, and smashed through the thinly held line there. The Germans cut off Allied troops in northern France and Belgium and six weeks later France capitulated, stunning the world.

15. Operation Judgment
> Date: Nov. 11-12, 1940
> Location: Taranto, Italy
> Combatants: Allies, Axis Powers

Operation Judgment was an aerial attack conducted by Great Britain against the Italian fleet anchored at the well-fortified naval base in Taranto, on the southeastern coast of Italy during WWII. It was the first time planes flown from aircraft carriers attacked heavily defended warships.

The British launched 21 obsolete Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to hit the Italian fleet, seen as a threat to the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean Sea. The Italians were caught entirely off guard by the aerial attacks and lost half of their capital ships from air-dropped torpedoes. The result of the attack altered the balance of power in the Mediterranean in favor of Great Britain. Other nations, including Japan, took notice of the success of the attack.

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