Special Report

The Biggest Surprise Attacks in Military History

Source: Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images

16. Operation Barbarossa
> Date: June 22, 1941
> Location: Soviet Union
> Combatants: Axis Powers, Soviet Union

Even though Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact in 1939, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler despised communism and coveted the massive Russian land mass to expand his empire. On June 22, 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa (named after a 12th-century German king) with three million troops, the greatest land invasion in history.

At first Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin refused to believe the invasion was taking place. The Soviet army, weakened by Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, collapsed everywhere. In the war’s first six months, the Soviets suffered more than six million military casualties, and millions more civilians died. Ultimately the invasion stalled after a failed assault on Moscow during Russia’s harsh winter and the superior Russian numbers and supplies eventually overcame the Nazis.

Source: Historical / Getty Images

17. Pearl Harbor
> Date: Dec. 7, 1941
> Location: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
> Combatants: U.S., Japan

Tensions grew between the United States and Japan during the 1930s as the Japanese extended their empire into China, and were raised higher when the U.S. imposed an oil embargo on Japan. The island empire lacked the resources it needed to expand and planned to invade the oil-rich areas in the South Pacific. But it needed to eliminate the U.S. Pacific fleet to do so.

On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese airplanes laden with bombs and torpedoes took off from aircraft carriers 200 miles north of Hawaii intent on destroying U.S. warships anchored at Pearl Harbor. They sank four battleships and damaged four others. They also damaged cruisers and destroyers. About 160 airplanes were destroyed. More than 2,400 Americans were killed. The United States was now in WWII.

It was a devastating blow, but not fatal. Much of the infrastructure such as docks, power stations, and oil storage facilities was untouched. As luck would have it, there were no American aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor that day. The carriers would soon play an important role in turning the tide of war in the Pacific.

Source: Historical / Getty Images

18. Doolittle Raid
> Date: Apr. 18, 1942
> Location: Tokyo, Japan
> Combatants: U.S., Japan

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted Japan bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale. The problem was America had no airbases within bombing range of Japan. The solution was to use a floating airbase, an aircraft carrier, to carry B-25 bombers and get close enough to Japan without being spotted. The bombers were commanded by U.S. Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle.

On April 18, 1942, 16 B-25s, carrying incendiary and conventional bombs, took off from the USS Hornet 750 miles east of Japan and attacked Tokyo, bombing military and industrial targets. None of the attackers were shot down. 15 bombers crash-landed in China, while the 16th reached Vladivostok in Russia.

The physical damage in Tokyo was slight but the psychological impact was huge. American morale soared while the stunned Japanese couldn’t believe their homeland had been attacked.

19. D-Day (the Normandy Invasion)
> Date: June 6, 1944
> Location: Normandy, France
> Combatants: Allies, Germany

Officially called Operation Neptune, the Allied invasion of the region of Normandy in northwestern France via amphibious landings on its beaches (with air support) – commonly called “D-Day” – was a decisive first step in the liberation of France and eventually the rest of Western Europe.

The Germans anticipated the invasion, but a complicated plan of deception launched by the British war department, dubbed Operation Bodyguard, misled them about both the date and the site of the Allied attack. When some 24,000 American, Canadian, and British troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of the coastline just after midnight on the 6th, they met an unprepared German force weakened by the recent transfer of men and equipment from the Western to the Eastern Front.

Nonetheless, Allied casualties were heavy, and it took the invading forces and those who followed them weeks to accomplish their goals in the region. The long struggle notwithstanding, the invasion is considered to have marked the beginnings of the Allied victory on the Western Front, heavily impacting the Nazi war machine.

Source: Bettmann / Getty Images

20. Battle of the Bulge
> Date: Dec. 16, 1944-Jan. 25, 1945
> Location: Ardennes, Belgium
> Combatants: Allies, Germany

By the end of 1944, the Western Allies stood on the border of Germany, poised to deliver the final blow on the Nazi regime. German dictator Adolf Hitler concocted an offensive plan in which the German army would slash through a weak part of the Allied lines near the Ardennes Forest – where the Germans had launched their surprise attack on France four years earlier – split the Americans and British armies and force the Western Allies to make a separate peace from the Soviet Union, which Hitler regarded as the real enemy.

On Dec. 16, 1944, 30 German divisions smashed through thinly held positions manned by inexperienced American troops. The overcast weather conditions nullified Allied air superiority and the Germans drove west, forming a bulge in the Allied line. Once weather conditions improved, Allied air forces struck, and General George Patton’s Third Army wheeled northward to relieve beleaguered troops in Belgium. Hitler’s gamble had failed and likely accelerated the end of the war. The U.S. suffered 100,000 killed, wounded or missing action, America’s bloodiest battle in WWII.

Sponsored: Find a Qualified Financial Advisor

Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to 3 fiduciary financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. Each advisor has been vetted by SmartAsset and is held to a fiduciary standard to act in your best interests. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.