Special Report

The Biggest Surprise Attacks in Military History

21. Battle of Asal Uttar
> Date: Sept. 10, 1965
> Location: Asal Uttar, India
> Combatants: India, Pakistan

India and Pakistan have been bitter enemies since both became independent in 1947. A bone of contention between the two nations has been the area of Kashmir. Pakistan, bolstered by U.S. military aid that included Patton tanks, and with India still smarting from a military defeat at the hands of China, saw its chance to take Kashmir in 1965.

Pakistan invaded the region on Sept. 8, 1965, and captured a village about three miles over the internationally recognized border. Indian troops drew mechanized units of the Pakistani army into a trap and were ambushed. One hundred Pakistani tanks were either destroyed or captured versus just 10 Indian tanks. It was one of the largest tank battles since WWII.

Source: Hulton Deutsch / Getty Images

22. Operation Focus
> Date: June 5, 1967
> Location: Egypt, Syria, Jordan
> Combatants: Israel, coalition of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan

With diplomatic negotiations with the neighboring Arab nations going nowhere and fearful of a coordinated invasion, Israel decided to strike first. On the morning of June 5, 1967, Israel put in motion Operation Focus. The Jewish nation launched a pre-emptive strike on the Egyptian air force, destroying 500 planes on the ground and rendering the airstrips unusable. The Israeli air force took out the Jordanian and Syrian combat aircraft over the next five days. Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War shocked the world, but did not settle differences with its Arab neighbors, who six years later would attack Israel.

Source: BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

23. Tet Offensive
> Date: Jan. 30, 1968
> Location: Coordinated assaults in South Vietnam
> Combatants: U.S. and South Vietnam, Viet Cong

By the end of 1967, the United States and its South Vietnamese ally were convinced that final victory over North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was near. It was a colossal miscalculation. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prepared an assault set to begin on the Vietnamese New Year.

They launched surprise mortar and rocket attacks on military installations in five provincial capitals, including Saigon, in what became known as the Tet Offensive (“Tet” being a shortened version of the name of Vietnam’s Lunar New Year festival). One Viet Cong suicide team even assaulted the U.S. embassy. It took the Americans and their allies eight months to throw back the insurgents, who lost 100,000 troops.

America might have won on the battlefield, but after that point, public opinion in the U.S. turned decisively against the war, which looked unwinnable.

Source: svarshik / iStock via Getty Images

24. Yom Kippur War
> Date: Oct. 6, 1973
> Location: Israel
> Combatants: Israel, Egypt and Syria

Smarting from the humiliating defeat during the Six-Day War in 1967, Egypt and Syria plotted revenge against Israel to win back the territory it had lost. On Oct. 6, 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, with many Israeli soldiers away from their posts to observe the day of atonement.

Egyptian troops armed with up-to-date Soviet weapons pushed deep into the Sinai Peninsula, while Syria tried to expel Israeli troops from the Golan Heights. Israel counterattacked and recaptured the Golan Heights. A cease-fire went into effect on Oct. 25, 1973.

Even though Egypt had been defeated, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s prestige grew because of Egypt’s initial success. Sadat used that prestige to forge the first peace accord between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Other Arab nations ostracized Sadat, and his peace overtures with Israel eventually led to his assassination.

Source: Robert Giroux / Getty Images News via Getty Images

25. World Trade Center attack
> Date: Sept. 11, 2001
> Location: New York City
> Combatants: United States, al-Qaeda

On Sept.11, 2001, 19 Islamic militants associated with the extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Two of the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and destroyed them; a third plane slammed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.; a fourth plane, believed bound for Washington, D.C., crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers overpowered the hijackers. Almost 3,000 people were killed during the attacks.

Although America had been hit by terrorist attacks before, the events on 9/11 were considered acts of war. In October, America and its allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, where the terrorist attacks were planned, and destroy Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network based there. The Taliban were removed from power within two months, but an insurgency in Afghanistan continued for many years afterward, and the Taliban retook the country in 2021 after the final departure of American troops.

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