Surprise attacks are not a new phenomenon in warfare. The Arab armies of the 7th century were famous for their hit and run tactics; they would raid a target, leave, and then return to the site once the soldiers and goods they had left behind had been recovered. The Byzantines who invaded the Arab provinces in 650 had a similar style of fighting; as well as their regular army, they also employed a fleet of light warships to strike at the enemy. These ships would make surprise attacks on Arab ports, striking when their defences were down and then fleeing to safety.

There are various ways to conceal an attack, but probably the most effective way is to conduct it secretly.

Trojan Horse

The Trojan War, which is said to have taken place in the 12th or 13th century. Century v. Chr. was fought, was one of the most important events in Greek history and took up the strings of epic warfare. The conflict began when Helena, queen of Sparta, was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris. To ensure their return, more than a thousand Greek ships sailed to Troy, where the two armies clashed repeatedly over the next ten years. But one morning, the Greek troops suddenly left the camp and retreated to a nearby island, leaving behind a wooden horse they thought was an offering to the goddess Athena. Within hours of the horse’s arrival in the walled city, several dozen armed warriors emerged from a hatch in its hollowed-out belly and opened the gates of the fortress in the dark to their comrades who had secretly departed from their hideout on the island. The Greek army quickly defeated the Trojans, who were surprised, leaving their city in ruins.

Battle of Lake Trasimeno

In 218 b. In the second century AD, the Roman declaration of war against Carthage led to the outbreak of the Second Punic War, a 17-year conflict that, like the First (and later the Third) Punic War, became a confrontation between two heavyweights fighting for supremacy in the western Mediterranean. Hannibal soon commanded a massive force of Carthaginian cavalry and infantry, accompanied by more than three dozen battle elephants, and began a thousand-mile march across the snow-covered Alps, intending to attack Rome from the north. Arriving in the Po Valley near Turin, the Carthaginians strengthened their ranks with fighters from the local Gallic and Ligurian populations, then defeated the Romans in successive battles and moved further south. But it was the third battle, in 217 B.C., that really unnerved the Romans and demonstrated Hannibal’s legendary military skill. This time Hannibal lured the Roman commander Gaius Flaminius into battle by launching a series of attacks across the countryside, and then setting a deadly trap for the arrogant but inept commander on the narrow road near Lake Trasimene. A Roman force of about 30,000 pursued Hannibal’s small detachment to the end of the lake, not knowing that most of the general’s 40,000 fighters were waiting in the wooded hills along the way. Surrounded on one side by the lake and on the other by the hills, the Romans became easy prey as the attackers emerged en masse from their hiding places. There was no way to escape, many ran to the lake and drowned in their armor. The result was that 15,000 Romans were killed and as many captured, destroying almost the entire army.

The Battle of Medway

After the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665, the Great Plague began to ravage London, and about a quarter of the city’s inhabitants had died from the epidemic. In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the building stock of the beleaguered city. And in 1667, England suffered another blow when the Dutch fleet launched a surprise attack that resulted in one of the worst and perhaps most humiliating defeats in the history of the Royal Navy. The bold Dutch plan, devised by political leader Johannes de Witt, was to deal the enemy a fatal blow and win the treaty negotiations. After capturing the English port of Shirnes at the mouth of the Thames, the Dutch fleet, aided by two river pilots, British defectors, sailed down the Medway, destroyed the protective iron chain stretched across the river, and set course for the warships anchored in the supposedly impregnable ports of Gillingham and Chatham. Due to major cutbacks, the British ships appeared more or less unguarded, and after looting 13 of them, the Dutch attackers withdrew with two naval vessels, including the Royal Navy’s flagship, the HMS Royal Charles.

Battle of Trenton

On Christmas night in 1776, General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, led a detachment of 2,400 soldiers from his encampment in Pennsylvania across the icy Delaware River and then marched nine miles south through the snowy northeast to Trenton, New Jersey, where some 1,400 Hessians were encamped and fighting on the British side. After the recent defeat of British forces around New York, patriots are so exhausted and demoralized that they question the pursuit of independence from the American colonies. But at Washington’s instigation, some of these weary troops crossed the treacherous Delaware (other units were blocked by ice) and marched in columns a full mile toward Trenton. Thanks in part to the work of a spy recruited by Washington, the German mercenaries are convinced that an attack is not imminent and are less wary. Thus, in December, on the morning of the 26th, the colonial forces were able to exploit the element of surprise and achieve a stunning victory. This had the effect of boosting their morale and causing a new wave of recruits to join their ranks, giving their military campaign a new impetus.

The Battle of Chancellorsville

The morning of the 2nd. May 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, meets with Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Stonewall Jackson hastily devised a bold plan that defied conventional military wisdom: He divided his forces in two and attacked a Union corps with twice as many soldiers entrenched west of Chancellorsville, Virginia. Jackson’s brigades of about 30,000 men-about two-thirds of his force-began a 12-mile march over narrow country roads and trails to reach the right flank of Union infantry under Major General Joseph Hooker; at the same time, Lee led the remaining 14,000 men to divert Hooker’s attention from the left flank. Jackson’s cavalry, spotted by Union scouts, eventually moved into attack position and hid in the dense woods. When no attack followed, Hooker decided that Jackson’s troops had withdrawn and moved his troops to Lee’s side. Late in the night, when Jackson’s men attacked the positions of the unprepared and outnumbered Union soldiers, many of them fled. Over the next three days, the Confederates defeated their enemy, but the victory was bittersweet: Jackson was injured by friendly fire that first night and died a week later from complications from surgery.

Battle of Taranto

In the final hours of 9/11. In November 1940, five months after Italy declared war on Britain, the first of 21 obsolete biplanes took off from the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and crossed the Mediterranean to the heavily fortified naval base at Taranto, a coastal city on the heel of Italy’s boot. The Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber, affectionately called Stringbag because it could carry a variety of payloads, seemed the most unlikely aircraft for a mission aimed at dealing a serious blow to the Italian Navy’s military fleet: The Swordfish, which entered service in the mid-1930s, had a fabric hood, an open cockpit, and a maximum speed of only 143 miles per hour when armed. But even though these planes were an anachronism, they turned out to be the best: Air raids surprised the Italians and the British destroyed six enemy battleships in the port of Taranto, as well as torpedoes dropped from the air, destroyers and cruisers. This surprise attack, in which two Swordfish were lost, put the demoralized Italian fleet on edge and changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean.

Pearl Harbor

During 1941, the anger of the Japanese, which had long been fueled by the trade embargo imposed by the coalition of the United States and its Western allies, suggested that war was imminent. U.S. intelligence agencies agree that if Japan were to take military action, it would do so relatively close to its borders, for example by seizing territory in the South Pacific to secure valuable natural resources without which its expanding empire could falter. But shortly before 8 a.m. on December 7, the day before Japan officially declared war, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, launched a 4,000-mile balloon at the U.S. military: Instead of aiming for expected targets such as the Dutch East Indies or the US-controlled Philippines, Japanese imperial aircraft from aircraft carriers targeted the unsuspecting naval base of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which was then under US command.353 The surprise invasion, which lasted only two hours, destroyed most of the US Pacific fleet and killed about 2,400 Americans. The next day, at a joint session of Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt designated the 7th Congressional District as the seat of power. December as the date that will live in infamy. Shortly thereafter, Congress voted to declare war on Japan, thus joining World War II.

Operational objective

In the spring of 1967, escalating diplomatic hostility in the Middle East foreshadowed an impending military showdown: Israel has perceived a crescentic threat on its northern (Syria), eastern (Jordan) and western (Egypt) borders. But on the morning of the 5th. In June, in an operation codenamed Mivtsa Moked (Operation Focus, also known as the Sinai airstrike), the Israeli Air Force surprised its Egyptian counterpart and carried out one of the most spectacular and successful surprise attacks of all time. In the first wave of the pre-emptive strike, some 200 Israeli Air Force aircraft flew over the Mediterranean, low enough to evade radar detection and ground-to-air missiles. They then set sail for Egypt and within hours destroyed that country’s fighter planes which were on a duck; in addition, the Israelis deployed a new warhead which rendered the enemy’s military airstrips completely useless. Two more waves of bombing followed, destroying some 500 aircraft. Over the next five days, the IAF also destroyed Jordanian and Syrian warplanes and inflicted massive losses on ground troops. In a very short time, the Six Day War radically changed the geopolitics of the Middle East.

The Tet Offensive

Reportedly, U.S. military action in Vietnam in early 1967 went according to plan, and public opinion largely supported the fighting, which was overseen by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and, in the field, by General William Westmoreland. But as the year progressed, the North Vietnamese and their armed communist allies in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, began to develop strategies to thwart American action on the battlefield and to force the people of South Vietnam to abandon their allegiance to the country’s government. The most dramatic part of this effort began shortly after midnight on the 30th. January 1968, when the Viet Cong and its agents violated the agreement the Vietnamese had made to celebrate the New Year (Tet) by launching surprise mortar and rocket attacks on military installations in five provincial capitals; the next day, coordinated attacks were launched throughout South Vietnam. The United States and its allies decisively defeated the rebels, but the military victory was marred by political turmoil: Anti-war sentiment, already rising among the American public, increased dramatically after Theta, and two months later President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a partial halt to bombing in Vietnam and his totally unexpected decision not to seek another term. MHQ

Alan Green is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area.

This article appeared in the Spring 2023 issue (Vol. 33, No. 3) of MHQ-The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the title: Military list – Surprise!

The 9 Most Memorable Surprise Attacks that Caught the Enemy Off Guard

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the biggest surprise attack in history?

The Battle of Kursk.

What was the surprise attack on America?

The surprise attack on America was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese.

What are sudden surprise military attacks called?

A sudden surprise military attack is called a blitzkrieg.


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