The Greatest Surprise Attacks and Victories in Military History

Many armchair historians can tell you tales of the most extraordinary surprise attacks in warfare. Some of the greatest traps, ambushes, and assaults altered the trajectory of history.

These attacks held immense significance because they changed the course of history itself. Moreover, most of these surprise attacks came from underestimated nations or political movements.

For example, in 1776 the Continental Army of General George Washington shocked Hessian mercenaries of the British Empire at Trenton, New Jersey. With 100 horses and 18 artillery pieces, Washington’s troops made a treacherous journey across a frozen river to mount an unexpectedly successful counterattack. Read More: Soviet Torpedo Boat Discovered After 78 years

First General George Washington assembled 2,400 members of the Continental Army at McConkey’s Ferry. Due to the bad weather conditions, the attack caught  Hessian forces in Trenton, busy celebrating  Christmas, by surprise.

The American forces shot the enemy’s Colonel Rall twice as the battle continued. In such a disastrous situation, regaining control seemed impossible. As a result, the Hessians surrendered. 

By the end, 22 were killed, 83 were wounded, and 896 were imprisoned. On the contrary, Washington’s army got away without a scratch – less than ten men left the field wounded, with the only deaths occurring because of the harsh weather. 

The following are a few more of history’s most significant surprise attacks arranged from least to most recent.

Battle of Megiddo

> Date: April 16, 1457 BC

> Location: Megiddo (present-day Israel)

> Combatants: Egyptians, Canaanite rebels

Battle of Megiddo.
Thutmose III smiting his enemies at the Battle of Megiddo. Relief on the seventh pylon in Karnak

The Battle of Megiddo is one of the most famous military engagements of the 15th century BC. Rebellious Canaanites fought against the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and his forces. They battle took place in the city of Megiddo, which is known as Israel in the present day. The area was considered a trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt. 

Thutmose, advancing northward from Egypt, had three routes to reach his destination, Megiddo. The northern and southern routes were long but safe. The last was short but considerably more dangerous since it featured treacherous narrow ravines. 

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Thutmose took the risk thinking Canaanites would not defend the shorter route because of the geographical challenge. Unfortunately for the Canaanites, Thutmose’s prediction was correct. As a result, the Pharaoh successfully defeated the rebels. 

Greek victory during the Battle of Salamis

> Date: September 26 or 27, 480 BC

> Location: Island of Salamis

> Combatants: Greek city-states, Persian Empire

This conflict was a naval battle between an alliance of Greek city-states and the Persian Empire in 480 BC. The skirmish occurred off the Island of Salamis, located in the Saronic Gulf near Athens. Although the battle lasted less than 20 hours, it was still the largest naval battle in ancient history. 

King Xerxes of the Persian Empire led the conquest of Greek city-states. The Greek alliance was able to defend their land successfully. Greeks city-states had a much smaller army but many more boats at their disposal which they used to win a surprise victory. 

Under the cover of darkness, the Greeks sank around 300 Persian vessels and got away with a loss of only 40 vessels. King Xerxes returned to Asia with his surviving ships and land troops. 

The victory of the Greeks was a decisive point in the Persian Wars. Moreover, since the Greeks successfully defended their land, it ensured the emergence of Western civilization as a major force in the world. Therefore, historians rank the Battle of Salamis as one of the most decisive military battles ever. 

Battle of Salamis
Surprise Attacks: A romantic style painting of the battle of Salamis (by artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

Battle of Lake Trasimene

> Date: June 21, 217 BC

> Location: Lake Trasimene, in the Umbria region of Italy

> Combatants: Rome, Carthage

Hannibal Barca, one of history’s greatest generals, led a Carthaginian army toward Lake Trasimene in the Umbria region of Italy. He successfully defeated the Roman legions that faced him there in a series of battles during the Second Punic War. 

General Gaius Flaminius led the substantial Roman army consisting of 30,000 soldiers. Hannibal laid a trap by using small sub units of his forces to attack the Romans and then retreat. As a result the Romans were lured the invaders to a area between a forest and Lake Trasimene.

A Carthaginian group blocked one side of the road while Flaminius prepared for the battle. The Carthaginians rose from the fog-shrouded forest and attacked the shocked Roman soldiers. Consequently, the Carthaginians killed half of the Roman legions and imprisoned the other half. 

Battle of Teutoburg Forest

> Date: September, 9 AD

> Location: Kalkriese (present-day Germany)

> Combatants: Rome, Germanic tribes

The Battle of Teutoburg forest was one of the most shocking battles to ever take place. The Germanic leader organized a series of ambushes on a column of three Roman legions. Around 25,000 Romans were killed during this massacre, which led to a crushing defeat. 

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Varus, the Roman General, committed suicide after the humiliating defeat. No one expected the Germanic tribe to make a mockery out of the mighty Roman Army so easily. Nevertheless, the defeat resulted in the decline of the Roman Empire for the next few years.

Teutoburg Forest.
Surprise Attacks: Germanic warriors storm the field, in the Teutoburg Forest. Varusschlacht, 1909

The Sacking of Rome

> Date: August 24, 410 AD

> Location: Rome

> Combatants: Rome, Visigoths

Rome was sacked in 410 AD. King Alaric led his army of Visigoths from the East and pillaged the city for three days. As a result, Rome was no longer the capital of the Western Roman Empire. It was replaced by Mediolanum (now Milan) in 286 and then by Ravenna in 402. 

Rome was looted and sacked for the first time in over 800 years, making it one of the most memorable events of that era which symbolized the fall of the Western Roman Empire. 

Battle of Pliska

> Date: July 26, 811 AD

> Location: Bulgarian countryside

> Combatants: Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria

Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros marched into Bulgaria with 80,000 troops intending to capture it. Khan Krum put forth the idea of a peace negotiation, but Nikephoros rejected it and destroyed the Bulgarian capital of Pliska. However, when the first phase of the war ended, the Bulgarians stood united to ambush Emperor Nikephoros. 

Nikephoros, on his way back, neglected warnings by his scouts. Before they could return, the Bulgarians blocked all the tracks, trapping the Byzantines. The Bulgarians killed almost everyone in the Byzantine army. “Even if we have had wings we could not have escaped from peril,” proclaimed the panicked Emperor.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

> Date: September 25, 1066

> Location: Stamford Bridge, England

> Combatants: Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen

Stamford Bridge
Surprise Attacks: Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Weeks later King Harold was to be killed at the Battle of Hastings. (Painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo)

The battle occurred at Stamford Bridge village, East Riding of Yorkshire, in England, on September 25, 1066. It was a conflict between English King Harold Godwinson and the invading Norwegian King Harald Hardrada. 

Harold led an army of 15,000 soldiers 200 miles away from Stamford Bridge. He surprised the opposing Norsemen and ended up killing them. Some Norwegian soldiers escaped from the battlefield after seeing the bloodbath. Tostig Godwinson and Harald Hardrada, two of the significant Norwegians leaders, were killed during the battle. 

Raid on The Medway

> Date: June 1667

> Location: River Medway, England

> Combatants: England, Netherlands

The raid on the Medway occurred during the Second Anglo-Dutch War in June 1667. The Dutch Navy conducted a successful sally on English warships. Johann de Witt, a Dutch political leader, had planned to seize the English seaport of Sheerness on the River Thames.

The Dutch fleet, aided by river pilots, destroyed a protective iron chain that extended across the waterway. Furthermore, the Dutch Navy wrecked 13 Royal Navy ships anchored at the ports of Gillingham and Chatham. 

A few years earlier, England had suffered from a plague and the Great Fire of London. These two disasters led to budget cuts, making the English vessels vulnerable. In the end, the Dutch captured two British ships, including HMS Royal Charles and the Royal Navy flagship. 

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor
Surprise Attacks: USS West Virginia was sunk by six torpedoes and two bombs during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

> Date: December 7, 1941

> Location: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

> Combatants: U.S, Japan

Tension grew between the United States and Japan during the 1930s when the U.S. imposed an oil embargo on Japan. As a result, Japan needed more resources to expand and so invaded the oil-rich areas in the South Pacific. In addition, it needed to eliminate the U.S. Pacific fleet.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes – laden with bombs and torpedoes – attacked 200 miles North of Hawaii intent on destroying U.S. warships anchored at Pearl Harbor. Consequently, they successfully sank four U.S. battleships and damaged four others. 

In this attack, Japan also destroyed about 160 US airplanes. Around 2,335 Americans were killed during the attack. As a result, the United States entered World War Two.

Tet Offensive

> Date: January 1968 – September 1968

> Location: Coordinated assaults in South Vietnam

> Combatants: U.S. and South Vietnam, Viet Cong

The Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of North Vietnamese attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam. was the turning point of the Vietnam War. During the ambush, U.S and South Vietnamese forces were nearly overwhelmed.  

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General Vo Nguyen Giap led these attacks hoping to destabilize the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Furthermore, Giap believed the alliance between South Vietnam and the United States was unstable; hence he wanted to take advantage of the situation. Despite its heavy casualty toll, the Tet Offensive turned out to be a strategic success for the people of North Vietnam. 

Although peace talks continued for another five years, the Tet Offensive was quickly recognised as the most significant turning point in the entire war. The attacks caused a loss of credibility for the president and the military high command in Saigon. 

General Vo Nguyen Giap’s bold decision changed the country’s destiny in the coming decades. Nowadays, the Tet Holiday is celebrated annually in Vietnam to highlight the importance of this day.