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10 Air Attacks that Shook the World

by Subhayan Mukerjee
fact checked by Alex Hanton

Maintaining air superiority has been one of the cornerstones of every major war that has waged ever since the invention of the airplane; be it the classic World War I dog fights or the atomic bombings in 1945 to the more recent usage of droids in America’s war on terror. However if it is organized missions and calculated air strikes that we’re talking about, then it mostly begins post World War I. This list picks up ten such military aircraft missions that were instrumental in shaping world history, and politics. “Air power may end war, or end civilization” – Winston Churchill, 1933


The Bombing of Guernica


Aircraft of note: Heinkel He-111

The only major conflict during the otherwise uneasy lull in Europe between the two World Wars was the Spanish Civil War. Of course, relentless wars (or rather, bickerings) for Independence had been raging (in several Asian countries) for decades, none had escalated to the status of a full blown war, save for this.

This was a typical Civil war: One faction of the population (the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco) fighting another (the Republicans who were protecting the left wing government). And as with most civil wars, the neighboring countries saw in this, an opportunity to intervene, and rally their own forces. As a result the Soviet Union sprung to the aid of the Republicans providing them with Polikarpov fighters and the Tupolev SB-2 bomber. Italy, under Mussolini, supported Franco. The Nationalists, however had asked for help from a far more formidable ally, in the form of Germany. Germany, who were looking for an excuse to divert international attention away from its own military rearmament jumped to their aid. It sent in nearly 19000 odd volunteers into Spain, mostly from its Luftwaffe, and they formed what was known as the Condor Legion.

Despite their seemingly amateurish roots, the bombers of the Condor Legion attacked the small town of Guernica in northern Spain on April 26th, 1937. Though Guernica was hardly of any strategic value from a military point of view, this one attack codenamed Operation Rügen , changed the world’s views on the potential of the bomber. For over three hours, German Heinkel He-111’s, accompanied by strafing fighters, pounded the small town with 45,000 kg of high explosive and incendiary bombs, decimating nearly a third of the entire population and injuring a thousand. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed and fires that started by the incendiaries raged for three days.

For Germany this attack was a huge success because they had seen this primarily as an opportunity to test their own troops and equipment. This was also the first instance of a Nazi tactic that would later be known as carpet-bombing. Also, this raid made many other European countries fear Germany, and made them more yielding to the German demands.

The bombing of Guernica was the subject of a famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso.


Blitzkrieg over Poland


Aircraft of note: Messerschmitt Bf109

Germany’s Blitzkrieg, or lightning war over Poland kicked off the Second World War on September 1, 1939. The Blitzkrieg was a kind of battle strategy that had never been seen before. It relied entirely on speed, tact, and surprise and was particularly devised to generate psychological shock and strew chaos all over enemy ground. A formidable combination of the German Luftwaffe, supported by ground forces proved too mighty for the ill-prepared Poles to counter. The best fighter aircraft in the Polish inventory, the P.Z.L P.11 was comprehensively outclassed by the hard hitting Messerschmitt in speed, maneuverability and strike abilities.

Poland nevertheless, put up a brave fight. Though their defense ultimately failed, The P.11’s did claim 126 Luftwaffe aircraft in the process. The German Propaganda Ministry made a huge hue and cry over Germany’s success, and claimed that the Polish Air Force had been destroyed on ground in the first day itself. This was far from the truth. The P.11’s in fact did a darn good job at protecting Warsaw, the capital city of Poland. Several German Heinkel bombers were destroyed and the Polish pilots took to desperate measures to save their nation, including ramming German aircraft with their own before bailing out. They could not hold out for long, and soon, when the Soviet Union acting in concert with Germany crossed the border into Poland, it sealed the fate of the beleaguered nation.

The Polish Air Force continued to fight. Many desperate and valiant pilots took off to the skies to single handedly engage huge German fighter formations, in what were ultimately suicide missions. Other Polish pilots escaped Poland in order to continue fighting from friendly countries, and enlisted in other Air Forces, like that of the French and the RAF of Great Britain.

Germany’s Blitzkrieg over Poland was the first of a series of attacks that would go on to include Belgium, the Netherlands, and France in the course of the Second World War. The sheer might of this German war machine sent shockwaves throughout the whole of Europe.


The Battle of Britain


Aircraft of note: Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane

By June 1940 several European nations had fallen to the German Blitzkrieg – Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. This was when Hitler decided to go all out in an attempt to take over the mighty Great Britain. This set the scene for one of the finest air battles in all of human history and catapulted two of the most famous British fighters to fame viz. the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane. The main impediment to a German invasion of Britain was the English Channel and the naval superiority that the English exercised in the waters. Hitler therefore decided to first gain control over the skies and then lead an amphibious assault into the Isles.

The German Luftwaffe sent a seemingly gigantic strike force, comprising 1300 bombers, dive-bombers and 1200 single and twin engine fighters. The British RAF had a much smaller number at their disposal – just 600 front-line fighters (Spitfires and Hurricanes). But the Germans lacked organization and were caught unawares by superior British radar technology that warned the RAF where and when the Luftwaffe would strike long before the actual strikes came. In July and August, the German air-assaults were confined to ports, air fields, Fighter Command Installations and radar stations in an attempt to cripple the British defense. Though Britain lost a great many fine young pilots, the Luftwaffe sustained heavier injuries. Nearly 600 Messerschimtts and Heinkels were taken out by the RAF. The British then retaliated with a surprise attack on Berlin. This infuriated Hitler and he ordered the Luftwaffe to shift focus from the Fighter Command Installations and attack London instead.

The attack over London led to huge civilian casualties, but gave the British Fighter Command time to regroup and reorganize. The sheer fortitude shown by the British was incredible and awe-inspiring. The entire population seemed ready to fight tooth-and-nail against all-odds for the sake of thwarting the Germans. The spirit of the people could be summed up in the words of Sir Winston Churchill “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for the moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle …”

In the end, the loose unorganized German fighters, though more in number, were no match for the disciplined British Spitfires and Hurricanes and were systematically shot down. The Germans were losing their fighters faster than their industries back home could produce them. Hitler finally called off the assault; Germany’s invasion of Britain was indefinitely postponed.


The Dambusters

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Aircraft of note: Avro Lancaster

The No. 617 Squadron was the most famous squadron in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, and not without reason. Under the command of ace fighter pilot, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, they were involved in one of the most interesting assaults in aircraft history. This was a special, highly secret mission codenamed Operation Chastise, meant to breach three of the most important German dams that held back more than 300 million tons of water vital for Germany’s industries. These dams were the Möhne, the Eder and the Sorpe, and they had heavy anti-aircraft defenses in place. To make a successful assault, the RAF bombers would have to avoid the anti-aircraft fire at all costs. The approach that was planned was ingenious and the amount of brain storming that went into was phenomenal.

The bombers would be heading for the dams, while keeping very, very low, almost skimming over the water surface. This would ensure that all anti-aircraft fire would go over them leaving them unharmed. The bomb that was to be utilized was a special spinning bomb which would bounce over the water surface much like stone-skipping. Before releasing the bomb it would be spun up to speeds of 500 rpm in the bomb bay, so that when it hit the water it would skip across the surface rather than sink. The crew had to release the bomb while flying exactly at 345 km/h, exactly 18.3 meters (that’s 60 feet ) above the water surface. Moreover, the bomb had to touch the water surface at precisely 388 meters from the dam wall with no more than 6% deviation.

The aircraft that was chosen was none other than the legendary Lancaster, one of the prized bombers in the RAF inventory. Nineteen of them took off with 133 crew members on board, and successfully breached the Möhne, and the Eder. However the attack on the Sorpe and the Schwelme dams failed owing to technical difficulties. It wasn’t that the Lancasters suffered no damage. One of the Lancasters even hit the sea, owing to it flying too low. Out of the 19 Lancasters that went on the mission, eight of them and 56 crew members failed to return. Five of those eight were shot down en route, or crashed, two were destroyed during the assault, one was shot down on the way back and two more were so badly damaged that they had to abandon the mission. However, most of what the intent was, had been achieved. Severe flooding occurred where the Möhne Dam was breached and electricity and railways were disrupted. Similar flooding and power disruption happened where the Eder broke as well. The Germans however were surprisingly quick with the repair works and 20000 men who were working on the Atlantic Wall were moved to repair the breached dams.

The No. 617 Squadron thus went into the history books as the legendary Dambusters. Gibson was given the Victoria Cross for his brilliant leadership and became a National hero. Unfortunately, he did not survive the war, and was killed in a De Havilland Mosquito on another bombing raid.


Pearl Harbor


Aircraft of note: Nakajima B5N Kate, B5N, Aichi D3A Val, Mitsubishi A6M Zeke

The historic attack on Pearl Harbor which would go on to make President Franklin D Roosevelt proclaim that date to be one that would live in infamy, was one of the most sudden and surprising air strikes that has happened in the history of modern warfare. On December 7, 1941, waves of Japanese Bombers, supported by hordes of strafing fighters were sighted over the US naval stronghold in Hawaii, called Pearl Harbor. 353 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes, launched from Japanese aircraft carriers, wreaked havoc over an unsuspecting US Navy.

The strike was intended to be of a preventive nature, meant to eliminate vital American fleet units, and to prevent the US from competing with the Japanese in their conquest of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya. Also it was hoped that it would buy Japan enough time to strengthen its establishment and help bring the whole of Southeast Asia under its control, effortlessly. The primary targets were the prestigious US Battleships, which were the navy’s pride. The US Navy did suffer an enormous amount of damage. Four of its prime battleships were sunk. Three destroyers, three cruisers and a minelayer also fell to the same fate. Close to 200 US aircraft were destroyed and nearly 2500 men were killed and a thousand more wounded. Japan’s losses were far lesser: only 29 aircraft units and five midget submarines were lost and 65 men were killed or wounded.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was also the first instance of a powerful military aerial assault that had not initiated off land, rather off aircraft carriers. There were however two key disadvantages with Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese either overlooked or consciously did not take into consideration. One was, the proximity of the harbor to the shore, as a result of which most of the ships were on shallow waters. This allowed some of the sunk and damaged ships to be salvaged and repaired, and human casualties were far less than what the Japanese would have wanted. The second disadvantage was that three of the US Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers were not present in Pearl Harbor at that time, which if successfully damaged or sunk would have cost the US a lot more.

The attack on Pearl Harbor automatically culminated in the US declaring war on Japan on the very next day. This started a chain of diplomatic alliances, and soon Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had also declared war on the US. The American policy of clandestine support for Great Britain changed into an active alliance and the mighty USA thus entered the Second World War.


The Atomic Bomb Raids

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Aircraft of Note: B-29 Superfortress

It was in late 1944 that the US began launching full scale bombing raids on Japan, and by May of 1945, many of Japan’s key cities lay devastated in rubble. In the meanwhile, the American government had spent 2 million dollars and nearly 200000 people were working overtime on a certain Manhattan Project, a secret project whose sole mission was to build a super weapon, unlike any other in human history – the atomic bomb. After some preliminary tests with this revolutionary bomb, under the leadership of Colonel Paul Tibbets, a top secret team was handpicked and given special training to do just one thing – drop the atomic bomb.

The B-29 was the automatic choice for a bomber; it was (in 1944), the most technologically advanced bomber in the world, and fifteen B-29’s were specially modified to carry the nuclear bomb. Tibbets and his crew underwent extensive training for this elite mission, including high altitude flying, long-range navigation, as well as a quick escape route. A quick escape was essential because the detonation of the atomic bomb would create huge shock waves that would extend far and wide and would even severely damage the bombers if not taken into consideration. Three targets were chosen, Hiroshima, Kokura and Nagasaki. And the attack was scheduled for August 1945, provided the weather would permit.

On August 6, the B-29 named Enola Gay, piloted by Tibbets himself, took off from the secret Pacific base of Tinian, only 1450 miles from Tokyo. Precisely at 8 15 AM it dropped its 4406 kg bomb “Little Boy” over Hiroshima. When the bomb detonated, the entire aircraft shook as shock waves tossed it about in the air. Robert Lewis, Tibbets’ co-pilot looked on in horror as the mushroom cloud erupted from the ground below. The only words that escaped his lips were “My God, what have we done?”

The second bomb “Fat Man” (and the last atomic bomb in the US arsenal) was dropped on the 9th of August by the B-29 named Bockscar, over the industrial city of Nagasaki. The intentional target had been Kokura, but the clouds were obscuring the city, so the third target was chosen. When the bomb detonated, the Bockscar trembled in the air, and one of the crew members later said it was as if the plane was “being beaten with a telephone pole”.

Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 14th. The end of the Second World War had thus begun. The nuclear age had, however only dawned.


The Korean War

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Aircraft of note: F-51 Mustang, F-80 Shooting Star, F-9F Panther, MiG-15 Fagot, F-86 Sabre

The Korean War marked a milestone in aerial warfare because this would, for the first time, see jet fighters actively participating in air battles. While early jets had been used by Germany in the closing days of the Second World War, they hadn’t really played any major role in the war. The Korean War was the first war that pitched jet plane against jet plane, like never before.

The War broke out with North Korea invading South Korea in June 1950. To deal with the communist aggression against South Korea, the United States jumped to their aid with straight-winged Mustang jet fighters. The People’s Republic of China rushed to aid the communists, and the Soviet Union provided military support. The early days of the war would see aerial battles between the US Mustangs and Soviet Lavochkin La-7’s. Later, when the United Nations intervened, in support of South Korea, the jet battles became fiercer and more modern fighters were brought in. These included the American F-80 Shooting Star and F-86 Sabre, and the Soviet MiG 15. The first Sabre-Mig 15 encounter happened in December 1950 when four Sabres intercepted four MiGs at more than 25000 feet above sea level. Later, eight Sabres took on fifteen MiGs and the US fighters shot down all of six MiGs before making a getaway. The Australian Air Force participated as well, initially sending F-51 Mustangs and then later the F-8 Gloster Meteors. These were however no match for the superior MiGs and were easily taken out in several encounters. The UN aircraft were feared however, by the Soviets. The British Hawker Sea Fury that leapt in to defend South Korea was responsible for shooting down more Communist aircraft than any other non-US power.

When the Korean War ended, the USAF had suffered 103 losses and had achieved no less than 753 victories. The War thus demonstrated the effectiveness of jet fighters in an international arena. It also heralded the age of the swept-wing fighter like the Sabre and the MiG 15.


The Falklands Black Buck Attacks


Aircraft of note: Avro Vulcan

The Falkland Islands had been under British rule since 1833. However, Argentina, in an attempt to gain sovereignty over the Islands invaded them in 1982. Britain’s campaigns to regain lost control were made all the more difficult owing to the sheer distances involved. Once the British Task Force was in place it was deemed necessary to cripple Argentine air defenses on the Falklands. It was imperative to destroy the Argentine runway at Port Stanley in order to render it useless for the Argentine Air Force. Also, crucial Argentine radar stations had to be taken out so that the British fighters could attack without being discovered earlier on.

The missions had to happen in absolute secrecy and from friendly territory. This led to the British moving their strike base to a small Island in the Atlantic, called Ascension Island. This was in no way “close” to the Falklands – nearly 6100 Km (3800 miles) away to be precise, and bombing missions over such great distances had never been attempted before. The one bomber that was chosen was the Avro Vulcan, an iconic British jet bomber of the post-World War era.

The missions to the Falklands, to destroy the Stanley runway and two other radar sites, were codenamed Operation Black Buck. There were five missions in all, and the logistics involved were staggering – Each round trip was close to 13000 kilometers – the longest in human history. The Black Buck Vulcans had to be refueled several times during the long flights to the Falklands and back. Refueling was done by RAF Victor Tankers using refueling probes.

Two Vulcans took off on the 30th of April 1982. Each had 21 bombs weighing 1000 pounds each. It was an eight hour journey to the Falklands, and the Vulcans were escorted by no less than eleven Victor Tanker aircrafts. One Vulcan developed some technical problems and had to fly back to base. The mission thus boiled down to a single Vulcan accompanied by steadily decreasing numbers of Victors heading for enemy territory. The last Victor pumped in so much fuel in the remaining Vulcan so that it would manage to get within 400 miles of Ascension Island where a new Victor would arrive and refuel the returning “dry” Vulcan.

It was at a distance of nearly 500 kilometers from Stanley, that the solitary Vulcan descended to less than 100 meters above sea level to avoid detection. While some 40 kilometers away, it began the final bombing run. It ascended to a height of more than 3000 feet and readied itself. Then, 10 kilometers away from Stanley, an anti-aircraft radar was detected. It was quickly jammed using a piece of equipment supplied to the Vulcan by the US. On the runway, all the 21 bombs were dropped diagonally.

The runway was destroyed and Argentina was shocked. Insecurity crept in. If British bombers could strike the Falklands, than there was nothing stopping them from raiding Argentina. Argentina yielded. The Black Buck raid had been successful.


Operation El Dorado Canyon

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Aircraft of note: F-111 Aardvark, F-18 Hornet

Following a series of terrorist attacks on America in 1986, US intelligence agencies claimed that they had “incontrovertible” evidence that the incidents had all been sponsored by Libya. The Operation El Dorado was America’s response to this growing terror threat. This operation involved a British based-USAF mission to lead a bombing mission, even longer than the Black Buck Raids of 1982. The logistics of the missions were further complicated when France, Italy, Germany and Spain refused to co-operate with the US. Only UK was willing to give to the USAF some territory to serve as a base.

The bomber chosen for his mission was extremely fast, low flying F-111. Though it was a very advanced bomber, it had never built keeping such long missions in mind. Operation El Dorado Canyon would involve a round trip of 6400 miles, taking 13 hours and requiring no less than twelve in-flight refuelings, for each of the 24 F-111s. It was an ambitious mission with almost no room for error.

The targets were finalized after a joint planning with the USAF and USN. There were two targets in Benghazi, a terrorist training center and an airfield. There were three other targets in the city of Tripoli, which was a terrorist Naval training camp, the Wheelus AFB and the Azziziyah Barracks.

The 24 F-111s left British soil on April 14th, 1986. Six of them were spare aircraft who returned later on. The US Navy initiated a simultaneous attack in A-6E bombers and the F-18 Hornet. Though the strikes were successful and resulted in severe damage on key Libyan targets, it wasn’t an easy mission. The Libyan Air Defense was a state-of-the-art system virtually at par with that of Soviet technology.

Of the 18 F-111s that headed for Libya, five had aborted the mission, so the number dwindled down to 13, who finally reached Tripoli. The Azziziyah Barracks was hit by three of the bombs, while one bomb hit the Sidi Balai terrorist camp. Two others hit the Tripoli airport and destroyed many grounded aircraft.

The attack was over in just over ten minutes and the twelve F-111 turned around for the long flight back to British soil. One of the bombers was lost in the raid, possibly hit by a surface-to-air-missile and its crew killed.

The raid was considered a success. It did not topple Gadaffi, but it did put an end to the Libyan sponsored terror attacks on the US.


The Gulf War Bombers


Aircraft of note: F-117 Nighthawk, B-52 Stratofortress

The Gulf War saw the use of some the most advanced bombers that exist today. One day after the deadline that the UN had set for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, the Allied forces joined hands in one of the biggest air assaults of all time. The campaign was conducted by the US, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy and Free Kuwait as well as by several Arab forces.

The Lockheed F 117 “stealth fighter” was used in this mission. The F-117s flew over Baghdad and destroyed key command and control centers. The Baghdad anti-aircraft defences fired away randomly because the F-117s couldn’t be seen thanks to superior stealth technology. Later on, the B-52, one of the biggest bombers ever built in history was brought into the attack. They flew a round trip of more than 22000 kilometers for nearly 35 hours, the longest at that time. Other fighter-bombers joined in the raid and soon most of the Iraqi defense systems lay crippled and jammed.

For more than a month, the Coalition aircraft kept hitting down upon any target that seemed capable of spawning any form of threat. On the very first day of Operation Desert Storm Iraq’s ground control centers and air defenses had been destroyed. This was when the fighters moved in. Jaguars, F-16’s, and F-18’s systematically tore away all remaining Iraqi strongholds. The RAF’s celebrated Tornado bombers also flew in to wreak havoc over what remained in Iraq. Later on, teams of Buccaneers and Tornados used laser pods and Sidewinder missiles to destroy all key road bridges in the country. Twenty bridges over the Tigris and the Euphrates were destroyed and this cut all the supply and communication lines to the Iraqi military forces in Kuwait.

In the final leg of the War, American B-52s struck down upon Iraqi land forces, mostly the Divisions in Kuwait and Southern Iraq. It was on 3rd March 1991 that Iraq finally accepted ceasefire.

The Gulf War this showcased the potential that modern bombers had in devastating whole countries and forcing defeats. Iraq had learnt it, the hard way.

fact checked by Alex Hanton