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Eighty-five days after setting out, Sir Francis Drake’s fleet of 23 galleons and merchantmen dropped anchor at Plymouth, England, on June 26, 1587. In the course of their voyage, the headstrong seafarer and his almost 3,000 crewmen had, as Drake put it, “singed the King of Spain’s beard.”

Boldly sailing into the Spanish port of Cadiz, the raiders razed fortifications and sank, burned or seized 150 Spanish vessels, many loaded with war materiels intended for the mighty Armada that Spain was assembling to invade England. When the English fleet departed, every Spanish warship hastened to locate it, yet Drake still managed to capture a rich galleon and sail it through the enemy cordon. In addition, he raided Spanish installations on the Portuguese coast and at Gibraltar. Drake accomplished his objectives of disrupting Spanish shipping and harrassing the enemy in his ports while losing only five men to enemy fire.

The impact of Drake’s exploit far exceeded the damage to the gathering Armada and the year’s delay imposed on its sailing, writes Wade G. Dudley in Great Raids in History (Sarpedon Publishers, New York, 1997, $27.50), edited by Samuel A. Southworth. The Cadiz raid splintered Catholic solidarity then arrayed against England. The pope was forced to acknowledge, “We are sorry to say it, but we have a poor opinion of this Spanish Armada, and fear some disaster.” History would prove him right.

Dudley, a maritime history student at East Carolina University at Greenville, N.C., has succinctly and vividly captured the flavor and drama of Drake’s raid on Cadiz. The 19 other chapters in this anthology are of equal caliber–each well-documented, scholarly, concise and gripping.

Stephen Tanner, an acquisitions editor and historian, describes the French and Indian assault on the snowbound English settlement at Deerfield, Mass., in February 1704, and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s attack on a northern Cheyenne village at the Washita on November 27, 1868. James M. Aldrich writes about John Paul Jones’ exploits in British waters in 1778; Steven M. Smith, president of Sarpedon Publishers, describes John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate incursion into Indiana and Ohio; and Janis Cakars, a Sarpedon editor, contributes a chapter about Koos de la Rey, who won the first and last victories of the Boer War. Samuel A. Southworth relates the epic of Colonel T.E. Lawrence and his Arab irregulars at Aqaba on July 6, 1917, and the 1942 British Commando raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942. Best-selling English historian Charles Whiting re-creates the tragedy of the British and Canadian raid on Dieppe in August 1942.

Other chapters cover U-47 commander Günther Prien’s audacious foray into the British naval base at Scapa Flow, sinking the battleship Royal Oak on October 14, 1939; the first long-range penetration raid behind Japanese lines by Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate’s Chindits in 1943; the Eighth Air Force’s bloody second bombing raid on Schweinfurt on “Black Thursday,” October 14, 1943; Otto Skorzeny and his Nazi commandos toppling the Hungarian government in Budapest in October 1944; the rescue of civilians from Simba rebels by tough Belgian paratroopers in the Congo in 1964; Israeli Naval Commandos at Green Island in the Gulf of Suez in 1969; and the bold but ill-fated American attempt to liberate prisoners at Son Tay, North Vietnam, in November 1970.

Editor Southworth has not tried to include all the famous raids, and there are some curious omissions, such as Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes’ gallant but doomed raid on General Erwin Rommel’s headquarters in 1941, or the brilliant U.S. paratroop assaults on Corregidor and the Los Baños prison camp in 1945. Nevertheless, Great Raids in History is a fresh and entertaining collection of narratives about operations that required the highest levels of human daring, ingenuity, heroism and often sacrifice.