The Trojan Horse

The Trojan War, believed to have been waged during the 12th or 13th century bce, was one of the most consequential events in Greek history, with a legacy of epic military subterfuge. The conflict kicked off when Queen Helen of Sparta was abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris. To secure her return, more than a thousand Greek vessels sailed for Troy, where for the next decade the two armies repeatedly squared off in battle. But one morning, the Greek forces unexpectedly abandoned camp and retreated to a nearby island, leaving behind a mammoth wooden horse that was touted as an offering to the goddess Athena. Hours after the horse was rolled into the walled city, a few dozen armed warriors emerged from a trapdoor in its hollowed-out belly and, under cover of darkness, opened the fortress gates for their comrades, who had covertly sailed back from their island hiding place. The Greek army swiftly vanquished the thoroughly surprised Trojans and left their city in ruins. 

Battle of Lake Trasimene

In 218 bce, a Roman declaration of war against Carthage triggered the Second Punic War, a 17-year conflict that, like the First Punic War (and later the Third), pitted two heavyweights eager for dominance in the western Mediterranean. Shortly thereafter, Hannibal led a massive force of Carthaginian cavalry and infantry—accompanied by more than three dozen war elephants—on a thousand-mile march that took them over the snowy Alps with the intention of attacking Rome from the north. On arriving in the Po Valley, near Turin, the Carthaginians fortified their ranks with fighters from local Gaul and Ligurian populations and then defeated the Romans in successive battles as they headed south. But it was the third battle, in 217 bce, that truly alarmed the Romans and showed off Hannibal’s legendary military acumen. This time, Hannibal lured the Roman general Gaius Flaminius into battle with a spate of attacks across the countryside and then set a deadly trap for the cocksure, yet incompetent, commander on a narrow road beside Lake Trasimene. The Roman forces, some 30,000 strong, pursued a small contingent of Hannibal’s troops at the far end of the lake, unaware that most of the general’s 40,000 fighters were lying in wait in the forested hills beside the road. Trapped on one side by the lake and the other by the hills, the Romans were easy prey as the ambushers charged en masse from their hiding places. With nowhere to run, many fled for the lake and drowned in their armor. In the end, 15,000 Romans died and a similar number were taken prisoner, wiping out nearly an entire army.

Battle of Medway

Following the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, in 1665, the Great Plague began ravaging London, and before long the epidemic had killed about a fourth of the city’s residents. In 1666, the Great Fire of London wiped out much of the beleaguered city’s housing. And in 1667, England again took it on the chin when a Dutch flotilla launched a surprise attack that produced one of the worst—and possibly most humiliating—defeats in the history of the Royal Navy. The audacious Dutch plan, masterminded by political leader Johann de Witt, was conceived to deliver a crushing blow to its adversary and gain the upper hand in treaty talks. After capturing the English seaport of Sheerness, in the mouth of the River Thames, the Dutch fleet—aided by two river pilots who were British defectors—navigated the treacherous River Medway, destroyed a protective iron chain stretched across it, and set upon battleships anchored at the presumed impenetrable ports at Gillingham and Chatham. As it turned out, deep budget cuts had left the English vessels more or less unguarded, and after sacking 13 of them, the Dutch aggressors retreated with two seafaring trophies, including HMS Royal Charles, the Royal Navy flagship. 

Battle of Trenton

On Christmas night, 1776, General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, led a detachment of some 2,400 troops across the icy Delaware River from their encampment in Pennsylvania and then marched nine miles south through a snowy nor’easter to Trenton, New Jersey, where about 1,400 Hessians, fighting in service to Great Britain, were garrisoned. Following a recent drubbing by British troops around New York City, patriot forces were depleted and demoralized enough to cast doubt on the American colonies’ quest for independence. But at Washington’s urging, some of those weary troops navigated their way across the treacherous Delaware (other detachments were foiled by the ice), and in columns that stretched as long as a mile, they headed for Trenton. Thanks in part to the work of a spy Washington had recruited, the German mercenaries were led to believe that no attack was imminent and had therefore let their guard down. As a result, the colonial forces were able to parlay an element of surprise into a resounding victory on the morning of December 26. This in turn boosted their morale and further inspired a wave of new recruits to join their ranks, thereby rejuvenating their military campaign.

Battle of Chancellorsville

On the morning of May 2, 1863, Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, hastily concocted a bold plan with Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson that defied conventional military wisdom: divide their troops into two units and attack a Union army corps with twice as many soldiers hunkered down just west of Chancellorsville, Virginia. Jackson’s brigades of some 30,000 men—about two-thirds of his forces—moved out on a 12-mile trek along back roads and narrow trails, aiming to reach the far right flank of Union infantry troops commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker; Lee simultaneously led the remaining 14,000 troops on a mission to divert Hooker’s attention from the left. Jackson’s “foot cavalry,” which Union scouts had spotted, eventually got into position for an attack, hiding in a dense forest. When no attack was forthcoming, Hooker, figuring that Jackson’s troops had retreated, diverted his assets Lee’s way. Late that afternoon, when Jackson’s men stormed the unprepared—and outmanned—Union soldiers, many of them fled. Over the next three days, the Confederates routed their adversary, although the victory was bittersweet: Jackson was hit that first night by friendly fire, and he died a week later from complications following surgery.

Battle of Taranto

In the closing hours of November 11, 1940, five months after Italy had declared war on Great Britain, the first of 21 aging two-seater biplanes took off from the British carrier HMS Illustrious and headed across the Mediterranean Sea for the heavily fortified naval base at Taranto, a coastal city inside the heel of the Italian boot. The Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber, affectionately nicknamed the “Stringbag” because it could carry a mix of loads, seemed to be the unlikeliest aircraft for a mission that aimed to put a major dent in the Italian navy’s fleet of warships: Placed into service during the mid-1930s, the Swordfish boasted a fabric skin, an open cockpit, and a lumbering top speed of just 143 miles per hour when laden with weapons. But while these aircraft may have been anachronisms, they performed admirably: The Italians were caught entirely off guard by the aerial attacks, and the Brits, using air-dropped torpedoes, laid waste to six enemy battleships stationed in Taranto harbor, along with destroyers and cruisers. The sneak attack, which resulted in the loss of two Swordfish, set the demoralized Italian navy on its heels, altering the balance of power in Mediterranean waters.

Pearl Harbor

Throughout 1941, long-simmering Japanese anger over trade embargoes imposed by a coalition of the United States and its Western allies pointed toward the likelihood of a forthcoming war. The consensus among American intelligence officials was that when Japan initiated hostilities, it would do so relatively close to its borders, overrunning territories in the South Pacific, for example, as a way to seize precious natural resources, without which its expanding empire might falter. But just before 8 a.m. on December 7, a day before Japan would issue a formal declaration of war, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, threw the American military a 4,000-mile curveball: instead of targeting such anticipated targets as the Dutch East Indies or the U.S.–controlled Philippines, 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft, launched in back-to-back waves from carriers, targeted the unsuspecting naval base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, which at the time was a U.S. territory. The surprise invasion, which lasted just two hours, destroyed much of the U.S. Pacific fleet and killed some 2,400 Americans. The next day, before a joint session of Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt famously called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” Shortly thereafter, Congress voted to approve Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan, signaling the country’s entrance into World War II.

Operation Focus

In the spring of 1967, escalating diplomatic hostilities in the Middle East portended a looming military showdown, with Israel eyeballing a crescent-moon-shaped threat across its northern (Syrian), eastern (Jordanian), and western (Egyptian) borders. But on the morning of June 5, in an operation code-named Mivtza Moked (Operation Focus, a.k.a. the Sinai Air Strike), the Israeli Air Force caught its Egyptian counterpart napping and launched one of the most dramatic and successful surprise air attacks of all time. In the first wave of the preemptive strike, nearly 200 IAF aircraft headed out over the Mediterranean Sea, flying low enough to avoid both radar detection and surface-to-air missiles, then headed for Egypt, and, within just hours, destroyed its sitting-duck war planes; in addition, the Israelis deployed a novel warhead that rendered its enemy’s military airstrips entirely unusable. Two more bombing waves soon followed, in the process destroying some 500 aircraft. And in the next five days, the IAF similarly neutered Jordanian and Syrian combat aircraft, while also causing massive losses among ground troops. In short order, the Six-Day War radically altered the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Tet Offensive

By most accounts, the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was humming along according to plans in early 1967, with the public largely behind combat efforts overseen by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and, on the ground, by General William Westmoreland. But as the year progressed, the North Vietnamese and their armed Communist allies in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, began gaming out strategies to sabotage America’s battlefield thunder and entice the South Vietnamese people to abandon their allegiance to the country’s government. The most dramatic component of this effort was launched shortly after midnight on January 30, 1968, when the Viet Cong and their collaborators violated a well-established Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet) treaty with surprise mortar and rocket attacks on military installations in five provincial capitals; the next day, coordinated assaults were carried out across South Vietnam. The United States and its allies decisively beat back the insurgents, but the military victory was clouded by political upheaval: Antiwar sentiment, already escalating among the American public, accelerated dramatically after Tet, and two months later, in a televised address, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a partial halt to the bombing in Vietnam and his thoroughly unexpected decision to not seek another term in office. MHQ

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

This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: War List | Surprise! 

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