By their very definition, daring missions are fraught with uncertainty, risk and the potential for utter disaster. But if they’re successful, they have the ability to turn the tide of war and can play a vital role in the eventual outcome of any conflict. During World War Two, both the Allies and the Axis carried out a whole range of audacious and daring strikes, with some bringing stunning victories, and others ending in ignominious defeat. Here are just some of the most daring missions of the Second World War.
THE ASSAULT ON EBEN-EMAEL
Fort Eben-Emael was a strategically vital Belgian stronghold on the border of The Netherlands and Belgium near the city of Maastricht. It was regarded by some as the strongest military fortress in the world, but it had one obvious achilles heel that the defenders simply didn’t consider – it was vulnerable from above.
Built as part of the Maginot Line, the fort formed a vital part of the line of fortifications, towers and installations constructed by the French after the First World War. It was designed to repel, or at least neutralise, attacks from the Germans should another world war ever manifest itself.
The fort protected a number of important bridges over the Albert Canal, a crucial crossing which the Germans knew they would need to cross in order to expedite their ‘blitzkrieg’ advance into Belgium and northern France. The end game was to cut off the British Expeditionary Force, as well as a good number of French units, and force the French government to surrender.
In the early hours of May 10, 1940 and with the element of surprise on their side, German paratroopers under the command of Hauptmann Walter Koch landed on top of the fort in gliders and disabled the exterior defences. A further assault force killed some, and temporarily imprisoned other members of the Belgian forces. At the same time, another assault force brought two of the three strategically important bridges under German control – the bridge at Kanne was demolished.
Although many of the German airborne troops were killed, the German paras managed to hold off the Belgians until ground troops arrived and forced the remaining Belgian soldiers to surrender.
With free access into southern Belgium, the German war machine could continue to advance – and the operation was seen as a textbook example of how ‘blitzkrieg’ operations can work on a pinpoint scale.
OPERATION TIDAL WAVE
Operation Tidal Wave was one of the most challenging and ambitious air missions of the Second World War. It was signed off by Roosevelt, and involved the destruction of a series of oil refineries at Ploesti in Romania from where around 35% of the German oil supply came. Denying the Germans oil would severely debilitate their ability to wage any kind of mechanised war.
Five bombardment groups (the 44th, 93rd, 98th, 376th and 398th) in B-24 Liberators – comprising 178 planes and almost 1,800 crew – took off from airfields near Benghazi in Libya on August 1, 1943. The 2,000 mile journey wasn’t without incident; one plane was lost before take-off, and one ditched into the Adriatic Sea en route. In the confusion, the airborne convoy went out of control, disrupting synchronisation. Due to the strict adherence to radio silence, mission cohesion was severely compromised.
Although the Germans didn’t fully know why the Americans were on their way, they did know they were coming and prepared with ruthless efficiency. With no fighter escort due to the distances involved, the bombers were sitting ducks. The Germans lay in wait, in one of Europe’s heaviest and best-integrated air defence networks overseen by Luftwaffe General Alfred Gerstenberg. With around 200 fighters and a similar number of large-calibre 88mm guns and 10.5cm FlaK 38 anti-aircraft guns, the attacking force was undertaking a huge gamble.
As the US bombers approached their destination, one amongst them made a fateful wrong turn. Although relocating the targets was relatively straightforward, it was too late. By the time they were back on course, the Germans were taking pot-shots at them. The ensuing battle resulted in devastating losses for the Americans. Of the 177 planes that left Libya, only 88 came back, and 55 of them were battered almost beyond recognition. One B-24 returned with 365 bullet holes.
The Allied assessment of the raid suggested that 40% of the refining capacity was lost, and most were largely repaired within a few weeks. Operation Tidal Wave was considered a strategic failure, with the Enemy Oil Committee indicating there was ‘no curtailment of overall product output’.
Yet despite the terrible cost and relatively ineffective damage, there can be little doubt that the raid itself took huge bravado. It’s rightly considered to be one of the most dangerous, and daring, air attacks of the war.
The Wannsee Conference in January 1942 was a meeting of high-level Nazi officials – including Eichmann, Hofmann, Müller, Luther and Meyer – to discuss ‘die Endlösung der Judenfrage’, otherwise known as ‘the final solution to the Jewish question’, or the Holocaust. It was chaired by the director of the SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office) SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich.
With other senior Third Reich members Hitler, Eichmann, Mengele, Himmler, Göring and Hess, Nazi potentate Heydrich was well-known for his extraordinary brutality. As acting Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (modern-day Czech Republic), the Czechs feared a similar ‘final solution’.
Operation Anthropoid was conceived by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) to assassinate Heydrich, and undertaken with the approval of the exiled Czechoslovak government. Preparations began on October 20, 1941 and two men were selected to carry out the task – Slovak Warrant Officer Jozef Gabčík, and Czech Staff Sergeant Karel Svoboda – eight days later. As Svoboda was injured in training, Jan Kubiš, a Czech soldier replaced him. Because of delays, training and the preparation of false documentation, one of the most audacious missions of the Second World War was put on hold until May the following year.
With the assistance of Czech soldiers, families and anti-Nazi groups, preparations went well. Gabčík and Kubiš waited patiently at a tram stop on a hairpin bend near Bulovka Hospital in Prague. As Heydrich’s green Mercedes convertible slowly rounded the corner on its way to Prague Castle, Gabčík stepped in front of the car, pointed his Sten sub-machine gun at Heydrich and attempted to shoot him. However, in a fateful twist, the gun jammed. As Heydrich went for his Luger pistol, Kubiš threw a modified anti-tank grenade towards the car. It exploded, showering shrapnel through Heydrich. High on adrenaline, Heydrich managed to pursue his attackers on foot for a few seconds before collapsing. He lived for eight days before dying of septicaemia in Bulovka Hospital.
Nazi reprisals were swift and particularly brutal, but Alois Denemarek – a boyhood friend of Jan Kubiš who sheltered him after the assassination – said ‘even though it cost the lives of my family, my brother, my mother, my father and hundreds, thousands of other people, that’s nothing compared to the losses we would have suffered if Heydrich had been allowed to live.’
Arguably the most famous date in the Second World War, June 6, 1944 was D-Day. It was the largest seaborne invasion in combat history; it led directly to the liberation of France; and was a pivotal moment in securing the eventual Allied victory almost exactly eleven months later.
Landing that many men on the Normandy beaches took a phenomenal feat of planning, strategy and manpower – it was crucial to the success of this huge operation. When the Allied forces were eventually ready, the invasion could begin. Ultimately however, every invasion – big or small – has to start somewhere. And the D-Day invasion started with Pegasus Bridge.
Built in 1934, Pegasus Bridge crossed the Caen Canal between the towns of Caen and Ouistreham in Normandy. It was a vital crossing that the Allies required in order to be able to move their forces inland, and avoid being trapped and bottled up on the beaches. It was therefore a crucial objective for the Allied airborne troops – in this case the British 6th Airborne Division.
Operation Deadstick, as it was known, was the first action of D-Day. One hundred and eighty-one men from D Company, 2nd Battalion Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry, set off from RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset in Horsa gliders, with the primary objective of capturing the bridge and holding it intact at all costs against any German counterattack.
At sixteen minutes past midnight on June 6th, the Allied troops exited the planes. With the element of surprise on their side, they took the bridge before half-past. Three additional parachute battalions then reinforced the bridge, and liberated the nearby town of Ranville. Only two men died during the taking of Pegasus Bridge;- Lance Corporal Fred Greenhalgh drowned when his glider landed and he was thrown from the plane, and Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was killed crossing the bridge in the opening minutes of the assault, the first soldier of the Allied armies to be killed as a result of enemy fire on D-Day.
This hugely ambitious operation required immense skill and expertise from the pilots, who landed with such pinpoint accuracy, and the soldiers who stormed the bridges themselves. Today, the operation to capture the bridges has become almost legendary among both military professionals and the wider public, and it remains one of the most audacious operations of the war.
When faced with the threat of Nazi Germany, the British Government singled out the destruction of key German dams in the Ruhr Valley as a major target for the war effort. It was felt that the destruction of these strategic installations could deal a crippling blow to the German industrial machine.
When analysts examined Germany’s industry, it was felt that bombing factories was considered to be a temporary measure. They could be rebuilt very quickly – and in greater numbers – over a wider area. However, all manufacturing plants require a source of power, so hitting the source of the power would knock out factories served by that power source – in this case the huge dams which had been constructed in the Ruhr valley. But identifying the targets and destroying them were two different things entirely.
It was aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis who eventually made a promise to the British high command that he could make a bomb capable of bouncing across water and blowing up dam walls. Just two months before the planned raids, Royal Air Force No. 617 Squadron – known the world over as the ‘Dam Busters’ – was formed, and even though they carried out practice runs over a reservoir in the Peak District, very few of them knew what they had actually signed up for.
The principal targets were three Ruhr Valley dams in Germany’s industrial heartland; the Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe. Not only did they provide hydro-electric power and pure water needed to make steel for tanks, guns, planes and trains, they also provided drinking water and water for the canals. The Möhne and Sorpe dams controlled nearly 70% of the water to the Ruhr basin and were a hugely tempting target, despite the dangers involved. Small wonder then that Operation Chastise became one of the most famous air operations of the entire war.
Avro Lancaster B Mk III bombers were heavily modified (known as ‘Type 464 Provisioning’) to fly at just one hundred feet above the level of the water, as that was the maximum height from which the bombs could be dropped for maximum efficiency.
The raid itself took place on the night of May 16-17, 1943. The route to the targets was flown at very low altitude, in order to avoid flak defences and the Germans’ primitive radar. After the bombers crossed the Dutch coast, most of the navigation took place by dead reckoning and reading maps – hard in daytime and at high altitude, but virtually impossible by moonlight and skimming the treetops. Two planes hit power cables and crashed, while one flew so close to the water it lost its bomb.
The three waves of bombers, nine, five and five, followed different routes to the targets – and the first dam attacked was the Möhne. The first two bombs fell short of the wall and then bounced over it, destroying the power house. The third bomb however, scored a direct hit – spilling millions of gallons of water into the valley.
The Sorpe dam was next. The approach was a serious challenge, not least because of the valley mist, but also because there were hills and a particularly troublesome church in the way. After nine failed approaches, the tenth was considered a ‘go’ for attack. While the bomb caused severe damage, the dam wasn’t breached as planned.
The third dam, the Eder, was again hard to find through thick valley mist. One plane flew three or four approaches, but couldn’t get to the requisite altitude; another flew two, andran into the same problems; but the first pilot, eventually getting his eye in, was satisfied with the approach and a bomb was dropped at 1.39am. It was too close to the target, and another was dropped from a second plane, this time at the right altitude and speed. It hit. The dam shattered and, like the Möhne, an unstoppable wall of water breached the valley.
As a result of the hugely hazardous and almost audacious raid, the Möhne and Edersee dams were breached, sending around 330 million tonnes of water into the western Ruhr valley, with flood water spreading almost 50 miles from the targets.
While the ‘Dam Busters’ raid was a massive morale booster for the Allied forces, militarily it was considered a failure for two reasons. First, casualties were high. Of the 133 aircrew who conducted the mission, 53 were killed and three were taken as POWs. Of the 19 planes that left the UK, three planes returned early and eight were lost. On the ground, 1,294 people were killed – mostly drowned – including 749 Ukrainian POWs who were interned in a camp close to the Edersee dam.
Second, damage to Germany’s war production efforts was minimal. Ninety-two factories were damaged, but only 12 were destroyed. An indeterminate number of power plants were either destroyed or were forced to shut down; eight bridges were damaged, and 25 destroyed. In addition, the Sorpe dam wasn’t breached, and the supply of water to the Ruhr valley was restored to pre-raid levels within a month and a half.
Although it was relatively unsuccessful in terms of actuals, it was a hugely successful propaganda weapon and a mission of immense bravery – 19 planes tried to obliterate what was deemed to be an impregnable, highly defended target in the middle of Germany, and they almost did it.