Top 10: Airstrikes that Changed World History

Keeping air supremacy was a very important factor in all the major wars since the invention of the airplane: as much as it was in the classic battles of the First World War through the atomic bombings of the Second, and even through recent use of aircraft against (or in favor) of terrorism.

Calculated airstrikes missions can be traced back to after World War I. This top will only describe ten of them and it intends to show how military aircraft was a crucial part of the world’s history and politics.

1. Bombing of Guernica

Dornier_Do_17Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-341-0489-13 / Spieth / CC-BY-SA

Coordinated by Wolfram von Richthofen, this famous aerial attack destroyed most of the city at the time with 5000-7000 inhabitants, causing hundreds of victims. The bombing took place on April 26, 1937.

A part of the population (the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco) fought with another (the Republicans who were protecting the government from left). And like most civil wars, the neighbors saw it as an opportunity to intervene with its own forces. As a result, the Soviet Union helped the Republicans by providing them Polikarpov and Tupolev SB-2 aircraft. Italy, under the influence of Mussolini, supported Franco.

For Germany, this attack was a huge success because it was an opportunity to test their own troops and equipment. This was also the first instance of a Nazi tactic. Furthermore, this attack originated a wave of fear from many other European countries in regards to Germany, giving in easily to the Germans demands.

2. Blitzkrieg on Poland

Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-487-3066-04,_Flugzeug_Messerschmitt_Me_109Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-487-3066-04 / Boyer / CC-BY-SA

Blitzkrieg was a kind of battle strategy based entirely on speed and surprise, and it was specially designed to generate psychological shock and chaos in the enemy territory.

Germany’s blitzkrieg on Poland, which occurred on September 1st 1939 , was a series of attacks which later included Belgium, Holland and France, during World War II.

Supported by ground forces, a formidable combination of the German Air Force proved their power to the ill-prepared Polish.

The best of Polish aircraft inventory, the PZL P.11 was largely overcome by Messerschmitt in the skills of maneuverability, speed and attack.

Poland, however, resisted. The German Ministry of Propaganda lied saying that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the first day. Several German bombers were destroyed and the Polish pilots took desperate measures to save their nation, including attacking German solitary planes. But when the Soviet Union entered Poland, sealed the fate of the beleaguered nation. Other Polish pilots escaped from Poland to continue the fight in friend countries, such as UK and France.

3. The Battle of Britain


After Poland, Belgium, Holland and France , in June 1940 , Hitler decides to go against Britain. This triggered one of the most memorable air strike in human history, and made the fame of two great British fighters: Super marine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighters.

The main obstacle to a German invasion of Britain was the English Channel and the British naval superiority. Hitler therefore decided to first win control of the skies.

Germans sent a massive attack force, comprising 1,300 bombers, dive bombers and 1,200 fighters. The British force had a much smaller number at their disposal – only 600 fighters (Spitfires and Hurricanes).

But the Germans were poorly organized, and were caught by surprise by British radar, which advised where and when the Germans were going to attack before the actual attack. The German attacks were confined to ports, airfields, Fighter Command installations and radar stations in an attempt to weaken the British defense.

Although Britain has lost a large number of young pilots, the Germans suffered heavier injuries. About 600 Messerschimtts and Heinkel were destroyed.

The British retaliated with a surprise attack on Berlin. This infuriated Hitler, who ordered to attack London.

The attack on London led to massive civilian deaths, but the British command had time to regroup and reorganize. The strength shown by the English was amazing and inspiring. The entire population seemed ready to fight despite being outnumbered.

The spirit of the people could be summarized in the words of Winston Churchill:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight 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 the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!

In the end, the disorganized German fighters, although greater in number, were not comparable to the British Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Germans were losing their fighters faster than they could produce them. Hitler gave up the attack and invasion of Britain.

4. The Dambusters


The 617 Squadron, known as “Dambusters”, was the most famous of the Royal Air Force (RAF, Britain) in World War II. They have engaged in the most interesting attack in the history of air strikes.

A code-named Operation Chastise mission, was designed to violate three of the most important German dams that held more than 300 million tonnes of vital water to the German industries. The dams had great anti-aircraft defenses. To make a successful attack, the bombers of the RAF would have to avoid the antiaircraft fire at all costs. The planned approach was ingenious.

The bomber would approach the dam, keeping very low, almost sliding on the water surface. This would make harmless the antiaircraft fire over them. A special wiring pump was used that bounced on the surface of the water. Before releasing the pump, it would spin speeds up to 500 rpm, so as to reach the water, would jump on the entire surface instead of sinking. The crew had to release the bomb at exactly 345 km / h and 18.3 meters above the water surface. Furthermore, the pump had to touch the water surface just 388 meters from the wall with no more than 6% deviation. The aircraft chosen was the legendary Lancaster, one of the bombers of the RAF. 19 of them took off with 133 people on board, and successfully violated two dams. The third attack failed due to technical difficulties.

The British side also suffered damage. One of Lancasters reached the sea. 8 Lancasters and 56 crew members didn’t return. However, the British intention has been achieved. In Germany there were floods, and electricity and railways were discontinued. The Germans, however, were surprisingly quick with the repairs.

5. Pearl Harbor


The historic attack on Pearl Harbor, which made President Franklin Roosevelt proclaim that date that would live in infamy, was one of the most sudden and surprising air strikes in the history of modern warfare.

On December 7, 1941, waves of Japanese bombers, supported by hordes of fighters were sighted on the U.S. naval fortress in Hawaii called Pearl Harbor. 353 Japanese fighter bombers and torpedo planes caused damage to an unsuspecting U.S. Navy.

There were, however, two disadvantages in Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese consciously disregarded or not considered.

One was the proximity to the port of the coast, most ships were in shallow waters, which allowed some of the sunken and damaged ships were recovered and repaired, and the human toll were much lower than the Japanese could wish.
The second disadvantage was that three major American ships were not present at Pearl Harbor at the time, that would have sunk cost the U.S. more.

The attack on Pearl Harbor automatically led to the U.S. declaring war on Japan.

This started a chain of diplomatic alliances, and soon, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had also declared war on the U.S..

The American policy of covert support to Britain became an active and powerful alliance, when the country entered World War II.

6. Atomic Bomb


It was in 1944 that the U.S. began to launch large-scale bombing of Japan and, in May 1945, many major Japanese cities were devastated.

However, the U.S. government spent $1.406.453,31 and 200 thousand people working overtime at a certain Manhattan Project (the Manhattan Project), a secret project, whose sole mission was to build a super weapon unlike any other in human history – the atomic bomb.

It is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release large amounts of energy from relatively small quantities of material. The first test of a fission bomb (“atomic”) released the same amount of energy of about 20 tons of TNT.

The B-29 was the automatic choice for a bomber, because in 1944 it was the most technologically advanced. Fifteen of them were specially modified to carry a nuclear bomb.

Paul Tibbets and his crew underwent intensive training for this elite mission, including flight altitude, long-range navigation, as well as a quick escape route. The quick escape was crucial, because the detonation of the atomic bomb would create huge shock waves.

Three targets were chosen, Hiroshima, Kokura and Nagasaki. The attack was set for August 1945, as soon as the weather permitted. On August 6, at eight o’clock on Hiroshima, the B-29 named “Enola Gay” piloted by Tibbets himself, dropped the 4406 pounds bomb, “Little Boy”.

When the bomb detonated, the whole plane shook with shock waves. Robert Lewis, Tibbets copilot, watched in horror as the mushroom cloud arose, and the only words that escaped him were: “My God, what have we done?”.

“Fat Man”, the second bomb, was launched on 9 August by the B-29 named “Bockscar” on the city of Nagasaki. The intended target was Kokura, but clouds were covering the city. When the bomb detonated, the Bockscar trembled in the air, and one of the crew members said later that it was as if the plane was “being beaten with a telephone pole.”

Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 14.

7. Korean War


This was the first time fighters actively participated in air battles.

While the early jets had been used by Germany in the last days of World War II, they had not played a major role in the war. The Korean War was the first one that launched craft against craft.

War exploded when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. To deal with Communist aggression against South Korea, the United States helped sending Mustang fighters. China rushed to help the communists, and the Soviet Union offered military support.

Aerial battles took place between the U.S. and Soviet aircraft during the first day. Later, when the UN intervened in support of South Korea, the battles became more belligerent and more modern fighters were brought. Took part the American F-80 Shooting Star and F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG 15.

The first meeting between Sabre and MiG 15 happened in December 1950 when four Sabres intercepted four MiGs. Later, eight Sabres shot down six MiGs. The Air Force of Australia also participated by sending F-51 Mustangs and F-8 Gloster Meteors. They were not, however, comparable the MiGs.

8. Operation Black Buck in the Falklands


Argentina, in an attempt to gain sovereignty over the islands, invaded the British Falkland Islands in 1982.

Campaigns in Britain to regain lost control were hampered by distance. Once the British Task Force arrived at the scene, had to fight with the Argentine Air Force. It was imperative to destroy the Argentine runway at Port Stanley in order to make it useless for the Argentine Air Force. Also, Argentine radar stations had to be removed so that the British fighters could attack without being discovered before.

The missions had to take place in absolute secrecy and from friendly territory. This made the British displace its base to a small island in the Atlantic, called Ascension Island.

This was nothing near the Falkland Islands, and bombing missions over such great distances had never been tried before. The chosen aircraft was the Avro Vulcan, a British jet bomber of the post World War II.

The Operation name was Black Buck. The logistics involved in missions was amazing – each round trip took about 13,000 kilometers. The aircraft had to be refueled several times.
Two of them took off on April 30, 1982, each with 21 bombs, escorted by 11 aircraft each one. One of them suffered some technical problems and had to fly back to the base. The mission, therefore, was limited to a single Vulcan.

40 miles away from Stanley, it began the final bombardment. All 21 bombs were dropped diagonally. The track was destroyed and Argentina was shocked. If the British bombers attacked the Falklands, nothing would prevent them from attacking Argentina.The country surrendered.

9. Operation El Dorado


After a series of terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 1986, the intelligence agencies said they had “irrefutable” evidence that the incidents had been sponsored by Libya. Operation El Dorado was the U.S. response.

The operation involved a bombing mission, even further than the Black Buck. The logistics of missions became even more complicated when France, Italy, Germany and Spain refused to cooperate with the U.S.. Only the UK was available to give some territory to serve as a base.

The chosen aircraft was the extremely fast F-111. The U.S. Navy launched a simultaneous attack. The attacks were successful and resulted in severe damage to the main targets of Libya, but it was not an easy task. The Libyan Air Defense was comparable to Soviet technology. El Dorado Canyon would involve a round trip of 13 hours, which required twelve refueling in flight.

The 24 F-111 left the British soil on April 14, 1986. Six of them were aircraft reserve.

The attack lasted just over 10 minutes, and 12 F-111 returned to British soil. The mission was considered successful, ending with the Lebanese terrorist attacks on the U.S..

10. Gulf War


The Gulf War has employed some of 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 made one of the biggest airstrikes of all time.

The campaign was conducted by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, France, Italy and Kuwait, as well as several Arab forces.

The Lockheed F-117 was used in this mission. The F-117 flew over Baghdad and destroyed command and control centers. Air defenses fired randomly, not hitting them, because the F-117 could not be seen thanks to superior technology.

Later, the B-52, one of the largest bomber ever built in history, was brought into the attack. The aircraft made a round trip of over 22,000 miles per nearly 35 hours, the longest trip of the season. Other fighter-bombers joined the attack and the Iraqi defense system weakened.

On the first day of Desert Storm operation, the control soil and the Iraqi air defenses were destroyed. Later, missiles annihilated all the main bridges in the country. Twenty bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates were destroyed, cutting off all supply lines and communication of Iraqi military forces in Kuwait.

In the final stage of the war, the B-52 struck Iraqi ground forces, and on March 3, 1991, Iraq finally agreed ceasefire. The Gulf War showed the potential of modern bombers to devastate entire countries and force defeats.

Not happy enough, humanity prepares to take another step in military developments, now evolving drones, reducing war to a kind of video-game war with almost no human intervention.