October 14, 1939: 10 Great Military Feats

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A Brief History

On October 14, 1939, German submarine U-47 captained by Gunther Prien stealthily crept into the Royal Navy’s main anchorage at Scapa Flow and sank the British battleship HMS Royal Oak, an audacious and remarkable feat of skill and daring.  Military men and women have performed heroically quite often, but not as often with a truly amazing degree of skill and daring.  Here we list 10 of those feats of military success that most captivate us.  What military feats impress you?

Digging Deeper

10. Sinking of Royal Oak, 1939.

Piloting his sub into the British Navy’s back yard could be considered a suicidal proposition, but Prien and his crew pulled it off.  In a combat career that lasted only a year and a half, Prien and his sub sank 31 allied ships.

9.  British scale cliffs at Plains of Abraham (Quebec City), 1759.

British General James Wolfe had besieged Quebec, the capital of New France, when he led his men on a daring and difficult stealthy night time climb up steep cliffs to attack Quebec at The Plains of Abraham, resulting in a 15 minute battle that Wolfe and the French commander, Montcalm both killed.  The decisive British victory was the deciding factor in the North American portion of the Seven Years War, eliminating France from Canada.  The French believed the 174 foot high vertical cliff was protection against British attack, but this belief did not take into account British resolve and audacity.

8.  Hannibal Barca marched elephants over the Pyrenees and Alps, 218 BC.

The Romans, believing themselves safe from Hannibal and his Carthaginian army, were shocked when the great general managed the amazing feat of moving his army, including 38 war elephants over the Pyrenees Mountains during the Second Punic War.  Not so many elephants survived the crossing of the Alps, but that maneuver was still shocking to the hapless Romans.  Hannibal won great victories in Italy, the Romans’ home territory, where Roman leaders did not intend to fight.  Eventually a stalemate developed, and it took the Romans over 10 years to finally kick the Carthaginians out and defeat them around 201 BC.

7.  Corporal Craig Harrison, 2475 meter sniper kill, 2009.

Using an Accuracy International L115A3 sniper rifle in .338 Lapua caliber, this British sniper made the longest known and confirmed sniper kill of all time, confirmed by GPS fighting Afghan insurgents.  Harrison beat Canadian Rob Furlong’s record of 2430 meters in 2002, also in Afghanistan, in which Furlong used a McMillan Tac-50 rifle in .50 BMG caliber.  Previous to that, the record sniper shot was held by Canadian Arron Perry, also using a McMillan Tac-50 in .50 BMG caliber, also in Afghanistan, at 2310 meters.  The top American sniper for distance is Sgt Bryan Kremer, who used his Barrett M82A1 .50 BMG caliber rifle in 2004 to record a kill at 2300 meters, this time in Iraq.  Perhaps most remarkable was Carlos Hathcock, USMC, who held the world record sniper shot of 2286 meters from 1967 to 2002, an incredible 35 years, using an M2 Browning Machine Gun in .50 BMG caliber in Viet Nam, a weapon not even designed to be used as a sniper rifle!

6.  Lyudmila Pavlichenko, 309 sniper kills by a woman, 1941-1942.

This deadly sharp eyed sniper managed to survive the war, living until 1974, the deadliest female sniper of all time.  (By comparison, no American sniper has ever recorded 200 confirmed kills.)  Her sniper rifle was the Tokarev semi-automatic SVT-40 rifle.  Upon recovering from mortar wounds, this Ukrainian sniper was sent to the US and Canada on a publicity tour, and became the first ever Soviet citizen received by President Franklin Roosevelt.  She also visited England and remained in service, although as an instructor and then researcher rather than being allowed to return to combat.

5.  Simo Hayha 505 confirmed sniper kills in under 100 days, 1939-1940.

This Finnish crack shot killed 505 Soviet soldiers in about 3 months time during the Winter War, the highest career total for any known sniper in history, all the more amazing for his short career.  Born in 1905, Hayha lived until 2002, remarkable for someone who saw such intense combat.  Hayha used a Finnish version of the Russian Mosin-Nagant rifle.

4.  Erich Hartmann shot down 352 allied planes, 1942-1945.

The most successful fighter pilot in all of aviation history, Hartmann flew 1404 combat missions, 825 of which saw aerial combat, and shot down the most enemy planes of any fighter pilot ever.  Amazingly, he was never shot down or forced down by enemy fire himself, although 14 times he was forced to crash land due to damage to his own plane because of debris from planes he shot down hitting his plane.  Despite his incredible amount of sorties and aerial combat (7 of his kills came against American planes) Hartmann survived the war and lived until 1993.  Hartmann also survived 10 years abuse as a prisoner of the Soviets, falsely convicted of war crimes.  He was released to Germany in 1955 and exonerated by a Soviet court in 1957.  He served in the West German Air Force once freed, reaching the rank of Oberst (colonel) and retired in 1970.

3.  Emil Lang shoots down 18 Soviet planes in 1 day, 1943.

The all time record for a fighter pilot shooting down enemy planes in 1 day is held by the Luftwaffe’s Emil Lang with 18 victories over Soviet aircraft during 4 sorties.  This amazing pilot shot down his first plane at age 34 in 1943, and his last in August of 1944, shortly after which he died in combat over Belgium.  In his short, barely over 1 year combat career, Lang shot down 173 allied planes and sunk a torpedo boat as well.  In a 3 week period of 1943 he shot down 72 allied planes!  Lest you think he feasted on sub-standard Soviet planes and pilots, 29 of his victories were over American P-47, P-51, and  P-38 fighters as well as British Spitfires.

2.  Alvin York single handed war on Germany, 1918.

A corporal at the time of the action, York with 3 other NCO’s and 13 privates were sent to penetrate enemy lines and take out machine guns that were stopping their battalion from advancing.  The patrol captured some Germans, but then was racked by fire from another machine gun that killed 6 Americans outright and wounded 3.  York, now in charge, left the able bodied men to guard the wounded and prisoners and set about alone to attack the German machine guns.  In an incredible feat of marksmanship, courage, and daring, York took out 32 machine guns, killed 20 enemy soldiers, and captured 132, all single-handedly.  For this he was awarded the Medal of Honor and 49 other decorations, including foreign medals.   In the movie about York’s great feat, Gary Cooper played the humble soldier at York’s own insistence.  York was born in a 2 room log cabin in 1887 (Tennessee) and died in 1964.

1.  Doolittle Raid, 1942.

Flying 16 land based medium (B-25) bombers off the deck of the American carrier USS Hornet shocked and dismayed the Japanese public and military, proving that their homeland was vulnerable at a time when they thought this was impossible.  Successfully flying all 16 bombers to the target cities and dropping their bombs forced the Japanese to station sorely needed fighter aircraft in the homeland instead of deploying them where they were more needed.  The damage caused was slight, and all the planes were lost, but the blow to Japanese ego and the positive morale boost to the American and Allied side was well worth the effort.

Question for students (and subscribers): Which event do you consider to be the greatest military feat?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dewar, George A. B.  The Great Munition Feat, 1914-1918.  Sagwan Press, 2015.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.