4The Dambusters Raid
Germans love their dams, more so when those same dams provide the bulk of the electricity for their key industrial region, the Ruhr. During World War II, the Germans weren't so absent-minded as to leave these incredibly important installations undefended -- they surrounded their dams with massed anti-aircraft guns, balloons (which were far more deadly than they sound) and heavy-duty torpedo nets. The Germans had expertly planned and prepared for every form of conventional attack.
Yeah, that does actually look pretty good, we'd want to not have it exploded, too.
Therefore, attacking would require something unconventional.
Here's where physics arrives late to the party, naked and handcuffed to a police officer. The legendary British inventor Barnes Wallis developed a bomb that, if spun backward at 500 rpm, would skim across the surface of the water, hop over the torpedo nets and slam into the wall. It would then screw its way down below the surface of the water (because it was still spinning) and detonate at the base of the wall, blowing a huge hole in the dam.
After some testing, which involved the destruction of a dam in Wales that nobody was using, a crack team of 19 bomber crews assembled in specially modified aircraft to carry out the raid.
You see that massive cylinder? The thing attached to it is the plane.
It was a pretty good idea to use only the most experienced and evidently insane bomber crews available to the British at the time. They flew the entire way just feet above the waves. How low were they? One plane was lost when it crashed into power cables, and another was forced to turn back before it even reached continental Europe when it was hit by a freaking wave that dislodged its bomb.
When they got to the first dam, the Mohne, they flew even lower, with one bomber actually approaching the target by flying along a firebreak in a nearby forest.
As they approached their targets, the raiders turned on several powerful searchlights located on the belly of each aircraft. Because this was the only way to accurately gauge their height, it also had the effect of lighting their aircraft up like Times Square.
Except when the ball drops in New York, it doesn't explode.
They dropped their bombs, blowing up two of the three target dams. The raiders turned for home, still flying at treetop level to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Of the 19 bombers, only 11 made it back. The raid's leader, Guy Gibson, was awarded a Victoria Cross because while everyone else was bombing targets he was circling above, flipping the bird to the German AA gunners and attracting all their fire.
"Hey, look what I can do!"
3The Doolittle Raid
In the spring of 1942, America wasn't exactly punching within its weight class and was generally getting its ass kicked up and down the Pacific in World War II. Meanwhile, people in Japan were being told by their whack-job government that they were invulnerable to attack. To prove that Uncle Sam could actually hurt Japan, legendary airman Jimmy Doolittle devised a plan to hit the Japanese where they lived (Japan). Thus was born the Doolittle Raid.
Keep in mind that bombers that could just fly from friendly territory to Japan were not a thing at the time. This was 1942, and military aircraft in general were still new enough that it took luck just to get off the runway and back down again without bursting into flame (during the war, aircraft accidents alone destroyed more than 12,000 planes and killed a mind-boggling 13,621 pilots and passengers -- just on the American side). So Doolittle's plan was to load up a carrier with bomber aircraft, sail into Japanese-patrolled waters, then launch the bombers and drop bombs on industrial targets.
Specifically these industrial targets, photographed during the raid itself.
Did we mention that nobody had tried to launch a B-25 off an aircraft carrier? It wasn't intended for that purpose. And this is not a minor point -- it's the difference between taking off from a long, roomy, comfortably flat runway versus taking off from the tiny deck of a rocking boat in the middle of the ocean, where one wrong move means sharks are sorting through the wreckage to find the most tasty parts of your body. Also, nobody involved in the mission had ever taken off from an actual carrier -- not even in training.
To top it all off, the aircrafts' limited fuel capacity more or less guaranteed landing either in a part of China that was occupied by Japan (mere hours after bombing their homeland) or in the sea.
"Land in either the red or the blue, and you're dead. But no, seriously, good luck."
Right off the bat, things went horribly wrong. The carrier force that was set to release Doolittle and the other raiders on their suicide mission was spotted by a patrol boat, so everyone said "screw it" and launched the planes, even though they were still around 170 nautical miles from their intended launch point. After flying for six hours (again, at wave-top height), the bombers reached Japan and dropped their payload.
At that point, one bomber headed for Vladivostok in the USSR and the rest went south toward China, hoping to make it to a friendly airfield or just anywhere not crawling with Japanese troops. Due mainly to the early start, there was actually very little chance of the raiders ever making land, never mind Chinese-held airstrips. However, a strong tailwind gave them a little extra push and allowed some of the planes to make land before running out of fuel. Others weren't so lucky.
What survivors there were went two different ways: Some were captured by the Japanese, while the rest, including Doolittle, sneaked through Japanese lines with the help of Chinese guerrillas.
While not a great deal of physical damage was actually done to Japan, the raid caused a great boost in morale in America. It also shook the Japanese people's trust in their government and forced them to spend key strategic resources (including a whole bunch of aircraft carriers) to protect the Japanese Home Islands against raids.