Just a handful of men can change the world. Particularly if those men are highly trained and heavily armed and possess next to no instincts for self-preservation. These are the soldiers whose job is to fling themselves into impossible situations, against ridiculous odds, where failure means a lot of other people will die.
And with that, we bring you ...
#6. Operation Entebbe
In June of 1976, an Air France plane carrying 248 passengers and 12 crew from France to Israel was hijacked and flown to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, home of dictator and certifiable lunatic Idi Amin. The pro-Palestinian hijackers released all the non-Jewish hostages and would have released the plane's crew, but the crew insisted the passengers were their responsibility and stayed behind. In total, 105 hostages remained behind, 2,500 miles away from Israel holed up in Uganda's principal airport, surrounded by an openly pro-hijacker military led by a guy who had declared himself "Lord of the Beasts of the Earth and the Fishes of the Sea."
Shown here holding a large gun while his brain overdoses on crazy.
None of this was a deterrent for Israeli special forces. They knew that a situation like that is all about preparation. So, they rounded up all the contractors who had worked in Uganda, as well as some of the released hostages, and constructed a huge mock-up of the terminal at Entebbe. You know, so they could practice.
"A fake terminal? Good joke, Tower, I'm beginning my descent. Stop shooting at me, over."
Once they were ready, the team of 100 Israeli Defense Forces units flew in four cargo planes, skimming along the treetops at a height no higher than 99 feet. They skimmed over various countries that hated them, carrying only enough fuel for a one-way trip. This fuel thing is kind of important; the Israelis had no escape options if anything went wrong, and their only way back home would be to steal fuel from the Ugandans while they were on the ground (while holding off perhaps thousands of pissed off Ugandan soldiers).
Amin was known to drive luxury vehicles, and to drive at high speeds. The rescue plan was to land at the airport and quickly dispatch some luxury Mercedes and Land Rovers to speed over to the hostage holding area in an attempt to fool the guards into thinking Amin himself was arriving.
Driving a car at high speed toward an airport wasn't such a big deal back then.
The Israelis landed at 11 p.m. with the cargo doors of their aircraft hanging open so they could dispatch the cars quickly. They launched the vehicles, which rapidly made their way to the hostage terminal. However, the guards knew that Amin had recently bought a different car, so they weren't exactly fooled. The Israelis were forced to shoot them, thereby giving away their presence to the whole airport.
While one team rescued the hostages, another group in armored personnel carriers (which they had also been sitting in for the whole flight) secured the perimeter and set about refueling the planes. At this point we should note that refueling a huge plane like that takes an hour. All while surrounded, in a hostile airport.
"Sooo ... any plans for the summer?"
But they did it. The 200 or so commandos and hostages crammed back into the cargo planes and bolted for the border before any Ugandan MiGs could be scrambled to intercept them (it helped that they had destroyed a dozen or so fighters on the ground while they were there).
The Israelis escaped with 102 out of the 105 hostages and suffered only one Commando casualty when one of the raid's leaders, Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed by a Ugandan sniper. If that last name sounds familiar, it's because that guy's little brother is currently the Prime Minister of Israel.
#5. The Great Locomotive Chase
The Confederate-held town of Chattanooga, Tenn., relied on its rail link for more than just jaunty swing music: it was the sole route for supplies and reinforcements from the Confederate stronghold at Atlanta. Union Major General Ormsby Mitchel knew this, so when a Union spy called James J. Andrews approached him with his amazingly insane plan to hijack a train and go on a path of rampant destruction along the length of the track, Mitchel was all like, "Yeah, sure, go for it."
His demeanor says business. His hair says party.
On the morning of April 12, 1862, Andrews and about 20 volunteers from the Union Army, dressed in civilian clothes, boarded a steam train bound for Chattanooga. When the train stopped for breakfast, Andrews and the rest of the men seized the opportunity and hijacked the train, separating the engine, the coal tender and three box cars from the passenger cars. They took off like a bat out of hell, which in the 1860s meant a good 15 or maybe even 20 miles an hour. The train's conductor, William Allen Fuller, and two other men gave chase, initially on foot, then in a handcar, and then in another train that had been traveling in the opposite direction. Then on foot again. And then on another train.
We assume they did it to the tune of Yakety Sax.
Meanwhile, the men on the hijacked train started ruining as much shit as they could. As they barreled along, they tore up track, set shit on fire and cut telegraph cables.
Now here's the really crazy thing: The raiders stuck to the train's timetable, going the predetermined speed and making all the stops (yes, just like Kramer in that Seinfeld episode where he commandeered the bus). There was a solid reason for this: they had to wait for trains going the other way to pass before they could continue their rampage. But this meant they also had to bullshit their way through refueling stops and Confederate train stations.
Remember, no one in the aftermath of the destruction had any means of calling ahead to warn others in their path -- the hijackers had cut the telegraph cables. The Confederates were unaware anything out of the ordinary was going on.
"Pardon me boy, is that the Chattan- OH GOD THEY'RE BURNING EVERYTHING."
All this time Fuller was only a few miles behind and pursuing them with the resilience of a Terminator. After riding for almost a hundred miles through enemy territory, the raiders' train ran out of fuel a few miles south of Chattanooga, and the men scattered into the woods.
All of them were captured, and eight were hanged as spies, including Andrews. But, 19 of the original 24 men would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor and have their remains re-interred in hero's graves.
#4. The 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!"