Ambushes are a great tool in a commander’s toolbox. The attacker gets the element of surprise, usually has numerical superiority, and almost always has the good ground. With all of those advantages on one side, the fight usually plays out about the way you’d expect.
Sometimes, however, U.S. troops can use a mixture of technology, skill, and straight guts to turn the tables. Here are six times that happened:
An Iraqi tank burns during Operation Desert Storm.
1. Battle of 73 Easting
During the invasion of Iraq during Desert Storm, the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, was sent to cut off Iraqi lines of retreat before they could be used. But on February 26, 1991, Eagle Troop crested a rise during a sandstorm and found an entire Iraqi armored division laying in wait. The ground between the formations was seeded with mines and the terrain would force Eagle Troop to descend onto the battlefield with their vulnerable turrets exposed.
But, Eagle Troop was in Abrams tanks and their commander ordered an advance through the enemy fire. Most of the Iraqi rounds bounced off and drivers avoided the bulk of the mines. The Americans cut a “five kilometer wide swath of destruction” through the Iraqi tanks, according to the troop commander. They destroyed 30 tanks and 14 armored vehicles with no American losses.
An F-15E Strike Eagle flies over Afghanistan.
(U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)
2. F-15s stumble into Iraqi ambush during Desert Storm
A flight of eight F-15s guarding a larger strike package during the start of Desert Storm got word from an E-3 Sentry that there were Iraqi MiGs in the target area, so the flight leader went with three more of his F-15s to root them out and kill them. But it was a trap, and the planes were suddenly painted by multiple surface-to-air missile sites on the ground.
The F-15s immediately started conducting insane acrobatics to get out alive. After evading the missiles, though, they were still thirsty for blood, so they continued after the MiGs that had lured them in and slaughtered them both, protecting a lone F-14 that the MiGs were either hunting or preparing to lure into the trap.
1st Infantry Division soldiers keep on eye on a wadi in Andar, Afghanistan, April 21, 2011.
(U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Guffey)
3. 1st ID troops come under well-planned ambush, get enemy to jump off cliff
On September 17, 2008, soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division caught wind on their signal intercept that revealed an ambush coming against them in Afghanistan. The patrol leader ordered his mounted element to proceed down the road to make sure his dismounts wouldn’t be caught in the fire and could provide support.
Just a few minutes down the road, the vehicles came under intense fire from “stacked” enemies. A lower element that had been concealed in a draw and opened up with RPGs, rifles, and machine guns, while another enemy element up a hill provided supporting fires. Two of the four vehicles were hit by RPGs, disabling one. That one took another three RPGs and the gunner was killed.
But the patrol leader killed one attacker trying to hit vehicle four and then charged the lower element with his weapon, driving some of them to jump down a nearby cliff in an attempt to escape. They died instead. American forces re-established comms and got 120mm and 60mm flying into the enemy’s faces as howitzers at the nearby combat outpost opened up. The gunner was the only American killed but the enemy lost about 20 personnel.
Troops fight their way through rivers in Vietnam.
(Naval War College Museum)
4. Coast Guard, Navy boats double back into ambush to rescue trapped UDT members
A Navy riverine force led by a Coast Guard officer came under a concentrated ambush in a Vietnamese river on April 12, 1969. The eight boats were hit with claymores detonated on the bank, machine gun fire, rockets, recoilless rifles, RPGs, and other weapons. The first two boats were engulfed in flames but were able to push out of the kill zone, but the trail boat was in need of maintenance and heavily loaded and got stuck after RPGs took out the pilot.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr Paul A. Yost, Jr. went back with his and another boat and the pair put down withering cover fire into the jungle. Yost split his boat off from the attack and began picking up survivors. One allied Vietnamese marine and two Americans were killed in the fight, but 15 American survivors were pulled out of harm’s way and an unknown number of enemy Vietnamese killed.
U.S. Marines stand with weapons ready ready to advance if called, near Camp Al Qa’im, Iraq, Nov. 15, 2005.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
5. First Lt. Brian Chontosh and his Marines during the invasion of Iraq
Marine First Lt. Brian Chontosh was leading a convoy on March 25, 2003, when Iraqi insurgents suddenly hit it with a complex ambush. Mortars, automatic weapons, and RPGs all began firing onto the beleaguered Marines. Chontosh ordered his vehicle, and its .50-cal, forward. The machine gun cut a path into the enemy ranks, and Chontosh leapt from the vehicle to press the attack.
He emptied his M16 and M9 into the trenches and then picked up two enemy AK-47s and an enemy RPG to keep the kill train going. He was credited with clearing 200 meters of trench and killing 20 enemy soldiers in his Navy Cross citation.
North Korean tanks destroyed by Air Force napalm sit in craters during the Korean War.
(Air and Space Museum)
6. An Army task force annihilates the armored ambush set against it
During a movement on July 5, 1951, Task Force 777 was ambushed by an armored force of ten tanks supported by infantry and artillery. The cavalry task force, which was the size of a regimental combat team, was likely outnumbered and definitely outgunned, but the commander, Lt. Col. William Harris, organized a counterattack.
The American cavalrymen slaughtered their way through the ambushing forces, knocking out all ten tanks and killing and dispersing the infantry. They destroyed five artillery pieces and twelve trucks before leaving the site.