The Japanese Kamikaze pilots were known for their suicide attacks against American vessels. These pilots, hell-bent on getting revenge for their lost comrades while fighting a doomed battle against an angry and seemingly unstoppable Navy, would die crashing their planes into Allied ships.
But the Japanese actually weren’t alone in ordering pilots to use their planes as guided missiles. In fact, they weren’t even the first.
Soviet pilots conducted “taran” attacks, using their own planes as battering rams against German craft, on the first day of the German invasion. And Polish pilots used the tactic on the first day of World War II. Kamikaze attacks, meanwhile, began in 1944.
The first-known taran attack in World War II took place on Sept. 1, 1939. Polish pilots resisting the German invasion were shockingly effective despite flying outdated and outnumbered aircraft.
One pilot, Lt. Col. Leopold Pamula, had shot down two German bombers and fired on a third but found himself out of ammo. With the bombers headed towards an important city and the situation growing increasingly desperate, Pamula attempted an aerial ram in his P.11 and brought down the enemy bomber.
But here’s where it breaks from the tradition of Japanese Kamikaze attacks — and it might be why Kamikaze attacks have persisted in the historical consciousness while taran and similar attacks have not. Pamula then bailed out of his plane as the enemy bomber dropped towards the earth.
See, taran attacks followed three broad patterns according to a 1986 analysis by the RAND Corp. First, the pilot could aim for their propeller to strike the enemy control surfaces. Second, the pilot could conduct a very controlled crash of some portion of their plane against the enemy’s control surfaces.
Either of these methods, if everything went well, would doom the enemy aircraft without killing the pilot conducting the attack.
Only the third method, in which the pilot points their nose directly into the body of the enemy aircraft, was certain doom for the attacking pilot performing. In the other two methods, there was a chance that the plane would remain stable enough for the pilot to bail out afterward.
When German forces invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviets quickly adopted the taran just like their old Polish adversaries.
At 4:25 in the morning on June 22, 1941, scant hours into the invasion, Soviet Senior Lt. L. I. Ivanov rammed a German bomber, the first of 270 aerial tarans, according to a 1984 Soviet report. A 1974 report had estimated the total number of Soviet tarans in World War II at 430.
So, why don’t we hear the tales of Soviet and Polish pilots slamming their planes into enemy aircraft? The fact that some pilots to survived, as mentioned above, surely contributed. But there’s one other factor that likely has us remembering the taran as a semi-legitimate tactic while the kamikaze is remembered as a horror weapon.
Kamikaze attacks, while not the best decision militarily, were terrifying largely because a successful one could doom a carrier, a battleship, or a cruiser in one go. A successful taran attack, on the other hand, caused six members of an air crew to attempt to bail. A successful kamikaze attack meant that thousands of sailors had to try to escape a sinking prison as oil ignited on the ocean’s surface around them.
One of those is frightening, perhaps disquieting. The other is the stuff of nightmares.