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“A general-in-chief should ask himself several times in the day, ‘What if the enemy were to appear now in my front, or on my right, or my left?’”
—Napoleon Bonaparte[1]

Replica of Trojan Horse (Wikimedia)
There is a long history of commanders using surprise assaults—often in conjunction with demonstrations, feints, and ruses—to break through, envelop, or outflank an enemy on the battlefield. Examples span millennia from the 12th or 13th century BCE Trojan Horse recounted in Homer’s Odyssey, the Battle of Cannae in 206 BCE during the second Punic War, the Battle of the Teutoburger Wald in 9 CE, the 1187 Battle of Hattin, the Battle of Trenton in 1776, the 1940 Battle of Taranto, Pearl Harbor in 1941, the 1950 Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 October War, illustrating that surprise is a recurring tactic that is sometimes executed with devastating impact on the opposing force.[2] Moreover, surprise itself occurs militarily because the defender either fails to obtain advance warning or fails to respond quickly and effectively to counter the attack despite having prior warning. In other words, surprise is an action on the battlefield that is unanticipated by the enemy’s decision calculus.

Surprise by its very nature, therefore, is a psychologically traumatic, not just a physical, event happening at a specific time and place. Shock constitutes the cognitive and emotional responses, individually and collectively, to surprise. In essence, shock is a potential but not automatic effect of varying impact associated with surprise. As a result, because it is unexpected, a surprise attack may make the difference between success and failure, especially in the early stages of an armed conflict due to the amplified stress it generates. As Clausewitz posited, “Surprise therefore becomes the means to gain superiority, but because of its psychological effect it should also be considered as an independent element. When it is achieved on a grand scale, it confuses the enemy and lowers his morale.”[3] Hence, this article examines the interplay of surprise and shock in military operations and analyses the implications of that interplay on decision-making in warfare.

According to Clausewitz, surprise is essential in gaining superiority at the decisive point.[4] Surprise, therefore, is not an end in itself but is a means for gaining opportunities that must be rapidly and continuously exploited to achieve an advantage over the adversary.[5] In essence, surprise in the context of military operations is typically intended to achieve a decisive outcome tactically, operationally, or strategically. Usually, that advantage over the enemy is gained at the tactical or operational level.[6] More rarely, deftly employed surprise at the operational level may be sufficiently impactful that it produces strategic victory.

The World War I Battle of Cambrai from 20 November to 3 December 1917 is a prime example of the possibilities for surprise. Although the effects of surprise were overwhelming, the British Expeditionary Force was unable to exploit the opportunity presented before the Germans were able to rally and counterattack, thereby avoiding a strategic defeat.[7] Similarly, Lee and Jackson’s decision to split the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and outflank the numerically superior Union Army of the Potomac on the 2nd day of the 1-3 May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville during the American Civil War was audacious and produced a crushing operational, but not strategic, success.[8] On the other hand, during World War II, the German May-June 1940 campaign in the West overwhelmed the French military’s ability to deal with fighting coming from behind them versus where they expected it, leading to France’s collapse and surrender.[9] Neither campaign, however, was decisive in terms of winning the war, underscoring the difficulty of transforming well-executed operational surprise and its attendant shock into strategic victory.

Regardless of echelon, the cognitive effect of surprise needs to be large enough to generate shockshattering the enemy’s will to fight and win.[10] In effect, the impact of a surprise hinders decision making because it is beyond an enemy’s abilities to recognize and adapt quickly enough to react effectively and avoid defeat. This aligns with the observation that surprise often appears unimaginable, indicating that it leverages a cognitive reaction.[11] Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s testimony to the Falklands War inquiry illustrates this point: “I never never expected the Argentines to invade the Falklands head-on. It was such a stupid thing to do, as events happened, such a stupid thing to even contemplate doing.”[12] Yet the unexpected and unreasonable is a recurrent feature of the battlefield. As a result, this assumption about surprise is a core principle of war that is consistently articulated in doctrine intended to define the entire range of military operations linking actions to objectives.[13]

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visiting troops in the Falklands in 1983. (RareHistoricalPhotos.com)

Obtaining battlefield advantage can involve dedicated deception plans, as in the case of Operation Overlord, or simply be the result of the unexpected, whereby the specific actions of an adversary, the performance of one’s own forces, or some combination of both are unanticipated. This is particularly evident during times of technological and doctrinal change when newer forms of warfighting emerge and exemplify changes to the current character of war.

The success of Japanese land-based torpedo aircraft in sinking the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse days after the attack on Pearl Harbor provides an example of surprise achieved through the successful combination of tactics and technology. Senior Allied naval officers failed to acknowledge the potential air threat to major warships, including the task force commander, Admiral Tom Phillips.[14] Operating out of Singapore without guaranteed air support, Phillips’ force was located by the Japanese and attacked by torpedo bombers with the loss of the two ships and 840 sailors in an action later described as “the end of the battleship era.”[15] The surprise and subsequent shock were profound for the crews as well as military personnel and political leaders beyond the immediate battle. In Singapore, Admiral Phillips’ Chief of Staff was described as “completely stunned and virtually inarticulate,”[16] and a British Army officer described how, on hearing the news, “our sense of security and faith in the future vanished completely.”[17] In Britain, Churchill later stated, “In all the war I never received a more direct shock.”[18] And one Minister of Parliament called it a “day of despair and despondency.”[19] The minimization of Japanese capabilities, the British military’s overconfidence in their own forces, and a general unpreparedness for war in the Pacific was further evidenced by the fall of so-called fortress Singapore 67 days later.

Successfully overcoming surprise and countering unexpected changes in warfare has been achieved, but it requires the ability to quickly adjust to battlefield realities. Moshe Dayan describes countering the quantitative and technological advantages held by the Egyptians and Syrians in their surprise attack on Israel in 1973. The use of Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons by the Egyptian military to devastating effect in the opening days of the war particularly required the Israeli military to rethink how to fight in real-time. In the absence of immediate technological solutions, Dayan highlights the central importance of the human element in rapidly adapting battlefield tactics, exploiting advantages and playing to strengths of existing armed forces in order to regain “battle initiative.”[20] That the Israeli armed forces were able to successfully counter adversaries on two fronts is remarkable. However, the cost of the nation’s initial unpreparedness went beyond the loss of lives, infrastructure, and weapons. The initial successes by the Egyptians and Syrians demonstrated that the Israeli military could be defeated, significantly undermining a perception of battlefield invincibility Israel had developed during previous military conflicts.

A Tank Destroyed in the 1973 War (Getty)

The idea that immediate tactical reverses can have strategic consequences, even when overcome, is further evident in U.S. operations with the United Nations humanitarian mission in Somalia in 1993.[21] The special operations raid to capture senior members of Mohamed Farrah Hassan Aidi militia was planned as a short mission that became a twelve-hour battle between U.S. forces and Somali militias on the streets of Mogadishu. The downing of two Black Hawk helicopters in rapid succession were low-tech but high-impact events, representing not just the loss of aircraft, but also a shock to the task force’s sense of invulnerability.[22] American forces eventually overcame the initial confusion and chaos, albeit with significant loss of life and casualties, and were finally extracted with assistance from UN forces without regaining the initiative.[23] The death of 18 personnel, further magnified through the television footage of an American soldier’s body being dragged through the streets, led to both societal and political shock reflected in President Clinton’s question to his staff: “How could this happen?”[24] The following year American forces were withdrawn from Somalia, a move that reinforced a perception amongst some that the United States would not accept casualties in conflict.[25]

The potential for enormous costs in countering battlefield surprise and shock were witnessed with the fall of Mosul to Islamic State forces in 2014. In just days, an estimated force of some 1,500 Islamic State fighters were able to take control of Iraq’s second largest city as the Iraqi security forces collapsed.[26] Apart from the use of social media to magnify fear on both a local and global scale, there was nothing particularly new about the character of warfare evident in the capture of Mosul. The city the Islamic State captured in just days took Iraqi and Coalition forces three years to recapture, and only then after rebuilding Iraqi capabilities, an extensive air campaign, and a nine-month ground operation described as the largest conventional land battle since the 2003 capture of Baghdad and the world’s largest military operation for over a decade, longer than the Battle for Stalingrad.[27] This underscores the reality that the cost of overcoming battlefield surprise and shock might be enormous and perhaps never recoverable in terms of blood and treasure.

Battlefield surprise can be overcome, and shock avoided, if commanders and soldiers quickly adapt to an unexpected reality, by understanding what is happening, selecting appropriate tactics, and implementing these. However, it appears that if the gap between expectations and reality is too great to either understand or implement appropriate actions, then surprise can turn into shock and battlefield defeat. Liddell Hart describes the overly optimistic Polish military prior to conflict and their subsequent “disintegrating disillusionment” in the face of German blitzkrieg.[28] Similarly, in describing the British Expeditionary Force’s reaction to these same German tactics just months later, David Fraser notes, “Nothing prepared them or their seniors for the storm which now broke. The sheer speed of events was numbing. The psychological shock was profound. It was necessary to struggle against both physical exhaustion and paralysis of the will.”[29]

An increasingly technological future battlefield envisaged in current defense guidance appears to present more opportunities to both achieve surprise and to be surprised.[30] What does not appear likely to change is the human element and its susceptibility to surprise and shock. As Hart observes, “Human nature…changes but slowly, if at all; and human nature under stress of danger, not at all.”[31] Given that warfare is ultimately a human activity, irrespective of changes in the character of war, surprise and shock will remain consistent factors of conflict.

Surprise needs to be a core part of training, planning, doctrine, and strategy, particularly the ability to adapt to situations as they are. Even then, no military has ever consistently overcome the problem of battlefield surprise, meaning that it will remain an ongoing challenge and opportunity. Napoleon’s opening observation that avoiding surprise requires constant mental vigilance echoes earlier Roman and Byzantine military guidance, namely that a general should never have to say, “I did not expect it.”[32]

Charles B. Vandepeer is a Senior Lecturer in Intelligence and National Security at Charles Sturt University, a Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide and runs the Mind of War Project.

James L. Regens is Regents Professor and Director of the Center for Intelligence and National Security—an Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence—at the University of Oklahoma.

Matthew R.H. Uttley holds the Chair of Defence Studies and is Professor of Defence Studies at King’s College London.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence or the U.S. Government. This research was supported in part by U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, Grant # 2020-20061700004 (PI: Regens). The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] See David G. Chandler, The Military Maxims of Napoleon translated by Lt. General Sir George C. D' Aguilar (London: Greenhill Books, 2006).

[2] Homer, The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles (Hollywood, FL: Simon & Brown, 2011); Gregory Daly, Cannae: The Experience of Battle in the Second Punic War (London: Routledge, 2005); Bryan Perrett, The Changing Face of Battle: From Teutoburger Wald to Desert Storm (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2000); David Nicolle, Hattin 1187: Saladin's Greatest Victory (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1993); Richard M. Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (New York: Holt, 1999); Angelo N. Caravaggio, “The Attack at Taranto,” Naval War College Review 59, 3 (2006): Article 8, https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol59/iss3/8; Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962); Max Hastings, The Korean War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988); Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War June 1967 & the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Abraham Rabinovich, The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East (New York: Schocken, 2004); and Trevor N. DePuy, Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947-1974 (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War edited and translated by Peter Paret and Michael Howard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 142.

[4] Carl von Clausewitz, On War edited and translated by Peter Paret and Michael Howard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976).

[5] Richard K. Betts, Surprise Attack (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1982); B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York: Praeger, 1967).

[6] At the tactical level, the execution of surprise militarily is the responsibility of lower and middle echelon commanders. The execution of surprise at the operational level is the responsibility of theatre or combatant commanders at the divisional or higher echelons. The execution of surprise at the strategic level spans the full spectrum of national security and is the responsibility of the most senior military leadership and their political counterparts.

[7] Andrew Rawson, The Cambrai Campaign 1917 (Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Military, 2018); and Jack Shelton, The German Army at Cambrai (Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Military, 2018).

[8] Christian B. Keller, The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the Confederacy (New York: Pegasus Books, 2019).

[9] Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005); and Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968).

[10] Mark F. Cancian, Coping with Surprise in Great Power Conflicts (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018); Julian Spilsbury, Great Military Disasters: From Bannockburn to Stalingrad (London: Quercus, 2010); and Waldemar Erfurth, Surprise translated by Stefan T. Possony and Daniel Vilfroy (Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publishing Company, 1943).

[11] Mark F. Cancian, Coping with Surprise in Great Power Conflicts (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018).

[12] Peter Biles, “Falklands invasion 'surprised' Thatcher,” BBC News (28 December 2012), www.bbc.com/news/uk-20800447.

[13] U.S. Department of the Navy, Fleet Marine Force Manual FMFM 1 Warfighting (Washington: Headquarters United States Marine Corps, 1989); U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual FM 100-5 Operations (Washington: Headquarters Department of the Army, 1993); U.S. Army, Asymmetric Warfare Group, Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook Version 1 (Fort Meade, MD: U.S. Army, Asymmetric Warfare Group, 2016); Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, The Russian Way of War Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command G2, Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016); U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0 Operations October 2017 (Washington: Headquarters Department of the Army, 2017).

[14] Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney, Battleship: The Loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse (London: Penguin, 2001); and Walter Winslow, The Ghost that Died at Sunda Strait (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994).

[15] Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney, Battleship: The Loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse (London: Penguin, 2001), p.3.

[16] Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney, Battleship: The Loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse (London: Penguin, 2001), p.269.

[17] F. Spencer Chapman, The Jungle is Neutral (London: The Reprint Society, 1950), p.29.

[18] Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War. Volume Three: The Grand Alliance (London: Reprint Society, 1952), p.487.

[19] Evan Mawdsley, December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), p.238.

[20] Moshe Dayan, Story of my Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976), pp.513-514.

[21] General Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: leadership in the three Block war” Marines Magazine 6 (1999).

[22] Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down (London: Corgi Books, 2000), p.123.

[23] Timothy Karcher Understanding The Victory Disease: From The Little Bighorn To Mogadishu And Beyond (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2004).

[24] Timothy Karcher Understanding The Victory Disease: From The Little Bighorn To Mogadishu And Beyond (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2004); and Elizabeth Drew, On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency (Simon & Schuster, 1995), p.206.

[25] John Miller, "Interview with Osama bin Laden" ABC News (1998), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/interview.html.

[26] James Verini, “Surviving the Fall of ISIS”, National Geographic (16 October 2016), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/10/islamic-state-isis-iraq-mosul-syria-offensive/.

[27] Mosul Study Group, What the Battle of Mosul Teaches the Force (US Army Training and Doctrine Command 17-24, 2017); and Ben Watson, “What the Largest Battle of the Decade Says About the Future of War”, Defense One (2017), https://www.defenseone.com/feature/mosul-largest-battle-decade-future-of-war/.

[28] B.H. Liddell Hart, A history of the Second World War (London: Pan Books, 1973), p.30.

[29] David Fraser, And We Shall Shock Them: The British Army in the Second World War (London: Cassell & Co., 1999), p.55.

[30] Department of Defence, Defence Update 2020 (Canberra: Australian Government, 2020); Ministry of Defence, Global Strategic Trends” The Future Starts Today, 6th ed (Shrivenham, UK: Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 2018); and Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington: Department of Defense, 2018).

[31] B.H. Liddell Hart, Thoughts on War (London: Faber & Faber, 1944), p.219.

[32] Maurice's Stratégikon: Handbook of Byzantine military strategy translated and edited by George T. Dennis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), p.81.

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