Fictional rescue stories captivate us with their blend of adventure, suspense, and drama, creating a perfect narrative. In contrast, actual rescue operations are frequently less thrilling due to the genuine hazards faced by both the saved and the saviors. Here are a few of history’s boldest rescue attempts, although regrettably, some concluded in misfortune and sorrow.
10. Dunkirk Evacuation
Dynamo was the operational codename for one of the largest evacuation efforts of the Second World War, where the BEF – or the British Expeditionary Force – part of the French army, and the remains of the Belgian army were trapped and surrounded by the German forces at Dunkirk in the early phases of the war. The evacuation began on May 26 and lasted until June 4, 1940, and was largely spearheaded by British forces under Capt. William Tennant.
The mission faced intense German air attacks and shelling throughout its execution, making the rescue slow and costly at first, which changed with the continued involvement of the Royal Navy and friendly civilian vessels in the region. Around 338,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated through this operation, which included many highly-trained and experienced troops.
9. 2010 Chilean Mine Rescue
In 2010, Chile’s Atacama Desert was the site of one of the largest mining disasters in history, when a massive explosion caused a block of stone to collapse inside the San Jose gold and copper mine, trapping 33 miners about 2,300 feet below the surface. Surprisingly, all 33 men survived and were found alive in a refuge within the mine, even after 17 days of no contact with the surface.
The operation was conducted by the Chilean government and experts from various fields, complete with drilling machines and other industrial equipment to ensure the safety of the miners. It was completed on October 13, 2010, after a total of 69 days following the mine’s collapse. Later investigations into the accident and the miner’s lawsuits revealed many issues that led to the collapse, including bypassed regulations and professional neglect on the part of the mine’s owners.
8. Operation Jericho
In January 1944, hundreds of members of the French Resistance were imprisoned in Amiens, France by the Gestapo. According to information received by intelligence agencies in London, their execution was scheduled for February 19, giving any potential rescue teams only a few weeks to complete the job. It would be named Operation Jericho, involving a low-level bombing operation to assist with the evacuation and rescue effort.
On the eve of February 18, 19 de Havilland Mosquito aircraft took off from the Hunsdon base and headed towards Amiens. Their mission – comprising special teams from Australia, New Zealand, and Britain – was to breach the prison walls, destroy the guards’ quarters, and create an opportunity for the prisoners to escape. The tense precision-flying operation was successfully executed despite challenging weather conditions, and by the end of it, the prison was severely damaged and over 250 prisoners had escaped to safety.
7. Operation Eagle Claw
Operation Eagle Claw was launched by the US military in April 1980, aimed at rescuing 66 Americans held hostage in Tehran during the Iran Hostage crisis. It began in November, 1979, when militant students stormed the U.S. embassy and demanded the return of the deposed Iranian ruler and an end to Western influence in the country. After five months of failed negotiations, President Jimmy Carter approved the rescue plan involving helicopters and C-130 aircraft.
By April 24, however, the mission had already started to face challenges, thanks to a violent sandstorm that struck the aircraft, causing damage and reduced visibility for the rescue team. The operation was aborted when a helicopter crashed into a C-130, killing eight servicemen.
Operation Eagle Claw exposed deficiencies in the U.S. military command structure, leading to the establishment of the United States Special Operations Command. Investigations revealed coordination issues and inadequate equipment maintenance, prompting the adoption of a combined doctrine for future military operations.
6. Operation Halyard
Operation Halyard was carried out in August 1944 during the Second World War, when a three-man OSS team, led by Lieutenant George Musulin, was dropped into Nazi-occupied Serbia to rescue a group of American airmen. The team was assisted by Serbian Chetniks and the First Air Crew Rescue Unit of the Fifteenth Air Force.
Over the course of the mission, 432 American airmen and 80 other Allied personnel were rescued by the effort. The mission lasted from August to December, 1944, and the OSS team often worked with Serbian partisans to execute the successful airlift of the trapped personnel. While it was easily the largest rescue operation of Allied soldiers during the war, Operation Halyard received little publicity at the time, as it was overshadowed by the D-Day operations ongoing in France.
5. Operation Solomon
Operation Solomon was a rescue operation conducted by the Israeli military in 1991, when over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel within a 36-hour window. The operation was executed in the backdrop of Ethiopia’s decades-long civil war, as advancing rebel forces posed an existential threat to the Jewish community living in Addis Ababa.
The rescue was only made possible after negotiations and agreements with the Ethiopian government, supported by Israeli and American-Jewish agencies on the ground. It was done by 34 Israeli planes and 41 continuous flights, and about 15,000 civilians were flown to safety throughout the operation.
4. Operation Nimrod
Operation Nimrod was a British special forces operation carried out from April 30 to May 5, 1980, when six Iranian gunmen stormed the Iranian embassy in London and took 26 hostages. The gunmen were Iranian Arabs seeking sovereignty for the Khuzestan Province, demanding the release of prisoners in Iran, and their safe passage out of Britain. Their demands were refused by the British government, however, resulting in the tense siege and hostage situation.
While negotiations eventually resulted in the release of five hostages, the conflict escalated when one hostage was killed, leading the government to finally authorize the use of force. Codenamed Operation Nimrod, the SAS formulated a plan to storm the embassy from all sides simultaneously. Explosions were used to mask the assault, as multiple teams entered from the roof, balconies, and ground floor. The SAS quickly cleared the building within 11 minutes, killing the leader Salim and neutralizing the other terrorists in a firefight
3. Operation Barras
Operation Barras was a British hostage-rescue mission in Sierra Leone in September 2000, when 11 British soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment were taken captive by the heavily-armed rebel group called the West Side Boys. The gang was infamous in the region for their brutal tactics, demanding various ransoms and concessions from the British government in exchange for the hostages.
The mission involved a combined force of the Special Air Service, First Battalion, Parachute Regiment, and Special Boat Squadron operators, along with a few other support troops. The SAS had prior knowledge of the region from previous conflicts, as it deployed observation teams across the region to gather intelligence on rebel-held positions.
When they ruled out stealth as an option, the assault force launched an old-school helicopter-based operation, hitting the hostage camp and rebel base with overwhelming firepower. The SAS and SBS teams secured the hostages in Gberi Bana, while the Parachute Regiment engaged in a firefight with the rebels on the other side of the river. The mission was largely successful, and despite a few casualties, the assault team was able to save all of the hostages.
2. Operation Jaque
Operation Jaque was a rescue mission of the Colombian military to liberate 15 hostages held captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – or FARC – for several years. Among the hostages were Colombian soldiers, American defense contractors, and former presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt.
The operation was years in the making, with the involvement of the Special Operations Command South of the United States military in advising and building the capacity of the Colombian forces since the late 1980s. In the follow up to the mission, the Colombian military cracked FARC’s radio communication codes and carried out a two-pronged deception attack. They lured the rebel group into bringing the hostages to a specific location, all the while infiltrating the group as members of a humanitarian mission. The undercover operatives acted convincingly, even taking acting lessons beforehand to ensure the success of the mission.
1. Cabanatuan Prison Raid
The raid on the occupied Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines is still sometimes known as The Great Raid, as it remains the largest rescue operation in US military history. In December, 1944, Japanese troops had burned alive and shot 139 Allied prisoners of war, including survivors of the Bataan Death March and the battle at Corregidor. A few soldiers escaped and managed to inform the approaching American forces about the massacre, leading to a decision to rescue the prisoners held at the Cabanatuan Prison Camp.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, the rescue force comprised about 120 Rangers and Alamo Scouts – a special operations unit – and 200 Filipino guerrillas. They had to walk over 30 miles through enemy lines to reach the camp, which also happened to be the largest internment camp in the region, housing around 500 Allied troops in total. Divided into assault and support elements, the rescue team launched the operation exactly at 1945 hours on January 30, 1945, quickly overpowering the Japanese guards and saving 489 prisoners of war and 33 civilians.