Soldiers at war are capable of incredible feats of strength, endurance, and skill — sometimes, these are the only ways they can stay alive. To win the day and live to tomorrow, the men, women and machines of the military have to do the impossible as a matter of course. Even then, there are a few achievements that still stand head and shoulders above the rest. Here are ten of the greatest military records.
LARGEST AERIAL PAYLOAD
While the record for heaviest military cargo mission is held by a Lockheed C-5M Galaxy carrying 176,000 pounds (representing 62% of its design maximum), the real claim to fame is held by the gargantuan Antonov An-225, a six-engine megaplane originally commissioned to haul around the Soviet Union’s space shuttle.
After the fall of the USSR, the Antonovs were sold into private service, where they’ve done the bulk of their heavy lifting, at one point carrying over 559,000 pounds of cargo as part of an operation to transport an entire gas power plant across Europe.
Records of the Antonov’s military cargo missions remain classified, but we felt like giving it the nod mostly because it looks a lot cooler than a C-5.
A number of infantry units have claimed to have marched longer and harder than anyone else. The Blue Division, a unit of Spanish Fascist volunteers that fought for the Nazis on the Eastern Front, traveled some 500 miles on foot after partisan strikes cut out much of the region’s rail service.
The 550 men of the US Army’s Mormon Battalion slogged across 2000 miles of Southwestern desert in order to fight in the Mexican-American War, in the process pacifying great swathes of previously unpatrolled badlands.
In the end, though, it’s hard to give the record to anything but the aptly named Long March, the five-year, 8000-mile fighting retreat conducted by the ill-trained and poorly fed recruits of the Chinese Red Army.
While many Western scholars have found inaccuracies and selective edits in the official account of the Long March, the length and difficulty of the operation remain far from doubt.
HEAVIEST ARTILLERY BOMBARDMENT
In World War II, one of the best (if not always the most convenient) ways to solve any military problem was to hurl a million tons of sophisticated explosives at it, a rule of thumb that can applied to a surprising number of everyday problems as well.
The assault on the island stronghold of Kwajalein required some 36000 naval shells, as well as a number of sorties by B-24 heavy bombers, while the Soviet siege of Finnish forces at Tali-Ihantala made use of almost all of the Leningrad Front’s artillery assets only to achieve a disappointing stalemate.
Without question, however, the heaviest artillery bombardment of the war (and likely of all time) was the Battle of the Seelow Heights, an opening phase of the Soviet assault on Berlin which employed a staggering 44855 cannons, mortars, self-propelled guns and Katyusha rocket launchers.
Today, most militaries choose to rely on precision strikes by missiles and computer-coordinated artillery systems, although Russia still has a fondness for occasionally leveling entire cities for old times' sake.
BIGGEST BOMBER MISSION
In February of 1942, RAF Bomber Command gained a new leader in the form of Sir Arthur Travers Harris, a career officer who had got his start in the early Royal Flying Corps and earned the nickname “Bomber Harris” for his near-fanatical devotion to the theory and practice of mass strategic bombing.
One particular theory — disarmingly simple on its surface, but incredibly difficult to actually achieve — was that if you sent a little over a thousand long-range heavy bombers to attack a city, you would overwhelm its air defenses, irreparably destroy its industrial infrastructure and terrorize the citizenry into open rebellion.
The first test of his Thousand Bomber Raid theory came in May of the same year when 1047 planes of Bomber Command, Coastal Command and even the rookie crews of Flying Training Command hit the historic city of Cologne in an hours-long night raid (British bombers were generally too poorly defended to attack during the day) that devastated the rail hub along with countless factories, homes and historic churches.
While RAF casualties were severe, particularly among the training crews, the tactic became standard practice, culminating in a raid on Bremen involving 1105 planes dropping nearly 2000 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs.
After the war, damage analysis and interviews with German officials showed that the Thousand Bomber Raids had surprisingly little effect on the German war effort, and instead of demoralizing the civilian population it hardened their resolve — hardly a surprise, given that much the same thing happened during the Battle of Britain after the Luftwaffe launched similar (but smaller) night raids on British cities.
MOST AIR-TO-AIR VICTORIES
The Eastern Front was a hellish place to fly, but for the pilots who could brave the foul weather, crude facilities and shifting frontlines (on more than one occasion planes might return to an airfield to discover an enemy tank rolling across the runway) legendary reputations could be made.
Greatest of all WWII aces — and almost certainly the greatest fighter pilot who will ever live — was baby-faced killer Erich Hartmann of Jagdgeschwader 52, who ended the war with an astonishing 352 confirmed kills. Known as “Bubi” (Little Boy) or “The Blonde Knight” to the Germans and “The Black Devil” to the Russians, Hartmann credited his success to attacking at the closest range possible, as well as the poor training given to many Russian pilots.
As commanding officer of his squadron, Hartmann surrendered to the US Army in May of 1945, who promptly handed him over to the Soviets for ten years hard labor in the gulags. Bubi not only survived his confinement but successfully rejoined the West German Luftwaffe, where he commanded their first all-jet fighter unit until being forced into early retirement after sharply criticizing the adoption of the dangerously flawed Lockheed Starfighter.
MOST COMBAT MISSIONS BY A SINGLE PILOT
The Junkers Ju-87 “Stuka” was the most capable dive-bomber ever invented and the only one that could safely accomplish a full 90-degree dive. It was also slow, poorly armored and almost completely incapable of defending itself against enemy fighters, making Stuka ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s 2530 combat missions all the more impressive.
Rudel flew from the very beginning of the war, but most of his sorties took place on the Eastern Front, where instead of its traditional role as a dive-bomber, the Stuka was employed as a treetop-level tankbuster, packing two wing-mounted 37mm autocannons. In this role, Hans took out over 500 tanks, 800 light vehicles, 150 artillery pieces and four armored locomotives, despite being shot down or forced to land 32 times.
Rudel survived the war and moved to South America along with many other unrepentant Nazis, and in spite of his postwar role in sheltering a number of outright war criminals, his legendary reputation in the field of ground attack aviation meant that American engineers sought his advice in the construction of the deadly Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II tankbuster.
LONGEST SNIPER KILL
The role of sniper used to bear a sort of stigma, as the idea of killing another soldier from a great distance and a concealed position was considered somehow dishonorable. In these enlightened times, it has become apparent that sniping and many other “dishonorable” forms of combat are much better ways to accomplish military objectives than more honest and suicidal tactics.
As a result, the last fifty years have produced a number of incredibly talented snipers, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a sort of arms race of sniper distance records among American, British and Canadian troops.
As of November of 2009, the longest-range confirmed kill belongs to British Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison, who used an Accuracy International Arctic Warfare Magnum (in UK service, an L115A3; in Counterstrike service an awm) to kill two Afghan machine-gunners at a distance of 2475 meters, a little over a mile and a half away.
Allegedly an Australian commando made a shot at 2815 meters with a Barret M82 .50-cal rifle, but military authorities have yet to confirm this record, possibly because, unlike Cpl. Harrison, there was not a faithful horse there to observe the feat.
While many people associate snipers with scoped and accurized rifles (to the point that virtually any rifle with a scope is often referred to as a “sniper rifle”), the deadliest sniper in history famously chose to forego telescopic sights so he could more effectively conceal himself from the enemy.
Simo “White Death” Häyhä served for just a hundred days in the Finnish Winter War against Soviet invaders, but during that time he killed 505 Russians with his customized Pystykorva rifle (and an additional 200 with his Suomi 9mm submachine gun).
Häyhä refused scoped sights because the optics could catch reflections from the sun, the lenses could fog up in cold weather, and the sight mounting required the sniper to raise his head higher than if he was just using the iron sights.
Legend has it that Simo typically stuffed his mouth with snow so that his exhalations were too cold to produce a telltale cloud of vapor. A lucky Soviet shooter blew off most of his face with an explosive bullet, but Häyhä survived and lived a full fifty years later, working as a moose hunter, dog breeder and occasional hunting partner to the President of Finland.
MOST ENEMY SOLDIERS CAPTURED SINGLEHANDEDLY
Alvin C. York began his military career as a devout Christian pacifist and conscientious objector from a family so poor he had to hunt game to keep food on the table, but ended it as one of the most famous American soldiers of the First World War.
Drafted against his strong moral objections to killing, York eventually came around after lengthy theological discussions with his commanding officer and soon became an unusually skilled and hard-working soldier. His skills were put to their greatest test on October 8 of 1918, when a system of cleverly concealed German machine guns along the Decauville rail line pinned down his entire battalion; York and sixteen other men were sent to flank the position but stumbled across a German unit preparing a counter-attack.
With half of York’s fellow soldiers wounded and the other half guarding a larger force of captured Germans, it was left to York to sneak into position overlooking a number of machine guns, suppressing their fire with his Enfield rifle until he was found out.
Six Germans charged with fixed bayonets but York ditched his empty rifle, drew his Colt 1911, and downed each soldier with a single shot. Witnessing this, the German officer in command of the defending battalion dropped his own pistol and offered the surrender of the surviving men of his unit, believing that York had to be the vanguard of a massively superior force.
The seven other able-bodied men that York actually had at his back were deeply surprised to find they had the task of escorting 132 new prisoners of war back to the American lines, but York’s ironbound confidence and obvious lethality were enough to keep the Germans in line.
Next: Amazing Military Upsets
GREATEST ONE-MAN STANDOFF
Much like Alvin York, Audie L. Murphy grew up in poverty, shooting small game for food. Unlike York, Murphy was a violent young man with a hot temper and an absent father. When his beloved mother died and many of his eleven brothers and sisters were sent to orphanages or scattered to other sharecropper plantations, he tried joining the Navy, Marines and the Army paratroopers only to be refused due to his small stature and light weight.
The determined young Texan was finally accepted into the Army infantry and soon earned a number of marksmanship awards. And while his commanders still insisted on trying to keep him behind the lines as a cook, he persevered and soon found himself in the Mediterranean Theater for the invasion of Italy.
Distinguishing himself at Sicily and Anzio with several Bronze Stars and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Murphy found himself rising through the ranks until he finally received a battlefield commission to Second Lieutenant and platoon leader as his company entered Holtzwihr in the south of France.
It was there, during late January in 1945, that Murphy faced the greatest challenge of his military career thus far. Leading troops on assault alongside a small force of lightly armored M10 tank destroyers, he suddenly found himself up against six heavy tanks and several hundred German grenadiers just as one of his M10’s bogged down in a ditch and another received a direct hit.
Ordering his troops to fall back, Murphy remained alone with the company’s landline telephone calling in artillery strikes against the advancing armor while picking off advancing Germans with his M1 carbine.
Emptying his own weapon, Murphy then climbed aboard the smoldering hulk of the tank destroyer, mounting the cupola to take the grips of the still-functional .50-cal heavy machine gun, which he used to finish off the remaining troops despite being almost completely exposed to enemy fire, bleeding heavily from shrapnel wounds to the leg, and standing atop several tons of flaming gasoline and high explosive.
Murphy only abandoned his position after his phone line was cut by a lucky German mortar, at which point he wandered in a daze back to an outpost to be informed that he had single-handedly stopped the enemy advance.
After the war, Audie Murphy went on to star in twenty-two films and worked to spread understanding of veterans issues; his outspoken talks about his own severe mental issues were among the first to frankly address post-traumatic stress disorder.