Making Sense of Suicide Missions

By Diego Gambetta | Go to book overview

Non-Japanese Suicide Missions
of the Second World War

As was the case with Japan, such measures were usually adopted by countries facing unusually desperate circumstances. As such, the instrumental aspect of the mission had a clear priority over the symbolic. Taken by surprise by Hitler's invasion, Russian commanders instructed fighter pilots to crash their planes into those of the enemy. Once the tide of the war had turned, Germany established squadrons of Rammjäger (battering-ram) aircraft which were to crash into enemy bombers. These had been hardened to better withstand aerial collisions and were not strict SMs; it was hoped that pilots would be able to bail out if their planes were downed. Goebbels's diary for 31 March 1945 records that 'the Rammjägers are now to make suicide attacks … 90 per cent casualties are expected'. Initially these were composed of volunteers but later took those found guilty of military infractions (O'Neill 1981:196–7). A more unambiguously suicidal set of missions began in April 1945 and involved the use of planes to crash into bridges, thereby impeding the Soviet armies by then closing in on Berlin. The pilots were reported to have signed the statement I am above all else clear that the mission will end in my death' (Beevor 2002: 238).

In contrast to the purely instrumental SMs of Soviet and German forces is the more flamboyant behaviour of the Italian Navy's Tenth Light Flotilla. Most of its work, though highly risky, falls short of our definition of SMs. On one particularly dangerous mission, however, the naval Major Teseo Tesei, who knew that continued operational duty would prove personally fatal due to an existing heart condition, wrote a valedictory message in which he gave as his aim 'winning the highest of all honours, that of giving my life for the King and the honour of the Flag'. He had earlier argued that the mission, an attack on the harbour at Valletta in Malta, should be undertaken to show Italian valour and serve as a model to our sons and 'Italy's future generations'. Tesei's 'pig' (manned-torpedo) detonated against the harbour defensive netting with the aim of breaching it, thereby permitting explosive motor boats to attack enemy ships at anchor. Despite the fulfilment of Tesei's wish, the mission itself was, in military terms, a complete failure (O'Neill 1981: 81–2).

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Making Sense of Suicide Missions
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Foreword v
  • Contents xi
  • List of Tables xii
  • List of Figures xiii
  • List of Contributors xiv
  • 1: Kamikaze, 1943–5 1
  • Appendix Poems and Songs 33
  • Last Testimonies 35
  • Names of Special Attack Units 40
  • Non-Japanese Suicide Missions of the Second World War 42
  • 2: Tamil Tigers, 1987–2002 43
  • 3: Palestinians, 1981–2003 77
  • Appendix: Data Quality and Sources 117
  • 4: Al-Qaeda, September 11, 2001 131
  • 5: Dying without Killing 173
  • 6: Killing without Dying 209
  • 7: Motivations and Beliefs in Suicide Missions 233
  • 8: Can We Make Sense of Suicide Missions? 259
  • Notes 301
  • References 337
  • Index 357
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