The year is 1536. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V has taken Provence. The French, who had started this latest war to prosecute their claim to govern Milan the year before, have now found themselves very much on the back foot. Charles, whose long military career was typified by his lack of desire to expand territorially, was nevertheless obsessive about holding on to what lay within his remit as emperor. His patience with France had long been tested and now, with this latest audacious attempt to grab some of his land, it had snapped completely. With a huge army he had quickly secured Milan, driven the French back into their heartland, and is now poised to destroy them. He speaks openly about crushing the country. His mentor the pope provides him with even more money and armies to conquer the entire territory and bring it into the huge conglomeration of Catholic states which he and Charles see as a bulwark against Protestant reform in Europe. In short, the French have bitten off way more than they can chew. They are scuppered, and they know it.
Only winter saves France from immediate annihilation. But spring is well underway now and the great mobilisation of Charles's forces in Provence has begun afresh. The French, without christian allies (only the Ottoman Empire will make treaty with them) or time remaining to replenish their battered army, can only sit and wait for the hammer blow to fall.
But one man - to quote Blackadder - has a cunning plan. Step up one Blaise de Monluc, an impoverished young Gascon, a lesser nobleman who has with his limited means managed to raise an "army" of no more than 50 souls for the French cause. Amazingly he presents himself to his warrior king Francis and begs leave to attack Charles's forces as they mobilise, but not as part of a general assault - simply he and his own little army. The king refuses, though graciously thanks Blaise for his willingness to commit suicide on his behalf. Blaise responds with a "compromise". He will not commit his whole army of 50 to the task, just himself and 10 others. Francis, weary of defeatism and probably worn down by the terrible ennui of waiting for one's own and one's country's execution, thinks "what the hell" and extends his permission to this silly - if gallant - little fool.
de Monluc wastes no time. That very day he selects his men and all eleven of them embark on their assault. So suddenly does he do this that it is only the next day when it is discovered that they have left apparently without artillery and armour. His remaining men have a mass said a few days later for their colleagues' and leader's souls. They are surely already dead.
But they're not dead. In fact they are on their way back from a glorious victory. Early the next day all 11 return to Francis's headquarters to report on their success. Using horses for speed they had approached the small town of Auriol, deep in Provence and deeper within the occupied territory of Charles. While still some distance away they had stabled their steeds and waited for night. Then, wearing only dark clothes and having rubbed earth on their faces and hands they had crept towards their objective, the great riverbank mill in Auriol. Stealthily evading detection by Charles's soldiers they deployed the only weapon besides side-arms they had brought with them, a collection of gunpowder-filled flasks connected with one continuous fuse. This they arrayed in the mill's cellar and in parting, lit. They made good their escape as stealthily and as speedily as they could.
The resulting explosion almost destroyed the whole town of Auriol itself. Milled flour, once agitated and airborne, has a combustible property almost equal to the gunpowder which they had used to ignite it. In a matter of seconds the entire structure had been blown to smithereens with a report so loud it was apparently heard by Charles himself in his own headquarters 20 kilometres away. No one could understand what it signified. They were soon to find out.
Within a few days the unrest among Charles's growing army had broken out as the bread began to disappear. Within a week the defections had started, and within two weeks it was obvious to Charles that retreat was the only option. Blaise de Monluc's operation had blown up the only mill in the entire region equipped to produce enough flour to feed an army the size of which Charles had assembled. No one was killed. No one was even injured. But the war, Charles knew, was lost.
de Monluc went on to become a great military leader in his own right, as well as a writer of military strategy which became textbook reading for generations of commanders that followed.
Any other daring raids from history you know of?