Cactus Jack: Chief, why don't we attack now, when they're off guard?
Nervous Elk: Indians never attack till dawn!
Cactus Jack: Why?
Nervous Elk: 'Cause at night, Indians too busy pounding on those damned DRUMS!
Dawn attacks are particularly popular in Real Life as well as fiction. It is generally assumed that surprise attacks are most likely to take place at dawn. This allows the attackers to move into place during the cover of the night, while using the first light of the morning to see well enough for the actual attack. There is also the hope that an attack just before or just at dawn will catch the enemy while most of them are still sleeping or just waking up, and are therefore not fully alert. Also, as dawn is a time of transition between dark and light, the theory is that attacking at dawn allows you to catch the enemy while their eyes have not yet fully adjusted to the morning light. For an extra bonus, you can attack from an direction that will result in the enemies being blinded by the glare of the rising sun. Finally, attacking at dawn means that you have the full day of light to press the attack, an important consideration before the modern age of night-vision and electric lights.
Of course, the irony of this tactic is that it has been so heavily used that most military forces now use the practice called "Stand-To-Arms", where the entire defending force wakes up sometime before dawn and goes to a full defensive alert, with every soldier in their battle positions. In WWI, this resulted in the rather surreal situation where an army would mobilize each morning to prepare for an attack that can't possibly come—as the enemy was also busy standing-to-arms.
For fictional purposes, the Dawn Attack adds extra drama to a scene, symbolizes transitions and new beginnings, and (in visual mediums) allows for just enough light to be able to clearly portray the action.
Compare Shot at Dawn.
- In One Piece the Black Cat Pirates do this. They spend the night sailing from one coast on the island to another and then go ashore exactly at sunrise. While the exact dawn attack strategy doesn't help them (because they blurted it out to Luffy and Usopp who they thought were too weak to fight them), they initially gain an advantage because they go ashore at another coast than our heroes expected them to.
- Ice Age:
Diego: We'll teach that human what happens when he messes with sabers.
Soto: Alert the troops. We attack at dawn.
- In Disney's Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan is livid at the news of John Smith's part in Kocoum's death, and announces that at sunrise, Smith will be the first of the Jamestown settlers to be killed.
- In turn, Governor Ratcliffe, who is already convinced that the Powhatan tribe has a hidden cache of gold, becomes fed up when he learns that they've seized John Smith, and declares that he will lead his men in a dawn attack on them.
- The Last Flight (AKA Le dernier vol)
Lieutenant, follow me! Silence! We attack at dawn!
- At the start of Master and Commander, the French frigate Acheron ambushes the Surprise at six bells, when most of the crew would have been asleep if someone hadn't caught a glimpse of the enemy vessel in the fog bank. Because the sun hasn't burnt the fog away yet the Acheron is able to stealthily approach within cannon range, but the Surprise is also able to slip away using the same fog. However they're not fully confident of having evaded their pursuer until nightfall.
- This is the order given to the Persian army in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time . However Dastan goes against orders and sneaks into Alamut just before dawn to get the city gates open.
- Picard reflects on this trope in Star Trek: Nemesis while recording his Captain's Log during the Lock-and-Load Montage: "...and like a thousand other commanders on a thousand other battlefields, I wait for the dawn."
- The Dawn Patrol (1930) is about RAF pilots that often have to do this, to support British troops or blunt German offensives during World War I.
- This is George Washington's intent in The Crossing, about the famous Crossing of the Delaware and Battle of Trenton. However, ferrying the army across the river takes so long that they soon realize they'll be attacking during the morning light. Washington decides to press on anyway since the only alternative is the army dissolving from expired enlistments. (It works.)
- The Villain: Indians never attack at night, because they're too busy pounding on THOSE DAMNED DRUMS!
- The War of the Worlds. During the night before the big Marines vs. Martian battle, General Mann says "They'll probably move at dawn." He turns out to be correct: the Martian war machines start to move out as the light of dawn appears in the east.
- In cryptography textbooks, "attack at dawn" is often the secret message that Alice sends to Bob.
- The Animorphs invoke this trope during In The Time of the Dinosaurs, choosing to attack an alien base at first light to smash-and-grab the nuke they need to get back to their own time. They explain that no, there really isn't a practical reason (the aliens used automated towers for most of their defenses, which obviously don't sleep). It's just traditional.
- Deathlands. In "Ice and Fire", while hiding out in a rocky canyon at night, J.B. tosses a rock into the air to establish when the false dawn is about to become actual dawn (when they can see the white-colored rock in midair, reflecting the sun's rays from over the horizon) so they can prepare for an attack.
- Discworld: In Jingo, a conversation between Captain Carrot and Jabbar, wise man of the D'regs, while surrounded by Klatchian soldiers:
Jabbar: They will not dare attack before dawn.
Carrot: And what will you do, sir?
Jabbar: At dawn we will charge!
Carrot: Ah. Uh. I wonder if I could suggest an alternative approach?
Jabbar: Alternative? It is right to charge! Charging is what dawn is for.
- The Executioner. A Discussed Trope in "Caribbean Kill" between Mack Bolan and Jack Grimaldi as they wait for dawn to infiltrate an enemy stronghold. Mack claims that its effectiveness is both psychological and biological, with people who have been awake at night instinctively relaxing as they're no longer in danger from night predators.
- In The Lord of the Rings, the Rohirrim like to do this when they're playing The Cavalry. Both Erkenbrand's charge to break the siege on Helm's Deep and Théoden's attack at the Battle of Pelennor Fields happen at dawn.
- Invoked in Peter Pan: In Neverland, all attacks take place at dawn. Captain Hook is considered a vile scoundrel when he has his pirates attack before dawn, when nobody's ready.
- Star Wars Legends: In Starfighters of Adumar, the united Adumari force decide to attack at dawn for reasons outlined above. Cartann pilots, who have taken Proud Warrior Race to the logical and crippling extent of making nonlethal practice dishonorable, tend to party hard at night and not get in the air until noon.
- Tortall Universe: In Trickster's Queen, Ulasim takes advantage of this when he realizes that the war for Rajmuat "has begun ahead of schedule."
Ulasim: Any good swimmer knows to swim with the tide rather than against it. We attack in force at dawn.
- In The Winter War by Antti Tuuri, the Red Army does this about every day, as if coming to work.
- Blake's 7. In "Rumours of Death", Avon is determined to teleport down for a Suicide Mission to attack President Servalan's palace. Master Computer Orac advises against it, but recommends that he should at least wait till dusk.
Dayna: Why not full dark?
Orac: Despite all efforts to eliminate this weakness, dusk and dawn remain the human being's most vulnerable times. Therefore, insofar as the security system contains human components—
Avon: All right, Orac, we get the picture.
Orac: —it will be at its least efficient at these times.
- Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom":
Hercules: We attack at dawn.
Telamon: Dawn? Why don't we attack tonight?
Hercules: Because we attack at dawn.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: After a long night the Southlanders hopelessly fighting the Orcs, the Numenorian cavalry arrives early in the morning in the Southlands and defeats Adar's horde of Orcs.
- In Masked Rider, Dregon declares "We shall attack at dawn!" The Monster of the Week of the two-part premiere (Monster of the Fortnight?) appears late at night as a small sphere, assembles a freaky cyborg insect body from random junk in an awesome scene, and calmly stands in that spot to await daylight. Then, he strolls through town causing Stuff Blowing Up with his customary Tranquil Fury. (Don't expect the show to be this cool very often, alas.)
- In Merlin (2008), Morgana takes over Camelot and sends Arthur and his allies running for their lives. Arthur gathers together his forces, prepares them throughout the night, and then takes back the city at dawn.
- In one episode of Red Dwarf Rimmer appoints himself the General of a band of Wax Droids based on historical figures. He orders a dawn assault across a minefield on the grounds that it's the last thing his opponents will expect. While this is probably technically true the problem with the plan should be obvious.
- The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy:
Mandy: [in a Couch Gag] It's you and me against the world. [dons an army helmet] We attack at dawn.
Irwin: (gibberish math) equals... FROGS! We attack at dawn!
- Also in the episode where they look into the future and see Mandy ruling the world, when Billy tells the rebels her only vulnerablity:
- Family Guy: one of Peter's inventions flings Stewie into a tree, where he sees the Keebler elves plotting to "attack the Rice Krispies guys at dawn". Later, at The Drunken Clam, Crackle and Pop are seen speaking of the attack and mourning the death of Snap.
- A fantasy sequence in Beavis And Butthead has Beavis as a commander in the military. He tells his troops that they're going to strike at dawn "'Cuz um, they'll still be in bed with morning wood".
- The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!: In "The Koopas Are Coming! The Koopas Are Coming!", everyone expects Redcoat Koopa's army to attack at dawn and prepares accordingly. At one point, Koopa gets impatient and decides to catch them off guard by attacking in the middle of the night, but gives up on it because it is too dark to see.
- Watership Down (2018). Hazel notes that General Woundwort planned to attack at dawn when the rabbits came out for morning silflay (he's given away by a change in wind direction, revealing the scent of his force). This is the opposite of the novel where Woundwort planned to wait until dusk and the rabbits had gone inside before launching his surprise attack. Once he'd taken the warren, he could shelter his forces there overnight (when most rabbit predators are on the prowl) and then return to Efrafa the next day. Waiting till dawn would have only exposed them to unnecessary danger (Woundwort may be insane but he's not stupid) so the line was apparently put in there because the audience is so used to the trope.
- D-Day, AKA the Invasion of Normandy, was timed so that the first wave of the main assault arrived at the beach at about 6:30 AM local time. However, the supporting paratroopers had touched down earlier, at about 1 AM.
- Deliberately subverted in a number of conflicts in the 1990's and early twenty-first century due to night-vision goggles, giving attackers using them an advantage when attacking well before dawn rather than immediately after.
- In fact, following the mass proliferation of night-fighting gear among major militaries during the 1970s, there was some concern over the psychological effects of a full-scale conventional war which could now be waged non-stop, twenty-four hours a day from day 1.
- The US Navy refers to the first aircraft launched off a carrier in the morning as the Dawn Patrol.
- Frequently used throughout history, as night combat was dangerous at best and devastating at worst: without proper lighting, it was terribly easy to get turned around and lost, potentially behind enemy lines or, even worse, behind your own. In the dark, anyone could be an enemy. Most historical battles would be fought during the day, and long battles would have each side "retire" for the night to prevent friendly fire, although minor harassment raids under the cover of darkness were common. But a dawn attack meant your forces could gather close to an enemy at night, and attack once they had enough light to see.
- "The dawn attack" is the name often given to a subsidiary operation (July 14) in the Battle of the Somme, in which the British did just that - on top of which they deployed deep into no-man's-land in the dead of night, something which the senior brass were (justifiably) worried that the men of the Kitchener armies would not be able to do. Although the battle later became bogged down with less gains than expected and missed opportunities, the actual assault on and penetration through the enemy's forward line was a stunning success.
- The Battle of Trenton during The American Revolution was supposed to have started before dawn, but snafus in getting the Continental Army's artillery over the Delaware River resulted in them arriving after sunrise. It didn't matter in the end; the Hessian mercenaries were all severely hung over from Christmas Eve schnapps and had no clue they were coming.
- The Hessians were expecting an attack. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for Washington) a small group of Americans had already attacked them and withdrawn.
- General Offensive on 1 March 1949 at Yogyakarta by Indonesian National Army was initiated at dawn. It was important, because it was the turning point for Indonesia's freedom movement, who finally got recognized by other countries (especially countries on UN) for managing to wrestle a major city from Dutch/NICA's occupation in broad daylight.
- Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22 1941, at 4:00 am.
- The tactic of attacking at or just before dawn was apparently such a standard part of Native American warfare that Roger's Standing Orders to his Rangers mentions that his men should be prepared for them every morning.
- Averted with the tactic of attacking at around 3am, when your opponent is most likely to be deep asleep. For this reason it's a favourite time for police raids, as criminals tend not to post sentries. Less heroically, this is also the time when the Secret Police traditionally comes and "disappears" people, since there aren't as many potential witnesses.
- The Military Liaison Missions were established as a temporary measure to maintain relationships between the occupying powers during the demilitarization of post-World War II Germany, and were kept going throughout the Cold War because both sides found them useful for gathering ground intelligence by snooping around military bases. They found the best time to do so was at dawn because the sentries, having spent all night on duty, would be looking forward to getting some sleep, and so would avoid anything that delayed that. On one occasion a British officer peeked over the fence of an East German barracks and found a sentry staring directly at him...only for the sentry to deliberately look in another direction.
- Due to this trope it is common for warships at sea during wartime to go to General Quarters (battle stations) every day slightly before dawn, and then once it was clear that no attack was forthcoming, relax battle stations for breakfast.
- The final Luftwaffe air raid in WW II, Operation Bodenplatte (Baseplate) on January 1, 1945, was scheduled to occur at dawn to take advantage of Allied pilots sleeping late due to New Year's celebrations. The section hitting RAF airfields in northern Belgium got off in good order and caused serious losses. But the squadrons assigned to hit U.S. bases were delayed for half an hour and ran smack into American dawn patrols. It didn't end well for them.