Operation Return, also known as the Battle of Bajor, was the combined Starfleet and Klingon assault against Dominion and Cardassian forces in the Bajor Sector, launched in mid-2374. The objective of the mission was the recapture of starbase Deep Space Nine, which had been captured in the opening battle of the war approximately five months previously. It is considered one of the three most pivotal battles of the Dominion War. (DS9: “Favor the Bold”, “The Sacrifice of Angels”)
In the opening months of the war, the Federation suffered an almost unbroken series of defeats at the hands of the Jem’Hadar, and (showed) little capability of stopping and turning back the Dominion’s all-out offensive. In addition, Starfleet’s few attempts to mount counteroffensives, such as the Seventh Fleet’s attack on the Tyra System, were met with overwhelming losses. The Federation and her Klingon allies were unquestionably losing the war.
The status of Deep Space Nine and the Bajoran wormhole remained the sole positive (note) for the allies. The automated, self-replicating minefield deployed by USS Defiant (NX-74205) just prior to DS9’s capture in 2373 remained intact and proved resistant to all of the Cardassians’ attempts to destroy it; this prevented any Jem’Hadar reinforcements from entering the Alpha Quadrant and joining the conflict. Had the minefield not held, the Federation and her allies would undoubtedly have been quickly crushed. In addition, the massive sabotage inflicted on DS9 as Starfleet forces withdrew ensured that the station itself (then known under its Cardassian name, Terok Nor), remained vulnerable to attack for several months while the Cardassians made repairs; ultimately, the station served little purpose other than as a forward supply depot for Dominion operations in the Bajor Sector.
However, by the fifth month of fighting, both the Federation and Klingon fleet commanders were facing a crisis: aside from the initial victory at Torros III (DS9: “Call to Arms”), the allies had not won a single major engagement. Morale among both fleets was at an all-time low, presenting a serious problem for many unit commanders. In particular, the repetitive and unproductive succession of advances and retreats with little material gain was galling to many seasoned veterans of the Cardassian wars.
The Cardassians were certainly not idle on Terok Nor during this period; Glinn Damar, adjutant to Gul Dukat, was in charge of the operation to deactivate and destroy the minefield. Although Damar’s team had little success in clearing the wormhole, it was considered only a matter of time before a means was found of destroying all of the mines.
In light of the situation, Captain Benjamin Sisko, commander of Deep Space Nine before its capture and then adjutant to Admiral William Ross, proposed a plan for the allies to launch a major offensive with the goals of recapturing the station, re-securing the wormhole, and forcing the Dominion to divert troops away from other theaters of action closer to the Federation homeworlds.
In the plan presented to Starfleet Command, Sisko proposed to assemble a task force composed of elements from the Second, Fifth, and Ninth fleets and reinforced by a large contingent of Klingon warships. Launching from Starbase 375, the fleet would advance across the Bajor Sector and mount an assault to retake Deep Space Nine from Dominion hands.
However, many senior officials in both the Federation and Klingon hierarchies had grave problems with this plan. Sisko’s plans required that a large number of ships be diverted from several crucial theaters of combat, including the Vulcan and Terran sectors. The Dominion was expected to divert sufficient numbers of ships to counter the advance, which would relieve pressure on the remaining forces and slow the Dominion’s advance into Federation territory. However, Admiral Coburn objected to the strategy, fearing that the Dominion might choose to sacrifice Deep Space Nine in favor of launching a full-scale attack on Earth. With Sisko’s forces advancing towards Bajor, reinforcements would be impossible within an acceptable time limit.
Ultimately, Sisko convinced Starfleet Command that the Dominion would not launch a new offensive while their potential supply line to their home territories in the Gamma Quadrant (via the wormhole) were threatened. However, Klingon chancellor Gowron remained unconvinced and refused to release any warships. In response, General Martok and Commander Worf departed for Qo’noS for private consultations with Gowron, hoping to convince him to aid the assault. Although Gowron eventually did agree to support the offensive, his delay proved critical to the timing and outcome of the battle.
Five days away from the planned launch of the offensive, alarming news arrived at Starbase 375: the Cardassians had finally devised a practical method of destroying the minefield. Based on information smuggled away from Deep Space Nine by resistance fighters Kira Nerys, Jake Sisko, and Quark operating aboard the station, and relayed by independent trader Morn, the allies discovered that an advanced anti-graviton emitter was in the process of deactivating each mine individually. The process would be complete within three days, at which point Jem’Hadar reinforcements would be free to pass through the wormhole, signaling utter defeat for both the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
Unfortunately, the fleet was only about 60% assembled; the Ninth Fleet had not yet arrived, and no indication of support had come from the Klingons. Starfleet saw no choice but to deploy the ships already assembled and mount a direct assault on Deep Space Nine, hoping to destroy the Cardassian anti-graviton emitter and keep the minefield intact.
Dominion intelligence was not inactive during this time. Gul Dukat was informed of the disengagement and redeployment of two major fleets, and correctly deduced the fleet’s target. He ordered Jem’Hadar and Cardassian warships to be diverted to meet the incoming attack.
As the Starfleet force approached the Bajor System, some 600 starships strong, they were confronted by a massive formation of more than 1,250 enemy vessels. Finding the advance blocked and his fleet outnumbered, Sisko observed,
There’s an old saying,
Fortune favors the bold. Well... we’re about to find out.
The Dominion fleet, outnumbering the Federation forces by more than two to one, unquestionably had time on its side. With the minefield around the wormhole due to be destroyed within eight hours, Gul Dukat chose to bide his time and establish a static blockade preventing the Federation advance. Starfleet was put at a grave disadvantage by being forced to take the offensive and seek a direct approach to Deep Space Nine.
Attempting to find a crack in the wall of enemy ships confronting him, Captain Sisko, commanding the fleet from USS Defiant, held back his Galaxy and cruiser wings, and instead ordered the attack fighters to probe the Cardassian front lines. Using cover fire from several destroyer wings, the fighter pilots were instructed to ignore the Jem’Hadar ships in favor of striking the Cardassian ships with quantum torpedoes, and then to break off and disengage; Sisko hoped to provoke the Cardassians into giving chase and opening a hole in the formation that Starfleet could exploit.
Gul Dukat, commanding the fleet from Deep Space Nine, recognized Sisko’s strategy almost immediately. Strictly ordering his commanders to hold position, Dukat patiently accepted eight full strafing runs against his Galor-class destroyers. After approximately three hours of standoff bombardment and hit-and-fade attack runs, Dukat decided to deliberately break the stalemate. Ordering six attack fighter squadrons to break formation and chase the Federation fighters, he carefully opened a hole in his lines, with a large contingent of destroyers standing by to outflank and trap Sisko’s forces as they advanced to take advantage of the gap.
As Dukat recognized his strategy, Captain Sisko also immediately saw the nature of the trap. However, time was in critically short supply. Detailing two Galaxy wings to engage the Galors, Sisko ordered the rest of the fleet to launch a full-scale attack on the Dominion’s center. “Anyone who gets through”, Sisko said, “doesn’t stop until they reach Deep Space Nine.”
At this point, the battle quickly degenerated into a melee as the Starfleet ships closed to point-blank range. With his ships so widely dispersed among the Dominion fleet, inter-ship coordination became more difficult. The melee then became a total free-for-all, with every ship fighting practically on its own (or at most in twos and threes) when the Dominion ships started jamming comm frequencies, cutting off starships’ contact with each other.
For Starfleet, it was very quickly becoming a losing battle. Unable to concentrate their attack on specific points in the enemy fleet, the Dominion’s superior firepower gradually wore down the swifter but less powerful Starfleet vessels. Many of the older Excelsior and Miranda-class starships, between 30 and 80 years old and considered antiquated by modern standards, were lost in this phase of the battle, overwhelmed by incoming fire from all sides.
After nearly two hours of sustained close-range combat, the battle was nearly hopeless. Indeed, the Starfleet flagship Defiant was itself near destruction, when a large force of some 300 Klingon warships decloaked and slammed into the Dominion’s starboard flank. General Martok and Commander Worf had finally convinced Chancellor Gowron to lend his support. The additional firepower of Vor’cha-class attack cruisers and venerable Birds-of-Prey finally tipped the balance in the allies’ favor. Opening a hole in the Dominion lines, the Defiant managed to slip past a formation of Jem’Hadar cruisers and escape the battlefield, speeding towards Deep Space Nine at maximum warp.
Strangely, Gul Dukat did not choose to order a pursuit, relying instead on the station’s defenses to destroy the Defiant as it approached. Meanwhile, the Dominion lines were beginning to crumble as they were outflanked by the Klingon forces. Dukat, anticipating the destruction of the minefield, chose to ignore the situation pending the imminent arrival of several thousand Jem’Hadar warships.
The last mine’s self-replication unit was deactivated, and DS9’s weapons immediately opened fire on the minefield, eliminating the only impediment to ultimate Dominion victory just seconds before the Defiant arrived. With practically no options, Captain Sisko ordered the Defiant to enter the wormhole for a hopeless, last-ditch stand against the incoming enemy.
In the wormhole, though, an incredible turn of events occured, that could be considered nothing short of a miracle. The Bajoran Prophets, the inhabitants of the wormhole, spoke to Captain Sisko — their Emissary. Though enigmatic, the Prophets indicated that they did not wish Sisko to sacrifice his life. Arguing that the approaching Dominion fleet constituted a threat to Bajor, Sisko convinced the noncorporeal beings to intervene. Moments later, as the Defiant prepared to open fire, the Dominion ships simply... disappeared.
When the Defiant exited the wormhole, the Dominion leaders were first perplexed, then alarmed. Their monitoring outposts in the Gamma Quadrant confirmed that the fleet had entered the wormhole, but there was no sign of them exiting, and no sign that they were still in the wormhole. To the Dominion and the Cardassians, it appeared that one Starfleet ship somehow had apparently completely annihilated their fleet.
The bad news only got worse as, back at the main battle zone, a group of 200 allied ships broke past the Dominion lines and headed toward Deep Space Nine. In addition, the Bajoran Resistance had not been idle inside the station. Although they had been unable to act in time to prevent the destruction of the minefield, Kira and Rom sabotaged the power grid, disabling the entire weapons array and leaving the station defenseless against the incoming allied forces. Meanwhile, the Defiant had opened fire on the crippled DS9.
Stunned by the sudden turn of events, the Female Changeling ordered an evacuation and retreat to Cardassian territory. Dukat, already showing signs of megalomania enhanced by the imminent victory but now in cataclysmic shock at the impossible reversal, was dealt a further blow. His half-Bajoran daughter, Tora Ziyal, confessed that she had helped the Bajoran Resistance sabotage the station, and was then murdered by Damar as a traitor. Devastated, Dukat stayed behind on the station with his dying daughter, in the process of a total mental breakdown.
With the station lost, the remaining Dominion forces in the battle zone turned in full retreat back to Cardassian space, bringing the battle to a quick conclusion.
Although the battle was a clear tactical and strategic victory for the Federation in the long run, aside from preventing fresh Jem’Hadar reinforcements there was little impact in the Dominion’s offensive. Deep Space Nine had played only a minor role in the war thus far, and though it remained a crucial target, holding the station was not sufficient for victory on either side. Within weeks after the loss of DS9, the Dominion returned to the offensive, attacking more Federation worlds along the front lines, including Coridan and Betazed. (DS9: “One Little Ship”, “In the Pale Moonlight”)
For his crucial role in leading the attack, Benjamin Sisko was awarded the Christopher Pike Medal of Valor. (DS9: “Tears of the Prophets”)
Statistically, numbers of ships and lives lost in the Battle of Bajor are uncertain. It is believed that up to 50,000 to 110,000 Starfleet officers died, and between 200 and 400 starships were destroyed. Klingon and Dominion losses are not known.
The importance of the Battle of Bajor to the outcome of the war cannot be underestimated. Had the Dominion established a reliable supply line through the Bajoran wormhole, they would have had a secure industrial base from which to send an enormous number of Jem’Hadar warships and soldiers that could not be touched by the allies. As it was, the Dominion’s impressive capacity for rapid shipbuilding and cloning of Jem’Hadar gave them great staying power and the means to return from a major defeat with a new offensive within months. The Bajoran wormhole remained closed to Dominion traffic for the remainder of the war.
In addition, the battle provided a large boost to the allied forces’ morale, definitively showing that the Federation and Klingon forces were capable of winning a major victory. It reversed the problem of plummeting confidence and strengthened the Federation’s resolve for a total victory rather than a negotiated peace. For that reason, despite the reverses that would come later, the Battle of Bajor will always be remembered as the fight that set the Federation on the road to triumph.
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