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Amphibious Operations History

The magnitude of landing operations during World War II tends to give the impression that amphibious warfare is a relatively new type of military enterprise. Nevertheless, the earliest account of amphibious warfare dates back nearly 3,000 years.

The ancient Greeks, according to the poet Homer's classic history Iliad, were the first to use "amphibious" techniques when attacking the city of Troy in Asia Minor, near Turkey. Greek soldiers crossed the Aegean Sea and stormed ashore on the beaches near Troy during the ten-year struggle to destroy the city.

About 700 years after the Persians launched a waterborne attack against the Greeks. The first amphibious assault was probably made during the Persian Wars. At the Battle of Marathon in 490BC, the Persians established beachheads in their attempt to invade Greece. The Persians used ships with runways for unloading their war horses-the precursor of modern landing ships. The Persians were successful in their landing but were defeated inland as they rode toward Athens.

More amphibious operations followed through history, with Julius Caesar even giving his troops special training in landing on beaches before his Roman legions successfully invaded England in 55 B.C. Some assaults were highly successful, such as William the Conqueror's landing in England in 1066; others failed disastrously, such as the famed destruction of the Spanish Armada which was to carry soldiers to England in 1588.

The first U.S. Navy amphibious landing was made during the Revolution, when in 1776 sailors and Marines stormed ashore in the British Bahamas.

The invention of naval guns made it possible to subdue opposing shore forces more efficiently; at the same time, shore-based heavy guns increased the hazard of bringing vessels within range of protected coasts and harbors. In the years when short-range guns and wooden ships predominated, regular naval vessels were augmented by merchant ships carrying troops, horses, and supplies to form an amphibious force.

During the War Between the States there were numerous amphibious landings as Navy ships put ashore soldiers, sailors, and Marines to capture coastal forts. Of these landings, General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army commander, declared: "Wherever his fleet can be brought, -no opposition to his landing can be made ....We have nothing to oppose his heavy guns." Union assaults also were made along the rivers of the Confederacy, eventually cutting apart the Confederate states. '

During the Spanish-American War of 1898 the U.S. Navy undertook a massive lift of troops from the mainland to Cuba, with rapid ship-to-shore movements and improved landing tactics being developed. During that conflict 650 Marines stormed ashore to capture Guantanamo Bay and 16,000 soldiers were successfully landed at Santiago, Cuba (although their subsequent campaign was largely a failure.

The first modern combined operation using rifled long-range naval guns and steel vessels took place from 1915 to 1916 at Gallipoli in World War I. This spectacularly unsuccessful amphibious assault on Gallipoli took place at the southern entrance to the Dardanelles, the straits that divide Turkey to connect the Black and Mediterranean Seas. Capture of that strategic waterway and adjacent area where Europe and Asia meet was considered important by many British leaders in the war against Germany and Turkey. Admiral von Tirpitz, the German naval minister, declared in 1915 that "should the Dardanelles fall then the World War has been decided against us."

Backed by British and French squadrons, including battleships and seaplane carriers, an invasion fleet initially attempted to put ashore some 78,000 soldiers, primarily Australian and New Zealand troops. The Turkish defenders poured heavy gunfire down into the assaulting troops as they came ashore. In the assault that -dragged on for eight months the Allies committed some 489,000 soldiers. Of these, 252,000 were killed, wounded, or stricken with disease. The cost to the defending Turks also was heavy; of about a half-million men engaged in opposing the assault, about half of them were casualties.

During the period between the World Wars the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps developed specialized amphibious warfare equipment and doctrine. New troop organizations, landing craft, amphibious tractors that could travel on water as well as land, and landing tactics were tested. Exercises emphasized the use of ship guns and even aircraft to provide close fire support of the assault troops. Combat loading techniques were developed so that ships could quickly unload the equipment required first in an amphibious landing, accepting some reductions in cargo stowage efficiency in return for improved assault capabilities.

The Marine Corps leadership began to focus on the unusual challenges of amphibious warfare in 1910 by establishing the Advanced Base School in New London, Connecticut, to teach methods of seizing and defending objectives on shore, and opened schools in Quantico, Virginia, in 1920, to address this problem under the leadership of Commandant General John Lejeune. By 1934 Marine tacticians had developed effective amphibious techniques, and that year the Marine Corps published the Tentative Landing Operations Manual, which remains an important source for amphibious warfare doctrine.

The Marines put this theory to work in 1933, creating the Fleet Marine Force from what had been known as the Advance Base Force. The Fleet Marine Force served as America's quick-reaction force and helped test emerging ideas on amphibious warfare through annual fleet landing exercises. This preparation proved invaluable in World War II, when the Marines not only spearheaded many of the attacks against Japanese-held islands in the Pacific theater of war, but also trained the U.S. Army divisions that also participated in the island-hopping campaign.

After a succession of U.S. defeats the tide of war turned. At Coral Sea in the southwest Pacific and Midway in the central Pacific, U.S. aircraft carriers stopped the Japanese advances in history's first carrier-versus-carrier battles. Quickly taking the initiative, the United States began an offensive against the Japanese on August 7, 1942, with the invasion of the island Guadalcanal in the southwest Pacific.

U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 07, 1942, in the first of the amphibious assaults against Japanese-held positions in the Pacific. The few Japanese on Guadalcanal fled from the beaches when the supporting U.S. warships opened fire in preparation for the landing; but there was bitter although brief fighting on the nearby island of Tulagi, also assaulted on August 7. Despite the ease of the actual landing, Guadalcanal would be a bloody six month struggle as the Japanese fought to hold the island.The 1st Marine Division obtained and held Henderson Field on the island in the face of bitter ground, sea, and air attacks by the Japanese. Fighting continued in the jungles of Guadalcanal until February 9, 1943, when the U.S. Army and Marine Forces secured the island against Japanese resistance and secured a base in the Solomon Islands.

In the European-Mediterranean theaters the distances were shorter from the allied bases to the assault beaches, but, the requirement for amphibious ships was equally severe. First came the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, with U.S. forces landing on the Atlantic coast (at Casablanca), and U.S. and British troops at two points on the Mediterranean coast.

Next came the invasion of Sicily in the center of the Mediterranean, followed by the bloody assaults on Italy which began in September 1943 at Salerno. The Allies returned across the English Channel in strength on June 6, 1944, with amphibious ships landing 155,000 British, Canadian, and U.S. troops on the first day of the largest amphibious operation in history.

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the day of invasion for Overlord, the U.S. First Army, under General Omar N. Bradley, and the British Second Army, under General Miles C. Dempsey, established beachheads in Normandy (Normandie), on the French channel coast. The German resistance was strong, and the footholds for Allied armies were not nearly as good as they had expected. Nevertheless, the powerful counterattack with which Hitler had proposed to throw the Allies off the beaches did not materialize, neither on D-Day nor later. Enormous Allied air superiority over northern France made it difficult for Rommel, who was in command on the scene, to move his limited reserves. Moreover, Hitler became convinced that the Normandy landings were a feint and the main assault would come north of the Seine River. Consequently, he refused to release the divisions he had there and insisted on drawing in reinforcements from more distant areas. By the end of June, Eisenhower had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles ashore in Normandy.

The final large amphibious assault of the European conflict was the landing in southern France in August 1944, as a follow-on to the Normandy assault.

While the final assault on Japan awaited reinforcements from Europe, the island-hopping approach march continued. Flotillas of U.S. Navy amphibious ships carried Marines and soldiers across the Pacific and landed them on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian; the Philippines were recaptured by a series of assaults; then came Iwo Jima.

On 19 February 1945 several hundred U.S. Navy amphibious ships and innumerable landing craft put ashore 30,000 Marines under intense enemy fire in a single day with their tanks, guns, bulldozers, and equipment. These amphibious ships were supported, by aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, -destroyers, escort ships, minesweepers, and almost every other type of ship afloat. The Marines captured the Japanese island after a month-long battle that caused one of the highest casualty tolls in the Pacific theater of the war. That small, barren island cost the lives of about 6800 U.S. personnel (including about 6000 Marines) before it was secured on March 16. Situated almost halfway between the Marianas and Tokyo, the island played an important part in the air war. Its two airfields provided landing sites for damaged B-29s and enabled fighters to give the bombers cover during their raids on Japanese cities.

There was one more landing before Japan capitulated, Okinawa in March 1945. On the first day-with the Japanese abandoning the beaches-amphibious ships put 50,000 soldiers and Marines ashore. On April 1 the U.S. Tenth Army, composed of four army and four marine divisions under General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., landed on Okinawa, 500 km (310 mi) south of the southernmost Japanese island, Kysh. The Japanese did not defend the beaches. They proposed to make their stand on the southern tip of the island, across which they had constructed three strong lines. The northern three-fifths of the island were secured in less than two weeks, the third line in the south could not be breached until June 14, and the fighting continued to June 21.

After WW II, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) reviewed amphibious operations reports from the war. As expected, many landing-craft and amphibious-vehicle casualties were due to enemy action, but many were related to problems with waves and currents causing capsizing, swamping, broaching, getting stuck on bars and, when the ramps were down, filling with water and sand. Another major problem was beach trafficability. Vehicles were frequently stuck in the sand. A trafficability study of beach sand characteristics, beach slope, water level, and vehicle type was made. It was observed that saturated sand near the water's edge would liquefy due to vibrations produced by the vehicular traffic. Several full-scale amphibious assault-training exercises were observed in detail and reports prepared on the observations and findings.

The Korean War exploded late in June 1950 when communist troops overran most of South Korea, pushing the surviving South Korean troops and the few U.S. soldiers available into the small perimeter around the port of Pusan. The war between the Allied forces, led by the U.S., and North Korea was going badly before the North Koreans were stopped in August 1950. They had already captured Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and pushed the Americans and South Koreans back to a small perimeter around the southern port city of Pusan, extending about 129 km (about 80 mi) from north to south and about 80 km (about 50 mi) from east to west. American reinforcements were able to hold this small area, however. As communist forces surrounded the Pusan perimeter, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps undertook a bold amphibious assault on the west coast of Korea at Inchon. On September 15, 1950, General MacArthur launched a brilliant amphibious invasion behind enemy lines, striking at the port city of Inch'on on South Korea's west coast, about 40 km (about 25 mi) west of Seoul. The assault by 70,000 troops was decisive, cutting off the communist armies in the south from North Korea. The action led the way to total destruction of the North Korean forces and invasion of the North. In a coordinated move, UN forces broke out of the Pusan perimeter. Very quickly the North Koreans were routed and forced above the 38th parallel.

After the Korean War the United States began maintaining major naval task forces in the western Pacific and in the Mediterranean. In each area one or more reinforced battalions of some 1,800 Marines have been kept afloat in amphibious ships. These Marines provided a quick-response capability to support U.S. interests in the area. They were landed in Lebanon during 1958 at the request of the Lebanese president to avert a revolution in that country; they were put ashore in Thailand during 1962 at the request of that government to help counter communist threats. Periodically, an amphibious ready group has been in the Caribbean. These ships landed Marines in the Dominican Republic in 1965 to halt a communist takeover. (Similarly, in the postwar period the British have often kept Marines afloat in amphibious ships as crises required in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf area, and in Malaysian waters.)

A total of 43 amphibious ships, excluding the two command ships, participated in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 73 percent of all such ships in the Navy at the time. Along with their 18,000 embarked Marines prepared for amphibious assaults, they conducted practice forays along the Omani and Saudi Arabian coasts, assisted in boardings and searches of merchantmen whose uncooperative masters provoked more forcible measures, and provided support for raids on Iraqi-held Kuwaiti islands. The threat posed by this presence to Iraqi forces in Kuwaiti led to 7-11 Iraqi divisions deploying for an invasion that never came.

During the Cold War, Marines responded to crises about three to four times a year, depending upon what was counted. In the three years immediately following Desert Storm, they were called on to meet some 20 crises--about six times annually. The increase reflects a greater reliance on Navy and Marines aboard ships, as overseas bases diminish. To meet such crises, three Marine Expeditionary units--each with 2,000 Marines embarked aboard ships--are routinely deployed throughout the globe.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:38:31 ZULU