Sea Landings in History

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the 1066 Norman amphibious invasion of England.
Normandy Landings-1944.

The history of amphibious warfare goes back well before the modern term itself. The massive landing by the Persians at Marathon, the ill-fated Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 BCE, Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BCE, and some of the Crusades are invoked as examples of assault upon the land from the sea.

Looking back to those earlier ventures can help to clarify the enduring, historic features of this special form of warfare. It is not about raids upon an enemy’s shore, such as Sir Francis Drake’s attack on Cadiz and other Spanish ports in the 1580s. Those were strikes from the sea, but a permanent lodgement on the beachhead followed by an advance upon the rest of the mainland was not intended. Operations such as the assault upon Cadiz usually had a smaller, more specific purpose, such as throwing the enemy’s intentions into disarray (Drake’s assault was a preemptive disruption of the Armada) or hurting his offensive capacities (like the Zeebrugge Raid of April 1918, where the British planned to block egress by U-boats from the German-occupied port), or were simply persistent, small-scale attacks to stretch out and, it was hoped, wear down the defenders. Royal Marine commando units carried out many of that sort of raid throughout much of the Second World War, compelling Hitler to order the stationing of vast numbers of Wehrmacht troops along Europe’s western shores, from northern Norway to France’s border with Spain. In late December 1941, for example, a commando raid successfully destroyed the German power station, factories, and other installations at Vaagso, halfway up the Norwegian coast, and in February 1942 another famous raid attacked and seized vital radar equipment from the Bruneval station, near Le Havre.

But these were not invasions; at Bruneval, the commandos actually parachuted in, seized the machinery, and left by the sea. Some of them had specific utility, such as the acquisition of the radar equipment, or the later midget submarine raids on enemy merchant ships in the Gironde (the “Cockleshell Heroes”). Sometimes, perhaps, the merits were psychological; they certainly were to Churchill, who almost immediately after the fall of France—and well before the Battle of Britain—ordered the Chiefs of Staff to propose “measures for a vigorous, enterprising and ceaseless offensive against the whole German-occupied coastline.” Finally, even the smallest raid, whether a success like Vaagso or a failure like Guernsey (July 1940), produced lessons: about training, command and control, land-sea communications, weapons used, vessels used, accuracy of prior intelligence collection, and so on.

It is the lessons of larger and more purposeful amphibious operations that claim attention here. The first was that specialized troops and specialized equipment were needed to carry out a successful invasion against a determined land-based enemy. Sometimes, perhaps, a hastily flung-together unit, if it possessed the element of surprise, could pull off an operational miracle, but when launched against a foe who had prepared its defenses well, such attacks were usually a recipe for disaster. It is therefore not surprising that historians call our attention to two innovations by the army of Philip II, since that service was one of the driving forces behind the “military revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first was the creation by Madrid of specially trained troops assigned to their various armadas and experienced in moving from ship to land; the Royal Spanish Marines were born in 1560s operations to recover Malta, and other powers followed by establishing their own such units. The second was the establishment of specific weapons platforms and the implementation of suitable tactics for their success in battle. Thus, in the May 1583 Spanish operation to recover the Azores from an Anglo-French-Portuguese garrison, “special barges were arranged to unload horses and 700 artillery pieces on the beach; special row boats were equipped with small cannons to support the landing boats; special supplies were readied to be unloaded and support the 11,000 men landing force strength.” The attackers also practiced deception, a partial force landing on a distant beach and distracting the garrison while two waves of marines got onshore at the main point.

The third, equally important general lesson was that those who ordered an amphibious operation, whether it be the king of Spain in the 1580s or Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff in 1942–43, had to eliminate interservice rivalry and create some form of integrated command. Rivalry among allies is one thing (Wellington often claimed that having enemies was nothing like as bad as having allies), but rivalry between the armed services of one’s own nation is altogether more serious. In many cases, operational failure was due to a lack of appreciation of what the other service could or could not do, or even how the other service thought. The doggerel about the Earl of Chatham and Sir Richard Strachan was not chosen merely as an example of puckish Regency satire. The Walcheren invasion of 1809 was a disaster. The place was badly chosen, being a low-lying island ridden with malaria; there were no serious preparations (tools, barges, intelligence) for an advance from the island into the Netherlands; Chatham did little with his 44,000 troops, and Strachan and his ships stood offshore. There was no planning staff and no integrated command structure. It was a total mess, neither the first nor the last of its kind.

The final lesson was the oldest of all: that no matter how sophisticated and integrated the armed forces involved in a landing were, they were always going to be subjected to the constraints of distance, topography, accessibility, and the weather conditions of the moment. The internal combustion engine conquered much of time and space. Against the blunt force of a gale, it was greatly hindered and reduced in its power (as we saw from the physical difficulties that Churchill had in simply getting to Casablanca). Given that the tides changed daily—in the Atlantic, there were very large vertical rises and drops—and that a storm could come up swiftly, there was always great unease at the idea that forces would be landing upon an open shore, even a lee shore.

Wherever possible, then, invasion planners, thinking also of the follow-on troops and supplies, desired a safe, functioning harbor in which their ships could rest securely and through which reinforcements could flow. The problem, of course, was that any good harbor worth its name was going to be heavily defended by cannon, bastions, outerworks, innerworks, and possibly mines and hidden obstacles, while the invading troops and their transports would be offshore, churning away in collective seasickness and the ebb and flow of the tides before the bloody assault was made. The history of amphibious warfare is thus also replete with examples of attacks that were repulsed—in 1741 the British put 24,000 men, 2,000 guns, and 186 ships against Cartagena de Indias (Colombia), yet still were driven off by a much smaller Spanish garrison holding a massive fortress. Trying to seize an enemy harbor naturally provoked an enormous defensive reaction and most probably would be fatal; landing on beaches, whether nearby or farther away, exposed the troops to the watery elements and also forced them to bring their own communications systems (bridging equipment, repair units, spares) until they reached the enemy’s roads. But deciding against any amphibious attack and staying with a land campaign (as the Allies did in Italy between 1943 and 1945, apart from Anzio) meant that one could not take advantage of the opportunities of maritime flexibility and would instead be forced to grind on. One of these operational options might be a winner, but it was impossible to say in advance which one it was.

In sum, assaults from the sea were a gambler’s throw; perhaps only airborne attacks could be riskier. It was not just about ships dropping off soldiers and equipment and then sailing away; it was about integrated combined warfare in the face of hostile fire and often in extremely difficult physical circumstances. It called for an almost impossible construct: a smoothly functioning joint staff under a single commander, with everyone knowing his place and role due to systematic preinvasion training. It relied upon superb communications in the face of enemy efforts to disrupt them, and it required the right weaponry. After that, it might just be feasible.

With all these lessons of history available (and some earlier campaigns were studied at nineteenth-century staff colleges), one might have thought that pre-1914 armed services would have been better prepared than they were for flexible, carefully prepared strikes from the sea when the Great War finally came. This should have been particularly true of policy makers and senior strategists in London, reared as they were in the “British way in warfare.” But much less attention was given by those strategists to the lessons arising from the Crimean campaign (clumsy, but actually successful in forcing Russia to ask for terms) than to the rapier-like strikes of the Prussian army against Denmark, then Austria, then France, in the 1860s. If future European wars were to be decided so swiftly, in the first summer and autumn of campaigning on the main battlefields, what was the point of peripheral raids? It was a question that advocates of amphibious warfare found hard to answer. There was another reason so little amphibious warfare was practiced during the First World War: the larger strategic situation. This war was overwhelmingly a European land war and thus a generals’ war. The mass armies of the Central Powers were contesting for terrain against the mass armies of France, Britain, and (later) the United States in the west, that of Russia in the east, and Italy’s in the south. Since the Anglo-American armies were already deeply inside France by 1917–18, there was no need for a massive amphibious landing on French shores. Mines, torpedoes, and coastal artillery prevented any Allied thrusts into the Baltic; seaborne operations that did occur there were German-Russian strikes in a secondary theater. All significant nations of the Mediterranean were either Allied (France, Italy, and their colonies, plus Egypt) or neutral (Spain, Greece), which only left Turkey and the Levant as possible target areas. Britain’s Japanese ally controlled the Far East and easily gobbled up the exposed German colonies there.

Thus, for all the pre-1914 talk by Admiral Jacky Fisher and others about the army being a “projectile” fired onshore by the navy, it wasn’t clear where that missile could be fired, even if the British generals agreed to be so dispatched (which, once settled in France, they didn’t). Taking over Germany’s colonies in Africa and the Southwest Pacific was relatively uncontested, except for a disastrous amphibious operation in November 1914 by British-Indian forces against the Tanganyikan port of Tanga, which should have been a salutary lesson in how poor training, communications, equipment, and leadership can turn an imaginative strike into a fiasco. But lessons are salutary only if they are learned.

Alas, the lessons of Tanga were not, as was most readily demonstrated in the greatest example of a failed amphibious invasion of the twentieth century: the 1915–16 Gallipoli campaign, as notable a conflict as the Athenian assault upon Sicily, and just as disastrous. Even today, Gallipoli receives much attention, not just on account of its historical resonances (as witnessed at every ANZAC Day commemoration in Australia and New Zealand, or in the Turks’ celebration of Mustapha Kemal, later known as Ataturk) but also because of our fascination at the spectacular gap between its grand strategic purpose and its disastrous execution. Perhaps no operation other than this one better illustrates the feedback loop—in this case, a wholly unfavorable one—between what happens on the ground and at sea, and how the general course of the war can be affected by tactical mishap. By the single stroke of pushing a force through the Dardanelles, its principal advocate (Churchill) maintained, a tottering Russia would have its sea-lanes to the West restored and thus be kept in the war; on the other side, the supposedly fragile Turkish power (it had joined Germany in November 1914) might be pushed into collapse, and the Balkan states of Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania might be tempted out of their neutrality.

While the strategic reasoning was attractive, the operation itself was a catastrophe. It began with a purely naval attempt in March 1915 to rush the Straits; by the time the Allied fleet escaped from the Turkish-laid minefield, it had lost four capital ships (three British and one French), with a further three badly damaged—an outcome worse than the Royal Navy’s losses at Jutland a year later. After that, infantry units were assembled from various sources—French regiments in the Mediterranean, British units from Egypt, India, and the home country, brand-new Australian and New Zealand divisions en route to the Western Front. In late April 1915, having given the Turks plenty of time to bring up reinforcements, they began to land on the craggy, ravined, thorn-covered hills of the Dardanelles Peninsula. Try as they might, the Allied forces could never get control of the higher ground and suffered appalling losses. Each side threw in more and more divisions, but the situation did not change. In December and January, in swift nighttime moves that surprised the Turks, the Allies pulled away from the beaches, admitting defeat, and sailed for home. They had lost 44,000 men and had another 97,000 wounded (more than all U.S. losses in the Korean War). Turkey’s casualties were even higher, but they had won.

The Western nations had proved to be much better at getting off a Dardanelles beach than landing on one, let alone moving on from their early lodgement to their chief inland destination. In retrospect, the reasons for this defeat became clear. The weather in the Straits was always extremely fickle, ranging from the intense heat of the summer months (without adequate water supplies, an army withers like a bush, and the sickness rate soars) to the intense storms and blizzards that poured out of the Bosphorus as winter advanced. The topography is intimidating, with steep slopes, sudden crevasses, and thornbushes everywhere. The landing areas, especially where the Australian and New Zealand units came ashore, were inhospitable and virtually impossible to move out from. Allied intelligence about what to expect was weak, the forces had not been trained for this kind of operation, and fire support from the offshore vessels was incomplete, in part because it was hard to see where the Turks were, in part because the bombarding squadrons were steadily forced away by enemy mines and submarines (three further capital ships were sunk within the next month). The landing craft that brought the men to the shore were, apart from a few prototypes, not landing craft at all. Finally, both the weaponry and the tactics of the raw units ordered to advance up this craggy terrain were simply inadequate for the job. Supervising this unfolding fiasco was a command structure that brought back memories of Sir Richard Strachan and the Earl of Chatham—except that this time the casualties and the immensity of the failure were far, far greater. In consequence, the line to Russia could not be opened, Turkey stayed in the war and fought to the end, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers, and the other Balkan states stayed neutral. Slightly over a year later, imperial Russia began its collapse.

After Gallipoli, British interest in amphibious operations waned, not surprisingly. More and more resources were needed for the colossal struggles along the Western Front, and in consequence exotic and difficult landings from the sea were now frowned upon. At French urging, an Allied army did establish a beachhead in Salonika later in 1915, but it never really got very far from the shore for the next three years—the battalions there were aptly named the “Gardeners of Salonika.” By the next spring the French were fighting for survival in Champagne and Flanders, and therefore opposed all eastern adventures. If the British were much more tempted to campaign for the territories of the Ottoman Empire after 1915–16, it was by large-scale land assaults, eastward from Egypt, northward from Basra. The army leadership simply wasn’t interested in its divisions being dropped off on hostile shores; the navy was concentrating upon bottling up the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea and trying to avoid losing the Atlantic convoys’ battle against the U-boats. The Zeebrugge Raid of 1918, however well executed, was just a raid, nothing more. Nor did the American entry into the war change attitudes; millions of doughboys sailed safely into Le Havre and were marched overland to the front. During 1917–18 the U.S. Marine Corps was located far inland, fighting along the Aisne and the Meuse rivers.

In sum, the First World War discredited the notion of amphibious warfare. And when the dust of war had settled and the new global strategic landscape revealed its contours—roughly by 1923—there were obvious reasons this type of operation had few followers. To be sure, in a badly defeated and much-reduced Germany, in a badly damaged and scarcely victorious France and Italy, and in an infant Soviet Union, there were many thoughts of war, but none of them involved the projection of force across the oceans. Japan was in a liberal phase, and the military had not yet exerted its muscle—even when it moved to take Manchuria in 1931, that was a land operation that had nothing to do with attacking beaches or seizing ports. By the late 1930s things would be different, with large Japanese merchant ships carrying landing craft and vehicles during their attack upon the lower Yangtze. During this post-1919 period, then, only two of the seven great powers gave any thought to amphibious warfare.

One of those two powers was Britain, although economic stringency and the embarrassment of Gallipoli (refought in many a wartime memoir) pushed combined operations into a dark and dusty corner; the result was the occasional small-scale training exercise, a theoretical training manual, and three prototype motor landing craft. Only the 1937 Japanese invasion of mainland China and then the 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia would force a resumption of planning and organization. On paper, things began to improve. The Inter-Service Training and Development Centre (ISTCD) was set up, specialized landing craft and their larger carrier ships were designed, and the manual for amphibious assaults was updated. But this was all theory. The midlevel officers worked well together and had fine, advanced ideas, but they still lacked the tools. A large-scale exercise off Slapton Sands, Devon, in July 1938 was badly affected by near-gale conditions and ended in chaos. This galvanized the ISTCD into further serious planning, and it is to their credit that they anticipated virtually all of the practical difficulties that amphibious operations would throw up during the Second World War itself.

Yet at the outbreak of that conflict, remarkably, this truly interservice unit was disbanded. The army was off to France, the air force was bombing Germany, and the navy was awaiting high-seas battle with the Kriegsmarine—so where on earth would one carry out combined operations? And who was interested? All but one of the ISTCD officers returned to their fighting units in September 1939.

The other country interested in amphibious warfare was the United States, because of its lengthy shores, multiple harbors, and flat beaches; because of its cherished memories of the War of 1812; and because it had possessed, since the founding of the Republic, its own Marine Corps with special campaign memories (“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”).

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