Both the Axis and Allied powers utilized amphibious warfare during World War II, most especially the Allies. Landing craft were widely employed in the Mediterranean, European, and Pacific Theaters. The Italians used amphibious warfare in Albania and in Africa, and the Germans used it in Norway and Denmark and in the Greek islands. Early landing craft were usually improvised from conventional vessels, but World War II saw the development of craft purpose-built to land troops and equipment on a hostile shore. Such specialized craft allowed an attacker to land a larger number of men and their equipment and to do so faster and in a smaller area than would otherwise be possible. Modified craft continued to be used during the war, however; for example, in 1940, the Germans assembled vessels for Operation SEA LION, their planned cross-Channel invasion of Britain, and between 1942 and 1944, General Douglas MacArthur’s forces used modified craft in the south-western Pacific.
During the years before the war, the U.S. Marine Corps embraced amphibious warfare as its raison d’être. This doctrine was spelled out in its Tentative Landing Operation Manual (1935). The Marines also developed a prototype for the landing vehicle, tracked (LVT). However, it took the practical demands of World War II to force mass production of landing craft and amphibious tractors. Only the United States built large numbers of amphibious wheeled and tracked vehicles that allowed the transport of men and equipment from ship to shore and then inland.
Landing craft came in a wide variety of forms. They were armored and unarmored and designed to transport both personnel and vehicles. Some had bow ramps, and others had a fixed-bow configuration. Most landing craft, however, had a blunt bow; were powered by diesel engines acting on twin screws; were anchored at the stern; and had a shallow draft forward, a flat bottom, and a bow ramp. This ramp allowed the rapid unloading of men or cargo.
The Western Allies and especially the United States built by far the largest number of landing craft during the war to meet needs in both the European and Pacific Theaters. Allied troops had to invade and secure areas in the Mediterranean and then invade northwest Europe, and in the Pacific, they had to recapture the various islands held by the Japanese. Many Allied landing craft were quite large and carried smaller landing craft on their decks. The craft were identified not by name but by numbers appended to the general designation. The most common designators, from largest to smallest vessels, were:
LSV Landing Ship, Vehicle
LSD Landing Ship, Dock
LST Landing Ship, Tank
LSM Landing Ship, Medium
LCI(L) Landing Craft, Infantry (Large)
LCS(L) Landing Craft, Support (Large)
LCT Landing Craft, Tank
LCM Landing Craft, Mechanized
LCVP Landing Craft, Vehicle or Personnel
In 1941, the British pioneered development of the LST and the LCT. Both were intended to be seagoing craft to deliver vehicles and bulk supplies directly to the shore. The United States altered the original British design and produced them for both nations. The British later modified some of the designs for their own use.
The LST was undoubtedly the most widely known larger landing vessel of the war, a staple of later landings in the Pacific Theater. The most common version of the LST was 328′ in overall length, with a beam of 50′ and a displacement of 4,080 tons, fully loaded. LSTs were unarmored or only lightly armed (with 8 x 40-mm and 12 x 20-mm antiaircraft guns). The bow of the ship opened, allowing the front ramp to drop and the crew to land cargo directly on a shore. The LST could carry smaller LCTs and was configured with davits to lower personnel landing craft (LCVPs) over the sides. Some LSTs carried only two LCVPs in this fashion; others carried six. The LST crew complement was 111 officers and men.
The LCS(L) was developed to provide support to amphibious landings. With a crew of 71, it was armed with one 3- inch/50 caliber gun, 4 x 40-mm guns (2 x 2), 4 x 20-mm guns, and 10 rocket launchers.
The smaller LCT carried trucks, tanks, or cargo directly to an invasion beach. The LCVP, developed by New Orleans entrepreneur Andrew J. Higgins and popularly known as the “Higgins boat,” was made of wood. With a crew of 3 men, it was designed to land 36 troops (or one 6,000-pound vehicle or 8,100 pounds of cargo) directly on the beach. The vessel was developed for ease of mass production, and more than 23,000 had been manufactured by the end of the war.
The Allies also developed true amphibians capable of transporting men and equipment from ship to shore and then inland. Of these, the best known is undoubtedly the DUKW (an administrative code for a 1942 model amphibious four-wheel-drive truck). The DUKW had both a propeller and wheels that moved it at 5.5 knots in the water and up to 50 miles per hour on land. It carried 25 troops or 5,000 pounds of cargo and was particularly useful for transporting litters of wounded. A number of the popular DUKWs remain in service today as tourist attractions.
Landing craft were immensely important to the Allies in the war, so much so that U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall stated in 1943, “Prior to the present war I never heard of landing craft except as a rubber boat. Now I think of nothing else.” The availability of landing craft dictated timetables for Allied amphibious actions, and the shortage of them precluded simultaneous landings in northern France (in Operation OVERLORD) and south France (in Operation ANVIL-DRAGOON). Some historians have argued that the U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, placed too many landing craft in the Pacific, thus hindering Allied efforts in Europe. Current scholarship has concluded that the major problem was over-commitment within the European Theater itself. Far less glamorous than combatant vessels, landing craft were nonetheless an essential element in the Allied victory in World War II, just as they continue to be an integral part of naval operations today.