It was the Allies who demonstrated true mastery of the amphibious art. In the end, they landed more than 4 million troops in five major amphibious assaults, dozens of tactical landings, and countless raids along German-occupied coasts of Europe. Amphibious operations provided the western Allies with their only means of taking the ground war to the European Axis countries. In the Pacific Theater, there was no Allied victory without amphibious warfare.
Amphibious operations come in three levels—strategic, operational, and tactical—depending on the intended objectives. The Allied landings in France, the Philippines, and Italy and the planned invasion of Japan represent strategic landings intended to have a decisive impact on the war. The North African landings (Operation TORCH), the German assaults on the Dodecanese Islands, and most of the Allied assaults in the Pacific were operational-level landings that supported a specific campaign, each part of an overall strategic effort. Soviet landings and most Allied commando raids were tactical-level operations against limited objectives, although some had a strategic impact (capturing German codes, radars, and so on). The Dunkerque and Crete evacuations are difficult to categorize, but most observers would describe them as operational- level efforts.
Amphibious operations also fall into four types: raids, assaults, evacuations, and administrative (noncombat) landings. The first of these is the most dangerous since it generally occurs in an area of enemy superiority and involves elements of both an assault and an evacuation. An administrative landing is the safest, being conducted in a benign environment with no enemy ground, air, or naval forces present. Assaults and evacuations face varying levels of risk, depending on the defender’s strength and support. The German invasion of Norway is an example of an assault, although most of its troops landed under circumstances approaching that of an administrative landing. Britain’s Dunkerque evacuation was the war’s first major combat evacuation, while Germany’s naval evacuation of its forces from the Baltic at the end of the war was the conflict’s largest such operation.
The phases of amphibious operations evolved as the war progressed. In 1939 the German army was the only service to recognize the need to rehearse landings and procedures for a specific landing. By 1943, every major military leader realized the necessity to practice for a specific landing. Then, as today, amphibious operations were broken down into five phases: (1) planning, (2) embarkation, (3) rehearsal, (4) movement to the objective area, and (5) the assault. Soviet doctrine added a sixth phase, the landing of the follow-on army forces.
Necessarily, the Japanese military was much interested in amphibious warfare in the 1930s. The Japanese pioneered development of ramp front-end landing craft, later copied by other countries including the United States. The Imperial Japanese Army used amphibious landings to outflank British forces in Malaya and to invade the Philippines and other Pacific islands. In Malaya and the Philippines, the army used its own ships and land-based aircraft to support the operations, receiving little or no assistance from the navy other than to have its navy’s ships attack those of enemy naval forces. The Japanese navy had its own specialized naval landing troops to execute its amphibious assaults on Wake and other Pacific islands. The assault on the Netherlands East Indies was the only time Japan’s two services cooperated in the execution of an amphibious invasion, and there, as in Malaya, the landing beaches were not defended. In cases where the beaches were defended, the Japanese suffered heavy losses, as at Wake.
However, there was little to no cross-fertilization of ideas or lessons learned among the Allies regarding amphibious landings, particularly between the European and Pacific Theaters. This lack was largely because of antipathy and parochialism among service leaders, but the primary contributing factor was the differing military challenges posed by the Japanese and European Axis countries. The Japanese army had few mechanized units, no heavy tanks, and little artillery, but it was much better at camouflage and improvised defenses than the Germans or Italians. The Germans, conversely, rapidly reinforced their beach defenders with heavily mechanized (“mech-heavy”) forces and heavy artillery, and they employed more extensive minefields and beach obstacles than did the Japanese. These differences shaped Allied doctrine and tactics in their respective theaters.
Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill forced Britain to develop an amphibious warfare capability with the formation of Combined Operations Command. Beginning in June 1940, this organization conducted amphibious commando raids along the coasts of German-occupied Europe. Gradually, such amphibious raids became more effective as lessons were learned, expertise expanded, and training improved. But, Britain’s assault tactics and equipment were driven primarily by lessons learned from the unsuccessful Dieppe raid in August 1942. The beach obstacles, extensive minefield belts, and overlapping antitank and artillery fire proved devastating, suggesting to the British a need for specialized vehicles and equipment. Those “funnies” were ready by the 1944 Normandy landings, but not in time for the earlier Allied landings in North Africa and Italy.
The U.S. Army, present in only a limited capacity at Dieppe, saw little requirement for specialized amphibious equipment, other than landing craft, but it did see a need to remove beach obstacles and isolate the beachhead from enemy reinforcement. The smaller land areas and lack of a mech-heavy counterattack threat obviated the need to isolate Pacific assault beaches from reinforcements. Hence, airborne operations were not endemic to Pacific Theater amphibious assaults, although they were planned for the invasion of Japan.
Operation TORCH in North Africa in November 1942 was the western Allies’ first amphibious assault against a defended beach in the European Theater, albeit not a heavily contested one; but it provided the foundations for American amphibious warfare doctrine in Europe. The TORCH landings saw the first employment of underwater demolition teams (UDTs) and the specialized amphibious landing ships that were so critical to getting forces ashore quickly. The tank landing ships were particularly important since they enabled tanks to land directly on the assault beach. Although many mistakes were made in planning and execution of TORCH, it established the basic foundations for all future Allied assaults in the west. All subsequent landings were preceded by Special Forces, such as UDT and commandos, to remove obstacles and seize key terrain and defensive features before the main assault force approached the beach. Operation TORCH also exposed the need to rehearse the actual landings well in advance of the assault to ensure a smooth and rapid disembarkation. Additional lessons about air and naval support were gained from the Sicily and Salerno landings. More significantly, procedures and equipment were developed to accelerate the pace of force buildup ashore. That it was a successful effort can best be measured by the success of the Normandy landings, which placed six divisions ashore in less than 24 hours and nearly 1 million men and their equipment in France in less than a week—a phenomenal accomplishment.
The almost disastrous Tarawa landing was the pivotal experience that shaped the Navy–Marine Corps team’s amphibious warfare doctrine. The failure to chart and survey the offshore waters meant that hundreds of Marines had to wade half a mile in shoulder-deep water under heavy Japanese fire. Casualties in the first wave amounted to more than 85 percent killed or wounded. Naval air and gunfire support was poorly planned and coordinated, leaving the Marines to win by sheer force of will and superior combat cohesion ashore. All subsequent landings enjoyed extensive pre-assault UDT beach surveys. Fire-support plans were refined, and pre-assault advanced-force operations became more extensive and powerful. Firepower for the assaulting troops was substantially increased in terms of automatic weapons, demolitions, and flamethrowers. After Tarawa, as in Europe after Sicily, amphibious assaults in the Pacific enjoyed extensive preassault rehearsals and practice landings. Unlike in Europe, the Marines developed specialized amphibious vehicles and equipment to facilitate their movement ashore and to provide some armored-vehicle support to the first landing wave.
Amphibious operations were critical to the Allied war effort. The western Allies could never have contributed to Germany’s defeat nor beaten Japan had they not mastered amphibious operations, the most complex of all military activities. The war firmly established the amphibious operations procedures that are used by all Western nations to this day.
References Clifford, Kenneth J. Amphibious Warfare Development in Britain and America from 1920–1940. New York: Edgewood Publishing, 1983. Miller, Nathan. War at Sea. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Morison, Samuel E. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vols. 2, 4, 5, 9, 10, and 11. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947–1952. Roskill, Stephen W. The War at Sea 1939–1945. 3 vols. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957–1961.