The U.S. Marines drew on the disastrous 1915 landings at Gallipoli to write the first how-to manual of amphibious warfare.
The potential and perils of amphibious operations were never more hotly debated than in the Tokyo headquarters of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in the Far East, on Aug. 23, 1950. The two-month-old Korean War had reached a critical stage. North Korean tank and infantry columns were converging on Pusan, threatening to drive the Republic of Korea and U.S. defenders into the sea.
President Harry S. Truman’s military advisors debated whether to abandon South Korea altogether or attempt an “end run” amphibious attack from the Yellow Sea against the exposed western flank of the North Korean forces. MacArthur and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed on the second option but disagreed about the aims and extent of the attack. The Joint Chiefs wanted a short-range landing near Kunsan; MacArthur favored Inchon, farther up the west coast, the gateway to Seoul. Kunsan offered limited returns for a limited risk. Inchon, far riskier, could affect the outcome of the war.
Two members of the Joint Chiefs flew in from Washington to express their concerns to MacArthur. Rear Adm. James H. Doyle, commanding Amphibious Group 1, would play the role of expert witness. A veteran of many World War II amphibious campaigns, Doyle stood ready to execute whichever plan MacArthur and the chiefs could agree on. Doyle had planned MacArthur’s landings in 1944–45 and sensed that the supreme commander’s insistence on Inchon reflected a desire to replicate his dramatic “end run” at Hollandia, New Guinea, in 1944.
Doyle and his staff bluntly explained to MacArthur that Inchon was no Hollandia. Unlike Hollandia’s broad, undefended beaches open to the sea, Inchon was a hydrographic nightmare, accessible from the Yellow Sea only by a narrow channel dominated by an extreme tidal range—among the world’s largest—which, at the ebb, left impassable mudflats in the harbor. Inchon had no beaches, only sea walls and piles of concrete rubble. Fortified North Korean artillery positions on the outlying island of Wolmi-do commanded the final approaches to the port. The assault force would have to scramble ashore with scaling ladders and then fight through the streets in a city nearly the size of Baltimore.
Inchon’s bizarre tides dictated an extremely early D-day. The fully laden LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank), drawing 29 feet under their keels, required an extreme high tide of 31 feet, which would occur just once in the month ahead, on September 15—barely three weeks away. Doyle concluded, “General, the best I can say is that Inchon is not impossible.”
MacArthur had listened attentively, smoking his pipe. Then he stood and mesmerized the room with a soliloquy on why Inchon was the superior strategic choice. “The amphibious landing is the most powerful tool we have,” he said. “To employ it properly, we must strike hard and deep!” Dismissing the Kunsan option, he stated that nothing in warfare is more futile than a short envelopment. Landing at Inchon would allow swift recapture of Seoul and the interdiction of North Korean supply lines to the Pusan Perimeter. Alluding to the British amphibious landing at Quebec in 1759, he declared, “Like Montcalm, the North Koreans would regard an Inchon landing as impossible. Like Wolfe, I could take them by surprise.” Staring imperiously around the table, the 70-year old MacArthur vowed, “We shall land at Inchon, and I shall crush them.”
The event vindicated MacArthur’s confidence. Landing on September 15th, Doyle’s hastily assembled amphibious force seized Inchon against moderate resistance. Ten days later the landing force liberated Seoul, forcing the North Koreans to abandon their siege of Pusan. Yet the stunning surprise landing did not end the Korean War. MacArthur continued to advance into North Korea as far as the Yalu River, provoking China’s intervention and prolonging the war for years.
Such is the nature of amphibious operations. By themselves, forcible landings rarely end wars. Neither Omaha Beach nor Okinawa ended the wars against Germany or Japan. Duke William of Normandy did not become “William the Conqueror” upon his landing on English soil in 1066; his defeat of King Harold’s Saxons at Hastings 16 days later made the invasion decisive.
An amphibious operation is an attack launched from the sea by naval and assault forces embarked in ships, involving a landing against a hostile shore. Opposed amphibious landings are among the most difficult and riskiest naval operations to execute. “A full-scale amphibious operation is a high-stakes enterprise,” affirms Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, USMC (Ret.), a 40-year veteran of saltwater landings. “It either succeeds dramatically or fails dramatically. There is nothing in between.”
Great risks and rewards have always characterized forcible amphibious landings. Julius Caesar’s Roman legions had a surprisingly difficult time battling their way ashore in 54 BC against British archers and cavalry defending their coastline near present-day Kent. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British executed a highly successful nighttime amphibious assault against French forces defending Aboukir Bay, Egypt in 1801: The Black Watch regiment, wading ashore from their grounded flatboats, at one point formed a defensive line in knee-deep water to repulse a French cavalry charge. By day’s end the Royal Navy had delivered sufficient infantry, artillery and cavalry ashore to sustain Lt. Gen. Sir Ralph Abercromby’s inland campaign.
With formal establishment of the Navy and Marine Corps in the last decade of the 18th century, the U.S. mounted small but frequent amphibious landings worldwide. Most were low-intensity affairs: landing parties rowing ashore to seek redress, rescue hostages or restore domestic order. Indeed, before World War II, the United States conducted fewer than a dozen landings against hostile opposition. These included the failed 1778 assault against British fortifications at Penobscot Bay, Maine territory; the 1847 landing of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott’s soldiers and Marines at Veracruz, Mexico; the abortive 1863 night assault against Fort Sumter by Union sailors and Marines in Charleston Harbor; the 1898 landing by Maj. Robert Huntington’s battalion of Marines against Spanish regulars at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and the 1914 landing at Veracruz. American landing forces would not encounter major opposition in a ship-to-shore assault until Salerno, Italy, and Tarawa, British Gilbert Islands, in the fall of 1943.
Paradoxically, it was the 20th century’s most disastrous amphibious invasion—the Allied tragedy at Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915—that led directly to the great U.S. and Allied landing successes in World War II. Prompted by the harsh lessons learned from the many mistakes at Gallipoli, the U.S. Marines wrote what proved to be literally the how-to book on amphibious warfare.
At Gallipoli, an expeditionary force of British, French, Australian and New Zealand troops landed on seven beaches along the 50-mile-long peninsula in an attempt to knock Germany’s ally Turkey out of the war. The Allies violated key principles of war in the planning, execution, political direction and logistical support for this difficult campaign. Faulty intelligence and careless operational security forfeited the element of surprise, leading to the loss of thousands of men trying to splash ashore against point-blank fire from Turkish defenders. Scattered elements fought their way ashore to seize and hold narrow beachheads, where they clung for eight bitter months, unable to advance or retreat. The Royal Navy eventually evacuated the survivors under fire, but the overall experience was a military and political nightmare. Many military analysts concluded from the events at Gallipoli that 20th century weaponry had made large-scale landings obsolete.
On studying Gallipoli, the U.S. Marines acknowledged the scale of the disaster but disagreed that amphibious operations were obsolete. Within a year of the Allied evacuation, Major Earl H. (“Pete”) Ellis, a visionary strategist, captivated students and faculty at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., by predicting a coming maritime war with imperial Japan. Ellis spoke of the urgent need for the U.S. to develop the ways and means of waging a far-flung amphibious campaign across the Pacific. He envisioned a systematic “island-hopping” campaign across the Central Pacific that would demand a fleet capable of seizing local command of the sea, air and subsurface in order to project well-trained assault forces ashore under fire by special reef-crossing craft. Ellis deemed the designation and training of amphibious storm troops as the Marines’ most critical need. “It is not enough that the troops be skilled infantry men,” he wrote. “They must also be skilled water men and jungle men who know it can be done—Marines with Marine training.”
Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune carried the torch for an amphibiously capable Corps throughout his tenure as commandant in the 1920s, but it was tough going. Most Marine forces were committed to colonial infantry missions in the Caribbean, the Navy expressed little interest, and the occasional landing exercises only revealed the enormous gap between desire and capability. When Lejeune retired in 1929, the nation still lacked a doctrine for offensive amphibious operations and a trained and equipped landing force.
Two threats arising in the early 1930s finally galvanized the Corps into adopting amphibious warfare as its primary mission: Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 revived the likelihood of an island war in the Pacific that Pete Ellis had predicted 15 years earlier. Closer to home, Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur sought to fold the Marine Corps into the Army. To fend off that threat, and neutralize Army claims that based on their role in World War I the Marines had become a redundant “second Army,” Major General Commandant Ben H. Fuller took measures to prepare the Corps for a global maritime war. Lacking sufficient headquarters staff to formulate a new naval assault mission, Fuller turned to the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico. In November 1933, Fuller suspended all courses at the schools and ordered their commandant, Brig. Gen. James C. Breckenridge, to launch an immediate study of the Marines’ potential role in offensive amphibious operations.
Fuller’s timing proved fortuitous. Newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just ended decades of Marine Corps occupation duty in Haiti, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, bringing thousands of Marines home. Many of these junior and middle-grade officers, now attending Marine Corps Schools, were disenchanted with expeditionary campaigns and eager to assume a more meaningful mission. The Navy had begun to express greater interest in amphibious warfare. A month later Fuller’s gifted assistant commandant, Maj. Gen. John H. Russell Jr., singlehandedly created the Fleet Marine Force, a designated, combined-arms landing force that would come to be called the “Navy-Marine Team.” So, effective December 1933, there would be a designated landing force on hand to test the new doctrine then under feverish development in the redbrick buildings along the Potomac River at Quantico.
Fuller, Russell and Breckenridge realized that Congress would not authorize funds for amphibious ships or landing craft until someone could overturn the widespread belief that Gallipoli had rendered assaults from the sea an obsolete concept. Breckenridge directed the staff and students to undertake a fresh analysis of the Gallipoli landing, detailing what went wrong and why, and whether it could have been done better. Breckenridge brought aboard as his chief of staff Colonel Ellis Bell Miller, a tightly organized officer, long on intellect, short on patience. Many junior officers would contribute to the work—especially Major Charles Barrett and Navy Lieutenant Walter Ansel— but Miller was the driving force behind the groundbreaking Gallipoli study and the new landing operations manual.
The study of Gallipoli generated tough questions: Was an assault landing against a defended shore indeed still feasible? Who should exercise overall command— the naval assault force commander or the landing force commander? Could unity of command be maintained in passing control from naval to ground commanders? Who should have ultimate authority on assigning objectives, selecting landing beaches and choosing the date and time of the assault? What special intelligence requirements are unique to amphibious warfare? Could naval gunfire and carrier aviation safely and effectively support the landing force? Can speedy, shallow-draft landing boats be developed that could land and extract in a breaking surf? How best to clear enemy mines and beach obstacles under fire? How could the assault force land tanks, artillery, antiaircraft guns under fire over an unimproved beach? Could transports be loaded to match the anticipated priorities of maneuver ashore? What types of cargo-handling units would be needed to maintain momentum and keep the beachhead unclogged?
Along with the visionary thinkers, the Quantico staff included practical men who had experienced the disorder of the 1914 Veracruz landing or had braved the Nov. 10, 1918, crossing of the Meuse River on a patchwork causeway under heavy fire. Colonel Miller drew on their hard-learned lessons in reaching the study’s conclusions. In essence, the study found that Gallipoli could have been successfully assailed from the sea, had the Allies followed certain tactical and logistical principles—some time-honored and others unique to joint seaborne-assault operations. The Marines concluded that these principles and precautions, formulated into doctrine and tested in training, could dramatically improve the prospects for successful assault landings against strongly fortified enemy shore defenses. The study acknowledged that improved doctrine could not stand alone, that without parallel improvements in organization, material development and training, any assault against Gallipoli-type defenses would remain hazardous. And, of course, the nation’s near total lack of special assault transports and landing craft in the pre–World War II years was an obvious liability.
Having “reverse engineered” Gallipoli, Miller directed the incorporation of the resulting concepts, principles and procedures into a detailed field handbook. He organized it into seven primary components: command relations, naval gunfire, air support, ship-to-shore movement, securing the beachhead, logistics and coordination. Although Miller’s study group could neither anticipate nor solve all of the problems, they continued to focus intensely on the development of a coherent amphibious warfare doctrine, and by the spring of 1935, 18 months after Fuller cancelled classes, the schools published their pioneering, comprehensive, 300- page doctrine with the unassuming name, Tentative Landing Operations Manual.
The chief of Naval Operations, alerted to the manual’s unusual range and depth, signed his approval within weeks. In 1938 the Navy published Fleet Training Publication 167, Landing Operations Doctrine, which superseded the draft manual and incorporated much of its contents. The Army followed in 1941 with Field Manual 31-5, Landing Operations on Hostile Shores. The three manuals varied little. A few years later the remarkable joint doctrine received its validation by fire on the beaches of World War II, and the essential elements of the Tentative Manual remain valid to this day.
At the heart of the doctrine was its assertive offensive spirit. The ship-to-shore movement would be a tactical assault against a defended objective and supported by the full firepower of the fleet, not a ferrying operation against some backwater coast. The naval and aerial bombardments would only shift inland when the first-wave boats approached the beach, whereupon troops would fix bayonets and pour ashore “with utmost speed and dash.” While stressing unity of command, the manual encouraged “joint and concurrent” planning by both naval and ground staffs through all stages of an amphibious campaign. The manual specified the essential intelligence requirements, including enemy mines and obstacles, reefs, tides, surf conditions, beach trafficability and beach exits. The manual was the first document to recognize the enormous role of logistics in amphibious operations and to specify detailed combat loading for each ship to support the tactical scheme of maneuver ashore. The manual also addressed the need for naval beach-master units to bring order out of chaos, as well as shore party outfits to manhandle bulk cargo off the beach to inland dumps. The entire thrust of the manual was to maintain the momentum of the assault.
The manual would prove a major contribution to naval warfare. It had no single author, although its lineage would certainly include Pete Ellis, John Lejeune, John Russell, James Breckenridge and the relentless Ellis Bell Miller. Following World War II, Princeton University historians James Isely and Jeter Crowl, in their book, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory and Practice in the Pacific, praised the pioneers who “realized the possibilities of amphibious warfare, took hold of a neglected and discredited theory, and reduced it to a practical science.”
Material development for amphibious warfare, however, lagged far behind the new doctrine for years. Fleet landing exercises in the 1930s revealed inadequate ships, craft and special equipment. Amphibious proficiency could not be attained until the Navy Department acquired large numbers of troop transports, landing ships, tank lighters and assault boats, a process given low priority during the prewar years. The nation had embarked on an urgent shipbuilding program, and combat ships, aircraft and submarines took precedence over auxiliaries. Consequently, fleet landing exercises continued to resemble those of the Spanish-American War, with landing forces squeezing into small boats towed toward shore by tugboats, with artillery pieces requiring a nearby non-hostile port—all of it far short of matching the visionary new doctrine, and far short of what would soon be needed in the global war against Japan and Germany. U.S. amphibious forces desperately needed specialized landing ships for delivering heavy weapons, like the later workhorse LSTs and LSDs (Landing Ships, Dock), and as late as 1940 the Navy had no landing craft suitable for beach assault or crossing a coral reef.
Frustrated, the Marines first bypassed the hidebound Bureau of Ships to acquire an agile riverboat, the Eureka, manufactured by Andrew Jackson Higgins of New Orleans. Higgins agreed to militarize his craft with an armored bow ramp, thus producing the storied Higgins boat. When a pictorial story in the Oct. 4, 1937, issue of Life featured Florida-based inventor Donald Roebling’s full-tracked Alligator, designed to rescue hurricane victims from the Everglades, the Marines saw the potential for a reef-crossing landing vehicle that could also negotiate marginal terrain ashore and offered Roebling a contract for what later became known as an LVT (Landing Vehicle, Tracked) or amtrac.
The United States was thus unprepared for the war it entered in December 1941. Indeed, the nation was lucky to have valorous allies and its own oceanic “moats” to keep its enemies at bay during the two years it took to achieve full-bore wartime production. This delayed mobilization forced the armed forces to fight two distinctly different wars against the Axis Powers: The first, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to November 1943, featured desperate measures by outgunned, lightly armed forces, risking surprise landings on the periphery of enemy-held territory, such as Guadalcanal and North Africa.
America’s material unpreparedness showed up clearly during Operation Watchtower, the war’s first major offensive amphibious landing, at Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942. None of the 18 amphibious ships available for the invasion had been upgraded in terms of troop capacity and safety or retrofitted with modern landing craft. The few Eureka boats on hand were early prototypes that lacked bow ramps, so every embarked Marine had to roll over the gunwales into the shallows. And while the Marines did possess the first 100 of Roebling’s Alligators, they had not yet learned to adapt them as beach assault vehicles, using them instead for logistical support roles. It helped that the U.S. amphibious task force achieved strategic surprise at Guadalcanal, resulting in an initially unopposed landing.
Two years into the war, following the landings at Sicily and Bougainville in 1943, the U.S. finally attained the full industrial productivity necessary for largescale amphibious landings against heavily defended objectives. Part two of the developing amphibious strategy ensued—an unremitting global offensive campaign against Germany, Italy and Japan that would reach its most effective form in the landings that overwhelmed Normandy, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
In September 1943, the Fifth Army, a joint U.S.-British force, landed near Salerno, Italy, against strong German defenses that included mines, 88mm high-velocity cannons, tanks and railroad guns. Just getting ashore came at a price, and defending the beachhead against German counterattacks led to one of the most savage battles in the Mediterranean Theater, but the landing succeeded.
The November 20–23 Battle of Tarawa marked first full-scale U.S. assault from the sea of a heavily defended island—another trial by fire of the new invasion doctrine. Victory at Tarawa was by no means assured; at one point on D-Day the amphibious force reported, “Issue in doubt,” a warning that remained in effect until the afternoon of the second day. Rear Adm. Keiji Shibasaki, the Japanese commander, had fortified the small island of Betio with 500 bunkers and pillboxes, and dozens of large-caliber coastal defense guns. He expected the island’s coral reef to provide an additional barrier. The Marines knew of the reef and had adapted their LVT Alligators to serve as assault vehicles. The expedient worked. All three assault waves trundled across the exposed reef on D-Day, but there weren’t enough LVTs available, and a rare and persistent apogean neap tide blocked reinforcing elements in Higgins boats from entering the lagoon. Consequently, thousands of Marines waded ashore under heavy fire and then engaged the Japanese in savage fighting. The Japanese fought virtually to the last man. When the battle ended after 76 hours, some 6,000 men (more than 1,000 Marines and nearly 5,000 Japanese) lay dead in the sand or floating in the lagoon.
The U.S. amphibious force made many tactical and technical mistakes at Tarawa. The three-hour preliminary naval bombardment proved ineffective. Instead of saturating the island with high-angle, high explosive shells, the fleet fired flat-trajectory, armor-piercing rounds that skittered off the low island. Effectiveness improved swiftly once fire-control teams got ashore and began adjusting fire by radio: One team reported troops in the open near the Japanese command post, and two nearby destroyers delivered airbursts over the target, killing Shibasaki and most of his staff—a major turning point in the battle.
Tarawa marked the first appearance in Pacific combat of the new dock landing ship. USS Ashland (LSD-1) launched her pre-boated Sherman tanks just after H-hour, the Higgins lighters debarking the tanks directly onto the exposed reef. Not all the tanks survived the lagoon crossing, but those that did provided another turning point.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet adapted swiftly to the grim lessons as it continued its westward drive across the Central Pacific. Six weeks after Tarawa the fleet swept through the Marshall Islands armed with a more effective naval bombardment plan, more LSTs and LSDs, the theater’s first Underwater Demolition Teams (precursors to the Navy SEALs), and hundreds more of the new and up-gunned versions of the LVT Alligator. More improvements emerged from the hard-fought amphibious campaigns in the Marianas, Peleliu, the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Compared to Tarawa’s three-hour preliminary bombardment, for instance, Navy guns softened up Guam for 13 days. One hundred twenty-five troop-carrying Alligators crossed the reef at Tarawa; 700 were launched at Saipan and 1,300 at Okinawa. It took all day to land 5,000 troops on Tarawa; the V Amphibious Corps landed 30,000 Marines at Iwo Jima by noon. The intricate choreography of tactical and logistical support took years to master, but the end result was a series of “storm landings” (as the Japanese described them) that proved as irresistible as a tsunami.
More significant, despite Tarawa’s high cost, tactical blunders and hydrographic frustrations, the battle validated the 1930s prophetic doctrine of offensive amphibious assault: A well-armed, well-trained landing force could in fact be successfully launched from the sea against a strongly fortified coastline.
The seizure of Tarawa carried significant implications for the men already planning Operation Overlord, the Allied cross-channel assault on Fortress Europe at Normandy. That momentous D-Day —June 6, 1944—would herald the most dramatic landing in history, a sea assault unrivaled in scope and ingenuity and a masterpiece of deception, surprise and maneuver. Adolf Hitler was incredulous that the Allies could land where they did under the weather conditions that stormy June morning. He was further confounded that the Allies were able to land a million men and tens of thousands of combat vehicles on Normandy’s unimproved beaches. Overlord’s roots stemmed from Aboukir Bay, Gallipoli and Tarawa. Its progeny would include Okinawa, Inchon, Operations Starlite and Bold Mariner in Vietnam, the British recapture of the Falklands, and the “amphibious force-in-being” that threatened Saddam Hussein’s seaborne flank during the 1991 Gulf War.
For further reading, Colonel Joseph H. Alexander recommends: The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory and Practice in the Pacific, by Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl, and At the Water’s Edge: Defending Against the Modern Amphibious Assault, by Theodore L. Gatchel.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.