Amphibious warfare is the utilization of naval firepower, logistics and strategy to project military power ashore. In previous eras it stood as the primary method of delivering troops to non-contiguous enemy-held terrain. In this modern era amphibious warfare persists in the form of commando insertion by fast patrol boats, zodiacs and mini-submersibles.
In the modern era of warfare, an amphibious landing of infantry troops on a beachhead is the most complex of all military maneuvers. The undertaking requires an intricate coordination of numerous military specialties, including air power, naval gunfire, naval transport, logistical planning, specialized equipment, land warfare, tactics, and extensive training in the nuances of this maneuver for all personnel involved.
Then, Philip II, King of Spain, decided to permanently assign certain already amphibious skilled units to the Royal Armada. These units were trained specifically for the fighting on ships and from ships. The Spanish Marines were born. The idea was to set up a permanent assignation of land troops to the Royal Spanish Navy, available for the Crown. Thus, countries adopt the idea and all around the world. Countries subsequently raised their early marine corps too.
The first "professional" Marine units were already task-trained amphibious troops, but instead of being disbanded, were kept for the Crown's needs. First actions took place all along the Mediterranean Sea where the Turks and pirate settlements were a risk for the commerce and navigation: Algiers, Malta, Gelves.
Landings as the "Terceras Landing" in the Azores Islands 25 May 1583, was a military feat as the planners decided to make a fake landing to distract the defending forces (5,000 Portuguese, English and French soldiers); also special sea going barges were arranged in order to unload cavalry horses and 700 artillery pieces on the beach; special rowing 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 total strength of the amphibious force, was 15,000 men, including an armada of 90 ships.
After an initial reconnaissance action where the most suitable beaches for the landing assets were chosen, a 4,000–man first assault wave was unloaded while two "Galeras" made a distractive fake landing away from the main beach. The main defensive body ran to defend against the feinted action, but the first wave had set up a firm defensive perimeter, and the second wave was already landing with the heavy artillery.
In this operation we can find documented reports about the detailed planning, the previous reconnaissance of the beaches, the special equipment and training, ship-to-shore movement, naval fire support. Not the first landing, but one of the first amphibious operations.
Amphibious forces were fully organized and devoted to this mission, although the troops not only fought ashore, but on board ships.
Not all landings were successful. Mere frontal assaults from the sea against well defended positions could prove a disaster, when they had been planned inadequately. On 13 March 1741, a British Royal Navy fleet, including 2,000 guns in 186 ships commanded by Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, tried to take the Spanish city of Cartagena de Indias with a 23,600–man force, including 4,000 Virginia recruits, commanded by Lawrence Washington (half-brother of George Washington).
The defenders lined up 3,000 men, including Marines from the only six ships based in that port.
After 15 days of bombing, the British started the landings, delayed by the defenders' actions, and manage to scuttle the six Spanish ships attempting to close the access channel to the city. The defenders were decimated, and only 600 remained inside the last bastion: San Felipe Fortress.
The Commander of the landing force, General Woork, tried to advance but due to the heavy equipment his forces made only slow progress towards the fortress. The defending artillery focused on the ships supporting troops and the ship-to-shore traffic, while the defenders decimated the advancing troops out in the open. The landing force advance ended abruptly when the attackers found the ladders and engineer equipment was not suitable for the fortress assault.
During that very night a carnage took place among the landing force, and with the first light of the morning, a surprising bayonet charge from the defenders finished off the landing force and their supplies.
For 30 more days the attackers bombed the fort with no results, and they fell back to Jamaica.
In 1759, during the siege of Quebec, the British troops attempted on a number of occasions to cross the Saint Lawrence River in force. An attempt to land some 4,000 troops in the face of resistance failed. Ultimately a landing was managed at a relatively-undefended site, and British troops gained a foothold allowing 5,000 to take part in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham which led to the surrender of the city.
In 1781, the Spanish field marshall Bernardo de Gálvez, successfully captured British controlled Fort George by ampibious assault in the Battle of Pensacola. In 1782, he captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas.
During the American Civil War, the United States made several amphibious assaults all along the Confederate states coastline. Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal, South Carolina were the first of many attacks. Along with others on Roanoke Island, NC, Galveston, TX, Morris island and James Island, SC, Fort Sumter, SC and several others. The largest was at Fort Fisher, which was the largest and most powerful fort in the world at the time, protecting the entrance of Wilmington, North Carolina. The assaulting force of over 15,000 men and 70 warships comprising of over 600 guns, was the most powerful amphibious assault in world history (and was not surpassed until the large scale landings of World War Two).
An early form of amphibious warfare was employed during the War of the Pacific in 1879, and saw coordination of army, navy and specialized units.
The first amphibious assault of this war took place as 2,100 Chilean troops successfully took Pisagua from 1,200 Peruvian and Bolivian defenders on 2 November 1879. Chilean Navy ships bombarded beach defenses for several hours at dawn, followed by open, oared boats landing Army infantry and sapper units into waist-deep water, under enemy fire. An outnumbered first landing wave fought at the beach; the second and third waves in the following hours were able to overcome resistance and move inland. By the end of the day, an expeditionary army of 10,000 had disembarked at the captured port.
Additional amphibious assaults would be carried out thorough the war. By early 1881, Chilean commanders were using purpose-built, flat-bottomed landing craft that would deliver troops in shallow water closer to the beach.
Landing tactics and operations were closely observed by neutral parties during the war: two Royal Navy ships monitored the Battle of Pisagua; United States Navy observer Lt. Theodorus B.M. Mason included an account on his report The War on the Pacific Coast of South America.
During World War I, amphibious warfare was still in its infancy: tactics and equipment were rudimentary and required much improvisation.
During this period, British Royal Marine Light Infantry (merged with the Royal Marine Artillery in the 1920s to form the Royal Marines) were used primarily as naval parties onboard Royal Navy warships to maintain discipline and man ships' guns. The RMLI joined a new Royal Navy division—the Royal Naval Division—formed in 1914 to fight on land; however, throughout the conflict, army units were depended upon to provide the bulk—if not all—of troops used in amphibious landings.
The first amphibious assault of the war ended in disaster in 1914. A large British Indian Army force was directed to launch an amphibious assault on Tanga, German East Africa. British actions prior to the assault, however, alerted the Germans to prepare to repel an invasion. The Indian forces suffered heavy casualties when they advanced on the city, forcing them to withdraw back to their boats, leaving much of their equipment behind.
Soldiers were landed via open, oared whaleboats and tugs at Anzac Cove and Helles. At V Beach, Helles, the landing troops—inexperienced at amphibious landings—were effectively slaughtered by the Ottoman defenders, most not even making it out of their landing craft. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers, for example, lost almost all their officers, including their commander, and suffered over 500 casualties.
In a second landing at Suvla in August, the forerunner of modern landing craft—the armoured 'Beetle'—was first used by the British.
Floating depots were organized with medical, water, ammunition and food supplies, to be dispatched ashore when needed. The barges used in this landing were the surviving "K" boats from Gallipolli. But in this case, the landings were performed against a prepared, defended in force positions.
By the Second World War tactics and equipment had moved on. Purpose built landing craft were used at the evacuation from Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo) and an amphibious operation was tried out at Dieppe in 1942. The operation proved a failure but the lessons, hard learned, were used later.
Arguably the most famous amphibious assault was the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, in which British, Canadian, and US forces were landed at Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. The organizational planning of the landing itself (Operation Neptune) was in the hands of Admiral Bertram Ramsay. It covered the landing of the troops and their re-supply.
Other large amphibious actions in the European Theatre in WWII include:
The Royal Marines made their first post-WWII amphibious assault during the Suez War of 1956 when they successfully landed at Suez on 6 November. Nearly 30 years later in the Falklands War, the Argentine 1st Marine Brigade of the Argentine Navy along with Naval Special Forces, landed at Mullet Creek near Stanley on 2 April 1982, while later the Royal Marines' 3 Commando Brigade, (augmented by the British Army's Parachute Regiment) landed at Port San Carlos on 21 May 1982.
During the Persian Gulf War, a large amphibious assault force, composed of USMC and naval support, was positioned off the coast of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This force was composed of 40 amphibious assault ships, the largest such force to be assembled since the Battle of Inchon. The object was to fix the six Iraqi divisions deployed along the Kuwaiti coast. The purpose behind this amphibious maneuver (known as an amphibious demonstration) was to prevent 6 Iraqi divisions poised for the defense of the littorals from being able to actively engage in combat at the real front. The operation was extremely successful in keeping more than 41,000 Iraqi forces from repositioning to the main battlefield. As a result, the Marines maneuvered through the Iraq defense of southern Kuwait and outflanked the Iraqi coastal defense forces.
At first sight, in the case of the United States, the first and second Gulf wars, may have given the impression that air transport had supplanted sea transport as a means of moving troops into theatre, this was only possible with the presence of friendly airfields and the absence of an enemy willing and able to contest for air-superiority. In addition, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, the United States maintained in Saudi Arabia, the heavy weapons and armour (together with a small maintenance cadre) needed to equip its forces for the second Gulf War, being able to fly in troops to join equipment already in theatre. For other, less predictable theatres, the USA maintains a fleet of Forward prepositioning ships in the Sea Basing program. Each group of these ships has the weapons, logistics and equipment needed to support a brigade sized unit for a month, allowing the US to keep its troops in the CONUS and to be flown to which ever theatre they are needed.
At present only the United States has the resources and ability of projecting power this way and even this is far from a total supplanting the role of amphibious transports. The one nation in which air-assault was the prime means of long range power projection was the USSR with its VDV, this being primarily a function of its geography. Even as the largest and best equipped air-mobile force for its day the USSR lacked the airlift capacity to effectively deploy more than a fraction of the VDV in the long range air assault role. The primary limitation of air mobile operations is the vulnerability and availability of suitable airlifters. For strategic missions tankers and long range fighter escorts must be added and most nations do not have these resources making relying entirely on air-mobility for power projection an impossibility.
Both air-mobile and amphibious operations have their places, however the truth of the matter is that very few states have the ability to conduct large scale air-mobile operations, and no nation is able of carrying out mass strategic air assault missions into a contested landing zone. Only amphibious forces in conjunction with naval aviation are able to project power into a hostile landing zone at a strength to seize territory and not just raid and harass and to be able to sustain and reinforce such a force until such a time that it can be reinforced by other means.
On the outset of the Spanish-American War, the Marines stormed the beaches of Cuba and captured Guantanamo Bay while the United States Army successfully landed at Santiago. It was First Lieutenant Dion Williams, who raised the United States Flag at Manila Bay in 1898, epitomized the modernized doctrine of amphibious operations, focusing on seizure, preparation, and defense of advance bases, which also adopted the concept of amphibious reconnaissance.
The Marine Corps had began to come to the realization of utilizing methods of seizing and defending objectives on shore. The Marine Corps Commandant, Brigadier General William P. Biddle sent orders to Earl H. Ellis, a Marine Officer, to the Advance Force Base, which in later years was re-established as the Fleet Marine Force in regards to his report and thesis he had written at the Navy War College concerning the setting up of advanced bases. The Advanced Base School was created in conjunction for the Advanced Base Force in New London, Connecticut in 1910.
By the 1930s, the Fleet Marine Force, which consisted of the United States Navy and Marine Corps was developed. During this period, they began to modernize amphibious warfare that farbricated into the seminal Tentative Landing Operations Manual which was implemented in 1935. The doctrine set forth the organization, theory and practice of landing operations by establishing new troop organization and the development of amphibious landing crafts and tractors. Also, they emphasized the use of aerial and naval support in beach landings for the troops. The final element of the formula was the annual exercises called the 'Fleet Landing Exercises', or FLEX, which were conducted in the Caribbean, the California coast, and in the Hawaiian Islands. similar to the exercices conducted by LtCol Earl "Pete" Ellis on Culebra by the Advanced Base Force in January, 1914. 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 United States Army divisions that also participated in the island-hopping campaign.