The Emergence of American Amphibious Warfare 1898 – 1945

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The Emergence of American Amphibious Warfare 1898 – 1945. By David S. Nasca. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2020.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

Amphibious warfare has ancient origins; however, the wars and contingencies of the 20th century brought this mode of warfare to maturity with the US as leader in operational doctrine and technological development. The Emergence of American Amphibious warfare is therefore a timely addition to the bibliography of maritime and land warfare as a ‘cross-over’ operational art.

The author David Nasca, a historian and former US Marine, begins his study of US amphibious warfare in 1898 with the Spanish-American War and concludes in 1945 as the US was preparing for its greatest test, the amphibious invasion of the Japanese Home Islands.

Nasca provides a studied analysis of the first US major use of amphibious warfare in the Spanish-American War, detailing deficiencies in doctrine, planning and campaign execution. The lessons learnt led to the establishment of the US Navy General Board to address fleet logistics requirements over the greatly expanded US territorial interests gained from victory in the War. The General Board advocated enlargement of the US Marine Corps and equipping them for ship-shore lodgement and including Marine input in fleet exercises through experimentation in amphibious landing and advance base operations. However, specialised amphibious ships and equipment were not developed – gunboats towing wooden boats filled with troops being the standard method of transportation from ad hoc transports to the adversary shore.

The Gallipoli disaster of 1915 poisoned many allied officers against amphibious operations. However, the period saw several visionary Marine officers directing their thinking towards amphibious doctrine. Colonel John A Lejeune, in considering small-scale landings US forces had undertaken in the first few years of the 20th century, posited these operations as only the precursor of future campaigns in which major navies, with strong industrial bases, would need power projection capabilities not only at sea but over the shore.

Lejeune’s vision simmered for some years until 1929 when innovative Marines began to take up the thread through studies of Gallipoli and the successful German Baltic Islands campaign. They assessed successful amphibious operations could be mounted if properly prepared, coordinated and executed with task force firepower, communications and logistics support. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Earl Ellis saw a future war with Japan requiring the US to seize strategic Pacific islands, requiring Marine Corps amphibious arms teams comprising infantry, artillery and aviation.

Amphibious doctrine was re-written in 1934 as the Tentative Landing Operations manual. Colonel Ellis Miller did not see amphibious assaults simply as permanently landing troops on a hostile shore but to temporarily impose military will on the adversary as another element of power projection in support of national interests. Miller warned that amphibious lodgements were potentially vulnerable to coastal artillery and air defences – realities demonstrated in World War Two.

The book’s culmination is the chapter entitled The Golden Age of Amphibious Warfare during which a fully developed US capability was loosed in North Africa, Italy, France and the Pacific ‘island-hopping’ campaigns. In this Chapter Nasca identifies shortfalls in planning and execution. The massive amphibious landings on the Pacific islands, while ultimately successful, demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the landing forces despite enormous resources. In Iwo Jima and Okinawa the Japanese adapted their defences to blunt US mobility and firepower. Drawing US forces into the island interiors hindered fire support and forced US forces to pry defenders from caves and underground strongpoints. The ultimate amphibious challenge was the Japanese Home Islands which would have resulted in enormous casualties on both sides.

Nasca’s Conclusion discusses more recent US amphibious concepts and ends with a useful profile of present and future amphibious assets and strategy.

While The Emergence of American Amphibious Warfare 1898 – 1945 meets its aim of examining the evolution of US amphibious operations to its domination in 1945 the book disappoints in its over emphasis on macro geo-strategic discussion peripheral to the core topic  – American Amphibious Warfare. For example Gallipoli, as a failed amphibious campaign was worth critiquing but not to the extent of quoting signal traffic between Royal Navy ships confused over targets for shore bombardment.

USMC amphibious theory, propounded by Lejeurne, Miller, Ellis and others could have been more qualitatively supplemented by discussions of how doctrine changed during World War Two and, while amphibious technology is mentioned, few specifics are offered. The ‘Higgins’ boat (Landing Craft Vehicles, Personnel) is described but there is no mention of the vast fleets of landing ships (LST, LSM, LCI etc) which emerged during the war. What were the design imperatives? What was the USMC/Army/USN/industry input? And what of the armada of specialised amphibious transports –  Attack Transports (APA), Attack Cargo ships (AKA) and others which landed and sustained the assaults? Marine aviation is not mentioned – what was its role in amphibious operations and how did it develop?

The Emergence of American Amphibious Warfare 1898 – 1945 covers the subject; however, researchers will need to delve elsewhere to assemble the whole story.

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