Hollywood, amphibious warfare, and strategy
11 Nov 2013|

Landing ships putting cargo ashore on Omaha Beach, at low tide during the first days of the operation, mid-June, 1944.Thomas Lonergan’s piece on amphibious capabilities and Australia’s maritime strategy makes some insightful observations. One of his most poignant points is the effect that Hollywood has had on warping our images and perceptions of amphibious warfare. As he notes, most of these stem from the silver screen’s depictions of climatic battle scenes from the Second World War in big budget blockbusters such as Saving Private Ryan or the HBO mini-series The Pacific.

These are eye capturing and evocative images. In fact, when lecturing on WWII US strategy and operations in the central Pacific at the Australian Command and Staff College, I can’t help opening my lecture with ten minutes of the US Marine Corps assault landing on Peleliu Island (video, graphic content). But it’s important to remember the strategic context in which these operations were undertaken and their almost unique position in the history of amphibious warfare.

Direct frontal assault landings were the solution to a specific set of strategic problems the US faced in WWII. In fact, they really only dominated Allied operations in the Central Pacific Theatre between November 1943 and August 1945, and to some extent the European Theatre of Operations in June 1944.

The development of doctrine, techniques and technology for direct amphibious assaults in the lead up to the war was sole domain of the USMC. This was in response to a unique set of strategic problems, mainly the perceived need to fight a war with Japan among small Pacific atolls. This idea was based on US inter-war planning for a war against Japan, namely War Plan Orange and later the Rainbow Series of War plans.

Under these plans, the US Navy and USMC realised that they’d have to fight their way across the central Pacific to retake the Philippines and to blockade and bombard the Japanese home islands. This would involve extraordinary distances and require the assault of small island atolls to develop bases and airfields to support their advance. The first major study of this problem came from USMC Major Pete Ellis, who produced Advance Base Operations in Micronesia in 1923. Soon after the Joint Army–Navy Board approved the amphibious assault mission for the Marine Corps.

The USMC studies included overcoming the difficulties of landing troops ashore, naval gunfire support, logistics and air support, and resulted in the development of the Tentative Landings Operations Manual in 1934, which was adopted as US Navy Landing Operations Doctrine in 1938 (it become US Army doctrine in 1940). This doctrine focused on direct, frontal amphibious assaults on heavily-defended Pacific atolls, and was enabled during the war by the new US Navy Fast Carrier Task Forces and their innovative at-sea logistics groups. This doctrine and operational approach was used in the central Pacific from late 1943–45 at Tawara, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

What’s often forgotten is that, while the US Navy and USMC fought these famous battles in the central Pacific, the Australians and the Americans of the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) under General Douglas MacArthur also fought a parallel series of amphibious campaigns against the Japanese. So why don’t these operations make for Hollywood blockbusters?

Due to the geography of the SWPA being dominated by the second largest island in the world, New Guinea, and the Philippines archipelago, rather than small coral atolls, MacArthur’s forces adopted a different, much more orthodox and indirect approach—landing where there was no enemy opposition. US Amphibious Commander in the SWPA Admiral Daniel Barby noted that these operations were more like a ‘commando raid, expect that it would be daylight and the troops that would go ashore would stay there’. It was an approach was almost identical to British and Australian amphibious doctrine.

So on the same day the USMC was struggling ashore at Peleliu against stiff opposition, the SWPA’s Tradewind Task Force landed a reinforced division from the US XI Corps against virtually no opposition on the island of Morotai. In the process, utilising his air superiority and sea control, MacArthur outflanked 32,000 Japanese troops on the nearby islands and the New Guinea mainland—effectively removing them from the war.  The cost was nine killed in action, 33 wounded and two missing. The USMC meanwhile had taken over 1,000 casualties just getting ashore at Peleliu.

By 1945 all Allied forces in the Pacific were undertaking storm assault landings, including the Australians. This didn’t mean the indirect method couldn’t be used for some of these landings, such as the Australian amphibious assault on Balikpapan (the last of the war). But as GOC of the 7th Australian Division at Balikpapan, Major General Teddy’ Milford noted, by 1945 overwhelming Allied sea and air supremacy plus masses of armoured amphibious assault vehicles meant ‘why land up the coast and to fight miles through the jungle, which suits the enemy, when you can go straight in under heavy supporting fire, which the enemy can’t stand’.

The landings in the SWPA haven’t received the same dramatic attention from Hollywood, but the indirect approach of the overwhelming majority of the SWPA landings represent the orthodox approach to amphibious operations, while the USMC storm landings were a solution to a very specific strategic problem that has not been faced by any other military before or since. But filming a bunch of landing craft shuttling to and from the shore and masses on men stock piling equipment in a beachhead probably doesn’t inspire Steven Spielberg.

As for the ADF’s contemporary amphibious capability, I also can’t see Spielberg or Hollywood pitching a film or a mini-series to a studio about ‘humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery, evacuation operations from unstable areas, peace-enforcement, peace-keeping… Defence Aid to the Civil Community (DACC)’, or regional engagement and military diplomacy exercises. But they represent a more orthodox approach to modern amphibious operations and are critically important none the less.

Peter Dean is a fellow and the director of studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University. His latest book is Australia 1943: The Liberation of New Guinea which covers Australia’s largest ever joint military operations. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.