Recorded amphibious warfare predates the 18th century by a couple of millennia: the Sea Peoples that menaced the Egyptians from the reign of Akhenaten as captured on the reliefs at Medinet Habu and Karnak; the Hellenic city states who routinely resorted to opposed assaults upon each other’s shores, which they reflected upon in their plays and other expressions of art; the landing at Marathon by the ancient Persians on 9 September 490 BC, which history records as the largest amphibious operation for 2,400 years until eclipsed by Gallipoli.
More current amphibious landings have been conducted by small commando forces of various states and non-state actors. There exists debate over mainland China (PRC)’s potential to conduct amphibious operations against Taiwan (ROC). With the bulk of the world’s population concentrated near the sea, chances are high that future conflict may entail the use of amphibious assets.
In 1565, the island of Malta was invaded by the Turks during the Siege of Malta. A strategic choke point in the Mediterranean Sea, the loss was so menacing for the Western Europe kingdoms that forces were urgently raised in order to recover the island. But it took four months to train, arm, and move a 5,500 man amphibious force to retake the island.
Then, Philip II, King of Spain, decided to train and assign amphibious-assault 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 adopted the idea and 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 at 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 seagoing 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. This would be one of the first examples of a complex amphibious assault that would characterize modern amphibious warfare.
This was a century of “expansion”. European countries were expanding and creating colonies. Amphibious operations were mostly oriented to settle colonies and strong points along the navigational routes. Fights among countries to keep or destroy opposing power’s capabilities were continuous.
Amphibious forces were fully organized and devoted to this mission, although the troops not only fought ashore, but on board ships.
Amphibious landings were performed by Spanish Marines allowing them to conquer Sardinia (1717) and Sicily (1732).
By their nature amphibious assaults are highly complex operations involving the coordination of disparate elements and are therefore prone to disastrous results if not properly planned. One of the most spectacular instances of such a failure occurred in 1741 at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias, when a large British empire amphibious assault force with a compromised command was defeated by a much smaller but well organised and led Spanish empire defence.
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 1762 Royal Navy troops & marines succeed in taking the capitals of the Spanish West & East Indies Havana in Cuba & Manila by sea respectively.
In 1776, Samuel Nicholas and the Continental Marines, the “progenitor” of the United States Marine Corps, made a first successful landing in the Battle of Nassau.
In 1781, the Spanish field marshal Bernardo de Gálvez, successfully captured British controlled Fort George by amphibious assault in the Battle of Pensacola. In 1782, he captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas. In 1782, a long Franco-Spanish attempt to seize Gibraltar by water borne forces was abandoned. In 1783, a Franco-Spanish force invaded the island of Minorca.
In 1793, Minorca experienced yet another of its many changes of sovereignty, when captured by a British landing.
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 with 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.
In 1881 Chilean ships transported approximately 30,000 men, along with their mounts and equipment, 500 miles (800 km) in order to attack Lima. Chilean commanders were using purpose-built, flat-bottomed landing craft that would deliver troops in shallow water closer to the beach, possibly the first purpose-built amphibious landing craft in history: “These [36 shallow draft, flat-bottomed] boats would be able to land three thousand men and twelve guns in a single wave”.
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. The USS Wachusett with Alfred Thayer Mahan in command, was stationed at Callao, Peru, protecting American interests during the final stages of the War of the Pacific. He formulated his concept of sea power while reading a history book in an English gentleman’s club in Lima, Peru. This concept became the foundation for his celebrated The Influence of Sea Power upon History.