Amphibious operation

The factors determining the success of an amphibious operation

Battle of Normandy files


Amphibious operations

Amphibious operations are characterized by their great complexity and the numerous difficulties of implementation. Military strategists have been interested in it since the material possibility of such an operation exists, that is to say, since the military expeditions of antiquity. Today, amphibious military maneuvers are still relevant, as evidenced by the evacuation of French nationals from Lebanon supported by armed forces during the summer of 2006 in Naqoura, Lebanon.

And the many examples of amphibious operations during the Second World War are an opportunity to reveal the strategic lessons. This is not merely an account of several amphibious assaults, but rather of highlighting the general truths which have always existed in this field, and which consequently remain the same still today in spite of the technical evolutions of men.

The interest of amphibious operations has not changed since 70% of the world’s population is currently located within 200 kilometers of coastline. If, as a result of the technological evolution of military means, it is no longer possible to carry out a new landing as important as that of Normandy, the Americans have deployed 18,000 Marines, embarked on 47 warships before the Golf in 1991, thus mobilizing nearly 11 Iraqi divisions.

What are the factors that enable the successful execution and success of an amphibious operation despite the evolution of technologies and the multiplication of difficulties? In what way can the example of the landing of Normandy establish these factors?

The importance of Planning

Successful amphibious operations are those that in history have clearly identified the objectives to be attained and have been held there. And goals must be established at all levels, both political and military. As part of operation Overlord, it is the choice of the invasion zone that poses a problem: Churchill wanted to strike in the Balkans, on the same model as Gallipoli’s amphibious operation during the First World War, With the aim of reaching Germany as soon as possible.

After a series of debates, in which the political and military logics (in particular the possibilities of action related to the geography of the coasts of northern Europe) are confronted, the choice is made for Normandy. From this point on, once the zone of engagement had been established, the Allies chose more precisely their objectives: one of the most important was the deep-water port of Cherbourg, which would facilitate the work of logistics. This is why General Montgomery proposes the creation of a fifth landing beach, directly anchored in the Cotentin: it is the birth of Utah Beach.

Amphibious operations can have different objectives, the important thing is to clarify them. On the contrary, the lack of stakes to be reached can cause a military failure (example of the landing of Anzio, Italy, in 1944). These goals can be broken down into a large-scale attack, destroying or controlling a particular enemy site, limiting the enemy’s freedom of action, or deceiving the enemy on our intentions. These issues can be added together when planning an operation. In Normandy, for example, it is necessary to develop a large-scale attack (which must lead to fighting on German territory) while controlling several opposing sites (Cherbourg, Le Havre, etc.). A mission of German intelligence intoxication (operation Fortitude) must at the same time attract the attention of the opponent in the Pas-de-Calais.

Prepare the landing tools

Once the objectives are clearly established, we must give ourselves the means to realize them. This means that the definition of the objectives to be achieved also depends on our possibilities of implementation, particularly in the technological and industrial fields. And each study of an amphibious operation must be accompanied by a study of material needs. For if a landing is not the thing in itself the most difficult to achieve in spite of the enemy’s defenses, it is a question of acting at best, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

As part of the Normandy landing, these studies were carried out by Percy Hobart, an English military engineer who developed a series of armored military vehicles for various missions: amphibious tanks, anti-mines, flame-throwers, Bridges, etc. This allows assault troops to attack their opponents front-to-back without attempting to circumvent them, which might slow them down or stop them.
The Americans and the British equiped themselves just before the beginning of the Second World War with special landing craft, a range of transport ships of various sizes.

But it is not only a matter of preparing the material, it is also necessary to prepare the men. A landing on a beach defended by a multitude of obstacles and by soldiers having their rifles pointed at the landing craft is not a classic infantry mission, taught during the younger military classes. Special training is required. In order to do this, the Allies are looking very quickly in England for beaches identical to those planned for the landing in Normandy, and they organize their training there.

Specialized units are being set up, including troops of sappers, who are responsible for opening up roads through the numerous obstacles on the beaches. These sappers precede the assault, frogmen mark the access roads for the landing craft.
Members of specialized units are also subjected to heavy training and work together with seafarers on board ships, as do other infantry units.

Conduct of operations

The conduct of an amphibious operation is made difficult by the fact of the multiplicity of players and the multiplicity of elements.

Indeed, the passage from one dimension to the other, namely the passage from the dimension marità to the terrestrial dimension, implies the intervention of two groups: the sailors, then the earthlings. They must necessarily carry out training in common and agree on the same communication networks. And in the same way that the Allies are commanded by a supreme chief, every amphibious operation must have its master of thought, whatever its nationality. But again, a choice must be made to avoid misunderstandings or duplicates.

If the passage from sea to land is difficult to organize to manage, this is not the only difficulty of operation Overlord. Indeed, it is also a matter of moving from air to land with airborne operations. This adds a lot of obstacles, especially as international crews (French, Belgian, Polish …) arm the various allied aircraft. It is necessary to unify the multiple commandments in order to make it possible to conduct joint and joint operations.

It is also necessary to reckon with the divergences of personality of the chiefs. Indeed, internal political struggles, more political than military, can quickly hinder the continuation of operations. One of the cases which particularly affected the Allied High Command during the Battle of Normandy was that concerning General Montgomery.


Planning is thus the key element of any amphibious operation. Upstream preparation is essential because it is at this point that the objectives are clearly established, the means implemented and the personnel trained for the particular missions that await them.

The importance of studying the planning and management of the Normandy landing rests on its scale: nearly two years of preparation, amphibious and aerial operations, the intervention of dozens of different countries on the same front and the commitment of Multiple types of units that had to be worked in a coherent way. If a landing of the same size as Operation Overlord can not take place today, the same elements of preparation and conduct are still needed today.

Marc Laurenceau

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