Special Report

19 Amphibious Assaults That Changed the Course of History

Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Amphibious warfare are offensive military operations launched from bodies of water by naval and landing forces against hostile forces on the shore. Such warfare has been fought as long as humans have built ships large enough to carry soldiers and weapons.

Some famous landings throughout history include the Persians’ ill-fated attempt to conquer Athens in 490 B.C. or William the Conqueror’s amphibious landing at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Today, modern amphibious assaults involve specialized landing craft supported by warships and air cover. (Also see, the most pivotal naval battles of all time.)

Perhaps the most famous amphibious landing is the Normandy landings of D-Day on June 6, 1944, when Allied troops stormed the shore under intense fire from Nazi forces. Many other of history’s major amphibious operations happened in World War II, including the Second D-Day in southern France a few months after Normandy and the horrifying battles fought between Ameircans and Japanese on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. (These two landings are among the deadliest battles in U.S. history.)

To compile a list of 19 amphibious assaults that changed the course of history, 24/7 Wall St. consulted numerous historical and military sites, including World History Encyclopedia, Britannica, the Center for Naval Analysis, the Marine Corps University Research Library, American Battlefield Trust, and the National Archives. 

Because amphibious assaults are typically only one aspect of an invasion or battle and may proceed in several stages and involve reinforcements, the number of combatants in the landing force and the dates of the landing may vary from source to source. Wherever possible, the date and number of combatants given refers to the first landing in a campaign. The number of combatants in all cases is an estimate. 

One of the largest amphibious assaults in recent history took place on a small peninsula in southern Iraq in 1986. In that operation, Iran sent commandos on speed boats that crossed rivers and marshlands, aided by air and artillery fire, to occupy Iraqi territory — an operation that eventually ended in a stalemate and Iranian withdrawal.

Today, amphibious assaults at the scale of past major conflicts are rare. But because they are an effective offensive strategy, most countries with major militaries maintain amphibious fighting capabilities in the event that war breaks out anywhere near significant bodies of water.

Here are 19 amphibious assaults that changed the course of history

Source: Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1. Marathon, Greece
> Date(s): Sept. 10, 490 B.C.
> Conflict: Greco-Persian Wars
> Landing force: 11,000
> Invaders: Persian Achaemenid Empire
> Defenders: Athens, Plataea

One of the earliest and most decisive amphibious landings involved Persians under King Darius I the Great, who sought to extend his empire across the Aegean Sea to quell the restive Greeks. The Persian navy made their way island by island toward Athens, subduing the city of Eretria before landing at Marathon, about 40 miles northeast of Athens. Despite facing a larger force armed with a superior Persian cavalry, the Athenians won decisively with the support of fellow Greek Plataeans.


Source: Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

2. Pevensey, England
> Date(s): Sept. 28, 1066
> Conflict: Norman Conquest of England
> Landing force: 8,000 (disputed)
> Invaders: Normans and allies
> Defenders: Anglo-Saxon England

William the Conqueror was the Duke of Normandy when he became a contender to ascend to the throne of England following the death of the unmarried and pious Edward the Confessor in January 1066. But Harold Godwinson, a powerful earl, had been named successor by Edward on his deathbed. To challenge Harold, William crossed the English Channel in hundreds of ships filled with soldiers and horses. He handily defeated the defending forces and killed Harold at the Battle of Hastings to become the first Norman king of England.

Source: Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

3. Quebec, Canada
> Date(s): Sept. 13, 1759
> Conflict: French and Indian War
> Landing force: 4,400
> Invaders: Great Britain and British America
> Defenders: France, French Canada

Territorial disputes in North America between Britain and France turned violent in 1754. Native Americans allied with both sides in this conflict. The French and Indian War became part of the global Seven Years War in 1756. In 1759, British troops engaged in a months-long siege that included an amphibious landing across the St. Lawrence River. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a pivotal victory for the British. Later, Britain passed the Quebec Act in 1774, which expanded the province of Quebec and restored some French and Catholic customs.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

4. Sidi Ferruch, Algeria
> Date(s): June 14, 1830
> Conflict: French conquest of Algeria
> Landing force: 27,000
> Invaders: France
> Defenders: Ottoman Algeria

France’s landing at Sidi Ferruch, a precursor to the invasion and occupation of Algiers, was the largest amphibious assault attempted before World War II. The attack involved rafts that were deployed from warships and took soldiers and supplies to the beaches. While amphibious assault craft have become a standard part of modern amphibious warfare, it was a novel idea at the time to deploy small craft from large warships. The French would remain occupiers in Algeria until the North African country’s war of independence in 1962.


Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

5. Veracruz, Mexico
> Date(s): March 9-29, 1847
> Conflict: Mexican-American War
> Landing force: 8,600
> Invaders: United States
> Defenders: Mexico

The amphibious siege of this port city on the Gulf of Mexico was a key event in the U.S. march to Mexico City in the war, which broke out as the U.S. coveted lands held by Mexico, including modern day California and New Mexico. After a 20-day siege, Veracruz surrendered to the U.S., which then used the port to channel supplies and reinforcements to help take the Mexican capital about 250 miles to the east. The loss of Veracruz was a devastating blow to Mexico, leading to the Treaty of Guadalupe on Feb. 2, 1848, that ended the war in favor of the U.S.

Source: north-carolina-state-archives / Flickr

6. Fort Fisher, North Carolina, USA
> Date(s): Jan. 15, 1865
> Conflict: Civil War
> Landing force: 10,000
> Invaders: United States (Union)
> Defenders: Confederate States of America

Union forces maintained naval superiority against the Confederate forces during the entirety of the Civil War. No other battle illustrated the Union’s ability to leverage this power more than the amphibious assault on Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River just three months before the end of the war. The Jan. 15 landing was a success after Union commanders learned from their mistakes in a first failed attempt to take down this last Confederate port a month earlier.


Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

7. Tripoli, Libya
> Date(s): Oct. 10, 1911
> Conflict: Italo-Turkish War
> Landing force: 20,000
> Invaders: Italy, Emirate of Asir
> Defenders: Ottoman Empire

The Italo-Turkish War was started by Italy, which had expansionist aspirations to establish a colony in North Africa by seizing Ottoman control of coastal areas that make up modern day Libya. Italy’s amphibious landing succeeded in quickly taking control of Tripoli in large part because its naval guns had longer ranges than Ottoman coastal defenses. The outbreak of World War I forced Italy to focus its efforts on the European front, but Italy did not conclude its occupation of Libya until the early 1930s.

8. Anzac Cove, Turkey
> Date(s): April 25, 1915
> Conflict: WWI
> Landing force: 16,000
> Invaders: British Empire
> Defenders: Ottoman Empire

Some 16,000 soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, and India landed on the Turkish Gallipoli peninsula in order to help local naval operations and relieve pressure on the Russian forces who were battling the Turks in the Caucuses. The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster despite the achievement of the Australians and New Zealanders in establishing a bridgehead at Anzac Cove.

9. Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, and Muhu, Estonia
> Date(s): Oct. 11, 1917
> Conflict: WWI
> Landing force: 24,500
> Invaders: Germany
> Defenders: Russia, Estonia

Operation Albion was an amphibious assault in the Baltic Sea in a determined effort by Germany to force Russia to seek peace. The Germans aimed to occupy islands in the Gulf of Riga bordering Estonia and Latvia, thus threatening the major Russian port city of Petrograd, known today as Saint Petersburg. The operation was a success, in part because of Russian disorganization just prior to its Bolshevik Revolution that took place two weeks after the end of the successful German amphibious assault.


Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

10. Guadalcanal, British Solomon Islands
> Date(s): Aug. 6-9, 1942
> Conflict: WWII
> Landing force: 6,000
> Invaders: United States and allies
> Defenders: Japan

The amphibious assault on the Solomon Islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida, marked the first major amphibious landing by U.S. forces of World War II. The assault also sparked a series of naval battles to quell the Japanese Imperial Navy’s attempt to reinitiate offensive campaigns against the U.S. after a series of losses earlier that year. Despite initial mistakes by the U.S., including insufficient logistics to move soldiers and supplies inland, the Americans learned how to fight Japan island by island, albeit at great cost to U.S. soldiers’ lives.

Source: Keystone / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

11. French Morocco, French Algeria
> Date(s): Nov. 8-16, 1942
> Conflict: WWII
> Landing force: 65,000
> Invaders: United States and allies
> Defenders: Vichy France, Algeria, Morocco, and allies

Operation Torch was part of the successful drive to drive the Nazis out of North Africa and open the way for the Allied liberation of southern Europe. It was also intended to relieve pressure on the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The amphibious assault commanded by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a pincer maneuver involving Americans landing on Morocco’s Atlantic coast and another force of Americans and British troops landing on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast.


Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

12. Sicily
> Date(s): July 9-Aug. 17, 1943
> Conflict: WWII
> Landing force: 150,000
> Invaders: United States and allies
> Defenders: Italy, Germany

Sicily’s geographic location between North Africa and southern Europe has made the island historically significant dating back to Antiquity. In World War II, Sicily was the natural choice for an Allied landing on their way to subduing the Nazi-aligned Italian fascists. The massive amphibious assault known as Operation Husky commenced in the pre-dawn hours of July 10, 1943, initially involving 150,000 ground troops launched from a flotilla of more than 3,000 ships covered by more than 4,000 aircraft.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

13. Anzio and Nettuno, Italy
> Date(s): Jan. 22, 1944
> Conflict: WWII
> Landing force: 36,000
> Invaders: United States and allies
> Defenders: Italy, Germany

Operation Shingle took place between two major operations – six months after the Allied landing in Sicily, the staging ground for fighting against Axis forces in Italy, and four months before Operation Overlord, or D-Day, in Normandy, France. The amphibious landing of U.S. and British troops took place in these two coastal cities about 40 miles from Rome. After months of clinging to a narrow stretch of beach, Allied forces were able to break out and liberate the Italian capital on June 4, 1944.

Source: Keystone / Getty Images

14. Normandy, France
> Date(s): June 6, 1944
> Conflict: WWII
> Landing force: 156,000
> Invaders: United States and allies
> Defenders: Germany

Operation Overlord, as it is officially known, was history’s bloodiest amphibious assault. About 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed in the first 24 hours of the Normandy landings, many of them by entrenched Nazi artillery and machine gunners before they reached dry ground.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, one of the explanations for the name “D-Day” is that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower decided that any amphibious landing would be termed “departed date,” or D-Day. But the scope and significance of Operation Overlord led to the term becoming popularly applied specifically to this massive amphibious assault.


Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

15. Provence, France
> Date(s): Aug. 15-Sept. 14, 1944
> Conflict: WWII
> Landing force: 151,000
> Invaders: United States and allies
> Defenders: Germany

Operation Dragoon is also referred to as France’s “Second D-Day,” an amphibious landing by Allied forces along a 45-mile stretch of the French Riviera that is often overshadowed by the landing in Normandy that took place just weeks earlier. Both operations involved about the same number of Allied troops, but unlike the thousands who died in Normandy, American forces incurred only 395 casualties before quickly securing a beachhead. Within 48 hours, the Americans had penetrated 20 miles inland with the help of the First French Army.

Source: FPG / Archive Photos via Getty Images

16. Iwo Jima, Japan
> Date(s): Feb. 19, 1945
> Conflict: WWII
> Landing force: 110,000
> Invaders: United States
> Defenders: Japan

By 1945, the momentum of the U.S. involvement in World War II had shifted to the Pacific, marked by two massive operations during America’s maritime march to Japan: Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Both were hard-won, massive amphibious assaults against deeply entrenched and hardened Japanese troops as well as kamikaze aircraft that targeted U.S. Navy ships that provided support.

Over 36 days of horrendous combat at Iwo Jima, Marine and Navy personnel sustained more than 24,000 casualties, the highest losses in any single action in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps.


Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

17. Okinawa, Japan
> Date(s): April 1, 1945
> Conflict: WWII
> Landing force: 60,000
> Invaders: United States and allies
> Defenders: Japan

Operation Iceberg, as it is known, was the last major amphibious assault of World War II, taking place less than three months before the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that expedited the Japanese surrender. After a pre-invasion bombardment by U.S. Navy warships, tens of thousands of U.S. Army and Marine Corps soldiers landed under intense fire at Okinawa and other nearby islands. Some 12,500 U.S. troops were killed and about 36,500 were wounded securing Okinawa in fighting that raged for nearly three months.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

18. Incheon, South Korea
> Date(s): Sept. 15-19, 1950
> Conflict: Korean War
> Landing force: 70,000
> Invaders: South Korea, United Nations, United States and allies
> Defenders: North Korea

Operation Chromite was the most significant amphibious assault of the Korean War. It took place at Incheon, a port city 110 miles behind enemy lines in what is today a South Korean city bordering the capital city of Seoul to the west. At the time, Seoul was occupied by North Korean troops. U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s plan was to use Incheon as a staging ground for liberating Seoul.

Aided by carrier-based warplanes, destroyers, and cruisers, American-led U.N. forces took the port in a decisive victory that would mark the start of the allied offensive into North Korea. The war ended with an armistice in July 1953, but ongoing tensions between the two Koreas remains to this day.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

19. Al-Faw Peninsula, Iraq
> Date(s): Feb. 9-25, 1986
> Conflict: Iran-Iraq War
> Landing force: 150,000
> Invaders: Iran
> Defenders: Iraq

Iran and Iraq had already been fighting for more than five years when Iran deployed Revolutionary Guard commandos trained in amphibious warfare to take Al-Faw Peninsula, Iraq’s only direct access to the Persian Gulf. The occupation of the peninsula would also threaten the city of Basra. Iranian soldiers used speedboats to cross marshland and rivers to occupy Iraqi land for the first time in the war. What ensued was brutal fighting that included Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. In April, Iraq took back the peninsula, but the war would rage on for another 28 months before ending in a stalemate.

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