Amphibious operations just after Gallipoli were possible. This was exactly what Spanish leaders thought in 1925 when, only years after Gallipoli’s failure, Spanish armed forces planned and executed the first successful large-scale amphibious operation in the world in Alhucemas. Neither the British nor the Americans were the first in developing this type of warfare in the 20th century. Military historians worldwide must acknowledge the contributions of the Spanish to amphibious operations. While the whole international amphibious community searched for answers after the Dardanelles disaster, Spaniards, looking forward, successfully conducted this new type of warfare from the sea.
In 1915 Gallipoli’s disaster forced new critical thinking about amphibious doctrine on the whole world. The Dardanelles Commission, established 2 years later to investigate the expedition’s failure, produced its conclusions. The report was considered insipid with no major political or military figures heavily censured.1
Spanish forces chose 8 September 1925, as D-day for the Alhucemas operation. Spanish planners utilized the mistakes in Gallipoli in order not to repeat them in Alhucemas. This joint amphibious operation was unique at that time because of its careful preparation, successful execution, and high significance in both politics and strategy. In the early 1900s, Spain was in trouble with its colonies in Morocco. It seemed to be the beginning of the end of the Spanish Empire of bloody Spain in northern Africa.2 Alhucemas helped achieve an operational pause in the campaign and collocated Spanish troops inside the core of the insurgency.
On the other hand, the United States at that time was searching for suitable answers about the future of this new type of warfare. The Marine Corps, in particular, could have taken into account this Spanish operation to support the development of its doctrine. Later, during World War II, amphibious operations, such as Guadalcanal and Normandy, occurred, examples of how operations can gain initiative and surprise, both of which are vital principles of modern warfare. U.S. military leadership thought that these operations were the first large-scale amphibious operations after Gallipoli without knowing that the Spanish Government had executed one 15 years before.
Marine Corps Amphibious Operations Doctrine After Gallipoli
The United States Marine Corps had tried to develop a new concept for expeditionary operations since the early 1900s in order to dominate, seize, and secure forward naval bases overseas. This objective was emphasized during the war against Japan in the Pacific. The Marine Corps did not have any relevant doctrine about amphibious operations, so it looked for answers in the case of Gallipoli.3 Having learned of this failure, classes at the Marine Corps Schools were formed into committees to study this example of landing operations. Committees finally prepared a doctrinal manual.
The manual, completed in 1934, took into account historical precedents because of the authors’ lack of experience about large-scale landing operations. In fact, the United States had experience in operations in Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua but had no knowledge of large-scale operations ashore. The authors focused their attention on mistakes at Gallipoli, such as fatigue and stress of the troops prior to landing. They realized, while developing the manual, the necessity of having naval gunfire, mobile artillery support from the very beginning, redundancy in communications systems, and a robust reconnaissance, particularly by air. They also identified the supply and transportation problems associated with a beach assault. However, the authors did not realize that Spanish armed forces had already put these lessons to the test, years before, in a real landing operation.
The Marine Corps doctrinal manual was the precursor of amphibious operations doctrine as it is known today. The Marine Corps changed and reorganized the structure of its forces. They dissolved the old expeditionary force into the Fleet Marine Force (FMF).5 The FMF was organized to be a quickly mobilized force for tactical employment of the Navy fleet. The creation of this force was the major step in the Marine Corps’ commitment to its new mission.
Intelligence preparation of the battlespace. Alhucemas Bay comprises the northern coast of Morocco and continues approximately 40 kilometers ashore. This terrain is mountainous and rough but with low land running east-west from the coast. Streams flow in all directions and impede movement to high ground. The temperatures in the area change rapidly from 1 degree to 50 degrees Celsius.
Friendly and enemy forces. Gen Primo de Rivera was in charge of the operation on the Spanish side, having under his command air, navy, and a landing force with a total of 19,000 troops, 54 ships, and 14 aircraft.6 Spanish forces were divided into two different brigades for the final disembarking. These brigades were composed of assault units in order to have forward support and reserve elements.
In contrast, the enemy leader7 task-organized the tribes as a conventional force, and in 1922 formed his own armed forces, made up of roughly 80,000 soldiers. They had a formidable arsenal of artillery assets, most of it stolen from the Spaniards and French, but their critical shortfall was naval and air combat power.8
Planning. The end state for Spanish forces was to occupy an operating base in Alhucemas able to hold a force of 20,000 troops. Armed force services exchanged liaison officers between staffs of the air, navy, and land operations branches in order to better coordinate plans. After an aerial reconnaissance, planners chose to achieve the surprise and disembark on three different beaches9 in order to establish a beachhead. After they secured the area, they would continue until seizing Axdir.10 “K”11 boats were utilized for the disembarkation.
Embarkation. On 2 September 1925, logisticians began to load all of the material on the ships. The Spanish utilized both military and civilian ships and executed this embarkation taking into account some of the principles that are known today about modern amphibious operations, such as flexibility and dispersion.12 Three days after the material departed, troops embarked in a similar way that cargo had days before. Two task forces embarked aboard different ships to avoid concentration of forces and combat power.
Rehearsal. Units had been training during the whole summer in order to be prepared effectively. Once the operation began, they developed disembarkation rehearsals along the Moroccan coast in order to divert the enemy and as a rehearsal for the real disembarkation in Alhucemas.
Movement to objective. The general and all of his staff embarked aboard the ship Alfonso VIII and continued the planning during the movement to the area of operations. It is important to remark that Spain had spies in the field to provide information about the disposition and movement of troops. The Spanish staff used reconnaissance balloons to collect information from the air. These intelligence assets were extremely useful throughout the operation.
Assault. Finally, on 8 September 1925, Spanish ships began programmed fires against enemy positions ashore, focusing on the enemy batteries on the coast. Later, waves of K boats beached, and assault units conquered the area and established the beachhead to assure further operations. One problem appeared while disembarking. The enemy had mined the beach. Engineers, added to the first waves, cleaned the beach so troops were then able to land. At night, 8,000 soldiers and 10,000 tons of material were beached and ready for follow-on operations.
As a result of these actions, the enemy commander, Abd-el-Krim, was unable to stop the advance, and he tried to divide the Spanish efforts. He attacked another Spanish fort13 far away from the area of operations. A reserve of 2,000 people, aboard ships disembarked in Tetuan, prevented the enemy from capturing the fort. Finally, the Spanish reserve achieved full control of the area again.
On 12 October 1925, the Spanish task force finished the operations in Axdir, where they conquered 20 square kilometers in 24 days. They made the enemy withdraw and accomplished the mission with a minor number of casualties.
Warfighting Functions Analysis
Command and control. Preparation and planning were carefully studied. Every mistake made in Gallipoli was taken into account. The quality of the disembarkation was unique in the modern war. Spanish forces were under command of only one leader,14 and every branch (navy, army, and air) had their single chain of command.
One of the most important goals in amphibious doctrine was that the naval organization was planned and run concurrently with the ground forces. As a result, the Spaniards unified, and made interoperable, all communications systems and assured a secure link between all of the units involved. A communications branch created a transmissions system with physical signals15 to indicate the most relevant events during the operation, such as ship-to-shore movement, disembarkation, and assault. Those signals helped commanders better control the operation.
Maneuver. Spaniards faced a very difficult terrain in Alhucemas. The geography was rough and not all of the beaches were suitable for disembarking. Abd-El-Krim knew this constraint very well and tried to set up his defense to take advantage of it. Spanish staff planned different schemes of maneuver so they would be able to change the course of action rapidly if required. They maneuvered using the sea as an avenue of approach and attacked where the rebels were most vulnerable, a good example of maneuver versus attrition warfare. Gen Primo de Rivera had assembled part of the force on the ships as an on-call reserve, a decision vital to defeating the enemy in Tetuan because the reserve was employed without losing momentum in Alhucemas.
Logistics. Cartography was unified and studied before disembarkation. Logistics organization was one important innovation. Material was embarked tactically and distributed in reverse order of disembarking. Combat loading was classified and separated in classes and in different ships to assure dispersion, too. Spaniards utilized the same K boats as the allies did in Gallipoli with excellent results. Logisticians needed specific transportation other than the K boats to develop supply tasks because K boats transported combat forces ashore exclusively.
Fire support. Only one fire support plan was established for all fire assets. The batteries located on Alhucemas Island16 were utilized, especially when the first waves arrived at the beach because these forward assault units did not have any other support. Nevertheless, this careful plan did not prevent some friendly deaths caused by naval fire. Fire support planners failed to plan fires in general support17 and counterbattery preparation against the enemy in the vicinities of the beach.
Mobility, countermobility, and surveillance. Task-organization of every echelon was another innovation. Every independent unit had engineers to help them breach possible mine fields, and manmade obstacles were built to secure the established beachhead. This organization enabled the landing to continue no matter that minefields were installed on the beach.
Intelligence. The operation was so successfully prepared that the enemy did not know where the landing was going to take place. Spanish staff sent reconnaissance elements to collect information about the position and disposition of enemy forces. These operations were developed thorough aerial reconnaissance.18
On the other hand, Spaniards made mistakes. Lack of reconnaissance on the beaches caused a hasty mine cleaning during the assault phase, and the need of a more careful study of the hydrology resulted in a delay on the ship-to-shore movement. These two factors could have caused the operation to fail.
Gallipoli’s disaster was still on the minds of the international military community in the 1920s. Although amphibious doctrine worldwide had its shortfalls, in 1925 Spanish military leaders planned a landing operation as the only solution to destroy the insurgency core in the Spanish colonies located in Morocco. Alhucemas was the first air-naval landing operation in history. Spanish forces learned from the mistakes made at Gallipoli. They effectively coordinated both air and ground support in only one agency, used tanks and landing boats, and organized tactically the loading of goods and personnel.
The Marine Corps, simultaneously with the rest of the amphibious community, was trying to find a new doctrine for the future in amphibious operations. U.S. policy had tasked the Marine Corps with the new mission of seizing naval bases overseas in the Pacific, resulting in the first manual to support that being published in 1933. They also studied Gallipoli without acknowledging that they could have found all of the solutions to their questions in a real landing operation from just 6 years prior in Alhucemas.
History, as a compilation of memories, is sometimes inaccurate. The entire world believes that U.S. amphibious operations during World War II were the first after the pause forced by Gallipoli. That assumption is wrong because Spanish units developed a successful joint landing operation in 1925. After Gallipoli, amphibious operations were written in Spanish.
1. Townsend, CDR L.W., USN, “The Dardanelles Campaign,” lecture delivered at the Marine Corps Schools, 9 March 1922.
2. Ramos, Eduardo Gallego, La Campaña del Rif de 1909, S.L. Editorial Algazara, Spain, 2005, p. 86.
3. Marine Corps Schools, “Conference Notes From Landing Force Manual Committee Meeting of January 1934,” Quantico, 1934, p. 65.
4. First manual for landing operations in the U.S. Marine Corps, from the reports of Committees I, II, III, IV, and V, “Gallipoli studies of 1933,” Quantico, 1933.
5. Formally established in 1933. See Col Kenneth J. Clifford, USMCR(Ret), Amphibious Warfare Development in Britain and America From 1920–1940, Edgewood, Inc., New York, 1983, p. 224.
6. Alfaro, Placido Rubio, and Miguel Lacalle Alfaro, “Desembarco de Alhucemas” Soldiers Magazine, Spain, 2001, p. 23.
7. The leader of the “rifeños” was Abd-el-Krim. At that time Morocco did not exist as a country so Spain was due to fight against the tribes within the area. See Mohamed Bouarfa, Marruecos y España. El eterno problema, S.L. Editorial Algazara, Spain, 2002, p. 323.
8. They had only three small boats and four planes downed by the Spaniards in the beginning of the battle. See Plácido Rubio Alfaro y Miguel Lacalle Alfaro, Alhucemas. Desembarco, asentamiento y evolución, Spain, 1993, p. 256.
9. Cebadilla, Ixdain y Punta de los Frailes beaches. They were far away from the strong defense of the enemy in the coast. See Alfaro, pp. 245–247.
10. The enemy leader’s headquarters was located there. See Alfaro, p. 134.
11. These disembarking boats were utilized by the English in Gallipoli. One of the waves was led by Franco who years later became a famous dictator in Spain. See Alfaro, p. 201.
12. Materials of similar class were embarked in different ships and in such a way to be easily handled during the combat. See Alfaro, p. 224.
13. Located in Tetuan, about 200 miles from Alhucemas.
14. Gen Primo de Rivera.
15. Air and naval ships knew about these signals.
16. The Spanish Army had installed artillery batteries on this island to support the operations. See Mohammed Kaddur, “La alianza franco-española contra el movimiento rifeño,” Spain, 1996, p. 123.
17. They were in direct support of the brigades. See Kaddur, p. 145.
18. Inflatable balloons. See Alfaro, p. 223.