Thinking Beyond the Beachhead

by LtCol Michael D. Wyly

In “Maneuver Warfare in the MAGTF” (MCG Sep82), Maj J.D. Burke stated “The MAGTF will be committed as a limited defensive response to the threat and since the MAGTF builds its combat power from zero, it is logical to look to the tactical defense as a probable solution.” In Maj Burke’s stated opinion, the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) is not capable of extensive maneuver and must depend almost exclusively on firepower to accomplish its mission. By going ashore, establishing a secure force beachhead, and drawing the enemy to our defenses, he believes that we can entice our enemies to commit their forces against us, falling victim to defeat by attrition. Because such views seem to be shared by many officers in the Marine Corps, I feel obliged to make a response.

Fixed installations, including beachheads, always encompass vulnerabilities. Fixed installations to some degree will probably always be with us, especially beachheads, but they must never be thought of as our reason for being. Our reason for being is, as always, defeating the enemy.

The idea of seizing a beachhead, establishing a good defense, and methodically building up one’s forces is not new. A relatively recent historical example of such an endeavor can be found in the U.S. Army’s operation at Anzio which began in January 1944 with an amphibious assault, which in the words of Trevor Dupuy, “began a siege for [four] months with all the elements of World War I trench warfare.” Martin Blumenson, in his book Anzio: The Gamble That Failed, tells the story so vividly that it would be a shame to paraphrase or change his words:

On the second day of the invasion, January 23, the Anzio force slightly increased the size of the beachhead. The only real progress was at the shoreline where more troops came ashore, more equipment and supplies were unloaded.

Kesselring could sigh in relief that evening. He could tell Vietinghoff, the 10th Army Commander, he believed, ‘the danger of a large scale expansion of the beachhead was no longer imminent.’

Lucas [the American Commander] was not about to stick his neck out. Having gained surprise in his landing, he proceeded to disregard the advantage it gave him. Two days after coming ashore, he was still only contemplating a push out from the beachhead. He knew what he ought to do. ‘I must keep in motion,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘if my first success is to be of any value.’ But his outward pressure was by no means an all-out drive towards the Alban Hills.

What interested Lucas more was building up his beachhead. He had captured the Anzio Harbor intact. He had put it into operation immediately to handle incoming troops and supplies and this was, he felt, quite an achievement. The port was his ‘salvation,’ he said, for it kept him tied to the 5th Army and its supplies of men, weapons, and equipment. To keep his supply line intact, Lucas gave his personal attention to setting up an anti-aircraft warning system, to building an airfield, to clearing the clutter of supplies and equipment that jammed the beachhead behind the first row of dunes.

It is interesting to note what a high ranking German general had to say at the same time about the same event:

On January 22 and even the following day, an audacious and enterprising formation of enemy troops could have penetrated into the city of Rome itself, without having to overcome any serious opposition. But, the landed enemy forces lost time and hesitated.

The title, itself, of Martin Blumenson’s book says something about the operation. It failed. The purpose of the landing was to break the stalemate in Italy and enable the Allies to get to Rome. What happened, instead, was four months of being besieged in the beachhead, a stalemate mindful of World War I. The body count was 23,860 American and 9,203 British casualties. The gain was virtually nothing. There was no defeat of the German Army. The Allies could boast (and they did) that they discharged 500,000 tons of supplies at Anzio during 4 months, a daily average of about 4,000 tons. Impressive!

On one account, I will take issue with The Gamble that Failed portion of Blumenson’s title. There was no gamble at Anzio. A great general once observed, “in a gamble, the commander stands to lose everything, in a risk, he stands to lose only part. The commander of a small force confronting a larger one must, at times, be willing to gamble.” Anzio represents not only failure to gamble but also reluctance in risk-taking.

However, there were no supply shortages! Logistical planning had been meticulous. But what about the mission? The mission was to enable the Allied forces to get to Rome, fast, in order to entrap the enemy and defeat him. Inasmuch as they failed to do that, the impressive statistic of 500,000 tons of supplies landed becomes irrelevant.

When an Allied force finally did reach Rome, more than four months after the Anzio landing, it was Gen Mark dark’s 5th Army, which had been ashore since landing at Salerno the previous September. No historian seems to think that Lucas’ landing at Anzio sped progress towards Rome in any way whatsoever. But even Rome, as an end-all objective, was inadequate and reflected orientation on terrain and not on the enemy. The worst of it ail was that the German Army withdrew in good order to fight another day.

I hope that every Marine who is proposing a defensive, limited role for our Corps as an amphibious force studies and reflects at length on what happened at Anzio. It is difficult for me to see how the results of such an approach could be much more successful tomorrow than they were at Anzio.

Let us discuss now something of the Marine Corps’ tradition in amphibious warfare. Although I have long argued that we can improve upon our traditions, and I shall return to that subject in this article, I will also argue that we began strides ahead of the Army. The Marine Corps’ record in the Pacific is one of getting ashore and moving in as deep as we could as fast as we could. This was particularly clear at Saipan. Of relevance is the case of Smith vs Smith, where Gen Holland Smith, USMC, had to relieve Gen Ralph Smith, USA, who commanded the Army’s 27th Infantry Division. The reason: The Army was taking the Anzio approach. The Marine goal was quite the opposite. It was to go ahead, bypass the enemy whenever possible, get in deep; to land fast and to keep going; to continue the fast movement ashore. The Marine Gen Smith became frustrated, unable to get the Army Gen Smith to move. This resulted in the controversial relief.

It is difficult to make a direct comparison between Iwo Jima and Anzio because the one was seizure of a very small island and the other a beachhead on a very large land mass. But, there is a paragraph in Isely and Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War, that is relevant to my argument against a static, defensive approach to amphibious assaults, against the notion that Marines should go ashore, establish a strong point, and wait for the enemy to foolishly throw away his forces in a battle of attrition. The Japanese were not known for their conservation of human life. However, as the below anecdote will show, they were not so willing to waste it, either. Isely and Crowl tell how the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions were prepared for and expecting a counterattack after they landed at Iwo Jima. This did not slow their movement; however, they did make certain that they had a proper welcome prepared for the Japanese in case they came. I quote Isely and Crowl:

But, unfortunately, for the Marines, large scale counterattacks formed no part of Japanese tactics.

The enemy’s commanding general was too smart to bring great numbers of his men at any time out into the open under the muzzles of American guns and to waste them in senseless attacks. Kuribayashi’s garrison would have to be dug out or sealed up position by position and perhaps the principal explanation for the activities of such a defense was its simplicity. Rather than fanatical charges, his tactics were characterized by nightly infiltrations in small, well-organized counterattacks to attempt to recover key terrain features. Normally, there were no withdrawals but from time to time, especially in the early phases of the fighting, the Japanese abandoned spots hopelessly doomed, cremated or carried to the rear their dead, and retreated with their weapons. This exasperated the Marines, who after a bitter struggle and heavy losses, overran a zone to find they had taken nothing more than a strip of ground strewn with empty shell cases. Kuribayashi expected the process to wear the Marines away psychologically as well as physically by slow attrition. That failing, he would still accomplish the utmost for his country. He would, if possible, make the Marines pay their last penny in terms of time, lives, and equipment before seizing Iwo Jima.

At Iwo Jima, unlike Anzio, both sides were wise enough to resist traps laid to use up their forces. Okinawa, the final amphibious assault in the Pacific, showed fast movement inland without hesitation at the beaches. The U.S. Army, by the time of this landing, had learned the same thing the Marines had learned. There was never any better cooperation between the two Services. Marine and Army battalions at Okinawa, according to Isely and Crowl, were, literally, interchangeable.

The main lesson at Normandy, I think, is relevant to the point that I am trying to make. Planners went into the operation focusing on getting on the beach, a task that they anticipated would be the major problem. As it turned out, the problem was getting off the beach! Once they had gotten on, which they did in most cases, without difficulty, the move inland turned out to be the real problem. Historically, that is the problem with the amphibious force. Getting off the beach. We see it at Gallipoli, Tarawa, and again at Anzio. The threat that consistently confronts the amphibious force is that of the beachhead becoming a besieged fortress.

If we think that our amphibious task is establishing a beachhead that some U.S. Army unit subsequently can roll across, I believe we are mistaken. We have never been employed this way, and shipping constraints seem certain to prohibit such a method in the future. Besides, when we talk about fluidity in warfare we find that we have anything but that, if one Service is to seize the beachhead while the other is then to have the mission of attacking the enemy. Seizing the beachhead and attacking the enemy are too closely intertwined. To separate the two missions is to build friction into our operation.

The landing at Inchon provides a splendid example of the inland objective’s predominance over the beach. The Marines at Inchon went ashore at an enemy weak spot. They did not become preoccupied with defending Inchon. The Inchon landing was not about Inchon; it was about Seoul. The mission was to cut North Korean communications. It worked and the North Korean forces crumbled.

Consider what the results on the Falkland Islands might have been had the British landed at San Carlos and simply defended there, waiting for the Argentines to come to them. The Argentines might indeed have come and thrown away thousands of lives much to the delight of the British. Probably, they would have used better judgment. It seems more likely to me that such a course of action would have resulted in a stalemate. Negotiations might have ensued; but, whatever happened, the result would not have been the swift, decisive victory at minimal cost in lives that the British so admirably achieved.

Let us now come back to the subject of the MAGTF. It would be an unforgiveable crime to write it off as a force that is short on maneuver. The MAGTF can stand much streamlining and improvement, but all such efforts should work towards improving its maneuverability. The aviation portion of the MAGTF makes it unique. The MAGTF is a combined arms team in every sense of the term. It should be and can be the most maneuverable force in the world. It places all arms under one commander. This is a proven concept. It is a concept incorporated by Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the German blitzkrieg; the concept used to great advantage by Americans under George S. Patton. How can we possibly ignore Patton’s unique combination of the 3d Army and the XIX Tactical Air Command? In placing the air as well as the ground under his own command, Patton’s army moved faster than any other American force in history. Is it possible not to draw any conclusions from this? In the spectacular race across France in 1944 to split and outflank the German forces, attack aircraft were used in close combination with the ground forces. Ranging ahead and to the flanks of the advancing U.S. Army, the aircraft fixed the German reserves and maneuver elements while they were moving to react to the actions of U.S. ground forces. When the Germans were forced to move they were uncovered and were then most vulnerable to attack from the air. Yet, the Germans had no choice but to attempt to move their units to respond to the American ground force. This simple combination of the effects of the air and ground arms allowed Patton to maneuver his forces to bypass and outflank German units unable to move quickly under the threat of aerial attack and the previous loss of transport to airplanes. Much of this brilliant use of air under the same commander who directs the ground forces brings me back to the subject of Anzio. Here we see aviation used too little or to no effect. It was used separately from the ground force. We see aviation divorced from the problem of ground maneuver. The result was failure. I am speaking of Operation STRANGLE from 15 March to 11 May 1944. Its purpose was to cut off supplies to German troops south of Rome. In this way, it was related to Gen Lucas’ 6th Amphibious Corps which was supposed to push inland to Rome but failed to do so. But unintegrated, the two efforts neither reinforced each other nor accomplished their mission.

The MAGTF is easily well ahead of other military forces in maneuverability by having its air and ground forces under the same commander. Not only does it gain great advantage from its attack air. Of equal importance is its helicopter mobility. Under one commander, infantry moves by helicopter and the force fights in the air and on the ground, all orchestrated in the overall operation. We gain speed and fluidity from this ability. Where Patton endeavored to move his entire force at the speed of his fastest vehicle, the tank, we should be endeavoring to move our entire force at the speed of the troop-carrying helicopter. The Marines’ unique Harrier capability provides a mobile punch, at last, freed from the giant static bases that all aircraft required in the past.

The Harrier, too, then is a part of our rapid maneuver all-arms task force, the MAGTF. It is mobile. It can keep up. The advantages given us by all arms under one commander do not stop at air and ground. We have assault amphibious vehicles (AAV). These give us the ability to rapidly transfer troops from ships to shore, back to ships again, and then back shore. We have the inherent capability, therefore, to maneuver as did Patton in his move up the Sicilian coast to Messina in World War II. And as did Gorshkov along the Black Sea coast when he repeatedly landed Soviet amphibious forces against the Germans. We can do what Patton and Gorshkov did, but we can do it better and faster. Having tanks and artillery under the same commander as the air and infantry is unique and adds to our ability to maneuver. But most important of all, perhaps more than ever, is the old catch-phrase, “every Marine a rifleman.” We remain a light force. As such, we can go anywhere.

The Falkland Islands operation of the British was extremely impressive. They used a great deal of modern equipment. They moved by helicopter and light armored vehicle. Yet, a British officer explained to me that the primary means of movement for maneuver was by foot. Foot infantry is not obsolete. To the contrary, it is more important than ever. It is one of the most threatening weapons to high technology. In high mountains, in woods, in jungles, in forests, it is the most mobile arm. To write the Marine Corps off as not maneuverable in this modern day and age is to fail to appreciate what we can do, what we train for, and what our enemy has most to fear.

Perhaps we should be grateful to those who favor a defensive approach to amphibious warfare. They have signaled something very important to us; namely, that the MAGTF may not be able to maneuver as well as it must in order to defeat the enemy. This is something that should gain the attention of every Marine. It is something we need to deal with. But the answer is not to write off maneuvering from our repertoire of tactics.

The United States is a great power. We are not used to this status yet, especially the Marine Corps, with its traditions coming from the banana wars when our country was small and had limited influence. Now we are one of the two great powers in the world. We are in the big leagues. But to play in the big leagues, we must think big league. We must be prepared to deal with the strongest forces in the world; not just weak, backward countries. It is time for us to become militarily sophisticated. And nothing is less sophisticated than trying to rely on our nuclear punch alone, as our country so often is prone to do. The problem at hand for Marines is to determine what must be done to make the MAGTF more maneuverable than it already is. This is the synthesis that should come from the discussions in the Sep82 and Dec82 issues of the MCG.

What the MAGTF needs to enhance its maneuverability must be the subject of a separate article. I will make a few suggestions here, solely for the purpose of demonstrating that there are some concrete things that can be done easily and quickly. The MAGTF should be made more mobile. For the infantryman, mobility is often best achieved through lightening the soldier’s load. We can look at even the seeming minutia, The M16 is light. That is good. It is being improved. These improvements should be made without adding weight to it. The most modern technology, especially in metallurgy, should be employed to keep all the infantryman’s equipment light, including the helmet and body armor. Mortars and antitank weapons should be made as light as possible, in order to keep the infantryman mobile.

If we are serious about being a combined airground team, ground and air elements must train together much more than they now do. In my opinion, we need to reorganize so that our air and ground forces really are integrated. They are not. We only say that they are. Helicopter “assault support” units should work for ground commanders, directly, not peripherally. Presently, aviation provides support on its own terms, and, alas, it is not known for its reliability. If greater air and ground organizational integration is too radical to achieve then we must, at least, do something radical about the way the two branches train together.

The Quantico schools could make substantial improvements that would pay dividends in maneuverability of the MAGTF. They should design their curriculums to turn out ground officers in whom aviators could have confidence in their ability to employ air. Aviation officer graduates, if they are to command MAGTFs or serve on MAGTF staffs, should be able to employ ground units and gain the confidence of ground officers. The single purpose of the Quantico schools should be to prepare potential commanders and staff officers for service at the MAGTF level. This would demand that the schools focus on combined arms, combined arms, and combined arms! Never on checklists, formats, oversimplified management techniques for petty bureaucrats, condensed military law, or the many other scraps of administrative trivia that are still embedded in the curriculums for students to wade through despite all efforts to eradicate them. Schools should be exercises in decisionmaking, learning how to think to use combined arms in combat. Nothing should detract from that. We do not prepare Marine officers for this role. It is always the luck of the draw whether a MAGTF commander will have the ability in employing any of the combat arms other than his own.

Whatever we do, we must keep at the forefront, the realization that our mission takes us beyond the beach. Somehow, perhaps as a result of our concern with our Corps’ survival in a day when the question arises, “Do we need a Marine Corps?” we have cast all our lot with the amphibious technique. Yet, history shows that Army units have gotten ashore successfully, that it does not always take Marines to get from ship to shore. But what we do have that is unique is our ability to land from the sea and move inland, immediately, with our own allarms team. We can do far more than get on the beach. We can get off it and go beyond it. We are an intervention force that can do what was not done at Anzio; we can keep the battle flowing and destroy the enemy. That is the essence of our being-our raison d’etre.