The best books on storming enemy beaches during amphibious assaults

Who am I?

Listening to my father’s stories about flying for the U.S. 15th Air Force in the Second World War kindled my love for military history at a young age. He brought to life the individual experiences and strategic context of bombing targets like Ploesti and Brenner Pass. Later, I pursued my doctorate in history and focused on U.S. Marine Corps history. More recently, my interests shifted to writing about broader topics like American military history, grand strategy, and race and gender in warfare. Even so, my father left me with an enduring desire to understand human interests and emotions, whether among common soldiers or senior generals. This desire affected my work as a teacher and author.

I wrote...

Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943

By David J. Ulbrich,

Book cover of Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943

What is my book about?

My award-winning Preparing for Victory tells the story of General Thomas Holcomb as he directed the growth of the U.S. Marine Corps from 18,000 men in 1936 to nearly 400,000 in 1943. As commandant during these years, Holcomb guided the Marines as they prepared for amphibious operations during the Pacific War. As a quiet, diminutive man, he did not cut the dashing figure of a ideal “leatherneck,” nor did he earn nicknames like “Howlin’ Mad,” “Red Mike,” or “Chesty.” Nevertheless, Thomas Holcomb possessed the strategic mind and calm composure that matched the leadership traits of Dwight Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz, and George Marshall. More than any other Marine, Holcomb helped turn the Marine Corps into an amphibious assault force that made critical contributions to American victory in the Second World War. 

The books I picked & why

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The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day

By Cornelius Ryan,

Book cover of The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day

Why this book?

First published in 1959, some 15 years after the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, Cornelius Ryan’s book stands as a classic narrative of that amphibious assault. Writing in the vivid prose of an experienced journalist, Ryan also conducted research like a seasoned historian. He interviewed combatants of every nation and rank and sent questionnaires to many others. I feel like I am in the thick of the fight alongside Allied soldiers in the landing craft approaching the beach and with Germans hunkered down in the fortifications trying to stop their amphibious assault. Throughout his narrative, Ryan blends analyses of the good and bad decisions made by both sides.   

Gallipoli: The End of the Myth

By Robin Prior,

Book cover of Gallipoli: The End of the Myth

Why this book?

Gallipoli occupies an infamous place in the history of amphibious operations. The British and Allies hoped in 1915 to wrest control of the Gallipoli peninsula from Turkish forces, then aligned with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. This attack in turn would open the way for the defeat of Turkey, link up with friendly Russian forces, and ultimately defeat the Central Powers. However, as Robin Pryor explains, the British amphibious assault suffered from poor planning, incompetent leadership, ineffective logistics, and inadequate weapons and vehicles. The Turks enjoyed the advantages of high ground and good leadership. Following the assault in April 1915, ground operations cost 130,000 British and Allied casualties and ended in their evacuation and failure in January 1916. Pryor’s book paints Gallipoli as a cautionary tale of how not to conduct amphibious operations.  

At the Water's Edge

By Theodore L. Gatchel,

Book cover of At the Water's Edge

Why this book?

In the late 1990s, I stumbled on this unique book written by Theodore Gatchel, a retired Marine colonel.  He turns amphibious warfare inside out. He analyzes defenders’ efforts to oppose amphibious assaults beginning with Gallipoli in 1915 and taking the story up to the Falklands War in 1982. Three optional tactics emerge for stopping an enemy assault: a naval defense that destroys enemy ships before an assault starts, a defense at the water’s edge that drives the assault forces back into the sea, or a mobile reserve that launches counterattacks in force once enemy forces landed. Each tactic had advantages and disadvantages as shown in chapter-length case studies with analysis of lessons learned. I believe that this book provides an excellent historical backdrop for the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) concept being discussed by Marines today in the twenty-first century.

Amphibious Warfare 1000-1700: Commerce, State Formation and European Expansion

By David J.B. Trim (editor), Mark C. Fissel (editor),

Book cover of Amphibious Warfare 1000-1700: Commerce, State Formation and European Expansion

Why this book?

Although most studies of amphibious operations focus on twentieth-century examples, the chapters in this anthology study ship-to-shore assaults throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern era. I think the introductory chapter is a tour de force in explaining how amphibious warfare plays out in tactics, operations, and strategy. The principles remain timeless regardless of terrain or technology. Subsequent chapters represent stand-alone studies of reasons for successes or failures in amphibious battles in the Baltic, Mediterranean, Ireland, and Europe, whether on seashores or along riverbanks. The sum of all the chapters is greater than their individual pieces. I grasped that amphibious warfare sometimes expanded beyond military objectives to include establishing footholds for commercial trade, state development, and imperial expansion. 

Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island

By Gregory J.W. Urwin,

Book cover of Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island

Why this book?

Although the Japanese eventually captured Wake Island in western Pacific Ocean, the U.S. Marines’ 15-day defense in December 1941 helped give the American people some hope after the devastated losses at Pearl Harbor. The 449 Marines and 1,104 civilian contractors endured daily air raids and defended against two amphibious assaults—the first unsuccessful and the second successfulby the Japanese. Urwin draws on exhaustive research in archives and interviews with veterans to tell the day-by-day story of Wake. He provides analysis about how the fighting played out. Readers get to know Marines like Major James P.S. Devereux and Marine pilot Captain Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Elrod. Devereux commanded the Marines on the island, and Elrod died fighting the Japanese in the air over Wake. Urwin’s prose reads like a novel, and his attention to detail is exceptional.

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