Britain, and particularly the Royal Navy, were among the pioneers of amphibious warfare – that is, moving your troops from the sea to land, and keeping them there. After Galipoli, and a ‘reverse invasion’ at Dunkirk, lessons were put to effect in Sicily, and later on in Normandy.
So how was it that Amphibious Warfare was in such a perilous state in 1982? Although the capability had been proven time and time again in action and in exercise, and the Royal Marines Commando Brigade had a role as reinforcements for NATO’s northern flank, amphibious warfare was seen as a low priority. The Royal Navy’s emphasis was still mainly on anti-submarine warfare against the Soviet Union in the North Sea and North Atlantic.
The picture in 1982
The Royal Navy had post-war trialled the concept of the Commando Carrier: an Aircraft Carrier operating Helicopters to land a Royal Marines force. These were used effectively in Suez in 1956. However, given the shortage of Carriers in 1982, and that the task force needed both available flat tops for providing air defence, the Commando Brigade – the spearhead of the land forces – would have to rely on the Royal Navy’s Amphibious Assault ships.
The two ships of the Fearless Class of Landing Platform Dock were available. HMS Fearless was available to sail straight away; HMS Intrepid was destored and run-down, and only after a mammoth effort by Portsmouth Dockyard was she able to sail south. In fact, the whole operation hinged on when she was available. The two Fearless class Landing Platform Docks, almost 20 years old, could carry a maximum of 700 troops each, with 8 Landing Craft. They carried no helicopters themselves, but had space to operate 4 or 5 medium helicopters, usually ‘Jungly’ Sea Kings of the Fleet Air Arm’s Commando Support Group. Both ships were also equipped to act as Flagships to an amphibious group.
The six Round table class of Landing Ships were normally tasked by the Army, supporting the British Army of the Rhine in Germany. They could carry up to 500 troops each, but were primarily designed for transporting vehicles and stores. They were not designed for long-range amphibious operations, and were not even considered part of the Royal Navy’s active fleet. They carried no landing craft or aircraft, with the Fearless Class Landing Craft being used instead to ferry troops ashore.
The Royal Navy’s amphibious group in 1982 could deploy a Commando Brigade and Headquarters, albeit in cramped and far from ideal conditions. It also relied predominantly on landing craft rather than helicopters. It required the use of Merchant ships to carry stores, ammunition and extra troops. Losses, particularly either of the Fearless Class or of any Landing Craft, might have proved critical.
The picture in 2009
The Royal Navy now has an expanded and capable amphibious fleet, having learnt the lessons of the Falklands War and committed itself to ‘out of area’ expeditionary warfare. This cultural aspect is important – in 1982 the Amphibious Commanders and the Battle Group Commander were by their own admission not singing from the same hymn sheet.
The Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean can use her 18 Helicopters and 4 Landing Craft to deploy almost 800 troops, the equivalent of more than an army Battalion or RM Commando. She can also operate British Army Apache Helicopters, and might also be a useful platform for launching an air assault by airborne units in conjunction with any seaborne operation. She was however designed to commerical rather than military standards, and will require replacement in the non too distant future.
The Assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are an improvement on the Fearless Class and can deploy up to 700 troops each, with eight Landing Craft each. One of these ships is usually at high readiness, and the other in refit or training. However, often these are deployed on tasks that would normally be performed by destroyers or frigates. As with the Carriers, much would depend on the ability to get the second ship ready for action. As in 1982, one of these ships would likely provide the Flagship for the Amphibious group.
The four Bay Class Landing ships, a significant improvement on the Round table class, can deploy 350 troops each, by 2 Landing Craft and Mexefloat rafts. Of the four, two are normally available for immediate use, and the other two either on operations or in refit or training. As with the Albion Class, these are often deployed on escort duties in place of Frigates or Destroyers. I will examine the potential for calling up Merchant vessels in a future instalment, but the RFA does also contain the Point Class vessels for performing sealift duties, which would be invaluable for performing a task that required the use of requisitioned Commercial vessels in 1982.
In total, an amphibious group consisting of HMS Ocean, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark and perhaps three of the Bay Class ships would be able to carry and deploy a reinforced Commando Brigade along with its Headquarters and supporting troops, but would also be well placed to launch further units and equipment arriving in theatre as well, without such a reliance on Merchant vessels. It also possesses more strength, capability and flexibility in terms of landing craft and helicopter assets than it did in 1982. This was shown by the succesful assault on the Al Faw peninsula by 3 Commando Brigade in 2003, and the operations in Sierra Leone several years before.
The Royal Navy may be able to deploy a much stronger Amphbious Task Group than it did in 1982, and is much more focussed on amphibious warfare than it was in 1982. In all likelihood the real difficulties would be in providing air cover for such an operation and finding enough escort ships to provide close defence. To launch an amphibious assault requires air superiority and command of the seas: is it worth having such a capability if you cannot create the conditions to deploy it, nor defend it?