Amphibious Warfare: German Style

A book review by Damien O'Connell

(originally written in 2008)

Operation Albion by Michael Barrett.

Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, ISBN 0253349699, 298 pp., $34.73.

For Marines of the interwar period (1919-1938) who advocated amphibious warfare and began developing the techniques that would eventually take their brethren across the beaches of Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, the First World War provided few examples of successful large-scale amphibious operations. The British disaster at Gallipoli was instructive only in the sense of what not to do. However, the “Great War” did produce at least one instance of amphibious warfare that worked. In October of 1917, far away from the miserable, muddy killing fields of Flanders, a German amphibious attack seized the Russian-occupied Baltic Islands of Ösel, Moon, and Dago in the Gulf of Riga. Codenamed “Albion” by the Germans, this important operation, like much of the fighting on the Eastern Front, has received little attention from Western military historians. Now, Michael Barrett’s new book, Operation Albion, allows Marines to study this highly instructive campaign in detail.

A history professor at the Citadel, Barrett recounts in clear, concise prose one of the war’s boldest operations. With an invasion force of 350 vessels, approximately 25,000 troops, and several air units, Germany captured the Baltic Islands in eight days, taking more than 20,000 Russians prisoner in the process. Albion’s real success, however, occurred on the psychological level: Many of the units defending the islands performed so poorly that the Russian War and Naval Ministers declared the armed forces incapable of offering any further effective resistance. In effect, the Russian bear had lost its claws.

Though Albion was a smashing victory for the Germans, they encountered their share of obstacles, both in the planning phase and during the invasion. For one, planners had to work through the inter-service tension that had developed between the Imperial Army and Navy. They then had to figure out how to conduct an operation for which neither branch had any previous doctrine, training, or experience. The Imperial Navy, moreover, possessed no specialized landing craft, and had to make do using torpedo boats, civilian steamers, and motorized launches. To make matters worse, inclement weather constantly impeded minesweeping, at the cost of several German vessels.

There was, of course, also the problem of the defending Russian soldiers and sailors. Fortunately for Germany, by the time Albion was launched, Russia had traveled far down the path towards political disintegration. Plagued by pervasive war weariness and intense, oftentimes violent revolutionary fervor within the armed forces, Russia was ill-prepared to stop a determined German effort against the islands. Soviets, or radical workers' councils, had sprouted up throughout the Imperial Russian Army and Navy, acting as chains of command parallel to the military rank structure. This undermined unit effectiveness, cohesion, and resulted in officers gradually becoming impotent. Furthermore, soldiers and sailors constantly questioned orders. Nevertheless, patriotism still ran high in some units, and the threat of possible annihilation also motivated not a few troops to fight.

As a result, the performance of Russian army and navy ground forces varied. Entire units and crews of coastal gun batteries fled as soon as they sighted German troops, and, in a few cases, before the enemy even entered the area. Others, including entire regiments and battalions, engaged the Germans only to quickly surrender, invariably against the wishes of their officers. Some units, however, had to be subdued by rifles, grenades, and cold steel. The relatively small Russian naval squadron, though outclassed by the modern German dreadnaughts, gave a much better account of itself. Its commander, Admiral Bakhirev, skillfully exploited the protection provided by Russian minefields and the cover afforded by bad weather. Thus he was not only able to provide effective fire against both German ships and, at times, German forces on land, but managed to extricate most of his ships from the Gulf of Riga before the Germans could seal off the escape route.

Operation Albion is relevant to Marines for several reasons. First, it is an excellent example of maneuver warfare. John Boyd, the American military theorist held as the intellectual “godfather” of maneuver warfare, viewed it as an instance of operating inside an enemy‘s decision cycle.[i] As one Russian officer said on the first day of battle, Russian forces could not keep up with the pace of events. That German troops were able to dictate the tempo of the campaign was due in part to their use of mission-type orders and by moving incredible distances in short periods, often in less than ideal conditions. To cite one example of the latter, a lieutenant from the 255th Infantry Regiment wrote that his unit marched 53 kilometers on frequently muddy roads and through furrowed fields in 25 hours. It accomplished this by having the troops carry only their assault packs and rest only twice on the way. Second, it provides a superb example of operational maneuver from the sea. In fact, Albion was the model for the concept in the original OMFTS working draft paper but was later replaced with Inchon.[ii] Lastly, it describes an amphibious operation against a state on the verge of collapse. If Iraq and Afghanistan are the new face of war, Marines may very well be conducting operations of this sort in the future.

As a book, OperationAlbion has few flaws. The text is clear and accompanied by numerous photos, and the organization well thought-out. The bibliographic sketches of key German and Russian participants included in the endnotes are alone worth the book’s price. In terms of presentation, then, the only thing marring an otherwise excellent work are the maps—there are simply not enough of them, and those that are included do not show many of the towns and geographical features mentioned in the text. The reader thus might have a hard time following the flow of battle. Unfortunately, this problem is not restricted to Operation Albion. Rather, it is endemic to military history in general and to operational accounts in particular.

The only questionable conclusion of the book is the implicit claim that the Marine Corps and Navy largely ignored Albion during the interwar period. Though no “smoking gun” is readily available, there is enough evidence to reconsider this assertion. For instance, during the 1930s, the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, VA possessed two different translations, ostensibly for classroom use, of a book on Albion by Colonel Erich von Tschischwitz, the chief of staff of the landing force during the operation. In 1932 and 1933, the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings published articles on Albion, one of which was written by a German naval officer who participated.

Operation Albion is as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago. Just as it provided the Marines of yore with an example of a successful large-scale amphibious operation, today’s Marines can view Albion as a fine case of maneuver warfare and OMFTS. All Marines should study, ponder, and debate Albion, and, of course, thank Professor Barrett for providing an excellent place to start.

[i] Wyly, Michael. Email to Damien O’Connell. 13 Aug. 2008. [ii] Gudmudnsson, Bruce. Email to Damien O’Connell. 13 Aug. 2008.

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