The past month the HBO series The Pacific has drawn long overdue attention to the War in the Pacific as it followed the United States Marine Corps in a series of amphibious assaults that were designed to cut off the tentacles of the Japanese war machine and provide for unsinkable aircraft carriers from which to launch bombers against the Japanese mainland. This caused me to reflect on how far back the strategy and tactics of amphibious warfare went in history. I settled on one crucial battle that reflected what at the time was a combined sea and land attack that when studied was a forerunner of the successful amphibious assaults of the Navy and Marines in World War II.
We have to travel back in time to the Eastern Mediterranean in 332 BCE as Macedonian king Alexander the Great stood before the one roadblock that prevented him from controlling the approaches to the Middle East and Persia. The city state of Tyre was situated on an island 1/2 mile off the coast of today’s Lebanon. The city was surrounded by walls 150 feet high on the landward side and boasted two harbors and a fleet of 80 Triremes to keep the seas open.
The Tyrians decided on a strategy of resisting Alexander since their strong defensive position had withstood sieges by Assyrians in the seventh century and a Babylonian siege that lasted 13 years before giving up. Alexander was different. He first tried to approach the city walls by constructing a causeway from the mainland with the dismantled stones of the old city of Tyre. The Tryians modified a transport ship and turned it into a fire ship by packing it with pitch and flammable material and by lowering the stern were able to run the ship high aground on the mole where the fire destroyed the Macedonian siege towers.
Alexander recognized he needed a navy to defeat the Tryians so he collected ships from the previously surrendered Phoenician cities and soon bolstered with the arrival of a fleet from Cyprus had a fleet of over 225 vessels at his disposal. In a quick naval battle the Tryian fleet fled back to port where they remained blockaded in the two Tryian harbors. the Tryians attempted to break out of the north harbor where they sank several Cypriot ships before Alexander lead his Phoenician squadron around from the south harbor to crush the breakout and send the Tryian ships fleeing back to the harbor.
At the same time Alexander’s land forces began to construct a new wider mole that would withstand the currents. Taking his ships he tied ships together to create strong battering rams and a stable platform to support his catapults. When Tryian drivers cut the anchor cables, Alexander ordered a switch to mooring chains which also were useful in removing large boulders that the Tryians had placed in the sea at the base of the walls. The siege went on for months and by mid-summer the mole was across the channel and an assault was mounted only to be defeated by the Tryians. In the meantime, the ship mounted battering rams had been probing the walls on the south side of the city. In early August, a weak spot was discovered and Alexander prepared to launch an assault on all sides of the city with a special concentration by a seaborne attack in the breach. He loaded two transports with his strongest troops and leading the attack broke through the breach into the city streets. More troops were carried across by ship and began pouring into the city. The Phoenician and Cypriot fleets at the same time sailed into the harbors and attacked the moored Tyrian fleet. Within a few hours the city was taken and after a orgy of bloodletting and the selling into slavery of 30,000 women and children, Alexander turned his sights to the east and Persia.
The capture of Tyre gave Alexander the ability to insure both his overland and sea lanes were secure from Macedon. The result of his successful use of amphibious and naval power ensured that the eastern Mediterranean, Phoenicia and Palestine would remain in Greek hands for two centuries. Alexander has been remembered as a great military strategist and most known for his land conquests, but at Tyre he proved himself to be a master at naval warfare and what today would be called the use of a combined arms strategy to achieve his objectives. In the final analysis the Siege of Trye was the first truly amphibious assault in history.