This week Dr Sam Willis speaks with Timothy Heck, the Deputy Directing Editor at the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy in West Point. They discuss the changing nature of amphibious operations in history and its relevance to the present day. What can the US Marine Corps today learn from amphibious operations in the past? Like DDay in WW2 or Gallipoli in WW1? How are other lesser-known operations relevant and important? From a night attack on the shores of Tuscany in 1555 to a Turkish amphibious assault in response to a coup in Cyprus in 1974? How do amphibious operations relate to key turning points in history? Why does the history of maritime amphibious operations matter?
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From the Society for nautical research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.
Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners mirror podcast. Now we have a huge amount coming your way soon. And the last week of May is something of a maritime history podcast festival with three really important anniversaries all in one week. And we simply couldn’t let them go by without acknowledgment, so be prepared, get your ears warmed up. We have a third episode in our iconic ships series coming on Monday, that is on HMS Hood, and will be published on the anniversary of the sinking of the hood on the 24th of May 1941. That is an extra special episode because the case for the hood being iconic is made by Professor Eric Grove, who sadly died just a few weeks ago. And this podcast was the last piece of work that he prepared for publication. And so the case for the mighty Hood, as she was known, is presented with the full energetic and dynamic personality of the mighty Eric Grove. You can almost see his whiskers bristling and his bow tie spinning. After that, we have the anniversary of Dunkirk, the almost miraculous evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in the face of the unstoppable German invasion of France in the early summer of 1940. It’s an astonishing story told with verve and in great detail by the excellent Dr. Phil, Weir, who you should all be following on Twitter. He is something of a force on Twitter, and you can find him at Naval Historian. And then yes, there is more we have the third entry in our great sea fight series, this one on the Battle of Tsushima of May 1905, one of the most decisive naval battles in history. In which the Russian fleet was annihilated by the Japanese fleet in the only decisive battle ever fought by modern steel battleship fleets. The first naval battle in which wireless telegraphy played a critically important role, and the last time in history that ships of the line of a beaten fleet surrendered on the high seas. Not only do we have three separate episodes to bring you about Tsushima but we also have a really wonderful animation of a battle plan made by an eyewitness and that will be put up on the Mariners Mirror pod Instagram page. the Mariners Mirror pod, YouTube page, and the Society for Nautical Research’s his Facebook page. Oh, so much to look forward to. Well, what’s happening today, today’s episode is a little bit of homework and pre preparation for one of these many forthcoming episodes. To help put the evacuation of Dunkirk into a broader context of the history of amphibious operations. I spoke with Tim Heck one of the authors, the other being Brett Friedman, of a new book called ‘On Contested Shores’ the evolving role of amphibious operations in the history of warfare, published by the Marine Corps University Press. Brett Friedman is a strategic assessment analyst and author of ‘On Tactics a Theory of Victory in Battle’ and the forthcoming ‘On Operations, Operational Art and Military Disciplines’ both from the Naval Institute Press. He’s also a major in the Marine Corps Reserve currently serving with the Sixth Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington. Timothy Hck is the deputy directing editor at the modern war Institute at West Point, an artillery officer by training he served in a variety of command and staff positions in the Marine Corps on active and reserve duty. As a reservist, he is currently a joint historian with Marine Corps History Division, he can be found on twitter at T. G. Heck1 so ingrained in the US Marine Corps are these authors that I’m obliged to say that the views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps University or the United States. So now that’s clear, here’s Tim. Tim I think we should start at the beginning. Why does the history of maritime amphibious operations matter?
I think, I think the simple answer to that question is because they remain relevant. You know, as historians, we can do a fair amount of navel gazing we could which no pun intended there, but we can look back just for the sake of looking back. But I think with maritime amphibious operations, what we were trying to do with the book and is look back to look forward, which sounds cliche and sounds weird, but I think that’s that’s the point. You know, when Brett and I set out To write this, to collect these chapters to do the analysis to to put the book together, we didn’t want to write a book that was by Marines, about Marines. for Marines. We wanted it to have a wider academic appeal and a wider practical appeal than just a pair of guys in Marine Corps green uniforms, sitting around talking about amphibious operations. So when we looked at the history, and the chapter proposals, right, I mean, there’s stuff in there that we had no idea about, you know, I mean, the opening chapter of the book, right, you’ve got the 1500s. In the Mediterranean, what is basically a modern Special Operations naval amphibious raid. Well what do we learn from that? Right, you know, as we’re, as we’re talking about littoral operations in the Pacific, we’re talking about operations in the Baltic or recent Russian operations in Crimea. There’s parallels, there’s an opportunity to look back with the idea that I can take something out of that going forward. When we talk about it with our professional peers, you know, in a military context, we say, look, you know, the chapters in here, you might not think that raid on Porto Ercoletto is gonna have a lot of appeal to you. But in a year, when you find yourself on a staff, and you’re doing a contingency plan to go seize a port or to go take out an oil platform, or whatever it may be. You’re going to pull something from that we think, or you’re going to have a book, you can pull off the shelf and go, “Ah, here are some thoughts, and here are some ideas that I can then use to refine and hone my thinking.” So we found the relevance of the history. Being in modern practical applications, kind of regardless of the flag, you fly, and the patch you wear, obviously we’re big Five Eyes supporters. But you know, we also recognise that that other nations have amphibious capabilities and might gain something out of this too, our partners and allies, hopefully.
Why did you write the book, was there was there a gap in the scholarship?
You took the words out of my mouth, there is a gap. There hasn’t been a book like this kind of in any way. Since Merrill Bartlett’s ‘Assault from the Sea’ came out in the early 1990s. Which was a collection of essays that had been in Naval Institute Press magazines, the proceedings, articles largely, interesting levelling, did amphibious assault manoeuvre from the sea in 2007. We liked it. I’m using it as a reference base for an article I’m writing for a possible second volume. But we wanted a much more academic tone. And so when we started this in the fall of 2018, there wasn’t a lot of recent scholarship out there that took a deep look at cases or examples. Gary Oles had written ‘American Amphibious Warfare’ and Jeremy Black had written ‘Combined Operations’, both came out in 2017. So right before we, we wrote ours, and they’re great jumping off points. And we had them in mind when we were putting this together, but we wanted a much wider scope. I mean, Blacks, you can’t get much wider of a scope than Jeremy Black. When it comes to writing, he just the breadth that he pulls from is pretty impressive. But what we wanted was more narrow, focused, while maintaining that breath, right. So So if you think about it, kind of on a spectrum, or like a bookshelf, right, so I can, I can go to the library, I can look at a bookshelf, and I can pull certain books off the shelf, I have all of this available to me. But I only want to look at these things. And I want to look at them deeply. And that’s what we put it together. And since we’ve started, we’ve seen a lot more out there on the concept. Three of them, you know, I want to talk specifically three of them that have kind of we’ve read them since we put this together. And in one case since it was published and went, Oh, man, if only we had gotten to this guy before, before, before we put ours together and they’re all Normandy, right? It’s Steven Kepher’s study of Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgen, Karasek. as he puts together the Normandy invasion, all of the logistics and all of the backwards planning. That was amazing. Thomas Mitchell wrote a book about weather called ‘Winds, Waves and Warriors.’ You know, he worked about the forecasting, part of this, you know, and so we talk about amphibious operations, but you’re not gonna find anything in the book talking about, hey, you gotta fly a weather balloon, or this is how you got to figure out title charts. But Mitchell really gets down deep in the weeds on that. We thought that was a really impressive book. And then once you’ve crossed the beachhead, and once you’ve pushed inland, your Steven Alan Barks Bourque’s ‘Beyond the Beach, the Allied war against France’ covers a lot of topics in there that that we would love to have done. So I think our book, those are all Normandy based, which is kind of in many, I think many people’s minds the quintessential amphibious operation. It’s certainly got the most press. It’s got the most movies but we liked the breadth that our book allowed us to do? And the way we set that up. But if only we had gotten to those three authors before they publish, there’s,
I think you’ve hinted at a few of these answers to this question already. But why? Why are amphibious operations so complex to study?
I, it’s the, you know, from a physical perspective, it’s the merging of three environments, right, you’ve got the land, the air and the sea. I’m Churchill, call them triphibious, and as the proponent of one of the other kind of landmark, amphibious operations, you know, in the Gallipoli you’ve got him calling triphibious So, I like that word, I’d love to see it used more, but I think it’s we’re gonna stick with amphibious because at least that’s the title of the book. They’re complex, because you’re taking all of those things, and you’re meeting on a beach or cliffs, you know, kind of where, where the water meets the land. And you add into that today, the complicated the complexities of the growing litorial populations, which you and I joked about a little bit before the podcast started recording, and then climate change, so they’re only going to get more complex. You’ve got nations building islands. Oh, Singapore’s building islands. Everybody talks about the Chinese doing in Singapore is doing a two different purposes, but they’re there. And there’s a complexity to that, right. So now I have new patterns of weather I have to look at now I have new patterns of you know, the map looks different if I’m going to be conducting these operations. So they just get more and more complex as time goes on. More population streams towards the shoreline. And that’s ignoring the space part that’s ignoring that growing population is pushing out further into the sea. You know, it’s not an amphibious operation. But the Doolittle Raid of 1942. They did launch the bombers early because of a fishing boat picket ship that spotted the task force. So if I’m conducting an amphibious operation in a heavily fished water area, like perhaps the South China Sea, I’ve got to contend with these things now to have is that a harmless fishing boat? Or an illegal fishing boat? When I you you are whatever the the acronym is? Or is that a picket ship. And so as you’re thinking about great power competition, great power competition in the grey zone, right, all of these buzzwords, amphibious operations remains. On the table one and two, grows increasingly complex again, because I’ve got more people more water. Right now we’re talking about, you’ve got ports that were available that might not be or more, you know, more viable, but now aren’t going to be because of climate change. And you’ve got other ports that weren’t viable that now could be. And so they just get more and more complex. And that’s just from a kind of the macro level, let alone the ageing ships, the you know, these A2/AD bubbles that folks are talking about. And I think you go into the chapters in the book, and there’s just complexity after complexity after complexity and yeah, an unlimited depth factors that pop up, right.
Well, we How did the How did these amphibious operations relate to some of history’s key turning points? give you some examples?
Well we’re going to do a kind of a chronologically, I know, we’re historians, and we like to start at the back and work to the front. Um, but we keep coming back to Normandy, right? Normandy is, as I said earlier, that quintessential image. Right, so what is normally well normally opens up a second front in Europe, which let’s let’s be careful about that statement. Because Italy was going on to and there’s a great, really a joke cartoon of those two guys sitting in a foxhole, literally reading the newspaper saying, you know, if this isn’t the most important hole in the world, I don’t know what is. It kind of totally being ignored the fact that the same day, you know, within days of Normandy, Rome had been captured too, or liberated rather. So you’ve got a lot to focus on Normandy right, but it opens the second front it then creates and Kepher talks about this in ‘Cossac’, but it then creates this push into Western Europe which winds up dividing at the Elbe and creating East and West Germany in the end and the Cold War, right so like, normally opens the door for that. But looking back in time so I jumping around right. You know, there’s there’s a lengthy historical precedent for projecting power short from the city. And the operations themselves kind of tend to be footnotes or minor events, but their consequences are long lasting. Right. This is Normandy is not a minor event. Hundreds of 1000s of soldiers on both sides, significant and lasting consequences. You go back even farther Marathon are successful Greece counter landing operations stopped person mastery of the main of mainland Greece. And then you have Greek civilization flourishing, which leads to Western civilization. You know, in fast forward if you a little bit you’ve got Carthage in Tunisia, another massive operation, over 1000 ships, 50,000 troops, and the defeat of the Romans by the Vandals in 468, effectively ended the Roman, the Western Roman Empire caused all sorts of chaos in the Eastern Roman Empire to but effectively ended history, you know, the dominant global power at that time. Your British, your islands along with northern France, Russia, suffered from Viking Raiders. That’s a amphibious raid right there. Boom, I’m coming in Im plundering I’m leaving. I’m sitting on Cape Cod, not far from Newfoundland, not far from Greenland, where these Viking Raiders and these Vikings push, you know, push West and expanded and opened open to the Americas in some ways to Europe, European civilization and colonisation. You know, Columbus gets the credit. And I’m not, you know, a conspiracy theorist that’s gonna say that in in 1000 AD, the Vikings showed up, and there’s this mythical, you know that I’m not doing that. But you have the sea being used to transport settlers and colonists, which changes the thing and that’s projecting power. It’s not necessarily predominantly men, but men with guns or men’s with weapons coming onto the beach and saying we’re, you know, we’re fighting. But it’s world changing. And it’s the projection of a softer power in some ways or an economic or I don’t even know how you would describe that. And I’m going back to Diamond, all of those great military acronyms. Landing settlers and colonists. And a place right, it’s economic.
What is it? Yeah, I think you’re the Viking ideas is the Viking points is a really good one. I was always amazed when I was studying the Vikings that the, you know, you think about it as amphibious operations with them sailing in from the sea and, you know, attacking the coast. They went to Paris up the Seine, they got as far inland, up those rivers, to Paris, and it’s still an amphibious operation. I mean, they’re still coming from ships onto the land. So it goes to a great deal of operations like that, and the American Revolution as well. You know, the 1770s 1780s with especially America is particularly susceptible to all of these rivers penetrating so deeply inland.
And we cover in the book, there’s a chapter on defensive operations against that in the Delaware River campaign. But you mean even even before the American Revolution, the British landing in Quebec in the 1750s, late 1750s, as part of the campaign during the front, you know, what we call the French and Indian War, the Seven Years War that winds up helping break off Quebec and Canada from France, making it British Which then sets the stage for other things later, to include America trying to take over Canada. Then in 1812 1813, Canada coming down and with the British and burning the White House. These things are an amphibious operations, riverine operations that are tied to them continue. Yorktown in Virginia is a is a favourite of staff colleges. The Joint Forces Staff College is not far away in Norfolk, Virginia. And when I was a student there, we went up to Yorktown and did a study of the battle. It’s a pretty well preserved site, good museum. Good field works and you can see Alright, so I’m here the British there. And you know, like they walk through how things work. And then over the horizon comes these Friench ships and traps the British Navy, man, game changer, right. As I mentioned earlier, Gallipoli, and I think the battle itself is probably relatively inconsequential, especially when compared to the other campaigns of World War One. But what comes out of it the national identities of the Turks, the Aussies, the Kiwis, that’s world changing. And some are going to argue and I think there’s, there’s probably credence to this, but I, I’m not a Churchill’s historian, so I can’t definitively say like, Yes, I believe this. But Churchill’s focus on the peripheral in the Second World War possibly comes out of that, right. So you have the Americans that are saying, Let’s main force into Western Europe. Let’s go after the Germans that way. And Churchill saying, No, let’s pick Italy. Let’s take the Med, let’s do Yugoslavia, let’s do Norway. Let’s spread the Germans as thin as we can. Ultimately combination of all of that worked, you know, because the Germans were so afraid of a British operation, they kept divisions upon divisions they needed elsewhere, guarding Norway. But that comes I think, probably, and I’ve read the argument, I buy it, but I don’t, I can’t definitively say someone out of his argument about Gallipoli’s. So you’ve got this trend. And in the book, you know, glibly gets used as a staff college tool for the Marine Corps in the 1920s and 1930s. In the US. So it’s being looked at the Battle itself, possibly inconsequential not inconsequential, that sounds very dismissive, but it’s not nearly as consequential as a lot of the battles in the western frontier, even battles on the Eastern Front, during the First World War, or in Italy. But it has this echo through time, you know, go to an ANZAC Day ceremony. Anywhere. I’ve been to one in Malaysia, when I was living there. It’s powerful, it’s impressive, it is a national identity forming thing. And that’s an amphibious operation that, you know, you’ve got the battle on one hand, but you’ve got all of these consequences on the other that are not military related.
You identified, I suppose you’re talking about invasion a lot here is an type of amphibious operation, you actually identify five different types in your book. What are they?
Yeah, so again, I I have fallen victim to my own goal of, of not of not just talking about invasions, but you’ve got the assault, right? Those are the five types. The assault, that’s your big evasion, that’s your Iwo Jima, your Normandy, your Tarawell, you’re Imjin, you’re Gallipoli. I’m taking power from the sea on the land to seize an objective and stay. You’ve got to withdraw, which is I’m taking power from the land back out to the sea. One of the prime examples of that is the Japanese evacuation from Guadalcanal. So they’ve been defeated, they’re pulling their forces back out. And that’s a somewhat popular model to look at these days. And I’m doing more and more reading on that. And looking at that, from, from our perspective, right, the withdrawal after the North Koreans and the Chinese pushed American and UN forces south, with the UN forces South during the late 19, late 1950. There was awithdrawal, the armies on the east coast of Korea, got to Hungnam, got on ships and got out of there with hundreds of 1000s, or with 10s of 1000s, rather of refugees as well. You’ve got to raid, right, we talked about order a lot earlier. But it’s that idea that I’m going in, I’m going to hit a target, I’m going to do what I need to do, and I’ve got a planned withdrawal that’s going to accompany it. A prime one would be like a Makin Island raid, right. So where the marine Raiders in the early Second World War, go attack a Japanese held Island and get back on submarines a couple days later, and withdraw in support of other operations. There’s the demonstration, the classic example of this is the Marines sitting off the coast of Kuwait and Iraq during Desert Storm. And so 1990, you’ve got the Marines sitting off the coast, threatening amphibious invasion tying Iraqi forces to the beachhead.
It’s a demonstration of sea power
A demonstration of sea power, a demonstration that I can come in and forcibly enter where you don’t want me to. And the resultant was that the Iraqi army pinned a large portion of their troops in fixed positions to prevent a landing that didn’t happen. And then the other right, this, this, this kind of catch all and that the big ones are kind of more humanitarian in nature. So in 2010, the earthquake happens in Port au Prince, Haiti, and the United States and others did Operation Unified response. And so you had and I keep coming back to the Marine Corps and all of this, but you had American Marines using amphibious warfare ships, and amphibious warfare craft, these oils, you know, these, these vehicles that take for you from the ship to the shore, that are designed for that assault or that raid, and they’re loading them up with humanitarian supplies and coming into the country to provide relief. And I think that’s, that’s the overlooked part. If you look at the 1990s, the US was doing that. frequently. They were doing relief operations like that they were doing noncombatant evacuation operations. That’s amphibious power. That’s, that’s demonstrating an amphibious operation. There are opportunities there to be studied to be used. And I think that’s, you know, it doesn’t always have to be, I’m going to come in and try to, you know, punch a hole through your beachhead. It can be I’m going to come in and bring you medicine and food because a tsunami has wiped you out. There has been a volcanic explosion, an earthquake, whatever, or there’s political instability, and I need to get my diplomats, my business folks, our citizens, our allies out. And that’s an amphibious operation as well.
I think the, the, the symbolism of a threat of sea power is fascinating. When I was writing about the American Revolution, I was astonished at how often the war was completely thrown in, in radically different directions simply by the presence of Warships. You know, with the the sort of the implied threat of what they could actually do, is that something that you found is that the theme you recognise,
We found it, we certainly didn’t do a lot on it, right? Because when you think about the threat of sea power, it’s not necessarily that I’m going to land Marines or I’m going to land sailors. But it’s, I have these guns, and I can do what I want with you. I’m reading some some Soviet doctrinal manuals from the 30s in for a new chapter that I’m working on. And they the second point in all of them is like, ships are really good at intimidating people is basically what it says, right? The naval guns can get people to do what you want them to do. And I think, you know, that’s in the book, and certainly there, but the focus for us was, once we’ve transitioned from I’m just sitting off your coast. I’m now sending people onto your coast to do something. But yeah, projecting power from the sea. Right, again, going back to the Vikings, I can get to Paris.
So we it. I mean, we’ve talked about the Vikings, I’m always been fascinated by them, because of the limited technology available. And if you think about the Battle of Hastings, or you know, the Norman Conquest in 1066, using essentially the same materials that the Vikings had available to them. So I’ve always been fascinated by that, or slightly earlier periods. Is there a Is there a particular period that you’ve become attracted to whilst whilst realising the scope of what you can write about when you’re doing a history of amphibious operations.
And this is where I mean, I wish Brett was here to join us anyway. But this is where Brett would just totally go down the Roman history and that the ancient stuff. And I’m trying to avoid in this interview talking about the Second World War, but there were just so many cases, right, both theatres of operations. Well, not both, right. That’s a very bifurcated world. But all theatres of operations, the Russians are doing them the Germans are doing them. The British, the Americans, the Italians, the French, the Japanese, like the Chinese, they’re all doing them because of of the role of water. In writing the book, The thing that I didn’t think I was going to be as interested in as I was, was actually the Seven Years War. I was not expecting to be as interested in that. That and the American Revolution, as I as I became right, again, I went to Yorktown, I did the battle study was great. And kind of took all of that and vaguely shelved it. But when we were editing the chapters and putting them together, here I am, and I’m looking at, oh, okay, the Delaware River. Wow, that’s not far from me. I can go and look at these places. And then, when I was, I was on a recent trip to where I am now. And I stopped at a couple of revolutionary war sites on the way because it’s January, and I’m socially distance. And I can do that in a map because nobody else is out in three feet of snow, but me. But I think that kind that came out of the book, all of a sudden, suddenly I’m interested in what happened at Oriskany, what happened at Fort Stanwix? Why are these events so, so seminal in American history? But I know nothing about them?
That’s the beauty of a theme like this is that say, say if your listeners, if you’re out there and even become focused on one particular period in history, try doing themes, because that allows you to explore your interests, but across a whole range of different periods. And I thoroughly recommend that. Are amphibious operations still relevant today?
Yes easiest question you’ve asked me. Yeah, I think they’re absolutely relevant today. You’re seeing expanded capabilities across the world, right. And I’m not I mean, we can we can talk about the US Marine Corps and all of this right, the new Commandant. I guess he’s not the new Commandant anymore. He’s been coming on for a while now. But his big focus is naval integration. He started out with his planning guidance. He’s talking about amphibious operations in the force design 2030 documents, like even the Promotion Board that just came out. The guidance for that talked about, hey, look for folks with naval integration experience, you know, they want they want that. And the US isn’t the only ones. Right, we talk South China Sea, ASEAN all of those nations are looking at amphibious operations because of the issues that they’re facing in the South China Sea with the Chinese. In 2020, the Russians lay down two keels for new amphibious, new amphibious ships to replace those Mistrel Class ships,the French didn’t sell them after the invasion of Crimea. And in the book, Elon Alners talks about Russians and their expanding capabilities. I think you’re going to continue to see it and one of the stuff that’s not in there, right, so Kevin Rollins did a chapter on British amphibious operation capabilities in the book. Fantastic, right? How does Britain as a sea power, historical sea power, shift and adjust? And we didn’t cover it, but right, certainly in a post Brexit world, how are you projecting power? And that’s, that’s there. So, you know, there are folks that are going to say that A2/AD bubble, that area denial, those systems, right, they just make amphibious operations irrelevant. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think they’re gonna continue to be relevant from both across all five types, right? The assault, withdrawal, the raid, coming back to you, the all five types, right, coming in, in certainly humanitarian operations, that’s going to continue to play a role. And if you don’t have the ability to do Ship to Shore or Shore to Ship, you become not irrelevant, but it becomes a lot harder for you to be a player, especially as the seas rise. You know, we go from 70 to 71% of the world being covered, right? Look at all of the drama, that not drama, but look at all of the the political contentions going around about the melting Arctic ice caps. You know, they’re opening up new sea lanes, they’re opening up new opportunities for exploration, you gotta have ships, and you’re gonna have people that know how to operate in those areas to project power. The Arctic Council is a great place to hash out disputes. But no, there has to be some form of a capability of addressing issues there. Yeah.
Well, I think it’s a wonderful place to stop. Tim, thank you so much for your time today. And I urge everyone to have a look at this book. It’s fantastic.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Jim.
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