Special Naval Landing Forces

Photograph of Special Navy Landing Forces

Asahi Shumbun. Via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese Navy’s Special Naval Landing Forces (Kaigun Tokubetsu Rikusentai) are often likened to the U.S. Marines.  However, the analogy is not a particularly good one.  Like the Marines, the SNLF specialized in amphibious landings and in defending coastal positions.  However, the SNLF were sailors trained as light infantry and organized into battalion-sized units led by naval officers, whereas the Marines were a distinct service within the Navy Department that carried a full complement of heavy weapons (including artillery, tanks, and ground-support aircraft) and were organized into regiments and divisions under their own officers.

The differences are reflected in the combat history of the services.  The SNLF avoided assaults on heavily defended positions, attempting instead to leapfrog opposition and land supplies and reinforcements as quickly as possible.  This worked extremely well in the early months of the war, when the Japanese had nearly complete freedom of movement and there were not nearly enough Allied troops to cover every vulnerable point.  The exception was Wake, where the SNLF never even made it into their boats on the first attempt and took heavy casualties in the second.  The U.S. Marines landed against light opposition in their first few campaigns in the Solomons, but suffered heavy casualties in the Central Pacific taking heavily defended atolls.

The Special Naval Landing Forces were a relatively recent development in the Japanese Navy. Japanese warships from 1897 on designated a small portion of their crew (usually less than a third of their complement) as a landing force (rikusentai). These sailors were equipped with small arms and received very basic infantry training so that they could be used for armed shore parties. These landing forces saw service against the Russians during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and against the Germans in the First World War, generally landing by surprise against little or no opposition. However, their most extensive use was in China, where they often formed semipermanent garrisons. One such garrison was located at Shanghai from 1927 on.

The Navy and Army were unusually cooperative in the development of amphibious doctrine, holding joint exercises in 1922, 1925, 1926, and 1929. The lessons learned from these exercises were distilled into the "Outline of Amphibious Operations" (Tairuku sakusen kōyō) of 1932, which became the Japanese bible of amphibious warfare. However, in February 1932, the Japanese rikusentai at Shanghai clashed with Kuomintang troops and took heavy casualties. The Navy responded by organizing permanent specialized landing formations. These became the Special Naval Landing Forces.

Five units were organized during the 1930s. Four were activated at the four main Japanese naval bases (Yokosuka, Kure, Sasebo, and Maizuru) and the fifth was a redesignation of the Shanghai rikusentai. The Special Naval Landing Forces were originally organized into regiment-sized units (about 2000 men), but these proved unwieldy, and in 1939 they began to be reorganized into battalion-sized units. The organization of a Special Naval Landing Force was highly variable, but in late 1941 a Special Naval Landing Force typically consisted of two rifle companies and one or two heavy weapons companies which might be armed with infantry guns, antitank guns, antiaircraft guns, or tanks. Twelve such battalion-sized forces were organized by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, some with oversized companies of six rather than four platoons. As the war progressed and Special Naval Landing Forces more commonly found themselves in the defensive role, their armament shifted towards more machine guns and artillery (typically 46 machine guns, 8 120mm coastal defense guns, 16 80mm antiaircraft guns, 4 75mm antiaircraft guns, and a handful of light antiaircraft and antitank guns.) Two or more Special Naval Landing Forces could be combined into a Combined Special Naval Landing Force with a strength roughly equal to a regiment. A Special Naval Landing Force was typically led by a commander while a Combined Special Naval Landing Force was led by a captain or rear admiral.

The SNLF did share with the U.S. Marines a reputation for toughness. Two of the Special Naval Landing Forces, 1 and 3 Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Forces, had jump training, and all had special training in amphibious assault. They were also ruthless, committing a number of atrocities in the Southwest Pacific during the Centrifugal Offensive. These included massacres of prisoners of war at Ambon and Kendari. Allied intelligence rated their infantry training and tactics as not up to the standards of the Japanese Army, but the Marines disagreed, regarding the Special Naval Landing Forces as superior to the average Japanese Army unit (quoted in Benninghof 2005):

Naval units of this type are usually more highly trained and have a greater tenacity and fighting spirit than the average Japanese Army unit.

The different assessments may have their origin in confusion between the Special Naval Landing Forces and the less well trained and equipped Base Forces. As Japan lost the initiative in the Pacific, the Special Naval Landing Forces tended to be replaced with Base Forces (konkyochitai) and their subordinate Guard Forces (keibitai) which were often hastily organized before being rushed to Pacific bases.


Bennighof (2005-10; accessed 2012-2-19)
Evans and Peattie (1997)
"Handbook on Japanese Military Forces" (1944-9-15)
Kehn (2008)
Marston (2005)

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional
Web Site Counters