On January 22nd, 1944, a joint American and British force disembarked on a sunny Italian beach. They met little resistance, and by midnight they’d gotten about 27,000 American and 9,000 British troops ashore with only 13 deaths. Things seemed to be going well on the beach near the towns of Nettuno and Anzio, Italy.
This assault force, dubbed the VI Corps, was part of a plan to circumvent the German defensive line that passed through Monte Cassino to the south. The main Allied force in Italy had stalled at the formidable Gustav Line. The leaders hoped that a force landing behind the Germans would draw off their forces, allowing the Allies to break through. Then, the two Allied forces would the meet up, breaking the spine of the German resistance in Italy, and marching north to seize Rome.
The plan had problems from the start. The upcoming invasion of Normandy put a pinch on the amount of shipping available, limiting the number of troops and making a long planning process impossible. The rehearsals for the landings went badly. The British leadership favored an aggressive push inland toward the Alban Hills, but American General Mark Clark reportedly told General Lucas, who would be in charge of the VI Corps, not to stick his neck out. Lucas did not, much to the dismay of one of the biggest fans of the Anzio plan, Winston Churchill.
“But now came disaster, and the ruin in its prime purpose of the enterprise. General Lucas confined himself to occupying his beachhead and having equipment and vehicles brought ashore. The defenses of the beachhead were growing, but the opportunity for which great exertions had been made was gone.”(Churchill 481-482)
It is worth noting that, looking at the size of the force that landed and the distance they would have needed to cover, wiser military strategists than I (including General Truscott who was on the scene with the 3rd Division) have indicated that Churchill’s hopes were ill-founded, that there simply were not enough soldiers to hold on to their beachhead and maintain the precious supply lines AND to strike out and take the coveted hills ahead. Whether Churchill’s other criticism, that perhaps shipping space could have been used more effectively, was valid is more than I know, though his biting comment in a letter to the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean in a letter dated 10 Feb 44 shows his feelings on the subject. “How many of our men are driving or looking after eighteen thousand vehicles in this narrow space? We must have a great superiority of chauffeurs.” (Churchill 488)
Whether timidity, lack of manpower, or failure to plan or communicate plans clearly was the ultimate trouble on the Anzio beachhead, the beachhead ran into trouble quickly. And the troops on the ground paid dearly.
As the Allied planners hoped, the German army was caught by surprise and rushed to respond. Unfortunately, these reinforcements were not taken from the Gustav line. The force there stayed just as strong as ever, while a whole new force was rushed down from Rome to fence in the Allies in Anzio.
By the end of D-Day, thousands of German troops were preparing to encircle General Lucas’s force. They seized the high ground in the Alban Hills, providing themselves with an excellent view down into the roughly 7mile deep by 15 mile wide beachhead. The Allied soldiers soon found themselves unable to move during daylight without facing deadly fire.
The Allies tried to push out. The British had some success in the north, pushing toward Aprilla (nicknamed “The Factory”) and the 3rd Division pushed toward Cisterna in the South. The Germans responded with fierce counterattacks.
The seasoned group of Darby’s Rangers was nearly wiped out in one of the attempts to take Cisterna—of over seven hundred men, six made it back.
The British and elements of the American 45th Division bore the brunt of a tremendous German counter attack in mid-February which nearly drove the beachhead into the sea.
Anzio became a test of will: The Allies could not push out, not yet, but could they hold on?
Stars and Stripes cartoonist and author Bill Mauldin’s commentary on Anzio paints a vivid picture of life on the beachhead.
Anzio was unique…there was no place in the entire beachhead where enemy shells couldn’t seek you out.
Sometimes it was worse at the front: sometimes worse at the harbor. Quartermasters buried their dead and amphibious duck drivers went down with their craft. Infantrymen, dug into the Mussolini Canal, had the canal pushed in on top of them by armor-piercing shells, and Jerry bombers circled as they directed glider bombs into LSTs and Liberty ships. Wounded men got oak leaf clusters on their Purple Hearts when shell fragments riddled them as they lay on hospital beds. Nurses died. Planes crash-landed on the single air strip.
Planes went out to seek the “Anzio Express,” that huge gun which made guys in rest areas play softball near slit trenches. The planes would report the Express destroyed and an hour later she would come in on schedule.Mauldin, 165-166
The “Anzio Express,” also nicknamed “Anzio Annie,” was actually a pair of German railway guns which were hidden in tunnels from the searching Allied planes. The noise of “Annie’s” shells and the destruction they caused were one more thing to make Anzio
a constant hellish nightmare, because when you weren’t getting something you were expecting something, and it lasted for five months.Mauldin 167
The soldiers weren’t the only ones caught in the nightmare. The hospital area on the beachhead was only about six miles behind the front lines. All of the evacuation hospital tents were grouped together, clearly marked with red crosses to show that they were off-limits to attack according to the Geneva Convention.
Of course, red crosses had not protected the hospital ship St. David when she attempted to evacuate the wounded from Anzio and was sunk by German bombs. They did not save the hospital area either—it quickly earned the nickname “Hell’s Half Acre.” It got to the point that troops would pretend not to be injured to avoid being sent there.
Avis D. Schorer who served as a U.S. Army Nurse on Anzio recalled, on her arrival to the beachhead,
Soldiers gaped at us from their hideouts along the dusty road and shouted, “Women don’t belong here! Get out as fast as you can!”Schorer 128
In writing about the intensity of the work, she said,
We received the first casualties at noon on January 30. Others quickly followed, and by evening the wounded filled all surgical wards. Medical wards, the dental clinic, and supply tents became receiving wards. A steady flow of ambulances brought wounded to the hospital all day and all night.Schorer 136
In spite of terrible conditions and relentless attacks, the Allies on Anzio held through a bleak and muddy winter until at last the weather began to warm. By early March, the major German counter-attacks were largely spent, and they prepared for the inevitable Allied attempt to break out.
The break-out came at last, with the Allies launching their offensive on the night of the 11-12 of May. The push north for Rome began at last… but that’s really another story for another day.
There’s so much more to the story of Anzio—if you have things to add, Readers, please do so in the comments!
For more information, here are my main sources for today’s post. First, the three I cited for quotes:
-Churchill, Winston. The Second World War: Closing the Ring. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951. Print
-Mauldin, Bill. Up Front. Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1945. Print
-Schorer, Avis D. A Half Acre of Hell. Avis D. Schorer, 2000. Print
And other resources:
-The U.S. Center of Military History’s excellent brochure (Which includes links to a longer online book on Anzio)
–Operation Shingle: Landing at Anzio, Italy (from the Naval History and Heritage Command site)
-I also referenced notes I’d taken from The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson and Cassino: Portrait of a Battle by Fred Majdalany.
Below is information on the Book Launch Giveaway that I am currently running. This is the last pre-launch post! If you’re interested in entering, please read on. If not, thank you for stopping by!
- Two participants have a chance to win one of these pieces of WWII Allied Military Currency, a red poppy enamel pin, and a FREE copy (e-book or signed paperback) of my new novel, Where Shall I Flee?
- One participant will win these items and ALSO win a copy of Ruth G. Haskell’s book, Helmet’s and Lipstick, which tells about her experiences as a WWII U.S. Army nurse.
How to Participate
- Due to the complexities of international giveaway laws (not to mention shipping costs,) these prizes are limited to American citizens only. (Sorry.) Also, if you are under 18, you must have parental or guardian permission to participate. Void where prohibited.
- To enter, either comment on this blog post, or on my Facebook page with the words “Count Me In.”
- If you do not use Facebook or have difficulty commenting on WordPress (I’ve run into troubles sometimes) you may also send me an e-mail through my Contact page.)
- You may comment on all of the “launch posts” this week to be entered multiple times. Just one entry per day though, please.
- On launch day, November 1, I will put all of the entries into a hat and have a fair and impartial person (i.e. one of my kids) draw the names of the winners. I will post the names both on the blog and on Facebook. (If a name is drawn twice, we will redraw.)
- If you enter, please stop by the blog or Facebook page to check to see if you are a winner and find out how to claim your prize.
- **If I don’t hear back from winners by November 6th, I will redraw.**
AND if you’re wondering just what my upcoming book is all about, here’s the cover and the blurb!
Lieutenant Jean Hoff of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and infantryman Corporal George Novak have never met, but they have three things in common.
They are both driven by a past they’d rather leave behind.
They have both been sent to the embattled beachhead of Anzio, Italy.
And when they both wind up on the wrong side of the German lines, they must choose whether to resign themselves to captivity or risk a dangerous escape.
Where Shall I Flee? follows their journey through the dangers of World War II Italy, where faith vies with fear and forgiveness may be necessary for survival.