How fierce German counterattacks came within one mile of destroying an Allied invasion
The old Prussian army used to have a saying: “Don’t ask how many enemies. Just ask where.” The slogan made sense for an army that usually fought larger, richer foes and that had no choice but to emphasize willpower over weapons, heart over high technology. Prussian officers were not supposed to count the odds but to fight outnumbered and win.
Their German descendants had the same mission in the later years of World War II. Take the Italian campaign. When it began in 1943, the Allies held all the high cards: endless waves of men, tanks, guns, and aircraft, and absolute control of the sea. Nevertheless, the men and officers of the Wehrmacht fought grimly, clinging to every mountain, river, and ridge, and contesting every inch of ground. Perhaps if they held on long enough, they would find a way to return to the attack like the Prussians of old. Perhaps the Allies would get sloppy, make a false move, and give them an opening.
Then one day in late January 1944, the Allies did just that. They landed a small amphibious force—too small, as it turned out—on the western shores of the Italian peninsula, between the neighboring towns of Anzio and Nettuno. Operation Shingle was everything a military operation should not be: badly planned, indifferently led, and uncertain of its own purpose. Even worse, the landing handed the Wehrmacht an opportunity to do what it did best: launch a full-scale offensive. In the subsequent fighting, the Germans came perilously close to crumpling the Allied beachhead, closer than they would ever come again to a battlefield triumph in this war. Anzio was the Last Ride of the Prussians.
SHINGLE WAS AN ATTEMPT TO OUTFLANK THE GUSTAV LINE—which crossed the Italian peninsula 60 miles south of Anzio—by landing at Anzio in the German rear. It was ill fated from the start, and the trouble began at the top. Winston Churchill, the king of the cigar-butt strategists, conceived it. Lieutenant General Mark Clark, the problem child of the Allied command, planned it; and Major General John Lucas of the VI Corps was the less-than-inspiring commander tabbed to lead it in the field. But the trouble ran deeper than flawed personalities. A scarcity of landing craft kept the invasion force small, just two divisions: British 1st Division (Major General W. R. C. Penney) and U.S. 3rd Infantry Division (Major General Lucian K. Truscott Jr.). The Normandy landing loomed just months away, and the Allies could not afford to tie up too much precious equipment or too many troops on what was considered a sideshow. Prelanding exercises were a fiasco, with the men strewn hither and yon and several landing craft sunk. Even Truscott, a tough guy who once summed up his battle philosophy in the pithy phrase “No sonofabitch, no commander,” wondered if they were embarking on a suicide mission.
Despite these problems, the landings on January 22 went smoothly at first. German fire was practically absent, and 36,000 Allied soldiers were ashore by nightfall. And no wonder—the landing had taken the Germans completely by surprise. From the theater commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, on down, no one had foreseen such an attack coming at this time. Days earlier, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence (the Abwehr), had visited Kesselring’s headquarters and reported that he didn’t see “the slightest sign of an imminent landing in the near future.” Ship traffic in Naples harbor was normal. “You can sleep easy tonight,” Canaris told the boss.
Now the Allies had landed, and the sector between Anzio and Rome was practically undefended. Lucas had a clear path forward but refused to advance; he remained more focused on the security of his beachhead than a drive to glory. His failure to act is easy to criticize, but it was not the cause of Shingle’s failure. Rather, the difference was the boldness and speed of the Wehrmacht’s reaction. Over the centuries, Prussian-German commanders had prided themselves on their reaction time: recognizing the inherent uncertainty of war, accepting sudden changes of fortune, and crafting improvised solutions on the spur of the moment.
For Kesselring and his staff, it was scramble time. The Allies landed at 2 in the morning. Within the hour, Kesselring’s operations chief, Colonel Dietrich Beelitz, had awakened the chief of staff, Colonel Siegfried Westphal, with the news. Contingency plans were already on the books in the event of “a large-scale landing near Rome,” and Westphal now gave the simple code word “Richard” to set the plans in motion. By the time Westphal had briefed Kesselring at 5 a.m., the Wehrmacht machinery was already humming. Kesselring kick-started things locally by ordering General Maximilian von Pohl, in command of Rome’s antiaircraft defenses, to scrounge up every 88mm gun he could find to set up an antitank screen south of Rome. Pohl got it done by noon.
Divisions from the four corners of Italy and beyond were already streaming toward Anzio. They included the 71st Division, just settling in on the Cassino front; most of the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division; field artillery battalions, heavy artillery, and a reconnaissance battalion from 26th Panzer Division; elements of 1st Fallschirmjäger Division; and more. They all reached Anzio the next day, January 23, along with regiments of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division and 15th Panzergrenadier Division. This was “lightning war,” indeed.
By January 25, when Colonel General Eberhard von Mackensen arrived from northern Italy to take command of the new Fourteenth Army, he already had a solid three-division picket in a crescent around the beachhead: 65th Infantry Division on his right, defending the line of the Moletta River in the west; 3rd Panzergrenadier Division in the center, defending Albano; and the Herman Göring Panzer Division on the left, masking Cisterna, Valmontone, and points east. As more reinforcements rolled in, Mackensen was able to establish a two-corps battle array: I Fallschirmjäger on his right under General Alfred Schlemm and LXXVI Panzer Corps on his left under General Traugott Herr, a Panzer commander and one of the Wehrmacht’s legendary fighting figures. Herr had taken a chunk of shrapnel to the head in front of Nalchik during the Caucasus campaign in November 1942, but it had barely slowed him down. Behind these two corps stood a pair of first-rate reserve divisions, the 29th Panzergrenadier and 26th Panzer. Just that quickly, the Germans had built an iron wall around the Anzio beachhead.
With the Allies ashore and the Germans present in force, static warfare clamped down on both sides. The Germans sat everywhere on the high ground around the shallow Allied beachhead, 7 miles deep by 15 wide; they could observe every square inch of the Allied position and were able to bring down murderous artillery fire at any point they chose. Besides the regular batteries, the Germans had rocket launchers, heavy guns of the Fourteenth Army reserve, even a pair of 280mm Krupp heavy railway guns, firing 560-pound projectiles with a range of 40 miles. The typical GI or Tommy in the “bitchhead” learned to live with the constant feeling of being watched and to accept the seemingly random nature of death by German artillery fire. He no longer walked upright, but in an irregular half-crouch, half-crawl, with helmet jammed down as low as possible: the famous “Anzio amble.”
For the next four months, neither side was able to move the front very far one way or the other. That is not to say they didn’t try. On January 30, day nine at Anzio, U.S. VI Corps launched a general offensive by the British on the left and the Americans on the right, aiming to seize the Alban Hills and to “continue the advance on Rome.” The attack hit tough resistance from the start and faltered early. The British managed to open up a pencil-thin salient along the main north-south artery, the Via Anziate, or Anzio Road, with Campoleone at the tip. The American attack opened disastrously and resulted in the destruction of two battalions of U.S. Army Rangers in an attack on Cisterna.
THE GERMANS EXPERIENCED MUCH THE SAME IN REVERSE during their first counterattack on February 4. The original plan was a classic German assault by concentric columns: Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer (elements of 65th Infantry and 4th Fallschirmjäger Divisions) driving in from the west; Kampfgruppe Gräser (portions of 3rd Panzergrenadier and 715th Infantry Divisions) attacking straight down the Anzio Road from the north; and Kampfgruppe Conrath (elements of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division) launching a thrust from Cisterna in the northeast. But the Allied attack had taken ground that was essential as a staging zone for the German offensive, so Mackensen’s first attack was only a partial blow (teilangriff), not a full-on attempt to smash the beachhead.
The son of one of Germany’s most notable World War I field marshals, Eberhard von Mackensen had been born to command. He had his father’s knightly and monarchist traditions, a touch of National Socialist ruthlessness, and a great deal of operational acumen. Thus far in the war, he had been chief of staff to the Fourteenth Army in Poland, then to the Twelfth Army in France, and commander of III Panzer Corps (part of First Panzer Army) during Barbarossa. In the 1942 campaign Mackensen first sealed off an immense Soviet encirclement at Kharkov in May, then served as the point of First Panzer Army’s drive into the Don River bend and the Caucasus. He was as aggressive a panzer commander as the Wehrmacht had in 1944, a man tailor-made for the task that he now faced.
Mackensen’s first order of business was the reduction of the “Campoleone salient,” a tactically absurd position that the British probably should have abandoned in the first place. A second stage attack could then thrust down to Aprilia at the base of the salient, a stronghold of stone buildings controlling the roads in the area the Allies called “the Factory.” The attack should have been a signal German triumph. Two converging drives, each less than a mile, would cut off the base of the salient and trap Penney’s 1st Division inside, cutting it off from outside supply and rendering it helpless for the kill. And then on to the Factory.
It should have been easy, but it wasn’t. The 3rd Panzergrenadiers led things off, hitting the tip of the salient, but the British fought them to a standstill. German attempts later in the day to pinch off the salient at the base succeeded temporarily, with 65th and 715th Divisions linking up and cutting off British 3rd Brigade. But a series of counterattacks, both from inside the salient and from the outside by 168th Brigade (part of the newly arrived British 56th Division), pried open the path to 3rd Brigade, and the Germans never did reclose it. All day long, Lieutenant General Fritz Hubert Gräser’s assault forces were under a furious artillery barrage. With the Germans driving along a single road, Allied artillery and naval gunfire had its pick of lucrative targets. The day ended with the British still holding fast, although 3rd Brigade evacuated its exposed position that night and retreated to Aprilia. The two armies had traded heavy losses, some 1,500 men each, on a very small piece of ground.
The next day, February 5, Mackensen launched a second teilangriff, with Hermann Göring and 26th Panzer Divisions coming down from Cisterna toward Monte Rotto. On February 7 he ordered a thrust against Buonriposo Ridge to the left of the Anzio Road by elements of 65th Infantry Division. Both were reruns of the assault on Campoleone: initial gains, close positional fighting, then a full stop under a hail of Allied shells. The final stage of this first attack, a drive on Aprilia on February 9, was more of the same. The initial push forced the British back a mile or so and the Germans did take the Factory, but they could get no farther in the face of Allied fire.
So what to do now? Kesselring was the optimist, pushing for an immediate renewal of the offensive. Mackensen was just as aggressive, but he didn’t want to get good men killed for no reason and felt he needed more time to prepare the attack. Frankly, he had also forgotten more about land warfare than Kesselring (a Luftwaffe airman) ever knew, and their relations grew increasingly testy. The debate ended, as always, with a decision by Adolf Hitler. The führer and his operations chief, General Alfred Jodl, felt the time was right for a new blow at Anzio. Shattering the Anzio beachhead, they argued, would stand as a warning to the Allies about the prospects for their upcoming invasion of Western Europe. Of course neither Hitler nor Jodl, or anyone else from the inner circle, bothered to visit the beachhead or to inspect conditions there, and like so many orders emanating from the “gentlemen in Rastenburg,” Hitler’s military headquarters, this one bore little relevance to battlefield reality.
THE PLAN DEVELOPED BY THE GERMAN SUPREME COMMAND of the Armed Forces for a second, powerful counterattack was Operation Fischfang (Fish Haul), yet another southward thrust down the Anzio Road to split the bridgehead and “tear it apart from the inside.” The first, or breakthrough, echelon consisted of 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, the 715th Division, and the 114th Jäger Division, along with the newly arrived Infantry Lehr Regiment, a demonstration and test-bed for new equipment and tactics. Lehr would be on point, attacking on a narrow front just three and a half miles wide and quickly overwhelming the defenders. The second, or exploitation, echelon included 26th Panzer Division under Lieutenant General Smilo von Lüttwitz and the experienced 29th Panzergrenadier Division under Lieutenant General Walter Fries, and a battalion each of Mark V Panther and Mark VI Tiger tanks in support.
Fischfang kicked off at 6:30 a.m. on February 16 with a general barrage by virtually every German gun at Anzio. As always, the assault troops moved out smartly, with the first wave—Infantry Lehr Regiment, 3rd Panzergrenadier, and 715th Divisions—throwing back the outposts of the British 56th and U.S. 45th Infantry Divisions. Allied artillery soon responded in kind. The Germans estimated a 20-to-1 Allied superiority in guns, although it might have seemed like a 1,000-to-1 to the poor German soldiers at the front. German Panzers struggled to get forward over the muddy ground, and even in areas where the ground was hard enough for tank operations, a tangled network of gullies blocked their advance. Losses were heavy on both sides, reflecting big firepower on a small front, and by day’s end, the Germans had ground forward less than a mile south out of Aprilia. The Allied line had held. Indeed, the VI Corps still had not inserted its reserve, the Sherman tanks of the U.S. 1st Armored Division.
Despite that gloomy first day, the Germans, too, held uncommitted reserves: the 29th Panzergrenadier and 26th Panzer Divisions. The German command spent the night of February 16–17 debating how best to employ them. Kesselring was for inserting them into battle immediately, Mackensen and LXXVI Panzer Corps commander Herr wanted to wait and see; perhaps another day of wearing down the Allies would create more favorable conditions for a breakthrough and then a quick shot down to Anzio. In the end they compromised. The first wave was to continue the attack during the night, giving the enemy no respite, probing and infiltrating the Allied line where possible, with the panzers in support. Come daybreak, they would see where they were and make plans accordingly.
By dawn on the 17th, they all looked like geniuses. The night attacks pried open a gap between the U.S. 179th and 157th Infantry Regiments just before midnight, then exploited the gap with infantry and 60 tanks. Morning saw the Germans again on the move, ripping a two-mile gash in 45th Division’s front and advancing over a mile. One mile is hardly the stuff of operational legend, but Anzio was only eight miles away. Turning an Allied operational problem into a near catastrophe, the 179th under the command of Colonel Malcolm Kammerer, tried to withdraw in the afternoon in broad daylight, an inept move that brought down a storm of German fire and led to heavy losses.
The crisis was upon the Allies, and they spent the day doing what they had done when facing a failing beachhead at Salerno, blasting away with every gun they could muster: field artillery, naval guns, repurposed 90mm antiaircraft guns, main gun fire from the tanks of 1st Armored Division. But this crisis called for more, and the Allies got it: 730 sorties by the XII Tactical Air Command, perhaps the greatest day of ground support in military history up to that point. Topping it off was the carpet-bombing: 288 B-24 and B-17 bombers dropping over 1,100 tons of ordnance on this tiny battlefield. Beaten at the game of fire, German momentum slowed, then stopped, and the second day ended with the Wehrmacht again short of a breakthrough.
Now the Germans faced a crisis. Their losses were staggering. The first-wave divisions were ghosts, and their infantry battalions, the backbone of divisional fighting strength, had just 120 to 150 men apiece. But Mackensen still had two untouched mechanized divisions in reserve: 29th Panzergrenadier and 26th Panzer. Both were full strength and led by aggressive Prussian commanders of the old school: Fries and Lüttwitz. As the war had shown again and again, German forces rarely admitted defeat before they had inserted their final reserve. While German commanders rarely defended to the last man, they almost always fought forward to the last. One staff officer spoke for them all when he declared, “We could not possibly break off a half-won battle at five minutes to midnight.”
When the big attack came on February 18, day three of Fischfang, it very nearly cracked the Allied line. Mackensen had the mechanized divisions abreast, a huge force by Anzio standards, and spent the day riding them hard, probing for weak spots, and shifting his schwerpunkt (main point of effort) as he glimpsed opportunities. German artillery played a key role from its hidden positions in the mountain, and for once the Germans had enough tanks at the point of impact. Again the Germans tore a gash in the Allied front, overrunning the hard-luck U.S. 179th Infantry Regiment and heading south toward the objective that now seemed within their grasp.
By afternoon they had hustled the Americans back to the “Corps Beachhead Line”—a fortified position anchored on the hill mass just north of Anzio. All day long fighting raged along Route 82, the lateral east-west road that stretched along the beachhead line. The two focal points for the slaughter were a crossroads position called “the Flyover,” actually an overpass where Route 82 crossed over the Anzio Road, and a tangled mass of sandstone north of the Flyover called “the Caves.”
The CBL was the last ditch for the Allies and the ultimate objective for the Germans. Every step the Allies took backward was a step closer to disaster. From where they stood on Route 82, there were not even seven miles from the ocean. But just one mile behind them lay the command post of the 45th Infantry Division, and if the tanks of 29th Panzergrenadier overran it, the battle was as good as over. For the Germans, every bound forward brought them closer to victory but also seemed to exponentially increase Allied fire. Allied guns in the Padiglione Wood just south of Route 82 were less than a mile away, and the British and American gunners might as well have been delivering their shells by hand. The Germans had penetrated in the center but not on the flanks and were driving themselves into a cul-de-sac of Allied artillery. Late in the afternoon a few panzers actually passed under the Flyover before being drilled by U.S. antitank fire. That was as far as the advance got. By now casualties in the assault divisions—26th Panzer and 29th Panzergrenadier—had topped 40 percent. The forward drive tapered off, then stopped. The Wehrmacht had failed to crush the beachhead at Anzio. In a single bloody month, each side had taken 20,000 casualties on a battlefield the size of a closet. While neither had been able to force a decision, it was clear that the Allied beachhead wasn’t going anywhere.
ANZIO WAS MORE THAN ONE FAILED ATTACK. It was a frustrating moment for every German officer present, indeed for the German way of war itself. From the time the Allies invaded Italy, the Werhmacht had met their every move forward with an immediate and vicious counterattack. During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, the U.S. Army wound up with a panzer division in its face within hours of landing. In September 1943 the landing force at Salerno got six of them within a few days and came very close to being driven back into the sea. The same thing happened at Anzio: a powerful panzer attack on the bridgehead that again came within a hair of success. From Frederick the Great, with his preference for “short and lively wars” and his insistence that “the Prussian Army always attacks,” down to Major General Paul Conrath of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division, who once summed up his art of war as “an immediate, reckless rush at the enemy,” Prussian-German armies lived by the offensive and by coordinated attacks along concentric lines.
But those keeping score will note that none of it had worked. The Allies always seemed to endure. Enemy numbers, fire superiority, and battlefield experience all conspired to rob the once irresistible panzer thrust of its force. Kampfkraft, the “combat power” that formed the essence of the Wehrmacht at war, was no longer enough. To Colonel Westphal, the abortive attack at Anzio and the blizzard of Allied fire that smothered it was the key moment of the entire conflict, a turning point “similar to August 8, 1918.” It was time to face facts. “The blanket has gotten too thin,” he noted bitterly, using an old peasant expression for lean times:
After almost five years of war, the troops were no longer capable of the attack. Most of the commanders we’d trained in peacetime were pushing up daisies. Their successors couldn’t consistently coordinate the fire of the various arms for maximum concentration in combat.
“No longer capable of the attack”: ominous words indeed for a way of war that lived and died by the offensive.
On that muddy field of Anzio, an old way of war bowed to a new one, based on industry, mass production, and mountains of high explosive. The Allied way of war wasn’t particularly pretty, but it blew up enough things and killed enough people to get the job done. At Anzio an ordinary bunch of guys in olive drab named Joe were all that stood between the panzers and their prey. Never again would the Wehrmacht come this close. With 29th Panzergrenadier Division, Tiger tanks, and 300 years of military tradition bearing down on him, Joe met the Last Charge of the Prussians and blunted it. MHQ
Robert M. Citino, a professor at the University of North Texas, has written many histories, including The German Way of War, Death of the Wehrmacht, and Quest for Decisive Victory.
PHOTO: Despite troubled origins Operation Shingle opened smoothly, and the Allied landings at Anzio caught the Germans Napping. By nightfall January 22, some 36,000 men were ashore, thanks in part to special equipment, including DUKW amphibious trucks, that Allied factories had been churning out in 1944. George Silk/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Last Ride at Anzio.
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