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Lucas at Anzio, 1944: What Next, General?

By Richard N. Armstrong
2/10/2017 • HistoryNet

It is early January 1944 as you assume the role of Major General John P. Lucas, commander of U.S. VI Corps that is currently fighting a tough war against skilled and determined German defenders in World War II’s Italian Campaign. Your corps is part of Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s U.S. 5th Army, which along with British 8th Army makes up the Allied 15th Army Group commanded by British General Harold Alexander. After the Allies invaded southern Italy at Salerno in September 1943, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s Axis-allied fascist government collapsed, ostensibly taking Italy out of the war. However, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, anticipating Mussolini’s overthrow, had reinforced German units in Italy, and by September major German forces occupied all of the Italian peninsula that was not then in Allied hands.

Under the command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, German defenders fought Allied armies to a standstill throughout the remainder of 1943, defeating every attempt by Alexander’s forces to forge a decisive breakthrough. Currently, 15th Army Group, with U.S. 5th Army on the left and British 8th Army on the right, faces Kesselring’s 10th Army that occupies a series of well-sited defensive positions known as the Winter Line. The strongest of these is the Gustav Line, which runs the width of the peninsula and includes formidable defenses around Monte Cassino blocking the Allies’ best route to Rome. While Kesselring’s 10th Army mans the forward lines, his 14th Army is responsible for defending central and northern Italy.

At British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s urging, Alexander has ordered Clark to mount an amphibious invasion at Anzio, well behind the German Gustav Line, aimed at breaking the stalemate. If successful, the invasion will outflank Kesselring’s Winter Line-Gustav Line, collapsing the German defenses and thus shortening the war in Italy. It could also offer the chance to launch a quick strike to capture Rome.

“SOFT UNDERBELLY” – “TOUGH OLD GUT”

Churchill had hoped that attacking Nazi Germany through the Mediterranean region and Italy would allow the Allies to exploit Europe’s “soft underbelly,” but that has proved to be wildly optimistic. Italy’s rugged terrain and miserable weather have exposed the “soft underbelly” to instead be a “tough old gut,” as Allied troops have taken to calling it. Indeed, the terrain is as much of a barrier to Allied progress as are the German defenders.

Kesselring’s Winter Line-Gustav Line defenses take maximum advantage of Italy’s rugged landscape. Habitually occupying the high ground, his defenders always seem to be perfectly positioned to bring concentrated artillery, mortar, machine-gun and small arms fire down upon attacking Allied troops who must launch their assaults from the valleys and low ground. Any Allied gains have come at the cost of horrific casualties, and when the German defenders are forced back, they simply withdraw to the next formidable high ground position. The Anzio invasion, codenamed Operation Shingle, offers the Allies a chance to outflank the enemy’s main defensive lines instead of continuing their bloody attempts to batter their way through them.

Anzio lies on a flat coastal plain of reclaimed marshland that extends inland for some 20 miles before the terrain abruptly rises in the north and northeast to heights of 3,000 feet. The northern part of this high ground consists of the Alban Hills, situated about 10 miles southeast of Rome. Three major roads fan out from Anzio and nearby Nettuno, each eventually intersecting with one of the two main highways – and key German supply routes – running from Rome to southern Italy.

While Kesselring is not oblivious to the possibility of an Allied amphibious invasion behind his main defense lines, he no doubt believes that he could contain any such attack by rapidly dispatching units from his principal reserve forces, LXXVI and XIV panzer corps. Allied planners estimate that within two days Kesselring could have the equivalent of two German divisions at Anzio, and that within a week he could have at least four to seven divisions, possibly more, ringing the beachhead. According to Allied intelligence, these German units might include 65th, 71st, 114th and 362d infantry divisions; 3d, 16th SS and 29th panzer grenadier divisions; 4th Fallschirmjäger (Paratroop) Division; and elements of Fallschirm-Panzer-Division 1 “Herman Göring.”

U.S. VI CORPS

At the end of December 1943, your VI Corps was removed from the front line to prepare for the Anzio operation, while the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) took its place. Since then, you and your staff, along with General Clark and his 5th Army staff, have been analyzing the mission to identify which units should comprise the initial assault elements and immediate follow-up forces. Throughout this process, Clark has emphasized the importance of establishing security at the Anzio beachhead to thwart enemy attempts to push your invasion troops back into the sea. You understand his concern – strong German counterattacks inflicted heavy casualties and nearly wiped out his troops’ toehold at the Salerno beachhead last September. His advice to you for Operation Shingle: “Don’t stick your neck out.”

Yet you know that General Alexander, pushed by Churchill, has ambitious goals for your operation. He hopes that the invasion force can move quickly inland to occupy the Alban Hills – the key to capturing Rome –or press even farther into the enemy’s rear area to seize the strategic road junction at Valmontone and thereby block German forces’ most important supply and transportation route. However, rapidly moving inland means advancing before the Anzio beachhead is fully consolidated and secured against the expected German counterattacks.

As commander of Operation Shingle, you have the responsibility to determine the proper balance between security and speed. But the main decision confronting you right now is the composition of the initial invasion force and immediate follow-up forces. You have identified several VI Corps and 5th Army units that are best suited for the amphibious operation, including 3d Infantry Division, 45th Infantry Division, 1st Armored Division, 504th Parachute Regiment, 509th Parachute Battalion, and Colonel William O. Darby’s regiment of Rangers. Alexander also has made available British 1st Infantry Division and British commandos.

With these forces to choose from, you have developed three possible courses of action for the invasion of Anzio:

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: LIGHT. Under this plan, in coordination with the Allies’ offensive against the Gustav Line, U.S. 3d Infantry Division, reinforced with Darby’s Rangers and the two paratrooper units, will seize a shallow beachhead at Anzio-Nettuno and then quickly move inland to capture the key terrain before substantial German forces can arrive. This option relies on speed of action rather than overwhelming numbers and depends on an early linkup with the 5th Army units breaking through the Gustav Line. However, going in “light” means that the responsibility for consolidating and securing the beachhead will be left to the VI Corps and 5th Army forces that will be landing later.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: HEAVY. With this option, U.S. 3d Infantry Division and British 1st Infantry Division, reinforced by Rangers, the two paratrooper units and British commandos, will conduct the initial amphibious landings in coordination with the Allies’ Gustav Line offensive. A British infantry brigade will be on immediate standby as a floating reserve. Once the initial invasion force takes the beachhead, strong follow-up forces composed of U.S. 1st Armored Division and U.S. 45th Infantry Division will assist the advance inland to seize the key terrain, cutting off German Gustav Line units and possibly even leading to an advance on Rome.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: MOBILE. The third plan calls for U.S. 3d Infantry Division, reinforced with Rangers, U.S. 1st Armored Division, reinforced with British commandos, and two paratrooper units to conduct the initial amphibious landings in coordination with the Allies’ Gustav Line offensive. A British infantry brigade will stand by as a floating reserve, and British 1st Infantry Division and U.S. 45th Infantry Division will land later as follow-up forces. Capitalizing on the mobility and shock action of the armored division, this option should allow the strong tank-infantry-paratrooper forces to move quickly beyond the beachhead and deep into the enemy rear area.

General Clark has directed you to brief him and his 5th Army staff on your Anzio invasion plan within the next two days. Therefore, you have little time to waste in deciding which option offers VI Corps the best chance of success.

What next, General Lucas?

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: LIGHT

You decide that the best way to ensure the security of the beachhead is to move inland as rapidly as possible to occupy the key terrain before Kesselring can send substantial German forces to oppose the invasion. You know from experience that the more units involved in an amphibious attack, the longer it takes to get all the components landed, organized and properly prepared to conduct combat operations. Therefore, you believe your smartest choice is to land a smaller, lighter, more agile invasion force like the one in the first plan.Moreover, 3d Infantry Division is led by the best division commander in 5th Army, Major General Lucian K. Truscott Jr.

On January 17, 1944, 5th Army launche sits attack on the Gustav Line. As expected, Kesselring rushes reinforcements from the north to bolster his defenders there. This works to your advantage, as the Anzio region is left with minimum defenses.

D-Day at Anzio begins just after dawn on January 22 as Truscott’s 3d Infantry Division hits the beach northwest of Anzio, while Darby’s Rangers and the paratrooper units,fighting as regular infantry, come ashore at Nettuno. As the paratroopers move to seize the port facilities at Anzio, the Rangers strikeout for Le Ferriere on their way to Cisterna.At the same time, Truscott sends a 3d Division regiment toward Campoleone and another one to Aprilia. Although enemy resistance is light, the foot soldiers’ slow progress takes up valuable time.

By the morning of January 23, the Rangers have occupied Cisterna, but neither 3dDivision regiment has reached its objective.Truscott visits both regimental command posts to express his displeasure with the slow rate of advance, and soon both units are moving at a fast pace – 3d Division soldiers call it the “Truscott trot.” By nightfall,3d Division troops have taken Campoleone and Aprilia and are ordered to continue advancing inland the next morning.

Kesselring is likely confused by what he considers the relatively small size of your Anzio invasion force and may suspect that you are leading a feint or diversionary invasion to get him to divert troops from his Gustav Line, thereby weakening it in the face of 5thArmy’s attack. However, he cannot afford to completely ignore your incursion into his rear area and thus begins sending some German units to the Anzio region on January 24.

That same day, you move your headquarters to Anzio and order further advances to occupy the key terrain and block the main roads leading to the Gustav Line. You direct Truscott to move his 3d Division regiment at Campoleone to Albano and his regiment at Aprilia to Volletri, and you order Darby to advance his Rangers as far as Valmontone. Your intention is to occupy an arc of high ground from Albano to Valmontone, with the regiment at Volletri linking the left and right flank positions. You hold3d Division’s third infantry regiment and the paratrooper units in reserve, ready to respond to any German counterattacks.

On January 25, you receive word that5th Army’s attack is bogged down in front of strong German defenses centering on Monte Cassino. This is troubling news since you are depending on an early linkup with Clark’s army. However, you are encouraged by reports that all 3d Division and Ranger objectives have been captured and your forward units are in firm control of the arc of key high ground. Although your inland forces have encountered a number of German patrols, the enemy has not counterattacked or attempted to mount any strong opposition to your invasion.

Unfortunately, the reason for this becomes clear the night of January 25-26. Just after midnight, five German divisions counterattack and hit the lightly guarded flanks of your Anzio beachhead. You realize that Kesselring intends to cut off and trap your inland units – the bulk of your invasion force – through a coordinated pincer movement that will strike the beachhead from both flanks and recapture Anzio and Nettuno.

Before dawn on January 26, you commit your reserve 3d Division regiment and paratroopers to block the German pincers, yet within only a few hours the enemy panzers and infantrymen overwhelm these forces. The Germans capture Anzio and Nettuno that afternoon, effectively trapping your entire invasion force. Although you and a few of your soldiers manage to escape via landing craft to the safety of the invasion fleet ships, all of the men you are leaving behind must soon surrender.

Operation Shingle has been an unmitigated failure – and a disaster of this magnitude needs scapegoats. You and Clark are both relieved of command, while Alexander is quietly transferred to an administrative post.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: HEAVY

In response to General Clark’s continued emphasis on securing the beachhead as your first priority, you decide to invade Anzio using the “heavy” option. Two reinforced infantry divisions will conduct the initial amphibious landing, followed up by a British infantry brigade and two additional divisions.

On January 17, 1944, five days before Operation Shingle’s “D-Day,” 5th Army begins its offensive against the German Gustav Line. Two days into the Allied attack, intelligence reports that Kesselring is moving reserve forces from the north to reinforce his Gustav Line defenders. This works in your favor, as it draws forces away from the Anzio region.

At dawn on D-Day, January 22, you direct British 1st Infantry Division to land north of Anzio and hold the beachhead’s left flank while U.S. 3d Infantry Division and 504th Parachute Regiment go ashore south of Nettuno to seize and hold the right flank. Fighting as regular infantry, Darby’s Rangers and 509th Parachute Battalion land at Anzio to capture the port facilities.

That afternoon, General Clark and General Alexander pay you a visit, and Clark repeats his “don’t stick your neck out” advice, adding, “I did at Salerno and got into trouble.”

On January 24, you move your head quarters to the beachhead area. However,by this time the Germans have two and a half divisions blocking the roads leading out of the Anzio area, with elements of Fallschirm-Panzer-Division “Herman Göring” seizing the bridges along the beachhead’s eastern flank. The Germans also have shut off the region’s drainage pumps, causing the reclaimed marshland to become flooded.Worse, heavy artillery fire originating from the hills beyond Anzio inflicts many casualties in your invasion force and hampers the landings of follow-up forces.

You send patrols toward Albano and Cisterna, and they find elements of 3dPanzer Grenadier Division at Genzano.Meanwhile, Truscott’s 3d Infantry Division cannot advance beyond Le Ferriere. You order some limited attacks, but attempts to reach Cisterna are unsuccessful. It is clear that you must bring ashore more forces and completely secure the beachhead before any major offensives can advance inland.

U.S. 45th Infantry Division and U.S. 1st Armored Division land in the increasingly crowded beachhead to bolster your force, yet the attacks you order on the night of January 29-30 are only partially successful. U.S.3d Division fails to take Cisterna, and British1st Division is stopped short of Campoleone despite assistance from a regiment of 1stArmored Division. VI Corps is now pinned down in a defensive beachhead that is ringed by German units and constantly pummeled by artillery fire.

On the night of February 3, the Germans attack British 1st Division in an attempt to break through and drive to the sea. After six days of bitter fighting, the enemy assault is stopped but British 1st Division is driven back to a position south of Aprilia. Kesselring continues to move units into the Anzio area and is in a strong position to push your forces into the water.

On February 10, you approve a plan by U.S. 45th Division and British 1st Division to attack through Aprilia. Unfortunately, you fail to ensure the attack is properly coordinated and supported by sufficient artillery. It fails and the units are repulsed.

Throughout February 16-19, your corps holds back a major German counterattack by eight divisions attempting to crush your beachhead. Despite defeating this powerful threat, your command of Operation Shingle comes under increasingly intense criticism, particularly from Churchill and Alexander.

Finally, on February 22, bowing to pressure from Alexander, Clark relieves you of VI Corps command and replaces you with Truscott. The ultimate fate of the operation is now Truscott’s responsibility.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: MOBILE

You believe that the mobility and shock action of an armored division will give Operation Shingle the “punch” it needs to drive inland and seize the key terrain to sever Kesselring’s vital lines of communications. Therefore, you decide to launch U.S. 1st Armored Division and U.S. 3d Infantry Division plus additional mobile forces in the initial invasion,and you will hold a British infantry brigade in reserve. British 1st Infantry Division and U.S.45th Infantry Division will be brought ashore expeditiously as follow-up forces.

On January 17, 5th Army launches its offensive against the Gustav Line. This causes Kesselring to move reserve units from the north to reinforce his front-line defenders, thereby leaving the Anzio region with fewer German forces.

Before dawn on “D-Day,” January 22,504th Parachute Regiment conducts an airborne assault against Albano, blocking the main road leading from Anzio to Rome,while 509th Parachute Battalion drops on Cisterno. A few hours later, your amphibious landing forces come ashore at Anzio and encounter only minefields and weak resistance from the surprised defenders.

Your first assault waves occupy the immediate beachhead area, and shortly thereafter, 1st Armored Division, using its superior mobility, rapidly moves inland along the Anzio-Albano road. The division’s armored spearheads advance unopposed through Campoleone and link up with the airborne regiment at Albano. The tankers and paratroopers seize the Alban Hills, thereby dominating the approaches to Rome. Meanwhile, 3d Infantry Division advances its leading units to Cisterna, where they link up with509th Parachute Battalion.

Clark and Alexander visit you on the  afternoon of D-Day. Although Clark is worried about the speed of your inland advance – repeating his “don’t stick your neck out” advice – Alexander dismisses his concerns and praises you on the invasion’s accomplishments so far.

You dispatch a scouting force toward Rome to assess the city’s defenses, and you order a reconnaissance in force by 504thParachute Regiment to the strategically located town of Valmontone. The paratroopers easily seize Valmontone and cut the main road and railway supplying the German Gustav Line. By capturing the Alban Hills and Valmontone, your corps has achieved the operation’s objective of severing the lines of communications that are vital to the Gustav Line defenders.

Your superb exploitation of mobile forces to seize the key inland terrain and to expand the beachhead in several directions has confused German commanders about your invasion’s objective, size and force disposition. Although Kesselring has moved several units to the region, he cannot accurately determine where to counterattack your landings. Therefore, you hold the initiative while Kesselring merely reacts to your aggressive actions.

A window of good weather allows you to build up your forces in the beachhead area to over 60,000 troops with 500 artillery guns and 300 tanks by January 29.Allied air forces fly thousands of sorties each day over the beachhead and in close support of your advance units.

Kesselring is left with no choice but to attempt to extricate his armies from southern and central Italy. He orders them to retreat to the north of Rome, which will be evacuated and declared an “open city.” Yet with your invasion blocking the main enemy lines of communications and 5th Army advancing quickly in the wake of the German retreat from the Gustav Line, Kesselring’s armies are at great risk of being caught in a giant pincer movement and annihilated. If the Allied armies continue to aggressively press there treating Germans, your Anzio invasion will shorten the war in Italy.

You receive word from Clark, via Alexander, that Churchill is jubilant over your success in Operation Shingle. You have even heard rumors that you are being considered for promotion to command an army.

HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS

Heeding Clark’s “don’t stick your neck out” advice, Lucas decided to land a “heavy” force of two reinforced divisions backed by strong follow-up forces (COURSE OF ACTION TWO: HEAVY). The battle unfolded as described in the COA Two narrative.

Instead of aggressively pushing the invaders inland to seize the key terrain and cut off Kesselring’s Gustav Line defenders, Lucas concentrated on building up security at Anzio by pouring more troops, weapons and equipment onto the increasingly crowded beachhead, where they came under sustained German artillery fire. This surrendered the battlefield initiative to Kesselring and gave him time to move numerous divisions to key terrain ringing the beachhead, thereby preventing Lucas from expanding it.

Although Operation Shingle was conceived by Winston Churchill and launched at his urging, he laid full blame for its failure on Lucas’ lack of aggressive leadership,saying, “I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.”

On February 22, 1944, Clark relieved Lucas of VI Corps command and replaced him with 3d Infantry Division’s Major General Lucian K. Truscott Jr. Lucas returned to the United States in March and spent the remainder of the war in a state side training command. He died in 1949 at the age of 59.

In May 1944, Truscott was finally able to break out of the Anzio beachhead, but instead of moving to cut off the bulk of Kesselring’s defenders, he was ordered by Clark to strike directly for Rome, which was liberated on June 4. Kesselring withdrew German 10th Army to the north of Rome, where he established yet another line of formidable defenses called the Gothic Line. The war in Italy then dragged on until May 1945.

 

Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong has written numerous military affairs/history articles for professional and historical journals and has authored several books, including “Red Army Tank Commanders” and “Soviet Operational Deception.”

Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Armchair General.

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