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Rangers who stormed the Italian coastal city on January 22, 1944, literally caught the Germans with their pants down.

On the evening of Friday, January 21, 1944, Berthold Richter, a 19-year-old engineer in 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, wrote a letter to his parents. “I am looking forward to some leave soon and hope to see you both. I miss you terribly….I have not been able to write as often as I would have liked and fear that I am not much of a son nor a brother. Please send my love to Anna and tell her that I miss her too. I would imagine that she has grown since I last saw her.” He signed off “Your loving son, Bertie” and attached a recently taken photograph of himself in uniform posing by the Coliseum.

Grenadier Richter was a good-looking young man, with a shock of black hair and bright blue eyes. He had left his family in Hamburg for basic training 12 months before and had not been home since. Had he returned, those who had known him would have noticed that he had changed— he had lost a little weight, but he also stood differently, and there was something unfathomable about his expression. Richter had seen his commanding officer blown up during the fighting in Sicily, cradled his dying best friend in his arms at Salerno and been wounded twice during the fighting in the mountains. His division had eventually been pulled out of the line for a refit and a time in reserve near Rome. Here Richter had briefly—but fully—sampled the pleasures of the capital city, where he drank and smoked heavily and lost his virginity to a prostitute. Now he was at the Italian coastal city of Anzio, one of a 380-man unit that had only the previous day been enjoying the sea air, conducting some training exercises and making preparations for the demolition of the harbor.

Richter slipped the sealed letter in his breast pocket as a comrade staggered through the door of their seafront billet with two cases of “liberated” wine. With the town evacuated and offering so little to entice the men, they settled in for some drinking, singing and gambling. Richter enjoyed himself, at one point falling off a table as he danced with a wooden chair, before falling fast asleep fully clothed on a mattress on the floor. It is likely that he was awakened by the sound of the approaching Allied landing craft and had gone to investigate. The shots that killed him had propelled his comrades out of bed and into the waiting arms of Allied troops. Before being escorted into captivity, Richter’s friends saw his body curled in a fetal position surrounded by a large puddle of blood on the esplanade.

Nearly 800 5-inch rockets had crashed into the buildings and along the waterfront of Anzio and nearby Nettuno during the opening phase of the Allied landing 30 miles south of Rome known as “Operation Shingle.” The wall of explosions killed and wounded some sentries, dropped masonry down onto the sleeping, cut telephone lines and detonated mines. But its psychological effect on the enemy was even more impressive, sending those still capable of a fight reeling into the first waves of the Fifth Army’s U.S. VI Corps, a formation consisting of American and British divisions under the command of Maj. Gen. John Lucas. Their confidence boosted by the pyrotechnics, Lucas’ assault waves stormed the beaches to the sound of their own descending might, but silence from an overawed enemy. BBC war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas recalls: “I braced myself for the shock of the searchlights stabbing out from the shore, followed by the tracers pouring over the waters. But again a silence more intense than ever held the whole area as the assault craft crept in….The incredible had happened. We had got the one thing we had never bargained for, utter, complete surprise.”

The Allied landings were an unexpected success. Lucas noted in his diary: “We achieved what is certainly one of the most complete surprises in history. The Germans were caught off base and there was practically no opposition to the landing….The [USS] Biscayne was anchored 31⁄2 miles off shore, and I could not believe my eyes when I stood on the bridge and saw no machine gun or other fire on the beach.”

Lucas had expected a tough fight to take the harbor, and the Rangers had been specially selected for this mission after their excellent performances in Tunisia and Sicily. Their commander, the burly Colonel William O. Darby of Arkansas, recognized the nature of the challenge that faced his force, as the beach was narrow and overlooked by buildings. He had told mission planners: “When I run out of the landing-craft I don’t want to have to look right or left,” and that is exactly what happened. When Darby disembarked from his landing craft, he ran straight up the beach, across the road and into the Paradiso sul Mare, a large white twin-domed art deco casino built in the 1920s.

As he set up his command post, his men, followed by the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, fanned out and within minutes were bringing back prisoners. Richter’s friend Ralph Leitner recalls: “These soldiers had adrenaline pumping through their veins and itchy trigger fingers. They looked fearsome. I recognized them as Rangers from their dress and the black, red and white insignia on their sleeve and knew instantly to respect them.”

The speed and surprise of the attack had given the Germans no time in which to react. The London Times later reported on one illustrative action: “At a German command post, from which the occupants fled when the Rangers landed, rooms were left in disorder, even to the remnants of a meal which had included sardines, Czech beans, and Danish bacon. Near by lay two German soldiers, shot as they ran from their machine-guns.” Some Germans did not even have time to get dressed. One American private remembers bumping into a half-naked man in the darkness of Anzio: “As our squad entered a gloomy narrow street I could see a pair of fleshy white buttocks wobbling in the opposite direction and I shouted ‘Halt!’ as loud as I could. The man stopped, raised his hands, turned and walked towards us. We could tell that he was shocked—and perhaps a little embarrassed—because he was only dressed in a vest. At first I thought that he might be an Italian, but he found his confidence when he knew that we were not going to shoot him and started swearing at us in German. His thin legs were shivering below a great pot belly. It was my first encounter with the Master Race.”

Anzio was secured by 0800 hours and Nettuno two hours later. By midmorning on January 22, as a weak sun gently warmed the embryonic beachhead, Lucas had good reason to feel thoroughly satisfied. The landing had been a great success, and his divisions were forging a beachhead against negligible opposition.

It is not certain who raised the alarm, but by 0300 the news had reached Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s headquarters in Monte Sorrate. The commander of German armed forces in Italy had been awakened with the code words “Case Richard.” As he dressed hurriedly, a staff officer apprised him of the situation: There had been a landing in the Anzio–Nettuno area—details were scant—but it could be up to four divisions. Kesselring’s mind lurched into action, running through the implications of the news and various scenarios that it could lead to. There had obviously been a massive intelligence failure. Spies had failed to spot Allied preparations, and its armada had not been spotted approaching Anzio. He had been wrong-footed, and it was now his job to restore stability, and to strike back.

Within minutes he was in a large briefing room, where a clutch of befuddled officers were talking animatedly over a map of Italy. The briefing by the intelligence officer was short, and at its conclusion Kesselring launched immediately into questions. Making his apologies, an NCO bearing papers interrupted proceedings with new information. Civitavecchia, a promising invasion area 60 miles to the north of Anzio, was being bombarded. Kesselring smiled and nodded; the Allies were toying with him. He was already unsure whether the landings were a raid, a feint or a fullscale attack; this complicated matters.

Kesselring strode over to the map table and leaned heavily over it. “We have a problem,” he announced, “but not an insurmountable one,” and proceeded to launch into a speech, which those present later recalled as a bravura lecture on Allied intentions. The field marshal declared that the landing at Anzio was the opening gambit of an attempt to seize the Alban Hills, an ancient volcanic range 18 miles inland and about 12 miles southeast of Rome, which would cut the Tenth Army’s lines of communication in the Gustav Line, the defensive line blocking the southern approach to Rome, and close its route of withdrawal. He remained calm throughout, even joking occasionally at the expense of his colleagues. “We have been caught a little off-guard,” he explained, “as we are overstretched trying to contain the fighting in the south. But we can recover. The British and American aim is to threaten Rome, have no illusions about that, but can they seize the city swiftly? Not, gentleman, if I have a say in the matter—and I intend to be very vocal.”

By 0430 the words “Case Richard” had been signaled all over Italy, alerting commands that an Allied amphibious assault was underway at Anzio-Nettuno and ordering certain units and formations to move to contain it. The aim was to have 20,000 troops in the area by evening. In a matter of hours the Germans had set in motion a plan to heavily reinforce the area, focusing their activity on roads that Lucas would rely on to exploit the success of his initial landings. Moreover, by occupying the key towns of Ardea, Campoleone Station and Cisterna, the Germans retained strong foundations for a counterattack. As if to underline Kesselring’s intent, several German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters and Focke Wulf Fw-190 fighter-bombers broke through to strafe the beaches and drop light bombs on VI Corps at its most vulnerable point.

Ross Carter of 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, wrote: “The deck of our LCI was crowded with troops standing around waiting to unload into the icy water and make the three hundred yards to the beach. Just as Berkely was reaching for one of Pierson’s cigarettes, a dive bomber came in and hell opened its doors. The bomb missed the bow by five feet or so, but the explosion lifted the boat clear out of the sea and blew a column of oily water into the sky which fell back on the boat and left us oil-coated for several days.”

Stranded off the beach, one of the men swam ashore with a rope and tied one end to the strut of an amphibious Piper Cub, a light aircraft, sitting on the sand. Loaded up with equipment, weapons and ammunition, the men held the rope, jumped into the water and pulled themselves along. “The water,” the young paratrooper recalled, “was eight to ten feet deep and icy as a spinster’s heart.” It was a fitting introduction to Anzio, for the men emerged from it “wet, cold, miserable, mad, disgusted and laughing,” a list of adjectives that accurately reflect what troops were to feel during the coming battle.

By noon the assaulting forces had reached Lucas’ initial beachhead line. British 2nd and 24th Guards brigades were firmly lodged in woods near Padiglione a little farther inland. Just outside the woods, patrols had reached an overpass crossing the major beachhead road, the Via Anziate. It was a damp and exposed spot known as Campo di Carne, with a few farmhouses, but little else. “It gave me goose bumps,” said Corporal “Lofty” Lovett of the North Staffordshires, “and it did not help when I was told that ‘Campo di Carne’ translated to ‘Field of Flesh.’ Here we were in the middle of God knows where, with precious little cover, waiting for something to happen. It was as still as could be, just the occasional boom of a German gun, or the noise of an aircraft, but otherwise quite quiet.”

It was still early in Operation Shingle when British General Harold R.L.G. Alexander, commander of the Allied 15th Army Group in Italy, and his American counterpart, Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, began arriving, along with a host of other high-ranking officers. As soon as it was light, the party from Clark’s headquarters made its way to Naples harbor and traveled by PT boats to visit VI Corps. The flotilla arrived at Biscayne at 0900, and after a detailed situation report from Lucas, the group ventured onto the beachhead.

Dressed in his trademark fur-lined jacket, riding breeches and peaked officer’s cap, the dapper, imperturbable Harold Alexander was instantly recognizable. A group of guardsmen was impressed that the general did not break his stride when a salvo of exploding 88mm shells showered him with soil. “He brushed off the soil like he would the drops of water having been caught in a shower of rain,” one said, “and continued on his way chatting to his aide who looked as though he’d seen a ghost.”

VI Corps had made a solid start at that point, but it was conservative. While there was ample opportunity for Lucas to push out farther and faster, his innate protective mentality allowed the Germans to establish strong defensive foundations. Lucas remained focused on fulfilling Clark’s primary aim of a secure beachhead in a methodical and workmanlike manner. Even if it was imprudent to strike out for the Alban Hills at this stage, Lucas seemed blind to the possibility of taking as much important ground as possible in order to create a launch pad for offensive action and to provide defensive anchors.

In the Padiglione Woods the Guards Brigade waited for orders, but none came. The British built fires, ate their stale rations, drank tea and smoked as new German arrivals seeped into defensive positions on more advantageous ground. As BBC correspondent Vaughan-Thomas wrote of that day, “We held the whole world in our hands on that clear morning of January 1944.” But John Lucas was not the only general to reveal a lack of boldness at Anzio. Another was on his way from Verona.

Eberhard von Mackensen grumbled throughout his flight from Verona that “a withdrawal of Tenth Army was the only way to save the German army in Italy.” Arriving with the Fourteenth Army headquarters advance party to take possession of a nondescript building at the heart of German-occupied Rome, the general lost his temper at the mess that had been left by its previous occupants. Mackensen was a deep-thinking officer, highly professional and capable, but he had a superficial side to his nature. As German forces in Italy frantically sought to respond to the gauntlet thrown down at Anzio, this austere Prussian aristocrat, whose father had been a field marshal during World War I, announced that he would not move into the building until it had been tidied up. While cleaners swept, he and the vanguard of his staff took over a local café that had just one telephone but—this being Italy—three coffee makers.

Kesselring, who disliked Mackensen’s attitude and pessimism, had given his subordinate clear orders: “Set up a temporary headquarters in Rome, and as soon as you are ready move to the Alban Hills and establish a permanent base….Prepare a plan to pin the Allies in their bridgehead with a view to a counter-attack as soon as is possible.” As Mackensen’s staff climbed the stairs to the newly dusted second-floor “Map Room” that afternoon, they were greeted by the sound of a dozen ringing telephones. Satisfied that his office was the largest and with the best view, Mackensen got to work.

As Mackensen played the prima donna, an ever-growing number of German troops were being conveyed toward the beachhead. Many did not know where they were going, why and what they would find at their destination. One officer being thrown about in the back of an aged Renault truck that afternoon was Rittmeister Edwin Wentz, the commander of a replacement company in the Hermann Göring Panzer Division. At the time of the Allied attack, the 50-year-old had been sitting in the company kitchen drinking ersatz coffee. The bitter weather had aggravated an old shoulder wound that Wentz had picked up in 1916 on the Somme, and the intense pain had woken him early.

Just as he was pouring himself another coffee, a clerk burst in and breathlessly reported that a major was on the telephone. Curtly informed about the Allied landings, Wentz received his orders: “You must take your company and move them toward the Anzio beachhead. You will receive further instruction later.” He could not believe what he was hearing—his men were keen but had only the most basic military skills. They were not representative of the wider Hermann Göring Panzer Division, which had been hardened by its experiences in Sicily and the Gustav Line.

Everything had been loaded in under 45 minutes, and one hour later, just after noon, the Germans left having been told to get to the battlefield before dusk, giving enough light to reconnoiter the positions they were to take up. Clattering around in the back of the trucks that afternoon, these men were dazed by the speed of events. The wooden seats provided little comfort, and the soft-skinned vehicles offered scant shelter from the icy weather. Some managed to sleep, their heads lolling over their colleagues who tended to ignore them. Most just sat back, quietly smoking or bent forward over their packs staring out at the frozen countryside, lost in their own thoughts. There was little talk, although the inexperienced troops were prone to give a running commentary about the position and progress of the convoy. The veterans tended to keep their own counsel until provoked.

One sergeant, who had seen action at Stalingrad, recalls: “The youngsters were like little children going on an adventure, excited and apprehensive in equal measure and prone to asking every fifteen minutes, ‘Are we there yet?’ God, they were annoying, but like parents we had to remain patient and try and take their minds off the present by talking about other things. I tried not to get too close to them. Experience told me that once in battle their chances of surviving for more than a couple of days in action were extremely limited.”

A lighting at Cisterna, the company found some units of the division had already arrived and were digging in, while others were being deployed farther forward. A battalion from the parachute division Kampfgruppe Gericke was sent to defend Ardea, on the opposite side of the beachhead, while another was to concentrate on the Via Anziate. Joachim Liebschner, an 18-year-old lance corporal from Silesia, said that the beachhead road attracted fire from the outset. “I was a runner which meant that I had to try and keep communication between my own company and battalion headquarters,” he recalled. “We were issued with a bicycle and it was really a great big joke because when we moved forward, the harder the artillery fire became and we were then attacked by airplanes. When everybody jumped into ditches to the left and right, I was left with the bicycle. Eventually I went to the sergeant major and said, ‘Look when am I going to use my bicycle here?’ and he said ‘You signed for it, you’re responsible for it!’—typical German kind of answer to a question….I left it against a tree and thought I could find the tree again when we got to the front line. Not only had the bicycle gone but the tree had gone as well.”

The shells crept ever nearer, tearing up the ground with a blast of such intensity that its sound waves were soaked up by the chests of the German paratroopers. But it was not the men new to battle who struggled most with the bombardment; it was the veterans and, as Liebschner says, one sergeant in particular who had been wounded and traumatized on the Eastern Front: “He lost his nerve altogether. Most of us didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for, but this fellow had been in the front line several times and the closer we got, the more he started shivering and complaining of a headache and sickness and his legs were giving out. He couldn’t move. We left him underneath a small bridge shivering and crying and he was hysterical. I never heard of him again.”

That evening a patrol from one of the parachute battalions was sent down to Aprilia. It was a vital town and, having not heard of any defensive actions there all day, Major Walther Gericke, commander of Kampfgruppe Gericke, expected to learn that it was occupied. To his amazement he learned at 2030 hours that it was not, and passed the information on to the recently arrived Lt. Gen. FritzHubert Gräser, whose 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division Kampfgruppe had been ordered to take over the defense of the Via Anziate. Although Gräser’s force contained some replacements, it had veterans of the Eastern Front at its heart, some having served at Stalingrad where the original division had been all but wiped out. The division had fought well at Salerno and was reaching the peak of effectiveness. Gräser immediately occupied Aprilia.

By the time that the panzer grenadiers were preparing the buildings of Aprilia for defense, General Alfred Schlemm had established his I Parachute Corps headquarters in the Alban Hills, to defend against an Allied push on Rome. Kesselring was furious. Schlemm had received orders from Kesselring’s headquarters in Monte Sorrate “to push all units as they arrived as far south as possible so as to help the flak slow down or halt the enemy advance.” Had the Allies chosen to advance swiftly soon after their landing, they would at the very least have been able to seize valuable ground for an expansive beachhead. “Every yard was important to me,” Kesselring later wrote. “My order, as I found out on the spot in the afternoon, had been incomprehensibly and arbitrarily altered, which upset my plan for immediate counter-attacks. Yet as I traversed the front I had the confident feeling that the Allies had missed a uniquely favorable chance of capturing Rome and of opening the door on the Garigliano front. I was certain that time was our ally.”

As was the field marshal’s style, he had been decisive in his actions and visited the front personally. Far from doing what the Allies had wanted him to do and withdraw in a panic from the Gustav Line, Kesselring had remained unfazed by Operation Shingle. There was no need to withdraw, and in any case, as he told the commander of the XIV Panzer Corps, Lt. Gen. Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, “The present line is shorter and therefore more economical, than a line running directly in front of the gates of Rome straight across Italy.” He was determined to regain the initiative. First he would build up a critical mass of troops, and then he would push the Allies back into the sea. The American historian Carlo D’Este has written: “Kesselring symbolized the German defense of Italy, and he became the bedrock upon which it was built. Where others would have drawn the wrong conclusions and overreacted, Kesselring remained composed and was quite literally the glue that held the German Army in Italy together.…Kesselring excelled in the art of improvisation, and Anzio may well have been his finest hour.”

John Lucas was feeling comfortable that evening. Reading the reports that were coming through to Biscayne, it was apparent that the divisions were secure and were not under any immediate threat. By the end of the day, as British Guards officers played bridge and slept in their pajamas, Lucas read with quiet satisfaction that 36,000 men and 3,000 vehicles had been landed. Casualties had been very light—13 killed, 97 wounded and 44 captured or missing—and the defending panzer grenadiers had been dealt with clinically, producing 227 prisoners. He was also pleased to hear during the afternoon that the port had been opened after the navy had pulled away the hulks of sunken vessels and swept the harbor. As a result of this unexpected speed, supplies were flowing ashore far quicker than anticipated, allowing British vessels to land in Anzio rather than having to struggle with the sandbar. The beachhead was quiet.

Exhausted after a trying day, Geoffrey Dormer, a first lieutenant on the minesweeper HMS Hornpipe, noted in his diary: “D-Day Evening. Things have been very quiet, and it has been a lovely, calm, sunny day, with almost cloudless blue skies. The multitude of ships off the beaches look more like a Review than an Invasion Fleet….There are a few columns of smoke rising from the shore, and now and then a dull thud. Sometimes a Cruiser does a bit of bombarding, or a few enemy planes approach.”

To the troops on the ground, the beachhead had an ethereal quality to it. Lieutenant Ivor Talbot was just east of the beachhead when he wrote in his diary that evening: “It has been a remarkable day. We landed at 0430 in the darkness and made our way inland. There were the inevitable pauses in our advance, but we were eventually told to dig in for the night. It is now 2200 and I am dog tired but must get round to the men before I sleep. All is quiet as it has been for most of the day. I was not expecting this and I think that I had expected to die. I think that we must be careful that we keep our concentration. The Germans will not allow us to remain here without a fight, but we seem to have won the first day.”

Talbot was incorrect in that assessment. The Allies had not “won the first day.” It had been a draw. What the young lieutenant had not taken into account was the skillful German reaction to Operation Shingle. While the Allies were in an excellent position to develop and consolidate a strong beachhead in preparation for a breakout, Field Marshal Kesselring had successfully begun to build a counterattacking force intent on destroying it.

The battle to come would be nightmarish. Over four months, and a mere 16 miles of front, the Allied lost 7,000 men killed and 36,000 wounded or missing, representing one-third of the total VI Corps strength. A further 44,000 were lost to injuries or sickness. German losses were at least as heavy. Far from being the dynamic operation to unlock the front that had been hoped for, the battle instead swiftly took up a special place in the pantheon of audacious military schemes that failed. “Such is the story of Anzio,” Winston Churchill later ruminated; “a story of high opportunity and shattered hopes, of skilful inception on our part and swift recovery by the enemy, of valour shared by both.”


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here