Share This Article

In a few minutes, landing craft would advance to the beaches and discharge their human cargo into an unknown situation. Six miles north of Anzio, the British would land with the 1st Division and the 9th and 43rd Commando battalions of the 2nd Special Service Brigade. The port of Anzio, in the center of the assault area, was assigned to Colonel William O. Darby’s three Ranger battalions, along with the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and the 83rd Chemical Battalion. Four miles to the east of the Anzio point, where the coast abruptly turns eastward, Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott’s 3rd Infantry Division would hit the beaches and, it was hoped, drive inland.

Heavy German opposition, such as had been encountered five months earlier at Salerno, was expected, but the shore was strangely silent; the only sound was that of Allied ordnance exploding. Everything was going perfectly, a fact that did not keep General Lucas from harboring grave doubts about the chances for success in this, the most daring operation of the Italian campaign.

Looking a decade older than his 54 years, Lucas gripped the ship’s rail and tried to peer through the blackness, not only at the shoreline but also at the days and weeks immediately ahead. He was not at all sure that this operation would not end in a bloody Allied debacle.

Lucas was an able officer who inspired confidence in subordinates and superiors alike. A West Pointer and World War I battalion commander, he had been Dwight D. Eisenhower’s deputy in North Africa and Sicily, and everyone was confident that ‘Old Luke’ could do the job.

Old Luke, however, viewed his assignment with private pessimism. A few days before Shingle began, he wrote in his diary, ‘Unless we can get what we want (in men and materiel), the operation becomes such a desperate undertaking that it should not, in my opinion, be attempted.’ The entire operation, Lucas fretted in his diary, ‘had a strong odor of Gallipoli and apparently the same amateur was still on the coach’s bench,’ a reference to Winston Churchill and his enthusiastic support, as First Lord of the Admiralty, of the disastrous Allied attempt to take the Dardanelles in 1915.

With the invasion of France imminent and about to become an ‘American show’ under Eisenhower’s command, the Mediterranean had become a ‘British show.’ Following Ike’s departure on January 8, 1944, to become the Supreme Allied Commander of Operation Overlord, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson had ascended to the post of Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean. Eisenhower’s deputy, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, was placed in command of 15th Army Group, which controlled all Allied forces in Italy. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, were now the chief architects of strategy in Italy, and Churchill was particularly keen on capturing Rome swiftly.

The Anzio operation had become necessary because the Allied drive up the Italian peninsula had ground to a halt in the autumn of 1943 some 100 miles south of Rome, in front of a series of heavily fortified positions that stretched the width of Italy. Closest to Naples was the Barbara Line, which ran along a ridge between the Volturno and Garigliano rivers and then over the southern Apennine peaks to the Trigno River. This line, in turn, was backed up by the Bernhardt Line, which took advantage of a narrow defile known as the Mignano Gap. Twelve miles farther north was the best known of the lines: the Gustav Line, a series of bunkers, gun emplacements and other fortifications constructed by Organization Todt (started by the late German munitions minister Fritz Todt, it was involved in large building projects). The Gustav Line began just north of where the Garigliano River empties into the Tyrrhenian Sea and ran to the mouth of the Sangro River on the Adriatic side.

Forcing a breach into the Liri Valley, the mouth of which was guarded by the heights of Monte Cassino and Monte Majo, was the main task of General Mark Clark and the Allied Fifth Army. In addition to taking the heights, the Fifth Army would also have to cross the swollen Rapido and Garigliano rivers while under fire.

Like a seductive siren, the lure of the Liri Valley was more than Allied planners could ignore. Through this long, flat plain, flanked by towering peaks, stretched Highway 6, the main north-south road to Rome. The Germans, who could also read maps, had fortified nearly every key point in the valley and were ready to make the Allies pay in blood for every inch–should they be so foolish as to try running the gantlet.

Clark needed to quickly and successfully stage a major offensive operation through some of Italy’s most challenging terrain and against entrenched German forces in order for his troops even to be in a position to assist the amphibious force far behind enemy lines. And victories in Italy in 1943 had been anything but quick.

In October the British and Americans had made a successful, but costly, crossing of the Volturno River in front of the Barbara Line. The Germans put up token resistance as they carefully withdrew from the Barbara to better positions in the Bernhardt and Gustav lines. The British reached the Garigliano on November 2, but bad weather and German determination stopped the advance.

In November and December 1943, as the Brits had battled their way across the Sangro and Moro rivers to the north, the U.S. Fifth Army ran into formidable German forces dug in along the Bernhardt Line. A month of hard fighting resulted in the Allies’ edging closer to the Liri Valley, but it cost the lives of many fine soldiers.

Plans for an amphibious landing behind enemy lines had been in the works for weeks, and shortly before he departed for England, Eisenhower had directed Alexander to carry out those plans. The Alban Hills–the remnants of a long-dead volcano and the last natural barrier south of Rome–lay just 15 miles from Anzio. Highways 6 and 7 straddled the hills and led to Rome’s southern outskirts. Given the good beaches and flat terrain around Anzio, Alexander’s staff saw no reason why the Allies should not be able to quickly capture Rome.

Allied planners saw the Anzio operation as offering two chances to end the Gustav Line stalemate: if Generalfeldmarschall Albrecht Kesselring, commander of Army Group C, pulled troops out of the Gustav Line to deal with the threat to his rear, then the Allied forces facing the line would be more easily able to break through and roll the German forces up the peninsula. Should the Germans fail to use Gustav Line units to counter the Anzio move, then the Anzio forces likely would be able to break out of the beachhead, capture Rome, and cut off a German retreat to the north.

Of course, this latter scenario presupposed that the Wehrmacht was stretched to the limit in Italy and on other fronts and that no more manpower was available. At the very least, the planners felt, the Anzio operation would tie up a large enemy force in Italy–where it could not assist Hitler’s other beleaguered armies on the crumbling Eastern Front or the beaches of Normandy when the invasion of France finally began.

Alexander envisioned the Allies hitting the beach with a small, mobile force, overcoming the German defenses, which were believed to be less than formidable, and then driving on and securing the Alban Hills. This force would link up with the main force advancing from the south, and all would then head for Rome. But less optimistic staff members saw an advance on Rome as presenting a slender salient that could easily be destroyed.

The immediate problem was finding enough ships to make, supply and reinforce the landing. The Allies in Italy were under pressure to release as many ships and landing craft as possible in preparation for a twin amphibious assault on France–Operation Overlord in the north and Operation Anvil (later named Dragoon) in the south.

Besides the shortage of shipping, a few other practical considerations began to weigh upon Allied optimism. For one, if the main Allied force was to get bogged down on the Gustav Line, it would not be close enough to help support the Anzio landings. Secondly, should the Allies suffer heavy losses on the Bernhardt and Gustav lines, they might be too depleted and exhausted to be of any value, even if they made it to the Alban Hills.

Finally, the calendar worked against the planners; on December 18, Operation Shingle was reluctantly abandoned. There simply was not enough time to work out the thousands of details necessary before January 15, 1944, when the landing craft had to be released to Overlord.

Subsequently, however, with Churchill putting pressure on the British chiefs of staff to break the stalemate in Italy, Operation Shingle was hurriedly moved to the front burner. But the landing craft problem remained–there were only enough LSTs to transport one division, and two divisions were considered essential for a successful landing. After conferring with his Italy commanders on Christmas, Churchill cabled Roosevelt for permission to retain the LSTs in Italy until February 5. Roosevelt concurred, with the stipulation that Shingle must not hinder preparations for Overlord or Anvil.

As plans evolved, a second division was added to the amphibious force; the number of LSTs rose, but not appreciably, and Clark was faced with the prospect of having to land the troops without the requisite number of vehicles. Some of the troops would have to be ferried in after the initial landings. Furthermore, he would have to do all his seaborne resupply and reinforcement within two days of the initial landings, as the LSTs were his for only an additional 48 hours. Shingle was set for the early hours of January 20, 1944.

With the amphibious portion of the plan more or less set, Clark turned his attention to the situation in the south, where it was imperative that the main Allied armies break through the Gustav Line quickly in order to prevent the isolated Anzio forces from being cut off, chewed up or pushed back into the sea.

Augmenting the American Fifth Army at the Gustav Line were the British X Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps (the latter made up of the 2nd Moroccan and 3rd Algerian divisions), which were assigned to capture the flanks of the Liri Valley, thereby allowing U.S. II Corps to plunge, it was hoped, through the gap in the middle. In reality, the attack did not go as scripted.

On January 17, the British X Corps crossed the Garigliano with two divisions against von Senger’s XIV Panzer Corps, but the Brits were too exhausted by the effort to exploit their gains. The attack, however, convinced Kesselring to bolster the Gustav Line defenses, and thus he moved his major reserves, the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier divisions, south from Rome.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes’ U.S. II Corps was preparing to cross the swiftly flowing Rapido in the vicinity of Sant’Angelo, a German strongpoint. Major General Fred Walker’s U.S. 36th Division was picked for the task, to be followed by elements of the 1st Armored Division. Major General Charles Ryder’s 34th Division would engage the enemy at Cassino to prevent a counterattack from the north. The flat approaches to the river afforded no cover or concealment, however, and many men viewed trying to cross a river obstacle under direct enemy observation as suicidal.

On January 20, the understrength 36th, which had suffered heavy losses in December on the Bernhardt Line and had not been brought up to full strength, set out to cross the Rapido against all odds. Waiting for them was the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, one of the Germans’ toughest units.

The Americans were hammered by artillery fire before, during, and after they reached the crossing site. The crossing itself was a disaster, with only a handful of brave men able to reach the far bank. The next morning the Germans blasted the American penetration with small arms, artillery and tank fire, nearly annihilating the beleaguered infantrymen. While delay followed delay, the men on the far bank were cut to pieces. On January 22, what few men remained on the far side were withdrawn. The first attempt to cross the Rapido had failed.

Clark now faced an agonizing decision. Should he cancel Shingle or proceed? His staff officers had told him that in order for Shingle to succeed, it was essential that his main force be within 30 miles of Anzio before the amphibious operation was launched. If the operation could not take place by January 25, it would have to be canceled and the landing craft shipped off to England; nothing must interfere with plans for Overlord. In spite of the uncertainties, Clark chose to proceed.

In addition, Lucas’ mission was, at best, vague. Just prior to his departure for Anzio on January 20, he was informed by Brig. Gen. Donald Brann, Fifth Army G-3, that his mission was not to take the Alban Hills but, rather, to seize and secure the Anzio beachhead. He was told, however, that he was free to move to the hills if conditions warranted. A planned airborne assault on the Anzio-Albano road north of Anzio by the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion was scrapped, giving Lucas a further impression that nothing more than securing the beachhead was required of him and his forces.

Early on January 21, Lucas’ convoy of five cruisers, 24 destroyers and more than 300 support ships, including 238 landing craft of all types, left Naples Harbor and steamed northward. Aboard the ships were some 40,000 American and British troops, along with more than 5,000 vehicles.

Arriving at their destination early the next day, the Allies expected everything except what actually happened: Shingle took the Germans totally by surprise. Only token resistance was offered, and this was quickly eliminated by naval gunfire.

North of Anzio, the British 1st Division landed and moved two miles inland without facing any substantial resistance.

The Rangers captured Anzio’s port, and the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion occupied Nettuno with hardly a shot fired.

The 3rd Division’s landing was virtually unopposed, and by midmorning Truscott’s men found themselves three miles inland, awaiting a German counterattack that failed to materialize.

By midnight on the 22nd, some 36,000 men, 3,200 vehicles and a vast store of supplies had reached or pushed beyond the beachhead. Casualties had been incredibly light; only 13 killed and 97 wounded–mostly from strafing German aircraft. More than 200 Germans had been taken prisoner. It was all going too well to be believed.

Kesselring learned of the landings at about 3 a.m. and quickly began marshaling all available units and creating new ones. At 5 a.m., he ordered the 4th Parachute Division, along with replacement units of the Hermann Göering Division, to take up blocking positions across the roads that led from Anzio to the Alban Hills. He then requested that OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) send whatever additional units it could spare from southern France, Yugoslavia and southern Germany. Later that morning, Kesselring ordered Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen, commander of the Fourteenth Army in northern Italy, and General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, Tenth Army commander in charge of the Gustav Line forces, to send units to him. Within hours, elements of five divisions were rushing toward Anzio.

By nightfall on the 22nd, German units were establishing their defensive lines around the Allied forces at Anzio, which Kesselring had expected to be moving with breakneck speed toward the Alban Hills. But instead of dashing inland, Lucas chose to build up his supplies and forces.

By now, the Anzio beachhead was some 10 miles deep. The 3rd Division was approaching Cisterna on Highway 7, where the strength of Kesselring’s forces was concentrated, and the British 1st Division had taken Aprilia, a model Fascist farm settlement called ‘The Factory’ by the troops.

General Clark was urging but not demanding that Lucas begin more aggressive offensive operations. But bad weather and two heavy German air raids were upsetting operations, and Lucas was reluctant to become too adventuresome. While Lucas’ lack of initiative was becoming worrisome to Clark and Alexander, Churchill was livid. He thundered, ‘I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.’

Truscott, stopped at Cisterna by the Hermann Göering and 26th Panzergrenadier divisions, decided to use Darby’s three lightly armed Ranger battalions to spearhead the 3rd Division’s assault on the town on January 30. The Rangers’ attack was a shambles. Ambushed by German tanks and heavy artillery as they approached the town, the Rangers were pinned down and torn to pieces.

Vexed that little had been accomplished in the week since the landings, Alexander urged Clark to concentrate his efforts on full-scale attacks to capture Cisterna and Campoleone, followed by a rapid advance on Velletri, seven miles north of Cisterna.

But Clark estimated that Kesselring’s reinforcements were too strong for any quick thrust to be successful. Much of this belief stemmed from intelligence reports that indicated more German units in the Anzio area than were actually present, the result of fragments of larger units that had been hurriedly thrown into the line (if a battalion or regiment of a division were present, G-2 officers assumed the entire division was on line). And, so, on February 1, 1944, Lucas’ attack petered out. What Clark did not know and could not appreciate was the fact that VI Corps’ assault had come very close to succeeding. The Germans had suffered some 5,500 casualties–about the same as the Allies’, but the numbers of troops actually present slightly favored the Allies.

Fearing a German counterattack, Clark and Alexander directed Lucas to establish defensive positions. Reinforcements arrived on February 2–the 1st Special Service Force and the British 56th Division–and the Allies dug in behind hastily laid minefields and barbed wire, allowing the Germans to go over onto the offensive.

On the drizzly morning of February 4, Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army began to roll, with infantry and armor slamming into British positions near Campoleone and driving them back. By nightfall, after much dogged fighting, the British lines stiffened, and they retook their lost positions. But Lucas, feeling the British salient was vulnerable, ordered the Tommies to withdraw during the night to a more defensible line, and Clark ordered him to hold until offensive actions seemed warranted.

The Germans sensed their opportunity. At 9 a.m. on February 7, Mackensen launched another attack, this time to dislodge the British troops holding Aprilia. Only a heroic, Waterloo-like stand, along with artillery and naval gunfire from three cruisers, kept the German 715th Division from taking the shattered town. The stand was in vain, however; two days later, in another all-out assault, German troops succeeded in capturing Aprilia.

While Alexander exhorted Lucas to begin a new offensive and Mackensen prepared for a final, massive assault that would drive the Allies into the sea, one of the most controversial actions of the war was about to be played out 60 miles south, at the once-peaceful Abbey of Monte Cassino.

The ancient abbey sat like a magnificent crown upon a 1,700-foot hill that overlooked the approaches to the Liri Valley. Because of its historical significance (it was begun in 529 AD by St. Benedict), its magnificent collection of priceless works of art, and the fact that it was home to some 2,500 monks, nuns and civilian refugees, Eisenhower had placed the abbey strictly off-limits to Allied bombers and artillery. The Germans, too, had hoped to respect the abbey’s importance. But the pronouncements of generals would not be sufficient to spare this treasure.

By establishing observation posts and fortified defensive positions outside the abbey’s walls, the Germans presented a threat to the Allied push into the Liri Valley that could not be ignored. The 4th Indian Division, given the task of taking Monte Cassino, requested an aerial bombardment of the abbey. After much discussion, which went all the way to Alexander, the request was approved over Clark’s objections.

On the morning of February 15, the first wave of bombers unleashed its deadly cargo on the abbey. Ironically, the ruins then provided excellent cover for the Germans, who used them to repulse the 4th Indian Division when it attacked that night.

For the next two days, Allied bombs and artillery rained upon the mountaintop, but without gain; the ground troops were unable to evict the German defenders. Bad weather struck, and further offensive operations were postponed. It was becoming ominously clear that the Allies would not be breaking through the Gustav Line any time soon and coming to the rescue of the troops stuck at Anzio.

Shortly after the landings, Hitler became personally involved in events in Italy, giving Kesselring detailed orders long distance as to how to ‘remove the abcess’ from the coast. February 16 was set as the date for the renewed counteroffensive at Anzio with some 125,000 German troops–about 20 percent more than the Allies possessed.

Two diversionary attacks were launched, while the main assault came down the Albano-Anzio road toward Maj. Gen. William Eagles’ 45th Division. The excellent but raw troops of the Berlin-Spandau Infantry Lehr Demonstration Regiment, which Hitler had ordered to lead the attack, were hard hit and fled for their lives.

But the Germans attacked throughout the night, giving Eagles’ men no rest. The next day the Luftwaffe strafed the 45th’s positions, and three divisions, supported by 65 panzers, crashed into the Americans, pushing them back to just in front of the Allies’ final beachhead line. Then came another wave of air attacks, followed by another charge of infantry and tanks that drove a two-mile-wide wedge into the front. The 45th Division, in the center of the Allied line, was about to crumble.

At the crucial moment, Lucas moved in artillery and tanks to plug the gap in his front lines and called for air support and concentrated naval fire to stem the German tide that was about to engulf him. Despite the infusion of Mackensen’s reserves and wave after wave of attacking tanks and infantrymen that threw themselves at the 45th Division, the line miraculously held.

Ordering the survivors of his first assault to fight on through the night, Mackensen sent two additional divisions–the 29thPanzergrenadier and 26th Panzer–into battle before first light the next day. This second attack very nearly succeeded, but after four hours of furious combat, the Germans were forced to pull back.

On the 22nd, Clark, bowing to pressure from Alexander, reluctantly removed his friend Lucas from command of VI Corps, replacing him with Truscott. Lucas was stunned. ‘I thought I was winning something of a victory,’ he wrote, crestfallen, in his diary.

Truscott now placed his own, very different stamp on the command of VI Corps. Instead of installing himself in the musty, underground wine cellar that was Lucas’ command post, he made a point of being seen on the front lines, braving enemy fire with the rest of his troops. Morale quickly improved and, as more replacements arrived, a feeling of confidence pervaded the Allied side.

On March 29, Allied artillery broke up a strong German assault in front of the 3rd Division before it could get started, and the 3rd counterattacked, putting an end to the Germans’ last major offensive.

For the next two months, the Anzio front became static, while both sides reinforced and resupplied themselves. Along the Gustav Line, stalemate was also the name of the game, as four German divisions continued to hold off six Allied divisions around Cassino. But a spring offensive, code-named Diadem, was planned for May, and the Allied commanders hoped it would finally break through both the Gustav Line and the German positions around Anzio.

On May 11, a tremendous artillery barrage in the Cassino area heralded the start of Diadem, and the men of the Fifth and Eighth armies began moving. It was the French Expeditionary Force, under General Alphonse Juin, that finally broke the Gustav Line northwest of the Garigliano. Bitter fighting continued along the front, and on the 18th, the heights of Monte Cassino finally fell to the Polish 3rd Carpathian Division.

Success in the south was the signal for Truscott’s VI Corps to begin its breakout at Anzio. Clark, fearing the British would beat the Americans to the Eternal City and gain the lion’s share of glory, was determined that his Fifth Army, not the British, would be the first army in 15 centuries to capture Rome from the south. For Clark, politics overshadowed military considerations. He therefore directed the seven Allied divisions now at Anzio to begin their breakout, code-named Operation Buffalo–but instead of marching on the town of Valmontone, the VI Corps’ objective as specified by Alexander, Clark chose to head for Rome instead.

Alexander let him go, but wrote in his memoirs, ‘I can only assume that the immediate lure of Rome for its publicity value persuaded Mark Clark to switch the direction of his advance.’

To effect the breakout, the German stronghold at Cisterna had to be overcome. A massive artillery preparation and hundreds of Allied aircraft pounded the town. When the 3rd Division finally managed to force its way in on May 25, it encountered a determined foe who literally fought to the death. Four months after the initial landings, Cisterna was at last in Allied hands, and Truscott’s VI Corps finally linked up with Keyes’ II Corps south of Anzio.

As evening settled on June 4, a unit from the U.S. 88th Division entered the Piazza Venezia in the heart of Rome. Despite sporadic German resistance, the Americans seized the key bridges, and the rest of VI and II corps took control of the city, with Romans cheering them on. Two days later, events in Normandy swept the Italian theater from the headlines.

For decades, the Anzio operation has generated speculation and argument as to its contribution, relative to its high cost in human lives, to the Allied victory. Certainly the tactical blunders did nothing to shorten the war. Yet, the sacrifice of Allied soldiers at Anzio, the Gustav Line and other bloody points throughout the peninsula kept 24 German combat divisions and other supporting units from being deployed to other fronts, where they conceivably could have been used to devastating effect.

This article was written by Flint Whitlock and originally appeared in the February 1999 issue of World War II.

For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!