Major General John P. Lucas found himself in a no-win situation when the VI Corps landed at Anzio.
Shakespeare’s Richard III opens with the title character musing, “Now is the winter of our discontent….” The winter of 1943-44 was just that for the Allied forces in Italy.
In January 1944, the Germans were firmly ensconced in the formidable Gustav Line. Allied attempts to pierce it by frontal assault had met with failure time and again in the rugged mountains of southern Italy. Out of frustration and the realization that further head-on assaults would only result in further casualties, Operation Shingle was born.
The strong German positions in southern Italy might be outflanked swiftly, the stalemate might be broken and Allied forces could potentially capture Rome if an amphibious operation was successfully mounted. The beaches at Anzio, a resort town 35 miles south of Rome, were chosen for the landing. Major General John P. Lucas and the VI Corps hoped to cut Highways 6 and 7, the main German avenues of supply, advance and retreat; rapidly move ahead and capture the Alban Hills 25 miles inland; and compel the Germans to abandon the Gustav Line. The Alban Hills were the last defensible natural barrier between the Allies and Rome.
Most students of military history would concede that Operation Shingle was likely doomed to fail before the first landing craft hit the beach on January 22, 1944. For starters, Lucas was tired. He had commanded the VI Corps since the previous September, and the strain of constant fighting in mountainous terrain had begun to tell. “The mountain warfare in Italy had fatigued General Lucas, so that by the end of 1943 he sometimes appeared dispirited and perhaps even discouraged,” wrote eminent historian Martin Blumenson. It should have been apparent to U.S. Fifth Army commander General Mark Clark and to the overall commander in Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander, that the 54-year-old Lucas needed a rest. Besides, although he was a commendable commander, he had never shown an inclination for taking risks.
Looking realistically at the VI Corps, one must also ask the question of just how much should have been expected of the forces deployed. For logistical reasons, the size of the landing force was limited to the U.S. 3rd and British 1st divisions, two British Commando battalions, three U.S. Ranger battalions and a reinforced parachute regiment. Later, the U.S. 1st Armored and 45th divisions plus other troops were added. Still, it was questionable whether the VI Corps was capable of seizing and holding the Alban Hills.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had made Operation Shingle his pet project in the Mediterranean theater. Churchill believed that a successful landing at Anzio was vital to the ultimate Allied victory in Italy. During World War I, when Churchill had championed an amphibious landing at Gallipoli in Turkey, the results had been disastrous for the British and their allies. Aware of what had happened decades earlier, Lucas confided to his diary, “The whole affair has a strong odor of Gallipoli and apparently the same amateur is still on the coach’s bench.”
To complicate matters, the orders Lucas received were open to interpretation. Clark translated Alexander’s order, according to Blumenson, in this way: “‘Mission. Fifth Army will launch attacks in the Anzio area….a) To seize and secure a beachhead in the vicinity of Anzio. b) Advance on Colli Laziali (Alban Hills).’ What seemed on the surface to be perfectly clear–a mission to be executed in two logically consecutive parts–was in reality deliberately vague on the second portion. The VI Corps was to establish a beachhead, but then was it to advance toward the Alban Hills or to the Alban Hills?”
Certainly, it would be difficult for the Allied commanders to accurately assess the German reaction to the landing at Anzio. However, the moment for Lucas to strike inland came and went within two days of the landings, which were virtually unopposed. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, conducted a brilliant defensive campaign and had made plans to deal with an amphibious assault in his rear. While he had diverted troops to meet threats along the Gustav Line just prior to the landings, Kesselring was nevertheless able to bring troops from northern Italy, Yugoslavia, France and Germany to the area. By January 25, he had elements of eight divisions defending against expansion of the beachhead and parts of five more en route.
Anzio remains one of the great “what ifs” of World War II. The road to Rome lay open on January 22. Early on, Lucas had characterized himself as a “lamb being led to the slaughter.” Was the operation a self-fulfilling prophecy? The VI Corps commander’s decision was not out of character. His reasons for waiting nine days to attack in the direction of the Alban Hills–mainly concern for the landing of additional supplies and troops–indeed did have merit. In the end, however, the opportunity he missed had been great.
However responsible Lucas may have been for the four months of agony at Anzio, there is enough blame to go around. Lucas and the men of VI Corps were ill served by the upper echelons of the Allied command. For all these reasons, Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas joined the pantheon of military scapegoats whose initiative or lack thereof has shaped history.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor,World War II