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They Fought at Anzio

By John S. D. Eisenhower. 328 pp. University of Missouri Press, 2007. $34.95.

The Italian campaign is doomed to be the stepchild of World War II. It was a long, hard slog up the rocky boot against a German foe dug into some of the best defensive terrain in the world. With little opportunity for maneuver, the fighting involved one brutal frontal assault after another, and Allied casualties were high. Add an American commander, Gen. Mark Clark of the U.S. Fifth Army, who is often described as inept, and you have a campaign that many analysts argue was a waste of time and lives and could have been dispensed with altogether.

Don’t count John S. D. Eisenhower among the naysayers. In this tightly written book, he describes a campaign that was not so much pointless as inevitable, emerging from previous decisions to invade North Africa and Sicily. The trouble was not in the idea, but in the execution. The invasion of Italy took place under the shadow of the Normandy invasion. Planning decisions were constantly affected by lack of time and resources, as division after division left the Mediterranean for England to be part of the big show on D-Day. Indeed, it seems that Clark planned the Anzio landing—the January 1944 attempt to break the stalemate in Italy by landing behind German lines—largely to take one last advantage of amphibious landing craft that were about to depart the theater.

The commander at Anzio, Maj. Gen. John Lucas of VI Corps, was uninspiring and pessimistic, certain that he was about to plunge into disaster. Even hard chargers like Col. William O. Darby and his Ranger battalions ran into trouble, the result of carelessness and a subpar performance by American intelligence. Indeed, the very purpose of the landing is still debated. Was it intended to help Fifth Army break the deadlock along the Rapido-Cassino line? Or was Fifth Army expected to come to the rescue of VI Corps at the Anzio bridgehead? At various times and places, Clark and his commanding officer, British general Harold Alexander, would answer “yes” to both of these mutually contradictory questions.

Finally, there was the troubling denouement: Clark’s decision, against Alexander’s orders, to turn VI Corps towards Rome rather than attempt to cut off the retreating German Tenth Army. Clark got his photo op in the Eternal City, but it may have come at too high a cost. Rather than a decisive Allied victory, the Italian campaign was a grinding war of attrition, killing approximately 100,000 men on each side.

The story of Anzio has, of course, been told and retold. Where Eisenhower shines is his ability to put the reader in the midst of the fighting. He packs his book with gritty first-person testimony from sources as diverse as the feisty and much-decorated infantryman Audie Murphy, the tough nurse Avis Dagit, and the apparently indestructible Sgt. John Shirley, who started the Anzio breakout as an assistant squad leader and ended it four days later commanding the remnants of two platoons—all the other officers and noncoms had been hit. Throughout, Eisenhower’s affection for the soldiers who fight America’s wars, officers and enlisted alike, is obvious. And well it should be: as Ike’s son, he was in the privileged position of knowing many of them personally. They Fought at Anzio won’t replace the many other books on the campaign, but as a testament to those who fought—and died—there, Eisenhower’s work is hard to beat.


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