Anzio: “a vain-glorious blunder”

The controversial Allied landings near Rome

American landing craft at Anzio
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

Amphibious landings were a staple of World War II. Operation Torch in North Africa; Operation Husky in Sicily, the Allied landings in mainland Italy; and, of course, Operation Overlord and the follow-up in Southern France, Dragoon (Read our earlier article – Operation Dragoon). All of these operations held important lessons on how to carry out such attacks. Operation Shingle, the Allied landing near Rome, was unique: despite its eventual success, it was more a lesson in how not to do things. It was a plan that was initiated at a single man’s insistence, used too few troops, inspired confidence in no one, and was hijacked by one man’s thirst for glory at the very end. Operation Shingle began on January 22, 1944, almost exactly 79 years ago; all the more reason for us to commemorate it with this article.

A Sherman tank landing on the Anzio waterfront in late April 1944, later in the operation (Photo: Signal Corps)

The Western Allies landed on the southern half of mainland Italy in early September 8, 1943, and the country surrendered immediately. German forces, however, were quick to seize the rest of the peninsula and dig in, extracting a high toll from the Allies for every mile of advance over the mountainous terrain. The main German defensive line, the Gustav Line, stopped the Allies cold. A vital part of the line, the area around the hill of Monte Cassino and the medieval abbey atop it (Read our earlier article – Razing Monte Cassino), halted the American 5th Army for the winter of 1943-44.

Canadian sniper near Ortona along the Winter Line (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
Canadian sniper near Ortona along the Winter Line
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

With no way to get past Monte Cassino, the Allies considered the idea of landing troops behind the Gustav Line. British General Sir Harold Alexander, Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean, had considered such an operation with five divisions and rejected it as unfeasible in October, largely because he didn’t have enough landing craft to put that many troops ashore. Another person, however, was quick to pick up the idea and throw his weight behind it: Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Quite the optimist, Churchill wanted to use one division (though he was later persuaded to increase the landing force to two divisions).

Churchill convalescing from pneumonia in Marrakesh, Morocco, in December 1943. He started advocating for Operation Shingle at this time. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Churchill convalescing from pneumonia in Marrakesh, Morocco, in December 1943. He started advocating for Operation Shingle at this time.
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

From its inception, the plan was schizophrenic about its ultimate goal. Churchill envisioned the force to strike inland and capture Rome some 30 miles (50 km) to the north. Meanwhile, General Mark Clark, commander of the 5th Army, wanted to use the landing force as bait: it would force the Germans to redeploy some of their troops from the Gustav Line to counter this new threat, leaving the line weak enough for the Allies to break through. While planning was going on, the date for Operation Overlord was set. This meant that whatever landing craft Operation Shingle would use had to be relinquished by the end of February 1944, as the same ships were going to be needed in Normandy. This gave the planners only one month to finalize the operation.

General Mark Clark in Rome (Photo: ww2db.com)
General Mark Clark in Rome
(Photo: ww2db.com)

The British 1st and the U.S. 3rd Infantry Divisions were selected for the landing, which was overseen by U.S. Major General John P. Lucas. Both Lucas and Clark had doubts about the operation, and their fears were not soothed when the rehearsal Lucas insisted on ended up a disaster. There was, however, no time for another rehearsal and no chance to postpone Shingle.

Major General John P. Lucas, the original commander of Operation Shingle (Photo: U.S. War Department)
Major General John P. Lucas, the original commander of Operation Shingle
(Photo: U.S. War Department)

Clark, having doubts about the viability of the landing, worded his order to Lucas without any specific deadlines for the advance inland, allowing the latter to make his own decisions once on the ground. The lack of confidence was clear in Lucas’s diary: "They will end up putting me ashore with inadequate forces and get me in a serious jam... Then, who will get the blame?" He also wrote: “[the operation] has a strong odour of Gallipoli and apparently the same amateur was still on the coach's bench." This was a reference to the infamous British fiasco during World War I, which had the same proponent: Winston Churchill.

Map of the Gustav Line, where the Allies were bogged down at Monte Cassino (east) and the landing area of Operation Shingle (west) (Image: military.com)
Map of the Gustav Line, where the Allies were bogged down at Monte Cassino (east) and the landing area of Operation Shingle (west)
(Image: military.com)

Another man who disagreed with the plan was Major General Lucian Truscott, commander of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, one of the two divisions selected for the operation. He pointed out to Clark that the attack might end up with the entire force destroyed. Clark agreed and canceled the operation, only to be overruled by Churchill.

Truscott sometime between 1944 and 1946 (Photo: Harris & Ewing photo studio)
Truscott sometime between 1944 and 1946
(Photo: Harris & Ewing photo studio)

Despite everybody’s doubts and the horrible rehearsal, the operation got off to a great start on January 22, 1944, and achieved complete surprise. This was in no small part due to the strategy of Albert Kesselring, the Field Marshal in command of German forces in Italy. Kesselring suspected that the Allies would launch an amphibious landing but did not know where. Therefore, he only left light “tripwire” forces along the coast, with much of his army held back and ready to reinforce whatever area came under Allied attack. As a result, the towns of Anzio and Nettuno, where the Allies landed, were only guarded by three German engineer companies – most of whom were captured in their sleep by the Ranger forces that took the port. By midnight of the first day of the operation, 90% of the Allied forces came ashore and established a beachhead 15 miles (24 km) wide and 7 miles (11 km) deep, with only 14 men killed in the process. One jeep patrol even reached the outskirts of Rome before retreating.

Aerial photo of the Anzio-Nettuno area (Photo: National Archives)
Aerial photo of the Anzio-Nettuno area
(Photo: National Archives)

And then everything came to a stop. Major General Lucas knew that he was outnumbered by German forces two or three to one, and was so concerned about an imminent German counterattack that he stopped the expansion inland and ordered the construction of defenses around the beachhead. This gave Kesselring more than enough time to move his forces to Anzio and occupy the high ground around.

Camouflaged German Wespe self-propelled artillery piece on the edge of the beachhead (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Camouflaged German Wespe self-propelled artillery piece on the edge of the beachhead (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The beachhead became a trap. It was on low-lying ground, which had only been reclaimed from swampland during Mussolini’s reign, and was surrounded by hills and mountains now held by the Germans who started shelling the exposed soldiers. The beach was so crowded initially that there was no space to land artillery guns for counterfire, and the job had to be taken up by Allied warship sitting off the coast. The Germans turned off the pumps that kept the local drainage ditch system operational, and seawater started seeping back in, threatening the Allies with disease.

U.S. artillery firing in the Nettuno area later during the operation (Photo: U.S. Army)
U.S. artillery firing in the Nettuno area later during the operation
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The German defenders kept the Allied forces trapped on the beachhead for an entire month of bitter back-and-forth fighting with the area outside the beachhead changing heads several times. Colonel William Orlando Darby’s Ranger Force (Read our earlier article – The Rangers in the South) was so badly crippled at the town of Cisterna during a breakout attempt that the entire force was disbanded. The British Guards Brigade lost 2,000 men out of their original strength of 2,500. The 7th “Ox and Bucks” (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry regiment) was reduced from 1,000 men to 60. The fighting was so fierce that a new jury-rigged vehicle was invented for use at Anzio and Monte Cassino, though it was never properly deployed. The “battle sled” was a line of iron cradles towed by a tank or some other armored vehicle, with soldiers lying down in the cradles so they wouldn’t be hit. Meanwhile, the 5th Army was still bogged down at Monte Cassino, unable to break through and rescue the landing force. A disappointed Churchill commented: "I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.”

The experimental “battle sled”
The experimental “battle sled”
(Photo: thearmoredpatrol.com)

Major General Lucas took the brunt of the blame for the debacle, but was that blame fair? On one hand, he could have advanced further inland and secured more ground had he been less cautious from the first day onward. On the other hand, there’s no ignoring the fact that his two divisions just weren’t enough. Had he advanced on Rome, it’s quite possible his forces would have been encircled and eliminated.
 
Be that as it may, Lucas was relieved of command on February 23 and replaced by Major General Lucian Truscott. Truscott was familiar with the situation, as he was in command of the 3rd Infantry Division during the landing, and had already been appointed as Lucas’s deputy a week before the latter’s relief. Truscott was trusted by his superiors and his men, and had distinguished himself both in Africa and in the month-long fighting at Anzio. General Patton once rated him as the fifth best American general officer out of a list of 155.

Major General Lucian Truscott (third from left, in shiny helmet) with General Sir Harold Alexander in Anzio (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Major General Lucian Truscott (third from left, in shiny helmet) with General Sir Harold Alexander in Anzio (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Truscott was more willing to be aggressive than Lucas, but the fighting came to a necessary lull by late February as both sides were exhausted. Allied and German leadership spent weeks shuffling units around and bringing in fresh forces in anticipation of the next attempt to break out of the beachhead. Truscott prepared four different plans and presented them to his superiors. General Alexander, the overall commander in Italy, approved of Operation Buffalo, a plan to drive inland and up into the mountains, cutting off an important highway and threatening the entire German 10th Army with encirclement and destruction. General Clark of the 5th Army, however, had a different ambition, and ordered Truscott to also prepare for Operation Turtle, a turn to the north and an advance on Rome. Clark believed that the British intended to liberate Rome on their own and hog all the spotlight that would come with the feat, and was determined to beat them to the prize.  He later wrote: “We not only wanted the honor of capturing Rome, but felt that we deserved it... Not only did we intend to become the first army to seize Rome from the south, but we intended to see that people at home knew that it was the Fifth Army that did the job, and knew the price that had been paid for it."

Italian soldiers from the pro-Nazi puppet state of the Republic of Salò fighting Allied forces in the spring of 1944 (Photo: unknown photographer)
Italian soldiers from the pro-Nazi puppet state of the Republic of Salò fighting Allied forces in the spring of 1944 (Photo: unknown photographer)

The breakout commenced on the morning of May 23, 1944, with a heavy artillery strike followed by an advance with armor and infantry. Fighting was intense, but the Allies managed to capture Cisterna, the town where Darby’s Ranger Force was destroyed, by the afternoon of the 25th. Operation Buffalo was on the right track to encircle the German 10th Army.
 
But General Mark Clark didn’t want that; he wanted Rome. On the evening of the 25th, with lead elements of the force a mere 4 miles (6 km) from closing the gap through which the Germans could escape, he gave Truscott the order to turn the bulk of his forces toward the Italian capital and implement Operation Turtle. Truscott was shocked by the decision, and wanted to hear it directly from Clark, but the latter was not at the beachhead and could not be raised on the radio. Having no choice, Truscott abandoned the attempt to trap the main German force and reoriented his troops. Clark only informed his own superior, General Alexander, about the change on the morning of the 26th, when it was already too late to do anything about it.

Sir Harold Alexander (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Sir Harold Alexander
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Clark’s last-minute order allowed the German 10th Army to escape encirclement, retreat to the north and dig in once more, drawing out the fighting in Italy until March 1945. For what it’s worth, Clark had his moment of glory in Rome. Hitler declared the Italian capital an “open city,” meaning it would not be defended, and the liberators could enter it without fighting – which they did in the early hours of June 4, allowing Clark to hold a press conference on Independence Day. To keep it a purely American event, he stationed military police at nearby road junctions with orders to turn away British soldiers.

General Mark Clark (in front seat) and members of his staff driving through Rome (Photo: ww2db.com)
General Mark Clark (in front seat) and members of his staff driving through Rome (Photo: ww2db.com)

Clark received heavy criticism for his decision. Alan Whicker, a British war correspondent who was present during the fighting later said: “This, vain-glorious blunder, the worst of the entire war, lost us a stunning victory, lengthened the war by many months and earned Mark Clark the contempt of other American and British generals. They saw an operation that could have won the war in Italy, thrown away at the cost of many Allied lives, because of the obsession and vanity of one man.” Clark could not enjoy his success for long. Two days after he entered Rome, stories of his success were pushed out of the headlines by news of an even greater event: Operation Overlord.

Allied soldiers at the Piazza Venetia in Rome
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

If you wish, you can see the Anzio beachhead for yourself, along with many other battlefields, museums and locations dedication to the Allied liberation of Sicily and Italy, on our new Italian Campaign Tour debuting this year.

Battle of the Bulge promotion

Pay in full and get 15% off until January 25

An American soldier in an attack on German forces in December 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army, Tony Vaccaro)

We will start 2023 with a promotion in remembrance to the men who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In the current four-week promotion period you can get a 15% discount on our select tours by booking and paying full by January 25, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. The offer excludes those three tours in 2024 which include the 80th anniversary D-Day commemorations in Normandy. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.

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