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Battle of Anzio

Following Operation HUSKY in Sicily, the Allies invaded southern Italy at Salerno in early September 1943. The Italian government quickly surrendered on 8 September 1943. The Germans disarmed the Italians and took over the defense of Italy, but Naples and Foggia fell to the Allies on 1 October 1943. From there, the Germans staged a fighting withdrawal and settled into a strong defensive position at the Gustav Line, a formidable and sophisticated defensive belt of interlocking positions on the high ground along the Italian peninsula's narrowest point, shown as a fortified red line on the map above.

DUKW transporting supplies onto the beach at Anzio, 15 April 1944.  Innovative methods of supply to the beachhead included pre-loading of trucks in Naples with ammunition and rations for specific units.  The truck would be transported by sea to Anzio, then be driven off the landing ship and go directly to the receiving unit
DUKW transporting supplies onto the beach at Anzio, 15 April 1944. Innovative methods of supply to the beachhead included pre-loading of trucks in Naples with ammunition and rations for specific units. The truck would be transported by sea to Anzio, then be driven off the landing ship and go directly to the receiving unit.

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Background to the Battle of Anzio

Map of the relationship between the Anzio beachhead and the Gustav Line, Italy 1944
Map of the relationship between the Anzio beachhead and the Gustav Line, Italy 1944.

On 6 November 1943, Hitler appointed Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring as commander of all German forces in Italy. Kesselring promised to hold the Gustav Line for at least six months to prevent the U.S. Fifth Army from advancing into the Liri valley, the direct route to Rome. The inspiration for the Anzio plan was the Allies' need to break out of the costly struggle for each ridge and valley in the Italian mountains. Between October 1943 and January 1944 the Allies launched numerous attacks against the Gustav Line, but all failed due to poor weather, rough terrain, and strong German resistance, while generating long casualty lists and consuming scarce supplies.

The Plan for the Anzio Landing

An amphibious assault on the coast south of Rome had many attractive attributes. A successful landing could outflank and facilitate a breakthrough of the Gustav Line, restore mobility to the Italian campaign, cut German lines of retreat, supply, and communications, and accelerate the capture of Rome. In November 1943, Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, commander of the Fifth Army, ordered a plan for a single division operation centered on Anzio, selected as the best site within striking distance of Rome but still within range of Naples-based Allied aircraft. British commanders were enthusiastic, but the Americans less so, believing that the planned forces were insufficient to dislodge the Germans defending the area. The Anzio plan was temporarily shelved, but when General Eisenhower was reassigned to Operation OVERLORD in early January 1944, he relinquished command of Allied forces in the Mediterranean to General Sir Henry M. Wilson, after which the British view dominated planning.

In early January 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill personally intervened to halt transfers of shipping and landing craft from the Mediterranean to OVERLORD long enough to support Anzio. The landing was now called Operation SHINGLE, and had grown into a major offensive operation with a combined Anglo-American ground, naval and air force assembling in Naples, led by Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, U.S. Army, commander of the Fifth Army's VI Corps.

On 12 January 1944, the attack on the Gustav Line was resumed, centered on Cassino. This diverted German attention from the preparations for Anzio, allowing the invasion armada to sail from Naples on 21 January undetected.

The Invasion of Anzio

When the Allied troops came ashore on the Anzio beach at 0200 on 22 January 1944, the Germans were taken completely by surprise. Their attention and reserves had been drawn to the south, to oppose the attacks against the Gustav Line along the Garigliano River. The Anzio beach was almost undefended, allowing VI Corps to storm ashore and take all its objectives by noon. By the end of the first day, over 36,000 men and 3,200 vehicles were ashore with casualties of 13 killed, 97 wounded, and 44 missing.

Over the next few days Allied units pushed inland to a depth of seven miles against scattered but increasing German resistance. They moved up the Anzio-Albano Road toward Campoleone, captured the town of Aprilia, created a huge bulge in enemy lines, but failed to break out of the beachhead. Probes toward Cisterna and Littoria on 24-25 January made some progress but were also halted short of their goals by stubborn resistance. Between 26 and 29 January, Allied progress was halted for a general consolidation and reorganization of beachhead forces and the landing of reserves, pushing the Allied total troop strength on the beachhead over 61,000. By 1 February the port of Anzio was in full operation and improved air defenses had reduced the effectiveness of constant Luftwaffe sorties against the beachhead.

The Germans React to the Anzio Landings

The Germans were surprised by the Anzio landing, but not paralyzed. They quickly positioned blocking forces to prevent a breakout toward Rome or any link up with Allied forces to the south. German troops were ordered to Italy from Yugoslavia, France, and Germany to reinforce elements of the 3d Panzer Grenadier and 71st Infantry Divisions that were already moving into the Anzio area. When the Allies failed to exploit the beachhead with an immediate, forceful drive toward Rome, the Germans gained the time to build a formidable defensive and counterstrike capability, ultimately building their Fourteenth Army to 135,000 troops.

The Allies attempted to step up their own operations before the Germans could strike back. 3d Division and three Ranger Battalions under Col. William O. Darby made an initial attack on Cisterna, 30 January, running into German units massing for their counterattack. The first day, most of the lightly armed Rangers were destroyed in a fighting withdrawal against German armored units, losing all but 6 of 767 men in two battalions. For three days American units tried to take Cisterna, but could not dislodge the Germans.

The German counterattack opened on 3-4 February with an artillery barrage, followed by armored and infantry assaults. Waves of German attacks, Allied attacks and artillery duels through February resulted in shifting lines and heavy casualties on both sides, but no basic change in the situation. A final enemy drive on 4 March failed, to be followed by a three-month lull in major operations.

During March, April, and the first part of May 1944 static warfare reminiscent of WW I ruled Anzio. Air and artillery barrages rained down on the Allies, including fire from "Anzio Annie," a 280-mm. German railway gun fired from the Alban Hills. Random death or injury from the constant shelling became the way of life in the beachhead zone. Most Allied casualties were from shrapnel as the Anzio beachhead became a maze of muddy trenches, foxholes, and bunkers.

Breakout from Anzio

On the night of 11-12 May, the Fifth and Eighth Armies launched their long-awaited spring offensive against the Gustav Line, finally capturing Cassino and breaking the Gustav Line by 15 May. Terracina fell to II Corps on 23-24 May, as they raced toward the Anzio beachhead against rapidly crumbling resistance from German units withdrawing northwest toward Rome.

Taking advantage of fluid situation in the central mountains, a drive to breakout of the Anzio beachhead opened at 0545 on 23 May, with a 45-minute Allied artillery barrage followed by armor and infantry attacks along the entire Anzio perimeter. Supported by air strikes, the Allies breached the German main line of resistance and advanced for the first time since the Anzio landings in January. With concentrated air power, artillery and armor they inflicted tremendous losses on the retreating Germans. By 25 May, VI Corps forces from Anzio at last linked with II Corps forces pushing northwest from the Liri Valley.

In a still controversial move, General Clark split his forces in order to ensure that American units would be the liberators of Rome. He sent a weak force toward Valmontone where they were unable to prevent the escape of the German Tenth Army to new positions north of Rome. The balance of Clark's forces participated in the final drive to Rome, which fell to the Americans in the evening of 4 June 1944, nine months after the first landings in Italy.

The news of the fall of Rome was quickly forgotten in the euphoria of the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June. Kesselring withdrew his forces to form behind the Gothic Line, a natural defensive barrier in the North Apennines, 150 miles north of Rome, beyond the Arno River, north of Pisa and Florence, south of the central Italian city of Bologna, and east to Pesaro on the Adriatic.

Summary of the Anzio Campaign

Anzio did not achieve its initial objectives to outflank the Gustav Line and lead to the capture of Rome. The Allies were pinned down on the beachhead for four months until II Corps was able to advance through the mountains. The commander, General Lucas, has been criticized for being too cautious, allowing the stalemate to develop rather than staging an immediate bold breakout. Lucas' supporters have always maintained that there were never enough troops, transport or supplies for bold moves and that Anzio accomplished enough by tying down Fourteenth Army for as long as they did. And the initial goals were ultimately achieved, if late and by other means.

During the four months of the Anzio Campaign, VI Corps suffered over 29,200 combat casualties with 4,400 killed, 18,000 wounded, and 6,800 taken as prisoners or missing. There were an additional 37,000 noncombat casualties. Of the combat casualties, 16,200 were Americans (2,800 killed, 11,000 wounded, 2,400 prisoners or missing) as were 26,000 of the Allied noncombat casualties. German combat losses were estimated at 27,500 (5,500 killed, 17,500 wounded, and 4,500 prisoners or missing), figures very similar to Allied losses.

The Anzio Campaign was followed by the campaign that captured Rome and pushed into the northern regions of Italy.

Recommended Books about the Battle of Anzio

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