The Battle of Anzio -1944
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
With Allied success in North Africa and Sicily between July and August 1943 and the fall of Mussolini, in late July, the Allies believed that there was an opportunity to capture Rome from the Axis powers. On the 3rd of September 1943, two divisions of the British 8th Army, under General Montgomery, invaded mainland Italy landing at Taranto and Reggio on the Adriatic coast (Operation Baytown). Simultaneously, further to the north, at Salerno (Operation Avalanche) on the Mediterranean coast, one division of the US 5th Army, under General Mark Clark, began invasion on the 9th of September. These two armies were designated the 5th Army Group and were under the overall command of General Sir Harold Alexander. On the same day As the American invasion, Italy surrendered to the Allies. This however, did nothing to dampen the morale of German Forces in ‘Fortress Europe’.
The mountainous terrain and the many rivers of the Italian Peninsula played into the hands of the German Army under Field Marshal Kesselring. The narrow mountain roads were the only source of communication for the Allies. After the amphibious attacks, the Allied forces eventually linked up, but the Germans fought a series of delaying actions back to the Gustav Line, consisting of concrete and steel fortifications, stretching across Italy from the Mediterranean coast 84 miles to the Adriatic coast. Allied progress was soon halted. US 5th Army became stuck 70 miles North of Salerno before the Gustav Line. The line ran through the Liri Valley through which also ran highway 6, the allies only route to Rome. The dominating feature of the line was the monastery at Monte Cassino, which gave the Germans a clear observation points of the allied forces. The result was a fierce stalemate.
By December 1943, Allied command had begun plans for another amphibious operation, to land troops to the rear of the Gustav Line and break the stalemate, but the plan had been turned down by American High command, who insisted that resources should be concentrated on the invasion of Normandy in 1944. By January 1944, it was clear that it was necessary to break the stalemate on the Gustav Line. At this point, Winston Churchill intervened and the Allies began planning for Operation ‘Shingle’.
The plan was for VI Corps, commanded by Major-General John Lucas, to land at Anzio, a small town and fishing port, located 35 miles southwest of Rome and 60 miles from the Gustav line on the Garlisliano River. The port served as a rest area for German troops from the Gustav Line. Aiding these divisions were British 2nd Special Service Brigade of two commandos, American Rangers and a US Parachute Regiment. Before the main assault, American, British and French troops were to attack the Gustav Line as hard as possible and draw as many reserves away from Anzio as possible. The operations at Anzio were supported by a 15th Army Group offensive. One 17th January 1944, the Fifth Army, consisting of the U.S. II Corps, the British 10 Corps, and the French Expeditionary Corps, launched an offensive on the Gustav Line, across the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers. The aim was to attack the German Tenth Army around Monte Cassino, drawing German forces away from the Allied landing, breakthrough the enemy line and link up with VI Corps at Anzio on the main route to Rome. Plans were only approved 10 days before the main attack on Anzio.
On 21st Jan, 36,000 men, on 253 vessels, headed 110 mines from Naples, towards Anzio. However, the objective of the landings was unclear. The initial plans ordered VI Corps to advance 20 miles beyond the beachhead, capture the Alban Hills and cut the German lines of communication leading to Rome. Combined with Clark’s offensive on the Gustav Line, the capture Hills would force the Germans to abandon their defensive lines south of Rome.
General Clark, however, feared that the Alban Hills were too far away to be taken quickly leaving IV Corps vulnerable and open to a German counterattack. Clark issued orders to Lucas that required him only to “advance on” the Alban Hills. The landings also only involved limited forces, considering the task; infantry divisions—the American 3rd Infantry Division and the British 1st Infantry Division—with elements of two other divisions ready to reinforce the landings from Naples Lucas would later state that this lack of clear objective along with limited troop numbers, meant that the operation could very well have failed. An Anglo-American Navy Task known as Force 81 (TF-81), provided the naval forces to support the landings.
By dawn on 22nd, were already beginning their landing. They had met little resistance and had found there to be very few German troops in the town, with the exception of elements of the 29th Panzer Grenadiers. US reconnaissance had also found that the road to Rome was virtually clear but Gen. Lucas made the decision to dig in at Anzio and await the German force. Most enemy mines had been cleared but at 10am, minesweeper Portent became the first ship lost in the operation. Soon after the HMS Palomares also hit a mine and was towed to Naples. There were also very few Luftwaffe anti-shipping attacks.
The operation had achieved total surprise, partly due to lack of German reconnaissance and partly due to Allied radio silence during the landings. By 5pm, on the 22nd January, the German 1st Parachute Corps had established a line of defence around the Anzio Beachhead. Despite this, by the end of the day, the first wave of American troops had push south to the Mussolini Canal and the British had taken up positions to the North of Anzio harbour. Elements of 3rd Reconnaissance and 30th Infantry Regiments had successfully captured the bridges across the Mussolini Canal, although these would be recaptured by the Hermann Goring Panzer Division, soon after.
Although caught off-guard during the first 24 hours of the operation, over the next two days the Germans quickly concentrated troops in the region and increased air attacks. German Field Marshal Kesselring had a supplementary plan, to rush in reinforcements from further afield if required to do so. Due to the strength of Allied air power the Germans had become adept at moving large bodies of troops through the night. Kesselring's 10th Army was confronting the enemy on the Gustav Line. His immediate reserves to oppose a landing, were his 14th Army, part reforming in northern Italy and part watching the coast. He also had the option of drawing additional divisions from the Balkans and France. Kesselring requested as many spare troops as possible from the Tenth Army defending the Gustav Line.
By 25th January, elements of five divisions, consisting of around 40,000 German troops, under the command of General Eberhard von Mackensen, had surrounded the Allied beachhead which was now 15miles wide and 7 miles deep. The size and geography of the Allied beachhead allowed the German forces in the Alban Hills and unobstructed view for attack. The terrain also made life difficult for Allied force, with water-logged marshland and little cover for enemy fire.
It became clear that the Fifth Army and VI Corps would not be able to link up, due to failure to breakthrough on the Gustav line and to draw away German forces from Anzio on the Rapido River. As a result, Gen. Lucas believed that if his forces reached the Alban Hills, they would be isolated and without support and therefore be quickly overrun by the Germans.
The Allied Offensive
The decision was made to send VI Corps to capture the towns of Cisterna and Campoleone. By 30th January, the British 1st Division had begun to move up the Anzio-Albano Road toward Campoleone and supported by the 179th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, captured the town of Aprilia, known as "the Factory", due to its large buildings and towers. The Sherwood Foresters, leading the attack on Aprilia and Campoleone, suffered 70% casualties and lost all their officers.
Of the operation, Winston Churchill later commented, ‘I had hoped we were hurling a wild cat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.’ Gen. Clark rapidly ordered two more divisions into the beachhead. Simultaneously, the Germans were increasing their strength and just a week after the Allied landings 61,000 Allied troops were facing 71,000 Germans. The Luftwaffe also increased the number of air attacks and more ships were being sunk. Even though there were limited Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean, (around 200 aircraft) they quickly brought in 145 long-range bombers from across Europe. The result was the Royal Navy withdrawing many of its larger ships, therefore further limiting the support available for the troops ashore.
American troops headed towards Cisterna but were halted by German forces and over 700 men were killed or captured. The US advance was halted. The British attack on Campoleone had forged a two and a half mile salient into the German lines. On 7 February, German forces launched a counterattack against the salient. The British 1st Division were heavily bombarded and suffered 1,400 casualties. General Penney was forced to withdraw his troops from the area. The Germans pushed forward and continued fighting around Aprilia. By 10 February, ‘the Factory’ was back in German hands.
Second German Counter-Attack
On 16th February, German forces launched Operation ‘Fischfang’, which aimed to break through the Allied line, cut VI Corps in half and push forward towards Nettuno and Anzio. Forces attacked the US 45th Division with further attacks aims around the beachhead. By 19th February, Allied air and artillery superiority had stopped the German attack and the Germans had failed to break through. There were heavy German infantry casualties but they had managed to create a one-mile gap in the Allied line.
Both General Alexander and General Clark were unhappy at the result given by Gen. Lucas and on 22nd February, General Lucian Truscott, replaced him as commander of the forces at Anzio. On 29 February, Kesselring renewed the assault on the Anzio bridgehead, this time against the US 3rd Division in what would be known as Operation ‘Seitensprung’. This hard fight was unsuccessful for the German forces and resulted in heavy losses. On 1 March, heavy Allied bombing hit German positions and General Mackensen urged Kesselring go onto the defensive. In 5 days, 3,500 German troops were either killed, wounded or missing.
Stalemate- March-May 1944
By early March, after nearly 6 weeks of fighting, the Anzio operation had reached a stalemate. While the German forces were holding back the Allies, they had been reduced to just four divisions and were exhausted for the fighting. Gen. Kesselring ordered a new defence line known as the ‘Caesar Line’ to be prepared south of Rome.
The Allied troops were also exhausted and much of VI Corps were rotated and replaced, with around 14,000 troops being brought in. By the end of March, 90,000 Allied troops were in line. Between March and April much of the fighting was restricted to, both sides, defending their positions. The German forces continued to use their 280mm railway gun, nicknamed ‘Anzio Annie’, which they had used to attack the beachhead. This had a devastating effect on the Allied and caused large numbers of casualties. It was essential for Allied commanders to find a solution to this stalemate, plan a breakout operation and capture Rome.
Allied commanders planned Operation ‘Buffalo’ which would push forces
towards Cisterna, to the Alban Hills before reaching Highway 6 at Valmontone. Although this meant a longer route to Rome, it would allow the Allies forces to cut off the German Tenth Army retreating from the Gustav Line.
In order for this to happened, British and US forces launched Operation ‘Diadem’ on 11th May. The aim was to break through the German defences on the Gustav Line and open up Liri Valley and the route to Rome. The Fifth Army, which included four French Divisions, attacked to the north of the Garigliano River, while the Eighth Army, which included South African, Polish and Canadian Divisions, launched an attack at Cassino. Gen. Kesselring was force to withdraw forces from Anzio and after a week of fighting, on the Gustav Line, the Germans finally abandoned Monte Cassino. Kesselring believed that the Allied forces would make an attempt on the quickest route to Rome, and sent many troops into positions up the Via Anziate.
On 23rd May, Operation ‘Buffalo’ was launched. The initial assault was to be launched in the Cisterna area, with the 1st Armoured Division advancing on the left, the 3d Division in the centre and 1st Special Service Force, to the right. After 2 days, Allied forces destroyed German defences and on 25th May, Cisterna fell to the allies. By 30th May, VI Corps had reached the Alban Hills. It was at this moment, that Gen. Clark made the decision to change direction and to push forward and focus efforts on the shortest route to Rome, via Highway 7, instead of Highway 6, towards Campoleone. By the end of May, the US 45th Infantry Division, supported by 1st Armoured, had slowed its advance towards Campoleone. The US 36th Infantry Division had however, began to cross the Alban hills and outflank the Caesar Line. On 1st June, Highway 6 was cut by US forces and US 3rd Division had captured Valmontone. After weeks of fighting, German defences were broken though, VI Corps were able to link-up US II Corps troops advancing from the Gustav Line and the road to Rome lay open.
The Liberation of Rome - 4th June 1944
On 4th June 1944, VI Corps reached the city and Rome became the first capital to be liberated from Nazi German occupation. Gen. Kesselring had declared Rome an open city on 3rd June, meaning that it could be captured without any fighting. The day after the capture of Rome, Allied forces landed in Normandy and quickly the Italian Campaign became a secondary theatre.
Operation ‘Shingle’ had failed in its main aim, despite land, air and sea superiority. Failings were clear from the beginning, with lack of initial objective and with the lack of resources and poor command and leadership, it proved a costly battle. During the operation, the VI Corps suffered 29,200 combat casualties and the allied forces suffered 37,000 non-combat casualties, from diseases such as malaria and trench foot.
Operation ‘Shingle’ had failed in its main aim, despite land, air and sea superiority. Failings were clear from the beginning, with lack of initial objective and with the lack of resources and poor command and leadership, it proved a costly battle.
The operation did however, weaken German strength on the Gustav line, by drawing troops away from the fighting, allowing for the eventual breakthrough of defences. The Allied focus of the taking of Rome also meant that many of the German forces who were retreating from the Gustav Line, were able to do so without being captured.
The capture of Rome did not signify the end of the campaign in Italy and it would not be until 2nd May 1945, that German commanders surrendered Italy to the Allies.