Part 33: The breakout at Anzio begins
From: Glen Palecek and his father, Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
The beachhead at Anzio has often been compared to the trench warfare of World War I, which is often referred to as “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars.” In the First World War, these trenches stretched from northern France in an area called “Flanders” south across the country. Flanders is perhaps best known today for the famous poem written about the vast graveyard of soldiers buried there. In part, the poem goes as follows: “In Flanders Field the poppies blow, Beneath the crosses, row on row.” If you want to find these words written in stone, go to the war memorial on the edge of Lake Winona.
Many of you have seen movies or documentaries of World War I where soldiers leap from trenches and race across open ground while German machine guns cut them down. Dad, of course, was not in this war but, as a history professor, he did write about it and I have some of these papers. In both wars, tanks were used to protect the men as they charged. In the first war, the tanks carried bundles of sticks to drop in the narrow German trenches so men and tanks could cross. Also, in the first war, horses were used in many of these charges.
The Allied breakout of the Anzio beachhead started on May 23, 1944, and lasted for several very long days. Dad has a short written account of the breakout; let me start with that:
“An hour before the attack out of Anzio, I checked in with all the company radios, including regiment, and found that K Company’s radio had conked out. I looked around at my operators, and each one looked scared that I would send him. So, I picked up my radio and went myself. John Tropman went with the Colonel. As soon as the attack started, he (Tropman) got his antenna shot off. He could receive but not transmit. So, my radio was the only one in the battalion that could reach regiment. I got to direct all mortar and artillery fire for the entire battalion throughout the attack.
“When the Colonel caught up to me, he said they were immediately going to continue the attack, and he wanted a good radio operator. I told him I had all good operators. He said, ‘I thought you’d say that, but I’d like to have you.’ He sent Tropman back, and I went with him on the push to Rome.”
Let me explain that K Company was one of several rifle companies positioned at the jump-off point at the front. Men in rifle companies would lead the morning advance. Men in these front-line rifle companies had, by far, the most hazardous place in battle. Although Dad and his men often were sent to the up-front rifle companies, it was always a very risky place to be and this is why Dad said his radio operators looked scared to go to K Company when they knew the attack was about to start.
I will have to write about the rest of the breakout based on Dad’s notes and sketches and what he told me. To be fair, I also reviewed some of Dad’s old textbooks.
The night before the attack, General Lucian K. Truscott, who had replaced General Lucas and was now in charge of the Allied invasion, sent copies of a letter he had written to the troops. I have a copy of that letter, which I will probably include in the book. It is a very good letter and I will summarize it for you:
General Truscott’s letter praised the men for such a brave stand over the past four months. He assured them they had the finest equipment in the world and that the attack the next morning would be successful. He assured them that the American Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army (which now included troops from at least 10 more countries), were drawing very near and together they could destroy the German 10th Army.
Truscott told the men they had superior numbers and every detail of the attack had been carefully planned. He assured the men the entire world was watching, as indeed it was. His last words in the letter were, “Be alert — be victorious — destroy the hated enemy. Victory will be ours.”
Unlike the phony General Patton who, as Bill Mauldin stated in his books, was never near the front without his biographers and photographers, General Truscott really was often at the front, sometimes with only a single aid and his driver who were both, understandably, very nervous.
Dad said that night they hit the Germans with everything they had. Giant guns used for anti-aircraft flack were lowered to a near horizontal position so their exploding shells could become killers of German soldiers. Mortar and artillery crews fired round after round into all suspected targets. Ships also fired a huge barrage of shells. Tanks were moved forward. (Fake tanks were left to the rear to fool the Germans.) Dad’s regiment included an anti-tank company, which was also moved up to the front and ready for action. (I don’t know what arms an anti-tank company employed, and I am trying hard to get through this series the first time without using the Internet. I know there were airplanes called “tank busters,” particularly the P-51 Mustang, but this anti-tank company was ground-based.)
I asked Dad how much all of that cost. He told me what some of the big shells did cost, but I can’t remember. The only shell’s cost I do remember was that of a large machine gun bullet, which Dad said was “a buck apiece.” He did say that 1,000 men couldn’t earn in a lifetime what was spent that night and in the following days at Anzio. Perhaps that was an exaggeration, but perhaps not. The soldiers earned a little over $60 a month, so two large bullets were equal to a day’s pay. Because their lives were at stake, the soldiers were not hesitant to use up tax dollars. Over the four months at Anzio, over 30,000 artillery shells were fired at a single dug-in German target.
I asked Dad what it was like to wait. He said it was not different than waiting for a beachhead invasion. The men were mostly silent and had an empty look as if all their life had left them. Some whispered a little and tried to laugh, but a laugh just doesn’t come out well under such tense conditions. All knew that tomorrow they would either be killed or have a day they would never forget.
I’ll have to leave this episode here out of respect for the space the Winona Post is giving me for Dad’s stories. There’s just too much to write and I have already left out many details.
Next time, I will start with the “jump-off,” as the attack was called, and continue for as far as I can get into the breakout in the space allowed in this newspaper.