Part 34: The breakout continues
By sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
There is a word that was widely used in World War II which you may not have heard of. That word is “SNAFU” which Dad said stood for “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up.” Most troops, I’m sure, thought the “F” stood for something else. I once saw a photograph of a World War II Army plane with a painting on it of a naked pregnant woman next to a small boy. The caption under the painting was “SNAFU II.” Need I say more? The word SNAFU certainly could be applied to the Allied breakout at Anzio.
The attack itself was one of the biggest attempted by any army in world history. The attacking front was 10-miles wide. There were some 90,000 Allied combat troops on the beachhead and most were involved in the attack. There were thousands more men behind the lines handling support and logistics. Dad’s Thunderbird Division was in the center of the attack, flanked by two American divisions on the right and two British divisions on the left. I will not attempt to describe the battle as a whole, but will do my best to describe only what Dad saw or knew of personally.
At 6 a.m. on May 23, 1944, the ships and artillery made their final shots before the advance for the breakout at Anzio. All up and down the line men said their prayers and readied for the attack. I am sure K company was glad to see Dad. Dad had gained a reputation, not just as the one who had the latest news, but also as a devoted Christian. I am sure his prayers meant a lot to them.
Dad’s 45th Division launched their part of the attack promptly at 6:30 from an area a little east of the town of Aprilia (also known as the factory), and a little north of the town of Campo Morto, which literally means “Camp Death!” This town had that name long before the Allied invasion. I can’t think of a more appropriate name for the entire area from which the Thunderbirds launched their offensive into the heart of the German defenses. “Camp Death” it is for the rest of this episode.
Each group of men had their specific, carefully thought-out objective. From Camp Death, some were to attack several stone houses the Germans were using for outposts. Around each of four such houses, four machine-gun nests were carefully placed. Infantry carefully followed tanks to protect them from these deadly guns. A machine-gun is an awesome weapon, but it is no match for a tank. Several shells at close range from the tanks’ 75-mm cannons destroyed the houses and took out many machine-gun nests. The machine guns from those tanks also exchanged fire with the Germans. Many men died, not just from the German guns, mortars, and artillery, but from stepping on the mines that seemed to be in every field. Although our engineers tried to clear both American and German mines from “no man’s land” (the area between the opposing armies), they were only partially successful and the mines they missed took many lives. The ground troops served as eyes for the tank crew and often ran up to the tank to point out more targets. In many places, the soggy ground could not support the heavy tanks and a soldier had to run out ahead to find a firm route. The tank driver had very limited vision and often ran over the bodies of fallen soldiers who sometimes were not dead before they were struck. These soldiers were often cut in two with the half the tank ran over being flattened and driven into the ground. I’m sure you have seen a cat or other animal in the middle of the road flattened like a pancake. Imagine that flattened animal as a man.
Historians watch war movies just like the rest of us. I think they get some of their descriptions of battles from these movies. For example, they write about men who stepped on mines being tossed in the air like rag dolls. Dad’s eyewitness accounts are different. He describes these men as becoming “blood volcanoes.” Mines would blow off feet and legs, but they did not toss a body up into the air. Larger artillery shells would toss a body horizontally, not vertically. I think war movies that show men being tossed upward are more of a Hollywood stunt than reality. If the shell was close enough and powerful enough to throw a body upward that body would be in pieces.
Let me be clear that Dad was not one of those who ran out ahead of the tanks. He did not fire any sort of gun at the Germans, nor did he throw any grenades. His job as radio chief was to be in charge of communications and artillery fire for his battalion. His job was very important and his skill and experience no doubt saved many American lives. As the lines moved forward SNAFU kicked in. It was difficult to keep the advance even. Some platoons got too far ahead. Others were turned back by stiff German fire. Dad had to keep the artillery shells falling ahead of the Americans and on the Germans as the Thunderbirds advanced forward — no easy task when some platoons get ahead and some lag behind. This battle was chaos to the extreme. It was bigger, louder, and more confusing than anything you have ever seen in the movies.
Each company in the 45th Division was given an extra machine gun for this attack. German machine guns and Allied machine-guns could easily be distinguished from each other because the German guns fired much faster and had a different pitch. As a matter of fact, after four long months at the Anzio Beachhead, the Allies had learned to distinguish the sound of every bomb, gun, shell, tank and mortar possessed by either side. But this made little difference now as a thousand sounds blended together in a constant roar.
To the left of Camp Death, the Germans had several Tiger tanks, the best ones Germany ever built. These tanks had huge 88-mm cannons that could blow our Sherman tanks to bits. German Panzer tanks and our Shermans each had 75-mm cannons, although theirs had much more range and impact because of their longer barrels. A German shell from either of their tanks could penetrate the thin two-inch steel of our tanks while the thick six-inch armor on the front of both German tanks caused our shells to bounce off. This doesn’t mean, as some books suggest, that battles between these tanks was hopeless for our side. If our tanks hit theirs at close range from the side where the armor was thinner, our shells would penetrate. Once inside, an exploding shell could do awesome damage because tanks were full of fuel and high explosives. Even shells that didn’t penetrate could kill those inside from flying bits of metal that separated from inside the tank. Dad hated tanks. “Too often,” he said, “they made better coffins than shelters.”
What you probably don’t know and are not told in these documentaries is that our tanks were technologically superior to theirs. The cannons on our tanks could be raised and lowered hydraulically, while theirs had to be hand-cranked. Unless a Tiger Tank lay in ambush and had its cannon pre-aimed, our tanks could often hit it with several rounds before theirs could get off a first shot. Also, just because our shells would bounce off if they hit the heavy armor on the front, this did not mean our shells that hit the turret or tracks could not disable their tanks. There were many ways to take out a tank. Even a member of a rifle company could take out a German tank if he knew what he was doing and could get close enough where those inside couldn’t see him. You see, there were places where such a soldier could stuff an unpinned grenade into these tanks. This is why it was always critical that rifle companies accompanied tanks in battle. German tanks were most effective against ours at long range in open country. But then, they were sitting ducks for our bombers. This is one more reason why air superiority was so vital in this war, and why late stages of the war were an absolute slaughter of the German armies.
Battle to be continued next time. I welcome criticism so long as it is not based on what you see in the movies. Movies are made for entertainment. This was real war.