Silver Star — The hard way


Part 21: Introduction to the beachhead invasion of Anzio

By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek

Anzio! Anzio! Anzio! The place where, in ancient times, Roman Emperor Nero allegedly played his fiddle while Rome burned in the background. On January 22, 1944, this sleeping little fishing village and rich resort retreat would suddenly emerge on headlines around the world and would remain there for four long months.

It was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who wanted another beachhead north of the fighting up the boot of Italy with the objective of cutting off the German retreat and capturing Rome. The sight the Allies chose to initiate this assault was Anzio.

According to many historians, the Allied beachhead invasion of Anzio, nicknamed Operation Shingle, should have been a piece of cake. It was only lightly defended by the Germans and offered the Allies a clear and mostly unobstructed path to Rome. So, why didn’t this happen?

The general put in charge of Operation Shingle was General John P. Lucas. Lucas had been a harsh critic of General Patton and his over-aggressive tactics in Sicily. So, he chose not to advance immediately, but to instead build up a strong base from which to launch his assault on Rome. Shallow water and too few landing ships, called LSTs (Landing Ship – Tank), made unloading men and supplies too slow for a lightning attack anyway, which would have been necessary to take Rome right away like Churchill had intended. The reason for the shortage of LSTs was many that were used in Sicily and Salerno had been shipped to England for the upcoming invasion of Normandy.

The initial beachhead actually involved two towns, Anzio and its smaller neighbor, Nettuno, along the coast to the east. (Like Winona, the Italian coast runs west to east at Anzio-Nettuno, not north to south like you would think.)

Those of you familiar with the Winona area, imagine for a moment that Winona is Anzio. Like Anzio, Winona sits relatively flat with bluffs overlooking it to the north. In both places, there are lookouts above the towns. Here, from Garvin Heights, a person with binoculars can pretty much see all that is happening in Winona and Goodview below, while those gazing up at the bluffs from below can only see those looking down at them. Anyone or any equipment over the crest of the bluffs is completely out of site from below. At the Anzio beachhead, the Germans held a huge advantage by controlling the bluffs above the towns.

Anzio was different from Winona in that the Alban Hills above Anzio were about 14 miles inland and there were several small towns in between. The Allies could have easily taken these towns like they had taken Anzio-Nettuna had they done so right away, but because Lucas hesitated for two days before attacking them, the battles there were intense and included some of Hitler’s best troops and Panzer divisions. It was the Thunderbirds against Germany’s best. Mono on mono. Only a veteran division as tough and tenacious as the Thunderbirds could have won these battles. I think one of these small towns, Aprilia, is what Dad referred to as a factory in his letters to Mom. After the town, made up of tightly-spaced stone buildings, was reduced to rubble — first by the Thunderbirds attacking from the south, and then the German panzers counter-attacking from the north — the ruins were mistaken for a large factory.

The area that today is known to history as the Anzio Beachhead is not a sandy beach like the ones in which you go swimming. As I mentioned, it was about 14 miles deep and included the coastal towns of Anzio and Nettuno, but also other towns and many farms. The land rose and fell some. Large parts of it were land reclaimed from an ancient swamp. There was a large stand of tall pines about a mile in, a mile deep, and five miles wide, but after that the land was more or less flat and featureless.

In the Hollywood movie, “Anzio,” starring Robert Mitcham, a jeep with Mitcham, who was portraying an Army war correspondent, was driven all the way to Rome, which was found to be defended only by a few German police. Mitcham reports back what he finds to General Lucas (who goes by another name in the movie). The theme of the movie is that General Lucas should have made a rapid advance to Rome.

Perhaps because of the movie, World War II writers today echo this story of Anzio and criticize General Lucas for not quickly advancing to Rome. What really happened? According to General Clark, by the end of D-Day at Anzio, the Germans had rushed in 20,000 men to the Alban Hills area to halt any such advance suggested in the movie. On that first day, the Allies had landed only 36,000 men. By D-Day plus three, the German’s numbers had risen to 41,000 and ours to 56,000. It is true that we had superior numbers, but hardly enough of an advantage for a cakewalk to Rome as suggested by the movie. Actually, the Allies did try to make an advance fairly soon only to find the heights above Anzio well defended by ever-increasing German forces. It is true that Lucas should have at least taken the towns and railroad stations between Anzio and the Alban hills before the Germans could re-enforce them. Lucas has been quoted as saying he didn’t believe the Anzio invasion to Rome would be a success and this is why he was so reluctant to push his troops into battle.

With amazing speed, the Germans assembled eight and a half divisions taken from places such as France, the Russian Front, and Northern Italy. There is no question that Hitler’s determination to defeat the Allies at Anzio severely weakened his positions elsewhere. Soon Hitler had 98,000 men at the Alban Hills front and the Allies had 92,000 at the beachhead below.

An interesting side note is that James Arness, future star of the long-running TV series “Gunsmoke,” where he played Marshall Matt Dillon, was chosen to be one of the first to jump off an assault boat at Anzio, because at 6’7” they thought he had a better chance not to drown. By the time this beachhead happened, the Army had lost many soldiers to drowning in the deep billows described earlier in this series. Nothing like the shallow water assaults you see in the movies or re-enacted documentaries about the landings. Arness was only on the beachhead about two weeks before he got a “million-dollar” wound to the leg, earned his Purple Heart, and was out of the war.

It was at Anzio where Dad’s 45th Thunderbird Division enhanced their already sterling reputation as one of the best divisions in the war. As you recall, after the Sicilian battles, General Patton called the 45th Division, “the best division in the history of American arms.” In Italy, it was General Clark who gave them the highest possible praise. Their brave stand at Anzio removed any doubters. A book about the 45th Division titled, “The Rock of Anzio,” by Flint Whitlock, highlights their accomplishments. What a great title and movie idea for Hollywood! We need a second movie about Anzio as the first one almost completely skipped over the fighting of the longest and most hard-fought beachhead invasion in world history. I’ll agree that the beachhead of Normandy was much more intense for the first few hours, but compare that with the beachhead invasion of Anzio which lasted for four months!

More on Anzio next time — Anzio is the center of this series and will require multiple episodes to complete.


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