Part 22: Anzio continued
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
By the time the Allies invaded Anzio, Hitler was furious over the success the Allied forces were having over some of his best SS Divisions in Italy. (These battles were still going on when the Allies were fighting the Germans at Anzio.) The 45th Division had been at the center of the Allied advance up the boot of Italy, flanked by the British 8th Army to their right and the other divisions of the American 5th Army and more British divisions to their left. The Thunderbirds had taken the hardest route of all the divisions and this is why they used so many mules to advance. Hitler singled out Dad’s 45th Division as the one that must be destroyed. He thought Anzio gave him the perfect opportunity to do just that. Many of his best men and best weapons were quickly brought into the battle at Anzio.
In the last episode, I told you the beachhead was 14 miles deep, between the coast and the German-controlled Alban Hills. The line between the Allies and the Germans varied, but was about half-way in between. For the purpose of this series, let’s say the Allies controlled, for the most part, a beachhead seven miles deep.
Some historians write that there was no resistance at the initial beachhead. Not true. There were German guns and soldiers at the coast originally, but not many. The Allies quickly overcame them, but not before the Germans inflicted over 100 casualties on the Allies the first day, a very small amount by World War II standards. Within hours of the first troops landing, many Allied soldiers came ashore without even getting their feet wet. As the Germans quickly rushed in more soldiers, planes, and artillery, they attacked the incoming Allies and those who had landed. By the time the Allies landed most of their troops, 11 days in, the Allies had suffered 6,487 casualties. Getting on land safely was one thing for the soldiers, staying alive after they got there was something else.
The 45th Division troops were not the first to land at Anzio. Because of the lack of enough shipping, it took over a week to bring in all the Thunderbirds.
Two extremely large German railroad guns were brought in to fire at the many Allied ships. These guns were capable of sending a shell “the size of a Volkswagen” 38 miles! When these shells zipped by Dad and his men, they sounded like a freight train going by. At first, the Allies did not realize there were two such guns because they fired with even spacing. Thinking there was only one, they nicknamed it “the Anzio Express” after the train-like sounds of the passing shells. When they found out later there were two, they nicknamed the second one “Anzio Annie.”
One of the other weapons used by the Germans in large numbers were German 88s. These large, versatile artillery guns were used effectively against troops, tanks, and airplanes. The Germans fired artillery shells from these guns all night, every night. Dad remembers one two-hour period of intense shelling of his area where 200 out of 240 of his fellow soldiers were either killed or wounded. The 88s were highly mobile and many were even self-propelled making it difficult to hit their ever-changing locations. In round numbers, the Germans had about 100 artillery batteries set up and over 350 big guns, not counting tanks. The Allies had somewhat over 50 artillery batteries, not counting tanks and ships.
The German Air Force named the Luftwaffe, was also heavily used at Anzio. It was a bomb from one of these planes that killed Dad’s best friend, Aubrie Elam. More on that later. Sometimes, these planes would fly so low the American soldiers could see the pilot. The soldiers fired their rifles at these planes but didn’t bring down many that way. The good thing about shooting at the planes was that it helped the soldiers feel better because they were shooting back, rather than just sitting there taking the constant bombardment from the German artillery.
It was at Anzio that Hitler tried out a new super-weapon – radio-controlled flying bombs. These drones severely damaged several ships and sank at least one destroyer. It didn’t take long for the Navy to figure out a solution to this new threat – they jammed the radio signals to these drones, causing them to crash harmlessly into the sea.
In February, Hitler launched an all-out offensive meant to split the Allied forces in two. With such a massive attack, the Allies were initially pushed back, but to Hitler’s dismay, they stopped the Germans before they could complete their mission. Had the Allies not held, it is likely the Anzio beachhead would have ended in disaster like Dunkirk. Because of the Allied brave, brave stand, the Germans were forced to take a defensive posture and try to stop the Allies from advancing to Rome some 35 miles away.
I have been trying to read “The Rock of Anzio, From Sicily to Dachau: A History of the 45th Infantry Division” to get a better understanding of Dad’s account of the events at Anzio. I say “trying” because Flint Whitlock’s accounts are very detailed and, for me at least, hard to keep all of what he is writing straight. This is a great book for History buffs who love details, but it is hard reading for me. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for Whitlock to put together this book. He uses hundreds of sources and even sought out opinions of many veterans who were there.
Jim Burns sent Dad a copy of this book and Dad was reading it up to the day he died. Dad remarked to me that Whitlock was actually wrong about some of what he wrote and missed some key events, specifically about Dad’s 180th Regiment. However, I understand that Whitlock could only go by the many documents he found and that he was never a part of the 45th Division. Whitlock did a great job with the information he had and, if I ever get a chance, I will thank him.
Many years ago, when I was in college, I read all the accounts of Anzio I could find. The first one I read was written by a British reporter. All he wrote about was the British involvement. It was as if the Americans weren’t even there. In sharp contrast, another article compared America’s part of the invasion of Anzio to the stand at the Alamo, concluding that Anzio was the “greatest stand in American military history.”
If you study history events closely, you will discover that accounts of the same event vary in direct proportion to the number of people reporting on that event and, like the example above, what their special interests are. History you read today is not exactly what actually happened, it is only what was written about what happened. As time goes by and more and more people write about the same event, the newly written accounts slowly change our belief of what happened, even though the event itself obviously never changed. For me, the events at Anzio are particularly confusing, and I know there will need to be some revising in the re-write. Getting the facts straight is important to me, but I don’t have any illusions that this story will ever be 100-percent accurate. That would be impossible for anyone.
Now that I have given you a background of Anzio, I will continue next time with Dad’s accounts of the day-to-day life on the Anzio battlefields. The Winona Post has caught up with my writing, and it will probably take a week or so before I can submit another episode.