As requested by one of our readers today Throwback Thursday will feature an important battle in the Italian campaign; specifically the American/British landing on the beaches of Anzio. This plan was cooked up in order to force a breakthrough; in the by Churchill dubbed; “soft underbelly of Europe”. The article will try to answer the questions; what, why and was this the anticipated succes the Allies had hoped for? Caution: it will be quite a long read. Hope you enjoy!
The Allies had already invaded Italy after successfully driving out the Axis forces from Africa. Stalin had been demanding a second front to be opened so the Axis had to spread their forces between guarding the Atlantic coast, the Eastern front and the new front that was to be opened. The Allies were not quite ready yet for an all scale invasion of Western Europe and Italy seemed like the most logical step coming from Africa and having a strategic stronghold in Malta. Churchill played a large role in selecting the “soft underbelly”.
The soft belly however was not as soft as anticipated. A skilled German field marshal was in charge of the defending forces; Albert Kesselring.
In 1943 Sicily was taken and the advance towards Rome had been started; however after 3 months Rome was still far away. The terrain was perfect for defense as it was very hilly; and the weather turned for the worse; of which the Germans took perfect advantage. A defensive line name “Gustav Line” in the middle of Italy proved too difficult to beat head-on. An alternative was needed.
A plan to land at Anzio had been made already in after the initial landing in 1943, but canceled in December 1943. However, due to slow progress, the plan was reinstated and to be carried out in January 1944. The landing was to bypass the Gustav line and to give logistical options for the Allies. The small port town of Anzio was chosen for two strategical reasons. The hoped-for reason was that Gustav defenders would have to pull back to defend Anzio; the other was that if the Gustav defenders would not come, the Allied landing could threaten to cut off the Gustav defenders from any reinforcements and be able to engage Rome from there.
Bad decision making by the commanding officer of the landing made neither of them really happen. What caused this?
The Gustav line was attacked head-on at Monte Cassino, days later the landings at Anzio took place. General Lucas was commanding the landings consisting of British and American forces on the ground. The landing came as a complete surprise and went mostly unnoticed by the Axis forces. The landings “only” saw about 100 soldiers wounded and 13 killed. Lucas was surprised himself, he wanted to consolidate the beach head and set up defensive positions; expecting counter attacks.
Little offensive initiative was taken. Partly due to “vague” commands from the commanding staff. General Clark; above Lucas: gave goals, but no deadlines This gave Lucas essentially too much room to play with. The Germans had arrived before serious attacks were made by the Allies. Clark was not convinced of the plan and even called out to Churchill in his diary, calling him an amateur.
Churchill on the other hand was also not pleased about Lucas’ defensive stance quoting: “I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale“.
The Axis did indeed counter attack with a “Fallschirmjägerkorps” (paratroopers) and the 76th Panzerkorps. An opportunity to turn Anzio into a new Dunkirk pushing in the entire force in the sea was created by seizing a superior hill top position overlooking all Allied positions on the beaches. “Anzio Annie” was the German railway gun that was brought over, shelling the Anzio beaches, not discriminating between front lines and rear lines. The front had become so small that the artillery support of the Allies was given by the battle cruisers laying in the sea instead of land based artillery.
The Allies could not give up and kept pumping in reinforcements on the ever so tiny beachhead in the hope to still break out. The harbor traffic was so high, that Anzio was listed as 9th largest harbor in the world in 1944!
Months of “Sitzkrieg” (Sitting war) ensued with attacking and defending from both sides. In the meantime, in February 1944 Churchill was very displeased about the lack of progress and instructed General Alexander (commander of the army forces in Italy) to do something about the situation. Alexander visited the beachhead and reported a demoralized army. Two days later a conference was called and General Lucas was relieved and taken off the battlefield. He was to be replaced by General Truscott. The stalemate under the new commander was however still not broken for another two months.
A plan was cooked up (Operation Diadem) to break out from the beachhead and to destroy the German army so that they could not support the Gustav line or retreat and flee completely. The bloody battles that followed cost around 40,000 casualties. They managed to break out, but the German 10th army escaped. The Gustav Line was not broken until May 1944 and Rome was captured on the 4th of June 1944, only two days before the Allied landings in France!
Consequences and Aftermath
Many theories circle about what would have happened if Lucas had pressed on right away. Is he to blame for this extreme loss of time (and life)? The fact is that Lucas washed ashore with only 3 infantry divisions and no armor support. If Lucas were to go straight for Rome, it is likely they would have become bogged down there, thinly spread, becoming easy targets for Kesselring’s forces in the rear of the Gustav line.
General Alexander later acknowledged that the unfortunate run of events had eventually been the best case scenario. The calling off of Operation Shingle in December 1943 was probably legitimate and many historians agree that the plan was flawed. Landing with just infantry and no further plan to advance, neither having the resources to execute it if there was any plan. The risk of losing the entire foothold and beachhead had been too high if an attacking motion had been initiated.
Military speaking lessons were learned on large scale landings which could help the Normandy landings later that year. Furthermore the nuisance of the landing had prevented five armored divisions under Kesselring’s command to be called back to France, which also benefited D-Day.
The failed annihilation of the 10th Army was however more problematic as they could reorganize in Northern Italy around the Gothic Line and held up the Allied advance until the end of the war.
Nevertheless, although it can be said that it had been a large event, the tactical gains were very limited and it is doubtful that this battle had helped the Allies win the war directly.
Bonus – The Battle Sled
During the stalemate and desperately trying to find a way to breakout out of the bulge, some crazy ideas were invented. One of them was the battle sled. The idea was just having a couple of iron cradles attached to the back of a tank so that the soldiers could maintain a low profile and get out and take positions when the desired position was reached.
The idea was tested for both Monte Cassino and Anzio but never actually used in battle.
Hope you enjoyed the read, feel free to leave any improvements and/or suggestions in the comments for the next articles!