Operation Shingle - Battle of Anzio, 22 January-5 June 1944

Operation Shingle, or the battle of Anzio (22 January-5 June 1944) was one of the most controversial battles of the Italian campaign, and saw a joint Anglo-American force land close to Rome to break the deadlock at Camino, only to get bogged down and besieged in a narrow beachhead for months.

The idea of carrying out a major landing somewhere behind the German defensive lines was an obvious one, and greatly worried Kesselring throughout the Italian campaign. Eisenhower also wanted to carry out that operation, but he was beginning to suffer from a lack of resources. Italy was rapidly falling down the list of Allied priorities, and many of his landing craft were due to be withdrawn in early December, with most going to Britain to take part in Overlord. He was also due to lose a number of his best units, also to Overlord.

General Clark at Anzio
General Clark at Anzio

Eisenhower requested and was granted permission to keep 56 British and 12 American LSTs in the Mediterranean until 15 December, later extended to 15 January.  This encouraged him to order Alexander to produce a plan for the capture of Rome. This first plan was for a three pronged assault. On the Adriatic the Eighth Army was to cross the Sangro, break through the Winter Line, reach Pescara and then advance up the Pescara River. On the Fifth Army Front the Allies would have to break through the Mignano Gap, penetrating the Bernhardt Line, then get past the Gustav Line around Cassino and advance 30 miles up the Liri valley to Frosinone. At that point the Allies would land two divisions at Anzio, and hopefully the bulk of the German army would be trapped. This was a massively overambitious plan, and the Allies soon fell behind their timetable. On 18 December General Clark recommended that the Anzio landing be cancelled, and Alexander agreed.

The plan was resurrected by Churchill. He was in the area to take part in meetings with Roosevelt at Cairo and then with Stalin and Roosevelt at the Teheran Conference. His attempts to win support for Allied operations in the eastern Mediterranean or a large scale assault on Rome failed, but he did gain one victory. Eisenhower was chosen to command Operation Overlord, and his replacement as the command-in-chief in the Mediterranean was the British General Henry Maitland Wilson. On the way back from the conferences Churchill fell ill at Tunis, and had to spend some time resting in bed recovering from pneumonia. During this period he decided to throw his full weight behind the Anzio landings. He managed to convince Roosevelt to allow him to keep the LSTs in Italy until 15 February, and won over General Clark, who was drawn by the lure of Rome. Clark did have some worries about the amount of shipping that would be required to keep the bridgehead supplied, and the seventy mile gap between Anzio and the current front line, but decided that these problems could be overcome.

The landing was to be carried out by General Lucas’s VI Corps, made up of two divisions (US 3rd Division (Truscott) and British 1st Division (Penney)) and several battalions of Rangers (three battalions), Commandos (2nd Service Brigade with two battalions) and paratroops (US 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion), along with the US 751st Tank Battalion and 46th Royal Tank Regiment. Unfortunately Lucas didn’t believe in the operation he was about to command, believing that his forces hadn’t been given enough time to prepare and were too small for the job. He was terribly pessimistic about the entire operation, and expected to have to fight off an almost immediate German counterattack. This probably played a part in his failure to take advantage of the surprise achieved by the landings. To his credit Lucas did manage to organise a successful two division landing at short notice, but given his lack of belief in the overall operation he was a poor choice to command it.

Four Dud German Shells, Anzio, 1944
Four Dud German Shells,
Anzio, 1944

Although he supported the overall plan, Clark didn’t want Lucas to take too many risks, and warned him not to stick his neck out. Lucus’s orders were to ‘seize and secure a beachhead in the vicinity of Anzio’ and ‘advance on Colli Laziali’ in the Alban Hills. Any attempt to seize the Alban Hills was left to Lucas’s discretion, and he was a careful commander unlikely to take any serious risks. Clark expected the Germans to make a major effort to block the route to the hills and to counterattack, just as they had at Salerno.

Operation Single, the landing at Anzio, was only part of the Allied plan for January 1944. It would be preceded by a three pronged attack on the Cassino Front (the first battle of Cassino), to be carried out on a much larger scale than the Anzio landings. As a result Lucas believed that his mission was a diversionary attack, rather than a major assault in its own right. Unfortunately the Allied assaults at Cassino all failed. The battle began with a French assault on the high ground north of Cassino on 12 January, but this made little progress and had to be abandoned after four days. Next was a British attack on the Allied right, which began on 17 January. The British were able to get across the Garigliano River, but were unable to capture the crucial high ground across the river. Finally the US 36th Division attacked across the Rapido on 20 January (battle of the Rapido), but this attack was another costly failure, and had to be abandoned on 22 January after achieving nothing. By the time the Anzio landings began, the attacks at Cassino had thus all failed. However the British attack had forced Kesselring to move two divisions from the Anzio area to the Garigliano front, so the attack hit a very lightly defended area, held by two exhausted battalions that had been withdrawn from the Cassino front to rest. Even so Lucas can’t have been encouraged by the failure of the operations at Cassino.

Landing and Build-up

Beach-side Supply Route, Anzio
Beach-side Supply Route, Anzio

By the time the operation began, the number of LSTs available had risen to 84, after 19 extra craft were freed up the cancellation of a plan to attack the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. They formed part of a fleet of 243 ships, far smaller than the invasion forces for Sicily or Salerno. The landings themselves were a great success. The port of Anzio was bombarded with rockets at 0200, but there was no response from the shore. The British struggled with minefields and soft dunes at their first landing zone, six miles to the north of Anzio, but with no German opposition they were able to shift the landing point to Anzio without any problems. The British were then able to advance inland to the Moletta River, while the Americans reached the Mussolini Canal, a few miles to the south.

B-25s of 321st BG over Anzio
B-25s of 321st BG over Anzio

Both divisions quickly overran the limited defences on the beach, and defeated the two German battalions. The towns of Anzio and Nattuno were both captured intact. By the end of 22 January the British had advanced two miles inland, the Americans three and 36,000 troops had been landed. Even Clark and Alexander visited the beachhead during the first day, although they left with different impressions. Alexander went away convinced that Lucas was going to send mobile forces out, while Clark advised Lucas not to take any risks.

Lucas had a real chance to achieve a significant victory - the roads to the Alban Hills were open, and if he could reach them before the Germans reacted in force, then the troops on the Cassino front would be isolated. Even more enticing, the road to Rome was open, and the arrival of two Allied divisions might have triggered a major uprising that would have made it much harder for the Germans. Unfortunately for the Allies, Kesselring and Hitler reacted more quickly than Lucas. Hitler authorised the movement of reinforcements from France, northern Italy, Germany and Yugoslavia to deal with the new crisis, while Kesselring rushed troops to the front from northern Italy. By the end of 22 January elements of three divisions from northern Italy were on their way to Anzio. They would soon be followed by elements from four of the divisions at Cassino. Within twenty four hours, the Germans had a complete but thin defensive line around the beachhead. Even so, Kesselring and his chief of staff Westphal feared an Allied advance on 23-24 January, but none came.

This set the pattern for the next few days. While Lucas carefully established his beachhead, Kesselring rushed more and more troops to the perimeter. On 23-24 January the Allies made some small scale advances, reaching ten miles inland. By day four Kesselring had parts of eight divisions around the perimeter with parts of another five on the way, and the shaky perimeter of the previous had already turned into a strong defensive line. The Germans began to fortify every cluster of buildings outside the beachhead, making any Allied attack all the more difficult. Lucas had delayed too long, and had missed his chance. General von Mackensen, commander of the Fourteenth Army in Northern Italy, was placed in command of the troops outside the perimeter.

First Allied Attack

Remarkably Lucus didn’t attempt a large scale attack until 30 January, eight days after the landings! Clark had clearly started to worry about the slow progress, as on 28 January he moved to the beachhead for a prolonged visit. Suitably prodded, Lucas decided to attack on 29 January, having built his forces up to 70,000 men, 508 guns and 237 tanks. The attack had to be delayed until 30 January, by which time the 26th Panzer Grenadier Division had arrived.

Ruins of Cistrena, Anzio Beachhead
Ruins of Cistrena, Anzio Beachhead

The British were to attack on the left, heading for Campoleone railway station, the Americans on the right, heading for Cisterna where they could cut Highway 7 (The Appian Way). After this first stage, the British would then continue north towards Albano, on the western slopes of the Alban Hills.

The British attack made good progress, and actually reached Campoleone, but the terrain turned out to be more difficult than expected. To the left of the road the ground was cut into by a series of small ravines, carrying the upper reaches of the Moletta, while on the right it was too soft for tanks. The British put three units in the line - the 3rd Brigade attacking up the road and the Scots Guards and Irish Guards on the flanks. Only the central force made any progress, and got within range of Campoleone. The Sherwood Foresters were then sent to attack the station but they suffered very heavy casualties in the attack, which failed.

On the US front the Rangers attempted to sneak through the German lines taking advantage of a four mile long irrigation canal, the Fossa di Pantano. The Rangers almost reached Cisterna, but as they prepared to emerge from the canal the Germans opened fire. The Rangers had run into an ambush by the Hermann Goering Division and part of the 715th Infantry Division. Only six of the 767 Rangers who took part in the attack managed to escape from this disaster (at least 500 were captured). One battalion of the 3rd Division managed to get to the outskirts of Cisterna, but the troops on either side made less progress. The battalion was surrounded and almost wiped out, suffering 600 casualties from an overall strength of 800 men. After three days Alexander and Clark ordered Lucas to abandon his attack, which had cost him 5,500 casualties, and prepare to fight off a German counterattack.

As part of these preparations, fresh troops were fed into the beachhead, including the British 56th Division and the US/ Canadian 1st Special Service Force.

German Counterattack

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
British Capture the 'Factory', Aprilia, Anzio

General von Mackensen planned to launch a major counterattack south along the Albano to Anzio road to split the Allied beachhead in two. His first problem was to eliminate the British salient along the road. This was defended by the North Staffordshire Regiment and the Guards Brigade to the west of the road, the Duke of Wellingtons, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and the survivors from the Sherwood Foresters at the tip and the Gordon Highlanders to the east. On 3 February Mackensen attacked the salient. An artillery bombardment was followed by attacks on both sides of the ‘thumb’, and by mid-morning the units at the tip had been cut off. The US 504th Airborne Regiment and the 1st London Scottish were rushed to the front, and managed to rescue the trapped units, but the front was pushed back. The British lost 1,400 men in the fighting, but the Germans suffered almost as heavily. The second attack began on 7 February, and on 9 February the Germans recaptured recaptured Aprilia, a Fascist show town ten miles north of Anzio. By the time of the second attack, the Germans actually outnumbered the Allies at Anzio, with 95,000 men facing 76,000. Much to Churchill’s frustration the Allies had landed 18,000 jeeps and trucks inside the beachhead, one for every four men! In contrast Lucas believed that artillery ammunition was in short supply

By 16 February, when the main German counterattack began, the Germans had 125,000 men, the Allies around 100,000. Although this was an impressive achievement, it wasn’t a large enough margin for an offensive against the densely packed beachhead. The attack hit the US 45th Division, which had been moved into the British sector. The division was pushed back but refused to break. Lucas was able to call for aid from the Allied air forces, which flew 700 sorties on the first day. The Germans also found their tanks were limited to the few roads, where they came under heavy artillery fire. The attack was also the combat debut of the Berlin-Spandau Infantry Lehr regiment, an elite demonstration unit that had been sent to the front by Hitler. It looked good, but had no combat experience, and its inexperienced troops broke and fled. By the end of the day the Americans still held their front line around the ‘flyover’.

On the night of 16-17 February the German 715th Infantry Division managed to push into the American lines. During 17 February the Germans managed to expand the breach, and the beachhead was in real danger. That afternoon the Allied air force concentrated most of its attention on the Anzio front. Even so the Germans kept pushing and on 18 February managed to push the Allies back to the area they had held on D+2. By 19 February there was a gap in the Allied line, but the Germans were unable to take advantage. Their attack finally ran out of momentum under the pressure of the Allied artillery, and a US armoured counterattack. The German attack lasted until 20 February, but then had to be cancelled. The Allies had lost 5,000 men during the attack, but the Germans had suffered heavier losses. 

On 22 February General Clark visited the beachhead where he replaced General Lucas with General Truscott, until then commander of the 3rd Division. Clark believed that Lucas had done a decent job, but was worn out by the battle and lacked the dash required at Anzio. Lucas took the news badly, and blamed the British for influencing Clark, but Truscott was a popular replacement

Hitler ordered a second counterattack, which began on 29 February, but this too ended in failure. The Germans made limited progress on the first day, but were pushed back on 1 March. On 2 March the weather improved, and the Allied air forces appeared once again. This attack cost the Germans 3,500 men and 30 tanks.

The Siege

Shelled Hospital at Anzio
Shelled Hospital at Anzio

After this the battle turned into something of a siege. Hitler was persuaded to abandon the counterattacks on 6 March. The entire beachhead was within range of German heavy artillery, especially the powerful 280mm railroad guns that were moved to area, and had a range of around 20 miles. These became known as ‘Anzio Annie’ and the ‘Anzio Express’, and with the rest of the German artillery made life within the beachhead very difficult. Some of the defenders described it as being like the Western Front, especially on the north-western area, in the area of ravines, which became known as the ‘wadis’. There were no ‘rear areas’. Even the hospitals were regularly hit by German shells, but most probably because the beachhead was so crowded and the long range fire not terribly accurate than because of any deliberate attempts to target them.

The End and Breakout

The deadlock was finally broken by the Allied breakthrough at Cassino (fourth battle of Cassino). The Allies finally concentrated both of their armies against the Gustav Line, and eventually managed to crack the German defences. The key moment came when French troops broke through the weak German defences of the Aurunci mountains, and advanced north and north-west, reaching the Liri valley well to the west of the Gustav Line. The French advance helped the US 2nd Corps on the coast and the Canadian Corps and British 13th Corps on the Rapido, and the German position began to unravel. On 17 May Kesselring was forced to order the retreat from the Gustav Line. The next German defensive position, the Adolf Hitler Line, also fell easily. On 25 May the first troops from 2nd Corps made contact with the troops besieged at Anzio, ending their isolation by land.

The time was now ripe for Truscott to go onto the offensive. Alexander’s orders were for him to attack north towards Valmontone, to try and cut off the German troops retreating from Cassino. However General Clark didn’t think that this move would actually capture many Germans, and also wanted to make sure that it was his men who captured Rome. As a result Truscott was ordered to send one third of his troops towards Valmontone, while two thirds attacked north-west towards the western side of the Alban Hills. This was one of the most controversial decisions of the Italian campaign. The German troops retreating from Anzio were able to retreat north-west into the western part of the Caesar Line, while the Tenth Army retreating from Cassino was able to reach the eastern part of the line around Valmontone.

Clark was lucky that his decision didn’t have worse consequences than it did. For a few days the Allies were stuck south of Rome, facing yet another German defensive position, but on the night of 30 May the Americans found a gap in the defences, at Monte Artemisio, and were able to slip through the German lines. This broke the Caesar Line, and the Germans were forced to begin another retreat, this time finally abandoning Rome. On 4 June, two days before D-Day, US troops made their entry into Rome. Clark made his entry into Rome on the following, and was briefly at the centre of world attention, before events in Normandy overshadowed the Italian triumph.

In the end the Anzio landings failed to achieve their original objective of breaking the deadlock at Cassino, but they did have some positive results for the Allies. The Germans were forced to move large numbers of troops to Anzio, with some coming from France and others from Cassino. This made it harder for Kesselring to respond when the Allies finally broke through during the fourth battle of Cassino. Truscott’s troops at Anzio also played an important role in the eventual breakout, and might have done more if Clark hadn’t been distracted by the prize of Rome.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 September 2018), Operation Shingle - Battle of Anzio, 22 January-5 June 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_shingle_anzio.html

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