Anzio, Italy February 16, 1944

On this date in 1944, a day after the historic Bene­dictine abbey at Monte Cas­sino was bombed by Allied air­craft, the Germans launched their long-delayed counter­attack on the Allied-held beach­head at Anzio, a small Medi­ter­ranean resort and port some 35 miles south of the Ital­ian capi­tal, Rome. Just the month before, on Janu­ary 22, Amer­i­can and Brit­ish units under U.S. Maj. Gen. John Lucas had carried out an essen­tially unopposed am­phi­bious landing in the area of Anzio and neighboring Nettuno, Italy. By the end of first day of Oper­a­tion Shingle, 36,000 Allied soldiers and 3,200 vehicles had stormed ashore, captured the port of Anzio, and were poised to out­flank strong German defenses along the Gustav Line cen­tered on Cas­sino south of Anzio (see map below)—defenses that were holding up the Allies’ liber­ation of Rome. A jeep recon­nais­sance patrol had even made it as far north as Rome’s out­skirts. Trag­i­cally Lucas, who heeded the advice of his com­mander, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, not to “stick his neck out,” never exploited his advan­tage of sur­prise, delaying his advance until he judged his position sufficiently consolidated and his troops ready.

The German commander in the Italian theater, Field Marshal Albert Kessel­ring, one of the ablest generals in the Nazi Wehr­macht (armed forces), moved artil­lery and every spare unit to be found into a ring around the Allies’ narrow beach­head, a reclaimed marsh­land 15 miles long and 7 miles deep kept dry by giant pumps. (Kessel­ring ordered the pumps turned off, flooding the Allies’ beach­head.) By early Febru­ary Kessel­ring had roughly 100,000 troops poised against Allied forces, which by this time totaled a little more than 76,000. German in­fan­try­men and tanks, by launching Opera­tion Fisch­fang (Opera­tion Fish Trap) on Febru­ary 16, shrank the Amer­i­can pocket over the next five days to within 6 miles of the shore­line before reaching a vicious stale­mate with their foe. (Luckily for the Allies, these German units had run out of oomph, having fought them­selves to a stand­still.) Both combatants lost nearly 20,000 men each since the January landings.

Aside from Lucas being relieved of his command a month later and sent home (on the grounds of ill health; his replace­ment was Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott), the Allies’ tac­tical situ­a­tion would not change until late May, when the north­ward moving U.S. Fifth Army’s front under Mark Clark merged with the Anzio beach­head. The road to the Ital­ian capital was now wide open, and Clark took full advan­tage of it, sur­prising his com­manding offi­cer, British Gen. Harold Alex­ander, and even Romans them­selves when he trium­phantly entered the capital riding in an open jeep on June 5, 1944, one day before Allied landings on the Nor­mandy coast in France abruptly yanked the world’s attention from Italy to Northwestern Europe.

The Italian Campaign, January–June 1944

German Defense Lines South of Rome, 1943-44

Above: German-prepared defensive lines in Italy south of Rome, 1943–1944. The pri­mary line was the heavily defended Gustav Line (red in map) centered on the town of Cas­sino, which inter­dicted traffic north on Route 6. Opera­tion Shingle, the Anzio offen­sive (Janu­ary 22 to June 5, 1944), was designed to out­flank the Gustav Line defenders, capture Rome by moving up the coast along Route 7, the 2,000-year-old Via Appia (Appian Way), and in the process of pushing inland either cut off German forces in Southern Italy, leaving them to die on the vine, or annihilate them.

Operation Shingle, Anzio landing, Italy, late January 1944German paratroopers with artillery fire on Italy’s Anzio beachhead

Left: Anzio, a coastal town on the Tyrrhenian Sea, was the site of a major amphib­ious assault by the U.S. VI Corps, U.S. Fifth Army, in late-January 1944. The Anzio offen­sive had been cham­pioned by British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill, but it fell largely to Amer­i­can troops to carry it out. Landing two Allied divi­sions behind enemy lines was intended to force the Germans to evac­u­ate the Ital­ian penin­sula and, it was hoped, shorten the war. For their part Field Marshal Kessel­ring and the German army units under his com­mand refused to play their Allied-assigned role and, with the arrival of rein­force­ments, nearly wiped out the Allied troops pinned down on the Anzio beachhead.

Right: German paratroopers with artillery piece in the vicinity of Nettuno (near Anzio), Italy. Gunners like these in the Alban Hills had a clear view of every Allied posi­tion on the Anzio beach­head four miles away. The Battle of Anzio lasted four months, the Allied side being supplied by sea, the German side by land through Rome. In May 1944 the Allies broke free of the Anzio death­trap and took Rome. German forces escaped to regroup north of Florence at the Gothic Line.

Operation Shingle, German POWs, Anzio, ItalyBritish and American POWs and their wounded at German aid station near Nettuno, Italy

Left: Captured German soldiers on the Anzio beach­head are being moved to an Allied pri­son camp, Febru­ary 1944. The Germans and Ital­ians suffered 40,000 ca­su­al­ties, of which 5,000 were war dead. The Allies took 4,500 prisoners.

Right: British and American prisoners of war move their wounded com­rades to a German aid station near Nettuno, February 1944. The Allies suffered 43,000 casu­alties, of which 7,000 were killed. Analysts of the Anzio offen­sive have criti­cized the cam­paign for its large number of dead, wounded, and missing and its shoddy exe­cu­tion, notwith­standing that the Allies’ ulti­mate goal, the liberation of Rome, was achieved.

U.S. Fifth Army Report from the Anzio Beachhead, Operation Shingle, February 1944