Cisterna di Lit­toria, Italy January 30, 1944

The Allied invasion of mainland Italy began in early Septem­ber 1943, nearly six weeks after the Fascist Grand Council had deposed Germany’s Axis ally Benito Musso­lini on July 24–25, 1943, and placed the Italian dicta­tor in deten­tion. Ele­ments of Ber­nard Law Mont­gom­ery’s Eighth Army landed at the coastal city of Reg­gio Cala­bria on the Ital­ian “toe” oppo­site their Sicil­ian jumping off point on Septem­ber 3 (Opera­tion Bay­town), while the U.S. Fifth Army, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark com­manding, landed at the port city of Saler­no on Italy’s west coast on Septem­ber 9 (Oper­a­tion Ava­lanche). Four months later, on Janu­ary 22, 1944, a joint force from the Fifth Army’s VI Corps and the British 1st Infan­try Divi­sion moved up the west coast to the ports of Anzio and Net­tuno (Oper­a­tion Shingle) in an effort to out­flank the Germans’ three major east-west defen­sive lines, collec­tively known as the Winter Line, that lay between Salerno in the south and Rome, the Italian capital, 40 miles north of Anzio.

Just inland from Anzio-Nettuno was the small cross­roads town of Cis­terna di Lit­toria. In the week between the ini­tial landings at Anzio and two U.S. attacks on Cis­ter­na di Lit­toria, Field Mar­shal Alfred Kessel­ring, German Army Group Com­mander in Southern Italy, had cobbled together a force of 71,500 men attached to the new German Fourteenth Army to stymie the break­out of 69,000 U.S. and British service­men from their narrow beach­head. On this date, Janu­ary 30, 1944, the luck of U.S. Army com­mandos known as Darby’s Rangers (named after its founder and commander) ran out at Cisterna di Littoria.

A West Point graduate, Col. William Orlando Darby (1911–1945) modeled his com­man­dos along the lines of the British. Com­pany A, 1st U.S. Army Ranger Bat­talion was estab­lished on May 27, 1942, and trained with their British counter­parts in Northern Ire­land and Scot­land. In late 1943 the bat­tal­ion made its first assault against the Axis enemy during Oper­a­tion Torch, the Allied inva­sion of Vichy French North Africa. The bat­tal­ion saw action as part of Oper­a­tion Husky, the July 1943 inva­sion of Sicily, where Darby earned his second Distin­guished Ser­vice Cross. In Janu­ary 1944 his 6615th Ranger Force (now num­bering three Ranger bat­tal­ions and the 509th Para­chute Infan­try Bat­tal­ion), formed espe­cially for the Anzio landings, was tasked with taking Cis­ter­na di Lit­toria following the fail­ure of Maj. Gen. Lucian K. Trus­cott, Jr.’s U.S. 3rd Infan­try Divi­sion on January 25–27 to take the town.

Just after midnight on January 30, 1944, two lightly armed Darby Ranger bat­talions were set to infil­trate Cis­ter­na, esti­mated to be thinly held, and clear the road to Conca 7 miles/­11 km to the south pre­pa­ra­tory to a day­light attack by a large infan­try regi­ment. Unknown to the Rangers, the Four­teenth Army had moved reserve divi­sions into the small town. Thus, the Rangers unwit­tingly advanced on a large, well-equipped enemy force.

At daybreak the Rangers were ambushed on open ground, their infil­tra­tion plan evi­dently uncovered ear­lier. The 4th Ranger Bat­talion, assisted by two other infan­try regi­ments, failed to rescue their entrapped com­rades. By the end of the day the Germans had cap­tured 743 Rangers, cut down 12, and wounded 36. The Battle of Cis­ter­na (Janu­ary 30 to Febru­ary 2, 1944) cost 311 Amer­i­cans their lives and wounded 761; the three-day count included 4th Ranger Bat­talion losses of 30 killed and 58 wounded. Shattered, the Rangers were dis­banded. Sur­vivors filled out the ranks of the elite U.S.-Cana­dian First Special Ser­vice Force, famously known as the “Devil’s Brigade,” a Fifth Army com­mando unit that had landed at Anzio with Darby’s Rangers.

The Tragic Fate of Cisterna di Littoria, January to May 1944

Darby’s 3rd Ranger Battalion boards LCIs for Anzio, January 1944German soldiers contest Allies at Anzio, early 1944

Left: Soldiers of the Darby’s 3rd Ranger Battalion board landing craft (LCIs) that will take them to Anzio. Two weeks later, nearly every man in the bat­talion was taken prisoner or killed on the first day of the Battle of Cis­terna, Janu­ary 30, 1944. Only 500 of the 1,500-strong Ranger bat­tal­ions sur­vived the three-day ordeal. Cis­ter­na di Lit­toria happened to be a node on coastal High­way 7 (Via Appia) and on a rail line running north­west and south. The enemy strong­hold straddled the path the U.S. VI Corps needed to take to sever lines of commun­i­cation with sur­rounding German armed forces and cap­ture the Ital­ian capi­tal. James Garner, in his first starring role, plays the com­mando hero in Hollywood’s version of Darby’s Rangers.

Right: German soldiers advance past an abandoned armored vehicle during the bitter fighting around the Anzio beach­head in early 1944. The Anglo-Amer­i­can landing at Anzio, exe­cuted nearly flaw­lessly, was intended to ini­ti­ate a light­ning strike north against the Eter­nal City, 40 miles/­64 km away. Unfor­tu­nately for the Allies, the under­sized assault force failed to promptly push off from its beach­head and so Oper­a­tion Shingle stalled and degenerated into a high-cost battle of attrition until late May.

GI takes aim at German sniper, Cisterna, May 1944British soldiers shelter in captured trench, Cisterna, May 1944

Left: A squad from the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, veterans of the Anzio landings and sub­se­quent fighting, pauses at the corner of a house in Cis­ter­na di Lat­toria in late May 1944 as the lead man aims his rifle at a German sniper in the distance. By then the Allies had amassed more troops, now num­bering 90,000 men, and more fire­power, including air power, for their long-awaited break­out from Anzio. That break­out went through the heavily mined and defended German stronghold of Cisterna.

Right: A British assault force consisting of two British infan­try divi­sions, the 1st and the 5th, parti­ci­pated in the late May attack on Cis­ter­na. In this photo from May 22, 1944, men of Com­pany D, 1st Bat­talion, 5th Infan­try Divi­sion, known as the Green Howards, crouch low in a captured communications trench.

Hands raised, two German prisoners sprint past a damaged U.S. tank, Cisterna, May 1944GI frisks German POWs for concealed weapons, Cisterna, May 1944

Left: Their hands in the air, two German prisoners sprint past a damaged Amer­i­can Stuart light tank in this photo, which bears stark evi­dence of the destruc­tion wrought at Cis­ter­na. When the battle for control of Cis­ter­na was over in late May 1944, only skele­tons remained of the town’s burned and battered build­ings. A total of 11 Medals of Honor were awarded to Amer­i­can soldiers who made the Anzio beach­head break­out pos­si­ble. The road to Rome was now wide open, the city falling to the U.S. Fifth Army on June 4, 1944, two days before the world’s attention shifted to the Normandy landings.

Right: These German soldiers fought the Allies in Cis­ter­na to their last bullet before surren­dering. Reportedly they sniped at their attackers inces­santly from well-pre­pared defenses. Taken in May 1944 immed­i­ately after their capt­ure, the men in this photo are being searched for hidden weapons and their equipment confiscated.

Darby’s Rangers, 1942–1944. Focus on 1st Ranger Battalion

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