With Maj. Gen. Mark Clark in Italy May 25, 1944

In 1943–1944 the centerpiece of German defenses in Italy was the Gus­tav Line, whose most famous bas­tion was cen­tered on the his­toric Bene­dic­tine abbey of Monte Cas­sino. Thou­sands of Ger­man soldiers and con­scripted Ital­ian civil­ians worked hard to strengthen the line, 65 miles north of the port of Naples, under orders from Field Marshal Albert Kessel­ring, German theater com­mander in Italy, to make it so strong that Anglo-Amer­i­can forces would “break their teeth on it.” Adolf Hitler him­self had ordered the Gustav Line (see map below) defended “in a spirit of holy hatred not only against the enemy, but against all officers and units who fail in this decisive hour.”

On the opposing side Allied com­man­ders, in order to help their forces pierce the heavily forti­fied line and move up the Ital­ian boot from bases in the south, planned am­phi­bious landings at Anzio and Net­tuno. The chosen landing zones lay north of the Gus­tav Line and just 35 miles south of Rome, the Ital­ian capi­tal. The am­phi­bious landings by 37,000 Amer­i­can, British, Cana­dian, French, and Polish troops began on Janu­ary 22, 1944, but with­in days they were pinned down to a shallow beach­head. German bom­bard­ment of the trapped men in­flicted demor­al­izing casual­ties, among the Cana­dians dispro­por­tion­ately so. In four months’ time 72,000 men were killed, wounded, cap­tured, or went missing—making Anzio the cost­liest pur­chase of ground ever by the Western Allies during the war.

Finally on this date, May 25, 1944, the north­ward-driving U.S. Fifth Army front under Lt. Gen. Mark Clark merged with the Anzio beach­head and raced toward Rome, which was occu­pied on June 5, prompting U.S. Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt to declare trium­phantly: “The first of the Axis capi­tals is now in our hands. One up and two to go.” (Roose­velt’s “two to go” refer­ence was to Berlin and Tokyo.) Unfor­tu­nately for the vic­to­ri­ous Allies, instead of coop­er­ating with the Brit­ish Eighth Army in rounding up Kessel­ring’s Tenth Army, in full retreat from the Gus­tav Line, Clark in his glory-seeking race to the stra­te­gi­cally unim­por­tant “Eter­nal City,” emptied of Ger­man troops, so infuri­ated Eighth Army com­mander, Lt. Gen. Oliver Leese, suc­cessor to Field Marshal Ber­nard Law Mont­go­mery, that Clark and Leese hence­forth fought separately in Italy with only the merest pretense of cooperation.

Clark’s glory days lasted less than 48 hours, ended by gen­u­ine heroes who threw them­selves at gen­u­ine oppo­nents on D-Day in Normandy, France. Almost as fast as the media lost interest in Clark’s Roman thea­trics, the Ameri­can became Kessel­ring’s favorite enemy gen­eral because Clark always gave the German staff an easier time than they expected.

Battle of Anzio and the Rome Breakout, January to June 1944

German Defense Lines South of Rome, Italy, 1943-44

Above: German-prepared defensive lines in Italy south of Rome, 1943–1944. The pri­mary line was the Gustav Line (red line on map), often called the Winter Line, cen­tered on the town of Cas­sino. High above Cas­sino was an an­cient Bene­dic­tine abbey, Monte Cas­sino, which domi­nated the en­trance to the Liri Valley, one of two main routes to Rome, 90‑some miles away. Rome was the prize which the Germans fought to keep and the Allies sought to take. The am­phi­bious Anzio landings by Amer­i­can, British, French, Polish, and Cana­dian troops, which began on Janu­ary 22, 1944, was an ambi­tious but poorly exe­cuted end-run around several strong German defen­sive lines that were holding up U.S. and British armies and preventing the liberation of Rome.

Battle of Anzio: Company A, 3rd Ranger Infantry Battalion en route to Anzio, Italy, January 1944Battle of Anzio: U.S. soldiers landing at Anzio, Italy, January 1944

Left: U.S. soldiers of Company A, 3rd Ranger Infantry Bat­talion board landing craft that will take them to Anzio. Two weeks later nearly all would be killed or captured.

Right: U.S. Army troops landing at Anzio in late Janu­ary 1944 as part of Oper­a­tion Shingle, a bold plan pushed by British Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill to end the stale­mate in Italy. Shingle was com­manded by U.S. Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, who was given the task of out­flanking Ger­man strongpoints along the Winter Line and en­abling an attack on Rome, 40 miles north of Anzio. The divi­sions at Anzio would link up with Allied forces farther south and break the stalemate.

Battle of Anzio: British Eighth Army Sherman tank, Anzio, Italy, January 22, 1944Battle of Anzio: Wounded Allied POWs, Nettuno, Italy, March 6, 1944

Left: A Sherman tank of the 23rd Armoured Brigade attached to the British Eighth Army coming ashore from a landing craft at Anzio on the first day, Janu­ary 22, 1944. The Allies prac­tically strolled ashore, taking the Germans com­pletely by sur­prise. Unfor­tu­nately, Lucas failed to take advan­tage of the ele­ment of sur­prise. Within 48 hours of landing, Lucas had snatched defeat from the jaws of vic­tory by ordering his two divisions to dig in instead of march on Rome.

Right: German soldiers take captured Allied wounded to a first-aid sta­tion near Net­tuno, March 6, 1944. Kessel­ring’s Tenth Army, which Clark’s Fifth Army in­tel­ligence severely under­estimated, quickly massed ten divisions of armor and men, several of them crack com­bat units. Not since the Blitz­krieg of spring 1940 had Germans gathered such a large attacking force to do battle with the Western Allies.

Battle of Anzio: German artillery piece near Nettuno, Italy, 1944Battle of Anzio: British mortar at Anzio, Italy, May 18, 1944

Left: German paratroopers position an artil­lery piece near Net­tuno. Because the Allies had failed to move in­land and seize the Al­ban Hills, the Ger­mans were able to look down on each inch of the beach­head and on the town of Anzio itself.

Right: A 4.2-in mortar of 1st Infantry Bri­gade’s sup­port group, firing in sup­port of the 5th Northampton­shire Regi­ment in the Anzio beach­head, May 18, 1944. Several days later the regiment was on its way to Rome.

U.S. Fifth Army Report from the Anzio Beachhead, January to March 1944

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