Trying to break the Italian stalemate – the Allied landing at Anzio

by Chris Chant on 14/03/2011

Just over 65 years ago, on 22 January 1944, the Allied made a bold but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to break the stalemate on the Italian front with Operation ‘Shingle’, an attempt to outflank the Germans’ powerful ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. ‘Shingle’ took the form of an amphibious landing at Anzio and Nettuno on the western side of central Italy, and was designed to outflank the German forces in the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences along the line of the Rapido and Garigliano rivers north-east and south-west of Cassino, and so allow the lines of communication nourishing Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army to be severed or rather, in a late modification, facilitate an Allied advance on Rome.

At the end of 1943, following their ‘Baytown’, ‘Slapstick’ and ‘Avalanche’ landings at Reggio di Calabria, Taranto and Salerno respectively, the Allied forces were bogged down in front of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences extending across the Italian peninsula to the south of Rome. The terrain of central Italy had proved ideally suited to defence, and Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, had proved more than capable in exploiting the fact. From a number of Allied proposals made to break the stalemate, that of Prime Minister Winston Churchill for ‘Shingle’ was accepted by his Allied opposite numbers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the USA and Premier Josef Stalin of the USSR. The operation was therefore planned in November 1944 by General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied 15th Army Group on the basis of a major attack in the south by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army and General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army, which would draw the already depleted German forces away from the areas round Rome, and from the hills between Rome and the coast. This would make possible a surprise landing by Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps in the area of Anzio and Nettuno, just to the south of Rome, opening the way for a rapid advance into the Alban hills to cut the Germans’ lines of communication with their forces farther south, and to threaten the rear of the General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps and General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps holding the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. Allied planners argued that if Kesselring was compelled to thin the forces holding the ‘Gustav-Linie’ to provide the wherewithal to check an Allied landing at Anzio, the Allied forces farther to the south would be able to break through the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences, and at the same time the Allies concluded that unless Kesselring pulled forces out of these defences, ‘Shingle’ would face only comparatively insignificant local opposition and thus would pave the way for the capture of Rome and the isolation of the German forces left holding the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. The planners believed, moreover, that even if the Germans had adequate reinforcements available for the defence of both Rome and the ‘Gustav-Linie’, ‘Shingle’ would still be useful in pinning forces which could otherwise be committed on another front.

It is worth noting that at the same time the Germans finally came to a conclusion in their dispute as how best to defend Italy, Adolf Hitler deciding in favour of holding southern Italy in accord with the scheme proposed by Kesselring, rather than securing northern Italy in accord with the plan proposed by the commander of Heeresgruppe ‘B’, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel. As a result Kesselring was appointed to the command of a new Heeresgruppe ‘C’ controlling all German forces in southern and northern Italy, and immediately set about preparing a new army headquarters (the 14th Army under Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen) for the control of operations in those parts of Italy lying to the west of the Apennine mountains, leaving Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army to concentrate on the defence of eastern Italy. So just as the Allies were preparing a bold outflanking movement at Anzio, the Germans were establishing an effective theatre command with a capable but as yet uncommitted army headquarters under its direct control.

‘Shingle’ was initially to have used a single US division landed no later than 15 January 1944, when the required amphibious shipping was to be removed from the Mediterranean in preparation for ‘Overlord’ in Normandy, the exact date of the landing being determined by the arrival of the 5th Army at a point some 30 miles (48 km) to the south of the proposed beach-head after breaking through the ‘Gustav-Linie’ positions after penetrating its outlying ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ forward defences. The operation was officially cancelled on 18 December, but then various delays had postponed the removal of Allied amphibious transport capability to the UK, and the operation was revived but shifted in scheduled implementation toward the end of January 1944 as Clark’s forces had as yet failed to make the necessary inroads through the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ and ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. A major failing in the plan, however, was the fact that Lucas lacked wholehearted confidence in both his superiors and the plan.

One of the operational problems with which the plan had to contend was that concerning the availability of landing ships. US commanders in particular were determined that nothing should delay the ‘Overlord’ and ‘Dragoon’ amphibious landings in northern and southern France. ‘Shingle’ would require the use of landing ships necessary for these operations, however, and it was initially decided that ‘Shingle’ was to release these assets by 15 January. This was deemed problematic, however, and Roosevelt authorised the retention of the craft to 5 February. Even so, only LSTs sufficient for the landing of one division were initially available to ‘Shingle’ but later, at Churchill’s personal insistence, enough were made available for the delivery of two divisions into an area which, Allied intelligence believed, contained five or six German divisions.

There now entered a dangerous diversion of aims, for whereas Alexander instructed Clark that the aim of the operation was ‘to carry out an assault landing on the beaches in the vicinity of Rome with the object of cutting the enemy lines of communication and threatening the rear of the German XIV Corps’, Clark told Lucas that he was merely ‘to seize and secure a beach-head in the vicinity of Anzio’ and later ‘to advance on the Alban Hills’. So while the British wanted a landing followed by a swift and fully committed advance, the Americans envisaged a landing which would be consolidated before any advance was undertaken, for Clark was determined that the problem of German counterattacks which had beset ‘Avalanche’ at Salerno should not be repeated with ‘Shingle’ at Anzio. The Allied plan was finalised on 12 January, three days after the VI Corps had been replaced in the line south of Cassino and moved to its embarkation points at Salerno, as part of a five-phase Allied winter offensive against a German army believed to be exhausted and virtually without reinforcements or reserves. ‘Shingle’ was designed as the third of these phases: the first two were the Allied offensives against the ‘Gustav-Linie’ and ‘Senger-Linie’ positions, and the last two the link-up with the US VI Corps and the destruction of the XIV Panzerkorps.

The Allied forces for ‘Shingle’ comprised a naval element commanded by Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowry of the US Navy with Lowry’s own Task Force 81 (Force ‘X’) responsible for the transport, landing and support of the American land forces, and the British Rear Admiral T. H. Troubridge’s Force ‘P’ for the transport, landing and support of the British land forces. On 21 January TF81, with Lowry on board the headquarters ship Biscayne, left the Bay of Naples and the landings started early on the next day. Lowry’s Southern Attack Force comprised five LSIs, 51 LSTs, four LCG/Fs, 60 LCIs, 32 LCTs, two LCT(R)s, 23 MLs and PC/SCs, 10 other craft and the beacon submarine Uproar, and landed Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 3rd Division. Escort and support were provided by the cruisers Brooklyn and British Penelope, US fleet destroyers Plunkett, Gleaves, Niblack, Woolsey, Mayo, Trippe, Ludlow and Edison, British escort destroyers Croome, Greek Themistokles and Kriti, US destroyer escorts Herbert C. Jones and Frederick C. Davis, Dutch gunboats Flores and Zoemba, British anti-aircraft ship Palomares and 23 US minesweepers. Troubridge’s Northern Attack Force comprised the headquarters ship Bulolo, three LSIs, three large LSTs (Boxer, Bruiser and Buster), 30 LSTs, four LCG/Fs, 29 LCIs, 17 LCTs, one LCT(R), 17 PCs, SCs and MLs, 13 other craft and the beacon submarine Ultor, and landed Major General W. R. C. Penney’s British 1st Division. Escort and support were provided the British cruisers Orion and Spartan, anti-aircraft ship Ulster Queen, fleet destroyers Jervis, Janus, Laforey, Loyal, Inglefield, Tenacious, Urchin and Kempenfelt, escort destroyers Beaufort, Brecon, Wilton and Tetcott, and 16 minesweepers.

On the first day of ‘Shingle’ these Allied naval assets landed 36,034 troops and 3,069 vehicles. The minesweeper Portent was lost on a mine and LCI-20 sank after being hit by a bomb. The AA ship Palomares also suffered mine damage. In an air attack on 23 January the destroyers Janus was sunk and and Jervis damaged by Henschel Hs 293 guided weapons. When the first supply convoy arrived on 24 January the 2,702-ton hospital ship St David was sunk by air attack, and the destroyer Plunkett and minesweeper Prevail were damaged. The destroyer Mayo was damaged by an air-launched torpedo. At Naples the 7,176-ton freighter F. A. C. Muhlenberg was damaged by bombs. On 25 January the minesweeper YMS-30 was sunk on a mine and the submarine chaser PC-676 damaged by a bomb. On 26 January LST-422 and LCI-32 were lost on mines, while LST-336 and the freighters John Banward (7,191 tons) and Hilary A. Herbert (7,176 tons) were damaged by fighter-bombers. On 27 January the submarine chaser SC-534 was damaged by bombs. On 29 January the cruiser Spartan and 7,181-ton transport Samuel Huntington succumbed to air attacks by, respectively, a Dornier Do 217K-5 of the III/Kampfgeschwader 100 and Junkers Ju 88 aircraft of the I/Lehrgeschwader 1 armed with guided weapons and bombs.

Despite the scale of the German air attacks, by 29 January the Allies had landed 68,886 men, 237 tanks and 508 pieces of artillery. The initial land element, under the command of Lucas, totalled 40,000 men and more than 5,000 vehicles divided into three attack groups. The northernmost of these, scheduled to land 6 miles (10 km) to the north of Anzio, was part of Penney’s British 1st Division (Brigadier E. E. J. Moore’s 2nd Brigade, Brigadier J. G. James’s 3rd Brigade, Brigadier A. S. P. Murray’s 24th Guards Brigade and the 46th Royal Tank Regiment), and part of Brigadier T. D. L. Churchill’s 2nd Special Service Brigade (No. 9 Commando and No. 43 [RM] Commando). This formation was to land its 2nd Brigade in the north between Anzio and the Moletta river with the 2nd Special Service Brigade following it ashore. The US central group, intended for the attack on the port of Anzio, for which an airborne landing to the north-west of the port by the 504th Parachute Battalion had been proposed but rejected, was the North-Western Force comprising the 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions and 509th Parachute Battalion with supporting elements. This force was to land the three Ranger battalions in the centre between Anzio and Nettuno, with the 509th Parachute Infantry following them ashore. The southernmost group, intended to land on the coast 3.75 miles (6 km) to the south-east of Anzio, was the South-Western Force comprising Truscott’s 3rd Division (7th, 15th and 30th Infantry, 504th Parachute Infantry, 509th Parachute Battalion, 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions, and 751st Tank Battalion). This formation was to land its three infantry regiments in the south between Nettuno and the Mussolini Canal, with the 504th Parachute Infantry following them ashore.

The rest of the 1st Division was in floating reserve and follow-on forces, to be committed at Clark’s discretion, were Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 1st Armored Division (less Combat Command B and thus comprising the 1st Armored Regiment and 6th Armored Infantry) and Major General William W. Eagles’s 45th Division (157th, 179th and 180th Infantry, and 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion).

The assault forces were to consolidate a beach-head between the Mussolini Canal and the Moletta via Padiglione. The British would hold the left of the beach-head and then exploit toward Campoleone along the road to Albano, and the Americans would hold the right of the beach-head before exploiting toward Cisterna via Conca. Only after this enlarged beach-head had been secured would Lucas envisage the landing of the 1st Armored and 45th Divisions for the assault toward the Alban hills.

The 5th Army’s attack on the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences began on 16 January 1944 at Monte Cassino. Although the operation failed to capture its target, it partially succeeded in its primary objective: von Vietinghoff-Scheel, commanding the German forces holding the ‘Gustav-Linie’, called for reinforcements, and Kesselring transferred Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision from Rome. On 16 January Clark renewed his offensive against Cassino, the heart of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences, in an effort to draw more German reserves to the south, for it was appreciated by the Allies that the Germans could move forces against the beach-head more rapidly than the Allies could pour troops into it. Thus the Allies felt that it was vital for the German lines of communication south of Rome be seriously interdicted by air power to slow the development of the inevitable German counter-offensive. Kesselring was fully aware that an amphibious landing might be launched (German contingency plans envisaged such an outflanking operation in places as diverse as Istria, Ravenna, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Viareggio) and had organised a number of extemporised local commands to deal with any such operation: in the Anzio sector were General Alfred Schlemm and the headquarters of I Fallschirmkorps.

‘Shingle’ began on 22 January 1944. While resistance had been expected, as during ‘Avalanche’ at Salerno during September 1943, the initial landings were in fact essentially unopposed with the exception of desultory German air attacks. In themselves, therefore, the ‘Shingle’ landings were almost the most successful of World War II in any theatre, for there was opposition only from two German battalions and some shore batteries, which were silenced by the guns of the light cruisers and destroyers. By 24.00 on 22 January the VI Corps had thus landed 36,034 men, 3,069 vehicles and 90% of the corps’ assault equipment at the cost of 13 men dead, 97 wounded and 44 missing; about 200 Germans had been taken prisoner. The British 1st Division penetrated some 1.85 miles (3 km) inland, the Rangers captured Anzio’s port, the 509th Parachute Battalion took Nettuno, and the 3rd Division penetrated 3.1 miles (5 km) inland. It is clear that Lucas’s superiors expected offensive action by the VI Corps, possibly even an assault on Rome as the whole object of ‘Shingle’ was to either divert German strength from the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences or to take advantage of German weakness in the areas behind the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. Lucas instead poured more men and matériel into his small beach-head, and strengthened his defences. Churchill was obviously very unhappy with the situation, and wrote that ‘I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.’ Lucas’s decision remains controversial. Lucas lacked confidence in the operation’s strategic planning, and his orders from Clark also laid on him the requirement to ‘land, secure the beach-head and advance’. With two divisions landed, and facing two or three times that many Germans, it would have been reasonable for Lucas to consider the VI Corps’ beach-head insecure. But what Lucas in fact achieved was the worst of both worlds, exposing his forces to risk without imposing any on those of the Germans. In it not surprising, therefore, that on 23 February Lucas was replaced by Truscott.

Kesselring had been informed of the landings at 03.00 on 22 January, and at 05.00 ordered elements of I Fallschirmkorps (Generalmajor Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision from Terni and replacement units of Generalmajor Paul Conrath’s Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ from Frosinone) to move up and hold the roads leading from Anzio into the Alban hills. Even so, there was nothing that the Germans could do within the next two days as forces were brought in to contain the beach-head. Later in the morning of 22 January Kesselring ordered von Mackensen and von Vietinghoff-Scheel, commanding the 14th and 10th Armies respectively, to send him additional reinforcements. The German units in the immediate vicinity had in fact been dispatched to reinforce the ‘Gustav-Linie’ only a few days earlier, but all available reserves on the southern front or on their way to it were rushed to Anzio. These included Generalleutnant Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Wilhelm Raapke’s 71st Division, as well as the bulk of the Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’. Thus the VI Corps was offered 48 clear hours in which to smash north-west some 12 miles (19.25 km) and sever the XIV Panzerkorps’ lines of communication at Velletri and Valmontone. Instead Lucas consolidated the beach-head and worked to build up his corps’ supplies, and only on 24 January did he order a cautious initial advance just as the first German forces arrived in the area: these forces included General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps from the Sangro river (Generalmajor Hans Hecker’s 26th Panzerdivision, Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision) and von Mackensen’s 14th Army headquarters from northern Italy together with Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division and Generalleutnant Heinrich Greiner’s 362nd Division. But so severe was the threat to the integrity of the German defences in southern Italy that at Kesselring’s urging the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had already ordered the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, to send Generalleutnant Hans-Georg Hildebrandt’s 715th Division from Marseille, and the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südost’, Generaloberst Alexander Löhr, to hand over the Generalmajor Alexander Bouquin’s 114th Jägerdivision from the Balkans.

By 23 January the first elements of the Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ (supported by a miscellany of Flak guns and field artillery) had arrived, but von Mackensen and Kesselring could start to think of a counterattack only on 28 January, by which time the 1st Armored and 45th Divisions were assembling in the area of Padiglione Wood, and the north-eastern perimeter of the beach-head had been pushed out some 2 miles (3.2 km) by the advances of the British 1st and US 3rd Divisions toward Campoleone and Cisterna respectively. These formations were checked short of their main objectives by the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and the Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ respectively, and von Mackensen now had three divisions and the equivalent of another in miscellaneous units, the total rising to eight divisions by the end of the month. Kesselring initially considered that a successful defence could not be created if the Allies launched a major attack on 23/24 January, but by the end of 22 January the VI Corps’ lack of aggression had convinced him that a successful defence could be made. The 14th Army assumed control of the defence on 25 January. Elements of eight German divisions were employed in the defence line around the beach-head, and five more divisions were on their way to the Anzio area. Kesselring ordered an attack on the beach-head for 28 January, but this was then postponed to 1 February. Lucas initiated a two-pronged attack on 30 January: as one force cut Highway 7 at Cisterna, north of the beach-head’s north-eastern extremity, before moving east into the Alban hills, a second force was to advance north up the road to Albano. It was too late, for the corps was now effectively trapped in the beach-head by aggressive and skilful counterattacks. The corps survived these counterattacks, of which the last was the ‘Sonnanfang’ failure on 16/19 February, and was eventually taken over by Truscott, received substantial reinforcements (Major General P. G. S. Gregson-Ellis’s British 5th Division, Major General Charles W. Ryder’s US 34th Division, Major General Fred L. Walker’s US 36th Division, and Colonel Robert T. Frederick’s US-Canadian 1st Special Service Force), and was finally able to break out of its beach-head in ‘Buffalo’ on 23 May, linking with the US II Corps two days later.

[To be continued with details of ‘Sonnanfang’, the German counterattack.]

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