The Anzio beach-head – the Germans fight back

by Chris Chant on 21/03/2011

US forces landing at AnzioAs Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps came ashore in ‘Shingle’ at Anzio and Nettuno, established its beach-head and started to consolidate its position, the Germans reacted with the speed that characterised so many of their counteroffensives and counterattacks in World War II.

The staff of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ in Italy had already undertaken a number of studies into the possibility of future Allied landings with strategic ramifications. Each of these possibilities, which the Germans believed to include Istria, Ravenna, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Viareggio, was deemed to require a rapid response, so decisions had already been made about which formations should be committed to handle the situation at each of these locations, the routes they would have to take had been marked out, and their operational tasks had been fixed. Each hypothetical situation had been given a keyword. Thus Kesselring had only to signal ‘Richard’ for the Anzio beach-head to become the focus of movement by General Alfred Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps with General Paul Conrath’s 1st Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ from the area of Frosinone and Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision from the area of Terni; of General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps from the Sangro river front with Generalmajor Hans Hecker’s 26th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision; of Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision from the Garigliano river front; and of the staff of General Eberhard von Mackensen’s 14th Army as well as Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division and Generalleutnant Heinrich Greiner’s 362nd Division, which were to cross the Apennines from northern Italy as quickly as the winter conditions allowed.

The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht then intervened to boost the German strength in Italy: Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ in North-West Europe, was ordered to transfer Generalleutnant Kurt Hoffmann’s 715th Division, then stationed in the area of Marseille, and Generaloberst Alexander Löhr, the Oberbefelhshaber ‘Südost’ in the Balkans, was instructed to despatch Generalleutnant Alexander Bouquin’s 114th Jägerdivision.

On 23 January, when von Mackensen arrived at Kesselring’s headquarters, all that lay between the VI Corps at Anzio and Rome was a detachment of the 1st Fallschirm-Panzerdivision and a miscellany of artillery ranging from a few 88-mm (3.45-in) dual-role anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns to larger numbers of captured Italian, French and Yugoslav field guns. Despite the improvisatory talents of Kesselring and his staff, it would be some seven days before the 14th Army could offer realistic opposition to any Allied offensive. However, Lucas was concerned less with the likelihood of a German offensive than with the consolidation of his corps’ beach-head by supplementing the formations which had already landed (Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 3rd Division and Major General W. R. C. Penney’s British 1st Division) with the rest of the VI Corps in the form of Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 1st Armored Division and Major General William W. Eagles’s US 45th Division. On 28 January the 1st Armored Division took Aprilia, more than 10 miles (16 km) to the north of Anzio, but on the eastern end of the beach-head the 3rd Division had been driven back opposite Cisterna.

On the same day von Mackensen had three divisions in the line and enough units to make up a fourth, but by the last day of the month he had eight divisions. Thus Kesselring, far from being intimidated by the boldness of the concept embodied in ‘Shingle’, had assembled his forces with a speed wholly underestimated by the two senior Allied commanders responsible for operations on the western side of Italy, namely the British General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander and the US Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark.

504th Parachute Infantry Regiment at AnzioWhether or not the Allies ever possessed any realistic chance of breaking the stalemate on the western side of Italy by a rapid break-out from the Anzio beach-head to threaten the lines of communication feeding Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army on the Garigliano front, nothing was even attempted. This gave rise during February and March 1944 to a pair of the most furious battles of World War II, both ending in defeat for the attacker: on 29 February von Mackensen had to abandon his attempts to crush the Anzio beach-head and Clark reported that his repeated attempts to force the Cassino defile had failed.

The battle for the beach-head arose from a perhaps inevitable initiative by Adolf Hitler. On 28 January the German leader sent Kesselring an un-numbered Führerbefehl (the 52nd in the overall sequence) demanding an unremitting defence of Rome to show the Allies that the will of the German people remained undiminished. This is the reason why the 14th Army, while driving back the repeated attempts of the VI Corps to break out from Aprilia and sever the railway between Rome and Gaeta at Campoleone, actively prepared to go over to the offensive. On 3/4 February, this first counter-offensive, codenamed ‘Fischfang’ (fish trap), pinched off the head of the thrust by the 1st Armored Division, supported by the 1st Division, toward Campoleone near the main west coast rail line and the road linking Anzio with Albano. Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps, including Raapke’s 71st Division, Hecker’s 26th Panzerdivision and Conrath’s 1st Fallschirm-Panzerdivision, began ‘Fischfang’ with exploratory probes near Isola Bella and Carano during the afternoon of 3 February, and then the German forces attacked at 23.00 to destroy the salient not with swift blows on its shoulders so to pinch it out, but rather on the basis of a process of attrition. Some hours after the German undertaking’s start, the fighting had disintegrated into a number of small unit actions, most of them in and around the gullies that predominate in this area.

The next stage of ‘Fischfang’ was launched on 3 February, Schlemm’s intention being to pinch off the salient toward Campoleone (held by Brigadier J. G. James’s 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division) with attacks from the east by the 104th Panzergrenadierregiment of Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and from the west by the 145th Grenadierregiment of Pfeiffer’s 65th Division. The Germans managed to take the salient, but failed to crush the 3rd Brigade, although the British losses were high. The arrival of Major General G. W. R. Templer’s British 56th Division to bolster the strength of the Allied lodgement allowed Truscott to replace the battered 3rd Brigade with a fresh brigade.

The Germans were still attracted by the lure of the main road south to Anzio, especially in the area of Carroceto and the Aprilia Factory, now just behind the Allied front since the loss of the Campoleone salient. From 5 to 7 February each side concentrated its efforts on heavy artillery bombardments and bombing attacks in an effort to disrupt the other side’s preparations for renewed ground operations. The Germans launched their new effort at 21.00 on 7 February as ‘Morgenröte’ (dawn). This second German counter-offensive was fought by formations of Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps to take Carroceto and the Aprilia Factory, which lay just to the British side of the junction between Eagles’s 45th Division and Penney’s 1st Division. Units of the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, 26th Panzerdivision and the 715th Division were formed into the Kampfgruppe ‘Gräser’, and on 8 February this group was supplemented by an extemporised grouping under Oberst Henning Schönfeld. The two groups pushed deep into the 1st Division’s positions, and by 11 February had taken Carroceto and the Aprilia Factory, in the process reducing the British division to about half its establishment strength.

At this alarming stage of the Allied operations at Anzio, Alexander urged Clark to strengthen the leadership of the VI Corps, and Clark responded by making Truscott the corps’ deputy commander. It should be noted that after ‘Morgenröte’ had taken the Aprilia Factory and Carroceto on the road linking Anzio with Albano in the Alban hills, Lucas had relieved Penney’s battered 1st Division with Eagles’s 45th Division. As Templer’s British 56th Division arrived from the Garigliano river front, Lucas brought this into the line on the 45th Division’s western flank so that the Albano road sector was held by completely fresh troops. Truscott’s 3rd Division remained in the Cisterna sector, which had not yet been seriously attacked. This situation prevailed even as the Germans pondered their third and, as it turned out, last counter-offensive at Anzio.

Kesselring and von Mackensen both looked carefully at the front before deciding where to deliver what they hoped would be their decisive counter-offensive. The two coastal sectors provided most cover, but the German experience at Salerno made them avoid any axis within easy range of the supporting gunfire of Allied warships. Moreover, they wished to make the best possible use of the considerable armoured strength which Adolf Hitler was now making available to them. The two local commanders now decided that the optimum axis was the line of the road linking Anzio and Albano. Their plan was to attack initially with four divisions on a wide front extending on each side of the road, complemented by diversionary attack on the extremity of each of the Allied lodgement’s flanks. As soon as they had achieved a break-in, the Germans would exploit with a concentrated attack by the 26th Panzerdivision and 29th Panzergrenadierdivision.

During the development of the plan, however, von Mackensen was summoned to present the plan to Hitler at a meeting of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. The German leader raised no basic objection to von Mackensen’s plan to drive south along the road from Albano to Anzio, with diversionary attacks on each side, but then began to interfere with details of the tactical plan. von Mackensen thus saw Führer-mandated changes in the front on which he was to attack, the troops he was to use, and even the deployment of these forces. Hitler now demanded an attack on a much narrower front, on each side of the road between Anzio and Albano and thus on the same sector of the front on which ‘Fischfang’ and ‘Morgenröte’ had been attempted, and that the attack should be spearheaded by the Infanterie-Lehr-Regiment, a unit in which Hitler had great faith. The definitive plan to Hitler’s prescription called for infantry formations to break the Allied line between Fossa di Spaccasassi in the east and Buonriposo ridge in the west, so opening the way for German armoured and motorised formations to pour through the breach either to drive on Nettuno or to crush pockets of Allied resistance with flank attacks. The operation was entrusted to the LXXVI Panzerkorps, which was to attack on a front of less than 4 miles (6.5 km) with two infantry divisions up and the 26th Panzerdivision (now commanded by Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz) and the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision in reserve: this disposition, Hitler insisted, would ensure that the infantry formations would receive the supporting fire which would pulverise the Allied defence. von Mackensen vainly attempted to point out that such a massive concentration would offer a sitting target to the Allied air forces, which Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte II lacked the strength to check. Hitler also refused to listen to the argument that it was pointless to line up the guns wheel to wheel with insufficient ammunition for them to fire at the required rate.

The Luftwaffe was to provide maximum support, and was specially reinforced for this purpose, a notably heavy concentration of field artillery was assembled, and a new battlefield weapon was to be used for the first time. This last was the Goliath remotely controlled miniature tank filled with explosives, and intended as a device to help clear a way through the Allied barbed wire and minefield defences. The Germans were very optimistic about their chances of success, but the general air of confidence engendered in the troops by the concentration of German strength and Hitler’s assurances of inevitable victory had two unfortunate consequences: prisoners betrayed the date of the offensive to Allied interrogators; and when the offensive was defeated the despondency of the German forces was that much greater.

‘Sonnenaufgang’ began on 16 February, as ordered by Hitler, and in daylight as the assault divisions, only newly arrived in the area, lacked the knowledge of the terrain required for a night assault. There was a preliminary softening of the Allied defences by 300 German guns, but the 114th Jägerdivision and 715th Division, which were to advance side by side, were not provided with a creeping barrage behind which to move forward. The spongy ground of the Pontine Marshes also prevented the infantry’s supporting tanks and the assault guns from moving off the roads. The 14th Army’s offensive received the intermittent support of 20 to 30 German fighter-bombers, but the German troops were on the receiving end of no less than 1,100 tons of Allied bombs. German bombers and long-range guns struck at the rear areas in a fruitless attempt to panic the administrative echelons, and in return the Allied air forces were switched from Cassino and flew about 500 sorties mainly against Carroceto and the Aprilia Factory, which the Germans were using as their primary assembly areas. Moreover, the Allied tactical air forces successfully isolated the battlefield from any chance of German reinforcement, and interdicted the movement of supplies to the 14th Army’s front-line units.

Even so, by nightfall the LXXVI Panzerkorps had advanced some 3 to 4 miles (4.8 to 6.4 km) into the Allied lines, reaching ‘The Flyover’, the point at which a road crossed the parallel road and rail line between Anzio and Albano, but was still about 7 to 8 miles (11.25 to 13 km) short of its objectives, Anzio and Nettuno. The German guns had fired some 6,500 shells, but had been deluged by 10 times as many Allied projectiles. During the night the position changed dramatically. Infiltration on each side of the Albano road led to the appearance of a significant gap between the central and left-hand regiments of the 45th Division. The Germans quickly found this gap, and set about the further widening of this breach during the morning of the offensive’s second day. Lucas ordered the 1st Division to move out of corps reserve into a blocking position astride the Albano road on the lodgement’s ‘final’ defence line (a strengthened version of the line the Allies had reached on 22 January in ‘Shingle’), and ordered the 45th Division to undertake a night counterattack on the salient which the Germans had driven into the Allied front. Right through the second night of the offensive, the Germans moved up more units for a decisive effort on the following day. They drove back the 45th Division’s counterattack and infiltrated both into and round the US and British positions, blocking their advance. During the afternoon von Mackensen believed that the moment had come to commit a larger force of fresh troops. Supported by Panzergrenadier battalions, the Infanterie-Lehr-Regiment launched an all-out attack down the Albano road. Some 14 German battalions were involved in widening the salient driven into the 45th Division’s front but, packed into a small area and unable to make any effective use of their armoured strength off the road, the German attack provided an excellent target to the massed artillery of the VI Corps, the guns of the Allied warships lying offshore, and Allied warplanes. The weather prevented the Allies’ medium and heavy bombers from intervening. Most of the 45th Division was driven back to the ‘final’ defence line east of the Albano road, and the 1st Division came under attack astride the road itself. During the afternoon of this day the 26th Panzerdivision was committed, and only the demolition of a bridge over the Carroceto creek prevented a German breakthrough. By the evening the stubborn defence of the 45th and 1st Divisions was finally telling on the Germans, who started to pull back for a measure of reorganisation. The fighting went on for two more days, in which Harmon’s 1st Armored Division and Penney’s 1st Division counterattacked with some success. Despite the extreme severity of their losses, the Germans continued to launch successive attacks in a desperate endeavour to break through.

Krupp K5 railway gunFor three days von Mackensen sought fruitlessly to regain the upper hand, but Truscott, who was undertaking much of the tactical command responsibility and was to replace Lucas on 22 February, was too vigilant for him. On 19 February the I Fallschirmkorps took up the attack again farther to the east in the area of Cisterna, but was checked after advancing just a few hundred yards. On 20 February a last despairing effort made by the Panzergrenadier divisions came to nothing, and this marked the end of the last German counter-offensive as the battle around the beach-head then died down, and Clark reinforced the position with Major General P. G. S. Gregson-Ellis’s British 5th Division and Major General Charles W. Ryder’s US 34th Division. The beaches and the Allied rear positions were still harassed by German heavy artillery, whose fire was registered by observation posts in the Colli Laziali (Alban Hills), and a 280-mm (11-in) railway gun in particular wrought havoc among the defenders. The air force was unable to silence ‘Anzio Annie’, as the Allies called this ‘Leopold’ gun, because it withdrew into a tunnel near Castel Gandolfo immediately after it had fired.

The Germans had learned what the Allies had been experiencing for some time, but were still refusing to admit: a winter attack, when armour and heavy weapons are confined to the roads, is extraordinarily difficult and costly. At Anzio 10 German divisions had failed to break through 4.5 Allied divisions, had once more suffered under the hammer of Allied air and artillery superiority, and had their morale severely tested and in fact weakened.

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