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Good Grief Sir, We're in Trier!
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Anzio: The Allies' Greatest Blunder
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Irwin J. Kappes Articles
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Anzio - Blunder of WWII
Mers-el-Kebir: A Battle Between Friends
Hitler's Ultra-Secret Adlerhorst

Recommended Reading


Anzio: Epic of Bravery


Sicily - Salerno - Anzio


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Anzio -- The Allies' Greatest Blunder of World War II
Anzio -- The Allies' Greatest Blunder of World War II
by Irwin J. Kappes

Much has been written by military analysts about the conceptually faulty Operation Shingle —the Anzio beachhead in January, 1944. But the story that has been overlooked is the naval aspect of the operation, which was a resounding success.

On the 50th anniversary of the Anzio landings, the office of the Chief of Naval Operations released a statement reading, in part: "A half-century ago American, British, Dutch and Greek naval forces landed soldiers of the American and British armies on the Italian coast. German resistance was unexpectedly powerful and rapidly increased in strength. For four months the invaders battled foul winter weather, heavy bombing and artillery fire to sustain the Anzio beachhead. Throughout this long struggle on the Italian littoral, our troops were strongly supported by naval gunfire, airpower and a shuttle of ships and craft that braved air and submarine attack to deliver reinforcements. Late in May 1944 the main Allied advance linked up with Anzio's defenders, and Rome was liberated a few days later. In what many consider a land battle, there were a total of 17 ships lost: ten British and seven U.S. Navy. In this action, 166 American sailors were wounded and 160 made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of freedom.

"Anzio was hard-fought and hard-won. By drawing off troops that could have opposed the main Allied offensive in Italy, the Anzio operation helped tilt the balance in our favor and contributed to the drive that led to the fall of Rome." "Anzio beachhead," naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison later wrote, "should endure in our memories as a symbol of heroic tenacity".

Imagine the situation: In December 1943 Allied forces had taken the lower third of Italy and were stalled almost midway between Naples and Rome. The well-fortified Gustav Line of German Field Marshal Kesselring was holding against continuous murderous assault from Gen. Mark Clark's 5th Army 60 miles south of Rome. In Allied war rooms, pressure was building for an end run that would draw enough German resources away from the Gustav Line to allow a breakthrough. This would enable a link-up of the two forces for the final push on the Eternal City. The principal advocate of this bold strategy was Prime Minister Winston Churchill. General Eisenhower had strong misgivings, but as the newly-appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces he was now preoccupied with preparations for Operation Overlord —the invasion of Normandy. This left British General Sir Henry Wilson in command of the Mediterranean Theater. Wilson did not possess the courage to challenge his headstrong Prime Minister, so despite the doubts of Eisenhower, General Mark Clark and the sacrificial lamb who was put in charge of Shingle , U.S. General John P. Lucas, the plan moved into high gear.

Actually, such a diversion behind the Gustav Line made a lot of sense from a tactical standpoint. But to succeed, a massive force would be required—one that could quickly overwhelm the Germans and prevent their reinforcement until General Clark was able to break through the Gustav Line. But in January of 1944 these forces were simply not available.

At one time, Eisenhower had approved an earlier version of Shingle. It called for Army Rangers to land at Anzio and secure the port . This would have been followed by the dropping of paratroops to seal off the area. It also called for an amphibious assault on Anzio, but only after the Fifth Army breached the Gustav Line and reached a point just north of Frosinone. Intelligence reports had five to six German divisions in the area, while only two divisions (one American, one British) could be mustered for Shingle . It took no von Clausewitz to see that the outlook was not auspicious.

Further, it required at least 44 LSTs (Landing Ship-Tank) to land one division along with all its materiel and equipment. Operation Overlord , the upcoming Normandy invasion, was the top priority at this time and naval resources were rapidly being shifted away from the Mediterranean to the British Isles. A mere 56 LSTs and the smaller LCIs and some British LSIs were available. (At the last minute, Churchill succeeded in cajoling and threatening the U.S. Naval Command into making 88 LSTs available). In the end, there were barely enough amphibious craft to land the two divisions, but not enough to keep them supplied for a protracted period. Everything depended upon two unlikely events: That the Anzio landing would catch the superior German forces completely by surprise and enable the invaders to quickly consolidate their position and capture the rail lines and highways providing the link to Rome. Secondly, General Clark would in short order breach the Gustav Line and link up with the Anzio forces in the area of Frosinone. It would be one of the riskiest gambles of World War II.

Nevertheless, just after dawn on 21 January 1944 a motley armada of 240 ships—mostly amphibious landing craft—set sail from the bay of Naples. In peacetime, the receding view of the beautiful bay with a lazily smoking Vesuvius in the distance would have thrilled cruise ship passengers. But the 35,000 infantrymen who were about to be flung into the maw of mortal combat had other concerns. Some attempted nonchalance by avidly playing card games. Others penned what they thought might be their last letters to loved ones. Understandably, the anxiety wasn't nearly as high among the 31,000 British and American sailors. Besides, many of them had already been through the landings at Sicily and Salerno. None knew exactly where they were headed, but a rehearsal for the landing had left little room for speculation. It had to be somewhere between Naples and Rome, right where German strength was concentrated.

Overall command of the two Anzio assault forces was under Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowry aboard his flagship U.S.S. Biscayne. He also commanded "X-Ray Force" which was made up of about 175 vessels (mostly amphibs) escorted by two light cruisers, 12 destroyers, 24 minesweepers and one sub. It landed troops just south of Anzio, at Nettuno. The "Peter Force" landing was five miles north of Anzio and was commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas H. Troubridge of the Royal Navy. It was comprised of four transports and three LSTs, escorted by three cruisers (U.S.S. Brooklyn, H.M.S. Orion and H.M.S. Spartan ), eight destroyers, two gunboats, six minesweepers, and four PCs. At first the fleet sailed toward the southwest to throw any lurking German reconnaissance planes off the scent. But at 1740 the order came from Adm. Lowry to "Execute course change to 010". All the debates, strategizing, logistical preparations and rehearsals were culminating in their ineluctable end—the fury and confusion of battle and the stench of cordite and death.

"H"-hour was 0200 and two British LCTs were first to open fire—with five-inch rockets. Three assault waves of LCVPs and LCIs landed troops without incident. So Lowry had achieved his share of the mandate calling for achieving surprise and the rest was up to General Lucas. In fact, surprise was so total that some of the German troops were captured asleep at their posts, despite all the rocket fire and the whining of five-inch shells from offshore destroyers. With the exception of Tinian, no other landing in Europe or the Pacific was initially as successful as that at Anzio. After only 22 hours, Lowry and Rear Admiral Troubridge had landed 36,034 men, 3069 vehicles and 90% of the U.S. VI Corps' assault equipment. Losses were only 13 killed, 44 missing and 97 wounded.

The big problem was resupplying the forces landed. The captains of the Liberty ships were civilian merchant marine officers and therefore not under direct control of the naval commanders. When cargo arrived at the beachhead "after working hours", they would often refuse to unload it and Navy amphibious craft tied up alongside would simply have to wait. Because of the German shelling that soon erupted, they were also refusing to go in close enough to be unloaded by the Army DUKWs (2 ½-ton 6x6 amphibious craft). Finally, Adm. Lowry was obliged to assume liability for any damage to Liberty ships that might result from enemy attack. The real heroes of Anzio were unquestionably the black soldiers who manned the DUKWs. They braved attack from German shore batteries and from sporadic strafing by enemy fighters—and did so with good-natured courage and élan.

Despite having achieved surprise, Gen. Lucas delayed, feeling that insufficient forces had been landed to make the push inland. This is the major point of contention between historians who continue to debate Shingle . Most American strategists at the time felt that Lucas would have been dealt a severe sucker punch. British tacticians on the other hand reasoned that Lucas was lacking in courage and that a more forceful general like Patton or their own Field Marshal Montgomery would have pushed inland rapidly, encircling the Germans north of the Gustav Line. But while Patton was courageous he was not reckless. His words to Lucas have been reported in nearly every account of the Anzio invasion: "John, there is nobody in the U.S. Army I would less like to see killed than you, but you can't get out of this alive. Of course, you might get wounded and nobody ever blames a wounded general".

In spite of submarines, mines, air raids and artillery fire, there was a steady inflow of supplies. The real reason has often been overlooked. One supply officer who had served with the 7th Fleet in the South Pacific remembered an efficient plan that had been devised there for the unloading of LSTs. It called for driving loaded trucks ashore to storage dumps while the LSTs quickly doubled back with empty trucks from the previous trip. When the method was proposed by American officers it was disapproved by British Adm. Cunningham, by U.S. General Walter Bedell Smith and by Churchill himself. But gutsy American colonels adopted it anyway because it reduced unloading time from 20 hours down to one. Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison concluded in his history of Shingle that this insubordinate move alone prevented the invasion from becoming an utter disaster.

The day following the landing, the Germans staged their first all-out attack on the ships in the anchorage. They followed this up by rapidly encircling the beachhead. At one point, they nearly succeeded in cutting it in half. To complicate things further, there was another raging dispute between the British and American leaderships. The egotistical Gen. Mark Clark, having originally opposed an end-run but now eager to go down in history as "The Liberator of Rome", wanted a rapid push north. British Gen. W.R.C. Penney felt that Rome could wait. The important objective now was to capture the German army stationed south of Rome. But the grandstanding Clark prevailed, and the German army escaped north and set up the "Gothic Line". This would have to be dealt with later at great cost. And on their way, the Germans massacred over 300 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves.

World War II was the first war demanding entire fleets of highly-specialized landing craft. Each was designed to accomplish a unique task. There were craft for putting the first wave ashore; craft to fire rockets and lay smoke screens; craft to provide antiaircraft flak. Most important were the huge craft that were purposely run aground to open their three-story doors and spew forth battle-ready troops and tanks. Among Navy ships, the LSTs, unlovely as they were in appearance, were second only to aircraft carriers among surface ships in their contribution to final victory. To their crewmen, the 88 LSTs that took part in Shingle were referred to as "Long Stationary Targets". But despite their vulnerability, only three LSTs and one LCI (Landing Craft-Infantry) were lost in Shingle. This is a resounding tribute to the fire support they got from the cruisers and destroyers assigned to keep German artillery and aircraft disoriented.

In many ways, Anzio was much like the Pacific war. There was no rear area that was safe from attack. If you were at Anzio at all, you were in the front lines. No bunker, no ship, was safe. One sailor aboard the U.S.S. Trippe described it as a "vision of hell. For four hours we were under continuous attack. The bombers were merciless and the sky was ablaze with shellfire. Hollywood couldn't have staged it any better except for the terror. And no movie can simulate that".

One of the more heroic destroyer actions of Shingle was staged by the U.S.S. Mayo, under the command of Commander A.D. Kaplan. It was assigned the hazardous task of coming in close ashore to impede the reinforcing of Nazi infantry units. Mayo and other ships of DESRON 7 shelled enemy forces attempting to cross the Mussolini Canal for more than 17 hours. Out of ammunition and on her way back to Naples, a mine blew open a large hole in her starboard side, flooding the after fire and engine rooms and damaging her propeller shaft. A British tug took her under tow for temporary repairs in Naples. But the enemy hadn't seen the last of "The Merry Mayo", as she was known to her crew. She escorted five more convoys to Europe and even took part in the Okinawa operation.

Typical of the intensity of the naval battle of Anzio was the sinking of the British cruiser SPARTAN on 29 January. She was anchored close to shore when she was hit amidships by a guided missile. Farther out, another missile hit a Liberty ship. A U.S. salvage tug that stood by SPARTAN until she was beyond help went to the aid of the Liberty and was itself badly damaged by the air raid that followed. The Liberty's cargo of fuel and ammunition lit up the sky for over eight hours before she finally exploded in a ferocious pyrotechnic display and slid beneath the Tyrhennian Sea.

Several new German weapons made their debuts during Shingle. The "Fritz X" guided missile had already been introduced during the Salerno campaign but it was now being used more extensively. This rocket was primarily an anti-ship weapon. In a sense, it was the precursor of today's cruise missile. It had fins so it was designed to glide rather than drop and was radio-controlled from the launching aircraft. Fritz had an armor-piercing warhead with 320 kilograms of amatol, which surrounded a set of central explosive tubes. It had a range of nearly four miles and a speed of 600 mph. But the radio-controlling feature which made it so effective turned out to be its Achilles heel. Its reliability depended on a radio beam, but this could be detected and jammed. The U.S. and British navies quickly equipped three destroyer escorts with jamming devices and the early-warning equipment was so efficient that it could detect the German bombers on the runway just outside of Rome before their takeoff. Then a desperate game of cat-and-mouse ensued, with the bomber pilot trying to keep his glider bomb on target while the destroyermen fought to stay on the beam to direct the bomb away from the target. They weren't always successful. On 23 January a bomb evaded the defenses and hit the British destroyer JANUS. She went down in 20 minutes with the loss of her captain and over 150 men.

When Fritz proved a dud, the Nazis came up with the midget submarine, steered by one man in a diving suit. The pilot sat astride one torpedo moving along the surface, with a second one slung underneath. When he reached his target and fired it, he could make a wide swing to return to base. The problem was that the craft was underpowered and was usually spotted and destroyed within minutes of firing its first shot.

While they cannot be said to have been decisive, there were two minor elements that hindered the Anzio operation. The most serious was the nearly constant backbiting between the top-level British and American commanders. For example, Mark Clark's diary for 16 February 1944 said, "I want to record my definite feelings that Adm. Cunningham [Royal Navy] has been as uncooperative as possible in this Shingle operation. Yesterday, Lucas asked for cruiser gunfire support and did not get it. Today he asked again. Admiral Cunningham will give it only if it comes from Lucas through his liaison officer, not honoring my request".

Curiously, this jealousy and rivalry was entirely absent at lower levels. Lt. Cdr. Martin N. Chamberlain, executive officer of the U.S.S. Parker reports that "Our squadron was attached to a British command—Flag Officer Western Italy (FOWIT), operating out of Naples. Our assignment was to provide fire support for the Allied troops which were hunkered down in trenches…then to support the British First Army in its advance up the Italian West Coast.

"Operating under British command was quite different but pleasant. They were much more laid back then we and we appreciated the informality. I recall one time being on deck when we were anchored in Naples harbor and watched a local fishing boat approach our gangway. Someone in that boat held up a long pole. The OOD [Officer of the Deck] noticed this, grabbed the pole and removed the paper. It was our orders to get underway and proceed to Anzio. Can you imagine the U.S. Navy doing anything that simple?"

Of lesser consequence was a factor that constitutes one of the dirty little secrets of World War II. It came into play in nearly every major operation of the war. Generals and admirals not directly involved in an invasion would often appear on the scene uninvited, when there was no longer much physical danger, just to pick up another campaign ribbon or battle star—and to view the action as a spectator from a safe distance. Anzio was no exception. Several generals sailed up from Naples in a party that even included "Wild Bill Donovan", head of the O.S.S., the predecessor of the C.I.A. It is not difficult to imagine what an annoyance such visitors constituted to Adm. Lowry and his staff.

When Gen. Lucas finally attempted a breakout on 31 January it was beaten back by the six available German divisions. Lucas had predicted that his head would roll in a basket and this proved to be prophetic. He was replaced by his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Lucien Truscott. But Truscott wasn't able to work a miracle either. Three months later, he finally broke out just as the Gustav Line was being breached. And two days after that, he made contact with Mark Clark's forces. So in the end, Shingle had accomplished little except to serve as a diversionary tactic. However, at long last the push toward Rome was on.

USS Champlin But at least the Germans were not permitted to withdraw gracefully. Enemy encampments north of Anzio at Practica di Mare were mercilessly pounded by five plucky U.S.destroyers, Champlin, Kearny, Kendrick, Mackenzie and Parker. With shore fire-control parties providing coordinates, they rained an incessant barrage of 5-inch rounds on Nazi guns, tanks and troops, giving the enemy no opportunity to either retreat or respond. Each shell was 70 pounds of steel and explosive traveling at 3000 feet per second. Lieutenant Steve Anastasion's matter-of-fact entry in Champlin 's log of 2 June tells the story: "1721: Completed firing shore bombardment having expended 285 rounds. Secured from General Quarters. Proceeded through swept channel at ten knots to Anzio anchorage."

Assigned to evening patrol about four miles offshore in an area believed to be mine-free, the night was uneventful. But at daybreak, Champlin 's lookouts spotted three mines in rapid succession. Each was dispatched by rifle fire, leaving the crew pondering the big "what if" question.

Even after 53 years, the words, "Red Anzio" are indelibly stamped on the minds of the surviving British and American sailors who participated in the ill-starred Anzio operation. These were the code words signifying a call for all gunners, fire-controlmen and ammunition handlers to man their battle stations. "Red Anzio", the cautionary "Yellow Anzio" and "White Anzio" (all clear) were alternately piped dozens of times each day aboard the scores of ships anchored in and patrolling the small harbor of Anzio-Nettuno between the invasion date of 22 January and 24 May 1944 when the operation officially ended.

One day aboard the U.S.S. Champlin, "Red Anzio" was piped five times within a two-hour period. It is difficult to imagine the strain and terror of the call to battle stations. What really shattered the nerves of the sailors at Anzio beachhead was the fact that "Red Anzio", "Yellow Anzio", and "White Anzio" were often sounded in rapid succession, providing little opportunity for sleep or even getting a bite to eat. Still, they got periodic respite through R&R—sometimes even at fashionable Capri. Toward the end of Shingle the atmosphere became so relaxed that the Champlin 's popular Recreation Officer, Ensign Norman Glass, was able to organize a swimming party for the crew off the ship's fantail during an extended period of "White Anzio".

Was a great strategic opportunity lost between 22 January and 1 February 1944? Did nearly 5000 British and American soldiers and sailors die a needless death because of an ill-conceived strategy? How could a nearly flawless naval effort have been allowed to turn into a near-rout on the ground? These are questions that are still being debated after more than a half century. British historians such as Wynford Vaughn-Thomas, author of "Anzio" insist that the area north of Anzio was lightly defended and could easily have been overwhelmed by a swift inland drive. But Field Marshal Kesselring's memoirs (Bis zum Letzen Soldat ) give the lie to these claims. According to his postwar account, the Germans had sufficient reserves in the area to turn any northward offensive into a massacre. One thing is not in doubt. Those who were there would never be able to forget the sheer terror inspired by that feared and angst-ridden command, "Red Anzio, Red Anzio".

Suggested Reading
 
Anzio: Edge of Disaster by William L. Allen.

Anzio: Epic of Bravery by Fred Sheehan.

Anzio 1944: An Unexpected Fury by Peter Verney.

Bis Zum Letzen Soldat, the memoirs of Field Marshal Kesselring.

* * *

Copyright © 2003 Irwin J. Kappes

Written by Irwin Kappes. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Irwin Kappes at:
ijkapp@yahoo.com.

About the author:
Mr. Kappes served in U.S. Navy on destroyers in the Atlantic and Pacific during WWII. He holds an MBA from Boston University and retired after a 32 year advertising career with the Du Pont Company. He was also a retired Vice President with United States Hosiery. He is married and his hobbies include painting, writing, and travel. His hometown is New Castle, PA. and presently living in Tinton Falls, NJ.

Published online: 06/23/2003.
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