|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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".
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:
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.