Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Anzio Beachhead museum. Opened in January 1994, in the 50th Anniversary of the Allied landings, the Anzio Beachhead Museum is hosted at the ground floor of Villa Adele, a 17th Century mansion house located at Anzio, 57 kilometers to the SW of Rome. The Museum, made by voluntary and no-profit members is diveded into four sectors (American, British, German and Italian), contains exhibits with authentic uniforms, patches, badges, documents, pictures, articles, etc all generously donated by other Museums and by Veterans’ Associations and, of course, veterans and their families. Many exhibits come from sea in front Anzio where remains of aircraft, war and merchant ships, landing craft are still lying at various depths: many of these wrecks still have the crew on board, like the H.M.S Spartan, H.M.S. Janus and the Hospital ship St. David.
But what about the battle?
The Allied amphibious landing in the coastline area between Anzio and Nettuno, Italy, dubbed “Operation Shingle” was intended to outflank German forces and enable an attack on Rome. Towards the end of 1943, Allied forces that had invaded Italy were blocked at the Gustav Line, the main line of fortification which ran across Italy from north of the Garigliano River outlet in the Tyrrhenian Sea to the mouth of the Sangro River on the Adriatic coast in the east. The Germans, headed by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring had found the terrain of central Italy ideal to provide a natural defense of the most important strategic target: Rome. In order to break the defensive line, many proposals were made, the most important of which was Winston Churchill’s “Operation Shingle”. The idea behind the amphibious operation was that a major attack from the south by the Fifth Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Mark W. Clark would push the Germany’s forces away from the area around Rome and from the hills between Rome and the coast a condition that would create the perfect scenario for a surprise landing in the Anzio and Nettuno area. The beachhead would prelude to a quick advance to cut the German communication lines and to capture of Rome. The Southern attack was performed by the Fifth Army’s on the Gustav Line on Jan. 16, 1944, at Monte Cassino. As a result of the attack, Gen. Heinrich von Vietinghoff, commanding the Gustav Line, asked for reinforcements, and Kesselring transferred the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions from Rome. The door was open.
Fifth Army’s U.S. VI Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas could land on the beaches of Nettuno and Anzio to secure a beachhead in the vicinity of Anzio to advance and secure Colli Laziali in the outskirts of Rome and to prepare the advance on Rome. Allied forces involved in the attack consisted of 5 cruisers, 24 destroyers, 238 landing craft, 62+ other ships, 40,000 soldiers, and 5,000+ vehicles. The landing took place on Jan. 22, 1944. Initially the Allied Forces did not find any opposition and were able to penetrate a few kilometers inland. Even if Lucas’s superiors expected an aggressive offensive action from him and a quick run towards Rome, he stregthened the defenses around the beachhead and did not advance. This represents a most controversial decision in the history of Operation Shingle since, according to many historians, Lucas (that was later replaced) exposed his forces to risks without imposing any on the enemy. In fact, the Axis forces’ reaction was quite rapid: even if Kesselering did not expect the landing to take place in that way, he had prepared a series of contingency plans; in a few days Anzio area was surrounded by three divisions that outnumbered the two Allied ones. The most detailed analysis of the Anzio beachhead and subsequent offensive actions and counterattacks I found was in an Osprey Publishing book: Anzio 1944. Osprey is an independent England-based book publisher specializing in military history, that runs several military and aviation series. Every book contains everything I and many other military experts or enthusiasts look for: data, diagrams, maps and pictures. The “Anzio 1944” (Paperback; August 2005; 96 pages; ISBN: 9781841769134) analyzes the questionable decisions by the Allied leadership that led to three months of World War I-style trench warfare, and provides the chronology of the operations, a description of the opposing plans, forces and commander, the in-depth description of the whole campaing and a “picture” of how the battlefield appears today. I suggest you reading this book to fully understand how the the beachhead survived three violent attacks in February 1944, the largest German counter-attacks in the west until the Ardennes offensive ten months later. By March, Anzio had degenerated into an agonizing stalemate. Operation Diadem (which was later to be called the fourth Battle of Cassino), intended to trap the bulk of the German Tenth Army between the Allied forces advancing through the Gustav Line and VI Corps thrusting inland from Anzio, had the aim to fully engage Kesselring’s armies with a major offensive preventing Germans withdrawing forces from Italy to redeploy elsewhere. However because of another controversial decision made by Gen. Clark Operation Diadem (that cost U.S. 5th and British 8th Armies 44.000 casualties) failed in its objective of destroying the German 10th Army and enabled the Allied to enter Rome on Jun. 4, 1944. As Steven J. Zaloga, author of the Osprey’s “Anzio 1944” commented: “Ironically, an operation that had been launched to redeem the Gustav line operation in the end depended on a successful conclusion of the Cassino breakthrough before the bridgehead could be exploited. To further add to the controversy of the operation, Gen Mark Clark decided to focus the advance out of Anzio in the direction of Rome rather than eastward to trap the German forces retreating from the Cassino sector. Rome fell to the Allies on 4 June 1944, but it was a bitter victory that was quickly forgotten when the main Allied campaign opened in Normandy two days later”.