The landing at Anzio took place on January 22nd, 1944. The initial hours of the landing were relatively bloodless for the Allies. Yet Anzio was to turn into one of the bloodiest battles fought in Western Europe by the Allies in World War Two.
The Allied advance up the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe had not been as easy as many had predicted. The speed with which the Allies had captured Sicily gave a false impression as to how difficult it would be to conquer mainland Italy. To hinder the Allied advance north up Italy, the Germans had built the Gustav Line in the Appennine Mountains where any attack on the Line would have been severely restricted by the simple geography where the Line had been built. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring had been given command of all German forces in Italy.
The Allies developed a plan that was meant to have led to the collapse of the Gustav Line as a major block to the Allies advance. This was for a very large amphibious landing at Anzio (which was 55 miles north of the Gustav Line) combined with a major attack by the Allies on the Gustav Line itself. With such a two-pronged attack, the Allies believed that the Germans would not know where to place their men and in the confusion that would ensue, the Allied attack on the Gustav Line would be a success. The troops involved in this attack would then advance north, meet up with the troops who had landed at Anzio and then both would advance to Rome. The capture of Rome would be symbolic to the Allies as it was the capital city and it would further spell the end of Nazism in Europe. That was the plan.
The actual landings at Anzio and Nettuno beaches were spectacular successes. Twenty-four hours after the landing, the Allies had hoped to be four miles inland along a fifteen mile belt. They had achieved this goal by noon on the 22nd January. By the end of the day, 36,000 men had been landed with 3,200 vehicles. The Allies had suffered just 13 killed, 97 wounded and 44 missing. The US 36th Engineer Combat Regiment had already laid ‘roads’ to facilitate the movement of vehicles and air attacks had all but cleared away any threat from the Luftwaffe. The port of Anzio was readied to receive large landing craft.
By any standards the landings at Anzio and Nettuno were resounding successes. Probably the main reason for this was that the landing was in January and the German commanders in the area had been assured by OKW that no amphibious landing could ever take place in the area in January and February. As a result of this belief, the Germans had even moved men from the Anzio area to reinforce the Gustav Line leaving a nine-mile stretch of beach defended by just one company. The Rangers, paratroopers and commandos who landed at Anzio probably could not believe their luck.
However, the Allies attempt to break out of the beachhead met with stiffer opposition. By January 25th, the Germans had started to organise themselves so that they could mount an effective defence against the Allies. This opposition became far more effective and by January 29th, the Allies took the decision to halt the drive out of the beachhead and to consolidate and reorganise their forces near the beachhead. By February 1st, 1944, the dock facilities in Anzio were in full use and the total number of men in the beachhead by the start of February numbered just over 61,000, nearing twice that of Day 1 – hence the need for a planned reorganisation of forces.
However, the Allies were experiencing stern opposition from the Luftwaffe. The German Air Force had played a minimal part in the landing on January 22nd, but it was now harassing the Allies at sea on a regular basis, sinking one destroyer and a hospital ship.
Kesselring, despite the statements from OKW, had always feared an attack in the Anzio region. On hearing that the Allies had landed there, he ordered men from the 4th Parachute and Hermann Goering Divisions to Anzio. Both had been based in Rome. They were tasked with stopping the Allies moving north out of Anzio. Hitler had also ordered units based in Yugoslavia and France to the region. A counter-attack on the Allies at Anzio was ordered for January 28th, though this was postponed until February 1st to allow for further reinforcements to arrive. By the end of January, the Germans had nearly 70,000 soldiers near Anzio with more speeding to the area.
The only way out for the Allies at Anzio was to make a concerted breakout that was sustained. This breakout was to be combined with another all out assault on the Gustav Line by Allied forces in the south. The breakout from Anzio was to be initially spearheaded by three Ranger battalions – the 1st, 3rd and 4th – and their target was the village of Cisterna. Unknown to the Americans, 36 German battalions had gathered around Cisterna in preparation for their counter-attack against the Allies at Anzio. The nighttime movements of the Rangers had been seen by the Germans who waited until dawn for their attack. The Ranger units faced enormous odds including armoured units from the Hermann Goering Division. Not being equipped to fight off armoured vehicles, the Rangers attempted a withdrawal but men in the 1st and 3rd battalions took fearful casualties – of 767 men, only 6 returned to the Allied lines.
By February 2nd, the breakout had failed and Allied forces were ordered to dig in as intelligence reports had clearly indicated a massive German counter-attack. To buoy up Allied forces already in Anzio, military commanders ordered more men and equipment be sent there so that by February 4th, 100,000 Allied soldiers were based in the Anzio region. On paper, the German 14th Army that faced the Allies was larger. But it had had its preparation hindered by accurate attacks by Allied bombers so that the force itself was short of the most basic equipment such as ammunition.
The expected German counter-attack started with an artillery barrage on February 3rd that lasted into February 4th. However, when the Germans attacked they found that the terrain that had done little to assist the Allies in the previous days did little to help them. In particular, the boggy and undulating terrain greatly hindered any movement forward of armoured vehicles. The Germans found it as difficult to advance as the Allies had done and the battle became one of attrition where gains made were measured in just hundreds of yards as opposed to miles. The Allies had to form a strong defence point as the beach, and the huge problems that an evacuation would cause, precluded any more withdrawals.
The Germans renewed their attack on February 7th, but invariably any German advance was made with heavy casualties as was true of any Allied counter-attack. However, on February 16th, the Germans did punch a major hole in the British defence, which threatened the whole Allied line. A complete collapse was only averted by a massive aerial attack by the XII Tactical Air Command that flew 730 ground support sorties in support of Allied troops on the ground – the number of planes used and the number of bombs dropped was the largest ever up to D-Day in June 1944. It was Allied superiority in the air that was the key for the Allies at Anzio. The Germans had no way of countering this and such superiority allowed the Allies on the ground to consolidate their forces so that by February 20th, it seemed clear that the German counter-attack had petered out. The German counter-attack had cost over 5,300 German casualties, nearly 5% of the total number of German soldiers in the Anzio region. There were just under 3,500 Allied casualties, about 4% of the total troops there.
On February 29th, the Germans renewed their attack targeting the US 3rd Division. However, the Americans had anticipated that the 3rd Division might be a target and had suitably reinforced the men there – especially with artillery. When the Germans attacked, they were met with a massive American artillery bombardment – 66,000 shells being fired on February 29th alone. The German attack on the American positions continued until March 4th when it was ended without the Germans gaining what they had set out to achieve -once again, the Germans had taken heavy casualties, not only in terms of manpower but also in equipment.
Following this German attack, there was a three months lull in fighting. Both Allied and German forces had taken heavy casualties and both sides were exhausted. The time was spent reinforcing manpower in the area. The Anzio area resembled something from World War One. Trench systems were dug throughout the area and the greatest danger to the Allied forces was shrapnel from German artillery shells – accounting for 87% of all casualties in March. Everyone knew that the lull would not last and that a German attack was expected at some time. The Allies decided to counter this threat.
On May 11th, 1944, the Allies started another attack on the Gustav Line. After previous failures, this attack was a success and the Allies broke through the Line on May 15th. From here they raced to Anzio but met little German resistance as many German soldiers had been withdrawn to Rome. This advance was combined with another attempt by the Allies to breakout of Anzio. This attempt started on May 23rd. By May 25th, it was apparent that the breakout was a success when men from the Anzio beachhead met up with forces that had broken through the Gustav Line. The combined force advanced on Rome. The capital was liberated on June 4th. After the fall of the Gustav Line, German troops appeared to be in disarray with lack of supplies a constant problem.
The Anzio landing proved to be costly in terms of men lost. The Allies lost in combat over 29,000 men with 4,400 killed. Non-combat casualties totalled 37,000. The Germans lost 27,000 men with 5,500 killed.