by Austin Bay
February 12, 2014
The high-risk, high-payoff battle plan of "the Anzio idea" tantalized U.S. and British commanders seeking to end the bloody January 1944 stalemate in Italy.
The complex operation could be summarized with deceptive simplicity. First, punch Monte Cassino, the fortified gut of the Nazi's western Gustav Line. Hit the sector hard, with aerial bombardment and artillery barrage. Then rush veteran British and American infantry across the Garigliano, Rapido and Liri Rivers to assault the German front. When the panzer reserve counter-attacks, throw a sea-borne left hook deep in the German rear. For maximum psychological effect, land the amphibious end-around just southwest of Rome, on the beaches around the resort town of Anzio.
However, when executed, the "Anzio idea" produced an ugly reality. British infantry attacked on Jan. 17 and made gains along the Garigliano. However, on Jan. 18, concealed German artillery and machine guns shredded the U.S. 36th Infantry Division (Texas Division) as its GI's dragged assault boats and bridging gear across a wide plain toward the Rapido River. German observers in the mountains had the 36th's assault battalions under constant surveillance.
German armor reserves did react to the Monte Cassino attack; the Allied generals got that right. Two panzer grenadier divisions left positions near Rome and counter-attacked the British salient on Jan. 20. Allied forces landed at Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944, and met little initial resistance. Jeeps reconned a Roman suburb. However, the bulk of Anzio force remained near the seaport, consolidating the beachhead. Then German tanks and infantry occupied positions in the hills east of Anzio.
The grenadier divisions blunted the British penetration. Panzers surrounded Anzio as German artillery pounded the beach and port.
The tandem Anzio and Monte Cassino operations were supposed to break the Italian stalemate. But mid-February 1944 found the Anzio force isolated and in danger of being destroyed. The U.S. corps commander at Anzio was relieved of his command. He argued he had too few troops to protect the beachhead and strike inland. But that was one of the operation's complex risks. The Anzio idea relied on surprise and quick movement. The invasion got what units were available; it did not have the forces the mission actually required.
Instead of high payoff, the January '44's high-risk assaults produced high casualties, with gains measured in graveyards, not miles. Indeed, that had been the Allied experience on the Italian peninsula beginning with Salerno in September 1943.
Winston Churchill dubbed Italy Europe's soft underbelly. The difficult battles in October and November 1943, as Allied forces inched "up the Italian Boot," demonstrated that the Prime Minister was dead wrong. German infantry knew how to lace Italy's mountains and volcanic ridges with barbed wire and mines. As the Rapido fiasco demonstrated, German artillery could quickly turn the alluvial plains and marshes bordering Italy's mountain rivers into kill zones.
No one could fault the 36th's citizen soldiers for the Rapido defeat. Even before Rapido, the 36th had a reputation for resilience, sacrificial effort and the ability to fight despite sustaining heavy casualties. In December 1943, the 36th Infantry Division, reinforced by the 504th Parachute Regiment (82nd Airborne Division) had endured grievous losses in the Battle of San Pietro as the division cracked the German defense on Monte Sammucro. U.S. Army captain (and Hollywood great) John Huston would later make the 36th and the sad village San Pietro the subjects of one of the war's most poignant and gritty documentary movies. Thirty-sixth Division Capt. Henry Waskow was killed in action at San Pietro. War correspondent Ernie Pyle memorialized the young officer in one of the greatest pieces of war literature ever written: a dispatch entitled "The Death of Captain Waskow."
The 36th could handle tough combat. The Rapido, however, was an utter disaster, one so bitter that division veterans and the Texas legislature would condemn it as a "murderous blunder" and "one of the most colossal blunders of the Second World War." The Texans blamed U.S. Army Fifth Army commander Gen. Mark Clark. Seventy years after Rapido, surviving division vets still bristle when they hear the name "Mark Clark."