Happy Monday, and welcome to the bi-weekly RedState Department of History. Today, we’re marking the 73rd anniversary of one of World War II’s bigger events — the Allied invasion at Anzio, Italy.
The Allies had found the going slow as they attempted to move up the Italian mainland toward Rome. After the successful capture of Sicily, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged an attack against the “soft underbelly of the crocodile”, meaning Italy, which turned out to be anything but soft.
That was due to the mountains that run down the center of the Italian mainland. They made movement difficult and the narrow width of the country made it possible for the German defenders to hold defensive lines that stretched from coast to coast. In short, it was wonderful defensive terrain, and the only way to outflank the Germans who had moved south to defend the territory of their Italian allies was through amphibious landings.
After the failure to capture Monte Cassino by direct assault on January 17, troops under the command of Major General John Lucas did just that — landing at Anzio, southeast of Rome, in an attempt to outflank the Germans’ Gustav Line, which included Cassino.
The Allies land at Anzio. Where is everybody? (ww2today.com)
For the operation to succeed, surprise was essential. Lucas certainly had it — the Allies lost only 13 men killed during the whole of the landing day — but Lucas’ superior, Fifth Army Commander Mark Clark, expected direct action from the newly-landed troops.
Lucas didn’t provide it. He didn’t feel his force was strong enough for offensive action, so he dug in, leading to a battle of attrition which lasted until May. No one was angrier than Churchill, who famously declared “I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.”
That said, the defenders had a rather massive advantage, even if it came in the form of one weapon – the 215-ton Krupp K5 railroad gun. Of course, it didn’t shoot railroads — from the point of view of many Allied soldiers, though, it would have been better if it had — but each of this monster’s 283 mm (11.1 inch) shells weighed 562 pounds and the gun could fire one of them every four minutes for distances up to forty miles.
One of these guns was known popularly as “Anzio Annie”, and British soldiers in its vicinity would walk in a reflexively stooped-over position when under its fire — a condition known as the “Anzio crouch”.
This would make me not only crouch, but hide.
A German K5 railroad gun known as “Anzio Annie”. (Flickr)
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the static warfare eventually told on the soldiers. A 1944 Life magazine article quoted American soldier William P. Chirolas with a laundry list of complaints as his company mates exercised the “soldier’s right”:
Dextrose tablets — taste terrible, almost invariably thrown away; Barbasol — they don’t like brushless shaving cream, say it sticks in the razor; Fleetwood cigarettes — typical of the cheap cigarettes that come in the K rations; processed American cheese — gets very tiresome when eaten day after day. . . .”
And to make matters worse, even the cigarettes weren’t any good:
“The men complain that the cheap [cigarette] brands are distributed just to please the manufacturers who want to keep their trade names going, and that the good brands are taken by the ‘Rear Echelon Boys’ before they reach the front.”
Eventually, the Allies broke the Gustav Line and the Americans at Anzio, instead of trying to cut off the Germans retreating from Cassino, struck west for Rome on Clark’s direct orders. Two days before D-Day in France — on June 4, 1944, the Italian capital fell to Allied troops. The Anzio battle was declared over the next day, at a cost of over 80,000 casualties, half Allied, including 7,000 dead.
In 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the battle, Life magazine published a series of photos, some never before published or seen, from the battle. You can see them here. In the meantime, enjoy today’s open thread!