The word beachhead when used in a military context defines a shore-based landing zone wrested from an enemy and secured as a route of access to inland targets. The key word invaders have learned often at a high cost over the centuries is secured. During World War II we heard of beachheads being fought for and secured at places called Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, Tarawa in the Gilberts, and a succession of other Japanese strongholds across the Pacific. Much was learned about this highly specialized form of warfare. The costly landing on Makin Island led to our eventual recall of troops and the abandonment of the prize when proved ill-advised and even unnecessary.
From the disastrous Dieppe raid by British Commandos on the French coast in August, 1942 the Allies learned at their cost just how difficult it was to make a successful landing on a defended piece of hostile coast line. Dieppe became a haunting byword for the planners pondering the inevitable invasion of Fortress Europe. For the chance of success, the invading force must have control of the sea, control of the air over the target and its surroundings and the advantage of over-arching surprise. As we were about to learn at an Italian seaport town known as Anzio, the choice of committed leadership of such a mission might be just as important as any of the other factors along with a requirement for up-to-the-minute intelligence.
The allied situation in the closing days of 1943 saw an Italian campaign bogged down after the Salerno landings at the country’s southern tip as American, British and Empire troops found themselves facing determined German resistance after Italy’s rather meaningless surrender. More than ever, Hitler’s forces were bent on denying the taking of Rome. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and British senior commanders drew up plans for a surprise invasion midway between the main line of resistance and Rome to the north, thus circling around the German “Gustav line” and offering a speedy route to the Italian capital. Eisenhower, the only U.S. commander who had the voice to question the timing of such a plan had transferred his command to concentrate solely on the upcoming (and very secret) “Operation Overlord” – the invasion of Europe – leaving the British in charge of operations in Italy. With the direct influence of Churchill, whose predilection for an assault on “the soft underbelly” of Europe was still alive and well, the plan once cancelled, was resurrected. The Brits appointed U.S. Major General John P. Lucas, a veteran of WWI and C.O of the Fifth Army’s VI Corps to lead the invasion of the port city of Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944, in the process “borrowing” assault craft and other resources heading to the Normandy build up.
Lucas was convinced the whole enterprise was looking like a repeat of Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1916 which had nearly brought down the British government and had brought an end to Churchill’s career. (In fact no less a figure than that of George Patton told Lucas “you’re being set up to be the ‘fall guy’ when this thing fails John”.)
Surprisingly the Anzio landing itself (Operation SHINGLE) was a complete surprise to Field Marshal Kesselring and the entire German High Command, and the beachhead objectives had been reached by noontime the 22nd without significant Allied casualties. One nine-mile stretch of beach was found to be defended by a single company. Then the Americans’ worst fears began to come true, leading to four months of some of the most bitter fighting of WWII. On Feb. 22nd, Lucas was replaced by Major General Lucian Truscott just as a major German counter attack began.
It would be easy to blame Lucas in the aftermath of what turned into a costly disaster, for delaying his march inland for four days while consolidating his position on the beachhead and waiting for the Merchant ships and their striking civilian workers to begin landing the needed supplies after already moving almost ten miles beyond the beachhead. Still convinced he was leading a flawed enterprise, under constant air attack and without reliable intelligence on what he faced, the move off the beaches was led by Commando’s, U.S. Army Rangers, paratroopers and other lightly-armed special forces carrying only grenades, bazookas, and short-range weaponry against the most elite of Hitler’s front line soldiers arriving on the scene. As a tragic example of the misuse of “infantry” during the break-out and the assault on the town of Cisterna, out of two battalions of the 4th Rangers and 15th Infantry numbering 767 men, only 6 returned!
German paratroopers prepare for battle during Anzio breakout. German Federal Archive photo
Author’s Notes: I believe the entire undertaking was ill-conceived and that if Eisenhower had still been on the ground, it would never have taken place. Bringing together British, French and American forces who had not fought together before, and then placing them under divided commands inspired confusion at every level. It was left up to Lucas to decide on objectives after landing, and as it turned out his forces were greatly outnumbered. Further, the operation might easily have compromised the secret preparations for OVERLORD. Lessons learned: Elite Special Forces should not be used as regular infantry. Political interests (the taking of Rome) should not determine battlefield strategy. Two Admirals, four Generals plus Churchill’s long shadow! Too many chefs ruin the broth. Finally, planners and top leaders may have erred, but the young fighting men who fought the battle were among the most courageous and hard-hitting of any who paid in blood for final victory in World War II in Europe.
As an eleven-year-old, I was personally touched by Anzio when a young family friend – Jack Mueller – lost his leg there when his jeep hit a land mine. I will never forget sitting proudly with his arm around me during his visit to our home after he returned.