On this date, 1944, Allied forces in World War II launched Operation Shingle, an amphibious assault near Anzio, Italy. This was the beginning of what would come to be called the Battle of Anzio. The amphibious assault was designed to outflank the German "Winter Line", which was a series of difficult to penetrate defensive fortifications making excellent use of the rugged terrain of central Italy. Fortified by concrete bunkers, gun pits, barbed wire, minefields and hinged upon the almost-impregnable fortress of Monte Cassino, the Allies had been stalled out in front of the Winter Line for nearly a year. Field Marshall Kesselring (Luftwaffe), was more than adequately fulfilling his responsibilities of holding down Allied units and defending Rome and the Southern approaches to the Reich.
About 15 German divisions were employed in defending the Winter Line.
Initally, the Americans were extremely resistant to the idea of an amphibious end run around the Winter Line and amphibious assault on Anzio. The American and British high commands were at frequent loggerheads over what the Americans deemed the British undue infatuation with the Mediterranean and the "soft underbelly" of Europe, and what the British deemed the inflexible concentration by Americans on a French landing. Of particular concern to Americans in launching this operation was the consumption and concentration of extremely scarce landing craft that would be needed for D-Day in France.
Eventually, a direct appeal by Churchill to President Roosevelt and Marshall Stalin was accepted, and the operation approved. Churchill argued, successfully, that the operation, if successful, would (1) help relieve pressure on Russia prior to the formal opening of a "second front' in France, and (2) force the Germans to commit additional forces to Italy prior to D-Day.
The strategy was clear. Force Kesselring to weaken the Winter Line to respond to the Anzio beachhead, or continue to defend the Winter Line and risk the loss of Anzio and then Rome, and the cutting off of German forces at the Winter Line.
From the start, however, American commanders in Italy, notably Mark Clark, were concerned that the force allotted to the task was too small, and that the operation would stalemate. The key to this problem was the shortage of landing vessels. The scale of this problem is realized when one understands that amphibious assaults are typically one-way missions. It is extremely hard to extract forces under fire from a beachhead.
Conceived and executed as an attack by a single corp, Generals Clark and Lucas envisioned this as a task more appropriate for two corps, or even a full army.
The initial landings were unopposed, and approximately 36,000 men landed with nary but some Luftwaffe strafing runs to deal with. Within a day, the Americans had moved 2-3 miles inland, captured the port, and began fortifying the tiny bridgehead and pouring in materials. This was contrary to General Lucas's superior's expectations, however. They had envisioned a quick and vigorous offensive assault at the rear of the Winter Line.
Winston Churchill, known for memorable phrases, is reported to have said: "I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale"
While Lucas's actions could be read as permitted under his orders, and he was outnumbered in the region by German divisions, historians have generally sided against him. By doing nothing but sitting down and defending, he exposed his troops to tremendous risks without causing any considerable difficulties to the German forces in the area.
Masterful defensive tactician Kesselring was prepared. He had already made contingency plans to react to amphibious assaults. His rapid response units quickly moved to interpose themselves, while additional reinforcements were lined up. His request to OKW (German High Command) was granted, and he received three additioanl divisions transferred from other, quieter, fronts, and three operational reserve divisions in Italy under OKW command were released to him.
Three days after the landings, the beachhead was surrounded by three German divisions, including the vaunted Hermann Goering Division.
By January 30th, American reinforcements had placed over 60,000 soldiers into the beachhead. The Germans, building up rapidly and overland, had over 70,000 to defend the line. Lucas attacked first. A two pronged attack gained several miles of territory, but failed to obtain the strategic results he had hoped.
By February 3, the defending Germans, now consistuted as the 14th Army under General von Mackensen, had over 100,000 troops, and launched an attack to liquidate the salient created by the earlier Allied offensive. By February 10th, after fierce fighting, the Allies had lost the salient. A poorly coordinated Allied attack was repulsed, and on February 16th launched a concerted attack to liquidate the beachhead and hurl the Allies back into the sea. By February 18, the Allies were more or less back within the defensive perimeter they had initially created on the day after the landing. The assault petered out as a result of exhaustion.
On February 22nd, Clark, operating under pressure from his own commander, British Marshall Alexander as well as Churchill, ordered Lucas replaced by General Truscott. Lucas's perceived lack of drive and negative view of the operation had finally resulted in his dismissal. Kesselring, in his Memoirs, would note that the original landing force was badly flawed, lacking armor, and would have died had it over-extended itself. Alexander, in his official report months later, would state that the final result was probably the best result that could have been achieved.
The Germans and Allies, accepting that the weather and tactical situation would not permit a decisive breakthrough by either, more or less sat down to await spring. Meanwhile, Truscott planned for a breakthrough to be timed to coordinate with Alexander's Operation Diadem, a massive assault all along the Gustav Line (the main line of the Winter line).
By late May, the beachhead consisted of 150,000 allied troops, including 5 US and 2 British divisions. Opposite them were 5 German divisions in well prepared entrenchments. The German divisions by this point, however, were not operating at high efficiency, with shortages of officers and NCOs.
On May 23rd, Truscott's assault began with 1,500 artillery pieces, a timed aerial bombardment, and the advancement of his troops. Initial fighting was severe, with over 100 US tanks lost in the first day of the breakout. The US Third Division suffered 955 casualties, the mos tin a single day of any division in the US army in the entire war.
His assault was going well and the goal of the attack, to cut off the entire German 10th Army, appeared within reach when Clark ordered Truscott to take a hard left turn and drive for Rome. Truscott bitterly resented this order, but was uanble to contact Clark and regretfully implemented it.
By June 2nd, the entire German line had collapsed. Hitler, who apparently was not completely incapable of learning from his mistakes (i.e. Stalingrad), ordered the German 14th Army not to hold Rome at all costs.
Clark's incomprehensible order had cost the Allies the chance to cut off 7 German divisons from retreating through Italy to reform further north and stall American advances for the remainder of the war.