Cleaveland: Anniversary of 1944 Anzio campaign is often overlooked

Cleaveland: Anniversary of 1944 Anzio campaign is often overlooked

February 10th, 2019 by Dr. Clif Cleaveland in Opinion Columns

Seventy-five years ago, on Jan. 22, 1944, the Battle of Anzio (code-named "Operation Shingle") began with the amphibious landing of U.S. and British soldiers along a narrow strip of Italy's west coast near the town of Anzio. By the end of the first day, 27,000 American and 9,000 British soldiers were ashore along with 3,000 vehicles and artillery. The resulting campaign would end on June 5 with the unopposed capture of Rome.

The Allied invasion of Italy from the south had stalled. Despite the surrender of Italian forces in October 1943, a powerful German army continued to fight.

Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Planners thought a surprise attack at Anzio and an eastward drive across the Italian peninsula would isolate German forces further south and lead to their surrender or defeat. The German command did not learn of the Anzio landing for several hours. The German response was swift with reinforcements soon occupying the hills surrounding the landing zone.

Allied forces steadily increased to more than 92,000, squeezed into a rectangular space measuring roughly seven by 15 miles. Much of the area was reclaimed marshland. Destruction by German forces of drainage pumps led to progressive flooding of large areas. Foxholes quickly became mired in mud. Constant cold and wet conditions led to numerous cases of respiratory infection.

The encircled Allied forces endured relentless shelling from the hills and frequent air attacks.

Efforts to break through the German lines failed with high casualties. German efforts to crush the invaders failed as Allied forces refused to surrender, despite their deteriorating circumstances.

The Anzio campaign saw the first extended action of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen. Flying P-40 Tomahawk fighters, the squadron downed 12 German aircraft and damaged seven others in combat on Jan. 27 and 28.

Penicillin first became available in February to treat wounds and venereal disease.

Command of the skies and increasing Allied forces, tanks, and artillery finally led to a breakout from the encirclement.

By the conclusion of the campaign, Allied forces numbered 150,000. Allied losses included 7,000 killed, 36,000 wounded, captured, or missing. Ninety-six sailors, clinical staff and patients died in the sinking of the British Hospital Ship St. David on Jan. 24. Nurses, doctors and patients died in an air attack on a U.S. Evacuation Hospital on Feb. 7.

Each casualty had a name, a family and friends and dreams of a future.

Disagreements among Allied commanders persisted from invasion through the capture of Rome. Gen. Mark Clark, overall commander of U.S. forces in Italy, replaced Gen. John Lucas, commander of Allied forces at Anzio on Feb. 22 for failing to launch an immediate drive eastward from the landing zone. Gen. Lucas contended that he lacked the forces for such an attack. Post-war analysts sided with Lucas.

Later in the campaign, when Allied forces were close to sealing German forces in southern Italy, Gen. Clark disobeyed orders and diverted U.S. forces toward Rome where he led a column of soldiers in a triumphant entry into the unguarded city on June 5. The diversion allowed a large contingent of German forces to escape into northern Italy where they continued to fight until war's end.

Despite conflicts among their senior commanders, U.S. and British soldiers displayed incredible courage and tenacity in the Anzio campaign. If ordered to attack against dug-in positions, they did so. If faced with attack by German infantry and tanks, they held onto their precarious beachhead. In recounting their battles, we honor their devotion to duty and to each other.

The "Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944" by Rick Atkinson provides a superb narrative, detailing tactics, commanders and the men who each day carried the burdens of battle.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at ccleaveland@timesfreepress.com.

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