The Germans were completely surprised as Allied forces swarmed ashore at 2 a.m. Jan. 22, 1944, near the Italian prewar resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno. With almost no opposition, the Anglo-American armies pushed inland and secured a 15-mile stretch of Italian beach.
By midnight combat engineers had cleared mines, laid corduroy roads, bulldozed exits off the beach, and readied the port of Anzio to receive ships loaded down with supplies. Then the Allies made a decision that still is controversial.
Because of stiffened German resistance, an order was given to stop the advance to consolidate and reorganize the invasion forces, a decision that also gave the German High Command time to reinforce its defensive positions. The four-month bloodbath that followed was known as The Battle for Anzio.
When Jack Simpson’s 105mm tracked howitzer crew landed on Anzio Beach, they immediately dug in.
He said, “We dug foxholes right next to the howitzer and covered ourselves with anything we could get our hands on. The Germans shelled us, their planes strafed our positions, snipers tried to pick us off, and spent anti-aircraft shells from our own ships peppered our position on the beach.”
Twenty miles inland and safely hidden behind the Alban Hills, two colossal German railroad guns, Robert and Leopold, rained death and destruction on Allied troops.
Simpson said, “We didn’t know there were two guns, so we nicknamed the behemoths Anzio Annie. She wasn’t a lady, that’s for sure. Imagine a freight train passing over your head. That’s what it sounded like.”
Nighttime offered no letup.
“Parachute flares kept the beach lit up and naval vessels fired all night, but so did the Germans. Our howitzer fired 10 rounds on the half-hour to keep the Germans on their toes. Then, of course, they’d fire back to keep us on our toes. I really don’t know how we maintained our sanity, but we did.”
Death came from land, sea, and air.
“Men would simply disappear in an explosion; so would a ship. We’d watch huge formations of B-17s flying overhead, see the planes hit, catch on fire, then spiral from the sky. The most sickening sight was seeing German fighters machine-gun helpless airmen in their parachutes.”
The Germans poured seasoned soldiers like the 4th Parachuteand crack troops from the Hermann Goering Divisioninto the region. Outside the town of Cisterna, 767 U.S. Army Rangers walked into an enemy ambush staged by units from 36 enemy battalions massing for a counterattack. Only six Rangers made it out.
Heavily reinforced, both sides slugged it out for four months. Eventually the Germans outnumbered the Allies, but Allied naval power and air superiority made the difference.
Simpson said, “We lived through four months of hell. I don’t know how anybody survived.”
The Allied “breakout” came in late May 1944. Simpson’s unit, the 45th Infantry Division, was the first to arrive in Rome.
He said, “The Italians showered us with flowers, kisses, and a whole lot of wine. That was a pleasant change.”