On January 30, 1944, two U.S. Army Ranger Battalions, the 1st, and the 3rd were wiped out in an assault on the German-held town of Cisterna in central Italy. The Germans were aware of their advance and conducted an excellently planned ambush. Only 6 men of the 767 Rangers walked out of Cisterna. This resulted in the Ranger units in the Mediterranean being disbanded.
The Allied invasion of Anzio was an attempt to break the stalemate in Italy. The advance was painfully slow and bloody. The Allies hoped with a “hook” around the German defenses at the Gustav line, they could move on Rome, bypass the main German defensive lines without risking a frontal assault and take the vital airfields around Rome.
American general Mark Clark assigned the job of “Operation Shingle” to Major General John Lucas, with the US VI Corps. It was not a historically wise decision. Lucas was overly cautious and completely pessimistic at the outset of the operation. In his diary, on the eve of his 54th birthday, he wrote, “I am afraid I feel every year of it.” Then of the upcoming operation, he wrote ‘There is no military reason for ‘Shingle’…I feel like a lamb being led to slaughter… I have the bare minimum of ships and craft. The whole affair has a strange odor of Gallipoli and apparently, the same amateur was on the coaches’ bench.”
Nevertheless, the Allied landings on January 22, took the Germans completely by surprise. The landings were unopposed and there were no Germans in the area at all. The road to Rome, and outflanking the Germans holding the Allies at bay at Monte Cassino further south was within easy reach.
By the end of the first day, 90 percent of Lucas’ 50,000-man assault force was ashore with over 3000 vehicles and not a single German was spotted. The beach landing took only 13 casualties (from mines) and yet Lucas acted as if the entire might of the German army was poised to hammer him. Nothing could be further from the truth. The road to Rome lay wide open.
The German commander Field Marshall Albert Kesselring immediately saw that the Allies were content with their beachhead on the 22nd and were content on digging in. But he also knew, he couldn’t have troops to challenge them on either the 23rd or the 24th. Lucas didn’t send out patrols from his initial beachhead until the 24th.
The troops were getting frustrated by the lack of inaction and the knowledge that the Germans wouldn’t stay away much longer. By the time Lucas had 70,000 men, 508 guns and 237 tanks ashore and was ready to begin a tepid advance, the Germans, which they’d done often under Kesselring, had responded and moved up elements of nearly eight divisions into the Anzio area. The element of surprise and the initiative was lost.
Lucas planned a double-pronged attack on the 29th, one British, one American. The American portion of the operation was to take Cisterna on the right flank and cutting Highway 7. The operation was delayed for 24 hours and during that time, the XXVI Panzer Grenadier Division was thrown into the line opposite the Hermann Göring Panzer Division.
The Americans put together a composite force of the 6615th Ranger Force (Provisional) with the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Ranger Battalions, 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion, and the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, commanded by Colonel William O. Darby.
The plan was to have two Ranger Bns, the 1st and 3rd to surprise the Germans by infiltrating what was believed a thinly-held line by moving down a half-filled drainage ditch into the German lines, raid the town and hold it until the main attack, conducted by the 4th Ranger Bn and the 15th Infantry Regiment arrived.
There were several flaws in the plan. First, Lucas had been using his highly-trained, elite raiding force as regular line infantry. Which was a tremendous waste of trained special operators. Their casualties meant that their replacements were green troops who had neither the training or the experience of the men they replaced.
Second, was the failure of American intelligence. The Americans believed that the main line of German resistance was behind Cisterna. That was wrong. In fact, the Germans used the town as an assembly area for its reserve troops and had several units already in the area.
Worse still was the failure to get the word to the attacking troops of this very fact. A group of Polish conscripts defected to the Americans and they all relayed to the Americans about the buildup but no relayed the information to the Rangers in time.
The Battle – Catastrophe:
The Rangers began their infiltration movement at 0130. All was seemingly going well, they bypassed several German positions, wading at times, in the waist-deep canal. They thought they had been undetected but the Germans had seen them and were laying in wait.
When daylight struck, the Rangers were still short of their objective. They were going to exit the ditch and cross the open terrain. But the Germans were ready. Perfectly placed machineguns put the Rangers under withering fire. Rather than attacking a thinly-held part of the line, the two lightly-armed Ranger Battalions were facing elements of the German 715th Infantry Division and the Hermann Göring Panzer Division. The Germans also had 17 MarkIV Panzers concealed in the town.
The murderous machinegun fire forced the Rangers back into the ditches, the German tanks began to move forward, raking the ditches. Major Dobson, the 1st Bn commander, personally knocked out one Panzer by shooting the tank commander with his pistol and then dropping a white phosphorous (WP) inside the hatch. Rangers captured two more Mark IVs but other Rangers with bazookas not realizing this knocked them out.
They never stood a chance. The Germans put several Ranger POWs in front of their tanks and marched them to the ditch. The men had no choice, they surrendered en masse or killed their own men. Of the 767 Rangers who began the operation, only six and one member of the Recon troop made it back to the American lines.
The main attack encountered heavy resistance and took heavy casualties. They were unable to reach their beleaguered comrades in time. Cisterna would remain in German hands until May.
The British attack faired no better. One Regiment, the Sherwood Foresters was to conduct the assault on the town of Campoleone. They were virtually annihilated as a fighting force by heavy German resistance. US General Ernest Harmon of the 1st Armored Division remarked after the battle, that “There were dead bodies everywhere. I have never seen so many bodies in one place. They lay so close that I had to step with care.”
The “hook” delivered at Anzio then was relegated to a powder puff. Lucas was far too timid and against the operation to lead such a daring assault. The men remained static for months, eventually encountering conditions that more resembled WWI than the mobile fighting in Europe in WWII.
Perhaps Winston Churchill summed it up the best. He wrote that instead of “hurling a wild cat on the shores of Anzio” all the Allies got was a “stranded whale.” The remaining Rangers were disbanded and sent as replacements to the joint U.S.-Canadian 1st Special Service Force.
While the overall invasion was considered a success, the Allies failed to capitalize on the advantages they enjoyed on the first two days of the campaign. As a result, it was more of a Pyrrhic victory than anything else. And the Americans lost two battalions of crack troops that could have been well-utilized during the upcoming invasion of Normandy. It was a lesson well-learned…in blood.