On 22 January 1944, British and American troops of MG John Lucas’ VI Corps landed on a 15 mile stretch of beach between the Italian resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno, 30 miles from Rome and 30 miles behind the Gustav Line and Monte Cassino. VI Corps’ objectives were the Alban Hills along Highway 7 and the town of Cisterna along Highway 6. Their capture would cut off the German defenders to the south. However, priority for the all-important LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank. The ship that would unload supplies and reinforcements after the assault waves cleared the beaches) was to Operation Overlord, the invasion of France from England. Winston Churchill, whose pet project Shingle was, had to threaten American naval logisticians to release the bare minimum of 88 LSTs for the invasion. They were enough to land Lucas’ force, but not enough to reinforce it promptly and keep an expanding beachhead supplied.
When Lucas asked his friend George Patton to look over the plan, Patton solemnly said, “John, there is nobody in the U.S. Army I would less like to see killed than you, but you can’t get out of this alive. Of course, you might get wounded and nobody ever blames a wounded general”.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, MG Lucas did not immediately advance to secure the objectives. He only had two divisions in his assault force, the British 1st and US 3rd, and several attachments: the US 6615 Ranger Force, the US 509th Parachute BN (landing from the sea) and the British Commando BDE. Lucas’ invasion force was not strong enough to secure the beachhead from German counterattack while simultaneously securing his objectives 20 miles away. The battlefield calculus simply did not allow both options. He would be lambasted to this day (probably by some of you reading this) for his decision to build up the beachhead to defeat the inevitable and crushing German counterattack.
Clark admitted later that his only hope for the understrength end run up the Italian boot was to shock the Germans into pulling off of the Gustav Line. This was not an unreasonable assumption, even if it was an inaccurate one. In several previous instances during the campaign, the Germans withdrew from prepared positions after an amphibious end run by the Allies. However, the competent and unflappable German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert “Smiling Al” Kesselring, made it clear he was not going to give up the stout and well-fortified Gustav Line. The Gustav Line took advantage of the only terrain south of Rome that allowed Kesselring the opportunity to block the Allied advance up the peninsula and prevent the capture of the Eternal City. At the Gates of Monte Cassino was where Kesselring planned to stop the Allied advance up the Italian boot.
The Germans were taken completely by surprise by Operation Shingle and there was no resistance to the initial landings. Nonetheless, Kesselring sprang into action. Within an hour of the initial report, reconnaissance units from two German divisions were enroute to the area, and within six hours their divisions’ main bodies were on the move. Kesselring then fell back upon one of the Wehrmachts’ greatest strengths: to operationally move formations from other fronts to troubled areas, which was well honed from fighting on the Russian front. Within two days eight more divisions from as far away as France and the Balkans were converging on the small Anzio beachhead. In five days, there were thirteen German divisions committed to crushing Lucas’ exposed and already overextended beachhead.