Made immeasurably easier by the unimaginative Allied leadership, the Monte Cassino front was well in hand, and German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring could concentrate all available German reserves on crushing the Anzio beachhead. He knew the Allies knew he was building up for a massive counter attack, but he also knew the Allies couldn’t do anything about it. Despite Allied airpower, he could simply unload his trucks and trains faster than they could unload their ships.
When he reviewed the Allied plan for his friend John Lucas in December, the prescient George Patton took one look at the operations map and stated, “As sure as God is good, the Germans will counterattack down that stream,” pointing at the streambed parallel to the Via Anziate that bisected the British in the northwest and the American in the southeastern portion of the beachhead.
On 16 February, 1944, Smiling Al Kesselring did exactly that.
That morning, Kesselring launched all of his available troops at the Anzio beachhead in Operation Fischfang, with two infantry divisions, two Panzergrenadier divisions and one Panzer Division attacking south from the Alban Hills and smashing into the British formations defending the Via Anziate. The Germans easily broke through them and in several other places along the undermanned and overextended lines of the Anzio lodgment. Broken Allied units streamed back to the beach to find a boat or even swim to the safety of the fleet offshore. Within three days, German panzers in some places were attacking into the beachhead defenses that were occupied by the Allies the first day of the invasion three weeks before.
Everything was going as MG John Lucas had foreseen. Despite political pressure to attack, he knew from the moment the VI Corps landed that he didn’t have the troops, nor the shipping, to push inland and simultaneously defend the beachhead from the inevitable massive German counterattack. Every mile he advanced inland added another seven miles to defend. So despite the venom thrown at him by his armchair critics, he chose to build up the beachhead and now it paid off. Because of his foresight, Lucas had one trump card left to stop the German offensive – good old fashioned American firepower. The German attacks were consistently broken up by continuous, accurate, and massed artillery and naval gunfire.
But despite what Ft Sill will tell you, artillery can’t hold ground against even a slightly determined enemy attack, and the Germans were nothing if not determined to drive the Allies into the sea. To hold ground you need infantry, or at least soldiers to act as infantry, however imperfectly, and men and women to lead them. Once the German threat was clear, junior staff officers and NCOs put down their pencils, projector slides, and memos, and instead of heading to the ships, they headed to the front lines.
In one typical (even if the persons involved were atypical) example, an entire brigade of the US 45th Infantry Division, the Thunderbirds of the Oklahoma Army National Guard, broke under the German onslaught and all of the field grade officers in the brigade were either dead, wounded or captured. Colonel William O Darby, the former commander of the 4415th Ranger Force, which was disbanded due to lack of trained replacements after being destroyed in the Battle of Cisterna, worked on the VI Corps staff when he learned of the Thuderbird’s rout. He recognized the threat to the beachhead immediately, and asked for and received command of the defeated brigade. He then went to the replacement depot where the remainder of his rangers were awaiting orders for new units, and then gathered up everyone who would come along. Enroute to the threatened sector, he met the broken and retreating members of his new command and rallied them.
Darby, with the remnant of his new command, his old rangers, raw replacements from the depot, and even his former staff section, halted the German breakthrough in the 45th’s sector.
This scenario, in various sizes, was repeated up and down the line.
The German advance was stopped, in some places within sight of the beach, not by trained infantrymen, but by ad hoc units of British and American supply clerks, typists, mechanics, MPs, sailors, stevedores, truck drivers, engineers, chaplains, radio operators, and cooks, supported by artillerymen firing their guns in direct lay. The most veteran units in the Wehrmacht were fought to a standstill by the rear echelon soldiers of VI Corps. “The Stand of the REMFs” bought Lucas much needed time to organize his own counter attack.
That counterattack would be in form of the VI Corps’ mailed fist: “Old Ironsides”, the US 1st Armored Division, which had finally finished unloading on the morning of the 19th. With the subtlety of a drunken pipe wielding street thug, the 1AD commander MG Ernest Harmon unleashed his iron sided, fire breathing, steel Leviathan directly into the teeth of the German vanguard.
The Germans ceased Operation Fischfang the next day.
Despite Hitler’s continued orders to attack, Kesselring would not launch another operational offensive in Italy for the rest of the war.