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Churchill’s Blunder: Anzio

Of all the many tragedies that arose from the Allied campaign in Italy, the most important one was that it lacked an overall strategic plan. Fourteenth Army Group commander Gen. Sir Harold Alexander was temperamentally incapable of imposing his will on his subordinates and intellectually incapable of developing a strategic plan of operations (something he never did in the war). Even so, the fault was not entirely his. His superior, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who in the span of seventeen months starting in September 1941 had risen from obscure colonel to four-star theater commander, was still on the rising slope of the supreme command learning curve. Eisenhower indecisively allowed the Italian campaign to drift before being appointed supreme commander of Overlord in December 1943. Eisenhower’s successor in January 1944 was British General Sir Harold Maitland Wilson, an amiable, politically savvy general, but no strategic genius either.

“This whole affair had a strong odor of Gallipoli and apparently the same amateur was still on the coach’s bench.”

—Maj. Gen. John Lucas, commander U.S. 6th Corps, diary entry, Jan. 10, 1944

The geography of Italy made it obvious that amphibious assaults were the most logical flanking maneuvers and a variety of plans had been put forth. The British Eighth Army, advancing up the Italian east coast, had launched a minor one at Termoli on October 3, 1943. On the Italian west coast the most promising beachhead site was at Anzio and Nettuno.

Sherman Tanks

Sherman tanks disembark from a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) in the harbor at Anzio, Italy. The shortage of available landing craft almost canceled Operation Shingle, until Prime Minister Winston Churchill got involved. U.S. Army photo

Operation Shingle was originally conceived as a one-division assault; later expanded to two divisions (one American, one British, plus the Special Service Force and the Ranger Force). Its goal was to help turn the German Gustav Line and open the way to Rome, the ultimate objective. The key for Anzio’s success lay with the American Fifth Army breaking the Gustav Line and quickly linking with the Anzio troops. For a variety of military reasons, particularly the difficulty in guaranteeing sufficient available landing craft, on Dec. 18, 1943, American Fifth Army commander Lt. Gen. Mark Clark cancelled it. One day later, like a phoenix emerging from the still warm ashes, Shingle had risen and was made a go. The reason was Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had thrown the full weight of his considerable personality behind Shingle.

One day later, like a phoenix emerging from the still warm ashes, Shingle had risen and was made a go. The reason was Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had thrown the full weight of his considerable personality behind Shingle.

Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician, wrote in his diary how Shingle energized Churchill who was recovering from pneumonia in Tunis, “The C.I.G.S. is in England, but the P.M. has a bright idea. He is organizing an operation all on his own. He has decided that it should be a landing behind the lines at Anzio. If the Chiefs of Staff are not available, there are plenty of lesser fry to work out the details. . . . Alex too is sympathetic. He sees that the Italian campaign may receive a great fillip. Why, it may even shorten the whole war. The P.M. has become absorbed . . . [and] seems not only to direct the policy of war, he even plans the details.”

Operation Shingle

German Fallschirmjägers wheel a Pak 36 anti-tank gun toward the Anzio beachhead, ca. 1944. The quick German response led to the Allies in Anzio be dubbed as part of “the largest self-supporting prisoner of war camp in the world,” by German propagandist Axis Sally. Bundesarchive photo

Free of the restraining hand of C.I.G.S. Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, the only man in the British camp possessing sufficient backbone and authority to thwart Churchill, the prime minister overwhelmed Wilson and Alexander, secured sufficient landing craft, and swept aside all opposition. Churchill literally became Shingle’s commanding general. As historian Carlo d’Este wrote in Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome, “To suggest that [Churchill] reveled in this role would be to understate the truth.” Unfortunately, as more than one colleague had observed, Churchill’s “judgment was not quite equal to his abilities.”

Unfortunately, as more than one colleague had observed, Churchill’s “judgment was not quite equal to his abilities.”

On January 22, 1944, the Allies landed virtually unopposed at Anzio and Nettuno. Alexander wanted Lucas to advance and secure the nearby Alban Heights. But Clark, recalling his near disaster at Salerno, at the last minute told Lucas, “Don’t stick your neck out, Johnny. I did at Salerno and got into trouble.” With forces insufficient to seize and hold both the Alban Heights and the beachhead, Lucas chose to stay in Anzio. The Germans quickly surrounded the beachhead, turning Anzio into, as radio propagandist Axis Sally called it, “the largest self-supporting prisoner of war camp in the world.”

M7 Priest

A British M7 Priest fires a 105 mm shell toward German positions surrounding the Anzio beachhead, Jan. 31, 1944. Allied failure to secure the Alban Heights led to failure. Imperial War Museum photo

In a letter to Soviet premier Josef Stalin on June 5, 1944, the day Rome was liberated, Churchill defended his decision, writing, “Although the amphibious landing at Anzio and Nettuno did not immediately fructify as I had hoped when it was planned, it was a correct strategic move and brought its reward in the end.” But historian Martin Blumenson, who served in the U.S. Seventh and Third armies in World War II, dismisses that notion. In his book Anzio: The Gamble that Failed he wrote, “The trouble with Anzio was the extent of the gamble. . . . From a sane military viewpoint, Anzio was impractical. Only an amateur would have pushed for its execution. And all the brilliance of the concept could not compensate for the deficiencies in the details.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...