On 3 September 1943, General Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army landed at the Italian toe, forcing the surrender of the Italian army. Six days later, American forces under Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark landed at Salerno approximately 30 miles south of Naples. General Albert Kesselring retired his German forces to a position north of Naples known as the Gustav Line. This formidable defensive position took advantage of the Apennine Mountains as well as the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers. The line's western end, closer to Rome, was anchored by the impressive mountain abbey of Monte Cassino. Four separate attempts to break the German line failed as the Allies could not fully employ the Germans' overwhelming naval, armor, and air advantages in the rocky terrain of central Italy.
The failure of frontal assaults on the Gustav Line led to Allied plans for an amphibious operation near the town of Anzio on the Tyrrhenian Sea approximately halfway between the Gustav Line and Rome. Anzio had excellent beaches and was near the main highway that connected the Italian capital to the Gustav Line. A successful amphibious attack there could force the Germans to abandon the Gustav Line and surrender Rome. It might also dislodge Germany from all of Italy.
The Anzio assault was British in conception but chiefly American in execution. Most Americans, including operational commander Major General John Lucas, were not optimistic about the assault's chances. Churchill appealed personally to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep sufficient shipping in the Mediterranean to make the assault possible and to increase troop strength from 24,000 to 100,000 men. The timing for Anzio had to be moved forward in order that the landing craft might then be sent to England for overlord rehearsals.
Even though Lucas believed his men were not ready, the landing went ahead as scheduled on 22 January 1944. The Americans achieved tactical surprise and met little resistance. By midnight, 36,000 men and 3,200 vehicles were ashore at the cost of only 13 Allied dead.
Because of the hurried and muddled planning, American leaders had only prepared for a fight on the beaches. Once troops were ashore, confusion reigned. The Americans made no effort to seize the Alban Hills overlooking Anzio. Lucas apparently assumed that Clark, once he had broken the Gustav Line, would move north and take the hills. Clark, for his part, seems to have counted on Lucas to seize the hills and thus divert German resources away from the Gustav Line. In any case, the delay allowed Kesselring to move reserves from Rome to the Alban Hills and pin the Americans down without weakening the Gustav Line.
The Germans now had 125,000 men against the 100,000 Americans and British on the Anzio beachhead. The Germans were strong enough to hold the invaders on the beach, but they lacked the artillery or air support needed to destroy the Allied position. Anzio settled into stalemate. By March, the Americans had a new, more aggressive commander in Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott, but Anzio remained a standoff.
On 17 May, Polish and Free French contingents broke the Gustav Line in costly frontal assaults that the Anzio attack was supposed to have rendered unnecessary. These assaults forced German troops at Anzio to relocate to the Caesar Line north of Rome. On 25 May, Allied forces from Anzio and the Gustav Line linked up. They entered Rome on 4 June, just two days before D day.
Critics argue that the Allied campaigns in Italy were an unnecessary sideshow. Defenders claim that Anzio taught the United States and Britain a crucial lesson in amphibious warfare: get off the beaches as quickly as possible and drive inland.
Michael S. Neiberg
Blumenson, Martin. General Lucas at Anzio. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1990.; Blumenson, Martin. Anzio: The Gamble That Failed. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001.; D'Este, Carlo. Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome. London: Harper Collins, 1991.; Graham, Dominick, and Shelford Bidwell. Tug of War: The Battle for Italy, 1943–45. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.