By the end of 1943 the Italian campaign had become a stalemate as Field Marshall Albert Kesselring’s German army group stopped the Allied advance cold at Cassino. The Allied ground commander in chief, General Sir Harold Alexander, concluded that he could not take Rome unless the Allies initiated an amphibious end run and weakened the Cassino front by drawing off German troops manning the Gustav Line. Operation Shingle, one of the most ill-conceived operations of the war, took place thirty-five miles southwest of Rome on January 22, 1944, when a corps-sized Anglo-American expeditionary force commanded by U.S. major general John P. Lucas landed at Anzio and Nettuno.
Alexander believed that if the expeditionary force seized the Alban Hills northeast of Anzio, it could block German resupply of Cassino, thus compelling Kesselring to abandon the Gustav Line and retreat to the Apennines. Lucas recognized that the Anzio force could not hold both the Alban Hills and a vital logistical lifeline to the port of Anzio, and elected merely to establish a beachhead outside Anzio and Nettuno.
Kesselring quickly contained the Allied threat and massed German troops. In mid-February, they carried out Adolf Hitler’s order to “lance the abscess south of Rome” with a massive counteroffensive aimed at destroying the beachhead. A series of furious attacks failed to break the Allied line in what one historian has described as “a charge of the Light Brigade without the horses…sheer slaughter.”
Lucas was relieved of command even though he had been given a mission he had no practical possibility of carrying out. After a four-month stalemate during which British and American losses totaled seven thousand killed, thirty-six thousand wounded or missing, and forty-four thousand hospitalized from various nonbattle injuries and sickness, the siege of Anzio finally ended on May 23, 1944, when the Allies launched a breakout offensive.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.