Anzio, 1944

In the overall picture of European strategy during World War II, the campaign at Anzio was of negligible importance, yet for months it dominated news reports. With Russia impatiently calling for a second front, and the Allied advance in Italy stalled at the Cassino-Venafro line, the Anzio landing was carried out at the insistence of Winston Churchill. It had two main purposes: to break the deadlock on the winter line to the south, and to capture Rome for propaganda purposes.

The initial landing achieved complete surprise and met almost no German resistance. Had the American commander in charge of the joint British and American operation been someone like George Patton, the objectives might have been accomplished within a week. Instead the Allies proceeded too cautiously and, by failing to exploit their initial advantage, allowed the Germans to mobilize forces from as far away as southern France and Yugoslavia. The beachhead was soon ringed by massive numbers of men and armor. After the easy and successful landing, Churchill's optimistic prediction that Rome would be liberated within a few days, only served to infuriate Hitler to a point of frenzy. The Fuehrer became equally determined to lance "this abscess south of Rome," annihilate the invading farces, and sweep them into the sea. The narrow strip of coastline became the scene of the most bitter and prolonged battle of World War II.

The Navy landed us on the beaches north of Anzio on the afternoon of January 28, six days after the initial invasion, and the beachhead was still quiet. The weather was chilly but pleasant, and the sun was shining. The gently rolling, fertile reclaimed farmlands stretched inland for fifteen or twenty miles, where, in the distance, the Alban Hills rising to three thousand feet were obscured in a purple gray haze. Crops were growing and the forests of pine and cork in the Padiglione Woods where we first bivouacked were fresh and green. The sea, beneath the colorful sunset to our west, was smooth and peaceful. There was nothing forbidding about any of it, and, after the cold and rain and snow of the mountains, it seemed like a Garden of Eden.

Colonel Brown, our brand new Battalion commander, had joined us in the staging area at Pozzuoli north of Naples just before sailing. He was young, "Regular Army," fresh from the States, and had never been in combat before. His inexperience and his personality conflicts with some of his staff officers soon set off a chain of events that turned us all into reluctant heroes and eventually denied Hitler the satisfaction of another Dunkirk.

Although the battle at Anzio continued for more than four months, and Rome was not liberated until the first week in June, the intense fighting took place between February 3 and March 2, and the fate of the beachhead was decided by a convulsive struggle of epic proportion in the five days between February 16-20. By the first days of February the Germans had more than ten divisions of infantry and armor ready, and planned to attack in three phases. We all stayed busy digging in, rolling barbed wire, setting up fields of fire and laying mine fields. It was a new experience for the 45th Division; we had never fought a defensive battle before.

The first two savage attacks came on February 3-5 and February 7-10 and were directed down the axis of the main road that led from Rome and Albano to the port at Anzio. We were involved in both of them, but the British just to our right and straddling the road took the heaviest punishment. By the end of the second phase, the Germans had succeeded in driving the British out of the strategic "Factory" town of Aprillia and wiping out the salient projecting north along the road that had denied them an approach for their heavy armor. The stubborn British brigades were intact, but reduced to half-strength, and badly battered.

Just before midnight on February 14, our 2nd Battalion advanced along the Albano road to take over the positions of the bone-weary remnants of the Irish Guard Brigade. As we moved forward in the quiet darkness, the only sounds to be heard were the constant low rumble of motor convoys and the clank of tank treads in the distance ahead of us. The atmosphere was one of ominous suspense, and not at all reassuring. We had turned off the road to the left and were being guided by one of the jittery Irish Guards when the silence exploded suddenly into rattling machine guns, rifle fire, and the unholy screams and bursts of six-barreled mortars, and the whole countryside lighted up in the eerie green glare of soaring Veery lights overhead. The open rolling land all around us was an unearthly scene of devastation, twisted wire, wrecked equipment, half dug foxholes and unburied dead. Panic gripped all of us as we froze to the ground trying to find protection where there was none. For what seemed like hours, we advanced in brief, breathless spurts during the intervals of semi-darkness between flares, shell bursts, and red, zipping tracers overhead. We finally reached a thicket-filled ravine and followed it. When our guide led us into a cave opening that led underground to other passages, where we found the Battalion Headquarters already set up, the feeling of relief was almost overwhelming.

The Caves of Pozzolana, excavated for building material, and used more recently by sheepherders, were a fantastic maze of underground, criss-crossing passages dug into a ridge of shale and sandstone, and opening onto the exterior gullies and knolls in fifteen or twenty places. The command posts of Battalion Headquarters, G and H Companies were located in passages near some of the cave entrances, separated in places by corridors 100 or more yards long. Crowded into one of the larger passages were 60 or 70 terrified peasants, mostly old men, women and children, who had found shelter there in the days before as the battle lines raged back and forth over their homes and lands.

The day of February 15 was relatively quiet. We set up our medical aid station in the corridor behind the headquarters group. Our jeep and trailer, which had tried to follow us up into position the night before, had been hit and lay useless about 150 yards out from one of the cave openings on exposed ground. Somehow during the night of the 15th we managed to get out to it ,and salvaged about 3/4 of the medical supplies. In the hours before dawn on the 16th, the entire beachhead grew quiet, as if both sides were holding their breath, ticking off the minutes. And then it started.

Every artillery piece on the beachhead opened up at one time, our naval guns joined in, and for the next 45 minutes the steady thunder of guns and exploding shells rolled on. The front lines disappeared under dense clouds of drifting smoke and dust. The Germans launched attacks in dozens of places along the entire perimeter, but all were diversionary except for the main thrust four miles across down the Albano-Anzio road where they planned to break through and split the beachhead in half. Massed troops poured over the open ground, wave after wave with tanks in support. They fell by the hundreds, and the slaughter was terrific. But they kept coming, hour after hour, day after day.

By the night of the 18th, after 2-1/2 days of continuous battle, we had treated over 200 wounded and we had collected 120 litter cases in the aid station corridor. No one had slept. We were out of plasma, morphine and bandages, and almost out of food. We had to recruit some of the peasant women to help nurse the wounded, and set others to work cooking soup out of the few chickens and dried beans they had brought with them into the caves. Later in the night, Stan Lemon, our regimental demolitions officer, got up to us with some borrowed tanks and half-tracks of the 6th Armored and brought in supplies; he was able to evacuate all of the litter wounded. Meanwhile, on our right flank across the road, the lines had been driven back almost two miles, on our left, a mile.

We sat in on most of the headquarters conferences. Colonel Brown, a little dazed by this kind of baptism after so short a time in command, was more than a little unsure of himself. Captain George Kessler, our veteran and capable executive officer, bore the burden of the strain. He organized defenses, shifted remnants of this platoon here, moved a heavy weapons squad there, pulled in isolated outposts, and drove himself day and night without rest. As the fighting grew in intensity, Brown withdrew further into his shell; his plans and orders were often conflicting and confusing, and it was Kessler who translated and altered them into some semblance of workability. Upset by our growing casualties, our difficulties with supply, and our impossible position, Kessler and the rest of us argued for withdrawal. Brown, feeling his own inexperience, and annoyed by his increasing dependence on Kessler, reacted by becoming more autocratic, more suspicious of our motives, and more obstinate in his determination to hold the positions. None of us relished the thought of moving back through the open hell going on outside, and, like most of us, Brown may have been afraid to leave the comparative shelter of the caves.

On the night of the 19th, we were again able to evacuate another 50 litter cases. Again there was an opportunity to withdraw; but, again, Brown could not be budged. Kessler, torn between his compassion for the troops and his reluctant duty toward Brown, never lost his composure, and deployed the ever-shrinking strength of the battalion in a manner that kept it effective as a point of resistance. By morning we were completely cut off, and the remnants of the battalion were entirely confined to the caves. Brown issued orders; Kessler ignored them and juggled the weary men as best he could. There was no possibility of escape now, and we had to make the best of the situation.

We didn't know that when the Germans failed to break through the final defenses two miles to our rear on the 19th, their all-out offensive had finally cracked. The fighting continued unabated, but there were no more waves of reserves to be thrown into the attack, and the exhausted German troops had reached the limit of their endurance. An Allied counter-attack on the 20th threw them into more confusion, and on the evening of the 21st, the 2nd Battalion of the Queen's Royal Regiment fought their way through the mixed-up lines in an attempt to rescue us and reinforce the cave positions. Unfortunately they had, bumped into strong German forces on the way, and, when they reached us, they had lost most of their supplies, ammunition and supporting weapons. The relief force now needed relief itself.

Our predicament in the caves was still critical. There were German forces all around us, and they were still trying to dislodge us by storming the cave openings. Men were fighting hand to hand with knives, bayonets and rifle butts. To keep the Germans out we had to call on our own artillery to blast the cave entrances. The din within the corridors was terrific, and the concussion waves left most of us with shattered eardrums.

The British talked Colonel Brown into withdrawing, and on the night of the 22nd what remained of the 2nd Battalion left the caves in small groups to try and make their way back. Since we had another 30 litter cases still in the caves, six of us from the medical section stayed on with the British, hoping that if anyone got back, some scheme of evacuation could be worked out. The British, meanwhile, decided that their own position in the caves was untenable. They planned to fight their way out shortly after nightfall on the 23rd, and called for an artillery barrage to begin at dusk and cover their retreat.

Late in the afternoon, Hugo Fielshmidt, the 157th's zany regimental dental officer, stumbled flushed and wild-eyed into the caves. Under the impression that a temporary truce would be in effect so that both sides could clear the area of wounded, he had volunteered to lead a group of litter bearers through more than a mile of German held territory. They had come on foot with Hugo waving a Red Cross flag. Once on the way up, when some shelling had started, he was forced to jump into the nearest foxhole on top of two astonished Germans. They were more astonished when he scrambled out after the shelling and went blithely on his way waving the flag.

With rescue seemingly near, we did not stop to weigh our chances or consider the difficulties that lay before us. There was no time to lose, because of the British escape plan. We loaded the wounded onto litters and had to scratch around among the British, the walking wounded, and the stragglers to find enough man-power to assign one bearer to each end of a litter. With Fielscbmidt still waving his red and white flag, we led the column out of the caves. After ten days of underground darkness, the late afternoon daylight was almost blinding. Most of the litter-bearers, all utterly exhausted from the sleepless days and nights of battle, were unable to carry their loads more than a few yards at a time without stopping to rest. After the constant cold of the caves, the warm, oppressively humid air sapped our remaining energies. The column proceeded slowly. The whole area through which we struggled was an incredible panorama of desolation and destruction. Wrecked vehicles and armor, uprooted trees and blasted vegetation, discarded ammunition and equipment, not one foot of ground unmarked by shell craters and, lying everywhere, the dead.

We were a strange looking procession, and we passed within arm's reach of many groups of German soldiers busily digging in. But they only seemed curious and did not molest us. We had covered about half the distance when we passed a crumbled farmhouse concealing a German tank. A German major and staff sergeant stepped out from behind the house and halted us. The major indicated we could go no farther.

There followed an unbelievable, comic opera interlude of argument through interpreters. We maintained that we should be allowed to proceed; the major held that we must be taken to German headquarters. Fielshmidt, red-faced and angry, his arms flailing wildly, shouted that this was a hell of a way to honor a truce: we were non-combatants, and according to the Geneva Convention, couldn't be captured. He threatened the German major with court-martial!

The argument seemed to go on forever, but the Germans were adamant. Time was growing short; dusk was almost on us, and with it the barrage called for by the British would soon roll over where we were standing. We quieted Fielshmidt and reluctantly agreed to be captured. The ridiculousness of the whole episode, a debate on the ethics of warfare on a stage setting of carnage and destruction, struck us and the German major simultaneously. We laughed and bowed politely.

The column was turned around and, now accompanied by armed guards, we headed to the left toward the Albano road to join the German Army. When we reached the next rise, we looked back. The German major was doubled over and still visibly shaking with laughter.

From the book, "Anzio: the Massacre at the Beachhead." by British author and former war correspondent, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas:

"But the battalion had a commander, Lt. Col. Laurence C. Brown, who refused to allow himself to be dismayed. He turned the caves into a fortress, ignoring the fact that he was completely cut off from his base . . . He was destined to fight a private war for more than six days and to hold the western shoulder at all costs."

"Out of the 900 men at the beginning of the week's fighting, the 2nd Battalion 157th Regiment succeeded in mustering only 200 after their retreat from the caves. Out of this remnant more than 100 were battle casualties. They had held the western flank of the salient against enormous odds and fought one of the most memorable infantry battles in the annals of the American Army . . . They looked more like scarecrows than soldiers, but they had earned with their battered bodies the rare honor of a Presidential Unit Citation."

We have often wondered whether Brown and the rest of us should qualify as heroes, or just as ordinary cowards, trapped by circumstance, too frightened to run?

(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Mar. 1969, Vol.XVI No.3, p.8

[back to The Doctor's Lounge Index]