January 22, 1944 marks the day of the landings at Anzio. If you recall, Allied forces had landed on Italian soil in September of the previous year. Coming up Italy’s boot, units from Britain, the U.S., and Canada had progressed northward with the main objective of capturing Rome…until running into the Gustav Line.
The Gustav Line (also known as the Winter Line) was a series of fortifications that spanned Italy, running from just south of the Gulf of Gaeta on the west through Cassino to just south of Ortona on the eastern coast. Lying in wait there was one of the masters of defense, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. And here, just 60 miles south of Rome, the Allies were stopped…cold.
Which kind of brings us back to the present. British planners (actually, the idea kind of originated with Winston Churchill) believed that additional landings between the Gustav Line and Rome would present Kesselring with a quandary. If he stayed put, Allied forces to the rear could conceivably cut off the his defense line. If he moved troops to address the invasion, the Gustav Line would be weakened, relieving the pressure to the south and maybe allowing a breaththrough.
American military leaders saw it a little differently. For them, it was yet another example of Winston Churchill’s meddling in military affairs. Regardless of the plan’s merits, with U.S. leadership in the Allied coalition increasing, having “the other guy’s” leader tell you what he wanted created instant resistance. But more practically, those same generals were knee-deep in planning for Operation Overlord, the massive cross-Channel invasion of France, and Churchill’s “sideshow” was just another cause for late nights and lost sleep.
So Churchill did what any good Prime Minister would do…he went over the military’s head and straight to President Roosevelt, who signed off on the plan. And let’s be honest, it was a pretty good idea, landing behind a major enemy fortification and presenting that enemy with a two-front war.
Anzio was selected because it was right in the middle of the Gustav Line and Rome, and because its beaches were well-suited to landing. Broken into three landing forces, the British landed an infantry division and a tank brigade north of Anzio. A composite force of U.S. Ranger battalions, led by William Darby, assaulted Anzio directly. And the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division tackled the areas east of Anzio.
The landings, begun in the wee hours of the 22nd, were met with little resistance, allowing the Allies to quickly establish a beachhead. But over the next couple days, there was very little movement, giving time for Kesselring’s forces to regroup and move in. Just two days later, the beachhead would be largely surrounded by the Wehrmacht.
And then, between Rome and Cassino, the fight would be on.
Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle