What You Need To Remember: About half of the four thousand men of the 36th Division were killed, wounded, or captured in the desperate attack.
With Hitler’s Germany in possession of most of continental Europe, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill pressed his American allies to increase the pressure on the Germans occupying Italy. Churchill had convinced the Allied Command to conduct a beach landing about sixty miles behind German lines at Anzio and needed the United States’ 5th Army to prevent German reinforcements from moving north.
(This first appeared in 2019 as part of a three-part series.)
“The success at Anzio,” Churchill wrote to his chief of staff on December 26, 1943, “depends on the strength of the initial landing . . . (The attack) should be decisive, as it cuts the communications of the whole of the enemy forces facing the Fifth Army. The enemy must therefore annihilate the landing for by withdrawals from the Fifth Army front or immediately retreat.”
The prime minister believed—wrongly, as subsequent events would prove—that a strong landing at Anzio would force the Germans who were facing Clark to withdraw to meet the greater threat to the North, thus allowing Clark to penetrate their lines and squeeze the Germans in Italy between the two Allied forces.
To accomplish this mission, 5th Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mark Clark tasked the 36th Infantry Division to make a penetration of the German lines on the Rapido River. The division commander, Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker, told Clark at least five times that the mission was doomed to fail and had suggested an alternative mission that would have accomplished the same outcome—tying down German units so they couldn’t support the landings at Anzio—but Clark had flatly refused.
With only four days to prepare, Walker realized further push-back was pointless and he had to instead turn his focus to coming up with an attack plan.
Often when senior commanders discuss military plans they lose sight of the impact their orders will have on the men who have to carry them out. Other times they may be fully aware of the impact but have to make the hard call to order the mission anyway, knowing even a high sacrifice is necessary to obtain a higher need for the war. In the case of the Rapido attack, both Clark and Walker were in agreement that an attack was necessary.
Clark’s unwillingness to consider alternative ways to accomplish the higher requirement, however, set the stage for a supreme sacrifice for Walker’s division yet without succeeding in hampering German actions. Regardless of Walker’s assessment the mission would fail, he was nevertheless obligated to give it his best effort. It was a hard sell to his subordinates.
Compounding his already impossible task, Walker only had four days to prepare for the attack. His first order of business was to conduct an intelligence assessment of the nature and scope of the German defenses north of the river.
His senior intelligence officer conducted aerial reconnaissance, interrogated German prisoners, and interviewed Italians who lived in the area. After his assessment the officer told Walker the enemy had anti-tank defenses in depth which would be able to repulse any armored attack between a staggering distance of at least seven miles.
They had created a series of concrete-protected pill boxes from which machine guns could mow down any attacking infantrymen, trenches and strong points. Moreover, the intelligence officer finally noted, beyond the strong immediate defenses, the Germans “had reserve units that were complete divisions—motorized divisions.” If the powerfully arrayed enemy was the only obstacle, Walker’s men would be facing almost impossible odds. Unfortunately, the Americans faced additional hardships.
The Rapido River would normally have proven a moderately difficult hurdle to overcome. But the Germans were masters at exploiting natural obstacles to their tactical advantage. They had dredged the river to make it deeper than normal, which had the effect of creating high, vertical banks so it would be difficult for crossers to either get in or get out of the thirty-foot-wide river. But nature also conspired against the 36th Division: it had been unusually rainy in the weeks prior to the assault and the river was running even faster than normal.
In addition to manipulating the river to give their defenses an advantage, they also flooded the flat land leading up to the river so that any attacking force would have to traverse a considerable distance to even get to a crossing point, and they would be bogged down in the mud—and most critically, it was too muddy for trucks or tanks to drive through, meaning the men would have to carry their own boats to the river, through the mud, under enemy fire (for German gunners and artillery spotters commanded the high ground on either side of the river and had unobstructed visibility on the approaches).
While Clark did not appreciate the near-impossibility of the task he gave to the 36th, he was not unwilling to try and help either. To distract and weaken German defenses, he had ordered a British and French force under his command to conduct diversionary attacks on the left and right flanks of the river. Unfortunately, both attacks failed to accomplish any of their objectives. Instead, it fully alerted the Germans that a larger attack was coming. They were then fully prepared when Walker started his assaults.
The 36th Division was composed of three Infantry Regiments of about two thousand men each, the 141st, 142nd, and 143rd Infantry Regiments. As if he didn’t need any additional disadvantages, the 142nd had been taken away from Walker and designated as the Corps reserve, leaving him short-handed to attempt the attack. Just before the assault began on the night of January 20, 1944, Walker said he felt utterly helpless because “I will have little influence on the battle because everything is committed; I have no reserves; use of artillery ammunition is restricted; and I have no freedom of maneuver.”
The attack began with an intense but short artillery barrage on known or suspected German defensive positions that could bring fire on the assault force. Then the engineers began moving forward under cover of darkness to clear mines and mark lanes for follow-up forces. At a predetermined time, the first waves of infantrymen began moving towards the river carrying their boats. Things went awry from the beginning.
The plywood-and-rubber boats used in the crossing weighed four hundred pounds. It took sixteen men to carry one boat. Each man was carrying a full combat load of personal gear, had to carry the boats in the dark, over thick mud—and under heavy enemy artillery and machine gun fire (the Germans had pre-selected likely targets during the daytime so that if an attack happened at night when they couldn’t see, they could still fire their weapons onto the sites most likely to be used by the Americans). The awful conditions exacted an immediate and heavy toll.
It was so dark “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” as many later recounted. Men would often trip and fall, upsetting the boat and causing the others to fall. One lieutenant described the horrible trek to the river in the dark. One group of his men were about 200 feet in front of him when “German shells came in and . . . wiped out my whole platoon except for me and my runner who was with me.” Some of the shells also killed the company commander and severely wounded several other officers—which added a new layer of difficulty for follow-on troops: having to step over and around the dead bodies of their friends.
Miraculously, some of the boat teams actually made it to the river’s edge. The fast-running water was only a couple degrees above freezing and was a shock to the men as one crew put its boat in the water—only to discover that the shelling had ripped so many holes in it that it sank right away. Some of the men, so heavily weighted down with combat gear, slipped off the boat and sank into the dark waters, never to be seen again.
Others were able to successfully get their boats into the water but because of the heavy current, were swept up to five hundred yards too far downstream, outside of the objective area and without any assistance. German machine guns were also probing the river line, killing many Americans and sinking more boats. Adding to the misery, some of the lanes cleared by the engineers got displaced, leading succeeding waves of infantrymen to walk in uncleared areas and being killed with mines.
Small groups of men eventually made it across the river and quickly dug foxholes for protection. But there were too few of them. To make matters worse, all their communications gear and radios had been lost during the trek to and over the river or had simply failed to function. They were cut off and unable to communicate with anyone. Worse, the sun would soon be coming up and the Germans on the high ground would be able to direct accurate fire on the U.S. troops.