Today in History: Operation Shingle
Back on Memorial Day we talked about one of the more famous allied operations during World War 2 which took place during the relief of Bastogne in France. Today marks the anniversary of the end of another major engagement, this one in Italy. Known as Operation Shingle, later combined with Operation Diadem, it was first envisioned by Winston Churchill and somewhat reluctantly embraced by the Americans as a way to break into the Italian mainland and drive the Germans out of Rome and back to the north. The entire operation ran from Jan. 22 to June 5, 1944 and it all began on the beaches at the Italian town of Anzio.
The ultimate goals of the operations were eventually held to be successful, but the planning and execution of the initial expedition were nothing short of a disaster. Conflicts continued for months between Churchill and American Generals John Lucas and Mark Clark who were skeptical of the plan to break through the Germans’ “Gustav Line” across southern Italy. Lucas was, in fact, eventually removed from his command of the operation, ironically after his own reservations over the operation all proved true.
However, this didn’t prevent the writing of notable history and the birth of legends and heroes, not only on the American side but also from the Brits. One of the greatest and yet most tragic stories played out there just like every famous, black and white WW2 movie of the era, except it was horribly, horribly real.
As the map to the left shows, there was a lot of beach to cover, and incursions were made in late January and early February at a number of points with varying degrees of success. One of the notable sites, though, was the bridge and rail line leading across the causeway leading from Anzio to Nettuno. This later came to be known as the Anzio Bridgehead, though you didn’t hear much of it back home at the time of the invasion.
The Brits were handling most of that expeditionary force and hoped for a quick strike through the line. Unfortunately, through a combination of poor timing, faulty intelligence and just plain bad luck, they ran squarely into the teeth of one of the Germans’ elite infantry units (the Tigers or “Tygers”) and the LXXVI Panzer Corps under Lieutenant-General Traugott Herr heading in the other direction. It quickly became obvious that if the Germans couldn’t be slowed down long enough for the force to pull back and join up with other units to the North, the allies would be driven straight into the sea and utterly destroyed.
The unenviable task of buying some time fell to Her Majesty’s Royal Fusiliers. The roughly three hundred men were underequipped and facing better than ten to one odds. They could have ignored their orders – obviously little more than a suicide mission – and turned to run. They could have surrendered and allowed the Germans to overrun the position without opposition and pursue the allies to the beach. But the Fusiliers turned, loaded their guns, tilted their helmets foward and awaited the Germans in shallow trenches at the bridgehead.
Three times the Germans hit that bridge with a force of more than 2,500 men. Three times the vastly outnumbered Fusiliers turned them back, each time their ranks thinning out under withering fire. But they bought enough time for their companions to make it back to the beach and assemble a counter-charge. Among the men at the bridge was Eric Fletcher Waters, whose son Roger went on to become a well known musician. He remained bitter over the loss of his father, but wrote a song about the battle called “When the Tigers Broke Free.”
It was just before dawn
One miserable morning in black ‘forty four.
When the forward commander
Was told to sit tight
When he asked that his men be withdrawn.
And the Generals gave thanks
As the other ranks held back
The enemy tanks for a while.
And the Anzio bridgehead
Was held for the price
Of a few hundred ordinary lives.
It was dark all around.
There was frost in the ground
When the tigers broke free.
And no one survived
From the Royal Fusiliers Company C.
They were all left behind,
Most of them dead,
The rest of them dying.
And that’s how the High Command
Took my daddy from me.
The operation went on for months afterward, finally winding up on June 5, 1944, and the Germans were, of course, eventually driven from Italy. The war brought us many tales of heroism and valor. Not all of them ended in glorious victory, but they all brought us tales of the kind of heroism which hopefully lies in the hearts of free men everywhere. Today, on the anniversary of the end of Operation Shingle, take a moment to remember once again those who gave their lives in the cause of freedom.
EDIT: If you’ve never heard the song, please check out the video below. It’s worth it.