Triumph at Anzio
Many historians have portrayed Operation Shingle—the January 1944 Allied attempt to land a large British and American force behind enemy lines and break the stalemate in Italy —as a “failure” and a “disaster.” But Flint Whitlock’s new book proposes that we change our focus and consider the four-month battle as one of the great defensive stands in history—on a par with the the 24th Regiment of Foot’s defense at Roarks Drift during the Zulu Wars, the 101st Airborne’s stand at Bastogne, the Soviets’ refusal to give up Stalingrad and Leningrad, and the Marine Corps’ steadfastness at Khe San.
For weeks the savage battle went on, as typified by stupendous artillery barrages and panzer and infantry charges across no-man’s land that recall the trench warfare of World War I. So brutal was the fighting that, by the time the battle was over and the Allies successfully broke out of their small beachhead and took Rome, 26 Americans had earned the Medal of Honor and two British soldiers had earned Britain’s highest military award, the Victoria Cross.
Using a variety of memoirs, letters, interviews with veterans, and official reports, Whitlock paints an amazingly detailed picture of courage under fire. Of special note is that he does not limit his narrative to just British and American accounts, but includes personal accounts by many of the German soldiers who fought at Anzio and somehow survived.
Whitlock also tells about others that time has forgotten: the courageous nurses, the sailors and airmen, the chaplains, the Italian civilians, and even the men of the graves registration teams who had the incredibly gruesome task of retrieving bodies from the battlefield.
If one is looking for a book that tells the complete story of Anzio and the men who demonstrated courage beyond measure, Desperate Valour is that book.
As night closed in around the battlefield like a black shroud on February 1, the American and British soldiers got ready, not for rest but for renewed terrors. It was one thing to fight during daylight hours, when one could at least see the enemy, when the enemy had shape and form and could be placed in the sights of one’s gun. That was reality. But nighttime was an entirely different equation. Unless flares were burning overhead, hanging from their tiny parachutes, the battlefield at night was a horrorscape of shadows and sounds. That noise ahead—was that an enemy patrol closing in or just a cow stumbling around in search of fodder? Was that whistle a night bird or a coded message from one patrol to another? The rumble of engines—your tanks or theirs? Was that boom off in the distance merely thunder or the start of another artillery barrage?
“The mind plays tricks on you on the battlefield at night,” admitted Vere “Tarzan” Williams (Company K, 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division). “The new replacements, they got scared real fast, and us old veterans had a hard time tryin’ to calm ’em down. Them kids wanted to up and get out of there at the slightest noise. They was as skitterish as rabbits.”
February also brought more massive artillery duels to the beachhead. The Americans and British marveled, if ruefully, at the German gunners’ abilities to saturate their positions with high explosives, the long fingers of the artillery reaching out to blast every nook and cranny of the battlefield. “We was packed in there real tight,” recalled Williams. “The Germans had the high ground and they could practically look down our throats. It was like shootin’ sardines in a can.”
Within seconds, the projectiles that had been launched reached out and began finding their targets. Men in Wehrmacht-gray uniforms screamed as the cannonade crashed to earth, ripping through vehicles, buildings, and flesh, sending everything flying in violent convulsions. It seemed impossible that anything could have lived through such a hellish upheaval, but here and there across the darkened landscape forms began moving, forms covered with dust and debris, forms that spit the dirt from their mouths and wiped it from their eyes as they stumbled around, trying to find their weapons and their comrades. There was no time to lose. Then another avalanche of shells came crashing down. And another and another. Men, driven insane by the shelling, left what few places of safety there were and dashed to the rear, only to be torn apart by more explosions. Was there no end to the madness?
Throughout the day the Germans continued to swamp the front with stupendous cascades of artillery, mortar, and tank fire and then sent their infantry charging out across the smoke-shrouded battlefield in scenes reminiscent of the human-wave attacks into no-man’s-land that characterized the bloody, futile slaughters of the Great War. American and British gunners mowed down the gray lines of great-coated figures until their gun barrels glowed red hot, but more came on to take their places, as though they were part of some ghastly human conveyor belt extending from Germany itself.
“For the first time, Flint Whitlock has brought the full extent of the carnage and heroism to light. Desperate Valour will long remain the definitive account of this oft-forgotten epic of warfare.”
— Alex Kershaw, NY Times bestselling author of The Liberator and The Longest Winter
“Flint Whitlock has delivered once again with his stirring account of the terrible fight at Anzio. His prose is crisp and paced, laden with new perspective and insight, while personal accounts bring the vicious sturggle to life…a riveting read!”
– Michael Haskew, editor of WWII History magazine and author of West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On
“Not maintained like more famous World War II battlefields, Anzio will be memorialized instead by inspiring books like this one. Flint Whitlock reveals that the American and British ‘beached whale’ there had plenty of teeth and claws, along with the courage and determination to hold off a four-month German onslaught before breaking out to help liberate Rome”
— Conrad Crane, author of American Airpower Strategy in World War II: Bombs Cities, Civilians, and Oil
“Whitlock’s work has taken the true spirit of men and war and laid it open in a manner that cannot be mistaken. A great work!”
— Mark Ellenbarger, author of Drawing Fire: Brummett Echohawk—A Pawnee, Artist, and Thunderbird in World War II