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 Soviet 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 oneÃ¢â‚¬™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 aheadÃ¢â‚¬”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 enginesÃ¢â‚¬”your tanks or theirs? Was that boom off in the distance merely thunder or the start of another artillery barrage?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The mind plays tricks on you on the battlefield at night,Ã¢â‚¬Â admitted Vere Ã¢â‚¬Å“TarzanÃ¢â‚¬Â Williams (Company K, 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division). Ã¢â‚¬Å“The new replacements, they got scared real fast, and us old veterans had a hard time tryinÃ¢â‚¬™ to calm Ã¢â‚¬™em down. Them kids wanted to up and get out of there at the slightest noise. They was as skitterish as rabbits.Ã¢â‚¬Â
February also brought more massive artillery duels to the beachhead. The Americans and British marveled, if ruefully, at the German gunnersÃ¢â‚¬™ 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. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We was packed in there real tight,Ã¢â‚¬Â recalled Williams. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Germans had the high ground and they could practically look down our throats. It was like shootinÃ¢â‚¬™ sardines in a can.Ã¢â‚¬Â
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-manÃ¢â‚¬™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
“Desperate Valour: Triumph at Anzio (Flint Whitlock) is a non-fiction account of ‘Operation Shingle’, a WWII endeavor by the Allies to take the Italian seaport of Anzio and use it as a staging ground in the subsequent attempt to take Rome. The author describes the facts surrounding the operation in minute detail, using these facts as support for his argument that ‘Shingle’ is vastly undervalued in its importance to the outcome of the war. Additionally, the author argues that ‘Shingle’ is wrongly characterized in historical reckoning as a defeat for the Allies, rather than what it really was: a hard-won victory, albeit one that spanned a prolonged period of time, against uphill odds and in exceedingly difficult terrain.
“The author’s dedication to historical accuracy and precision is abundantly evident. The book ends with 49 pages of references, the majority of which are first-hand accounts in the forms of memoirs and letters written by soldiers both on the front and in command posts during the events in question. Among the most compelling of these first-hand sources is a memoir by a civilian who was a child at the time of the Allied invasion; he recounts the sort of evocative, thought-provoking details that only children can recall, such as playing with a ball made out of tattered clothing and finding treasures in the wreckage of his former home, which pull mercilessly at the reader’s heartstrings.
“The author is an American, and his loyalties show in the bias of the book. Allied heroes are front and center, with many Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor recipients having their individual deeds spelled out. However, the Axis side was, in my opinion, not treated unfairly. Although less attention was paid to Axis movements and leadership than to Allied ones, Germans were not painted as uniformly, unabashedly evil, in the way that many other works depict them. Rather, both commanders and enlisted men were shown to be humans who made the best choices they could in order to accomplish their missions under the circumstances they faced. I found this to be a refreshing perspective. The author also made sure to provide closure on every individual soldier whose deeds he chronicled. Each one had a footnote describing how he died, or, if he survived, what he went on to do after the war. This was a wonderful touch that spoke of deep respect for the soldiers as humans and not just as cogs in the war machine.
“I would rate Desperate Valour as a 3 out of 4 for its immensely detailed and well-researched descriptions, as well as its moving poignancy. It would most appeal to history buffs or interested parties who would like to know more about this pivotal campaign, which history has almost forgotten.”
Online Book Club Review
“I have appreciated your work since I first found The Rock of Anzio in 1998. The stories you have told in your superb Rock of Anzio have been told and re-told in my extended family.
“A long-time friend, Zeke Jones (I Company, 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division), died in 2009, and Levitha his wife, an Army Nurse stationed in Normandy for the last year of the war, died just 2 years ago. Both really appreciated how you captured the 45th’s heroic story.
“So, when I found this year a book called Desperate Valour, I did a double-take—how could the best recounting of the Battle of Anzio be improved upon? I read through it in a couple days and saw how you were able to add to the story. First, by including the experiences of the other divisions, especially the British 1st Division and the U.S. 3d Infantry Division, and even some of the German viewpoints, you made it a more rounded version of the events
“There were so many valiant units and soldiers, it is hard to single out the 45th Division Thunderbirds alone. Second, your emphasis on the scale of the defensive battle, and its analogy to Stalingrad, and somewhat less to my mind, Bastogne (only a handful of days), I think is the proper viewpoint. Not really of defeat (except the idea of Winston’s under-resourced attack on Rome), I came around to the impression that Gen. Lucas, by conserving resources, may have safeguarded the beachhead—barely. So, assigning him as the goat of the battle [as most other authors have done] is probably undeserved. Artillery can have been the only conceivable explanation for the outcome, but you still had to have infantry foot soldiers holding the line.
“These people were mighty patriots and served the country by astounding sacrifices, and the legends of their service should never be forgotten. Thanks for preserving and sharing their stories so well, and contributing to their immortal memory.”
Dr. David Sawyer, University of Colorado at Boulder
“I just finished reading your book Desperate Valour and wanted to reach out and tell you how much I appreciated your book about the Allied triumph at Anzio. My father-in-law served in the 3rd Infantry Division at Anzio, and, in-fact, became a U.S. citizen on the beach there. As you describe in the Epilogue, many veterans refused to share their experiences. My father-in-law, Dov Kon, was one of those. When I first met my wife she told me that her father had been in the war and landed on ‘some beach somewhere’ but didn’t know much more. His reasons for not speaking of what he endured were, perhaps, even more complex than most.
“My in-laws were Jews and were best friends with Jews who had somehow lived through the horrors of the concentration camps and while Dov passed I remain friends with some of them. Like him, they did not speak of the horrors and in some ways I think Dov believed that what he endured was nothing compared to them, and he knew that it easily could have been him in the camps.
“My father-in-law (FIL) became a U.S. citizen on the beach at Anzio. This is one thing about the war we all knew, because he had an anecdote he told us. He said, “The Army brought in some Counsel General from North Africa to make me and 7 or 8 other guys U.S citizens. What did they have to lose, they thought we were all going to die anyway! “
“You see, my FIL, Dov Kon, was born Horsht Kon, a German Jew, in Berlin. His parents were prosperous and owned a department store but his mother saw the writing on the wall early on and they sold their store in 1934 and moved to British Mandated Palestine where my FIL became a young teenage courier for the Irgun and hid a pistol in his parent’s house. When Rommel rolled into Alexandria, Egypt, his parents found a way to get to the U.S. and, because the Atlantic was so heavily mined, went through the Middle East and took a boat to China and then on to the west coast of the U.S. The family started a successful mens’ wear store on 57th street in New York City.
“Dov enlisted in the Army on 27 Feb 1943. He was fluent in German with no accent and the one-page enlistment/separation record I could obtain shows his occupation as a radio operator. We know that he served in the 3rd Infantry Division because he served with Audie Murphy who gave signed copies of his book to veterans who served with him.
“Dov’s war started in North Africa. He once told me that he had participated in three beach landings but he really didn’t count his North Africa ribbon because the fighting was over and he just walked off the landing craft onto the beach. I also don’t recall him ever mentioning serving in Sicily.
“Having had many uncles who served in WWII—from an airman at Pearl Harbor to a soldier at the Battle of the Bulge, to a naval enlistee on carriers in the Pacific—I had read of the war as a teenager and knew of Anzio. So Dov formed an instant liking of me upon my shocked/revered reaction when I first learned of him serving at Anzio. But I never felt like I had the right to ask him about the details of his war experience, and what I learned first hand were only things that trickled out: At Anzio, “… if we had been on the other side of the railroad station we would have all been dead …,” “… I lived in a foxhole; I put board on the bottom of that filled with water … would have to shoot rats that moved in …” and, ” … my Army unit was replaced X times …”. Dov also remembered being protected overhead by the “red-tails,” the Tuskegee airmen. I know that in addition to being a radio operator, he was a sniper, and by the end of the war was trained on the 155mm which he said they would roll up to a building and fire practically point-blank to blast down a door.
“Dov said that when they got to Rome, a general told his unit, “For you boys the war is over …,” but then found himself a few months later landing on another beach in southern France. I appreciate the details of your Epilogue because in my limited research in the past couldn’t figure out how the 3rd ended up in the 7th Army. But we knew Dov’s unit went through France and Dov described how in the middle of nowhere they would come upon concentration/work camps with living skeletons.
“Dov arrived back in the U.S. on 9 Oct 1945 and separated from service at Ft. Dix on 15 Oct. He went back to work at the mens’ wear store with his parents. His biggest regret in life was that he he was not back in British Mandated Palestine to help the new nation of Israel defend against invaders in 1948, but he was his parents’ only child and he honored his mother’s wishes to stay home. He was never successful at holding down a ‘regular job’ after his parents retired and closed the store, as he certainly suffered from what we would call PTSD and bouts of volatility and self-medication (not alcohol but perscription meds) but he somehow kept it bottled up.
“Towards the end of his life when he knew he was dying, he spoke to me a bit of things he did, of a German airman who met his death at breakfast one morning with the spoon Dov kept as a souvenir that he had in his mouth when, in Dov’s crosshairs, he slowly pulled the trigger. In some ways the horrors are not so much as what a soldier sees as what the solder does.
“On the solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur there is a part in the service when members of the congregation who are of the priestly class of “Kohane” jews are called to the front of the synagogue to bless the congregation. I still remember Dov ‘Kon’ (Cohn, Khon, Kon … all derivations of the priestly class passed down through the generations), staying planted in his seat next to me looking at his trembling hands and saying to me ‘How can I bless anyone? I have blood on my hands.”
“My wife tells me a story about her father that happened in the early 1970s that perhaps captures the the hardships of Anzio better than any story of the battle itself. Her family was in the car stopped at a traffic light. A car slowly turning into the road from the opposite direction came to a complete stop and the man driving the car got out. Dov saw the man, put his car in park and got out of the car. The two men embraced and, still holding each other with tears in their eyes, stood there for what my wife said felt like minutes, speaking not a word, cars honking at them. Without saying a word, they each got in their cars and drove away. They are alive.”