January 31, 1944: The Battle of Anzio & the U.S. Rangers at Cisterna
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
January 31, 1944. Three U.S. Army Ranger battalions are the spearhead for a major Allied breakout attempt from the Anzio bridgehead on the coast of Italy. They don't know it, but they are walking into a trap. The Germans are waiting.
The Allies had failed after months of hard mountain fighting to break through German lines in southern Italy, most notably in the failed offensive on the Rapido River (which I featured on January 20). American and British planners soon had a new idea: they would land a force on the coast of Italy behind the German mountain lines that could cut off the enemy and break the deadlock. The site for this landing was near the Italian town of Anzio, about 32 miles south of Rome.
The Allied landing on January 22 caught the Germans by surprise, but that was its last success. The American commander, John P. Lucas, was cautious by nature, and he failed to drive forward quickly to cut across German supply lines and drive for Rome. This enabled Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the brilliant and calculating German defensive master, to pull troops from his mountain lines and send them to the Anzio sector to fence off the Anglo-American landing.
It took Lucas almost eight days to form an attack. British forces on the left and American forces on the right would steam forward on January 31 to push out from the bridgehead and drive into what he thought were still weak German forces. For the American attack, Lucas selected the 3rd Infantry Division (containing none other than Sergeant Audie Murphy) and the three Ranger battalions under his command to make the main assault.
The Rangers of World War II were elite, hand-picked light infantry, but they were just that - light. Built for raiding, skirmishing, and lowkey operations, they were not built for heavy battle. Sending in the Rangers first was like using Navy SEALS for house-clearing in Baghdad rather than, you know, actual SpecOps missions. Nevertheless, the Rangers had their orders. With their overall commander, Colonel William O. Darby, supervising, they made ready for a night attack against the German positions near the town of Cisterna.
The Germans knew they were coming. An elite Panzer Division, the Hermann-Goring Division, was waiting in the vicinity. The 715 men of the advance guard slipped through German lines and seized Cisterna, but soon found themselves attacked from all sides by at least 17 tanks and well-armed veteran German infantry. Most of the Rangers were caught on open ground and many were forced to surrender, but those that fought fought hard. The 1st Battalion's commander shot a German tank commander with his pistol and threw a grenade down the hatch; other Rangers managed to hijack German tanks Chewbacca-style and fend off the German attack, but their efforts were ultimately hopeless.
The 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions were virtually wiped out at Cisterna, and the 4th badly damaged in a rescue attempt led by Darby. Lucas was harshly criticized for using the lightly armed Rangers as the spearhead of a major conventional attack, and the Germans were quick to surround the Anzio bridgehead. For the next four months, they would pummel it with howitzers, tank and infantry attacks, and even a railway gun known to the poor GIs and Tommies as "Anzio Annie." Allied forces would suffer heavily under these attacks, and Anzio seemed a dead end like any other.
Winston Churchill remarked, "I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale".
The destruction of the Rangers at Cisterna was the high-water mark of the muddy wreck of a battle that became Anzio. It would take another four months for American forces to retake Cisterna. It would be almost six months before the Allies finally took Rome on June 4. The news of Rome's capture, however, would be overshadowed two days later by a much more important event on June 6, 1944.
In that attack on the beaches of Normandy, at Pointe du Hoc, the U.S. Army Rangers would emerge phoenix-like from the ashes. This time, they would not fail.
Once again, by far the best book on the Italian Campaign is Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), part of his "Liberation Trilogy" that covers Allied forces from North Africa to the surrender of Germany. For Anzio itself, Carlo D'Este's Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome (New York: Harper, 1991) is the landmark account.