Hit the Beach!
"It will astonish the world...."
-- Winston Churchill, referring to the assault
landings at Anzio, January 22, 1944
What a night for a boat ride, Lieutenant Louis Martin thought.
The sky was clear, showing a million stars, and the air balmy, warm for winter even on the southern Italian coast. The waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, one of the world's loveliest, were still, hardly rocking the circling LCIs. Thank God for that, Louie Martin thought; it was bad enough going up on a hostile beach without being seasick!
He stood up in the front of the landing craft, trying to see in to Yellow Beach, between the towns of Anzio and Nettuno. He thought he saw the white gleam of gentle breakers on the shore, against the brooding dark background of the town of Anzio and the bluff above it. He wiped spray from his thick glasses, reaching instinctively for his spare set.
Damn it, he had forgotten them -- and with eyes like his, that wasn't good. If he'd had the dough, he'd have bought some of those new things, those contact lenses, before he left the States in '42. Then he wouldn't have to squint and cheat and memorize the eye chart every time he had a physical.
He grinned. A damn good thing he wasn't in the Navy. They didn't just let you read off a Snellen chart; they put some kind of instrument in your eyes and made sure. Louie Martin couldn't have got a commission in the bloody Navy, which was one reason he was in Darby's Rangers.
As for the other reasons, he was going to see a damned psychiatrist after the war. If he lived that long. He raised a thin-forearm before his face, trying to read the dial of his ordnance watch in the luminous reflection of the LCI's wake. He said out loud, "0150, fellows. H-Hour is 0200. About time for the Navy to start shooting."
He looked at the darkened faces to either side of him, and at the shapeless men huddled behind him in the landing craft. He grinned again. "What's the matter? Aren't you enjoying it? Here Task Force 81 is providing you a scenic tour and the boat ride, all at great expense--"
A couple of the faces grinned back at him. Henry, a short, dark, belligerent soul, had his long knife out of his boot, sharpening it against the leather.
Pella, the Italian kid, his face tight, said, "Put that goddamn thing away, Henry. You give me the creeps. You ain't gonna get close enough to a Kraut to stick him, anyway--"
The short man flared, "I'll put it up your ass if you don't shut your yap."
Private Pella moved, trying to struggle to his feet. Louie Martin gave him a firm shove on the shoulder. "Hold it. After we take Anzio, you can tear each other up. Not now!"
Pella sank back, and Henry slowly put the knife away. Lieutenant Martin was a skinny, four-eyed kid himself, but when he spoke, his men listened. He had that quality. No one who did not could not be a Ranger officer.
He looked back in the boat to his platoon sergeant. Krueger regarded him sourly, without expression. Krueger was never a happy sort, but he was steady, and the kind of balance wheel these charged-up Rangers needed.
"Take it easy, you guys," Krueger said.
Like Martin, he understood how the tension built up before you hit the beach. The men got tighter and tighter, until finally they had to explode. That was a good thing -- if they exploded against the Germans.
Rangers were "special" troops -- call them an elite, if you must. But they were human, too, and they got just as nervous as anyone else going in on these beaches -- as nervous as the boys of the veteran 3rd Division, attacking over Red and Green Beaches to the South, or the Limey 1 Division and the Commandos of Force Peter, going in north of Anzio.
The main way the Rangers and those hopheads in the 509th Parachute Battalion, going in beside them to seize Anzio's sister town of Nettuno, were different was that they volunteered for jobs like this. When you volunteered for the Ranger Force or the paratroops, you were asking for trouble and, by God, you found it, Martin thought.
What had that doc told him back in Sicily? "A sane man doesn't look for danger; if he's normally brave, he just tries to meet it when it comes."
And here he was, a nut leading a platoon of nuts, all trying, like the touchy Henry or the nervous kid, Pella, or the Jewish boy from New York -- Meyer -- to prove something. Martin shook his head, shifting his carbine. Hell, no, it was more than that. A lot of the men in the Ranger battalions just liked to fight. Some of them, like himself, just had to be in the front of it. Put it all together, with the toughest training in the world, and you had one of the best damn fighting units the U.S. Army had ever seen!
And Louie Martin was looking at the dark, shadowy shore, not with fear, but with a deep excitement in his veins. Why the hell didn't the Navy open up?
Then the darkness was streaked with red fire. Rockets whooshed up from the landing craft and Navy vessels all over Anzio Bay. The flaring trials arced, hissing over the still water, and the beaches rocked with the impact of multiple explosions. Boom-boom-boom, the sound echoed back across the waves to Martin's ears. He straightened up, looked toward Yellow Beach, directly between Anzio and Nettuno, where his own LCI would beach itself. Great gouts rose in the water, and further inland, as the beach itself and the dark buildings behind it were splashed with fire and flying metal.
"That'll wake the Krauts up," he said aloud, with satisfaction.
Boom-boom-boom-whoom!! The sky off to the right and south flared with fiery brilliance. Over there General Lucian Truscott was sending all three regiments of his 3rd Division ashore in the first wave. The Limeys must be firing up north, too, but to hell with them. Louie Martin had enough to worry about right here. The gobs had pointed the LCI straight in now, and its great engines were roaring. On both sides, other LCIs and the bigger boats, the LSTs and slim LSI, were streaming toward the shore. Whoosk-whoosh-whoosk! Bam-Bam-Bam!
"How long they gonna shoot up the beaches?" Private Henry asked sullenly.
"Ten minutes," Martin said quietly. He was thinking, back there on the cruiser Biscayne, Major General John P. Lucas' flagship, the war correspondents were probably having their first cup of coffee and getting ready to write: "Anzio, Italy, January 22, 1944. This morning at 0200, VI Corps, more than 50,000 strong, landed sixty miles behind the German lines in Italy. General Mark W. Clark, of whose Fifth U.S. Army the VI Corps is a part, in briefing war correspondents called this operation a calculated risk...."
Louie Martin stopped musing. When the brass used that term, chum, look out! He watched the approaching shore, feeling an urgent desire to urinate. That was silly, a part of his mind told him; he couldn't go if he had the time.
Somebody behind him snapped a rifle bolt, and he turned, said sharply, "Watch it! Let's not have anybody shot in the boat!"
He shook his head, remembering the soft, Carolina voice of his battalion commander, Jack Dobson. "Fifth Army, with the 36th Texas Division, is going to attack across the Rapido on the Cassino front. What we do is an end run, up the Italian west coast to hit the Krauts in the flank while the 36th's keeping them busy. We land at this little resort town, Anzio, with General Penney's British 1 Div., and Truscott's 3rd. The 45th and the 1st Armored will come in later to back us up. The idea is, once we've secured a beachhead, we move inland to the Alban Hills south of Rome and blow a fat hole in the Krauts' communications. With any luck, we'll link up with the rest of Fifth Army in a few days. The Rangers' job is simple: we take and clear out the town of Anzio itself."
The other officers had smiled at that. Street fighting was a nasty business any time. But the Rangers, like the British Special Forces, or Commandos, were especially trained for it. In fact, the Rangers had been modeled on the British forces -- companies of three officers and sixty-three EMs, six companies and a HQ company in a battalion, or about 470 in all. This was almost identical to a British Commando, or Special Forces, battalion. Only the name was different. No one wanted to use the term "Commando" for American forces; the glory of that name would be for all time British.
In North Ireland, in 1942, General Truscott, who was then attached to the staff of the Commander of Combined Operations and had helped form the new American forces, had selected the name "Ranger." There was no more honorable name in American military history.
Boam-Boom-boom-pow! The explosions and bright flashes were close ahead now, and the LCI streamed forward. Crouching, Martin looked for the purple-orange winks of machine-gun fire from the beach, listened for the long rip of the MG 42s. But the beach was quiet except for the rocket barrage. Maybe the Krauts were going to play it like the Japs, let the first wave come ashore before they opened up. Where the hell were they -- in bed?
Then, suddenly, a battery blazed from the shore. A heavy shell passed over the LCI with a shriek, while the helmeted heads rippled like grain, ducking down. The shore gun fired again, and a spout of water burst high off their stern. But guns of the big cruisers offshore were swinging now, vomiting flame.
Whirrrrr. The shells roared over like express trains, bothering the Rangers worse than the wild German fire. Brrroom-broom! Flame spouted high back of the beaches, and the enemy guns went dead.
Louie Martin kept thinking, Hit the beach, move back from the water. Then we flank Anzio itself and take it, house to house, if necessary. He was trying to remember the maps and diagrams of the town with which he had briefed his men. My God, his mind was blank. All he could remember was that Anzio was a Roman beach resort, in the old days.
He lifted up, still surprised that no small-arms fire sang against the LCI. He could see the beach plainly now in the clear night. There was a long waterfront street up from the beach, and a dark mass of stone buildings behind that. Way back a heavy blackness rose; that must be the bluff on the maps. Now Louie had it -- he recalled Anzio-Nettuno was really almost one town, stretched along the seacoast.
The towns covered about three miles, but they only went back a block or two from the water. Sure, everybody wanted a sea view, just like back home. And the buildings were villas and four-and five-story apartments where the rich Eyeties came for the summer, and office buildings, too. Everything was of stone, like all over Italy, and would be bloody hell to reduce if defended.
He looked behind him, shouted, "Lock and load!"
The weapon bolts clattered, and blackened faces drew back from white teeth. Even Pella was straining forward now, ready to dash up the beach. Martin heard Krueger shout, "Don't linger in the boat!"
By God, Martin thought, Bill Darby would be proud, no matter what happened in Anzio. The colonel was only class of '33 at West Point, a young man, not much past thirty. But Louie Martin found it hard to think of Darby as a West Pointer. Sure, he was erect, keen, intelligent, afire with enthusiam and the old school try -- but he didn't play war by the book either. The rules didn't always work, and Bill Darby knew it, where a lot of his classmates at that general factory didn't.
The high brass was dubious of the Rangers. It was the same all over. The British brass didn't like Stirling's Commandos either. The professionals always distrusted anybody who didn't fight by the book.
Hell, even that Kraut, Skorzeny, probably had trouble with the Junker generals. He was head of the Kraut Commandos, and he was still only a captain! Nobody really liked elite or special troops. The generals distrusted them, and the dogfaces hated anybody who thought they were hot stuff.
I don't blame the dogfaces, Martin thought; we cop the headlines, like the damn Marines. He smiled. Then, as he loaded his carbine, with the small part of him that thought like an officer, he agreed a little with the brass. Outfits like the Commandos or Rangers drew tough men, sure, but they also drew the trouble seekers. And men who sought danger and death like thirsty men wine -- well, they didn't take to discipline, sometimes. A general would rather lose a war than lose discipline.
But when a special and dirty job was there to be done... Louie Martin straightened his glasses on his thin nose, shifted his carbine. He realized the Navy rocket barrage had lifted, and they were almost on the beach.
The landing craft grated on sand then, and Martin heard the Navy coxswain yell, "Take 'em away, Lieutenant!"
The steel bulkheads were down, the LCI stopped, and there was nothing between Louie Martin and the beach but his OD shirt.
"Hit the beach!" he called and leaped into the shallow waves arching in to the shore. The water was not deep here, but it was cold as ice. Sucking in his breath at the shock, he held his carbine high and pushed strongly through the water. He glanced behind him, saw the platoon pouring out of the boat. "Come on, come on! Move!"
They splashed ashore, moving as fast as possible against the slowing pull of thigh-deep water. A man stumbled and went down.
"Oh, Jesus!" he screamed, in exasperation, staggering up dripping out of the small breakers. It was Pella.
"Clear your piece, Pella," Martin snapped. The jerk probably had the barrel choked with sand.
Now there seemed to be firing all around them. Martin could see flashes and hear gunfire all along the beach, but who the hell was shooting at whom, he couldn't tell. One of the men behind him cut loose at the buildings up ahead. The bullets almost took Martin's head off.
He heard Krueger shout, "Cut that out, goddamnit! No firing -- no firing yet!"
"Follow me," Martin shouted. He pounded across the paved street running parallel to the water. He could hear and see other platoons crossing to either side of him. But, strangely, there was no light in any of the buildings he passed. The Eyetie civilians must have been evacuated by the Krauts.
In the dark there was confusion. A little way off to the right, an automatic weapon chattered harshly. A voice screamed, "Cut it out, damnit! We're not Krauts!"
Up from Yellow Beach, Anzio was only a block deep. When Martin had passed an imposing stone apartment house he found himself in the clear, under the low bluff that back-stopped the stretched-out town.
"Up on the high ground," he panted to Krueger, whom he heard cursing, rather than saw, in the faint light.
The bluff was sandy and covered with tall cedar trees. Here, in the open, Martin could look out to the sea, where the dark silhouettes of big ships lay three miles off shore. Between the convoy and the beaches passed a steady stream of landing craft, leaving long bright streaks in the black water. There was a lot of light and noise from Red and Green, where the dogfaces of the 3rd had gone ashore, and from the north, a faint sound of firing hung on the early morning wind.
Closer, to his right, the 509th Paratroopers seemed to be shooting up a storm in Nettuno. Martin bit his lip. Could be trouble -- but, hell, those hopheads would shoot at anything. Anybody who'd all join hands and jump out of airplanes.... With his running and heavy breathing, his glasses had steamed up. He took them off, blinking against the dark, and rubbed the lenses with an OD handkerchief.
Krueger came up beside him. "I hate to say it, Lieutenant, but it looks like nothin' went wrong." Krueger scratched his long, weathered face unhappily. "For the first time in the history of warfare, nothin' went wrong."
"It will, Sarge," Henry said, moving out of the dark, hot-eyed and nasty-voiced as ever. "You wait. Somebody'll louse this deal up yet."
"No, we made it," Private Pella said, his voice high. "By God, I think this is going to be easy, sir. The Krauts aren't here, or they aren't fighting!"
"Don't sindig," the brawny, heavy-set Meyer complained, setting his M-1 butt on the sandy ground.
"That's Yiddish for don't count your goddamn chickens too soon," Meyer's rich Gotham accent replied.
"Oh, for Christ's sake, cut out the chatter. You a bunch of recruits?" Krueger said. He dropped into a squat beside Martin. "What now, sir?"
"We wait. Hell, I thought it'd take us two hours to get this far, if we got here at all," Martin said. "We'll have to go back into the town and start clearing it out, but we wait until Battalion gets things straightened out."
"Yeah," Krueger said. He took off his helmet, scratched at his head. "Damn bad fire fight between our own boys could get started down there."
Now another unit moved up on the bluff near them. There were whispered challenges, countersigns. Somebody slapped a rifle butt, laughed.
A captain came along the rows of cedars. "Martin? Where's Martin?"
"Here, sir." Louie stepped out from the trees.
"Good. All your men make it okay? No casualties? Good! Major Dodson says take your boys back along the street, start clearing the port area. The other battalion'll go south, link up with the 509th."
"All right," Martin said. "Let's go."
He led them out of the cedar grove, down the hill and into the main boulevard of Anzio. They clung to the side of the stone edifices, in the shadows.
"Okay, house to house," Martin said. "Don't by-pass anything unless you know damn well it's clear, or someone will get killed. Okay? Krueger, you take that side of the street. Move out."
Caution lay in the young, hard faces as the Rangers heaved up their weapons and moved along the dark street. A large house or villa loomed up before them. "Go in," Martin ordered. He stood back, covering with his carbine as Henry shot the lock off the door.
The villa was dark. Henry swore. "Where the hell's the light switch?" Newton took out his flashlight, swung the light over the room. It was bare except for the dust on the floor. Inside, he felt fairly safe using the light. Besides, it was obvious nobody had disturbed the dust here for some time.
Pella came back from one of the rooms. "Furniture all piled up in there, sir," he reported. "It's all wrapped in burlap, too. Looks like whoever lived here moved out."
"Evacuated by the Krauts. That's normal on the coast," Martin said. "Look around good, men. See what's outside."
Meyer came up from the cellar. "Hey, Lieutenant, you know there's nothing but wine cellars down there? Looks like they go on for a mile!"
"Bring any full bottles back?" It was Henry's voice, eager.
"Nah. Only found a couple of empty barrels. The stinkin' Nazis been here first."
Martin grinned. "Come on, we got more to worry about than Dago red."
They went back in the street, pressed on, with a file on each side of the street, in the approved fashion. Men went forward, breaking into buildings while others covered with automatic weapons. Now and then a grenade coughed, a rifle slammed, as the Rangers took no chances. But that was all. No one fired back. There were no Krauts.
"Damnit," Louie Martin told Krueger as they joined at a street junction almost before the port warehouses, "I don't get it. There is supposed to be a Kraut division defending along here."
Krueger gestured with his big left hand. "You know what, Lieutenant? For my money, they're back up in 'the hills, just waitin'."
"No. Krauts don't fight that way. Remember Africa, Sicily? The minute you hit a German, the first thing he does is counterattack -- hard. Something is fishy here."
Krueger shrugged. "Maybe there just ain't any Tedeschi. Maybe they were all sent south, to stop II Corps's offensive at the Rapido River."
Martin said, "There must be forty thousand spies in Naples. We couldn't sail out of there, move a hundred twenty miles up the coast, and still surprise the Germans. Nix, Krueger. I can't buy it."
They pressed on, moving faster now, more carelessly. Waiting for Martin to move out across a small square, Henry asked Pella, "Say, who's this Al Ricovero, the Dago with his name on the walls? Some kind of big shot?"
"That means Air Raid Shelter, you fathead," Pella said disgustedly.
"Yeah? Well, I don't speak the Dago, you know, no capish--"
"Shut up," Martin told them, irritably.
Another half-hour, and they met men from the third Ranger battalion that had come ashore at Anzio. None of the three had met any resistance, though they had shot up a few houses here and there. There was still the sound of firing coming down the shoreline, not close, but just enough to keep everyone jumpy. Hell, this was worse than being fired at!
One of Martin's men moved forward. "Sir, Major Dobson's looking for you." He pointed. "Down there by that big palm tree on the avenue."
A knot of Ranger officers gathered, talking quietly in the street. "Hi. You see anything?"
"One of my men thinks he got a Kraut."
"How about you, Major Miller?"
"Quiet. The town's clear of enemy -- maybe some in the cellars."
Martin recognized Major Alvah Miller, CO of the 3rd Battalion. He stepped up, reported smartly to Major Dobson, his own CO. He didn't see his company commander around. Miller was saying, "Let Colonel Darby know the Navy can come in now, start clearing the port of mines. This is a big break for General Lucas -- we can start bringing in supplies pretty quick."
Martin saw other Ranger officers approaching by twos and threes from the dark streets.
"All right," his battalion commander said. "Here's the scoop, men. Apparently we caught the Germans with their pants down. If they have any troops, they are to the north, nearer Rome. But we can count on them bringing up reinforcements quickly -- possibly two to four divisions in a couple of days. That's straight from Fifth Army G-2. So the war isn't over yet. "We're still attached to General Truscott and the 3rd Division. Now that the coast has been cleared, we've got to move inland and establish the beachhead line. We'll have a perimeter around the port about seven miles deep and some fifteen miles long. There's a good highway going north from Anzio toward Albano. Everything east of the road is our country, west side is for the British. Don't cross boundaries. The 3rd Division's right boundary, on the south, is the Mussolini Canal along by the Pontine Marshes."
"Big front," someone said quietly.
"Damn big. But we'll have two more divisions, the 45th and 1st Armored -- or at least the best part of 'em -- ashore before long. Now, we push out to the beachhead line, give the port a chance to unload a few supplies. I imagine in a day or so we'll blast in toward Cisterna and the Alban Hills, to cut the German roads to the southern front. But first things first. Let's get out to the beachhead line. Watch your steps."
Martin returned to his platoon. "On your feet. It's off to the races again."
The Rangers struck inland, crossing the bluff that towered above the town of Anzio and skirting the thick pine woods that rose up near the sea. The trees grew in thick clumps, with open fields between the stands. The timbered area Seemed to run about five miles. Going through it, Louie Martin thought it would make, a fine supply dump.
Off to his west, in the British zone of advance, the ground looked rough and broken by deep ravines -- what the veterans of North Africa called "wadi country." That kind of terrain played the devil with armor, but it was good for infiltration.
To the east and south, in the 3rd Division's zone, the land opened up flatly for miles. The soil itself was marshy, sodden from the rains, but it was crossed by good, paved roads, one to Albano, beyond the Alban Hills, and a highway leading off to Cisterna, a rail center. Beside the main highways there seemed to be a number of flat, paved side roads, too.
Martin studied the terrain keenly in the early dawn. He remembered that this area was supposed to be good for maneuver. But G-2's maps were not too good. They didn't show the gulleys and ravines in the British zone, and didn't indicate that all vehicular traffic would be road-bound elsewhere near Anzio. Martin looked northward, to the high, brooding hill mass called the Colli Laziali, or Alban Hills. From up there, he figured, every inch of the beachhead was visible to Kraut eyes. We will have to take those hills, and soon, he thought.
They passed through the wooded area, out into the flat-lands. Here the landscape was dotted with two-storied poderi, the plastered-stone Italian farmhouses. This part of Italy was recently reclaimed land, part of Mussolini's big drainage and resettlement project in the Pontine Marshes. The houses were new, modern for Italy, but they were built with the ugly sameness that characterized government projects the world over. In the fields near the houses grazed herds of lean, dark cattle.
Here they encountered their first Italians. While the coast had been cleared by the Germans for security reasons, none of the farmers had been moved from the land. The peasants poured from their stone houses once they realized these passing troops were not Tedeschi but Americani. The women waved, the men shouted and waved bottles of red wine and forty-octane cognac.
Martin grimly pushed them off. "Keep away from 'em," he ordered. "This isn't liberation day yet!" He grinned, then shouted, "Pella! Knock it off -- unless that's your long lost cousin!"
Pella broke off his halting Italian, blushed. "Sir, they say there are Tedeschi up ahead -- lots of them."
"We'll find 'em," Martin prophesied. "All right, spread out more. Let's go."
They went another mile, and Martin could not see the units on his left. They had apparently pushed ahead of the others. That wasn't good, and he was thinking about holding it up for a bit, when the first automatic fire ripped through the grass. Everybody hit the dirt. Martin cursed as he felt the moisture from the soggy earth soak through his field jacket. Rrrip! Rrrip! You didn't have to be a veteran to know that was no American machine gun, he thought sourly.
"That farmhouse -- over there!" Sergeant Krueger shouted. "Tedeschi!" Krueger, a Dutchman himself, didn't like the word "Kraut."
"Okay," Martin said loudly. "You know what to do. Lets move in!"
Copyright © 1962 by T. R. Fehrenbach