Anzio - My Father's War
Anzio to the River Po: 1944-1945
By Bert Reed 24th Field Regiment Royal Artillery
I enlisted in the Army in 1938. During World War 2 I served in North Africa, Italy, and India. I landed in North Africa as part of ‘Operation Torch’ After the fighting in Tunisia and Algeria I received extra training in the desert at a French outpost Chateau Dun. This covered driving and maintenance of Sherman tanks. I was a gunner in the Royal Artillery trained on all the types of radio in the army. I could send and receive Morse code at 25 words a minute, furthermore we had to be capable of using Aldis lamps and heliograph. I also had to be able to drive any army vehicle including a tank.
picture to the left is me Bert Reed – taken in 1946.
Our draft left Algiers harbour one January evening in 1944. We made our way out to sea heading west. We thought perhaps we were going back to England because all information regarding are destination was kept secret. However, next morning I went up on deck I realised we had changed course and were now sailing east. We still had no idea of where we were going, but guessed we might be headed for Italy to support the fighting there.
secrecy was part of army life it was often resented by the ordinary squaddies.
Army top brass never told us where we were headed. They seemed to assume that
only officers should be told and thought that those without a commission did not
have the intelligence to handle real information. However, we all knew that the
real strength of command were the
NCO’s – especially the
sergeants. I later became a sergeant myself and then I got to confirm just how
true this was. Without our sergeants the army would just fall apart.
We travelled across the sea, still guessing that we would join our forces in Italy. All we had to do was hang around on deck. We were suddenly aroused by someone shouting, "Land ahead" We all looked in the direction he pointed. As time passed things began to take shape. We could see white buildings all along the coastline.
Slowly we reached quayside in the port of Naples and once the ship was secured, gangplanks were placed up the side of the ship and disembarkation started. Men poured out of the ship onto the quayside. Three ton lorries took us to our Camp and we went through Naples to reach it. It was called Lammie Camp. It was in an orchard, but, the ground was four inches deep in black dust. This came from the Vesuvius volcano that had recently erupted causing a lot of local devastation. During the time at this camp I managed to get into Naples, and also visited Old Pompeii which, in the days of the Roman Empire had been utterly destroyed and buried in ash from a violent volcanic explosion.
I soon left the camp to arrive at a holding area at a fishing village north of Naples called Casteellamare. This small fishing village would play an important part in the Anzio invasion. One evening a mobile cinema came and we saw some up to date movies.
We tried to trade our Victory V cigarettes with Italians for wine, but, they would not take them. We always said they were made from camel shit. Gradually our numbers dwindled as we were moved down to the quay to board landing craft. Once we were on board the landing craft, we were not allowed to get off it.
Towards sunset our landing craft slipped their moorings, making for the open sea. Our armada of ships was now making a westerly heading, so, still kept in the dark we incorrectly guessed we were to invade the south of France. However, when we were out of sight of the coast we changed direction and headed northwards. We were called on deck and then told we were going to a place called Anzio some 100 miles behind enemy lines, and only about 30 miles from Rome. Anzio was an Italian summer holiday resort. At last we knew where we were going. In Roman times the emperor Nero fled to Anzio whilst Rome was burning.
It was getting dark, but, the weather was mild. It almost felt like summer cruise, but, during the night we passed by Cassino where the US 5th Army was engaged. The sky was full of gun flashes from both German and Allied artillery. It seemed surreal and eerie. We crept up the Italian coastline so as to land behind the Germans and attack them, cross and hold Routes 6 and 7 and cut the enemy supply lines so that the battle of Cassino could be won by the 5th Army. Cassino was a key part of the Gustav line which was holding up the whole of the Allied advance. Italy is perfect country for a defending army with mountains and fast deep rivers forming natural defensive barriers. Hitler had put his best troops into Italy and their Commander Field Marshall Kesselring was doing a canny job making our armies pay dear for every inch of advance. However, with our command of the sea we had the chance to out-flank him and so shorten the whole campaign.
The main landings had already taken place several days before. This had been an easy landing because the enemy had been taken by surprise. However, about the time I landed they had recovered from this and building up heavy reinforcements. This meant that the easy part was over so (just my luck) things were getting pretty nasty just as I arrived.
Morning came, and as we approached the shore we saw that the Germans were firing on the town and at our ship in the harbour and out in the bay. All our ships including warships, transports and landing craft were returning fire. This was a spectacular sight and the noise was unbelievable. German aircraft were buzzing around strafing and bombing.
We landed by climbing down the gang-planks into the water almost to our necks – it felt like our helmets might just float away! Military Police directed us to the Lateral Road that ran from the town to the immediate front line. Under constant enemy fire we wore our steel helmets. There was no infantry fighting within the town but, our engineers were clearing rubble, mines and booby traps. However, our beachhead was only seven miles in depth so the enemy front line was pretty close.
We boarded a three ton lorry and travelled down the Lateral Road still under enemy fire. The lateral road was the one which led to the Alban Hills from the town of Anzio. Unfortunately our front line was below the Alban Hills and overlooked by the enemy who had by now got the range and registration of just about everything we had.
We passed the tented army hospital on our right. Just past the hospital we drove into a field and were greeted by a sergeant who directed us to some more tents overlooking the hospital. I was with one other chap in the tent and the flaps were open. As we talked we became aware of the sound of an aircraft engine. Looking out across the hospital towards the town we saw a German fighter flying towards us. We fell flat onto our faces, then, over the engine noise we heard another sound, the sound of machine gun fire. As he fired at us, we could do nothing about it. I was paralyzed with fear. Suddenly he was gone. We looked at each other and my first words were "that was a close shave” I thought “welcome to Anzio”.
I only spent one night at this camp during which time I had to do night-time guard duty at the entrance on the Lateral road. Traffic passed back and forth when, suddenly there was silence. I was alone with only a rifle defending a field and became apprehensive. I took cover behind a bush. The silence was broken by the sound of tank tracks along the road. I stood there rooted to my position when a large tank appeared. I did not recognize its shape I did not know if it was one of theirs or one of ours. I did n’t care because I was not going out there to find out! What chance did I have with only a rifle? It trundled past, and within a short time it returned making its way to the front line. I breathed a sigh of relief.
When the Sergeant turned up he asked if anything had happened. I asked him if he had heard of anything untoward. He said “they say there was a Tiger Tank roaming around during the night” I stopped dead in my tracks and nearly shit myself. What could I do against a Tiger tank I thought. It was the twice size of our Shermans with armour so thick even a 75 mm AP shell would bounce off it. I felt a bit nervous because I had not told him the full story, but, it did not really matter because he all ready knew and said “but bloody right boy, you would not have seen my arse for dust”
Next morning a Jeep arrived to take me away to join my regiment. I was a replacement for one of the Signallers who had become a casualty! I got into the Jeep with my gear and the driver informed me I would be joining the 22nd battery of the 24th Field Regiment RA. As we made our way to the battery he told me the regiment had tracked 105mm Guns – these were called ‘Priests’ - guns with flash eliminators. The OP's (observation posts) were Sherman Tanks.
We were stopped by a Military Policeman at the crossroads who asked where we were going. The driver told him we were joining our regiment who were in the woods. He told us to be careful, Jerry was shelling the road.
We reached the opening in the woods that would take us to the gun position. The whole place was full of American-made artillery. I asked the driver the reason for all the notices on trees. "Dust brings shells" he told me “if you drive fast the dust rises and Jerry can see it so he fires at us the dust cloud right away”.
We arrived at the battery command post to be greeted by the signal sergeant, a Scotsman. “Well lad, you are replacing one of the lads in Battery HQ” my name would be put on the duty roster for duties on the telephone exchange, and the radio taking fire orders. He took me over to one of the nearby Sherman tanks calling out to the driver whose name was Bill. He introduced us and left. My new home would be the foxhole which Bill was strengthening with wooden slats from the ammunition boxes.
The Padiglione Woods, where 24th Field Regiment had their gun sites in 1944.
It was time to have some food (hard tack rations). Bill introduced me to all the other lads. They were not in a receptive mood. They had been dive-bombed earlier and lost some of their mates. As time went by they seemed to warm to me. We had all been thrown together in this war and none of us really wanted to be there. They were a peace-time regiment on their way home from serving their time in India when the war broke out. It was understandable how they felt.
My duties with the battery were to take my shifts on the telephone exchange and the radio receiving fire-orders from the Observation Post (OP). I also had to go up into the OP as needed.
Our lines would get cut by shrapnel etc and they had to be immediately repaired so often we would go out with a field telephone, trace the break and repair it. This was not so good in the dark. There were times we had to re-lay the lines because the breaks were so bad. Laying a fresh line meant going out with a 15 cwt truck. Laying lines from a moving truck is dangerous. Under fire the truck had to move at around 30 mph. We had to stand on the back of this open moving truck feeding the cable from the end of a long pole rather like a fishing rod. The truck would heave and jolt. As well as being under threat from enemy artillery it was even more likely you could be thrown out into the road.
Everything seemed doom and gloom. Gradually I came to understand why this was. We were trapped with our backs to the sea surrounded by superior enemy forces in positions completely overlooking our beach head. Hitler gave very high priority to operations at Anzio because he thought our defeat would be a superb propaganda coup. He called us the ‘Anzio Abscess’.
Late in 1943 the British conducted a successful amphibious landing behind the German lines at Termoli on the eastern coast. This gave the idea for Anzio which was pushed by the British with strong backing from Winston Churchill. However, the forthcoming D-Day operation in Normandy starved us of resources so it was conducted on a shoestring and with barely enough land forces to do the job. All the same, the actual landing was a success catching the German Army by surprise (some officers were taken prisoner still in their pyjamas) However, such a bold and daring plan required a bold and daring General and the American General Lucas was a cautious commander. Instead of cutting German lines of retreat, supply, and communications behind the Gustav line our armies just dug in under General Lucas’s orders. This gave the enemy time to surround us with superior numbers and heavy artillery. Moreover, the Germans used very high quality troops against us and large calibre artillery weapons. Our Navy could not help much by counter-bombardment because they were under constant air attack (as were we) so we were stuck in an impossible position fighting for our lives. Several of our ships had been sunk or damaged by enemy aircraft and shells from ‘Anzio Annie. This was our situation from January to late May of 1944. Nevertheless, try as they might the Germans could not force us into the sea and could not take our beachhead from us.
This map below shows how close we were to Rome but hemmed in by the Alban Hills, the sea and the marshes. If General Lucas had moved quickly instead of digging in we could have taken and held the Alban Hills and won a quicker victory.Afterwards I learned that Winston Churchill was furious with General Lucas and said "I had hoped that we were hurling a wildcat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale." General Lucas was sent back to the USA and replaced by another American General Truscott who was a good general and changed the whole situation.
All the same, in the end our Anzio campaign was a success. Hitler put such priority to Anzio, the Germans weakened their forces on other fronts in the hope of wiping out our beachhead. Maybe their General’s mistakes more than cancelled out ours.
General Alexander, the Supreme Commander wrote in his autobiography:
“Anzio played a vital role in the capture of Rome by giving me the means to employ a double-handed punch - from the beachhead and from Cassino - which caught the Germans in a pincer movement. Without this double-handed punch I do not believe we should ever have been able to break through the German defences at Cassino”
General Alexander spoke the truth, but, that did not alter the fact that the actions at top level made the job of the soldiers like me so much harder and cost more lives. As ever, the ordinary soldiers made up for the deficiencies of generals. This is how it became such a hell on earth and everything seemed doom and gloom.
The Americans had built a small underground cinema which was almost shell proof. We were invited and, anyone that could be spared went to see a movie from time to time.
The ‘Big Bertha’ (“Anzio Annie" a huge 280-mm. German railway gun) fired down on the town from the Alban Hills, one of its shells fell short and made a large hole in the ground. This shell crater was so big we made good use of it because it was almost like a Roman amphi-theatre Sometimes an American band would perform at the base of the crater while we sat all the around inside on the slopes. This was a lot safer as the enemy shells just whizzed overhead.
As the beachhead became more organised we eventually got access to a mobile shower unit, so we were able to get cleaned up. Believe me it was dangerous, especially when the shells were falling because for example no-one wears a steel helmet in the shower! At the showers you were able to meet so many of the other lads from different regiments. I met very many of the Guards units who suffered so badly in the line. I also met the famous BBC reporter-of-the-day Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. We exchanged our stories in the shower together.
No one can imagine what it was like on the beachhead. It has been compared with conditions in World War I on the Somme. Living in a hole in the ground for a long period has its effect on you. The way forward was impossible and, the way back was out to sea – with no ships because they had all gone to prepare for the Normandy invasion. If we had been defeated it would have been a massacre.
The Germans fired leaflets from some of their airburst artillery shells. One of them was designed to cause friction between American and British soldiers. It showed one of our women in bed, and an American looking very happy with himself putting his tie back on. The words said “this is what the Americans are doing while you are away” Other leaflets showed pictures of the sea with a floating steel helmet. No-one took any notice of these. Maybe some of the more timid souls were affected, but if they were they certainly never said so. We just accepted the situation and made the best of it.
Because our beachhead was so shallow, in effect everyone was in the front line, but, those lads up at the very front had it bad every single moment. Jerry would attack and take many prisoners, then; we would counter attack and take them back. It was a really crazy war. The weather didn't help, it rained constantly and we thought all the time “when will the day come we can get out of this hell-hole” The whole operation was so demoralizing there was a news blackout for the folks back home. The reason given to us was that they did not need to hear our bad news because they were having enough trouble themselves with all the bombing and food shortages. This meant that at the time, the British and American public never heard the truth about Anzio. Even after the war no one seemed to know where Anzio was let alone what it was all about. It seemed like it was another was another cock up like Gallipoli – and the idea of the same man too.
One day I was ordered to go to our OP up at the flyover in a Jeep. I really thought it was stupid going up in broad daylight, the Lateral Road had open country side on either side of the road and Jerry had the whole road registered for artillery. This meant anyone on that road in daylight was a sitting duck. However, orders are orders, so I set off on my trip alone. I drove through the forest on to the Lateral Road. A Military Policeman stepped out onto the road and stopped me asking where I was going. When I explained to him what my orders were, he thought my signal Sergeant was nuts. I drove off and had gone about a quarter of a mile, when the shells started to come my way. Jerry’s OP's had spotted me on the road and I was an easy target. As I travelled forward the shells were following me and getting closer. The ground heaved and shook, the noise of the explosions was deafening and overwhelming. Up ahead I could see a farm house on the left of the road. I raced for it, turned in and hid behind it. I sat shaking like a leaf, took out a cigarette and smoked it. The shelling stopped, I assumed he couldn't see me. After I had finished my cigarette and pulled myself together. I decided the only thing to do was to go back because I had only managed to cover a small distance because of all the artillery shells aimed at me.
I pulled out onto the road and started to drive back into the forest. I had not been on the road long, before the shells started to land on the road behind me again. I put my foot down and started to talk to the Jeep, "Come on baby give me all you've got, and let’s get out of here to the safety of the woods” I reached the woods and pulled in to where the Military Policeman was standing. "That was a close one my son," he said. I agreed, took out my cigarettes, offered him one, and we had a quiet smoke. We said our farewells, and I drove back to our command post, the first to greet me was the signal Sergeant. He asked how it went, and when I explained how Jerry was firing on me. “Never mind we just have to go up tonight when it’s dark” he said. I had expected him to put me on a charge for not fulfilling his orders, so, when he said we will go up tonight” I walked away breathing a sigh of relief. Battlefield discipline can be very unforgiving.
My tank commander who was the Battery Commander Major Britain left, he was replaced by Major Crawford. He was a strange one, always looking for his MC which eventually he did get much later in the campaign. A couple of days later I had to go and pick Major Crawford up from our Regimental HQ. I was driving down the Lateral road, which in this sector ran between the woods down to the town of Anzio when I saw a German fighter coming towards me. I slowed down, switched off the ignition, turned the steering wheel towards the bank and jumped out the other side, and rolled across the road into a ditch. The fighter’s cannon shells went between me and the Jeep. It was then I said to myself “these bloody Germans are out to get me” I looked down, and, there on the ground was a packet of American sweets, Guess what? They were called “Life-Savers” I giggled and remarked to myself "Someone up there is looking after me”.
In early February the Germans made quite a large attack on our forward positions, he gained ground during the attack, but he was once again forced back by the intense fire of the Artillery. During this period our guns were firing day and night. Our ammunition was now getting low. Lorries were loaded with loose ammunition and drove straight onto the landing craft at Naples, and when they reached Anzio and Nettuno they drove straight to gun positions and were unloaded much quicker. As usual bad weather delayed the vehicles, because of the muddy conditions through the woods.
Our OP's in the Shermans were having a bad time. Two of our signalers were cut off and captured. Another OP returning to our position was hit by an amour-piercing shell. It killed the whole crew.
We realised we were going to be in this place for quite a while so we strengthened our foxholes. We had many enemy shells drop close by, we never had a direct hit. The cold and the muddy situation did not affect us as much as I expected. Let’s face it what could we do? We were in a very isolated position, cut off from the rest of the armies in Italy. Our thoughts continued to focus on the day we could break out of this hell-hole.
Reinforcements were arriving because of our heavy losses. By the February 20th no further ground had been lost, and it seemed to become a little quieter. It was during this period that a report was received that the radar had picked up a counter invasion fleet sailing southwards. All guns were made prepared to move at a moments notice to take up coastal defensive positions. The invasion fleet turned out to be a convoy of coal barges moving down the coast to the River Tiber, near Rome.
The Germans eventually realised the British and Americans had a defensive line too strong to be liquidated, so, we reinforced our foxholes and settled down to a long and weary period of static warfare while we built up reinforcements and ammunition stocks for our breakout which eventually took place in late May.
The area in front of the woods was known as the Pontaine Marshes. These had been reclaimed and turned into small co-operative farms. Across these marshes the Germans had tried to penetrate our defences by sending a small radio controlled tank loaded with explosives.
Ammunition was restricted in order to build up for the future when we would break out, so we once again reinforced our fox-holes. In our command post we had a piano that Major England and I found in the ruins of one of the houses in Anzio. We used to have a visit from an American who was with an American Artillery Battery down the road. He would play the piano. It was only after the war when I went to America to visit my parent company that I visited his folks and found out he was writing music for musical shows before he was called up.
From March onwards it was a combination of excitement, dullness, and even boredom and it seemed our break-out would never come. It was during this period some of the chaps got a pass to Naples for a few days.
The weather was getting warmer and the area was being sprayed for mosquitoes. Some of the lads had caught malaria, some caught dysentery. They had to stop troops going to the hospital because it got so over crowded with Malaria and Dysentery patients there was no room for casualties. So you just had to really suffer at your place of duty. The battery had a collapsible WC which was rigged up in a clearing. The flies around there became huge and had a vicious sting. To keep them down we used petrol. Every day an orderly poured petrol down on the waste then set fire to it to keep the flies off. Our position was shelled just after the orderly had poured down the petrol. He had to run for cover and had no time to light the petrol. When the shelling stopped I decided I wanted to go to the Loo, so, so I lifted up the flap and sat down, lit a cigarette, lifted the next position lid and threw down the lighted match. The petrol fumes had built up so WHOOOOMPH I was thrown off my throne. Everyone else thought it a huge joke. I had to laugh myself.
It’s most surprising how well we got along. You would have thought we’d have become bored and irritable with each other but we didn’t. When you are in the battle you don't have time to think about these unimportant things. You knew we were all in trouble together and became very close. No-one walked around looking miserable. We had so much to do and there was no point in brooding at all. Our morale held up well.
As the weather improved our aircraft came over more and more bombing the Germans. We felt it would not be long before we would make a large scale attack on them. Rumours flew around. We were told we would be eventually joining the American 3rd Infantry Division for the breakout and the eventual advance on Rome. When it was dark we travelled over to the American sector where we dug gun positions for our 105mm SP guns. We ate in their cookhouse. What a difference in the food they had! It was like eating at the Ritz compared to our meager rations.
The Big Day eventually came. The American 5th army handed over the Cassino assault to the British. On May 12th the offensive at Monte Cassino began. On 18th May, Allied troops led by the Polish Corps captured Monte Cassino. We were ready and waiting so, the very next day, May 19th we moved to our new positions in the American sector, ready for the breakout, we supported the Americans as they advanced. The battery had set up the guns and my tank and battery commander Major Crawford sent me back to RHQ to pick up orders. On the way back I drove past by the opening that would take me to our gun positions. Before I knew it I was through our infantry front line, then, into an area between our infantry and the German infantry. I was caught in the crossfire. This was absolutely frantic. I could hear rifle and machine rounds buzzing around me. I slammed on the brakes realizing I was in really trouble and in no-man’s land. I managed a hasty reverse gear change, sped back through our own line like a bat out of hell. It was amazing, but, despite hundreds of bullets whizzing by I never got a scratch. Once again I was being cared for by the man up stairs.
At 05:45hrs on May 23rd the attack on Cisterna began. American Infantry supported by tanks moved forward, they came up against the Herman Goring Division holding the main route to Rome. Eventually, the German defences fell apart under our sustained pressure together with the forces from the south.
We went forward with an American New York newspaper correspondent. There was a fierce battle going on, there were dead bodies all over. He was very keen on photographing the dead bodies. After he had done so we would drag them off the road into the fields. We could not bring ourselves to drive over the bodies of fallen men.
The regiment set up in a position just south of Rome. We heard by radio that one of our tanks was in trouble just outside Rome. The battery commander asked me if I would go up with some rations to tide them over until REME could get there to pull them out of a ditch.
I drove along the highway to Rome, which was crowded with American vehicles we suddenly came to a halt. I asked an American Military Policeman what was happening. He said General Mark Clarke was coming this way up to the front. He wanted to be the first into Rome. This is a very controversial thing, but the vanity of this General who disobeyed orders from Field Marshal Alexander cost lives. His collection of Jeeps arrived, I saw a break in the line of vehicles I just joined much to the surprise of those who were standing around. The motorcade suddenly turned off to the left. I drove on and found myself in the middle of a tank battle. The Americans were firing down the main road at some German tanks. I got out of the Jeep and took shelter, and was in a good position to see the battle going on. Unbelievably walking down the road came an Italian wedding party. The bride and bridegroom with their guests took not a bit of notice of the battle. However, they soon turned off the road and I did not see them again. The battle raged on, but, I hoped they had a nice wedding party – and a happy marriage.
In the book titled The poor Bloody Infantry 1939-1945 written by Charles Whiting there is a a photograph of me laying on the ground just outside Rome alongside an American infantryman (I am the one on the left - see photo below) The wedding was talking place just down the road, and the sign you can see in the picture 'ROMA' sign was taken down and given to General Mark Clarke and it hangs in his home.
I managed to reach our lads and give them their rations and told them the REME would soon be up. Nearby were some blocks of flats and communist guerillas were dancing around and firing wildly into the air.
Once Rome fell, our regiment was pulled out of action, but, we spent a few weeks in the area. When the Eternal City was completely cleared we were able to visit it quite easily because we were located close to the tramway system.
Meanwhile, the D-Day invasion was launched and we were told the Second Front had begun in Normandy. This tended to push us out of the headline news. Also, we were called the “D-Day Dodgers” How ridiculous, we had forced Italy into surrender, we had decimated and beaten so many of the very best German divisions and weakened the whole of the German army making the job of the D-Day invaders and even the Russians so much easier.
Next we moved to the plains South of the City. Here we constantly rehearsed new tactics with t closely coordinated bombing, artillery barrages after which infantry would advance with close artillery support. These tactics were very useful and used in the breakouts after D-Day in Normandy.
Next, we transferred to the 8th Army, this meant going over the mountains to the East coast. What a journey! That is yet another story. We then fought with the members of the 8th Army up the east coast to the River Po where hostilities eventually finished.
In the Anzio campaign we suffered over 29,000 combat casualties (4,400 killed, 18,000 wounded, 6,800 prisoners or missing) Of these, 16,000 were American and 13,000 British. There were no less than 37,000 non-combat casualties of whom 26,000 were American. German combat losses , were estimated at 27,500 (5,500 killed, 17,500 wounded, and 4,500 prisoners or missing). We shall never know how many non-combat losses were suffered by the German Army. Altogether in the 4 months of the campaign there had been over 100,000 casualties of which at least 10,000 were killed in action. This is a measure of the terrible suffering of war.
The Italians now have a museum in Anzio. They gave to my son a commemoration certificate to bring to me. Perhaps one day I shall return to the beachhead, and lay the ghosts of the past, it was the most terrible period of my life and anyone who shared that time on Anzio will never forget the experience.
Gunner B.L. Reed 14398276 Driver Operator
22nd Battery - 24th Field Regiment Royal Artillery
OP Sherman Tank. Regimental guns American 105mm SP.Guns on tracks (PRIESTS)
Bert in India, 1945.
©Bert & Paul Reed 2007-2010