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- Geoff Glew
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- James Glew
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- 14 November 2003
JAMES GLEW, Sapper, 248 Field Company, Royal Engineers
Operation Shingle. The Anzio Landings
At the end of November 1943, it was announced that 1st Division was moving to Italy. Over a period of a week or so, the Division embarked in Liberty ships from the port of Bizerta and landed at Taranto in Italy. The Division was moved north and grouped in an area between the port of Barletta and the town of Foggia, ready to join the 8th Army, which was fighting its way up the East coast. The intended move up the Adriatic coast was cancelled, as the Division was earmarked to take part in Operation Shingle.
The Germans were holding a formidable defensive position, through Cassino, called the Gustav Line, against which the attacking British and American armies were stalled. Operation Shingle was designed to by-pass the Gustav Line, and land a large body of troops in the German rear areas.
The work of mounting Operation Shingle began on New Year’s Day 1944, with the assault troops converging on the Naples area, their markings removed and their radios silent for security purposes.
.... “We had to take the white triangle divisional badge off our battledress tunics” ....
In the period 4-19th January 1944, the various units carried out intensive training, culminating in landing practices made on the Salerno beaches during the last two days. The composite force of British and American troops became part of the Fifth Army.
On 19-20th January the force of almost 50,000 men and 5,200 vehicles loaded at the embarkation port of Castellamare, at the southern end of the Bay of Naples, for its water movement of 120 miles. Overshadowing the port is Mount Vesuvius, clearly visible to the assembling troops. This volcano, responsible for the death of Pompeii, was to erupt again later in 1944. Amongst the host of soldiers was 248 Field Company, Royal Engineers.
At 0500, 21st January, the ships put out to sea and swung south around Capri on a long roundabout course to avoid German minefields and to deceive the enemy as to the destination. Mine sweepers preceded the craft to clear a channel through the coastal minefields. Cruisers and Destroyers clung to the flanks to ward off enemy E-Boats and submarines. Aboard the assault ships the men passed the time sleeping, checking equipment and arms, playing cards, reading and indulging in any other activity which would allay any anxieties they may have felt about what lay ahead. As night fell and darkness cloaked the convoy’s movements, it swung sharply in towards Anzio. A few minutes after midnight on January 21/22, the ships hove to, dropped anchor and rode easily on a dead calm sea. After two months of planning and training the Fifth Army was on the verge of landing below Rome, at a small town called Anzio.
Promptly at H-Hour, 0200 22nd January, the first waves of craft nosed onto the beach, and the assault troops swarmed ashore. To their astonishment, there was no enemy to greet them. All assault landings went smoothly, according to plan, and by midday all elements of VI Corps, Fifth Army were ashore. The Allies had achieved a complete tactical surprise.
Though the enemy had completely failed to foresee the Allied landing at Anzio, he quickly recovered and diverted to Anzio large portions of the reserves he was moving from the Rome area, the Adriatic and north Italy. By 24th January the pattern of enemy reaction had taken shape. Aggressive, tank supported patrols probed the Allied strength and dispositions, while at the same time screening the enemy’s own concentrations and delaying the advance inland.
Despite ferocious fighting by all divisions of the VI Corps in the Anzio sector, the Germans could not be pushed back. In fact the Germans were attacking vigorously, with the intention of pushing the Allies back into the Mediterranean. Land that had been captured soon after the initial landings in January had to be given up. The 1st Division, in particular, had the difficult job of holding a salient against German attacks. The three exposed flanks of the salient proved too costly to hold and the division had to pull back. Casualties were high on both sides.
.... “We were hurriedly preparing some defensive positions against ‘Gerry’ and the anti tank mines had been primed as we unloaded them from our truck. We then carried the primed mines to the required position - something we should not have been doing. We heard a bang and never found the remains of the sergeant. He must have tripped and fell with the mine” ....
March and April 1944
With both Allied and German forward positions static, conditions at Anzio resembled the trench warfare on the Western Front of the First World War. Except when some movement on either side provoked a sniper’s bullet, or a burst of machine gun fire, or brought down either mortar or artillery fire, the front lines in daylight were still and quiet. With darkness, the beachhead came to life. Patrols went out or were beaten off; trenches and fox-holes repaired; food, ammunition and supplies brought forward; the wounded were evacuated; the dead buried and reliefs carried out. Bursts of harassing fire from time to time, and even flares, would suddenly put a stop to all movement and activity.
.... “Gerry had a multiple barrelled mortar (Nebelwerfer) that could fire several shells at the same time. The batteries of these guns were very frightening, and their salvoes had an unmistakable whining noise. We called ‘em ‘Moaning Minnies’” ....
Unlike the Western Front of the First World War, there were no rear areas as such, and at Anzio, no one was safe. The whole beachhead area was within range of artillery fire and the bulk of VI Corps’ casualties during the period were caused by artillery fire and air raids. Gerry used a wide range of guns from the deadly 88mm to a giant 280mm railway gun, which the troops nicknamed ‘Anzio Annie’ or the ‘Anzio Express’. The Luftwaffe even used rocket powered, remote controlled ‘Glider Bombs’, that were dropped by attacking aircraft and guided on to the shipping, anchored off shore.
.... “Gerry bombers sank the hospital ship, St David I think she was called, that was lying at anchor off shore. She was clearly marked with large red crosses” ....
Jim’s platoon spent quite a bit of time in and around the Flyover. Across a flat open plain there ran an embankment carrying a road. At roughly right angles to it, ran a railway line and road alongside it. These cut through the embankment at a bridge the troops called ‘The Flyover’. The 1st Division had held the area in front of the embankment for several miles before being pushed back by the Germans. The embankment now effectively formed the front line in that particular sector. On the far side of the flyover, facing Jim and the rest of the 1st Division, were the German 65th Infantry Division and the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division.
.... “On my first visit to the Flyover, I saw the British convoy of lorries on the road on the far side of the embankment. The line of trucks was clearly visible through the bridge and against each lorry lay the body of its driver. The convoy of six or seven lorries had taken a wrong turning and gone under the bridge into no man’s land. Gerry held a farm house that overlooked the road and had blown up the lead truck and then machine gunned the drivers as they had tried to escape. The bodies lay there for quite some time. When we did eventually break out and advance, I saw the bodies were still there, now all thickly covered in dust” ....
.... It was impossible to go on top of the embankment because Gerry had it completely covered from their side. But the artillery wanted to post an observer for the ranging of their guns and so we were ordered to dig a tunnel through the embankment and make a window out onto the far side....
.... Gerry was constantly shelling and mortaring the area and the plain was littered with knocked out American Sherman and German tanks. There were also lots of dead cows lying around. The plain was heavily cratered by all the shelling and because of its intensity it was impossible to move up to the embankment during the day. Even the beachhead area and the port was under constant artillery bombardment. Gerry had massive artillery canon mounted on railway wagons miles inland and they would shell the beach area regularly with the damned things. You could hear the massive shells whistling through the air....
.... We were taken up to the embankment after night fall by scout car and worked on the tunnel during the night. We shored up the complete length of the tunnel with heavy timbers. The scout car had to use what was left of the road between our infantry lines and the embankment, because the cratered plain was soft and thick with mud in places. The car came back in the early hours of the morning to pick us up. After a few nights of this regular routine, the Gerries were expecting us and would mortar the area of the Flyover, when they heard the noise of the scout car engine. So, as soon as the car arrived, we would all pile in and off we would go, hell for leather down the road....
.... But on one particular night things went wrong! The scout car roared up as usual to take us back and we all jumped in. But as the car manoeuvred to turn around, it reversed into a shell crater and overturned. We all scrambled out unhurt and then ran as fast as we could down the road to the safety of our lines. Gerry lit the sky with star shells. I’d never run as fast in all my life! ....
.... The tunnel was eventually completed and a small hole was made just large enough to look through. The first thing I saw through the hole was a farm house and the surrounding plain, littered with knocked out tanks and dead cows. The observation post was now ready for the artillery spotter....
The following passage was extracted from ‘Ubique’, and quote Mr Cheetham : ‘During this period of static warfare, I occupied one of three OP’s, depending on which sector our affiliated infantry was holding. The Flyover tunnel had been professionally constructed by the Royal Engineers who tunnelled through the embankment which carried the Lateral Road over the main Anzio-Albano road and railway. It consisted of a small chamber about six feet square where the OP party lived with their wireless sets and a narrow tunnel which terminated on the north side in an observation slit. The whole excavation was shored up with timber. Although one was only ten feet above ground level, this was sufficient to give a good view up the main road to the Factory area, and north west over the Bottaceia and Caronte wadis. Once inside we were immune to anything but a direct hit on the slit. But getting there and unloading all our equipment was a hazardous job. All supplies going up to the infantry had to use the main road to the Flyover and then turn east or west. This was fully appreciated by the enemy and the Flyover was the most shelled and mortared place in the bridgehead, especially at night when supply convoys were moving.’
Quite a bit of the surrounding area was low lying and swampy. The land had been heavily drained by the Italians before the war, in an attempt to improve the farming. There were virtually no ‘cross country’ routes and most of the traffic was restricted to the highways. This was also true for the tanks. There were no pitched tank battles because the tank formations were restricted to half a dozen or so and had to operate using the roads. So it was that the Royal Engineers were called upon to provide ‘hard core’ for repairing damaged roads and for making new ones.
.... Our company was often sent into the town of Anzio to demolish houses, to provide hard core. We attached demolition charges to the houses and blew them up. The Pioneer Corps would then come along and move all the rubble to the required area for the road engineers to put down....
Anzio. Life in the Beachhead
Life in the beachhead was neither easy nor quiet. The whole enclave was within range of the German artillery which kept up irregular harassing fire, mainly upon the rear areas and the harbour. German aircraft, in small numbers, or singly, made tip-and-run raids.
.... There was a time when our sector was being strafed every day, by a pair of Messershmitt 109’s. They always came at us very fast and very low, and would attack anything they saw. We nicknamed them Gert and Daisy....
This harassing fire caused strain and distress, particularly when casualties occurred among the already wounded in the field hospitals. These feelings were not much allayed by the satisfaction of knowing that the Germans were being much more heavily bombarded by the Corps’ artillery and by Allied aircraft. On the perimeter of the beachhead, where in some places Allies and German infantry held positions a mere grenade’s throw apart, life was a matter of lying hid by day in cramped and squalid dug-outs, foxholes and trenches, and coming out at night to improve or repair these defences and to go on wearisome fatigues to fetch water, ammunition, food, trench-stores and so on. Mine fields were laid and enemy mines cleared.
.... My tent mate was killed one day whilst we were laying a minefield. We don’t know what happened to him. He was blown to bits. Terrible....
.... Because the area around Anzio was so flat, our artillery lacked proper observation points. Gerry, though, could see for miles from the Alban hills in front of us. Small, light, single engined spotter aircraft (De Havilland Auster) were brought in to help our guns. One afternoon, we were resting with an infantry unit against a long hedgerow in a field. One of our small spotter aircraft made an emergency landing in the field and finished up with its wheels in a small ditch near us. The pilot came over to us and asked if we would help him pull the plane out. Forty or fifty blokes started to converge on the plane and the pilot threw up his hands and cried out “No, no, NO! You’ll all break the bloody thing!” It only needed a few of us to lift and push it around, the plane was so light....
Life, however, was not entirely nasty, brutish and short. Units were withdrawn from the line by turns to train for the coming battle and to enjoy some rest and home-made recreation. Amusements were such things as baseball, football, swimming, fishing with explosives, beetle racing and concerts by the bands of the American divisions.
Break out from Anzio
The operation of breaking out from the beachhead was linked to offensive action by the British 8th and American 5th Armies in the Cassino sector and was code named Operation Diadem - the Battle for Rome.
The British 1st and 5th Divisions were about 3,600 men below establishment, owing to a shortage of infantry reinforcements. For this reason, they were to be used only in a holding role, and were not to be used north of the Tiber, until reinforced. On 22nd May, these two divisions were placed directly under the command of the American Fifth Army.
23rd - 31st May 1944. The principal advances to Rome were made by American forces along the Via Prenestina, the Via Tuscolona and Highway 7. On the coast, 5th British Division met little opposition and reached the river Tiber by midday. But 1st Division, inland, met stiffer German resistance from rear guards and did not reach the Tiber for a further 24 hours. The Division had suffered many casualties whilst at Anzio, and 248 Field Company left behind 4 of their number to be buried in the Anzio war cemeteries.
Rome finally fell on 4th/5th June 1944. The four months that had elapsed since the Anzio landings had seen some bitter fighting. But the capture of Rome was overshadowed by Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6th. The main importance of the Italian campaign lay in the support that was given to the Normandy landings by the effective holding down of 25 German divisions in Italy, that could have been employed in France. “To force the enemy to commit the maximum number of divisions in Italy at the time Overlord is launched.”
By 11th June, the VI Corps of the US Fifth Army was reorganised and units were moved to Naples and other rest areas. The British 1st and 5th Divisions were brought under control of the British 8th Army, forming a large force of sixteen divisions and responsible for four-fifths of the front line.
Sergeant ‘Jimmy’ Glew of 248 Field Company Royal Engineers, 1st Division had his 22nd birthday just before the breakout from Anzio.
.... A few months later I remember travelling past Anzio on the way south and saw a field full of crosses. White crosses. Thousands of ‘em. Terrible....
By the first week of July, 1st Division was pulled out of the line for a rest. This was a chance for everyone to catch up on lost sleep. The luxury to sleep on camp beds, above ground, knowing there would be no shelling, or woken during the night to go on duty. The silence at night would have been very strange compared with the din of mortar and machine gun fire. It was a chance to enjoy properly cooked meals, once again eaten from plates, seated at a table, and served at regular hours. All ranks were given a week’s leave, which for most people was the first break in months.
.... The King (George VI) was visiting the troops in Italy. We all lined the roadside and cheered as he drove by ....
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