Anzio is about 120 nautical miles from Salerno, on the west coast of Italy, and in January 1944 a convoy of 374 Allied ships took 25 hours to get there, at an average speed of barely five knots. They crawled towards their destination, trying to make as little giveaway whitewater wake as possible, and allowing for the blunt, roll-on, roll-off bows of so many of their number. They were lucky with the weather. The voyage was made in a light fog – just enough to make them difficult to spot from the air.
This slow progress allowed my father, Territorial Army Captain Peter Raban of (to give his full address) ‘A’ Troop, 265 Battery, 67th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, to spend much of 21 January putting the finishing touches to an unusually long and well-thought-out letter to my mother, which reads as if he put it through multiple drafts to get it right. Recent amphibious landings, on the south-east coast of Sicily and then again at Salerno, had gone so badly, causing many hundreds more fatalities than had been expected, that it was only prudent of my father to anticipate his own death at Anzio. What he now needed was to write something that would serve as a last letter if he was killed tomorrow, but wouldn’t unduly upset Monica with intimations of his likely death if he happened to survive the landings.
The letter begins with his usual salutation, ‘My very Own Most Beloved Darling’, and thanks her for her recent batch of ‘five most perfectly lovely airletters’, which promise the arrival of a home-made cake and a home-knit sweater. He goes on to warn her of his latest present in return, having made various attempts to procure acceptable underwear for her (not black! not pantaloons!) on his regiment’s first arrival in Italy, and before that in the markets of Tunis. ‘Oh! Darling, I’m afraid you will be horribly disappointed in the undies when they arrive, as they’re neither very smart nor of good material – but I will get you some that are better just as soon as possible, perhaps without at the same time lining an Italian’s pocket with paper lire!’ He advises Monica about their joint income tax return, which will fall due in April (‘Poor Darling, You do have a time trying, very ably, to cope, with these abstruse business matters’) and instructs her to write to Mr Porter, the manager of their local branch of Lloyd’s Bank, who should have all the documents she’ll need. He tries to alert her to the burgeoning egotism of their 19-month-old son: me. ‘I suppose nothing will shame him at all & that he will always regard the world & its other occupants as simply a provision for his own support & enjoyment!’ The facetious exclamation mark doesn’t even begin to disguise his anxiety about what was going on back home in his presently fatherless family.
Only after all these issues have been addressed in detail does Peter get around to what is chiefly on his mind:
If, for a time, we stand still or get jostled back, we can both find deep consolation in knowing that, at last, we shall be united again, forever and for all eternity, in the love that God has given us to cherish and to increase so that we know, even now, that it is the greatest and most precious of all things in life and afterwards. If it’s a long time before we meet again, we both shall find patience and comfort in that – you with J to comfort you, to ease the burden of the present, and I in the knowledge that no matter how bleak the moment may be, how futile or helpless it may seem, nothing can prevent our love, nothing can ever come between us.
Where another writer might have chosen a more explicitly religious word, like the ‘hereafter’ or the ‘afterlife’, my father settles for the common or garden ‘afterwards’, as if personal resurrection followed death as naturally as drinks follow seeing a movie. To a non-believer like me there’s something preposterous in his view of life and death, but I can’t help but admire the unquestioning sturdiness of his faith.
The landings were set to begin at 0200 on Saturday, 22 January. LST 301 (‘Landing Ship, Tanks’) – an ungainly but efficient sea monster built in the US and on loan to Britain under the terms of the Lend-Lease Act, crammed with four hundred troops, along with trucks and guns – anchored on the ten-fathom line offshore, with the 67th Field Regiment aboard, my father among them, as fast-moving patrol boats chivvied the arriving ships into position. At 0153, two Royal Navy vessels opened the proceedings with a continuous barrage of five-inch rocket shells, 1500 of them in five minutes, five per second. As they exploded, the shells were sufficiently earth-shaking to detonate many of the landmines that the Germans had left buried on the beaches and filled the air with the sound of breaking windows falling from their frames into the streets. But their primary effect was visual: for five minutes Anzio and Nettuno stood violently illuminated, as if by some giant, rapidly pulsating strobe. Eerie white light bounced off the white stucco buildings of the twin towns, converting them from three to two dimensions: a single black page ornamented with blindingly white rectangles. There was almost no answering fire.
LST 301 was among the first vessels to go ashore, its massive steel doors wide open and its landing ramp fully extended beyond the bow. Major Bill Kerr, commander of 265 Battery and my father’s friend, stood on the lip of the ramp. When he felt the ship’s stern shudder as it scraped the bottom, he stepped forward into what he thought would be ankle-deep water but turned out to come up to his chin, with the edge of the ramp pressing hard against his neck. Even if the ship had been travelling at one knot or less, it can’t have been fun to experience the brunt of the 328 foot, 1625 ton ship pushing him forward in the ice-cold January sea. The cause of this unexpectedly low water was an uncharted sandbar – not the gently shelving beach, which still lay one hundred yards or more ahead. Somehow Kerr managed to find handholds on the ramp and cling on, dog-paddling with his feet, to allow the ship to carry him to the shore, where he was able to come out upright, shivering and sopping wet, and make a preliminary recce of the terrain, searching for positions for gun pits and forward observation posts.
The best account of the complex and successful operation that followed came, improbably, from a German mining engineer, Lieutenant Seiler, who had been dispatched to sabotage the harbour’s protective mole. He was soon captured, but over the course of the long Saturday he had been able to watch the landings almost from the moment they began. According to Martin Blumenson, an official US army historian, Seiler was amazed by ‘the smoothness of the work … He heard no words of command, yet everything went beautifully – “like clockwork”, he said. The beach was congested with materiel, and troops were moving around smartly, unloading, adjusting, correcting – “like a big market”, Seiler said, “like a big business without confusion, disorder, or muddle”.’ After two catastrophic rehearsals for the landings earlier in the week, which had involved a number of casualties, the real thing turned out to be a general’s dream. Blumenson sums up the Allied achievements: ‘By midnight of January 22, the VI Corps had about 36,000 men, 3200 vehicles, and large quantities of supplies ashore – about 90 per cent of the equipment and personnel of the assault convoy. Casualties were extremely light: 13 killed, 97 wounded and 44 missing. The VI Corps had taken 227 prisoners.’
The invaders were now just 34 miles from Rome and well behind the enemy’s front line at Cassino, 85 miles east-south-east. In the near distance, about fifteen miles away but looking much closer on the crisp, sunlit Sunday morning, the British and American troops could see the Alban Hills rising to three thousand feet above the coastal plain. Whoever commanded those hills would command the road to Rome that skirted them on their western side, and this morning they appeared free for the taking, with no sign of a German military presence. Major General Ronald Penney, the commander of the British 1st Division, pointed at them with his cane and said that it looked as if he could take them with a walking stick.
But Penney was answerable to the American in charge of the Anzio operation, Major General John Lucas, who answered to the American Lieutenant General Mark Clark (whose troops nicknamed him Marcus Aurelius Clarkus for the Roman imperial hauteur of his manner), who answered to the British General Sir Harold Alexander, who answered to Winston Churchill. The whole Allied campaign in Italy – later criticised as the most irrelevant and most incompetently wasteful of human lives in the Second World War – was Churchill’s brainchild, insisted on in the face of deep scepticism from both FDR and General Eisenhower, who suspected that Churchill was more interested in maintaining the British Empire and its routes of access through the Mediterranean than he was in defeating Hitler’s domination of mainland Europe. ‘Rome is the bull’s-eye,’ Churchill said. But Berlin was the only real bull’s-eye, and in modern times Rome was of little strategic importance. Churchill, one imagines, may still have been in – somewhat rusty – thrall to the Latin teachers from his schooldays in Harrow.
Lucas’s orders beyond the bridgehead phase were vague and ambiguous: to advance either ‘to’ or ‘towards’ the Alban Hills. He chose ‘towards’, and took his time. He set up his first headquarters in Nettuno, on an upper floor of Number 16, Piazza del Mercato, from which he was quickly evicted by an unexploded bomb that lodged itself in his ceiling, forcing him to move to the wine cellar of a nearby osteria, twenty feet below ground, clammy, and lit by bare low-wattage bulbs. From this dark hole he rarely surfaced to visit his troops, and perhaps the gloom of his surroundings helped to fuel the pessimism with which he viewed his mission.
He had an academic turn of mind, having served as an instructor in military science for the University of Michigan Reserve Officer Training Corps, and now set out to create a textbook example of an ideal defensible space: a semicircle like a maths protractor, with its 16 mile-long base superimposed on the shoreline and a radius of roughly eight miles in every direction. Into this he slotted a multitude of details: improvised roads corduroyed with wire netting; dumps for everything from ammunition to grocery supplies; sites for field hospitals, troops in reserve, troops temporarily withdrawn from the line in need of rest and recuperation, and the ubiquitous smoke pots that were manned by Indian soldiers to brew a thick, oily and malodorous fog that made it harder for German gunners to find their targets.
As Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and other memoirists of the First World War made clear, there was always a radical division between ‘the line’ and ‘behind the line’. The line meant mud, blood, rats, inedible rations and the continuous, unbearable thunder of war; behind the line meant an incongruously peaceful world where nightingales sang and everyone wore pyjamas to bed – which might well be in a fully functioning French hotel. Behind the line was where the generals, staff officers and members of the military bureaucracy lived, sheltered from the German artillery by an intervening range of hills that reduced the sound of war to a harmless rumble.
What made Anzio – and similar amphibious operations, like the disastrous battle at Gallipoli in 1915 – different was that there was nothing behind the line except the sea. Everyone – from the private in his trench to the general in his underground bunker and the wounded on their gurneys – was on the line here, though it’s true that the two most senior officers involved with the beachhead, Generals Alexander and Clark, maintained their sleeping quarters, messing arrangements and offices in their own version of behind the line: the vast 18th-century palace at Caserta, twenty miles north of Naples and a considerable journey, by road then sea, to Anzio. Clark kept two fast PT-boats (max speed forty knots) on hand to make the trip, which, under ideal conditions, with even a smooth sea feeling as hard as reinforced concrete beneath one’s spine as the souped-up torpedo boats planed across the water, would still take the best part of two hours, and that’s not counting the tricky thirty-mile trip by Jeep from Caserta to the mouth of the Volturno River or the time spent in the motor launch to the PT-boat. This little odyssey turned Alexander and Clark into battlefield tourists. On their intermittent visits they usually arrived early in the afternoon and left a couple of hours later, in time for dinner at the Caserta palace.
‘They came, they saw, they concurred’ was the beachhead phrase for what Alexander and Clark achieved on these outings, which invariably led Lucas to confide his deepening depression to his diary. ‘I have done what I was ordered to, desperate though it was.’ ‘Apparently some of the higher levels think I have not advanced at maximum speed. I think more has been accomplished than anyone had a right to expect.’ ‘My head will probably fall in the basket, but I have done my best.’ No sooner had Lucas achieved one of the most successful landings in the history of warfare than he was being blamed by his superiors for failing to advance into the Alban Hills – an advance he thought of as potentially suicidal for his entire corps. Relations between the British and American partners rapidly turned peevish, a condition not helped by Lucas’s personal Anglophobia, nor by the nickname bestowed on him by the British troops, Corncob Charlie – he was a ‘proper Charlie’, a born fool.
Further down the chain of command, Americans and Brits mingled much more amicably. According to the letters he sent my mother, my father went hobnobbing with his American opposite numbers, taking a couple of bottles of Scotch to make himself welcome and to trade for American military luxuries like cans of camouflage paint for his guns. As part of his perpetual campaign to persuade my mother that life in a war theatre was boringly uneventful, Peter wrote to her on 24 January, promising to get his hair cut that afternoon. ‘It’s pretty terrible at present & is beginning to turn up at the ends!’ In the event, the haircut had to wait until the morning of 26 January, when he wrote:
I haven’t heard the BBC news recently to know just what you’re hearing, but it can be nothing but good! Last night I had my full quota of sleep – ten hours! and this in my camp bed and in pyjamas; I was so warm that it wasn’t till I got out that I discovered the ground was white with hailstones, but they’re all gone now & the sun’s shining once more. If it wasn’t for a strongish wind, it would be perfect now, & it isn’t nearly as cold as it has been in other places. I feel almost civilised again now, as I had my haircut at last this morning!
This haircut helps to date Peter’s only appearance in the international news media, in a story by John Lardner titled ‘Vignettes from the Italian Front’, published in the 14 February issue of Newsweek. ‘The British,’ Lardner wrote,
were drawing a bead with 25-pounder guns on the Germans across a stream called Fosso della Molotta [sic] when we arrived at one coastal farm hamlet.
They had an observation post upstairs in a bake house. A battalion commander was staring out a window at the Germans in a farm building, 2000 metres northward. Genially he needled his observer, a young captain called Peter, who needed a haircut and smoked a pipe as he studied the Germans through field glasses, and called signals.
‘Drop three-oh minutes and add one hundred,’ said Peter without taking his pipe from his mouth. ‘Drop three-oh minutes and add one hundred,’ said a sergeant through the telephone.
A gun spoke behind us and in a few instants later we saw black puffs near the objective.
‘You’re slicing your drive, Peter,’ said the Colonel. ‘A bottle of beer you don’t hit that house where the Jerrys are having lunch.’
Peter chewed his pipe and said: ‘More one-oh minutes repeat.’
The gun talked again. Looking along the level brown and green sea marshes, we saw one shell drop against the right wall of the house and another nestle against the left wall. The house shimmered queerly and changed shape.
‘You won’t need your putter,’ the Colonel said.
In the second week of April, Arthur Rose, a lieutenant in ‘A’ Troop and a solicitor in peacetime, spotted a ragged copy of the magazine lying among the dust and cigarette ends on the top floor of the San Lorenzo tower, which had been used as an observation post by both the British and the American artillery. Lardner’s portrait of my father led to a good deal of amiable ribbing in the mess. Peter was obviously bucked by his mention in print; he showed the piece to Major Kerr, and ‘it tickled him not a little!’ as my father reported in a letter. But Peter’s nature as a stickler for details led him to add numbered footnotes to his transcription of Lardner’s story:
i) On Jan 25 we had no beer in the bridgehead!
ii) There never was a bet!
iii) I never hit the building properly whilst the reporters were there – they walked away – bored!
iv) It was 9.30 a.m. and the Huns don’t lunch at that time!
v) My first correction is a fiction – for ‘Drop’ read ‘More’ – technical point!
vi) The haircut and pipe are true facts!
It makes a ‘nice’ story!
Facetious – but enjoying the fun. As a report on the Anzio situation, however, Lardner’s piece was outdated long before it was published in Newsweek, let alone by the time it was discovered in April in the San Lorenzo tower. After the brief moment of triumph following the successful landings it wasn’t long before the Germans re-established their positions in the Alban Hills and made hell for the troops on the beachhead: they were determined to drive the Allies back into the sea. As the Wehrmacht made counterattack after counterattack, helped in the air by the dwindling remains of Göring’s Luftwaffe, my father’s attitude to journalism and journalists hardened from amusement to contempt. When my mother wrote to say that the papers were comparing Anzio with Verdun, the longest, bloodiest, most fatality-ridden battle of the First World War, my father advised her to cancel her subscription to the News Chronicle. On 16 February, confessing to where he was for the first time, he wrote:
And now Darling, for the news that you have been waiting for & may have guessed at already, but which I’m now allowed to tell you that I’m in the Anzio area: – I’m so afraid, from the harum-scarum newspaper reports that you will have an entirely wrong picture, Dearest, & think of nothing but air raids and fierce fighting. I’ve referred to ‘war correspondents’ before, but when I had some in my OP three or four days after it had begun, & was able to show them a real live German (a long way away) they reacted like children as if they’d never seen one before – it was an eye-opener to us all, and I know now because of that, one of the reasons for hair-raising reports, My Precious – no one but an unimaginative idiot could ever discuss war as anything but unpleasant, but, at the same time, the things you read in the newspapers are the rarity & not everyday facts. War is noise – a lot of noise, but, thank God, I have so far been spared from being personally involved in that part of it which makes headlines – & believe me Dearest they are the exception. I’m writing this by my ‘dugout’ – six feet deep, dug into the side of a hill, &, but for the odd plane droning in the skies could almost believe myself in England on a Sunday afternoon.
On 22 February:
I won’t waste any more space on this subject, Darling, except to say that time and again, we’ve heard the BBC news, read the papers, & immediately said ‘Good Lord! What awful things they’ll be thinking at home.’ And that is a fact, Dearest.
His opinion of the press matched that of General Alexander, who on a visit to the beachhead on 14 February had called in the war correspondents to give them a severe dressing down. He held his press conference in Lucas’s gloomy, underground headquarters beneath the osteria in Nettuno, that grim catacomb whose only comfort was the bouquet of wines maturing in their big oak casks. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, a BBC man, was one of the correspondents in attendance, and described Alexander’s manner as that of a ‘headmaster disappointed at some misdemeanour in the Upper School’.
He admitted that the Beachhead landing hadn’t gone as he had hoped: ‘We wanted a breakthrough and a complete answer inside a week. But once you are stopped it becomes a question of building up and slogging.’ He insisted that it was the people with guts and determination who were going to win when it came to a slogging match. The correspondents listened politely – generals are bound to sound more optimistic than the man in the fox-hole – but when General Alexander went on to say that the reports sent from the Beachhead were causing alarm, there were emphatic protests. General Alexander looked sternly at the protesters. ‘Were any of you at Dunkirk?’ He asked. ‘I was and I know that there is never likely to be a Dunkirk here.’
Alexander actually went a good deal further than that, if other accounts are to be believed: in his book on the Italian campaign Rick Atkinson has him saying that the correspondents’ reports were filled with ‘pessimistic rubbish’ and that he was ‘very disappointed that you should put out such rot’.
But there was reason for pessimism: by now the beachhead was under significant pressure from German forces. February had brought more rain and cold to western Italy than usual, sometimes frosting over the surface of the water in the ‘wadis’, a term the British had imported from their experience of the watercourses of North Africa to refer to the labyrinth of ditches across the Anzio-Nettuno terrain. Looking at the battlefield from the coast, all one saw was an unbroken level agricultural plain that stretched to the foot of the low mountains to the north. But seen up close, the ditches were everywhere, some very deep and few marked on the available maps. The wadis could trap tanks and turn soldiers into amphibians – salamanders, slithering along the bottom on their stomachs, clothed in soft mud and becoming unrecognisable as human beings. More than anything, the wadis gave Anzio its reputation as a terrifying place to fight, because they enabled the enemy to crawl through the sparsely defended Allied front at night then open fire with machine-guns from positions behind the line.
Peter must have done his fair share of wadi-crawling to get to his observation posts but he neglects to mention this aspect of his soldiering in letters to my mother – insisting, rather too emphatically, that he is as safe as houses. ‘My job is to see without being seen,’ he writes, adding that unlike an infantryman he only ever looks at the enemy through a periscope. He doesn’t seem to realise that he has given himself away by sending her the Newsweek clipping, which makes clear that the artillery observer is positioned far ahead of the guns whose shots he calls. In one letter he writes that he is feeling ‘human again’ after his ‘weekly wash’. If that’s true, he must have stunk like a skunk and been caked from head to foot in mud before the wash took place.
On 16 February, before first light, the Germans launched a tremendous artillery barrage from the Alban Hills. In the letter he wrote to my mother that day, Peter made no mention of his surroundings – a shivering trench just 168 cubic feet in volume – or the deafening turmoil of shelling just outside. His penmanship is neat, fluent and closely spaced, its only defect being to darken and pale at irregular intervals – a problem with the pen and not the writer. Along with the odd ‘Darling’ and ‘Dear Heart’ there is further talk of income tax returns and outrage at reports of self-seeking behaviour by his brother’s fiancée, known as ‘The Disaster’. I make an appearance in the letter too: not then two years old, I feature as a gooseberry in the garden, a conspicuous impediment, as he imagines it, to my parents’ lovemaking.
Yes, Darling, I will always try to be with you at six o’clock at J’s bathtime – but I certainly won’t do a ‘Good dog, lie down!’ stunt & retire to the basket chair with a hurt expression or the remark ‘Mummy doesn’t want me, Jonathan.’ You will find me harder to dispose of than that, Precious, & J will be old enough by then to know when he’s playing gooseberry & will tactfully retire to the bathroom whilst we try and make up for lost time, holding close to each other & forgetting everything but the present, the expression of our love flowing through our lips and our eyes and the pressure of our hands. And when J comes back he too will find his part in our love.
It’s a measure of my father’s innocence of child psychology that he could conceive, even jokingly, that a toddler would be capable of mounting a ‘tactful retirement’ from the scene rather than a total meltdown. Peter had just reached the top of the third page (‘poor Darling!’) when the war reasserted itself and he had to break off. The letter continues on 19 February – the beginning of the end of the all-out German assault on the beachhead – and apologises for the interruption. In the meantime, presumably, Peter might have been spotted wriggling on his stomach up some muddy wadi or other, en route to his observation post, periscope at the ready.
‘We hoped to land a wildcat that would tear out the bowels of the Boche,’ Churchill lamented in late February. ‘Instead we have stranded a vast whale with its tail flopping about in the water.’ This was no surprise to American and many British generals. According to Clark’s (British) deputy chief of staff, Anzio was ‘a complete nonsense from its inception’. In allowing Lucas to undertake the operation with only two divisions at his disposal the generals had ensured the fulfilment of their own prophecy. So long as the Germans had the freedom of the Alban Hills, and sufficient supplies of men and matériel, the beachhead would remain just that, sprouting salients one day, shrinking the next, but never more than a perilous toehold. It was a First World War battle being fought a quarter-century too late. Lucas predicted that his two divisions – more than 70,000 men – would end up being pushed back into the sea. He turned out to be wrong, but only narrowly so.
He also knew that he wouldn’t be allowed to remain in command for long. At the end of January, General Alexander had been heard wondering whether they needed more of a ‘thruster, like George Patton’. On 22 February, General Clark – with some reluctance – acceded to his superiors’ demands and replaced Lucas with Major General Lucian Truscott, formerly of the 3rd Division. ‘And I thought I was winning something of a victory,’ Lucas wrote in his diary that evening. It was a hurtful end for Corncob Charlie. Vaughan-Thomas reported on the new commander’s first press conference:
We’ve got a new head at Anzio, tough … General Truscott, husky-voiced and with slightly greying hair. But he looks – as we hope every general should look – like a two-fisted fighter and not like a tired businessman. He was honest, outspoken and completely realist. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t reckon that everything is for the best, we’re going to have a tough time here for months to come. But, gentlemen, we’re going to hold this Beachhead come what may.’ And he stuck out his jaw in a way that convinced you that any German attack would bounce off it.
Stalin said that machines win wars. By mid-1944 the combined industrial output of the Soviet Union, the US and Britain was vastly greater than the meagre production of the Axis powers: more planes, more ships, more trucks, more guns, more ammunition. Peter told my mother that for every German shell that fell inside Allied lines in Italy, twenty were fired by the artillery batteries on his own side. Vaughan-Thomas put the ratio at 1:10. When darkness fell in Anzio each evening, the Allies put on a dazzling fireworks display to taunt the Germans, as tracer rounds lit the sky in a silver blaze: an insolent show of conspicuous consumption that the Germans could not possibly respond to in kind. So, too, with aircraft. When the weather cleared on 2 March, Allied bombers were at last able to show themselves. ‘Two hundred and forty-one Liberators, 100 Fortresses, 113 Lightnings and 63 Thunderbolts swarmed into the skies,’ Vaughan-Thomas reported.
Cisterna, Velletri, Carroceto – there was hardly a moment when the earth around these places was not shaking with the demoralising thud of exploding bombs. The Allies unloaded an even greater weight of high explosives than on 17 February, during the crisis of the Beachhead.
Those of us who watched the attacks, lying behind the broken farmhouses of Isola Bella, were ourselves continually shaken and deafened by the unbroken drumroll of the heavy explosions. Overhead the sky was filled with the glitter of the winter sun. The great flight of aircraft looked strangely beautiful, remote, and efficient as they came up from the south in an endless stream, jettisoned their load of death with a clinical detachment and swung back for more. For hour after hour the procession continued in the clear sky.
The Allies had nearly depthless resources, especially in the manufacturing cities of the United States, beyond the bombing range of their enemies. In 1944, the city where I’m writing this, Seattle, was enjoying an enormous boom as workers poured in to take up jobs in the elaborately camouflaged hangars of the Boeing Company, birthplace of all the B-series war planes, among them the formidable B-17 Flying Fortress – a name given to it by a journalist for the Seattle Times which Boeing immediately copyrighted. Seattle then had much the same blackout regulations as London and Berlin, and – as a friend of mine remembers – was protected by ‘blimps dangling chains to entrap low-flying aircraft, the night sky streaked with criss-crossed beams of light from searchlights manned by troops’. Overcautious, certainly: no bombs ever fell here.
This manufacturing supremacy effectively meant that all the Allies now needed to do was wait until enemy supplies of men and matériel eventually reached vanishing point. So Anzio turned into a grim, slow battle of attrition that turned men’s lives into collateral damage in the war of the machines even as the military situation remained a humiliating stalemate for both sides. My father admitted as much in a letter to my mother dated Sunday, 26 April 1944:
At the moment I’m suffering from an attack of complete ennui, when life seems so empty that I don’t know where to turn next to find something to distract me – I seem to be completely empty: do you feel like this sometimes too, Darling? It’s a horrid feeling and as a result I’ve wasted two hours this afternoon doing nothing, feeling that if I did start my letter to You I should find nothing to write about! Which is of course quite wrong once I really settle down to it & snap out of this mood.
The word ‘ennui’ makes its first appearance in his letters here, and it’s a reluctant admission. The impasse of the military situation at Anzio seems to have worked its way into Peter’s head. Two days later, in the same foul mood, he refers to himself as ‘sitting around like Mr Micawber’, waiting for something to turn up, finding the end of the war impossible to imagine.
First-hand accounts of Anzio make much of the putrefying smell of death that hung over the battlefield and mixed with the oily odour of the smoke machines. Both the Germans and the Allies did what they could to retrieve and bury their dead, but the closeness of the two front lines and the exposed position of no man’s land made it a risky task. So bodies hung spreadeagled in the ubiquitous coils of barbed wire, first bloating into wrinkle-free obesity, then spilling their innards and shrinking around their skeletons as blowfly maggots and internally generated bacteria went to work. Some remained ghoulishly lifelike, sitting with their backs propped against a rock or tree, still cradling their rifles and Bren guns, from which they were inseparable in rigor mortis. As winter gave way to a warm Italian spring, the stench from the bodies intensified, and they turned into convenient landmarks for those directing artillery or sniper fire – and, as generally happens with landmarks, their new function soon outweighed their capacity to inspire nausea.
Peter never mentioned the corpses in his letters to my mother, but he did welcome his temporary escape from the battlefield when he was granted a four-day spell of leave at a hotel halfway up the cliff above Amalfi – his only anxiety being that, since the leave straddled the Easter weekend, all the shops selling women’s underwear might be closed. In the event he was able to buy some stockings (‘not silk’), a pair of dubious female pyjamas and a length of white material that he suggested might be sewn into a ‘blouse or something’. Returning to Amalfi after lunch, he stopped for an hour to visit Pompeii and Vesuvius, which, less than three weeks before, had had a major eruption that destroyed three villages and much of a fourth, as well as eighty or so USAAF B-25 bombers that were parked on the tarmac of the Pompeii airfield. By the Monday afternoon he was back in Anzio and his hole in the ground. Many small improvements had been made during his absence: Gunner Ransome, his always thoughtful and attentive batman, had trimmed back the roots that protruded through the walls, extended the earth shelves for books and pictures and lined them with paper, and reconfigured the drainage under the wooden pallet floor. ‘I do wish you could see my dugout now, Darling – it really does look quite homely,’ he wrote. ‘It really isn’t the dungeon you picture, Darling, but quite a convenient and well-organised dwelling!’ With nothing much to do he lay on his camp bed until 9 a.m., then took a leisurely breakfast of bacon and eggs, telling my mother that it might be weeks until he was called back into action.
The war of attrition continued, with fewer and fewer shells being lobbed from the hills into the Allied lines, fewer German planes overhead, and a growing conviction among the Allies that the Germans could soon be forced to retreat. At last, on 23 May, the Allies broke free of the beachhead, first slowly and with difficulty, gaining five hundred yards on the first day, then rapidly quickening their pace in a two-pronged attack agreed by Generals Alexander and Truscott, with the American 5th Army driving north-northeast through the gap between the Alban and Lepini Hills to the town of Valmontone, which would block the retreat of the Germans as they fled along Route 6. Alexander wanted to annihilate the German divisions as a fighting force. Meanwhile the British were to stage a diversionary attack, aimed at the western flank of the Alban Hills, to confuse the Germans over which way the Allies were trying to go to Rome.
But neither Truscott nor Alexander had taken into account the preening vanity of General Clark, whose personal destiny, as he saw it, was to become the sole conqueror of Rome, a city which, like Churchill, he considered a great historic prize. In his memoirs, Clark proclaimed himself ‘shocked’ that Alexander had made his decision to cut off Route 6
without reference to me. I should point out at this time that … we were keyed up, and in the heat of battle there were almost certain to be clashes of personalities and ideas over this all-out drive. We not only wanted the honour of capturing Rome, but we felt we more than deserved it, that it would make up to a certain extent for the buffeting and the frustration we had undergone in keeping up the winter pressure against the Germans … Not only did we intend to become the first army in fifteen centuries to seize Rome from the south, but we intended to see that the people at home knew that it was the Fifth Army that did the job, and knew the price that had been paid for it.
There speaks Marcus Aurelius Clarkus, a man who never grasped the fact that the Roman Empire fell from its pinnacle in the world the better part of a couple of millennia ago.
On 26 May, Truscott was interrupted by the arrival of a staff officer bearing a disquieting new order from Clark. The job of cutting off Route 6 was to be left to a single infantry division together with the 1st Special Service Force, while the main body of the 5th Army was to strike out to the north-west, skirting the Alban Hills to take the shortest route to Rome. Truscott was incredulous. The new order effectively meant that the German army would not now be confronted and destroyed, which had been the point of the Anzio landings in the first place. But it would also mean that Clark would be remembered as the conqueror of Rome. Truscott tried to raise Clark on the phone, but Clark had made himself unreachable. He also let a whole day pass before communicating his new plan to Alexander, his senior officer. Alexander appeared to take this breach in the chain of command in his stride, presumably to avoid an upset in Anglo-American relations.
By 30 May my father was with the rest of the troops on the road to Rome. According to a letter he wrote that day, he was hors de combat, confined to a camp bed inside a truck by order of the regimental medical officer: not a victim of German gunfire, but because of an itching rash on his upper right arm which he had contracted in North Africa the previous year and which had now recurred. The MO had a prescribed a course of ten sulphanilamide pills a day. Since sulphanilamide, an early antibiotic, had a grim list of side effects, my father was ‘under the influence’ and barely remembered the journey.
But for the rest of the British 1st Division, the ‘progress towards Rome’ was frustratingly slow, as Major D.J.F. Grant, a Royal Artillery staff officer, explained in a pamphlet dated October 1944 (and temporarily blocked by the censors):
The divisional artillery extricated itself with difficulty from its excavations and began moving forward. To leave the beachhead area where we had so long been penned in and harassed by shelling was a strange and exhilarating experience, and we could now all see the evidence of the destructive power of our artillery. The whole landscape was pitted with shell marks, ammunition blown up, dugouts fallen in. Not a tree bore any foliage, not a house was left standing. Roads and tracks were almost impassable for shell holes. Dead men and horses lay unburied where they had fallen. Compared with conditions within the beachhead which we had thought pretty bad, this was complete desolation.
Grant courteously acknowledges that at Anzio the Brits played second fiddle to the American-led advance. Clark, incapable of modesty, seized the entire campaign for himself, telling Alexander, or so he boasted, that he’d open fire on the 8th Army if the British dared to challenge his claim to be the lone conqueror of the Eternal City. Questioned later, Alexander said that this outrageous threat had never been uttered in his presence, which suggests that Clark, or Clarkus, really was the very type of Miles Gloriosus, the braggart soldier of Roman comedies.
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