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More Than Three Years of Navy Wartime Operations Come to a Close with Victory in Europe

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

The 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE-Day) will be celebrated on Friday. When one thinks about the U.S. Navy during World War II, the Pacific Theater and Normandy come readily to mind. In reality, the Navy�s role in both theaters was essential to eventual victory and the battles were numerous.

While having not garnered the fame of the D-Day or the Pacific�s island-hopping campaign, one European battle in particular helped set the stage for the eventual surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945.

Anzio_quote

 

Operation Shingle was conceived by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wanted to land Allied forces on the marshy shores of Anzio to draw off the entrenched German Army 60 miles south of Rome. Breaking through that line would enable Allied troops to take back Rome. It also would provide a diversion to keep German troops away from another planned attack called Operation Overlord.

Rear Adm. Frank J. Lowry, onboard his flagship USS Biscayne (AVP 11) was in charge of the Anzio landing operation. At dawn Jan. 21, 1944, an Allied armada of five cruisers, 24 destroyers, 238 landing craft and 62 other vessels left Naples for Anzio with 40,000 Allied soldiers, 5,000 vehicles and 31,000 Sailors.

Serving as invasion force flagship for the Anzio landings, 21-22 January 1944. Photographed from USS Frederick C. Davis (DE-136). Note the PT boat alongside.  Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Serving as invasion force flagship for the Anzio landings, 21-22 January 1944. Photographed from USS Frederick C. Davis (DE-136). Note the PT boat alongside. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

 

As the aircraft carriers were playing their important role in the Pacific, it was the LSTs (Landing Ship-Tank) and LCIs (Landing Craft-Infantry) that proved their mettle in the European theater. The highly-specialized landing craft were developed to put the first wave of troops and tanks ashore, fire rockets, lay smoke screens and provide antiaircraft cover.

At 2 a.m. Jan. 22, 1944, the first wave of troops and tanks landed with little resistance. The element of surprise had been successful. After 22 hours, Operation Shingle�s naval fleet landed more than 36,000 men, 3,069 vehicles and nearly all of the Army VI Corps� assault equipment. Allied casualties included 13 killed and less than 100 wounded and 44 missing. Despite the nickname of �long stationary target,� only three LSTs and one LCI were lost during Operation Shingle.

An offloading protocol used by the 7th Fleet in the South Pacific was utilized, where loaded trucks were driven off landing ships to ammunition dumps while empty ones were driven back on, reducing the unloading time to one hour.

With German artillery and aircraft striking from above and inland, and a plethora of underwater dangers from mines, torpedoes � both U-boat and manned � the battlespace was nearly 360 degrees during the four-month invasion at Anzio. The man-your-weapon calls of �Red Anzio� and �Yellow Anzio� were announced several times a day for the ships and boats patrolling the coastline.

DUKW amphibious trucks transporting cargo across the beach at Anzio, 15 April 1944. USS LCT-33 is partially visible in the right background. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
DUKW amphibious trucks transporting cargo across the beach at Anzio, 15 April 1944. USS LCT-33 is partially visible in the right background. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

American ships from Task Force 81 provided protection to the beachhead by fighting off simultaneous attacks by dive and torpedo bombers, E-boats, and manned torpedoes. The ships � a few cruisers, destroyers and other vessels –� repulsed repeated attacks by enemy aircraft and received credit for destroying one plane and probably splashing two others. Three destroyer escorts had been outfitted with jamming devices and early warning equipment that counteracted Germany�s new radio guided Fritz X bomb that had a range of four miles at 600 mph.

When the Germans tried to reinforce their infantry units, DESRON 7 destroyers shelled enemy forces for 17 hours. Two destroyers were knocked out of action, Plunkett (DD 431) by a 550-pound bomb and Mayo (DD 422)�by a mine. Both would be repaired and return to fight again.

North of Anzio, light cruiser USS Brooklyn (CL 40) and five US Navy destroyers � Champlin (DD 601), Kearny (DD 432), Kendrick (DD 612), Mackenzie (DD 614) and Parker (DD 604) � pounded enemy encampments mercilessly.

It took four months, but in late May 1944, after breaking through German lines, Allied forces combined and Rome was liberated a few days later. Anzio, referred to as a �modern-day Gallipoli without the horses,� wasn�t without its naval losses: Of the 17 ships lost, seven were U.S. Navy along with the lives of 160 American Sailors.

While not definitive in its success, the invasion achieved at least one critical mission: The constant threat of an Allied force south of Rome forced the Germans to keep dwindling troops and equipment in Italy, denying reinforcements for the American assault on the beaches of Normandy just a few weeks later.

“Anzio beachhead should endure in our memories as a symbol of heroic tenacity,� wrote naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

Forward 14/45 guns of USS Nevada (BB 36) fire on positions ashore, during the landings on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944.
Forward 14/45 guns of USS Nevada (BB 36) fire on positions ashore, during the landings on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944.

 

Other important World War II European Theater naval battles include:

  • Operations Bowery and Calendar � The missions for both of these operations were to deliver British aircraft to Malta. On April 14, 1942, during Operation Calendar, 52 Spitfires were transported by USS Wasp (CV 7), protected by her escorts, destroyers Lang (DD 399) and Madison (DD 425). Nearly all were lost due to lack of preparation and intense enemy antiaircraft fire as they flew off the aircraft carrier. Operation Bowery�s May 9, 1942 redo was more successful, with USS Wasp delivering 47 Spitfires to Malta. The Spitfires were quickly spirited away into protected areas.
  • Operation Torch called for American ships and troops to invade French North Africa (Morocco and Algeria), which included Casablanca, under control by the French Vichy government. Rear Adm. Henry Hewitt was in charge of more than 100 ships, while Maj. Gen. George Patton commanded the troops. The invasion from Nov. 8-16, 1942, was complicated by an attempted coup of the Vichy-loyalist general on Nov. 7, which alerted them to the impending attack. The Allied victory opened the Mediterranean to Allied control as they prepared for the invasion into southern France.
  • Allied Invasion of Italy � The Battle of Gela and Operation Husky, July 9-17, 1943, the amphibious assault of the island of Sicily, were the preludes to the larger Allied invasion of Italy Sept. 3-16, 1943. American cruisers and destroyers provided shore support and antiaircraft fire during the invasions while LSTs and other landing crafts carried troops and tanks to the battle.
  • D-Day Landings at Normandy � Operation Neptune, June 6, 1944. Naval forces for this amphibious assault into southern France included eight navies, 1,200 warships, including five battleships, 20 cruisers and 65 destroyers, 7,000 other vessels and more than 4,100 landing crafts manned by 195,0700 naval personnel. When it was over, USS Corry (DD 463) and USS PC-1261 would be lost, as well as numerous landing crafts.
  • Operation Dragoon � Invasion of Southern France Aug. 15, 1944. The Eighth Fleet again brought its firepower and landing capabilities to the fight, forcing the German Army Group G to abandon its lines and retreat from southern France.