When my father-in-law Fred Crofts passed away in 2013, among his possessions we came across a sketch drawn by his uncle Bill Hodgkinson, who was well known within the family as a good artist. The sketch, headed After A Commando Raid is dated Anzio May 23/44 and signed Bill. It was sent home to his family from the battlefields of Italy.
Bill’s sketch shows a solider lighting a cigarette for a wounded colleague under on the first day of the main push in the Anzio Campaign that took allied forces to Rome. The soldier is wearing a typical commando cap and, at his feet, a sten gun with a straight ammunition magazine.
The Anzio campaign began on 22 January 1944, part of a plan to take Rome, some 40 miles to the North. Allied troops landed at Anzio, on the west coast of Italy, in a basin surrounded by mountains. Key to the success of the campaign was the element of surprise but the force was poorly led and German forces moved swiftly to trap the invaders.
There was some heavy, but inconclusive fighting, and both sides settled for a defensive strategy until the weather improved in the spring.
By late May, there were around 150,000 Allied troops at the bridgehead with five U.S. and two British divisions, including No.43 (Royal Marine) Commando, facing five German divisions. The Germans were well dug into prepared defences, but were weak in numbers of officers and NCOs and, by the time of the late May offensive, lacked any reserves which had all been redeployed elsewhere.
At 5.45am on 23 May 1944, 1,500 Allied artillery pieces commenced a bombardment of the German lines. Forty minutes later the guns paused as attacks were made by close air support and then resumed as the infantry and armour moved forward. The first day’s fighting was intense: the 1st Armoured Division lost 100 tanks and 3rd Infantry Division suffered 955 casualties, the highest single-day figure for any U.S. division during World War II. The Germans suffered too, with the one division estimated to have lost half of its fighting strength.
The intense fighting continued the following day and by the afternoon of 25 May the town of Cisterna fell to the US 3rd Division. As the Allies pushed north, Hitler ordered that there should be ‘no defence of Rome’ and the Italian capital was entered in the early hours of 4 June.
Bill’s sketch was annotated on the reverse with a message for family at home:
Took me about 15 minutes to do, better get my hand in again, may have to turn pavement artist when this lot is over. I suppose there will be the usual land fit for heroes again or am I being too cynical what do you think