On the Anzio beachhead the situation was going from bad to worse. In command of the beachhead General John P. Lucas felt he had been asked to implement a fatally flawed plan. In his eyes it would be futile to attempt to break out until they were in sufficient strength. Yet as each day passed the German forces surrounding them grew in strength and dominated the high ground.
Under pressure from above the adopt a more aggressive approach, the end of January saw determined assaults on the perimeter. The US Rangers were tasked with an overnight infiltrating raid towards the town of Cisterna.
Unfortunately intelligence was poor and they found themselves infiltrating an area occupied by a strong German force that was preparing to break into the Allied lines. The result was some very confused fighting in which the Rangers were heavily outnumbered.
Carl Lehman was attached to Company HQ:
The shell which killed Major Miller, according to what was told me by others near the time, was the one that opened the battle. Although I was unaware of the Major’s location forward of mine in the Pontano Ditch, the shell exploded quite near and with the explosion, I sprang running to the left right through an enemy bivouac (no tents, just men lying under blankets), astonished at Germans rising all around, running away with hands in the air, crying “Kamarad!”, as I ran through them, shooting from the hip.
By the time I had expended the clip from my M1, I had run completely through the camp area, coming to a shallow hedgerow running generally parallel to the Ditch, although now I was more than a couple of hundred yards from it. I continued my run up the hedgerow until my attention was caught by the clatter of a flack-wagon which pulled into view on a low ridge perhaps 100 yards to the left.
Dawn was just breaking, and the flack-wagon was silhouetted against the lightening sky. I dropped, reloaded, and commenced firing at the soldiers trying to unlimber a brace of automatic guns in the open body of the truck. They were in plain sight and easy targets, and beat a hasty retreat to the far side of the ridge. It was then that I became aware that a line of Rangers had followed me up the ditch, many doing the same as I. (I had no squad at the time and was attached to Company HQ, carrying a load of demolitions). We had quite a successful shoot for several minutes, at Germans whose heads we could see, but who see only our muzzle-flashes in the dark of the swale. All the metal of the M1 was hot and the wood was smoking.
After some little time shooting one clip after another, I heard Sgt. Perry Bills shouting my name; after I replied he directed me to come in his direction (in an open field towards the Ditch). I jumped up and ran to join those in the field, and the others in the hedgerow did the same, to the accompaniment of small arms fire still inaccurate because of the dark. When I reached Bills’ general area, I became aware of a large number of men flattened out in the field with no cover at all, and the small arms fire was building.
I attempted to light a British phosphorous contact grenade, but it failed to detonate. A wounded officer nearby, seeing what I attempted, tossed me an American one with which I was successful in producing a cloud of smoke. However, I had had to toss it quite close to me because of the surrounding men, and perceiving the danger of falling tendrils over head, I again began running not stopping until I ran into a fire fight between some First Battalion men and some Kraut infantry. I’m not sure how this ended but after it did, I commenced looking for C Company.
There was a tall barn nearby and I climbed to its second floor, which had a door looking south the way we had come, but another window higher up and facing West, which I attempted to gain for a better look with a handy ladder. When no sooner started up the ladder when I heard the ungodly clatter of an armored vehicle outside. I abandoned the ladder and stole a peek through the door which revealed a self-propelled gun with a driver and a 4-man crew in the back, working about the gun, directly under me. I dropped a grenade in it and hit the ground running on the other side of the barn before it exploded. I did not inspect the results.
For the whole of his account see That day in Cisterna
Lehman describes part of a contentious episode. The end of this attack saw the Germans bring Ranger prisoners to the US pockets of resistance at bayonet point – allegedly bayoneting them if the others fired on them or refused to surrender.
It had been a disaster for ‘Darby’s Rangers’, surrounded and out of ammunition they eventually had to surrender anyway. Only 7 men out 810 made it back to Allied lines – the exact numbers taken prisoner were never established but was estimated at around 400 men. The US Army Ranger Association has more background on the 3rd and 4th Battalions.