Anzio – searching through the pockets of the dead

'Anzio Beach-head, Italy! German dead lying in gulley where they attempted to break through Allied lines at night to cut a vital Allied road junction.' Signal Corps  6 March 1944

‘Anzio Beach-head, Italy! German dead lying in gulley where they attempted to break through Allied lines at night to cut a vital Allied road junction.’ Signal Corps 6 March 1944

Captain W Guest-Gordons, Intelligence Officer with No. 2 Infantry Brigade, examines a German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon, Anzio, 27 February 1944.

Captain W Guest-Gordons, Intelligence Officer with No. 2 Infantry Brigade, examines a German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon, Anzio, 27 February 1944.

On the Anzio beachhead everyone was either on the frontline or just behind it, the depth of ground held by the Allies was only a few miles at its greatest extent, and everyone was under threat from shellfire. There were a number of caves and the basements of buildings which provided relatively good sleeping accommodation, secure against most shells except for a direct hit. But most had to chance it, including the wounded in tented hospitals waiting to be evacuated.

Charles F. Marshall ran the daily gauntlet to the Intelligence Corps field base, on one occasion seeing the truck in front of him blown up by a direct hit. He had arrived in early February and had been shocked by the bodies piled up near to the beach. As a fluent German speaker (his parents were German speaking Hungarians who emigrated to America) he was a natural for Intelligence duties. He headed a section devoted to examining captured German documents:

The greater the butchery, the larger was the capture of documents. I was always a bit repulsed when handed a batch of bloody papers with a buck slip reading, “From good Germans — dead ones.” This was our Third Infantry Division’s trademark. The study of documents was engrossing work, because one never knew what one would find. There was also a tantalizing element: In which batch would we hit the jackpot? Meticulous examination leavened by serendipity and voila! There it could be!

Most of the document perusal was done by the sergeants, three of whom were native-born Germans and one an American of German ancestry. They sorted the wheat from the chaff. Any papers or maps they thought might have value were culled out for my evaluation. When the fighting was particularly heavy and there were many dead and wounded and large batches of prisoners, the document haul was so large it was brought in mailbags.

Even at such times, when we felt like miners panning a ton of silt to find an ounce of gold, our searches were never haphazard, but as thorough as time would permit. Consequently, a significant amount of shelling and bombing was not willy-nilly, as it may have appeared to the frontline soldier, but directed at targets ferreted out by behind-the-line intelligence.

For us laborers in the vineyards of intelligence, some aspects of our work were unpleasant. Bloody documents were no joy to inspect. And when they were both bloody and wet, which was often, because so much of the weather during the fighting was rainy, they were particularly revolting. Sometimes they were not removed from the fallen soldier’s pockets until he had lain dead for days in a rain-drenched field or ditch.

Yet, onerous though our task was, we intelligence personnel could not get rid of these papers without examining them, lest there be a clue in them as to how to kill more of the enemy and, conversely, cut American and British losses. As recompense for our slightly sheltered lives at field headquarters,we felt a moral obligation to the frontline soldier to do a conscientious job so as to shorten his travail and possibly save his life. That was our motivation. No matter how bloody and wet the document, no matter how repulsive, it was scrutinized. It just might be that nugget of gold.

Before eating, and at times at considerable inconvenience, I scrubbed my hands thoroughly, not only for sanitary reasons, but to get rid of that odor of death that, no matter how much I scrubbed, seemed to linger with an irritating pervasiveness.

We thought then, and I still think now, that we were making a signicant contribution to the battle to undo Hitler. Our work revealed that Germany was running so short of manpower that sixteen and seventeen-year-old kids were being drafted and given only two months of basic training before being thrown into the front lines. This policy was criminal.

Sometimes I felt like weeping as I went through their papers and pictures. To my parents I wrote: “They’re not soldiers. They’re just children in uniform. They are now pulling their kids directly from the Hitler Jugend. I can’t help wondering how long before they take them from the kindergarten. I don’t see how Germany can go on much longer. We have overwhelming air power, manpower, and production.”

The Hitler Jugend was more or less similar to our Boy Scouts, although rigidly organized, supercially trained militarily, and politically oriented. Most German boys carried enough documentation to write their biographies. Among the items they surrendered were their wallets, birth certicates, baptismal certicates, family pictures, pictures of their girl-friends or wives, diaries, driving licenses, and any of a hundred more or less standard items — including as a rule a batch of personal letters.

Some carried nude pictures of their wives or sweethearts, stimulating reminders of the joys awaiting their return. One PW had half a dozen seductively posed shots that, according to the letter found with them, had been taken by the woman’s father. Such photos, triggering salivating appraisals, lightened the day’s chores and were gleefully passed around, getting as much critical inspection as a captured map.

See Charles F. Marshall: A Ramble Through My War: Anzio and Other Joys

German POWs captured north of Anzio, 31 January 1944.

German POWs captured north of Anzio, 31 January 1944.

Two captured German paratroopers carrying a wounded British soldier who had lost a foot on a mine.

Two captured German paratroopers carrying a wounded British soldier who had lost a foot on a mine.

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