Men Wanted Leader Held Accountable
Wars cost lives, but that simple truth becomes almost unbearable when those lives are lost because of one man’s unwillingness, or failure to see, that he has made a profound error in judgment. An experienced man. A man with training and knowledge. An honorable man. A man who should have known better.
And when he proves himself unwilling to heed the words of comrades with equal or greater experience, does that make his actions more than questionable? Almost criminal? As with all matters relating to war, the answer will change depending on who one asks.
Such was the case with the most bloody battle fought in World War Two by the Texas 36th Infantry Division, when they led the river assault at Anzio, Italy. The man in charge was Lieutenant General Mark Clark, who in turn was listening to what would prove to be very bad advice from Winston Churchill.
Churchill wanted a massive Allied attack at Anzio, to force the Germans toward the North. To make this happen, Lt. Gen. Clark ordered the 36th Division to hit the Germans on the Rapido River, basically by crossing it and doing a frontal assault.
The plan was doomed, Clark was told repeatedly by Major General Fred Walker, who led the 36th and had experience in river battles. But no matter how strenuously Walker argued against it, Clark’s mind was set. As was Churchill’s.
With only a few days of preparation and realizing his warnings were falling on deaf ears, Walker readied his men. And it was indeed a monumental disaster. Even the men knew they were in for an onslaught they could not win. Thousands of lives were lost unnecessarily if only the attack had been staged one and a half miles up river, as Walker had urged, the men might have stood a chance. As it was, they didn’t.
The men decided they would not keep quiet about what they perceived as an utter failure of leadership. Once home on U.S. soil, survivors gathered in Brownsville, Texas, to decide how to proceed, collectively and formally. They declared it would “go down in history as one of the colossal blunders of World War Two.”
So they took their cause to the state senate, then to the U.S. Congress, to ensure two things: that they were compensated, somehow, and that no military leader would ever make such an error again.
The former demand seems reasonable today. The latter, however, was wishful thinking. How was Congress, or anyone in power, Supposed to guard against human error in wartime?
Hearings began before the House Committee on Military Affairs in mid March, 1946. Not surprisingly, Clark defended his actions, insisting that the loss of life was regrettable but necessary and that he, too, had orders to follow. But if required, he told the committee, he would make the same decision again.
Next up came Walker, who agreed that Clark had acted properly in planning the attack, but erred in where he ordered it staged. More than once Walker had urged him to consider a position just up river but Clark refused to listen.
“I do not recall of ever having read in military history where a frontal attack, across an (inaccessible) river in the face of an organized position along the opposite shore, has ever worked.” Walker had offered Clark a viable alternative; he ignored it. Clark’s failure, Walker said, was one of stubbornness, and a refusal to consider an option that would have spared, potentially, thousands of men.
In spite of Walker’s testimony, and the demands of the survivors, the head of the War Department, Robert Patterson, did not want to see an officer as senior as Clark held accountable for his actions.
In essence, he said that, while the loss of life was indeed unfortunate, difficult decisions must be made by high ranking military personnel, and second guessing those decisions in hindsight was unfair. Clark was simply doing what his training taught him to do, and he also had to consider the pressure Churchill was placing on Clark to follow the plan.
He concluded: It is my conclusion that the action was a necessary one, and that General Clark exercised sound judgment.” And the men, he continued, were to be lauded for “contributing in a major degree to the firm establishment of the Anzio beachhead.”
The episode was the worst battle fought in World War Two by the 36th Division. The subsequent look into its planning and execution is considered a profound failure by the government to support survivors, and reprimand senior personnel for reckless strategies.
Daniel L. Davis, a retired Colonel who served frequently in Afghanistan and is a Senior Fellow with Defense Priorities, has written extensively on the Battle of Anzio. He can be followed on Twitter, @DanielDavis1.