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On January 22, 1944, six months after the Allied invasion of Sicily, American and British troops swarmed ashore at Anzio, roughly 30 miles south of Rome. The brainchild of Winston Churchill and dubbed Operation Shingle, the attack caught German troops stationed along the Italian coast largely by surprise; but after the initial onslaught, the Germans dug in. The next four months saw some of the fiercest, most prolonged fighting in World War II’s European Theater, as the Allies — including Canadians and French alongside the British and Americans — battled German troops for control of the region.
LIFE photographer George Silk, a New Zealand native who covered the war from the North African desert, through Rome, up to Belgian’s forests and into Germany itself, spent months with the Allies after they landed at Anzio, chronicling what LIFE magazine at one point characterized as a “slow, maddening, fruitless battle.” In late May, the Allies finally managed a breakout assault, supported by artillery and air power; in early June, Allied troops entered Rome virtually unopposed.
Here, on the 70th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Anzio, LIFE.com presents a series of Silk’s photographs — many of them never published before — that graphically illustrate the grueling stalemate, accompanied always by lethal violence, that defined the operation. Roughly 7,000 Allied troops were killed in those four months. Another 36,000 were wounded or missing in action. The Germans suffered 40,000 casualties (5,000 killed) while more than 4,000 surrendered and were taken prisoner.
NOTE: According to Silk’s typewritten captions for his photos, slide #16 in the gallery above features a soldier, William P. Chirolas, displaying “things that men in M Company don’t like: Dextrose tablets — taste terrible, almost invariably thrown away; Barbasol — they don’t like brushless shaving cream, say it sticks in the razor; Fleetwood cigarettes — typical of the cheap cigarettes that come in the K rations; processed American cheese — gets very tiresome when eaten day after day. . . .”
“The men complain,” Silk noted, “that the cheap [cigarette] brands are distributed just to please the manufacturers who want to keep their trade names going, and that the good brands are taken by the ‘Rear Echelon Boys’ before they reach the front.”
On the thin, worn paper Silk used to type his notes and that survives, yellowing and brittle, in LIFE’s archives (see scan below), one can clearly discern that someone — very likely a censor in the U.S. War Department — crossed out those particular observations with a red pencil. After all, the notion of “American boys” complaining bitterly about crappy tobacco, processed cheese and other indignities at the front didn’t quite fit the image the War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations wished to present to the folks back home.
The more things change. . . .
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com