“Footsie” Britt

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Alex Kershaw
January 22, 2024

This year will mark particularly poignant eightieth anniversaries given that so few participants in some of the most momentous battles in modern history are still alive. D Day, 6 June, 1944, will dominate news coverage. But another invasion, on 22 January 1944, at Anzio in Italy, should also be remembered.

There were over 40,000 Allied casualties at Anzio before the killing and dying finally ended after more than four months of nerve-shattering attrition. Among the wounded was one remarkable officer, 24-year-old Maurice “Footsie” Britt, a company commander in the 3rd Infantry Division from Arkansas who had played professional football for the Detroit Lions before being called to service.

Captain Maurice Britt, former Detroit Lions player.

When Britt led L Company from the 30th Infantry Regiment onto a deserted beach early on 22 January, it was the fourth time he had landed on hostile shores, having first seen action in November 1942 in North Africa. By sundown, the Anzio invasion appeared to be a cakewalk. Just thirteen Allied soldiers were killed among the 36,000 involved.

Tragically, although within striking distance of Rome,  the Allies became trapped on the plain of Anzio with the Germans controlling the high ground inland. The Wehrmacht, under orders to “lance the abscess” south of Rome, as Hitler put it, fought savagely. Some veterans of the fighting described it as worse than at Stalingrad.

US troops arrive at the heavily-shelled port of Anzio.

After a month, Captain Maurice Britt’s company had been decimated. He knew all about the horrors of unrelenting combat, having battled up the jagged, mountainous spine of Italy, earning the Medal of Honor in November 1943. But at Anzio even the toughest veterans like Britt became “a little hysterical” because of the extreme violence and constant stress.

One day, Britt stood at the open window of a house.  He spotted six German tanks and tried to call in supporting artillery fire but then a massive blast rocked the house. Another shell exploded, making a direct hit, shrapnel destroying the casement of the window through which Britt was looking, peppering those in the room inside.

Britt was thrown to the floor. He was dimly aware of plaster dust and debris settling after the explosion.

A voice.

“It was a tank."

His right arm was missing. It had been blown off at the elbow. Every bone in one of his feet was broken. A lieutenant lay dead a few feet away. Others were severely wounded, sprawled nearby, moaning, their blood spattered all around.

Britt could move his left hand. There was something in the rubble close by. He reached out and picked up his right hand with his left.

Someone was moving. A private was kneeling, applying a tourniquet to Britt’s arm using the nearest thing to be found, a heavy rope. Britt was in severe shock but the pain had not begun to kick in. The private found water and got Britt to drink it and to swallow six sulfa tablets to prevent infection.

Britt had a desperate craving for a cigarette.

Someone gave him one and lit it for him.

A sergeant dropped down beside Britt.

“Captain, I’m sorry,” he said. “What are your orders?"

Hold the position. Hand over command of L Company to a lieutenant called Ivorson. That was if he hadn’t bought it too.

Fifteen men had been in the room with Britt when it was hit. Only three were unhurt. Five lay dead. Seven, including Britt, were seriously injured.

“Tell my wife I love her,” mumbled Britt before falling unconscious. His last thought before the darkness was that he was dying.

When Britt awoke, he was in a tent hospital near Anzio. He had received five lifesaving blood transfusions. He was, according to a wounded soldier in a cot beside him, “out of it . . . utterly demoralized, his spirit broken."

Nowhere was safe from German artillery at Anzio. A shell hit the tented hospital and Britt was thrown to the ground, screaming in pain. Then he blacked out. The next thing he knew, he was in the bottom of a landing craft, headed for yet another hospital, this time in Naples.

When Britt finally arrived back in the United States in late spring 1944, two generals greeted him at the bottom of a gantry as he disembarked from his ship. They had been sent by no less than General George Marshall, US Army chief of staff. A band played, welcoming him home.

From the East Coast, a train took Britt to Lawson General Hospital in Georgia. He was lying on an X‑ray table, surrounded by reporters, when he was officially informed that he would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions the previous November.

“Footsie” Britt smiles for the press after returning to the US.

The press had been invited to record Britt’s reaction to the news— already he was a vital propaganda figure, committed to a nationwide bond tour, a guest on coast‑to‑coast radio shows.

The Medal of Honor meant that the “big, raw-boned captain from Arkansas rice country” was one of the most decorated soldiers of the war, lacking only the Distinguished Service Cross. That medal would be awarded in December 1944, making Britt the only soldier to receive every US medal for valor to that date in WWII. He would hold the record for only a few months. None other than the legendary Audie Murphy, also from the 3rd Division, would also match Britt’s astonishing feat on the battlefield.

Britt receiving the Distinguished Service Cross in December 1944.

Britt would never play football again. There was not a day he did not feel the pain from his wounds during the decades he spent, before his death in 1995, as a successful businessman and as Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas from 1967 to 1971.

MOH recipient Maurice “Footsie” Britt, 1919-1995.

Britt never forgot the horrors of Anzio eighty years ago. But, like so many from the “greatest generation”, he overcame his trauma, determined to live every day to the full, appearing ever cheerful and positive. He felt blessed. He had survived. So many under his command had not.