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ITALY

“I sweated this one out a bit, as the boys say, but it turned out to be the easiest jump for some time.”

- James M. Gavin

Though the Italian government did not surrender, they did depose and arrest the country's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, on July 25 1943. On August 10th, realizing that the Allies had won in Sicily, the surviving German forces (with thousands of Italian regulars) escaped the island. Even though Italy still pledged support to Hitler, its government secretly entered into talks with the Allies and hoped to still negotiate a separate surrender.

While the battle for Sicily was being fought, Allied high command was locked in a battle over strategy. The Americans still wanted a priority commitment to the cross-Channel invasion. The British wanted further operations in the Mediterranean, specifically Italy, as that country was tottering and the British thought that if a defeat in Sicily didn’t cause the Italians to capitulate, the capture of Rome would. Consequently, Hitler would be forced to defend Italy with only German forces (preventing their use elsewhere) or be forced to yield it to the Allies.

Though Hitler’s initial reaction to the arrest of Mussolini was to overthrow the Italian government and restore the dictator to power in a Nazi-occupied Italy, (thwarting any possible Italian surrender or defection), he instead listened to his advisors and prepared for an Allied invasion of the mainland. He positioned a powerful German force in the north to dominate the approaches to the Alps and southern France, emplaced approximately 43,000 troops in the Rome area, and created a new army (the Tenth) in southern Italy. If the Italian government and military remained loyal to Germany, the combined Axis force would resist any invasion together. In the event of a betrayal, the Italians would be disarmed and the Germans would pull back in a defensive position to Rome.

The British won the strategy battle, and Allied plans were made for the invasion of Italy. The final plan for the amphibious invasion would be a combined American-British landing. The U.S. Fifth Army, under the command of General Mark W. Clark, would land at Salerno (OPERATION AVALANCHE) as the main assault. The British Eighth Army under command of Bernard Montgomery would earlier cross into Italy at its "toe" at Calabria and at its "heel" at Tarranto to secure a bridgehead for naval forces to operate through the Straits of Messina and then move up to join the Americans at Salerno. The Allies would then move northwestward to capture Naples. With Naples in Allied hands, fighters and bombers could be moved forward from Sicily to the city's two large airfields, and the harbor could be used to receive materiel and supplies for logistical support. From Naples, the forces would continue even farther north until all Italy was in Allied hands.

Clark would have command of the operation, and at the last minute, the decision was made to reinforce Clark’s troops with airborne forces (the 82nd). While still in Sicily, Ridgway was told to keep the division ready for anything, as airborne missions were proposed, changed, cancelled and proposed again.

By August, the 505 had returned to Kairouan, Tunisia and though North Africa was hotter than Sicily and not as comfortable, Gavin wrote in his diary that “change is good for the morale.” The regiment received replacements of men and equipment and continued to train. Colonel Gavin was determined to keep the promise he had made to himself during the uncertainty of that first night in Sicily – to take care of his troops by turning them into the best fighting organization possible so that they might survive and win in battle.

On September 3, the British crossed from Sicily into Calabria which tipped off the Germans to the fact that the Allies were now moving on Italy. Aware that this could not be the main effort, the commander of the newly created German Tenth Army ordered his forces in Calabria to fall back to Salerno, where the Germans knew the main assault would be made.

On September 5, the division’s troop carrier wings were ordered to bases in Sicily and the regiment went with them, bivouacking at the airfields.

As a result of the secret negotiations with the Italian government, one of the plans proposed for the 82nd was a top-secret drop of its two parachute regiments onto airfields in the vicinity of Rome. After the paratroopers secured the fields, the glider regiment would come in. This operation was to coincide with the capitulation of Italy (if the secret negotiations were successful) and be assisted by Italian forces. The bulk of the 504 would be dropped on the night of September 8, with the 505 dropping the following night. However, just as the lead elements of the 504 were preparing to take off, the mission was cancelled when it was determined that the Italians would not be able to support the mission as originally promised, though the Italian government did announce their unconditional surrender on that same night. Later, it was determined that the drop would have had disastrous results, and Gavin simply wrote in his diary: “It was well that we did not jump.”

As planned, Clark’s amphibious landing at Salerno coincided with the announcement of the Italian surrender. During the early morning hours of September 9, his Fifth Army forces closed in on Salerno Bay. The American forces, though initially doing well and driving inland to the high ground, were met by strong German opposition. On September 13, with the Fifth Army in trouble, Ridgway received orders from Clark to drop reinforcements just behind the lines on the beachhead at Paestum that night. Ridgway’s reply was “Can do.”

On the night of September 14, elements of the 504 dropped and went into action immediately, doing much to swing the balance of the battle in the favor of the Fifth Army. The following night, the 505 with the 307th Engineers (the 456 was detached from the combat team at this time) also jumped at Paestum. The jump was relatively easy. The jump pattern was compact, casualties were very light and the regiment assembled within one hour with all equipment recovered. After a few days of light fighting, Ridgway put the 505 into division reserve.

On September 30, the 505 was attached to the British 23rd Armored Brigade as part of the continuing advance on Naples and entered the city on October 1. The regiment was the first unit into the city after the British reconnaissance units and found Naples in shambles. Communications, electrical, water and sewage facilities were practically non-existent. The waterfront was also destroyed. The division was given the mission of restoring order, clearing debris, getting utilities back into operation and distributing food. Ridgway divided the city into zones, giving each one of the division's regiments an area of responsibility.

During this time, certain government buildings were allocated as billets for paratroopers of the Division. On October 7th 1943 a powerful explosion rocked the city of Naples. 1st Sgt Frese of B company, 307th Airborne Engineers Battalion wrote in his diary " October 7 Naples - Post Office explosion - broken, twisted bodies of men, women and children." The retreating Germans had left a time bomb behind a false wall in the city's main Post Office.

This disaster led to a search of the city for more undetected explosives. A composite group of engineers stationed in Naples at the time, conducted the search, storing all that they found in the basement of the building where the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion were quartered.

Unfortunately, three days later, on October 10th 1943, a second explosion shook Naples. This time, the explosion was in the section of a building that housed B Company of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion. The undiscovered bomb went off in the buildings basement killing 23 enlisted men and wounding 21 more. Sergeant Frank Miale lost 10 of the 13 men in his squad and B company lost one third of their enlisted men in a single incident.

Sergeant Miale felt it was a possibility that one of the boxes of explosives brought in and stored in the engineer building's basement, contained a timing device that went undetected.

As the paratroopers were securing Naples, the rest of the Allied forces continued to push northward toward the Volturno River, strongly defended by the German Tenth Army. On the morning of October 4, Gavin received orders to send two battalions of the 505 PIR on a mission to aid the British forces in their push across the river. Joining with the British 23rd Armored Brigade, the paratroopers would be the spearhead of the river crossing.

Gavin sent the 2/505 under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander (promoted in Sicily) and the 1/505 under Major Winton. The paratroopers were to seize five canal bridges, the town of Arnone and an intact bridge over the river at that point, if possible. At 1000 hours on that same morning Alexander and his battalion moved to the assembly area, moved out at 1450 hours and by 2100 hours had seized the first bridge and made contact with the enemy. After a sharp fight, the Germans withdrew and by afternoon of the next day, the battalion had seized the remaining bridges and were on the outskirts of the town. 1/505 moved out of Naples early on the morning of October 5 and by 1700 hours had moved to positions covering the two flanks and rear of the 2/505.

During the night of October 5-6, all of Alexander’s companies sent out patrols to reconnoiter routes and possible crossing sites. Encountering only small enemy groups, a platoon from F-Company went into Arnone early in the morning and found the town abandoned by the Germans. The balance of the company, with the heavy weapons section of Headquarters Company, moved into the town and encountered only spasmodic enemy artillery fire from across the river.

However, in mid-afternoon, “all hell broke loose” when, preceded by an intensive artillery barrage, a company of Germans attacked the town from the west and another force (later to be determined to be a battalion) attacked from across the river. In a valiant defensive action, F-Company stopped the German crossing and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander personally led E-Company in an attack that cleared F-Company’s left flank.

When the Germans started to pound the town with artillery, Alexander withdrew both companies to less exposed positions and ordered them to dig in. In this action, A-Company was moved up to the left flank to the positions vacated by E-Company in their attack. The battalion was now in a good defensive position and ready for further attack. Fortunately the night remained quiet except for some intermittent artillery fire. While A and B Companies were supporting the 2nd Battalion in the vicinity of Arnone, C-Company was given the job of patrolling the area west of the road to the sea.

Except for artillery fire, October 7 was fairly quiet and the regiment’s chaplains went into Arnone and recovered the many bodies of the paratroopers killed in the fight the day before. Though Arnone was a “no-man’s land”, the Germans were still respecting a Red Cross flag at this stage of the war. Fortunately, Chaplain George “Chappie” Wood and his helpers were not fired upon while doing their necessary duty. That night both battalions, having cleared the way, were relieved by the British and by next morning had returned to Naples and police duty.

“…at a formation in front of Division Headquarters the stars were pinned on. I do not believe that I wear them particularly well, I may in time.”

- James M. Gavin

In early October 1943, Colonel Gavin was promoted to brigadier general and became, at age thirty-six, one of the youngest generals in the United States Army. He also became General Ridgway’s assistant division commander.

Gavin hated to leave “his” 505 because he had been through so much with the regiment, but at least he and his men would remain together within the division. Every veteran member of the regiment was sorry to see him go but were equally happy to see him promoted and felt they had, in some measure, contributed to his career success.

Lieutenant Colonel Batcheller moved up to take command of the regiment with Lieutenant Colonel Alexander filling Batcheller’s previous slot as executive officer. Lieutenant Colonel Vandervoort (promoted in Sicily) replaced Alexander as commander of the 2nd Battalion. Majors Winton and Krause continued to command the 1st and 3rd Battalions, respectively.

In November of 1943 General Gavin was temporarily attached to General Eisenhower's staff as senior airborne advisor to the Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Command (COSSAC) group. COSSAC, located in England, was responsible for the planning of the cross-channel invasion of France, code named operation Overlord.

The regiment continued to occupy and police Naples until mid-November. On November 18, the 505 Regimental Combat Team sailed from the harbor for parts unknown, the 505 Parachute Infantry on the USS Frederick Funston, the 307th Airborne Engineers on the USS Joseph Dickman, the 80th Airborne Anti-Aircraft, Anti-tank Battalion and the 307th Airborne Medical Company on the USS Thomas Jefferson. The 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion sent A and B batteries to support the 504th Parachute Infantry in the mountains of Italy the day before (November 17th), leaving C and D batteries to sail with the Division.

THE BEGINNING | NORTH AFRICA | SICILY | ITALY | NORTH IRELAND | ENGLAND | NORMANDY | HOLLAND | ARDENNES | CENTRAL EUROPE | BERLIN

 
 
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