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SICILY

"Our jump is to take place in moonlight the night of July 9th…it is clear that the effort will be a very risky one and a costly one. It is nonetheless a typical parachute operation."

- James M. Gavin

Specifically, the mission of the 505 RCT was as follows: 505 Regimental Headquarters, 1st and 2nd Battalions and Batteries A and B of the 456 were to drop just north of an important road junction (“Y”) about seven miles east of Gela, attack and overcome an enemy strongpoint commanding the junction and hold that position until contacted by the 1st Infantry Division. The 3rd Battalion and Battery C of the 456 would drop south of the same junction and occupy the high ground. 3/504 would drop south of Niscemi and establish and defend roadblocks on the road from that area to the south. All elements were to be prepared to assist the 1st Infantry Division in the seizure of the Ponte Olivo airdrome.

Additionally, three plane loads, including the Regimental Demolition Section, were to drop about five miles east and prepare for demolition the rail and road crossings over the Acate River, while I-Company was to drop short of the 3rd Battalion's drop zone to eliminate an enemy strongpoint in that area and to light

a bonfire as a beacon for units of the 1st Infantry Division. Units of Company B of the 307th Engineers were attached to the three 505 battalions with specific supporting missions.

The battalions of the 505 were commanded, respectively, by Lieutenant Colonel Arthur F. “Hardnose” Gorham, Major Mark J. Alexander, and Major Edward C. “Cannonball” Krause.

Reveille at the airfields in Kairouan sounded one hour earlier on the morning of July 9, and with its call came the realization that this would be "the day".

Reported in the July 12, 1943, edition of “The Stars and Stripes” by staff writer, Sgt. Jack Foisie who was there with the paratroopers:

The bivouac atmosphere remained business-like and grim.
No horseplay, no heroics, no boasts, no doubts. The Yanks
were ready and confident. The tenseness mounted as the
time grew short.

Trucks carried all units to the various airfields and the waiting C-47s. Assigned planes were located (identified by a chalk number on the side) and all required equipment secured. Parachutes were tried on and adjusted. The password of "George" with the response of "Marshall" was told to the RCT with the advice that they better know the password because “there are going to be a lot of itchy trigger fingers.” A slip of paper with a message from Colonel Gavin was handed out to each trooper:

SOLDIERS OF THE 505th PARACHUTE COMBAT TEAM

     Tonight you embark upon a combat mission for which our people
and the free people of the world have been waiting for two years.

     You will spearhead the landing of an American Force upon the island
of SICILY. Every preparation has been made to eliminate the element of
chance. You have been given the means to do the job and you are backed
by the largest assemblage of air power in the world's history.

     The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers
of every American go with you.

     Since it is our first fight at night you must use the countersign
and avoid firing on each other. The bayonet is the night fighter's best
weapon. Conserve your water and ammunition.

The term "American Parachutist" has become synonymous with
courage of a high order. Let us carry the fight to the enemy and make
the American Parachutist feared and respected through all his
ranks. Attack violently. Destroy him where ever found.

     I know you will do your job.

     Good landing, good fight, and good luck.

                                                                                    COLONEL GAVIN

Again, Sgt. Jack Foisie:

The colonel, who would lead his combat team into action, was
giving a last minute briefing…It was a sacred huddle, this briefing.
The generals and staff officers who had come to wish them luck
stood off to the side. It was a strange and fascinating sight, the men
with their faces blackened, the American flag freshly sewed on their
sleeves, gathered at the feet of their commander. The colonel, tallest
of them all, his lean face more liberally smudged with blackening, the
darkest of them all, spoke his final commands…his words were calm
and cool and direct. There were 13 enlisted men going in the lead
plane
[with Gavin]…I asked everyone the same question, 'How do
you feel about it?' This is how they
[one] answered: 'We're going in
with him so everything is going to be alright'.

AT 2010 hours the first planes began to take off and by 2116 hours the complete RCT was airborne. From the regimental history:

As the five serials in the long skytrain straightened out in the
gathering dusk on the nearly due east course that led to the
island of Malta, everything had gone exactly as planned.
Thereafter, very little did.

Earlier that day a strong wind had begun and by late afternoon it was blowing from the west at near gale force. Once in the air, because of the high tail winds, the pilots were not able to navigate using the elapsed time method. Visibility was poor; the night was too dark, the expected moonlight not always there. The low flying planes were blinded by saltwater spray from the sea on their windshields. The dim lights that had been added to the wingtips to aid in keeping formation could not be seen, and fearing mid-air collisions within the tight formations, many pilots veered out of formation and became lost. Landmarks that were to also aid navigation and orientation were obliterated because of the dust storms caused by the high winds as well as by the pre-invasion bombings.

As a result, instead of dropping the RCT correctly over a designated five-mile area, the disoriented troop carrier pilots dropped the paratroopers over a 65-mile area all along the southern coast of Sicily. Only about 12% of the total force landed in front of the 1st Infantry Division's beachhead as planned. At least three of the planes never found Sicily at all and returned to Africa with full loads, jumping on the night of D+1 with the balance of the division's invasion force. That first night many of the paratroopers, including Colonel Gavin, doubted they were even in Sicily.

Unable to organize because of the scattered drops, the first actions of the RCT resembled guerrilla warfare. Small groups, searching for their units and objectives, chanced upon enemy patrols, pillboxes, or small enemy garrisons and killed or captured the enemy wherever possible. Communication lines were cut and couriers ambushed. The wide dispersal even managed to cause more confusion and panic among the enemy, as the Italian commander believed that perhaps 50,000 paratroopers had landed on his island and was at a loss as to how to respond to such a massive invasion.

Fortunately, I-Company of 3/505 landed exactly on its intended drop zone and accomplished its mission of attacking several enemy pillboxes at a road junction, setting up roadblocks facing in all directions and lighting bonfires as a guide for the 1st Infantry Division.

Although the bulk of the 1/505 misdropped on the east coast of the island (where its troopers fought with the British for several days), approximately 80 men (principally from A-Company and Regimental Headquarters, including the battalion commander) came close to accomplishing the primary mission of the entire RCT. These paratroopers landed just a few miles from their intended drop zone. Almost immediately upon landing, one group attacked an enemy strongpoint that had been firing at them as they were landing. Although at first repulsed, with reinforcements they then killed or captured that entire garrison. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Colonel Gorham arrived with more men and directed the whole group to move southward to the high ground overlooking the main road. While in this position, they observed and destroyed a German armored column. The German commander then sent his tanks forward but when the paratroopers knocked out two of them and damaged two more, the Germans withdrew. Gorham’s group then organized an all-around defense and completed the mission of taking the road junction at “Y”.

When the 1st Infantry Division moved inland from the beaches, Gorham’s paratroopers joined with them in their attack northward. Late the next morning this combined group was counterattacked by an enemy column of panzers of the Herman Goering Division, as they had received the order to throw the Allied forces "back into the sea.” Successfully knocking out one of the enemy tanks with a bazooka, Gorham was killed while shooting at another. After overrunning the valiant paratroopers, the enemy column pushed right into the outskirts of Gela where it was fortunately destroyed by the dug-in forces of the 1st Infantry Division. Lieutenant Colonel Gorham was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on D-Day with an Oak Leaf Cluster for the action in which he was killed. Command of the battalion then passed to Major Walter F. Winton, Jr.

Only the serial carrying the 2/505 kept their formation, and this was probably due to the “frank” discussion Major Alexander had with the wing group commander just prior to their departure, asking that regardless of where they were dropped it would be together so they could organize and fight as a battalion. Though in the wrong area and immediately coming under heavy enemy ground fire, the entire battalion (less only a few planes) did have a concentrated drop. A force of over 500 paratroopers, including artillerymen with one howitzer and ammunition, assembled and eliminated four large enemy pillboxes, overpowered every Italian garrison encountered, and captured the complete coast artillery fortifications in the area in front of the 45th Infantry Division. Aiding the 45th had been originally considered in the preliminary planning but was thought too much for one combat team—the 45th received a “surprise gift” from the 2/505 and with their help, moved out from its beachhead quickly.

Elements of the 3/505 and artillerymen, all under the command of the battery commander of C/456, also aided the 45th Division when they were misdropped almost in the center of that division’s area and joined forward elements of the division as assault troops.

The remainder (and the largest group) of the 3/505 dropped southeast of the river and were gathered together, along with a considerable number of equipment bundles, by Major Krause. Contact was made with the 45th Division and after exhausting all efforts to contact other elements of the RCT, Krause led his group toward Gela via the Vittoria highway. Upon reaching the highway, Krause encountered the 505 executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert F. Batcheller, who directed Krause to stop and set up a defensive position astride the highway, bivouac and await further orders.

The 3/504 was scattered widely over an area generally southeast of Niscemi. In the subsequent fighting, the paratroopers destroyed all enemy communications encountered, attacked enemy troops and denied them the use of the road from Niscemi to Biscari, as well as blocking German troop movement south toward Gela. Unfortunately, a large number of the battalion dropped in an assembly area for the German panzer division; many of them were captured and the battalion’s prisoner of war total was nearly double that of the entire 505.

Though misdropped, the 505 RCT did follow their commander's orders to "…carry the fight to the enemy…destroy him where ever found."

Gavin (with his plans officer, Major Benjamin H. Vandervoort, and his personnel officer, Captain Alfred W. Ireland) dropped more than 20 miles from the objective. Walking all night “toward the sound of the guns” with only a few others, they were unable to locate many more members of the RCT. Ben Vandervoort recalled:

Mid-morning, we ran into an Italian 35-man anti-paratroop patrol 70
yards in front of us. An intense fire fight ensued. Two of our troopers
were hit and lay very still. In the time it takes to fire two dozen aimed
shots with a carbine, the Italians were driven to cover behind a stone
wall. In the lull, we disengaged straight back, one at a time, the others
covering. The colonel was the last man to withdraw from the position.
We took temporary cover in a cane brake. We were dirty, sweaty, tired
and distressed at having to leave the wounded behind. The colonel
looked over his six-man command and said, ‘This is a hell of a place for
a regimental commander to be.’

Gavin recalled of that night:

And while I was not back with my own troopers yet, I felt that
I had probably been spared an untimely end by being able to
live through this day. If I did survive, I decided that I would never
forget the simple fundamentals that I had learned as a cadet—that
I would live by them. And that, if allowed to live, I would take the
best possible care of any troops charged to me. And “taking care
of them” meant making them into the best fighting organizations
possible, that they might survive and win in battle. George Patton’s
last words to us before we left Africa came home with meaning.

When he finally located elements of his RCT, Gavin was not pleased to find Major Krause’s 3/505 force in their defensive position and ordered Krause to move his battalion towards the mission objective of Gela. Gavin continued westward in his reconnoiter to ascertain his combat team’s strength and soon encountered a platoon of the 307th Engineers, augmented with soldiers from the 45th Division. They told him there was a large enemy force to the west and astride the highway. Gavin went forward, ordering the group to follow. What he discovered was another column of enemy panzers that had moved toward the area of the 45th Division's beachhead and toward a spur of ground (Biazza Ridge) that commanded the junction of the American beachheads. If not stopped, from this position the Germans could split and flank the 1st and 45th Infantry Divisions.

“…troops will follow a daring confident leader anywhere. Nine times out of ten all that they need is someone to say, ‘lets go’.”

- James M. Gavin

Gavin deployed the engineers as infantry and led them forward, after first sending Vandervoort to try to get through by 45th Division communications to either the 82nd or 1st Divisions’ command posts to let them know what he was doing and, more importantly, to tell Krause to get his force forward on the double.

Gavin and the engineers got about half way to the ridge when they came under heavy German fire, wounding several of the group. Still, this small force carried the ridge and drove the enemy to the west. The fire was too heavy to continue onward so Gavin told them to dig in along the top and hold it until help could arrive. Eventually, the forces of the 3/505 were brought up.

The fight at Biazza Ridge would be one of the most furious and bloodiest battles of the campaign. The battle to hold the ridge raged on for hours, with Gavin and his 250-odd lightly armed paratroopers versus the full weight of a German armored column. German prisoners would later state that they thought the troopers had already seen battle with the Japanese because the Americans were fighting so hard. Gavin was determined to stay on the ridge (even though heavy German artillery and mortar fire were tearing through the troopers and blasting the area) as it was vital to the 45th Division’s advance and had to be held. The Americans returned fire, meanwhile digging foxholes (unfortunately shallow because of the hard ground) in the hopes that the German tanks could roll over them.

When the paratroopers saw their bazooka shells bouncing off the heavily armored German tanks, they devised a tactic of going at the softer underbellies of the tanks as they came over a rise nose up, but they were no match for the massive tanks. Many of the paratroopers were crushed in their shallow foxholes, some with pieces of bazooka actually ground into them by the tank tracks.

Help arrived when a few artillerymen from Battery C managed to get one of their 75mm howitzers (and then later another) up on the ridge. Gavin talked to the crews of the two pack howitzers and told them that they should stay concealed and engage the less heavily armored underbellies of the tanks when they first appeared at the top of the rise. It was a dangerous tactic but it was the only vulnerable target available. Later, when a Tiger tank appeared, one of the howitzer crews decided they would take a chance and engage it directly, successfully scoring a hit and causing the tank to back out of sight. Gavin was impressed: “Field artillery in the front lines, shades of ‘Gallant Pelham at Fredericksburg’!”

Further help came from the 456 when a machinegun crew from Battery D shot down one ME-109 and damaged two others that were strafing and bombing the ridge.

Later, a battalion of the 45th Division, supported by Sherman tanks and artillery, came up to the ridge with a naval liaison officer who made contact with the offshore destroyers and cruisers. The Navy responded quickly by slamming salvos into the German positions. As evening approached, Gavin ordered a counterattack, and although they came under heavy enemy artillery and mortar fire, the exhausted paratroopers successfully overran the German positions. The enemy withdrew in confusion, leaving behind their dead and wounded along with a great deal of ammunition and equipment.

It is important not to overlook the role of the 505 RCT’s medics in the battle for Biazza Ridge and during all combat operations of the Sicilian campaign. Prior to Sicily, the medics (being non-combatants) had not been treated with respect by their fellow paratroopers. This changed dramatically when it was realized that it was the medics, armed with nothing more than a red cross armband, a few medical supplies, and lots of courage who could determine the success of any operation by tending the wounded and saving the lives of those who fought.

With the battle for Biazza Ridge over, the price paid for its taking was evident by the many graves dug in the first temporary cemetery for the 82nd on Sicily, located there on the ridge. In addition to the dead, over 100 wounded had to be evacuated. Colonel Gavin's paratroopers had fought "as American troops have never fought before.”

Gavin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his exemplary leadership during the battle but wrote this in his diary:

I feel that many of the fine boys now buried on Biazza Ridge
are much more entitled to decorations than I am.

The battle at Biazza Ridge would be a turning point in the invasion of Sicily. American opposition led the Germans to make the decision to break contact at Gela and withdraw, losing initiative that they would not reclaim nor would they be able to push the Allies "back into the sea."

Though it would take more than thirty more days to claim victory in Sicily, the heaviest fighting for the 505 RCT was now over.

Critics of Sicily’s airborne operation called it a SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fouled Up). Gavin believed that it was the best executed SNAFU in the history of military operations and could be better termed a SAFU (Self-Adjusting Foul Up), but the true determination of success of any military operation can best be gauged by the enemy’s evaluation. General Kurt Student was the foremost authority in the German army on airborne operations and after the war stated:

The Allied airborne operation in Sicily was decisive despite widely
scattered drops which must be expected in a night landing. It is my
opinion that if it had not been for the Allied airborne forces blocking
the Herman Goering Armored Division from reaching the beachhead,
that division would have driven the initial seaborne forces back into the
sea. I attribute the entire success of the Allied Sicilian operation to the
delaying of German reserves until sufficient forces had been landed by
sea to resist the counterattacks by our defending forces.

The man who led the 505 RCT’s drop onto Sicily should have the last word:

In the last analysis, the accomplishment of the mission is a tribute
to the…fighting heart, individual skill, courage and initiative of the
American Paratrooper.

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

 
 
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