- Historic Sites
The Jump Into Sicily
“For This Challenge, I Had Come Three Thousand Miles and Thirty-six Years of My Life”
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
The future General James M. Gavin of the celebrated 82nd Airborne Division was a thirty-six-year-old colonel in July 0f 1943, facing his first combat assignment. The target was Sicily, and he was to lead a regiment of the 82nd in the first large-scale, organized invasion of Europe by airborne troops. Gavin had trained the men believed in them, was eager to prove their value in battle.
Sicily was also a testing ground for the Allied coalition; an American army and a British army, managed at the top by a unified Allied staff, were about to undertake a major campaign. What was learned in that first cooperative action, generalgavin says, affected the whole outcome of World War II.
The Allies had convinced germans—by floating ashore in Spain the dead body of a “Major Martin” carrying “highly confidential” papers—that the attack would come in Greece or Sardinia. (So coninced was Hitler, in fact, that the two weeks after the Sicilian landing, he believed the major attack was yet to come in Greece.) The Italians, however, never had been convinced by the ruse. They insisted that Sicily, that much-invaded, strategically situated island would be the aim of the Allied attack. To satisfy their Italian allies, and also because they believed that Sicily might be the target of a diversionary landing, the Germans sent two divisions to bolster Sicily’s defenses. Unbeknowst to the American and British invaders, the Hermann Goering Division had moved into the eastern end of the island in the early summer of 1943.
The account, beginning on the ooposite page, of the jump into Sicily and the battle of Biazza Ridge is excerpted from General Gavin’s forthcoming memoir. On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander, 1943–1945 , soon to be published by The Viking Press.
The pictures used with this excerpt were gathered with General Gavin’s cooperation. “In Sicily,”he explained, “I had a feeling that photographs would be very important for morale purposes, so I took a cameraman with me.” In conversations with AMERICAN HERITAGE editors, the general, now seventy-one, recalled vivid, firsthand details about this crucial first airborne operation, which we quote in the captions.
In July, 1943, we, the 505th Parachute Regimental Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, were to spearhead the Allied invasion of Sicily. The fateful day of July 9,1943, seemed to rush upon us, so busy were we with lastminute preparations, and almost before we realized it, we were gathered in small groups under the wings of our C-47s ready for loading and take-off. Appearing from a distance every bit like Strasbourg geese, the airplanes were so loaded with parachute bundles suspended beneath them that they seemed to drag the ground. These bundles carried equipment that would be dropped when the paratroopers jumped, and would float to the ground, we hoped, where we could find them. Because of security restrictions, it had not been possible to inform every trooper of our destination until just before take-off. Then each was given a small slip of paper which read: “Soldiers of the 505th 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. James M. Gavin.”
The plan was simple. Taking off from Tunisia in a long column of aircraft, we were to fly via the island of Linosa to Malta. There we were to dog-leg to the left, coming in on Sicily’s southwestern shore. This was an important point-the island was to come into sight on the right side of the approaching aircraft. The orders were that every man would jump even though there might be some uncertainty in his mind as to his whereabouts. No one but the pilots and crews were to return to North Africa.
Individual equipment was given a final check, and loading began. The equipment consisted of a rifle or carbine, rations, water, knife, grenades, compass, and here and there a bazooka. The bazookas were most important, since they were the only weapons the troopers were carrying that would enable them to engage the German armor on reasonable terms. The pilots were revving up their engines, and we were ready to roll down the runway when an airman from the weatherstation ran up to the door of the plane yelling for me. “Colonel Gavin, is Colonel Gavin here?” “Here I am,” I answered, and he yelled, “I was told to tell you that the wind is going to be thirty-five miles an hour, west to east.” He added, “They thought you’d want to know.”
Well, I did, but there was nothing I could do about it. Training jumps had normally been canceled when the wind reached about fifteen miles an hour, in order for us to minimize injuries. Few of us had ever jumped with winds of more than twentyfive miles an hour. But we couldn’t change plans now. Besides, there were many other hazards of greater danger in prospect than the thirty-five-mile-an-hour wind.
At about this time in my troubled thinking another individual staggered to the door of the plane with a huge barracks bag on his shoulder. He heaved it through the door onto the floor of the plane, saying as he did so,” I was told to give this to you or your S-I.” The S-I, or personnel officer, is responsible for the administrative handling of prisoners.