Profile Of A Soldier: Matthew B. Ridgway

PrintPrintEmailEmail every higher commander felt he had a new tactical weapon to call upon: vertical envelopment. Was there an enemy strong point to be assaulted? Drop a battalion of paratroopers on it. Was it an especially difficult objective that called for a major effort? Send in several regiments of troopers and follow next morning with the gliders. This was the exciting, dashing, progressive way to defeat the enemy. I heard or saw about a dozen major tactical plans in the Italian mainland campaign, and I can’t recall one of them that did not include some mission for airborne troops—which at that time generally meant me and my Sand Airborne. The trouble was, higher tactical commanders at that time had some inappropriate ideas on what constituted a suitable mission. They had little comprehension of the complexities of an airborne operation or of its limitations once the unit was on the ground. I understood the limitations of my division, and my staff understood them. We knew how complicated an airborne operation could be, especially one carried out at night. It requires almost perfect coordination between fighting aircraft, transport planes and gliders, men on the ground, and off-lying naval vessels. Even a perfect drop will have errors that would be disastrous to a fighting unit not trained to overcome them. The troopers will be scattered over many square miles of strange enemy territory, and until they can “roll up the stick,” they must act alone or in small groups. When the fighting begins, they are almost always in a situation that would spell catastrophe to most other units: they are completely surrounded by the enemy. Once it has landed, an airborne division fights under conditions that would be unacceptable to any infantry unit other than a Ranger battalion. If it is not supplied, it is finished as a fighting force, since it cannot move back toward a supply base. At the time of the Italian campaign we could not drop a jeep or an armored car. The heaviest airdrop then feasible by parachute was the barrel of the 75-mm pack howitzer, which weighed about three hundred pounds. The carriage had to be dropped separately. Even then the weapon was ineffective against tanks. Today ten-thousand-pound loads and heavier can be dropped safely. Since we had no heavy artillery, we had to rely on the support of fighter-bombers, dive bombers. This means that an airborne unit faced almost hopeless odds if it was dropped beyond the range of such aircraft and if it had to face a strong, balanced enemy force supported by armor. And yet time after time in the Italian campaign, plans were drawn up to drop an airborne division or task force far beyond fighter support, or to send out the units piecemeal, or to misuse them as infantry on ground assaults and river crossings—in one case, to drop the division on Capua, a heavily built-up industrial city. I spent a lot of time and annoyed a good many higher commanders in opposing those foolish schemes.

How best to use the Sand Airborne Division was a matter of considerable study and planning at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algeria in July and August of 1943. The invasion of the Italian mainland was set for September 9. The Italians had secretly negotiated a surrender. General Eisenhower in Carthage and Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who was now the Italian premier, were to make a joint announcement by radio of the Italian surrender on the night of September 8, and early the next morning General Mark Clark was to land at the Gulf of Salerno with the equivalent of four divisions. The Fifth Army would expand the beachhead, drive on to Naples, and then overrun Italy. The Sand Airborne would be used somewhere, somehow, in that operation.

After a remarkable series of orders, counterorders, plans, and cancellations that had the Sand in a state of hyperreadiness for combat, Ridgway was called to i5th Army Group headquarters at Siracusa, Sicily, on September i. He was told that he was now to parachute and airland the strongest possible task forces on or near three airfields immediately west and northwest of Rome on the nights of September 8 and 9. There his mission would be to defend that city in conjunction with Italian forces in the area. He was informed that the high importance of the mission outweighed any objections there might be as to lack of time to properly brief troops or any other serious defects that might arise. The name of the operation was Giant II.

Ridgway was appalled. He knew the difficult mountain terrain that would face ground troops moving north from Salerno to Rome. Everyone knew that the Germans had eighteen good divisions in Italy, six of them near Rome. That city was far beyond fighter-plane support from Sicily. He was convinced that the operation would fail and that his young men would be massacred.