| Volume , Issue
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.
I asked, “What in the hell is it?”
He replied, “They are prisoner-of-war tags. You’re supposed to put one on every prisoner you capture, and be sure to fill it out properly.”
This was no time for argument, when we were within seconds of roaring down the runway, so I merely replied, “O.K.”
About an hour after departure the personnel officer, Captain Alfred W. Ireland, threw them into the Mediterranean.
Due to the high winds, the entire air armada was blown far east of its intended landing zones. Some pilots made landfall along the eastern coast of Sicily and, having done so, turned back to find their way around to the southwest coast. Several planeloads actually jumped in front of the British army on the east coast. These troopers were from the 3rd Battalion and Regimental Headquarters. The first problem they encountered, to their surprise, was that the British had a different countersign. The American countersign was “George Marshall”—that is, when one met an unknown person that night, one was supposed to challenge by saying, “George.” The response from a friend was expected to be “Marshall.” Otherwise, a shooting engagement took place. To the dismay of the American paratroopers, they found that “George” was greeted by a fusillade of fire. One big, burly, redheaded Irishman, well over six feet tall, in the Regimental Demolitions Platoon, talked to me about his experiences afterward. When first challenged, he was shot at, so he decided to hide and to grab any British soldier he could get close to and explain his predicament. Soon a British soldier came by. He jumped out and pinned his arms to his sides and told him who he was. Thus, he learned the British countersign and survived. That detachment fought side by side with the British for several days, but was finally put aboard a boat and sent to the American landing beaches near GeIa.
The 2nd Battalion, commanded by Major Mark Alexander, was the next farthest to the east to land. It landed about fifteen miles east of GeIa, near the town of S. Croce Camarina, an area that had figured prominently in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars. As Major Alexander’s plane was crossing the Mediterranean, he stood at the door and watched its progress, looking for familiar landmarks. The red warning light to be ready to jump came on, and his troopers stood up and readied themselves. Suddenly, while they were still over the ocean, the green light came on. The men tried to push him out the door, as they were trained to do when the lead man hesitated, but he succeeded in fighting them off. He then went forward to ask the pilot, “What in the hell are you doing?” The pilot replied, “The copilot was in too much of a hurry.” They continued a bit farther, crossed the coast, receiving considerable tracer fire, and the battalion jumped.
Although they landed amid a number of huge pillboxes and areas organized for defense, they were quite successful in reorganizing the battalion. The Italian pillboxes were formidable affairs, several stories high, with apertures here and there, so sited as to overlook other pillboxes. The troopers quickly learned that the way to reduce them was to keep firing at the slits until a trooper could get close enough to throw a grenade into them. The battalion fought most of the night and by daylight had assembled a majority of its men. It then moved toward the coast near a village overlooking the town of Marina di Ragusa, and they organized an all-around defense for the night.
In the meantime they began to receive machine-gun and sniper fire from high ground near the area they had been in earlier. A British cruiser showed up off the coast, and Mark Alexander found that he had a lieutenant who could use a flashlight and communicate with the cruiser, using the Morse code. They requested fire support on the slope to the north of their positions. As Mark Alexander reported it later, “The cruiser immediately laid in two salvos. The first must have come in about seventy-five feet over our heads, and you can believe me when I say that the whole slope went up in flames. I called for a cease-fire, and we received no more harassment from snipers the rest of the night.” By daylight, July 11, his battalion turned north and moved in the direction of S. Croce Camarina, using donkeys, donkey carts, and wheelbarrows to help carry the weapons and ammunition. At noon his battalion captured S. Croce Camarina and later that afternoon captured Vittoria. They rejoined their division, the 82nd Airborne, on July 12. Meanwhile, those of us who had landed closer to the target areas had been having a busy time of it.
My own flight with the Regimental Headquarters group was uneventful until Linosa was due. It was not to be seen. Malta, which was to be well lighted to assist our navigators, could not be seen either. Suddenly, shipsby the score became visible in the ocean below, all knifing their way toward Sicily. Obviously, we were off course, since our plan called for us to fly between the American fleet on the left and the British on the right. In fact, the Americans told us that we would probably be shot down if we flew over them. We continued on, finally dog-legging to the left on the basis of time calculation. Soon the flash of gunfire could be seen through the dust and haze caused by the preinvasion bombing, and finally the coast itself could be seen off to the right. Unfortunately, many of the planes overflew the Malta dog-leg, and the island first became visible on the left, thus causing confusion and widespread dispersion of the troopers.
We turned inland; the small-arms fire increased; the green light over the jump door went on, and out we went. The reception was mixed. Some of us met heavy fighting at once, others were unopposed for some time, but all were shaken up by the heavy landings on trees, buildings, and rocky hillsides.
I managed to get together a small group and start across country, searching for the combat-team objective. I had with me Captain Ireland, the combat-team personnel officer, and Captain Ben Vandervoort, the combat-team operations officer, and three other troopers. The cross-country going was rough, but we pressed on. Soon we came face to face with our first enemy.
It happened about an hour after we had landed. I was moving ahead with about twenty troopers who had joined us by then. I was leading, and Vandervoort was alongside. I moved along through the shadows in the olive groves, over stone walls, darting across moonlit roads, going in what I hoped was the direction of our objective. There had been occasional bursts of small-arms fire, sometimes quite close, but so far we had not seen an actual enemy. Suddenly, there were foreign voices, then the sound of a man whistling some distance away. As he got closer, it sounded like “O Sole Mio.” I had my group stay down, and I moved up to a stone wall that paralleled the road he was coming along. It was a lone man, walking down the middle of the road, hands in the pockets of his baggy uniform pants. After twenty years of military service, I was about to meet The Enemy face to face. I stuck my head up over the stone wall. It seemed a long way up, but it was really about an inch, just to clear my carbine over the top of the wall.
I gave him my best Italian, “Alto!” He stopped in his tracks. Vandervoort rushed through an opening in the wall with a .45 in one hand and a knife in the other.
“I’ll take care of him,” Van said. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I said, “No, let’s get the hell out of the middle of the road. Let’s get over into the shadows and maybe we can get some information out of him.”
There was still some doubt as to whether we were in Sicily, Italy, or the Balkans, although the odds strongly favored the first.
About half a dozen of us surrounded him, and I tried the few Italian words I knew.
“ Dore Palermo? ”
No reply. He seemed to be either too scared or too bewildered to answer.
“ Dove Siracusa? ”
I figured that if he would point in the general direction of either or both of these two cities, which were at opposite ends of the island, we could get our first fix on where we were. Since he acted as if he had never heard of either, for a moment it seemed that perhaps we were not even in Sicily. But he was obviously very scared. We had heard that the Germans had scared the wits out of the natives with their stories about the atrocities committed by American parachutists. They spread the news that we were long-term convicts who had been granted our freedom in exchange for becoming paratroopers. This was given credence by the practice in many parachute units of having all the men shave their heads. After the battle of Sicily was over, the Sicilians told us that shaved heads were one of the things that had convinced them that the Germans were right.
But to get back to Giuseppe, or whatever his name was, I hadn’t been able to get anything out of him—not his name, where he was from, or where he thought we were. I reluctantly decided that we would have to take him along. Vandervoort had taken an intelligence course and knew how to handle a prisoner in a situation like this. The idea was to take the belt out of the prisoner’s trousers and to cut the buttons off his fly so that he would have to hold up his trousers when he walked.
Van put his .45 in its holster, pressed his knife against the Italian’s chest, and said, “I’ll take care of the bastard.”
The Italian was muttering, “Mamma mia, Mamma,” over and over again. His concern was understandable. The moonlight was shining on the knife blade, and it looked as though it were a foot long. He took off his belt and dropped it. Then Van went into phase two of the operation and reached for the fly with one hand, bringing the knife down with the other.
A scream went up that could be heard all the way to Rome. The stories the Italians had heard about the atrocities of the paratroopers and Ethiopia must have flashed through his mind; he was being castrated. He screamed louder, grabbing the knife blade with his right hand. The blood ran down his hand as we fell in a kicking, yelling, fighting mass, and he got away. I do not know how he did it, but one second he was with us and the next he was gone. I was madder than hell. I asked Vandervoort, “What in the hell did you think you were doing?”
Vandervoort didn’t answer. I decided that we had better get going. By now we had probably alerted any enemy for miles around.
We walked on into the night, crawling over the high stone walls. Although some men were suffering from jump injuries, they drove themselves toward the cascading flame and white phosphorus of bursting shells that could be seen on the distant horizon. The sight of the shellbursts was reassuring, since it meant that we were in Sicily. And we were “moving toward the sound of the guns,” one of the first battle axioms I had learned as a cadet at West Point.
But human Mesh could do only so much, and the night was demanding. By count at daylight, there were six of us. I approached two farmhouses, but at both of them the natives were terrified and hardly would talk. I continued on in a direction I figured would take us toward our objective. Suddenly, as we came over the crest of high ground, there was a hurst of smallarms fire.
We hit the ground. There was a sickening thud of near misses kicking dirt into my face. I reacted instinctively as I had been taught in the infiltration course by hugging closely to the ground. In no time I realized that I would not continue to live doing that; I had to shoot back. I started firing with my carbine, and it jammed. I looked to Vandervoort about six feet to my left; he was having the same trouble. About fifty yards away an Italian officer stood looking at us through low-hanging branches of an olive tree. He was wearing leather puttees and reddish-brown breeches, both plainly visible beneath the branches. Captain Ireland gave him the first burst of his Tommy gun, and he went down like a rag doll. I began to fire my carbine single-shot. The leading trooper, who had gone down at the first fusillade, writhed and rolled over. He appeared to be dead, practically in the enemy position. Their fire increased, and there was a loud explosion like that of a small mortar shell. I decided that there was at least a platoon of enemy and that our best prospects were to try to work around it. I yelled to Vandervoort, Ireland, and the troopers to start moving back while I covered. It worked.
We had a close call and nothing to show for it but casualties, and our prospects were not very bright. I continued to move cross-country in a direction that would take me around the area where we had had the Are fight. We could hear intense firing from time to time, and we were never sure when we would walk into another Are light or how we would get into the battle since we couldn’t tell friend from foe. Then there was the problem of enemy armor. I decided to look for a place where tanks would be unlikely to travel and where we could get good cover to hole up until dark. I wanted to survive until dark and then strike across country again to the combatteam objective. It was the high ground east and north of GeIa, and there, with the help of God, I hoped to And troopers, and an enemy to fight. For this challenge, I had come three thousand miles and thirty-six years of my life—for the moral and physical challenge of battle.
By mid-morning we came to some good cover. It was a shallow ravine crisscrossed by several irrigation ditches. Along one of them was a thicket of underbrush. The ditch was cut out of the side of a gently sloping hill, and from its edge there was a good view for about half a mile across cultivated land. The ditch I picked was almost dry; the others had a lot of water in them. It did not appear to be a place where a tank would travel by choice. I took stock of our situation, and it wasn’t good. Among us we had two carbines that jammed, one Tommy gun, a pistol, and an M-I rifle. We were holed up like hunted animals. Tired, wounded, hungry, but too sick at heart to cat, we apprehensively scanned the countryside for any sign of friend or foe. Occasional bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire could be heard in the distance.
It had been a long day. We waited and waited for dark. Soon the Sicilian sun was low in the sky and quickly disappeared like a ball of Are into a cauldron. We began to get things together so as to be able to move out. Water was a Arst need; it was almost gone. For food we had a few cartons of K rations and some concentrated things in an escape kit. An escape kit was a small plastic box, about six inches square and an inch thick, that contained the essentials for escape and survival behind enemy lines, such as a map, water-purification pills, and a rubber-coated file that could be hidden in the rectum. I felt I had been a failure on my first day in combat and had accomplished nothing. I was determined to find my regiment and engage the enemy, wherever he might be. We went into the Sicilian night, heading for what we hoped was GeIa, somewhere to the west. It was a relief to be moving instead of sitting and worrying. Sitting and worry ing had been the hardest of all, and I had done a lot of it.
After about an hour we were challenged by a small group of ,wounded and injured of the 505th under the command of Lieutenant Al Kronheim. We traded morphine Syrettes for their M-I rifles and ammunition and continued to the west. About two-thirty \ve were challenged by a machine-gun post of the 45th Division, and at last we had reentered our own lines. We learned that we were about five miles southwest of Vittoria. In about another mile we came to the main paved road from the beach to Vittoria, passing by a number of foxholes and dead Italian soldiers. By then I had about eight troopers with me. We heard the sound of armor coming and at once got off the road and concealed ourselves on both sides. I cautioned the troopers not to fire if it was a friendly tank. Everybody was so excited, however, that when the first tank appeared, there was a fusillade; it seemed as though everyone fired on it. It was an American tank, fortunately buttoned up, and no one was hurt.
We then went on to the edge of Vittoria, where I was able to borrow a jeep. I had heard rumors that there were more paratroopers a few miles away in the direction of GeIa. I continued on toward GeIa and to my surprise came across the 3rd Battalion of the 505th, in foxholes in a tomato OeId, and just awakening. The battalion commander, whose nickname was “Cannonball,” was sitting on the edge of a foxhole, dangling his feet. I asked him what his men were doing. He said that he had been reorganizing the battalion and that he had about 250 troopers present. He had landed nearby and had rounded everybody up. I asked him about his objective, several miles to the west near GeIa, and he said that he had not done anything about it. I said we would move at once toward GeIa and told him to get the battalion on its feet and going. In the meantime I took over a platoon of the 30Tth Engineers, commanded by Lieutenant Ben L. Wechsler. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Krause, commanding the 3rd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, said that there were supposed to be Germans between where he was and GeIa and that the 45th Division had been having a difficult time.
Using the platoon of engineers as infantry, we moved at once on the road toward GeIa. We had hardly started when, as we went around a bend in the road, a German motorcycle with an officer in the sidecar drove up in the midst of us. We put our guns on him. He threw up his hands, said he was a medical officer, pointed to his insignia, and told us he wanted to be released at once. We weren’t about to release him. He was the first live German we had ever seen in combat, and we noticed that he had grenades in the sidecar. Reasoning that an armed medic should not be let loose, we took the motorcycle and sidecar from him and started him to the rear on foot, disarming the driver also. The medic said they had been moving down from Biscari toward Viltoria. We could hear a great deal of firing, so we continued.
By then it was broad daylight, about 8:30 A.M. In less than a mile we reached a point where a small rail- road crossed the road. On the right was a house where the gatekeeper lived.There was a striped pole that could he lowered to signal the automotive and donkey-cart traffic when a train approached. Just ahead was a ridge, ahout half a mile away and perhaps a hundred feet high. The slope to the top was gradual. On both sides of the road were olive trees and beneath them tall brown and yellow grass, burnt by the summer sun. I had no idea where we were at the time, but I later learned the place was called Biazza Ridge.
The firing from the ridge increased. I told Lieutenant Wechsler to deploy his platoon on the right and to move on to seize the ridge. Then I sent word to Cannonball to bring his battalion up as promptly as he could.
We moved forward. I was with Wechsler, and in a few hundred yards the Ore became intense. As we neared the top of the ridge, there was a rain of leaves and branches as bullets tore through the trees, and there was a buzzing like the sound of swarms of bees. A few moments later, Wechsler was hit and fell. Some troopers were hit; others continued to crawl forward. Soon we were pinned down by heavy small-arms fire, but so far nothing else.
I made my way back to the railroad crossing, and in about twenty minutes Major William Hagen joined me. He was the battalion executive for the 3rd Battalion. He said the battalion was coming up. I asked where Cannonball was, and he said that he had gone back to the 45th Division to tell them what was going on. I ordered Hagen to have the troops drop their packs and get ready to attack the Germans on the ridge as soon as they came up. By that time we had picked up a platoon of the 45th Division that happened to he there, part of a company from the 180th Infantry. There was also a sailor or two who had come ashore in the amphibious landings. We grabbed them also.
The attack went off as planned, and the infantry reached the top of the ridge and continued to attack down the far side. As they went over the top of the ridge, the (ire became intense. We were going to have a very serious situation on our hands. This was not a patrol or a platoon action. Mortar and artillery Ore began to fall on the ridge, and there was considerable machine-gun Ore. 1 was worried about being enveloped on the right; some of the 45th Infantry Division should have been down on the left toward the beaches, but the right was wide open, and so far I had no one I could send out to protect that flank. If the German column was coming from Biscari, the tactical logic would have suggested that they bypass me on the right and attack me from the rear. At that time I had a few engineers I kept in reserve, and two 81mm. mortars. They were commanded by a young officer, Lieutenant Robert May, who had been my first sergeant almost a year earlier when I had commanded C Company of the 503rd Parachute Infantry. He sent two or three troopers off to the right as a security patrol. Later, men with Mountain Pack 75-mm. artillery pieces from the 456th Parachute Artillery joined me. These were artillery pieces that could be broken down into several parts and carried by paratroopers or mules. Occasionally, troopers, having heard where we were, would come in from the direction of Vittoria. I began to try todig in on the back of the crest of the ridge. The ground was hard shale, and I made little headway. The entrenching shovel was too frail, so I used my helmet to dig; it wasn’t much better. But we needed protection from the mortar fire that was becoming quite heavy, and I kept digging.
The first wounded began to crawl back over the ridge. They all told the same story. They fired their bazookas at the front plate of German tanks, and then the tanks swiveled their huge 88-mm. guns at them and fired at the individual infantrymen. By this time the tanks could be heard, although I could not see any because of the smoke and dust and the cover of vegetation. Hagen came in, walking and holding his thigh, which had been torn badly by fire. Cannonball had gone forward to command the attack. It did not seem to be getting anywhere, however, as the German fire increased in intensity and our wounded were coming back in greater numbers.
The first German prisoners also came back. They said they were from the Hermann Goering Parachute Panzer Division. I remember one of them asking if we had fought the Japanese in the Pacific; he said he asked because the paratroopers had fought so hard. Ahead of us, mixed with the olive trees, were low grapevines that covered men on the ground quite completely. I went back a few hundred yards to check the 81-mm. mortars and to see how many other troopers had joined us. A few had. Lieutenant May had been hit by mortar fragments. I talked to the crews of the two Pack 75-mm. artillery pieces and told them we were going to stay on the ridge no matter what happened. We agreed 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 the only thing we could do, and tanks are vulnerable in that position. I was determined that if the tanks overran us, we would stay and fight the infantry.
I went back to try to dig my foxhole. By then it had become evident that I would never get deep enough, so I decided to dig the front end about eighteen inches deep, and the back end about a foot deep; then if I sat down in it and put my head between my knees, a tank could roll over me without doing too much damage. So I continued from time to time, when circumstances permitted, to try to get farther into the ground.
At the height of the fighting the first German Messerschmitts appeared overhead. To my surprise, they ignored us and attacked the small railroad gatekeeper’s house repeatedly. They must have thought that that was the command post; it was indeed a logical place for it to be. They did not attack any of us near the top of the ridge. A few more troopers were still coming in. Now added to the enemy smallarms fire was the tank fire.
Captain Al Ireland, who was still with me, suggested that he go back to the 45th Division and get help. It was the best idea I had heard all day. I had been so busy handling the tactical crisis that the possibility had never entered my mind. The mortar Are continued in intensity, and moving along the hack of the ridge to check the security on the right and the position of a 75-mm. gun the troopers were dragging up, I found myself lying on the ground bouncing from the concussion. The best way to protect yourself was to place your palms Mat on the ground as though you were about to start doing pushups, and thus absorb the shock of the ground jolts.
In front of us, beyond the vineyard and about four hundred yards to the right, was a small group of buildings. Slowly, very slowly, a German tank became visible. We first saw the right track of the tank come around the corner of the stone house. Then we saw the muzzle of the gun. A Tiger tank is an awesome thing to encounter in combat. Weighing more than sixty tons, and armed with an 88-mm. gun and machine guns, it was far more formidable than anything we had ever seen, and we had nothing in our own armored forces to compare with it.
The artillery paratroopers decided that they would take a chance and engage it directly with a 7o-mm. gun. The To was the only artillery piece the parachutists could get in 1943. No one had ever intended that the 75 would be an antitank gun, certainly not against the front of a Tiger. Nevertheless, the paratroopers snaked their gun up the ridge until they were plainly visible and could get a direct line of sight on the tank. Field artillery in the front lines, shades of gallant Pelham at Fredericksburg! The tank inched forward, the driver probably hoping that we did not see him. It was obvious that his problem was to get far enough out so he could swing the gun at us and then fire directly, but in order to do this he had to get at least half of the tank exposed. It continued to move out slowly, very slowly. The crew of our 75 mm. were on their knees and lying down, with the gun loaded and ready to fire.
Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. The tank had fired and hit the ground just in front of the gun, knocking the troopers like tenpins in all directions. I was standing just at the left rear, watching the action, and I was knocked down too. Probably I hit the ground instinctively. The troopers got up and ran off like startled quail. A second later they realized, to their embarrassment, what they were doing, and they ran back to the gun. They fired one round that hit the tank or the corner of the building. In the smoke and dust the tank backed out of sight.
That was the last we saw of it. To my amazement, none of the gun crew were hurt. Tanks began to work their way forward off to our left, coming directly up through the vineyard. Although the tank we fired at had backed up, I got the impression that the tank activity was increasing and that we were facing a pretty heavy attack that would come over the ridge at any moment. Back to digging, with little progress.
Two troopers came from my left rear in an Italian tracked personnel carrier. They were equipped with rifles and wanted to go over the top of the ridge to engage the Germans. I suggested that they not do it, warning them that they would be knocked out, but they insisted they could take care of themselves. They added that they wanted to “scare the Krauts” into thinking that we too had armor.
They had hardly gotten over the top of the ridge when a direct hit exploded the vehicle into flames. All the next day it was still there, smoking, with two skeletons in the front seat. An ambulance that must have been from the 45th Division showed up, and a doctor from the 505th took it over. He drove it over the ridge—he was on the running board. It was engaged in fire, and he was knocked to the ground.
I had established an aid station with medics who were off to the left, a couple of hundred yards away. They were bandaging casualties and giving them morphine and sulfa. The fire continued in considerable volume into midafternoon. About this time Cannonball came over the ridge and said that all the men in his battalion were killed, wounded, or pinned down and ineffective. I told him we were going to stay at the top of the ridge with what we had and fight the German infantry that came with the tanks. He said that we didn’t have a chance, that we’d be finished if we tried to stay there. He went to the rear. I could have relieved him of his command, but I knew how he felt and I let him go.
About four o’clock a young ensign, who had parachuted with me the first night, came up with a radio and said he could call for naval gunOre. I was a hit nervous about it, because we didn’t know precisely where we were, and to have the Navy shoot at us would only add to the danger and excitement of what was turning out to lie quite a day. We tried to Ax our position in terms of the railroad crossing over the road, and he called for a trial round. It came down precisely where the tank had disappeared. He then called for a concentration, and from then on the battle seemed to change. I kept thinking of Shiloh, bloody Shiloh. General Grant, sheltered under the riverbank, his command overrun, refused to leave the ßeld, counterattacked, and the battle was won.
In about an hour I heard that more troopers were coming, and at six o’clock I heard that Lieutenant Harold H. Swingler and quite a few troopers from Regimental Headquarters Company were on the road. Swingler had been a former intercollegiate boxing champion; he was a tough combat soldier. He arrived about seven o’clock. In his wake appeared half a dozen of our own Sherman tanks. All the troopers cheered loud and long: it was a very dramatic moment. The Germans must have heard the cheering, too. although they did not know then what it was about. They soon found out.
By now no more wounded were coming back. A heavy pall of dust and acrid smoke covered the battlefield. I decided it was time to counterattack. I wanted to destroy the German force in front of us and to recover our dead and wounded. I felt that if I could do this and at the same time secure the ridge, I would be in good shape for whatever came next—probably a German attack against our defenses at daylight, with us having the advantage of holding the ridge. Our attack jumped off on schedule: regimental clerks, cooks, truck drivers, everyone who could carry a ride or a carbine was in the attack. The Germans reacted, and their lire increased in intensity. Just about two hundred yards from the top of the ridge Swingler crawled up on a cut through which the paved road ran and saw a German Tiger tank with the crew standing outside looking at it. He dropped a grenade among them and killed them, and thus we captured our first Tiger. There were several bazooka hits on the front plate with holes about the size of one’s little finger, but they went in only about an inch or so. The sloped armor on the Tiger was about four and a half inches thick. Soon we overran German machine guns, a couple of trucks, and finally we captured twelve 120-mm. Russian mortars, all in position with their ammunition nearby and aiming stakes out. They were obviously all ready to fire. Apparently our men had either killed, captured, or driven off the German crews. The attack continued, and all German resistance disappeared, the Germans having Oed from the battlefield.
That same night, learning that the Germans had completely withdrawn from the action at Biazza Ridge, I moved my command post from the top of the ridge hack about a half mile under the olive trees. I deployed the troopers for the night, expecting an attack from the direction of Biscari to come into our right flank, probably at daylight.
It must have been about ten o’clock at night when all hell broke loose in the direction of the beaches. Antiaircraft (ire was exploding like fireworks on the Fourth of July, tracers were whipping through the sky, and as we were observing the phenomena, the low, steady drone of airplanes could be heard. They seemed to be flying through the Oak and coming in our direction. Everyone began to grasp his weapons to be ready to shoot at them. A few of us cautioned the troopers to take it easy until we understood what was going on. Suddenly at about six hundred feet the silhouettes of American C-47’s appeared against the sky—our own parachute transports! Some seemed to be burning, and they continued directly overhead in the direction of GeIa. Some troopers jumped or fell from the damaged planes, and at daylight we found some of them dead in front of our positions.
Later we learned that it was the 504th Parachute Infantry that was being flown to a drop zone near GcIa to reinforce the 1st Infantry Division. General Ridgway had been there to meet them. Unfortunately, the Germans had sent in parachute reinforcements on the British front to the east the same night. In addition, there had been German air attacks on our Navy, so when the parachute transports showed up, our ships Ared at them, and twenty-three were shot down and many damaged.
Soon the battlefield was quiet. I dug a foxhole and lay down. The next thing I knew, the bright warm sun was shining in my face and it was broad daylight. Everybody around me was sleeping soundly in the foxholes. We had been so exhausted by the experience we had been through since our landing that we were all physically worn out. I started to get up and found that my left leg was stiff and sore. My trouser leg was slightly torn, and my shinbone was red, swollen, and cut a bit. I must have been nipped by a mortar fragment the day before. I went to the nearest aid station; they put on some sulfa powder and I was as good as new. They said they would put me in for a Purple Heart. I said nothing about it—I had already learned that among twenty-four-hour veterans, only goof-offs got Purple Hearts.
I then began to get the battalion organized for the move to our regimental objective near GeIa. But the first order of business was to take care of our dead and wounded. We brought in fifty bodies and, using picks and shovels we had sent for, we buried them near the top of the ridge. We tried to use German POW’s to dig the graves, but they were not very helpful. The regimental chaplain made wooden crosses out of K-ration boxes, and we gave the troopers an appropriate burial. It had been a sad experience: many of them had had pieces of bazookas ground up in them by tanks as they were crushed. We had also lost more than one hundred wounded.
As General Gavin learned years later, his hard, grim fight on Biazza Ridge was more important than he could have known at the time. The commander of the Hermann Goering Division, Major General Paul conrath, had his troops perfectly positioned on the night of July 9. In fact, had he been aware of the Allied plans, he could not have been better situated. He was about twenty-five miles from the disembarkation beaches of the American 1st and 45th divisions, ready to strike promptly when he learned where the invaders were coming ashore .
Many of the wind-scattered paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne, including Gavin’s 505th Regiment, drifted down between the Germans and the Allied troops who were landing on the beaches. Thus, when Conrath tried to push the Allies back into the sea, he found his communication lines cut, and his troops harassed and pounced upon by American paratroopers .
While the battle of Biazza Ridge was taking place between Gavin’s troopers and a tank-supported regiment of the Hermann Goering Division, another German column was attacking the 1st Infantry Division with more success near Gela. At this point, however, the German resistance at Biazza Ridge collapsed. As reported later in the official U.S. Army history of the war, “The paratroop stand on Biazza Ridge prompted Conrath to change his plans” and pull out not only the mauled survivors of that battle, but also the other German column pushing toward Gela. This respite for the Americans, still struggling to hold a beachhead, contributed substantially to the capture of Sicily. The 82nd Airborne Division had passed its first test with honors.