A Journey to World War II Battlefield Part 5: The Battle for Biazza Ridge
Editor’s Note: This article is the fifth installment in a series on World War II battlefields by Carlo D’Este. Please click on the following links to read Carlo’s other articles from this series Tunisia, Kasserine Pass, Malta and Sicily.
While the battle for Piano Lupo was raging a few miles to the east, another desperate battle on the second day of the invasion of Sicily was about to begin. And it too became a turning point of the campaign.
On the second day of our battlefield tours of Sicily, while our ship departed Licata to reposition at Syracuse, our next destination, we boarded buses for a journey to the ancient Sicilian city. Our only stop was the second of the sites where a desperate airborne battle was fought. Located several miles east of Piano Lupo is Ponte Dirillo in the center of a wide valley leading directly to the sea – and the 45th Division landing beaches. The Ponte Dirillo Bridge lies in the center of the Acate Valley spanning the Acate River (also called the Dirillo River), which is now a canal. On the eastern side of the valley is Biazza Ridge.
On July 11, 1943 another critical battle was fought on Biazza Ridge, which guarded the high ground overlooking the 45th Division landing beaches. When Colonel James M. Gavin, commander of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, first landed some twenty miles east of Biazza Ridge he had no idea if he was in Sicily, Italy or the Balkans until he saw the glow of bursting shells in the distance and knew that at least he had landed in Sicily. With a small band of eight 505th paratroopers Gavin began to march toward the sound of the guns. “He had no idea where his regiment was and only a vague idea as to exactly where he was. We walked all night,” said his regimental S-3, Major Benjamin Vandervoort. (Ben Vandervoort later gained fame in his own right as the CO of the 2d Battalion, 505th PIR during the defense of Ste-Mere-Eglise in June 1944 and during Operation Market-Garden in September 1944, when he led the assault on the Waal Bridge at Nijmegen.)
The paratroopers did not pose a real threat as a fighting force but their guerilla tactics were nevertheless very effective – just as they would be in Normandy in June 1944. They aggressively took on enemy forces, leaving the impression of a much larger force. At one point the morning of July 10 Gavin’s tiny band encountered a thirty-five man Italian anti-paratroop patrol. An intense firefight ensued and the Italians were driven back. Several paratroopers were wounded before Gavin and his men were able to gradually disengage. Gavin was the last man to withdraw. “We were sweaty, tired and distressed at having to leave [our] wounded behind,” said Vandervoort. “The colonel looked over his paltry six-man command and said, ‘This is a hell of a place for a regimental commander to be.’”
Had Gavin not been isolated from his men and uncertain of the situation he faced, he would have been far less apprehensive had he known of the sheer panic his men were creating at places like Piano Lupo. Reports began filtering in to the headquarters of the Italian Sixth Army of bands of parachute and glider troops all over Sicily. Thousands were believed to be roaming all over the hills and valleys.
At about 8:30 a.m. on July 11, as Gavin was headed west along Route 115 in the direction of Gela, he began rounding up scattered groups of 505th paratroopers and infantrymen of the 45th Division and successfully attacked a ridge that overlooked a road junction at the east end of the Acate Valley. It was called Biazza Ridge and it held the same importance as the Piano Lupo road junction some five miles further west.
Gavin established hasty defenses on Biazza Ridge overlooking the road junction, Ponte Dirillo and the Acate River valley. Although he had no tanks or artillery to support him, he immediately surmised the importance of holding the ridge as the only Allied force between the Germans and their unhindered exploitation of the exposed left flank of the 45th Division and the thinly held right flank of the 1st Division. Against Gavin that day was the entire eastern task force of the Hermann Göring Division: at least 700 infantry, an armored artillery battalion, and a company of Tiger tanks.
The German objective was nothing less than counterattacking and throwing the 1st and 45th Divisions back into the sea. Although the attacks of July 10 had failed, those launched on July 11 posed a dire threat to the still tenuous 45th Division beachhead.
For some inexplicable reason the Germans failed to act aggressively against Gavin’s outgunned and outmatched force. Even so, the afternoon of July 11 a panzer force attacked Biazza Ridge with full fury. Both sides were determined to succeed: the German panzer force to push Gavin off the ridge and into the sea, the Americans to deny them control of Biazza Ridge. The two sides exchanged fire throughout that terrible day as Gavin’s force somehow held out despite terrible pressure and steadily mounting casualties. To his men the commander made clear that: “We’re staying on this goddamned ridge – no matter what happens.”
The defenders of Biazza Ridge managed to capture two 75-mm pack howitzers, which they turned into direct fire weapons to defend the ridge. One managed to knock out one of the attacking Tiger tanks. Somehow the Americans continued to hold.
By early evening the situation had turned grim when six U. S. M4 Sherman tanks suddenly appeared to the accompaniment of loud cheers from the weary paratroopers who had been joined by others, including some airborne engineers, infantry, clerks, cooks and truck drivers. With this scratch force and the Shermans Gavin counterattacked and in so doing deterred the Germans from pressing their considerable advantage. They broke off and the battle ended with the Americans still in control of Biazza Ridge. Thanks to the valor of Gavin and his men on July 11 the beachheads were finally secured. For his feats of valor that day Col. Jim Gavin was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
On the western edge of the valley there is now a small monument just off Route 115 to the valiant men of the 82d Airborne. It was here that our group assembled and laid flowers while we all honored their service with a moment of silence.
James Gavin had many illustrious moments during his memorable military career but none more so than his storied leadership on Biazza Ridge on July 11, 1943.
Our next installment will take us to the port city of Messina and the story of the daring and hugely successful military evacuation of German and Italian forces from Sicily in August 1943.
Suggested further reading
Readers interested in reading further about the Sicily campaign, the airborne battles, and the battles for the Seventh Army beachheads may wish to consult the following:
Carlo D’Este, Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily, 1943 (E.P. Dutton, 1988, also available in an Aurum paperback in the UK and Harper Perennial paperback, USA.)
Ed Ruggero, Combat Jump (HarperCollins, 2003.)
Albert N. Garland & Howard McGaw Smith, Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Government Printing Office, 1965 – the official U.S. Army history of the Sicily campaign.)
Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (Henry Holt, 2007.)