CDG 50 – 82d Airborne Division in Sicily, 1943
The May 2012 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “82d Airborne Division in Sicily, 1943.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Colonel James M. Gavin, commander of 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), U.S. 82d Airborne Division, during Operation Husky, the July 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Gavin’s mission was to decide how to engage a superior enemy force near Biscari Station, about five miles northeast of the main invasion beaches of General George S. Patton Jr.’s Western Task Force.
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After a chaotic airborne drop – U.S. forces’ first major World War II airborne operation – scattered 505th PIR paratroopers all over southern Sicily the night of July 9-10, Gavin began moving northwest in the general direction of his planned landing zone north of Gela, gathering a few members of his unit along the way. The morning of July 11 found him accompanied by a small number of 505th paratroopers and about two platoons of 45th Division infantrymen that had become separated from Patton’s main landings. At about 8:30 a.m., while advancing toward Biscari Station along route 115, Gavin discovered a large force of German paratroopers supported by panzers – elements of the elite Hermann Göring Division – approaching the station from the north.
Gavin’s prompt, daring actions and his perseverance against heavy odds in this daunting situation proved vital to the success of Patton’s main landing force.
Since the 505th PIR’s mission was to distract, delay and disrupt any Axis (German or Italian) attempts to defeat the main Allied landings, Gavin realized that prompt offensive action – regardless of the odds facing his greatly outnumbered force – was absolutely crucial to the invasion’s success. Therefore, he immediately led his 20 paratroopers and about two platoons of 45th Division infantrymen in a hastily organized attack to occupy Biazza Ridge, a line of hills along the flank of the German force’s advance (COURSE OF ACTION TWO: HASTY ATTACK).
From positions on the 100-foot-high ridge, Gavin’s small force – initially without artillery or tank support – faced the Göring Division’s Eastern Task Force of 700 German fallschirmjäger (paratroopers), an armored artillery battalion and a company of PzKw VI Tiger tanks. Throughout the day, his hard-pressed defenders repelled repeated attacks on the ridge, holding out despite mounting casualties. “We’re staying on this goddamned ridge, no matter what happens,” Gavin told his men. Later during the fighting, more 82d paratroopers (about two companies) arrived to help shore up Gavin’s battered line, and his men captured two German 75 mm pack howitzers for some much needed anti-tank fire against the panzers (the paratroopers’ bazookas were ineffective against Tiger tanks).
That afternoon, welcome “reinforcements,” in the form of a U.S. 155 mm artillery battalion forward observer and a naval gunfire spotting team, arrived and began calling in fire support from the 155 mm artillery and 5-inch naval guns. By early evening, however, while Gavin’s hold on the ridge was still tenuous, six M4 Sherman tanks accompanied by a few 57 mm towed anti-tank guns arrived – to the cheers of the beleaguered defenders. Gavin then completely surprised the enemy by counterattacking with the Shermans and his remaining riflemen. This unexpected action stunned the Germans into breaking off the battle, leaving Gavin and his men in control of the ridge.
With the Hermann Göring Division’s entire Eastern Task Force distracted and delayed at Biazza Ridge, its attack on Patton’s beachhead forces lacked sufficient combat power to be effective. The American invasion beachheads in southern Sicily were secured.
Gavin received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism at Biazza Ridge. He clearly deserved it.
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION TWO: HASTY ATTACK, or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of World War II airborne operations. (See “After Action Report.”) Although Gavin’s small force was greatly outnumbered by German paratroopers supported by panzers, COA Two was the best course of action for immediately diverting a significant portion of the Hermann Göring Division from its planned attack on Patton’s newly landed, and therefore vulnerable, main amphibious assault force at the invasion beachhead. This plan took maximum advantage of key terrain – Biazza Ridge – dominating the flank of the German advance, thereby compelling the enemy to confront Gavin’s force before moving against Patton’s main force. The ridge’s position also facilitated rapid reinforcement by Major Krause’s force and other U.S. units arriving from the east and south.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: DEFEND was the safest plan for Gavin’s outnumbered force, but it surrendered the battlefield initiative to the enemy. In fact, it played directly into the Germans’ hands by allowing the significant portion of the Hermann Göring Division heading to Biscari Station unhindered movement to drive farther south and participate in the division’s attack on Patton’s main landing force. If Gavin had followed this course of action, he would have risked failing in his primary mission of distracting, delaying and disrupting German attacks on the invasion force at the beachhead.
Although COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DELIBERATE ATTACK permitted Gavin to launch a stronger attack, it wasted valuable time. By the time he had gathered and organized the forces to mount a deliberate attack, the Germans likely would have already cleared Biscari Station on their way to target the main invasion force. Even if they had not yet cleared the station, by attacking this force away from the ridge, essentially head-on, Gavin would have given up the tactical advantage of fighting from the high ground.
After Action Report
Key Points For A World War II Airborne Assault
- Plan for worst-case scenario; anticipate inevitable confusion, disorganization and widely scattered landings.
- Conduct realistic, small unit combat drills, conditioning paratroopers to fight outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded.
- Train leaders at all levels to exercise aggressive, active initiative.
- Make sure paratroopers realize they may have to fight in hastily assembled, ad hoc combat units.
- Get everyone in the fight early, and keep moving toward “the sound of the guns.”
- Stay focused on the principal airborne mission: distract, delay and disrupt enemy actions against the main attack.
- Time is crucial to the success of airborne operations; thus never waste it.