CDG 50 – 82nd Airborne Division in Sicily, 1943
In this Command Decision Game, you assume the role of Colonel James M. Gavin, commander of 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), U.S. 82d Airborne Division. You joined the Army in 1924 as an enlisted Soldier, and through determination, self-discipline, hard study and tutoring, you passed the West Point entrance exam. Since graduating from West Point in 1929, you have been noticed as a "promising young officer" by several influential Army leaders, including George C. Marshall, Joseph W. Stilwell, Lesley J. McNair, Matthew B. Ridgway, and William C. Lee—aka "Father of the U.S. Airborne."
After volunteering for the new U.S. Army airborne force in April 1941, you were soon picked by General Lee to write the first U.S. Army field manual on airborne force organization and tactics, FM 31-30. In August 1942, you were promoted to colonel and given command of 505th PIR. Your men admire and respect your leadership; they have given you the affectionate nickname "Slim Jim" for your athletic figure and your willingness to endure with them all the rigors of training.
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It is now the summer of 1943; you and your regiment have just made your first combat jump, into Sicily. Following the confused night landings, you find yourself leading not a regiment but a small ad hoc group of paratroopers and infantry. You will also soon discover you are facing a much tougher enemy than the one you expected.
With the final defeat of German and Italian Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943, Allied commanders turned their attention to their next target in World War II’s Mediterranean Theater of Operations—Sicily. The ambitious amphibious assault, named Operation Husky, was conducted by American, British and Canadian ground, naval and air forces. Two widely spaced landings on July 10, 1943, placed British General Bernard Montgomery’s Eastern Task Force in southeast Sicily and American General George S. Patton Jr.’s Western Task Force along Sicily’s southern coast.
The task force landings were preceded the night of July 9–10 by airborne drops into the inland areas just beyond the invasion beaches. British airborne units were dropped in support of Montgomery’s Eastern Task Force, while units of U.S. 82d Airborne Division—principally 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment—were dropped in support of Patton’s Western Task Force. The Allied airborne troopers’ mission was to seize key objectives such as airfields, create confusion within the Axis command, and protect the vulnerable beachheads by disrupting or blocking enemy counterattacks directed at the amphibious invasion forces.
Things did not go as planned.
Tragically, nervous Allied naval anti-aircraft gunners in the invasion fleet mistakenly opened fire on some of the paratrooper transport aircraft, shooting down 23 U.S. Army Air Forces troop carrier planes and killing nearly 400 American paratroopers and aircraft crewmen. Higher than expected winds, inexperienced troop carrier plane pilots, and the inevitable chaos of operating at night left small groups of British and U.S. paratroopers scattered all over southern Sicily, attempting to find each other and carry out their objectives.
It is now July 11, Col. Gavin, and you are southeast of Gela, the main beachhead of the Western Task Force. Despite your best efforts, you have only managed to locate a handful of your paratroopers. You’ve also picked up approximately two platoons of the 45th U.S. Infantry Division who became separated from the main invasion landing forces.
Around 8:30 in the morning, you are leading the ad hoc group along Highway 115 toward your original objectives, north of Gela, when you find Major Krause, one of your regiment’s officers. He has collected approximately 250 paratroopers of companies G and H, 3d Battalion, 505th, and two 75 mm pack howitzers and their crews from the parachute artillery. Ordering him to lead his men northwest along Highway 115, you take your smaller force ahead to reconnoiter toward Biscari station, the point where the railroad intersects the highway. As you near the station, your men capture two prisoners and discover that not only is an enemy force in the town, that force is a much more dangerous one than any you expected to encounter in Sicily.
Pre-invasion intel indicated Sicily was defended primarily by Italian army soldiers of dubious fighting quality and a smaller German force—but you’ve just discovered something you weren’t warned about. Encamped around Biscari station is part of the Hermann Goering Division. That division is comprised of fallschirmjaeger (German paratroopers) fighting as elite ground troops, backed up by German tanks.
Moving onto the southern edge of a 100-foot-high ridge overlooking the station, you conduct a stealthy reconnaissance of the area and determine that you are up against at least a battalion of fallschirmjaeger, likely supported by panzers, mortars and artillery.
The men of your motley collection carry only small arms (mostly M1 rifles and carbines, plus several Thompson submachine guns), hand grenades and a few 2.36-inch bazooka anti-tank rocket launchers. There are also the two 75 mm pack howitzers back up the road with Major Krause.
Among the scattered paratroopers you rounded up were your S-3 operations officer, Major Benjamin Vandervoort, and your S-1 personnel officer, Captain Alfred Ireland. You quickly confer with them, asking for their input on three courses of action you have just devised and are considering.
Shifting your weight off the ankle you sprained while landing during the night drop, you lay out your first potential plan.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: DEFEND
"Given the apparent strength of the German force and considering that those men are highly motivated, tactically skilled paratroopers like us, my first plan is to withdraw our small force back along Highway 115 to Major Krause’s larger unit and then dig in and defend against the likely enemy attack. This seems a sensible course of action, as we will maximize our small number of troops and available fire support."
Captain Ireland offers his input first. "Colonel, this seems like a prudent plan and I support it. The enemy force appears too strong for the few troops and meager weapons we have here. I say fall back and defend."
Major Vandervoort, however, disagrees. "I think this plan ignores our larger mission of protecting the beachheads. If we pull back and sit on our butts, the Germans can – and undoubtedly will – continue on and counterattack the beachheads. We ought to take some kind of offensive action to at least divert their attention away from the main landing force coming ashore."
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: HASTY ATTACK
"My second plan," you continue, "is to launch an immediate attack with the troops we have now to seize the ridgeline dominating Biscari station. If we can get our men up there, the Germans would be compelled to counterattack and try to push us off. Vandervoort and I will lead our 20 paratroopers and the two 45th Infantry Division platoons in a hasty attack to take the ridge, while Ireland races back to Major Krause and brings forward his stronger force to join us up there as soon as possible. By quickly seizing the ridge, we will divert attention away from the invasion beaches – the Germans can’t afford to move on the beachheads while we hold the ridge and threaten their line of communications."
Vandervoort smiles upon hearing this plan. "Yes, sir, that’s what I’m talking about! We need to do more to earn our jump pay than just wander around the Sicilian countryside."
"I disagree, Colonel," Ireland says. "I don’t think we have enough men to capture the ridge, let alone hold it against German paratroopers, tanks and artillery. This seems like an unnecessary suicide mission to me."
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DELIBERATE ATTACK
"The final plan I’m considering," you conclude, "is to launch a powerful, deliberate attack toward Biscari station. Vandervoort will race back to Major Krause and bring up his entire force as quickly as possible, including the parachute artillery howitzers Krause has collected. Meanwhile, we will keep the Germans under observation to further determine their troop strength and tactical dispositions. Once Krause arrives, I will organize and lead an attack up Highway 115 to Biscari station, supported by the parachute artillery howitzers. This plan allows us to strike the German force with about a battalion of paratroopers and some artillery fire, giving us our best chance to defeat the enemy."
"Colonel," Ireland says, "I believe this is the best of the three options. Despite what I said about your proposed ‘hasty attack,’ I am not against attacking the enemy; I just think we should do so with all the combat power we can muster. This plan seems to accomplish that."
"In my opinion, Colonel," Vandervoort interjects, "this course of action has a major flaw: It wastes precious time bringing up Krause’s force and organizing our Soldiers for a deliberate attack. How long will that take – an hour, or maybe two? By that time the Germans could be long gone from Biscari station and already down south hitting our boys on the beachheads. I say let’s get in this fight now!"
While Vandervoort and Ireland have raised valid points, neither of them bears the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the plan that will be implemented. You alone must decide what actions to take, and you alone will shoulder the burden of command responsibility for this battle’s outcome.
Colonel Gavin, which of these plans will you follow—or has yet another possibility suggested itself to you?
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This text is an abridged version of Command Decision Game #50, written by Andrew H. Hershey. The full text, with illustrations and additional historical background information, appears in the May 2012 edition of Armchair General magazine, where you’ll also find additional interactive articles based on U.S tankers in Korea, 1950, and Israel’s Battle of Sinai, 1973. On newsstands now.
Find earlier Command Decision Games by clicking here.
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the "USMC Gazette" and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.