Jim Gavin’s War – Part 1
July 11, 1943 was one of the most unforgettable days of Jim Gavin’s life. It was on this, the second day of the Sicily campaign, that he demonstrated the courage and leadership skills that would soon propel him to become the youngest major general and division commander in the United States Army of World War II.
The airborne operation that preceded the invasion of Sicily took place the night of July 9-10, 1943 and was a complete fiasco: a combination of high winds and poor navigation by inexperienced pilots. Col. Gavin’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82d Airborne Division was the spearhead unit with the mission of seizing key sectors of the invasion front to prevent the Germans and Italians from launching counterattacks against Patton’s Seventh Army before they could secure a bridgehead along the southern coast of Sicily.
Scarcely a hundred men of the 505th were dropped near their intended landing zones. Most of the regiment was scattered over a thousand square miles of southern Sicily.
When Gavin first landed 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, who 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 despite having broken his ankle during the parachute jump.
The paratroopers did not pose a real threat as a fighting force but their guerrilla 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 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. 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 the hills and valleys.
At about 8:30 a.m. on July 11, as Gavin marched west in the direction of Gela, he began rounding up scattered groups of 505th paratroopers and infantrymen of the 45th Division and with some 250 men successfully attacked a ridge that overlooked a road junction at the east end of the Acate Valley. It was called Biazza Ridge and Gavin personally led the attack that captured it.
Gavin established hasty defenses on Biazza Ridge, and 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.
Situated so close to the invasion beaches, the Herman Göring Division posed a dire threat to the tenuous 45th Division beachhead and its objective that day was not only to counterattack but also to collapse the beachhead and drive the two American divisions back into the sea.
Although at first the Germans failed to act aggressively against Gavin’s outgunned and outmatched force, the afternoon of July 11 a panzer force attacked Biazza Ridge with full fury. Although under continuous shelling throughout the afternoon, by the slimmest of margins Gavin’s force somehow held despite steadily mounting casualties. To his men their commander declared: “We’re staying on this goddamned ridge – no matter what happens.” And that is exactly what they did.
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 an attacking Tiger tank.
As the battle raged Gavin later wrote that, “I kept thinking of Shiloh, Bloody Shiloh. General Grant, sheltered under the riverbank, his command overrun, refused to leave the field, counterattacked, and the battle was won.”
Although nicked in the leg by a fragment from a mortar shell, Gavin did not seek treatment until the following morning and dismissed his wound as inconsequential and unworthy of a Purple Heart.
By early evening the situation had turned decidedly grim when six 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. The battle ended with the Herman Göring Division retreating and the Americans firmly in control of Biazza Ridge.
Thanks to the valor of Gavin and his men on July 11 the beachheads were secured. The cost was high with some fifty killed and more than one hundred wounded.
Biazza Ridge would haunt Gavin for decades. He cared deeply about his men and their deaths were painful to a commander who believed strongly in sharing their hardships. Graveside services were held right after the battle and a somber Gavin stood with his head bowed in prayer and tears in his eyes as the chaplain prayed for their immortal souls. Jim Gavin’s actions on Biazza Ridge have been described as “one of the finest, most dogged displays of leadership in all of World War II.”
For his valor that day he was later awarded the first of his two Distinguished Service Crosses.
In the Acate valley, not far from Biazza Ridge, is a highway bridge over the Dirillo River. Several hundred yards west of the bridge is the only American monument in Sicily. Situated on the wall of a small, white-walled Sicilian farmhouse is a stone tablet upon which are inscribed the names of the thirty-nine paratroopers of Jim Gavin’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment who lost their lives during the battles fought in and around Ponte Dirillo on July 10, 1943.
Most years there is simple, poignant wreath laying ceremony held at the monument on July 10 to commemorate the fallen. As traffic zooms by on Route 115 their names are read. Most who traverse this busy highway are unaware of what occurred there and on nearby Biazza Ridge in July 1943.
Thankfully, their sacrifice is not forgotten.
Please check back next month for Part II.