Reviewed by Brian John Murphy
By Ed Ruggero
Harper/Collins, New York, 2004
Parachute warfare got off to a rough start for the United States in World War II. The drop on Sicily in July 1943 tested the capabilities of U.S. parachute troops. In Combat Jump, Ed Ruggero describes the failure of the attempt to deliver a regiment of airborne infantry en masse to its landing zones in Sicily. Despite this, the mission of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was a success. The regiment’s performance led to the massive drop 11 months later in Normandy.
Ruggero paints Colonel James Gavin as the moving spirit of the new parachute force. Gavin, a military intellectual, was a rising star in the Army when he accepted command of the 505th PIR. The assignment would test his leadership and his resolution in every way possible. Gavin believed the new parachute infantry should be trained to be the elite troops of the U.S. Army. The men serving under Gavin felt they were the best of the best.
Ruggero focuses on the leadership and initiative of Gavin’s junior officers and noncoms. They demonstrated how leadership, hard physical training, aggressive spirit and belief in the initiative paid off in Sicily. These officers organized the scattered men of their regiment into fighting teams that hit the enemy telling blows.
The 82nd Airborne Division made the parachute assault on Sicily just after midnight on July 10, while U.S. ground troops landed on two separate invasion beaches. Of the 82nd, only the 505th PIR, augmented with a battalion of the 504th, would actually make the jump. There were simply too few C-47 transports to carry the entire division. Moreover, the pilots were not well trained for a nighttime drop, which depended on navigation and flight discipline. This lack of skill would have serious consequences.
The 505th’s objective was a “Y” road junction inland from the invasion beaches. They were to hold the junction, protecting the ground troops as they landed. No one told the 505th that the Hermann Göring Panzer Division was on the island. This would pit light infantry with a few portable howitzers against Tiger tanks.
On the night of July 9 the fleet of C-47 transports took off from North Africa and began their flight. The planes became thoroughly scattered. Planeloads of parachutists were dropped over 1,000 square miles of enemy-held territory.
The 505th Regiment’s aggression and initiative kicked into gear. Wherever they were, Ruggero tells us, the men found German and Italian targets and assaulted them, taking out pillboxes and strongpoints, blocking roads, even ambushing tanks with small infantry weapons and bazookas.
Gavin himself landed many miles away from his target. During the night and first day of the invasion he collected troops as he made his way toward the intended drop zone. Gavin found a new mission for himself that was, perhaps, far more valuable than the defense of the “Y” road junction (a handful of men, by the way, dropped on or close to the drop zone, did manage to secure that junction).
Studying a map of the area, Gavin noted a long, rocky ridge that pointed like a finger between the two principal invasion beaches. He saw that the ridge could become a highway for German tanks and infantry, isolating the two landing zones and perhaps even foiling the entire invasion. Gavin determined to keep that from happening.
Scraping together an ad hoc force from disparate elements of his regiment, Gavin and his men defended rocky Biazza Ridge. His defense was one of the most decisive actions of the campaign.
Ruggero points out that the Sicilian airdrop left doubts in the minds of Dwight D. Eisenhower and other top commanders. A friendly fire disaster befell the 504th PIR while making a night drop on July 11-12 to reinforce the 505th. The C-47s were fired on by the invasion’s naval escorts. Sixty planes were hit, 23 were shot down and 81 men were killed.
Eisenhower’s fury at this episode almost meant the end of U.S. airborne warfare in Europe. But the astonishing performance of the 505th, as described by Eisenhower’s senior commanders, changed Ike’s view. The 505th PIR, in jury-rigged squads, platoons and companies, had made an enormous contribution to the ultimate success of the Sicily campaign.
Ruggero relates the account in the style of The Longest Day author, Cornelius Ryan. Combat Jump follows the experiences of individuals in the battle, and tells the story from a very human perspective. The author has done full justice to this part of the Sicily campaign in a lively and gripping book.