Sicily-Airborne Operations Experience





As H-Hour approached the troops bivouacked around Kairouan began assembling at the ten satellite airfields it served. First off were the British at 19.00hrs. They had a motley fleet of 128 Waco CG-4 gliders (provided by the Americans and therefore new to the British pilots) and eight Horsas. Towing aircraft included 109 Dakotas, 21 Albemarles and eight Halifaxes.

A little over an hour later the American lift, some 3,400 soldiers of the 505th and 504th, plus some support elements, also took off. A total of 266 Dakotas formed into flights of nine and headed out over the Mediterranean. Each man had with him a slip of paper with a message from Gavin. ‘Slim Jim’ did not go in for the grandiloquence of some of his contemporaries, but the inspiration was clear and effective.

‘Soldiers of the 505th Combat Team.

‘Tonight you embark on a combat mission for which our people and the free people of the world have been waiting for two years.

‘You will spearhead the landing of an American Force on the island of SICILY. Every preparation has been made to eliminate the element of chance. You have been given the means to do the job and you are backed by the largest assemblage of air power in the world’s history.

‘The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of every American go with you.

James M. Gavin’

Questions, might be raised about the tragic confusion which marked the four major Allied airborne operations. The scattering of the American paratroopers and British glidermen on the evening of D minus 1, followed by the shooting down of large numbers of friendly aircraft on the evenings of 11 and 13 July 1943, almost brought American airborne efforts in World War II to an end. Much disillusionment set in following the disastrous airborne operations, and many responsible officers became convinced that the basic structure of the airborne division was unsound.

Sicily was an especially bitter disappointment for men who had put great faith III airborne operations. General Swing, American airborne adviser at AFHQ, attributed the unsatisfactory results to five principal causes: insufficient planning in coordinating routes with all forces several weeks earlier; the inability of troop carrier formations to follow the routes, given, partly because of poorly trained pilots, and partly because of the complicated routes; the rigid requirement that naval forces fire at all aircraft at night coming within range, regardless of their efforts to identify themselves; the unfortunate circumstance wherein an enemy bombing raid coincided with the arrival of the airborne force; and the failure of some ground commanders to warn the men manning antiaircraft weapons of the expected arrival of the troop carrier formations.

General Browning, British airborne expert and the AFHQ airborne adviser, was sharp in his criticism of the aerial navigation:

In spite of the clear weather, suitable moon, the existence of Malta as a check point only 70 miles from Sicily and the latter’s very obvious and easily recognizable coast line, the navigation by the troop carrier aircrews was bad.

The troops comprising both British and American Airborne Divisions are of a very high quality and their training takes time and is expensive. They are given important tasks which may acutely affect the operations as a whole. It is essential both from the operational and moral point of view that energetic steps be taken to improve greatly on the aircrews’ performance up to date.

Intensive training in low flying navigation by night, especially over coast lines, must be organized and carried on continuously. This must form part of the aircrews’ training before they reach a theater of war and the standard set must be very high.

General Ridgway, commander of the 82d Airborne Division, stated weeks later that “both the 82d Airborne Division and the North African Air Force Troop Carrier Command are today at airborne training levels below combat requirements.” He emphasized that airborne and troop carrier units were “unprepared to conduct with reasonable chances of success night operations either glider or parachute, employing forces the size of Regimental Combat Teams.”

A report on the Sicilian airborne operations by the Fifth Army Airborne Training Center was more blunt:

The (82d) Division was in superb physical condition, well qualified in the use of infantry arms, in combined ground operations, and in individual jumping. It was extremely deficient in its air operations. The (82d) Troop Carrier Wing did not cooperate well. Training was, in general, inadequate. Combat efficiency for night glider operations was practically zero. The combined force of (82d) Airborne Division and troop carrier units was extremely deficient.

Allied airborne operations did live up to some expectations, but they might have been far more vital in the conquest of Sicily had the airborne troops been dropped, not between the reserves and the beach defenses, but en masse on the central plateau, where they could have assembled with little interference and then struck aggressively at the enemy’s rear.

In some respects Allied airborne operations in Sicily bear certain similarities to the German airborne invasion of Crete. In each case the attacker considered the operation a disappointment, while the defender considered the operation a more or less spectacular success. Each operation was something of a turning point in the airborne effort of both sides. For the Germans, Crete was the end of major airborne operations. For the Allies, Sicily was only the beginning of airborne operations on an even larger scale.

After Sicily, however, it was not certain that airborne divisions were here to stay. The reaction of the Army Ground Forces in the United States was that the airborne program had been overemphasized. They could see no immediate requirement for the airborne strength which had been assembled, and were willing to abandon the idea of special airborne divisions. AGF suggested that the airborne divisions then in being be reorganized as light divisions. Parachute units would be removed and the light divisions would be given a variety of special training. Whenever an airborne operation was contemplated, then the light division could be trained, preferably in the theater, for that specific operation. Parachute units would be organized into separate battalions, after the fashion of the armored infantry battalions, and would then be grouped as necessary for training and tactical employment.

At the same time, writing from North Africa, General Eisenhower also suggested a reorganization:

I do not believe in the airborne division. I believe that airborne troops should be reorganized in self-contained units, comprising infantry, artillery, and special services, all of about the strength of a regimental combat team. Even if one had all the air transport he could possibly use the fact is at any given time and in any given spot only a reasonable number of air transports can be operated because of technical difficulties. To employ at any time and place a whole division would require a dropping over such an extended area that I seriously doubt that a division commander could regain control and operate the scattered forces as one unit. In any event, if these troops were organized in smaller, self-contained units, a senior commander, with a small staff and radio communications, could always be dropped in the area to insure necessary coordination.

Opposing this trend was General Swing, who had served as an airborne adviser in Allied Forces Headquarters and who was now at the Airborne Command in the United States. He protested that these views were based upon a campaign marked by certain adverse conditions which were remediable. He pointed to the Markham valley operation in New Guinea (September 1943) as an example of what could be done with proper training and planning. His conclusion was that airborne divisions were sound and that the successful employment of those divisions required careful and exact planning and co-ordination with the major ground effort. In this connection, General Swing recommended, as he bad done earlier, that an airborne staff section be established in each theater to assist the theater commander in taking full advantage of the capabilities of airborne units.

In a later study of the subject, the American and British Combined Staff Planners saw nothing in combat experience, either British or American, which indicated that the division was not the proper organization for airborne troops. Taking cognizance of the expressed views of Eisenhower, Swing, and others, the planners recommended that no changes be made in that structure until further experience indicated’ the need for a change. This recommendation was accepted by both Americans and British. It had been a near thing for the airborne effort. For with the loss of the division structure and a reversion to battalion size units only, the airborne units would have been no more effective than if they had retained the same mission originally contemplated for them in the days before the war-the seizure of an airhead for the benefit of airtransported infantry units.


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