This was a US airborne operation by part of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division during ‘Husky’ (i) (9/10 July 1943).
The operation was entrusted to Colonel James A. Gavin’s 505th Parachute Infantry, which was to be dropped in the area between Niscemi and Gela to cut the roads leading to Gela, and thus deny the Axis forces any access to the beaches used by Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 7th Army.
There was an Allied lift sufficient for only two brigade-sized units, one British and the other US. The latter was Gavin’s 505th Parachute Infantry of three battalions, with attached artillery (equipped with the 75-mm/2.95-in light airborne howitzer) and parachute engineers. This regiment was to drop behind the centre of the beaches allocated to Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s II Corps in the area of Gela. Gavin’s mission was to secure the Piano Lupo, check any Axis counterattack, and hold his position until units from the beach-head relieved him.
The British and US airborne units were concentrated around Kairouan in Tunisia, where they were served by a cluster of airfields on which were based Brigadier General Ray A. Dunn’s 51st Troop Carrier Wing and Brigadier General Harold L. Clark’s 52nd Troop Carrier Wing of Brigadier General Paul L. Williams’s XII Troop Carrier Command.
The 3,400 men of the 505th Parachute Infantry began their flight at 22.00 on the night of 9 July in 226 Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing flying in threes in V formation in groups of three Vs, a long column of nine abreast. Only the leading aeroplane in each nine carried a competent navigator, the rest following the leader. The drop zones were to be identified by eye from air photographs: no pathfinder parties dropped by skilled navigators, light markers or radio beacons were to be used.
For several reasons, including strong winds of up to 45 mph (72 km/h), the US formation lost direction and the regiment was therefore dropped all over southern Sicily, a spread of 65 miles (105 km). Only some 200 men were dropped on the Piano Lupo, and Gavin was dropped some 30 miles (48 km) from his correct destination. Many of the 505th Parachute Infantry’s men were badly injured after being dropped from too low an altitude onto rough ground in the high wind that had sprung up in the night. Some men eventually found their way back to the designated rendezvous area, but many others were captured. Wherever they landed, however, commanders collected groups of men, rallying more after the break of day, and set about seeing what mischief they could do. Gavin’s group of the 1/505th Parachute Infantry found itself near a fortified farmhouse, held by 60 men, deep in Axis territory, and took it by direct assault. Other parties captured, or took part, in the capture of Ragusa, Noto and Avola, the last actually in the sector of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army. Another group harassed an anti-aircraft battery. On being taken prisoner, one lieutenant convinced his captors that their best course was to surrender, which they did. Everywhere the paratroopers landed, villagers welcomed them as liberators.
The Germans were by contrast their usual formidable selves. On the Piano Lupo the 200 men dropped in the right place made a remarkable stand against a German armoured counterattack: one of the 75-mm (2.95-in) M116 airborne howitzers destroyed a PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tank with direct fire. The German armour was in general halted, however, in part by direct fire from the field artillery landed on the beaches but chiefly by some astonishingly accurate and concentrated shooting by the guns of the US Navy. As far as the plan was concerned, the 505th Parachute Infantry achieved something short of its official objective, but its aggression certainly confused the defenders for some time about the weight and direction of the 7th Army’s thrust.