Search Books:

Join our mailing list:

Recent Articles

The Mystery Murder Case of the Century
by Robert Tanenbaum

by Anna Godbersen

Songs of 1966 That Make Me Wish I Could Sing
by Elizabeth Crook

The Opposite of Loneliness
by Marina Keegan

The Skinny on Back Pain: What Does Work and What Doesn't Work
by Patrick Roth

Remembering Ethel Merman
by Tony Cointreau


The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 Excerpt from The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

by Rick Atkinson

Chapter 2 

Land of the Cyclops

Few Sicilian towns claimed greater antiquity than Gela, where the center of the American assault was to fall. Founded on a limestone hillock by Greek colonists from Rhodes and Crete in 688 b.c., Gela had since endured the usual Mediterranean calamities, including betrayal, pillage, and, in 311 b.c., the butchery of five thousand citizens by a rival warlord. The ruins of sanctuaries and shrines dotted the modern town of 32,000, along with tombs ranging in vintage from Bronze Age to Hellenistic and Byzantine. The fecund “Geloan fields,” as Virgil called them in The Aeneid, grew oleanders, palms, and Saracen olives. Aeschylus, the father of Attic drama, had spent his last years in Gela writing about fate, revenge, and love gone bad in the Oresteia; legend held that the playwright had been killed here when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald skull.

Patton planned a different sort of airborne attack by his invasion vanguard. On the night of July 9–10, more than three thousand paratroopers in four battalions were to parachute onto several vital road junctions outside Gela to forestall Axis counterattacks against the 1st Division landing beaches. Leading this assault was the dashing Colonel James Maurice Gavin, who at thirty-six was on his way to becoming the Army’s youngest major general since the Civil War. Born in Brooklyn to Irish immigrants and orphaned as a child, Gavin had been raised hardscrabble by foster parents in the Pennsylvania coalfields. Leaving school after the eighth grade, he worked as a barber’s helper, shoe clerk, and filling station manager before joining the Army at seventeen. He wangled an appointment to West Point, where his cadetship was undistinguished. As a young officer he washed out of flight school; a superior’s evaluation as recently as 1941 concluded, “This officer does not seem peculiarly fitted to be a paratrooper.” Ascetic and fearless, with a “magnetism for attractive women,” Jim Gavin was in fact born to go to the sound of the guns. “He could jump higher, shout louder, spit farther, and fight harder than any man I ever saw,” one subordinate said.

His 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, had staged in central Tunisia. Gavin harbored private misgivings about the Sicilian mission—“many lives will be lost in a few hours,” he wrote—and with good reason. The 82nd had received only roughly a third as much training time as some other U.S. divisions. The amateurish Allied parachute operations in North Africa had been marred by misfortune and miscalculation. No large-scale night combat jump had ever been attempted, and so many injuries had plagued the division in Tunisia—including fifty-three broken legs and ankles during a single daylight jump in early June—that training was curtailed. Much of the husky planning had been done by officers who had no airborne expertise and whose notions were suffused with fantasy. Transport pilots had little experience at night navigation, but to avoid flying over trigger-happy gunners in the Allied fleets, the planes, staying low to evade Axis radar, would have to make three dogleg turns over open water in the dark. Airborne units had yet to figure out how to drop a load heavier than three hundred pounds, much less a howitzer or a jeep. An experimental “para-mule” broke three legs; after putting the creature out of its misery, paratroopers used the carcass for bayonet practice. Still, the ranks “generally agreed that training proficiency had reached the stage where the mission was ‘in the bag,’” wrote one AAF officer, who later acknowledged “possible overoptimism.”

At about the time that Hewitt’s fleet neared Malta, Gavin and his men had clambered aboard 226 C-47 Dakotas near Kairouan. Faces blackened with burnt cork, each soldier wore a U.S. flag on the right sleeve and a white cloth knotted on the left as a nighttime recognition signal. Days earlier an 82nd Airborne platoon had circulated through the 1st Division to familiarize ground soldiers with the baggy trousers and loose smock worn by paratroopers. Parachutes occupied the C-47s’ seats; the sixteen troopers in each stick sat on the fuselage floor, practicing the invasion challenge and password: george/marshall. Dysentery tormented the regiment, and men struggled with their gear and Mae Wests to squat over honeypots placed around the aircraft bays. Medics distributed Benzedrine to the officers, morphine syrettes to everyone.

As the first planes began to taxi—churning up dust clouds so thick that some pilots had to take off by instrument—a weatherman appeared at Gavin’s aircraft to affirm Commander Steere’s prediction of lingering high winds aloft. “Colonel Gavin, is Colonel Gavin here? I was told to tell you that the wind is going to be thirty-five miles an hour, west to east,” he said. “They thought you’d want to know.” Fifteen was considered the maximum velocity for safe jumping. Another messenger staggered up with an enormous barracks bag stuffed with prisoner-of-war tags. “You’re supposed to put one on every prisoner you capture,” he told Gavin. An hour after takeoff, a staff officer heaved the bag into the sea.

The slivered moon cast little light, and at five hundred feet salt spray on the cockpit windows further cut visibility. Men dozed in the blacked-out planes during the three-hour flight, unaware that the gale had quickly deranged the formations. Some pilots found the critical turn at Malta, where Eisenhower stood craning his neck. Most did not. Soon the central Mediterranean was swarming with lost aircraft as crews tried to dead reckon their way north.

Nearly all found Sicily, or at least some corner of it. Pilot Willis Mitchell spied Malta and turned accordingly, only to approach the drop zone north of Gela without thirty of the thirty-nine planes that were supposed to be behind him. Leveling off at eight hundred feet, Mitchell flipped on the green jump light. More than a hundred paratroopers from the bobtailed formation landed within two miles of the DZ, but badly scattered and hobbled with jump injuries. Others—aware only that they were somewhere over land—jumped from fifteen hundred feet at two hundred miles per hour, rather than from the preferred six hundred feet at one hundred miles per hour. Smoke and dust from earlier bombing obscured key landmarks and further befuddled the navigators. Some mistook Syracuse for Gela, fifty miles to the west. Machine-gun and antiaircraft fire ripped through the formations and the descending paratroopers, killing some before they hit the ground. Plane number 42-32922 collided with its flight leader above the beach; with his right elevator gone, the pilot, George Mertz, wobbled back out to sea and ditched five hundred yards off Scoglitti. “I hit the master switch to cut off both engines, and we glided in,” Mertz recounted. “One paratrooper came crashing through to the cockpit. The airplane settled, slightly nose low.” Crewmen and soldiers lashed their life rafts together and paddled ashore to hide in the dunes.

Jim Gavin’s Dakota also tacked north after missing Malta, eventually crossing an unidentified coast on an unidentified landmass shortly after midnight. A red light flashed in the bay. “Stand up and hook up,” Gavin ordered. Braced in the open doorway, he recognized nothing in the dark terrain below. A pearly stream of machine-gun tracers drifted up. The green light flashed, and Gavin leaped into the slipstream. After landing hard and slipping off his harness, he managed to round up five comrades. For hours they stumbled through the darkness, whispering “George!” and straining for “Marshall,” until the distant grumble of naval gunfire just before dawn confirmed that they were at least on the proper island.

“No one knew where they were, including themselves,” the tart General Lucas noted aboard Monrovia. Gavin eventually discerned that he was south of Vittoria, thirty miles from Gela. Although Troop Carrier Command claimed that 80 percent of the paratroopers had jumped onto the proper drop zones, even the Army Air Forces disputed that as “a prodigious overestimate.” In fact, fewer than one in six had landed anywhere close to where they were supposed to land. Only one of Gavin’s four battalions was intact, and it was twenty-five miles east of the correct DZ. More than 3,400 paratroopers were scattered across southeastern Sicily, as much as sixty-five miles off target. Some had jumped into the British sector, where—because no one had thought to impose identical passwords on the entire invasion force—they were greeted with gunfire. Eight planes were lost, none apparently to enemy fire, and the regiment’s three-day casualty tally would reach 350, a literal decimation.

Certainly they wreaked havoc: slashing telephone wires, ambushing couriers, and causing the panicky Italians to inflate their numbers. They improvised, as paratroopers must. Captain Edwin M. Sayer, a company commander, mustered forty-five men to attack pillboxes near Niscemi with mortar, bazooka, and rifle-grenade fire; fifty enemy soldiers were captured, along with twenty machine guns and half a million rounds of ammunition. The operation, in Gavin’s assessment, was “self-adjusting,” a SAFU, as well as a TARFU and a JAAFU.

Still, only 425 paratroopers had landed in front of the 1st Division, and only 200 now occupied the vital high ground at Piano Lupo as a screen for the vulnerable units landing at Gela. The 82nd Airborne commander, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway, lamented the “miscarriage” that resulted from overweening ambition, deficient training, and bad luck. “At war’s end,” Ridgway later concluded, “we still could not have executed that first Sicily mission, as laid on, at night and under like conditions.  

As paratroopers blundered hither and yon, the force they were intended to shield swept into the shallows off Gela. The 1st Division, bolstered by two Ranger battalions, closed on six beaches along a five-mile front shortly after three a.m. Their objective, beyond seizing the town, was the capture of Ponte Olivo airfield on Virgil’s Geloan plain. Calamity struck quickly. Hardly had the strains of “American Patrol” faded when a Ranger lieutenant and sixteen of his men vaulted from their landing craft as it ground with a gritty jolt onto a sandbar; unaware of the runnel and deadweighted with those 82.02 pounds of kit, they sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Other men from the 1st Division dropped their life preservers into the forward hold as instructed by an LCI skipper, who assured them the water was only hip deep; scurrying down the dropped ramp they, too, sank and drowned.

The first Americans waded onto the beaches at 3:35 a.m. on Saturday, July 10, fifty minutes behind Patton’s schedule. With a vicious pop, a mine tore open the chest of a Ranger company commander. “I could see his heart beating,” said his first sergeant, Randall Harris. “He turned to me and said, ‘I’ve had it, Harry,’ then collapsed and died.” Harris dashed forward only to have another mine shred his abdomen and legs; after flicking grenades into a line of pillboxes, he sprinkled sulfa powder on his protruding intestines, cinched his web belt to keep the innards in, and wandered down to the beach to find a medic. Harris would win a battlefield commission and the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry.

If stunned by the Allied invasion, the defenders appeared unsurprised. With a great roar and a shower of masonry, Italian demolitionists blew up a long segment of the thousand-foot Gela pier. Italian gunners trained their fire on the 26th Infantry as the first wave closed to within a hundred yards of shore. “The water jumped and heaved” under the lashing bullets. Soldiers sheltered behind the LCT splinter plates and anchor winches, narrowing their shoulders and elbowing one another as rounds sang overhead or pinged off the hull. A barrage balloon torn free in the storm abruptly drifted overhead, weird and stately. “I’ve been wounded but there’s so much blood I can’t tell exactly where,” one soldier muttered. As another boat dropped its ramp, a 16th Infantry rifleman felt a weight slump against his leg. “Somebody left his pack,” he called out, then saw that the inert bundle was a sergeant who had been shot in the head.

Shouts and curses swept the beaches, swallowed by gunfire. A shower of Italian grenades landed around a 16th Infantry lieutenant, who escaped from the encounter with sixty-six small holes in his uniform shirt, a ruptured eardrum, and a pierced upper lip. Sappers chopped at the barbed wire with long-handled snips, and soldiers fell flat as trip flares bathed the shingle in magnesium brilliance. Searchlights swept the waterline, only to draw salvo after salvo from destroyers racing parallel to the shore like angry dogs along a fence. An Italian soldier “crept from a pillbox on all fours and ran down the hill, screaming and sobbing.”

Dawn sluiced the eastern sky before five a.m., but daylight only enhanced the chaos. The heavy swell jammed several LST bow ramps, breaking ramp chains and flooding the tank decks. Seamen struggled against the current to assemble the cumbersome pontoon bridges, and a 16th Infantry battalion—stranded aboard several LCIs that had been snagged on sandbars thirty yards from shore—began to ferry men and weapons to the beach in rubber boats. Nothing in the arsenal of democracy now proved more providential than another new amphibian, a two-and-a-half-ton truck with flotation tanks and twin propellers. Built by General Motors and awkwardly called the DUKW—pronounced “duck”—it was difficult to load, slow in the water, and susceptible to brake damage from salt and sand. But it could carry a rifle platoon or a howitzer and its gun crew from ship to shore, and then make fifty miles per hour on roads. The War Department had been persuaded of the DUKW’s merit the previous winter when a prototype rescued a foundering Coast Guard crew during a Cape Cod nor’easter. Eisenhower had been issued eleven hundred DUKWs for husky; they scuttled through the Gela surf like a flotilla of horseshoe crabs.

Mines proved more galling than enemy guns. Rather than miles of good beach frontage, as intelligence reports had suggested, only a few hundred yards proved suitable, and exits through the dunes were sown with Teller mines planted a yard apart. DUKWs blew up, trucks blew up, five Navy bulldozers blew up. With no firefighting equipment at hand, they burned to the axles and blocked the beach exits. Many mine detectors remained buried in cargo holds; salt spray quickly shorted out those that made it to shore. “Everything on them goes bad,” a signal officer complained. Drivers ignored the engineer tape laid to mark cleared lanes: more vehicles blew up. Some crews left their DUKWs at water’s edge to collect souvenirs, or they were diverted by the Army for work elsewhere. Mines closed Yellow and Green Beaches in front of Gela, but boats diverted a bit south to Beach Red 2 found appalling congestion—“gasoline, ammunition, water, food, and assorted equipment were strewn about in a hopeless mass,” Hewitt later wrote. Shellfire soon closed that beach, too.

“The beach was a scene of the greatest confusion,” Lucas noted in his diary after an early-morning trip ashore. “Trucks bogged down in the sand. The surf filled with overturned boats and debris of all kinds.” Beachmasters bellowed into the din to small effect; few had been armed with bullhorns. Troops loitered in the dunes, or traded potshots with flitting Italian gunmen. Some LSTs steamed away to anchorages offshore without unloading an ounce of cargo—much less tanks—and the Navy would inadvertently return to North Africa with much of the signal equipment for the Gela assault still crated in the holds. Shore parties searching for fuel and ammo instead found boxes packed with athletic equipment and clerical records.

Dawn also brought the first enemy air attacks. Sixteen miles offshore, the U.S.S. Maddox was screening troop transports from enemy submarines when, for reasons unclear, she wandered away from the main destroyer pack. German pilots had learned to hunt stragglers by tracking the ship wakes, then gliding out of the rising sun with their engines cut. An officer on the Maddox’s bridge realized he was under attack only when he heard the whistle of falling bombs. The first detonated twenty-five yards astern; a second hit beneath the propeller guard, detonating depth charges aligned on the aft deck.

Fire and steam boiled from the starboard main deck and the number 2 stack. The blast ripped open the aft deckhouse and catapaulted a 5-inch gun over the side. Maddox settled by the stern, with power gone and the engine room annunciators dead. As she lost steering and headway, the ship listed slightly to port, then righted herself for an instant before capsizing to starboard and sinking to the perpendicular. She paused momentarily, as if for a last look around, her forward gun pointing vertically from the sea. Bulkheads collapsed with a groan. Then the powder magazine detonated.

“A great blob of light bleached and reddened the sky,” reported a lieutenant, miles away aboard Ancon. “It was followed by a blast more sullen and deafening than any we have so far heard.” More prosaically, a sailor on Ancon’s bridge added, “Look, they got one!” Two minutes after she was hit, Maddox vanished. In three hundred fathoms the ship sank, dragging down 212 men, their captain among them. A nearby tug rescued 74 survivors. 

Past the charred DUKWs and discarded mine detectors, two regiments from the 1st Division bulled through the dunes east of Gela. Succeeding waves followed the spoor of abandoned gas masks, blankets, life belts, snarled signal wire, and artillery shells packed in black cardboard cloverleafs. Gray stone houses with tile roofs stood beside the parched fields beyond the beach. Wheat and barley sheaves lay on threshing floors in the side yards, where beanstalks had been stacked for winter fuel. Grapevines snaked between olive groves, and peach trees were heavy with fruit that hung “like red-and-yellow lamps.” The tintinnabulation of sheep bells sounded above the pock-pock-pock of rifle fire.

Force X—two of Bill Darby’s Ranger battalions—pushed into Gela town. Darby, a rugged thirty-two-year-old West Pointer from Arkansas, had proved his worth and that of his 1st Ranger Battalion in Algeria and Tunisia—they were the “best damned combat soldiers in Africa,” according to Patton—and in consequence the force that spring had tripled in size. Posters recruited volunteers who had “no record of trial by court-martial” and who were “white; at least five feet, six inches in height; of normal weight; in excellent physical condition; and not over thirty-five years old.” Recruiters also swaggered into Algerian bars, tendered a few insults, and signed up soldiers pugnacious enough to pick a fight. Already eclectic, the Rangers now included a jazz trumpeter, a professional gambler, steelworkers, a hotel detective, coal miners, a church deacon, and a recruit named Sampson P. Oneskunk. El Darbo, as the men called him, would twice reject promotion to full colonel in order to stay with his Rangers. They returned his devotion with a jody call: “We’ll fight an army on a dare, we’ll follow Darby anywhere, Darby’s Rangers . . . Fightin’ Rangers.”

The Fightin’ Rangers now fought their way through Gela. Naval gunfire had shattered houses along the corniche and “ranged through the town, tearing roofs off or blowing in whole streets,” a 1st Division soldier recorded. Blue-uniformed Italians from the Livorno Division made a stand at the cathedral. Gunfire echoed through the nave and up the winding tower steps, punctuated by the burst of grenades in the sacristy. Soon bloody bodies carpeted the altar and the front steps, where Sicilian women in black keened over their dead. Two other redoubts fell quickly: a naval battery on the northwest edge of town, which surrendered after thunderous salvos from the cruiser Savannah, and a barricaded schoolhouse from which fifty-two Italians surrendered after a brief firefight. A blue column of Livorno prisoners tramped toward the beach, where without evident dismay they wolfed down C rations and awaited the LST that would carry them away from the war.

More Italians counterattacked at 10:30. A column of thirty-two light Renault tanks with infantry pushed south from Niscemi, eight miles inland, only to be bushwacked by a hundred of Gavin’s paratroopers and further discouraged by screaming salvos from the cruiser Boise. Twenty tanks managed to wheel onto Highway 115 toward Gela, but a smoking broadside from the 16th Infantry stopped the advance and sent the survivors fleeing north into the Sicilian interior.

On Highway 117, two dozen more tanks from Ponte Olivo airfield clanked toward town through 5-inch fire from the destroyer Shubrick. Several burning hulks soon littered the road, but ten Renaults reached Gela. Rangers scampered behind stone walls and along rooftops, firing bazookas, flinging grenades, and dropping blocks of TNT from the ramparts. With a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on his jeep, Darby hammered away as his driver darted through narrow alleys around the piazza. Seeing his slugs bounce like marbles off the armor plates, Darby raced to the beach, commandeered a 37mm antitank gun, split open a box of ammo with an ax, then hurried back into town. His second shot halted a Renault, and he flushed the surviving crew with a thermite grenade laid atop the hatch. “Soon the metal was red hot,” the journalist Don Whitehead reported, “and the crew scrambled out screaming in surrender.” As the remaining Italian tanks retreated, Italian infantrymen arrived in parade-ground formation west of Gela. Bracketed with mortar fire, they were cut to ribbons. Survivors “fled in disorder.” Hewitt summoned the jut-jawed monitor H.M.S. Abercrombie to harass other enemy forces sheltering in Niscemi; a shift of ballast cocked the ship’s guns higher to obtain the requisite range, and 15-inch shells the width of tree trunks soon rained down.

By late morning, Gela, the town of Aeschylus and Saracen olives, had fallen. Darby pulled an American flag from his pack and tacked it to the front wall of the Fascist party headquarters. A sergeant from the Bronx strolled the streets, quoting Thomas Paine in Italian. An angry crone cursed from her balcony, but other townfolk—perhaps sensing the strategic direction of the young campaign—huzzahed the invaders with “Viva, America.” Civil affairs officers eventually counted thirteen hundred demolished houses, of Gela’s fourteen thousand. They also counted 170 corpses. Geloans refused to touch the bodies, and prisoners were press-ganged to haul the dead on donkey carts to the cemetery. By noon on July 10, U.S. patrols were four miles inland, well toward the Yellow Line objective. Still, the ranks felt unsettled: the assault, they agreed, had been too easy. The real enemy, those with panzers and coal-scuttle helmets, had not yet been met. 

Fifteen miles west, it was easier still. The 3rd Infantry Division, bolstered by another Ranger battalion and tanks from the 2nd Armored Division, had appeared in the early morning off the coast at Licata, where the stink of sulfur, asphalt, and fish implied the local delicacies. As the flagship Biscayne dropped anchor just four miles off the town’s breakwater, five searchlights from shore swept the sea, quickly fixing the vessel in their beams. “All five of them,” wrote Ernie Pyle, who stood on deck, “pinioned us in their white shafts as we sat there.” Then one by one the lights blinked out until a single beam still burned, lingering for a moment like the ghost light in a theater until it, too, was extinguished. “Not a shot had been fired.”

No one was more relieved than the craggy officer standing near Pyle aboard Biscayne. He wore a russet leather jacket, cavalry breeches, high brown boots, a lacquered two-star helmet, and an expression that married a squint with a scowl. His front incisors were gapped and tobacco stained; one admirer wrote that his heavy-boned face had been “hewn directly out of hard rock. The large protruding eyes are the outstanding feature.” Around his neck he had knotted a paratrooper’s white silk escape map of Sicily, which soon would become his much-mimicked trademark. He had a blacksmith’s hands, and the iron shoulders of a man with a four-goal polo handicap. His “rock-crusher voice” derived, so it was said, from swallowing carbolic acid as a child; for the past month he had been painting his vocal cords, inflamed from smoking, with silver nitrate. Many considered him the finest combat commander in the U.S. Army.

Major General Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., led the 3rd Division and was charged with protecting Seventh Army’s far left flank. Now forty-eight, he was embarking on his second invasion, for he had also commanded Patton’s left flank in Morocco. Born into a country doctor’s family in Texas, Truscott for six years had taught in one- and two-room schoolhouses in Oklahoma and attended Cleveland Teachers Institute before enlisting in the cavalry. The schoolmaster never left him—“You use the passive voice too damn much,” he once chided a subordinate—and he wrote long, searching critiques of subordinates’ performances. Even in combat, he cherished cut flowers on his desk and enjoyed ontological inquiry: a staff meeting might begin with Truscott asking the division chaplain, “What is sin?” His kit bag included War and Peace, Webster’s High School Dictionary, and perhaps a liquor bottle; some subordinates thought he drank too much. A stern disciplinarian, he had imposed fifty-year sentences on soldiers who maimed themselves in North Africa to avoid combat; lesser miscreants got “an application of corncob and turpentine,” an aide said. Truscott had learned much in Morocco, about “the loneliness of the battlefield” and the need for physical vigor. Each 3rd Division battalion was required to master the “Truscott trot”: marching five miles in the first hour and four miles an hour thereafter, for as long as necessary.

Nothing revealed more of him than his letters home to Sarah Randolph Truscott, which began, invariably, “Beloved Wife.” Aboard Biscayne on July 7 he had written:

Do you remember how you used to get after me for working so hard and how I answered that I had to be ready—prepare myself—for any responsibility that came to me? I am only sorry that my limitations were such that I could not accomplish more, because responsibilities are certainly falling on me. Your calm confidence in me is always with me and when doubt falls upon me—as it must on all—that thought soon restores that confidence. I can do only the best I can.

At Licata, his best was good enough. A few desultory Italian artillery shells greeted the invaders, who found the beaches unmined. Booby traps on the docks were still in their packing crates. Air attacks proved less intense here than elsewhere on the husky front; only the star-crossed minesweeper U.S.S. Sentinel was lost. Hit four times by dive-bombers at five a.m., wrecked and abandoned, with sixty-one dead and wounded, she capsized and sank five hours later.

Infantrymen drowned or were gunned down without ever setting foot in Europe, but not many. Biscayne’s sisters poured shells into the town—“scorched wadding came raining down on the deck,” Pyle reported—and destroyers screened the landing craft with heavy smoke. Ten battalions made shore in an hour, with tanks. They soon captured two thousand Italian soldiers—some insisted on leading their pet goats into captivity—while many others bolted for the hills in what the Italian high command called “self-demobilization.” Dry grass used to camouflage gun batteries caught fire, smoking out the gunners; others ran from German shepherds trained in Virginia to clear pillboxes and lunge for the throat. “Every time one of the poor Dagoes would wave a white flag over the edge, the tank gunner would shoot at it,” an armor captain wrote his wife, “so I finally stopped him and ran them out with my pistol. . . . They were the most scared men I have ever seen.”

Dawn revealed a U.S. flag flapping on a hill above Licata. Troops in olive drab scuttled through town, drawing only smiles from children who made “V for victory” signs with their upraised arms. At 9:18 a.m. the fleet signaled, “Hold all gunfire. Objective taken.” Those seaworthy mules aboard LST 386 flatly refused to cross the pontoon causeway to shore; exasperated sailors finally heaved them overboard and let them swim.

Truscott came ashore with greater dignity, by launch at noon. Fishing boats bobbed in the tiny harbor, their triangular lateen sails “white as sharks’ teeth,” one journalist wrote. Staff officers scurried about, settling a division command post in the Palazzo La Lumia and cleaning up a new bivouac. No amount of scrubbing could eradicate the reek of sulfur or the millennial grit. “Hell,” a soldier complained within Pyle’s earshot, “this is just as bad as Africa.” Truscott recorded his impressions in another letter to Sarah. “I find this country interesting but distasteful to me,” he wrote. “I certainly do not like the accumulated poverty and filth of the ages.” Responsibilities are falling on me, he had told her. Licata was but the beginning.

Across the Gulf of Gela, the third and final prong of Seventh Army’s invasion found the sea on Patton’s right flank a more ferocious adversary than enemy soldiers. Twelve-foot swells and six-foot surf still bedeviled the convoys bearing the 45th Division to Scoglitti, where westerly winds chewed at the exposed bight. The destroyers Knight and Tillman laid down white-phosphorus naval shells for the first time in combat; the blinding flashes and dense smoke terrified Italian defenders in their pillboxes and gun batteries. Big cruiser shells followed on a flatter trajectory, three at a time, and fires soon danced along the shoreline.

The first assault wave hit the wrong beach, and from that point the invasion deteriorated. The eleventh-hour transfer to the Pacific of coxswains who had trained on the Chesapeake with the 45th now haunted the division. Their callow replacements, overmatched by rough surf, sandbars, and sporadic gunfire, veered this way and that along the coast, shouting across the water for directions to Blue Beach or Yellow Two. At Punta Braccetto, two boats in the second wave collided while sheering away from the rocks. Four sputtering GIs struggled to shore; thirty-eight others drowned, and 157th Infantry bandsmen pressed into service as gravediggers swapped their instruments for picks and shovels. Companies landed far from their designated beaches, and soon battalions and then finally an entire regiment—the 180th Infantry—had been scattered across a twelve-mile swatch of Sicilian shingle. “This,” a regimental history conceded, “played havoc.”

Dozens of landing craft broached or flooded—“a most deplorable picture throughout D-day,” the official Army history observed—and soon two hundred boats stood stranded on beaches or offshore bars. The scattered vessels reminded one Navy lieutenant of “shoes in a dead man’s closet.” Landing and unloading operations were as inept as they had been in Morocco, where a sad standard for amphibious incompetence had been set eight months earlier. Among those coming ashore with the 180th Infantry was a puckish left-hander from New Mexico who had a knack for cartooning and whose impious characters Willie and Joe would soon become the unshaven, bleary-eyed icons of a million infantrymen. “My first practical lesson about war” came at Scoglitti, Sergeant Bill Mauldin later said. “Nobody really knows what he’s doing.”

“The beach was in total confusion,” reported the senior Army engineer on the scene. “There had been no real planning. The beachmaster was not in control.” Not least, pilferage of supplies and barracks bags by Army shore parties was common; their commanding colonel was subsequently court-martialed. Congestion grew so desperate that beaches Green 2 and Yellow 2 were closed below Scoglitti, and beaches Red, Green, and Yellow above the town would soon shut down, too. Later waves diverted to six new beaches where engineers blew exits through the dunes with bangalore torpedoes and laid steel-mesh matting for traction. As shore operations bogged down, the captains of some ships, fearing air attack, weighed anchor for North Africa without unloading. The 45th Division commander spent his first night on Sicily in a rude foxhole a mile inland, wrapped in a parachute. “To make it less comfortable,” Major General Troy H. Middleton reported, “the friendly Navy shelled the area.”

Still, as D-day drew to a close the Americans were ashore on their narrow littoral crescent. From Licata to Scoglitti more than fifty thousand U.S. troops and five thousand vehicles had landed, with more of each waiting offshore for first light on Sunday. Casualties had been modest, and the enemy seemed befuddled. Italian coastal-defense units had surrendered in such numbers that Sicilian women lined the sidewalks, jeering as their men shuffled into captivity. Yet neither the prisoner columns nor the stacks of enemy dead awaiting mass burial included many men wearing German field gray, and every GI on Sicily expected that soon the invaders would encounter a more formidable foe 

That left the British. Except for the saving grace of calmer seas, all the confusion that bedeviled the Americans in the Gulf of Gela also plagued the Eighth Army landings thirty-five miles away on the island’s eastern flank. Commandos came ashore first, crossing the beach where some speculated that Odysseus, after leaving Calypso’s island, would have made landfall in Sicily, “the land of the high and mighty Cyclops.” The Canadian 1st Division anchored the army’s left wing on a ten-thousand-yard front of the Pachino Peninsula, while the British 51st, 50th, and 5th Divisions beat for the beaches east and north.

“Some confusion and lack of control,” the 50th Division acknowledged off Avola. “Many craft were temporarily lost and circled their parent ship more than once. . . . It was exceedingly dark. Most naval officers were uncertain as to their whereabouts.” Transports unwittingly anchored twelve miles off the coast rather than the expected seven, confounding runs to the beach and putting shore parties beyond radio range. Some landings “were in no way carried out to plan,” a British intelligence report noted. “Army officers had to take a hand in navigation, and had they not done so, many craft would have beached still further from the correct places.” A Canadian captain was more direct. “Get on, you silly bastards!” he roared at his men. “Get on with it!”

Landing craft ground ashore in the early light. Voices sang out: “Down door!” Then: “Sicily, everybody out!” Fire from shore batteries proved modest, except of course for those it actually struck. “The water had become a sea of blood and limbs, remains of once grand fighting men who would never be identified,” wrote Able Seaman K. G. Oakley, who saw a landing craft shattered in the 50th Division sector. From the surf Oakley pulled “a man whose arm was hanging on by a few bits of cloth and flesh. He cried, ‘My arm! Look, it’s hit me.’” Like tens of thousands of others on that Saturday morning, Oakley reflected, “So this is war.”

Ashore they swarmed, scrambling through the dunes and across the coastal highway. A Scots regiment entered Cassibile skirling, in defiance of orders that bagpipes remain on the ships. A pungent smell briefly triggered gas alarms and fumbling for masks, until more sophisticated noses realized that the odor came from wild thyme churned by bombs. While some troops built makeshift jetties with stones salvaged from a beachfront vineyard, others darted between doorways, shouting the Eighth Army challenge—“Desert Rats!”—and listening for the proper parole: “Kill Italians.” A Sicilian peasant charged from his house and fired an ancient shotgun at approaching Commandos, who killed him with return fire. “Sorry we had to shoot that farmer,” a British soldier remarked. “He had the right spirit.”

Eighth Army had prepared for up to ten thousand casualties during the first week of combat on Sicily; in the event, they would sustain only 1,517. But even those who escaped without so much as a sunburn shared a Royal Engineer corporal’s view:

We had learned our first lesson, mainly that fate, not the Germans or Italians, was our undiscriminating enemy. With the same callousness as Army orders, without fairness or judgment, “You and you—dead. The rest of you, on the truck.”

More than a third of Eighth Army’s casualties were sustained in one misadventure, code-named ladbrooke, which was intended to complement Colonel Gavin’s jump but which bore the signature traits of so many airborne operations in the Second World War: poor judgment, dauntless valor, and a nonchalant disregard for men’s lives. ladbrooke had a coherent purpose: 1,700 soldiers were to capture the Ponte Grande, a graceful highway bridge that arched above the river Anapo just south of Syracuse. After preventing demolition of the span, troops would push into the city, capture the docks, and give Eighth Army a vital port. Under General Montgomery’s plan, the assault was to be made late Friday night by 144 gliders.

There was the rub: the only pilots available to fly the tow planes had little experience at night navigation and even less at towing a seven-ton glider full of infantrymen on the end of a 350-foot nylon rope. Skilled glider crews were also in short supply, as were the gliders themselves. So rudimentary was the art of combat gliding that jeeps had been tried—unsuccessfully—to tow gliders into the air that spring. Not least, the landing zones near the Ponte Grande appeared to be seamed with stone walls and stippled with rocks. Protests by subordinate officers proved unavailing. Once made, the daring plan could not be unmade; naysayers risked the appearance of timidity and the threat of removal from command. Again, senior officers with little airborne experience and unrealistic expectations held sway.

Several dozen Horsa gliders arrived in Tunisia in late June after a harrowing 1,400-mile tow from England. The wood-frame craft had “huge flaps, like barn doors.” To supplement the Horsas, the Americans donated a fleet of smaller, metal-framed Wacos; each arrived in North Africa in five crates and required 250 man-hours to assemble. British airmen believed that every pilot needed at least 100 hours of flight training on the Waco for proficiency; in the event, they averaged less than 5 hours in the cockpit, including a single hour of night flying. Many had barely qualified for solo flights. Of 150 gliders used in training, more than half were destroyed, even though novices flew almost exclusively in daylight and a dead calm. Most of the tugs would be U.S. C-47 Dakotas, but not until mid-May were the tug pilots released from their duties flying freight in order to train with the gliders.

Pilots and passengers were doomed, of course. From six Tunisian airfields on that windswept Friday night, the gliders soared into the air, towed by 109 American Dakotas and 35 British Albemarles. Confronting “conditions for which we were completely unprepared,” as the glider force commander conceded, they headed for Malta at five hundred feet, fighting the gale, as well as lingering turbulence from the day’s thermal currents and the tow rope’s nauseating tendency to act as a pendulum. Many inexperienced navigators quickly grew confused; some had the wrong charts or none at all. Strain on the tow ropes snapped the communication wires between many tugs and gliders. A Horsa’s tow line parted north of Malta, and thirty men plummeted to their deaths; when a Waco’s line also broke, fifteen more followed. One glider cast off from its tug and landed smartly, only to have a soldier pull up in a jeep and announce, “We are sorry to inform you that you are not in Sicily, but on the main airstrip at Malta.” Another glider team, surprised to find Sicily so sandy, discovered that they had landed near Mareth, in southern Tunisia. Investigators later concluded: “Navigation generally was bad.”

Ninety percent of the aircraft made the Sicilian landfall at Cape Passero, to be greeted moments later along the Gulf of Noto by flak, flares, searchlights, and dust clouds, which rattled the pilots and obscured their vision. “I guess that’s Sicily,” said one squinting captain. Formations disintegrated, and soon tugs and gliders were “milling in a blind swarm.” Some tug pilots, shying from antiaircraft fire that seemed closer than it actually was, released their gliders too early. Plans called for all gliders to be cut free within two miles off the coast, but an optical illusion, magnified by the pilots’ inexperience, made the shoreline appear to be directly below when the planes were thousands of yards out to sea. From altitudes of 2,000 to 4,000 feet, the scattered Horsas and Wacos cast off along a thirty-mile front and immediately found that gliding west into a thirty-knot wind was “unsound,” as one account concluded.

“As we lost height it seemed as if a great wall of blackness was rising up to meet us,” an officer wrote. For many, that blackness was the Mediterranean. A cry went up: “Prepare for ditching!” Dozens of gliders careered across the water like skipping stones. Some splintered and sank quickly; others would float for hours. Frantic passengers kicked at the fabric walls or hacked away with hatchets. “We went under almost instantly,” Flight Officer Ruby H. Dees recalled. “When I reached the surface the rest of the fellows were hanging on the wreckage.” An officer clinging to another fractured wing murmured to a British major, “All is not well, Bill.” At least sixty gliders crashed into the sea, and ten more vanished—somewhere—with all hands lost. Men flailed and struggled and then struggled no more. In some instances Italian machine-gun fire raked survivors clinging to the flotsam.

Fifty-four gliders made land, often with equally fatal results. “Heavy tracer, left wing hit, flew over landing zone and landed sixteen miles southwest of Syracuse, hitting a six-foot wall,” a survivor reported. “Left wing burning, also seventy-seven grenades ignited inside glider. Two pilots and twelve other ranks killed, seven wounded.” Horsa number 132—among the dozen gliders that found the Ponte Grande—crashed into a canal bank four hundred yards from the bridge, killing all aboard but one. Another Horsa hit a treetop and flipped; a jeep was later found inside with the driver behind the wheel, dead.

Rather than five hundred or more British soldiers holding Ponte Grande, a mere platoon seized the bridge, ripping out demolition charges from the abutments. By Saturday dawn the force had grown to eighty-seven, with only two Bren machine guns among them, and little ammunition. Italian mortar fire and infantry counterattacks whittled the little band, killing troops on the span and in the muddy river below. By mid-afternoon the bridgehead was held by just fifteen unwounded Tommies, and Italian machine-gunners had closed to forty yards. At four p.m. the survivors surrendered. They were marched away toward Syracuse by “a pompous little man with a coil of hangman’s rope around his shoulders,” only to be promptly freed by a Northamptonshire patrol that had landed with the 5th Division. At the same time, Royal Scots Fusiliers bulled through from the south and easily recaptured the bridge.

The British high command would proclaim ladbrooke a success because the Ponte Grande had been spared. But rarely has a victory been more pyrrhic. Casualties exceeded six hundred, of whom more than half drowned. Bodies would wash ashore on various Mediterranean beaches for weeks. If the courage of those flying to Sicily that night is unquestionable, the same cannot be said for the judgment of their superiors in concocting and approving such a witless plan. Anger and sorrow seeped through the ranks; British fury at American tow pilots grew so toxic that surviving Tommies who arrived back in Tunisia were confined to camp to forestall a fraternal bloodletting. A memo to George Marshall concluded, “The combat efficiency for night glider operations was practically zero.” But the most trenchant summary of ladbrooke appeared in a British Army assessment: “Alarm, confusion and dismay.”