04 May 2010

Disasters: Friendly Fire Over Sicily

By Carrie Lofty

Friendly fire in almost any instance can be considered a disaster. Think about it: brothers-in-arms working together...who accidentally fire on one another. It's epically tragic, no matter the scale, because of the damage to morale and confidence in command decisions. Friendly fire during WWII took many forms, from Allied army mishaps to civilians deaths in Allied nations as air raids disabled the German infrastructure. But the US Army's first significant instance of amicide resulted in far-reaching changes in how its newest regiments, the paratroopers, were utilized.

Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in July of 1943, was intended as the first significant Allied push into Fortress Europa. One of the most significant combat tests during Husky was the deployment of US paratroopers for the first time. Among other units, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment under the command of 36-year-old hottie Gen. James Gavin landed in Sicily despite heavy winds and enemy fire. Troops were scattered miles from their drop zones.

Future landings were not so lucky and endured heavy friendly fire. A British glider unit suffered considerable losses when Allied anti-aircraft gunners opened fire. Pilots of their C-47 tow planes released the gliders so as to increase maneuverability, but that left gliders miles from shore. They plunged into the Mediterranean, resulting in 326 British dead. Resentment against the American tow pilots was so intense that the units had to be separated when they returned to North Africa, for fear of violence.

Gens. Patton and Ridgeway warned forces that drops from the reserve company, the 504th PIR, would be taking place, but the 144 C-47 troop transports flew over the beaches on the same day as an Axis air raid. Allied anti-aircraft gunners again opened fire. Because they'd been trying to increase drop accuracy, pilots flew their transports at only 700 feet, an altitude that almost guaranteed anti-aircraft accuracy. Thirty-three planes were shot down immediately and 60 would never fly again.

All told, more than 1,200 men died of amicide. Patton could only stare in horror, repeating, "Oh, my God," over and over while Ridgeway cried. Anti-aircraft gunner Herbert Blair later wrote, "Only then does the dreadful realization descend like a sledgehammer upon us. We have wantonly, though inadvertently, slaughtered our own gallant buddies. I feel sick in body and mind."

Because this incident coincided with the first US combat drop of paratroopers, the feasibility of such landings was called into question. Would future troops also suffer the threat of friendly fire? Had the preparations made by other Airborne commanders and their troops been made in vain?

But Gen. Gavin, ever the pragmatist, had always expected between seven to eight casualties for every ten men who dropped. Command simply changed tactics to avoid a repeat in the future, which resulted in the eventual decision to drop paratroopers in the hours before the arrival of land and naval forces. Thus while the loss of Allied troops to friendly fire over Sicily was a military and public relations disaster, the practical experience of what not to do when utilizing paratroopers probably saved lives on D-Day.