How the "Little Groups of Paratroopers" became airborne legends

When paratroopers assaulted Sicily during the night of Jul. 9-10, 1943, they suffered some of the worst weather that could affect that kind of a mission.

The men were supposed to conduct two airborne assaults and form a buffer zone ahead of the 7th Army’s amphibious assault on the island, but winds of up to 40 knots blew them far off course.

U_S_-Paratroopers-board-a-Douglas-C-47-Skytrain-for-Operation-Husky-9-July-1943

Paratroopers board a Douglas C-47 Skytrain for Operation Husky. Photo: US Army

The 3,400 paratrooper assault took heavy losses before a single pair of boots even touched the ground. But what happened next would become airborne legend, the story of the “Little Groups Of Paratroopers” or “LGOPs.”

The LGOPs didn’t find cover or spend hours trying to regroup. They just rucked up wherever they were at and immediately began attacking everything nearby that happened to look like it belonged to the German or Italian militaries.

They tore down communications lines, demolished enemy infrastructure, set up both random and planned roadblocks, ambushed Axis forces, and killed everything in their path. A group of 16 German pillboxes that controlled key roads was even taken out despite the fact that the attacking force had a fraction of their planned strength.

This mischief had a profound effect on the defenders. The Axis assumed that the paratroopers were attacking in strength at each spot where a paratrooper assault was reported. So, while many LGOPs had only a few men, German estimates reported much stronger formations. The worst reports stated that there were 10 times as many attackers as were actually present.

Troops_from_51st_Highland_Division_unloading_stores_from_tank_landing_craft_on_the_opening_day_of_the_Allied_invasion_of_Sicily,_10_July_1943._A17916-Allied-Operation-Husky

Troops and equipment come ashore on the first day of the invasion of Sicily. Photo: Royal Navy C. H. Parnall

German commanders were hard-pressed to rally against what seemed to be an overwhelming attack. Some conducted limited counterattacks at what turned out to be ghosts while others remained in defensive positions or, thinking they were overrun, surrendered to American forces a that were a fraction of their size.

The Axis soldiers’ problems were made worse by a lack of supplies and experience. Fierce resistance came from only a handful of units, most notably the Hermann Goering Division which conducted counter-attacks with motorized infantry, armored artillery, and Tiger I heavy tanks.

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World War II paratroopers jump into combat. Photo: US Army

The Allied soldiers used naval gunfire to break up these counter-attacking columns whenever possible and fought tooth and nail with mortars and artillery to delay the tanks when naval gunfire was unavailable.

The American campaign was not without tragedy though. On Jul. 11, paratroopers from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment were sent in to reinforce the American center which had struggled to gain much ground. Some naval and shore anti-aircraft batteries, weary from constant German bombing missions, had not been told that American planes would be coming in that night.

The gunners downed 23 of the transport planes packed with paratroopers and damaged 37 more. Of the 2,200 paratroopers scheduled to drop onto Sicily that night, 318 were killed or wounded by friendly fire.

Still, the operation was a success, thanks in large part to the actions of little groups of paratroopers wreaking havoc across the island until they could find a unit to form up with. Italian forces began withdrawing from the island on July 25 and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton took Mesina, the last major city on Sicily, on Aug. 17 only to find that the rest of the Axis forces there had withdrawn as well.

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