“The ALLIED airborne operation in Sicily was decisive despite widely scattered drops which must be expected in a night landing. It is my opinion that if it had not been for the allied airborne forces (82nd) blocking the Herman Goering Armored Division from reaching the beachhead, that Division would have driven the initial seaborne forces back into the sea. I attribute the entire success of the Allied Sicilian Operation to the delaying of German Reserves (by the 82nd Airborne Division) until sufficient forces had been landed by sea to resist the counterattacks by our defending forces (the strength of which had been held in mobile reserve).”
Kurt Student General der Flieger Troops
“[Foot note:-] The above opinion was rendered at the Nuremburg Trials by General Kurt Student foremost authority in the German army on Airborne Operations. Student commanded the German Airborne Operation on Crete and was Chief of Staff of all German Paratroops from 1943 until his capture by allied forces after the German collapse.” Source: “Saga of the All American: History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II”, Dawson, F., 1946 page 92
General Kurt Student
Bill never talked directly about Biazza Ridge after the war to anyone I know of until near the end of his life. At times I tried to ask him about it, but he always shifted the discussion in other directions. There was one conversation we had when I was 11 years old which I later discovered was related to the battle. My family was visiting the Clark farm in Ohio. During a large family gathering at the farm house, Bill studied me from a distance. He noticed I was alone and bored – there were no other kids my age around. He approached me and asked if I wanted to go for a drive to see the covered bridges in Preble County. Feeling left out, I gladly accepted.
Bill drove me around to several bridges, all of which were impressive to say the least. We pulled over inside one of them to get out and take a closer look. He really loved those bridges. Bill explained how they were constructed, their immense age, associated maintenance issues, and what a treasure they were to the local community. He told me that he would often go out to one and just sit there to relax and reflect.
After that he fell silent and his eyes drifted. Out of nowhere he started talking anxiously and quickly as if verbalizing an “always on” continuous stream of conscious thought. He spoke mainly of rifle bullets and explosives. He described what a bullet from a 306 rifle can do to a man even from long distances. He gave graphic, detailed descriptions of what can happen to somebody when hit by a high explosive round from a German 88mm gun at close range. It was all stunning to hear. Seeing the torment on his face, I wanted to say something to help ease his pain. Having no way to relate to him, I just quietly listened. Years later the realization dawned that that was exactly what he wanted. I remember feeling deeply saddened for him. To see a person instantaneously turn into a “pink cloud” as Bill put it, is too great a burden for any man to bear and retain his sanity – which by some miracle he was able to do.
His letter to his sister Doris gives a tantalizing clue that Bill might have fought in the Biazza Ridge battle. From it, we can at least tell that his battalion was in the battle and that therefore, he could have been there. The battalion Bill refers to was sometimes called the 505th Regimental Headquarters Battalion which included the Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Service Company, and the Medical Detachment. Personnel from that unit fought at Biazza Ridge. We already know that his steps can be traced from where he actually landed to the direction of his original drop zone, which cuts through Biazza Ridge. But the question remains: was he there?
On November 4, 2005, I interviewed Bill’s older brother, Henry Clark about Bill’s war time experiences. Henry served with the US army air corps 47th Liaison Squadron as a mechanic stationed in England, France, and Germany, so he was nearby Bill’s unit in 1944 and 1945. The brothers took advantage of several opportunities to meet one another on recreational leave. During these furloughs, Bill told Henry much of his experiences.
After Bill came back to England from Normandy, Henry wrote a letter home dated 23 July, 1944 concerning Sicily. He wrote from his station at the 47th Liaison Squadron at Heston Aerodrome outside of London, England. Bill had come over from the 505 base at nearby Quorn to visit Henry on a six day furlough. This letter is the most revealing of all Henry’s letters concerning what Bill went through in Sicily and provides further evidence that Bill was at Biazza Ridge.
In one of the interviews with Henry I focused on a good friend of Bill’s – his best buddy – who died during the war. I asked Henry where Bill’s friend had died. Henry told me that his buddy died in Sicily during a battle with tanks:
“Did I tell you what precipitated the tank attack on those guys? A tank has got a glass thing where you can look through made of pretty heavy stuff. These guys were shooting the glass visors out of those German tanks. They [the Germans] got tired of that. All they had to do was put another one in, but they probably got tired of doing that, so they just took after them guys. Bill said that they used an 88 on his buddy [an .88mm gun mounted on the tank]. They had separated, so the guy [tank driver] has to turn around and hunt him, so Bill had a chance. He had an out there. That’s living on the edge. These were Tiger tanks too. They were heavy duty jobs. You couldn’t just shoot them down with anything. You about needed an armor piercing 88 I guess. I used to know that guy’s name because Bill liked him pretty much. It was a big shock for Bill. Bill told me it a couple times – the guy’s name.” Source: Interview with Henry Clark Jr. November 4, 2005
After the interview I handed Henry a list of names of men who died in Sicily and asked him if the man’s name was on the list. Henry couldn’t remember the friend’s name or even if it might be one of the people on the list.
Captured Mark VI Tiger I Tank in Tunisia, North Africa, 1943
The viewer Henry Clark talked about is a slit located opposite the machine gun and underneath the 88mm gun
Source: Wikipedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TigerITankTunis.jpg
As Henry talked my understanding of what actually happened to Bill’s friend was startling because it pointed to Bill’s presence at the Battle of Biazza Ridge. Henry’s memories also concur with the letter mentioned above which he wrote home summarizing Bill’s experiences during Operation HUSKY.
Henry Clark Jr. Letter Home Dated 23 July 1944
Transcript of Henry’s Letter
Pvt. Henry Clark Jr. 15195205
47th Liaison Sqdn APO 6A6
C/O Postmaster New York, New York
Post marked 28 July 1944
Dear folks, [Internal date] July 23rd 1944
You are probably wondering what has become of me as you haven’t been hearing from me very often lately.
I wont try to make any excuses for not writing.
Bill dropped in to see me since I last wrote. He had a six day furlough so he spent five days down here with me.
We had quite a time an a lot of time to talk. Won’t try to tell you everything as it would take a book for that.
He’s still the same guy. The only difference I could see was a “G.I. Haircut”
He has done a lot of fighting in the “E.T.O.” an has three stars in his ribbon plus the “Purple Heart” which he doesn’t wear.
That magazine clipping I sent home outlines his story very well. He says it was the worst for him in Sicily. He hurt his knee there an also lost his gun on the jump, but according to his story he soon got another gun an had some stiff engagements with some of Jerrys panzers. He really has some stories to tell, some of them are amusing an some are not so amusing.
He is definitely a soldier an a good one with a lot of experience behind him. All of this helps out. He says “The first engagement is the hardest.” Bet Pap can vouch for that. Bill will have plenty of stories to tell when he gets home.” [The letter continues, but talks of activities and events concerning the latter part of the war]
Henry’s 1944 letter and Bill’s own letter written to his sister in 1945 are proof that Bill was at Biazza Ridge. The only other tank battles fought by the 505 in Sicily occurred nearby west of Biazza Ridge where 1st Battalion 505 was engaging the western kampgruppe of the Hermann Goring Division. Those men fought the smaller, but no less powerful Mark IV Tigers. Bill is clear in his letter to Doris that his battalion fought the larger Mark VI Tigers – the same ones that Col. Gavin’s mixed units (consisting of personnel from Company B of the 307th Combat Engineers, Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Service Company, as well as G and H Companies) fought at Biazza Ridge.
It’s certain that Bill was there and fought in the battle. From what we now know, the battle can be reconstructed from Bill’s perspective – the subject of the next post.
© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2011 All Rights Reserved.