On 10 July 1943 the Allied invasion of Sicily—Operation Husky began. The family of Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Arthur F. Gorham is returning to celebrate his life and the battles of 70 years ago. This is the first of several articles on that journey. This article focuses on Biazza Ridge the site of some the fiercest fighting of the allied campaign in Sicily. The Family will visit Biazza Ridge on 9 July and this visit will be reported with pictures.
We have previously reported on LTC Gorham’s induction into the Bellevue High School Hall of Excellence.
Biazza Ridge is about 7 miles inland from the American invasion beaches on the southwest coast of Sicily. From the inland to the coastal area a road ran through the ridge at one point – Ponte Dirillo. The Ponte Dirillo Bridge lies in the center of the Acate Valley spanning the Acate River (also called the Dirillo River). On the eastern side of the valley is Biazza Ridge. The allied invasion planners understood that by controlling this road-ridge-junction an airborne inserted force could stop enemy reinforcements from moving from mainland Sicily toward these beaches. They also understood that German doctrine was to counterattack to destroy the landing force before it could establish a beachhead. (As shall become apparent in subsequent articles the battlefield around Ponte Dirillo has hardly changed since World War II.)
The orders, in part, of the airborne force, dropped into Sicily to secure Biazza Ridge were:
“505 Regimental Headquarters, 1st and 2nd Battalions and Batteries A and B of the 456 are to drop just north of an important road junction (“Y”) about seven miles east of Gela, attack and overcome an enemy strongpoint commanding the junction and hold that position until contacted by the 1st Infantry Division.”
The fight at Biazza Ridge would be one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the invasion of Sicily. It lasted several days. Initially a small force of paratroopers (commanded by Captain Sayre) from the First Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry, who had dropped not far from their landing zone, attacked and seized a farm house just below the defensive fortifications. Over the next 12 or so hours the paratroopers, who were reinforced by their battalion commander (LTC Gorham) and some troops that he had gathered up finally seized the high ground and secured the “Y.” The paratroopers managed to capture two 75-mm pack howitzers, which they turned into direct fire weapons to defend the ridge. One manned by LTC Gorham managed to knock out one of the attacking Tiger tanks, which stopped the German attack. (LTC Gorham was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for this action.) Over the next day or so—the historical timing is suspect—somehow the Americans continued to hold against the German efforts to dislodge them.
As the invasion force came forward the paratroopers were attached to the 16th Infantry Regiment from the First Infantry Division and with the aid of their artillery units and a newly developed tactic – waiting for the heavily armored German tanks to expose their weak spots and then shoot them with bazookas and the howitzers – the Americans held the ridge and stopped the attack. Using this tactic LTC Gorham, who was personally manning a bazooka, was killed, but some have credited him with killing the panzer which killed him. For this action he was awarded the second Distinguished Service Cross.
The battle at Biazza Ridge turned out to be a turning point in the invasion of Sicily. American opposition forced the Germans into making the decision to break contact at Gela and withdraw. Colonel Jimmy Gavin was to later say that: “Most of the combat success of the Regiment in Sicily was due to Art and the men of his command…It was a remarkable performance, and I know of nothing like it that occurred at any time later in the war.”