How Gen. Ridgway Saved the 82nd Airborne From a Suicide Mission in Rome
Major General Matthew B. Ridgway knew what he had to do.
In less than a week—on September 9, 1943—American and British troops would hit the beaches at Salerno, the Allies’ first major landing on the Italian mainland. Hours before the Salerno assault, Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division was slated to execute Giant II, an airdrop far behind German lines near Rome designed to support the landings. But the Giant II plan had been cobbled together, and as Ridgway studied it, he concluded it was “exceptionally unsound,” he later wrote—maybe even “hare-brained.” He was sure far stronger German forces near Rome would decimate the 82nd, resulting in “death or capture for most of us.”
Ridgway knew he couldn’t stay silent and acquiesce to a plan that would end in the sacrifice of his troops. As the division commander, he felt duty-bound to his men to “carry my protests right up to the top.” Stopping Giant II, however, wouldn’t be easy.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill backed the plan. So did Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and British general Harold R. L. G. Alexander, who would command all Allied troops in Italy. The brass’s blessing gave Giant II a seemingly unstoppable momentum—but that didn’t deter Ridgway, who hoped he could somehow change minds already made up and stop this runaway train before it was too late. He knew that the fate of his men depended on it.
After the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943, the next target was mainland Italy. The Allies coveted Italian airbases, which would give their bombers the range to pummel targets in central Europe. The campaign would also tie down German troops who might otherwise be used to strengthen the Atlantic Wall in France or join the fight in Russia.
Eisenhower, however, had limited resources. The Allies were saving troops for the invasion of France planned for 1944. That would be the war’s decisive campaign, and the high command refused to siphon off men for the Italian venture. The Germans had an estimated 18 divisions in Italy—35 if Italian troops were counted—while the Allies would have only four divisions for their initial landings. Those landings, codenamed Avalanche, were planned for Salerno, just southeast of Naples, on September 9, 1943.
On July 25, 1943, as Allied planners worked on the Avalanche plan, events in Italy took a dramatic turn when its king, Victor Emmanuel III, ousted Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and replaced him with Pietro Badoglio, a 71-year-old marshal and an opponent of his country’s alliance with Germany. Within days, the Italian government began sending secret peace feelers to the Allies.
Eisenhower desperately wanted an Italian surrender. The limited resources made Avalanche a risky operation—perhaps even foolhardy, Eisenhower thought—but the danger “will be minimized to a large extent if we are able to secure Italian assistance just prior to and during the critical period of the actual landing,” he told the Allied High Command. He hoped the Italians would fight against the Germans, he said, but “even passive assistance will greatly increase our chances of success.” Removing Italian troops from German control alone would help. Eisenhower stressed that he needed “every possible atom of [Italian] support.”
Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. (AKG images)
The stakes were high. General Alexander and Harold Macmillan, a British diplomat assigned to the Mediterranean Theater, believed that if Avalanche failed, it could cause the fall of Churchill’s government and a lessening of British resolve to see the war through. That, in turn, would put more pressure on the United States, already stretched thin fighting a war on both sides of the world.
Eisenhower pursued the peace feelers. On August 19, 1943, he sent his chief of staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, and British brigadier Kenneth W. D. Strong to secretly meet with an Italian emissary in neutral Portugal. To avoid drawing attention, Smith and Strong masqueraded as civilian travelers. Smith came ready for anything. He carried two pistols hidden in shoulder holsters and two more secreted in his hip pockets. “If we were cornered,” Strong later joked, “I envisaged a desperate gunfight in the best Western manner.”
The Italian emissary was Brigadier General Giuseppe Castellano, traveling under the assumed name of Signor Raimondi. Castellano told Smith and Strong that Italy wanted to switch sides and join the Allies, but Smith demanded an unconditional surrender. To show good faith, Castellano handed Smith a map showing German troop dispositions in Italy. Although they did not reach an agreement, Smith gave Castellano a radio transmitter hidden in a small suitcase and ciphers to take to Rome so the Italian government could communicate securely with Eisenhower’s headquarters.
On August 31, Castellano met again with Smith and other Allied representatives, this time in Allied-held Sicily. The Germans occupied Italy, and the Italians knew an Allied invasion was coming, although not when or where. This put them in a tough spot. “They are literally between the hammer and the anvil,” unsure “whether we or their German allies will work the most damage and destruction in Italy,” said Robert D. Murphy, President Roosevelt’s representative in the Mediterranean Theater.
Murphy and Harold Macmillan tried to convince Castellano that Italy had more to fear from the Allies. As Murphy recounted in a memorandum to Roosevelt, they told Castellano that if Italy refused to surrender, the United States and Britain would “incite disorder and anarchy throughout Italy” and “relentlessly” bomb Italian cities, including Rome, until they were “reduced to ashes and piles of rubble.” Castellano assured them his government was willing to capitulate as long as the Allies sent troops to protect Rome. The Germans had not yet occupied the capital, but the Italians knew they would once Italy surrendered. To the Italian government, Murphy noted, a German occupation of Rome would be “too awful to contemplate.”
Smith suggested having the 82nd Airborne Division make a drop near Rome to help protect the capital. Castellano quickly pledged Italian troops to secure the drop zones and assist the 82nd. Eisenhower approved the operation as the price of surrender. “The Italian government will not pluck up courage to sign…an armistice unless they are assured of Allied troops being landed in the Rome area,” he told the Allied High Command. Roosevelt and Churchill, meeting in Washington, gave their blessing to the airborne mission.
Three days later, on September 3, 1943, the Badoglio government agreed to capitulate, and Castellano signed the surrender document that afternoon. To catch the Germans by surprise, the Allies agreed to keep the news under wraps until the evening of September 8, when Eisenhower and the Italian government would announce it just hours before the Salerno landings.
The Allies had begun planning the airdrop around Rome, codenamed Giant II, shortly before the Italian surrender. After an all-night conference, they finalized the plan on the morning of September 4. In addition to securing the surrender, the planners hoped the operation would hamper German efforts to reinforce Salerno and inspire the Italian people to revolt against the Germans. The mission also had a certain allure. “What more glorious task could fighting men receive than to liberate and defend the Eternal City?” thought Brigadier General Maxwell D. Taylor, the 82nd’s artillery chief.
The 82nd’s mission, in the words of the operational plan, was to “secure the city of Rome and adjacent airfields and prevent their occupation by German forces.” On the night of September 8, a few hours before the Salerno landings, the 82nd would fly from Sicily and drop onto Furbara and Cerveteri, two small airfields 25 miles northwest of Rome. Since only 135 transport planes were available, no more than about 2,000 men could jump the first night. The next night, September 9, a like number would parachute onto three other airfields: Guidonia, Littorio, and Centocelle. More troops would be dropped on subsequent nights, “providing situation permits,” the plan noted. The U.S. Navy agreed to try to send ammunition, heavy equipment, and supplies up the Tiber River to Rome.
The Giant II plan couldn’t succeed without Italian support. Rome was 150 miles from Salerno, so the 82nd would be out on a limb, but the Italian government promised to provide the help needed to make the operation work. In addition to supplying troops, Italy guaranteed that the antiaircraft batteries along the route the 82nd’s transports would fly would hold their fire. It promised to secure the airfields that were the paratroopers’ drop zones and to defend the Tiber’s banks so ships could sail up the river unmolested. It also agreed to give the 82nd the materiel it needed: 355 trucks, 23,000 rations, 120 tons of gasoline and oil, 100 miles of barbed wire, 50 miles of field wire, 200 shovels, and 100 picks.
The 48-year-old Ridgway, described by a friend as a man “full of intensity, almost grinding his teeth from intensity,” disapproved of the plan. Rome was out of range of Allied fighter planes, so the 82nd would be without air support. There were six crack German divisions near Rome, Ridgway believed, and he doubted the Allied troops could fight their way from Salerno to Rome quickly enough “to save us from being chewed up by these divisions.”
Ridgway’s greatest doubts centered on Italian support. He spoke with Castellano at length and sensed the Italian emissary was promising more than his country’s military could possibly deliver. Colonel James M. Gavin, a regimental commander in the 82nd, agreed, thinking the Italians had pledged “about ten times as much” as they could do.
Unless Italy provided what Castellano had promised, Giant II could become a suicide mission. For example, if the Italians didn’t silence the antiaircraft batteries and secure the drop zones, the 82nd might be slaughtered before reaching the ground. All too fresh in Ridgway’s mind was a catastrophe in Sicily two months earlier when friendly antiaircraft and ground fire shot down 23 transport planes, killing 81 paratroopers and wounding 132.
Ridgway brought his objections to Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, and pulled no punches. Smith took him to General Alexander—who gave Ridgway a cavalier brush-off. “Don’t give this another thought, Ridgway,” Alexander said, and promised that the troops from Salerno would reach Rome “in three days—five at the most.”
Alexander’s breezy confidence provided no comfort, and Ridgway suggested sending two officers on a behind-the-lines mission to Rome to hear directly from the Italian leaders whether they could do what they had promised. Too dangerous, Alexander said. This puzzled Ridgway, who wondered why Alexander wouldn’t risk two officers when he was willing to bet the lives of the entire 82nd on a mission that Ridgway saw as a “shot-in-the-dark.”
After “about twenty-four hours of brooding” and “a lot of searching of my own soul,” Ridgway gave it one more try. Again, he forcefully presented his objections to Smith. Smith met with Alexander. With Eisenhower’s blessing, and maybe at his urging, Alexander relented and agreed to send Taylor, Ridgway’s artillery commander, and another officer, Colonel William T. Gardiner, through German lines to Rome.
Eisenhower later called this trip the most dangerous mission he ever asked emissaries to undertake. The 42-year-old Taylor, whom a reporter called the “perfect type of the young, alert, aggressive professional military man,” and Gardiner, a former governor of Maine, weren’t “under any illusions about the kind of treatment we’d get if the Germans did nab us,” Taylor said.
At 2 a.m. on September 7, 1943, Taylor and Gardiner boarded a British patrol boat at Palermo, Sicily, and rendezvoused with an Italian corvette off the coast of Italy. From there, the corvette took them to Gaeta, Italy. They wore uniforms so they wouldn’t be shot as spies if caught. Their cover story was that they were downed U.S. airmen the Italians had captured, and they made themselves look as disheveled as possible to play the role. In Gaeta, the Italians took them to a waiting military ambulance with clunky springs for a bumpy 75-mile trip along the Appian Way to Rome. They arrived in the Italian capital at dusk that same day, only 24 hours before the 82nd’s transports were scheduled to take off for Rome.
Taylor was anxious to get down to business, but his hosts wanted to socialize, and they served the Americans a lavish meal. Taylor was amazed that the Italians were “so casual at such a critical moment when every minute counted.” At 9:30 p.m., Taylor and Gardiner finally met with the commander of Italian troops in Rome, General Giacomo Carboni.
Giant II was hopeless, Carboni said: the Germans had recently beefed up their forces near Rome and starved the Italian army of supplies. His men, he said, didn’t have enough ammunition or fuel to fight for more than a few hours and couldn’t defend Rome. He couldn’t even guarantee the security of the airfields where the 82nd would drop.
Carboni’s message was starkly different from what Castellano had told the Allies, but the explanation was simple. Throughout the negotiations, the Italians had balanced whom they feared more, the Allies or the Germans. At the eleventh hour, their fear of the Germans prevailed. Despite Allied secrecy, the Italian high command had figured out the Allies would land at Salerno and thought the landings likely to fail. In a September 6 memorandum, they noted that if the landings failed, Giant II wouldn’t “give any great support to the defense of the Capital” and would “bring about immediate conflict with the Germans in such conditions as to render failure most certain.”
this article first appeared in world war II magazine
Not fully trusting Carboni, Taylor demanded to see Badoglio, the prime minister. At midnight, Carboni drove Taylor and Gardiner through the blacked- out city to Badoglio’s villa, where Badoglio echoed Carboni’s gloomy outlook. In fact, he said, he planned to renege on his agreement to announce the surrender. If Italy capitulated now, he said, “the Germans will be in here and cut my throat by tomorrow night.” Trying to mollify Taylor and Gardiner, he made “frequent expressions of his friendship for the Allies,” Taylor recalled, and claimed he was simply waiting for “the right moment” to surrender.
Without Italian help, Giant II was doomed. At 1:21 a.m. on September 8, Taylor radioed an urgent message to Eisenhower: “GIANT TWO is impossible.” Badoglio sent his own message: “Owing to changes in the situation…it is no longer possible to accept immediate armistice.” After a few hours of sleep, Taylor awoke to learn that Allied headquarters hadn’t acknowledged his message. Worried about a misunderstanding, he sent another at 11:35 a.m.: “Situation innocuous.” This was a code he had worked out with Eisenhower’s headquarters. Any message containing “innocuous” meant that Giant II must be canceled immediately.
Taylor’s initial message actually had gotten through, but for unknown reasons it wasn’t decoded until 8 a.m.—by which time Eisenhower had left his headquarters in Algiers and was en route to Bizerte, Tunisia, to confer with Alexander. He didn’t receive Taylor’s message until shortly before noon—only six hours before the 82nd was scheduled to leave for Rome. Taylor’s message confirmed Ridgway’s worst fears, and Eisenhower had no choice but to scrub Giant II. He sent a cancelation order to Ridgway at his headquarters in Licata, Sicily, and asked Ridgway to acknowledge receipt. Hours passed with no acknowledgment, and time was running out. Eisenhower and Alexander knew the only way to ensure the message got through to Ridgway was to send a courier. They picked Brigadier General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, an American assigned to Alexander’s staff.
The 82nd was set to take off at 5:45 p.m., so Lemnitzer had no time to waste. He sped to the nearest airfield, a British base, and commandeered the only available plane, a two-engine British Bristol Beaufighter. The Beaufighter was built to hold only a pilot and navigator, but Lemnitzer wedged himself into the cockpit behind the pilot. The flight almost ended before it began. As the Beaufighter taxied down the runway, it swerved, nearly hitting a row of parked planes. On the second try, it got aloft for the 220-mile flight to Licata.
When the plane reached Sicily, the navigator couldn’t find Licata. Lemnitzer spotted Mount Etna, a 10,000-foot-high volcano on Sicily’s eastern coast. From that landmark, he pointed the pilot in the right direction.
At about 4:30 p.m., the plane reached Licata, but it looked as if Lemnitzer might be too late. Sixty-two transports filled with paratroopers were already in the air, circling the field and preparing to fly to Rome. Below, transports were taking off at the rate of one per minute. With Licata’s single runway jammed, Lemnitzer couldn’t land to deliver his crucial message.
Thinking quickly, he shot flares from the plane, a signal that it was in distress and needed to make an emergency landing. The runway was cleared, and Lemnitzer’s plane touched down. He hopped out and found Ridgway, in full gear and about to board a plane. “Didn’t you get our message?” Lemnitzer shouted over the din of the airplane motors. “What message?” a puzzled Ridgway replied.
As planned, Allied soldiers (here from the U.S. 143rd Infantry Regiment) invaded Salerno on September 9, 1943. Spared crippling losses, the 82nd dropped in reinforcements four days later. (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)
The circling planes were recalled, and the men went back to their quarters. Ridgway’s chief of staff, Colonel Ralph P. Eaton, knew how close the 82nd had come to disaster, and he sat on his cot trembling. Ridgway stopped by with a bottle of whiskey, and they had a drink. Knowing the lengths Ridgway had gone to oppose Giant II, Eaton said, “I sat there thinking that I owed him my life.”
With Giant II canceled, Eisenhower dealt with Badoglio. The prime minister’s about-face didn’t shock him. He saw the Italian leadership as “merely frightened individuals that are trying to get out of a bad mess in the best possible way.” Nevertheless, he refused to accept Badoglio’s new position. Via radiogram, he vowed to Badoglio that if he reneged on the surrender, it would have “most serious consequences for your Country,” including “the dissolution of your Government.” At 6:30 p.m. on September 9, Eisenhower announced Italy’s surrender in a radio address from Algiers. This forced Badoglio’s hand. He confirmed the surrender in his own radio address an hour later. Italy was out of the war.
After the surrender announcement, the Germans disarmed the already- undersupplied Italian army and, as predicted, occupied Rome. They went looking for Badoglio, but he was gone. He had fled at 5 a.m. on September 9 to Brindisi, a city in southern Italy not under German control.
The Allies landed at Salerno that same day. It was touch and go, but after nearly 10 days of bitter fighting, they established a firm foothold in Italy. The 82nd did its part, with an airdrop on September 13 to bring desperately needed reinforcements to the imperiled beachhead. Alexander’s prediction that his troops would reach Rome in three to five days proved wildly optimistic. The Allies didn’t liberate the city until June 4, 1944, nearly nine months after the Salerno landings.
Eisenhower was an astute judge of talent, and his subordinates in the Giant II operation were a veritable all-star team, all destined for high office after the war. Walter Bedell Smith later served as ambassador to the Soviet Union and director of the CIA. Ridgway succeeded Douglas MacArthur as commander of United Nations forces in Korea and later became army chief of staff. Taylor and Lemnitzer each served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Taylor later became ambassador to South Vietnam.
It was Ridgway’s persistence that led to the cancelation of Giant II, and for the rest of his life he saw it as one of his greatest achievements. When “the time comes that I must meet my Maker, the source of most humble pride to me” will be “the fact that I was guided to make the decision to oppose this thing, at the risk of my career, right up to the top,” he wrote in 1957. “I deeply and sincerely believe that by taking the stand I took we saved the lives of thousands of brave men.”
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2022 issue of World War II.