by Ed Ruggero
New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Pp. 388.
. $24.95. ISBN:0060088753
Among the many tactical, operational and technological innovations that the German Wehrmacht brought to bear against the Allies in the early years of World War Two was a concept for successfully employing paratroopers. While Allied planners struggled to define the paratrooper’s role in modern warfare in light of his anticipated shortcomings—not to mention the expense and difficulty of delivering him to his target—the Wehrmacht had boldly integrated its paratroopers into its concept of Blitzkrieg. When Germany invaded the Low Countries in the spring of 1940, paratroopers led the way, dropping behind Allied lines to secure bridges and key strongpoints. These successes had a profound influence on the small cadre of officers struggling to train and equip America’s fledgling airborne forces. When Allied leaders decided to open a second front on the Axis’ soft underbelly starting with Sicily, some 3,500 paratroopers from the untested 505th Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division were pivotal to their plan. The 505th would parachute into Sicily in the hours before the seaborne invasion and secure the major approaches to the beaches against German counterattack. Ed Ruggero’s new book Combat Jump is their story.
Combat Jump is typical of popular military nonfiction. It balances first-hand accounts of training and combat against sweeping third-person descriptions of otherwise impersonal historical events. But in the tradition of Stephen Ambrose, the experiences of terrified individuals are truly the focus of Combat Jump. Don’t read this book looking for analysis, revisionism, or any critical thinking at all. This is a human story—a sort of parachutist-themed biography-in-aggregate structured around a single battle. Combat Jump may leave some hardcore readers longing for a writer like Max Hastings—a writer who isn’t afraid to posit something.
But taken for what it is, Combat Jump is an entertaining read. At the core of Ruggero’s narrative is a large cast of characters—all of them officers and men of the 505th. Each gets his own little biography and a neat send-off in the epilogue. Readers familiar with military nonfiction may feel a bit bored with the entirely conventional structure of Combat Jump. In such a case, it’s the subjects’ stories that make or break the book. Good news: the paratroopers of the 505th are a fascinating bunch—fascinating enough to make up for Ruggero’s shortcomings as a writer. From the physical rigors of jump school to the harsh discipline of garrison life to their nearly disastrous combat jump into Sicily, the 505th’s hard-ass paratroopers faced some pretty tough challenges. And they did it in style. Anecdotes of the paratroopers’ infamous antics, perpetrated whenever the CO wasn’t looking, are a highlight of Combat Jump. An assault by pissed-off paratroopers on a bar near Fort Benning is particularly funny.
But it’s in its descriptions of the battlefield that the book finally shines. Perhaps Ruggero’s own experiences as an infantry officer helped him write convincing combat. When the 505th landed on Sicily—scattered, battered, but ready for a fight—they discovered something that Allied Intelligence had failed to tell them: The Germans had tanks. Lots of them. The paratroopers were decidedly ill-equipped to defeat armor. But they tried anyway, with surprising success. Ruggero does a fine job capturing what it must have felt like to fight tanks as a confused and scared but tragically courageous young paratrooper.