General Gavin is a legend among American paratroopers, leading the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and later the 82ndAirborne Division in four combat jumps in the European Theater during World War II. Lewis Sorley provides an unprecedented look at Gavin’s innermost thoughts as he fought his way from Sicily, through Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany through almost two years of campaigning. The story is told almost exclusively in Gavin’s voice, with minimal annotations provided by Sorley to add context as necessary. Gavin wrote to capture his thoughts as they occurred to him, whether observations on the men with whom he served, recollections of combat, or concerns about upcoming operations, never expecting that his words would one day be public. As a result, readers now have an unvarnished and honest appraisal of the performance of the 82nd Airborne Division from the perspective of one of its most renowned leaders.
Gavin’s account begins with his command of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, preparing for movement overseas in the spring of 1943. The early entries detail integrating his previously independent regiment into the recently designated 82nd Airborne Division, completing pre-deployment combat training, and the logistics of transporting troops by ship from the United States to staging locations in North Africa. Upon arriving overseas, Gavin’s thoughts focus on preparing his regiment for imminent combat and planning for anticipated operations in Europe. He is clearly motivated to make the most of the opportunity to command a regiment in combat, and his eagerness to get into battle, while not overtly stated, comes through in passages such as “we’re in for one hell of a fight. I love the prospects but feel as scared as I did on my first jump. It is going to be exciting.” Gavin also records his candid opinions of officers who later became well known paratrooper leaders in their own rights, such as Jack Norton and Ben Vandervoort. His appraisals are especially interesting as they are written at time before these men made their reputations under fire. Taken together, the entries prior to the 505th’s combat debut, jumping into Sicily during Operation Husky in July of 1943, paint a portrait of a conscientious but untested commander focused on getting his men prepared for the unexpected.
Gavin’s writing has a gap that matches the dates his regiment fought as part of Operation Husky. Far too busy to record his thoughts during combat, his first entry once he returns from Sicily focuses on capturing his first experience as a combat commander. The tone of Gavin’s writing changes at this point. He has been in a hard-fought battle at Biazza Ridge, and invests considerable effort recording lessons learned on fitness, morale, fieldcraft and marksmanship. His thoughts on how to train, organize and prepare for combat are beginning to crystalize. Unfortunately, Gavin does not include a comprehensive, or even cursory, account of the actual fight at Biazza Ridge, the 505th PIR’s combat debut and a struggle accorded almost mythical status in the annals of American airborne history. What does emerge is that the battle had a marked effect on Gavin’s outlook. He refers to the struggle, and the Sicily Campaign as a whole, as a “rat race”, and it is apparent that he is determined to apply the lessons of Operation Husky as he trains the men of his regiment for the next encounter with the enemy.
This pattern repeats itself in Gavin’s diary as the war progresses. After Operation Husky, Gavin participated in combat jumps in Italy, France, and Holland between the fall of 1943 and 1944. He rose from command of the 505th PIR as a colonel, to command of the 82nd Airborne Division and promotion to Major General. His thoughts on training, leadership, and combat become increasingly fine-tuned. He is ruthless about officers he believes lack the nerve or brains for combat leadership, and supremely confident in his own ability as a commander. His remarks on his superior General Mathew Ridgway are especially interesting, as readers watch their relationship transform from mentor/mentee to something akin to professional competitors. By the time Gavin is leading the Division in the winter campaign of 1944-1945, he has fully achieved his professional stride as a commander and he provides a succinct account of the front-line actions of his troops, interspersed with his personal analysis of the strategic aspects of the war.
Sorley is the perfect author to edit Gavin’s diary. He is the author of numerous biographies of American general officers, to include Creighton Abrams and Harold K. Johnson, and thus is thoroughly familiar with the inner workings of the United States Army officer corps. He is also a professional soldier in his own rights, graduating from the United States Military Academy, completing parachute and jumpmaster training, serving in combat in Vietnam, and ultimately retiring as a lieutenant colonel. His literary and military credentials combine to give him insight into Gavin’s world and the ability to make that world accessible to his audience with informative annotations throughout the book.
The book contains numerous black & white illustrations of Gavin at various points in his career, as well as an excellent collection of maps that assist readers in following the progress of Gavin and the 82nd Airborne Division throughout the war in Europe. Most helpfully, the maps are interspersed throughout the book rather than in a specific appendix or section. This allows one to easily compare the action in the text to the map without having to flip though the book to find the appropriate reference.
Gavin At War is a must have addition to the library of anyone interested in airborne operations, combat leadership, or the history of the Second World War. It is a rare opportunity to understand the experiences of a renowned combat leader in his own words. I cannot recommend this book too highly.
This book is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Casemate Publishers.
Ben resides in Texas with his wife KC and their four children Arthur, Michaela, Emma, and Jordan. He served 24 years in the United States Army. Ben is an Honorary Member of the 80th AAA Battalion Association, a Life Member of the 82nd Airborne Association, and active in the American Veterans Archeological Recovery project. He also hosts “The Commander’s Voice” a podcast dedicated to airborne subjects, and is working on his first book about glider troops during WW2.