Sometimes I think I am a masochist when it comes to reading large books. I initially think that it would be interesting to read an in-depth history of a subject, but then, when I am on the 250th page of a 500 page book, I regret getting the book (to quit reading a book is a whole different argument). Anyway, I thought it would be good to go down this road again – so, I choose to read The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II by Guy LoFaro (559 pages with another 150 in notes). Well, LoFaro proved why I continue to read large books – the book was engaging and incredibly well-written.
LoFaro begins the book with a discussion of how historians have viewed the fighting abilities of the American and German soldiers of World War II – whether the German soldier was superior to the American one. The historical discussion has swayed back and forth, but LoFaro points out that the pendulum seems to be swinging back to the American side. One of his arguments in favor of the Americans centers around the airborne forces. The Germans may have started the war superior in airborne troops and tactics, but they were eclipsed by the Americans by the end of the war.
LoFaro traces the history of the 82nd from its inception through its many campaigns (Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Market Garden, and the Bulge) to its fight to stay an active division after the war’s end. LoFaro concentrates mainly on the 82nd and its actions during the campaigns – he briefly discusses how the actions of the Division fit into the larger battlefield picture. I particularly like LoFaro’s descriptions of the Sicily, Normandy, and Operation Market-Garden campaigns – his combination of the detailed narrative of the small unit combat with the Division’s overall fight is wonderful.
The reader can tell that this book is a work of love for LoFaro – he served several tours with the division during his 23 year career. He shows his pride in the Division by exemplifying the quality of soldiers that it was provided. The Division’s rank and file soldiers were some of the best in the Army. They were in peak condition and their morale was normally very high. With these attributes, the men were asked to do a lot, but they always succeeded in their missions. They succeeded even when casualties reached 50% in some units.
Another highlight of the book is LoFaro’s comparison of the Division’s first combat leader (General Matthew Ridgway) and its second and last of World War II (General James Gavin). Although both were some of the finest examples of battlefield leadership that the U.S. Army produced in World War II, LoFaro makes a unique distinction in the two men. Ridgway wanted to use the 82nd in all different types of situations as an elite force – even in situations they were not designed for. For example, he ordered Gavin to break through Germany’s Siegfried Line (a defensive line of fortifications on Germany’s western border) – this was more of a job for a regular line division than a light infantry division.
On the contrary, Gavin, as one of the early proponents and developers of airborne tactics, was more interested in using the Division for its main purpose – lightning airborne strikes for short periods of time. He felt that the Sicily and Normandy campaigns were perfect examples of how the Division should be used. However, he thought that Market-Garden was an improper use of the airborne (not because of the mission, but because of the slim chances of success).
This book commemorates one of America’s best divisions during World War II.