Biscari massacre

Biscari massacre

The Biscari massacre includes two World War II incidents in which U.S. soldiers were involved in killing 71 unarmed German and Italian prisoners of war (POWs) at Biscari (modern Acate, southern Sicily, Italy) on 14 July, 1943.



As part of the Allied invasion of Sicily, the 7th U.S Army under Lieutenant General George S. Patton and the British Eighth Army under General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery invaded the southeast corner of the island on 10 July 1943. As part of Lieutenant General Omar H. Bradley’s II Corps, the 45th Infantry Division was given a difficult task despite the fact that it was the only “green” division participating in the invasion. The 45th Divisions's 157th Infantry Regiment and 179th Infantry Regiment were tasked with capturing several coastal towns and the Comiso airfield before linking up with the 1st Canadian Infantry Division.

The 180th Infantry Regiment was tasked with capturing the Biscari airfield and linking up the US 1st Infantry Division.[1] The 180th Infantry Regiment performed so poorly in the first 48 hours of the landing that Major General Troy Middleton considered relieving its commander. Instead, the assistant division commander was sent to exercise close supervision over the regiment.[2]

Following the capture of the Biscari airfield on 14 July 1943, troops of the 180th Infantry killed 71 Italian and two German POWs in two separate incidents. In the first incident, 36 Italians died, while the second killing involved 35 Italians and two Germans.[3][4]

Compton Incident

As commander of C Company, 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment, Captain John T. Compton landed south of the Acate River amidst sporadic mortar and small arms fire. Pursuing his first objective, he pushed his company towards Highway 115, joined with some 82nd Airborne paratroopers, and attacked several German positions. Compton did not sleep during the first three days of the invasion. He was simply “too excited to sleep.” On the fourth day, he managed to grab about an hour and a half of sleep before the attack on the Biscari airfield. Around 11:00 P.M., C Company set off and reached the airfield around 11:00 A.M. on 14 July 1943. Immediately they began to receive artillery, mortar, and sniper fire. The sniper fire was especially deadly. From a concealed position in a nearby draw, the snipers targeted wounded G.I.s as well as the medics attempting to aid them. Out of 34 men in Compton’s 2nd Platoon, 12 were either wounded in action (WIA) or killed in action (KIA).[5]

In an attempt to locate the snipers’ firing position, Private Raymond C. Marlow crept down into a nearby draw. He had only gone about 25 yards into the draw before he spotted an Italian soldier with a rifle. Marlow raised his rifle and shouted at the Italian. The Italian ran away and entered a dugout that was located further in the draw. After a minute or two, the Italian soldier emerged with thirty-five others, several of which were in civilian clothing. Marlow walked them up the hill to his outpost and reported to his squad leader, Sergeant Hair. “I told him that I had gotten those fellows that were shooting at us while we were getting out from under that artillery fire,” Marlow reported. Acting as an interpreter, Private John Gazzetti asked the prisoners if they had been acting as snipers. He got no response. Hair herded the prisoners out of the draw and asked 1st Lieutenant Blanks what he should do with them. Blanks, in turn, asked Compton for instructions. Compton asked Blanks if he was sure that they were the same snipers that had been shooting at them all day. When Blanks answered in the affirmative, Compton said bluntly, “Get them shot.” Without hesitation, Blanks ordered Hair to assemble a firing squad and shoot the prisoners.[6]

Compton accompanied the firing squad of about 11 men to the ridge overlooking the draw.[7] He told the G.I.s to line up and they positioned themselves about six feet away from the prisoners. The prisoners started pleading for them not to shoot. Gazzetti, the interpreter, asked Compton if he had anything to say to the prisoners. Compton did not have anything he wanted to ask them. Compton told the men to commence firing on his order and that he “didn’t want a man left standing when the firing was done.” Seeing that their fate was sealed, a few of the prisoners began to run. The firing squad opened fire and killed all of the prisoners.[8]

West Incident

On the same day, and near the same airfield, Sergeant Horace B. West was ordered to escort a recently captured group of prisoners to the rear for interrogation. Along the way, West halted the column and shot 35 Italian prisoners and 2 German prisoners with his Thompson submachine gun.[9]


When he was informed of the massacres, General Omar Bradley told General George S. Patton that U.S. troops had murdered some 50-70 prisoners in cold blood. Patton noted his response in his diary:

I told Bradley that it was probably an exaggeration, but in any case to tell the Officer to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press and also would make the civilians mad. Anyhow, they are dead, so nothing can be done about it.[10]

Bradley refused Patton's instructions.

In regards to the first incident, Captain John T. Compton was court martialed for killing 36 POWs under his charge. Relying upon the respondeat superior legal doctrine, Compton defended his actions by claiming that he was merely following orders from his superiors. The investigating officer and the Judge Advocate declared that Compton's actions to be unlawful, but the court martial nevertheless acquitted him. He was transferred to the 179th Infantry Regiment and was killed in action on 8 November 1943 in Italy.

The U.S. Army also charged Sergeant Horace T. West for the second incident. West admitted he had participated in the executions. Accordingly, he was found guilty, stripped of rank and sentenced to life in prison. He was later dishonorably discharged as a Private.

The U.S. Army never held Colonel Forrest E. Cookson, the Regimental Commander, accountable, as there was no evidence to suggest that he had either ordered the murders or had advance knowledge of them.

See also


  1. ^ Atkinson, (2005), p.37-8.
  2. ^ Garland, Lt. Col. Albert N. (1965). Sicily and the Surrender of Italy. Washington DC: Department of the Army. pp. 189–190. 
  3. ^ Weingartner (November 1989), pp. 24-39.
  4. ^ Robbins (2000), pp274-6.
  5. ^ U.S. Department of the Army, Compton testimony, Trial Proper, Compton Court-Martial, 60-62.
  6. ^ U.S. Department of the Army, Marlow, Hair, Gazzetti, and Blanks testimony, Trial Proper, Compton Court-Martial, 27-34, 15-6, 35, 7-9.
  7. ^ The exact number of men who participated in the firing squad is unclear, but statements made during the ensuing investigation revealed the involvement of Lt. Blanks, Sgt. Jim Hair, Sgt. Kern Jones, Sgt. Freeland Douglas, Sgt. Jack Wilson, Sgt. Julius Thompson, Pvt. John Carroll, Pvt. Raymond Marlow, Pvt. John Gazzetti, Pvt. Earl Barnett, and Pvt. Salcidu. U.S. Department of the Army, “Statement made by Pvt John Gazzetti, 32204829, Co. C, 180th Infantry,” and “Statement made by Sgt Jim Hair, 20828237, Co C, 180th Infantry,” Inspector General’s Report, Compton Court-Martial.
  8. ^ U.S. Department of the Army, Gazetti and Compton Testimony, Trial Proper, Compton Court-Martial
  9. ^ Atkinson, (2005), p.50.
  10. ^ Atkinson (2007), p. 119.


  • Atkinson, Rick (2007). The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (The Liberation Trilogy). New York: Henry Holt and Co.. p. 119. ISBN 0805062890. 
  • Bartolone, Giovanni (2005). Le altre stragi. Le stragi alleate e tedesche nella Sicilia del 1943-1944. Bagheria: Tipografia Aiello & Provenzano. 
  • Botting, Douglas; Ian Sayer (1989). Hitler's Last General: The Case Against Wilhelm Mohnke. London: Bantam Books. pp. 354–359. ISBN 0593017099. 
  • Robbins, Christopher (2000). Test of Courage: The Michel Thomas Story. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780743202633. 
  • Weingartner, James (November 1989). "Massacre at Biscari: Patton and An American War Crime". The Historian LII (1): 24–39. 
  • U.S. Department of the Army, Record of Trial for the General Court-Martial of United States v. CPT. John T. Compton, CM 250835, U.S. Army Judiciary, Arlington, VA. 
  • U.S. Department of the Army, Record of Trial for the General Court-Martial of United States v. SGT Horace T. West, CM0833, U.S. Army Judiciary, Arlington, VA. 

Further reading

  • U.S. Department of War, A Manual for Courts-Martial, U.S. Army, 1928 (Corrected to April 20, 1943), Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943.
  • Whitlock, Flint. The Rock of Anzio: from Sicily to Dachau, a History of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division. Boulder: Westview Press, 2005.
  • War Department Field Manual FM 27-10 (1940) - Rules of Land Warfare

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