Operation Hasty (ii)

This was a British airborne raid by part of the 6/Parachute of Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard’s 2nd Parachute Brigade near Toricelle in eastern Italy (1/7 June 1944).

The objective of the undertaking was to land a small force behind the German positions in the Abruzzo region near Trasacco so that it could interdict supply lines, hinder movement of troops as the Germans withdrew from Sora to Avezzano, disrupt the rear areas of General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps, part of Generaloberst Gottfried-Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army in Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’, and also capture bridges to aid the advance of Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s 8th Army toward the German ‘Cäsar-Linie’ defences. The operation had mixed fortunes, the Germans responded in force, using the equivalent of a brigade to hunt down the British airborne force, and held a division in reserve instead of moving it to the front. However the British paratroopers came under attack almost immediately after landing, and then had to evade a large-scale German search. With the ending of the operation one week later, less than half the force returned to the British lines.

Then commanded by Major General G. F. Hopkinson, who died of wounds on 12 September and was followed in command by Major General E. E. Down until he was succeeded by Major General R. E. Urquhart on 10 December 1943, the British 1st Airborne Division had landed in Italy during September 1943 in ‘Slapstick’. By the end of the year most of the division had been withdrawn to the UK to prepare for operations in North-West Europe, leaving Pritchard’s 2nd Parachute Brigade in Italy as an independent unit. Without dedicated air transport, the unit found opportunities for airborne operations very limited, and the brigade was therefore used in the ground role as conventional infantry, taking part in fighting in the Moro river campaign and the Battle of Monte Cassino.

In May 1944 the brigade was withdrawn to rest near Salerno, and it was at this juncture that three officers and 57 men were selected for ‘Hasty’ (ii). This mission originated with Leese, and was designed to disrupt German endeavours to destroy bridges and other infrastructure items as they withdrew from Sora to Avezzano in the Abruzzo region of Italy to the section of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ between Pisa and Rimini. During the early stages of the plan’s development, it was intended that a whole battalion be used, but Pritchard decided to use a smaller unit and at the same time attempt to convince the Germans that a larger force was being deployed by dropping dummy parachutists. The smaller detachment, commanded by Captain L. A. Fitzroy-Smith, was drawn from the 6/Parachute supported by a small medical team of the 127th (Parachute) Field Ambulance and signallers of the brigade’s signals company.

The 60-man detachment took off from the airfield at Gaudo at 19.00 on 1 June 1944 in three Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft accompanied by another eight aircraft carrying the dummy parachutists. The aircraft were of the US 8th Airlift Squadron, and reached the drop zone to the south of the Conca del Fucino near Trasacco by 20.30. The drop was successful, the only injury being to one man who suffered a broken rib. At 21.00 the force had assembled at its rendezvous and established radio contact with Lieutenant General Sir Bernard New Zealand 2nd Division, which was in overall command of the mission, and arrangements were made for the planned resupply parachute drops to proceed. Fitzroy-Smith established a patrol base, and the detachment was divided into three patrols each commanded by an officer.

The Germans had intercepted a radio message about the operation, however, and Oberst von Grundherr, commander of the LI Gebirgskorps’ artillery, improvised a Kampfgruppe which reacted swiftly, reconnaissance patrols reaching the area within 20 minutes and the British base being located and attacked within 24 hours. Avoiding attempts to pin them, the three patrols divided and for the next seven days disrupted German convoys and demolition parties. A German force of brigade strength was detailed to locate the British force, and one division was held in reserve instead of moving to reinforce the front line. During their search for the paratroopers, the Germans captured the British force’s signallers, and radio contact with the New Zealand division was lost when the detachment’s remaining radio was damaged.

By 7 June it had been decided to withdraw the detachment, but with no radio working there was no way to transmit this decision. Pritchard then decided to have leaflets dropped over the operation’s area with the message ‘Proceed Awdry forthwith’. The message meant nothing to the Germans, but the British knew that Captain Awdry was the 6/Parachute’s liaison officer with the New Zealand 2nd Division. The detachment then split into smaller groups, each of which attempted to make its own way back to the Allied lines.

Of the 60 men involved in ‘Hasty’ (ii), two officers and 25 men returned to the Allied lines. The operation had caused little in the way of physical or material damage to the Germans, but a small measure of success was the diversion of strength the Germans had been persuaded to make. The Germans succeeded in withdrawing toward the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences, where they held the Allies until the middle of September, when they were defeated in the Battle of Rimini.

Although ‘Hasty’ (ii) was the only British airborne operation on the Italian mainland during World War II, the entire 2nd Parachute Brigade was later involved in two larger airborne operations in the Mediterranean theatre. These were as part of Brigadier General Robert T. Frederick’s 1st Airborne Task Force in the ‘Dove’ sub-operation of the ‘Dragoon’ Allied assault on the south coast of France on 15 August 1944, and the ‘Manna’ landing in Greece on 12 October 1944.