This was a British gliderborne operation by Brigadier P. H. W. Hicks’s 1st Airlanding Brigade of Major General G. F. Hopkinson’s 1st Airborne Division to capture the Ponte Grande, a bridge over the Anapo river, and then the western suburbs of Syracuse during the first day of the ‘Husky’ (i) campaign in Sicily (9/10 July 1943).
The object of the undertaking was to facilitate and thereby speed the advance of Major General H. P. M. Berney-Ficklin’s 5th Division along the east coast of the island toward Syracuse, the first major objective of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army (10 July 1943).
By December 1942 the progress of the Allied forces advancing through Tunisia indicated that the North African campaign was approaching its end. Inevitably, therefore, the British and US leaderships began to consider what the next objective for their North African forces should be. Many US leaders argued for an immediate invasion of France, but the British, with the support of Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in North Africa and the US forces in the Mediterranean theatre, argued that the island of Sardinia was preferable. In January 1943 Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met at the ‘Symbol’ inter-Allied conference at Casablanca and decided that the Italian island of Sicily would be the next target: the two leaders believed that the invasion and occupation of this island could provide the Allies with Mediterranean shipping routes and airfields nearer to mainland Italy and Germany. Planning for was was now designated ‘Husky’ (i) began in February 1943. The initial plan called for Montgomery’s 8th Army to land on the south-eastern corner of the island and advance to the north in the direction of the port city of Syracuse on the east coast, and for Patton’s 7th Army to land two days later to land on the western corner of the island and move toward the port city of Palermo on the north coast.
In March it was decided that Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US 82nd Airborne Division and Hopkinson’s British 1st Airborne Division would be dropped by parachute and delivered by glider just before the amphibious landings were delivered. The airborne forces were to land a few miles behind the beaches and neutralise the Italian coastal defenders, thereby facilitating the landing and immediate advance of the Allied ground forces.
Early in May, however, the basic concept for the invasion was significantly changed at the insistence of Montgomery, who argued that separate landings by the Allied armies at each end of this large island would offer the defending Axis forces, operating from central positions, the opportunity to defeat each Allied army in turn before they could link. The plan was therefore changed to include the simultaneous landings by the 7th and 8th Armies along a 100-mile (160-km) part of the coast on Sicily’s south-eastern corner. The plan for the employment of the two Allied airborne divisions was also adjusted at the same time in reflection of Montgomery’s belief that the airborne troops should be landed near Syracuse for a rapid seizure of this strategically valuable port; Montgomery’s argument was supported by some of the 82nd Airborne Division’s senior commanders, who believed that an airborne drop behind the island’s beaches to overcome the coast defences from the rear was a task ill-suited to airborne troops as these were only lightly armed and would also be vulnerable to the ‘friendly fire’ of the Allied naval bombardment which would support the landings.
In the revised scheme for the employment of the airborne divisions, a reinforced regimental combat team of the 82nd Airborne Division was to be dropped by parachute to the north-east of the port of Gela to block the movement of Axis reserves towards the Allied beach-heads, and the 1st Airborne Division was to undertake a trio of brigade-sized operations: the Ponte Grande road bridge to the south of Syracuse was to be captured by the 1st Airlanding Brigade, the port of Augusta was to be taken by the 2nd Parachute Brigade, and the Primasole bridge over the Simeto river near the eastern coast and to the south of Catania was to be taken and held by the 1st Parachute Brigade.
There were insufficient numbers of transport aircraft to make it possible for all three of the British brigades to undertake simultaneous operations, so the decision was made that the first operation would be ‘Ladbroke’ to take and hold the Ponte Grande bridge. This operation was to be undertaken just before the ‘Husky’ (i) amphibious landings, on the night of 9/10 July, and the other two were to take place on the following two nights. The 1st Airlanding Brigade was also given the additional tasks of capturing Syracuse harbour and the urban area beside it, and either destroying or otherwise rendering ineffective a coastal artillery battery whose guns were sited within range of the amphibious landings.
Training immediately revealed a number of difficulties. The revised plan for the airborne operations had called for all three to employ paratroopers, but in May Montgomery altered the plan after he had come to the conclusion that as the airborne troops would be operating at a considerable distance from the Allied ground forces which would be advancing to relieve them, and therefore that the force sent to capture Syracuse would best by landed by glider as this would offer the opportunity for the landing of heavier weapons. Montgomery’s case did not meet with the approval of the army commander’s senior airborne adviser, who argued that a nocturnal gliderborne landing by inexperienced pilots was impractical, but Montgomery’s decision was allowed to stand.
Montgomery’s decision had several other ramifications, firstly with the transport aircraft of the US troop carrier wings assigned to the airborne operations. It had been decided that when they arrived in North Africa, Brigadier General Harold L. Clark’s 52nd Troop Carrier Wing would operate with the 1st Airborne Division and Brigadier General Ray A. Dunn’s 51st Troop Carrier Wing with the 82nd Airborne Division. A few weeks later this arrangement was switched, with the 52nd TCW now supporting with 82nd Airborne Division and the 51st TCW the 1st Airborne Division. This appeared to be a logical decision, as each wing possessed operational experience with the division with which it had now been paired. However, the decision to turn the assault on Syracuse from a paratroop to a gliderborne undertaking was flawed as the 51st TCW had very little glider-towing experience and the 52nd TCW possessed more experience but was now already training for a paratroop mission. To switch both was now not feasible, and this left the 1st Airlanding Brigade with the support of an troop carrier wing which was inexperienced in glider operations.
Two other difficulties were the gliders earmarked for service in the operation and the pilots for these gliders. Up to a time just a few months before the start of the Sicilian operation there had been a severe shortage of serviceable gliders in North Africa. Late in March a small number of Waco CG-4A gliders arrived at Accra on the Gold Coast, but pilots sent to ferry them to North Africa found these machines to be be in a poor condition. As a result of neglect in transit and the adverse effects of tropical heat, humidity and rain, the pilots were able to assemble only a small number of CG-4A gliders and fly them to North Africa on 22 April. On the following day a larger number of these US gliders began to arrive in North African ports, but were not immediately available for use as the crates holding them were unloaded haphazardly, the assembly instructions were often missing, and the men detailed to assemble the gliders were frequently lacking in experienced. When the decision was made to undertake a gliderborne assault with the 1st Airlanding Brigade, however, the assembly process was improved, and by 12 June 346 gliders had been delivered to the troop carrier wings. A small number of British Airspeed Horsa gliders also reached North Africa for use by the brigade. Some 30 such gliders lifted off from England to be towed some 1,500 miles (2415 km) in ‘Turkey Buzzard’, and after attacks by German fighter patrols and often turbulent weather, 27 Horsa gliders reached North Africa in time for ‘Ladbroke’.
Even though sufficient gliders had arrived in North Africa, however, not all of them were usable, even for training: on 16 June, for example, most of the gliders were grounded for repairs, and on 30 June large numbers of them had developed weaknesses in their tail-wiring and had to be grounded for another three days. Given these and other delays, the 51st Troop Carrier Wing could not undertake a major glider exercise until mid-June: on 14 June 54 CG-4A gliders were towed more than 70 miles (115 km) and then released to land at an airfield, and a larger exercise was undertaken on 20 June. Even these limited exercises were unrealistic, however, as they were flown in daylight.
The British glider pilots were also a cause of difficulty, for while there were adequate numbers of them for the operation, they all lacked operational experience. Detached from the 1/Glider Pilot Regiment, these pilots had not flown CG-4A gliders and had never undertaken night flights as British tactical thinking had deemed such operations impossible. On average, the pilots had eight hours of flight experience in gliders, few were rated as operationally ready, and none had combat experience. Colonel George Chatterton, commanding the Glider Pilot Regiment, had protested against his men’s involvement in ‘Ladbroke’ as he believed they were entirely unfit for operational flying. When the training period for the brigade ended, after only two exercises had been completed, the glider pilots had an average of 4 hours 30 minutes of training in the CG-4A, this total including an average of only 1 hour 10 minutes of night flying. The glider pilots had learned little of the very difficult art of judging distances across water off a coast line, and the pilots of the tug aircraft had insufficient practice in night navigation, and both of these shortcomings were to have very serious results.
The units of the 1st Airlanding Brigade for ‘Ladbroke’ were the 1/Border Regiment for the seizure of Syracuse, 2/South Staffordshire Regiment to take the bridge and the area to its south, 181st (Airlanding) Field Ambulance, and 9th Field Company Royal Engineers. the brigade was allocated 136 CG-4A and eight Horsa gliders. The gliders had only limited payload capacity: the CG-4A carried the pilot and co-pilot side-by-side in the enclosed cockpit, and up to 13 troops, or a Jeep and three or four men, or a 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzer, three-man crew and ammunition, or six litters, or freight in the enclosed hold within the context of 3,710-lb (1683-kg) normal or 5,210-lb (2363-kg) overload payloads, and the Horsa the pilot and co-pilot side-by-side on the enclosed flight deck, and up to 25 troops or freight in the hold. This meant that the whole brigade could not be deployed: for example, only six of the brigade’s 16 anti-tank guns were taken, with a similar reduction in mortars and no Vickers machine guns, and while the 181st Field Ambulance needed 32 CG-4A gliders, it was allocated only six, of which five failed to reach Sicily.
Six Horsa gliders carrying A and C Companies of the 2/Staffords were scheduled to land at the bridge at 23.15 on 9 July in a coup-de-main operation, and the rest of the brigade was to arrive at 01.15 on 10 July using a number of landing zones between 1.5 and 3 miles (2.4 and 4.8 km) away, then converge on the bridge to reinforce the defence.
Air and naval bombardments were arranged, for diversions as far afield as Catania and for close support, and in particular 80 Vickers Wellington bombers were to attack Syracuse between 02.15 and 02.45. Hawker Hurricane fighter-bombers of No. 73 Squadron were to destroy searchlights with their 20-mm cannon, and specially equipped aircraft were to attempt to confuse the radar stations covering the main lines of approach of the airborne forces.
The Ponte Grande bridge across the Anapo river, just to the south of Syracuse, lay immediately outside the area held by Generale di Brigata Achille d’Havet’s 206th Divisione costiera, which would oppose the British seaborne landing. The fortress commander was Contrammiraglio Primo Leonardi, with Colonnello Mario Damiani in command of the army contingent. The Zona Fortezza Navale Augusta-Siracusa (Augusta-Syracuse naval fortress area) included the coastal division, and had six heavy and six medium coastal artillery batteries, as well as 11 batteries of dual-role coastal and anti-aircraft guns, and six batteries of dedicated anti-aircraft guns. The fortress also controlled an armoured train with four 120-mm (4.72-in) guns. The army contingent was the 121st Reggimento di difesa costiera of four battalions. There were also naval and air force battalions available, while Generale di Divisione Giulio Cesare Gotti Porcinari’s 54th Divisione ‘Napoli’ could provide reinforcements if necessary.
On 9 July, 2,075 British troops, together with seven Jeeps, six anti-tank guns and 10 mortars, boarded their gliders at a complex of six airfields in the Kairouan area of Tunisia and lifted off at 18.00 for Sicily. Some of the gliders were towed by RAF aircraft (the Handley Page Halifax four-engined machines of No. 295 Squadron and Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle twin-engined machines of No. 296 Squadron), but at least 100 of the gliders were entrusted to the Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft of the USAAF’ 51st Troop Carrier Wing. The force lifted off by individual flights, and in the air became a procession of aircraft on one route with the object of landing all the gliders on the designated landing zones between 22.10 and 22.30 on 9 July. From a landfall at Cape Passero, the aircraft were to fly along the east coast of Sicily until they turned to the west for the final approach to Ponte Grande before climbing from sea level, at which they had flown for concealment, to the planned release heights of 1,500 ft (460 m) and higher. The tug aircraft were to release their gliders over the sea to glide into the landing zones as the tugs turned back to Kairouan.
The airborne train was protected during the daylight hours by Bell P-39 Airacobra fighters of Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Lloyd’s North-West African Coastal Air Force and during the night hours by night fighters from Malta.
The crews of many of the tug aircraft were already well off track by the time they reached Malta, and were spread across a front of 25 miles (40 km) between Capo Passero and Capo Murro di Porco as they made landfall over Sicily. There was a strong off-shore westerly wind of up to 35 mph (56 km/h), and no plain landmark by which the aircraft could fix their position before the run-in to the release, so it was very hard to navigate and judge distance accurately. The planned release altitudes also gave the glider pilots no opportunity to correct mistakes. Other problems were the presence of enough Flak to distract pilots of little or no experience, a vision-obscuring haze over the landing zones, and no special navigational aids. These factors combined to cause disaster.
In order to avoid the anti-aircraft fire and searchlights, the pilots of some of the glider-tug aircraft climbed to a higher altitude, and others took evasive action. In the resulting confusion, many of the gliders were released too early, and 65 of them came down in the sea, where 252 men were drowned. Of the remainder, a mere 12 landed in the right place, another 59 landed up to 25 miles (40 km) away, and of the remainder two were shot down and another 10 failed to release and returned to Tunisia.
The 1st Airlanding Brigade’s plan was wrecked, but small parties saved a great deal from the wreckage. Only one Horsa with a platoon of infantry from the 2/Staffords landed near the bridge. Its commander, Lieutenant L. Withers, divided his men into two groups, one of which swam across the river and took up position on the opposite bank. Thereafter the bridge was captured following a simultaneous assault from both sides. The Italian defenders, of the poorly equipped and demoralised 120th Reggimento di fanteria costiera, abandoned their pillboxes on the river’s northern bank.
The British platoon then dismantled some of the demolition charges attached to the bridge and dug in to await reinforcement or relief. Another Horsa landed about 200 yards (185 m) from the bridge but exploded on landing, killing all on board. Three of the other Horsa gliders carrying the coup-de-main party landed within 2 miles (3.2 km) of the bridge, and the men eventually made their way to the bridge. Reinforcements began to arrive at the bridge, but by 06.30 the British defence of the bridge totalled just 87 men.
Elsewhere, about 150 men landed at Capo Murro di Porco and captured a radio station. Based on a warning of imminent glider landings transmitted by the station’s personnel, the Italian local commander ordered a counterattack, but his men did not receive the order. The scattered nature of the landings now worked in the Allies’ favour as they were able to cut all the telephone wires located in the immediate area. The glider carrying the brigade’s deputy commander, Colonel O. L. Jones, landed beside the Italian coastal artillery battery at Punto Caderini, and as dawn broke the staff officers and 17 radio operators of the 1/Borders attacked and destroyed the battery’s five guns and their ammunition dump. Other isolated groups of British troops tried to aid their comrades with attacks on sundry Italian defence sites and reinforcement moving to the area.
The first Italian counterattack on the British position at the bridge was delivered by two companies of sailors, and was driven back by the British. As the Italians began to respond more fully to the Allied landings, they gathered more troops and brought up artillery and mortars to bombard the British positions at the Ponte Grande, and the situation began to become more serious when the airborne troops’ relief force, Berney-Ficklin’s British 5th Division, did not appear at 10.00 as had been planned. At 11.30 the Italian 385th Battaglione costiero reached the area of the bridge, soon followed by the 1/75th Reggimento fanteria ‘Napoli’. The Italians were now in position to attack the bridge from three sides. By 14.45 the British defenders of the bridge included only 15 men who had not been killed or wounded, and at 15.30, their ammunition exhausted, the British ended their resistance. Some men on the southern side of the bridge managed to make their escape into the countryside, but the rest were taken prisoner. Thus it was only after the bridge was back in Italian hands that the first unit of the 5th Division, the 2/Royal Scots Fusiliers, arrived at 16.15 and mounted a successful counterattack, which had been made possible by the airborne force’s removal of the demolition charges from the bridge, which prevented its destruction by the Italians.
A tactically and operationally useful by-product of all these airborne actions, including those of the US parachute force undertaking a similar task, was the mass of confused and confusing reports which Axis commanders received about gliderborne and parachute troops in places scattered from Priolo near Augusta, to Castelvetrano 140 miles (225 km) away in western Sicily.
The 1st Airlanding Brigade’s survivors took no further part in the fighting, and were withdrawn to North Africa on 13 July. During the ‘Husky’ (i) landings, the losses of the 1st Airlanding Brigade were the most severe of all the British units involved, and totalled 313 men killed and 174 missing or wounded; 14 glider pilots were killed, and 87 more were missing or wounded.
After an enquiry into the problems with the airborne missions in Sicily, the army and RAF submitted recommendations, which included the training of aircrew in parachute and gliderborne operations; the landing of pathfinders before the arrival of the main force to set out beacons; the simplification of landing plans with complete brigades on a single drop or landing zone instead of the smaller battalion landing areas used on Sicily; an end to the release of gliders at night while still over water; and the use of landing zones large enough to accommodate all the gliders with room to spare. Following a ‘friendly fire’ incident over an Allied convoy, more training was also given to ships’ crews in aircraft recognition, and Allied aircraft were also painted with three large white stripes. The standard and quantity of training for pilots of the Glider Pilot Regiment were increased, and improvements to the gliders were implemented, the latter including better inter-aircraft communication. To provide another method of delivering Jeeps and artillery by air, the RAF began to experiment with the use of parachutes to deliver heavy loads into combat from adapted bombers’ weapons bays. A second RAF transport group, No. 46 Group, was created and equipped solely with Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft rather than the mix of aircraft types which characterised the initial No. 38 Group. The RAF transport groups were able to field 362 aircraft (88 Albemarle, 88 Short Stirling, 36 Halifax and 150 Dakota machines) excluding aircraft held as reserves.