Operation Marston

This was the British coup-de-main airborne assault on the Primosole bridge, 10 miles (16 km) to the north of Lentini on the eastern seaboard of Sicily, by Brigadier G. W. Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade of Major General G. F. Hopkinson’s 1st Airborne Division (13/14 July 1943).

One of the two elements of ‘Fustian’ within the ‘Husky’ (i) invasion of Sicily, the other being 'Ladbroke', the operation was intended to take and hold the strategically important Primosole bridge until the 1st Parachute Brigade was relieved by the overland advance of Brigadier J. C. Currie’s 4th Armoured Brigade of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army. The 8th Army rapidly broke through the crust of the Italian coastal defences, which were not strong, and the British task was aided by the fact that Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 7th Army, which had landed farther to the west in ‘Husky’ (i), had drawn most of the German armour, which represented the greatest single threat to the Allied beach-heads, from the east coast and onto itself. Major General S. C. Kirkman’s British 50th Division was now advancing against only light opposition, but was about to run into trouble in the form of a small but high-grade Kampfgruppe based on Major Werner Schmidt’s machine gun company of Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, which on 12/13 July had been dropped accurately and compactly behind the Axis line on the plain to the south of Catania.

The line of the Simeto river and the important bridge at Primosole were firmly held, and there a confrontation was to take place between the parachute troops of the two sides, for the 8th Army’s plan called for the 1st Parachute Brigade to capture the bridge at Primosole on the army’s main axis to Catania, its next major objective, in the area held by Generale di Brigata Carlo Gotti’s Italian 213rd Coastal Division.

Lathbury’s plan was to seize the bridge itself on the night of 13/14 July by direct assault, using the 1/Parachute and one squadron of the Royal Engineers, while the 3/Parachute destroyed a nearby anti-aircraft battery and established itself north of the bridge and the 2/Parachute occupied the commanding ground to the south. The 1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery, was also to be brought in by glider, as close to the bridge as possible. This would present the Axis forces with a solid defence on the bridge itself and against an attack from either direction, but it was essential to the plan that the 50th Division, moving to the north along the east coast, should link with the airborne units without delay during the next morning and so open the road to Catania, which Montgomery hoped to take before German resistance had sufficient time to stiffen.

Lathbury’s force of 1,856 paratroopers was carried in 105 Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft of Brigadier General Ray A. Dunn’s US 51st Troop Carrier Wing and 11 Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle aircraft of No. 296 Squadron of the RAF’s No. 38 Wing, 17 of the powered aircraft towing gliders. The paratroopers’ heavier weapons comprised 10 6-pdr anti-tank guns (77 men) in 16 gliders towed by Handley Page Halifax aircraft and Albemarle machines of the British Nos 295 and 296 Squadrons. The 21st Independent Parachute Company was to precede the force and mark the glider landing zones and position Eureka-Rebecca radio beacons for the drop zones.

The first flights took off from Kairouan in North Africa between 19.20 and 20.40 on 13 July, and the last leg of the course, which all were to follow, was to the north along the east coast of Sicily, 5 miles (8 km) off shore, to the mouth of the Simeto river, where the aircraft were to turn inland, at 500 ft (150 m), to the paratroopers’ four DZs and the gliders’ one LZ near the bridge. Parachute dropping was to begin at 22.00 on 13 July, and the first gliders were to land at 01.00 on 14 July. The US pilots had been persuaded to abandon their rigid formation of ‘Vs of Vs’ in favour of a loose stream as used by RAF Bomber Command. However, this placed too great a burden on individual navigators who were not trained for the task, and as a result the stream became badly scattered after passing its checkpoint at Malta. Then a number of aircraft were seen by the light of a three-quarter moon by the gunners of the Royal Navy as they flew off-course through a ‘gun free’ area where the supporting fleet was anchored near or standing off and on the 8th Army’s beaches. The approach was beset by hazards and difficulties, and 55 aircraft reported that they were being fired on by Allied ships and then Axis Flak, the former downing two aircraft and the latter 12 aircraft and at least four gliders. Damage from this and other causes made 26 aircraft return to Africa without dropping their loads.

In sum 30 aircraft dropped their loads on the DZs, nine dropped their loads near the DZs, and 48 dropped their loads ‘wide’ by distances varying from 880 yards (800 m) to more than 20 miles (32 km), some of them as far west as Mt Etna. Only four of the gliders landed correctly, and seven others landed successfully at random. Thus only three out of 10 anti-tank guns came into action. The strength of the brigade in short-term action was 12 officers and 283 men out of a nominal strength of 1,856. Altogether some 540 of the brigade’s men arrived safely in the general area of the objective, this total including Lathbury and Lieutenant Colonels A. S. Pearson and J. D. Frost of the 1 and 2/Parachute respectively, together with some engineers and three 6-pdr anti-tank guns.

Captain Rann, who had collected 50 men of the 1/Parachute, rightly judged what needed to be done, ignored his original orders and rushed the bridge, which was held by an artillery troop, and when Lathbury and Frost arrived with some 40 men the bridge was already secure, 50 prisoners had been taken, and the sappers were removing the demolition charges. There was a good deal of confusion, and Lathbury was wounded during an exchange of grenades when a lorry seen dimly in the dark proved to contain the aggressive crew of a 3.465-in (88-mm) Flak gun, and the area was littered with many Italian soldiers eager to surrender.

Most of the command radio sets were missing or not working, and Lathbury was therefore in touch with neither the 50th Division nor Frost, who was in fact digging himself in on his correct objective, having found another of his companies there. There was no sign of the 4th Armoured Brigade, which was leading the 50th Division’s advance and on whose timely arrival the success of the whole operation depended.

In the meantime the Germans were reacted with speed and vigour, and German paratroopers of the machine gun battalion, as well as signallers and engineers, of Oberstleutnant Ludwig Heilmann’s 3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, supplemented by an Italian ‘Camicie Nere’ (blackshirt) battalion, were by this time to the south of the Simeto river, some of these elements joining the armoured Kampfgruppe facing the 50th Division, and others preparing to retake the Primosole bridge. Despite his wounds, Lathbury remained near the bridge to oversee its defence by 120 men of the 1 and 3/Parachute under Pearson’s command. With his battalion headquarters and one of his companies, Frost was firmly in position, Lathbury learned.

The German attack developed from the southern side of the river, and for some time the few men of the 2/Parachute were hard put to hold as they were steadily surrounded on three sides and kept under heavy fire. Fortunately for the airborne soldiers, Frost had with him a naval bombardment liaison officer, Captain Vere Hodge of the Royal Artillery, whose radio set was intact, so when the German attack developed it was engaged by accurate and devastating fire called in from the 6-in (152-mm) guns of the light cruiser Mauritius, which destroyed the German effort. While the position of the 2/Parachute was harassed by German mortar and armoured car fire, no more attacks were pressed against it for the rest of the day.

The defenders of the bridge were attacked first by fighter aircraft, then infantry and tanks, and all the time subjected to mortar and artillery fire. As the casualties of his unit mounted, Pearson had to concentrate the unwounded men at the southern end. Some of the men had taken up position in the concrete pillboxes which had been built as part of the bridge defences, and were driven from these only when the German gunners brought up a 3.465-in (88-mm) Flak gun and engaged them at close range over open sights, while the paratroops replied with small arms in an effort to pick off the crews.

Lathbury ordered that at the fall of night the survivors should disengage and slip back to the vicinity of Frost’s position. This they managed to do, and the small party sat out the night wondering how the 4th Armoured Brigade was faring. The brigade, with its attached battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, was in fact resting no more than 1 mile (1.6 km) distant. The German capacity for defence among the narrow lanes, broken ground and stone walls of Sicily was immense, while the 50th Division and the tank regiments were the tired and perhaps over-cautious veterans of the long Western Desert campaign, and had decided to advance only step by step with caution and maximum covering fire. Its commanders were severely criticised for remaining inactive that night when their infantry could perhaps have reinforced Frost, or even reached the vital bridge in time, despite the fact that the men had marched 20 miles (32 km) during the day and fought most of the way.

Fortunately the airborne engineers had disposed of the demolition charges so thoroughly that they could not be replaced and the bridge remained intact. It was, however, now firmly in German hands. On the following morning Lathbury, hearing the sounds of tanks, went back himself on foot and brought the British armour and its supporting infantry up to mount an attack on the bridge. This attempt was driven off, but the British were able to keep the bridge under fire. That night Pearson himself guided the Durham Light Infantry across the river at a point upstream of the bridge to take the German defence in rear, so by 14 July the bridge was once again in British hands.

It was too late, however, and the chance of pushing the armoured brigade across the bridge onto the plain of Catania had gone. At 07.00 on 16 July the 1st Parachute Brigade was delivered by truck to Syracuse, where it embarked on a tank landing ship and, at 12.00 on the following day, sailed for Malta. The brigade had lost about 141 men killed and another 168 missing or wounded.

The recapture of the Primosole bridge did not therefore lead to the rapid British advance over the Catania plain which had been envisaged by Montgomery. Now exhausted, the 50th Division was holding a position based on the bridge. Major General H. P. M. Berney-Ficklin’s 5th Division took over the lead, but after a number of attacks could make no further progress and its 13th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier L. M. Campbell of Airds, had to establish another bridgehead across the Simeto river. The Germans had brought in more troops and prepared defensive positions, however, and thus is was only after hard fighting that the 8th Army managed to enter Catania on 5 August. Further hard fighting followed, and the 8th Army entered Messina just after the US 7th Army on 17 August.

After an enquiry into the problems with the airborne missions in Sicily, the army and Royal Air Force submitted a number of recommendations. Aircrew were to be trained specifically for the parachute and glider tasks, and pathfinder units landing before the main force had to have enough time to set out their beacons. The landing plan was simplified, with complete brigades landing on one drop zone rather than a number of smaller battalion landing areas as used in Sicily. Gliders were no longer to be released at night while still over water, and their landing zones were to be large enough to accommodate the aircraft with room to spare. Following the 'friendly fire' incident over the convoy, more training was to be given to ships' crews in aircraft recognition, and Allied aircraft were painted with three large white stripes on each wing half. The training of the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment was to be increased, and improvements to the gliders were to be implemented, including better inter-aircraft communication.

For the transport of paratroops, to avoid relying solely on US aircraft and pilots, the RAF’s No. 38 Wing was expanded into No. 38 Group with its Halifax squadrons now supported by another eight squadrons (four each with Albemarle and Short Stirling aircraft). To provide another method of delivering Jeeps and artillery guns by air, the RAF began to experiment with the use of paradropping, carrying the Jeeps and guns in the larger aircraft types' bomb bays. A second RAF transport group, No. 46 Group, was formed and equipped solely with Dakota (C-47) aircraft rather than the mixture of aircraft operated by No. 38 Group. After these changes, the RAF could field 88 Albemarle, 88 Stirling, 36 Halifax and 150 Dakota aircraft to support airborne operations. This total of 362 aircraft excluded aircraft held as reserves.