Operation Slapstick

This was the British capture of Taranto in the ‘instep’ of Italy by Major General G. F. Hopkinson’s 1st Airborne Division (9 September 1943).

The origins of the plan lay in the early days of September 1943, at just the time the Allies were putting together the final details for ‘Avalanche’ to be undertaken by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army and also as ‘Baytown’ (i) was being implemented by General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army. The Allied planners at this time realised that though all major formations and amphibious transport were earmarked for these two major undertakings, there were also two other tempting targets for large-scale coup-de-main assault. The first of these comprised the islands of Sardinia and Corsica (the former held by Generalmajor Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision and the latter by the SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Karl Herrmann’s SS Brigade ‘Reichsführer-SS’), and the second was the clutch of ports in the ‘instep’ and ‘heel’ of Italy (Taranto, Brindisi, Otranto and Bari). The renascent French forces commanded by Général d’Armée Henri Honoré Giraud in North Africa were allocated to the Sardinian and Corsican operation using any shipping available in North African ports, and the 1st Airborne Division was designated for the ‘instep’ and ‘heel’ landings, hastily improvised as ‘Slapstick’ for the capture of Taranto, which would allow Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s V Corps (Major General W. E. Clutterbuck’s 1st Division, Major General H. J. Hayman-Joyce’s 4th Division and Major General V. Evelegh’s 78th Division) to come ashore in Italy without difficulty despite the cancellation of the corps’ proposed ‘Goblet’ operation against Crotone.

There was no airlift capacity available (else the 1st Airborne Division would have been used in ‘Avalanche’) and virtually no amphibious shipping, so it was decided that given the poverty of the Axis defence (Taranto being held by the Italian navy, and the German presence in the ‘instep’ and on the ‘heel’ being confined to a single parachute regiment), the cruisers and destroyers of Commodore W. G. Agnew’s 12th Cruiser Squadron (light cruisers Aurora and Penelope, and light anti-aircraft cruisers Dido and Sirius) could be used for the transport and landing of the division.

The strategic rationale of the operation was that the capture of the ‘heel’ would provide the British with several ports for the supply of the 8th Army during its advance to the north up the east coast of Italy, leaving the ports on the western side of the country for the 5th Army. The only proviso demanded by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Allied naval command in the Mediterranean was that it have absolute assurance that the Italian fleet was sailing to surrender (as a result of the Allied armistice with Italy) before the 12th Cruiser Squadron (reinforced by the US light cruiser Boise and British cruiser minelayer Abdiel) was released for ‘Slapstick’.

The 1st Airborne Division was loaded at Bizerte in two echelons (the first consisting of the divisional headquarters, Brigadier G. W. Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade, Brigadier J. H. N. Poett’s 4th Parachute Brigade, and the 9th Field Company RE, and the second of Brigadier E. E. Down’s 2nd Parachute Brigade, Brigadier P. H. W. Hicks’s 1st Airlanding Brigade and the Glider Pilot Regiment), and was escorted to Taranto by a Malta-based force comprising the battleships Howe and King George V (plus escorting destroyers) commanded by Vice Admiral A. J. Power.

The first echelon was landed without incident on 9 September, and the ships of the 12th Cruiser Squadron returned to Bizerte to load the second echelon as the leading elements of the 1st Airborne Division fanned out from the port lest the Germans of the 4th Fallschirmjägerregiment attempt to intervene.

The only disaster of ‘Slapstick’ was the loss of Abdiel, which swung at her mooring on 10 September and detonated a German magnetic mine, which broke the ship in two and sank her with the loss of 48 naval personnel and 120 paratroopers.

The British entered Bari and Brindisi on 11 September, the day on which Hopkinson was mortally wounded and replaced by Major General E. E. Down, who handed command of his brigade to Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard.

The success of ‘Slapstick’ persuaded the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff that substantial reinforcement would be profitable, and Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division was forwarded from Egypt, arriving from 23 September (and so putting paid to British plans for an 'Accolade' operation against Rhodes), six days after the headquarters of the V Corps had been established at Taranto. The 78th Division had begun to disembark at Bari on 22 September, and Lieutenant Colonel J. F. Durnford-Slater’s Special Service Brigade began to arrive on 28 September. With his corps assembled, Allfrey was instructed to hold a watching brief over the ‘heel’ area until he could link on the right flank of Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XIII Corps for the capture of Foggia (and its strategically important airfields) at the end of September.