Operation Turkey Buzzard

This was a British airborne undertaking to deliver manpower and matériel reinforcements for ‘Ladbroke’ by means of Airspeed Horsa gliders (3 June/7 July 1943).

The operation was undertaken by No. 2 Wing of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the RAF’s No. 295 Squadron to enlarge the British airborne strength and capability on North Africa for use in ‘Husky’ (i), and was known to the army as ‘Turkey Buzzard’ and to the RAF as ‘Beggar’ (i). The operation involved the use of Handley Page Halifax bombers to tow Airspeed Horsa gliders some 3,200 miles (5150 km) from England to Tunisia, where the gliders were needed to complement the smaller US Waco Hadrian gliders, which lacked the payload capacity required for the operations planned for Major General G. F. Hopkinson’s 1st Airborne Division.

During the operation one Halifax/Horsa combination was shot down by gunners of a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long-range patrol aeroplane, and in overall terms five Horsa gliders and three Halifax tugs were lost, but 27 Horsa gliders arrived in Tunisia in time for use in the airborne operations associated with ‘Husky’ (i).

Though this supply operation was a success, few of the gliders made it to their landing zones in Sicily during the two British airborne operations which followed, many becoming casualties of the weather conditions or anti-aircraft fire.

As the Allied armies advanced into Tunisia during December 1942, it had become clear that the North African campaign was approaching its end, and the Allies began to discuss their next moves after the defeat of the last Axis forces in North Africa. Many US leaders argued in favour of an immediate invasion of France, while the British and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the US officer commanding the Allied forces in the Mediterranean, believed that the next step should be an invasion of the Italian island of Sardinia. In January 1943 Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met at the ‘Symbol’ conference in Casablanca and settled the debate: the Italian island of Sicily was to be the next Allied objective in ‘Husky’ (i). The invasion and occupation of Sicily would benefit the Allies by opening Mediterranean sea routes for Allied shipping and allowing Allied bombers to operate from airfields that were much closer to mainland Italy and Germany.

Planning for ‘Husky’ (i) began in February 1943, and decided that General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army would land on the south-eastern corner of the island and advance to the north along the island’s east coast toward the port city of Syracuse, while Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 7th Army would land on the south coast and move toward the port of Palermo on the western end of the island’s north coast. The landings were to be made simultaneously along a 100-mile (160-km) stretch of the island’s south-eastern corner.

The plan for ‘Husky’ (i) also called for three brigade-sized sub-operations by the 1st Airborne Division: the Ponte Grande road bridge to the south of Syracuse was to be captured by Brigadier P. H. W. Hicks’s 1st Airlanding Brigade in ‘Ladbroke’, the port of Augusta was to be seized by Brigadier E. E. Down’s 2nd Parachute Brigade in ‘Glutton’, and the Primasole bridge over the Simeto river to the south of Catania was to be taken by Brigadier G. W. Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade in ‘Fustian’.

As the British airborne operations were being discussed, Lieutenant Colonel George Chatterton, commanding No. 2 Wing, Glider Pilot Regiment, raised concerns about the small size of the only glider then in the theatre, the US Waco CG-4A that known in British service as the Hadrian, which could carry only two pilots and 13 troops, or one Jeep or one piece of light artillery. As the ‘Ladbroke’ plan involved a coup-de-main assault on the Ponte Grande bridge by the 2/South Staffordshire, the use of Horsa gliders, each able to carry 27 troops or one Jeep and one piece of light artillery, would allow the delivery of a larger force to the bridge during the initial assault. Chatterton decided he needed some 40 Horsa gliders as well as numbers of Hadrian gliders.

The Horsa was currently available only in the UK, and the movement of the required numbers to North Africa would require a tow of some 1,200 miles (1930 km) over the Atlantic and around the coast of Portugal and Spain, and then another 2,000 miles (3220 km) or so across North Africa to reach Tunisia. No glider had been towed that distance before, and it was not known even if it was feasible. To test the concept and prove the Halifax had the necessary endurance, aircraft of No. 295 Squadron towed Horsa gliders around the coast of the UK and the mission was then approved.

The gliders were modified so that their fixed landing gear units could be jettisoned after take-off to reduce drag, while the Halifax tugs were modified with long-range fuel tanks in their bomb bays. No. 2 Wing supplied the glider pilots from its pool of men left in England when most of the wing had left for Tunisia earlier in the year. An 11-week training period followed, and this this four gliders crashed with the loss of 13 men killed.

At a conference on 21 May 1943 under the auspices of No. 38 Wing RAF, the impossibility of training the bomber crews to tow and deliver 40 gliders to North Africa was discussed, and it was decided that as a priority 10 bomber crews would be fully trained to deliver some 15 gliders to North Africa by 21 June.

The Halifax and Horsa machines were moved to RAF Portreath in Cornwall to minimise the distance they would have to fly, but even the undertaking demanded a 10-hour flight to Salé in Morocco. On arrival over Salé the gliders were released to land on a sand-patch alongside the runway. Each Horsa was then fitted with the spare landing gear it was carrying in its hold, and the flight immediately took off again on the next leg of the journey to Mascara in Algeria. The journey did not end here, for the gliders' final destination was Kairouan in Tunisia. Each glider had three pilots, who changed places once an hour to relieve fatigue.

The ferry flights were made between 3 June and 7 July, and the first Horsa gliders reached Kairouan on 28 June, only 12 days before they were to be used in ‘Ladbroke’. The first stage of the flight from England involved a three-hour passage over the Bay of Biscay, and during this phase the Halifax and Horsa combinations were escorted by Bristol Beaufighter or de Havilland Mosquito long-range fighters. The tug/glider combinations cruised at 500 ft (150 m) to avoid German radar. Four hours into one flight, one Horsa snapped its tow rope while trying to avoid low cloud and ditched in the sea. Another combination was discovered by a pair of Fw 200 patrol bombers and shot down. After surviving attacks from Luftwaffe fighter patrols and experiencing weather than was often turbulent, 27 gliders reached North Africa in time for ‘Husky’ (i). Overall losses were three Halifax tugs and five Horsa gliders, together with 21 RAF aircrew and seven glider pilots killed.