The Invasion of Sicily

General Lathburys battle-tested brigade was in April joined from England at Mascara by the 2nd Parachute Brigade (Down) and the 1st (Air-Landing) Brigade (Hicks). The operational strength of Hopkihsons 1st Airborne Division was later supplemented by Shan Hacketts 4th Parachute Brigade arriving by sea from Libya. Major-General Matthew B. Ridgways US 82nd Division was already busily training in North Africa for airborne operations in Sicily. The 82nd Division consisted of Colonel Reuben Tuckers 504th and Colonel Jim Gavins 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments and the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment. Hoppy Hopkinson persuaded General Montgomery that 1st Airborne Division was also needed in Sicily and that gliderborne and not parachute troops should lead the assault.

The Allied forces in the Mediterranean were ready for the invasion of Sicily by early July. Under the supreme command of General Eisenhower, the land forces consisted of the Fifteenth Army Group under the direction of General Alexander comprising the United States Seventh Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General George S. Patton, Jr, and the British Eighth Army under General Montgomery. The Allied troops taking part in the seaborne landings included three American and three British divisions plus one Canadian division and an independent British brigade. Powerful naval and air forces were allotted to cover 3,000 invasion ships and craft. The assault from the sea was to be preceded by American parachute landings near Gela and by British glider landings near Syracuse.

The capture of Sicily was planned as a pincer movement with the Seventh Army disembarking on the west coast between Licata and Scog-litti and the Eighth Army on the east coast south of Syracuse. Jim Gavins reinforced 505th Regiment was to seize the high ground (Piano Lupo) in the Gela area to prevent the enemy from reaching the American bridgehead; and Pip Hicks 1st (Air-Landing) Brigade was to capture the Ponte Grande canal bridge commanding the approach to the city of Syracuse. A further attack on the harbour itself was intended as a diversion. The task of seizing the bridge by coup de main was allocated to Major Ballingers C Company, 2nd South Staffords, landing on two LZs near the canal. The main body of the battalion commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel McCardie was to land on a third LZ south of the canal and move north to consolidate in the area of the bridge. Lieutenant-Colonel Brittens 1st Bn the Border Regiment was to touch down with the South Staffords; assist if necessary in holding the bridge and move on to the harbour.

The worst problem facing the airborne planners was that of the allocation of the Dakotas belonging to XII Troop Carrier Command. But differences of opinion between Ridgway and Browning seem to have been solved as on D-1 (9th July) the Air-Landing Brigade took off in the evening from Tunisian airfields to launch Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. The 2,000 British troops of the glider battalions were followed into the air shortly afterwards by Gavins 4,400 American paratroopers. The glider force numbered 137 of the American Wacos and eight Horsas to carry stores and 2-pounders, machine-guns and mortars. Clouds of dust arose as the tow ropes took the strain when their tugs taxied over the airstrips. The British pilots, who had hastily converted on to the Wacos, looked back at their passengers, waved confidently and gave the thumbs up signal.

The success of the glider operation (code-named Ladbroke) depended on surprise, and to avoid being picked up by enemy radar, a devious route was followed; the tugs making for Delimara point on the south-east coast of Malta, then turning north-east towards Sicily, passing Cap Passero and from there on to the neighbourhood of Cap Murro di Porco. Two and a half miles short of this promontory the gliders were to be released. Seven of the gliders did not even make it over the North African coastline but about ninety per cent, of the tugs entered the second leg of the journey from Malta with their charges unscathed.

The wind had begun to rise from the south-east before the airborne formation passed Malta but soon it increased to gale proportions. Flying

Conditions were made worse by the necessity to fly low to escape radar detection. Wind speeds reached forty-five mph but moderated to around thirty mph when the tugs approached Cap Passero. Several adverse factors led to about sixty per cent, of the gliders being prematurely parted from the tugs. The sparse light of the quarter-moon was of little help to the tug navigators but as the tug-glider combinations flew along the coast a wall of dust raised by the off-shore wind blotted out the landmarks completely. Many of the tugs turned away too soon, the glider pilots blindly slipping their tow ropes before crash-landing in the sea. The more fortunate of the troops clinging to the floating wooden wreckages were picked up by the passing assault craft; others including the brigade commander swam for the shore. Altogether 252 men were drowned. Only fifty-two of the gliders made landfall, and only twelve of them landed anywhere near the target.

The troops who came successfully to ground were widely scattered on the southern reaches of Syracuse. Major Ballinger, who was to lead the Ponte Grande assault, was killed immediately after stepping out of his glider but Lieutenant Withers and the fourteen men of the South Staffords who landed nearest the bridge took the objective before midnight. German demolition charges were removed from the bridge. The garrison was increased by small parties during the night and at first light on the 10th the mixed force of South Staffords and Borders amounted to seven officers and eighty other ranks; in addition to their small arms, they had one 3-in mortar, one 2-in mortar and four Bren guns. The bridge was shelled throughout the morning and casualties steadily mounted. At 15.00 hours only fifteen men remained unwounded; and then, their ammunition spent, the position was overrun by the enemy. Half an hour later a Border officer having eluded the attackers met patrols of the 17th Infantry Brigade coming up the road from the beaches; an attack was at once launched and the bridge re-taken before it could be destroyed.

In Tunisia 1st and 2nd Parachute Brigades were awaiting their orders to jump in Sicily. When news of the costly success at the Ponte Grande bridge and the fall of Syracuse was received, contingency plans for the employment of 2nd Parachute Brigade near Augusta were cancelled. On 13th July 1st Parachute Brigade received the order confirming that their attack on the Primosole bridge to secure the line of advance to Catania was to take place that night.

The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions emplaned on the evening of 13th July in 105 Dakota and eleven Albemarle aircraft. In addition, Halifaxes and Stirlings towed eight Waco and eleven Horsa gliders carrying gunners, anti-tank guns, sappers and field ambulancemen. Gerald Lathburys plan (code-named Fustian) was to land on four DZs and two LZs all west of the main road from Syracuse to Catania. The Primosole bridge spanning the River Simeto is located a few miles south of Catania. The 1st Battalion was to apprpach the bridge from both sides and the 3rd (now Yeldham) and the 2nd were to secure the high ground north of the Simeto River and south of the Gornalunga Canal. Flying in V-formation the aircraft followed the route taken via Malta by the glider brigade. Anti-aircraft gunners on board the invasion ships opened fire mistaking the Dakotas for torpedocarrying aircraft. Two were shot down and nine - after sustaining heavy damage - were forced to turn back.

The scheduled landing zones of the South Staffords near the Ponte Grande bridge.

The close formations were broken up and it was now the German and Italian anti-aircraft gunners who brought fire to bear on the low-fiying aircraft. Ten more turned back and thirty-seven crashed into the sea and on to the beaches. The pilots of the surviving planes dropped their paratroopers or advised their glider colleagues to cast-oif whenever and wherever they could. Of the 1,900 men of 1st Parachute Brigade that had taken off from North Africa, only about 250 men from the 1st and 3rd Battalions reached the Primosole bridge.

Brigadier Lathbury assigned the command of the bridge defensive positions to Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson, who ordered the majority of his troops to dig in on the north side of the river. Three anti-tank guns, two 3-in mortars, light machine-guns and a Vickers machine-gun were sited and the road mined. Earlier in the day units of Heidrichs 1st Parachute Division had flown from Rome and parachuted into the same area. A group, of Fallschirmjager were rallied during the night to evict the red devils from the Primosole bridge. Pearsons force strongly resisted but when tanks, infantry and a self-propelled gun were brought up from Catania to reinforce the German paratroopers the British troops were obliged to retire. No word had been received by Lathbury at this stage from John Frosts 2nd Battalion operating in the hills south of the river. Frost had made contact, however, with the 4th Armoured Brigade and the

dle 12.1
Literature: BritishAirborneTroops1940-45

Military History