AIRBORNE IN SICILY

A C-47 tows a CG-4 Waco glider into the air. Constructed from wood, steel and fabric they would be used extensively by the Allied airborne armies in the European theatre of operations.

Unfortunately due to high winds over Sicily on the night of 9–10 July 1943 the troops of the 82nd Airborne RCT did not find their designated drop zones. This did not impede the effectiveness of the force however.

82ND AIRBORNE

With victory in North Africa the eyes of the Allied commanders were drawn northward to what Churchill called ‘the soft underbelly of the Axis’. The choices for invasion were Southern France, the Greek peninsula or Italy. It was decided that Italy would be the best option as the defeat of this nation would completely open up the Mediterranean Sea once more to Allied shipping, allowing supplies to reach the Middle and Far East unimpeded. The first step in the invasion would be the capture of Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and defended by two corps from the Italian 6th Army reinforced by the Hermann Goering Panzer Division and 15th Panzergrenadier Division.

Command for the operation, known as ‘Husky’, was given to US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, with British General Alexander as his number two. The Allied plan was to land two armies along the south eastern corner of the island, one British, commanded by General Montgomery, and one American, commanded by General Patton. It was decided that airborne troops were to be utilised for the first time in a major invasion, employed to drop just beyond the beachheads to secure bridges, destroy enemy strongholds and slow down any attempt by the Axis to reinforce the beach defences.

The US 7th Army was to land on the beaches around the southern Sicilian town of Gela, General Matthew Ridgway, commander of the US 82nd Airborne Division was given the task of securing beyond the beachhead.

The number of aircraft in the Mediterranean was severely limited, it was decided that the British airborne would get the bulk of the gliders, making the American mission a pure parachute assault. The number of transports available to Colonel James M. Gavin, chosen to lead the combat team, limited the amount of men he could employ, 504th and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments along with their support troops were chosen for the assault and numbered 3,400 in total.

Training was carried out in Tunisia around the town of Kairouan. Mock ups of the pillboxes the troops would face were assaulted with live rounds until every man was confident of the task he had been given. The troops themselves were not told where they would be dropped until the last moment.

On the evening of 9 July 1943 the troops began to enplane their transports for the flight to their dropzones, this was flown via Malta at low level just behind the British lift. As the transports gained height the weather took a turn for the worse with heavy winds making formation flying in the dark near impossible. As a result many of the sticks were widely scattered, very few men making their designated DZs. The weather also made landing safely difficult, resulting in many landing injuries.

Despite this the paratroopers went about causing as much confusion as possible, the scattered troops causing the defenders to think they were being attacked by a much larger force. Pillboxes and important road junctions were captured, aiding greatly to the follow up seaborne invasion getting a much needed toehold on the Sicilian coast. Consolidation of the positions the 82nd had occupied followed very quickly as counter-attack was imminent.

On the morning of D+1 the Hermann Goering Division started to move south to attack the 45th Infantry and push them into the sea. Between them stood Gavin with about 250 men along the Biazza Ridge. Facing Tiger tanks with supporting infantry, the Americans were only armed with the Bazooka, which was ineffective against the German behemoth, and a single pack howitzer. After heavy losses on the American side the attack was halted, with help from naval gunfire called in by the airborne troops. Only a few German tanks made it through to the beaches and these were soon withdrawn.

Even though the drops had been disastrous in terms of how far and wide the men of the 82nd were scattered, this did not diminish from the massive effect they had on the outcome of the battle. With troops apparently everywhere, the Axis were confused and intimidated into taking immediate action and thanks to the heroic defence of the beachheads by so few men the invasion was able to grow in strength and succeed.

BRITISH AIRBORNE

The British Airbornes role in the invasion of Sicily was similar to that of the 82nd Airbornes role in securing behind the beachheads but also included the capture of two major bridges that would speed the advance of the Allies once they had landed. The first bridge was called Ponte Grande just outside of Syracuse, the capture of which would then lead to the eventual capture of Syracuse itself. The second lay further north at Primasole, again the capture of this bridge before it could be destroyed by the Axis was vital.

Due to lack of aircraft in the Mediterranean it was decided that the two attacks would take place on separate nights, the operation against Ponte Grande, codenamed ‘Ladbroke’ would take place on the night of 9 July, utilising the 1st Airlanding Brigade commanded by Brigadier Philip Hicks, just before the main seaborne landings. Whilst the Primasole mission, codenamed ‘Fustian’, involving the 1st Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Gerald Lathbury, would take place two nights later.

Training was carried out in North Africa but was limited by the number of gliders that were available and the pilots that would fly them were unfamiliar on the type, the US CG-4 Waco. These gliders could carry up to thirteen fully armed men and would be supplemented by a few British Horsa gliders, with a larger capacity. Training was extremely rudimentary, with few of the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment having more than ten hours of flying time under their belts, none having any actual combat experience.

The Brigade was made up of two battalions, one from the South Staffordshire Regiment and one from the Borders. This was reinforced by a company of sappers as well as a unit of 181st Airlanding Field Ambulance. Two companys of the South Staffs were to be landed near the bridge to capture it in a coup de main operation just before midnight of the 9th. The rest of the brigade would be landed near Syracuse to assist in its capture as well as around the bridge to form a defensive ring.

On the evening of the 9th July the men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade climbed aboard their transports and began the trip to Sicily. During the flight many of the towing aircraft, having seen little action began evasive manouvres to avoid the Axis flak as well as strong winds preventing exact navigation. This resulted in many of the gliders being released too early from the designated release point. Sixty-five of these gliders had to ditch in the sea, with the loss of over 250 men. The rest were widely scattered, the result being that only one Horsa glider managed to land within sight of the bridge. This contained a platoon of the South Staffs, commanded by Lieutenant Withers. He quickly separated his men into two sections, one swimming the river and then assaulting the bridge from both ends. The action was a success and the bridge captured and all demolition charges removed. Men from other gliders slowly made their way to the bridge and by dawn the defenders numbered some 87 troops.

Following a counter-attack by the Italians in the early morning, which was repulsed, a much larger force of two Italian battalions was formed. They attacked the bridge from several directions just before noon, with ammunition low and with only a handful of able- bodied men, the bridge fell to the Italians, many of the men becoming POWs, with a few managing to escape into the Italian countryside. Due to the British disabling the demolition charges the Italians were unable to destroy the bridge before the arrival of the lead unit coming in from the beaches, The Royal Scots Fusiliers. This unit counter-attacked the Italians and pushed them from the bridge, it was now firmly in British hands.

The 1st Parachute Brigade’s task, under the command of Brigadier Gerald Lathbury, was to capture the Primasole Bridge and was to take place on the evening of the 12/13 July. This was however delayed by 24 hours due to 8th Army preparations being slow. This bridge over the river Simeto was vital to the Allied plan of advancing up the eastern coast of Sicily to the north eastern port of Messina.

Elements of 1st Battalion were to land to the north and south of the bridge, they were then to move on the bridge from both ends and capture it in a coup de main operation. Sappers attached to the battalion would then make safe any preparations for demolition the Axis had made.

Whilst this occurred the 3rd Battalion of the brigade were to drop some miles north of the bridge and prepare a defensive screen after the destruction of some heavy Italian anti-aircraft artillery. This is where it was thought the main thrust of any enemy counter-attack would come.

The 2nd Battalion had a similar task to the 3rd but to the south of the bridge, priority being given to the capture of three high points thought to be occupied by Italian artillery and supporting infantry. With the added assistance of air-landing artillery the men of the 1st Parachute Brigade were only expected by the Allied planners to hold out for 12 hours before support came from the lead elements of the 8th Army advancing from the south.

Fallschirmjaeger men an MG42 position in Sicily. The weapon had a fearsome rate of fire, spitting out over 1,200 rounds per minute, it was respected and feared by the Allied armies.

Little did the Allied planners know was that the Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 3, part of the 1st Fallschirmjaeger Division had been moved from their base in the south of France, to Rome, where they were then dropped on the area immediately surrounding Primasole Bridge. These soldiers were hardened veterans of the Pyrrhic victory on Crete as well as fighting in the extreme conditions of Russia. The Germans had seen the importance of the bridge to the allied advance and were prepared to hold it at all costs.

As the aircraft approached the Sicilian coast they were again set upon by accurate Axis anti-aircraft fire. The American pilots again showed their lack of experience, through no fault of their own, and were widely dispersed. The Pathfinders tasked with marking the landing zones for the gliders were made redundant, some being dropped some eight miles from the designated landing zones.

Due to the highly scattered drops the men of 1st Parachute Brigade spent much of the time fumbling around in the dark trying to attain where they were and where their fellow troops were. The elements of 1st Battalion that were to drop either side of the bridge and attack immediately failed to land in their required zones. However, fifty men of the Brigade managed to form up and attacked the bridge after a quick reconnaissance saw it was defended by a similar number of Italian troops. These men duly surrendered when faced by the paratroopers attack. Shortly afterwards Brigadier Lathbury arrived at the bridge with a further forty men to reinforce the defence of the bridge and remove the demolition devices. This was followed by the bulk of 1st Battalion arriving under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Pearson.

The 3rd Battalion, who were meant to supply the northern defensive screen to the men of the 1st Battalion on the bridge were the worst scattered during the drop. The commander of the Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Yeldham only managing to rustle up some thirty-odd men during the night. With this tiny force he decided to join the men of the 1st Battalion, where they were placed some 50 metres north of the bridge to aid in its protection.

The 2nd Battalion to the south of the bridge faired a little better. Their drop was not as scattered and a platoon made up from various units assaulted ‘Johnny I’, one of three small hills to the south of the bridge, ‘Johnny I’ being the highest of these. The assault was a success and the men were soon reinforced by follow up troops coming from the DZs, including 2nd Battalion’s commander Lieutenant Colonel John Frost. The men went about consolidating the position and by dawn they started to come under fire from German machine guns on the opposing two features, ‘Johnny II’ and ‘Johnny III’, however the Germans could not counter-attack as the Para’s hill dominated the area.

By early morning of the 14th July the Germans were starting to make probing attacks on the bridge from the north, whilst in the south sporadic fighting was taking place between the hill features. Further south a raid by men of 3 Commando had captured a bridge to aid the advance of the land forces from the south. It had been a success but the Commandos, suffering heavy casualties had to abandon the bridge as no reinforcement arrived in the shape of the advancing 4th Armoured Brigade, which was in the van of the 8th Army

Meanwhile the men on ‘Johnny I’ had managed to raise a British cruiser on the only working radio on the hill. This cruiser immediately started shelling German positions and was instrumental in keeping them at bay. On the bridge the men of 1st and 3rd Battalion had been strafed by enemy fighters before being heavily shelled. This was the overture to several infantry assaults from the north, both of which were repulsed, incurring significant casualties on both sides, the Germans making good their losses, the British being dependant on stragglers still coming in from the widely dispersed drop.

By mid-afternoon another attack was put in by the Germans preceded by a massive artillery barrage. This caused the paratroops to withdraw from the north end of the bridge and take up positions in the Axis bunkers on the southern side as well as along the southern bank of the river. The paras were now desperately short of ammunition and were utilising anything that had been left behind by the retreating Italians. The bunkers were methodically destroyed by German anti-tank guns, and with the arrival of 8th Army not to be seen the British paratroopers position was extremely precarious. By 06.00 Pearson decided the bridge had to be abandoned and ordered his men to join up with 2nd Battalion on ‘Johnny I’. This was carried out with minimal casualties. The bridge now lay in enemy hands once more. By early evening the lead elements of the 8th Army started to arrive, but the bulk of the force would not reach the bridge area until midnight.

The following morning an infantry assault by the Durham Light Infantry was put in against the bridge, with heavy loss of life and without success. It was at the suggestion of Pearson that the force be sent across the river by boats some distance up river, this force could then attack the Germans in the flank. This was carried out in the early hours of 16th July, the Germans being taken by complete surprise. The Bridge was once again in Allied hands.

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