The men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade first learned of the invasion plan on the 6th July, three days before take-off. In spite of the concerns that had been expressed over the operation, many within the Brigade were quite optimistic, and the various headquarters within it wrote with great confidence in their operation orders of how straightforward they expected the landings to be. The 1st Border orders certainly betrayed no misgivings as, quite incredibly, they announced that the gliders would land on the zone in neat lanes, but, by way of a worst case scenario, added that the troops should be prepared for the fact that they may land anywhere on the zone itself or else close to it.
Six airstrips had been prepared in Tunisia for their departure, all based in the vicinity of Kairouan and known simply as Strips A to F. From these the 1,730 men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade would fly to Sicily in 8 Horsa and 136 Waco gliders. The Horsas, carrying the coup-de-main force, would be towed by 7 RAF Halifaxes and 1 Albemarle of 295 and 296 Squadrons respectively, while a further 27 Albemarles and 109 C-47's of the 51st US Troop Carrier Group towed the Wacos.
Loading of the gliders began at 11:00 on the 9th July, and by 18:40 the Brigade were boarding their allotted craft and making their preparations for take-off. A few minutes later the first combination became airborne, and within 90 minutes all aircraft had left their bases and were assembling into formation.
The first problems began during the take-off. 7 gliders were lost before the armada had even left North Africa; two cast-off almost as soon as they had left the ground, while the rest had to return to base having reported various problems; ranging from dangerously unbalanced payloads in the gliders to engine malfunctions in the tug aircraft. Some time later a Waco glider was cast-off, without explanation, over North Africa, and, believing themselves to be in Sicily, the men set up an ambush position around a road in the middle of a desert; not at all the terrain that they had expected to encounter. Eventually a Jeep from a British mobile bath unit appeared and, all suddenly becoming clear, the men were offered a lift back to their base.
The loss of these gliders was nothing out of the ordinary, however, as any glider lift was prone to broken tow ropes and other difficulties. Without further mishap, the remainder of the formation reached the rendezvous point, several miles out to sea to the east of Kairouan, but thereafter the elements began to conspire against them as they turned towards Malta. Winds of up to 45mph were encountered, and this made it very difficult for the glider and tug pilots to keep in formation.
As the aircraft began to round the south-eastern coast of Malta, a Horsa and two Wacos came down in the sea, although one of the latter may have been a glider which, due to a gross error of navigation on behalf of their tug crew, was released over Malta in the belief that it was Sicily. Aboard were half of "A" Company Headquarters of the 1st Border, and when they disembarked and heard a Jeep approaching, they tried to persuade the British occupants, whom they naturally assumed were airborne troops from a different unit, to give them a left to the Battalion Rendezvous. After several refusals to cooperate and a heated exchange, it became apparent that they were in fact in Malta, and moreover that their glider was presently blocking a runway and preventing fighter aircraft from taking off.
All but 5% of the glider force had reached Malta, but the situation rapidly deteriorated as the aircraft headed north towards Sicily. The wind continued to make life very difficult for both tug and glider pilots, and numerous combinations were blown off course and lost touch with the formation. The invasion had been timed to coincide with a period of moonlight to aid visual navigation, but gathering cloud had blotted the Moon from the skies and made the conditions perilous. It was so dark that glider pilots had great difficulty even spotting their own tug aircraft, nevermind those of other combinations that occasionally came within inches of a collision. Some glider pilots suddenly realised that they were flying parallel to their tugs or had even overtaken them, which could easily result in a broken tow rope or damage to the tug engines when they re-aligned themselves and the strain of several tons of glider was suddenly felt. In this precarious manner, the increasingly fragmenting formation approached Sicily.
As the drone of aircraft engines was heard on the coastline, Italian anti-aircraft batteries opened fire, their bright muzzle flashes further complicating the already difficult job of the navigators and pilots to identify landmarks. Searchlights that had survived earlier attacks from RAF Hurricanes, scanned the skies and illuminated aircraft and gliders. It was here that the combat inexperience of the American pilots began to tell. The flak was inaccurate and posed little threat to life and limb; indeed it was later found that not one of the American aircraft had received any damage, which was hardly surprising as the flak was nowhere near the point where the gliders were to be released. But the noise and flashes panicked some of the American crews and certainly caused confusion amongst all parties. Some aircraft, miles away from the fire but close enough to be intimidated by it, turned back to North Africa with their gliders in tow, others followed suit but simply cut the gliders adrift at any height, facing in any direction, and in many cases with the knowledge that the men inside had no hope of reaching land. Most aircrews struggled with the conditions and tried to put their glider in the correct position, but the scene was so chaotic, with aircraft flying in all directions, that any sense of formation or accurate navigation was lost. The result was that the 144 gliders, less those that had been lost earlier in the flight, were for the most part scattered anywhere up to 30 miles from their landing zones, some further still. Many had been released far out to sea, much further than the prescribed distance of two miles, and so half of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, 73 gliders in all, ditched in the Mediterranean. Only 56 reached Sicily, and of these just 12 had come down on or within a respectable distance of their intended zones.