Maps

The Invasion of Sicily

Operation Fustian

Pictures

A British vehicle approaches Primosole Bridge

A Jeep approaches Primosole Bridge

British troops crossing Primosole Bridge after the battle

British troops crossing Primosole Bridge after the battle

A British grave near Primosole Bridge

 

For those dug-in around Primosole Bridge, the early morning was not so taxing. An enemy armoured vehicle had approached the bridge to put in an attack, but it was swiftly despatched by a Gammon bomb. Thereafter the only trace of enemy activity came from the obvious signs of difficulty that the 2nd Battalion were in to the south, and stray Italians who came forward to surrender, having bolted for cover when the first parachutists had landed during the night. The bridge garrison made use of this lull to better establish their positions, dig deeper defences, and take over abandoned enemy dugouts and improve them in any way that they could.

 

During the late morning the first clouds of enemy retaliation could be seen gathering. At 10:00, a group of Messerschmitt 109 fighters straffed the bridge defences, and during the late morning a small number of enemy troops were spotted in the distance, stepping out of two trucks and advancing towards the bridge. When they were a mile away, the 1st Battalion's mortars put a few bombs in amongst them, inflicting some casualties and putting the remainder to flight.

 

Amongst the numerous handicaps that the Brigade was forced to endure at this time was an almost complete lack of wireless communications. Their No.22 sets, the standard radio used by the Airborne Forces, had been dropped with the troops inside parachute containers, but in the dark and under enemy fire it proved very difficult to retrieve any. In the end the entire Brigade had just two sets with which to contact the outside world; one with the 1st Battalion and the other with the Forward Observation Officer attached to the 2nd Battalion.

 

Before the Brigade had left North Africa, Brigadier Lathbury had been informed that No.3 Commando would be landing 10 miles to the south of them to capture a bridge that would speed the arrival the 8th Army. It had been hoped that Commando patrols would link-up with the Brigade during the night, bringing news of the successful capture of their bridge as well as the progress of the relieving forces, yet they did not materialise and no sign of an advance to the south could be detected. It was not until 09:30 on the 14th July that the 1st Battalion's radio managed to make contact with the 4th Armoured Brigade, leading the 8th Army's advance. They gave them the coded signal "Marston One", to indicate that Primosole Bridge had been captured intact, but within the hour the set lost contact with the 4th Armoured and did not regain it.

 

The Brigade still had no word of what was happening further south of them. In fact, No.3 Commando had managed to capture their bridge, despite considerable difficulty and confusion, chiefly arising from the fact that their operation had been conceived and launched on the same day, and also because they too had encountered the German paratroopers that had arrived in Sicily the previous day, not the half-hearted Italian resistance that they had been anticipating. The Commandos performed brilliantly despite having suffered severe casualties, almost half of their force, but the German pressure was such that they had no option but to abandon the bridge, having held it long after the time when the 50th Division was expected to relieve them. This Division had been badly delayed in intense fighting for possession of Lentini, and they did not arrive in the area of the bridge until after nightfall on the 14th July.

 

The Observer based with the 2nd Battalion had more success with his radio set, eventually making contact with the Royal Navy cruiser which had been detailed to provide the Brigade with artillery support. Its first shells were brought to bear at 09:30, and not only did it lift the morale of the 2nd Battalion to hear friendly guns coming to their aid, but it also made a significant contribution to keeping at bay the German troops who had been edging ever close to "Johnny I" and had made life exceptionally difficult for the paratroopers, who, with no support weapons of their own, could do almost nothing to deter them.

 

At midday, enemy action around the bridge became more serious when the area was heavily shelled for an hour before a formation of infantry launched a probe against the 3rd Battalion, who swiftly repulsed it. Enemy aircraft machine-gunned the area again, and at 14:10 the 1st Battalion were attacked by infantry, advancing under cover of smoke, first on their left and then on their right, yet despite having incurred a number of casualties these were both driven off.

 

Some of these losses were made good by the steady arrival, throughout the day, of stragglers who had been dropped wide of their zones. Even so Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson's force around the bridge remained very small for the task in hand, though like those who had defended the Ponte Grande bridge four days earlier, their biggest impediment at this time was a shortage of ammunition. As a consequence of this and their dwindling numbers, Pearson ordered the defence to concentrate into a tight pocket around the northern end of the bridge.

 

At 15:00 the shelling resumed, and as before it proved to be both heavy and accurate, causing more casualties amongst the defenders. Under cover of this bombardment, the enemy established themselves extremely close to the British defences in preparation for an attack which, when it came at 16:00, was duly thrown back, but only just. The shelling started afresh whilst German infantry applied increasing pressure to the defensive pocket. At 17:05, by now very low on ammunition and in danger of being overwhelmed, Brigadier Lathbury ordered Pearson to abandon the positions north of the bridge and withdraw his men to the southern bank in the hope of holding out a little longer. Despite being under heavy small arms fire at the time, this move was completed without loss.

 

There were several concrete pill box positions around the southern approaches to the bridge, which the Brigade made full use of. The surrounding terrain, however, was not at all suited to a defence as it was devoid of cover, and for want of anything better the majority of the men established themselves amongst the reeds lining the riverbank. The Germans attempted to follow up the withdrawal in the hope of pushing the Brigade off the bridge completely and setting up their own bridgehead on the southern bank, in anticipation of the arrival of the relieving British ground forces. The Brigade's fire, a significant proportion of which now came from captured enemy machine guns, prevented them from doing this. Thereafter shelling and heavy small arms fire continued to pin down the paratroopers, to which they could make little reply due to a lack of ammunition. Meanwhile the Germans proceeded to systematically weaken an already precarious defensive position, using their anti-tank guns to destroy the pill boxes one at a time, and also setting the reed defences alight to remove its cover.

 

The 8th Army had been expected to arrive at first light, but as the evening drew on there was no sign of their approach. At 18:30, German troops were seen to be crossing the River Simeto some 400 yards to the east, and as the British neither had the manpower nor the ammunition to resist a determined attack from this direction, it was clear to all that the bridge could no longer be held. At 19:15, with their ammunition almost exhausted and enemy troops crossing the river in ever increasing numbers, Brigadier Lathbury ordered the bridge to be abandoned, with the men proceeding in small groups to the 2nd Battalion's positions in the hills to the south. Lathbury had no idea whether Lieutenant-Colonel Frost and his men still held these positions, and he had good reason for suspecting the worst as heavy enemy small arms fire was being brought to bear on him from that direction. Yet it was found that the 2nd Battalion were still occupying "Johnny I", and the vast majority of those who had survived the bridge battle reached their positions safely. Just half an hour after the withdrawal order had been given, the 4th Armoured Brigade, the vanguard of the 8th Army, arrived on the scene, however the main body following up, although pushing on with great speed, did not reach the area until midnight.

 

The 151st Infantry Brigade, consisting entirely of battalions of the Durham Light Infantry, took over from the 1st Parachute Brigade, with one of their battalions relieving the 2nd Parachute Battalion on "Johnny I", and the other two moving towards the bridge area. At 08:00 on the 15th July, the German positions around the bridge were heavily shelled and machine gunned by tanks and other armoured vehicles attached to the 50th Division. When this curtain of fire lifted, the 9th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry put in an attack to retake the bridge. They were led forward, however, in a most tactless fashion with the intention of carrying out a simple frontal assault across the open ground. As a consequence, their attack failed and cost them very heavy losses.

 

Later in the day, Brigadier Lathbury and Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson, who knew the surrounding terrain very well, attended a conference at which the commander of the 151st Brigade proposed that another of his battalions should undertake a similar attack to the first. Pearson, who was notorious for being blunt with his superiors if he disagreed with them, said, "Well if you want to lose another bloody battalion that's the right way to do it." With Lathbury's encouragement, Pearson suggested that they would do much better to cross the river unopposed during the night, some distance upstream of the bridge, and then surprise the Germans with an attack in their flank at first light. This method was agreed upon, and during the night of the 15th/16th July, Pearson personally guided a fresh battalion of the Durham Light Infantry across the River Simeto and then left them to carry out their attack. He had given their commander some suggestions as to how to carry this out to optimum effect and minimal casualties, however this advice was ignored and in the event the battalion suffered a number of unnecessary losses. Nevertheless, their attack was a complete success and the bridge was back in British hands by 06:00 that morning.

 

Just an hour later, the 1st Parachute Brigade boarded vehicles to transport them to Syracuse for embarkation back to North Africa. Their casualties had been heavy. Of the 295 men who had participated in the fighting around Primosole Bridge, 27 had been killed and 75 wounded. In addition, of the 1,856 men of the 1st who had flown into battle, 313 were still missing as of the 28th July 1943; some of these may have been killed, others taken prisoner, but a few were still on the run behind enemy lines and would yet rejoin the Brigade over the coming weeks. The final casualty figure, including the dead and wounded, was put at 295.