Maps

The Invasion of Sicily

Operation Ladbroke

Pictures

A Waco glider belonging to the 2nd South Staffordshires

A Horsa glider near Syracuse

A Waco glider in Sicily, July 1943, gutted by fire

A Waco glider which came to grief during the landing

A recent photograph taken on what was LZ2

 

The 56 gliders carrying the 1st Airlanding Brigade that reached Sicily were for the most part scattered all across the south-eastern corner of the island, and many spent the day trying to find their units, linking up with other small groups as they went along. The case of Lieutenant Broadbridge and half of his No.22 Platoon of "D" Company, 2nd South Staffords, is perhaps the most extreme. Their Waco glider landed 56 miles to the west of LZ1, and it was not until the early evening of the 12th July that they finally rejoined the Battalion, having suffered no casualties despite several brushes with the enemy, and, quite incredibly under the circumstances, they had managed to bring all of their kit with them, including a handcart.

 

Others who had landed closer to the Brigade's area of operations were able to take on a more offensive role. It had been planned that the whole of "B" Company of the 2nd South Staffordshires would attack an Italian strong-point, codenamed "Bilston", sited on the main road leading to the Ponte Grande, but in the event only a half of one of their four platoons, No.11, was in a position to carry this out. Their glider had caught fire after landing and a group of nearby Italians were quick to attack them, but the small band of Staffords, led by the Company second-in-command, Captain Foot, fought them off. They then made their way to "Bilston" and, having gathered in a few men of the 1st Border on the way, attempted to overcome its garrison, but the position was too strong for such a small party and they were compelled to fall back. In so doing they lost contact with their Border comrades, but sometime later they took in a few stray Royal Engineers and made another attack. Yet this was also repulsed, and Captain Foot decided to abandon any subsequent attempts in favour of heading a mile to the north with the idea of having a crack at "E" Company's objective, a similar strong-point named "Walsall". Once again the defence here proved too much for such a small group to penetrate, and so Foot led his men on to the Ponte Grande.

 

Colonel Jones, the Deputy Brigade Commander, had landed on the edge of a cliff and, after wandering inland with other members of Brigade HQ, encountered No.2 Section of the 1st Border's Reconnaissance Platoon. The now 14-strong group advanced towards the Santa Teresa railway station and arrived, after a brief skirmish, at 04:00. Realising that it would be too perilous for them to attack it in the dark they decided to shelter in a nearby farm building to await dawn. At 07:00 the British naval bombardment commenced and, in answer to a nearby Italian gun battery which opened fire on the beaches, shells began to fall in the area, some very close to the farm. An hour later the Reconnaissance Section went out to locate the battery and found it to the south of the station. It consisted of 5 guns in an area measuring 100 x 40 yards, containing numerous dugouts and sand bag emplacements. Colonel Jones decided to attack at 11:15.

 

In the first phase, Private Cox used grenades to set fire to an area of long, dry grass astride the battery position in order to create a smokescreen to cover his comrades as they made their way into position. 4 men with two Bren guns then put a burst of heavy fire on the Italians whilst the assault group, which had been able to get within 40 yards of the position under cover, surged forward. Lieutenant Budgeon with two British and one American glider pilot armed with Sten guns made up the first wave, Colonel Jones, Major Tomkins and 4 riflemen of the Reconnaissance Platoon followed with the second. Grenades were thrown into dugouts and tents, and such was the shock and violence of the attack that the garrison surrendered almost immediately. The assault force suffered no casualties, although it was found that a captured glider pilot was hurt when a grenade was thrown into the dug-out in which he was held. Of the Italians, approximately 6 were killed, a further 6 wounded, and 40 taken prisoner. Having rounded up the survivors, Colonel Jones and his small force proceeded to dismantle what they could of the guns to render them unserviceable, they threw ranging tables into the fires that had broken out within the battery, and Major Tompkins indulged in what the official report described as "a career of arson", setting tents alight and anything else that stood a chance of being flammable. At about this time a Company of infantry from the 2nd Battalion The Northamptonshire Regiment arrived, having had pre-arranged orders to silence the battery, only to find that their work had been done for them. The battery's ammunition stock was destroyed a few hours later.

 

The activities of the remainder of the widely scattered 1st Airlanding Brigade on the 10th July can be simply summarised as a plethora of small-scale actions by groups of men who were lost or had landed too far from their objectives to be of any assistance to the main parties, roaming the Sicilian countryside, cutting telephone wires and attacking any enemy positions that could be found.

 

As an example of how improvised these efforts could be, Sergeant McSherry and a comrade of the 1st Border were washed ashore near a coastal battery protected by several machine guns. Armed with just 6 grenades between them, remarkably they decided to venture a minor attack. They threw two grenades at an Italian position before rapidly changing position and finding some cover. As hoped, a party of Italians emerged and approached the area where they had been. They threw their remaining grenades at this group and went into hiding once again, later making contact with the rest of the Brigade.

 

In some cases these troops took great hauls of Italian prisoners, many of whom were quite eager to surrender. Lieutenant Hardy of the 1st Border had landed in the sea but was close enough to the shore to reach land. With his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Britten, he scaled a cliff only to find himself staring at an Italian machine-gun position on the top of it. The Italian crew were every bit as surprised, so Hardy seized the initiative and told them, in his worst pidgin Italian, "La guerra finito, Mussolini kaput". The Italians promptly surrendered, handed over their weapons and, when asked, even instructed the two officers how to use them. It was quite impossible for two men wandering across hostile country to take any prisoners with them, so they left the Italians to their own devices and pushed on to the Ponte Grande bridge. Having encountered Lieutenant Green on the way, they later ran in to a much larger group of 60 Italians, both soldiers and civilians, who also surrendered after Hardy repeated the same bluff. Having given them orders to destroy their weapons, which they duly did, the three officers departed to the friendly cheers of those they left behind. They reached the bridge at 20:00 that evening.

 

Captain Buchanan, the Chaplain of the 2nd South Staffords, also in the company of just one other man, was captured almost immediately by a group of Italians. Not in the slightest put off by this development, he proceeded to discuss the matter with their officer, telling him that Allied troops had landed all around them, they were surrounded therefore, and he suggested that it would be better if they became his prisoners instead. He was not the only man of the Brigade to use this white lie that night, and as in many other cases it had an immediate demoralising effect on the Italians. The officer discussed this worrying news with his men and they agreed to surrender. Buchanan disarmed them and led them off to where he hoped to find the rest of the battalion. On the way they were fired on by British troops, who no doubt assumed that the two British men had to be prisoners of the much larger body of Italians, rather than the other way around. Fortunately no one was hurt, and Buchanan was quick to explain the situation.

 

The experiences of Private Etherington of the Staffords were somewhat extreme. He and two of his fellows spotted a group of 120 Italians near a cave. They were themselves then seen, but instead of coming under fire, an Italian officer waved a white flag and approached to parlay. Using sign language he managed to convey that they wished to surrender. The three men found that the Italians, who appeared somewhat pleased to become prisoners of war, were carrying suitcases as well as their weapons, and so had clearly made their preparations to capitulate some time in advance. Quite incapable of looking after such a large body of men, they gave the Italians instructions to throw their weapons away and walk towards the coast, knowing that sooner or later they would bump into the 8th Army.

 

The 1st Airlanding Brigade ceased to participate in front line fighting when the 8th Army troops relieved them, however they remained in Sicily for several days before being shipped back to North Africa. In these early days of the invasion, they were still needed as a reserve force, holding areas behind the front until the 8th Army could be landed in such strength as to properly secure them.

 

After the Ponte Grande bridge had been recaptured, the 1st Airlanding Brigade assumed responsibility for its defence whilst the 17th Infantry Brigade pushed on to Syracuse. They encountered stiff resistance as they drew near to the town, but once their attack was properly underway there was little to deny them passage and the matter was settled in just two hours. On the next day, 11th July, the 1st Border moved into the town and took charge of it. The 1st Airlanding Brigade remained in these positions for several days, passing the time by resting, re-arming themselves, salvaging what they could of their equipment, and not least recovering and burying the dead. During the afternoon of the 13th July, the Brigade received orders to return to North Africa, and late on the following evening they arrived back at Sousse. Of the 1,730 men who had taken part, only 800 returned with this party. Many of the remainder were as yet unaccounted for; some who had landed far from their zones reached the Allied lines over the coming weeks, a great many who had been plucked from the sea by the Navy later returned to Sousse via Malta, Algiers, even Egypt. Total casualties, of dead, wounded and missing, were put at 605 all ranks, of whom 326 had drowned.