A Bren gun team of the 4th Parachute Battalion during a training exercise in July 1943

A soldier of the 4th Parachute Battalion throws a grenade during a training exercise near Sousse in July 1943

A section of the 4th Parachute Battalion carrying out a mock assault during a training exercise near Sousse in July 1943

A Vickers medium machine gun team during a training exercise in 1943

A PIAT team during a training exercise in 1943


In 1943, the Airborne soldier was still a comparative newcomer to warfare, who had intrigued and worried generals ever since German paratroopers had achieved spectacular success during the invasion of the Low Countries in May 1940. Yet these same generals had been schooled in the use of traditional, motorised armies and consequently were a little baffled as to how this new weapon should best be used.


Part of the reason for this was that very few airborne operations had previously been carried out, and so the Allies had little experience to draw from in the effective deployment of these troops. Sicily was to be the first airborne operation ever undertaken by the US Army, while their British counterparts had formerly mounted just five; none of which had involved more than a single battalion of 500 men. A complete airborne division typically consists of 10,000 men, yet this dramatic escalation in scale would not prove to be so complicating a factor for Sicily as none of the envisaged operations required the use of a force exceeding that of a Brigade Group of approximately 2,000 men.


Airborne soldiers were superbly trained, yet their ethos was to be few in number, lightly armed, and dropped deep into enemy territory at night; almost blindly given the navigational competence of 1943. If they landed on target then their impact could be devastating, if not the consequences could be disastrous. Airborne warfare was still in the experimental stages and many painful lessons would have to be learnt before the Allies would begin to understand how these troops should be deployed.


The main infantry strength of the 1st Airborne Division was provided by the 1st, 2nd and 4th Parachute Brigades and the gliderborne 1st Airlanding Brigade. Of these only the 1st Parachute Brigade had seen active service, fighting with great distinction throughout the Tunisian Campaign from November 1942 to March 1943, yet its losses during this time had been such that a significant proportion of its ranks were fresh recruits. The 1st Airlanding and 2nd Parachute Brigades had been in existence since October 1941 and June 1942 respectively, but neither had been tested on the battlefield. The 4th Parachute Brigade had only been formed in December 1942, and so, for want of additional training, was not entirely prepared for combat operations.