Sicily had been captured, but the campaign had not been as successful as the Allies had hoped. It had taken them five weeks to capture the island, during which time they had suffered nearly 24,000 casualties, somewhat longer and costlier than had been anticipated. They had inflicted some 29,000 casualties on the Axis forces and taken 140,000 prisoners, although most of these were Italian. Yet 39,000 Germans and 70,000 Italian soldiers had escaped, withdrawing in good order with 10,000 vehicles and most of their heavy equipment. This failure to close the trap was a dire disappointment to the Allies, in view of their air and naval supremacy, and therefore the chance was missed to leave mainland Italy defenceless and open to swift exploitation. This oversight cost them dear when invaded the mainland in September. Far from racing up the spine of Italy and spilling out into Central Europe, as Churchill had hoped, the Allies found themselves bogged down and heavily engaged in Italy until the end of the war.
Despite the slightly sour taste to the end of the conquest of Sicily, it had nevertheless been captured, and much that had been hoped would follow its fall had come to pass. The mere acquisition of the island had made the Mediterranean a good deal safer for sea traffic, also Mussolini's government collapsed a fortnight into the invasion, sooner than expected, and consequently Italy was all but out of the war. Furthermore, the Americans, initially sceptical, were persuaded of the merits of expanding the campaign into Italy and committed themselves to it. However untidy the conquest of Sicily had been, from planning to a command and control perspective, it was nevertheless an undeniable and significant strategic victory.
The airborne adventure, however, had been a complete failure. The objectives of the British and American operations had either not been achieved or had only secured limited success on a wing and a prayer. The primary objective of the two British operations had been the capture of bridges, yet neither was held until the ground forces arrived, who in turn had to put in their own attacks to capture them.
The reason for this failure had nothing to do with the level of training or the capabilities of the soldiers of the 1st Airborne Division, the blame can rest only on the appalling failure of the air plan which had scattered them miles from their objectives. Of the 1,730 men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, no more than 87 defended the Ponte Grande Bridge at the height of the battle. Of the 1,856 men of the 1st Parachute Brigade, only 295 took up positions around Primosole Bridge. Of the remainder, the majority of the 1st Airlanding Brigade was struggling in the sea, while those glider troops and parachutists who had found land were scattered up to 30 miles from their intended zones. Given these statistics and the severity of the enemy counterattacks, it is astonishing that both bridges remained in their hands for the best part of a day before they were abandoned. Furthermore, it should be noted that both parties retained control of their respective bridges long after the, admittedly optimistic, arrival time of the 8th Army.
From a soldierly perspective it can be said that the troops did their best and, where circumstances allowed them to, performed admirably. It can also be said that if no airborne attack had been made on the bridges then it must be assumed that the enemy would have demolished them in the face of a conventional assault by ground forces. In the few hours that the airborne troops held these bridges, they had removed the demolition charges from them and there was not enough time for the enemy to replace these before the 8th Army arrived, thus enabling their clean capture. Yet this cannot excuse the appalling failings in the plans which had thrust the troops into these impossible positions, nor can it justify the dreadful cost that they paid in terms of dead and captured. Airborne troops are exceptionally well trained, expensive therefore, and limited in their numbers; it is consequently wholly unsatisfactory that entire brigades of them should be decimated before they had even reached the ground.
The 1st Border's war diary gives a rather sobering assessment of the fate of its 796 men who participated in the invasion. Of this number 11% did not make it anywhere near to Sicily, but cast-off over North Africa and Malta. 64% of the Battalion, 506 men, landed in the sea, of whom 1% became casualties as a result of enemy action, 18% reached the shore where, to one degree or another, they participated in the action on land, 57% clung to their gliders and were eventually rescued, while 23% drowned. Only a quarter of the 1st Border, 195 men, landed in Sicily itself, and of these 30% were casualties when the fighting died down; 12% due to enemy action, 18% as a result of hard landings (the diary notes that handcarts carried in the gliders had a tendency break free of their lashings upon landing, thus injuring many of the passengers).
The key points of failure can be listed as follows:
1. Bad weather and insufficient training for aircrews. The US pilots were experienced peacetime fliers but their navigational abilities at night were notoriously bad, made all the worse by their custom of flying in groups of five with only the lead aircraft possessing a navigator; a system which encouraged chaos as it would only require this aircraft to make a mistake or be shot down for the remainder to be completely lost. The RAF contingent, accounting for 25% of the 1st Airlanding Brigade's lift, had much more experience of flying and navigating in darkness, and so it was hoped that their aircrews would perform better, and indeed the statistics reflect some improvement, but it would be wrong to imply that their part in the operation can be considered a success; at best it can be said that the RAF delivered their gliders in a manner that was not quite so awful as the Americans. For both British and American aircrews, the greatest contributing factor to the appallingly scattered drop was the high winds encountered on the approach to Sicily. Such conditions would have challenged even the very best of aircrews, and this above all others is the reason why so many gliders landed in the sea. Aircraft were blown off course and out of formation, and the veiling of the Moon behind clouds robbed them off the opportunity to correct their bearings by sighting landmarks over Sicily.
2. Battle inexperience of the American aircrews. As previously stated, the US pilots were experienced peacetime fliers, but they had no operational experience and had not encountered flak before. Already struggling with the poor conditions, anti-aircraft fire sowed a considerable amount of confusion amongst all pilots, even those of experience and steady nerve, and made navigation even harder. Some pilots panicked at the mere sight of flak, even though it was ineffective and posed little danger to them; indeed not a single American aircraft involved in Operation Ladbroke was damaged by ground fire. A few pilots immediately turned for home with their gliders in tow, others merely jettisoned their charges with no regard for the fate of those inside. During the final approach to Sicily, the aircraft were to climb to specified release heights and cut the gliders free 2 miles from the coast. In extreme cases, some were released at low altitudes at distances of up to 6 miles out to sea with no hope whatsoever of reaching land. The poor conditions were chiefly to blame for the majority of the gliders falling short of Sicily and landing in the sea, but there are cases where the conduct of the crews cannot be explained by this; for them it was nothing short of cowardice and murder.
3. The failure to employ pathfinders. The perils of navigating in darkness were well-known and it was realised that an airborne drop could easily be scattered. The solution was the pathfinders; small groups of men who were dropped on the zones half an hour in advance of the main force to set up the beacons that would leave the approaching aircraft in no doubt of where their zone was. However it was decided that no pathfinders would be used during Operation Ladbroke for fear that their premature arrival on the zones would alert the defenders. This was a poor conclusion to draw as it would be very hard for landings of such a small size to be observed at night, and their arrival half an hour in advance of the main force is an utterly negligible amount of time to court serious enemy reaction. Pathfinders were used during Operation Fustian, but due to complications during the flight, they either arrived over the drop zones at the same time as the main force or long after, thus they were quite useless. Had both operations used pathfinders and deployed them correctly, it could not be hoped that the entire force would arrive on target, but certainly the vast majority would have, or at the very least only scattered across the surrounding area and not up to 30 miles away. It should be pointed out that the pathfinding movement was a new one, and at the time of Sicily the preferred method of their deployment was to use groups of only two or three men to mark the zones. Should such a small party be dropped wide of the zone, fail to meet each other on the ground or have the misfortune to be delayed by enemy action, it is highly unlikely that they would be in a position to set up their equipment in time for the main drop. Later operations would see an increase in the number of pathfinders used until, towards the end of the war, it became commonplace for the entire force to be deployed with whole platoons of 60 men responsible for defending and marking each zone.
4. Poor selection of landing zones. None of the zones assigned to the 1st Airborne Division in Sicily could be described as ideal for the task, and those given to the 1st Airlanding Brigade on Operation Ladbroke clearly indicate the difficulties. They were small, difficult to locate in darkness, and were strewn with obstacles, rocks, trees and stone walls, that could easily foul a fragile glider landing at 90mph. Glider troops had been chosen over parachutists for this operation as it was felt that their ability to land whole units intact and ready for immediate action would greatly reduce the chance of a scattered drop throwing the entire operation into chaos. Yet in such rough country, it would have been more sensible to use parachutists, who are not overly particular on what manner of ground they land on. For Operation Fustian, the report of the 1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery summed up the prevailing difficulties with landing zone selection, "Much more consideration earlier in the planning of the operation must be given to the choice of Landing Areas. They should be given preference over Drop Zones if the gliders are to land so that the guns can be readily available and fit for action. Officer Commanding Glider Pilot Regiment and Officer Commanding Independent Parachute Company must be present when the selection of these areas is made. The fullest and latest Intelligence Reports must be available up to the last minute. For example on Landing Area 8 there were several rows of telegraph cables inside and parallel with the road that were not reported on Intelligence Reports; also, during the immediate weeks, the corn crop had been cut and shocked, which further obstructed an already small area."
5. Reliance on Waco gliders. Although a perfectly capable glider, the Waco was smaller than the British Horsa, and this had serious implications for the effectiveness of those troops travelling in them. A Horsa could carry a complete rifle platoon, but a Waco could only support half of one, and if, as was often the case, these two elements did not link up on the ground, their effectiveness as a fighting force was naturally dented. This was even more serious a matter for the gliders carrying anti-tank guns. Again, a British Horsa could carry both a 6-pounder gun, its towing Jeep, and an ammunition trailer. The Waco could not carry both the gun and Jeep, so these were split between two gliders in the hope that they would find each other on the ground. In Sicily, the experience of the crew of one of the 2nd South Staffords anti-tank guns was typical; their glider, carrying the gun, had not only missed its zone, but it was later found that the Jeep had done likewise and had come down 8 miles away. With no means of moving the gun, they had no choice but to render it unserviceable to the enemy and abandon it.
6. Loss of support weapons. A grievous loss in manpower was not the only handicap imposed on the airborne troops through their scattered deployment, but the heavy support weapons, such as anti-tank guns, mortars and Vickers medium machine guns, that any infantryman relies upon in major engagements, were for the most part lost on the drop. Resistance at the Ponte Grande bridge was already perilous due to the small numbers defending it, but the biggest impediment to their defence was a complete lack of heavy weapons and an insufficient supply of small arms ammunition. Had these been available in even tolerable quantities, it is very possible that the attacking Italians could have been kept well at bay until the relieving 8th Army troops arrived. Similarly at Primosole Bridge, the 1st Parachute Brigade was severely hampered in its efforts to hold its ground through the lack of an abundance of weaponry heavier than that of a Bren gun. In the 2nd Battalion war diary for the morning of the 14th July, John Frost wrote: "Positions still under fire which is now reinforced with mortar fire. Owing to the fact that none of the Battalion heavy weapons - Medium Machine Guns and 3" Mortars were available it was quite out of the question to take any counter action against this, since it was not within the range of our Brens and we were anxious to conserve all possible ammunition. All through that morning we were to feel the need of these weapons which had they been available would have saved us many casualties."
General Montgomery wrote in his diary, "The big lesson is that we must not be dependent on American transport aircraft, with pilots that are inexperienced in operational flying. Our airborne troops are too good and too scarce to be wasted." This was the key point that was accepted in the aftermath of Sicily; the British had to raise their own squadrons that were wholly dedicated to the airborne forces and could cater for their every need. This was only fair on the Americans because by lending the 51st Troop Carrier Wing to the 1st Airborne Division, they had deprived their own 82nd Airborne Division of aircraft and this had a direct impact on the scale of their operations in Sicily. By raising their own specialist formations the British would not only be removing this obligation, but moreover the exclusive nature of the aircrews would enable them to hone their skills to ensure better results; unfamiliarity with the airborne role and training being improvised at the last minute had been a major handicap during the invasion. By the end of 1943, the three squadrons and glider pilot training unit of 38 Wing of the RAF had been expanded into ten squadrons of 38 Group. Several months later, in early 1944, a further five squadrons were raised under 46 Group, a sixth being added in the latter half of the year.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sicily landings, however, the very future of the airborne forces movement was in doubt. General Eisenhower summed up the prevailing view with the words, "I do not believe in the airborne division. I believe that airborne troops should be organized in self-contained units, comprising infantry, artillery and special services, all of about the strength of a regimental combat team." In British terminology, this prevented airborne units from exceeding the size of an Independent Brigade Group of 2,000 men. The impact of this would be to severely restrict the scope of future airborne operations so that only limited raids on single objectives could realistically be contemplated. This was in contrast to the envisaged deployment of an airborne division, where all key buildings, bridges, road junctions and population centres within a diameter of approximately five miles would be seized.
Yet these reorganisation plans were soon abandoned, largely thanks to a very successful airborne operation that the Americans carried out against the Japanese in New Guinea in September 1943, which, although it was mounted on a scale no larger than any of the Sicily drops, proved that a relatively large formation of airborne soldiers could be deployed effectively. The airborne divisions therefore remained in the field as the potent and flexible weapons that they always were. Before this took place, however, the 1st Airborne Division came very close to being restructured along the lines of Eisenhower's thinking; Major-General Hopkinson had drawn up plans to break up his Division into Brigade Groups consisting of mixed parachute and glider elements. These plans had to be abandoned in September 1943, the same month as the airborne drop in the Pacific, when the Division was sent to fight in Italy; though in deference to the disaster that had unfolded in Sicily, they arrived in Taranto from the sea, not the air.
When Germany undertook an exclusively airborne invasion of Crete in 1941, they won a great strategic victory but suffered such appalling losses that Hitler forbade further airborne operations, although some limited exceptions were still to come. After Sicily, the Allies found themselves in a similar position and were tempted to follow the same precedent, but rather than dismantle the airborne movement, they placed their trust in its potential and pledged themselves to learn from the experience and improve their methods.
It is often said that more is learned from a defeat than from a victory, and much that had gone awry with the airborne drops in Sicily had been significantly improved when the Allies invaded Normandy in June 1944. There were still disasters to come in the Airborne world, and indeed the war was to end without a single major operation either achieving its objectives or doing so with a satisfactory casualty rate. Nevertheless, from these uncertain beginnings the movement quickly became an established wing of the armed forces, and remains so to this day.