The Invasion of Sicily

Operation Fustian


Operation Fustian was scheduled for the 12th June, and during the mid-afternoon the men of the 1st Parachute Brigade made their way to the airfields to prepare for take-off, only to be informed on arrival that the operation had been postponed for 24 hours, owing to delays in the 8th Army's progress. This postponement did not come as a surprise, due to the information that the Brigade had been able to glean of how the invasion was unfolding. Having returned to camp for the night, they arrived back at the airfields at the same time on the 13th July, and received the codeword "Marston", indicating that the operation was on. At 19:00, after making their final preparations and consuming a hot meal, the paratroopers began to emplane. 20 minutes later, the first of the 116 American C-47's carrying the Brigade became airborne.


The process of emplaning, taking-off, forming-up and then flying in formation to Sicily all proceeded smoothly. The air plan directed the formation to proceed to the south-eastern tip of the island and then, generally staying 10 miles out to sea, fly north alongside the eastern coastline until they reached the mouth of the River Simeto, whereupon the aircraft would turn west and begin their final approach to the drop zones. All went well until the formation drew near to Sicily and some of the squadrons involved strayed into the airspace above the Allied fleet. It was a hazy night, making the already tricky business of aircraft identification all the harder, and as the 82nd Airborne Division had discovered to their cost two days earlier, the navy was in the habit of assuming that any aircraft that came within range of their guns was an enemy. Flak immediately came up at the aircraft and a few C-47's were shot down, the remainder lost formation during their final approach to Primosole Bridge, and so accurate navigation disappeared at this most critical of moments.


When the navy's guns fell silent, enemy batteries on the coast took over and so compounded the confusion. On the ground below, German gunners set fire to haystacks to better illuminate their targets; a sight which those in the air took to be planes that had been shot down. As on Operation Ladbroke, the nerve of some of the American pilots broke, yet the paratroopers, travelling as passengers inside their aircraft, could not be so easily cut adrift as some of the 1st Airlanding Brigade had been. In one famous instance, Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson, the commander of the 1st Parachute Battalion, drew his pistol and threatened to shoot his pilots when they turned the aircraft around and refused to fly into the flak. Pearson, one of the most distinguished and indomitable characters that the Parachute Regiment has ever produced, was not bluffing in the slightest, and if it proved necessary he could have afforded to execute both men because a member of his stick happened to be a former RAF pilot who could take the controls. Faced with this alternative, they opted to brave the anti-aircraft guns and headed towards the drop zone.


Once again, a lack of training, difficult conditions and heavy anti-aircraft fire sowed great confusion amongst the approaching C-47's. Aircraft were seen to be flying in all directions as their crews tried to identify landmarks, and some of the American pilots went to great lengths to find the correct area, spending several hours over Sicily and making repeated runs across the zone, coming under heavy fire as they did so. Yet the scene remained one of complete chaos. When the green lights came on and the men began to jump, several aircraft took evasive action from anti-aircraft fire, hurling the paratroopers about the fuselage as they did so; a few men became entangled in their static lines and could not jump, while those who could were slowed in their exit, thus significantly decreasing their chances of meeting up on the ground. There were numerous cases of men jumping at heights of just 200 feet or less, which resulted in various injuries from heavy landings; Brigadier Lathbury descended in this manner and was fortunate enough to land on soft soil which absorbed much of the shock.


As a consequence of all of these problems, the vast majority of the 1st Parachute Brigade landed neither on or near to their intended zones; most were within a few miles of them, some much further afield, and one party, incredibly, even came down on the Italian mainland. Of the 116 aircraft which participated in Operation Fustian, 26, almost a quarter of the entire force, returned to base in the face of heavy flak without having dropped any men at all, 3 were shot down with the paratroopers on board and a further 8 lost on the return flight, and of the remainder, just 39 were able to drop their sticks on or close to the drop zones.


Unlike the 1st Airlanding Brigade, whose gliders had landed without the benefit of pathfinders to guide them in, 6 men of the 21st Independent Parachute Company had accompanied the 1st Parachute Brigade with the intention of setting up a beacon on the glider landing zone immediately to the south of the bridge, and flares to indicate the position of the River Simeto. Through no fault of their own the mission failed utterly. The two men with the Eureka beacon were dropped 8 miles from the drop zone, too far to be of any use. They had also been given the order to jump at a height of just 200 feet and so both were knocked unconscious by the force of the landing, and, upon coming to their senses, they found that the beacon had been wrecked. They eventually fell in with a party of stragglers from the 3rd Battalion, and involved themselves in numerous successful skirmishes against Italian troops before reaching the British lines. Another party, who were to set up the flares, were dropped on target but a full 90 minutes after the intended time, long after the 1st Parachute Brigade had landed. As it would have been quite pointless to bother setting up the flares, they proceeded instead to Primosole Bridge and assisted the troops there. To add to the woes of the Independent Company on this, their first operation, their highly respected commander, Major Lander, who was not involved in the drop but had flown as a passenger in one of the aircraft towing the gliders so that he could observe the work of his men on the ground, was killed when his aircraft was shot down.