The Invasion of Sicily

Operation Fustian


An aerial photograph of the Primosole Bridge area


As planned, Montgomery's 8th Army was now advancing north towards Messina along the heavily defended coastal road. One of the main barriers in their path was Primosole Bridge, a crude lattice-work structure spanning the River Simeto six miles to the south of Catania. To be sure of a swift passage across the waterway, the 1st Parachute Brigade were ordered capture it during the night of the 12th/13th July, though due to delays in the 8th Army's advance this was postponed for 24 hours at the last minute.


Operation Fustian, the codename for the attack, was a much more satisfactory plan than the one that had been outlined for the 1st Airlanding Brigade on Operation Ladbroke. There, the 1st Border and 2nd South Staffords had also been ordered to capture a bridge, but they were required to divide their strength across a wide area to achieve a plethora of other objectives that were entirely secondary in nature; thereby potentially imperiling their primary task. Operation Fustian, in contrast, contained no elements to distract the 1st Parachute Brigade from either the capture of the bridge or its direct protection.


The Brigade was assigned no fewer than two landing and four drop zones around the bridge, three to the north of the River Simeto and three to the south. The 1st Parachute Battalion were charged with the capture and close defence of Primosole Bridge, and to this end two drop zones on either side of the River were assigned to them; DZ1, just under a mile to the north-west of the bridge, and DZ2, 1.5 miles to the south-west. In the first phase, the whole of "T" and one platoon of "R" Companies were to land on DZs 1 and 2 respectively. The main body of "T" Company were first to gather in their supply containers before moving off, but one of their platoons, together with that of "R" Company, were to make for the bridge immediately to carry out a coup-de-main raid on it from both ends, overcoming the garrison with the utmost speed and surprise. A detachment of engineers from the 1st Parachute Squadron would be on hand to remove any demolition devices from the bridge, and once all was secure these units, together with the remainder of "T" Company when they caught up, would set up a defensive perimeter around the bridge until the arrival of the remainder of the 1st Battalion, who would begin to drop on DZ2, 20 minutes after the coup-de-main parties had landed.


At about the same as the coup-de-main force landed, two platoons of the 3rd Parachute Battalion would drop on DZ4, 3 miles to the north-west of the bridge, to destroy the four guns of a nearby Italian anti-aircraft battery. 30 minutes later, the remainder of the 3rd Battalion would come down on the zone, with the intention of establishing a defensive screen approximately a mile to the north of the bridge to shield it from any enemy counter-attacks in this direction.


The 2nd Parachute Battalion were to land on DZ3 astride the Gornalunga Canal, 3 miles to the south-west of the bridge. Their task was to create a similar defensive screen around the southern approaches to the bridge by capturing three areas of high ground which dominated the surrounding terrain, codenamed Johnny I, II and III. It was known that each of these features were held by Italian troops, believed to be of platoon strength, dug-in and supported by a range of light and heavy weapons, but it was also felt possible that they could be further garrisoned by artillery batteries of anything up to 200 men. The paratroopers would first have to attack and rout these forces.


It was not expected that the Italians in the immediate area would put up much of a fight, and so it was hoped, perhaps a little optimistically considering the difficulties of forming-up in darkness, that after half an hour on the ground the Brigade ought to be in possession of the bridge and in the process of establishing their wider positions. Yet resistance in the coming hours was expected to be tough, as it was known that not only were there Italian forces in the area that would be available to make counterattacks, but German units equipped with armoured vehicles had also been spotted. Before any of these formations would be in a position to strike, however, it was felt that the Brigade ought to be holding a firm defensive position in-depth around the bridge, reinforced by the guns of the 1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery which were to land in gliders on LA7 and LA8, 2,000 yards west and 500 yards south of the bridge respectively, once the initial assault had taken place. General Montgomery believed that his 13th Corps, the vanguard of the 8th Army, would arrive at Primosole Bridge before midday, just 12 hours after the landings took place. In summary, it was a very satisfactory plan.


As with all plans though, there are numerous complicating factors, some of them unforeseen, others not. All of the aircraft that were to carry the Brigade into battle were American, and the lack of experience of their crews and their general inability to navigate accurately at night has already been only too clearly demonstrated by the fate of the 1st Airlanding Brigade around Syracuse. Yet however unsatisfactory that landing may have been, it at least had the benefit of surprise, taking place as it did in the hours before the seaborne invasion. The Allies had now been in Sicily for several days, and the enemy were, of course, fully aware of their presence. They would also have concluded that the 8th Army intended to advance north along the eastern coast, an area which held numerous rivers and was dominated by rugged terrain which would be ideal for delaying actions by even a small force. With the British ground forces only 24 hours away from Primosole Bridge, it would be a natural move for the Axis to heavily fortify it.


The latest intelligence reports revealed nothing of major concern, yet the situation was very fluid, and the 1st Parachute Brigade did not know until they had arrived in Sicily that German parachute reinforcements had been called to their area. These were a part of Fliegerkorps IX, consisting of 30,000 superbly trained men, veterans of Crete and Russia, from where they had recently returned to rest and refit as a part of Germany's mobile reserve in France. At midnight on the 11th July, one of its two divisions, the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division, received orders to fly to Sicily immediately. Fallschirmjäger Regiment 3, equivalent in strength to a brigade, was to spearhead this move, and at 18:15 on the 12th July, 24 hours before Operation Fustian was launched, they dropped in the very area where the 1st Parachute Brigade were due to land.