The Invasion of Sicily

Operation Ladbroke


An aerial photograph of Syracuse and the Ponte Grande bridge

Men of the 2nd South Staffords marching off from Church Parade on the 4th July

Men of the 1st Border marching off from Church Parade on the 4th July 1943

Men of the 9th Field Company marching off after the Church Parade on the 4th July 1943

Men of the 9th Field Company marching off after the Church Parade on the 4th July 1943

General Montgomery addressing men of the 1st Airborne Division

General Montgomery addressing men of the 1st Airborne Division


The 1st Airlanding Brigade had originally consisted of four infantry battalions, but two of these had been left behind in England to help form the basis of the 6th Airborne Division, and so only the 1st Battalion The Border Regiment and 2nd Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment remained. Their objectives and respective codenames for Operation Ladbroke were as follows:


1. "Waterloo". Capture the Ponte Grande road bridge over the Canal Mammaiabica and its associated bridge across the River Anapo.


2. "Putney". Capture the railway bridge across the same waterways, a mile to the west of the Ponte Grande.


3. "Mosquito". Destroy and occupy the position of an enemy gun battery on the main road, 3 miles south of the Ponte Grande.


4. "Walsall" and "Bilston". Destroy and occupy the position of two enemy strong points, sited on the main road at junctions 0.5 miles and 2 miles south of the Ponte Grande respectively.


5. "Gnat". Destroy and occupy the position of a coastal gun battery in the Bay of Syracuse, 1.5 miles south-east of the Ponte Grande.


6. "Ladbroke". With the bridgehead secure, advance north and capture Syracuse.


Three landing zones were selected for the 1st Airlanding Brigade's use. LZ3, split either side of the railway line and the Canal Mammaiabica, was within a mile of both the Ponte Grande and the railway bridge. "A" and "C" Companies of the 2nd South Staffordshires, with a detachment of Royal Engineers of the 9th Field Company under their command, were to land here to effect a coup-de-main raid on the bridges. They were to immediately attack and overwhelm the garrisons, and then defend the bridges until the main elements of the 1st Airlanding Brigade arrived.


The remainder of the 2nd South Staffordshires were to land 2 miles to the south on a much larger zone, LZ1, while the whole of the 1st Border did likewise a mile to the east of them at LZ2. These troops were to march to the bridges and consolidate the Brigade's hold upon them, with the Staffords accounting for the secondary objectives along the way; the two enemy strong points and the inland and coastal gun batteries. The defence of the bridgehead was the responsibility of the 2nd South Staffordshires and the various supporting units attached to the Brigade, whilst the 1st Border, with a company of Staffords under their command, crossed over the bridge to capture various key positions in Syracuse following a bombing raid by RAF Wellingtons of 205 Bomber Group. Thereafter the whole Brigade was to defend their gains until relieved by British troops from the invasion beaches. This link-up was expected to be swift with the first troops of the 5th Infantry Division making contact at 07:30 on the morning of the invasion, a mere 9 hours after the first gliders had landed.


It is to be wondered whether the objectives for this operation were not asking too much of a two-battalion Brigade. Montgomery had been at pains to prepare the 8th Army for stiff resistance, yet the 1st Airlanding Brigade had been asked disperse their force in areas that the enemy would certainly wish to retain control of, with one battalion assigned to capture numerous key localities around a major port, and the other scattered in isolated defensive pockets around a bridge that was pivotal to the expansion of the beachhead. If all the troops arrived safely and, by some stroke of fortune, the enemy did not seriously react to their presence, then doubtless all would be well. Like most plans, however, the operation looked perfectly feasible on paper but it concealed a number of disturbing realities.


Some of these were first noticed by the Commander of the 1st Battalion The Glider Pilot Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel George Chatterton, whose men would fly the 1st Airlanding Brigade into battle. In May 1943, during the preliminary planning stages, Major-General Hopkinson invited him to study the proposal for the Brigade's assault, and what he saw thoroughly appalled him. In the first instance, he questioned why a glider-borne brigade had been committed to the operation when, at present, a mere two months before the invasion, there were no gliders at all in the Mediterranean theatre, nor were there any aircraft to tow them. Hopkinson brushed this aside and explained that the Americans would be providing them with both. Yet this did not placate Chatterton as none of his pilots had even seen, nevermind flown an American "Waco" glider before. Furthermore his men lacked satisfactory experience, and the expected conditions for the invasion, flying in darkness at low altitude with almost no navigational aids, would prove a severe test for even the most skilled of pilots.


The Airborne fraternity had little faith in the American aircrews either. Many of them had been drawn from civil aviation, and so, while possessing a great deal of flying experience, they had none whatsoever in combat conditions, night flying, nor had they encountered flak before. Their ability to navigate accurately, especially by night, was doubtful, but worse still they were in the habit of flying in close formations of five aircraft with only the leader carrying a navigator. This was extremely dangerous as it would only require this aircraft to be shot down or for its navigator to make a mistake for the entire formation to be left stranded. There was, therefore, a very real danger that hundreds of men could land far from their objectives, leaving the outcome of the operation in jeopardy before it had properly begun.


Chatterton also noted that the landing zones chosen for the Brigade were unsuitable for glider landings. Gliders are extremely fragile and require firm and unobstructed ground if they are to land safely; hitting a tree at speed can have catastrophic consequences for the passengers. Yet the landing zones chosen were on sloping ground, strewn with rocks and were divided into small fields, bordered by stone walls and earth ditches. It was clear that any attempt to land gliders on such terrain would result in considerable casualties before the enemy had fired a shot.


On the basis of all of these points, Lieutenant-Colonel Chatterton objected strongly to the plan laid before him. Major-General Hopkinson, however, was determined that it was going to go ahead whether Chatterton liked it or not, and he threatened to have him removed from his post if he continued to object. Left alone for a few minutes to consider the plan further, which did nothing to decrease his pessimism, Chatterton agreed to lend his support to the operation, but only because he felt that his dismissal could result in the plan deteriorating still further.


It had long been recognised that accurate navigation in darkness was a serious problem that could result in a large proportion of an airborne force being dropped astray. The solution to this problem was the pathfinders; a small group of superbly trained parachutists, of either platoon or company strength, which landed on each of the drop zones a short time ahead of the main formation, first to lightly secure them against enemy attack, but chiefly to set up beacons and other navigational aids to steer the approaching force directly to them. The 21st Independent Parachute Company were the 1st Airborne Division's specialists in this regard, and it had been anticipated that they would assist the 1st Airlanding Brigade. Incredibly, their involvement in the operation was discarded on the grounds that their advanced arrival on the zones could alert the enemy to the landings. This was a highly dubious assessment as it would be difficult for any landing at night, particularly on such a small scale, to be observed by the enemy in a way that would lead him to take immediate and decisive countermeasures. The pathfinders would only be on the ground for a maximum of half an hour before the main force arrived; an utterly negligible time to court serious enemy reaction.