The Invasion of Sicily

Operation Fustian


An aerial photograph of the Primosole Bridge area

Looking north across Primosole Bridge


As a consequence of all of these problems, only threadbare elements of the Brigade were able to present themselves at their respective rendezvous points; just 295 of the 1,856 men who had set out. For many, the first hours after landing were not spent in trying to achieve their objectives, rather groping about in the dark, trying to find out where everyone else was. Small parties, wandering about in this fashion, had numerous brushes with the enemy during the night, and it was during these isolated skirmishes that the Brigade first began to realise that elite German paratroopers were in the area. Yet despite being badly scattered on the drop, small ad-hoc groups were quickly able to form-up and go about their business.


The 1st Battalion had intended to land two assault platoons on either side of the River Simeto, on DZs 1 and 2, so that they could mount an immediate attack on Primosole Bridge. In the event, neither platoon arrived on their zones, but Captain Rann, on DZ1, had gathered in some 50 men and prepared to carry out the task himself. At 02:00, his party arrived in the vicinity of the bridge and, having first sent Lieutenant Lazenby and a section of 7 men forward to make a quick reconnaissance, they put in their assault 15 minutes later. The 50-strong Italian garrison was taken completely by surprise and quickly laid down their arms.


The commander of the 1st Parachute Brigade, Brigadier Lathbury, narrowly avoided serious injury when he landed on the slopes of the "Johnny III" feature from a height of just 200 feet, however he had the good fortune to land on very soft soil which absorbed much of the impact. He and a small party arrived at the southern end of the bridge an hour after Captain Rann had captured it, and, unaware that it was already in British hands, made preparations to attack. The truth was soon discovered and Lathbury moved onto the bridge, though a lone Italian who had evaded capture threw a grenade and wounded him in his back and thighs. Despite these injuries, Lathbury continued to command the Brigade throughout the remainder of the operation. At about the same time, more reinforcements began to arrive on the bridge, in particular Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson with what he had been able to collect of the rest of the 1st Battalion on DZ2. He assumed responsibility for the defence of Primosole Bridge.


Of all the units of the 1st Parachute Brigade, the 3rd Battalion perhaps suffered the worst during the drop. Their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Yeldham, landed wide of DZ4, and during the first hours he was able to rally precisely 5 men to his banner. He set off in the direction of Primosole Bridge in the hope of finding more on the way, but by midday on the 14th July, his Battalion consisted of just himself, 4 officers and 35 other ranks. Their primary objective was to screen the bridge from enemy attack by establishing a defensive position a mile to the north of it, but as they were so few in number there was no hope of their being in a position to achieve this. Instead Yeldham placed himself and his men at the disposal of Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson, and they took their places alongside the 1st Battalion immediately around the bridge; far from being a mile to the north of it, their new defensive screen was just 50 yards from the bridge. Despite this reinforcement, Pearson's force at the bridge amounted to little more than a large company of only 164 men.


To the south, the 2nd Battalion had mixed fortunes on the drop. Most aircraft, pushed on by the strong winds, arrived twenty minutes ahead of schedule and the first wave were able to drop their sticks of parachutists with only light anti-aircraft fire to oppose them, although this soon intensified as more aircraft approached. Lieutenant-Colonel Frost, together with some of his Headquarters staff, Major Lonsdale and most of his "A" Company, were dropped with great accuracy on DZ3. Few others were so lucky, however, and the remainder of the Battalion was scattered far and wide. Frost, having injured his leg during an awkward landing, limped to the Rendezvous Point in the hope of assembling what he could of his men. On the way he gathered in 50 men from "A" Company and, after waiting at the RV for half an hour, was able to add a few small groups from "C" Company to the party, as well as random stragglers from various other units of the Brigade. At 02:00, having rallied 112 men, Frost decided to make an attack on "Johnny I" with what he had, but he arrived to discover that others had preceded him.


Lieutenant Tony Frank of "A" Company had also landed on the correct drop zone but did not encounter Frost's group. Instead he and the 5 members of his stick that he was able to find were at first preoccupied with a German machine gun that was firing at them from some nearby farm buildings. They stalked the gun and got to within 30 yards of it before knocking it out with a Bren and Sten guns. Another machine gun then opened up on them, and to make matters worse a number of Germans piled out of the farm buildings and a heated exchange ensued before the enemy withdrew from whence they had come. Shortly after, two more Germans, presumably unaware of the skirmish that had taken place, casually approached the farm with four captured British paratroopers under escort. Frank and his men ambushed this group and freed the men, killing one of the Germans and badly wounding the other. At this point a considerable number of the enemy approached their position and they were fired upon at close range, prompting a brisk action.


By now low on ammunition, particularly for the Bren gun, Lieutenant Frank withdrew his force and eventually led them towards Johnny I. Here he encountered two parachute sticks with a pair of officers between them, one from "A" and the other from "B" Company. As the most senior amongst them, Frank took charge of them and assembled the group of 28 men into an ad-hoc platoon with each of the officers commanding a section within it. With this small force behind him, Frank decided to capture "Johnny I" on his own.


At approximately 03:15, they moved forward, with one section proceeding up the northern face of "Johnny I", a second around the eastern, while Frank himself led his group up the middle. The party moving around the northern face took a number of Italians prisoner who were hiding in caves, but otherwise met no other opposition. The other two were fired on by machine guns about half way up the hill, but soon overcame these with grenades and took 40 Italian prisoners in the caves. Moving on to the summit, they drew more fire but similarly brushed this aside and took another 80 prisoners. Frank's small force was now in control of "Johnny I" and 130 prisoners. At 04:00, Major Lonsdale arrived with the remainder of "A" Company and proceeded to consolidate the defences.


The 2nd Battalion had intended to capture two other areas of high ground, but there were simply not enough men for this to be possible. Yet this did not matter so very much as "Johnny I" was central amongst the three features and had the most dominant position over Primosole Bridge. Nevertheless the Battalion was in for an uncomfortable 24 hours. As of 06:00, German positions on "Johnny II" and elsewhere proceeded to heavily mortar, machine gun and snipe at the British on the hill. The 2nd Battalion was in a commanding position and would be unlikely to get into any difficulties should the enemy have decided to venture an attack on the hill, yet this fire caused a steady drain of casualties throughout the day and they had no means of replying to it. None of their own mortars or Vickers medium machine guns had been recovered, and many of the enemy targets that they identified were out of range of their small arms, though this was of little consequence as the Battalion had so little ammunition available that it had to be conserved for emergencies. So it was that this fire, which under any others circumstances would have been swiftly swatted aside, had the paratroopers defending "Johnny I" in some difficulty.