The Invasion of Sicily

Operation Ladbroke


A Waco glider landing during an exercise in June 1943

Men of the 1st Border unloading a handcart from a Waco glider

Soldiers of the 1st Border closing the cargo door of a Waco glider

1st Border troops leaving their Waco glider during an exercise in North Africa

Men of the 1st Border leaving their Waco glider with a handcart in tow during an exercise in North Africa

Men of the 1st Border during an exercise near Froha in June 1943

A Jeep loaded aboard a Waco glider, sitting on one of the Division's six airstrips in North Africa

1st Border and USAAF ground staff on an airstrip near Froha

1st Border troops with their Waco glider at one of the Division's airstrips near Froha


Preparations and training for Operation Ladbroke proved to be very last minute and wholly insufficient for the task in hand. The 1st Airlanding Brigade had only two months to prepare themselves for D-Day, and at this stage they had no gliders to carry them into battle. The 1st Airborne Division had, in mid-March, requested a shipment of 500 Waco gliders from the US Army, and these arrived in North Africa during May, two months before the invasion; a fast response considering that they had to be shipped direct from America. There was a further delay in their reaching the Division, however, as the entire consignment was briefly lost amongst the jumble of stores at the port of Oran, in Algeria.


The disassembled Wacos arrived in wooden packing crates; one glider split between five crates. A team of US mechanics, who normally serviced bombers, were ordered to fit them together, and as the invasion of Sicily was only weeks away and it was vital to carry out as much training as possible with these new craft, the men of the 1st Battalion The Glider Pilot Regiment pitched in and did all they could to speed progress. By the 13th June, after much toil in the desert heat, the 1st Airborne Division had 346 Waco gliders assembled and ready for use.


The British glider pilots were all new recruits, and each of them had registered, at best, just 8 hours flying time. They had not flown for three months, very few had experience of night flying, and none of them had piloted a Waco before. Their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Chatterton, called for US help once again and managed to obtain a number of American glider pilots to act as flight instructors. Although the Americans had even less flying experience than their British counterparts, they knew the Waco glider and were able to pass on considerable insight into its characteristics. Some of these American pilots, not entirely of their own volition as the final request for volunteers appeared to be in support of a training exercise, ended up flying several of the 1st Airlanding Brigade's gliders to Sicily during Operation Ladbroke.


The first training flights were carried out on the 14th June, less than a month before the invasion took place. It was not a great success. The Waco was smaller and more flimsy than the standard British Horsa glider. A Horsa could carry a jeep with an anti-tank gun and ammunition trailer, or a complete platoon of 28 men and 2 pilots together with an assortment of light equipment or a few additional passengers. A Waco could only carry half as many men, therefore requiring platoons to be split between two craft, and it could not support the weight of both a jeep and a gun. As well as getting the pilots acclimatised to the new craft, part of the reason for the training was to find if it was possible to split a gun and a jeep between two gliders and land them close to each other, but it was found that many combinations landed too far apart for either to be of any use. To make matters worse, the hard ground of Tunisia caused structural damage to the Wacos, and within two days of flying every single one of them had been grounded for repair.


Chatterton recognised that his men desperately needed Horsa gliders, yet there were none in Africa, and those in England were 1,400 miles away. This was well beyond the accepted maximum range of a glider tow, 1,000 miles, and moreover the route would be perilous, over sea and within easy range of German fighter bases in France. Yet Chatterton pleaded for some to be sent, and despite initial scepticism in the War Office, they eventually gave their consent to an operation known as Beggar to the RAF, and Turkey Buzzard to the Glider Pilot Regiment. From the 3rd June to the 7th July, small formations of Horsas were flown in daylight to Kairouan, North Africa, by the four-engined Halifax bombers of 295 Squadron; one of the four squadrons of 38 Wing who catered for the needs of the British Airborne Forces. It was an extremely dangerous operation yet it was a great success. In all, 30 Horsas left England and 27 arrived in North Africa. Of the remainder, two sets of glider crews were picked up by a rescue launch after ditching in the sea, due to a broken tow rope in the case of one and the tug being shot down by German fighters in the other, while another made it to North Africa and was released over the desert, but neither it nor its three pilots were seen again.


The arrival of these gliders was a considerable tonic to the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment, yet their presence merely eased, rather than solved the problems presented by Operation Ladbroke. Some of these 27 gliders were needed to support the subsequent airborne operations, and so only 8 were made available to the 1st Airlanding Brigade; one to each the four platoons in both "A" and "C" Companies the 2nd South Staffords. These units were to carry out the coup-de-main raid on the bridges, and, as the entire operation depended on their success, it was hoped that Horsas would give their pilots a much greater chance of landing on target. The overwhelming majority of gliders that would be used during the landings were still Wacos, yet the US instructors were impressed at how quickly the British pilots had adapted to them. Even so they still lacked a great deal of training. It had been hoped that they would each achieve 100 hours flying time in Wacos, but they only managed an average of 4.5, only 1 hour of which was at night.


Part of the reason for this was a shortage of tug aircraft. Four RAF Squadrons were attached to the British Airborne Forces, of which only 295 Squadron, in a limited capacity, and 296 Squadrons were earmarked for use in the invasion, and neither arrived until early June. 296 Squadron was equipped with 32 Albemarle bombers, which could tow gliders and drop parachutists, yet they were small and underpowered and so were far from ideal for the task. The majority of the aircraft that the 1st Airborne Division had available to them were the enormously capable C-47's of the US 51st Troop Carrier Wing. Yet it was difficult to secure these aircraft for exercises as the 1st Airlanding Brigade was but one of four brigades in the 1st Airborne Division that needed time to train with them.


In summary, the glider pilots and the British and American aircrews had effectively been given only three weeks to prepare and become accustomed to dealing with each other. During this time they had been unable to hold a single exercise that would serve as a dress rehearsal for the conditions that they would encounter during the actual invasion; the mass navigation, by night and over sea, of up to 150 aircraft, flying in formation at low altitude, and towing gliders which were to be released two miles short of the coast. They were quite unprepared for what lay ahead.