The Invasion of Sicily

Operation Ladbroke


An aerial photograph of Syracuse and the Ponte Grande bridge

An Italian pillbox position to the east of the bridge


The most important phase of Operation Ladbroke was the coup-de-main raid on the bridges by "A" and "C" Companies of the 2nd South Staffordshires. While the rest of the 1st Airlanding Brigade flew to Sicily in Waco gliders, the coup-de-main parties were exclusively in Horsa gliders towed by the RAF, and it was hoped that this combination would increase their chances of a successful landing. Although a statistical improvement can be detected, what followed was as much of a shambles as the other landings; of the eight Horsas carrying "A" and "C" Company's, two reached LZ3, three landed in Sicily but too far from the bridges to help, and the other three came down in the sea.


"A" Company was to land on the western-most half of LZ3 and capture the railway bridge, but only one of their gliders had made it to Sicily and at some distance from the zone. Nevertheless, No.8 Platoon bravely made their way forward and eventually captured their personal objective, the high ground to the south of the bridge. They defended it against Italian attacks and even made an attempt to capture the bridge itself later in the day, but it was too well held by the enemy and they had to fall back. Eventually the entire party was taken prisoner, but all were released only a few hours later when they were overtaken by the 2nd Battalion The Northamptonshire Regiment, arriving from the invasion beaches. The other three gliders carrying "A" Company all landed in the sea. 14 men of No.9 Platoon drowned, 7 swam ashore, the remaining 9 clung to the floating glider and were taken prisoner by the crew of an Italian rescue launch, but they were later released by British troops. No.7 Platoon lost two men drowned, but the rest were picked up by the Navy. The whole of No.10 Platoon was lost.


"C" Company's landing near the Ponte Grande road bridge was more successful; all four gliders had reached Sicily, two on their intended landing zone. No.16 Platoon came down 10 miles away but had the terrible misfortune to come under fire as soon as they came to rest; the most vulnerable moment for a glider. The craft burst into flames and 16 of the 31 men aboard perished, the remainder later linked up with 8th Army troops. No.18 Platoon came down 6 miles to the east of LZ3 and fought their way through to the bridge, finally reaching it shortly after the seaborne forces had arrived.


Glider No.132, carrying Major Ballinger the Company Commander, No.17 Platoon and a small detachment of sappers from the 9th Field Company, came down 300 yards from the Ponte Grande bridge, but it exploded on landing, killing Ballinger and all but three men aboard. It is believed that the glider had come under machinegun fire and a stray tracer round hit and ignited the explosive in one of the Bangalore torpedoes carried by the engineers. Shortly after, at 22:45, glider No.133 approached the landing zone. It too came under fire when it was spotted by a searchlight, yet made a safe landing on LZ3. Immediately Lieutenant Lennard Withers and his No.15 Platoon disembarked and headed towards the bridge. Only a single platoon of the 2nd South Staffords, therefore, was able to participate in the coup-de-main raid on the Ponte Grande bridge.


Having no notion that they were alone, the platoon found some cover and halted to await the arrival of the remainder of "C" Company. After several minutes it became obvious that no one else was coming and, realising that he could delay no longer, Lieutenant Withers decided to attack the bridge with just his 30-strong platoon.


He split his men into two groups. The smaller of these, consisting of himself and five others, crossed the Canal Mammaiabica and attacked a pillbox position on the northern side of the bridge. Having thus drawn the fire of the Italian garrison on the bridge, the rest of No.15 Platoon rushed across it from the southern side. Taken completely by surprise, the Italians fired only a few shots before laying down their arms. No.15 Platoon had captured the Ponte Grande Bridge without suffering a single casualty.


The attached sappers of the 9th Field Company cut telephone cables and removed the detonators from the demolition charges placed around the bridge, while Withers began to organise his men into defensive positions. Such a small and lightly equipped force could not hope to hold the bridge in the face of a determined counterattack, but Withers believed that they could defend it until reinforcements arrived. The first challenge was swift in its arrival but hopeless in its execution. A truck carrying 12 Italians approached the bridge, but before the passengers could disembark they were fired on by Lance-Corporal Pratt's Section and all were killed.


There was still no sign of the rest of "C" Company, but the first reinforcements from the main landing zones began to filter in from 04:30 onwards. Lieutenant Welch was the first to arrive with 7 men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade's Defence Platoon. They had fought off an Italian patrol on the way to the bridge, and reached it just as three armoured cars put in an attack with their machineguns and cannons. The Staffords opened fire and, when the commander of one of the vehicles was killed, the remainder withdrew.


Major Beasley, the commander of the 9th Field Company, reached the bridge at approximately 05:00 with 15 of his sappers. Minutes later, Lieutenant-Colonel Walch arrived at the head of another small group from all units within the Brigade, and as the most senior officer present he assumed responsibility for the defence. In similar fashion, various other parties drifted in throughout the morning, and by 06:30 the bridge was defended a total of by 7 officers and 80 men. This was still too small a force to hold off a determined attack, but the most pressing problem of all was that their weaponry consisted of just small arms; rifles and sub-machineguns with very little ammunition between them. The only support weapons available were 4 Bren light machineguns, and a 2" and 3" mortar; the 2" only had a few smoke rounds, but the 3" mortar and its very limited supply of high explosive ammunition later served their purpose by knocking out an enemy mortar position to the south-east, leaving just three rounds spare for emergencies.


At 07:00, a lorry load of Italians, seemingly oblivious of the danger, approached from the north and were badly shot up when they reached the bridge. Despite these clumsy probes, enemy pressure was steadily gathering momentum and becoming more dangerous. An hour later, the Italians began to accurately mortar and shell the British positions and continued to do so, with increasing intensity, throughout the remainder of the morning, taking a steady toll on their numbers. A tragedy occurred during this bombardment when the blockhouse on the northern side of the bridge received a direct hit and all the Italian prisoners of war inside it were killed.


At 12:20 the shelling ceased, but mortar and machinegun fire continued to bear down on the British positions as a battalion of Italian infantry steeled themselves to launch an attack. The surrounding terrain was very flat, cover was hard to find, and so the enemy mortars had no difficulty in reducing the defences. Furthermore, ammunition was now so low that only single rounds could be fired at a time; it was clear that the bridge could not be held for much longer. At 12:45, in the hope of gaining a few more hours for the defence, the British moved to a better position to the east of the bridge.


The Italians sited their machine-guns and mortars to good effect, inhibiting British movement whilst their own infantry crept ever closer to the bridge. Because of this British casualties increased dramatically, and by 15:15 only about 20 men were unwounded and able to fight. Their ammunition lasted for another 15 minutes, then the order was passed around to surrender. Lieutenant Welch and 7 men managed to slip away and hide themselves nearby, but the remainder were taken prisoner.


The Italians were quite euphoric about their success; some of the British noted that their captors were filled with such a mad sense of all-conquering triumph that they began to worry that they might be executed on the spot. Yet they were treated quite correctly and were marched away in a column of men from various units captured in the surrounding area, mostly 1st Airlanding Brigade but also a few from the 8th Army. These men remained in captivity for approximately 90 minutes. Their Italian guards blundered into a unit of the 15th Infantry Brigade and were immediately overcome. The airborne troops seized weapons from their captors and headed back to the bridge with the intention of retaking it, but in the evening they arrived to find that the 8th Army had preceded them.


At 16:45, Lieutenant Welch and his 7 men, who had evaded capture when resistance at the bridge collapsed, encountered a patrol of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers who, as the vanguard of the 17th Infantry Brigade, were on their way to the bridge. Welch quickly informed them of the situation, and 15 minutes later helped them to put in an attack to retake it. The Italians put up very little resistance and after a few minutes the bridge was back in British hands. The Royal Scots pushed on in the direction of Syracuse, and by 21:00 that evening, the 1st Airlanding Brigade, now arriving on the scene in greater strength, took over defensive duties around the bridge once again.