On the 9th July 1943, the 7th US and 8th British Armies were poised to invade Sicily in what was, until the Normandy landings of June 1944, the largest amphibious assault in history. Shortly before 19:00, the first of 144 aircraft, each towing a glider carrying men and equipment of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, took off from their bases in Tunisia, North Africa. These troops were to spearhead the British invasion by capturing the vital Ponte Grande bridge, near Syracuse, in the hours before the seaborne landings took place.
As the combinations approached Sicily in darkness, however, strong winds and poor visibility gradually fragmented their formation and many aircraft lost their bearings as a result. When the Italian anti-aircraft batteries opened fire some of the American aircrews, completely unused to combat conditions, panicked even though the fire was too far away to be of any threat to them. A few turned back to base with their gliders in tow, others simply cut them adrift over the sea, in extreme cases at heights of just several hundred feet and 6 miles out to sea, giving the men in the gliders no hope whatsoever of reaching land. 73 of the 144 gliders landed in the sea, though most of these were a consequence of the difficult conditions, which would have challenged even the most experienced of aircrews. The gliders possessed a natural buoyancy in the wings which kept them afloat for some hours, however the fuselage sank beneath the waves almost immediately, and the first moments after ditching were ones of desperation as men struggled to get out of their craft before they went under. Most managed to do so, though many were so far out to sea that they could not swim for the shore and so had no option but to cling to the wreckage for up to 10 hours until rescued in the morning. Of the 1,730 men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, however, 326 drowned.
Only 56 gliders reached Sicily and were, for the most part, scattered anything up to 30 miles from their intended landing areas; just 12 came down on or within a respectable distance of them. The majority spent much of the following day roaming southern Sicily in small groups, involving themselves in numerous skirmishes with Italian troops until they finally reached the Ponte Grande Bridge or else met up with the 8th Army formations moving inland. It had been intended that a company of 120 men of the 2nd Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment would carry out an immediate raid on the bridge to secure it until reinforcements arrived, however only a single platoon of 30 men were in a position to do this. Their commander, Lieutenant Withers, decided to capture the bridge with just this small force. He and five others swam the Canal Mammaiabica and attacked a pill-box position on the northern bank, and having thus drawn the attention of the Italian garrison, the remainder of his platoon rushed across it from the other side. Taken completely by surprise, the Italians quickly laid down their arms and surrendered. The bridge had been captured without loss.
Such a small force could not hope to hold the bridge indefinitely, but they were reinforced by small parties from various units within the 1st Airlanding Brigade which arrived throughout the early morning, although their numbers never exceeded 87 men. The Italians were swift to counterattack the bridge, but their efforts were clumsily executed and easily brushed aside. As the morning wore on they became more organised, and the small British perimeter and their numbers were gradually reduced by accurate shelling and mortaring. By midday, the British were extremely low on ammunition and were having great difficulty in keeping at bay the Italian troops who were edging ever closer to their positions. At 15:15, having run out of ammunition and done all that they could to defend the bridge, long after the time that the seaborne troops were expected to relieve them, the British, only 20 of whom were unwounded, were forced to lay down their arms. They remained prisoners for only 90 minutes, however, and were set free when the 8th Army's advance overtook them. Just over an hour after resistance at the bridge had fallen, the relieving British troops reached it and, with the help of a handful of glider troops who had evaded capture, quickly retook it.
The bridge had been taken intact, but through no fault of their own the landing of the 1st Airlanding Brigade had been a complete disaster. They had suffered 605 casualties; only a minor proportion of which had been as a result of enemy action, the vast majority had either drowned in the Mediterranean or were injured in hard landings.
Several days later, on the 13th July 1943, the British undertook a second airborne operation in support of the 8th Army. This was carried out by the 1st Parachute Brigade, veterans of the Tunisian campaign, and their objective was Primosole Bridge, spanning the River Simeto near Catania. Their flight to Sicily proceeded much more smoothly than the 1st Airlanding Brigade's had, but things began to go wrong just as they reached the island and a few of the aircraft strayed into the airspace above the Allied fleet. The Navy had long been in the habit of assuming that any aircraft that came within range was an enemy, and so they opened fire, shot several down and threw the remainder out of formation. Enemy anti-aircraft guns increased the confusion as the aircraft began their final approach to Primosole Bridge, and again the nerve of some of the American pilots broke and they dropped their parachutists anywhere. Only 295 of the 1,856 men of the 1st Parachute Brigade were rallied at their respective rendezvous points, but nevertheless these threadbare elements quickly formed up and went about their business. Captain Rann, having gathered together 50 men of his 1st Battalion, successfully captured Primosole Bridge, having taken the Italian garrison unawares. Elsewhere, Lieutenant Frank of the 2nd Battalion, with just 28 men, attacked the high ground to the south of the bridge which dominated the surrounding area, and not only captured it but also took 130 prisoners. These positions were soon consolidated by what other elements of the Brigade had been able to assemble.
The British soon discovered, however, that German paratroopers had unexpectedly arrived in their area during the previous day, and these elite soldiers fought hard to drive them off the bridge. The 2nd Battalion, on the high ground to the south, were not in serious danger of being challenged directly as their position was a strong one, but none of their support weaponry had been recovered after the drop, and so German machineguns and mortars, to which no reply could be made, pinned them down throughout the day and made life very uncomfortable. The 1st and 3rd Battalions on the bridge, amounting to just 164 men, did not begin to feel any particular enemy pressure until midday. Their positions were heavily shelled throughout the afternoon and German infantry threw numerous attacks against them, but all were beaten off. As had occurred at the Ponte Grande bridge several days earlier, a lack of heavy weaponry and a shortage of ammunition was a far greater impediment to their defence than their slender manpower, and consequently the Brigade began to yield ground. At 17:05, by now perilously low on ammunition and in danger of being overwhelmed, the paratroopers abandoned their positions to the north of the bridge and tried to make a stand on the southern bank. The Germans followed up this withdrawal but were beaten back by the British fire, now mostly coming from captured enemy weapons. Accurate shelling and machine-gunning continued to systematically weaken their position into the evening. At 19:15, German troops were seen to be crossing the river downstream in numbers that the Brigade had neither the ammunition nor the strength to repel, and so, having held it against considerable odds and long after the expected arrival of the 8th Army, the decision was made to abandon the bridge and join the 2nd Battalion in the hills to the south.
The vanguard of the ground forces arrived just half an hour later, having been badly delayed in severe fighting further south. They relieved the Brigade in its positions and, after their first attempt to capture the bridge was bloodily repulsed on the 15th July, they successfully took it at first light on the following morning. The 1st Parachute Brigade returned to North Africa, having suffered some 295 casualties.