Operation Ladbroke (9-10 July 1943) was a British airborne operation which captured the Ponte Grande bridge on the southern approach to Syracuse, despite a rather scattered landing.
The target of the operation was the Ponte Grande bridge, a twin-span bridge that crossed the River Anapo and the Mammaiabica Canal on the southern approach to Syracuse. It would be carried out by the 1st Airlanding Brigade, which would become the first Allied unit to land on Sicily, late on 9 July.
Even getting the gliders to North Africa posed a challenge. Most of the troops were to be carried in American WACO gliders, which were already in theatre, but heavier equipment needed the British Horsa glider. In the end a force of Horsas was towed directly to North Africa from England (Operation Beggar), a very challenging flight across the Bay of Biscay, around Spain and Portugal to Sale in North Africa. The gliders would them move east in two stages to Tunisia, ready for the operation itself.
A series of training operations were carried out once the gliders were in place. Exercise Adam, of 14 June 1943, involved 56 WACO gliders and men from the South Staffordshire Regiment, sappers, part of the 181st Airlanding Field Ambulance and part of the Brigade HQ. The aim of this exercise was to test out the loading and ground marshalling systems as well as to try a short tow and landing. The exercise was carried out without any casualties, although six gliders had to land short of the landing zone.
On 15 June the 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment, carried out Exercise Vin Blanc, a dry run using lorries instead of gliders.
This was followed by Exercise Eve on 20 June, also involving the Border Regiment, but this time with their gliders. This time more gliders were involved and two types of tugs. Once again the exercises was seen as a success, although twelve gliders missed their target.
Exercise Eve 2 followed on the night of 20-21 June, and saw eleven out of twelve gliders make a successful night landing.
On 27 June the 1st Airborne Division and its aircraft began to move forward to the Tunisian airfields that would be used for the operation. One glider was lost during this operation after the tail came off in flight, with no survivors. 81 of the 84 WACOs involved made the move safely. Despite this setback the operation saw 1,200 fully equipped troops moved over the Atlas Mountains, the largest airborne troop movement yet carried out by the British and good practice for the operation itself.
The operation involved 133 combinations (tow planes and gliders). The two planes included 105 C-47s from the 51st Wing, NAAF Troop Carrier Command. The 143 gliders were made up of 135 Wacos and eight Horsas, flown to Africa during Operation Beggar in order to allow heavier weapons to be carried in a single load. The gliders were piloted by men from the 1st Battalion, Glider Pilot Regiment. The gliders carried 1,600 men from the British 1st Airlanding Brigade, 1st Airborne Division.
The operation was planned in three phases. First, two companies from the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, would land in eight Horsas close to the bridge, which they would capture by 2315 hours on 9 July. Second, the main force would land on their landing zones and advance to the bridge, arriving by 0115 hours. Third, the entire 2nd Battalion of the South Staffs would defend the bridge, while the Border Regiment would cross over at 0145 and take Syracuse by 0530. This plan would soon proved to be dramatically over-ambitious.
Four landing zones were selected. LZ 1 and LZ 2 were on the western end of the Maddalena Peninsula, a few miles to the south of the bridge. This was an area of orchards and fields. LZ 3 NORTH was west of the bridge, in the area between a canal and the river. LZ 3 SOUTH was to the south-west of the bridge, south of the river. The two companies that were to seize the bridge were to land on LZ 3, the rest of the force on LZ 1 and LZ 2.
The aircraft flew east from Tunisia to Malta and then turned north to approach Sicily. This route was chosen to avoid flying over the invasion fleet and its trigger happy AA gunners, who had orders to fire on all aircraft, and to provide a fixed navigation point as close to Sicily as possible. The landing zones themselves caused a great deal of concern. They were surrounded by stone walls, trees and other obstacles. No pathfinders were going in to mark them, so the glider pilots would have to try and identify them in the dark, after being released out at sea. The operation was expected to take place in bright moonlight, which would allow the glider pilots to see the Sicilian coast and work out their positions from that. The Horsas were to be towed by aircraft from No.38 Wing, RAF, the same pilots who had towed them from England. The WACOs would be towed by the less experienced pilots from the 51st Troop Carrier Command.
The gliders and tugs began to take off on the afternoon of 9 July. Eleven gliders suffered problems early on the trip that forced them to land in Tunisia. Two WACOs and a Horsa lost their tow out at sea and crashed into the Mediterranean. Real problems began as the force approached Sicily. The Italians and Germans had been placed on full alert, and the aircraft were picked out by searchlights and fired on. Some of the pilots took evasive action that got them out of the lights, but meant they had no chance of finding the landing zones. The flotilla had already become badly disrupted on the flight north from Malta, as the aircraft ran into a headwind and cloud cover that hid the moon, removing the light that the operation plan relied on. As the force approached Sicily many of the gliders were released too soon, or at too low an altitude, and were unable to reach land. In the confusion one glider even ended up landing on a fighter airfield on Malta while still believing they were on Sicily!
Eventually the fate of all of the gliders was traced. Of the original force of 144 aircraft, 56 reached Sicily, with only 12 on or close to their landing zone. 73 gliders came down into the sea, with the loss of 252 men. At first it was believed that over 500 men had drowned, but half later turned up after being rescued by various ships and scattered across the Mediterranean. Many of the senior commanders for the operation were knocked out at this stage - General George Chatterton, commander of the 1st Airborne Division, came down in the sea and had to be rescued later, as did Brigadier Pip Hicks, command of the 1st Airlanding Brigade.
The surviving gliders were scattered across a large area of Sicily. Many of the surviving troops took no further part in Ladbroke, but they were able to cause confusion behind enemy lines, contributing to the success of the overall invasion.
The two companies from the South Staffs allocated to the capture of the bridges had mixed fortunes. A Company lost three of its four gliders at sea. Fourteen men drowned from one glider, all of 10 Platoon on another and two from the third. No.8 Platoon landed a few miles from the landing zone, and spent the first night marching to its objective, high ground to the south of the bridge.
All four of C Company’s gliders reached Sicily, and two even landed on LZ 3. Of the two that missed the landing zone, one landed close to an Italian machine gun position and fifteen of the thirty-one men onboard were killed. The rest escaped, but didn’t rejoin the unit in time for Ladbroke. The other landed six miles to the east of the landing zone, but didn’t reach the bridge until Eighth Army troops had already arrived. Of the two gliders that did reach the landing zone, one was hit by enemy fire and exploded. No.15 Platoon had arrived intact, leaving the coup-de-main force with only 30 of the original 254 men. Lt Withers, the commander of the platoon, put in place a two pronged attack on the bridge, and remarkably managed to capture it intact! Despite all of the problems, the first part of Operation Ladbroke had actually succeeded.
The next problem was how to defend the bridge against the inevitable counterattack. Luckily for the defenders an order to move four mobile formations to Syracuse and the bridge never reached its intended targets. Instead the first Axis reinforcements to reach the bridge were twelve Italian soldiers in a single truck, just before midnight. They were quickly dealt with. At 0430 eight men from the brigade HQ defence platoon reached the bridge. Soon afterwards three Italian armoured cars attacked, posing a real threat to the lightly armed South Staffs, but they retreated after their commander was killed. At 0500 more reinforcements arrived, this time sixteen engineers from the 9th Field Company (Airborne) RE. Just before dawn another party, commanded by Lt Col Arthur Walch reached the bridge, and he took command. By 0700 on 10 July 7 officers and 80 men had reached the bridge. The defenders lacked heavy weapons and were under increasingly heavy mortar fire. They had four Bren guns, one 2-in light mortar with smoke rounds and one 3-in medium mortar with a handful of HE rounds. The next counterattack as made by two companies of Italian naval infantry, but this was also repulsed.
The first serious attack began at around 1130, when a battalion from the Italian 75th Infantry Regiment arrived with an artillery battery. The defenders came under increasingly heavy artillery and mortar fire until 1220 when the artillery fire stopped and the mortar fire increased. At 1245, with a major infantry attack clearly coming, and no sign of reinforcements and no contact with the rest of the Allied army, Walch ordered his troops to withdraw to less exposed positions east of the bridge. The Italians were able to get closer to the bridge, and inflicted heavy casualties on the defenders. By 1515 only 20 unwounded troops remained. Soon afterwards, with their ammo exhausted, the defenders were forced to surrender (although Walsh and seven men escaped).
The defenders had almost managed to hold on for long enough. At 1615 the leading troops from the Royal Scots Fusiliers reached the bridge at the head of the 17th Infantry Brigade, which had landed from the sea. They were met by Walsh, and quickly recaptured the bridge. The Italians around the bridge fled or surrendered, and most of the captured airborne forces were rescued within an hour and a half of having been captured. Two hours later Syracuse fell to the 17th Infantry Brigade, so despite all of the problems, Operation Ladbroke, the first large scale British airborne operation of the war, had ended in success.