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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Fustian - Part One

On the night of 9th/10th July 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky, a major amphibious assault on the Axis-held central Mediterranean island of Sicily. Some 160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns were delivered by a vast armada of more than 2,600 ships and landing craft to 26 beaches located along a stretch of coastline some 170 kilometres long. Although the troops had expected a hard fight, only sporadic resistance was met, especially in the British Eight Army’s sector around Avola and further south near Capo Passero, in the south-eastern corner of the island. By the end of the first day, the British had moved rapidly inland and had taken Syracuse. Although some counterattacks were launched in the U.S. Seventh Army's sector at Gela, in south-central Sicily, by midday on 11th July, the Americans had also secured their beachhead.


British troops marching through Syracuse, which had been captured on the first day of Operation Husky.

Thus, by day two of the invasion, the Axis commanders in Sicily had already decided that the next phase must be one of defence. Their plan was to pull back all Axis forces into the north-eastern corner of the island, behind a very strong defensive line that stretched all the way from Santo Stefano on the northern coast, through Nicosia and Agira, to Catenanuova, and from there to the eastern coast south of Catania. It was here that the Allied advance could then be halted. First, though, the rapid northwards advance of the Eight Army along Sicily’s eastern coast had to be slowed down, to provide time for the defensive line to be prepared, and for the Axis forces in the west of the island to fall back behind it before they could become trapped.



This task had been given to Kampfgruppe Schmalz, a battle group built around one half of the Panzer Division Hermann Göring and commanded by Oberst Wilhelm Schmalz, since the rest of the division, under its commandant, Generalmajor Paul Conrath, had been involved in the counterattacks against the Americans at Gela, while the Italian formations had proved largely ineffective. Kampfgruppe Schmalz, originally based near Catania, had entered the fray on the 11th, fighting its first delaying actions against the Eight Army as it advanced from the direction of Syracuse towards Augusta. Yet, on 12th July, General Sir Harold Alexander, commanding the Allied land forces, issued orders for the Eight Army to continue its advance, with XXX Corps to focus on the area Enna-Leonforte, while XIII Corps was to traverse the Plain of Catania, before seizing the port city and continuing northwards towards Messina.


The commander of the Eight Army, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, knew that speed was key: XIII Corps had to move quickly, before the Axis forces could properly organise their defensive positions. He thus ordered two special operations to be launched ahead of XIII Corps' advance on the night of 13th July: The Malati Bridge, to the north of Lentini, would be seized by No. 3 Commando in an amphibious assault, while further north, the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River would be captured by the 1st Parachute Brigade.


The Primosole Bridge was particularly important as it was here that all the roads heading north towards the Plain of Catania converged. If it could be seized intact, XIII Corps' infantry and armour could quickly pass through and continue their rapid advance towards Catania. The Commandos and the Paras would only need to hold onto their objectives for a short time, as XIII Corps' two divisions, the 5th and 50th, were expected to capture Lentini and link up with them at the bridges early on the 14th.


All the roads heading north towards the Plain of Catania converged at the Primosole Bridge, which lay across the Simeto River.

In truth, the plan was overly ambitious, for while it was true that the British had thus far mostly only come up against second-rate Italian troops, things were rapidly changing. Apart from Kampfgruppe Schmalz now having become involved, on 12th July, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the German Commander-in-Chief, Army Command South, had ordered the immediate deployment to Sicily of the 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division to bolster the German formations, with three battalions of the 3. Fallschirmjäger Regiment - some 3,200 men in total - being parachuted in near Lentini that same evening, while the rest of the division was to be flown into Catania the following day. While some of the German paratroopers were immediately dispatched to reinforce Kampfgruppe Schmalz, others were sent to the Primosole Bridge to reinforce the Italian troops from the 213th Coastal Division who were already guarding it.


Operation Fustian, as the mission to capture the Primosole Bridge was codenamed, was to be the second British airborne operation of the Sicilian campaign. On the first night, hours before the main landings, the British 1st Airlanding Brigade had carried out a glider-borne assault on yet another bridge, the Ponte Grande, to the south of Syracuse. Although the main objective was achieved, Operation Ladbroke had turned into a fiasco as over half of the gliders had landed in the sea, with many of their occupants being drowned, while most of those that made land ended up miles from the site of the battle. On the same night, a parachute drop by the 505th Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division was also widely scattered, while the following night, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment suffered heavy losses when its troop transports were mistakenly fired upon by Allied warships.


More than half of the gliders involved in Operation Ladbroke landed in the sea. Although the Ponte Grande was captured intact as intended, no less than 252 men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade were drowned.

Now, it was to be the turn of the 1st Parachute Brigade, an experienced formation that had seen action in North Africa, where its men had been nicknamed the Red Devils by the Germans. Part of the British 1st Airborne Division, the brigade, commanded by Brigadier Gerald Lathbury, comprised the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions, as well as supporting units. Paratroopers, by their nature, were lightly armed, with the only heavy weapons being the 3-inch mortars and Vickers machine guns operated by the mortar and machine gun platoons attached to each battalion HQ. The only anti-tank guns were the 6-pounders of the 1st (Airlanding) Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery, which, together with the jeeps that were required to pull them, could only be landed by glider. The 1st (Parachute) Squadron, Royal Engineers, was tasked with removing any explosive charges from the bridge, clearing any mines, and recceing a new crossing in the event of the bridge having been blown by the enemy. The 16th (Parachute) Field Ambulance was to establish a dressing station in a suitable location close to the bridge to deal with casualties, as well as provide a medical team to be attached to each of the parachute battalions.


Brigadier Gerald William Lathbury was in command of the 1st Parachute Brigade.

Four drop zones were selected. The 1st Battalion, which was given the task of capturing the bridge, was to be dropped in two groups, one at DZ 1 to the north of the bridge, and one at DZ 2 to the south, so that they could assault the target from both ends simultaneously. The 2nd Battalion, landing at DZ 3 to the south of the bridge, was to assault and occupy three small hills codenamed Johnnies I, II and III, believed to be defended by a platoon of Italians, and then dig in to defend against an attack from the south. The 3rd Battalion would land at DZ 4, north of the bridge, to defend against any counterattack from the direction of Catania. The gliders carrying the anti-tank batteries would land at LZ 7 and LZ 8, on the north and south banks respectively. By midday on the following day, 14th July, they were to have been relieved by the leading troops of XIII Corps.



XIII Corps had started its advance early on the 13th, with the 5th Division setting off from its starting line at 5 am. Three hours later, at a point some ten kilometres from Villasmundo, one of Kampfgruppe Schmalz's delaying positions was encountered, and unable to outflank it, the 15th Brigade had to wait for the arrival of artillery support, with the position not being cleared until 7 pm. Villasmundo was not occupied until the early hours of the 14th.


In the meantime, the 50th Division was also advancing northwards, further inland. The 69th Infantry Brigade left Sortino at 1.30 pm, but three hours later, they too were checked by yet another of Kampfgruppe Schmalz's positions located on top of a high ridge near Monte Pancali, just to the south of Carlentini. The position was not cleared until 10 am the following morning. According to the plan, Lentini was supposed to have been taken by dawn, enabling XIII Corps to continue towards the Primosole Bridge. As it turned out, Lentini was not cleared until the late afternoon, and it was not until 6.45 pm that the 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI), together with lead elements of the 4th Armoured Brigade newly landed in Augusta, were able to head north towards the two bridges. This delay was to have an impact on both of the special operations.


A blown bridge along the road to Carlentini. Such delaying tactics managed to slow down the advance of XIII Corps towards the two bridges.

No. 3 Commando, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater, had landed at Agnone from their landing ship, HMS Prins Albert, at 10.30 pm on the 13th as scheduled. The 400-strong unit then advanced several kilometres inland to the Malati Bridge, driving off the Italian defenders and seizing it intact by 4 am. Although Durnford-Slater had been instructed to pull back towards friendly lines should the 50th Division not manage to link up with his men by morning, he decided to try and hold on for as long as he could.


The Malati Bridge.

By this point, however, the Germans had launched a strong counterattack by two battalions of the 3. Fallschirmjäger Regiment newly arrived in the area, who were reinforced by a Panzer Mk IV of Kampfgruppe Schmalz. After several hours of repeated shelling and heavy mortar and machine gun fire, Durnford-Slater reluctantly ordered his men to fall back. By now, the Commandos had lost 28 men killed, 66 wounded and 59 captured or missing. Shortly afterwards, however, the 50th Division finally arrived, forcing the Fallschirmjäger to abandon the bridge before they had the chance to fix explosive charges and blow it up, while the British column pressed on towards Primosole.

 

References


Holland, J. (2020). Sicily '43: The assault on fortress Europe. London: Bantam Books UK.





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