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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Fustian - Part Two

The second coup de main operation, targeting the Primosole Bridge, had also got underway according to schedule on the evening of the 13th, with the men of the 1st Parachute Brigade being transported in C-47s of the U.S. 51st Troop Carrier Wing, and Albemarles and Halifaxes of No. 38 Wing RAF. The first flights took off from Kairouan Airfield, in Tunisia, just after 7 pm, aiming to arrive at the DZs by 10 pm, followed shortly afterwards by a second wave of aircraft towing nineteen gliders that would be bringing in 77 glider-borne gunners, ten 6-pounder anti-tank guns and eighteen jeeps.

A Handley Page Halifax of No. 295 Squadron RAF prepares to tow off an Airspeed Horsa glider at an airfield in Tunisia, during preparations for Operation Fustian.

The aircraft were to fly northwards just off the eastern coast of Sicily, before turning inland once they reached the mouth of the Simeto river, yet all the mistakes of the previous airborne operations were repeated: It was another night-time drop near the coast, flying in from the sea, and passing over Allied warships. 55 aircraft were subjected to friendly fire from naval anti-aircraft gunners, and those that did reach the Sicilian coast were engaged by enemy batteries. Although 39 C-47s dropped their sticks on or near the allocated DZs, 49 did not, with some men ending up as much as 30 kilometres from the target. Of the rest, three had been forced to turn back shortly after take-off, twelve failed to locate their DZs, and eleven were so badly shot up, with wounded crew and passengers, that they were forced to turn back towards their airfields in North Africa with all their troops still on board. In all, eleven transports were shot down, with many more damaged, while out of the nineteen gliders, only eleven successfully came down on or near the LZs. The result of this was that the strength of the brigade in action was twelve officers and 283 men out of the 1,856 that had originally set off.

A pair of C-47 Skytrains, similar to the ones used by the U.S. 51st Troop Carrier Wing during Operation Fustian.

The worst affected was the 3rd Battalion, with only around two platoons having landed anywhere near the bridge. Left without a command structure, they were instead attached to the 1st Battalion. To the south of the bridge, the 2nd Battalion discovered shortly after landing that Johnnies I, II and III were already being held by the 1st Fallschirmjäger Machine Gun Battalion, who initially mistook the British paratroopers for their own reinforcements being flown in. Upon realising their error, they opened fire and some of those Paras that escaped being hit were instantly rounded up and taken prisoner within seconds of touching the ground. Nonetheless, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, managed to gather around 140 of his men and succeeded in taking Johnny I, although they were still coming under German machine gun and mortar fire from Johnny II, which soon set the surrounding grass on fire, shrouding the hills in smoke.

Lieutenant Colonel John Frost was in command of the 2nd Parachute Battalion.

Taking advantage of the confusion, a party of around 50 men from the 1st Battalion assaulted the bridge from the north at around 2.15 am and succeeded in capturing it before the Italians could destroy it. By 4 am, the demolition fuses had all been cut, and by 6.30 am, around 120 men were dug in around both ends of the bridge. They had also managed to bring up three of the 6-pounder anti-tank guns, as well as a captured Italian gun, to reinforce their positions, while the field ambulance main dressing station had been established to the south of the bridge and was receiving its first casualties. Brigadier Lathbury, though wounded in the arm by a grenade splinter, had also established a command post nearby, although even with his one working radio, he was unable to get through to XIII Corps to let them know that the bridge was in their hands.

The south end of the Primosole Bridge.

By early morning, when the picture started to become clearer, Lathbury realised that while his men held the bridge, they were sandwiched between enemy forces to the north and south, and were going to need to be relieved by XIII Corps sooner rather than later if they were to hold on to their objective. At this point, the biggest threat was the attacks on Frost’s men on Johnny I, located in between Johnnies II and III, which were both under German control. Luckily, at about 9 am, a forward observation officer attached to the 2nd Battalion managed to make radio contact with the British cruiser HMS Newfoundland, lying offshore, which was able to fire a number of salvos from her 6-inch guns towards Johnnies II and III, temporarily forcing the German paratroopers back and giving Frost’s men a much-needed breather. Yet with every passing hour, the enemy resistance seemed to be getting stronger, as more of their reinforcements were being dispatched to the bridge.

At around midday, a Luftwaffe staff officer from Kampfgruppe Schmalz, Hauptmann Franz Stangenberg, had driven down towards the Primosole Bridge to see for himself what was going on and realising the threat, had driven back towards Schmalz’s HQ at Misterbianco, near Catania, to gather as many troops as he could. By mid-afternoon, he had assembled a force of around 350 men, which included personnel from the 1st Fallschirmjäger Signals Battalion, together with a mixture of service troops, and a heavy flak battery of 88 mm dual-purpose anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, which were now firing away at two pillboxes located at the northern end of the bridge.

A heavy flak battery of 88 mm dual-purpose anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns was among the reinforcements that the Germans had managed to bring up to help defend the bridge.

The situation of the 1st Parachute Brigade was now becoming untenable. There was still no sign of XIII Corps, who were by now well overdue, and indeed there was not even any news on their progress, since radio contact could not be established. To make matters worse, ammunition was now running seriously low, and after an afternoon of being attacked from the north, added to the constant harassing fire they were still having to endure from the hills to the south, Brigadier Lathbury took the decision, at around 5 pm, to pull all his forces north of the bridge back to the southern bank, before abandoning the bridge altogether under cover of darkness at around 7.30 pm, and joining Frost’s 2nd Battalion on the high ground. Shortly afterwards, the first tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade arrived on the scene, followed a little later by the infantry of the 151st Brigade. The enemy fell back in their turn, although only as far as the northern bank of the Simeto.

For the Paras, the battle was over. In fact, on the morning of 16th July, they were transported in trucks to Syracuse, from where they sailed to Malta, and onwards to North Africa. Only twelve officers and 283 other ranks of the 1st Parachute Brigade had fought at Primosole, which amounted to just sixteen per cent of the force that had set off from Kairouan Airfield - the rest had been scattered over a wide area, leaving them unable to take any part in the battle. Of those 295 men, 27 were killed in the ensuing battle, 78 were wounded, and ten had been reported missing. Yet again in Sicily, Allied airborne troops had achieved their objectives at huge cost, which led to General Alexander calling a halt to any further such operations until more training could be carried out.

In the meantime, the battle at the Primosole Bridge was far from over. Although the 9th DLI had arrived too late on the 14th to go into battle straightaway, they launched an attack at 7.30 am the following morning, supported by tanks from the 44th Royal Tank Regiment and two regiments of field artillery. As they advanced across the bridge, they were cut to pieces by enemy machine gunners, with 34 men being killed, including nine of their officers. A second attack was ordered for that night, with two companies of the 8th DLI fording the river to the west of the bridge before swinging right to attack its northern end in the wake of an hour-long artillery barrage. Despite gaining a foothold, the supporting armour was halted by the anti-tank guns as it tried to cross the bridge, stalling the attack and leaving the men on the north side to dig in and defend themselves while yet another attack was planned for the following night.

Monument to the men of the 151st Infantry Brigade who were killed during the Sicilian Campaign, located next to the modern-day Primosole Bridge.

At 1 am on 17th July, the Durhams commenced their third assault to secure the bridge, this time led by the 6th DLI, preceded once more by a very heavy artillery barrage, and followed about an hour later by the 9th DLI and some tanks. By around 1 pm, after several hours of heavy and confused close-quarters fighting in the thick undergrowth, the objective was finally secured. By this point, the site of this epic battle was pockmarked with shell craters and covered with burned patches of grass, as well as the bloated bodies, covered in flies, of the unburied dead from both sides. The 6th DLI had lost 120 men, about one in three of those attacking, and the 9th DLI another 100. The Fallschirmjäger, on the other hand, lost around 300 dead and 155 taken prisoner. Such losses left them with no choice but to pull back to the Fosso Bottaceto, a big, dry, irrigation channel, located about four kilometres north of the bridge.

While the battle of Primosole Bridge was finally over, it did not lead to the expected rapid Allied advance, as the valuable time gained by the Axis forces in this delaying action had enabled them to establish their defensive line further to the north. In fact, attempts to continue the advance on this axis were heavily repulsed, with XIII Corps becoming bogged down, and forcing the Eight Army to shift its attentions further west. It was not until more than two weeks later that XIII Corps resumed its advance northwards, with the 9th DLI finally entering Catania unopposed on 5th August. By 17th August, the whole of Sicily was in Allied hands.

British soldiers in Piazza del Duomo, Catania. The city was finally captured on 5th August.

Although Operation Husky was a huge success, its airborne element had proved disastrous, with heavy losses being suffered. In the case of the two British operations, although both bridges had initially been successfully captured, the airborne troops were eventually forced to abandon them, forcing the relief columns to launch their own attacks to recapture them once they arrived on the scene. Of course, the blame did not lie with the airborne forces themselves, but with the methods used to deliver them into battle, which saw so many of them being scattered miles away from their objective. All things considered, the troops performed admirably under the circumstances and did prevent the bridges from being blown up. Yet the cost to these highly trained and valuable units had been huge.

The Primosole Bridge after it had been finally captured. Wrecked tanks lying around serve as evidence of the heavy fighting at the site of this epic battle.

Despite temptations to do what the Germans did after their invasion of Crete, which was to forbid further airborne operations, the Allies decided to trust in their potential and improve their methods by learning from their mistakes. Indeed, by the time the Allies invaded Normandy in June 1944, much had been improved, and airborne forces still continue to form a very important component of most modern armies around the globe.



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

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