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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky: The Fallen - Part One

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

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. On the first day, a vast armada of more than 2,600 ships and landing craft delivered some 160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns to 26 beaches located along a stretch of coastline some 170 kilometres long, whilst being supported by 3,500 aircraft. Troops from the U.S. Seventh Army came ashore on the south-central coast of Sicily, at Licata, Gela and Scoglitti, while British and Canadian forces from the British Eight Army were landed in the south-east of the island, around Capo Passero, Avola and Cassibile. The amphibious landings were also supported by a number of airborne operations.


British troops coming ashore near Avola.

The landings met little resistance, with the Allies initially making rapid progress, but following the arrival of German reinforcements, the Axis forces were able to slow down the Allied advance, buying precious time for a large number of their men and materiel to be evacuated to the Italian mainland across the Strait of Messina. Operation Husky officially ended on 17th August with the capture of Messina, just a few hours after the Axis evacuation had been completed. Despite the Allies' failure to prevent the withdrawal of surviving Axis units from Sicily, Operation Husky had been a great success; the island had been captured in just 38 days, leading to the Mediterranean shipping lanes being reopened to Allied merchant vessels. The invasion also led to the toppling from power of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and paved the way for the Allied invasion of Italy, starting from 3rd September.


Allied troops in Messina, which was finally captured on 17th August, bringing the Sicilian campaign to an end.

As in any other military campaign, success came at a cost: British and Canadian dead totalled 3,283 men, while the Americans lost 2,811. By contrast, total battlefield casualties for the Germans were 4,325 dead and a further 4,583 missing. The Italians had lost 4,678 killed and a staggering 36,072 missing, most of whom were men recruited from Sicily itself, and had most likely abandoned their uniforms and weapons and blended back into the local scene. Many others had been taken prisoner.


Combatants who lost their lives during Operation Husky were buried at various locations. While the remains of Americans who died were returned to the USA, or buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, near Anzio, in Italy, the Syracuse and Catania War Cemeteries contain a total of 3,194 graves of members of British and Commonwealth forces killed during World War Two, whilst 490 Canadians are buried at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery.


The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, near Anzio, in Italy.

The bodies of Italian soldiers killed during the campaign were either returned to their hometowns or buried at the Sacrario Militare di Cristo Re in Messina. In 1954, an agreement was made between the German and Italian governments to transfer the remains of all Germans who died in Sicily to a collective cemetery, which was inaugurated as the Cimitero Militare Germanico di Motta Sant'Anastasia on 25th September 1965. Located at the foot of Mount Etna, it houses the remains of 4,561 German military personnel who died in Sicily.


Syracuse War Cemetery


Syracuse War Cemetery is located around three kilometres west of Syracuse and contains 1,059 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 134 of whom are unidentified. Since Commonwealth forces landed in the south-east corner of the island, between Pachino and Syracuse, most of those buried in this cemetery were men who were killed either during the landings or in the early stages of the campaign. In particular, many graves belong to members of the British 1st Airlanding Brigade who took part in the first-ever mass glider assault by Allied forces, codenamed Operation Ladbroke, on the night of 9th/10th July.



144 gliders were to transport the brigade's 2,075 men to an area two kilometres south of Syracuse. There, they were to seize intact the Ponte Grande, the only bridge that could realistically be used by the Eight Army to cross the Anapo river before capturing Syracuse. A combination of strong winds, low visibility, and inexperienced pilots meant that most of the gliders were released over the sea too early by their tugs, as a result of which, 69 of them failed to reach land, with no less than 252 men being drowned.


One of the Waco gliders which ended in the water, washed ashore near the coast of Syracuse.

For days afterwards, wrecked gliders and bloated corpses lined the shore as far as the eye could see. When the bodies were later retrieved, some of them could not be identified, and now lie under anonymous tombstones, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “Known Unto God”. Many of the missing, however, were never seen again, and could not even be given a burial. They are now remembered on the Cassino Memorial to the missing of the Italian campaign.


Of the 56 gliders that did land on the ground, the vast majority were wildly scattered and did not land anywhere near the target. Glider No.10, carrying personnel from Brigade Headquarters, barely made landfall, becoming ensnarled in barbed wire on the edge of a cliff. Almost immediately, it came under fire from an Italian searchlight position less than 100 metres away. Although most of the occupants got away, two signallers and the Chaplain of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, Captain Reverend David Francis Hourigan, were found to be missing when they regrouped a short distance away. Born in the Republic of Ireland in 1907, Father Hourigan was commissioned in the Royal Army Chaplains' Department during the war. In the confusion whilst exiting the glider under fire, and most probably having been wounded, Hourigan was captured by the Italians and died in captivity two days later, aged 36.



The task of capturing the bridge itself had been assigned to 'C' Company of the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, commanded by 26-year-old Major Edwin George Ballinger. Although all four gliders assigned to the company reached land, two of them came down too far away to participate in the battle. Glider No.132, carrying Ballinger, No.17 Platoon, and a small detachment of sappers from the 9th Field Company, Royal Engineers, was being piloted by Captain John Neil Campbell Denholm. The 28-year-old, a keen sportsman and accomplished skier, had joined the army in 1937, originally as a member of the 1st Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), but was later seconded to the Glider Pilot Regiment. As his glider came in to land, it was hit by a burst of machine gun fire. Suddenly, there was a bright flash of an explosion and the flaming glider fell to the ground by the canal bank. Only three badly wounded men survived the crash, with Denholm and Ballinger among those killed.



In the end, only one of the four assigned gliders landed in the right place, with the single platoon it carried capturing the bridge. Over the next hours, they were reinforced by more airborne soldiers who made their way to the area on foot, including some sappers from the 9th Field Company, led by their commanding officer, Major Basil Saunders Beazley. 29-year-old Beazley, an electrical engineer by trade, had previously represented England at rowing, winning a gold medal in the eights at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. Beazley now proceeded to remove the explosive charges from the bridge, despite coming under fire and being wounded in the process. By late morning, the small force defending the bridge was coming under heavy artillery, mortars and machine gun fire, as the Italians launched a counterattack. At about 2.30 pm, Beazley was hit by a burst of machine gun fire, which killed him instantaneously. Shortly afterwards, with casualties mounting and ammunition running out, the British force was forced to surrender, just 45 minutes before the lead elements of the Eight Army arrived to recapture the bridge and move on towards Syracuse.



Another special operation had been taking place in the early hours of the morning; the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS), had been landed from the sea to silence an Italian coastal defence battery on Capo Murro di Porco, south of Syracuse. In contrast to the airborne operation, their mission had gone quite smoothly, with the SRS quickly capturing their primary objective without suffering a single casualty. As they advanced towards a second battery, located further inland, they came upon some Italians waving a white flag, but, as soon as they approached to round them up, the men fell flat, and a machine gun opened fire from a nearby pillbox, mortally wounding 22-year-old Bombardier Geoffrey Caton. His colleagues immediately charged the pillbox, throwing grenades inside, before finishing off its occupants.



A promising boxer, Caton, from Preston in Lancashire, had joined the Widnes Territorials (South Lancashire Regiment) in February 1939. His adventurous spirit was not satisfied with home service, however, and he volunteered for transfer to the Commandos when they were first formed, serving with No.11 (Scottish) Commando in the Syrian campaign, where he was wounded at the Battle of the Litani River. After six weeks in a Jerusalem hospital, he volunteered for the Special Air Service, with whom he carried out numerous sabotage missions in the Western Desert. Buried in the same cemetery as him today are two of his SRS colleagues. Corporal John Bentley and Private George Shaw, both medics attached from the Royal Army Medical Corps, would be killed three days later, during another seaborne assault on the Italian naval base of Augusta.



In the meantime, the main landings had got underway at 2.45 am, meeting very little resistance: Since the Italian defensive plan did not contemplate a pitched battle on the beaches, the enemy troops made little effort to defend them. Nonetheless, there were still some casualties. 31-year-old Captain Terence Aldridge Wilson Boardman was serving with the 328th Battery, 99th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, which was to land at Avola to protect the beaches from enemy air attack. Originally born in the Republic of Ireland, Boardman qualified as a solicitor after leaving school, but volunteered for the army in 1939, joining the 332nd Company, Royal Engineers, as a sapper. In June 1940, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Queen's Regiment, before later transferring to the Royal Artillery. As his landing craft approached the beach at 6.45 am, it was hit by a 150 mm shell fired from an enemy battery: Boardman was killed, leaving behind his wife and 3-month-old son.



A short distance away, also at Avola, the 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI), had also come ashore. They lost five men killed, including the commander of 'C' Company, Captain Henry Eland Walton, who was reportedly hit in the stomach. The 25-year-old had been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 6th (Territorial) Battalion DLI in 1938. His father, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Walton MC had commanded the same battalion on the Western Front during World War One. Henry was last seen singing "Blaydon Races" whilst holding his abdomen as he was washed away. His body was later recovered before being laid to rest at the Syracuse War Cemetery.



To the north of Avola, at Cassibile, the 2nd Battalion, Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment), under the command of Colonel Douglas Glendinning Thorburn, had been assigned as part of No.32 Beach Brick, tasked with assisting the landings of the 5th Infantry Division. 46-year-old Thorburn had been commissioned in the HLI in 1915 and served on the Western Front during World War One, where he was awarded the Military Cross and Bar, and was mentioned in dispatches. By the time World War Two began, he had been promoted to Major. Thorburn was awarded the OBE for staff work in Greece in 1941, and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for gallant and distinguished service at Bir-el-Tamar, Libya, in June 1942. Later that year, he became Lieutenant Colonel, commanding the 2nd Battalion, and by the time Operation Husky began, he had been made Acting Colonel. Shortly after the first waves of landing craft had touched down, Thorburn went forward to reconnoitre but was soon after shot dead by a sniper.



Once the 5th Infantry Division had landed at Cassibile, it proceeded with its task of racing up the eastern coast of Sicily to capture the ports of Syracuse and Augusta. On the second day of the invasion, the 17th Infantry Brigade, one of three infantry brigades in the 5th Division, was held up by German troops south of the town of Priolo, but by the following morning, having fought a delaying action, the Germans had withdrawn. As the British entered the town, its narrow streets soon became congested with troops and vehicles heading north, creating a perfect target for enemy artillery. 34-year-old Major John Vivian Bailey, son of Brigadier General Vivian Telford Bailey, CMG, DSO, was in command of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, one of three infantry battalions within the 17th Brigade. He was killed outright by the first German shell that fell on the town.



At this point, the 6th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, also in the 17th Brigade, took over the lead in the advance towards Augusta. As they neared the outskirts of the city, the 6th Seaforths became caught up in a battle around an Italian seaplane base, which was protected by numerous pillboxes and machine gun emplacements. 26-year-old Lance Corporal James Fern, a former pit worker from the Leicestershire mining town of Coalville, had originally joined the Leicestershire Regiment, but like a large number of his colleagues, he had later been transferred to the 6th Seaforths after they had been decimated during the Battle of France in 1940. Jim was killed by machine gun fire whilst carrying out an attack on one of the pillboxes.



 

References


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


Murray, I. (2017, January 5). The Battle for Augusta – Jim Fern and the 6 Seaforths. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from http://www.operation-ladbroke.com/death-gates-augusta-jim-fern-6-seaforths/




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