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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Ladbroke - Part One

On the night of 9th/10th July 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky, a major assault on the Axis-held central Mediterranean island of Sicily. A vast armada, consisting of more than 2,600 ships and landing craft, was set to deliver the equivalent of seven and a half divisions, together with their equipment and supplies, to a number of beaches, for what was to be the largest amphibious operation of World War Two. But the tip of the spear was to be provided by the airborne units who were to be the first troops on the ground, arriving hours before anyone else.

The tip of the spear of Operation Husky was to be provided by British and U.S. airborne forces who were to be the first troops on the ground.

While American paratroopers from the 505th Regimental Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division were to capture and secure the Piano Lupo, an upland area to the east of Gela in the American sector, on the eastern side of the island, the British 1st Airlanding Brigade would carry out the first mass glider assault by Allied forces, and the first ever glider attack by night. Known as Operation Ladbroke, it had the objective of securing a key bridge leading into Syracuse, and eventually taking control of the city itself, with its magnificent harbour and strategically vital docks that would be crucial for supplies and reinforcements to be rushed in to the beachhead. Although the mission would achieve its main objective, it nonetheless turned into a fiasco and would come at a heavy cost.

In the early stages of the war, German airborne forces had achieved some spectacular successes, such as the capture of the seemingly impregnable Belgian fort of Eben Emael back in May 1940, when glider-borne troops had landed on its roof, or the later capture of Crete by German paratroopers in May 1941. Although Allied military planners were clearly impressed by these successes, seeing the possibility of employing their own version of highly trained, elite shock troops that could offer tactical flexibility, less analysis was given to their shortcomings. For all their successes, German airborne forces had also suffered a number of setbacks, such as the high number of transport aircraft that had been shot down at the start of the attack on France and the Low Countries, or the huge losses incurred by the paratroopers who captured Crete.

The Battle of Crete was the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, but although the heavy losses suffered by the German paratroops made Adolf Hitler reluctant to authorise further large airborne operations, the Allies were impressed by their potential and started forming their own units.

Nonetheless, the British had quickly put plans together to create their own airborne forces, as did the Americans shortly afterwards, with both parachute and glider-borne units being developed concurrently. Although some parachute units had been dropped into North Africa as part of Operation Torch, and a disastrous British glider-borne operation had been attempted in Norway in November 1942, by the time Operation Husky came along, these airborne forces had not yet justified the huge amount of time, effort, money, and training that had gone into creating them. Yet, they were now expected to play a key role in the upcoming invasion, even though much discussion was taking place as to how exactly they should be used.

From the start, it had been accepted that a number of Sicilian ports would need to be captured early on during Husky, in order for vital supplies and reinforcements to be poured in. The initial outline plan had been for dispersed landings by brigade and division-sized formations in the south-east, south, and north-west areas of Sicily, in order to hasten the capture of all the main ports on the island, but the beaches were expected to be heavily defended by concrete pillboxes, barbed wire, and mines. Here was an opportunity for the airborne forces to prove their value: by being dropped just inland from the invasion beaches, they could help soften up the defences before the seaborne forces approached. Accordingly, the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, under Major General Matthew Ridgway, and the British 1st Airborne Division, under Major General George F. Hopkinson, would be parachuted in for the task.

In early May 1943, however, the plan was radically changed following criticism from the commander of the British Eight Army, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, who was concerned that by landing separately at either end of the island, the two Allied armies could be defeated in turn before they had a chance to unite. Instead, the plans were altered to land both the U.S. Seventh and British Eight Armies simultaneously along a 160-kilometre stretch of coastline on Sicily's south-eastern corner.

The plans for the two airborne divisions were also adjusted. The 505th Regimental Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, under Colonel James M. Gavin, would be dropped by parachute north-east of the port of Gela to block a potential Axis counterattack towards the beaches, while Major General Hopkinson's 1st Airborne Division would conduct three brigade-sized operations on successive nights, starting from the eve of the invasion. These were designed to capture vital crossing points across a series of rivers that lay across the British Eight Army’s line of advance along Sicily’s eastern coast towards Messina, via Syracuse, Augusta, and Catania.

When Hopkinson heard that a plan had been finalised for the invasion of Sicily, he visited Montgomery at his headquarters and persuaded him to give the first of the three planned operations - the capture of Syracuse and its neighbouring road and railway bridges - to the glider-borne troops of the 1st Airlanding Brigade rather than to one of the parachute brigades. Paratroopers, he argued, had a tendency to be scattered across wide areas, and only with gliders could the attackers achieve the kind of tactical surprise needed to capture a bridge intact before the enemy realized what was happening and blew it up first.

It is fair to point out that before being given command of the 1st Airborne Division, Hopkinson had previously commanded the 1st Airlanding Brigade from the time of its formation until early 1942, and he was a fierce proponent of glider-borne warfare. Not only was he determined that his old brigade would be in the vanguard of the upcoming invasion, but he also believed that a successful operation would highlight the importance of these types of units. The problem was that not only did the Allies not have much experience in mounting such operations, but there was also a big shortage of gliders and pilots trained to fly them in.

British airborne troops inside a Horsa glider.

Shortly after his meeting with Montgomery, Hopkinson presented the plans to Lieutenant Colonel George Chatterton, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, The Glider Pilot Regiment, who would fly the 1st Airlanding Brigade into battle. Chatterton was appalled at what he saw: Just two months before the operation was to be launched, most of his pilots only had between six and twelve hours' flying time logged, and only in daylight. Even worse, they had not flown at all during the previous three months since there were no British Airspeed Horsa gliders for them to practice with when they had arrived in North Africa, nor were there any aircraft to tow them.

Hopkinson informed him that the Americans would be providing them with both, which did nothing to reassure Chatterton since his men were hardly familiar with the Horsas, let alone with the American Waco gliders, which they had never seen before. Now, they would be expected to fly them in darkness, at low altitude, and with almost no navigational aids, a huge test for even the most seasoned of pilots. In addition, he had little faith in the American pilots flying the towing aircraft, who had no experience of combat conditions.

Lieutenant Colonel George Chatterton, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, The Glider Pilot Regiment.

Another issue was that although the fragile gliders required firm and unobstructed ground in order to land safely, the planned landing zones were on sloping ground that was strewn with rocks and was divided into small fields, bordered by stone walls and earth ditches. To Chatterton, it was clear that any attempt to land gliders on such terrain would result in considerable casualties before the enemy had even fired a shot. On the basis of all of these points, he strongly objected to the plan, but Hopkinson was not taking no for an answer and threatened to have him replaced. After some consideration, Chatterton reluctantly accepted, though only because he felt it was better to stand by his men rather than to abandon them at this crucial point.

Due to the short timeframe before the operation was to be launched, preparations and training for it proved to be last minute and very much insufficient. For starters, the 1st Airlanding Brigade still had no gliders with which to train, although a shipment of 500 American Wacos, ordered from the U.S. Army, was shipped to Oran, in Algeria, in May. The Wacos arrived in crates, with missing instructions and tools in some cases, and had to be fitted together by men who had never done it before. Hurrying as much as possible, so that training with them could finally begin, 346 of them were eventually delivered to the 1st Airborne Division in Tunisia by 13th June, less than a month before the launch of Husky, although most were grounded within days due to various problems.

The American Waco CG-4 glider.

Since none of the British glider pilots had ever flown a Waco before, Chatterton managed to obtain a number of American flight instructors to train them. A major issue with the Wacos was that they were much smaller than the British Horsa. Whereas the Horsa could carry a complete platoon of 30 men, or a jeep with an anti-tank gun and ammunition trailer, the Waco could only carry half as many men - therefore requiring platoons to be split between two gliders - and it could not support the weight of both a jeep and a gun.

Recognising the need for Horsas, Chatterton pleaded for some to be sent from the UK. However, this was a distance of more than 2,200 kilometres, considerably more than the accepted maximum range of a glider tow, which stood at 1,600 kilometres. In addition, the route to North Africa was extremely dangerous, with the aircraft passing well within range of German fighter bases in France. Nonetheless, the go-ahead was given for Operation Turkey Buzzard, which saw small formations of Horsa gliders being towed to Kairouan, in Tunisia, by Halifax bombers of No. 295 Squadron RAF, between 3rd June to 7th July. Although 27 Horsas successfully reached their destination, only eight of them were made available to the 1st Airlanding Brigade, since they were not the only unit of the 1st Airborne that needed them.

The British Airspeed AS.51 Horsa glider.

The first large-scale glider exercise could not be held until 14th June, less than a month before the invasion took place. Even then, only a few gliders were used, due to the shortage of towing aircraft. The majority of those that were to be used were Douglas C-47 Skytrains, flown by the U.S. 51st Troop Carrier Wing, but they were not always available for training, as they were also needed for other tasks, while the two RAF Squadrons also earmarked for the operation - No. 295 and No. 296 Squadrons - did not arrive until later. By the end of the training period, the brigade had only carried out three exercises, only one of which was at night. The glider pilots, who it had been hoped would each achieve 100 hours' flying time in the Wacos, had an average of only four and a half hours, mostly in daylight conditions. The omens were not looking good, but by this point, the die had been cast. The operation was going ahead.

The city of Syracuse, on Sicily’s eastern coast, was the Eight Army’s primary objective for Day 1 of the invasion. The rapid capture of the port was considered vital to the success of the invasion, but since the main seaborne forces were to be landed several kilometres further south, it would take them some time before they could reach their objective. In addition, the road to Syracuse was blocked by the rivers Anapo and Ciane, and the Canal Mammaiabica, all running parallel to each other.

The only bridge that could realistically be used by the Eight Army to cross was the Ponte Grande, located about two kilometres south of the city, and their advance would be severely hindered were the enemy to blow it up and establish defensive positions along the opposite bank before they got there. Hence why the 1st Airlanding Brigade was to seize the bridge before the enemy knew what was happening, knock out a number of enemy strongpoints in the area that could otherwise stop or slow down the advance of the Eight Army, and take the outskirts of Syracuse, thus clearing the way for the capture of the city. Since the Allied codename for Syracuse was Ladbroke - the mission became Operation Ladbroke.

Aerial view of Syracuse (upper right of photo) with the Ponte Grande some 2 km south providing access over the rivers Anapo and Ciane, and the Canal Mammaiabica, all running parallel to each other.

In July 1943, the 1st Airlanding Brigade consisted of two infantry battalions: 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment (1st Borders) and 2nd Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment (2nd Staffords). Although lightly armed, as all airborne troops were, the force included mortars, machine guns, and even some 6-pounder anti-tank guns. It was hoped that these would be enough for the tasks they had been allotted. Attached to them were the 9th Field Company, Royal Engineers and the 181st (Airlanding) Field Ambulance. The plan for Operation Ladbroke was first presented to the men on 6th July, three days before they were due to set off. Detailed maps had been produced for the briefing, with all surrounding enemy strongpoints having been identified, marked up, and given code names.

Three landing zones (LZs) had been selected. 'A' and 'C' Companies of 2nd Staffords would be landed in eight Horsa gliders at LZ 3, next to the all-important Ponte Grande bridge, at around 10.10 pm. While 'C' Coy would seize the Ponte Grande itself - codenamed Waterloo - before it could be blown up, 'A' Coy would capture the nearby railway bridge - codenamed Putney - located about 1 kilometre to the west. All this was to be achieved by 11.15 pm, after which the bridges were to be held until the main elements of 1st Airlanding Brigade arrived.

The remainder of the 2nd Staffords, consisting of 'B', 'D', and 'E' Companies, were to be landed in Wacos on LZ 1, about three and a half kilometres to the south, and were to take out a number of enemy positions between them and the bridge. These included two gun batteries, codenamed Mosquito and Gnat, and two strongpoints, codenamed Bilston and Walsall. 'H' (Support) Coy would provide two 6-pounder anti-tank guns. Once they had achieved their objectives by 1.15 am, they were to march to the bridges and consolidate the Brigade's hold upon them.

The last phase would see the entire 1st Border Regiment land on LZ 2, two kilometres to the east of LZ 1, and make their way across the route secured by the Staffords, before crossing the Ponte Grande and taking the outskirts of Syracuse, starting their assault at 2.45 am - immediately after the conclusion of a massive half-hour long air raid on the city by Wellington bombers of No. 205 (Heavy Bomber) Group RAF. It was hoped that they would have achieved their objective by 5.30 am, at which point the whole brigade was to hold on until contact was made with troops from the 5th Infantry Division advancing northwards from the invasion beaches. In spite of the earlier concerns that had been expressed over the operation, many within the brigade were quite optimistic and were confident that the landings would go well.

Men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade wait to board their Waco glider.

In preparation for their mission, six airstrips, known simply as Strips A to F, had been prepared for departure in the vicinity of Kairouan, in Tunisia. At around 6 pm on 9th July 1943, Lt. Col. Chatterton drove to the airstrip he would be flying from, accompanied by the commander of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, Brigadier Philip "Pip" Hicks, who would be one of his passengers. All the aircraft were neatly lined up. In total, 2,075 men were to be flown over in 144 gliders: 4 Horsas each for 'A' and 'C' Companies of the 2nd Staffords, and 136 Wacos for the rest of the force. The towing aircraft were provided by both American and British squadrons: the Horsas were to be towed by seven Halifax bombers and one Albemarle of 38 RAF Wing. The Wacos would be towed by a further 27 Albemarles and 109 C-47s of the U.S. 51st Troop Carrier Wing. By 6.48 pm, the first aircraft were airborne.

Straightaway, the gliders started being thrown about, jumping up and down and lurching from side to side in the strong wind of up to 55 km/h which had been giving Chatterton sleepless nights. Shortly after takeoff, a number of gliders were lost due to various mishaps before they had even left North Africa, although this did not cause too much concern, as such issues were to be expected in these kinds of operations.

The remainder of the formation reached the rendezvous point, several miles out to sea to the east of Kairouan, at which point they turned east towards Malta, their next landmark. The plan was for them to round the southeastern part of the island and then head slightly northeast towards Capo Passero, the extreme southeastern point of Sicily. This route had been chosen to avoid flying over the invasion fleet and its trigger-happy anti-aircraft gunners, who had orders to fire on all aircraft. As Malta came into view, a few other gliders came down in the sea or landed on the island, but up to this point, about 95% of the formation was still headed towards its destination. The situation was about to deteriorate quite rapidly.



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

Murray, I. (2015, November 14). Battle plans for Staffords glider troops in Operation Ladbroke in Sicily. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 2, 2023, from

Murray, I. (2017, October 21). Operation Ladbroke Sites - the Coup-de-Main Objectives. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 2, 2023, from

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