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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Ladbroke - Part Two

Updated: Jan 15

As they approached Sicily, the aircraft were flying below 150 metres to baffle the enemy radar stations, and as gathering clouds obscured the moon, conditions became extremely dangerous. The glider pilots could barely see their own towing aircraft, let alone the other tugs and gliders. This increased the risk of collisions, particularly as the wind had increased further and some of the aircraft had been blown off course and lost touch with the formation, which was now becoming increasingly fragmented.

A Horsa glider under tow (photo not from Operation Ladbroke).

Conditions inside the gliders were very bumpy, making many of the passengers sick, and the noise of the wind made shouting necessary even when talking to one’s neighbour. The glider pilots had to keep their glider above or below the height of the towing aircraft, in order to minimise the effects of turbulence, and since this required considerable effort, their arms were aching quite badly.

In the meantime, ahead of them, Hurricane fighters operating from Malta were seeking out and destroying Italian searchlights located along the gliders' flight path, while specially equipped aircraft were tasked with jamming enemy radars in the area. A number of diversionary bombing raids on numerous other targets were also planned to coincide with the glider landings. One of the places being hit was Catania, where apart from bombs, a number of dummy paratroopers were also being dropped, to make it look like it, and not Syracuse, was to be the target of an airborne assault.

As the aircraft approached Capo Passero, they veered slightly north, continuing up along the eastern coast of Sicily, until they approached Capo Murro di Porco, at the end of the Maddalena Peninsula, just south of Syracuse. They now climbed up from sea level to the agreed release height of 4,500 metres in preparation for casting off the gliders at a distance of just over three kilometres from the shore. Although this distance was intended to keep the towing aircraft out of range of the anti-aircraft defences, it only provided the gliders with a very slim margin of error, and any that were released before that point would have virtually no chance of making land.

A number of searchlights that had survived the earlier attacks were now switched on, and some anti-aircraft batteries opened fire. Although this was inaccurate and of little threat, many of the inexperienced American pilots panicked and released the gliders too early. The glider pilots now struggled to make out any of the landmarks that were supposed to guide them in, owing to the unexpected cloud cover, and besides, most had very little experience of accurately judging distances over water, making it impossible for them to tell how far they were from the shore. The result was a fiasco, as no less than 69 gliders - over half of those that had actually made it to Sicily - landed in the sea.

As the gliders hit the water, their occupants would have had only a few moments to take off their equipment and hack away at the sides to make escape holes, before the fuselage where they had been sitting became filled up with water. Many did not get out in time, and some of those who did were immediately swept away by the waves. Fortunately, most of the gliders remained afloat, enabling those men who found themselves quite far out from the shore to cling on to the wrecks whilst fighting against the rough sea, strong wind and a high swell, in some cases for up to ten hours, before they were rescued by the Royal Navy the following morning, or until, eventually exhausted, they were washed away and drowned. Incredibly, despite the fact that the gliders were to travel a significant distance over the sea, and were to be released over the water, there had been no effort beforehand to ensure that every man could swim, and the lifebelts that the men had been given were pretty much useless.

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

Some of those who landed much closer to the shore were machine-gunned by Italian pillboxes as they clung to the gliders. Those who could swim, refusing to become sitting ducks, braved the waters and swam for the shore, many discarding their weapons and most of their clothing along the way to improve their chances of remaining afloat. Among those who ended up in the sea were Major General Hopkinson, the commander of the 1st Airborne Division; Lieutenant Colonel Chatterton, the CO of the 1st Bn. The Glider Pilot Regiment, together with Brigadier Hicks, commanding the 1st Airlanding Brigade; as well as Lieutenant Colonel Derek McCardie and Lieutenant Colonel George Britten, the commanding officers of 2nd Staffords and 1st Borders respectively. Although all of them would survive, they found themselves in the drink together and were unable to exert any influence on what was happening on land, although Chatterton, Hicks and some of the men in their glider, having swum ashore, did end up joining a party from the Special Raiding Squadron, who had been given their own special mission of attacking a coastal battery located at the top of Capo Murro di Porco.

Of the 56 gliders that did land on the ground, only twelve had come down within a respectable distance of their intended zones. Of these only four had landed on their designated LZs, and just one at the key spot next to the bridge. The rest were for the most part scattered anywhere up to 50 kilometres from their intended landing zones, and some further still. Although some of these gliders were damaged when they hit trees or stone walls, in some cases seriously injuring some of their occupants, many achieved a good landing, and individual glider loads tried to reach their objectives on foot or ended up attacking any enemy positions they came across, even though the end result was a series of small uncoordinated firefights, rather than a coordinated brigade effort.

Some of the gliders that reached land experienced a rough landing as they hit trees or stone walls, with some of their occupants suffering injuries in the process.

Of course, the most important phase of Operation Ladbroke was the coup de main operation to seize the two bridges by 'A' and 'C' Coys of the 2nd Staffords. Three of the four Horsa gliders assigned to 'A' Coy landed in the sea, meaning that only No. 8 Platoon arrived at some distance from LZ 3. Although they attempted to capture the railway bridge on their own, there were too few of them to achieve the task and they were eventually forced to fall back.

'C' Coy’s landing was only slightly better. Although all four of their Horsas reached land, two of them came down too far away to participate in the battle. A third Horsa, carrying No. 17 Platoon and the Company Commander, Major Edwin Ballinger, was coming in to land in the right area when, after being hit by a burst of machine gun fire, it exploded, killing everyone on board, except for three men who were very badly wounded. The last glider was the only one on the night that managed to land in the right place, about 450 metres from the bridge. This was glider No. 133, piloted by Staff Sergeant Dennis Galpin, and carrying the men of No. 15 Platoon, led by Lieutenant Lennard Withers. Landing at 10.45 pm, it was the only glider of the eight that had been assigned for the coup de main operation - the single most important objective for the 1st Airlanding Brigade that night - to have successfully made it to the LZ, leaving only a single platoon of the 2nd Staffords to carry out the mission.

Glider No. 133, piloted by Staff Sergeant Dennis Galpin, and carrying No. 15 Platoon, led by Lieutenant Lennard Withers, was the only glider that had been assigned for the coup de main operation to successfully make it to the LZ.

Upon realising that no one else was coming, 21-year-old Withers decided to attack the bridge with just his 30-strong platoon. Splitting up his men, he and five others waded across the Canal Mammaiabica and attacked a pillbox position on the northern side, while, taking advantage of this distraction, the rest of No. 15 Platoon rushed the bridge from the southern side. Taken completely by surprise, the Italians fired only a few shots before laying down their weapons. No. 15 Platoon had captured the Ponte Grande without suffering a single casualty. They immediately removed the detonators from the charges on the bridge, while Withers set up his men ready to defend the position. Such a small and lightly equipped force could not hope to hold the bridge in the face of a determined counterattack, but Withers was determined to hold it until reinforcements arrived.

Other companies had also had similar disruptions to their plans. As a result, none of the identified strongpoints were captured on the night. Nor were the gun batteries or the railway bridge. No airborne troops attacked Syracuse that night. 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 as they attacked whatever came to hand, destroying communications links and other military infrastructure. More importantly, others decided to make their way to the Ponte Grande instead, thus reinforcing the small force under Lieutenant Withers.

The first reinforcements started to arrive at around 4.30 am, when Lieutenant Gordon Welch and seven men from the Brigade Defence Platoon reached the bridge just as three Italian armoured cars put in an attack with their machine guns and cannons. The Staffords opened fire and, when the commander of one of the vehicles was killed, the remainder hastily withdrew. Major Basil Beazley, the CO of the 9th Field Company, Royal Engineers, reached the bridge at approximately 5 am with fifteen of his sappers, and cut the demolition charges, before lowering them in the water. Minutes later, Lieutenant Colonel Walsh arrived at the head of another small group from all units within the Brigade, and as the most senior officer present assumed responsibility for the defence of the bridge. Various other parties continued to drift in throughout the morning so that by 6.30 am, there were a total of 87 men holding the position.

Major Basil Beazley, commanding the 9th Field Company RE, removed the demolition charges from the bridge. He was killed in action a few hours later.

In truth, this was still too small a force to hold off a determined attack, and meanwhile, enemy reinforcements were also arriving. The first counterattack on the bridge was by two companies of Italian naval infantry, who were easily repulsed by the British. A much more serious attack, however, began at around 11.30 am, when the 1st Battalion of the 75th Infantry Regiment "Napoli" arrived with a mobile artillery battery. They began to accurately shell the British positions and continued to do so, with increasing intensity, throughout the remainder of the morning, taking a steady toll on their numbers.

At one point, a direct hit on a pillbox killed a number of Italians being kept prisoner there. At around 12.20 pm, the shelling ceased, but mortar and machine gun fire continued to bear down on the British positions. With growing confidence, the Italian infantry began pushing forward, with sniper and machine gun fire forcing the defending troops to withdraw into positions on the canal, and killing or wounding a number of them, including Major Beazley, who was killed outright after being struck in the head by a machine gun bullet.

The site of the battle. Photo taken from the modern-day Ponte Grande.

Soon they found themselves being attacked from all sides, and by 3.15 pm, only about twenty men were still unwounded and able to fight. By fifteen minutes later, they had run out of ammunition and had no option but to surrender, although Lieutenant Welch’s party managed to escape. The majority were captured by the Italians just 45 minutes before the first unit from the 5th Infantry Division - the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Scots Fusiliers - arrived at the bridge, having marched around eight miles from the beaches in the few hours since they had landed. After a brief engagement, the Italians around the Ponte Grande fled or surrendered, and most of the captured airborne forces were rescued within an hour and a half of having been captured. It was now around 5 pm, and, despite the fiasco that had been Operation Ladbroke, incredibly, it had achieved its objective: The Ponte Grande had been captured before it could be destroyed, and the road to Syracuse now lay open.

Syracuse would be taken by the 5th Infantry Division by about 9 pm that evening. In the days that followed, the men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade that had survived the operation unscathed were given lower priority tasks to do, while they waited to be evacuated by sea back to their Tunisian bases. These airborne troops were too highly trained, and too important to be used in frontline infantry combat once their specialist tasks had been completed. They spent a few days watching over Italian prisoners-of-war, as well as guarding Syracuse while the rest of the Eight Army continued its push northwards, until on the afternoon of 13th July, they received orders to embark for North Africa.

Glider troops from the 2nd Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment, pose for a photo outside Syracuse on the day after the battle.

Of course, theirs had not been the only airborne operation carried out on that first night. 226 C-47s of the U.S. 52nd Troop Carrier Wing had flown 3,405 men of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division from roughly the same area of Tunisia, at roughly the same time as the gliders of Operation Ladbroke, and followed pretty much the same route towards Sicily. Although the first flight of troop carriers, reaching their objectives at 11.32 pm, had achieved total surprise, and dropped the first wave of paratroopers reasonably accurately, a mixture of inexperience, lack of training, enemy flak, strong winds, and unexpected cloud cover led to subsequent flights being driven increasingly off course, resulting in the later waves being scattered over wide areas, including some 33 sticks that were dropped over the British sector, many kilometres to the east. In all, just 53 aircraft managed to reach the rough area designated, and only nine sticks actually landed on the Piano Lupo and the other assigned drop zones.

Men of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division preparing for their parachute drop, which was to be carried out simultaneously with Operation Ladbroke.

While a huge debacle arose as to who or what was to blame for these fiascos, the reality was that they were the result of a series of bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances that came together. The British and Americans had felt an obligation to test their new airborne units, having invested so much time, money and effort in their development. The problem was that although so much thought had been given to training these elite troops themselves, the same concentration had not been applied to those charged with delivering them into battle. Through no fault of their own, the pilots had not been properly trained for their task. After an enquiry into what had gone wrong, the British Army and the RAF submitted a number of recommendations for future operations, many of which were put in place for the invasion of Normandy the following year.

Of course, these lessons came too late for the men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade. Their epic stand at the Ponte Grande may have resulted in victory, but it came at a great cost, even to those who survived, many of whom were deeply affected by what they saw. One of the tasks they had been given during those few days in Syracuse, before being shipped back to North Africa, was to recover and bury the bodies of their dead colleagues. Along the coast to the south of Syracuse, wrecked gliders and the bloated corpses of British airborne troops lined the shore as far as the eye could see. The remains of those who had drowned, some of them with bullet holes in their heads where they had been shot by Italian machine guns as they had desperately tried to remain afloat, were still drifting in on the current until several days later. During the course of Operation Ladbroke, the 1st Airlanding Brigade lost 252 men drowned, 61 killed, and 174 wounded and missing on land. Losses for the Glider Pilot Regiment were 14 killed and 87 wounded and missing.

Most of those who were killed during Operation Ladbroke now lie at rest at the beautifully-kept Syracuse War Cemetery.

Later, the bodies of those who had been killed were exhumed and reburied at the now beautifully-kept Syracuse War Cemetery, managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Although many of them lie in single, named graves, some of the bodies 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.



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

Murray, I. (2020, March 9). Surgical Strike – the Bombing of Syracuse in Operation Ladbroke. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 4, 2023, from

Murray, I. (2016, July 30). Glider Pilots to Blame for Operation Ladbroke Disaster? Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 4, 2023, from

Murray, I. (2015, October 23). Terror off Terrauzza – Operation Ladbroke gliders in the sea. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 4, 2023, from

Murray, I. (2020, December 20). The Story of Glider 110 – Glider Pilots Fight for the Ponte Grande. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 4, 2023, from

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