Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Operation HUSKY Kicks Off

In the evening hours of July 9, 1943, Allied forces under the overall command of United States' General Dwight D. Eisenhower were crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa and elsewhere for Operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily.

Around midnight local time, July 10 (about 6:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time, by present standards) British and American parachute and glider-borne forces began the first large-scale airborne operation for the Allies in the war. It turned out that they had a lot to learn about transporting men into combat that way.

The first problem the Allies faced in conducting a large-scale airborne attack was a severe lack of transport aircraft. Both the Americans and the British had barely enough planes to get just one-third of each of their forces lifted into the combat zone at once. The attack preceding the seaborne invasion the morning of July 10 would be much smaller than what the world would see less than a year later when the Allies invade France.

Around Syracuse at the southeast corner of Sicily, the British 1st Airborne Division's 1st Airlanding Brigade executed what they called Operation LADBROKE. Departing Tunisia in 144 gliders towed by aircraft were 2,075 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Border Regiment, the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, and attached units. The brigade encountered problems even before they got on the ground. Stronger than expected headwinds made navigating difficult even before enemy searchlights and antiaircraft fires threw the tow planes and the gliders further off course.

Tragically, 65 of the 144 gliders (45 percent!) were released from their tow planes too early and didn't even make it to shore and crashed into the sea. 252 men - over 12 percent of the brigade - drowned. Even though many men survived, precious equipment was lost and the survivors were effectively out of the battle until they were rescued or could make it ashore.

Of the remaining 79 gliders, eight never made it to Sicily and returned to Tunisia still attached to their tow planes. Fifty-nine (59) missed their landing zones and wound up as far as 25 miles (!) from their intended landing zones. Just twelve of the gliders landed where they were supposed to.

As the British were scattered all over the place, they weren't able to concentrate their forces and LADBROKE was largely a failure. The one objective they did manage to seize, a bridge, was overwhelmed by the enemy before reinforcements could arrive from the sea.

To the west of the British behind the shores at Gela where the US 1st Infantry Division would come ashore at dawn, the 82nd Airborne Division's 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment made the United States' first ever combat jump under the command of then-Colonel James M. Gavin. As is the tradition of the American airborne forces, Gavin as senior officer was the first to jump.

The same winds that proved devilish for the British gliders also threw the American troop carrying planes off course. Gavin's regiment found itself scattered between their target area and what was the British forces area to the east.

The American paratroops faired slightly better than their glider-borne British counterparts. They managed to assemble themselves into ad hoc units ranging in size from a handful of troopers to dozens and harass the German and Italian defenders across the area and behind the lines for days using hit-and-run, guerrilla-style tactics. The force that Gavin was able to assemble himself held onto key high ground in the face of determined counter attacks until they were reinforced.

Even so, it took until July 14th for the 505th PIR to gather and concentrate just two-thirds of its complement. The remainder were still scattered or had become casualties.

Allied airborne forces hung on by their fingernails during the first hours of the attack on Sicily. What would happen if the seaborne landings ran into problems? The first large scale attack on enemy homelands could end in total disaster...


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