Operation Ladbrooke was designed as a fairly straightforward mission, but failed miserably even in its success. The goal was simple: fly 1,700 soldiers to the Ponte Grande bridge. That bridge, which spanned the Anapo River, was located just south of Syracuse, a city on the southeast side of the island of Sicily. It was July 9, 1943, not quite two months since Allied forces had driven the German army from North Africa. And now, the opening salvos of the battle for “the soft underbelly of Europe” were being fired. Ladbrooke was just one small piece of the Allied invasion of Sicily, code-named Operation Husky.
The soldiers of Ladbrooke were to capture their target before it could be demolished, and hold it against German and Italian counterattacks. Having done that, they would move into Syracuse and secure its docks, providing a key point of disembarkation for the Eighth Army. Unfortunately for those soldiers, the results were an unmitigated disaster. In his book The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson writes that Ladbrooke “bore the signature traits of so many airborne operations in the Second World War: poor judgment, dauntless valor, and a nonchalant disregard of men’s lives.”
The soldiers would be transported in Horsa gliders which were pulled by aircraft using a 350-foot rope. And that’s about all the good one could say about the mission. It was flown at night by pilots who had very little night experience and almost no experience pulling gliders. The area near Ponte Grande were rocky and full of stone walls, which made terrible (to say nothing of dangerous) landing zones for unpowered, wooden gliders. Naysayers of the plan were many…naysayers that actually spoke up were few, as the plan had originated in General Montgomery’s headquarters, and speaking out carried with it career risks.
Glider pilots with any experience at all had never flown in anything but sunshine and calm conditions, a far cry from what they encountered that windswept Friday night. But off they went, all 144 gliders from a half-dozen airfields in Tunisia. And from that point (before the bullets even started coming), the plan was shot.
Some pilots had poor navigation maps, some had none at all. The strong winds buffeted the planes and gliders badly, and numerous pilots became disoriented, flying far off course. Some soldiers landed on Malta, while others were dropped back in Tunisia. And while that’s pretty bad, those soldiers were the fortunate ones. Winds caused additional strain and broke the tow-ropes on some gliders, which then landed in the Mediterranean, with all occupants drowned.
And while the majority of the gliders made it to where they could see Sicily, some pilots released their gliders too early, which again meant a swim and, on many occasions, death by drowning. Only 54 gliders actually made to land belonging to Sicily and, even then, results were pretty awful. Enemy anti-aircraft fire shot down a number, while others crashed heavily on landing, killing most (or all) of their passengers.
Rather than the five hundred men expected to take the bridge, a mere platoon seized Ponte Grande. By morning the force had grown to nearly 100, but they were shelled heavily by Italian mortars and machine guns, and forced to surrender. The bridge was later recaptured by Royal Scot Fusiliers.
So yeah, the bridge was captured intact, but the price was terrible. The glider forces sustained more than 600 casualties, and more than half of them drowned without ever firing a shot. While the mission of Ladbrooke was accomplished, the failure of the plan was seen over the ensuing weeks, as bodies washed up on shore with daily regularity. Atkinson summarizes, “If the courage of those flying to Sicily that night is unquestioned, the same cannot be said for the judgment of their superiors in concocting and approving such a witless plan.”
Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle