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Posts Tagged ‘Operation Husky’

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 Ladbrookebore 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

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On April 30, 1943, the battle for North Africa was winding down, and the Axis had defeat staring it in the face.  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the tactical genius, had exited the theater in poor health nearly two months before.  In fact, the final offensive against the depleted Panzers (Operation Strike) was just a week away.  Tunis and Bizerte were certain to fall, and if they did, the Germans were facing a loss of men and equipment that could rival Stalingrad.

But on this day, Allied war planners weren’t thinking about the “here and now”.  They were looking ahead to the next target…Sicily.  The trick, however, was to get Adolf Hitler and his military leadership thinking about a place other than Sicily.

And that’s where Operation Mincemeat came in.  This involved making the German government believe that it had captured top-level, top-secret documents outlining a planned invasion of Greece and Sardinia.  But the Germans were pretty intelligent in their own right, and fooling them wouldn’t be easy.  Plus pretty much everyone knew that, after Africa, the next step would be Italy, and Sicily make the perfect stepping-off point.  This would have to be quite the ruse.

The idea was to have a body, dressed up like a mid-level officer, wash ashore on the Spanish coast.  British Intelligence believed that the Spanish, with their close ties to Germany, would immediately report the discovery, and things would progress.  So the body of a man that recently died of poisoning was found, and a stash of phonied documents of the operation in Greece was placed in a briefcase and strapped to him, along with a major’s uniform and some old receipts and a made-up wife-to-be.

The submarine HMS Seraph then carried the body in a canister filled with dry ice.  As the dry ice evaporated, the carbon dioxide consumed the oxygen and preserved the body without refrigeration (which would have been a dead giveaway to German doctors).

At 4:30am, the Seraph off-loaded the body and the intelligence services watched and waited to see if their trick worked.

To say it succeeded would be an incredible understatement.  The Germans bought it, hook, line, and sinker.  Field Marshal Rommel, now in better health, was sent to Greece and given overall command of its defenses.  Additional reinforcements were directed away from Sicily and to Greece and Sardinia instead.  A Panzer Division was moved from France and, more importantly, two Panzer Divisions were moved from the Eastern Front, a move that would have a big benefit for the Russians at Kursk.

And when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Sicily in July of 1943, Hitler and his generals still believed it to be a feint, and continued their focus on Greece.  By the time they figured out they had been tricked, Sicily was all but lost.

So I guess that just like Michael Knight, one (dead) man can make a difference.

Recommended Reading: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory – It’s probably dangerous to recommend a book that, as of this writing, has yet to hit the presses.  But I’m anxiously awaiting getting my hands on it.

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U.S. and British troops had landed on the island of Sicily during the late evening and early morning of July 9-10, 1943.  Codenamed Husky, the operation had as its goal the removal (by whatever means necessary) of the Italian and German military.  Having done that, the island would be the staging area for the bigger drive into Italy, the “Soft Underbelly of Europe”.

General Bernard Montgomery led the British 8th Army, which landed on the southeast side of Sicily.  General George Patton’s U.S. 7th Army landed on the south-central part of the island, near Gela.  Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the hard-charging U.S. General to tire of what he thought was a stagnant, play-it-way-too-safe style of warfare being run by the Commander of the land forces, General Alexander (also a Brit).

So, on July 17th, Patton flew to Allied headquarters in Tunisia, tracked down Alexander, pointed to the northwest corner of Sicily on his map, and said (not a direct quote), “How about I take Palermo?”  As the capital of Sicily, it had been where the American leaders had wanted to land in the first place.  But Montgomery and Alexander disagreed and General Eisenhower (in overall command and desirous of coalition harmony) backed Alexander’s plan.  Alexander considered Patton’s idea, and gave him the go-ahead.

And like racehorses out of the gate at Churchill Downs, Patton’s men were off, ripping through the countryside, capturing lightly defended towns and taking prisoners.  In fact, before asking permission, the man with the .45 on his hip had already allowed a large number of forces to begin moving and taking some of the smaller towns between Gela and the capital, 80 miles away.  As it turned out, Alexander later countermanded the orders, but Patton ignored him, blaming garbled messages.

By the morning of July 22, 1943, the 7th Army was on the outskirts of Palermo, but was forbidden to enter the city.  Patton, whose over-sized ego and vanity often got the best of him, wanted to lead a tank processional into the capital.  There would be little or no fighting as most of the enemy had already left town and headed east.  At 6pm (after waiting all day), several battalions were sent into the city and later in the evening, an Italian General overstepped his authority and surrendered the city.

The fall of Palermo was mostly symbolic and was accomplished with relatively little combat.  It’s military importance lies mostly with how the enemy perceived it.  With the British moving (slowly) towards Messina from the south and the western part of the island in U.S. hands, the Italians and Germans realized that Sicily could no longer be defended, and a retreat from the island was now on the cards.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle

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