Parachute assault on the Primasole Bridge

Planning and Preparations January - July 1943: Royal Air Force glider pilots and pilots of towing aircraft are briefed before the airborne invasion.

Planning and Preparations January – July 1943: Royal Air Force glider pilots and pilots of towing aircraft are briefed before the airborne invasion.

Planning and Preparations January - July 1943: A jeep is loaded onto an American WACO CG-4A glider.

Planning and Preparations January – July 1943: A jeep is loaded onto an American WACO CG-4A glider.

The Airborne Operations on Sicily were to be costly exercises. ‘Friendly fire’ from the Allied Naval force and shore based positions caused unnecessary casualties to U.S. airborne forces and caused much upset.

The British 1st Parachute Brigade was assigned the task of capturing the Primasole Bridge intact. It was classic airborne objective – preventing the destruction of the bridge would give the main British force access to the Catania Plain and hopefully a swift advance. It was dependent on the relatively lightly armed parachute troops being able to hold out until relieved by stronger British forces moving up from the coast.

The operation also demonstrated the classic weaknesses of a parachute assault. The force that dropped by parachute and glider became widely dispersed following sustained ‘friendly’ and enemy fire. Of the 1856 men in the assault force less than 300 were to assemble at the bridge. They were still able to seize it from the Italians.

This depleted force then had to face the German 1st Parachute Regiment, which had just landed at nearby Catania Airfield, and the heavy weapons that the Germans already had in the area. Meanwhile the Durham Light Infantry, who were assigned to relieve them, had little transport. After three days of fighting since landing at the coast they were expected to make a 24 mile forced march in less than 24 hours. Many of their men were already suffering from heat exhaustion.

The Primasole Bridge which was successfully captured intact.

The Primasole Bridge which was successfully captured intact.

Peter Stainforth was one of the men who successfully dropped by parachute within range of the bridge. Before dawn he had removed the demolition charges from the bridge itself. He and his men dug in for the expected counter-attack and came under heavy artillery fire. Then a deep trench prepared earlier by the Italian was discovered and they all dropped into that:

A moment later the barrage came down on us in earnest. Every flak gun around Catania airfield opened fire, and the air over our heads boiled, shrieked and roared. The incessant crash of shells and roar of guns intermingled, so that sound had no further meaning; the noise pulsated, swelled and erupted and then fell back to the roll of a thousand drums before building up to another sickening peak, tearing the world apart. We sat huddled and dazed. Wisps of pungent yellow smoke seeped into the trench. Somebody coughed and relieved the tension. Then, suddenly as it had come, the barrage lifted.

For a moment my numbed brain could not comprehend the sudden silence. One had got so used to the raging thunder of noise that this new emptiness almost hurt. A rifle shot and then a burst of Bren brought me to my senses. ‘They’re coming through!’ I found myself shouting. ‘Back to your positions. Bren gunners come with me!’

We swarmed out of the trench, scrambled down the ditch and found our old holes. I pulled my two grenades out of my pouch and laid them beside me – just in case.

Battle was joined on the opposite side of the river, but it remained invisible behind the thick screen of vineyards except for the occasional tracer ricochet. The Bren gun rattled out three more short bursts, and then a German machine-gun roared into life unexpectedly close.

Rifle shots were cracking away all round our bridgehead. A Vickers gun started up and chattered out a long five-second burst, very comforting to hear. Then the noise of the battle became too confused to distinguish individual sounds, and rippled in waves round the northern perimeter. Tracer flickered through the vines and threw up long welts of dust.

My section passed their Bren magazines up to the gunner. He held the gun into his shoulder and peered intently at the undergrowth downstream.

Gradually the fire slackened and then died away into another lull. We strained our ears and listened anxiously, wondering what it might mean. Suddenly the barrage came down again. As there was no point in remaining on top we crawled back to the shelter of our trench and waited for the lift.

In my dazed state I became fascinated by the different sound effects produced by the rain of shrapnel. Some uttered an almost human cry, a plaintive wail like a child. Others sobbed and howled, curdling the blood. Some whirred like a partridge, a heavy, ugly sound. Some droned and buzzed like bees. The air throbbed as red- hot slivers of steel flew in every direction; and, as a finale, the telegraph wires parted with a twang, and the copper wire rustled down with a hushed singing noise.

To supplement the barrage of airburst from the massed 88-mm flak-guns two large-calibre coastal guns of the 14-inch variety joined in and pounded away at the bridge. The shells came whining over, the noise changing pitch with terrifying speed.

Fortunately, every one passed overhead to land with heavy concussions from two to four hundred yards away. The gunners never succeeded in getting the range; probably they had no direct observation and could not bracket for fear of hitting their own positions. But they were sufficiently close to rock the walls of our trench. Chunks of earth flaked off, and soil trickled down our backs.

After a quarter of an hour the barrage lifted again and fighting flared up, growing in intensity as before. After another unsuccessful attack the enemy desisted, and the storm of shells came down again. They employed quite a novel signal to request the renewal of the barrage – a stream of red tracer red nearly vertically into the air. When we learned what this meant we dived for our trench as soon as it was spotted.

The day passed slowly. Sometimes the enemy held off to draw breath, giving us a respite of an hour or so before battle opened once more. But they always came on again as fiercely as before, crawling down the avenues of grapevines and working closer and closer towards the bridge. As the afternoon wore on their attacks gained weight as reinforcements arrived and heavier and heavier support-weapons were brought into play.

See Peter Stainforth: Wings Of The Wind

Paradata has more pictures and maps. Durham Light Infantry has more on their role.

British airborne troops check their equipment before boarding their gliders.

British airborne troops check their equipment before boarding their gliders.

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