Operation Fustian (13-14 July 1943) was an airborne assault on the Primosole Bridge, a key point on the coastal road to Catania, that didn’t go entirely to plan, and triggered a three day long battle to secure a bridgehead across the river.
The operation was part of a wider offensive on the coast of Sicily. Montgomery’s initial advance up the east coast had come to an end just south of Lentini, where a German task force under Colonel Schmalz, had managed to hold a new defensive line. Schmalz had just been reinforced by troops from the German 1st Parachute Division and unknown to the Allies their machine gun battalion was posted close to the bridge. The decision to move the paratroops to Sicily had been made within a day or two of the Allied invasion. Oberstleutnant Heilmann, the commander of the first wave of reinforcements, flew into Catania just before the air drop and picked one of the same drop zones as the British - at the junction of the Simeto river and the Gornolunga. The first 1,400 paratroops landed in the drop zone on the evening of 12 July, and quickly moved to the front. On 13 July the Germans attempted to fly more troops in. This time the division’s anti-tank companies suffered heavy losses, but the machine gun battalion reached Catania airfield safely, and moved to their new position, 2,000m south of the Primosole Bridge.
Montgomery planned two Special Forces operations to support his offensive around Lentini. The Commandos were to capture the bridge over the Malati river, just to the north of Lentini. The 1st Parachute Brigade (Brigadier Gerald Lathbury) of the 1st Airborne Division was to capture the Primosole Bridge over the Simeto river a few miles further to the north. If both bridges could be captured intact, then Montgomery would be able to get his armour onto the Catanian plain and threaten its key airfields. At the same time the 50th Division would attack the German lines south of Lentini and relieve the airborne troops.
Both special forces operations began well. The Commandos landed on the night of 13-14 July and captured the Malati bridge. They were able to remove the German demolition charges, but were then forced away from the bridge by German reinforcements.
The aircraft were to follow a similar route to the one chosen for Operation Ladbroke, at the start of the invasion. They would fly east from Tunisia to Malta, turn north to reach Cape PP at the southern tip of Sicily, and then fly up the east coast to their drop zone. Four drop zones and two landing zones were allocated for the operation. DZ 1 and DZ 4 were to the north-west of the bridge, on the north side of the Simeto. DZ 2 and DZ 3 were to the south west, on the south side of the river and the Gornalunga Canal. LZ 8 was immediately to the west of the bridge, south of the junction between the river and the canal. LZ 7 was to the north-west, in a loop on the north side of the river. The Italians had fortifications on a line of hills south of the bridge, beach defences to the east and a fortified zone to the side of the road north to Catania. The drop zones nearest to the bridge were for the 1st Parachute Battalion, which had the task of seizing both ends of the bridge as quickly as possible. Later waves of paratroops had the job of capturing the fortified hills to create a suitable defensive perimeter. The leading troops from the main Eighth Army forces were expected to arrive at midday on 14 July, so the paratroops would only have to hold out for half a day.
The paratroops were to be carried in 116 transport aircraft, eight WACOs and eleven Horsa gliders. About 1,900 men were allocated to the operation, including a forward observation party from the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment of the Royal Artillery and two naval bombardment teams who were to direct naval fire from a nearby Royal Navy cruiser.
The British paratroops took off at 1935 on 13 July, a few hours after their German counterparts had arrived at Catania. They reached Malta safely, but their route from there to Sicily took them close to the naval air exclusion zone. Two days earlier a large airborne reinforcement operation had run into disaster when the Allied fleet opened fire on the approaching aircraft (Operation Husky No.2). Remarkably the same thing happened again, and the incoming paratroops were fired on by the Allied fleet offshore as well as by Axis air defences. Once again no safety corridor had been set up, although a great deal of effort had gone into setting one up, and attempts were made to make sure that the fleet knew they were coming. Some of the inexperienced USAAF navigators flying the C-47s drifted left, and entered the exclusion zone, where they came under increasingly heavy anti-aircraft fire. Two C-47s were shot down and nine forced to turn back after suffering heavy damage. Another six turned back, claiming to have heard orders to return. Two more were lose when they collided while taking evasive actions. The formation then had to cross the Italian anti-aircraft positions, which claimed another nine C-47s. A total of 11 aircraft were destroyed, 50 damaged fire and 27 were forced to return to base with their men onboard.
Of the 1,856 paratroops in the drop, only 12 officers and 283 men landed at the drop zones. Amongst those troops dropped away from the zone was most of a force of six pathfinders, so the glider landing zones weren’t marked. Even so three of the anti-tank guns did manage to reach the bridge on the first night. As the paratroops came together, it soon became clear that they were facing German troops. The scattered paratroops slowly came together, and in most cases decided to head straight for the bridge.
Despite all of these setbacks, just after 0200 a force of 50 paratroops, led by Captain J. Rann, reached the bridge. The actual defence of the bridge had been left in the hands of fifty Italians, and they almost immediately surrendered to the attacking paratroops. By the end of the night 164 paratroops had reached the bridge, amongst them Brigader Lathbury. One of their most important achievements was to remove the demolition charges from the bridge. South of the bridge another 110 or so men under Colonel Frost occupied Johnny 1, one of the key hills south of the river. This force grew to 140 men by 0530 hours, but without support weapons or radios, so couldn’t call in any supporting fire.
The tiny British defensive force then came under attack from their German counterparts. The British were able to hold onto the bridge all day on 14 July, waiting for their rescuers to arrive from the south, but at nightfall they were forced to retreat south to a nearby ridge. One of the reasons they were able to hold out was that most of the German paratroops were now engaged in the main battle to the south. Hauptmann Stangenberg, who led the first German counterattack from the north, thus first had to create a striking force out of HQ troops and anyone else who was available. Eventually he managed to raise a force of around 200 German troops, and gained the support of a battery of 88mm guns at Catania Airfield.
The first counterattack came south of the river, where the German paratroops attacked Frost’s men. This attack began at 0630, and lasted for an hour. Eventually the Royal Artillery naval observer managed to make contact with the cruiser HMS Mauritius, and at around 0703 naval gunfire broke up the German attack.
At the bridge itself the first attack came just after 1310, after an hour long artillery bombardment. Stangenberg attacked in two columns, hitting the 35 British defenders north of the bridge from three sides. Even so the attack failed. An hour later the Germans attacked the southern edge of the bridge, but again were repulsed. Another artillery barrage began at 1500 and lasted for an hour. At 1600 a force of German and Italian troops attacked, but once again they were repulsed. Even so the British were running short of ammo, and so at 1705 Lathbury decided to concentrate his troops at the southern end of the bridge. This new position soon came under heavy pressure, and at 1935 Lathbury ordered his men to abandon the bridge and try and join Frost on ‘Johnny 1’.
The retreat was carried out successfully, and by 0600 of 14 July most of the survivors of the bridge battle had reached Frost on the hill. His men had almost held out long enough to allow reinforcements to arrive. The first Shermans from the 44th Royal Tank Regiment had arrived at Johnny 1 at 1945, only ten minutes after the retreat began. They were joined by part of the 8th and 9th Battalions, Durham Light Infantry, but they were exhausted and needed to rest before they could resume the attack.
Although the bridge was back in German hands, the paratroops and the DLI were able to prevent them from blowing the bridge during the night of 14-15 July. By 15 July they had been joined by tanks and artillery observers, and with their support the Durhams attempted to retake the bridge. This first attack began at 0800 on 15 July, but it was repulsed by the German paratroops, supported by two 88mm guns. However once again the Germans were unable to blow the bridge.
On the night of 15-16 July two companies of the DLI forded the river to the west of the bridge and managed to clear the northern end. However no reinforcements were sent across during the night, leaving the Durhams pinned down in a 300 yard bridgehead during 16 July. The British attempted to get tanks across the bridge, but they were repulsed by the 88s. Some Bren gun carriers and mortars were able to get across, and the Germans were unable to pinch out the bridgehead.
On the night of 16-17 July the rest of the DLI forded the river, and at dawn on 17 July tanks and anti-tank guns were finally able to get across the bridge. By 10am the bridgehead was 3,000 yards deep and the river crossing had been secured.
Although the bridge had been successfully captured, the German rearguard action had allowed Schmalz to organise a much stronger defensive line south of Catania. When Montgomery attempted to attack north on the night of 17-18 July the attack was repulsed, and he and Alexander decided to try and outflank the defences instead.
Operation Fustian cost the British 295 dead, including 27 killed in the battle of the bridges. The Glider Pilot Regiment had also suffered heavy losses, and Operation Fustian was the last large scale British airborne operation on Sicily or in Italy. However some gliders did remain in the Mediterranean, where they took part in operations in Yugoslavia, Greece and the south of France. Most returned to Britain, where the lessons of Ladbroke and Fustian were learnt. Glider borne troops then went on to play an important part in the success of the D-Day landings, carrying out far more successful coup-de-main operations on the eastern flank of the British beaches.