On 9 July 1943, British and American forces launched the invasion of Sicily, under the codename Operation Husky. It was hoped that taking Sicily would force Italy out of the war, and divert German forces away from France and the Eastern Front. As part of Operation Husky, gliderborne forces carried into battle by the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) were used en masse for the first time.
Waco gliders and Albemarle transport planes in North Africa in preparation for the airborne assault.
The GPR used American Waco and British Horsa gliders. While the smaller Waco glider could be shipped to North Africa from the United States in preparation for the invasion, the larger Horsa had to be towed over 1,200 miles from Britain to Tunisia by modified Halifax Bombers. This logistical challenge, codenamed Operation Turkey-Buzzard, put immense mechanical strain on the gliders and aircraft, resulting in the loss of 21 RAF aircrew and three GPR pilots. Nevertheless, the operation successfully delivered 27 Horsa gliders to North Africa between 3 June and 7 July 1943.
A Horsa glider (left) towed by a Halifax bomber (right) arriving in Tunisia from Britain.
While their gliders were on route, GPR personnel not involved in Operation Turkey-Buzzard had already been transferred to North Africa. The GPR was stationed at Tizi Camp, Algeria, repurposed from its primary function of holding prisoners of war. Here, the regiment endured heavy rain, rivers of mud, and scorching sun under canvas, before being transferred to Froha aerodrome. Pilots of the regiment had no experience of flying Wacos. When the gliders finally arrived on 29 May, the GPR instituted a comprehensive training regime. Before Husky was launched, training flights were conducted almost 24 hours a day, with over 1,800 being completed in the three weeks before the invasion date.
An Albemarle transport plane landing in North Africa during a training mission, with a Waco glider already on the ground.
Operation Ladbroke, the glider assault component of Husky, was launched on the night of 9 July 1943 in advance of the amphibious beach landings. Glidertroops were to secure the Ponte Grande Bridge and capture the city of Syracuse. Navigational errors and anti-aircraft fire meant gliders were released too early, crashing into the sea or failing to reach the planned landing zone. Many gliderborne troops and GPR crews drowned. Only 87 men reached the bridge, holding it until afternoon on 10 July when it was recaptured by Italian forces.
Waco CN (chalk number) 29 was released four miles from the coast, but managed to make landfall. It touched down 300 yards outside of its designated landing zone.
Only one glider pilot, Lieutenant Dennis Patten Galpin, managed to successfully land on target, close to the Ponte Grande Bridge. A remarkable achievement, as his glider was released from its tow six miles out to sea. Once on the ground, Galpin took part in the capture of the bridge with the men he had carried into battle, exemplifying the ‘total soldier’ role of GPR men who were both pilots and infantrymen. For his actions, Lieutenant Galpin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
Lieutenant Galpin’s efforts at Ponte Grande meant the bridge was held long enough that seaborne troops could form up and retake the bridge after it was lost.
After days of heavy fighting on Sicily, the GPR was once again used to in Operation Fustian, intended capture Primosole Bridge in advance of the British Eighth Army. On the night of 13 July, eight Waco and eleven Horsa gliders were used to land anti-tank guns and jeeps to support parachute drops on both sides of the bridge. As in Operation Ladbroke, the Fustian landings were disrupted by heavy anti-aircraft fire, with only four Horsa gliders landing near the bridge. Reinforced by elite German Fallschirmjäger units, the Italian defenders held the bridge and inflicted heavy casualties on Allied troops.
Primosole Bridge, the target of Operation Fustian, would secure access for the Eighth Army to advance towards Catania.
Despite both Operation Ladbroke and Fustian being less successful than planned, and the heavy losses sustained, the Allies continued to persevere with glider tactics. The hard lessons learned in Sicily enabled the success of the glider operations in Normandy less than a year later. To learn more about glider operations during the Second World War, Lieutenant Galpin and the history of army aviation, come and visit us at the Museum of Army Flying.