For Those in Peril in the Sea
"Will you have the Lobster, Sir?"
Operation LADBROKE was the code name given to the part to be played by the 1st British Air Landing Brigade in the invasion of Sicily on the night of 9th/10th July 1943. All military operations in wartime involve an element of gambling, larger in some operations than in others. The choice of Ladbroke as the code name for the task allocated to the glider borne troops of the 1 st Air Landing Brigade emphasised the element of gamble. Of the 147 gliders that left North Africa for Sicily, nearly half, sixty nine in all, crash-landed in the sea, drowning 252 airborne troops.
The Sunday before the invasion a large Brigade church parade was held and this was followed by a march past, the Brigadier taking the salute. I well remember singing the hymn "Eternal Father, Strong to Save' with the prophetic line "For those in peril on the sea". I have never sung that hymn since without being reminded of the disastrous events of July 9th/10th 1943.
Both the 1st Bn The Border Regiment, in which I was serving as a young platoon commander, and the 2nd South Staffords were based in tented camps on the outskirts of the Tunisian port of Sousse. We were to fly from local airstrips and to avoid friendly fire from the allied task-force were to make a circuitous journey via Malta. This flight course was 450 miles, whereas the direct route was 200 miles shorter. This was a night operation of which no glider units had any previous experience.
The plan was that the glider-force having landed on their LZs, systematically in lanes (what optimism!), the vital Ponte Grande bridge would be captured and held for the advance of the 8th Army. The Border Regiment were to pass through the South Staffords and secure the town of Syracuse. We were to occupy key locations and deny the approaches of the town to any enemy reinforcements. I seem to remember that the objective of 12 Platoon, which I commanded, was to secure and occupy the Post Office in the town's main square.
Soon after 1500 hrs on the 9th July we put on our kit ready to be taken to the airstrips. We wore our maroon berets and carried our steel helmets. Each man was heavily laden with his personal weapon, spare ammunition, grenades and other items of equipment. The officers and N.C.O.s were encumbered by an even greater variety of kit. Each one of us had a blow-up lifebelt. Although I cannot remember it, I am told that operational orders gave instructions that on de-planing all lifebelts were to be collected in Company dumps 'for use by the battalion in future operations'. In view of what was to happen that night such an instruction makes strange reading. Most of us flying to Sicily owed our survival to the lifebelts.
All but a very few of us were to fly in Waco gliders of American construction. This glider, officially named the 'Hadrian'by the British, had a wingspan of 83.6 feet and an overall length of 48 feet. The cockpit and fuselage consisted of an all welded tubular metal framework, which was fabric covered and had a floor of plywood. The wings and tailplane were constructed of wood and covered in canvas. It is, I think true to say that the Waco did not inspire the same confidence as the British constructed Horsa. It was very noisy in flight as the canvas drummed against the steel frame.
The most serious drawback of this glider was that it could only take 16 men or a few men and a jeep. The Horsa glider to which we were accustomed would take a complete infantry platoon of 28 men and its handcart, or a jeep with a 6 pounder anti-tank gun with its crew. Two Wacos were needed to carry the same load and there could be no guarantee that they would land side by side; in fact the odds against them doing so were fairly high.
I, like most platoon commanders, was unhappy that my men would be split in two. Whilst I was to fly in glider 92 with 15 men, my platoon sergeant, Victor de Muynck, flew in glider 96 with 8 of our men, two regimental policemen and our platoon handcart. In the event, both of the gliders carrying our platoon crashed in to the sea, six of our men were drowned and it was some weeks before we who survived met up again at our camp near Sousse.
The battalion flew from three airfields; these were, in fact, no more than rudimentary air strips in the desert. At about 15.30 hours we embussed in the 3 ton trucks which were to take us to the airfields, where we arrived at about 18.00 hrs. Tea was handed out whilst we waited to emplane. Victor de Muynck, my Sergeant, is on record as saying that tea was a 'tinned herring sandwich'. It was enough he said to make one sick before getting into a glider. I cannot remember the details of what was provided, but I must say that the whole operation had a distinctly fishy flavour.
The first of 1 Border's gliders took off at 19.05 hours and the last was airborne at 20.12 hours. The gliders were towed by C47 transport planes of U.S.A.F. which were unarmed, unarmoured and did not have self-sealing petrol tanks; the tug pilots were inexperienced in military operations. The glider pilots were newly trained and had no experience of landing at night. There was a strong wind, which had resulted, a few hours after take off, in orders to increase the height for the release of the gliders. Our pilot was Sgt. Smith of the Glider Pilot Regiment, with F/0 Guy Gunter of the U.S. Army flying as copilot.
Once we were airborne we had, barring accidents, a five hour flight ahead of us. None of us, I think, were unduly worried but we were all going to feel a great deal better when we had completed and hopefully made a safe journey. However, I must confess that I was not particularly happy about the type of Landing Zone on which we were to descend; as far as I could tell from information given at our briefing they were small, strewn with small rocks and bounded by stone walls. I was seated at the rear of the glider. The journey was noisy and bumpy; we had of course an issue of brown paper bags into which we could be sick and many of us were - we soon discovered that the bottom seam of the bag gave way after only the minimum of use! During the flight the wind increased at times to 45 m.p.h
As we approached Sicily ack-ack fire was to be seen some distance ahead of us and the glider rocked badly. I felt the glider being released and although I could not see clearly, we were over the sea and there was no sight of land. In what seemed a very short time the call came down from the pilot "Equipment off, prepare for ditching'. We hit the water with a tremendous thump.
Because of their metal framework Waco gliders sank to wing level very quickly. I must have been momentarily stunned; when I came to the water was up to my shoulder. I was alone, it was dark and I still had my equipment on. How to get out? I suddenly remembered that I had a commando dagger on my belt; I took it out, pushed it through the canvas above my head, cut a large hole and pushed my head through. My appearance was greeted with a shout of 'Here he is'. I was hauled out through the hole, leaving my equipment behind. Later, when very cold, I remembered that my small pack, then well under water, contained a flask of whisky. I also reflected that it was very fortunate that no one was sitting on the canvas roof of the Waco when I stabbed my knife upwards.
No sooner had I been extricated from the fuselage, which was now completely full of water, than Corporal Betts reported that he had lost his glasses; he couldn't see and his lifebelt wouldn't blow up! He was still with us in the morning due to his mates holding on to him whenever he was in danger of being washed away.
The majority of our party remained with the wreckage during the night. The wings and tailpiece floated on or below the surface; we paddled from one portion to another, changing position when the portion we were on or holding on to sank deeper in the water than was comfortable. There was a heavy swell and it was much colder than ever I imagined the Med could be. The night was a long one, but there was no panic or defeatism. I am sure that we all believed that if we could hold on until daylight we would be rescued.
I gave permission for two men to swim for the shore, which was clearly some distance away - at least five or six miles was my estimate. I was reluctant to give permission but I felt that they should have the chance to swim for the shore if they felt that they could make it. They did not make the shore, but soon after dawn were picked up by an assault landing craft and taken to its 'mother ship'.
When daylight came, those of us still with the wreckage, including our American glider pilot, could see ships and craft of all sorts passing by, but they couldn't or didn't see us. As we were low in the water this was understandable, but it was frustrating and began to dent our morale. To have survived a night in the sea and then not to be rescued was an awful thought. But then it happened, a Greek destroyer spotted us and came gently alongside. As it came close I realised that it was manned by obvious Mediterranean types; my heart sank momentarily - I thought we were about to be captured by the Italian navy. Then a lone English voice was heard shouting 'Its O.K., they are Greeks not Ities. I'm the the only bloody Englishman aboard'. He was a Royal Navy signaller.
Scrambling nets were lowered and we pulled ourselves aboard; some of the chaps just couldn't manage and the Greek sailors dived into the sea and helped them to and up the nets. We were a party of thirteen; three members of the platoon ('Dad' Taylor, Hurley and Corporal Whitton) had been drowned, together with Sgt. Smith our British glider pilot.
The Greek navy made us comfortable. I had a cut on my left eye which was stitched up by the ship's MO; then after a breakfast of bacon and egg I slept soundly until noon. I am told that during the morning the destroyer sailed close inshore and shot up some Italian shore batteries, but of this I was completely unaware.
Soon after noon our party was transferred to the empty troopship Reina de Pacifico from which Canadian troops had taken part in the sea-borne assault. I was wearing the clothes in which I had spent the night, now dry but somewhat dishevelled, no footware for I had dumped my boots in the sea and I was unshaven. Lunch was being served and I was shown to the 1st Class Dining Room. Having seated me the waiter politely enquired 'Will you have the Lobster, Sir?' Well, you can imagine what I thought! But when you come to think about it, what could be more suitable as a starter for lunch after a night in the sea! Other airborne officers and men were aboard and we were taken to Algiers. Another junior officer and myself were allocated a very comfortable cabin and I acquired a suit of blue silk pyjamas and two silk khaki shirts left behind by a Brigadier who was by then fighting in Sicily.
The airborne survivors from the ill-fated airborne assault on the Island were the only passengers on this large liner. We had a blissful three days aboard; I dried out my sodden Allied Military Government invasion currency and discovered a liking for 'Horsesnecks', at a modest duty free rate of less than a shilling apiece. By the time we were landed in Algiers I had acquired some footwear - carpet slippers.
Of the 72 Waco gliders that carried men of the Border Regiment on Operation Ladbroke, one landed in Malta, 7 in North Africa, 44 in the sea and only 23 in Sicily - and these were widely scattered. Only 11 officers and 191 ORs actually landed in Sicily. Casualties for the Air Landing Brigade and Glider Pilot Regiment were 605 officers and men, of whom 300 were drowned without ever getting the opportunity to fight.
Five officers and 134 ORs of the Border Regiment who had been landed at Algiers arrived back in Sousse on the 21st July. On the morning of departure from our camp on the Algiers Race Course I was admitted to the Military General Hospital, the wound over my eye had poisoned and I was diagnosed as having cellulitis. I finally rejoined the battalion and 12 platoon at the beginning of August. The training of the re-organised battalion had begun as early as 16th July and the training instruction included the order.........'all ranks will be taught to swim'.
Arthur Royall February 1996
© Prebendary Arthur Royall
|© Arthur Royall||