The Battle for Primosole Bridge
Fresh from fighting in the deserts of North Africa, gaining two Battle Honours as well as their nickname of the ’Red Devils’ in the process, the British 1st Parachute Brigade were now encamped in Tunisia and waiting to play their part in the next step of the reconquest of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
The Allied leaders had decided to open up the much-awaited Second Front to relieve the pressure on the Russian Front, knock Italy out of the war and push towards the borders of the Nazi Reich. The ‘Stepping Stone to Italy’ would therefore be the invasion of Sicily, carried out under the code name Operation HUSKY.
Three days into the Invasion of Sicily, the Paras were given the task of capturing the Primosole Bridge in eastern Sicily and opening the road towards Messina for the Allied ground forces to bottle the Axis forces up.
The Germans had also recognised the strategic importance of the Primosole bridge and swiftly flew in the elite ‘Fallschirmjaeger’, Germany’s battle-hardened paratroopers, only hours before their British counterparts were due to parachute to capture the exact same prize. It would be the first time in history that two opposing enemies had parachuted into battle to face each other.
As the Paras approached the Sicilian coastline they came under friendly fire which scattered the air armada and their cargo of paratroopers over a vast area, including as far north as the slopes of the volcano, Mount Etna.
On the ground, in the darkness, small groups of Paras now formed up into their own ad hoc patrols and made their way to the objective, whilst the supporting gliders began to land with their artillery.
As they made their way through the Mediterranean night, the Paras managed to overcome the Italian garrisons at the bridge and on the supporting hilltops in only a matter of a few short sharp minutes of ‘airborne aggression’.
With the break of dawn, the paras dug-in for a tough day’s fight ahead, now knowing that their jump had been horrendously dispersed, with less than a seventh of their strength arriving at the bridgehead as a result. They also had the knowledge that they were now up against elite German paratroopers, the ‘Green Devils’. The Paras were going to have to fight the upcoming battle the hard way.
The main thrust from the Fallschirmjaeger was initially directed at Frost’s 2 Para situated atop the Johnny Hills overlooking the bridge to the south. After beating back numerous infantry assaults from the Fallschirmjaeger, the Germans instead resorted to bottle the Paras up on the hill with heavy artillery and machine gun fire before switching their attention to the bridge itself.
At high noon, when ground forces were due to relieve the Paras, the Fallschirmjaeger struck. Driving southwards from Catania, a convoy of German Fallschirmjaeger debussed from lorries and began to spread out into the fields to from up for an advance to contact with the bridge defenders. The Paras had seen them coming though. With the few support weapons that had arrived at the bridgehead, they waited for the Germans to patrol towards them and then let loose with a lethal barrage of lead towards the enemy, sending them hurrying back to Catania for reinforcements.
The Germans returned mid-afternoon after press-ganging all available men, including chefs and drivers, into the fight. The Paras held firm despite their lack of numbers and dwindling ammunition. Each German attack slowly made ground though until 1 Para’s Commanding Officer, the legendary Alastair Pearson, made the decision to tactically withdraw to the south end of the bridge in order to continue to deny the bridge to the Germans. As more and more fresh German troops poured into the fight, together with more artillery and tanks in support, they slowly began to blast the Paras from across the river, as the Paras began to run out of ammunition. The decision was made by Brigadier Lathbury to withdraw from the bridgehead towards the Johnny hills and deny use of the bridge to the Germans through covering fire.
The bridge was finally wrestled from the Germans the next day by the Durham Light Infantry supported by tanks and artillery.
The delay in taking the bridge allowed the Germans to initiate Operation LEHRGANG, the evacuation of Sicily. Eventually 135,000 Axis troops and 14,000 vehicles were shipped back to Italy from Sicily. All of this huge amount of men and materiel would now be employed in the defence of Italy.
The main failing of the Sicilian campaign for the Allies was the missed opportunity to firmly put a cork in the bottle of the escaping German army. The last German troops to leave Messina, sensing a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, towed a bottle of wine behind their boat to cool in the sea, so that they could toast their arrival back in Italy. The Germans now re-organised themselves and provided resistance at the Salerno and Anzio landings. The Fallschirmjaeger themselves were redeployed to Monte Cassino and halted the Allied advance for weeks. If these forces had been captured in Sicily, then the Allied push in Italy could well have seen the first Allied troops advance into the Reich itself, possibly changing your Association’s name to ‘Italy and Germany Star Association’.
After Sicily the 1st Parachute Brigade was shipped to Taranto in Italy where the Divisional Commander, General Hopkinson, became the only Airborne general killed in action during the war. The 1st Parachute Brigade next went into battle for Operation MARKET GARDEN at Arnhem, their second bridge too far.
Book Review from Robin Hollamby, National Vice-Chairman
Italy Star Association 1943 – 1945.
The First Bridge Too Far, The Battle of Primosole Bridge 1943 by Mark Saliger
We have all seen the film ‘A Bridge To Far’, about ‘Operation Market Garden’, which highlighted that the lessons from parachute drops behind enemy lines in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Normandy still had not been learnt. In his book ‘The First Bridge Too Far’ Mark Saliger explores in depth the Parachute Regiments drop behind enemy lines in the first few days of the Italian Campaign 13th & 14th July 1943.
Having served with 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment, Mark has seen service in Iraq, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan and writes the authority of someone who has done a great deal of research into their Regiments history. As the regiment was enlarged in North Africa after the end of the campaign there, Mark walks us through the training for night operations and their associated problems.
The operation to take and hold, until relieved, the Primosole Bridge is one of unbelievable courage from the men, despite the problems of being dropped in the wrong place, missing equipment and only about 30% of the men being anywhere near where they should have been.
Unbeknown to the ‘Red Devils’ the Germans had the same idea to hold the bridge and dropped their crack ‘Green Devils’(The Fallschirmjaeger) a few hours later setting the sceen for a classic battle.
With limited numbers and supplies the men of the Parachute regiment took their objective. After putting up a fierce defence to hold the bridge they had no alternative but to stage a tactical withdrawal until reinforced by the Durham Light Infantry supported by 44th Royal Tank Regiment. They were then able to re-take and hold the bridge opening the road from Syracuse to Messina.
This book provides great insight into the planning, training, preparation and execution of a raid behind the lines to take and hold the objective. It is well written and easy to read while giving an enormous amount of detail. Whether you are interested in the Parachute Regiment, the Invasion of Sicily or the Italian Campaign as a whole, this is one book that should be on you bookshelf.
Italy Star Association 1943 – 1945.