German predictions for Operation Ladbroke & airborne landings in Sicily

German General Kurt Student’s June 1943 report reproduced in full.

 One month before Operation Ladbroke, the opening glider assault in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, the leader of Germany’s airborne forces produced an intelligence report. It predicted with startling accuracy how the Allies would use their glider and parachute units.

 General Kurt Student was one of Hitler’s most capable commanders, and was in charge of all German airborne forces. It was Student who oversaw the brilliantly successful use of airborne troops at fort Eben-Emael during the blitzkrieg attack on France and the Low Countries in May 1940. He also masterminded the successful capture of Crete in May 1941 by airborne troops alone, despite heavy resistance from the British defenders. He was a thoroughly experienced master of the airborne art (on the debit side, he was held responsible for the first wave of German reprisals against civilians in Crete, and was found guilty after the war of executing Allied POWs on the island).

In spring and early summer 1943, Major General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, former CO of the British 1st Airborne Division and a founding figure for Britain’s airborne forces, was working in Algiers with General Eisenhower’s planners, advising on the airborne aspects of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. Among Browning’s key senior staff was Lieutenant Colonel A G Walch, who later flew into Sicily alongside the glider assault troops, ostensibly as an observer, but ending up taking charge of the surrounded British defenders at the Ponte Grande bridge.

On 18 June 1943, only three weeks before the invasion, Walch signed a document on behalf of Browning, and circulated it to Allied senior officers in Algiers, and especially to the British and American airborne divisions destined for Sicily. The document was an intelligence report by Student outlining what he saw as the Allies’ probable use of airborne forces in Sicily. Clearly the German assessment was known to the Allies at the highest level. If, however, they were concerned by it, it was too late to undo many weeks of planning at such short notice.

Predictions and Plans Compared

General Student’s report is an astonishing document, as it is accurate in almost every respect. In some ways, this vindicates the Allied plan, as even the enemy came to the same conclusions as General Montgomery, commanding officer of the British 8th Army which had the task of taking south-east Sicily.

In other ways, the report highlights the great risks of Operation Ladbroke, the British glider landings on the first night of the invasion, which were designed to facilitate the capture of the vital port city of Syracuse. Student’s opinions differed from the Operation Ladbroke plans in several ways.

  • Student did not mention the landing zones chosen by the British as suitable for airborne landings (the main LZs were in fact crisscrossed by lines of trees and thick stone walls).
  • He thought at least a half moon was needed for a night glider landing (a quarter moon was chosen by the British, as a compromise with the needs of the Royal Navy).
  • He thought glider landings at night would require a flare path (an idea at first rejected by Allied planners as prejudicial to surprise, but then quickly endorsed as a result of Operation Ladbroke’s scattered crashes).

All three choices (of LZs, quarter moonlight, no landing aids) may have given the British tactical surprise, due to being out of line with Student’s expectations. If they did, however, then they did so only at a great cost in lost and damaged gliders.

Dated exactly one month before the invasion, Student’s report is such an extraordinary document that it is reproduced in full below.

Student’s knowledge of the type and approximate number of gliders and tugs in North Africa implies that he had regular updates from local spies near the Allied air bases. His presumption, however, that the Allies would at least have added self-sealing tanks to the C-47 was, sadly for their crews and the troops in them, unfounded.

Student’s opinion on why airborne troops should not be used to soften beach defences from the rear is almost exactly what Browning said his opinion on the subject was in April / May 1943. By the time Browning said this in a speech in August , of course, he had already seen Student’s report.

Student was mistaken in some points of detail, as opposed to principle, simply because he did not know, for example, that the Allies did in fact have dummy parachutists and that Sicilian radar would be jammed and confused by aircraft as opposed to airborne.

His mention of the bridge over the River Simeto (the Primosole bridge) was prescient, if obvious – it was precisely the primary target for Operation Marston (aka Operation Fustian), the British 1st Parachute Brigade drop designed to hold open the road to Catania. His focus on the Primosole bridge may have profoundly affected the outcome of 8th Army’s progress, as the day before the British paras dropped, Student’s own paras dropped into the area to prevent them. The end result was that 8th Army got stuck south of Catania for many days, and in the end was beaten to Messina by the US Army under Patton, even though the Americans had gone round the long way via Palermo.

The sole recommendation that Student made in his report was that the landward defences of the Italian ports should be overhauled and adapted to defeat airborne attempts to attack the ports from the rear, which was of course exactly what Operation Ladbroke was designed to do (Ladbroke was the codename for the port of Syracuse). By the time Student made this suggestion, however, it was too late. There was less than a month until the invasion, and the Italians in Sicily lacked almost everything necessary to make these changes.

Gliders in Sicily - map of Operation Ladbroke landing zones

Map of Operation Ladbroke main glider landing zones south of Syracuse, Sicily. Although close enough for his predicted landward assault on the port, Student did not identify this area as suitable for glider landings. Many British glider pilots totally agreed with him. It was criss-crossed with ditches, lines of trees and thick stone walls.

The Report

The full text of General Student’s report, as translated by Allied intelligence staff:

Student-document-transcript-copyright-Aurora-Publishing

 

This document can be found in the National Archives in Kew.

 

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