Glider Pilots to Blame for Operation Ladbroke Disaster? Part 3

In his post-war book, the CO of the glider pilots blamed their ‘limitations’ for the ‘near disaster’ of Operation Ladbroke. Is the accusation true?

Gliders in Sicily Operation Ladbroke LZ 2 from glider pilot's point of view (C) Aurora Publishing

A glider pilot’s eye view of LZ 2. Apart from the holiday villas that have sprouted up on what was a bare shore in 1943, little has changed. The grid behind the shore is a network of raised concrete irrigation channels, a landing hazard which was there during Operation Ladbroke. Syracuse harbour can be seen in the background.

In Part 1 we saw how the use of gliders in Operation Ladbroke, the opening assault in the invasion of Sicily in 1943, was a last-minute decision. It left little time for training. On the night, many of the gliders came down in the sea. Twenty years later the CO of the glider pilots, George Chatterton, claimed that the inexperience of his own men was the chief cause of the failures of Ladbroke. In Part 2, we saw that Chatterton’s reports from 1943 said no such thing, and the report of a Board of Enquiry also had little to blame the glider pilots for. But could the accusation in fact be true?

I was lucky enough a few years ago to be taken up in a light aircraft in Sicily. The plane followed the approach track along the coast that the tugs and gliders of Operation Ladbroke followed in 1943. We planned to turn at one of the glider release points, 3,000 yards offshore at 1,800 feet, and then mimic a glide down to the landing zones, pulling off at the last moment. As we approached the release point, the altimeter registered exactly 1,800 feet. The prescribed distance of 3,000 yards offshore was less easy to determine, but with good views of the huge promontory of Cape Murro di Porco and the Maddalena Peninsula to our front, we could see from the angles that were lined up about right. I had also been trying to count off landmarks we had passed on the way, just as glider pilots did during the war – the logic being that when we passed the last one, then what came next must be the right area.

Gliders in Sicily Operation Ladbroke release zone map (C) Aurora Publishing

Map showing the approach track, release zone, glide paths and landing zones (LZs) for Operation Ladbroke

But, looking left towards the distant LZs, I could not have told you how far out we were, by a very large margin. I have no experience judging the distance to coasts from such a position, but without any objects providing scale, either in the water or on the distant shore, it seemed impossible to tell. There was also a haze which, over that distance, washed out contrast, blurred detail and made the interior behind the coast start to vanish. I pointed towards where in the murk I thought Milocca Point was, and asked the pilot to turn towards it, as the glider pilots would have done in 1943. The plane banked steeply left, and for a moment the roof blocked my view of the coast. When we levelled up, I had trouble reacquiring Milocca Point, as the temporary loss of sight had interrupted the trail of previous landmarks that I had been counting on. As we headed into the bay, descending slowly, the haze thinned and the coast became clearer.

Suddenly I realised that we were veering towards Arenella Point, identifiable by having a twin, Asparano Point. On the map the two points jut clearly out into the sea, but our distance and height gave us a very low angle of view, so the two points hardly looked like headlands jutting into the bay at all. They looked rounded and barely protruding. Milocca Point, the correct reference mark for LZ 1, is less a point in the sense of being a protrusion into the bay, and more a kink in the coast. Compared to Arenella Point, it was hardly noticeable. And this confusion happened in broad daylight, with the sun behind us. I corrected the pilot and, with the luxury of an engine, he jinked right then left to get back onto the glide path (although such a manoeuvre would have cost too much height in a glider). We then veered towards LZ 2 as we got closer.

You could argue that if I was confident of releasing at the correct point, I should have trusted to a compass bearing and not hazy landmarks. Certainly one of the benefits of having two pilots during Operation Ladbroke was that the first pilot in the left seat concentrated on looking outwards, while the second pilot in the right seat concentrated on looking down at the instruments. Even so, as any map-reading rambler can tell you, when a compass bearing and a landmark appear to clash, one of the things you instinctively do is question how confident you can be about your start point, on which the bearing entirely depends. Frequently, on 9 July 1943, the glider pilots had only the faintest idea where they were, and when bearing and landmark clashed, unlike a rambler who can take as long as he likes to figure out the problem, the glider pilots had only seconds.

The pilots, both tug and glider, had all these problems in 1943, but they approached and released, not in daylight, but in the dark. They were blinded by searchlights and fires on the ground. The pitiful quarter moon was in the wrong part of the sky, and it vanished periodically in hazy intermittent cloud. There was a 35 miles per hour offshore wind, but the release heights gave no margin for error. Plus most of the pilots had no more experience of judging distances to coasts than I do. In fact, so little could they see, that some used the presence of fires and firing on the ground as their cue to release and land.

Where are we?

Lieutenant Bernard Halsall, second pilot in Waco 86, said: “when the moon came out for a short while we could see the coastline. We’d had photographs of the coastline, and where we were didn’t resemble the coastline at all to me.” I have seen those same photographs, which were of a detailed model, lit to mimic the moonlight on the night of the invasion, and taken with a camera at supposedly the correct angle. They are indeed misleading, mainly due to their crisp detail and sharp black-and-white contrast. There was no dimness, no cloud and no atmospheric haze in the model room. Halsall continued:

“A fair bit of flak came up … We could see firing on the ground between the troops [i.e. between Italians and already-landed glider men], so we knew somebody was down there who wasn’t welcome. We decided we’d go off there. So off we went. Then the moon went in. I can remember crossing the coast, seeing the sand, and we’d be then at about 300 feet I should think. Then it went pitch black. I was told afterwards we hit a stone wall at about 85mph. Everybody was knocked out.”

Clearly, if a glider pilot did not know where his tug had brought him, and could not see, then no amount of prescribed headings or map-reading skills were going to help him choose a direction to his LZ. It was the tug pilot’s job to bring his glider to the release zone, as the glider had no long-distance navigational equipment other than a compass. The report issued by the Board of Enquiry seemed to suggest that once they neared the release zone the tug pilot and the glider pilot should pool their map-reading skills to determine when to release. This was not the intention in Operation Ladbroke, and intercommunication equipment between the gliders and the planes barely arrived by the day of take-off. It was hurriedly fitted and many sets failed during the flight. In any case, if a tug never brought its glider anywhere near a place where map-reading could kick in, no amount of such skills would make any difference. For the glider pilot it became a case of finding any land, rather than sea, at any cost.

Landing in the Sea

One way of establishing the culpability of the glider pilots could be to determine if any failings of theirs landed them in the sea. The following numbers are for Waco gliders and are not exact, because some of the fates of the gliders are unclear, but they are probably accurate to within, say, five percent. The eight Horsa gliders have been excluded, because their track, their release height and their fates were very different. Only 130 Waco gliders managed to leave Tunisia. For one reason or another, the rest failed to take off successfully. Of the 130:

5 were returned to Malta or Africa after the tug failed to find the release zone.

50 reached land in Sicily.

75 landed in the sea off Sicily.

Of the 50 Wacos that reached land, only one crashed catastrophically (having not enough height to clear a coastal cliff). The rest landed well enough for almost all of the men inside to take part in the battle or, if far away, to march towards it. This lack of serious crashes and casualties is remarkable, given that the Waco pilots had been trained too land fast, and the LZs were crowded with trees, houses, stone walls, ditches, concrete irrigation channels and overhead wires. It is hard to see how more time spent in flying training would have affected this outcome in any but the most marginal way.

Regarding the Wacos that landed in the sea, published statistics show that the glider pilots were mainly at the mercy of the quality of navigation to the release zone. In 1943 Squadron Leader Lawrence Wright of 38 Wing, as well as staff officers of 1st Airborne Division, analysed the operation and showed that the gliders which were released at or above the prescribed height, and at or closer than the prescribed distance, mostly reached land, and the rest, which were released in the wrong place, i.e. too low but mainly too far out, landed in the sea. Being an RAF man, Wright was of course keen to point out that the gliders towed by night-experienced British bomber crews, each with a navigator, performed much better than their American counterparts.

70 years later Staff Sergeant Alec Waldron, first pilot of Waco 119, which landed in the sea that night, recomputed these statistics after re-examining all the evidence at his disposal. Although he concluded that the prescribed heights were too low to guarantee success, his scatter graph plotting release positions against landing positions shows basically the same result as the 1943 calculations. It was the position of release, not the glide to the shore, that was the deciding factor in the vast percentage of cases.

Gliders in Sicily - Operation Ladbroke Waco glider in sea

A Waco glider floats off the Costa Bianca, with the rocky spine of the Maddalena Peninsula visible in the background.

Of those Wacos that did land in the sea, 18 almost reached the shore, and landed in the water not far from the cliffs and beaches around the release zone. At least that is where they were when they were plotted a few days later, but the number may have been less, as some may have landed further out and drifted in. These gliders are candidates for wondering whether, had the glider pilots been better trained, they could have reached land, if only barely. It is worth pointing out, however, that many of the men who landed in the sea swam ashore and also fought, and that the gliders that ditched were mainly flown so skilfully that the landing on water in itself does not seem to have caused many casualties. It was the subsequent rapid submerging of the fuselage down to the level of the wings, a feature of the Waco’s design, that drowned many men, and then the exhausting hours that many spent clinging to the wreckage before being washed away by huge waves.

Statistics, statistics …

Before looking further at those 18 gliders that just missed the shore, it is interesting to ask how many gliders landed, both on land or in the sea, around the area of the release zone, as opposed to much further away. In addition to 16 gliders that landed in the LZs, or within a few hundred yards of them, another 43 landed, either on land or in the sea near the shore, in a large semi-circle around the release points, stretching from Cape Ognina to Cape Murro di Porco. This implies that only 59 gliders (45% of the 130) were released somewhere near enough the release points for them to reach or almost reach land within a few thousand yards of the LZs. This seems to implicate the navigation of the tug pilots of the remaining 55% that missed by miles (the Wacos were expected to glide about 4,000 yards, or just over two miles).

The 18 gliders in the water near the shore of the release zone comprised 14% of the 130. Even if every single one was there as the result of poor flying or map reading by the glider pilots, 14% does not seem to constitute a “main” cause. But we know that roughly half of all the glider pilots had passed advanced training, and they had many hours of flying under their belts. These men were generally the first pilots, while the more recently trained men were their co-pilots. This implies that every one of these 18 gliders was probably flown by a thoroughly trained pilot, who additionally must have been powerfully motivated for many reasons not to land in the sea and drown himself and his charges. It seems unlikely that 100% of the 18 glider pilots ruined what was an otherwise perfect arrival at the release points because of poor training.

This argument can of course be challenged in various ways. Perhaps some gliders released themselves too far out even though the tug pilot knew better and would have taken them closer. The tug pilots had been ordered to unilaterally release their gliders if the glider pilots had not released themselves. This means that it was the glider pilot’s job to actually pull the release knob, although it was intended that the tug pilot would signal the glider pilot when he reached the release zone, using the intercom (if it was working), or by flashing his lights. What if every one of the 75 gliders that went down in the sea was there because the glider pilot chose to release in the wrong place?

To release or not to release

However we know that 14 of the gliders that landed in the sea were forcibly released by their tugs. We can add to that the 5 gliders that did not release at all and were flown back. We know that some gliders released only when their tugs made violent turns that a glider could not follow. We know that in other cases the formation of four got separated, and some of the planes without navigators simply got lost. These circumstances reduce the cases where the glider pilots had any choice in the matter to, say, 40 at most.

We also know that many gliders released themselves when ordered to by the tugs, even though they could not see anything that indicated they were in the right place. Sometimes they were in fact 10 or 20 miles from the right place. The glider pilots released because they were flying in groups of four, and all felt obliged to release if any one of them did. Only the glider pilot of the Waco that was being towed by the lead tug was in a position to argue with the tug’s navigator (and some did, but only if the intercom was working). There was a terrible multiplier effect in this. If the single navigator in the lead tug plane got it wrong, then four gliders and up to 72 men went into the sea together. The glider pilots also feared that if they did not release when ordered to by the tug, then the tug would release them first. When that happened the stretched tow rope lashed back at the glider, and could cause damage that might make the glider with all its troops tumble from the sky.

If the glider pilots can be blamed for releasing themselves when ordered to under these circumstances, then more training would not have helped, as their choices were made for reasons other than having poor flying or map-reading skills. The same applies to gliders that did reach land, albeit too far away. If navigation failures were a greater cause of the near-disaster than any of the other causes, then overall the tug pilots have a greater share of that than the glider pilots.

An all too common occurrence

We also have the evidence of other airborne debacles. The paratroopers of the US 82nd Airborne Division, destined for the American sector of Sicily in Operation Husky 1, flew from roughly the same area of Tunisia, at roughly the same time as the gliders of Operation Ladbroke, and followed the same route as far as the island. Clearly there were no glider pilots who could be blamed for releasing badly and flying poorly, but still the paratrooper landings were wildly scattered. Nearly a year later, during the D Day Normandy landings, many paratrooper transport pilots again dramatically missed their targets in the darkness. Again circumstances conspired to exacerbate the basic difficulties.

RAF squadrons bombing Germany had similar night navigation problems. So few bombs landed within miles of specific targets that saturation area bombing became the norm. Accuracy remained a problem even when the bombers were aided by sophisticated radar equipment and were led by expert pathfinders.

The problem of accurate navigation for airborne assaults was never satisfactorily resolved. Under the dire constraints and harsh priorities of war, it seems there never was enough time or resources to justify training many more navigators, or to let everybody practice to the umpteenth degree. The old “Dad’s Army” joke applies: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” Apparently it was difficult seconding many hundreds of planes permanently to the training of the airborne divisions when there were so many other vital things for them to do.

Whatever the reasons for Chatterton’s apparent accusation against his own men, it was clearly unfounded. Whatever mistakes the glider pilots might have made had little effect on the overall outcome. They were not a “main”, nor even a significant cause of the “near-disaster” of Operation Ladbroke. Would more or different training have helped? Certainly common experience bears out that practice, practice, practice leads to perfection. More training for the glider pilots before Sicily would have done no harm, but how much training would have made how much difference? Even with more training they could still have made misjudgements when confronted by the myriad difficulties they encountered that night. They could still have released for reasons unconnected with their training. The effect of more training, under those circumstances, could have been marginal on an already marginal problem.

Getting there

It seems the planners who thought at the outset that the poor navigation skills of the transport pilots might threaten the whole plan were right, even though at that point gliders had not yet been considered. This does not mean the tug pilots should be vilified, especially not for mass cowardice, as they were by some. Many went round again and again trying to find the right spot, while a couple of days later, in Operations Fustian and Husky 2, many of them died at the controls of their planes, doggedly heading for the DZs in a blizzard of enemy and, sadly, friendly anti-aircraft fire.

Flight Lieutenant Tommy Grant was an expert pilot who was seconded from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough to 38 Wing for the invasion. It was his Halifax (with its night-experienced RAF crew and navigator) that towed the only Horsa glider that managed to land next to its target, Waterloo Bridge. It was the men of that glider who alone seized the bridge and saved the day. Grant was also the man who Chatterton headhunted to train the Pegasus Bridge coup-de-main flyers for D Day Normandy, and they also succeeded brilliantly. At the end of his report into Operation Ladbroke, Grant admitted that it was the first time that he had flown a four-engine aircraft at night, and the first time he had towed a glider in an operation. Looking at all the lessons Sicily offered, he added: “In short, there were too many people doing something for the first time that night”.

General Harold Alexander was the British commanding officer of both the American and the British armies in Sicily. He was Eisenhower’s deputy and almost as charming and avuncular as his boss. He summed it up well. “The airborne troops themselves”, he wrote (and that would include the glider pilots), “are excellent. Tough, fit, efficient, and of high morale; I don’t say they haven’t a lot to learn which can only be done by Training – Experience – Training. The outstanding weakness in the set up is the lack of trained Air Force pilots to transport them. Through no fault of their own, they are untrained for & inexperienced in the job.”



Earlier parts of this article:

Part 1

Part 2


Alec Waldron’s book “Operation Ladbroke – From Dream to Disaster” was first published in 2003. Buy it from the publisher here.

George Chatterton’s book “The Wings of Pegasus” was first published in 1962.

Lawrence Wright’s book “The Wooden Sword” was first published in 1967.

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