There is a story about Lt Col Chatterton and Maj Gen Hopkinson and the genesis of Operation Ladbroke that is so pervasive that it has almost become gospel. Certainly it seems to go completely unchallenged. But is there any evidence for it?
The story is told by George Chatterton himself, once the commander of the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR), about his former boss, George Hopkinson, commander of 1 Airborne Division (1 AD). The story describes a meeting in 1943 between the two men at which nobody else was present.
The story appears in Chatterton’s book, “The Wings of Pegasus”. It was published in 1962, by which time Hopkinson had been dead nearly 20 years. He was killed in Italy leading his airborne troops from the front, only a few months after the incident described in Chatterton’s story took place. He was in no position to contradict anything Chatterton might have to say.
In the book, Chatterton describes how on 1 April 1943 Hopkinson revealed to him a plan to land gliders full of troops near the port city of Syracuse in Sicily. This was Operation Ladbroke. It was to be a night landing and the opening move of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Hopkinson asked him for his opinion. Chatterton says he was deeply unhappy at what he saw and heard. He began to protest, but was threatened with dismissal if he did not approve.
In the course of this story Chatterton makes various other allegations and claims:
- Hopkinson was absent from the area around Mascara in Algeria, where the airborne forces were concentrating: “there had been no sign of [him] for weeks!” (Chatterton’s exclamation mark). The implication, especially in light of the next point, seems to be that Hopkinson should have been seen, that he knew this, and that he was derelict in his duty.
- Hopkinson was deliberately avoiding Lieutenant General Browning. Browning was the commanding officer (CO) of 1 AD before Hopkinson, and was now the adviser on airborne affairs to General Eisenhower, the Allied Commander in Chief. Browning “had waited in North Africa for as long as he was allowed, in order to discuss the impending operation with Hopkinson, but the latter had kept out of his way.”
- Hopkinson had “pulled a fast one on General Browning” by avoiding him, was “up to” something, and “had committed the Glider Force to something”. The implication seems to be that Browning would have stopped it had he known.
- Hopkinson revealed for the first time to Chatterton that his glider pilots (GPs) would be flying American Waco gliders instead of British Horsa gliders. Hopkinson apparently did not care that the pilots, currently languishing in a disused POW camp at Tizi [map] near Mascara in Algeria, had no training on the Waco.
- Chatterton “felt sure” that Hopkinson had “‘sold'” (Chatterton’s quotation marks) the idea to General Montgomery, “with the best salesman’s manner”. Montgomery was in charge of the British task force in the invasion. The implication seems to be that Montgomery was lied to, and bamboozled by a salesman’s smoke and mirrors.
- Montgomery “knew even less than Hopkinson of the required conditions for success”. Montgomery would not have known (presumably through deliberately being kept in the dark) of the “muddled background” of the glider plan, or the “inadequacy of the training facilities, or whether the pilots were efficient”. He was given the idea and took it “solely on the advice of an amateur pilot” (Hopkinson). Montgomery “agreed” to use the glider troops regardless of the risks.
- Hopkinson was “bent on getting his force in action”, and “the airborne troops had to be used at all costs, otherwise they might never be used at all”.
- During the meeting Chatterton thought the plan was “mad”, “astounding”, “frightening”. He was horrified, incredulous. In particular, aerial photographs of the landing zones (LZs) showed they were “rock-strewn, with cliffs, and … the fields had stone walls”. He said to Hopkinson that the landing place looked “pretty stiff”, and it was this remark that made Hopkinson lose his temper and threaten him.
Before making all these claims, Chatterton sets the scene in his book by saying that headquarters (HQ) had no idea what they were doing regarding the GPR, and there was “a great gulf” between those in authority and him regarding “our proper role in battle”, “but no effort of mine succeeded in bringing even a glimmer of light into their darkness”. This is strong stuff.
Before examining these claims, mainly by using documents from the time, there are reasons to be immediately suspicious about Chatterton’s story. His book is a work of autobiography, and autobiographies tend, quite reasonably, to be self-justifying. Also, it’s a great story, strongly worded and full of high drama, which makes it very appealing and retellable, but this too should make us tread carefully before believing it. None of these things in itself means that Chatterton is wrong, but they should all ring alarm bells.
Then there’s the prejudicial tone of the story. Throughout it Chatterton jumps to conclusions and presumes Hopkinson’s guilt without evidence, or makes assumptions which he then treats as facts. And that is when he is not stating as facts things that are provably wrong. Then there’s the pejorative use of double-edged praise. He describes Hopkinson as “an amusing little man”. This echoes the contemporary phrase “horrible little man”, and it is not clear if we are meant to be laughing at Hopkinson for his short stature, or with him for his wittiness. Given that the sentence continues by remarking on Hopkinson’s ambition, and on his delight in being made a general, it seems the phrase was not kindly intended. Later Chatterton describes Hopkinson as “popular”, but this is in the same sentence as a repetition of the accusation that he had “sold” Montgomery. It seems we are meant to view Hopkinson’s popularity as yet another one of his unfortunate personality traits. Obviously, however, neither being short nor being popular should automatically make us condemn somebody.
Finally, the story makes no sense. Chatterton says Hopkinson asked him to study the plan so that he could get his thoughts on it. Why would Hopkinson have asked him all the way from Tizi to Algiers to ask his opinion, if he intended to immediately stifle it with a threat? By his own account Chatterton admits that, after the threat, “we continued to discuss the pros and cons”. It seems from this that Hopkinson was alive to the risks and objections, and not averse to talking about them. This fundamental discrepancy in the story should also make us wary, even without any external evidence.
But we have a great deal of external evidence, especially regarding the dates when the protagonists were in various places. Three places in particular form part of the story, although there were many HQs all along the North African coast that were involved in planning Operation Husky. First, Force 141, the senior Allied planning HQ for the entire invasion, was at Algiers [map], on the coast of Algeria. Second, 1 AD’s planning HQ for the airborne operations was based inland at the town of Mascara [map], on the other side of the Atlas Mountains. Finally, Montgomery ‘s planning HQ for the British task force was hundreds of miles away in Cairo [map] in Egypt.
Starting with Chatterton, we know that he did not arrive in Algeria until near the end of April. He left camp in the UK with 279 men of the GPR on 12 April. They sailed from the Clyde [map], disembarked in Oran [map] and arrived at the Tizi camp on 23 April. So he cannot have been summoned from Tizi to a meeting in Algiers on 1 April. Even he knew this once, although by the time he wrote his book he seems to have forgotten it. Some ten years previously, in an article written for a magazine, he had said the meeting date was 25 April. This date is much more likely than 1 April, although as we shall see it still may not be correct.
As for Hopkinson’s movements, we know that he flew from the UK to Algiers on 6 March. His mission was to help the planners consider the size & composition of the airborne forces to be used in Husky. This was being discussed even then by the Chiefs of Staff in both London and Washington DC. At that point Browning was still CO of 1 AD, and Hopkinson was his deputy. Hopkinson had been sent to North Africa, rather than Browning, because Browning had been injured in a glider landing, and was off work for some weeks. Hopkinson was accompanied by Wing Commander Barton of 38 Wing RAF, the unit that towed British gliders and dropped British paratroopers. The officers of 38 Wing were considered experts on the use of airborne troops (inasmuch as anybody was, since all of the airborne officers were novices, including Chatterton).
Group Captain Norman, 38 Wing’s CO, along with several other officers from the RAF and 1 AD, including Browning, had visited North Africa in late December 1942 to analyse the recent airborne operations of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria. Afterwards Norman produced various reports outlining recommendations and doctrine for the use of airborne troops, including gliders. So it was not as if 1 AD and 38 Wing were entirely ignorant on the subject. Nor was Hopkinson alone, and getting away with going rogue without anybody chaperoning him, as Chatterton implied in his book.
Hopkinson left Africa on 20 March, announcing his return to the UK with a signal that ended “Please keep Browning informed”. On 24 March in the UK, Browning had a long meeting with both Hopkinson and Barton to hear about their trip, and to prepare for his own. A few days later Browning left for North Africa to observe, study, plan and advise, as was presumably originally intended when he sent Hopkinson in his stead. Again Browning was also accompanied by expert officers of both 1 AD and 38 Wing. Meanwhile Hopkinson stayed in the UK in charge of 1 AD, although he did not formally become its CO until 6 May.
Browning flew all around North Africa, and to what is now Israel, in his role as senior airborne officer and adviser. On 26 or 27 April (sources differ) Hopkinson arrived in Algiers from the UK. He was almost immediately briefed by Browning, who put him in the picture on decisions that had been taken in his absence. Browning and Norman then returned to the UK on 1 May. In Browning’s case it was to go on leave. He spent it with his wife, the author Daphne du Maurier, at their home in Fowey in Cornwall. On 18 May he was summoned to return to North Africa. By this time the details of Operation Ladbroke were known to the senior officers in 1 AD, and so the meeting between Chatterton and Hopkinson must have happened before then.
All of these facts demolish Chatterton’s allegation that Hopkinson had been sneakily avoiding Browning. During most of this time, by mutual arrangement, one was in the UK whenever the other was in North Africa, as a consequence of their relationship as boss and deputy. Despite this they briefed each other face to face whenever they crossed paths. As for the implication that Hopkinson was avoiding his own men in the Mascara area, being ordered by Browning to stay in the UK is a pretty good reason for there being no sign of Hopkinson for weeks in North Africa.
As for the implication that Hopkinson had gone rogue, when he was in Africa in mid-March as adviser he was continually in the presence of numerous capable people who knew what he was proposing, and these proposals were promptly signalled to all the HQs planning Husky and as far afield as London and America. It is also clear that Hopkinson did not meet Montgomery in the run-up to 25 April (the later date which Chatterton gives for the meeting with Hopkinson).
Hopkinson did meet Montgomery, but it was after this, on 10 May, once the Allies were victorious in Tunisia. Meanwhile, in the intervening two weeks between Hopkinson’s arrival in Algeria on 26/27 April and the meeting on 10 May in Cairo, momentous changes had taken place in the plan for Operation Husky. These changes were driven by Montgomery, who disapproved of the Husky plan prepared by the planners in Algiers. He argued forcefully against his superiors the commanders in chief, and also against the Americans.
The Easter Plan
The plans up to this point involved multiple beach assaults scattered all round Sicily, supported by paratroopers to “soften” the beach defences (quotation marks from 1943). The assaults were drawn out across several days because there were not enough transport planes, and these would have to be reused on subsequent nights to be able to drop the necessary total of paras. At this point there were still no plans for a glider assault. Montgomery now derided the dispersed and staggered seaborne landings, and demanded a concentration of effort, all on the same day, in the south-east corner of Sicily alone.
By 24 April he had signalled Algiers with his objections, and there was an immediate and outraged backlash from the chiefs. Easter Sunday that year was 25 April, and Montgomery dubbed his plan “the Easter Plan”. However no meeting to thrash out a resolution could be organised before 2 May, due to mishaps such as sickness and an air crash, plus difficulties such as the battle in Tunisia continuing and various HQs being hundreds of miles apart. At the 2 May meeting Montgomery finally got his way because, he claimed, he cornered the supreme commander’s chief of staff in a toilet during a break and persuaded him of his plan’s merits.
Clearly Hopkinson had nothing to do with the origins of Montgomery’s Easter Plan, because he was not in the country until after it was formed. Hopkinson also had nothing to do with the idea of using the British glider troops of 1 Air Landing Brigade (1 ALB) to capture Syracuse (the Operation Ladbroke plan). The Chiefs of Staff in both London and Washington, and all the planners and officers in North Africa, assumed from the end of February onwards that 1 ALB would be sent to North Africa. It was envisaged they might be used as gliderborne reserves to follow up the initial parachute attacks in Sicily.
The idea of using 1 ALB in a glider assault instead first appears in writing in a 25 April outline of Montgomery’s Easter Plan. This means Montgomery had the idea before Hopkinson even arrived, and certainly well before the two men met. Notably, Montgomery’s proposed glider assault was in addition to the beach-softening paratroop assaults, not instead of them.
However there was a consequence of the simultaneous concentration of effort demanded by Montgomery that did not work entirely to the benefit of his British task force. The shortage of transport aircraft meant that not enough planes were available on the first day, and two-thirds of them were given to the Americans to support their task force. Clearly this would require a radical rethink of the airborne plans for the British sector. The result was that only the glider troops would drop on the first day. The parachute brigades originally slated for simultaneous drops behind the beaches were redeployed to capture bridges on subsequent days.
After meeting Montgomery in Cairo on 10 and 11 May, Hopkinson returned to Algiers on 14 May, and then Mascara on 16 May. The very next day, at 9am, he formally briefed his senior officers, including Chatterton, about the new plan. Thus any private meeting in Algiers between Chatterton and Hopkinson must have occurred before 17 May, when Chatterton was briefed in public at Mascara, and after 14 May, while Hopkinson was in Algiers for two days, presumably to brief the HQ planners about his recent meetings with Montgomery.
Hopkinson again returned to Algiers on 19 May, probably to meet Browning, who arrived there the next day following his leave in the UK. In a document addressed to Browning dated 21 May, Hopkinson outlined the plans for the three new airborne operations which, Hopkinson said, he had been instructed by Montgomery to carry out. These were assaults on Syracuse, Augusta and Catania on successive days, their size and timing determined by the now greatly reduced availability of aircraft [story]. Presumably Browning and Hopkinson met in person on 21 May to discuss these plans. If they did not meet that day, they soon did. Hopkinson returned to Mascara that day and Browning followed the next day, staying the night in order to be present for a conference, which had probably been timed precisely so that Browning could attend.
The conference on 23 May in Mascara was a huge affair, led by Browning, and everybody was present: officers of both the Army and the air forces, both British and American, and of course Chatterton. There is no record of any objections being raised during the conference. The war diary of 1 AD commented: “The decisions taken at this conference formed the basis of all future planning”. Up to that point, however, Hopkinson had been considering the idea of a paratroop assault on Syracuse in case the glider plan was deemed unworkable. This alternative plan was kept open as a fallback for several weeks. Hopkinson was apparently not as fanatically wedded to the glider plan as Chatterton thought.
So did Browning object to Montgomery’s plan? There is no evidence that he did. He wrote a report on 24 July 1943 after Operation Ladbroke which said “The operation was a reasonable one and well planned”. He also gave a speech in August 1943 in which he quite happily said he had strongly objected to the predecessor beach-softening plan, colourfully stating how he “violently assaulted the planners” for the plan’s impracticality (his report at the time was of course more measured in its language). However in this speech he made no critical comments about the Ladbroke plan, despite its known risks. The key word here is “known”. Everybody knew that the plan was risky, but most considered it worth going ahead with for its perceived enormous benefits.
One of its most strident critics later was Group Captain Cooper, who arrived in North Africa on 25 May, two days after the conference. He was sent as a substitute 38 Wing senior adviser after Norman was killed in an air crash. Cooper claimed he was shocked to hear about Operation Ladbroke, and even more shocked to discover that the plan seemed to be a fait accompli.
Browning later had a verbal running battle with Cooper over his objections, in turn claiming that Cooper did not voice objections at the time. At no point in this did Browning say that he himself had objected, or that he had agreed with any objections that might have been made. It’s clear from all of this that not only did Hopkinson not avoid Browning, but also Browning did not think Hopkinson had sneakily gone behind his back with a plan he objected to.
It’s also clear from the dates that Hopkinson did not “sell” a crackpot scheme of his own to Montgomery. The very idea is laughable. Montgomery was egocentric, cautious, critical and nobody’s fool. Earlier he had famously turned down the persuasive David Stirling, commander of the glamorous and heroic SAS, when Stirling asked for some of his best men. Montgomery bluntly said he would keep them for himself. In this, as in his objections to the original Husky plan, Montgomery’s drive was the same: to strengthen his own force to the extent that it could not fail. This is a reasonable approach, since defeat is not known to be a great way for a commander to prevent unnecessary casualties among his troops, let alone win wars.
When on 25 April Montgomery touted to the chiefs the idea of a glider assault on Syracuse, it was in addition to all the airborne troops already at his disposal, and because he knew, he said, that 1 ALB was sitting in the UK doing nothing. The idea was only one of his many ideas in the Easter Plan. Montgomery did not need ideas from others, as he was very happy with his own. As we have seen, he had no hesitation stirring up a hornet’s nest by pressing his ideas on the planners in Algiers and on his superiors, the commanders-in-chief.
This does not mean Montgomery trampled over his subordinates by micromanaging and doing everything himself. He waited until he had spoken to his corps and divisional commanders before pronouncing on details. This is why Hopkinson was invited to Cairo. On 10 May Hopkinson was one of many officers in a conference where Montgomery expounded his now-accepted Easter Plan. The next day Montgomery met Hopkinson for discussions. Montgomery then left the detailed planning to his officers. The Ladbroke plan did not sail through unvetted. Hopkinson had to justify it to Lieutenant General Dempsey, one of Montgomery’s right-hand men and the commander of 13 Corps, which was to lead the seaborne assault on Syracuse, the target of Operation Ladbroke.
Also present at the meetings with Dempsey in Cairo were other senior representatives of 1 AD, who were seconded to Cairo as airborne advisers. Back in Algiers Hopkinson had to get the agreement of the chiefs at Husky HQ, and in Mascara he had to get the approval of the American air force officers whose planes were to tow many of the gliders to Sicily. So although Hopkinson may have had a hand in the details, he did not do this alone.
The original idea was not Hopkinson’s but Montgomery’s, but even if it had been, Montgomery was not a man who could be easily “sold”. Not that selling the use of one’s own formation to a superior commander was frowned on at the time. In fact it was admired and respected, even expected.
Ambition and Threat
The same can be said of ambition, which Chatterton seems to imply was a failing of Hopkinson’s. General Patton, the commander of the American task force in Husky, and Montgomery’s great rival, was ambitious to be the next Napoleon. He went on to come close to that in his military reputation, and he is considered one of the great heroes of the war. Chatterton slates Hopkinson for being ambitious in particular for “his force”.
This probably refers to the fact that before becoming CO of the whole of 1 AD, Hopkinson had been CO of 1 ALB, the glider landing battalions. Again, the promotion of one’s own formation was expected of commanders. Not that this was true of Hopkinson to the point of mad obsession, despite Chatterton’s claims. In a document from early March Hopkinson suggested using American GPs instead of British ones, even though he had been initially briefed by the War Office to promote the use of British GPs.
It was also expected of commanders that they should remove subordinates whom they felt they could not trust. Prime Minister Winston Churchill did it regularly, and so did Montgomery. Chatterton himself did it, including firing an officer who apparently blamed Chatterton for the failures of Operation Ladbroke. Nevertheless Chatterton says that Hopkinson threatened to fire him, and it seems we are meant to think that this was unprofessional behaviour on Hopkinson’s part. However it may not even have happened. Another description of the private meeting appears in the book “Lion with Blue Wings” by Ronald Seth. It appeared in 1955, seven years before Chatterton’s own book.
The author extensively interviewed Chatterton and had access to his papers, and it seems likely that Chatterton must have seen a draft before it was published. In Seth’s account Hopkinson does not threaten Chatterton at all, and Chatterton does not object out loud to the plan. It is made explicitly clear that Chatterton only presumed, without being prompted, that he would be fired if he objected, so he did not object. This is similar to the way that (by his own account) Chatterton “felt sure”, without evidence, that Hopkinson had “sold” Montgomery. Perhaps in the years before he wrote his own book Chatterton forgot the details of the meeting, just as he appears to have forgotten its date.
As for Hopkinson being an “amateur pilot”, this refers to the fact that Chatterton had been in the RAF before joining the GPR, while Hopkinson was an Army man. In itself this is no particular indication that Chatterton had superior judgement regarding glider assaults. After all, the RAF officers of 38 Wing were qualified in exactly the same way. It also referred to the fact that Hopkinson had learned to fly as a hobby before the war, which you might think was an advantage, not a failing. In fact Hopkinson seems to have been one of the better glider pilots in 1 AD, and he himself flew a glider to Sicily during Operation Ladbroke.
As for the rest of Chatterton’s claims, briefly:
– The choice of LZs was mad? In a report he wrote in August 1943, Chatterton himself said that the hazard-strewn LZs had been chosen to fit the multiple requirements of the operation, and that they were “the only possible areas”.
– Chatterton did not know about the Waco? The Army chief of staff in London knew in late February that the Waco would be used in Sicily, possibly by British GPs. Hopkinson discussed this during his trip to Algiers in early March. It seems unlikely that he then returned to the UK and did not tell the commander of the GPR, Chatterton. Even King George VI knew about the Waco, as he was shown one when he visited 1 AD in the UK on 2 April, when Chatterton was present. Finally, the report written by Chatterton in August admitted that in North Africa his GPs were “strange to the WACO Glider. This need not have been so as WACOS were already built in England”. Since the GPs and Chatterton arrived together in Algeria in late April, the Waco cannot have been news to Chatterton at that point nor afterwards.
– Montgomery was ignorant of the conditions for success and of the muddled background (etc.)? As we have seen, Montgomery was advised by multiple experts, just not by Chatterton himself, who was no more expert than the others despite his protestations. Early on in his review of the Husky plan Montgomery asked one of his staff to compile a list of all the previous (muddled) versions of it. This was the kind of thorough and perfectionist approach he took to planning. He certainly did not accept entire plans “solely” from anybody, nor regardless of risk. Mitigation of risk was, after all, one of his major obsessions.
– The airborne troops had to be used at all costs, otherwise they might never be used at all? There was an element of this throughout the war, as training and maintaining elite airborne forces was so expensive that it was unthinkable not to use them. Why else raise them and keep them? This reason was subsidiary in Husky, however, as Allied commanders and planners at all levels, starting with Eisenhower himself, were adamant that the participation of the airborne troops was “vital”, otherwise the whole invasion was at risk.
All in all, it is clear that Chatterton’s story of his meeting with Hopkinson is not just at first glance extremely dubious, but most of it is contradicted by the evidence, and for the rest of it there is no evidence at all.
If readers of this article have any evidence supporting Chatterton’s story, or undermining my refutation of it, I would very much like to see it. I will amend the article if persuaded by it. Please contact me by using the “Leave a Reply” box below. I will not publish your reply if you ask me not to, and we can converse privately by email if you prefer.