South Staffords glider troops photographed near Syracuse on the day after the epic battle for the Ponte Grande bridge – a unique picture, a dramatic story.
Photographs of airborne troops taken during Operation Ladbroke, the glider assault that began the Allied invasion of Sicily, do not exist. Despite the presence of war correspondents and a cameraman from the AFPU (Army Film and Photographic Unit), apparently not a single shot was taken on D Day, 10 July 1943.
There are a few photos of airborne men taken on 9 July in Tunisia before they took off in their gliders. There are also a couple taken near Syracuse in the days after D Day. One has been lost. Which makes the above recently published photograph unique. Uneventful though the photograph appears, it is rich with connections to the epic events of D Day in Sicily, when airborne troops seized the Ponte Grande bridge south of the port city of Syracuse. They then held it long enough to prevent its demolition. British seaborne troops poured across the bridge to seize the city and its vital harbours. Taken the day after the battle, the photo tells of the trials of Operation Ladbroke.
On the face of it, the photograph shows nothing more dramatic than a group of ten men of the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffords. They are lined up by a low stone wall (it’s still there today). They pose next to an edge-of-highway marker stone, possibly painted red and white. Only major routes in Sicily were metalled and marked in this way. The men are wearing their red berets, proud symbol of membership of elite airborne units. After nearly two days without sleep, including combat and marching miles in the heat, with only a few hours sleep since, the men are probably still exhausted. The photo was taken opposite Syracuse cemetery by a British tank commander. It was taken on 11 July 1943, the day following D Day. It was taken at about 9 in the morning.
The drama is in the details, and the details tell the story of the fight for the Ponte Grande bridge. When the glider troops climbed into their gliders in the afternoon of 9 July on airfields in Tunisia, they were festooned with gear. Their webbing belts and straps carried pouches and packs of every description, including bulging knapsacks and haversacks worn on the back and on the hip, huge pouches at the front stuffed with grenades, and multiple pockets for Sten gun ammunition. They carried numerous weapons, and also other survival essentials such as water bottles and bottles of whisky.
However not a single man in this photo wears any webbing, unless you count the belt on the corporal standing at the back on top of the low wall. He is the most senior man in the group and, judging also by his stance and dominating position, clearly in charge. As for the men’s casual state of undress, it would be understandable following a battle, and in the intense heat of the Sicilian summer, but back at base an apoplectic sar’nt-major would have every one of them up on a charge.
The men also seem to have lost their water bottles, which would have hung from their belts. Instead, a gardener’s watering-can sits on the ground at the right edge of the photo, perhaps “borrowed” from the Italian cemetery opposite. One particular must-have is not lacking, for the moment at least: cigarettes. A few men smoke. Given the men’s lack of everything else, perhaps the cigarettes were offered by the photographer. His squadron of tanks was parked nearby, and each tank carried all its crew’s gear. Bringing all your kit with you is easy when you’re mechanised, but the airborne and the seaborne infantry carried everything by muscle power only. Which explains why Italian bicycles, donkeys, mules, horses and carts also got “borrowed” by the men on foot.
So much for accoutrements. As for armament, the situation is almost as bad. One man carries the long British Lee-Enfield rifle. The bayonet is attached, perhaps at the request of the photographer, as hand-to-hand-combat was clearly not imminent. There again, he has no webbing and no scabbard, so where better to keep it. Another man holds a short Lee-Enfield. A third (the man on the right without a beret) has a local Italian hunting rifle. Not a lot for a squad of ten men which would normally expect to have not only a full complement of rifles but also automatic weapons, such as a Bren gun plus a Sten gun or two.
The corporal, who might have started out with a pistol, brandishes an open pen-knife. He does this without any air of mischief or irony, so it does not appear to be a wry comment on his squad’s lack of weapons. Something nestles in his palm behind the knife – fruit from a Sicilian orchard, perhaps? Even when they had their packs and the rations that they contained, British troops gratefully ate the tomatoes, melons and other fruits they came across.
As these men seem to have lost their rations, fresh fruit might have been essential as sustenance, rather than just an almost unheard of luxury. Orders issued to the troops before take-off emphasized that, to stay healthy, they should not drink the Sicilian water until it was treated, nor eat the fruit. From the men’s own accounts it seems that nobody paid much attention. Although it seems improbably fastidious, might our corporal have been peeling some fruit, for safety reasons?
Perhaps these suggestions are fantasy, and in fact the squad has taken off its webbing due the heat and the lack of immediate threats. Perhaps weapons, water, rations, packs and pouches are all piled just out of frame or behind the wall. It’s possible, but a few things indicate otherwise. The unusual presence of the watering can, for one. The lack of belts, for another. But more than any of these, the Italian hunting rifle implies these men had lost everything and were scrounging what they could.
South Staffords in battle
So what had happened to these men, and indeed the other men of the South Staffords, and also of the Border Regiment and glider pilots, who had arrived by glider on the night of 9/10 July 1943? The first misfortune that befell them, and it was a huge one, was that hundreds of them landed in the sea when their gliders were released over the water too far from land. Many men drowned. Many clung to the wreckage for hours until rescued. Many swam for the shore, only to be machine-gunned by Italian pillboxes guarding the coast. Those that survived the swim arrived without equipment of any kind, without boots, and often only in their underwear. Those that were not captured by the Italians joined other groups of airborne men and scavenged whatever they could by way of clothing and weapons.
In terms of keeping one’s kit, things were not much better for the men whose gliders reached land successfully, and who made it to the Ponte Grande bridge. The bridge was first seized near midnight by a single platoon of 30 men from the South Staffords. Their glider alone, out of four gliders assigned to the task, landed near the bridge. During the night and morning another 50 or so airborne troops joined them there, defending the bridge against the Italians. Outnumbered and almost surrounded, running out of ammunition, the glider men were finally overwhelmed.
Before they surrendered, many threw their weapons into the river, to deny them to the Italians. The Italians then removed any remaining weapons, their webbing, personal possessions and watches (not all men wore wrist watches, but the lack of any at all in our photo group is telling). The exhausted men were then marched away. About an hour later they were freed by a forward patrol of British seaborne troops. These rescued men now also became scavengers for weapons and equipment.
Syracuse was captured by the British on the evening of D Day, not a little thanks to the heroism of the airborne troops. In the days that followed, the glider men who survived D Day unscathed were then given lower priority tasks to do, while they waited to be evacuated by sea back to their Tunisian bases. The airborne troops were too highly trained, and indeed too expensive, to be used in front-line infantry combat, once their specialist tasks were complete.
Many glider pilots, for example, were assigned to escorting Italian prisoners-of-war (POWs) back to the landing beaches south of Syracuse, or guarding them at Syracuse railway station, where they were being assembled. The South Staffords and the Borderers were given the task of garrisoning Syracuse while seaborne forces pushed west and north from the city. The South Staffords were given the west side of town to defend, the Borderers the north.
After the Battle
So what is the group in the photo doing? The South Staffords war diary says the battalion was posted west of the town in the area south-east of the railway line. But our squad is well to the west of the railway line, way out on a limb, being at about the 2 kilometre mark on the main road heading west. From a defensive point of view they are not properly equipped and not well placed.
Only a few hundred yards along the road, back towards Syracuse, is an Italian posto di blocco, a cross between a road-block and a small strongpoint. In addition to chicanes in the road to control traffic, these often consisted of a pillbox or two and a field gun. This surely would have made a better defensive outpost. So perhaps the squad is an outlying picket, whose main function is not to fight, but to spot an oncoming enemy and fall back rapidly while giving the alarm.
Perhaps a clue lies in the photographer. Captain Jimmy Sale, who took the photo, was a tank commander in ‘A’ Squadron of the 3rd Battalion of the County of London Yeomanry, nicknamed the “Sharpshooters”. Shortly after dawn on the 11th, ‘A’ Squadron was hurried from its beachhead assembly area north towards Syracuse to support the airborne troops garrisoning the city.
Some of the tanks of ‘A’ squadron had gone into Syracuse to persuade a few Italian troops, holding out in the barracks by the castle, to surrender. The rest of the tanks of ‘A’ squadron formed their first leaguer in the trees opposite Syracuse cemetery. A leaguer was a defensive formation adopted by tank units when behind the front line, especially at night, as tanks were very vulnerable to being stalked by enemy infantry. For this reason it was normal practice to position friendly infantry nearby, to alert, intercept and defend.
However, the lack of weapons and of any defensive position implies the South Staffords were not there as pickets on behalf of either the tanks or the garrison further back near Syracuse.
So perhaps the men were unconcerned with hiding in cover, instead waiting out in the open beside the road, because that was what their orders required. They may have been, like many glider men that day, on POW duty. Our group may have been waiting at the outskirts of town to accept the hand-over of Italian POWs captured by British units fighting to the west.
The front line in that direction was now around the towns of Floridia and Solarino. Italians taken prisoner in this fighting were marched in long columns down the main road back towards Syracuse. Their British escorts from the front line would have been expected back with their units as quickly as possible. So airborne troops would escort the POWs the final stretch to the holding area at the railway station, where the Italians would then wait to be shipped out to camps in North Africa, either from Syracuse or from the beaches.
Many of the men in our photo may have lost close friends the day before, and may have seen sights they wished to forget, but never would. Whatever they were there for when they had their picture taken, it does not seem glamorous, but at least danger does not seem imminent. They might not have said so, but perhaps they were glad for the day’s small comforts (cigarettes, water, safety) after the previous day’s horrors and losses.