I am just back from a few days on the Arnhem trail and there are few things more humbling than a visit to the cemetery at Oosterbeek where you can get to grips with the sacrifice and the valour of the British 1st Airborne Division. That patch of The Netherlands is hallowed ground. But it is a sad fact that the division was no stranger to suffering and could confront those lines from Kipling’s ‘If’ with little difficulty – “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same” – the lines were written for them. A year earlier they had taken part in the invasion of Sicily – Operation Husky – and it was a tale of more bridges, more tragedy and bitter losses. If there was a bridge too far in Holland, it is difficult to wonder what the hopes of the high command were in the Mediterranean. This wonderful book by Mike Peters brings to life an epic tale of the men who made the airborne invasion of Sicily happen. It is an essential read for anyone immersed in the Market-Garden story, because it explains something about the psyche of the men who were there and gives you a window into the lives of people who came through a Sicilian nightmare only to die a year later. The two schemes are, surely, inextricably linked.
There are adventures new to me, such as the amazing Turkey-Buzzard flights towing gliders out to North Africa from Britain. In fact a great deal is made of the aviation role, the book is not all airborne-centric. The skill of the RAF pilots is a significant aspect of the book and much is made of the bond between the glider pilots and the aircrews. The darker side is the relationship between many of the glider crews – some of whom were Americans and the USAAF tug crews. It all went very badly over Sicily and I don’t need to add any grist to the mill.
The details of the planning and training for Husky is well covered and a good deal of insight into the thinking of the commander Major General George Hopkinson, a man hell bent on proving the worth of his ideas and his men; so much so he was intent on carrying out a glider landing regardless of whether it was needed or not. From this distance he seems a difficult figure. He brushed aside opponents and replaced juniors who did not match his singular approach to the task ahead. I imagine he was a control freak. At crucial times he would spirit himself away to avoid difficult encounters with senior officers so he could get his way. The result would be disastrous for his command. A retired soldier, he had rejoined the Colours at the start of the war. He was a tough, brave man who took on tasks such as learning to fly and parachute jump late in life and had been decorated for bravery in the Great War. He had come through Dunkirk with merit having evacuated both men and equipment. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything he couldn’t do himself and his training regime was brutal, but it paid dividends and it set the standards that made 1st Airborne the force it was. But he was clearly flawed and so was his plan. History records an abrupt ending for him in a firefight with Fallschirmjaeger near Bari on the 9th of September, 1943, the only British airborne commander to die in battle. I wonder what would have happened had he lived and stayed in command of the division into 1944?
Mike Peters’ handling of the assault phase is masterful and I am loathe to paraphrase loads of it because I really want you to buy the flipping book! You get the glider assault for the Ponte Grande bridge (Ladbroke) and the glider and para assault for the Primasole bridge (Fustian). The glider pilots, the heroes of this book, came into land in fields bordered in low stone walls. You can guess the injuries they suffered. The whole thing is epic, nothing more nothing less. In between, the Germans staged an airborne landing of their own. They were giants. On the left flank the Americans carried out their own tragic airborne assault, shot to hell by trigger happy naval gunners. It’s a Sod’s Law war – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. By far the worst thing is the disaster out to sea with the gliders released early by lost or spooked tug pilots. Over two hundred men of the British 1st Airborne Division drowned. All the senior British airborne commanders were in the drink, including Hopkinson, who witnessed the tragedy, and was rescued to live long enough until that encounter with the enemy at a roadblock near Castellaneta. May he rest in peace.
By happy coincidence I will be in Sicily in October, so I hope to visit the sites of the British landings and the main cemeteries at Catania and Syracuse. The invasion wasn’t liberation, so there isn’t the plethora of memorials and suchlike as you find in other places, but hopefully there will be something to see of those dramatic events of seventy years ago. Mike Peters keeps it alive and more than anything reminds us that there is more to the British airborne tradition than the bridges they sought in Holland or even in Normandy. Look beyond to Sicily. It won’t be pretty – but it is heroic and it is epic. The Glider Pilot Regiment motto was Nothing Is Impossible. While I was in Holland I travelled with a 101AB vet with a good few jumps to his name and stories of the Iraq War you just can’t repeat in polite company. “Jumping was easy, man” he said “But that glider thing, I just don’t get that. How did they do that?
GLIDER PILOT IN SICILY
By Mike Peters
Published by Pen & Sword Military £25.00
ISBN: 978 1 84884 683 8