Operation Husky Operation Dragoon

British vs German Paras At The First Bridge Too Far

It is the 75th anniversary of a little-known but important battle between two of the most elite forces in WW2...

Operation Husky Operation Dragoon

Before D-Day there was Italy, and before mainland Italy there was Sicily. Mark Saliger, writer of the recently published ‘The Battle of Primosole Bridge 1943: The First Bridge Too Far’, tells the dramatic story of the first ever battle between two sides that had both parachuted into combat. The 75-year anniversary of this battle starts today.

To learn more about this military first, read Mark’s article and then pick up a copy of the book at Casemate Publishing. For a 25% discount, use the code Primosole75 just before proceeding to checkout.

Article by Mark Saliger

They were fresh from fighting in the deserts of North Africa, where they had gained two Battle Honours as well as their nickname, the 'Red Devils'.

In mid-1943, the British 1st Parachute Brigade was encamped in Tunisia and waiting to play its part in the next step of the reconquest of Hitler's Fortress Europe. 

Allied leaders had decided to open up the much-awaited Second Front to relieve pressure on the Russians, knock Italy out of the war and push towards the borders of the Nazi Reich. 

The first stage was Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.

As the battle-hardened Paras prepared for their next fight, they needed to amalgamate new recruits into the experienced ranks to back-fill losses from the North African fighting. 

They also trialled new kit and techniques, including parachuting in with their kit attached to their bodies rather than inside weapons containers. 

Lessons learnt when fighting their German paratrooper adversaries in North Africa led to traditions continued within the regiment to this day.

The Paras' scrim netting over their helmets, for instance, was a custom first adopted to distinguish themselves from their German counterparts, who wore a similar style of helmet. 

The British also began wearing the airborne smock and trialled shorter-barrelled weapons, which had been introduced to the battlefield by the advanced airborne forces of Nazi Germany.

Red Devil
A British paratrooper with a STEN sub-machine gun (image: Air Assault Museum)

As the British Paras waited for the green light to parachute into Sicily, the Germans had also recognised the strategic importance of Primosole bridge, the Paras' objective.

They swiftly dispatched the elite Fallschirmjäger, German paratroopers, only hours before their British counterparts were due to parachute in to capture the same prize. It would be the first time in history that two opposing enemies had parachuted into battle to face each other.

For their part, when the British approached the Sicilian coastline they came under friendly fire, which scattered the air armada and their cargo of paratroopers over a vast area, including as far north as the slopes of the volcano, Mount Etna.

On the ground, in the darkness, small groups of Paras now formed up into their own ad hoc patrols and made their way to the objective, while the supporting gliders began to land with their artillery.

As they made their way through the Mediterranean night, the Paras managed to overcome the Italian garrisons at the bridge and on the supporting hilltops in only a matter of a few short, sharp minutes of 'airborne aggression'.

parachute drop
A para drop witnessed from the ground…
…and from the air (images: Battlefield Historian Ltd @ battlefieldhistorian.com – BHC 007023 & 000397)

With the break of dawn, the Paras dug in for a tough day's fight - they knew that their jump had been horrendously dispersed and that less than a seventh of their strength had arrived at the bridgehead as a result. 

By this point, they also knew they were up against the 'Green Devils', the Fallschirmjaeger – Germany's answer to them.

The main enemy thrust was initially directed at Major Frost's 2 Para, situated atop the Johnny hills overlooking the bridge to the south (Frost and his unit would later try to hold the next bridge too far, at Arnhem).

The Fallschirmjäger were beaten back, so the Germans resorted to bottling up the Paras on the hills with heavy artillery and machine-gun fire while they switched their attention to the bridge.

Sicily World War II 2
The prize: an aerial shot of Primosole Bridge (image: Air Assault Museum)

At high noon, when ground forces were due to relieve the Paras, the Fallschirmjäger struck again.

Driving southwards from the nearby town of Catania, a convoy of German Fallschirmjäger debussed from lorries and began to spread out into the fields to form up for an advance towards the bridge's defenders. 

The Paras had seen them coming. With the few support weapons that had arrived at the bridgehead, they waited for their enemies to patrol too close by...then let loose a lethal barrage of lead, sending the Fallschirmjaeger hurrying back to Catania for reinforcements.

The Germans returned mid-afternoon after press-ganging all available men, including chefs and drivers, into the fight. The Paras were now out-gunned and out-numbered but refused to be out-fought. 

Each German attack slowly made ground though and the British defenders were now on the back foot. 

Second World War
Elite opponents: A British para training over Tatton Park in northern England (left); a German Fallschirmjaeger exiting a plane (top right) and a British POW interrogated by German paratroopers in North Africa (bottom right; images: Air Assault Museum)

Spent brass bullet casings lay all around them and the air was thick with cordite and a haze from burning grass and buildings. 

The non-stop whistle of bullets of different calibres flying overhead, sometimes distant but often all too close for comfort, seemed to be competing with each other for airspace. 

Dashing enemy silhouettes would appear and then quickly disappear, trying over and over again to get a clearer shot at their Red Devil enemies. 

The Paras were left constantly shouting back and forth to help alert each other to their ever-moving opponents - target indications were called out, bringing attention to enemy threats and allowing a co-ordination of fire. 

But the bigger problem soon became not the Green Devils dancing in and out of view, but those that remained completely hidden. Puffs of dust were continually kicked up by sniper rounds that narrowly missed the men. 

In fact, some soldiers were pinned down in their trenches and couldn't move an inch without a sniper reminding them that they were in his cross-hairs.

Red devils British Paras
Men belonging to 3 Platoon, R Company, 1 Parachute Battalion defend a shell hole with Number 4 rifles and a Bren gun (image: Air Assault Museum)

There was also more intense fire raining down on the British Paras: long bursts of machine-gun fire tore through the air and ripped apart the reeds where some were taking cover. 

Mortar rounds also began exploding and added orange dust to the grey smoke of the burning vegetation.  

Nearly out of ammo, 1 Para's Commanding Officer, the legendary Alastair Pearson, made the decision to tactically withdraw to the south end of the bridge with the aim of continuing to deny it to the Germans. 

But, as more and more fresh German troops poured into the fight, together with more artillery and tanks in support, they slowly began to blast the Paras from across the river. 

The decision was made by Brigadier Lathbury to withdraw from the bridgehead towards the Johnny hills (nearby rises) as night fell. The aim now was to continue to deny use of the bridge to the Germans, this time through covering fire. 

Second world war British paratroopers
Lieutenant Colonel Alastair Pearson, commander of 1 Para battalion (left); and British Paras being taken to their drop zone during Operation Dragoon (right; images: Air Assault Museum)

The bridge was finally taken the following day by British ground forces, supported by tanks and artillery. 

However, the German Green Devils had done important work slogging it out with the Red Devils as long as they had. The delay in securing Primosole bridge had led to the bulk of the Axis forces escaping Sicily and living to fight another day in Italy, most noticeably the Fallschirmjaeger at Monte Cassino only weeks later.

The survivors of 1 Parachute Brigade would next see action at Arnhem during Operation Market Garden, an action that would see them fighting for the second 'bridge too far'.

To read more about the first-ever battle between airborne troops who'd both parachuted into action, read Mark Saliger's 'The First Bridge Too Far: The Battle of Primosole Bridge 1943' from Casemate Publishing. For a 25% discount, use the code Primosole75 just before proceeding to checkout.