Airborne Operation “FUSTIAN” in Sicily on 13th July 1943
by 2/Lieut R.A.J Bingley 1st Bn The Parachute Regiment
I had the honour to command 5 Platoon ‘S’ Company during OP “FUSTIAN”. The Battalion completed training for the operation on suitable ground in the Mercora area of Tunisia. The Battalion then returned to our tented camp situated amongst olive groves in the Kairouan- Sousse area for weapon testing and night training.
An excellent briefing revealed that 1 Para Bde were to siege and hold the Primosole Bridge spanning the PONTI di PRIMOSOLE RIVER, between LENTINI and CATANIA, some twelve miles south of Mount ETNA. The Brigade would hold ground for some 8-12 hours until relieved by elements of 50th Division. Areas of responsibility were 1 Para to defend south of the Bridge, 3 Para North of Bridge, 2 Para the high ground South of Bridge.
The airstrip was reasonably close to our camp, and containers were loaded on to Aircraft by 1800hrs on 13th July 1943. My platoon, 5 Platoon was allotted two C47 Dakota’s. My platoon HQ plus one section and two medical orderlies were in the first Aircraft. My platoon Sgt, two sections and two signallers in the second. The American pilot of the second aircraft had navigational problems, and dropped the stick in Malta by error, I discovered months later.
We were airborne by 1930hrs and had a smooth flight as far as GOZA, an Island to the south of Malta. There a navigational light or signal would direct us to Syracuse in Sicily. As we approached Sicily, heavy flack from Italian sea defences destroyed two of the aircraft in our formation. The situation became rather hair raising after that. The Dakota eventually flew over Mount Etna, and the pilot a Major in the US Airforce decided this would be the ideal time to dispose of his passengers. I objected very strongly, and said my stick would jump from the aircraft when close to the Primosole Bridge, but not over Mount Etna – Eventually the pilot agreed to try to locate the bridge. I unhooked my Parachute, and lay on the floor by the door scanning the ground with binoculars. I was thankful that two of my lot held on to my boots and ankles. Between us we found our objective, I hooked up again, and we had a respectable drop at 2300hrs.
By a stroke of good fortune, I selected the correct route to the bridge and encountered RSM J.C. Lord of 3 Para, who joined my stick for the approach to the bridge. Arriving at the bridge at 2330hrs, we found the first arrival was the CO of 3 Para Bn on his own, having become isolated from his stick. We were immediately followed by a stick from HQ Coy 1 Para with a corporal in charge. He did not know what had happened to the officers in his stick. The next item on the agenda was to take possession of the two Pill Boxes, guarding the south side of the bridge. We encountered a patrol of four Italians. Paratrooper ADAMS speedily killed the leading two. A gammon bomb thrown at one of the Pill Boxes, resulted in some 18 Italians pouring from the Pill Boxes to surrender. During the fracas I was shot through my right hand, by a bullet from a BERRETA MACHINE CARBINE. A medical orderly expertly smothered the wound with penicillin powder, and the bandaging sufficed for the next 24hrs, for which I was most grateful. We took possession of the Pill Boxes, and with a small guard escorted the prisoners to the bridge, and handed them over to RSM Lord. I then respectfully asked CO 3 Para, whether I could fire the Very Light Success signal, to indicate the bridge was in our hands. He said “no”! There could well be Italians in the pill boxes guarding the northern approach to the bridge. Then if I examined the Pill Boxes in question and discovered they were unoccupied, then I should proceed to the first bend in the river when I would find the Brigadier. I should repeat that some of HQ of the Brigade were on the bridge. By this time an additional 1 Para Corporal had arrived Cpl CURTISS and my batman John Nicholson. He provided my escort, and wisely cut a number of cables, telephone and demolition I believe. We discovered the Pill Boxes were empty. The Italians having abandoned their defences. At that precise moment a considerable number of paratroopers arrived with a Major. The Brigadier was on a stretcher. Having been wounded.it was placed on the ground. I approached him to deliver my message, but I was apprehended by the Major, who refused to allow me to speak to the Brigadier as he was wounded. I explained that the bridge was in 1 Para Bn’s occupation, and the Major replied, I knew it is, I have just captured it.
So I decided to return to the southern end of the bridge, and discovered 3 Enemy Lorries racing over the bridge. Feeling angry, I gave my gammon bomb to Cpl Curtiss and instructed him to throw it at the leading truck, then duck below cover. His aim was excellent, the lorry came to a holt, the next second, the three lorries were ablaze. The cargoes of petrol and ammunition exploding. The hocking thing was seeing 22 men engulfed in burning petrol. Their screams were sickening. In less than a minute, the men were all dead. The lorries burned for a considerable time.
Arriving back at the southern end of the Bridge, I discovered my Company Commander Major R. Stark MChad arrived with his stick. He ordered me to dig in on the south bank, and to watch the Pill Boxes, as they were obvious targets for Artillery fire.
Dawn revealed that we were very thin on the ground, and our relief from 50 Division did not materialize. Our enemy on the ground proved to be 4th German Parachute Regiment. Their first probing attack was weak, easily repulsed. The second and third more determined. Then followed an aerial attack by ME 110s which was decidedly unhealthy. A Tiger tank livened things up by taking pot shots at the bridge, and doing considerable damage.
At this point our CO Col A. Pearson DSO. MC. Calmly walks up to my position, and tells me to take my platoon, back behind cover, then to report to the 2nd Bn. Major J. Bull, where I am informed that the wounded are to be evacuated in three separate groups to LENTINI. I am to take a dozen wounded, with a minimum amount of ammunition, and to report to the QM of ‘F’ Echelon, LENTINI.
The wounded chaps were quite splendid, and without any bother we discovered the QM, who gave us a hot meal, relived us of our weapons and equipment, then dispatched us to a Hospital in Syracuse. The next day we transferred to a Hospital Tender for transport to Tripoli, where the Italians had recently constructed a splendid Hospital, which the British were most grateful for. After 4 weeks I moved to a Hospital in Sousse. 4 weeks later to Algiers. Then to the UK for an additional operation, with a convalescence at Hardwick Hall, where the Parachute Establishment was situated. I was promoted from 2/Lieutenant to Lieutenant. Acting Captain, and commanded three consecutive Training Companies. In April 1944 I requested to return to 1st Para Bn in readiness for “D” Day. I was given a choice of joining 8th Para Bn as a Captain or 1st Para BN as a Lieutenant. I chose 1st Para, being my initial orginal Battalion. 2 Comdo, 11th SAS, 1st Bn Parachute Regiment.
It was in April 1944 that I rejoined ‘S’ Company 1 Para Bn at Bourne Lincolnshire. I had a different platoon this time, 6 Platoon, but once again an excellent bunch of fellows. I then discovered that the successes gained by 1 Para in Sicily, had in fact been claimed by 2 Para. In the confusion, their claims were never disputed. The luck of the draw I suppose. D.B per pro Richard Bingley