The search began…
Around a year ago I was told about two of my dad’s cousins who were killed in the Second World War. I tried to find out more about them but after taking a few investigative wrong turns I hit a dead end.
I came across an article about a new war memorial being unveiled in the cousins’ home town; a memorial that OUGHT to include their names on its roll of honour. With the help of the local branch of the Royal British Legion, I was able to get a copy of the listed names and finally got the breakthrough I’d been looking for. My RBL contact was also able to provide a few details of their service and where and when they died.
Albert, the younger of the two had been a gunner in the 140th Field Regiment Royal Artillery and was killed in North Africa on 11th May 1943 only two days before the enemy Axis forces surrendered in Africa.
Horace, the older brother was a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, part of the 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance, and was killed a few weeks later at the very beginning of the invasion of Sicily on 9th July 1943.
The family story had been that his death was due to an American pilot releasing him too soon, causing him to land in the sea instead of on land. The meaning of that cryptic anecdote became clear when I looked for details of what British forces had been doing in Sicily at the time of Horace’s death. Records in an official RAMC diary state: “All our gliders are away” and “Apparently the tug pilot was upset by the small amount of flak, took then off their course and cast them off into the sea”.
I found more details in The Second World War: a military history by Gordon Corrigan [p399-400].
The airborne phase of the operation was a disaster. The air-landing brigade of 1,200 men were to be delivered in 144 gliders, a mix of American Wacos, which could take fourteen men and their equipment, and British Horsas, which could carry thirty. The towing aircraft were 109 USAAF C-47b Dakotas and thirty-five Albermarles of the RAF. The RAF pilots of the towing aircraft all had considerable experience of training with gliders, and the British Glider Pilot Regiment crews (two to a glider) had practiced the operation over and over again in the UK. Unfortunately for their passengers, many of the Waco pilots had not completed their training while the C-47 pilots had little or no experience of glider operations and some had done little night flying. During the night the weather worsened and the wind got up to 40mph. The defenders were fully alert and as the airborne armada approached, their anti-aircraft guns opened up.
A military glider has the aerodynamic properties of a brick: once it is released from its towing aircraft, the only way is down, although turns to right and left and even complete circles, are perfectly possible. What is critical is that the towing pilot releases his glider at the correct distance from the target, and this depends on the height at which the release takes place. Also critical is the ability of the gliders to ‘stream’, that is to arrive at the landing ground from the same direction, which is achieved by the towing aircraft flying in formation to the release point. It was not easy to tow a fully laden glider at night while being shot at and to many of the inexperienced USAAF pilots it was just too much. Sixty-nine gliders were released too soon and crashed into the sea; fifty-six were released in the wrong place and did make landfall, but scattered all along the coast. Only twelve, all towed by RAF pilots, landed where they should have done.
A Wikipedia article about Horace’s 181st Airlanding Field Ambulance unit gives a slightly more personal angle on the glider story:
On 9 July 1943, … they encountered strong winds, poor visibility and at times were subjected to anti-aircraft fire. To avoid gunfire and searchlights, pilots of the towing aircraft climbed higher or took evasive action. In the confusion surrounding these manoeuvres, some gliders were released too early and sixty-five of them crashed into the sea, drowning around 252 men. The 181st required thirty-two Waco gliders for the mission, but with the overall shortage, they were only allocated six, and five of their gliders were amongst those that failed to reach Sicily and crashed into the sea…
The 181st losses during Operation Ladbroke were one officer and sixteen men who were all drowned.
Horace was clearly one of those casualties. He was initially posted as missing, but later his death was acknowledged, although it seems his body was never recovered. His name is listed on the Cassino Memorial, part of the Cassino War Cemetery in Italy, one of over 4,000 Commonwealth servicemen who took part in the Italian campaign whose graves are not known and have their names recorded on the memorial’s panels.
But what about Albert?
Apart from the date of his death and the name of his regiment, I’ve yet to find out anything else. Details of his regiment’s actions haven’t been as easy to find. I have however just tracked down his burial site. His grave is in the La Reunion war cemetery in Algeria.