25 May 2022
Words and Photos by Peter Warren of Anschluss Publishing
I saw this game demonstrated rather fabulously at Salute and I asked the authors if they could produce something for the magazine that would give a flavour of the system to allow potential players to get a grip on what the rules entail. So – as good as their word – Mr Warren has provided this: Malati Bridge. In this scenario the British No 3 Commando attempts to seize and hold the bridge over the Leonardo River by Amphibious Landing - Miniature Wargames Editor.
Without doubt one of the most popular historical periods for wargamers are the six years from 1939 to 1945 which encompassed the Second World War. Within this period, the two most gamed campaigns are probably the War in the East from 1941 to 1945 along with the period after the Normandy landing through to the end of the war in the West. As a group of wargamers with over 200 cumulative years’ experience in gaming everything from Blood Bowl to Blood Red Skies, we at Anschluss wanted to create our own set of rules which enable us to enjoy game and campaign scenarios, whilst maintaining a level of historical accuracy.
After much research, vigorous discussion (arguments!) and playtesting we finally created the War on the Ground rules, which allow for historically accurate Battlegroup or Battalion level engagements to be recreated in both a playable and agreeable fashion. Although the core rule set again focuses on the ‘War in the West’, we are already creating supplementary scenario books, covering other less well known and popular campaigns.
This scenario was initially to be part of the Operation Husky scenario book, recently released by Anschluss Publishing. However, when play-tested, we realised that this battle was quite different and would make an ideal candidate for a stand-alone scenario, which provides an example of an engagement where the attackers (No 3 Commando) failed to achieve their tactical objectives, but undoubtedly achieved a strategic victory; it is not always about ‘winning’. The scenario is intended for use with the War on the Ground rules, but it will work equally well with any WWII set of rules that allows for battalion or battlegroup sized games.
In mid 1943, with the campaign in North Africa brought to a successful conclusion, the Allied Command now looked ahead to their first attempt at invading Axis home territory. After weighing the pros and cons of various options, including Sardinia and Greece, their eventual choice was the large Italian island of Sicily. Designated as Operation Husky, the Allied effort to secure Sicily was a jumping off point for an invasion of mainland Italy. It comprised two massive amphibious landings, one by the American 7th Army, the other by the British and Canadian 8th Army, both with airborne and commando forces being used to secure key objectives to enable to advance north across Sicily to Messina to proceed with minimal interruption.
After the hard-won success of the initial landings on 9/10 July, American, British, and Canadian forces began pushing inland into often challenging terrain, against varying levels of Axis resistance.
Casting his usual cautious methodical approach to one side, General Montgomery envisaged a decisive operation, exclusively by British forces, to stop the Germans evacuating across the Straits of Messina. This plan depended on the capture by airborne units of a crude 130m long iron girder structure called Primosole Bridge, which spanned the River Simento ten miles south of the town of Catania.
Simultaneously No 3 Commando would conduct an amphibious landing at Agnone, forced march about eight kilometres inland and seize the vital linking bridge over the Lentini River at Malati. A ground advance launched simultaneously by British 50th Infantry Division accompanied by Sherman tank support of 4th Armoured Brigade would quickly relieve them.
At least that was the plan!
THE HISTORICAL REALITY
The airborne element of the operation almost immediately descended into chaos. Due to an ill-fated selection of approach flight path, from which the air transport stream also drifted due to unforeseen weather issues, many of the aircraft carrying the main force paratroopers from North Africa encountered severe anti-aircraft fire. They flew over either Catania Airfield AA defences or over a large Allied naval convoy (who had been subjected to heavy air attacks and were warned to expect further enemy air action). As a result, significant numbers of aircraft and gliders were shot down or were damaged and turned back by both enemy action and jittery friendly fire.
In addition, inexperience on the part of US Troop Carrier Command pilots led to last minute evasive action being taken by the pilots, which scattered the brigade over a large area and only the equivalent of two companies of airborne troops were landed in the correct locations. Nevertheless, despite the darkness, the airborne element of the operation succeeded in seizing and holding their objectives by sheer bravery and determination.
To the south of Primosole Bridge along Route 114 and three kilometres north of Lentini near to the lies the Malati Bridge. Now on a minor road, overshadowed by an autostrada on massive concrete piles, this was not the case in 1943.
On 12th July, Lt.Col. J.F.Durnford-Slater (the officer commanding No 3 Commando) had been summoned to Syracuse and given orders by General Dempsey to capture the Malati Bridge over the Lentini river. Montgomery had realised that this bridge was on the main route north to Catania and wanted it captured intact to ensure that the 50th Division could continue its advance to relieve the beleaguered paratroopers at Primosole Bridge.
Of immediate concern to Durnford-Slater was the lack of time to properly plan the Agnone landing; but intelligence indicated that the Malati Bridge area was only held by Italians, and not in any great strength. General Montgomery’s attitude was positive: “Everybody’s on the move now. The enemy is nicely on the move. We want to keep him that way. You can help us to do that. Good luck, Slater”.
COMMANDOS GO IN
The commando landings were planned in two waves, each of three troops: two troops of the first landings, 1 and 3, would push forward straight away to take the bridge. The others would hold the beach waiting for the second wave to come ashore. Further troops would then move inland, and No 4 Troop would
send out patrols to contact the paratroopers at Primosole Bridge while another patrol element would link up with 50th Division advancing up the Catania Road. They expected to reach them at first light on July 14.
No 3 Commando, (about 350 strong), were put ashore north of Augusta in the Bay of Agnone, from the infantry assault ship HMS Prince Albert and very quickly overcame the Italian coast defences by virtue of both firepower and aggression. The initial wave then set off inland to their ultimate goal, following the railway line, and heading west across rough country towards Lentini.
Although expecting only light resistance from scattered Italian defenders, straight away the commandos ran into both Italians and elements of the 3rd Fallschirmjager Infantry Regiment of the Hermann Goering Division. All the way to the bridge there was sporadic, occasionally intense fighting, but their objective was reached by 0300 on the 14th of July.
HOLD THE BRIDGE
The Italian garrison of the bridge was quickly overwhelmed by coup de main, and the area came under British control. After neutralising the demolition charges, the commandos now had the task of holding the bridge until the arrival of the 50th Division which was doggedly fighting its way up Highway 114.
As the route north for the 8th Army and south for the re-supply of the German forces and their principal evacuation route north, Malati Bridge rapidly became the focus of numerous firefights. German tanks and other armoured vehicles appeared at close ranges of less than 300 yards and began firing towards the commandos, who were around and under the bridge with no substantial cover. In short order, several more men were wounded and killed.
More enemy tracked vehicles could be heard approaching and with 50th Division still not in sight, it was decided that the remaining commandos would withdraw into the hills to the South and East and reform once out of range.
Once redeployed, they again came under heavy fire from pursuing enemy forces and were ordered to set off in small parties to make for a prearranged rendezvous on the coast. With great difficulty most reached this objective, although some were captured (only to escape their captors shortly afterwards) and after a few square meals and a brief rest, most of the survivors began to look forward to the next battle.
The action was costly, with the total of casualties being 153 killed, wounded, and missing. Lieutenants Butler and Cave – along with four other commando dead – were buried at the bridge: the other dead and wounded were recovered from the surrounding area. These figures might have made the operation seem like a failure, but the fact that the bridge was not destroyed, and the confusion caused to the Axis forces by 3 Commando meant that the 50th Division could continue to advance north to Primosole Bridge.
Overall, this operation was quite similar in concept to the much larger Market Garden, staged in Holland the following year. It also had a similar outcome, largely because of hasty final planning, very tight and rigid time schedules and a lack of adequate appreciation of enemy strength and ability to react quickly.
Unlike Arnhem, the armoured relief forces did reach the paratroopers at Primosole Bridge before they were overwhelmed, but the Germans had gained the initiative and it then took a further four days and many more casualties to secure the area and continue the advance to Catania.
After the fall of Catania, General Montgomery ordered that a stone be carved with “3 Commando Bridge” and this stone cemented into the Punta de Malati bridge.
Due to the high casualties incurred during the action, particularly amongst the officers, No 3 Commando was withdrawn into Corps reserve and reformed as a three troop unit, next seeing action during the subsequent invasion of the Italian mainland. Lt Col Durnford Slater summed up his opinion of the plan by stating it was the worst he had ever seen!
FORCES & DEPLOYMENT
These are the forces involved. If you’d like to try them out, for the play sheets covering these units for the War on the Ground rules, please download the pdf that accompanies this article. The maps are also included.
No 3 Commando (Morale factor 3 – Veteran/Elite Troops)
HQ Troop comprising:
- 1 x SMG/Rifle Sect with PIAT and 1 x 2” mortar.
- 1 x ½ Sect Mortar Observation Team.
5 x Fighting Troops (1, 2. 3, 4 and 5 Troops), each comprising:
- 1 x SMG/Rifle Sect with PIAT, 1 x Vickers K LMG and 1 x 2” mortar.
- 6 x Rifle/SMG Sections each with 2 x Bren LMG.
Heavy Weapons Troop (6 Troop), comprising:
- 1 x SMG/Rifle Sect with PIAT.
- MMG Section of 3 x MMG ½ Sections
- (each 1 x Vickers MMG).
- Mortar Section of 2 x 3” mortar ½ Sects
- (each 1 x 3” mortar)
- Turn 1 - Troops 1, 3 and 4 along with HQ arrive between Point A and Point D.
- Turn 3 - Troops 2 and 5 along with Heavy Weapons Troop (6 Troop), arrive between Point A and Point D.
44th Royal Tank Regt (Morale factor 4 – Regular/Line Troops)
- After Turn 20 – A single troop of 4 x M4A1 Shermans at Point B. Throw 1 x D10: a score of 10 and the platoon arrives, decreasing by one every subsequent scenario turn.
- After Turn 25 – A single troop of 4 x M4A1 Shermans at Point B. Throw 1 x D6: a score of 6 and the platoon arrives, decreasing by one every subsequent scenario turn.
This simulates the actual events when the relieving units did not arrive in time and the commandos were forced to withdraw and disperse into nearby covering terrain.
1 x Rifle Platoon from 904th Fortress Bttn, 213th Coastal Division (Morale factor 5 – Poor/Militia Troops)
Deployed as bridge garrison: half a section (each with Breda LMG) in each of the five bridge pillboxes, the remainder of the platoon is deployed at the farmhouse at Point E.
- 1 x Rifle/SMG Section
- 4 x Rifle/LMG Sections (8 x ½ sections).
- 2 x 47mm L32 Breda Anti-Tank Guns with crews (Morale factor 5 – Poor/Militia Troops), one at each end of the Bridge (deployed at commander’s discretion).
Axis Initial Deployment
- Turn 10 – A single Pzkpfw VI Tiger from 504th Heavy Tank Bttn, at Point B, (Morale factor 4 – Regular/Line Troops)
- Turn 12 - Two Composite Infantry Companies, Fallschirmjager Regt No 3 (FGR 3), (Morale factor 3 – Veteran/Elite Troops)
Each of the two German Composite Infantry Companies comprising:
1 x HQ Platoon:
- 1 x SMG/Rifle Section
- 1 x Mortar Section of 3 x 50mm Mortars
- 1 x ½ Section of an MOP Team
- 3 x Rifle Platoons each of:
- HQ SMG/Rifle/LMG Section with AT Rifle (PzB 39).
- 3 x SMG/Rifle/LMG Sections.
One company arrives at Point C, the other arrives at Point B.
- Turn 15 – Two more Pzkpfw VI Tigers from 504th Heavy Tank Bttn (Morale factor 4 – Regular/Line Troops), at Point B. Throw 1 x D10L: a score of 10 and the unit arrives, decreasing by one every subsequent scenario turn.
- Turn 18 – Two Stug IIIE from Hermann Goering Fallschirm Panzer Division (Morale factor 4 – Regular/Line Troops), arrive at Point C. Throw 1 x D10: a score of 10 and the unit arrives, decreasing by one every subsequent scenario turn.
1. Due to the scenario starting in the early hours, visibility will be limited to 200m until turn 5, visibility will then be unlimited, dependent upon terrain.
2. Only the Italian elements occupying the pillboxes/bunkers count as dug in at the start of the game (medium cover).
3. Off road terrain is considered rough and counts as light cover to moving infantry units. All vineyards, woodland and orchards count as medium cover to stationary units.
4. The river may only be crossed by vehicles at the Bridge, due to the steep banks. Infantry may cross anywhere at half move speed and may use the riverbanks as medium cover.
5. All vineyards, woodland and orchards are line of sight obstructions.
6. If the British manage to capture the Italian AT Guns or the Breda LMGs in the pillboxes/bunkers, they may be used in defence of the bridge. This reflects the comprehensive weapon training undertaken by the Commandos.
7. To neutralise the bridge demolition charges, a Commando element must spend two turns stationary on – or immediately adjacent to – the Bridge without engaging in combat. The Axis may not blow the bridge. This simulates the command confusion between Germans and Italians, also the Germans required the route to be kept open to allow withdrawal towards Catania.
8. If an element occupying a pillbox is destroyed by Direct Area Fire, the fortification is rendered unusable.
9. The German units entering initially North and South of the river, operate as separate battlegroups. Overall command of each group rests with the appropriate Fallschirmjager Company HQ.
10. British Mortars are limited to four turns of HE and only two turns of smoke.
11. German armour may use normal direct HE fire to neutralise any pillboxes captured by the British. In addition, to replicate the actual battle, they may also use direct AP rounds against these fortifications, treating them as a ‘B class’ (medium sized) target with a light armour value of 4. Any infantry elements located in a destroyed bunker are also neutralised.
12. To reflect the lack of experience in the use of the newly issued PIATs, the commandos may not use PIAT against enemy held fortifications.
These outline which side counts as having won the scenario:
- Partial: Axis units must have retained/re-captured both ends of the bridge
- Complete: Axis units must have retained/re-captured both ends of the bridge and prevent the removal of demolition charges.
- Partial: The British must seize and hold at least one end of the bridge at the end of the game.
- Complete: The British must seize and hold both ends of the bridge at the end of the game and remove the demolition charges.
PLAYING THE SCENARIO
This scenario is fought on a 1m x 1.5m table (1km x 1.5km) with a ground scale of 1mm = 1m. It is designed to be ideally used with 6mm or 10/12 mm miniatures using War on the Ground rules. Scale for the miniatures is 1:1, with each vehicle being individually represented and each infantry base representing an infantry section or element. However, with simple amendments, it can (as previously mentioned) be successfully played using with larger scale miniatures and any Battalion/Battlegroup level WWII rule set.
Game Length: Maximum 30 turns, each turn is 10 minutes of actual combat.
When this scenario was play-tested, the miniatures used were mainly Pendraken for the infantry and Arrowhead for the armoured vehicles. Unit characteristics for War on the Ground (along with the scenario maps) are provided in the downloadable play sheets.
When we playtested the scenario, the flow of the game followed quite closely the actual historical chain of events! After quickly closing with the Italian positions in the darkness, the commandos of Nos 1, 3 and 4 troops assaulted and rapidly neutralised the poor-quality Italian Garrison, despite one very tenacious bunker holding out against the odds. Having secured the bridge, elements from No 3 Troop successfully removed the demolition charges, they then hastily deployed along with the other two troops to defend the position against counterattack. Reinforced by the remaining three troops of the Commando, a hasty defensive position was organised to deny the bridge to the enemy.
However, the Germans were very quick to react and the unexpected arrival of German armour and significant numbers of high-quality infantry from both North and South of the bridge inexorably pushed the Commandos firmly onto the defensive. The effective use of PIATs to neutralise enemy armour in the open terrain in the immediate vicinity of the bridge proved virtually suicidal. Despite using a captured Italian 47mm AT Gun to knock out one of the German Stug IIIs, the Commando troops were slowly but inevitably forced to withdraw into the vineyards on the high ground to the southeast, by the German weight of numbers and increasing firepower; the German Tiger tanks being particularly devastating in reducing the captured field defences and fortifications.
The Allied armour from 4th Armoured Brigade arrived too late to prevent the commandos being forced to withdraw and on arrival they were confronted by the German heavy armour holding the bridge. After rapidly losing three tanks to accurate 88mm fire and unable to make headway against the German positions, the Sherman’s morale faltered, they retired to cover and awaited support from the main body of 50th Division.
Although the German defenders did not succeed in destroying the bridge and prevent the British advance, the Germans retained firm control of both ends and significantly delayed the effective relief of Primosole Bridge.
As a result, this engagement was declared a ‘Complete’ victory for the Axis forces.
James Holland, Sicily ‘43’, The First Assault on Fortress Europe, 2020.
Carlo D’Este, Bitter Victory (The Battle for Sicily 1943), 1989.
Mark Saliger, The First Bridge Too Far (The Battle for Primosole Bridge 1943), 2018.
After the Battle No 77, The Invasion of Sicily, 1992.
Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle (The war in Sicily and Italy 1943 – 1944), 2007.
Peter Young, Storm from the Sea, 2002.
Steven J Zaloga, Sicily 1943 (The Debut of Allied Joint Operations), 2015.
Bruce Quarrie, German Airborne Divisions: Mediterranean Theatre 1942 – 45, 2005.
Samuel W Mitcham Jr and Friedrich von Stauffenberg, The Battle for Sicily (How the Allies lost their chance for Total Victory), 1991.
Jon Diamond, Images of War (The Invasion of Sicily 1943), 2017.
John Durnford Slater, Commando (Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in WW2), 2020.
You might also try looking up: wikimili.com/en/Operation_Fustian
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