I was reading David Cole’s account of his time in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in Sicily and Italy and got kind of fascinated by the Battle at Lemon Bridge (18-19 July 1943). Part of the reason for my fascination is that, for a long time, I couldn’t find the bridge, at least it isn’t on modern maps.
My account is primarily based on Lt Col. O’Brien Twohig’s after action report, written on 21 July 1943. I find his account the most compelling as he was the commander of 2 Inniskillings on the day, and he wrote the report immediately after the battle. I supplement this with elements from David Cole’s account (Cole, 1983), who was also present at the battle, the official divisional history (Aris, 2020), and a general history of Operation Husky (Pack, 1977).
Friday 9 July 1943
The Allies landed in Sicily on 9 July 1943. After initial success General Montgomery’s Eighth Army got stuck on the Catania coastal plain.
Sunday 18 July 1943
Sunday 18 July 1943 was a “fiercely hot and shadeless day”.
The 50th Division held the Primosole Bridgehead but was unable to expand from it. Montgomery decided to try a left hook around the Germans and on Sunday 18 July 1943 tasked the 13th Brigade, 5th Division with crossing the Simento River west of Primosole. The 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (“The Skins”) were on the left. The 2nd Battalion the Wiltshire Regiment (2 Wilts) were downstream to their right. In reserve were 2 Cameronians and B Company of 7 Cheshire machinegun battalion. Success would cause a serious breach of the German defensive line. Facing them were Battle Group Schmalz of the Hermann Goering Division.
Early in the morning a fighting patrol from 2 Iniskillings found an minor, solid, but intact bridge some 10 km west of Primosole. This was code named “Lemon Bridge”. The patrol also saw camouflage German armoured vehicles on the far bank.
1400 Hours: 2 Inniskillings was ordered to seize Lemon Bridge.
1430 Hours: The battalion began their advance.
1500 Hours: The battalion was down from their initial position on the hills and was advancing across the plain. They had about 8 km to travel, as the crow flies.
Late afternoon: C Company was well forward in the lead and hit the River Simeto at Grape Bridge, downstream and to the right/east of Lemon Bridge. They sent one platoon across Grape bridge, to come in on the rear of any defenders at Lemon Bridge, and the remainder of C Company headed directly for Lemon Bridge. C Company found a small German post digging in on the south bank and drove it off. The rest of the battalion followed in support. The battalion took mortar and machine gun fire on the approach to Lemon Bridge.
1930 Hours: C Company found Lemon bridge mined and reduced to a single track due to two bomb craters. They secured the bridge and established a close bridgehead on the northern bank, about 180 m deep. C Company tried to dig in but found the ground hard baked. More usefully they laid Hawkin’s anti-tank mines across the road. C Company were joined by two detachments of 3″ Mortars and a platoon of machine guns, all of which had to be manhandled into the bridgehead. B and D Companies were behind the river to the south, D Company was to the west/left and B Company to the east/right. A Company was put into reserve about around a farm house 160 m south of the bridge.
2100 Hours: Germans probed the bridgehead with three light tanks and 4-5 machine guns (my guess is roughly a rifle platoon). The battalion Advanced HQ was amongst C Company at the time but subsequently withdrew over the bridge to to the south bank.
2200 Hours: Germans attacked down the road. To the west of the road they had tanks and infantry to the east. The fighting got to close quarters before the Germans were pushed away. A German tank was disabled on a Hawkin’s anti-tank mine. About this time B Company got a platoon north of the river.
2300 Hours: German mortars and machine guns “searched” the bridgehead area from 2200 to 2300 hours. The 14 Platoon on the right/east heard movement beyond their lines and at 2300 hours the Germans attacked. The Germans penetrated 14 Platoon but 15 Platoon counter attacked and drove them out. German and British positions were now interlocked, for example two German machine gun detachments were ensconced on the river bank. The Germans continued their assault with prolonged and repeated thrusts at one point after another.
Monday 19 July 1943
The British then reorganised. They got a wire through to the supporting 91st Field Artillery Regiment. B Company moved to the centre of the battalion positions, near the bridge and immediately behind C company. They then put a platoon across the river to join C Company.
0030 Hours: A single 2-pdr anti-tank gun was deployed to guard the bridge. It could shoot at any tanks which reached the bridge. Twice during the battle this gun drove off enemy tanks attempting to break through.
0200 Hours: O’Brien Twohig’s requested the Shermans assigned to the WILTS. But they didn’t arrive in time to help.
0300 Hours: D Company attacked across the river, about 370 m upstream/west/left of the bridge and 270 m from the road. British artillery bombarded the road in support but D Company could not reach the road. They did, however, disable a German tank with a PIAT and prevented any German penetration of the bridgehead from the west.
B Company attacked across the river beside the bridge. They were cut down by withering German machine gun fire including the company commander who had predicted it was “suicide”.
0500 Hours: A short lull in the fighting.
0510 Hours: The British heard German tanks again. Five German “heavy” tanks took up hull down position and fired both main guns and machine guns into the bridgehead. O’Brien Twohig thought one of the heavies was a captured Sherman.
0515 Hours: The friendly Shermans still hadn’t arrived.
0540 Hours: The German armour advanced and overrun the British forward companies. The British knocked out a “heavy” tank and a “light” tanks. Now, after day break and under pressure from German infantry and tanks, O’Brien Twohig ordered his battalion south of the river. The Germans did not reach the bridge. British artillery fire then drove back the attack from the houses north of the bridge.
0640 Hours: 2 Inniskillings had one platoon forward of the farm about 160 m from the bridge, three other platoons right and left of the farm area, the mortar platoon at the farm, the machine-gun platoon and two carrier sections out on the right flank to cover the south bank of the river. D Company was behind the farm as reserve. A number of Germans crossed to the east of the bridge but were driven back by mortar fire.
0700 Hours: Three patrols with carrier support – left, right and on the bridge – brought the British back across the river. The centre patrol drove off a German squad and captured some prisoners. But my impression is the Germans had more or less pulled out by this time.
0730 Hours: D Company recrossed the bridge to reestablish the bridgehead.
2 Iniskillings had the normal complement of four rifle companies. The core of the defence was C Company although it was joined by elements of B Company, 3″ mortars and a platoon of machine guns. The machine guns are almost certainly from B Company of 7 Cheshire machinegun battalion. Both O’Brien Twohig and Coles mention the anti-tank gun guarding the bridge; O’Brien Twohig calls it a 2 pounder. C Company, at least, had Hawkin’s anti-tank mines. Each company seemed to have PIATs.
The Germans were from Battle Group Schmalz of the Panzer-Division Hermann Göring. O’Brien Twohig talks about “light” and “heavy” German tanks. He thought the attackers had a troop of tanks and armoured cars. He also mentions a captured Sherman amongst the German “heavies”. O’Brien Twohig said British PIATs disabled a large tank and a small tank and another small tank was disabled by Hawkins mines. Cole reports seeing three wrecked Panzer IVs. At the time of Operation Husky, the Panzer-Division Hermann Göring had 46 Panzer III and 32 Panzer IV medium tanks, so “light” probably means Panzer IIIs and heavy means Panzer IVs (optional captured Sherman). The “troop” mentioned by O’Brien Twohig seems an underestimate. This would be only 3-4 tanks in a British armoured unit and would be up to five tanks in a German platoon. But O’Brien Twohig account mentions 3 light tanks (Panzer IIIs) and five heavy tanks (Panzer IVs) so either this is two platoons, or a large mixed platoon, or a normal mixed platoon and O’Brien Twohig is a bit confused about his tank identification.
According to O’Brien Twohig, German PoWs reported a Prussian infantry company put in the initial attack but the final attack was by another mixed infantry company (including a Pole).
Locating Lemon Bridge
“Lemon bridge” was the British name. The locals didn’t have a name for it. And the bridge was destroyed in 1950 so there is now some debate about the actual location.
I’ve used the position suggested by Jont in WW2Talk: Sicily ’43’ (page 2). Jont’s location is based on the map in Aris (2020).
Looking at Google Maps, you can easily identify the bend shown in Aris (2020) and Cole (1983) maps.
I have two doubts about this location. Firstly, the contributor ‘Sicily 43’ (in WW2Talk: Sicily ’43’ (page 2)) says:
Hi, the real position isn’t the Castellana farm, is about 2 km before.
In 1943 the bridge was after Dittaino fork, after 1950 when the river was harnessed the bridge was destroyed and the fork was moved after bridge.
Secondly, we know the narrow road crossed the bridge and then turned slowly right across the plain. I can’t find such a road in the modern landscape revealed by Google.
Despite these doubts, I think the location is pretty clear.
Terrain at Lemon Bridge
The Catanian plain was rich in vegetation including cactus bushes (‘Prickly Pears’), olive groves, almonds groves and vineyards. Prosperous-looking white farm buildings were dotted here and there. Although David Coles, part of the Inniskillings, felt exposed as they advanced towards Lemon Bridge in a “flat and bare” plain, he does mention sheds, farmhouses, clusters of scrub and trees, and the banks of various watercourses and ditches.
There was a large farmhouse south of Lemon bridge. You can see it in Cole’s map. Accounts vary on the distance of the farm house from the Bridge. I’ve gone with O’Brien Twohig’s 160m but Coles says 260m away.
Coles says the river was black, sluggish and very shallow with parts of its bed entirely waterless. He describes the river bank near Lemon Bridge as “quite thickly bordered with trees and shrubs”.
The bridge itself was concrete, with no side walls but a metal hand rail. The narrow road crossed the bridge and turned slowly right across the plain. One of the accounts says the bridge was about 40 yards (36m) long but looking at google and the photos I think that an underestimate. Google suggests the river bed is more like 200m.
North of the river was relatively flat but rough grassland. I suspect the descriptions are limited because the battle was overnight with the limited visibility provided by flares and burning vehicles. One of the accounts mentioned buildings north of the bridge and you can see these in one of the photos. The buildings appear to have been where the Germans formed up.
Modelling Lemon Bridge
I can’t resist. I want to build Lemon Bridge. Actually the bridge itself is pretty easy to model, being a rather slab concrete affair. The tricky bit for me, because I have a flat table, is the river itself. The photos show quite a deep ravine with the bridge going basically flat from one bank to the other. I have landed on a way to represent Ravines and Depressions for Crossfire on a flat table. Maybe I do some more of these, with a dribbling river in the middle, and have one ravine section with the bridge across. Could work. Obviously 3D would be better, but I’m not going to start now.
Aris, G. (2020) The Fifth British Division 1939 to 1945: Being an account of the Journey and Battles of a Reserve Division in Europe, Africa and Asia. Naval & Military Press. [First edition was 1959.]
Cole, D. (1983). Rough Road to Rome: A Foot-soldier in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44. William Kimber & Co.
Pack, S. W. C. (1977). Operation Husky: The Allied Invasion of Sicily. David & Charles.
O’Brien Twohig, Lt Col. J.P. (21 July 1943). Report on Battle of Lemon Bridge.
Thanks to James Murrow for sharing this.