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3 Commando at Malati, 1943
Malatai Bridge. 3 Commando
3 Commando at Malati Bridge, 1943.
This account of the fighting at Punta dei Malati in Sicily, 1943, is an extract from a paper delivered by the author to the Australian War Memorial in March 2014. It is the first account which combines all three known eye-witness records of the action. John Erskine's memoirs are held in the Australian War Memorial and also published on-line in CLIO History journal:
An Australian soldier in Sicily 1943
John Erskine was a long time resident of Griffith, ACT. Before he passed away in 2010 he presented the AWM with a record of his experiences as a member of the British army during WW2. His memoirs are not extensive – they amount to some 12 typewritten A4 size pages and cover no more than a few days of the fighting in Sicily in 1943, but they represent a very important addition to the existing contemporary accounts. They make possible an attempt at creating a more complete narrative of these events, something which has not yet been accomplished.
By the middle of 1943 the Axis forces had withdrawn from North Africa. Allied planners, not without disagreement and controversy, finally agreed on the invasion of Sicily as the next step in the war against Hitler and Mussolini. Australia had already withdrawn those elements of the 2nd AIF who had fought with the 8th Army, so Operation Husky, the Sicilian campaign, does not really feature in Australia's military record. Not officially, anyway. However, just as many young Australians had enlisted in the RAF and the Royal Navy, so there were a number of Australian born members of the British army. One of these was John Channon Erskine.
In his memoirs John Erskine explains how this came to be:
“There were a great number of Australians in the British army in World War 2. (they were enlisted as if they were English, and were treated from an administrative point of view throughout the war as if they were English.) For example, of the 26 officers in my battalion, two were Australian. My case was fairly common – I was working in West Africa and the only practical way to get into the war was to go to England and join the British army... I stayed in the British army from January 1940 to August 1946, six and a half years, and saw a deal of fighting.”
Erskine joined the elite No. 3 Commando:
“The unit in which I fought was No 3 Commando, an elite unit of the British army, and in fact the first commando to be formed and the first to go into action.”
What does he mean by the term 'commando'? The question is perhaps best answered by the British War Office, in an official instruction dated 12 May 1941:
“Commando Training Instruction No.1
The object is to train a guerrilla force, organised in units equivalent in strength to a weak battalion (500 men), and to operate independently in “smash and grab” raiding operations into enemy territory.
Individual training should be designed to instil the following qualities:
Esprit de corps, offensive spirit, silence and secrecy, self-reliance, inquisitiveness, opportunism, open-mindedness, physical fitness, intelligence, miscellaneous (fieldcraft, if taken prisoner)
Although the Training Instruction does not indicate the origin of the term, it is generally understood to have been adopted from British experience in the South African war forty years earlier. The Dutch farmers had formed themselves into irregular groups of guerrilla fighters, a unit known as a
The British commando units were formed in 1941, after the retreat from Dunkirk, and the intention was to continue to fight the German forces by conducting sea-borne raids on the continent.
The first raid of any consequence was conducted against the Norwegian Lofoten islands, which resulted in the destruction of factories, petrol supplies and ships, and in which 216 German prisoners were taken as well as encryption equipment and codebooks.
John Erskine details his own role in No.3 Commando. “I was a lieutenant in the commando throughout its campaign in Sicily and Italy (and later became a Captain and then a Major in a Field Company of the Royal Engineers.) In the commando I was a .. Section Commander (what would be called a Platoon Commander in the ordinary Divisional infantry), and as such I commanded... a 'section' consisting of 2 sergeants and 29 men. The whole commando had about 430 men, divided into six troops (each Troop consisting of 3 officers and 62 men) plus a headquarters of about 30 men.”
No. 3 Commando, despite its number '3', is said to have been the first commando raised in WW2. It was commanded by Lt.Colonel John Durnford-Slater, who claimed therefore to have been the first British commando. Durnford-Slater was responsible for maintaining a daily record of the activities of the unit, known as a War Diary, but he also published an account of his wartime career in 1953 in a work entitled “Commando”. We shall use both the War Diary and Durnford-Slater's memoirs as sources in writing the history of the Malati operation.
Perhaps more well known than the commanding officer was the second-in-command, Major Peter Young. He also survived the war, and went on to become a renowned public figure in Britain until his death in 1988. He published his own memoirs, “Storm from the Sea”, in 1958. After the war he served with the Arab Legion in Jordan from 1953 to 1959, then embarked on an academic career as
Head of Military History at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst between 1959 and 1969. He retired at this time but began to concentrate on the history of the English Civil War. He became known as a keen wargamer, using miniature figures, and he went on to form a re-enactment organisation known as The Sealed Knot. Peter Young's prolific writing is now preserved in the Peter Young Archives, most of which, according to his biographer, is unpublished.
These then, are the four sources of information we shall rely upon to construct the story of the battle of the Malati bridge. Eyewitness accounts, especially when written well after the event, pose unique problems for the historian, but in this case it is all we have.
The Allied campaign in Sicily, code-named 'Operation Husky', the operation
on the night of 9–10 July 1943, and ended on 17 August
A map of the campaign shows the size of the conflict. After the initial landings on 10 July, Montgomery's 8th Army, moving along the eastern coast of the island, began to advance towards the city of Catania.
According to 3 Commando war diary, Durnford-Slater was summoned to Syracuse, General Miles Dempsey's XIII Corps HQ and given his task:
“On the 13th July I received a signal to go at once to Syracuse to meet Monty, General Dempsey and Admiral McGrigor to plan another operation. I had barely time to warn my men... when I was whisked away in a fast motor launch... The meeting took place on the quay at Syracuse. .. the three senior officers were in high spirits. Dempsey, who did most of the talking, began:
'We've got a new operation for you tonight. It's an ambitious one, but I think you'll like it.'
Then he unfolded the details of the job. Monty aimed to push right on to Catania in one bound. Only one road ran from Syracuse to Catania and he wanted to cut this at two points so as to disorganise the one and only main line of communication of the Germans and Italians.. There was to be an airborne drop to seize and hold the Primasole Bridge, a few miles from Catania. No. 3 Commando was to land ten miles behind the lines and advance seven miles inland to seize the Punta Dei Malati, a bridge over the Leonardo river two miles north of Lentini.... The landing was to take place at ten o'clock that night at Agnone, a small village seven miles due east of our bridge. I hurried back to the
and we sailed at once.”
The Landing at Agnone
All sources give the same account of the beach assault, though from their own personal perspective.
The Commando transferred to landing craft (LCs) at 2130. Erskine says there were only 8 LC available so they had to assault in two waves (flights), escorted by Hunt class destroyer HMS Tetcott. 1st flight numbered 200. “We expected the beach to be defended by Italian coastal defence militia.” There were 4 or 5 pillboxes on the beach, and the beach itself was protected with barbed wire. It was a moonlit night. The approach was uneventful until 300 yards (Young says 100) from the beach when the defenders opened up with machine gun and a coastal defence battery. HMS Tetcott silenced the battery and “our MG fire engaged the pillboxes.” Durnford-Slater was first ashore (Young) Young says there was initial confusion and 'milling about' until someone called out that they had found a break in the wire. Erskine 'told the colonel we had found a break'. I rushed through the gap with my section......All reports of hand to hand fighting are contradictory. ..in this case our 2ic is convinced that he found the gap and was first through it but...my remembrance is that I was first..”
Durnford-Slater recorded in the war diary that they suffered 25 casualties on the beach. Once off the beach, the first flight had to fight their way through Agnone towards the railway line (957568)
Who was shooting at them? Young records taking 10 Italian prisoners. Durnford-Slater says that Lt Herbert sent back a prisoner in a German uniform. The war diary (Durnford-Slater) identifies them as German paratroopers.
“Over the next mile we fought through Agnone village against MG nests”. Erskine says “We ran on into the night, following a compass bearing towards the railway line.” Having reached the first check point, they followed the railway embankment. Durnford-Slater says he pushed one Troop through another to maintain the momentum of the advance
All the sources agree that 1 Troop (Captain Lincoln Leese) outflanked and captured the railway station. Leese was blinded by a grenade and the TSM (
, name not recorded) was shot dead. According to Young “I told (Leese) Veasey must take over the Troop and he must make his way back to the beach.”
A curious incident took place, though at what stage of the advance is confusing. According to Durnford-Slater, after the railway station “we ran out of trouble. Then, in the freshly quiet night, I heard the drone of many aircraft and down through the night bloomed at least a dozen parachutes. This small party of British parachutists, who had been dropped by mistake on their way to attack the Primasole bridge, fell amongst us. They left us to head north.”
Erskine tells a slightly different story. According to him, the paratroopers appeared before the Commando reached Agnone station, and that they were not only British. “We had only gone half a mile, walking along the embankment well above the surrounding countryside, when paratroopers suddenly started dropping down out of the moonlight night at each side of the track. To our right, the north-east, they were British paratroopers far out of position from their target at the Primasole bridge, 15 miles north. But to our left, and only about 100 metres or so, the paratroops were German, flown in that night direct from France to be dropped into their own front line to help hold their crumbling front against the strong 50 Division attack." Erskine's section continued on, unwilling to be delayed by an engagement with the Germans who were plentifully supplied with their wheeled containers of ammunition on pushcarts.
After reaching the railway station, the Commando, 150 strong according to Erskine, 160 according to Durnford-Slater, followed the railway line north. According to Young, "4 Troop were in the lead. There were still occasional shots, but we wasted no time searching the shadows in the houses we passed."
They came to a tunnel (928584) and held a conference. Durnford-Slater put 4 Troop in the lead, followed by HQ and then 3, then 1.
Rather than follow the tunnel, they struck off to the right and found themselves “in the most infernal countryside imaginable.” Durnford-Slater “We found ourselves in rocky, low hills with bramble thickets and low, stone walls.” Erskine describes the cross country march as “very difficult, even for Commandos.”
The next obstacle was the San Leonardo river itself. The war diary records their crossing place at 920580, “about a mile below the bridge.” They found a waist deep ford, not until 4 Troop commander Bill Lloyd had disappeared into the river. Young says he found a crossing place and they crossed. The countryside on the other side was “a jungle of reeds” but they came eventually into a valley overlooked by a low ridge to the right and found a country road that led to the north end of the bridge. According to Durnford-Slater they found a track junction at 912584. The track was easy going, through olive groves, and before long they reached the edge of the enemy position. Durnford-Slater “then we saw the bridge, white in the moonlight.”
Taking and Holding the bridge
Having arrived at the Punta dei Malati, the Commando proceeded to overcome the guards and take control of the bridge itself. According to Durnford-Slater, it was now nearly midnight. He could make out four pillboxes at the north end of the bridge.The task of clearing opposition was carried out by Captain Lloyd's 4 Troop, though the actual process of capture is described differently by all three sources. The Troop Commander, Bill Lloyd, who was later to die in an attack on a machine-gun nest during the withdrawal, did not leave any record of his experiences. Durnford-Slater tells us that Lloyd and his men paused for five minutes so the unit could form up. Durnford-Slater then accompanied Lloyd and his men as they set off to clear the pillboxes. According to both Durnford-Slater and Young, Lt Brian Butler led his section to rush each pillbox with grenades and cleared the northern pillboxes in ten minutes.
Peter Young's account is slightly different. He says that, when they arrived at the bridge they came to a hedge to the right of the road and beyond it an orchard. “The leading section of 4 Troop went on down the road and I took a party into the orchard. We soon found ourselves face to face with a pillbox just inside the hedge so as to cover the road. ..seeing there was no wire round it, I ran up to the middle loophole and fired my rifle through it two or three times. (M1 Garand). ..Almost at once an Italian ran out into the road. Brian Butler, advancing at the head of his section, threw a Mills bomb at him and killed him. .. There were two more explosions and then Brian Butler of Lloyd's Troop dashed past...”
Young's account raises an interesting question. If Butler's section led the way in clearing the northern pillboxes, who was the 'leading section of 4 Troop” that “went on down the road”?
According to John Erskine, it was his section. He writes: “As I was the leading section at that moment, I continued and ran right across to the other end of the bridge and installed my men in the pillbox at that end.... Some of my men had got separated but I still had twelve of them, including both sergeants.” It is curious that neither Durnford-Slater or Young seem to be aware of this. However, it does seem to be corroborated by Young's statement that 'the leading section went on down the road', which he has happening before Butler's assault on the northern pillboxes, and by a later comment, in which he reports that “Erskine said that there were still enemy on the other side.”
The bridge garrison had been overcome and 3 Commando now occupied their objective. It had been a swift and easy action, in which the Italian defenders, apparently about a platoon in number, had been unprepared and unwilling to offer much resistance. There had been some resistance, however, since Young states rather vaguely: “We may have had some casualties... but not more than one or two.”
The task of the Commando now was to hold the bridge until the advanced guard of the British 50 Division arrived, which was originally expected to happen some time before 0800 that morning. It was now about 3:45 am, according to the war diary. DS gives some precise details of their defence.
“Captain Lloyd and 4 Troop then occupied the road junction area 900585. 3 Troop (George Herbert) were posted to secure the bridge and 1 Troop (Veasey) to cover the Catania road. 3 Troop met opposition from the south-west end of the bridge and reported that a large number of troops and vehicles were parked in the orchard near the south-west end. A party was sent under the bridge to secure this south-west end. The bridge was about 120 yards long. .. 3 Troop, moving under it, were halfway to the other side. Then the German paratroops lining the far bank began to shoot down on them. .. They held out for about an hour, then I ordered them to withdraw.. They found some demolitions which I instructed them to dismantle.”
Durnford-Slater later recorded that, of the sixty men in 3 Troop, eight became casualties. The withdrawal of 3Troop would have taken place at about 4:45. Durnford-Slater's mention of 3 Troop suggests some confusion on his part. According to Peter Young, who was ordered by Slater to co-ordinate the defence:
“Lloyd's troop at the north end of the bridge was well posted except that they had a Bren actually on the road. Erskine said that there were still enemy on the other side and so I ordered John Lash to take 3 Troop over the river and form a bridgehead at that end. No.1 Troop was posted to watch the road to the north and HQ was near the first pillbox we had taken. Altogether it was a considerable area.”
Young makes it clear that 3 Troop were dispatched to cross under the bridge after he had been told by Erskine about the enemy presence on the other side. Durnford-Slater's reference to the posting of 'a Bren actually on the road' also seems to validate Erskine's testimony, which records that incident in a different way:
“ I put two men in sniping positions nestled into the inner side of the south bank of the river, as well as a bren gunner lying on the parapet of the bridge. My senior sergeant quickly rearranged some of the positions, as the bren gunner was ridiculously exposed. I scrambled across the shallow river and found the 2ic (
, i.e. Peter Young) and told him my situation and that there seemed to be a good few Germans on the other side. He sent me back quickly to expect an immediate counter-attack”
There may have been a number of reasons for confusion. It was, after all, the middle of the night. Furthermore, the Commando was spread out over a considerable area, and relied for communication on runners. Young's order to Lash suggests that he was aware of the presence of Erskine's section on the south end of the bridge, and made an effort to reinforce the position, though he does not explicity state this. However, if, as Erskine says, Young expected 'an immediate counter-attack,” it would make sense to send 3 Troop across to the south bank.
Further confirmation of Erskine's report that there were at least a hundred enemy soldiers dug into the outside south end of the bridge, some as close as 5 metres away from his pillbox, came from Young's statement that:
“Lash's batman arrived to say that 3 Troop were held up under the bridge. They had managed to remove the demolition charges.”
There was clearly considerable confusion and lack of information arriving at 3 Commando HQ, for Young also says:
“The colonel had received a report that hardly a man remained alive under the bridge and that the enemy were working round our left flank”
To add to the confusion, a large vehicle approached and crossed the bridge in the darkness. Erskine was surprised that the German paratroopers had let it through. Rather than give away his position in the pillbox, his section held their fire and allowed it to cross. It was a large ammunition truck with a trailer. This was engaged with a PIAT, causing it to explode, showering thousands of rounds of ammunition on 'friend and foe'.
Though no direct mention is made of any other engagements at this time, Durnford-Slater tells us that “the first Italian prisoners began to come in.” Presumably these prisoners were taken on the northern road. According to Young, there had been a constant flow of German traffic southbound from Messina. He had stationed a troop 100 yards up the road and, as the lorries arrived, the Commando shot them up.
Apart from 3 Troop pinned down under the bridge, there is no report of any attack just yet from the south. However, Erskine, in his outpost at the south end of the bridge, could see “German soldiers … moving a few yards and then going to ground, all the time steadily encircling us. I saw one little group of four men carrying a heavy machine-gun get up from only twenty yards away on my right, dash five yards and then hide, only to get up again and again go into cover. They were obviously going into a flank attack manoeuvre (to give covering fire from far out on their left flank while their main body would charge across the river ) … Even today, 30 years later, I still often wake at night seeing those machine-gunners getting into position..”
At this time, too, Erskine reports hearing enemy tanks “clattering up the road from the direction of Lentini. The only defence against armour possessed by the defenders were a number of PIAT anti-tank weapons, which needed to be used at short range. According to Erskine, “you have to be at the side of the tank and within ten paces of it” to be effective.
To forestall this expected assault, Durnford-Slater decided to put a force inside a building east of the southern end. He therefore despatched John Pooley and the newly arrived second flight, which, having landed on Agnone beach in the face of much fiercer opposition than the first flight had faced, had arrived at the bridge with the first rays of dawn. The Commando now numbered about 350.
Before Pooley's arrival the main force had been under mortar fire for some time. According to Young, the arrival of the second flight corresponded to the appearance of enemy tanks. Durnford-Slater claims that the tanks appeared at about 0500.
“”Pooley's men had no sooner joined us than someone shouted that he could see a tank. Corporal Pantall, looking through the hedge, could see a large German Mark VI Tiger tank facing us from the other side of the bridge, no more than two hundred yards away. Almost immediately it opened fire with a heavy machine-gun and began spraying the corner of the field 5 Troop were in; there was no cover and in open formation they dashed for a wall on the road side. In doing so many were killed and some, including Tony Butler, were killed outright. Some took cover in and behind a huge stone pillbox, but it received a direct hit from the tank and crumbled like a pack of cards, causing many casualties.”
This was a significant development for the lightly equipped Commando. Durnford-Slater had earlier described his scepticism at the original information given to him at the briefing for the operation. He records that “Monty's intelligence men said that only Italian opposition was likely to be met...They knew of no German troops in the vicinity.”
The official British history of World War Two repeats this apparently faulty intelligence. In a mere paragraph describing the whole battle, the official history says: “Soon, however, Italian troops (probably an anti-tank battalion and a company of motor-cyclists) counter-attacked.” This was written in 1973, well after both Durnford-Slater and Young had published their memoirs. It also fails to make reference to the official war diary. Did the author rely on the initial intelligence reports without verifying their accuracy?
The notion that 3 Commando fought only against Italian forces is repeated in an otherwise well researched modern account of the Sicilian campaign. According to Mitcham and Von Stauffenberg, “the Italians counter-attacked with a tactical battle group under Colonel Tropea, which included a motor-cycle company and anti-tank units (possibly an AT battalion).” It seems strange that the testimony of the participants, united with one voice in identifying their enemy as German paratroopers, should be disregarded by these later accounts. Mitcham and Von Stauffenberg add that the Italians were “supported by elements of Koerner's (German) 115th PanzerGrenadier Regiment,” but make no mention of tanks. The Commandos were “peppered by antitank fire, harassed by snipers and continuously shelled by mortars.” This account of the battle seems bizarrely at odds with the testimony of the three participants and the war diary of 3 Commando.
The assertion that the commandos were shelled and machine-gunned by Tiger tanks has also been called into question.
With all three primary sources in agreement, it would seem impossible to dispute the evidence. However, David List, who edited Durnford-Slater's work in 2002, argues that Durnford-Slater and Young (List had no access to Erskine's memoirs) wrongly identified the tank as a Tiger (Panzer Mark VI) when it fact it was a Panzer Mark IV, a more common and less formidable vehicle. List caims that there were no German units in Sicily equipped with Tigers. His view appears in the Wikipedia entry that covers this battle, the only entry that does so, and has therefore presumably become the 'public' version of events.
List's work is not readily obtainable, so his evidence may be more sophisticated than seems at first sight. If he does argue that there were no Tigers in the Sicily theatre, he is clearly wrong, for the Order of Battle of the Hermann Goering division included the 504th Schwere Panzer Abteilung, or Heavy Tank Battalion, equipped with Tiger tanks, and, according to Mitcham and Von Stauffenberg, General Guzzoni (commanding the 6th Army) had ordered the HG division move to Vizzini on Jul 12, a mere 29 kms from Lentini. It seems highly likely that there were Panzer VI tanks in the area.
If, as seems to be the case, No 3 Commando were under fire from possibly three Tiger tanks, the tanks seemed content to stay on the south bank of the Leonardo, machine-gunning and shelling the area. Why were they so seemingly passive?
There are some obvious answers to this question. It was still dark, making close combat with the enemy an important consideration for the tank crews. Bull and Rottman sum this up well:
Despite their psychological impact on infantrymen in the open, tanks were far from being the undefeatable, unstoppable.. monsters so often portrayed. Vulnerabilities abounded. … Regardless of the .. armour, a tank requires openings for crew entry, weapons, sights, vision, ventilation... All these were vulnerable to concentrated small arms fire. Flare pistols could also be fired at vision ports to blind crews at night... Among a tank's weakest points was exactly what made it a tank: its tracks.”
There is reference to this in the memoirs. During the withdrawal, Peter Young describes how he led a small rearguard who set up an ambush for one of the tanks: “We made a rough road block... thinking this would be sufficient to make some of the crew dismount... We had a smoke grenade ready, and half the party were to fire at the slits while the others rushed it. The tank, however, failed to put in an appearance.”
Perhaps more importantly, a determined assault against the Commando position could only take place once the number and location of the enemy had been established. There was no doubt considerable confusion about this. A force of unknown size had suddenly appeared in the rear of the front line. Further landings were taking place in Agnone. It would seem clear that a vigorous assault on the bridge would only happen after more was known about the force defending it.
This would certainly conform to German tactical doctrine, as contained in a variety of contemporary training manuals. According to army service regulation HDV 130/2A
(regarded as 'the bible'), a company or battalion attack was to be conducted in three stages: The first was
or pinning down the enemy by the concentrated fire of up to a company, with support from machine guns and mortars, while reconnaissance was completed and assault units deployed; Then came the
, or 'dazzling' the defenders with shooting and smoke, denying them observation and hampering their firing; finally came the
, the actual assault into the enemy position.
John Erskine, later captured by German paratroopers during the withdrawal, writes of the training of German officers: “They were very Prussian in meticulous attention to detail in quite small infantry evolutions (colored pencils and bar charts even in a desperate retreat in the face of the enemy).
At any rate, the tanks did not cross the bridge and assault 3 Commando. They did, however, use their firepower to inflict considerable damage. Peter Young writes:
By this time more tanks could be heard coming down the road, and the one already in action was scoring direct hits on each pillbox in turn. Both Vickers were quickly put out of action. Charley Head had just put one in position and was walking away when he heard an explosion and turned round, saw it and its crew dashed to pieces.”
The pillboxes were proving to be deathtraps … some men ran up dragging a wounded man on a mattress. It was Bill Lloyd, who had got a broken ankle besides other injuries when a shell hit the pillbox north-east of the bridge.”
Bill Lloyd, commanding 4 Troop, was John Erskine's immediate senior. Durnford-Slater tells us that “Lofty King found him a bike and he rode off, assisted by two men. Some time later, and still on the bike, he led an attack on a German machine-gun post and was killed.” Lloyd's death may have been a factor in the failure of the official record to record John Erskine's occupation of the south-eastern pillbox.
No.3 Commando were now under constant shelling. Erskine writes: “A group of mortar bombs fell on the bridge every half minute or so and the tanks kept up constant machine-gun and heavy gun fire....The enemy was softening us up so that we would surrender at the attack we knew was coming.”
After 3 Troop was withdrawn from under the bridge, Durnford-Slater decided that it was time for 3 Commando to escape.
Withdrawal and escape.
According to the war diary, “After this time the Mortar fire and gunfire from the tank became intense and casualties started to mount up and as there was still no sign of 50 Division I decided that the position was untenable; I think the time now was about 0520 hours.”
Durnford-Slater contradicts himself in his two accounts of the decision. He records in the war diary that he issued orders for a withdrawal along the road to the east. In his memoirs, however, he writes “I decided to move to hilly country to our west from which I hoped still to dominate the bridge.” This is a curious statement, for he then goes on to describe a withdrawal to the east.
The first task was to pass the word to withdraw. 3 Troop had already been summoned back from the bridge. Peter Young went himself to find 1 Troop, further north on the Catania road, taking his two runners L/cpl Sidney Clark and Pte Bob Christopher.
Not all received the order to withdraw. Erskine and his men seem to have been overlooked. “No message reached me, totally exposed on the far (south) side of the river. My senior sergeant suggested that the lack of action from our people must mean the commando was withdrawing...He could also see that the storm of fire from all weapons of the enemy meant that an assault by infantry was coming. I told the men that we would cross the river bed, climb the far bank, then run straight up the road into the smoke of the bursting mortar bombs (to give us cover from sight of the tank gunners who could kill us all with one aimed burst). As we ran into the smoke a bomb picked up the sergeant and threw him forward only slightly wounded into the covering smoke and he got up and ran on to safety. I fell onto the road but in full view of the tank which sent a burst of machine-gun fire which tore my haversack to pieces as I lay face down on the road but left me unhurt.... As soon as more mortar bombs fell .. I got up and ran on, finding the 2nd in Command on the road about a hundred yards further on directing the retreat.He pointed out where my men were in the line that was “retiring by bounds” in the classic evolution (one lot firing while alternate groups ran back and then they in turn give covering fire).
Erskine's account may be supported by a comment from Young: “When we reached the orange grove the colonel was waiting. There was a party from 4 Troop in those cactus bushes and we gave two blasts of the whistle to get them to withdraw”
All three sources agree that the withdrawal was conducted in an orderly manner. Young says:
“..we moved slowly back in extended order, ten paces between each man.. With proper intervals this is a most useful formation; it is good for control, for developing fire, and for avoiding casualties, particularly under shell or mortar fire. For this reason we had practised it again and again.” (Young, p100).
Durnford-Slater says much the same. “One section climbed the first hill in extended order, accurately pursued by airbursts from the tank's eighty-eight. A shell burst over the middle of the section and a man dropped, but the rest were unhurt.This revealed that our dispersed formations, on which we had insisted during training, actually did minimise casualties.”
There were casualties, of course, and one of the most notable was the adjutant, Captain Charles Head. “..a man came up and told me the adjutant had been wounded. Charley Head had been badly wounded in the leg. He asked us to leave him, but Corporal Clark and another man carried him out of the firing.... then (he was) placed on a gate acting as a litter. It was very heavy, so John Cummings (Lt, 6 Troop) roped in a few civilians. They were most reluctant and Cummings encouraged them with clouting one of their number and firing his pistol over their heads – much to the indignation of a newly joined officer who said the civilians would get into trouble from the Germans.”
This is an interesting statement, for it shows that there were civilians on the battlefield. The adjutant was too much of a burden, however, and Durnford-Slater notes: “Charlie Head and my batman, Charlesworth, were too badly wounded to move so we hid them carefully in a house.”
Both men survived the battle. Head was awarded a Military Cross. His citation reads:
On the night of 13th-14th July 1943, after landing at Agnone and during the advance to Punta Dei Malati, Captain Head was all the time moving up and down the column exposing himself under fire and encouraging the men. At Punta Dei Malati under heavy mortar, machine gun, and shell fire, he walked continually in the open from post to post, delivering messages and sighting weapons. He was badly wounded but although unable to walk he continued to assist in the withdrawal arrangements. He sent on the men assisting him, so as to avoid having them captured. While lying in the open for the next 5 or 6 hours he kept advising and directing parties he saw. After being captured he kept up the spirits of those with him and endeavoured to organise their escape. He was later recaptured by our troops.”
According to the war diary, Durnford-Slater ordered his men to retire on a bearing of 160 degrees, (Young says 164) which should lead them eventually to British lines somewhere between Agnone and Villasmundo. Accordingly, 3 Commando dispersed into small groups and attempted to get through the enemy lines without detection.
Durnford-Slater says he lost contact with many due to the steep and difficult country. He assembled a small party and commenced to move into the hills where they lay up for about four hours (0600 to c. 1000). “we all hid in a very deep ditch. From time to time parties of enemy soldiers came our way but they did not look in the ditch.” Peter Young, whose party had joined them initially, set off separately. Durnford-Slater's group were discovered by some locals: “at about 1000 hours two civilians walked into our position. As I was afraid they might give our position away we moved on over the crest of the hill... and came under heavy MG fire from the right.”
By midday Durnford-Slater's group, including John Pooley and members of 5 and 6 Troops, about 20 strong, eventually found security in an Orange Grove where they remained for the next nine hours. They set off again at 2100 and finally reached British lines.
Peter Young, on the other hand, after accompanying Durnford-Slater for about two miles, set off independently with his orderly, Bob Christopher. They crossed the ridge to a farm where they rested and were given food. “The inhabitants of the farm were friendly, but I could not understand much of their talk and I did not want to stay there.”
Instead, Young suggested to his companion that they attempt to return to the bridge and continue to harass the enemy, since the advanced elements of 50 Division could not be far away. Meeting up with another party of escapees, he led them back to the Malati bridge in time to meet a unit of the Northumberland Hussars.
John Erskine found himself in charge of eleven men, including his two section sergeants. They crossed the river bed about one kilometre south-east of the bridge crossed a hundred metres of open rocky hillside in full view of the tanks, which fired about twelve rounds of high explosive at them. After reaching the safety of the reverse slope, they rested for a time then set off again.
There was an Italian army corps occuYounging the ridge on our right (west) after we came south over the hill.. The broad, treeless valley we were in had plenty of long grass but no cover if we stood up, and the Italians were only three or four hundred metres away on our right, overlooking us .”
We went on by slow crawling, continually stopping and searching the ground twenty yards ahead, examining every blade of grass with the field glasses. The Italians sent one of their silly light tanks down after us, but the man in the tank was a lot more frightened of us than we were of him..”
The tank completed a sweep of the area and then departed. Erskine and his party made their way to an orange orchard where they encountered and took prisoner a group of twenty six Italians. This created a dilemma.
We herded them into a circle and sat around them on the ground and discussed what we could do with them... No doubt many of the Italians could understand English – I don't know what they must have thought as the clear consensus to shoot them all emerged. I immediately vetoed it (not on the grounds of common humanity, though I do not think we could have done it in any case) but because we were trapped behind enemy lines … so it behoved us not to do anything we would have to answer for in front of enraged enemy soldiers. In the event we simply took their weapons away, dropped the key parts down a well, and told them to vanish out of our sight..”
Erskine continued the march. “We came into another orchard.. and stood up again, going in single file, with the sergeant leading with the field glasses. An appalling burst of point blank fire .. and we went to ground where we stood.”
The burst of fire had killed the sergeant and shattered the leg of another man. A German officer called upon them to surrender, which they did. Erskine's Thompson was taken by one of their captors.
It was very tricky for the first few minutes, with the Germans (paratroopers) nervous and trigger hapYoung (they were as tired as we were) and were themselves in a difficult tactical position, with their allies melting away and a brigade of British troops attacking their front.”
Erskine and his sergeant were held as captives during the night and the following day.
.. the sergeant and I escaped the next night (we had to escape, otherwise they would have shot us.).. In any case, they had orders to shoot commando officers as a matter of course, though I do not think this lot would have carried out such an order..”
Within the constraints of the situation they were careful and considerate young men, and except for a differently dressed SS man whom they all detested and ignored, they were as good a group of captors as we could have wished for.”
The Germans were apparently well supplied with the stimulant Benzedrine.
The young German officer who captured me went to enormous trouble to see that I did not go to sleep throughout the long night march that followed, feeding me with judicious doses of benzedrine which they all carried..”.
The German company began a careful retreat as soon as it was dark. “Four tanks went with us in the paratroop company that had captured me, and as day dawned the tanks were put at the four corners of a well maintained orchard where the company lay up for the day. We prisoners were put in the downstairs part of a typical Sicilian farm house, and their wounded were pushed in with us... The men were now it seemed to me too tired to think straight, and were full of 'stay awake' drugs..”
According to his testimony, Erskine was led away to be shot “in accordance with Hitler's orders. (they never used the word Fuhrer and never gave the Hitler salute in this unit... to infuriate the SS man I think).
I told them it would be the death of them if they shot me, as they were being surrounded. I also demanded to see their Major. Without any argument they took me to the Major, to whom I explained there was no way an execution like this could be concealed, that he would very likely be a prisoner himself before the next night...and may well find himself being hanged by angry English soldiers who did not like his lot much anyway. He was surprisingly gentle about it, and told the two soldiers to take me back to the other prisoners and not to harm me.”
Erskine and his men remained in the farmhouse for the rest of that day. When night came, however, he and his sergeant were able to escape.
A dying German officer lying across my legs had been talking to me during the day. He had a bullet through the stomach and was slowly bleeding to death from a punctured spleen. He said I was going to be shot, as also was my sergeant, as they had decided to break out and could not take prisoners. He pointed out that only the hated SS man was really interested in having me shot.”
With this compelling motivation, the prisoners had little option. As soon as the darkness had fallen, they were able to evade their captors and “wriggled along a grassy furrow what seemed miles...” until they met a British fighting patrol and were able to make their way to the main road, where they picked up a lift back to the commando.
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