An Australian soldier in Sicily 1943.

The memoirs of Lt John Erskine, 3 Commando

Erskine heading.jpg

John Erskine's original manuscript is held by the Australian War Memorial and is published here with the kind support of the memorial and with the permission of the Erskine family. We believe that this paper is extremely valuable. It provides a hitherto unknown account of the two battles and adds considerable detail to a story that has no official history and only two other known eyewitness accounts. Furthermore, Erskine's account gives the perspective of a junior officer to place alongside these other accounts, which were published by John Durnford-Slater, Commanding Officer of 3 Commando, and Peter Young, Second in Command. See also 3 Commando at Malati Bridge, 1943.

The allied invasion of Sicily took place on 10 Jul 1943, with landings by British and US forces on the south east corner of the island. No. 3 Commando, a unit which specialised in sudden raids behind enemy lines, was brought from Egypt to assist the landings of the Eighth army and its subsequent advance along the eastern coast of Sicily towards Messina.

A copy of John Erskine's paper can be read here:

Picture Gallery
The images included below have been obtained from various sources. They illustrate various aspects of the information contained in John Erskine's paper but they do not necesarily relate directly to the action described in his work, and in some cases, not even to the Sicilian campaign. Their inclusion is merely to aid a broader understanding.

No 3 Commando Sicily 1943.jpg

“The unit in which I fought was No 3 commando, an elite battalion of the British army, and in fact the first commando to be formed and the first to go into action.” Erskine, p.1
“I should digress to point out that commando soldiers are almost all exceedingly quiet and self-contained men, a trained policeman about 25 years old being the typical sort of person.
They were the sort who would walk away from a pub brawl rather than get mixed up in it, and indeed I never ever saw a drunken commando.” p.8

Head, DS and Young 1944.jpg

“In the evening of July 12th our colonel was briefed by General Dempsey on the wharf at Syracuse for a hastily arranged attack
on the Malati Bridge ten miles behind the enemy lines..”p.4.

LSI Prins Albert 1943.jpg
“..our commando mother ship was the beautiful little cross channel steamer Prince Albert, with about a dozen small
“landing craft infantry", or LCIs, slung from davits all along her sides..” Erskine, p.2.

Training in Scotland.jpg
“We were to land from the sea on the beach near Agnone, … just behind the enemy lines....
Each little LCI boat carries one commando section of 29 men exactly, so my whole command was with me in my boat...
My party got into the boats at 9:30 pm and set off in the wake of a destroyer... The beach seemed to stretch for miles
away to the right, bright in the moonlight, and it was surprisingly narrow, with thick barbed wire lining the inland edge..” pp 3,.5

Vickers guns.jpg
“.The plan was for our heavy weapons troop to set up their two machine guns to fire on fixed lines...
the two Vickers machine guns hammered away at tactically important points in the defensive perimeter.” Erskine, p.3

3 inch mortar.jpg
“A very large problem in all commando operations was being actually able to carry sufficient ammunition for the heavy weapons troop...
So in order to get the heavy weapons ammunition to the (weapons) every assault soldier from the rifle sections carried either two
10 pound 3 inch mortar bombs slung on a piece of cord round his neck, or half a box of Vickers ammunition.” Erskine p.1.

“Our two 3 inch mortars were to fire star shells for two minutes, then high explosive for two minutes, then smoke for two minutes, and continue for twenty minutes..” p. 3

Malati bridge today.jpg
“..on the other side of the river there was a track that led straight to the bridge – to the north end of the bridge which
we were to attack as we knew the enemy would surely be waiting at the obvious south end where we were coming up from.”
“As I was the leading section at the moment I continued on and ran right across to the other end of the bridge and installed my men in the pillbox at that end..” p7.

Commando Bren group.jpg
“I had occupied the pillbox, and put two men in sniping positions... as well as a bren gunner lying on the parapet of the bridge.” Erskine p.8.

Tiger tank.jpg
“..a much larger German force was facing (3 Commando) and it included the world's best tanks (German “tiger” tanks)
which had a vastly superior gun and armour than the allied armies' Sherman tanks. The Commando met 3 tiger tanks at Malati Bridge
and our ammunition simply bounced off them...” p. 4.

“At that same moment an enemy Tiger tank arrived up the road from the Lentini direction and started machine-gunning the general area
and firing at the pillboxes with its big gun...” p.8.

“It was very tricky for the first few minutes, with the Germans (paratroops) nervous and trigger happy (they were as tired as we were)
and were themselves in a difficult tactical position...” p. 11.

“(The paratrooopers told me) I had to be shot in accordance with Hitler's orders (they never used the word Fuhrer and never gave the
Hitler salute in this unit, making quite a thing of using the traditional military salute, to infuriate the SS man I think)” p. 12

Durnford Slate and high command.jpg.jpg
“on the way out, the army General (Montgomery) was on the main road and demanded to speak to me, which was
extremely embarrassing for a young officer who had not shaved for several days..” p. 13.

John Channon Erskine
John Channon Erskine 3 cdo copy.jpg
Details of the life of John Channon Erskine

John Channon Erskine was an Australian mining engineer in Ghana. At the outbreak of World War 2, he joined the British Army. He was an officer in the Royal Engineers before joining No 3 Commando for the invasion of Sicily. Among other operations he took part in the capture of the Malati Bridge. After the war, he worked on the construction of the Pitlochry Hydro-Electric scheme in Scotland before taking a position as Inspector of Mines in Nigeria. In the mid 1950s he returned to Australia to take up farming - that was not a great success. He left farming and was appointed Officer-in-Charge of the Australian Mawson expedition to Antarctica from 1967-68. On his return to Australia he took up engineering again and for many years up to his retirement worked with the Bureau of Mineral Resources in Canberra. He took great pride in his membership of the Commando. He considered his service with the Commando and in Antarctica to be the high points of his career. He died on July 25th, 2010 aged 95. He is survived by his four children

The most important site for further information is the Commando Veterans Association:

John Erskine's paper is held in trust by the Australian War Memorial, which also contains a wealth of archival material.