On 17 January 1942 the Axis garrison of the Halfaya Pass surrendered, just before a final attack was supposed to go in and capture the pass. It consisted of about 6,000 men, with ca. 60% of them Italian, and the remainder German. The commander was the Italian General Fedele de Giorgis, General Officer Commanding 55 ‘Savona’ infantry division, who was awarded the Knights Cross for the defense he conducted. After the war he became commander of the Carabinieri corps of the Italian army. More famous is the senior German officer, Major Wilhelm Bach, a former protestant priest, who commanded I./SR104, the German motorised rifle battalion charged with the defense of the pass.
A head and shoulder portrait of Major The Reverend Bach, facing slightly to the right. He is in uniform with an iron cross around his neck. (Courtesy IWM ART LD 1945)
The final two weeks of the defense must have been hell for the defenders, and the ca. 75 Commonwealth POW which were encircled with them. There were little to no rations left, and access to water had been lost as well. The surrender became inevitable after this. Just a few days before a vicious little battle was fought for the town of Lower Sollum, which was captured at a cost of about 100 casualties by the South African forces of 2 South African Division, which besieged the pass.
The position was under constant bombardment by the Blenheim light bombers of the Royal Air Force and the ‘Lorraine’ Squadron, the first operational unit of the Free French Air Force in the Western Desert. Attacks were so heavy that questions were raised about the efficacy of the effort in Whitehall. A token effort was made to bring in supplies to the garrison by air from Crete, but this was hampered by weather, lack of communications, and interference by Commonwealth night fighters.
The continued defense of the pass, even after Bardia had fallen to the assault of 2 South African Division on 2 January 42, contributed to the serious supply shortage that hampered Commonwealth operations west of Tobruk so severely. It had a major strategic and operational impact, and the loss of the garrison was well worth it, as far as Axis planners were concerned, even though it is clear that Rommel himself felt badly about leaving behind so many of his men, and so much material.
The Australian War Memorial has a series of pictures of one of the raids, which I reproduce below, followed by some pictures taken after the pass was re-captured. The text is the original text associated with the photos. A big round of applause to the Australian War Memorial for making these pictures available to all.
Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. En route to a raid on Halfaya, this pilot of a Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft looks through his gunsight as the raiding aircraft sweep down on the isolated Axis positions. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons. (Courtesy AWM MED0297)
Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. En route to a raid on Halfaya, the observer of a Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft peers down on the target as the raiding aircraft sweep down on the isolated Axis positions. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons. Courtesy AWM MED0298
Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. Missiles speeding down on the targets during a raid on Halfaya by Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft aircraft. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons. Courtesy AWM MED0299
Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Aerial photograph taken by an Air Ministry photographer soon after the surrender of the Axis garrison at Halfaya on 17 January 1942. It shows transport of the Imperial forces travelling along Halfaya Pass. The rugged nature of the terrain is clearly illustrated. Courtesy AWM MED0303
Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Devastation caused by the incessant raids of Free French and RAF squadrons which played a big part in bringing about the capitulation of the garrison on 17 January 1942. This aerial photograph was taken by an Air Ministry photographer flying over Halfaya a few hours after the surrender. Courtesy AWM MED0305
Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Flying over Halfaya soon after the surrender of the garrison on 17 January 1942, an Air Ministry photographer took this aerial photograph which shows knocked out tanks, armoured vehicles and emplacements. To the right can be seen the graves of members of the garrison. Courtesy AWM Med0306.