Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Every so often in going through the mountain of files on my hard drive I come across one that makes me smile inwardly, despite the serious subject matter. Most of the time it’s because I recognise over the distance of 70+ years that little has changed. Administrators and bureaucrats still like to get one over each other, and the mission seems to matter less than to make sure that your unit (or today department) comes off better than the other. Here’s one of those, and it makes you wonder who the enemy was!

 

Division z.b.V. Afrika

Divisional C.P. 1 November 1941

Dept. Ia Az III/2.

Re: Personnel strengths of Fortress Halfaya

Attention: D.A.K. Ia

1.) Division reports that I./S.R.104, since 30 October assigned to Fortress Halfway, only has a real (‘Ist’) strength of:

18 Officers, 1 Civilian Official, 136 NCOs, 683 ORs, compared to a theoretical (‘Soll’) strength of

26 Officers, 4 Civilian Officials, 176 NCOs, 969 ORs.

This means there is a gap of almost 30% across all categories.

2.) According to the report by the battalion, 21. Pz.Div. pulled a large number [of personnel] into various commands, through permanent (‘Kommandierter’) and temporary (‘Abstellungen’) assignments. Within the [21.Pz] division, only this battalion had to provide these.

This division considers the current real strength of I./S.R.104 a not acceptable weakening of the personell allocation to the Halfway Sector, and requests politely that 21. Pz.Div. is requested soonest to fill up the combat (‘Gefechts’) strength [of the battalion].

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Appendix to the War Diary Div. z.b.V. Afrika. NARA, Rommelsriposte.com Collection

The other interesting information here is the considerable strength of Major Bach’s battalion, which at full strength would be able to field 1,171 men. This compares to about 830 men in a British motorised infantry battalion at the same time (see this link). So in fairness, even at the low ‘Ist’ strength being reported, the battalion still had the same size as its British equivalent.

I./S.R.104 (1st Battalion, Motorised Rifle Regiment 104) was the last German unit to surrender in the Bardia/Halfaya Sector. It was then under command of the Italian Savona Division under Major-General Fedele de Giorgis. The battalion was rebuilt from the dissolved MG Battalion 8 in April and May 1942.

The document can be found in the war diary appendices of 90th Light Division in NARA.

The End of the Halfaya Garrison

The End of the Halfaya Garrison

Background

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.

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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)

Coming up to the End

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.

Photographic Record

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.

3955120 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)

3899859 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

3916442 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

 

3955121.JPG Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. Missiles speeding down on the targets during a raid on Halfaya by Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft aircraft. The rugged nature of the terrain is clearly illustrated. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.(Courtesy AWM MED0300)

4005387 (1) 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

3955128 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

3916447.JPG 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.