Major Wilhelm Georg Bach was one of the most unusual characters in the Africa Korps - DAK, who led the defense of the Halfaya Pass. Rommel gave him the responsibility for holding it. Bach was one of the most colorful and beloved characters in the whole of the Africa Korps. He was noted as Rommel's best battalion commander.
Just a year younger than Rommel, Bach was cheerful, outgoing, cigar-chomping, slightly myopic. Bach had been awarded the Iron Cross, First and Second Class in World War I. Rommel disliked a lot the first time he saw him for two main reasons: 1) he had to use a batton because had been wounded in the knee in the Great War; and 2) he was a Lutheran priest, just after World War I until 1936. Rommel didn’t like appearance’s Bach. Rommel expected his officers to look like officers. Some months later, Rommel loved Bach. Bach was a master with his 88mm’s as another Bach was with his organ.
Bach was a picturesque figure of Afrika Korps - DAK… Even if captain Bach never wore his uniform adequately and dressed very ridiculous sometimes... His eternal cigar, his myopic glasses were well known to all DAK gunners. He was the only officer allowed a walking stick, because of his limp and his years, he could hardly fail to be noticed as removed his habitual cigar to issue a quietly conversational but decisive order.
Wearing his signature sunglasses, Bach converses with Erwin Rommel [Via www.vorg.com]
He also treated his soldiers like sons, very warmly. Gentle, considerate, the antithesis of the officer-Corps tradition, he was known and admired throughout the DAK, because his gift of Command was exceptional. Although his rank demanded respect, he was the friendliest, most relaxed German commander serving under Rommel. Bach was habitually addressed by his soldiers as “Vater” (“Father”), and it was unclear whether it was a reference to his former profession or to his paternal nature.
In April 1941, the DAK captured Halfaya Pass for the first time. The narrow opening through an escarpment at Salem, Egypt was close to the Libyan border and held high strategic value as it was one of only two such openings in the escarpment which ran in a perpendicular direction from the Mediterranean coast. This was the anchor for the Axis positions, which opposed the Allied forces during the next allied attack — Operation Battleaxe on 15 June.
Bach salutes Rommel in North Africa. In the background Italian staff officers can be seen. Italian troops were also positioned at Halfaya Pass [Via www.vorg.com]
Halfaya was held by 400 Italian and 500 German troops with artillery consisting of five 88mm’s, four Italian 100/17mm’s and a battery of French built 155mm guns. Bach and his first battalion 104th Infantry Regiment were tasked with the defense of the critical point, and it wasn’t long before his command was put to the test. Bach promptly converted this vital sector into an improvised fortress, complete with trenches, foxholes, strongpoints, dummy positions, and minefields. He successfully defended Halfaya Pass in June 1941 by destroying eleven of the twelve Matilda tanks (11th Hussars), that formed the vanguard of the British attack, with his concealed 88mm guns. Smaller-scale British raids followed, each proved unsuccessful in their attempt to root out Bach and his men from the pass, which by then had unceremoniously been renamed Hellfire Pass by those attacking it.
Bach in an Italian battery position (Halfaya Pass) [Via deutsches-afrikakorps.blogspot.com]
He was recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 9 July 1941 to recognise extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership. His defence of Halfaya Pass gave rise to his nickname (alluding to his peacetime occupation as a Lutheran minister), ‘the Pastor of Hellfire Pass’. Bach would become a legend here for his very pious and inspiring attitude and being very capable in his defense of Halfaya. Bach's staunch and unwavering defense of Halfaya Pass not only earned him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, but more importantly the admiration and respect of his men, his superiors, and even those who were fighting against him. Bach demonstrated in defending the Halfaya Pass that Italian troops could fight with skill and determination when led by competent officers.
Oberstleutnant Wilhelm Georg Adam Bach [Via www.vorg.com]
In mid-November the British launched another major assault. The goal of Operation Crusader was to smash through the German lines and end the siege of Tobruk, and it was not long after the beginning of this campaign that Bach and his men were completely cut off from the DAK without any hope of resupply.
Under the assumption that a full-out assault of their position would soon follow, Bach prepared for the worst; however, in hindsight of their previous losses at Hellfire Pass, the British decided instead to starve out the isolated German and Italian troops. For good measure the Brutish also bombed the pass on a daily basis, which forced its defenders to live in the caves that lined the escarpment during the day.
By the end of December provisions had reached a critical low and out of desperation the Luftwaffe made an attempt to supply Bach by air, but failed due to British air superiority in the area. Bach received a personal message from Hitler who expressed his confidence that the Halfaya garrison was making a significant contribution to the war effort and encouraged Bach to hold out as long as possible. In obedience to higher orders from the Führer, with his men dying of hunger and thirst, on January 17, 1942, Bach finally reached the difficult decision to surrender.
A bitter moment for any commanding officer, in Bach’s case the surrender must have been further tainted with a profound sense of déjà-vu as it was the second time in his military career that he had become a prisoner of war. Bach was both wounded and captured at the same time during World War One by the British, who interred him in England until he was finally released a full year after the end of the war.
With the surrender of Halfaya on the seventeenth, Operation Crusader came to an end. He was captured and taken to Egypt after the lengthly siege of his surrounded positions in Halfaya Pass. Bach being escorted by a British soldier after surrendering "Hellfire Pass".
One final order was carried out before Bach's Battalion marched itself into captivity; their coveted flak guns that had ruled the pass were destroyed in order to prevent their use by the enemy. It was one of the ironies of the war that Rommel would recapture Halfaya Pass a few months later in June 1942.
Bach being escorted by a British soldier after surrendering Hellfire Pass [Via www.vorg.com]
Having surrendered to a South African contingent, Bach was first sent to a POW camp in South Africa before being relocated to Canada. However, his internment this time would be short-lived. On December 22, after having been hospitalized with cancer, Bach succumbed to the disease at the Charley Park Military Hospital in Toronto and was posthumously promoted to the rank of Oberstleutnant der Reserve.
A partial List of Military Awards earned during World War II by Wilhelm Bach:
- Iron Cross (1939) 2nd Class
- Iron Cross (1939) 1st Class
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross