Soldiers of the Erinpura – II: What Was Known, Then – What Is Known, Now

What Was Known, and When

 Contemporary Accounts

The Jewish Chronicle (London) reported the sinking of the Erinpura in its issue of May 18, 1945, specifically stating that, “A story of events which brought tragedy and bereavement to many parts of the Yishuv when it happened has now been permitted to be published (writes our Jerusalem correspondent).”

The Jewish Chronicle, May 18, 1945

Curiously, in spite of this alleged censorship, the ship’s sinking was first described in an article on the 4th (“back”) page of the Hebrew-language newspaper Davar, in its issue of August 11, 1943.  (This was found via the database of the National Library of Israel.)  Entitled, “How 138 of Our Boys Perished in the Mediterranean – As They Were Under Fire…” the two-paragraph article gives nominal information about the incident, mentioning that the survivors spent three hours in the water until being rescued by a mine-sweeper, without further details.  The article appears below.

davar-1943-08-11-page-4-462nd-gtc-2

The loss of the soldiers was described in greater detail in a release issued by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on September 10, 1943, under the heading “Palestine Jewish Transport Unit Lost in Mediterranean Naval Battle”.  This JTA release was itself based on a report given to the press in Jerusalem on September 9, by Dr. Bernard Joseph, legal adviser of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, with mention that the story was “briefly announced at an earlier date”.  (Could that “earlier date” refer to the brief item published in Davar?)  Curiously, a variation of the JTA release actually appeared a week before: in the September 3, 1943 issue of the South African Jewish Times. 

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 10, 1943

South African Jewish Times, September 3, 1943

Through the entirety of the Second World War only one article about the sinking seems to have been carried in the American Jewish Press.  This appeared in the September 24 issue of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, and, being based on the JTA release, was very similar – if not identical – to the story as carried in the South African Jewish Times.  

Otherwise – whether in 1943, or, through the late 1940s and almost certainly beyond – the story seems never to have been reported in the American Jewish news media, at least within the American Jewish Outlook (Pittsburgh), the Chicago Jewish Chronicle, The American Hebrew, The Detroit Jewish Chronicle, The Jewish Criterion (Pittsburgh), The Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia), The Jewish Floridian (Miami), The Jewish News (Detroit), and The Jewish Times (Baltimore). 

Given the “availability” of the story, the reasons for its absence in the American Jewish press are a matter of conjecture.

Curiously; similarly, by searching the website of the National Library of Israel, I have so far been unable to find this story in wartime issues of The Palestine Post.

The event is mentioned in two letters within Moshe Mosenson’s 1945 book Soldiers From the Desert, which present the initials (but not the names) of six of the 462nd’s casualties.  In his letter of May 30, 1943, Mosenson seems to imply that the loss of his comrades was soon reported in the military newspaper “Hahayal Haivri” (“The Jewish Soldier”).  However, this publication does not yet seem to have been digitized.

Postwar Accounts

There are at least six books (three in English (including the aforementioned book  by Mosenson), and three in Hebrew) mentioning or describing the sinking of the Erinpura as it relates to the 462nd General Transport Company.  Naturally, all vary in depth and detail.

In postwar books, the story is presented in Volume 2 of Yoav Gelber’s Jewish-Palestinian Volunteering in the British Army During the Second World War.  Volume 4 of Jewish-Palestinian Volunteering carries an alphabetical list of Jewish soldiers from the Yishuv who died during the Second World War, which of course includes the names of the casualties of the 462nd.  As mentioned above, Henry Morris’ two books both describe the loss of the Erinpura, and, paralleling Volume 4 of Jewish-Palestinian Volunteering, carry the names of all casualties from the Yishuv.  The loss of the soldiers of the 462nd is also described, within the larger context of the design and construction of the Erinpura Memorial at Mount Herzl Cemetery, in the 2012 University of Haifa Publication In Death They Commanded -The Architecture of Military Cemeteries in Israel, the Early Years, by Azaryahu Maoz.

Searching the National Library of Israel database using the term “462” yielded a notice mentioning the 462nd General Transport Company.  This item, appearing in the March 11, 1973, issue of Davar, follows.

davar-1973-03-11-historical-jewish-press-of-the-nli-and-tauAs of this writing, there are numerous websites in English and Hebrew describing or mentioning the history and sinking of the Erinpura, and, the loss the 462nd General Transport Company soldiers, as well as the many Bausto soldiers aboard the ship.  The most outstanding account is given by Norman Clothier, in The Erinpura: Basotho Tragedy, at the Military History Journal of the South African Military History Society.  Being centrally focused on the Basotho soldiers, there is a single reference alluding to the members of the 462nd; namely, “Of the other 300 troops I have only been able to surmise that most of them may have been from a Palestinian labour unit.”  Roi Mandel’s article, “The Erinpura: Fought and Died Against the Germans.  Returning to the Disaster,” published at YNet on April 19, 2012, is a moving account of the events of May 1, 1943, and, the soldiers of the 462nd.

Identifying the Men

Using the CWGC database – based on names listed in Henry Morris’ two books, and, the two books by Dr. Gelber – I have been able to identify records of the names of soldiers and sailors lost in the sinking of the Erinpura, in some cases with genealogical information.  These lists will appear in future posts, and will conform to the following format:

Soldier’s or Sailor’s name (surname, first name)     Grade / Rank / Function   Serial Number     Year of Birth

Name(s) of next of kin, and, Names and Place(s) of Residence of Next of Kin

Place Where Soldier or Sailor’s Name is Commemorated, or, Place of Burial

For members of the 462nd General Transport Company, the following references are also given.

WWRT – We Will Remember Them (with volume and page numbers)

CWGC – Commonwealth War Graves Commission

THH (YG) – Page number in Volume 4 of Yoav Gelber’s Jewish Palestinian Volunteering in the British Army During the Second World War.

Plus, any additional publications, or web references.

For the Basuto soldiers (with the exception of one individual) CWGC records are limited to the soldier’s surname, given name, rank, and serial number.  This is almost certainly attributable to the nature of the records or information then available to the CWGC, which was probably based on information recorded in the soldier’s Attestation Papers. 

Information about the CWGC’s records can be found at the organization’s About Our Records web page.

– Michael G. Moskow

 

Soldiers of the Erinpura – I: Introduction

May 13, 1943

     I won’t talk about us now.  We have all been anxious about our friends who were lost at sea.  Among them are names that are so dear to me that I am afraid to utter them.  I can’t write you about everything.  You may have heard of what happened to D.B. from Maoz, A. from Ashdot, M.Z. from Naan, P. from Degania Beit and others.  They should have joined us but…  However, we don’t know the exact number of the losses and who was saved.  Perhaps you can write me about this.

Moshe Mosenson

Letters From the Desert (p. 190)

(Translated by Hilda Auerbach)

Sharon Books, Inc., 1945

In late 1983, I spent an afternoon at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, Israel.

As I walked among the graves, I was struck by a feeling that remains indelible, even today:  An overwhelming sense of recency.  Recency, from the manner in which at so many graves, flowers, memorial candles, military insignia, and photographs – of soldiers in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood – had been carefully placed.  The graves were obviously places of visits and commemoration, in very contemporary, very real, “time”.  A few headstones were flanked with casings of expended artillery shells from which, evidently elaborately, portions of the casing had been removed, leaving behind ornate silhouettes of military emblems.  Standing upright, no longer weapons of war, the casings by now served as planters for gently drooping pillars of greenery that shaded and framed these matzevot.

And then, the people.  Or, more accurately, the women.  I still remember being approached by a woman – in her 50s?  her 60s? – and being asked a question, in Hebrew.  I could not understand her, which I think she rapidly realized from my silence.  We stood there, facing one another.  Then, she smiled at me for a moment in a sincere, ironic, and gentle way.  As she walked away, I approached the gravesite she had just visited.

There, the plants decorating the mazteva had just been watered.

I walked further.  I came to the memorial for the crew of the submarine Dakar, recognizable from its stylized stone tower – representing a conning tower – projecting upwards through an elongated, faceted, smooth base.  Walking into the memorial, I was struck by the simplicity of the design.  Each crewman was commemorated by a stone plaque mounted within the interior walls, the primary illumination coming from sunlight shining downwards along the exterior of the “tower”.

I came to another monument, but the nature of the event it commemorated was unknown to me.  A blue-tiled, shallow, rectangular pool (dry during my visit) formed its center, and was surrounded by black, rectangular tiles – each tile bearing a single name, and, a two-digit number indicating the age of the man it commemorated.  A stone tower at a corner of the pool which seemed to connote the bridge of a naval vessel.  Upon its upper part was a phrase in Hebrew (with vowels associated with the letters – how unusual for an Israeli monument!), with its incised letters in made more obvious by having been painted in yellow. 

I realized that this structure commemorated some kind of naval event in which many lives had been lost.  But, where?  But, when?

I knew of no event which involved the loss of so many Jewish servicemen, in a nautical setting, in contemporary times.  Obviously, this event, regardless of when it had occurred, left a deep impact upon the collective memory of the Yishuv, remaining strongly enough in the consciousness of the re-established Jewish nation state to merit the creation of such a monument.

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In the late 1990s, I discovered the website of Britain’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which is easily – in terms of design, use, capability, and scope – one of the premier websites extant in the arenas of military / genealogical / historical research.  (The only real equivalents in terms of ease of use and capability are the Russian Federation’s OBD Memorial database, and, the websites of the National Archives of Australia and Australian War Memorial.)

In 2000 I acquired a copy of the book We Will Remember Them: A Record of Jews Who Died in the Armed Forces of the Crown, 1939-1945, by Henry Morris, a member of AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women.  I then began using the CWGC database to retrieve records for every name listed in the book’s 289 pages.

Then, I noticed something.

As I searched for records for Jewish soldiers from the Yishuv (“The Palestine Jewish Volunteers”) who died in WW II, a consistent trio of data elements (date, military unit, and place of commemoration: “May 1, 1943”, “462nd General Transport Company”, and “Brookwood Memorial” (at Surrey, England) were returned with an odd and telling frequency.  As I progressed through the list of names, records comprising these three parts grew in number, reaching ten, then fifty, then one hundred; and finally more.  It became obvious that the common thread linking these names was a major incident; a disaster of some sort, at sea, somewhere in the European or Mediterranean Theaters of War.  But, what was that incident?

Not long afterwards, the answer again came from the fine work of Henry Morris.  A supplementary volume of We Will Remember Them was published in 1994, and within, Mr. Morris presented the story behind the loss of these men in the Spring of 1943.  Rather than summarize or recapitulate his fine account, I shall present it here, with appreciation for and acknowledgement of his research.

Herewith:

A DIFFERENT MAY DAY

There it was again: “Killed in action at sea, 1st May 1943”.  I was checking the print-out for the Roll of Honour in my book, We Will Remember Them, and, again and again, this entry followed the names of men killed while serving with the Royal Army Service Corps of the Palestine Regiment.  I counted them.  There were 148, all killed on the same day – the greatest loss suffered by the Palestine Jews who fought and served with the British Army.  “How did this happen?” I asked myself, and I learned the answer with the help of the Israel Ministry of Defence, the RASC Regimental Museum in England, records held by Israel military historians, the Israel War Veterans League and survivors of the tragedy who subsequently settled in the USA

462 Coy RASC had been part of the forces surrounded by the German Africa Korps in the siege of Tobruk and had then taken part in the battle of El Alamein.  In his book, Soldiers from Judea, Rabbi Rabinowitz, Senior Jewish Chaplain MEF, writes: “In the victorious advance of General Montgomery five RASC units took part.  462 GT Coy commanded by Major H. Yoffe, a South African Jew, 178 Coy commanded by Maj. Wellesley Aron, a British Jew, 11 Water Tank eventually commanded by Maj. B. Adelman, a Canadian Jew, 5 WT commanded by Maj Y. Frumkin and 179 GT, commanded by Maj I. Boganov”.  After performing heroically throughout the North African campaign, in April 1943, three weeks before the fall of Tunis, 178 and 462 Companies were informed that they had been chosen for “highly operational work of the first importance”.  One hundred and seventy-eight went to Tripoli and 462 went to Alexandria.  It was intended that they should go on to Malta where “the George Cross Island was to be changed from a battered place of siege to a base of attack”.  But it was not to be – the flower of Palestine Jewish youth was to perish in less than five minutes.

During February and March of 1943, together with other Jewish forces, they were in Bengazi.  In April they were sent to Egypt.  There, in Tahay Camp, they organised for a new mission while enjoying the Passover holiday.  After two weeks they transferred to Ameria Camp in Alexandria and awaited their departure.  On 29th April, they sailed on the 5,000 ton World War One Indian Merchant ship, the Erinpura.  She was the flagship of a convoy of twenty seven excluding escort.  On board were 334 officers and men of 462 Coy and 700 Basuto soldiers from Africa.  On Friday evening, 30th April, the Commanding Officer, Maj. Yoffe, informed his men that they were on their way to Malta.

From information received from survivors and the official report submitted by Maj. Yoffe, I was able to piece together the story of what happened on that fateful night.

On the evening of the 1st May the convoy was approached by an enemy aircraft.  Here I have varying reports of what followed.  One claims that it was Italian and was driven off by anti-aircraft gunfire, another says it was a Heinkel that dropped a torpedo that failed to hit and was shot down.  There is a third version saying it was an unidentified German plane that flew too low for the guns to attack.  Such is the confusion of an air raid at sea.  The official report writes that, following this opening move, “In accordance with Ship’s Standing Orders, Action Stations” had been ordered.  All men without duties had been ordered below deck.

At about 20.10 hrs. [8:10 P.M.] on 1st May 1943 there was an attack by enemy aircraft and, although bombs were dropped, the ship was not affected.  About 20.50 [8:50 P.M.] there was a second aircraft attack.  It was a very heavy raid and many bombs were dropping all around.  At 21.05 [9:05] Maj. Yoffe was at his command position on the saloon deck, where he was immediately available and could employ maximum control, when a terrific explosion occurred forward of the bridge and he was knocked over by an enormous wave.  When he recovered, the ship was going down at the bows.  Orders came from the bridge to abandon ship.  Attempts were made by officers to get the men up from below – many may have been dead already, but all ladders and gangways had been smashed by the explosion.  A large number of men were still below when the bows were completely under water, within two minutes of the explosion.  The ship was listing badly, making it impossible to lower boats.  Of the two that succeeded, one capsized.  Every raft and anything that floated had been thrown overboard and the men were ordered to jump.  Taking all the circumstances into consideration Maj. Yoffe gave the opinion that everything possible had been done to evacuate the ship.

The light was failing when the ship went down and the convoy was out of sight of land.  By the time the men had been in the water for ten minutes it was completely dark.  The ship sank in about four minutes.  It was not certain whether it had been struck by a torpedo or an aerial mine.  One survivor told me he was in the water for several hours before being picked up, as the convoy was not allowed to search and rescue.  He relates that the Basuto soldiers in the water added their voices in song to the Hebrew songs being sung by the Jewish soldiers.

Another survivor wrote that he spent all night clinging to a piece of wood and was picked up by a Greek destroyer.  The Captain and the soldiers manning the guns were the last to jump.  The attack continued and there are reports of the men in the water being machine gunned.  Sgt. Bijovsky, a survivor, reports: “The rescue was very difficult, many of us did not know how to swim, it was dark, they did not manage to get down the lifeboats, the cries of the drowning were terrible. Our commander, Maj. Yoffe, was all the time with us, he did not leave his soldiers, he could be proud of our behaviour”.  The British and Greek sailors from the rescue ships did all they could to save the men in the water.

The survivors were taken by the British minesweeper Santa to the port of Bengazi and by the Greek warship Adrias to Tripoli, others went to Malta.

One hundred and forty-eight soldiers of 462 Coy died in the disaster, many others were wounded and hospitalised.  After a period of recovery they were transferred to Egypt and, eventually, to live in Eretz Israel.

In July and August of 1943 the RASC unit commanded by Lt./Col. Charkham OBE was reinforced by the survivors of 462.  This unit was undergoing training for the D-Day landing on Pestume Beach, Salerno.  The reconstituted 462 Coy, led by Maj. Yoffe, also took part in the landings and subsequently assisted at the beach head, Anzio, until the final breakout where they suffered casualties in men and equipment.  As part of the 8th Army in Italy they had returned as liberators to the continent which many had left as hunted and despised refugees, veterans of the desert, sons of Jewry in whom we take great pride.

At the Military Cemetery on Mt Herzl in Jerusalem there is a monument in the form of a ship inscribed with the names of those brave men who died on 1st May 1943.

HM

 We Will Remember Them – A Record of the Jews Who Died in the Armed Forces of the Crown, 1939-1935, An Addendum

Written and Compiled by Henry Morris

Edited by Hilary Halter

Published by AJEX, 1994

Thus, the story which forms the basis of and inspiration for this – and subsequent – posts. 

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Images of the S.S. Erinpura, and, the memorial and monument to the men of the 462nd General Transport Company at Mount Herzl Cemetery, appear below.

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ss-erinpura-1-naval-warfareThis image, found at the excellent Naval Warfare website, shows the S.S. Erinpura as she appeared while in service with the British India Steam Navigation Company.  Naval Warfare presents a substantive history of the ship, and, a solidly moving summary of the story of her 1943 sinking.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn image of the Erinpura Memorial taken by Avishai Teicher, via Wikimedia Commons.  As described by Azaryahu Maoz and Menashe Shani in their book In Death They Commanded – The Architecture of Military Cemeteries in Israel, the Early Years, the monument, designed by architect Asher Hiram, was unveiled on April 29, 1954.

1280px-memorial_for_the_men_of_the_erinpura_img_1319A symbolic ship’s bridge, with Verse 23 from Psalm 68 (“I will retrieve them from Bashan, I will retrieve them from the depths of the sea.”) set apart from the main edifice as separate row of stones.  A Wikimedia Commons image taken by Avi Deror.

memorial_for_the_men_of_the_erinpura_img_1329The Erinpura Memorial viewed from behind the “ship’s bridge”.  Another Wikimedia Commons image by Avi Deror.

1280px-memorial_for_the_men_of_the_erinpura_img_1318Another view of the Erinpura Memorial.  In this image, the memorial has apparently been drained of water, and more clearly shows the individual tiles bearing soldiers’ names and ages.  This image is also by Avi Deror.   

%d7%90%d7%a0%d7%93%d7%a8%d7%98%d7%aa_%d7%94%d7%90%d7%95%d7%a0%d7%99%d7%99%d7%94_%d7%90%d7%a8%d7%99%d7%a0%d7%a4%d7%95%d7%a8%d7%94_-_%d7%94%d7%a8_%d7%94%d7%a8%d7%a6%d7%9cThis Wikimedia Commons image shows an anchor; an appropriate nautical symbol at the Erinpura Memorial. 

%d7%9e%d7%a4%d7%aa_%d7%91%d7%99%d7%aa_%d7%94%d7%a7%d7%91%d7%a8%d7%95%d7%aa_%d7%94%d7%a6%d7%91%d7%90%d7%99_-_%d7%94%d7%a8_%d7%94%d7%a8%d7%a6%d7%9c_2Another image from Wikimedia Commons image, showing a map of the Mount Herzl Cemetery.  The Erinpura Memorial is denoted by the very small reddish-brown rectangle in the center of the cemetery, listed on the map as locality “4”.

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More will follow.

– Michael G. Moskow