Soldiers of the Erinpura – VIII: Thoughts


 February 19, 1943

     First let me tell you about our trip.  In our convoy we had some African Negro soldiers.  At each stop they would spill out of the trucks and in a few moments the ground would be dotted with small tents.  Each two soldiers had a little tent.  They used to look at us, the drivers, with envy, for living inside our trucks and being able to use electric-light while they had to crawl into their tiny tents.  The rain that poured down on us for the first few days of our trip, caused them great discomfort.  They dug themselves in under the cars and often the car would be stuck in the holes and pits that they had dug under it.  The trip was difficult and tiring.  For the most part the road was blocked by big trucks transporting tanks.  On either side of the road strips of the highway were still sown with mines.  Often you could see a cross stuck into the middle of the road, to mark a driver who had swerved to one side and been blown up.  It was impossible to bury him in the fields which were full of mines and so he was buried on the road, close to the cement strip.  A big sign was stuck over his grave reading: “Blown up by mines; attention; drive carefully.”


     One night we stopped in an area that was free of mines.  It was a fragrant spring evening.  Not far from where we were was a barbed-wire fence with cans marked with skulls and crossbones, a warning that this field was sown with mines.  The space that we camped in was ploughed and trodden by the wheels of cars and trucks and the flowers in it were all trampled.  On the other hand, the field surrounded by barbed wire, untouched by a man’s foot or a wheel, was full of fragrant spring-blossoms.  We stood near the fence with our eyes skimming over the beautiful field and our nostrils drinking in the wonderful scents of the flowers.  The mines had been sown there before the rains and the flowers had just begun to bloom.  Among the flowers you could see the yellow metal of the German mines gleaming here and there.  The heart was filled with the desire to stretch out on the field and to roll among the flowers, as children love to do.


      That same night I witnessed a wonderful scene.  The Negroes had gathered together and we were there too.  We began to sing some of our songs and they became very enthusiastic about them.  We asked them to sing us some of their songs.  They settled themselves in a half-circle and began to sing a song in several voices.  It was wonderful singing.  This was a solo sung with an occasional chorus.  Then they began to dance.  We clapped hands in time to it and they continued to sing in response to our admiration.  We sat there until midnight, as if we had been enchanted, listening to their strange and wonderful singing.  Finally one of them got up and said in English, “Before we go to sleep we would like to sing our hymn.  We ask you to rise and to uncover your heads.”  We rose and heard their concluding song standing.  Their hymn is not sung in the usual way.  One of them chants something and the others repeat his words in song.  He reads something out of their prayers and the others shade their eyes with their hands and sing.  Their hymn is like a chanted prayer – quite wonderful.

      Yes, I forgot to say that while the chorus was singing one of our boys, B.Y., who has a very good voice, came close to them and caught the melody they were singing.  They tiptoed up to him silently to listen to him humming, for he had caught on.  At the end of one verse they raised him up on their shoulders in enthusiasm.  Ever since we have called B. a Negro name – Mephuta.

      After the singing of the hymn we scattered to sleep in the different trucks.  But I think that not one of us slept that night: the scent of the flowers, the singing of the Negroes and, above all, the spring night.  These Negroes are simple people, and the relations between them are very fine.  Some of them are socialists and know a great deal more than we can tell from a single hurried meeting.  Some of them have visited Palestine and know something of our problems.  Many strange and different worlds touch in the life of an army.

 Moshe Mosenson

Letters From the Desert (pp. 168-170)

      There is a heavy storm outside and I feel very depressed.  When I feel depressed I try to escape from it by writing to you.  Yesterday we received the list of names of our friends who were drowned.  They were good and close friends.  It was in vain, then, that we wove a web of hopes and illusions for their sakes, hoping that perhaps they had been saved or picked up by other ships…

      We have been bereaved of many dear comrades and among them friends to whom I was attached by very close ties.  The thought that they are gone forever fills me with a kind of horror.  We went through so much together and shared so many burdens.  We experienced the bitterness of the retreat and the joys of victory together and we shared our pangs of distress at the weakening of our ties with home. 

      Where is my dear friend, H.C. [Chayim Caspi or Chaim Cikanowski – MGM], with his deep feeling and his delightful sense of humor and gift of expression?  You probably will remember his name from the pages of “The Jewish Soldier”.  We had grown to love each other.  And P., from Degania Beit, the good, honest heart whom I learned to love in my first days in the army – and tens of others.  One hundred and forty of our boys were drowned that night.  Many of them had wives and children, families and parents.  Cursed war!  But something else oppresses me: we were supposed to embark on that same night.  The whirligigs of fate.

      Forgive me for being so sad and for writing you this way.  What can I do?  This evening I sat down in a corner of our newspaper office.  On the table in front of me lay the list of names surrounded by a black border.  The boys came in, one after the other, quiet and stunned.  One comes in, and when I give him the list silently, he sits down, and is silent – and so with a second and a third.  There were many of us and all of us silent.

      A young boy came in and looked through the list for the name of his friend.  He himself escaped death by a miracle on several occasions.  The list dropped out of his hands and he whispered, “B’s gone.  I once gave him my girl’s address – so that he would write her if I should be missing.  And now he…”

      Another one came in with a hidden fear in his face.  I knew why.  He had a brother on that list.  I looked at him steadily and he looked back and understood.  He took my hand that was lying on the table and pressed it, his eyes full of tears.  I pushed the list away as I gave it to him, saying, “I know.  I could see it in your eyes.” …  And he, too, sat down among the silent mourners. 

      Forgive me.  It is true that we are members of a movement in which death has been our constant companion.  Why should we cultivate these feelings?  But when we lose comrades like these, we realize how few we have who are fully ready for the trials of the present and the future.  How few.  And when you lose so many out of a few – a dread of the future comes over you, and weighs on your heart…

 Moshe Mosenson

Letters From the Desert (pp. 194-195)

letters-from-the-desert-moshe-mosensonCover of Moshe Mosenson’s Letters from the Desert, published in 1945.

img_6809Placing flowers around the periphery of the memorial.  An image from the Oneg Shabbat blogspot. 

img_1180Some names.

Upper row, left to right:

Yechye Cohen, PAL/630

Hans Yaacobson, PAL/1206

Moshe (Max) Cohen (Moses Kahan, PAL/556?)

Josef Yashim, PAL/30347

Lower row, left to right:

Josef (Ernest) Kahane (Yosef Cahana, PAL/1048?)

Shlomo (Zoltan) Yaget (Zoltan Jaget), PAL/30018)

Uri (Peter) Cohen (Peter Stefan Kahn, PAL/1161?)

– Michael G. Moskow

Soldiers of the Erinpura – V: The Fallen – Basotho Soldiers

The majority of troops aboard the Erinpura were members of the Basotho people, an ethnic group of the Bantu people who primarily live in South Africa, and to a lesser extent in the countries of Lesotho and Botswana, and, the South African state of Swaziland. 

The men were members of the African Pioneer Corps H.C.T. (High Commission Territories) and were assigned to the 1919th and 1927th Basuto Companies.  One soldier (Private Malefetsane Manuel Mohale, AS/6946) – going by his CWGC record – was a member of the 1924th Basuto Company.




swazilandThe CWGC database shows casualty records for 303 members of the 1919th Company, and, 320 members of the 1927th Company.

While genealogical information exists for forty per-cent of the Jewish casualties and one-third of the Erinpura’s crewmen (see below), such information is present for only a sole individual among the Basotho casualties:  Private T. Japheta, AS/9273, born in 1901.  He is buried at the Benghazi War Cemetery, in Benghazi.  The CWGC database lists his father as Bupoe Machaba, but no other information is given in terms of his age or the location of his home.

In terms of military service, the overwhelming number of Basotho soldiers were Privates and Corporals.  The remainder comprised twenty-one sergeants and one warrant-officer.  One man – Jan Poulo (AS/12128) of the 1919th, listed in the CWGC database as a Captain, which information may be incorrect.

With the exception of Private Japheta, all the Basotho soldiers are commemorated at the Lesotho Memorial, which is located in Makoayane Square, in the center of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.

Soldiers of the 1919th Basuto Company

A Soldier of the 1924th Basuto Company

Soldiers of the 1927th Basuto Company

– Michael G. Moskow

Soldiers of the Erinpura – III: The Sky Above / The Sea Below

The Germans (The Luftwaffe)

The identity of the Luftwaffe unit that sank the Erinpura is revealed in Norman Clothier’s excellent account as Kampfgeschwader (“Bomber Wing”) 26.  The sinking of the ship is described thusly:

“In the late afternoon of 1 May 1943 the convoy was in six columns on a westerly course not far from the North African coast.  The first warning of air attack came at 18:43 [6:43 P.M.] when a single aircraft approached the convoy out of the sun.  Flying at about 50 feet (15 m) above the sea it flew between the starboard line of escorts and the convoy, so that only two ships were able to engage it.  Apparently no hits were made.  Reports differ as to whether it released a torpedo or jettisoned something, but no ship was hit.  This aircraft retired to the north-east pursued by shore-based fighters who claimed to have destroyed it.  It would have been able to report the convoy’s position by radio before it was shot down.

“Shortly after 19:10 [7:10] another plane attempted to repeat the same tactics, but it was driven off by fire from the escorts.  Retreating to the north-west it, too, was pursued and destroyed by fighters.

“Finally the main attack commenced at 19:50.  [7:50]  A German source (“Dr. Phil Ernst Thomsen who took over the command of III / KG 26 in 1944.”) says that it was made by two Gruppen (equivalent squadrons), III / KG 26 under Major Nocken and II / KG 26 led by Major Werner Klumper, who also commanded the attack as acting wing commander.  British estimates of the number of attackers vary from 18 to 36.  The lower figure seems to be more probable.  The attack was synchronised by two groups so as to confuse the defence.  British reports differ.  Apparently the first attack was made by bombers.  Ships in the convoy twisted and turned to avoid the falling bombs and no hits were made.  All vessels were firing their anti-aircraft weapons.  At the same time a Heinkel 111 was seen to drop a torpedo about a mile from the convoy, later a flash was seen and an explosion heard.  The tanker British Trust was hit, her port side was opened for a third of her length and her cargo of oil caught fire.  She listed heavily and sank in about three minutes.  No boats could be lowered and difficulty was experienced in getting rafts clear, but her crew, mainly Indian lascars, behaved very well and many survived to be picked up.

“The action intensified at about 20:10 [8:10] with many bombers overhead, the guns of the convoy and escorts firing furiously and the scene partly lighted by the burning oil from the British Trust.  At this time fighters were probably overhead attacking the bombers, as shore command claimed that it had three Spitfires, eleven Hurricanes and a Beaufighter airborne very quickly.”

There is a plethora of material covering the history of KG 26, attributable to its lengthy (1939 through 1945) service, and, participation in combat on every European front.

The Kampfgeschwader was equipped with He-111, Ju-88, and eventually Ju-188 aircraft, all these aircraft being twin-engine medium bombers which were decorated with the Geschwader’s emblem of a stylized lion beneath the motto “Vestigium Leonis” (“Winged Lion”).  During its service, KG 26 incurred the loss of 341 aircraft (271 He-111s, 12 Ju-188s, 1 Ju-52, 56 Ju-88s, and 1 Bf-108).  II / KG 26 and III / KG 26, the specific units which sank the Erinpura and British Trust, are abbreviations for II Gruppe and III Gruppe (2nd and 3rd Groups) of the Kampfgeschwader.

2_19_b2-szeremataColor profile of a desert camouflaged He-111H, bearing the insignia of KG 26, from the Wings Pallette website, by Zygmunt Szeremeta.  The alpha-numeric code “1H” identified the Geschwader’s aircraft. 

heinkel-he-111h-kg26-north-africa-01The nose of a Heinkel He-111H of KG 26 in North Africa, from the Asisbiz website. The aircraft is finished in the Luftwaffe camouflage color “RLM [Reichs Luftfahrt Ministerium – “Ministry of Aviation”] 79 Sandgelb”.

heinkel-he-111h-kg26-north-africa-02Another He-111H of KG 26, also in North Africa, from the website.  Notable in this view is the aircraft’s nose-mounted 7.9 mm machine gun.  

During the time of the sinking of the two ships, II / KG 26 was based at Villacidro, Sardinia, and equipped with He-111H-4/6 torpedo bombers, while III / KG 26 was based at Grosseto, Italy, and equipped with Ju-88A-4 dive bombers.  KG 26 was then commanded by Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Werner Klümper.  The commander of II Gruppe was Major George Teske, while III Gruppe was commanded by Hauptmann (Captain) Klaus Nocken, who, according to Norman Clothier’s references, was killed in Prague in 1945.

Though the above report mentions that shore-based RAF fighters destroyed two of KG 26’s bombers during the strike on the convoy, and possibly the aircraft that initially spotted the convoy, the list of KG 26 losses implies that this was not so. 

Unfortunately, the Kampfgeschwader lost no aircraft that day.

The entry on the Erinpura at Hebrew Wikipedia states that the convoy was identified by a German Storch (“Stork”) type aircraft, most likely an allusion to the Fieseler Fi-156 light observation and army cooperation plane.  However, performance figures for the very lightly armed Fi-156 state that the aircraft’s range was 240 miles, vastly short of the distance between the Erinpura’s convoy and German air bases in Sardinia and Italy.  Thus, the convoy was more almost certainly spotted by a He-111 or Ju-88.  This is also consistent with the accounts given by Norman Clothier and Henry Morris.

Curiously, the accounts given by Henry Morris and Norman Clothier differ by exactly one hour in terms of the timing of the bombing of the Erinpura.  Henry Morris gives the start of the main attack as 20.50 (8:50 P.M.), with the ship being struck by a bomb at 21.05 (9:05 P.M.).  Norman Clothier gives the start of the main attack as 19.50 (7:50 P.M.).  In any event, KG 26’s strike was obviously timed to coincide with sunset, which – on May 1, 1943, near Benghazi – occurred at 21:19 (7:19 P.M.).

Aboard the Erinpura

The Palyam and Aliyah Bet Website provides a document in Hebrew entitled (English Translation) “Yishuv Volunteers For the British Army During the Second World War 1939-1945, which specifically focuses on the sinking of the Erinpura, and includes eyewitness accounts of this event and its aftermath, by three survivors:  Chaim Ast, Ben Ami Melamed, and Eli Zeiler.  The translated document (a somewhat approximate translation) is presented below:

Chaim Ast was sailing for three days on the Erinpura without knowing where he was going.  The sun rose and fell over the Mediterranean waters.  The waves surged and subsided frequently, but Ast and members of the 462nd were only able to guess where they were going.  Since leaving the port of Alexandria, the company commander, Major Yoffe, would say nothing.  Members of the company had lost the sense of time and place.  Only the celebrations on the first of May involving a prescribed routine hinted at something on the calendar.

“That day at dusk, with Prof. Eisenberg and one of our officers, we gathered on the upper deck,” recalls Ast, with wandering eyes.  “Until then we sailed without knowing where we were going, and, there was an air of uncertainty.  Eisenberg called us; told all of us first of the 1st of May and its meaning, and then the purpose of our cruise – to embark in Malta for the invasion of southern Europe.  Below the deck, the socialists were celebrating, and while he was talking, a plane passed overhead.  After that I went down.  We had long tables with benches and sat and talked.  Suddenly came the bombing.”

…south to Al Alamein:

When the 462nd Company was established, way back in 1942, Eli Zeiler was a young teenager who wondered around the open spaces surrounding Degania Alef.  While he was walking in the fields, the British were training a group of Israeli soldiers that were designated to act alongside her majesty’s army, in battles that were beginning throughout the world at that time, as one of the four Hebrew transport platoons.  For Zeiler it was a golden opportunity for closure.

“I was born in Austria, and in 1938 my high school classroom teacher ordered all Jews to leave.  So I left,” he recalls. “I moved here straight to the kibbutz and soon after that I decided to join.  The Histadrut wanted to send me a commanders’ course of ‘defense’ and refused to enlist me in the British army, so I bypassed them and applied directly through the Army recruiting office.  I received a pound and a half, and I took a bus to Sarafand, the “Zerifin” of today”.

 Among the people he met in the company, were Ben Ami Melamed and Chaim Ast; old friends ever since elementary school, and decided to join the same company.  More than 60 years have passed, but when the three of them met this week in Ast’s apartment, the memories of those early days as fighters returned quickly.  “The atmosphere was such that anyone who joined the British was an evader”, was Ast’s opening line.  “I left everything, I recruited five more fighters with me and we went together to enlist in the British Army.  I went straight to the front, to El Alamein”.

The transport company received full infantry training and learned to drive on primitive roads.  Thereafter, recruits from the battle of El Alamein joined the expanding front where Italian-German forces commanded by Rommel were quickly advancing.  “The Germans arrived, and it was a real threat.  We felt it would be a shame for the Germans do to us what they did to all the Jews,” recalls Melamed.  “The feeling was not easy when we got to the front.  We knew that if the Germans would break the El Alamein line, they would conquer Egypt and then will come our way to Israel.

I don’t remember who said this but we decided that in case of a retreat, we would abandon the British army and go to Israel by trucks.  While preparing for battle, the transport platoons were busy paving roads.  During the battle days, Aset, Melamed, Zeisler and their friends would go into the lines of the infantry squads.

While preparing for battle, there were detachments of transports especially in road construction.  On the days of battles Ast, Melamed, Zeiler and friends would go into lines classed as infantry.  On other days they would transfer equipment to one point and come back with prisoners to another point.  This situation often gave rise to complex situations. “When the distances became longer, one day wasn’t enough to transfer the prisoners so we had to spend the night with them”, Zeisler says.  “The problem was that one driver and one infantry soldier can’t really guard 30 prisoners of war, so we invented a game – Find the shoes.  We had them take off their pants and shoes, and walk them 200 meters into the desert, and that way we could ensure ourselves that no one would escape without their belongings.  For some fun, we would make a big pile of all the shoes – for them to search.”

In October 1942, the winds began to warm at El Alamein.  The British Eighth Army, under the command of Montgomery, began to chase Rommel’s forces and lead what is considered by many as the turning point of World War II.  “When we were chasing the Germans, we were moving forward so quickly that we couldn’t stop,” recalls Ast.  “The trip had become dangerous.  Ben-Ami, who was the co-driver of mine, was observing out of the truck, dismantling plugs from abandoned German trucks and replacing them while we were driving.  That’s how we moved forward.  At last when the enemy lines were finally breached, we entered the most terrible battle area.  The bodies of soldiers were strewn everywhere.  I remember this image like it was yesterday, but most of all – I can not forget the smell.”

Idiots, jump into the sea!

After the battle in North Africa ended the transport platoon together with other British army forces went towards Alexandria.  Scenting the smell of victory, Melamed, Zeisler and Aset embarked with the rest of their friends on the British ship the “SS Erinpura”.  On the 29th of April of that year, at the end of Passover, the first convoy left with as a naval force of 27 ships carrying soldiers, supplies and equipment for the British army.

The goal of the journey was to reach Malta and join the forces that were meant to participate in the allies invasion of Sicily.  However the Germans had other plans.  “On the 1st of May at dusk, while the convoy was making it’s way by sea, about 50 kilometers north of Benghazi, Libya, a German reconnaissance plane came from the west was flew over our heads”, describes Zeisler.  It came right out of the sun so we couldn’t see it approaching, and passed between the ships at the same height of the decks.  So it was impossible to open fire on him, so as not to hit the other ships.  After it flew away, it was very clear that an attack would begin”.

And of course around 20:00, 12 German warplanes came over the convoy of ships, focus on the lead ship in the convoy – the Erinpura.  “They hit our ship in 2 places – one straight in the hold and the other from the side,” Ast mentioned.  

“This is a moment that I do not remember.  I ran towards to the stairs but did not find them.  I somehow got to the upper deck, and as I came up, I met a friend there.  He saw the water getting closer and started to cry.  I did not have too much experience in water, but I heard that when something is sinking it causes a whirlpool.  I said, ‘You are not a woman on the beach in Tel Aviv, jump!  He did not want to, so I pushed him and jumped after him.  I saw that the bottom floor collapsed, and the stairs collapsed.  The ship began to descend like an elevator,” says Zeiler.  “She started to tilt angle of 45 degrees.  When I managed to stay away some ten meters by swimming, I saw the propeller rise, and there was a huge explosion, apparently in the engine room.”

Melamed himself was secluded in a room at the back of the ship and rushed up to the top deck.  “I saw two guys standing and throwing rafts,” he says.  “I came to help them and I saw the side of four guys sitting and praying.  I saw that the ship was going to sink and I realized there was no choice and had to jump into the sea.  Suddenly the rear of the ship rose into the air and the water was already upon us.  I called to them, ‘Idiots, jump into the sea!’  And they continued to pray.  I jumped and started to swim with all my strength to stay away from the ship.  Her horn blared very long, and then I turned around and I saw her descend with them into the water.  It was a picture of horror: the bow turned forward and on the aft hung dozens, if not hundreds of soldiers.  Terrible screams.  I threw my belt I minded and I swam with all my might.  I turned back again – no vessel, no people, everything was gone, and the Germans firing at us with bursts of gunfire.”

The Erinpura sank in less than four minutes.  Melamed, Zeiler and Ast found themselves in the icy darkness of the Mediterranean.  Time passed, and more.  Gunfire was replaced by a soft throbbing sound.  Greek naval forces in the occasional darkness trying to find the survivors.  “I saw two rafts and began to gather more and more people, of all nations, on them” says Melamed quietly.  “South Africans, British and Indians.  Most of the people who lived, were on the raft floating in the water.  We decided all together, without knowing the languages, that only the wounded will remain on the rafts.  A Greek destroyer approached, and when I grabbed the ladder I saw that I could not continue because four hours in the water had weakened me.  Suddenly a pair of strong hands caught me and pulled me up.  I do not remember what was happening through the night, but in the morning we saw a difficult scene.  The captain of the ship stood and said a prayer, and beside him were several bodies bound with weights.  A shot in the air and the bodies were thrown into the sea.”

 A Greek sailor rubbed me:

 Most of the soldiers and the crew that remained on Erinpura died that night.  Of the 300 members of the Company there only 160 survivors who were transferred to safety.  “I woke up in the ship’s hold as a Greek sailor rubbed me with a towel and another poured rum for me” says Zeiler.

“After that we went to Tripoli and we got some clothes.  We were there for a week or ten days, and then they took us back to Alexandria and later to Israel.  We got two weeks off, that the British Army has customarily given for a unit sending two-thirds of its troops home on leave.   Ast states: “Freedom of survivors.”

 The exit from hell back to the outside world, they suggest, was not easy.  “There was a terrible shock.  We did not know who was living and who was not, and I was especially worried about those I met, those whose families I knew,” says Melamed, on the first days of return.  “When we arrived in Tripoli I wrote letters home.  We should not have to clearly write things on what happened, but my letter hinted that something happened to me and I was alive.  The censors cut almost everything.  You could just understand that I was alive after the date of May 1”.

 “My mother did not know whether I was alive or dead,” says Ast.  “Several days after the incident there was published in the newspaper Davar a list of 138 soldiers from Eretz Israel who drowned in the sea.  Our families had found everything through the paper.  When I came to Israel, I got on a bus headed home.  I sat not far away from the driver and in front of me sat a man in uniform and he told the driver he was on the ship and he was saved.  I heard the story, watching and listening, and knew that here there was one that pretended.  When we reached the destination, I approached him and said: ‘I had a very pleasant time hearing your story, but I wanted to ask you if recognize a friend of mine who was on the ship.’  He asked me, ‘Who was your friend?’ I told him: ‘Chaim Ast.’   ‘Ah, Chaim Ast, poor guy, he drowned.’  A minute later I took out my notebook and said to him, at least I have the honor to know of whom you spoke…”

 “You have to understand that by then there was no event of this magnitude,” adds Zeiler.  “We had far more casualties than the Jewish Brigade.  When I came back they told me: ‘What are you doing here? After all that had drowned.’”

 After home leave the three were called back to the front.  The company had been rebuilt, and in September 1943 was attached to the Allied forces that invaded Italy via Salerno, south of Naples.  There they were busy unloading docks and transport equipment, fuel and ammunition to the front, the first confrontation with the horrors of the Holocaust.  “So we met with the survivors,” says Ast.  “When we went to the British Army, the goal was to save the land of Israel; we had no idea that of all this story.  They came to us as refugees and we could not believe them at all.  Little by little, like drops of water upon the rock, came more and more.”

 The three moved on – built homes, developed careers, and have designed their own memorial event.  After Salerno took place the first memorial event booklet about the difficult situation of the sinking, exactly a year after that occurred.  Since they are conscientious in participating every year at the memorial to the 140 names, at a unique monument erected in their memory at Mount Herzl.

…”We should not write clearly on things that happened, but my letter hinted that something happened to me and I’m alive.  The censors cut almost everything” … Ben Ami Melamed.

* * * * * * * * * *

The document below is an account of the sinking of the Erinpura by (I think…?) Major Yoffe, commander of the 462nd General Transport Company.  The document is from Volume 2 of Dr. Yoav Gelber’s Jewish-Palestinian Volunteering in the British Army During the Second World War.

report-w_edited-1The following 2-page letter, from Volume 2 of Jewish-Palestinian Volunteering in the British Army During the Second World War, also (I believe) describes the sinking of the Erinpura.  (Translation would be appreciated!) 

This is the first page…

letter-2-w_edited-1 …and this is the second page.

letter-1-w_edited-1* * * * * * * * * *

The following letter, written on May 4, 1943 by Corporal Amiram Ben Zvi (or, “Ben Zion”?), PAL/551, a survivor of the sinking, is reproduced in Volume 2 of Jewish Palestinian Volunteering in the British Army During the Second World War, Roi Mandel’s article about the 462nd General Transport Company, and also on page 23 of Yishuv volunteers to the Biritsh Army during the Second World War 1939-45.

letter-3-w_edited-1The Yishuv Volunteers booklet also includes this Hebrew-character transcript of the letter:

letter-from-amiram-ben-zvi-pal-551An approximate English-language translation of this text (generated via Google.translate) follows:

“Greetings to you my dear!

I am alive, not writing for a time.  I would especially like to tell you that I am safe and sound, after hardships, and that I am in the same place as a month ago with a large number of friends. 

How are you all?  For several weeks I have not received any information from you and hope I receive everything all at once.

I said goodbye to all families and friends, and do not believe the false rumors.  Maybe I’ll see you soon.

Next time I’ll be here longer.


Forever Yours


The Location

Wikipedia’s list of shipwrecks gives the position of the Erinpura’s sinking as 32-40N, 19-53 E, while the British Trust was lost, “30 nautical miles (56 km) north northwest of Benghazi, Libya”.  The website notes that this location is derived from Norman Clothier’s article, but oddly, no such reference can actually be found in that article.  Regardless, maps – at successively larger scales, created via Google Maps – showing the location of the Erinpura’s sinking are presented below:


map-1_edited-1 map-3_edited-1

map-2_edited-1Based on the above-illustrated location, a bathymetric map of the Mediterranean Sea created by Ikonact shows that the ship – forever the final resting place for several hundred men – lies at a depth of approximately 500 meters, approximately 30 miles north-northwest of Benghazi, Libya.

mediterranean_sea_bathymetry_map-svg– Michael G. Moskow

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.


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.

* * * * * * * * * *

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.



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.


 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. 

* * * * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * * * * *

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