How 85 Jews captured 9000 Italian troops in Bardia, Libya in WWII
Most histories of World War II describe the following incident very tersely:
The British drove the Italian Tenth Army from Egypt and achieved a major victory on 3 January 1941 at Bardia, just inside Libya.
In January, Bardia fell to the British, prompting the Italians to withdraw to Tripolitania…I just read The Forgotten Ally, a 1943 book by Pierre Van Paassen. I hope to write a review soon but this is a great story.
Australians also take credit for the fall of Bardia.
The details are a lot more interesting.
This comes from “The Forgotten Ally” by Pierre Van Paassen, a 1943 book (out of print now) that I hope to review soon.
“Just as soon as we start the big push,” said General Montgomery, “I want to create a little diversion behind Rommel’s lines. I would like to take one of his supply depots on the Libyan coast. I had thought of the town of Bardia, that is the nearest to us. I do not think we could hold it for any length of time, for the place is strongly held by an entire division of Italians who have German artillery support. But holding on to Bardia is not the first essential at the present stage of the game, although permanent seizure would, of course, be a big help. For the moment I would be satisfied with raising hell there for a few hours, blowing up the munition dumps and the petrol supply which is stored in the caves near the shore, wrecking the tank and aviation repair shops, and ruining the harbor. What do you say? Do you think it can be done?”
The words were addressed to Commander Osterman-Averni, chief of a Jewish “suicide-task force” from Palestine serving with the Eighth Army. Commander Osterman-Averni has told the story in the Hebrew daily newspaper Hamashkif, which is published in Jerusalem and I have verified it from other sources.
“Three days after General Montgomery called us to headquarters,” he writes, “we were inside Bardia. But we did not go alone. I mean my task force was joined by another Jewish suicide commando. Together we went in. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Italians of the Bardia garrison, who are now nearly all prisoners of war, were still trying to solve the riddle of how we got there. Actually, the answer to their puzzle is extremely simple.
“We were put aboard two destroyers in the late afternoon. As usual, the men were not told in advance of their destination. They imagined that our task would be one of those routine ‘behind-the-line’ actions: the demolition of a bridge, the destruction of a water supply line, or some similar task. They did not have any particular reason to devote much speculative thinking to the task ahead. . . .
“When we were nearing land, I told the men that we were going to land at Bardia and that, if possible, the town was to be taken in a general assault at dawn. I told them it would not be an easy job and emphasized that strict discipline and group spirit alone could insure success. I said it was the most important task entrusted to us thus far and that the honor of the Palestinian ‘suicide forces’ was at stake. ‘If we come through,’ I said, ‘I am authorized to promise each of you an additional stripe.’
“‘If the honor of the force is at stake, we will be in Bardia tomorrow morning,’ spoke up a sergeant.
“We approached the Libyan shore in Stygian darkness,” Commander Osterman-Averni goes on to write. “The destroyers scarcely moved as the rope ladders were let down by which we slid into the rowboats that were to set us ashore. These boats advanced stealthily. Nobody spoke. The oars barely skimmed the waters. Not a speck of light showed in Bardia. In fact, we could not even see the coast. The scraping of the boats on the rocks was the first intimation we had that we had reached our destination.
“In deepest silence we waded ashore. A patrol was sent forward immediately. We waited an hour. From the distance came the thunderous roll of our artillery. We could hear the metallic steps of the Italian sentries on the quays. When the patrol returned, reporting that they had established the exact position of the spot where we had landed, the British sailors from the warships whispered ‘good luck’ and dipped their oars in the water. Then we were on our own. The last contact with the Eighth Army had been broken. . . .
“We were eighty-five men in all. We had ten machine guns which required the services of twenty men. The rest of us were armed with tommy guns and knuckle-duster daggers. We had one signalman and one medical man with us.
“We advanced in the dark. Some scouts went ahead, their daggers ready for instant action. We lost all sense of time. Every minute was like an eternity. We reached the road at last, stopped, and lay down to await the report of the scouts. In this neighborhood we knew there should be an Italian guard post. Our machine guns were at the ready, to meet all eventualities. But we also knew that we must not fire yet, for it would have betrayed our presence. And that, considering that we were eighty-five men against a division, would have meant our certain annihilation.
“Forty-five minutes we waited. I was growing anxious about our scouts. Then the sound of a shrill low whistle came to us in the dark. A scout came running back. The Italian post had been taken. The scouts had carried out a ‘silent job’. As we stepped up I noticed several bodies on the ground. I could not tell whether they were corpses or just stunned or tied. Nor did I care.
“Ten lorries then rumbled past over the road. They did not even dream of stopping to examine the isolated guard position. Then we advanced, the machine guns in front. Dawn was breaking. As we marched along the road into Bardia, another caravan of trucks passed by, going in the same direction as we. Our main danger was that the drivers might offer us a ride. But to our luck, all the trucks were heavily loaded, and nobody bothered with us hitchhikers. It did not seem to enter the drivers’ heads that an enemy party was marching along right in their midst.
“So we kept walking until we saw our chance and made off across a field. Several blockhouses were dealt with. Their small garrisons were given ‘silent treatment.’ We managed to advance to a well-built concrete blockhouse. The garrison was still asleep. We quickly dispatched all of them while they lay on their cots. Then we made ourselves comfortable, set up our machine guns, and waited.
“When an hour after dawn a deafening roar heralded the artillery barrage of our own guns, indicating that the British ‘push’ was on, we heard the signals all around us, calling the blockhouse garrisons to the defense. Italian soldiers streamed out of them and ran forward. And we opened fire on them.
“One officer, thinking that his men were being fired on by mistake, shouted at us, but we continued to fire. After a while it dawned on the Italians that something was wrong. Two companies appeared, cautiously approaching our position. When they were quite near, we hurled a well-aimed mass of hand grenades at them. They dispersed in panic.
“Fire was opened at us by their machine guns from all directions, but it was ineffective since we were in a good position of concealment. They got their artillery to open fire on us too, but their fire was misdirected, since their own men were all over and they could not easily pick out as a special target the one blockhouse we occupied.
“But now shells of our own guns began falling dangerously near. Realizing that we were no longer an unknown quantity, we flashed signals to our own observers overhead and in the general direction of where our main forces might be. After an hour or so we knew that we had been seen, for the shells of the British artillery outside Bardia began giving our blockhouse a wide clearance.
“We then redoubled our fire on the Italian rear, and their officers, believing themselves surrounded by superior forces, hoisted white flags on the blockhouses. The town of Bardia was ours. But we did not leave our blockhouse except to occupy a few more of the neighboring pillboxes, where we manned the captured Italian machine guns. We could not very well show the enemy how few we were, for in that case he might well have regretted his surrender and turned on us. By mid-afternoon the first wave of British infantry and the motorized units moved into Bardia without firing a shot.,
“We did not raise hell in Bardia, it is true. We did better: we captured everything intact and nine thousand enemy prisoners to boot ….”