(5 November 1892 – 22 December 1942)
“The Pastor of Hellfire Pass”
Remembered as a man of conviction, Wilhelm Bach is arguably the most illustrious man buried at the Woodland Cemetery. The Wehrmacht Major – his posthumous promotion to Oberstleutnant is not acknowledged on his grave marker – was an Afrika Korps veteran who was made famous by his heroic defense of the Halfaya Pass against overwhelming odds.
A veteran of the First World War, Bach served on the Western Front after having volunteered at the onset of the war. It was during the interim war years that his life, for a military man, took an interesting turn; although still a commissioned officer of a reserve regiment, Bach became an Evangelical pastor and took up a pulpit position in a Mannheim church.
When the Second World War broke out Bach returned to active duty and was promoted to the rank of Captain. Once again he returned to France, and after seeing action on the new Western Front, his unit was reassigned to the newly-formed Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK). Among the first DAK troops to arrive in Africa, Bach did not immediately impress his new commanding officer, Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel.
Only measuring 170 cm (5’6”) tall, Bach was a short man, one who was also once described as gangly in stature and seemed to be perpetually wearing dark sunglasses and carrying around a half-smoked cigar. Rommel was also uneasy at the idea of an ordained minister serving in the rank and file as a fighting officer. However, not only would Rommel’s opinion of Bach drastically change, it wasn’t long before he became one of the revered General’s favorite officers.
Bach soon won the respect of his men too, in part because of his reputation of never issuing a command that he himself would not follow. His fatherly persona and confident leadership also inspired a high moral in his men, even when their situation became desperate.
Late 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.
Bach and his 1st Battalion of the 104th Schützen Regiment were tasked with the defense of the critical point, and it wasn’t long before his command was put to the test. Using five eighty-eight millimeter flak guns that had been dug into the hillside, he successfully defended Halfaya Pass in June 1941 by destroying eleven of the twelve Matilda tanks that formed the vanguard of the British attack.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Born Wilhelm Georg Adam Bach in Oberöwisheim, Bavaria, Germany.
Less than two weeks after the outbreak of the First World War, Bach enters the recruiting office of the 1. Badischen Leib Grenadier, Regiment No. 109, and volunteers for service.
As part of the Reserve Infantry Regiment 109, Bach survives his first action during the First Battle of Artois, which takes place west of Bapaume, France.
27-Mar-1915 – 08-May-1915
Bach attends an officer candidate course in Bapaume, France.
01-Jun-1915 – 08-Jul-1915
Bach completes and graduates from the officer candidate course in Sennelager, Germany.
After fighting in the the Second Battle of Champagne, Bach is promoted to Leutnant der Reserve.
Two weeks before his 24th birthday, Bach is Wounded and captured by the British and then sent to England as a prisoner of war.
A year after the end of World War I, and after three years of captivity, Bach is finally released and returns home to Germany.
Bach becomes a church minister (pastor).
04-Jun-1936 – 02-Jul-1936
As a retired Leutnant der Reserve, Bach participates in field maneuvers with the 2. Kompanie des Infanterie Regiment 14 near Konstanz.
Promoted to Oberleutnant der Reserve.
01-Apr-1937 – 28-Apr-1937
07-Mar-1938 – 12-Mar-1938
09-Jul-1938 – 20-Aug-1938
28-Sep-1938 – 08-Oct-1938
19-Jun-1939 – 15-Jul-1939
Participates in training exercises and field maneuvers.
On the eve of the start of the Second World War, Bach is mobilized and transferred to the 6. Kompanie des Infanterie Regiment 110.
Two weeks into the war, he is promoted to Hauptmann der Reserve.
After participating in the fighting between the Moselle and the Rhine, Bach is held in reserve until this date.
Bach is transferred to the II. Bataillon des Infanterie Regiment 104 and assumes command of the 6. Kompanie. He would later command the 7. Kompanie of the new Schützen Regiment 104, and later yet the 10. Kompanie during the fighting in France.
After having been given temporary command of the I. Bataillon des Schützen Regiment 104 and redeployed to the North African theater as part of the Afrika Korps, Bach is awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for his personal decision to hold the Halfaya Pass despite of being out of communication with his command for three days.
Promoted to Major der Reserve, Bach is given permanent command of the I. Bataillon des Schützen Regiment 104.
Bach is captured and becomes a prisoner of war, along with the other survivors of his regiment, after finally capitulating his defense of the Halfaya Pass to the British. He is then transferred to South Africa, and eventually to a Canadian POW camp in Ontario.
Dies after cancer surgery in the Chorley Park Military Hospital in Toronto, Canada.
He is posthumously promoted to Oberstleutnant der Reserve.
A partial List of Military Awards earned by Wilhelm Bach:
WORLD WAR I
Iron Cross (1914) 2nd Class
Iron Cross (1914) 1st Class
Wound Badge (1914) in Black
Honour Cross of the World War 1914/1918
WORLD WAR II
Iron Cross (1939) 2nd Class
Iron Cross (1939) 1st Class
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross
Wilhelm Bach is one of two men who have more than one headstone located at Woodland Cemetery.
As a final sign of respect for a fallen comrade, Bach’s fellow POWS took great care in hand carving a solid wood headstone for his grave in Gravenhurst, Ontario.
The men who skillfully carved the headstone would not have been aware that the Major had been posthumously promoted to Oberstleutnant. Consequently his rank of Major at his capture was used for the marker.
When Bach’s remains were exhumed from the Gravenhurst Cemetery and relocated to Woodland, the original headstone was moved too. However, that headstone no longer marks the location of Bach’s grave. Instead, a regulation, German-spec stone cross is now used in its place.
Placed in a prominent position within the cemetery’s alcove, the original marker now serves as a monument to Wilhelm Bach.
The wood marker has suffered over the years: Much shorter now, some of its original length has been cut off, presumably because of wood rot. Far more disturbing, it was defaced in April 1978, solely because of one reactionary Canadian Legion member.
The highest honour bestowed to Major Bach during his military career was the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, which understandably had been carved into the headstone. This medal includes a swastika, which is integral to the Knight’s Cross design.
At one person’s behest, a person incapable of differentiating between politics, war crimes, and the bravery of common men whose only offense was to answer their country’s call during a time of war, a cemetery worker took a chisel to the wood marker and removed the swastika.