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Yad Vashem This Month in Holocaust History
August 1941, A group of soldiers from Eretz Israel in Marsa Matroh, Egypt

August 1941

A group of soldiers from Eretz Israel in Marsa Matroh, Egypt

The photograph was taken in Marsa Matroh; visible are soldiers from Eretz Israel serving in the British army. Marsa Matroh is located on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, about 240 km west of Alexandria and 160 km west of El Alamein. The village served as a primary logistics base for British army units, and until the British attack of December 1940 the Jewish units were involved in laying a water pipe along the length of the battlefront as well as laying railroad tracks westwards.

With the outbreak of World War II, as citizens of the British Empire, Jews from Palestine enlisted in the British army. At the same time President of the World Zionist Federation Chaim Weizmann suggested to the British government the full cooperation of the Yishuv in the war effort and began negotiations over the establishment of a Jewish fighting force in the British military. The British at first ignored the proposal, and enlisted Jews and Arabs from Palestine into mixed units.

In the summer of 1940, after Italy’s declaration of war against Britain, sapper units composed of soldiers from Palestine were sent to Egypt. One of the enlisted men, Yuzik Bankover, wrote:
You leave Israel and travel to the battlefront… you leave your family, home, friends, youth movements and Israel, and have no idea when or in what circumstances you will meet again, if you will even ever be reunited. And my sweet child, Moish’ele… greatly suffered from the chances of the impending separation. (Yoav Gelber, Toldot Ha-Hitnadvut (History of Volunteerism- Hebrew), Volume I, pp. 284-286)

Italy invaded Egypt from Libya in September 1940. The British responded to the requests of the Jewish Agency and established infantry companies and other units composed of Jewish soldiers from Eretz Israel. At first most of the Jews served in engineering, transportation and maintenance units, as well as sapper and artillery units.
The British counterattacked against the Italian forces from December 1940 to February 1941, forcing them back into Libya. Bankover, who at the time was stationed in Marsa Matroh, wrote to Eretz Israel attempting to gain more volunteers for the British army. In March-April 1941, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps pushed the British eastwards, towards the Egyptian border.

The British again attacked westwards in November 1941, conquering by December most of Libya. But the Germans counterattacked in January 1942, reaching El Alamein in Egypt. At the end of June 1942 one of the retreating battles of the British took place in Marsa Matroh, and some of the Jewish soldiers from Eretz Israel who were drivers on the Marsa Matroh-Tobruk line were taken captive with the thousands of British soldiers who fell into German hands.

In October 1942 the Germans were defeated at El Alamein, and within a month U.S. and British forces invaded Algeria and Morocco (Operation Torch). By May 1943, the Allies had liberated North Africa.

Yad Vashem Photo Archives 4922/40