Some weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the first Indian troops appeared in Egypt. They were to be the vanguard of the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions which won fame in the conquest of Italian East Africa. This conquest was effected in a short period of about five months from January to May 1941 and severe losses in men and material were inflicted on the Italians. The remarkable features of this campaign were the storming by British, Indian, Sudanese and South African troops of Keren and Amba Alagi positions which were considered by Italians to be impregnable. The Indian troops were in the thick of fighting and covered themselves with glory in most of the engagements fought in this theatre. Their courage and bravery were as clearly brought out as their high morale and fighting spirit. Together with forces from other countries they conquered Eritrea, Ethiopia and British Somaliland. In all, their record was an impressive one.
It is relevant to state the development of British strategy in this theatre.
The campaign in East ,Africa grew gradually from the progress of the operations. In September 1940, shortly after Italy had joined the war, General Wavell instructed the commanders in the Sudan and Kenya not to undertake any general offensive. General Platt was asked to prepare local attacks on Gallabat and at other places which were to be carried out on the onset of the dry weather. In Kenya, General Dickinson was asked to concentrate for the time being upon an active defence. He was, however, to make plans for a future offensive. As stated earlier in this narrative, General Platt's operations at Gallabat carried out early in November were hardly successful. Early in December General Wavell reviewed the whole situation at a meeting of the commanders at Cairo. He decided that the Patriot Revolt in Ethiopia was to be fostered by all possible means and that the Italians at Gallabat were to be harassed.
The rapid expulsion of the Italians from Egypt led the British Chiefs of Staff to decide at the end of December in favour of early operations in Ethiopia. As a German advance through Bulgaria appeared likely it was considered desirable to speed up the conquest of Italian East Africa. The British Prime Minister expressed the
hope that by the end of April the Italian army in Ethiopia would have been smashed.
Earlier in January 1941 there were indications that the Italians were intending to withdraw from Kassala. Platt was therefore ordered to advance his operation to prevent the Italians from withdrawing. Before, however, he could attack, the Italians had evacuated Kassala. It was therefore decided to attack them as they retreated over the mountain passes of Eritrea. Wavell ordered Platt to press on to Asmara. Cunningham in Kenya also thought of taking an offensive and of attacking and capturing Kismayu early in February. He sought Wavell's permission for this attack. At this time operations in the Balkans and the Far East were influencing Allied strategy in this region and Wavell had to decide whether to continue operations against Italian East Africa or to start withdrawing troops to meet British commitments in the Balkans. He decided to continue operations in East Africa but ordered Platt to limit himself to occupying Eritrea and not to advance into Ethiopia. He warned him that some of his troops might be withdrawn after the conquest of Eritrea. Cunningham in the south was told to be prepared to part with the South African Division after his capture of Kismayu.
Towards the end of February 1941 Platt was fighting a long and difficult operation at Keren with two Indian divisions. Keren fell on 27 March. Massawa was taken on 8 April. By this time most of Cyrenaica had been recaptured by the Germans and so the withdrawal of British and Indian troops to Egypt became imperative. Wavell therefore ordered Cunningham to move north with a view to secure the main road from Addis Ababa to Asmara along which troops and material could pass on the way to Egypt. The result of this advance from the south was that the Duke of Aosta was encircled by the forces of Cunningham and Platt and he surrendered at Amba Alagi.
Thus in the course of a few months the British strategy had developed from a purely defensive into an offensive one. The British wrested successfully the initiative from the hands of the Italians and by fruitful planning and organisation made rapid advance and routed the Italians at Keren, Asmara, Massawa and Amba Alagi. "The ultimate pattern of the conquest", wrote Wavell later ''was a pincer movement on the largest scale, through Eritrea and Somaliland converging on Amba Alagi, combined with a direct thrust through Western Abyssinia by the Patriot Forces--this result was not foreseen in the original plan but arose gradually through the development of events. It was in fact an improvisation after
the British fashion of war rather than a set piece in the German manner". Wavell's task in complying with a rapid succession of instructions and suggestions1 from his superiors was a difficult one. But by his perseverance and ability he ensured British victory in this region.
Among the causes of the Italian failure may be set down the unpreparedness of Italy for a long war in 1940, the failure of the Italians to exploit their early successes and their general defensive policy, and the Patriot rising in Ethiopia. When Italy joined the war on the side of Germany in June 1940, she counted on a very" short war which, with the collapse of France, appeared to have been already won. But she herself was not ready for a long conflict. Her economic condition was difficult. Her balance of trade was unfavourable and an armament race for her could only be ruinous. In the army there were shortages of weapons and equipment and of officers and instructors. Neither her air force nor her fleet was ready for a major war. During the negotiations for the Pact of Steel of May 1939 Mussolini told Hitler that Italy could not take part in a European War before 1942. When suddenly told in August 1939 that Germany was about to invade Poland, he presented a long list of requirements--coal, steel, oil and wood and other articles, that Italy required before she could join. On learning he could not have these things Mussolini decided to stay out of the war. This lasted for nine months. During this period Italian capacity to wage war for a long stretch of time increased but little. To the British Government, however, it gave some valuable time for improving their defences. After Italy had joined the war her position was to become worse as Italian East Africa was cut off from Italy by land and sea and there were not stocks enough to support her warfare in this theatre.
Because of her unpreparedness Italy was led to adopt a defensive strategy even in the early stages of the war when the British forces in Kenya and the Sudan were very limited and when the time was propitious for the Italians to launch a vigorous offensive. The Italians were in a strong position in the opening of 1940 campaign and the odds were heavily against the British. They controlled the southern entrance to the Red Sea. They could have taken advantage of their superior position to conquer the Sudan. If the Italians had conquered the Sudan it would have rendered the British position difficult. The British would have lost the supply lines to the Middle East up the Red Sea and across Africa from
Takoradi to Khartoum. Egypt itself would have been insecure. But the Italians sought to achieve no such advantage from their stronger position and lost a good chance. They also did nothing serious to interfere with the arrival of British reinforcements at Mombasa and Port Sudan. "Lack of enterprise in the air was matched at sea, and the destroyers and submarines based at Massawa were inactive. Thus the strategic asset of Italian East Africa's geographical position on the flank of Britain's vital sea-route was thrown away".2 With the arrival of reinforcements on the British side in men and material, the British seized the initiative and effected a speedy conquest of Italian East Africa.
In addition to fighting the British, the Italians had to cope with the rising of the Patriots in Ethiopia. Maintenance of internal order became a heavy burden for the Italians. As the British offensive mounted, the Patriot movement gained in impetus until it had become a powerful force. British victories affected the morale of the Italian forces and the Patriots, with British help, were able to put in more and more effort as Italian morale deteriorated. Italian forces were thus hard put to repel British offensive and at the same time to keep internal order.
The campaign in Italian East Africa involved men of many countries and races. The victories gained by Indian soldiers testified to their good training, their fighting spirit and determination to meet the challenge they were called upon to face and no less to the good leadership and sound judgement of officers who commanded them. It should not be forgotten that both the 4th Indian Division and the 5th Indian Division whose operations have been treated in this narrative consisted both of Indian and British battalions, whereas at some places forces from Commonwealth and Empire countries had an important part to play. It was a joint venture and though the extent of participation in various battles varied, it was in a real sense a joint victory.
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation