The East African theatre of war was not a primary theatre of operations, but the campaign there had immense significance in determining the fortunes of the Allies and extricating the British military power from a difficult situation. With the entry of Italy into the war in June 1940, when France had ceased to be a reckonable force in the Anglo-German hostilities, Africa had developed as a scene of armed conflict. The British Government was faced with a major threat to its communications through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal. The security of Egypt and exclusion of any foreign control over that state had been a cardinal point of British policy. The Treaty of 1936 had ensured permanent alliance between the two powers and its military clauses had provided for the maintenance of British troops in the Suez Canal zone and for the construction of roads and other means of communication for use by military forces. The Suez Canal was the major artery of imperial communications and with the dependence of the British Navy on the oil from Iran and Iraq, the defence of the eastern Mediterranean coast and the Red Sea passage was vital for the existence of the British Empire. The rising power of Italy in Africa, both in Libya in the north and Eritrea in the east, under the Fascist regime, had created a danger to British interests. The conquest of Ethiopia had further aggravated it, for now the Sudan was threatened on its east by the Italian empire. With this new accretion of power to Italy in eastern Africa, even Egyptian security was menaced, for it faced the prospect of a two-pronged threat from Libya in the west and Italian East African Empire in the south. Italy was even striving to find a direct contact between its northern and eastern possessions by joining Libya with Ethiopia. The growing naval and air strength of Italy posed a big threat to the British naval communications through the Mediterranean. The alternative route via the Cape of Good Hope to the eastern dominions was also threatened by Italian possessions in Somalia and Eritrea. Thus with the conclusion of the Ethiopian affair, and the entry of Italy into the Rome-Berlin Axis, the British Government had become aware of a major danger to its vital imperial interests and security.
The Middle East had been a zone of peculiar interest to the United Kingdom, where it had maintained throughout the 19th century a position of predominance. It was threatened by the competition
of Germany and Russia, but with the end of the First World War, for a time both these rival powers had been eliminated from the contest, and the post-war settlement after 1919 had assured her a status of pre-eminence. The Turkish Empire had disintegrated and Iraq, Syria and Palestine were handed over to the United Kingdom or France to be held as Mandated territories. Turkey, shorn of its vast Asian provinces, was engaged on a programme of radical social and economic reconstruction and the Government there was pacific and friendly to the western powers. With Iran, the British Government had treaties and in its southern part British oil companies were busy extracting oil which became the chief source of supply to Great Britain. In Iraq while the mandate had been concluded, a treaty bound that kingdom to provide facilities for British air force to establish a base, and the oil of that state was used for the British navy. The pipeline ran to two ports on the eastern Mediterranean, which involved control over Palestine and the kingdom of Trans-Jordan. In Yemen, which provided hinterland to Aden, British influence was operative over the Imam. Thus the Middle East, a rich source of oil supplies, and controlling the main air route to India and Australia, was a zone of British influence, any interference with which by a hostile foreign power was bound to meet with stiff resistance. The Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the eastern Mediterranean were the natural outlets for the region and therefore of vital importance to the British. Any danger to free communication through these sea passages would be a blow to the security of the British Empire.
Italy under Mussolini became interested in the Middle East, and after her victories in Ethiopia her credit in the region started to rise. Her propaganda was active and her agents were trying to exploit the fast growing Arab nationalism in her favour. As far east as Afghanistan, Italian interest was developing. The Mufti of Jerusalem was inclined to favour the Axis Powers whom he wished to employ as instruments for the realisation of Arab aspirations of independence from foreign control. In Iraq and Iran, Italian agents were striving to gain a foothold. These activities in the Middle East countries at a time when Italy had annexed Ethiopia to her dominion and was strengthening militarily her possessions in Eritrea and Somaliland, which flanked the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, caused great concern in Britain. The Italian ports of Assab and Massawa were well sited to threaten British ships passing through the Red Sea. Similarly Kisamayu and Mogadishu in Italian Somaliland, on the Indian Ocean, could easily harass the ships
bringing supplies from the east or by way of the Cape of Good Hope. From Eritrea or Ethiopia land-based aircraft posed another and greater danger to the shipping in that area. The prestige which Italy had acquired, the military and political power which it had gained and the strategic situation of its east African possessions, had no tittle effect on the attitude of the Arab nations of the Middle East which was definitely adverse to British hold over that region. Possibility of German control over the Balkans and subsequent thrust through Turkey or Syria into Iraq and Iran as well as Italian aggressiveness in the Red Sea area or against Egypt were appreciated as a threat not only to British interests in the Persian Gulf region but also as a danger ultimately to the defences of India. On that basis the Chatfield Committee had urged the necessity of India undertaking the responsibility of the joint defence of Egypt, Persian Gulf area, Iraq, Aden and East Africa. These regions were defined as zones of India's external defence, in the integrity of which lay inherent the security of India's western frontiers and extensive coastline. India did send forces to the Persian Gulf oilfields, Egypt and the Sudan before the war commenced in 1939.
After 1936 it was clear that Mussolini would join his forces with those of Hitler against the Western Powers. British strategic planning had taken note of this contingency and it was rightly presumed by the British General Staff that owing to her military weakness, Italy would provide early opportunity for dealing decisively with this Mediterranean power and utilising the country for launching air attacks on Southern Germany and Austria. For the defeat of Italy, Egypt and the northern African coast provided the only ground for assault. But this strategy was frustrated by Mussolini's keeping out of the ring in the initial stages of the war. The only policy then for the British Government was to keep Italy neutral as long as possible so that the Mediterranean might remain open for their shipping and the Royal Navy might continue to have its sway there. The British Chiefs of Staff wrote: "Italian neutrality would appreciably reduce our military commitments and military risks, in particular the Mediterranean would remain open as a line of communications .... the longer Italy remained neutral, even if her neutrality showed benevolence towards Germany, the better it would be for the Allies, and only if her neutrality were strained to an extreme point would it be to their interest to antagonise her." On this basis, the British did nothing to offend Italy even though it at times meant delaying defence preparations in Africa. But this attitude did not prevent Italy from adopting an increasingly hostile mien towards
the Western allies, particularly anti-British propaganda had been whipped up further. Mussolini met Ribbentrop on 10 March 1940 and learnt about Germany's future military plans. This was followed by a Hitler-Mussolini meeting at the Brenner Pass, where the Duce was convinced of German military supremacy as also of her south-eastern designs. Both these convinced Mussolini that the time was ripe for him to enter the war on the side of his Axis friends and gather the fruits of victory. His Balkan ambitions and the hope of success in Africa whetted his appetite for war, and when France succumbed and the British had to evacuate their expeditionary force from Dunkirk and leave Norway to the Nazis, Italy declared war on the United Kingdom and France on 10 June 1940.
This declaration of belligerency by Italy when the United Kingdom was left almost isolated to face the determined Axis opposition created a difficult situation for the British. Hitler had launched his blitzkrieg on Great Britain and was at the same time making preparations for a thrust down the Balkans. The situation in western Asia was not free from anxiety. Syria had declared for Vichy France, and in Iraq and Iran Axis influence was active. The Soviet Union was still dubious about its attitude to war, and the United States was not yet prepared to convert its benevolent neutrality into a state of open belligerency. To the British the problem was one of existence, and for that the maintenance of their hold over Egypt and the security of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea routes were extremely vital. The supremacy on the sea and contact with India and the eastern Dominions were important for British stability and survival. Any blow to British position in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East would affect adversely the existence of Britain itself. Hence Italian threat had to be encountered and that was most likely to arise in Africa.
The British military strength in Egypt and its neighbourhood was not overwhelming; none the less it was adequate enough to resist the Italian attacks. Despite the increasing pressure on the home island, nothing was done to reduce the force in the Middle East Command, rather every spare unit, whether of land forces or air forces, was certainly despatched there as reinforcement. India, Australia and New Zealand came forward to meet the requirements of fighting forces in the Middle East. Even before the War, India had accepted the commitment to supply up to one well-equipped infantry division for service in that area. Later another division was raised and sent to Egypt. This was besides the troops maintained in the Persian Gulf region or Aden. General Wavell had in Egypt
36,000 troops, in the Sudan 9,000, in Kenya 8,500, in British Somaliland 1,475, in Palestine 27,500 and in Aden 2,500. Against this force, the Italians had a total of 415,000 divided between Libya and East Africa, and had enough of navy and air force in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea to interfere with British shipping in these waters.
Hitler had failed to grasp the shift in the centre of gravity in the war with the entry of Italy into it. He maintained pressure on England much longer before realising the futility of that step; for England's strength lay in her domination of the seas. The Middle East was like Achilles's heel for the British and their expulsion from Egypt would have repercussions on the whole course of their war effort. But while Italy maintained fitful pressure on Egypt in the first few months after joining the war, Germany afforded her no assistance. The result was that the Italian forces failed to make any deep impression on Egypt, and in the Ethiopian region beyond the occupation of Kassala and Gallabat on the frontiers of the Sudan or Somaliland, the southern Italian army did not proceed to expel the small British army from the Sudan. At the end of the year Wavell mounted an offensive invasion of Libya and in spite of the numerically superior Grazziani's army, pushed the Italians back up to Benghazi within a period of two months.- Two divisions on the British side had almost liquidated four corps of the Italian army and had taken 130,000 prisoners and a rich booty in armour and equipment. Wavell could not push farther because he had at the time to send troops to Greece to contain the German invasion and had also decided to undertake a campaign in East Africa, where a strong Italian army was stationed to strike in his rear. It was in this situation that the campaign in East Africa commenced.
The story of this brief campaign has been narrated in the present volume. It is a tale of audacity and efficient organisation on the part of the British Command, and lack of spirit and poor morale on the side of the Italians. The plan eventually culminated in a pincer from Nairobi in Kenya in the south and Khartoum in the north, the two bases being nearly 1200 air miles apart. The northern force included two Indian divisions, the 4th and the 5th, while the southern had one South African and two African divisions. The southern force moved into Italian Somaliland and then pierced through Ethiopia, and met the northern force at Amba Alagi. The main task for the Indian divisions was to open the route to Massawa and drive the Italians out of Eritrea. The Indian force had its toughest task at Keren and when that important well-fortified position was
East African campaign
captured, the move to Asmara and beyond, leading to the final collapse and capitulation of the Duke of Aosta was an easy affair. The campaign added fresh laurels to the achievements of these two Indian divisions but more than that it freed the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean from any further threat and opened this route for the mounting rush of supplies to Egypt and the Soviet Union, which made for the security of the Middle East, defence of India and the eventual collapse of Italy and Germany.
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation