While the South Africans were moving up on the southern borders of Abyssinia, the Italians in Eritrea had thrown General Piatt's proposed programme out of gear. On 16 January, before the British troops had deployed to attack Kassala on 19 January,1 the Italians had begun to pull out of the town. Tessenei was evacuated simultaneously without interference from the British, who were caught on the wrong foot and lost contact till 20 January.
General Piatt's forces then quickly followed up, and General Wavell considered whether an operation towards Asmara was possible on top of new commitments in the Balkans. General Cunningham, encouraged by the South African Engineers' discovery of water at Hagadera, had put forward a proposal to launch his attack on Kismayu. The war had not yet reached the stage where moves could be planned in minute detail in advance, on the nice calculation of logistic possibilities and probable enemy reactions, and General Wavell and his General Officers Commanding had to make quick decisions when presented with opportunities for exploitation.
Meanwhile, 1st S.A. Division had begun its operations to secure and consolidate on the general line Gorai-El Gumu-Hobok. Preliminary investigations were already being made by the South African Engineers for what General Cunningham himself was to describe as 'the most notable engineer task in the operations northwards from Marsabit, and probably of the whole campaign',2 namely the construction of a new road 165 miles long from Marsabit via Kalacha and east of the Huri Hills to Mega, climbing 4,000 feet in the last 20 miles through country which had never been properly mapped before the South Africans arrived.
From Marsabit, the South African Air Force survey Anson was taking every opportunity to extend the area covered, and this work was supplemented by photographs taken by 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. during its many reconnaissance flights over the Dukana-Mega-Yavello triangle. Simultaneously, 11 Squadron, S.A.A.F., from Archer's Post and 12 Squadron from Nanyuki kept up attacks on the airfields at Yavello, Neghelli and further north at Shashamanna.
While 25th East African Brigade began operations west of Lake Rudolf to secure and consolidate Todenyang, Namaruputh and Kalam on the western approaches to Murle, at dawn on 1 February the two South African brigade groups marshalled their long lines of vehicles in
battle formation. Hundreds of troop-carriers were strung out in well-spaced columns across the veld, with guns on their portees, anti-aircraft trucks with their twin Lewises pointing skyward, wireless vans with masts swaying, staff cars, water trailers and stores vehicles drawn up like a vast fleet of landships awaiting the signal to sail into battle. Spear-pointing the advance and covering the flanks, armoured cars moved like a screen of destroyers as the offensive began in the early morning haze, with 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group on the right headed for the El Gumu-Gorai track, where it would make a sharp turn to the right to capture Gorai Crater. The 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, on 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group's left, was also moving across country on a wide front. Immediately 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group swung down the track to Gorai, Brigadier Armstrong's force was to move in the opposite direction and take El Gumu, barely 10 miles to the north-west of Gorai.
For some two hours the mechanized armada rumbled on across the grassy plains of southern Abyssinia which echoed for the first time to the roar of motor engines. No vehicle had ever been here before, and the men had been led to believe that the level savannah stretched all the way to their objectives.3 On the map, nothing but one small lugga and a single koppie was indicated between the line of the frontier and El Gumu or Gorai. Everything ahead seemed clear. Then unexpectedly the leading vehicles struck the edge of what was to prove a 20-mile belt of bush and scrub. A detachment of 30th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. had cut a road through bush from Dukana for about 15 miles, to facilitate carriage of supplies, but brigade assembly areas were well off this route.
The columns plunged into the mass of thorn trees and tough shrubbery, and the air was filled with the crack of breaking tree-trunks, snapping branches and rending canvas till the trucks were forced to a halt. In a cloudless sky, aircraft of 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. droned above the now disordered columns as unit commanders hurriedly conferred, to improvise some method of forcing a passage through the bush, maintain direction and keep the columns under control even while vehicles lost sight of one another.
After the leading armoured car screen had been rearranged, the long lines of vehicles once again rolled forward, this time with an armoured car in the lead of each column to act as a bulldozer. Smashing down trees ahead of the three-tonners, the armoured cars forced a passage for the infantry and artillery. The heat was intense, and in a vast expanse of tinder-dry bush which could have been turned into a fiery death trap by enemy aircraft dropping incendiaries, the South Africans had frequently to halt to check bearings.
With aircraft helping to keep them on course, and not a hostile bomber in sight, the columns struggled on hour after hour, observing complete wireless silence. They were never once spotted by enemy reconnaissance.
THE ATTACK ON GORAI
On approaching the Gorai-Hobok track, Lieutenant-Colonel C. L. Engelbrecht, commanding 2nd Field Force Battaltion, went forward
himself in an armoured car as the vehicles began to emerge from the scrub.4 The advance continued, and as Colonel Engelbrecht turned east towards the crater, he detached one platoon to take up position at the point where the newly blazed trail met the Gorai road.
Gorai crater, unapproachable from the south by mechanized transport because of the broken nature of the ground, rose abruptly from the surrounding scrub and dominated the plain. Internally, it was about half a mile across at the bottom, with a circumference round the outside of the slopes of some 6 miles and a depth of close on 200 feet to the flat bottom where a number of sulphurous waterholes were to be found. The lip of the crater, on the southern edge of which stood the Italian fort of rough stone, surrounded by barbed wire and with a number of machine-gun posts hidden among the near-by boulders, was of more or less uniform height except where a gully led into it.
THE ATTACK ON GORAI BY 2nd FIELD FORCE BATTALION.
The road from Hobok and El Gumu struck the lip of the crater near its north-western corner, in the vicinity of the gully. Fortifications had been thrown up overlooking the road and the gully, and a clearing some 300 yards wide gave the defenders an open field of fire. Weapon-pits and trenches were sited for all-round defence, but with particular emphasis on a concentrated attack from the south and west. A distance of about 1,000 yards separated the fort on the high ground on the southeast of the gully from the high ground on its other--north-west--side.5
Six armoured cars under Captain C. A. C. Saunders, second-in-
command of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company, preceded the 2nd Field Force Battalion and struck an enemy outpost early in the afternoon, some miles from the fort. The infantry advance guard became involved in a running fight with Banda patrols, which soon dispersed into thick bush, abandoning some camels and stores.6 By 1.30 p.m. the advance guard had made contact with the enemy holding the entrenched positions on the lip of the crater. They were held up by a road-block near the gully and came under fire from enemy machine-guns at a range of about 1,200 yards north-west of the fort.
Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht, who had already earned himself the nickname 'Kom-kom' through constantly urging his men on with a muttered 'Kom, kom kerels, kom' (Come along, chaps, come on), did a personal reconnaissance in his armoured car, moving from the high ground on the north-west of the gully. The road-block could be by-passed by armoured cars working down the gully on the right of the road, and Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht who, with his second-in-command, Major J. H. Wessels, was the centre of some snipers' attentions while holding an Order Group,7 devised a plan for a timed attack at 4 p.m. That would allow two and a half hours for 'A' Company under Major Hugh Bester, with six armoured cars in support, to work its way down the gully eastward and some 6 to 8 miles8 round the crater so as to get behind the enemy and cut off his line of withdrawal towards Dillo,9 another crater about 9 miles along a track to the northeast. For a quarter of an hour from 4 o'clock, a Vickers gun and mortar bombardment was to be directed at the fort to enable 'B' and 'C Companies of 2nd Field Force Battalion, who were by-passing the roadblock and assembling in the bush near the clearing to the southwest, to approach for a bayonet attack supported by four armoured cars. Major Louis Botha, M.C.,* was to be in command of the main attack.
The machine-guns and mortars were placed on high ground to the north-west of the crater, and for fifteen minutes they put down devastating fire on the enemy positions, whilst aircraft of 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. bombed the fort. The second mortar bomb fired at an enemy machine-gun position killed the Italian commander of the post and all the occupants of the weapon-pit, and as the South African infantry moved forward for the final assault at 4.15 p.m. the enemy began a withdrawal along a footpath on the inside lip of the crater towards the north-east.
Field Force Battalion Vickers guns were swung on to the new target and near panic ensued among the enemy, as one man after another was seen to hurtle down to the bottom of the hill. Captain Saunders's four armoured cars, dashing forward and leading the attack from the southeast, crashed through the barbed-wire entanglements, which were not mined, and cleared up one machine-gun post after another as the infantry--under fire for the first time--quickly followed them10 and overran the fort.
In the meantime, 'A' Company, in coming round the crater, had run into machine-gun and rifle fire from detached posts to the north-east. Fighting their way forward to a position behind the enemy in the crater
* Son of the famous Boer General and now in his third war.
itself, they inflicted heavy casualties on the Italians and took considerable toll of fugitives fleeing in that direction through the bush. The Field Force Battalion men themselves narrowly escaped being bombed and machine-gunned by their own aircraft as 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F.--not expecting to find their own ground forces in the area--began straffing the Banda escaping from the main assault that had come in from the south-east.
By 4.30 p.m. Gorai was completely in the hands of 2nd Field Force Battalion.11 Owing to broken ground, however, neither armoured cars nor infantry had managed to block the enemy's line of retreat completely. Both 8th Field Battery (T.H.A.) and the Left Section of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. had brought their guns into action covering the enemy positions but neither had been called upon to engage. Nevertheless, enemy casualties totalled 2 Italian officers and 26 Banda killed, and 1 Italian officer and 48 Colonial infantry and Banda captured, of whom 15 were wounded.12
The success was not achieved without loss.
Unbeknown to 2nd Field Force Battalion as it was waiting for zero hour for the assault from the south-east, some thirty of the enemy had moved up under cover of the inside lip of the crater, with a light machine-gun. By the time the South African machine-gun and mortar bombardment slackened, this enemy detachment had audaciously and stealthily approached up the gully to a position under some flat rocks within 200 yards of the high ground on which 2nd Field Force Battalion's own machine-guns and mortars and Battalion Headquarters were situated.
When Lieutenant B.J. D. Knight's No. 10 Platoon began moving to the final assault, it thus found itself not only under fire from the fort to its front but also enfiladed by this enemy machine-gun, now only some 50 yards to its left. Knight was shot in the throat and six others were soon wounded, but Sergeant H. A. du Randt, assuming command of the platoon, quickly realized the full extent of the danger to which his men were exposed, and ordered them to take cover.
Private J. H. Fitzpatrick was mortally wounded in the head while firing a Bren gun. He had just sufficient strength to hand over his gun to Private J. P. Fourie who, within a few minutes, was also killed in action.
Sergeant du Randt, taking four men with him, recovered the Bren, collected a number of grenades and crept up on the enemy. Alternately using bursts of Bren gun fire and a shower of grenades, he forced the enemy machine-gunners to withdraw to the fort. His daring cleared the gully, and earned him the Military Medal.13
On Sunday, 2nd February 1941, a Dutch Reformed Church chaplain conducted the burial service under a large tree on the battleground as 2nd Field Force Battalion laid to rest the regiment's first battle casualties--one English-speaking and one Afrikaans-speaking--the first South Africans buried on Abyssinian soil.14
At the main dressing station established by 'A' Company of 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., one operating team worked through the night attending to enemy wounded, more of whom were found in the bush and treated by Headquarters Company of the same unit next
day. South African casualties were again almost miraculously light by comparison.
The accuracy of the South African machine-gun and mortar fire had made a deep impression on the Banda, and for the first time prisoners were heard to speak in awe of the armoured cars as 'rhinoceros cars'. The Duke of Aosta's dispatches, admitting the loss of Gorai, put Italian losses at 2 Italian officers and 24 Banda missing and 13 wounded, and also significantly mentioned encounters with 'brigands' in which the Italians had lost 6 Europeans killed and 6 wounded as against 22 enemy killed and 'a great number' wounded.
The armoured cars pursued the enemy some distance along the rough camel track running north-east towards Dillo and the Kun-churro-Mega road, and the day after the engagement patrols went right into Dillo itself, driving out a few Banda in the process. Having handed over the water supply at Dukana to 21st Field Park Company, S.A.E.C., the 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. quickly had two subsections developing the wells at Gorai, where the whole unit was assembled by 4 February.
EL GUMU OVERRUN
Meanwhile, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, having also bashed its way through dense bush, had swung farther west on 1 February. Air reconnaissance had reported road-blocks on the northward road Gorai-El Gumu and the brigade had been advised how to move round them. For some time it pushed on with no sign of the enemy. The mechanized mass, some 3,000 yards long and covering a 700-yard front, moved with 1st S.A. Irish leading and 3rd Transvaal Scottish in support. The only cause for uneasiness came when leading elements heard sounds like a mechanized force moving ahead of them. They advanced cautiously, but all they found was a party from a South African road construction company clearing the way for a road into Abyssinia. By two o'clock in the afternoon, forward elements were within sight of the village of El Gumu, which was well wired.
Twenty-five minutes later the leading armoured cars under Lieutenant L. G. Williamson of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company encountered a light road-block of thorn bushes which the Sappers quickly cleared. The cars then met with rifle and machine-gun fire a mile south of the village. Troop-carriers of 1st S.A. Irish, ahead of the main column and accompanied by a subsection of Lieutenant J. R. Lowe's section of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. and 'B' Company of 11th Field Ambulance (Captain L. Melzer), were closely following the armoured cars and at about 3.45 p.m. they made contact with the enemy.15 Two sections of armoured cars, in line abreast, charged with sirens screeching and open exhausts roaring. Machine-gun fire from the enemy trenches in front of El Gumu had no effect on the cars and in a few moments the Banda were fleeing into the bush, leaving behind them 13 dead and 5 wounded.16
Six armoured cars, led by Staff-Sergeant C. W. Hallowes, swept through the dirty, dusty village and the routed enemy withdrew in disorder up the stony tracks threading their way through scrub and bush north-eastward to Kunchurro and westward to Hobok. This
possibility had been foreseen by Major Harry Klein, who had sent Lieutenant L. G. Williamson with three armoured cars on a wide flanking movement to the left in an effort to cut the enemy's line of retreat.17 Two of the cars broke down, and the demoralized Banda scattered when fired on by the third car. Both 9th Field Battery, T.H.A. and the Right Section of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. were ready to support the infantry but never opened fire.
The only possible method of maintaining communications during the fast-moving action was by wireless and No. 1 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S.--now commanded by Captain F. C. Slack since the transfer of Major W. G. Perkins to Divisional Signals--kept units in constant touch with Brigade Headquarters without a hitch. Using first-class, rugged American wireless sets, the Signals units were able to render remarkably efficient service, which was in marked contrast to that afforded the artillery units using different radio equipment.
Early on the sunny morning of 2 February, 1st Field Force Battalion relieved 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group at El Gumu and the brigade group set out immediately westwards towards Hobok with 3rd Transvaal Scottish leading, and 18-pounders and anti-tank guns in support.
Three armoured cars spearheaded the Transvaal Scottish battalion in battle formation, with the leading company and one subsection of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.G. astride the road to Hobok and the other two companies with the rest of Lieutenant H. J. Barker's section of Engineers deployed on either side of the road, each with a section of armoured cars covering its outer flank. Battalion Headquarters, ancillary detachments and two further armoured cars travelled between the supporting companies.18 All went peacefully for some 16 miles.
By 11.25 a.m. the head of the column was about 8 miles south-east of Hobok when the right flank company was forced to move inwards to avoid the flames of a bush fire reported to have been deliberately started by the enemy north of the battalion axis of advance, to cover his withdrawal up the Lugga Bulal towards Obot and Banno.
General Brink had anticipated such an enemy move by ordering air reconnaissance of a cross-country route round the enemy's left flank, into the Lugga Bulal north of Hobok. The terrain being too broken for such a move, a route round the south side of the fire was reconnoitred by aircraft and along this the brigade group continued its advance. 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. dropped bombs both on the fort and on a camp in the Lugga Bulal north of Hobok and met with heavy machine-gun fire from ground defences, which had had good warning of impending attack from Banda who had escaped from El Gumu.
Shortly afterwards, rifle fire signalled that contact had been made by the infantry and armoured cars. An improvised road-block of trees and
thorn bushes near a slight rise covered by enemy riflemen about 3,000 yards from the main Hobok defensive positions was bypassed by the leading armoured cars, moving in thick bush over hard-baked ground strewn with larva rocks. In clearing the road-block the men of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. found among the dry branches an improvised fire bomb consisting of an Italian hand-grenade with cap unscrewed and pin removed so that the detonator was only just held clear of the striker pin. Immediately above the grenade was a bottle of petrol which, on being disturbed, would have fallen on the grenade, exploded and set fire to the road-block and near-by bush.
At about 2 p.m. the forward company of 3rd Transvaal Scottish debussed, and the men in their bush-shirts, with their long khaki drill trousers tucked into their anklets, deployed for the attack. At about 2.35 p.m. the enemy withdrew rapidly on to prepared positions, which prisoners stated to be held by about 800 Banda under European officers.
Engineers rapidly cleared the track, but as the South African forward elements topped the rise beyond the road-block they came under heavy fire, and it became obvious that a planned assault would be necessary to overrun the defences, which were based on the solidly constructed stone blockhouse and breastworks of hand-packed rock on the feature ahead of the battalion.19 They stood out against a backdrop of the distant Dukkamunna Mountains. From the rise, where the leading company of the 3rd Transvaal Scottish was pinned down by violent machine-gun and rifle fire, the wattle and daub buildings of Hobok and its Banda compound, surrounded by a stone wall like that of a South African cattle-kraal, could be seen across a depression which was completely open. Deep dongas--or luggas--ran to right and left of the position, however, and then joined together in the wider and deeper Lugga Bulal, which sheltered the valuable waterholes among the trees beyond the defences. The blockhouse completely dominated the direct approach, and bush liberally dotted all but the cleared belt before the fortifications and the actual crest of the hillock on which Hobok was situated.
Dust clouds rising from the Lugga Bulal betrayed enemy elements pulling out to the north, and another attempt was made by a section of armoured cars to work round the right flank of the fort and cut off this line of retreat. Unfortunately deep luggas made the country impassable. One armoured car capsized and was only salvaged with difficulty by the Light Aid Detachment Workshop Section directed by Lieutenant S. Chiappini under fire. Hauled out of a deep lugga by winches, the car was righted, the crew being uninjured. The attempt to cut off the enemy had to be abandoned.
Having gone forward himself on reconnaissance, Lieutenant-Colonel Kirby allocated targets in the 'built-up' area of Hobok to the artillery and positioned the 3rd Transvaal Scottish mortars and machine-guns on the rise occupied by his leading rifle company.20 Major H. Greenwood had brought 9th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.) into action about 2,000 yards south-east of Hobok fort, and at about 2.45 p.m. his guns registered on the blockhouse and inner defences. The section of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. also bombarded the fort and machine-gun
nests with telling effect. At 3.30 p.m. the guns opened accurate fire on several targets in the fort area, giving special attention to the blockhouse, one corner of which was eventually smashed open, to the accompaniment of cheers from hundreds of spectators in 5th Brigade Headquarters area. Simultaneously aircraft from 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. bombed and machine-gunned positions within the perimeter and in the Lugga Bulal, while men of 1st S.A. Irish clambered on to their troop-carriers in the rear to watch the battle. No. 1 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. was again providing excellent communication by wireless, including a link with the armoured cars.
In the absence of enemy aircraft or patrols, the heavy section of 'A' Company of 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. under Major M. Ren ton formed an advanced dressing station only about 1,800 yards from the fort, and a mile or so ahead of its own Headquarters Company, which was being held in reserve in case of high casualties. The remaining light section of the field ambulance under Captain W. Simpson was some 380 miles away by road--at Turbi Hills with Regiment Botha--and unable to share the privileged view of the ensuing action.
With the infantry attack timed for 4.30, five armoured cars under Lieutenant A. W. Thompson concealed themselves in the lugga, waiting to charge the fort and then work round to cut off withdrawal. Three other armoured cars under Staff-Sergeant R. M. Brodigan were to go through the lugga to a position to the left of the fort and co-ordinate their final advance with the infantry, while the three Company Headquarters cars would dash down the road and make straight for the fort.21
By 4.15 p.m. all the cars were in position. Then, at the critical moment, with the assault about to be launched, four out of the five wireless sets in use in the armoured cars failed due to battery wear. The order to advance had just got over the air when communications within the Armoured Car Company broke down.
Just on 4.30, the 3rd Transvaal Scottish began its assault, which was met by heavy machine-gun fire from all parts of the fortifications. Mortars and anti-tank guns were ordered to silence the enemy, while the leading company, with its left flank covered by a section of armoured cars, worked down the right-hand lugga to envelop the defenders' left flank in preparation for an attack with the bayonet. The heavy concentration of fire, the appearance of the armoured cars and the sight of the approaching infantry shook the enemy and they soon evacuated the shattered blockhouse.
Armoured cars blazed at every Banda who broke cover, and Lieutenant Thompson's section of cars worked to the right to try to cut off the enemy, while Lieutenant Irwin raced towards the fort itself. Lieutenant J. D. W. Human of 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F., circling low in his Hartbeest, spotted an enemy machine-gun post concentrating on Irwin's car and he dived to Irwin's support. Hit by ground fire, Human lost height rapidly but nevertheless turned once again to give his air-gunner, Air-Sergeant J. Jackson, another chance at firing on the enemy. With engine seized, the pilot had to swing away and glided off into a crash-landing in the bush in front of the advancing Transvaal Scottish. Lieutenant Human was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air-Sergeant Jackson the first Distinguished Flying
Medal awarded to an air-gunner in the South African Air Force.22
As Lieutenant Irwin's car approached the fort, Staff-Sergeant Brodi-gan closed in from the left and the Armoured Car Company Headquarters moved up on the centre. By 5 o'clock 3rd Transvaal Scottish were in such close contact with the enemy that their supporting artillery and the air force could only engage with difficulty. Within a short time the armoured cars had smashed through double-apron barbed wire entanglements and forced their way into the fortifications from the front, while the infantry closed in from the flank. With two companies pressing home the attack, the third was brought forward to a position where it could support the assault or further advance.
While the S.A. Irish covered the rear of 3rd Transvaal Scottish, the leading Transvaal Scottish companies pressed on through the gaps made in the wire by the armoured cars, to find that the main body of the enemy had already evacuated the position, making use of the excellent line of withdrawal provided by the Lugga Bulal in the direction of Banno. Only a small but courageous rearguard of Native Irregulars faced the final South African assault.
Lieutenant-Colonel Kirby, as soon as Hobok fort had been occupied, sent forward the supporting third rifle company to help neutralize a minor counter-attack on the left flank, which was easily repulsed. Lieutenant Irwin received an immediate award of the Military Cross and Staff-Sergeant Brodigan an immediate Military Medal for their gallant work during the attack.23 Four wounded prisoners, two of whom died later, and four enemy dead--all Banda--were found, together with considerable quantities of equipment and small-arms ammunition. Another prisoner was later rounded up.
The enemy had fought well and though their fire was intense, South African casualties, owing largely to the armoured cars and the fact of enemy fire again being high, were limited. However, Private A. B. Cunningham24> of 'C' Company, 3rd Transvaal Scottish was mortally wounded in the chest. Two other ranks of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company were wounded but remained on duty, one of them--Corporal R. R. G. White--subsequently losing the sight of an eye.25
The newly captured positions, in which 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. rendered a number of booby traps harmless, were quickly organized for defence against counter-attack, and as 3rd Transvaal Scottish settled down for the night, after its first action, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters and attached troops formed a temporary perimeter camp about 3 miles from Hobok fort, protected by 1st S.A. Irish. Here Captain G. I. D. Emanuel took over command of No. 1 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S., with Captain L. K. Fairley as Second-in-Command. Brigade Headquarters had no difficulty in keeping in touch with Divisional Headquarters.
Brigadier Armstrong, in reporting the Hobok success to General Brink's Headquarters, was able to add that the water supply had been estimated by Major C. J. Venter of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. at 20,000 gallons per day. The enemy having no monopoly of faulty ammunition, the Sappers had to destroy three unexploded aircraft bombs and three mortar bombs, all of South African manufacture.
PATROLS PRESS ON
The night of 2/3 February passed uneventfully till 4 a.m. when a violent fusillade from one sector of the S.A. Irish lines woke all and sundry. Reconnaissance by No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company at first light revealed no sign of the enemy, but three donkeys lay riddled with bullets among the scrub and lava rocks near the lugga where the 3rd Transvaal Scottish had approached Hobok the previous day.26
Patrols, with the necessary Signals links, were sent out by 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group towards Obot and westward toward El Dima, while fuller investigation of the wells at Hobok revealed that they could supply all 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group's requirements, with sufficient over for another brigade if necessary. This was indeed fortunate, as the heat was almost unbearable, especially between midday and 3 o'clock in the afternoons. In the evenings, the sky became overcast but no rain fell.
While most of the troops proved resistant to dysentery, which could have been expected to take its toll in an area such as Hobok, which had been left in a foul state by the Italian Native troops, the lull in operations inevitably saw an increase in in-patients in 11th Field Ambulance's main dressing station, and the medical officers found themselves attending fifty to sixty patients with sundry ailments.
In his dispatch to Rome, the Duke of Aosta reported significantly that the Italian air force had been unable to intervene at Hobok owing to lack of aircraft. He was also worried about the loss of Beles Gugani--south-west of Afmadu on the Italian Somaliland front--which pointed to an imminent attack on Kismayu.
South African armoured car patrols up the Lugga Bulal penetrated beyond Obot and discovered 3 miles to the north of it a supply dump which the enemy had failed to destroy. It was still smouldering, but forty-seven cases of small-arms ammunition, twenty-eight rifles, some Very lights and grenades and large quantities of medical stores, rations and other material were recovered. Further east, 1st Field Force Battalion had moved into El Gumu, which became the supply point for both 2nd and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Groups and the water-point for 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade, which fetched the water from Hobok in 44-gallon drums.27 El Gumu also became a relay post for the dispatch riders of No. 1 Divisional Signals Company, S.A.C.S., who ran a daily service both ways from Dukana to Marsabit--180 miles each way--with three services daily from Divisional Headquarters to El Gumu to link with the brigades. Arduous conditions had by now made it necessary to use one-ton trucks in place of motor-cycles for this purpose.
The 1st Field Force Battalion sent out strong patrols in various directions, including the road which runs from Hobok to Kunchurro. Captain T. S. Davie took out a raiding party to El Gobso and Sunan Gado on the road north of Mega, but no enemy were seen. El Dokolle and Fiale were found evacuated, the embers of the cooks' fires being still hot at the former post when it was reached by the South Africans.28
Patrols on 3 February found Kunchurro also evacuated and on 5 February it was occupied by 1st Field Force Battalion, who consolidated a position across the junction of the road from Hobok with the Mega-Banno road.
Constant patrolling was beginning to tell on the armoured cars, and by 4 February, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade was reporting that the position regarding replacement tyres for the armoured cars was very urgent. The brigade also had no means of repairing other vehicles, owing to lack of springs and because it had no workshops. No. 3 Mobile General Workshops (Captain F. Walker) had joined the brigade group at Gilgil on Christmas Day and was handling some 2,000 jobs a month, but they were not moving with the brigade in Abyssinia.
Good roads were the only satisfactory answer to the pressing problem of wear and tear on vehicles, and in the formidable country to the east of the Chalbi Desert survey detachments of South African Road Construction Companies were mapping out a new route that was going to ease transport problems greatly. It was not long before 26th and then 31st and 32nd Roads Construction Companies, S.A.E.C. began building the road.
A PERSONNEL PROBLEM
In 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group on the Italian Somaliland Front, Brigadier Pienaar had another worry. Lieutenant-Colonel McMenamin, commanding the Natal Carbineers, was ill and--with the shortage of properly qualified senior officers--Brigadier Pienaar had no one in his brigade whom he considered suitable to take over the battalion. On 3 February, knowing major operations to be pending, he flew south from Arbo to Garissa to see Major-General Godwin-Austen, Commanding 12th African Division, and, as shown in a personal letter from General Cunningham to General Brink a few days later, Brigadier Pienaar's officer problem also caused some uneasiness at East Africa Force Headquarters.
Major P. M. G. le Roux of the Natal Mounted Rifles was suggested by General Brink to fill the vacancy, but at the time he was hundreds of miles to the north-west of Arbo, with his own unit at Dukana, so some time would have to elapse before he could assume command of the Natal Carbineers.
Meanwhile, events were rapidly approaching a decisive phase in East Africa. While General Brink's two South African infantry brigade groups were moving into position for the capture of Mega and the turning of the Mega-Moyale escarpment, the Commanders of 11th and 12th African Divisions conferred with General Cunningham and were given the outline of his plans for the capture of Kismayu, a move which--unbeknown to East Africa Force--had been expected by the Italians for a month or more. The port had not been bombed by the South African Air Force and along the River Tana the Duke of Aosta had noted the build-up of forces who could be supported by the Royal Navy in any attack on Kismayu. He had reasonably inferred that Kismayu would be General Cunningham's early objective, and he had already given orders for the evacuation of all unnecessary personnel and material from the port. He had also ordered Lieutenant-General Carlo de Simone to fall back on the River Juba if attacked and to defend Kismayu only with the forces already available there, while the rest of the Italian army along the Juba attacked General Cunningham's left flank. The Duke estimated that East Africa Force would attack
with two divisions, each of three brigades, considerably reinforced with mechanical equipment. It was a fair appreciation.
General Cunningham did indeed have two divisions available for the task, but they were not both complete, and he calculated at the beginning of February that his transport was only sufficient for a force of four brigade groups,29 though the finding of water on both possible routes forward had reduced the required amount of water-carrying transport to some extent. With the rains expected shortly and the necessity of a full moon for an approach by night, he decided to begin operations on the Somaliland front in only ten days' time, on 11 February. His object was limited to the capture of Kismayu and of a bridgehead at Jumbo near the mouth of the Juba. No written orders were issued and only a minimum number of individuals was given an inkling of his intentions.
In the meantime, while Major-Generals Wetherall and Godwin-Austen went about their preparations for the move on Kismayu, General Brink's operations in southern Abyssinia continued. Shortage of suitable armoured cars, the elementary standard of training of 25th East African Brigade's only two battalions (2/3 and 2/4 King's African Rifles) and their lack of signals equipment and dearth of reinforcements combined to delay operations on the Turkana front west of Lake Rudolf, but east of the lake the South African brigades were kept busy.
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation