Interlude at Banno

Immediately he had secured the Gorai-El Gumu-Hobok triangle, General Brink took steps to support the hoped-for Shifta rebellion. On 2 February, 1/3 King's African Rifles came under command of 1st S.A. Division and was disposed at Marsabit, Kalacha, North Horr and Dukana to assist in protecting the lines of communication. No. 2 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company, which was thus released, concentrated at Dukana in reserve. On 3 February patrols from 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade found Kunchurro evacuated and on 5 February it was occupied by 1st Field Force Battalion.

It was decided to send two fighting patrols towards Banno, which forms the northern apex of a Hobok-Kunchurro-Banno triangle and lies about 36 miles north of Hobok. There the patrols were to drop about fifty Shifta in the Gundile area to link up with dissatisfied tribesmen and to encourage their activities against the Italians. Lieutenant Bon-ham subsequently changed his mind in favour of sending his Shifta on foot, but General Brink was not satisfied that they alone would make any great impression on the local inhabitants. Accordingly, he decided to send out patrols to establish the division on the line Kunchurro--Banno, not only to encourage the rebels but also to establish 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group on a firm base from which to reconnoitre the area west and, if possible, north-west and north of Yavello, strategically situated on the road from Mega to the Lakes and eventually to Addis Ababa itself. The move would also give 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group a firm base to reconnoitre a cross-country route from Kunchurro north-eastwards to the road Mega-Yavello, which it could then raid.

With the two brigade groups working in close liaison, it was planned that 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group would send out at first light on 8 February a strong fighting patrol to be known as Dobbs Force* and consisting of infantry, mortars and armoured cars, towards Banno backed up by the rest of the battalion finding the infantry. Banno, the strength of whose garrison was not accurately known at the time, would

* Dobbs Force consisted of 1st S.A. Irish, one section of 9th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.) under the Battery Captain, Captain F. Cochrane, No. 1 Platoon and Company Headquarters of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company, a detachment of Engineers consisting of Captain K. V. Cunliffe, Lieutenant J. G. C. Buchan and sixteen other ranks of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C, 'B' Company of 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. under Captain L. Melzer, and one company of 2nd Abyssinian Irregulars. The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group patrol consisted of a company of 1st Field Force Battalion and one section of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company.


be occupied and consolidated, and a company of 2nd Abyssinian Irregulars would be moved there from Hobok and come under command of the battalion dug in at Banno.

The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was to send out another patrol whose arrival at Banno was to coincide with that of 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group patrol. A possible cross-country route to the objective was selected from the air by 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. The selected route passed north of Obot, and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group duly detailed a strong patrol with Lieutenant-Colonel Dobbs of the S.A. Irish in overall command, and with 40 Army Co-operation Squadron ordered to drop messages to provide the necessary contact with 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group patrol under Major Jack Bester.* Dobbs Force set off from Hobok for Banno via Obot early on 8 February. With no known waterholes between Hobok and Banno and with maps of doubtful accuracy as their guide, it was engaged on a somewhat hazardous exploit.

Two sections of armoured cars and No. 1 Platoon Headquarters under Lieutenant L. G. Williamson, with an 'Abyssinian guide of dubious value'1 in the leading car on 8 February moved fairly well in advance of the foremost platoon of S.A. Irish and No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company Headquarters. The main body of the large patrol followed a few hundred yards behind, with a third section of armoured cars covering the rear of the column. Following a camel track until it petered out on a broad plain, where the Abyssinian guide admitted that he had not seen Banno since his childhood, the patrol struggled on with the temperature reaching nearly 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.2

An execrable surface of cotton-soil, criss-crossed with corrugations and potholes, jolted the infantrymen's spines in their troop-carriers, battered the springs flat on the heavy armoured cars and slowed the column to walking pace. By 4.30 that afternoon the patrol was still some 7 miles short of its objective and Lieutenant-Colonel Dobbs signalled Brigadier Armstrong to tell him that the going was extremely difficult and the armoured cars were boiling. Six had blown their cylinder-head gaskets through overheating. A night march under the circumstances would be very risky, so Colonel Dobbs sent forward small patrols to contact Major Jack Bester's force and decided to consolidate where he was for the night.

The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade patrol, co-ordinating its approach with that of Dobbs Force on 8 February, had found reasonably good going from Kunchurro for about 15 miles and was now also about 7 miles from Banno, but to the east of it. Wireless communication was established between the two patrols, and they both settled down for the night, with instructions to push on at first light. The signals detachment from No. 1 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. provided good communication for Dobbs Force and was handling wireless traffic which was to reach record proportions before the detachment rejoined its parent company.

At about 10.15 on the morning of 9 February the leading armoured

* Later Brigadier J. Bester, D.S.O., who commanded 13th S.A. Motorized Brigade in Italy in 1944-5.


cars with Dobbs Force, at the head of the Goche Valley defile, sighted the fort of Banno atop a rocky, conical koppie some 3 miles ahead.3 Major Jack Bester's patrol was about the same distance from the objective, which air reconnaissance reported to consist of a small Native village to the east of which were what appeared to be two forts situated on a rise.

To the east, north and west of Banno a rocky escarpment of the Gundile Mountains rose abruptly from the plain on which the village stood. Keeping in wireless touch with Major Bester, Dobbs Force sent armoured cars forward, reconnoitring the direct approach to Banno down the dangerous Goche Valley defile. Cautiously the leading cars felt their way forward, expecting to be fired on at any minute, and at noon one of 40 Squadron's aircraft came in low and bombed and machine-gunned the fort. There was no reply from the enemy.

Armoured cars, advancing along the ridge to the left and right of the main fort, also found no sign of the enemy, and at 12.30 p.m. Major Klein signalled to Colonel Dobbs that the armoured car platoon commander was in the fort and was sending two armoured cars forward to reconnoitre.

On the north-west the ridge was too steep for the armoured cars to advance, but Major Klein could see 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade patrol's leading vehicles approaching from the north-east, while the S.A. Irish advance guard was entering the clearing below the fort from the southeast.4 Luckily the S.A. Irish vehicles were moving at a good pace, for as the leading platoon approached the defences and reached the shelter of the ridge, heavy rifle and machine-gun fire from the hills to the north-west blanketed Banno from positions only 600 to 800 yards away, where the more intrepid members of 17th and 60th Italian Colonial Infantry Battalions lay in ambush.

Armoured cars and the infantry platoon now within the shelter of the fort returned the fire, and Major Jack Bester's patrol moved round through the bush north of Banno and engaged the enemy astride the road to the north-west leading to Meti. Meanwhile, the main body of Dobbs Force debussed in the bush, out of range of enemy small arms fire, while two sections of armoured cars, hull down on the ridge, kept the enemy pinned down with machine-gun fire.5

The remaining two platoons of the forward company of S.A. Irish advanced to occupy high ground immediately south-west of the fort, from where they engaged the enemy, about 800 yards to the north, with mortars and Vickers guns. Under cover of artillery, mortar and Vickers fire, the other two companies of the S.A. Irish climbed up the highest feature west of Banno and opened fire on the enemy at a range of only 200 yards. Caught between two converging lines of fire, the enemy withdrew into the rugged hills to the north where pursuit by armoured cars was impossible and any follow-up on foot was rendered hazardous by the denseness of the bush.

With the main body of Dobbs Force in the defile, deployment was rendered very difficult for the artillery. Captain Cochrane sent a runner back to the Gun Position Officer of the 18-pounder section, with instructions to drop into action just off the track and lay a telephone line to a prominent feature clearly visible to the guns. He meanwhile


reconnoitred for an observation post, laying telephone cable as he went. Within fifteen minutes the first round from the guns was whistling towards the enemy and the third ranging shot scored a direct hit on a machine-gun post. An Italian officer, who appeared to be in sole command of the enemy force, moved from one post to another till he ran into the burst of a ranging round and was mortally wounded. A few rounds of gunfire then sent the enemy scurrying for cover in a wooded gully.

Desultory firing continued till 4.30 p.m., by which time the last of the enemy could be seen withdrawing westward into the depths of the Gundile Mountain ridges. Before dark on 9 February both South African patrols were consolidating in the vicinity of the fort, and the Sappers from 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. were busy on reconnaissance for water. Two wells were discovered on the Banno-Meti road north of the fort and a further well was found next to a dump of burning enemy stores. With the help of an infantry working party the Engineers also set about removing two roadblocks of large rocks in a narrow defile on the road to Meti.

The only South African casualty was Private A. Judes of S.A. Irish, who was killed in action. Enemy casualties had all been removed, but nine other ranks of the two Italian Colonial Battalions were captured. All but one company of 17th Colonial Battalion, apparently, had withdrawn into the hills on the approach of the South African troops. The first shells from 9th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.) had killed the Company Commander and Sergeant-Major of the one steadfast company, and thereafter the Colonial Infantry had little heart for further fighting, which was also discouraged by predicted shooting on to their positions during the night.

On 10 February, the day after the action at Banno, Major Jack Bester's patrol was withdrawn to Kunchurro and a Light Aid Detachment had to be sent up to Banno to repair the battered armoured cars, which were urgently needed for further operations. The Italians, after cunningly allowing the armoured cars to pass unchallenged, had bungled the ambush of the S.A. Irish, but Dobbs Force in its turn had been unable to bring its full firepower to bear for fear of inflicting casualties on Major Bester's men of 1st Field Force Battalion. For two days the Italian Colonial Infantry continued to give trouble and had to be driven off with long-range fire.

After mechanics had worked on them all night, some of the armoured cars at Banno on 10 February began to reconnoitre round the eastern slopes of the Orbatte Hills from Banno towards Yavello. Apart from seeking possible routes to Yavello, they were also trying to locate Hadu Mountain so that plans could be made to get in touch with Haile Degaga, the Shifta leader. After the cars had battled the whole morning, an Abyssinian guide casually pointed out the direction of Hadu.6 Another armoured-car patrol on 10 February tried to reach the road from Yavello to Giarso (some 25-30 miles due north of Banno) but rain on the black cotton soil forced the cars to turn back at a point about 10 miles south of the road. No enemy were sighted.

Next day (11 February) patrols reached Meti, north-west of Banno, but found the track beyond this point impassable to mechanized


transport. In the meantime, Robi the Shifta--last seen at Marsabit--had mysteriously appeared out of hiding. He had been unable to get through to Hadu Mountain, because of Italian patrols; but now he was ready to take word to Haile Degaga if the armoured cars could get him past the Italians.

A patrol of four armoured cars and a section of S.A. Irish, under command of Major Harry Klein, quickly set out with Robi and his five Shifta henchmen, making for Hadu Mountain, which was estimated to be some 60 miles across the plain in the direction of Yavello. They found the Yavello-Giarso road deserted, and after covering 52 miles they dropped Robi and his Shifta. The patrol then turned back.

With 2nd Regiment Botha containing the Italian Colonial Infantry and Banda round Moyale and guarding the base at Marsabit, General Brink decided to concentrate 2nd and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Groups for his planned attack on Mega, to outflank Moyale. To the east, operations that were destined to transform the East African campaign had already begun.

On 13 February No. 2 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company (Major C. L. Stander) took over garrison duties at Banno and the bulk of Dobbs Force withdrew to Kunchurro.

A platoon of Irregulars, a detachment of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C, and a section of armoured cars remained at Banno under command of No. 2 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company, who had been greeted with some enemy shelling by elements from the Italian 9th Brigade, who had returned to remove a large dump of stores hidden north of the fort.7 By midday on 13 February the enemy again appeared on the hills to the north of Banno, where about fifty of them could be made out on a ridge about a mile away. A patrol was sent out to disperse them and return with one prisoner, who stated that the enemy force was in the hills 5 miles to the north and had sent to Yavello for artillery support.

Next day, 14 February, a patrol was fired on by two machine-guns and about thirty rifles some 3,000 yards north of Banno camp, which was about 1,000 yards from the wells. The men were extricated by another patrol working round the enemy's left and forcing them to withdraw. That afternoon, Lieutenant H. B. Theunissen's platoon of the Natal Mounted Rifles, with a section of mortars, arrived from Kunchurro to reinforce the little garrison. Later, Lieutenant Jack Arnott's platoon of 'B' Company, Natal Mounted Rifles, also arrived with a convoy bringing reserve rations, ammunition and supplies of Dannert wire, and escorted by two armoured cars.8

Aircraft from 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F., now operating from Kunchurro, bombed and machine-gunned enemy positions round Banno on 14 February and during that night the Italians attacked rather half-heartedly. They were easily driven off by rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire. While Major Stander sent infantry patrols working forward to the wells on 15 and 16 February, 40 Army Co-operation Squadron again bombed the enemy, about 200 of whom were seen to be moving deceptively like friendly 'Shifta' over the ridge towards the South African positions during the afternoon of 16 February. Major Stander's suspicions were aroused and he sent out a


section of armoured cars to test the Shiftas' reaction.

As the cars moved out on the road to Meti, the 'Shifta' suddenly vanished and two pack artillery guns opened up. The cars were not hit but had to withdraw, and while the enemy, in greater numbers than at first imagined,9 dug themselves in on three koppies dominating the wells and the road, the officers of the garrison held a hurried conference to discuss the desirability of withdrawal. In view of the possibility of ambush and the need to prevent the enemy's outflanking Hobok, El Yibo and Dukana, Major Stander decided to hold Banno at all costs.

That afternoon two more enemy guns joined in shelling the wells and did considerable damage. After dark on the night 16/17 February, Very lights lit up the sky above the ridges north, north-west and west of Banno, and the perimeter defences were reinforced. Next day two South African aircraft again bombed the ridge held by the enemy, killing some pack animals in a lugga. The garrison was now running out of water and on 18 February it was decided to put down a mortar bombardment on the enemy positions while Lieutenant Theunissen's platoon--'The Babies', with an average age of under 21--moved under cover of a spur to retake the wells. Once within striking distance, the young men from Natal opened with Bren guns and rifles, and then charged the three koppies with fixed bayonets. There was no opposition, but blood on the ground and discarded hats, coats and blankets testified to enemy casualties and rapid withdrawal.

A deserter stated that the Italian 17th Colonial Battalion had retired on Giarso while the 60th had fallen back on Yavello, and when 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. on 19 February again bombed the lugga in which they had seen camels earlier on, some 120 Natives hoisted the white flag. Escorted to the fort by the aircraft, the Natives claimed to be Shifta who had occupied the hills after the enemy had vacated them, but all the evidence pointed to their being Banda who had conveniently changed their allegiance when word reached them of the operations of 2nd and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Groups to the southwest, round Mega.

Apart from dislodging two Colonial battalions, the Banno patrols had enabled Robi and his henchmen to be dropped to establish contact with the Shifta, but it was becoming increasingly obvious to General Brink that the Shifta organization was so split by personal jealousies and so close to brigandage as to be unworthy of further active support. Accordingly, with heavy rain in the Banno area and operations under extremely trying conditions in progress along the Mega-Moyale escarpment making maintenance of the isolated garrison doubly difficult, he withdrew Major Stander's little force to Kunchurro.

While the South African patrols were forcing the enemy to withdraw from Banno, 25th East African Brigade had been active west of Lake Rudolf, where General Brink had felt--in the earlier part of January--that Brigadier Owen's two newly-formed King's African Rifles battalions were too weak to attack Todenyang and Namaruputh until the South Africans had secured Hobok and Gorai. Now, in accordance with General Brink's overall plans, and with the help of No. 5 Platoon of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company and other South


African units, including 'A' Flight of 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F., a section of 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.AA. and 'J' (129th) R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps, the East Africans advanced. Toden-yang and Namaruputh were both occupied on 9 February.10

In the country north of Lake Rudolf, the Omo Valley was occupied by wild Merille tribesmen traditionally hostile to the Turkana and encouraged by the Italians to include the British in their dislike. Faced by a large concentration of Merille, 2 /4 King's African Rifles were denied the waterholes and unable to get supplies up owing to the poor state of the tracks. As official dispatches recorded, 'The Battalion was eventually extricated by the dispersal of Merille concentrations by air action and by sending forward water trucks escorted by armoured cars'.11

At a time when 15th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. was having to provide armed orderlies in the casualty clearing station to keep apart Abyssinian wounded from opposing sides, intent on murdering one another, General Brink could see that Brigadier Owen, with no European infantry, was now becoming involved in a war of Native against Native, quite divorced from the true issues. He suggested a flying column via Amar Gocche to Kalam to link up with Brigadier Owen, give the Merille a good drubbing and disarm them. This presupposed the road suitable beyond Banno through Meti and Amar Gocche to Kalam, and that the Moyale escarpment was secure, but as General Cunningham felt that operations against the Merille would be unprofitable, 25th East African Brigade went on the defensive in the Namaru-puth-Todenyang sector.


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