Confusion at the Crossroads
Though handicapped by poor maps and a lack of reliable information about cross-country routes and water supplies east of Kunchurro, General Brink had appreciated that a move against Yavello from the Gorai-El Gumu-Hobok triangle would expose 1st S.A. Division's lines of communication to possible attack from Mega or Moyale. He had therefore decided to clear up the escarpment first, as the occupation of Mega and Moyale offered an additional dividend in that they would provide a shorter and reasonably secure line of communication for future operations northward to the Lakes.
Allowing time to build up at Kunchurro a reserve supply of three days' water from Hobok, plus 30,000 reserve rations and a good stock of reserve ammunition at Dukana and El Gumu, the South African Divisional Commander on 11 February explained his plans in detail at a conference with Brigadier Armstrong and Brigadier Buchanan. The 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was to attack Mega from the north, while 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group simultaneously attacked from the east and also covered the road Mega-Moyale.1 Some controversy was later to result regarding General Brink's intentions, but neither at the conference at El Gumu on 11 February nor at any other time does there seem to have been any doubt as to what he wished his two brigade commanders to do. If any doubts were left after his detailed verbal orders had been issued, written instructions next day appear to have been perfectly clear on the subject.
The Natal Mounted Rifles, in accordance with these instructions, was in Divisional Reserve,* and was to concentrate at Kunchurro on 13 February. No. 2 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company was still holding Banno at the time, and No. 1 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company, 2nd Irregulars and a platoon of 1/3 King's African Rifles were spread in detachments of appropriate strength to hold Dukana, El Adi and the Huri Hills (in a south-easterly line some 12 miles south of the Abyssinian border), El Yibo, El Dima (well to the north-west of El Yibo), Hobok, El Gumu, Gorai and, about 8 miles further north-east, Dillo.
The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group--less the Natal Mounted Rifles--was completing concentration at Kunchurro on the afternoon
* Under command the Natal Mounted Rifles had a platoon of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company (less one section), 7th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.), a detachment of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C, 'B' Company of 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., and a detachment of 15th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C.
of 13 February, while 1st S.A. Irish was already there and 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. was to complete a move to the near-by landing ground next day with a section of 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. as ground defence.
The 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group--less the S.A. Irish at Kun-churro, and 2nd Regiment Botha at Turbi Hills to contain the enemy at Moyale--was instructed by General Brink to concentrate at El Gumu on 13 February. Signals personnel were kept busy, the Divisional Signals Company alone handling more than 20,000 messages in the fourteen weeks from 1 December 1940.
Both Mega and Moyale were thought to be held by the enemy in some strength and the two Colonial Battalions were known to be still near Banno. Detachments of Banda had been reported at Dubuluch, Mogado and at Sololo on the road to Moyale.
General Brink's instructions for the attack on Mega were clear. The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group (with 1st S.A. Irish under command and preceding the main body of the brigade) were to move at 4 a.m. on 14 February to secure El Sod (about 8 miles east of the Mega-Yavello road and close to the Mega-Neghelli road) and then to patrol strongly towards Ueb to the north-east of it. There was no reference at all in General Brink's instructions for 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group to leave behind any portion of its force en route for El Sod. The S.A. Irish were to secure the high ground in an area identified by a map reference which placed its centre virtually on Medaccio, about 4 miles north of Mega, astride the road to Yavello. They were also to secure the high ground between the Mega-Yavello and Mega-Kunchurro roads--in other words, the ridges west of Medaccio--patrolling strongly towards Dubuluch.
Three and a half hours after 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group had left the Kunchurro area, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group less the S.A. Irish (and also less Regiment Botha) would move from El Gumu to the area of El Gobso, where it would remain for the night of 14/15 February, before moving at first light by the cross-country route taken by the S.A. Irish, to the area already secured by that battalion. On arrival of 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group in the Medaccio area, 1st S.A. Irish would revert to its command.
During 15 February, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group--which would meanwhile have secured El Sod--and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group were to establish contact by wireless, by heliograph and by liaison officers and to carry out reconnaissance for an attack on Mega next day, 16 February.
The plan for the attack, as laid down by General Brink, envisaged a move by 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group at first light on 16 February round the enemy's eastern flank at Mega, with the brigade group simultaneously making dispositions to prevent the enemy's escape down the Mega-Moyale road. The 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, on receiving a pre-arranged signal that 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was in position for attack, would launch its assault on Mega along the most favourable ground flanking the Yavello-Mega road. Brigadier Armstrong was to assume command of both brigade groups in the event of it being found necessary to co-ordinate their operations. It looked as
though Mega would be in South African hands by nightfall on 16 February.
General Brink himself, in a letter to General Cunningham written the day after conferring with his Brigadiers at El Gumu, outlined his plans and left no doubt that his intention was for 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group to attack via the Neghelli-Mega road, which clearly meant from the north-east. He was also hoping they could prevent withdrawal to Moyale. The G.S.O.l, Colonel Steve Joubert, on 13 February was driven by armoured car to both Brigade Headquarters before the preliminary moves began, to deliver General Brink's written instructions for the advance and attack, together with verbal instructions to protect their flanks and rear with anti-tank guns and anti-tank rifles, which would be of no use in the mountainous approaches to Mega itself.
At 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters, Colonel Joubert afterwards recalled,1 Brigadier Armstrong read through the orders, nodded and handed them to his Brigade Major. It was dark by the time Colonel Joubert reached 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters, and there he 'had some difficulty' while sitting on a tarpaulin with the Brigade Commander and his Brigade Major, Eugene Maggs. Brigadier Buchanan raised a lot of difficulties, Colonel Joubert felt, while Major Maggs said nothing.
In the light of events, it is clear that 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade did not clearly grasp General Brink's precise intentions, which involved an attack by 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group from the east at the same time as 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade group's assault from the north. No such doubts existed at the Headquarters of 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade. Both the Divisional Commander and his G.S.O.l had personally explained the instructions in detail, however, and all seemed well set for a very successful operation, when a company of 1st Field Force Battalion under Major Jack Bester set out on the night of 13 February together with four armoured cars under Lieutenant John Dunning, to reconnoitre a possible cross-country route for 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group's approach to El Sod.
Preceded by 1st S.A. Irish and a small subsection of Sappers from 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C, the 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, including 8th Field Battery S.A.A. (T.H.A.) and the Left Section of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A., began its move at 4 a.m. on 14 February with 1st Field Force Battalion leading. The column extended for some 30 miles along the road,2 and progress was slow after passing El Dokolle on the southward track from Kunchurro, as the brigade group had to wind along a sandy trail made by the leading vehicles through country dotted with trees and bush, which was dense in patches. Nevertheless, the Mega-Yavello road was reached without incident.
The 1st S.A. Irish, escorted by armoured cars from No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company, turned south along the road and at 2 p.m. took up position across the roads Yavello-Mega and Neghelli-Mega where they joined at Medaccio. Boran tribesmen in the area were quite indifferent, and apart from awakening some disdainful interest on the part of a magnificent black-maned lion on Medaccio Hill, the arrival of the South Africans was simply ignored.3
In the wake of the S.A. Irish, and with Major Jack Bester's company already in possession of El Sod, where it met no opposition, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group reached Dubuluch on the Yavello-Mega road at a stage when the road was already effectively blocked by the S.A. Irish a few miles to the south, where they barred the way into Mega for any reinforcements coming from the north far more effectively than any isolated small detachment could do. Nevertheless, in order to protect his own brigade's rear--a step which Brigadier Buchanan considered a normal precaution--and simultaneously to cut off Mega from Yavello, Brigadier Buchanan here left 'C Company, 2nd Field Force Battalion, with a section of Vickers guns, some mortars, a detachment of anti-tank rifles and two armoured cars under Second-Lieutenant D. A. Wood of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company. The ineffectiveness of the Boyes anti-tank rifle against real tanks, which became a standing joke later in the war, was not yet recognized but there was, in any event, nothing sufficiently heavily armoured to stand up to it in South Abyssinia as far as was known.
The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, having shed this lone company in a move not contemplated in General Brink's instructions, then pushed on to the east. It was not till about 10 o'clock that night that the tail of the long column eventually reached El Sod, just east of the Neghelli--Mega road. Reports of enemy movement on both the Yavello and the Neghelli roads kept everyone on the alert, and an outpost line was thrown round the camp while digging and wiring of section posts was feverishly accomplished. Headquarters and 'A' Companies of 12th Field Ambulance established a main dressing station to cope with any casualties, and were expecting to be joined by 'B' Company from Kun-churro next day.
Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht (his Intelligence Officer, Captain D. B. H. Grobbelaar, was to remember afterwards) had a strange premonition of something amiss, and sat chewing hard on his pipe and muttering that all was not right. He would not sleep and kept worrying about the company left isolated well to the west of El Sod, which itself was 'a veritable fairyland of bonfires and lights', in spite of the suspected proximity of the enemy.4
The 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, including 9th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.)--which now had 4-5-inch howitzers in exchange for its 18 pounders--was still at El Gobso and only due to move up next day.
'C Company, 2nd Field Force Battalion, remained at the point on the road which was to become known as 'The Crossroads'. Colonel Engelbrecht, on Brigadier Buchanan's instructions, had ordered them to take up positions astride the road so as to prevent an enemy withdrawal from Mega during the night, whilst at the same time stopping any reinforcement of Mega from Yavello. Although he already had 1st S.A. Irish south of him on the same road, the Company Commander moved a couple of hundred yards north of 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade's actual crossing point, so as to get a reasonable field of view in both directions from a position where an upward slope formed a crest. Some way ahead, a deep donga cut across the road in thick bush.5
Lieutenant E. V. D. Kay's platoon, with one of the anti-tank rifles,
was placed furthest north, with sections west and east of the road and with a fair field of fire to the north in the direction of Yavello. It was already after sunset when the Bren guns were placed to provide crossfire and the men dug shallow trenches about two feet deep.
To Kay's left and rear, Lieutenant E. E. Fordred's platoon, with the other anti-tank rifle, was placed with a field of view in the opposite direction, towards Mega. Across the road from Fordred's platoon was Lieutenant Lawrence's platoon in reserve, with Company Headquarters on the road and more or less centrally situated between the three platoons. The two armoured cars were stationed as an observation post on a low crest on a bend in the road in the direction of Mega.
At about 3.30 in the morning on 15 February, men of Kay's platoon heard the rumble of vehicles approaching from the north, without lights. Shortly afterwards the first of two big 10-ton supply lorries reached the platoon's furthest outpost, apparently followed by an escort. The leading vehicle, which was at the head of a motorized column from 21st Colonial Division sent out from Yavello by General Zauli,6 drove past the foremost section of Kay's platoon without stopping, before it was brought to a halt by a shot from the anti-tank rifle.
Kay, aroused by two men on listening post duty, was already making for his anti-tank rifle position and was approaching the first vehicle, whose occupants were completely surprised, when he was shot through the jaw from the second vehicle and temporarily immobilized. Meanwhile Second-Lieutenant D. A. Wood and his armoured car crew had been woken up by the sound of the lorry engines. On hearing the exchange of fire and seeing Banda drop to the ground and take cover beneath the strange lorries, the armoured car men scrambled into their own vehicle and raked the enemy with machine-gun fire in the dim light.7
Wild firing broke out on both sides and it seemed to the men in their shallow slit-trenches that all hell had broken loose as bullets swished in every direction. Enemy troops in the rearmost vehicles had jumped down and were shooting wildly, but even before they were all out of the first troop-carrier Corporal N. J. Niemann, leading the section nearest the road, had hurled two grenades into the vehicle with great effect. He was about to throw a third when he was hit in the head by rifle fire and killed. His action had accounted for most of the enemy actually in the Field Force Battalion lines at the moment, but it became clear that the enemy, who were falling back on the donga up the road, were going to make a determined attack on the outpost, whose Company Commander had lost touch with the situation in the general confusion of wild firing in the dim moonlight.
As the enemy pulled back to reorganize, they were vulnerable to cross-fire from the Brens of the two foremost South African sections, who inflicted a number of casualties till the enemy withdrew to a safe distance, at about 500 yards. Captain W. C. Cronje, second-in-command of the company, made full use of the ensuing lull to bring up Lawrence's platoon on the right of Kay's position and Fordred's platoon on the left of Kay's platoon, which was now under Sergeant G. E. Bridges.
Wood, meanwhile, had collected his second armoured car and, acting
on instructions brought by runner from Captain Cronje, he drove forward a couple of hundred yards. In the event of a tank attack, he had been told, he was to fall back on one of the anti-tank rifles. Another messenger went hurrying off to El Sod to inform Battalion Headquarters of the attack.
At about 5.15 a.m., shortly before dawn, the enemy launched a frontal attack under cover of light artillery and supported by fifteen light tanks, 'carri veloci'-- which had been on their way to reinforce Mega and were run off their portees some way up the Yavello road. They were something completely novel to the South Africans--little three-ton L 3-40's--or CV 3's--with 26 mm armour in front, and 8 mm on the side. Their twin 8 mm machine-guns, firing forward, were raking the Field Force Battalion positions with long bursts of fire.
Even though the light tanks got right into the South African positions, the Italians were thrown back time and again. Developing pincer movements were frustrated by the flank platoons and the two armoured cars, which drove intrepidly among the advancing enemy in spite of an attempt by one light tank to ram Wood's car.8
The armoured cars eventually decided the time had come to retire behind the anti-tank rifles, but in the general melee the cars could not locate either of the Boyes rifles. Considerable damage was done to Field Force Battalion vehicles by fire from the light tanks as Captain Cronje had the trucks drawn up preparatory to withdrawal. The unarmed Cape Corps drivers displayed an extraordinary steadiness that aroused the admiration of the infantry they had come to pick up. Private I. Adams died behind the wheel of his three-tonner as the tanks broke into the position, while Kay's and Fordred's platoons fell back fighting, with the armoured cars covering their withdrawal on to the troop-carriers.
Fordred managed to get clear with two of his sections and some others from the left flank, but Lawrence, with most of his platoon, and Lieutenant F. W. Brail with the Vickers and mortar detachments, could not immediately reach their transport, which was already being overrun.
Dawn was breaking as the South African company fell back, with Lawrence's platoon withdrawing through the bush on foot. One of his sections, under Corporal C. W. Coetzee, was cut off and taken prisoner.
Captain Cronje was attempting to extricate the last of the roadworthy vehicles when it was reported to him that Lieutenant Kay, with his jaw badly shattered, was still lying at his platoon headquarters. The other wounded, including Sergeant-Major Kotze, had already reached the vehicles safely, and Captain Cronje went back with one of the armoured cars under heavy fire and rescued Kay, who was very weak from pain and loss of blood but still conscious.9
As Captain Cronje helped the semi-conscious Kay towards the armoured car, another shot hit the wounded man in the shoulder, but fortunately the enemy failed to follow up their advantage and the armoured car got away, carrying its two extra passengers in the wake of the badly shaken sections withdrawing eastwards towards El Sod. Two signallers'of No. 3 Brigade Signals Company leapt into an abandoned ammunition truck, ran the gauntlet of heavy enemy fire and also got
In the very early hours of the morning, in the camp at El Sod, Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht aroused Captain Grobbelaar as his ears picked up the sound of a truck racing towards them with engine revving hard. Almost before the vehicle appeared out of the twilight, a non-commissioned officer jumped down and began pouring out a harrowing tale of how 'C Company had been attacked at The Crossroads. Without a moment's delay, the Battalion Commander issued instructions to inform Brigadier Buchanan, called up Major Hugh Bester's Company and support weapons and alerted all ranks. Within less than half an hour, as Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht was about to lead a column out to reinforce the defenders of The Crossroads, 'C Company Commander himself arrived at Battalion Headquarters with some of his vehicles and a chilling story of disaster which left the impression that his whole company had been overrun and virtually annihilated by an overwhelming force of tanks.
The very word 'tanks' added to 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade's difficulties--and thus to everyone else's--a semantic problem which does not appear to have been sufficiently appreciated. A report of any attack by tanks inevitably conjured up a picture of riflemen hopelessly facing an inexorable advance of massive armoured fighting vehicles. In a rapid exchange of urgent signals and verbal reports, no time was apparently spared to explain that the vehicles concerned were not 'tanks' in the English sense at all--they were little 'carri veloci', miniature light armoured fighting vehicles less formidable than Bren carriers and easily vulnerable to Boyes anti-tank rifle fire. Unfortunately, there was no equivalent in the British forces and the description of these machines as 'tanks' was grossly misleading.
In view of the Company Commander's alarming report, which aroused Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht's temper both at the audacity of the enemy and at his Company Commander's own conduct, Brigadier Buchanan put a section of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery's 2-pounders and six armoured cars at the disposal of the Battalion Commander, who hurried westward before daybreak with his avenging force, all thirsting to get at the enemy whom they pictured as having butchered their comrades. With Colonel Engelbrecht there went 'A' Company of 2nd Field Force Battalion, Lieutenant A. O. Crook's platoon of 'B' Company, and strong supporting detachments of Vickers guns and mortars, the Left Section of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. and six cars from No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company under Major C. G. Walker.
About 3 miles from El Sod, this counter-attack force met stragglers on foot and sent them back in a troop-carrier brought out for the purpose, after hearing that they had been followed by the tanks until dawn.
Emergency Operations messages originated at 5.37 and 6.15 a.m. that morning had already indicated to Advanced Divisional Headquarters that heavy losses had been incurred in The Crossroads clash, and at 9 a.m. on 15 February, General Brink's Advanced Headquarters received a further highly coloured signal regarding the engagement and originated at 6.50 a.m. Brigadier Buchanan now estimated 2nd Field Force Battalion losses at a company less one section and informed the Divisional Commander that he had warned 1st S.A. Irish and 5th
S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters. He added the suggestion that 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade should follow his track with a strong force of anti-tank guns to prevent reinforcement of the enemy from Mega and Yavello. As 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group had only one section of two 2-pounder anti-tank guns, the suggestion was somewhat optimistic.
Actually, Brigadier Armstrong's Brigade Group, having left El Gobso on the cross-country route in perfect weather and according to orders at 6.30 a.m. was already on its way towards the Mega-Yavello road and the area secured by S.A. Irish round Medaccio. During its move it ran into a troop-carrier which had escaped from the Crossroads action and, acting on information from the driver, it took the necessary precautions to ward off any tank attack, and placed its only two anti-tank guns to cover the Yavello road. Brigadier Armstrong sent his armoured cars well forward to reconnoitre ahead of the main column.
No sign of the enemy was reported by 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade, though it had been on the move for little more than an hour when 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade reported enemy tanks active on both the Yavello-Mega and the Neghelli-Mega roads. This in itself was disconcerting news, if correct, and Brigadier Buchanan followed it shortly after 8 o'clock with a signal which took three-quarters of an hour to reach General Brink's headquarters and requested air reconnaissance of a convoy said to be approaching from the north-east.
An aircraft from the hard-worked 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. was immediately dispatched and reported that the only columns of dust which they could see were raised by herds of cattle, large numbers of which were moving about in the areas north and east of Mega. General Brink instructed Brigadier Buchanan to withdraw at night on to 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade if the enemy moved against him from either Neghelli or Mega. These orders could not have reached 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters before they sent off yet another message, even more alarming than its predecessors, mentioning enemy tanks moving south at a map reference placing them only a few miles east of El Sod. The message added that the tanks halted whenever South African aircraft appeared. It also stated that air reconnaissance reported motor transport moving north 3 miles from Mega, and that indications were that the enemy were converging on 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade.
Whatever real or imagined enemy armoured forces were being reported to or by Brigadier Buchanan's Headquarters, by the time Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht arrived at The Crossroads, the enemy had already withdrawn from the scene of the night's action, leaving behind abandoned ramps from their tank portees and numerous expended and live shells. The avenging force was about to consolidate at The Crossroads when dust was seen rising 2 to 3 miles to the north. Through binoculars, enemy transport could be made out on the Yavello road. Far from advancing to the attack, it was withdrawing, and Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht, leaving one platoon to dig in, immediately gave chase with the rest of his column.
A big Lancia lorry could not stand the pace as armoured cars and troop-carriers chased it like a pack of hounds in full cry. It was captured
with an Italian mechanic and six Native soldiers on board.
Major Durrant's 40 Army Co-operation Squadron was carrying out continuous reconnaissance, and at 2 p.m. reported that the enemy column of more than 100 vehicles, with about fifteen light tanks, was moving rapidly north with the head of the column now only about 5 miles south of Yavello. South African armoured cars, supported by infantry in troop-carriers, the Squadron reported, were in hot pursuit and whenever our aircraft appeared the enemy vehicles took to the bush. General Brink immediately ordered 40 Army Co-operation Squadron to attack the enemy with relays of three aircraft, using bombs and machine-guns to delay their withdrawal. Thus Major Walker's armoured cars at the head of Colonel Engelbrecht's pursuing force, last seen only about a mile behind the enemy, could catch up. Antitank gunners of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. were itching to come into action.
The pursuers reckoned themselves to be within 2,000 yards of the enemy rearguard, in which they could see three of the light tanks, and an aircraft of 40 Army Co-operation Squadron dropped a message giving details of the column ahead of them. The pilot reported that he was flying back to call up more aircraft to bomb the fleeing column.10 The news made Colonel Engelbrecht's men all the more keen to get to grips with the enemy and to avenge 'C Company's mauling.
They were gaining on their quarry and thirsting for the kill when a message from 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters--which 'was not graciously received'11 ordered Colonel Engelbrecht to abandon the chase and return to El Sod. Frustrated and furious, the Battalion Commander ordered his column to turn about, and watched the Italians disappear towards Yavello.
On his arrival back at El Sod, Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht made little attempt to hide his annoyance at being recalled at a moment when he considered he virtually had the whole Italian force in the bag. The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade's move had been postponed and they were still there, with General Brink's timetable thus already thrown out of joint. Major Walker, with the armoured cars, was of the opinion that he could have captured all the Italian light tanks, but Brigadier Buchanan, with what little concrete information he had, and fearing an ambush, had called off the pursuit entirely. It was no consolation to 2nd Field Force Battalion that for four hours thereafter 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. attacked the Italian column in relays, keeping it practically stationary and causing the enemy to abandon a number of vehicles.
Whatever may have been thought in South African circles of the idea of leaving an isolated company at The Crossroads, the effect on the Italians was not inconsiderable. 'A lorry-borne detachment,' the Italian official history records, 'sent from Yavello by 21st Division Headquarters (General Zauli), encountered enemy forces at rest at Dubuluch but was unable to force its way through.'12
During the afternoon Brigadier Buchanan sent a further request for the air force to investigate numerous columns of dust east of El Sod. Once again 40 Army Co-operation Squadron could find nothing but herds of cattle.
While such alarums and excursions continued throughout the day in 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group area, where Lieutenant Vernon Kay lay in a critical condition in 12th Field Ambulance's main dressing station, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, shortiy after midday, arrived in the area occupied by S.A. Irish and by 2 p.m. was digging in about 8 miles north of Mega on the Yavello road. The S.A. Irish had sent a patrol towards Mega earlier in the day and they had come under artillery fire about 4 miles south of the battalion's entrenched position. In fact, the Italian gunners round Mega had been warned of the movements of the South Africans the previous morning, and watched the armoured cars approaching for some while before definitely identifying them as hostile. Their 3rd Battery of field artillery had then engaged and was soon supported by the heavy guns emplaced on a hilltop south of the fort and above the defile through which the road ran to Moyale.13 Armed with such information as 1st S.A. Irish had been able to gather, Brigadier Armstrong settled down to reconnaissance during the afternoon of 15 February and his troops prepared for the next day's assault, which was scheduled to be launched as soon as Brigadier Buchanan signalled that 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was in position for the attack. In support of 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, Major H. G. Greenwood selected a battery position for 9th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.), just off the Kunchurro road, behind Clare Hill.
The scene before Brigadier Armstrong has been graphically described in the history of the Transvaal Scottish.14 'Before him, across a valley covered sparsely with bush, loomed the abrupt, thickly covered hills and beyond them lay his objective. In the centre the main road meandered across the flat expanse and disappeared into the defile through which it threaded a way into Mega and on to Moyale. To the left of the road the hills formed an unbroken semi-circle of height upon towering height, terminating in the mighty buttress which was to be the special concern of the infantrymen of the 2nd S.A. Brigade. On the right of the road was a similar chain of heights, but interrupted on this flank by deep dongas, and veering, in general direction, further away from the road until it merged with an uneven plateau at its extremity. Between the two ridges the route was commanded by Artillery Hill at the entrance to the defile, Two Tree Hill midway to the objective, and the conical mass of Monte Palato, renamed Mega Hill, which dominated all final approaches, whether frontal or flanking, and itself directly overlooked Mega in rear.'
During the evening, in response to a suggestion from General Brink, who also informed his brigade commanders of the fall of Kismayu, the two Brigadiers met to discuss and co-ordinate their plans for the next day's attack, which Brigadier Armstrong proposed should begin at 7 a.m. However, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, having felt it inadvisable to send back for water during the day in view of the vagueness regarding the situation round El Sod, now had only one day's reserve of water left. A water convoy from Hobok had been ordered to remain in 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group area till the situation was clarified, and Brigadier Armstrong arranged for this to be escorted to Brigadier Buchanan's brigade at El Sod at 5.30 a.m.
Shortly after 9 that night, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade sent off a
signal to Divisional Headquarters to tell General Brink that it had sighted a convoy, intermittently showing lights, moving north from the direction of Mega, south-west of the Brigade's position at El Sod. The lights of another convoy had been seen moving east from Dubuluch towards the Neghelli road. No satisfactory explanation was ever found for these phenomena, as even the Moyale garrison--according to Italian accounts--did not move out until 18 February.
On receipt of the water early on 16 February, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade duly advised 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade that it would be in position to begin the attack at 11.30 that morning--a reasonable assurance on the assumption that it would come in on the left flank of the S.A. Irish. Everything now seemed to be going almost according to plan, and at 8 a.m. on 16 February, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, leaving one company of 1st S.A. Irish at Medaccio to protect its rear, moved forward with the S.A. Irish on the left of the Yavello-Mega road and 3rd Transvaal Scottish to the right of the road. Its first objective was the high ground on a general line of koppies christened Black Ridge, Kirby Ridge and Dobbs Ridge, where they intended to pause and consolidate to allow 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group to reach its assaulting positions.
It was very hot and, as recorded by a corporal of the S.A. Irish, after a breakfast of bully beef and biscuits, the men left everything with their trucks--greatcoats, blankets, groundsheets--everything bar ammunition, webbing and rifles.15
The Transvaal Scottish, attacking with two companies forward and one in reserve, similarly left blankets and even waterproof groundsheets with their platoon vehicles. The two battalions were approaching their objectives shortly before 10 o'clock when they came under enemy shell-fire. Artillery Hill, to their surprise, was unoccupied, but the Italians could bring all their guns--including the heavy battery--to bear on the northern approaches,16 and while Lieutenant J. R. Lowe, whose section of 5th Field Company was with the Transvaal Scottish, was attending an order group called by Lieutenant-Colonel Kirby, three shells burst near by. About 40 per cent of the enemy shells failed to explode and the fire had no effect on the steady advance of S.A. Irish, who had debussed and were climbing on foot.
'C Company of 1st S.A. Irish, which was accompanied by a subsection of Sappers under Lieutenant H.J. Barker and whose experiences were typical of the battalion, found that in its sector the hill went up in steps. 'You had to climb for about 20 minutes--then you got a sort of flat bit--then you went up again. All during the first morning we were busy cleaning up outposts. The riflemen didn't fire--the Bren gunners did, and their fire was returned by the enemy', related a non-commissioned officer of No. 13 Platoon in Captain C. McN. Cochran's company.17
'A' Company of 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., with only its heavy section under Captain D. Dreisenstock (with the Dental Officer, Captain H. S. Alexander, as company), was on the left below Dobbs Ridge with the S.A. Irish and came in for some light shelling. 'B' Company, operating with Captains L. Melzer and L. Pannall, similarly had only its heavy section and was subjected to light shelling below
As the S.A. Irish went forward to take Dobbs Ridge, the Engineers of Lieutenant Barker's section proceeded up the road for a mile or so from the road junction before enemy artillery opened fire on S.A. Irish and Engineer vehicles in their rear. The Sapper reconnaissance party withdrew to dead ground at the base of Dobbs Ridge and Corporal J. Wallis, with great presence of mind, cleared the way back at the road junction by jumping into an empty infantry vehicle blocking the road and driving it away under fire so that the Engineer vehicles could be moved out of the danger zone.
Over to the east with 2nd S.A. Brigade Group things were not so clear-cut. After 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. had lifted the mines on the road south of El Sod, Brigadier Buchanan's brigade began its move to take up position for the attack and to cut the Mega-Moyale road, two tasks which from that moment on seem to have become inextricably confused. The northern road to Neghelli was left mined--with three large mines improvised by the Sappers with 4-gallon petrol tins18--and blew up an enemy armoured car some hours later. As 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. did not think it advisable to move Lieutenant Kay, Captain A. L. Harrington and a medical orderly, Lance-Corporal Herselman, stayed behind with an ambulance and driver to care for him. A platoon under Lieutenant Brail was also left to guard the wounded subaltern, with orders that they were not to attempt to fight if the enemy approached in force, but were to leave a man with Kay and then withdraw the platoon to rejoin the brigade.19
Lieutenant Brail was actually in charge of the anti-aircraft platoon of 2nd Field Force Battalion, but as there was a section of 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. under Lieutenant Geoffrey Johnson with the brigade, his job had become redundant and he had been allowed to form a No. 17 Platoon from all the odd personnel he could gather together in the battalion. On receiving his unusual instructions, he saluted and was heard to mutter words to the effect that he had no intention of allowing Kay to fall into the hands of the enemy. With that, he disposed his men round the tent sheltering his wounded fellow-officer, posted two men on near-by hills as look-outs and watched the rest of the brigade group move off.
Lieutenant-Colonel van Noorden's 1st Field Force Battalion continued to lead 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group's advance across country, with two advance guards on parallel routes 500 yards apart, as it hoped that this would speed up the move. Major Louis Botha's company of 2nd Field Force Battalion brought up the rear.
The journey from El Sod was heavy going, with thick bush and patches of black turf, which was fortunately dry, but the brigade--after a personal reconnaissance by Brigadier Buchanan--had to make a wide detour to avoid sand.
In all, the brigade deviated some 22 miles from the course General Brink had expected it to take, partly because the Brigade Commander wished to keep out of artillery range from Mega and, in the view of Divisional Headquarters, partly because he had misinterpreted the orders and lost sight of his objective.
Meanwhile, further west, the two battalions of 5th S.A. Infantry
Brigade Group continued their advance on to their first objectives over very rough terrain. Major Greenwood moved 9th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.) up to a new position on the right of the road to Kunchurro, near its junction with the Mega-Yavello road. The 3rd Transvaal Scottish had its support weapons split among the rifle companies, and the weight of weapons and reserve ammunition carried by the men thus made it all the more essential for them to go into action in light order in the heat. Meeting no opposition from Artillery Hill, they pushed on for the ridge ahead, debussed and began the arduous climb up the steep, rocky hill, whose sides were thick with bush. The 9th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.) moved forward to the left of the fork in the road.
Clouds were banking up in the sky round midday when the enemy began shelling the approach road across the flats, straddling the Transvaal Scottish reserve company but causing no casualties. Progress was very slow, and at about 2 p.m. rain began to fall, catching the infantry completely exposed on the slopes as a pall of mist descended over Mega. The gunners stripped to get the benefit of a shower in the drenching downpour.
Brigadier Armstrong, aware of the fact that 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group--with whom his attack was to be closely co-ordinated--had not even left its bivouac at El Sod by 9.20 a.m., had ordered the Transvaal Scottish and the S.A. Irish to advance with caution, and shortly before the rain started he received a message from Brigadier Buchanan explaining that the delay had been due to a suspected enemy convoy approaching from the north-east and adding that 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade hoped to be in position in one hour's time--which meant about 2.45 p.m.
It would seem that Brigadier Buchanan had not grasped General Brink's intention that his brigade should attack from the east of Mega, and he now apparently saw the cutting of the Mega--Moyale road as his primary task.
By three o'clock in the afternoon it was pouring with rain, and while the S.A. Irish and 3rd Transvaal Scottish struggled on to the slippery ridges north of Mega the advance guard of 1st Field Force Battalion, under Captain Davie, at 3.35 p.m. at last cut the Mega-Moyale road some 4 miles south of Mega, thereby achieving the brigade's first objective of preventing the enemy escaping southwards, according to Brigadier Buchanan.
Captain Davie's company took up position astride the Mega-Moyale road about 4,000 yards from the southern entrance to the defile leading to the fortress, while Captain Roscher's company, arriving on the other route of the brigade group's advance, took up a similar position about 3,000 yards further down the road in the direction of Moyale.20 Between these two positions, as far as the Field Force Battalions understood their instructions, the main body of 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was to concentrate--within easy artillery range of the Italian defences--with 2nd Field Force Battalion completing the perimeter by holding a line parallel to the road, from the right flank of Davie's company, nearest Mega, to the right flank of Roscher's company. The battalion considered its front far too long, but nevertheless proceeded to carry out
the Brigadier's orders. Major R. S. Berry of 8th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.) sited an armoured observation post on a slight rise, with his guns about 800 yards in rear of it.
By late afternoon Brigadier Buchanan had established his headquarters about 7,000 yards from the enemy's southern fortifications, but it was dark long before all the vehicles were in. The rearguard, in fact, had to bivouac on the way as no lights could be shown. The undertaking to Brigadier Armstrong to be in position for the attack on Mega at 11.30 a.m., then at about 2.45 p.m.--or at 3 p.m. as specified in a message to General Brink--had somehow simply been ignored.
At 4.22 p.m. that day General Brink had already instructed both brigades, if unable to press home the attack that evening, to consolidate and attack at first light next day. Just over an hour and a half later, Brigadier Armstrong was still awaiting Brigadier Buchanan's signal that 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was in position to attack. In the rain, at 6 p.m., he reluctantly decided to consolidate for the night and sent off another message to 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade, proposing to advance at 7 next morning and asking for an assurance from Brigadier Buchanan that his troops would be in position to attack in sufficient strength at that hour. Brigadier Buchanan replied that his advance would begin at the same time as Brigadier Armstrong's. But, he added, on account of a narrow defile being the only access to Mega and because it was dominated by impregnable positions on all sides, he saw little hope of pressing the attack in strength. He gave his position as 6,000 yards from the enemy fortifications and said he would try to filter through on foot.
Only at about 10 o'clock that night were unit Commanders of 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group contacted with difficulty in the bush, with orders that all transport and troops not needed for the attack on Mega were to be moved towards Moyale, out of range of enemy artillery, at 4 o'clock in the morning. Even the main dressing station had come under shellfire, and Lieutenant-Colonel Fouché had to reconnoitre a new position to which 12 th Field Ambulance moved its wards. Having found the original halt so close to the enemy incomprehensible, many of the men, cold, wet and tired as they groped about in the pitch darkness before dawn, were thoroughly disgruntled.
February 17 broke dull but without rain in the early hours. Roads were already in such a condition that Divisional Headquarters had paradoxically to cut the water ration to one gallon per man per day for all purposes. Rain began again at 9 o'clock. To the north, the men of 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group were having a thoroughly miserable time. A combination of mud and enemy shelling made it impossible for trucks to get through to the forward troops, who were without blankets or raincoats and had to dig themselves in during a bitterly cold night with nothing but short entrenthing tools.
It was impossible to light fires and hot food could not be got through to them during the night. 'Some bully did get through', one of the S.A. Irish in 'C Company recorded, 'but not enough to go round, so we all gathered round and the Company Sergeant-Major ladled it out with a tablespoon--one spoon to each man's hands. We also managed to get some cigarettes and matches, and put the cigarettes in
our pockets. But in the morning it was raining again and, when we wanted a cigarette, it was all drenched and none of us could smoke, unless you happened to have a celluloid tobacco pouch.'21
The Transvaal Horse Artillery had now established an observation post on Dobbs Ridge, where S.A. Irish had spent the night, and 9th Field Battery gun position was soon under shellfire for the first time, when the Italian heavy battery started lobbing 120 mm shells at them, fortunately without causing any damage.
In their tropical bush-shirts, and with some men wearing shorts in place of long khaki drill slacks, the infantry felt the damp and cold severely, and the need to speed up the operation became imperative. Even the reconnaissance for the Road Construction Companies of the S.A. Engineer Corps building the road into Abyssinia was being held up by the continued presence of the Italians at Mega,22 and with the rainy season fast approaching, if not already upon them, the South Africans simply had to clear the escarpment.
With his plans already far behind schedule, General Brink sent a personal message to both Brigade Commanders early on the morning of 17 February, stressing the importance of pressing home the attack that day so as to give the enemy no opportunity to make fresh dispositions.
To General Brink it was not clear why 2nd Brigade was attacking from the south, as the plan discussed with both Brigade Commanders was for 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade to move against the eastern flank so as to link up with 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade. The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade was also to make dispositions to stop the enemy's escape towards Moyale. Now the two brigades had hemmed the enemy in and he could not make a getaway with motor transport.
Had there been any doubt about General Brink's intentions, this message was sufficient to clear up even the densest fog. But it was some time before Brigadier Buchanan saw the message.
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