Redistribution and Disappointment

While 11th and 12th African Divisions were smashing through the Juba Line and 1st S.A. Division was turning the Mega-Moyale escarpment, a novel operation was being carried out by a phantom '4th Australian Division' to contain enemy forces on the left flank of the advance into Italian Somaliland. This mysterious division gained its identity from an Italian Intelligence source which had reported the arrival at Mombasa of a convoy carrying Australian troops. A South African captain--Acting 'Major-General'--was appointed to command the ephemeral formation, the establishment of which included three other South African captains, some wireless sets, a handful of British and African signallers and sixty dummy light tanks or 'googis' made of canvas.1

The object of the operation was to mislead the enemy by simulating the existence of a three-brigade division with a light tank battalion, armoured cars and supporting artillery in the area Habaswein-.Fafadun-El Wak-Buna-Wajir, at the time 1st S.A. Division was making its thrust into southern Abyssinia and 12th African Division was forcing the Juba Line.

The '4th Australian Division' arrived at Arbo on February 8--whilst Afmadu was already under bombardment--and it was commanded to attack in two columns along the road Wajir-Wel Garis-Gerille-Bardera and along the more northerly road Wajir-El Katulo-El Wak-Mandera, which would threaten Dolo and Lugh Ferrandi.

Mega was already being threatened by 1st S.A. Division, and to increase the effect of 'Australian' operations on enemy morale and block the line of retreat from Mega via Moyale to Mandera a simulated attack was also launched on Moyale. It was evident from various sources that the Italians were nervous about a possible attack through El Wak.

The 'Australians' captured some local Somalis who were blindfolded, with unusual carelessness, and led past formidable concentrations of 'tanks' and lorries hidden in the bush. Shortly afterwards the prisoners were freed, in the knowledge that they would flee to El Wak, where the Italians were reported to have a radio post.

The new 'division' and its 'brigades' maintained the necessary quota of signals messages, for the Italians to monitor and thus deceive themselves, and on 14 February one column was busy with a supposed thrust towards Mandera through El Wak from El Katulo. The sixty 'googis'


did not seem to have attracted much attention, even though Lieutenant L. B. Wilkinson of 130th R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps, had moved a number of them towards El Wak at night with lights blazing. There had been little enemy air reconnaissance, but nevertheless the occupation of El Wak was duly reported to Rome from Addis Ababa.

Twenty 'googis' withdrawn from El Katulo on 11 February moved to Gerille next day, and two platoons of 1/2 King's African Rifles with two mortar detachments were sent up the Wajir-Moyale road to make contact with the enemy at Buna. In a slight and mutually harmless brush with the enemy garrison at Buna, the 'Australians' achieved their object of threatening Moyale from the south while 1st S.A. Division closed in on Mega to outflank it.

With 12th African Division's assault on the Juba in full swing, the 'Australians' moved 'Advanced 29th Brigade Headquarters' 20 miles along the Gerille-Fafadun road, as if making for Bardera or Mansur--the Italians showed a different Mansur near Bulo Erillo--to force another crossing of the Juba, backed up by '30th Brigade', whose wireless traffic made it obvious that it was moving on Gerille as part of the threat to the Mandera-Bardera or Middle Juba sector of the Italian river defences.

By 15 February the Comando Superiore was convinced that troops were concentrating in the Gerille-Bardera area, and reports from the Regia Aeronautica's few reconnaissance planes probably confirmed this, as they had spotted 'armoured forces' on 13 February.2 There seems little doubt that even if the Duke of Aosta was not personally hoodwinked into believing in the presence of any Australians, the subterfuge did confuse a number of his subordinates. An increasing number of white troops were at the time appearing in wide-brimmed 'smasher' hats which, as was well known in Italian circles, were only worn by troops from Australia. The Comando Superiore during February reported the suspected presence of Australians or New Zealanders west of Lake Rudolf in strength up to two battalions, a further two battalions north of Lake Victoria and a motorized Australian battalion in the Kitale-Eldoret area.3

Thus an entertaining enterprise involving little more than two platoons and a few armoured cars,4 had some influence not only on the Italian 101st Colonial Division on the Upper Juba but also on the eventual evacuation of Moyale, which was never reached from Wajir by the company of King's African Rifles whose support had been promised to General Brink. The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group entered the frontier post unopposed.

Very little of a definite nature could be established as to the route by which 54th Colonial Battalion from Moyale had escaped, and even along the lateral west-to-east road Moyale-Mandera patrols from 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group encountered no opposition after 25 February, though there was evidence of atrocities committed upon unarmed Boran by roving Banda. Patrols from 24th Gold Coast Brigade, finding Bardera also unoccupied, before the end of February, had moved on without opposition through Dinsor and occupied Iscia Baidoa as well. Mussolini had ordered the evacuation of Italian Somaliland for Abyssinia. Lugh Ferrandi, Dolo, Oddur and Uegit were all found


unoccupied by enemy forces and even Mandera had been deserted by mid-March.5

The successes along the Mega-Moyale escarpment and on the Juba River could not be spread immediately to include the Turkana sector at the north-west tip of Lake Rudolf, where the situation was quite different. Brigadier Owen's 25th East African Brigade occupied Toden-yang and Namaruputh on 9 February 9, but could make little further progress.6

For years the Turkana tribesmen on the Kenya side of the frontier had been fighting the Merille on the Italian side, and General Brink found that in this area he had a tribal war on his hands as well as operations against the Italians. A large number of Merille concentrated to stop the advance of 2/4 King's African Rifles, who were soon in difficulties, as they could not reach the waterholes guarded by the Merille and could not get supplies up by transport owing to the atrocious state of the tracks.

The battalion had to be extricated by air action against Merille concentrations and by using armoured cars to escort water-trucks forward, but General Cunningham decided that it would be unprofitable to get involved in operations against the Merille. General Brink was therefore ordered to take up a defensive position in the Namaruputh-Todenyang sector, and a meeting was arranged on 19 February between Brigadier Owen and the Merille chiefs, which at first seemed successful. It soon became apparent that the Merille would not knuckle under until Italian influence had been eliminated from the Omo River delta. Kalam would have to be occupied and it was reported that it was only held by Merille and some of the Donyiro tribe, but the state of the roads and administrative difficulties precluded any effective action by 25th East African Brigade at the time.7

With the fall of Moyale, the next obvious objective in southern Abyssinia was Yavello, and on 27 February General Brink flew from Kunchurro to Advanced Force Headquarters at Mogadishu to confer with General Cunningham, and then went to Nairobi to discuss plans with General Smuts and the Chief of the South African General Staff, General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld.

Mr. Churchill had already cabled to General Smuts on 28 February on the subject of Greece, stressing the need to bring 'ACANTHUS' (1st S.A. Division) up to the Mediterranean.8 Moreover, on 1 March Mr. Churchill, in signalling congratulations to General Wavell 'on the brilliant result of the campaign in Italian Somaliland', added significantly: 'You will no doubt discuss future operations with General Smuts on the 7th. As you know, I have always wanted the South African Divisions to come forward to the Mediterranean shore.'9 In his reply the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, informed the British Prime Minister that General Cunningham was pushing light forces on to Ferfer (about 200 miles north of Mogadishu) and Dolo, which would complete the occupation of Italian Somaliland.

'Owing to situation as regards supplies and transport,' General Wavell stated--before quoting a date which was to have a singular significance for 1st S.A. Division--'he does not think he can advance on Harar before March 21. He is coming to Cairo March 7, and we will


discuss plan and moves of South African Divisions.'10

Among other things considered in Nairobi was the possible transfer of South African troops to another theatre of operations, and before General Brink's return to his own Headquarters on 4 March an immediate redistribution of brigades had been ordered by General Cunningham to bring 21st East African Brigade into the Mega-Moyale sector and allow 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade to withdraw to Marsabit and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade to Wajir, to which Divisional Headquarters was also eventually ordered.

Lack of suitable communications aircraft for General Brink's use complicated control of the moves, and heavy rains on the escarpment made the lines of communication between Mega and Marsabit via North Horr and Dukana impassable. In addition, 21st East African Brigade did not at first receive its orders and it had insufficient transport to move the whole brigade in one lift, though some seventy vehicles from 109th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps had by now become first-line transport for 1/4 King's African Rifles. The South African Division accordingly provided the necessary vehicles from Rear Divisional Headquarters and 1st S.A. Irish on their arrival at Wajir.

The 130th R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps (Major E. Rose-Nel)* was still based on Nanyuki as part of No. 8 Non-Divisional Group, and reckoned that its work 'increased tenfold' on 1st S.A. Division's withdrawal from Mega and Moyale. Its convoys, working up the new road from Marsabit, which branched off at Kalacha and wound through the Huri Hills, had to be pushed up the Tas Escarpment before Mega by a S.A. Engineer Corps bulldozer. Lack of information on the signals position and consequent delay was aggravated by the weakness of 21st East African Brigade's wireless sets and their operators' inexperience. A set from No. 1 Divisional Signals Company, S.A.C.S. was dispatched to them and reached Buna on 5 March, after which no further delays were experienced on this score, in spite of intense signals traffic, with the South African Divisional Signals Company alone handling up to 500 messages a day.

The 21st East African Brigade, now with the whole of 109th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps at its disposal, began its move on 5 March and next day General Brink was given warning that his Division was to be redistributed to the Ferfer-Mogadishu area along the road to Jijigga on the Italian Somaliland front. Brigadier Pienaar's 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group would come under command of 1st S.A. Division. All that was lacking was receipt of the code-word which was to signify that the whole series of moves was to be carried out.

To facilitate the moves, permission was obtained from Force to move 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group to Isiolo instead of Marsabit and many springs were broken on the road across the Dida Galgalla. Wonderful work by the Mobile Workshops and the Brigade Transport Officer, Major Leslie Gray, enabled the brigade to get through without losing a single vehicle. From Marsabit to Isiolo the road had been transformed by the South African Engineers and the men found it a

* Captain J. C. Oosthuizen commanded 130th R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps until 5 February 1941 when he was transferred to 'F' R.M.T. Coy., Cape Corps, and Major E. Rose-Nel was transferred to 130th (K) R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps, as Company Commander.


pleasure to drive over this racing track, as they now called it.

On the very day of General WavelPs conference in Cairo with Mr. Eden, General Smuts, General Dill (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), General Cunningham and others, on 7 March, the order for 1st S.A. Division to move to Italian Somaliland was cancelled. Largely owing to General Wetherall's discovery of petrol at Mogadishu, General Cunningham had realized that he need not wait till 21 March before advancing. Reports indicated that the rains would be early, and the tracks between Wajir and Mogadishu were already cut up by heavy use. If 2nd and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Groups were to move, even under ideal conditions the projected advance from Mogadishu might be delayed.

'As I found I was able to continue the advance north into Abyssinia with troops already in Italian Somaliland and very much earlier than was at first estimated,' wrote General Cunningham himself, 'I was very regretfully forced to abandon the project of using the South African Division on the other front and therefore gave orders for it to concentrate in Kenya.'11 The 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was placed under command of 11th African Division (see Appendix 10).

The onset of the rains along the Mega-Moyale escarpment and the collapse of General de Simone's Juba Line had conspired together to turn Middle East Headquarters' ideas about East Africa upside down. Instead of the capture of Kismayu protecting the flank of an advance into southern Abyssinia, the boot was now on the other foot.

On 9 March, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade set up camp at Isiolo but was almost immediately ordered to Nanyuki. Brigadier Armstrong's 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, beginning its move from Mega on 8 March, passed through Moyale and by 10 March was concentrated at Wajir.

On 10 March Force Headquarters ordered that on arrival at Nanyuki, to which 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group had been redirected, one of its battalions would move to Mogadishu by road with fourteen days' rations and all the Brigade's first-line transport. There this battalion and some armoured cars would come under command of Advanced Force Headquarters and form a mobile column for mopping up in Italian Somaliland.

In a personal signal to General Brink that same day, Brigadier J. K. Edwards, M.C., the Brigadier General Staff, informed him that General Cunningham's Headquarters was opening in Mogadishu and that because of doubts about moving the South African Division across Somaliland in view of the rains, it had been decided to use Major-General Wetherall's 11th African Division for the forthcoming operations, with three infantry brigade groups, including Brigadier Pienaar's. It was also proposed to move 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade to occupy Berbera as soon as shipping could be arranged. They would embark at Mombasa, but one battalion and some armoured cars would move by road.

The future role of 1st S.A. Division, the signal added, had not been finally decided in Cairo, but in the meanwhile General Brink was to command his former Divisional area and all troops in it, including 21st and 25th East African Brigades and attached troops. With the discovery


of petrol at Mogadishu, the crucial date for concentration of 1st S.A. Division--21 March--no longer applied and the whole basis on which decisions had been reached in Nairobi before the issue of East Africa Force operation orders for their move to Italian Somaliland had fallen away.

When Colonel Hamman, the South African Liaison Officer, showed General Brink his notes of the Cairo Conference, it was clear to the South African Divisional Commander that his Division was to be transferred to the Middle East as soon as shipping could be made available. General Wavell was already committed in Greece, and in North Africa the first German reconnaissance and anti-tank units of Lieute-nant-General Erwin Rommel's newly constituted Afrika Korps had already arrived on the scene to stiffen Italian resistance in Cyrenaica. The 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was already driving north from Brava on a dash up the Strada Imperiale, heading for Jijigga and the Marda Pass.

Though lack of the necessary landing facilities prevented the transport of motor vehicles by sea to Mogadishu or Merca, the use of the latter port and the petrol captured from the enemy had enabled 11th African Division to continue its advance towards Jijigga with a mobile column from the Nigerian Brigade as early as 1 March, opening a new phase of the campaign. The need for a strong garrison at Wajir fell away and by 17 March, 1st S.A. Divisional Headquarters, Divisional Troops and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group had moved to Nanyuki, where the climate was better and recreational facilities existed.

The 1/4 King's African Rifles, with 109th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps rendering them mobile, were left to garrison Wajir and within a week General Cunningham informed General Brink that he had offered to Middle East, immediately, 1st S.A. Divisional Headquarters and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, less a field brigade and two platoons of armoured cars. The rest of the division would follow as soon as operations permitted, and arrangements were being made with Defence Headquarters in South Africa to exchange men who wished to go home, on the understanding that anyone who returned to South Africa had no guarantee of being sent back north again. This was not an idea which appealed to General Brink at all and he requested permission to return to South Africa to discuss the future of his division.

General Brink had consulted his Brigade Commanders, the heads of services in the division and the Battalion Commanders on the subject of the men wanting to be granted leave at home, and the unanimous opinion of these officers was that although the troops would be prepared to serve elsewhere in Africa, they did expect to be sent back to South Africa first for short spells of leave. On 26 March General Brink again made the same point in a signal to General Cunningham, and expressed the opinion that Brigadier Pienaar would assuredly hold the same view about leave. He was anxious to preserve the fine esprit de corps prevailing in his division, and was disturbed at the effect which it might have on the troops if it became known that men proceeding home on leave would not be allowed to rejoin their units. The General Officer Commanding, East Africa Force, had no objection to General Brink visiting Pretoria


for discussions, but before he left the South African Divisional Commander was shown a copy of a signal dispatched by General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld to Middle East Headquarters stating quite clearly that General Smuts fully agreed that reinforcements of South African troops should proceed to the Middle East without delay, and that the general policy as regards leave remained that it could be granted at the discretion of the General Officer Commanding or the Commander-in-Chief, with the proviso that replacements should be available before leave drafts departed.

By the end of March, with 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group and 11th African Division almost at the gates of Addis Ababa, the curtain was ringing down on 1st S.A. Division, as such, in East Africa. Brigadier Buchanan's 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group--deprived of its transport as well as part of 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. and 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C., who had been ordered to Mogadishu with the mobile column--had left Nanyuki by rail on 15 March, sailed from Mombasa next day and was at Berbera, whilst its Mobile Column was approaching Jijigga overland. Two sections of 3-inch heavy anti-aircraft guns from 1st Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. had accompanied the brigade but the derricks of the ships on which they were travelling were not powerful enough to offload them and their towing vehicles at Berbera. The gun detachments had therefore to re-embark on 27 March and sail on to Aden, where they transhipped to a more suitable vessel for return to Berbera.

'A' and 'B' Companies of 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. under Major T. M. Spilhaus, established a hospital in the 'Garden of Eden' at Berbera, sending a light detachment on to Hargeisa, where they were joined on 3 April by Lieutenant-Colonel Fouché and Headquarters Company, which had travelled overland, dropping their patients at Yonte to be taken to the Casualty Clearing Station at Kismayu.

Early in April, General Wavell, who had been in touch with General Smuts on the subject of moving 1st S.A. Division, ordered General Brink's departure for the Middle East so that his Headquarters could prepare for the moving of the remaining brigade, whose departure was dependent solely on the availability of shipping. With all his artillery being retained in East Africa, and in the dark about what actually was afoot at a time when he could see his division soon having to face highly trained German forces in the Western Desert, General Brink had much to discuss with General Smuts and Sir Pierre van Ryneveld. On 8 April he left Nairobi by air for South Africa.

Before General Brink left he received from General Cunningham a personal signal: 'It is to my regret impossible to fly to see you. Wish express before you leave my great appreciation whole-hearted and efficient support given me by you and your staff. Operations fully carried out by you in Mega area without doubt played major part hastening present collapse Italians. I part from you and your magnificent officers and men with greatest regret. Thank you all for grand work and wish good in future. I would be glad if you would communicate appropriate passage of message to men and remainder Division when they join you again.' Even the cryptic wording of the signals message form could not disguise General Cunningham's very sincere and warm-


hearted tribute to the South Africans, for whom he had developed a high esteem.

Units of 1st S.A. Division had already begun to move up to the Middle East, the first overland convoy setting off on 5 April. To cope with illness or injury en route, 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. was divided into sections, travelling with the different overland convoys of 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group transport. Realizing that Brigade Headquarters and the infantry battalions who were to travel by sea might reach Egypt long before the road parties, with only their own regimental medical officers to minister to their health, Lieutenant-Colonel Charlton had to do some hasty reorganizing so that what was left of his field ambulance's Headquarters Company could accompany the units embarking at Mombasa. Their vehicles, separated from the unit and with equipment in them, were later also sent by ship and were empty by the time they were handed back in Egypt.

At midnight on 6 April command of 1st S.A. Division area passed to 12th African Division, under whose command there now fell a number of South African units, including one platoon of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company with 21st East African Brigade, another platoon of the same armoured car company under Captain G. de Marillac and Lieutenant R. D. Meeser with 25th East African Brigade and the rest of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company with the Divisional Troops, together with 3rd Field Brigade, S.A.A. (T.H.A.), with its two 18-pounder and one 4·5-inch howitzer batteries, 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. (Captain L. S. Thomas), a section of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. at Yavello and the 19th Divisional Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. (Captain C. T. Brand).* The 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. (Major Harry Scholtz), which had been in southern Abyssinia, was at Nanyuki and had a section of 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery attached. The Division relied heavily on South African motor transport companies.

Meanwhile, 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. moving through Italian Somaliland, had reached Harar, where they became Corps Troops on 2 April and joined the growing body of South African Engineer units restoring the lines of communication behind 11th African Division.

All over East Africa Command, non-divisional South African units were still playing a major part in the conquest of the Italian East African Empire and, even though 1st S.A. Division had left, South Africans continued to make the greatest overall contribution to General Cunningham's operations. Paradoxically, on the eve of 1st S.A. Division's departure, the total strength of South African Forces in East Africa had reached its maximum on 21 April 1941, with a grand total of 43,730, every one of whom was a volunteer. Of these, 7,983 were infantry, 3,922 were in the artillery, and 1,720 in armoured fighting vehicle units, which now included the 2nd Imperial Light Horse and 2nd Royal Natal Carbineers which, as Nos. 13 and 14 S.A. Armoured Car Companies, had just arrived in East Africa, where they were later to amalgamate to form the 6th Armoured Car Regiment.

* Captain C. T. Brand had taken over command of 19th Divisional Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. from Captain A. M. Steel on 20 February 1941, after the completion of'Union Bridge' at Yonte.


Chart: Strength of S.A. Forces in East Africa, 1940-41
Strength of S.A. Forces in East Africa, 1940-41


No fewer than 5,422 members of the S.A. Engineer Corps were serving in East Africa at the time; there were 7,120 'Q' Services personnel involved in providing transport and maintaining supplies; 1,950 men in the S.A. Medical Corps, 1,760 in the S.A. Corps of Signals; 1,683 in the T Services Corps, and 2,600 in the South African Air Force, which had gained almost total air superiority throughout the theatre of operations. An inestimable contribution to the continued success of East Africa Force's operations was being made by the Cape Corps, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps and S.A. Native Military Corps drivers in road motor transport companies or acting as cooks, batmen, stretcher-bearers and pioneers. There were no fewer than 9,570 Non-Europeans serving in the South African Forces in East Africa before General Brink left.

This considerable South African contribution had given to East Africa Force the vital impetus which set it off on the way to victory and when, on 21 April 1941, General Brink's Headquarters, 1st S.A. Divisional Troops and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group sailed for the Middle East from Mombasa, attention was already focused on spectacular events involving 11th African Division, which included 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group and other South African units under General Wetherall's command.


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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation