Into the Abyssinian Highlands
Major-General Wetherall, after a pause of only three days, thanks to the stocks of petrol discovered at Mogadishu and the use of Merca as a port, on 1 March 1941 sent off a column from 23rd Nigerian Brigade to pursue the enemy.1 Having been delayed at Mabungo through lack of fuel, and after varied adventures before starting to help 19th Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. to dismantle the pontoon bridge there, 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C--30 per cent under strength--had been placed under command 11th African Division and hurried forward to Mogadishu, which it reached on 28 February, 1941. It was immediately ordered to Afgoi to put the railway into commission, repair water-distillation plants, establish water-points and repair the bridge over the Webi Shebelli as quickly as possible. Two locomotives were quickly repaired and by the time the Nigerians moved up the road from Mogadishu the railway was already carrying material for bridge construction and the water-points at Afgoi were on the way to supplying 10,000 gallons a day.
With fifty-seven trucks immobilized at Mogadishu with broken springs at one stage, the 107th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps there unearthed a treasure chest in the shape of a large dump of Italian spring blades. The company blacksmith took these in hand and with the help of the unit's springmaker--an Indian firewalker before volunteering--he set about refitting vehicles as opportunity occurred on halts.
Indications were that the Italians might be holding a delaying position somewhere south of Gabredarre--about halfway between Bulo Burti and Jijigga. Enemy aircraft were reported to have been sighted there on the ground and General de Simone's Headquarters were suspected to be at Dagabur, 590 miles north of Mogadishu. The Italians, in full flight, were surprised to find their columns little disturbed by air attack2--largely owing to the speed of their own withdrawal, which had outstripped the South African Air Force's ability to disengage along the Juba and move to airfields further forward.
The 101st Colonial Division, originally ordered to fall back on Cal-lafo, south of Gabredarre, had been given fresh radio instructions by the Comando Superiore, rerouting their columns to Neghelli. The rest of General de Simone's forces were ordered to fall back on Harar.3 General Baccari's command, with bombing demoralizing the Native
troops, was in a state of dissolution. By the time they reached Dolo, 101st Colonial Divisional Headquarters, with three batteries of 77 mm guns and three of 65 mm, had lost all their Native personnel. The 192nd Colonial Battalion, on learning that they were to leave Somaliland, became fearful for the safety of their families with so many lawless bands roaming the countryside, and deserted. Loading up the officers, European troops and a hundred or so faithful Askaris with guns, automatic weapons, wireless sets and rations on all available vehicles, the remnants of the division struggled on towards Neghelli and Dalle, reaching the latter on 7 March.
As far as Belet Uen the water supply for 23rd Nigerian Brigade was apparently satisfactory and the situation as regards getting in supplies of petrol by sea seemed to be improving daily. For over 200 miles, from Mogadishu to Ferfer, the Italians had built the 30-foot wide, all-weather, tarmac surfaced Strada Imperiale, but numerous bridges and culverts offered good opportunities for demolitions. The largest bridges were the iron structures at Balad--where 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. began building a 96-foot trestle bridge on 7 March--and at Bulo Burti, while those on the Ferfer-Dagabur stretch were mostly of wood and iron with stone pillars. There were 16 large and 600 minor bridges to be crossed on the run from the coast up to Diredawa, but luckily many spanned no more than dried-up beds of streams, as for the most part the Somaliland Plain is waterless.
Undeterred by the prospect of thrusting across hundreds of miles of arid wasteland, the advance guard of 23rd Nigerian Brigade reached Bulo Burti the day after leaving Mogadishu. The oasis of Belet Uen, 209 miles from Mogadishu was occupied on 3 March, when the Nigerians came to a halt to let supplies catch up with them.4 In their rear, 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. started work on rebuilding the bridge over the Webi Shebelli next day.
Lieutenant L. G. F. Wolf,5 serving with the 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., which was operating with the Nigerians, described the few days at Belet Uen as a nightmare of heat, sandstorms and patrols across appalling country which caused many broken springs just as they were on the point of putting on a spurt over the worst stretch of road before Jijigga. Nevertheless, a small column including armoured cars, 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., a troop of South African light anti-aircraft guns and a company of infantry was pushed forward to secure landing grounds and reconnoitre water supplies. They were not to move beyond Sassabaneh before 9 March as the main body would be unable to leave Belet Uen before then.6 In Harar that day the Duke of Aosta conferred with General de Simone and placed him in command of the Harar-Jijigga sector, where the Italians intended to stand.7
Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. S. Hopkins, commanding the Nigerian column, sent his advance guard on with considerable daring past Sassabaneh and reached Dagabur almost on the tail of the enemy and 100 miles ahead of the rest of the brigade. Misfortune struck the South African light anti-aircraft troop when one of their three-tonners carrying petrol caught fire and blew up, causing very serious burns to Gunners I. H. Allister and Bisset. Both men were put in an ambulance provided by Major Frank Harpur of 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., and
they were rushed some 30 miles forward to Dagabur with an escort. From there an ambulance aircraft flew them back to Mogadishu, but on 19 March Gunner Allister died of his injuries.
Three Hurricanes from No. 3 Fighter Squadron, S.A.A.F. moved to the abandoned airfield at Dagabur close behind the leading troops,8 to share the landing ground with No. 41 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. Enemy aircraft were again beginning to worry the forward troops and on 13 March two Savoias arrived overhead at Dagabur in the morning, flying at about 6,000 feet. Two Hurricanes, flown by , Captain S. v. B. Theron and Lieutenant L. R. Dudley, took off to engage the enemy, who used cloud cover to evade the South Africans. With ammunition expended, Dudley broke away, but Captain Theron chased one of the Savoias for over 100 miles till he shot it down.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Venter had taken off to escort a Hartbeest to Jijigga. Over the target area he lost sight of his ward in heavy cloud and turned for home. Losing the way, he ran short of fuel and had to force-land about 50 miles east of Dagabur. Two Somalis, to whom he paid ten shillings each to carry a message to base, were picked up by an armoured car section who found the pilot and wirelessed his position to Dagabur.
Captain Theron took off again and eventually landed next to the stranded Hurricane to refuel it by siphoning fuel from his own tank. The two then took off and returned to base, arriving just in time to see Dudley crash after being caught by two Fiats as he was taking off. Within a minute both the Italian aircraft had been shot down in flames, Captain Theron and Lieutenant Venter claiming one each. One of the Italian pilots, Captain Romano Palmera, baled out.
The main body of the Nigerian Brigade caught up with their advance guard on the day of Captain Theron's exploits. 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group had left Brava the previous day and the advance was so rapid that nothing was done to develop water supplies at Dagabur. Brigadier Pienaar's Brigade Group was instructed to move as quickly as possible to join up with the Nigerians at Jijigga.
The South Africans had had fourteen days to recondition, re-equip and rest most units, but these advantages were not shared by the 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. which was operating with the Gold Coasters in their advance on Bardera and did not rejoin till 10 March. The 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. had no chance to rest, as it was working day and night to build a new bridge at Balad and was lost to Brigadier Pienaar till 29 March. No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company, after co-operating with the Gold Coasters round Iscia Baidoa, only reported back to 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group three days before they left Brava, where the incidence of sickness had averaged about 150 per day in the column as a whole. This taxed the Brigade's depleted strength considerably, as the conclusion of the Juba River operations had left them no fewer than 778 short of establishment, including 351 in the three infantry battalions and as many as 121 in 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A., representing more than a quarter of the artillery unit's authorized strength. Gunner officers were acting as drivers of some vehicles, and the armoured car company, with an establishment of 261, was hard-pressed with 85 men short.
On 13 March the Brigade Group left the Brava area, moving in two
echelons, with Advanced and Rear Brigade Headquarters linked by wireless through No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S.
On 22 March, the South African Infantry Training Depot sent up 146 reinforcements to 1st S.A. Brigade, but this left the fighting units still seriously under strength at a juncture when back in South Africa Die Middellandse Regiment was being converted into a machine-gun battalion for 2nd S.A. Division and hundreds of volunteers from the Mounted Commando regiments at Ladysmith were being transferred to new armoured car regiments and reconnaissance battalions as the Mounted Commando Division was dissolved. Manpower shortages in East Africa placed an extra strain on those serving with 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, but nevertheless in ten days they covered the 825 miles to Jijigga without serious mishap.
On 21 March the head of the column of over 1,000 vehicles reached the fort at Dagabur twenty-four hours ahead of schedule, and early next day Brigadier Pienaar and his reconnaissance party, sweeping over the hills and round a wide, descending loop of dusty road, reached the fertile plain of Jijigga, some 5,000 feet above sea-level, in time to be given an outline of the situation and to watch the Nigerians put in their attack on the Marda Pass.
The rapid advance to Jijigga--the occupation of which marked the end of fighting in flat bush country and also of spectacular armoured car charges--had cut the normal route of retirement for the Italian 70th Colonial Brigade under General Graziosi in British Somaliland, and when two Indian battalions and attached troops from Aden attacked Berbera from the sea on 16 March9 this enemy brigade seemed to have melted away. Both it and the 17th Colonial Brigade (Colonel Agosti) from Tirrech, south-west of Zeilah, were already on the move in accordance with instructions from General de Simone to block access to the Jibuti-Addis Ababa railway through the Harraua Valley north of Jijigga. To guard against surprise from any force landing in their rear, the 70th Colonial Brigade left behind an Arab-Somali Battalion, one 120 mm battery and a 20 mm Breda battery at Berbera, with a Dubat detachment along the coast at Bulhar.10 They made little attempt to hold off the landings by the force from Aden.
On 20 March a small column of Nigerians occupied Tug Wajale on the British Somaliland border and two armoured cars motored through Hargeisa to Berbera and made contact with Aden Force.11 Brigadier Buchanan, accompanied by Captain St. Clair of 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Staff, had arrived at Berbera by air the previous day to take command in British Somaliland, where all troops were to come under 'Bucforce', as 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade (less the mobile column travelling overland) was called before sailing from Mombasa on 16 March for a six-day voyage to Berbera. Thus a new, shorter line of supply for further advance by East Africa Force was opened, whilst at the same time the area under General Cunningham's control was vastly increased, with administrative problems multiplying accordingly. The advance was indeed only made possible by the arrival of South African transport companies, which had been intended for the road lines of communication through Tanganyika. 'The drivers were Indians or Coloureds', commented General Lord Robertson later. 'They were
not very expert and conditions were extremely difficult. As a result they got into plenty of trouble, but without them the advance would have been completely impossible.'
While 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. had moved up from the coast with 2nd Nigerian Regiment to Jijigga, the rest of 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. had left Mogadishu a couple of days later, to garrison Villagio Duca degli Abruzzi until 15 March and gain their first experience of civil administration, which included the settlement of labour disputes, and the reopening of the local sugar-mill, cotton-ginnery and an oil-mill. The 110th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps had been ordered up from Nairobi on 10 March with 147 vehicles to carry supplies to the Villagio, where Italian women and children were on the verge of starvation.
Lieutenant H. A. Wright and a section of 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. had barely reached Garissa to attend to the pontoon bridge the day before the R.M.T. company set out, when a heavy workshops vehicle lumbered on to the bridge and sank it. The Engineers' bridging vehicle, arriving at Nairobi next day, hurried to the scene and in sixteen hours traffic was again flowing, but it took twenty-four hours to clear the jam, with vehicles crossing in a steady stream only 24 yards apart. Work began immediately to strengthen the bridge for Class 9 loads.12 The Indian and Malay Corps drivers, however, pushed on through Liboi and over almost indescribable tracks through Dif, Afmadu and Gelib. On 17 March they reached Mogadishu, where Major K. T. Gilson's Italian-speaking driver, Sapper G. Ciaparelli, unearthed a cache of vital missing parts for the local Italian military workshops, which were handed over to 24th Workshops and Park Company, S.A.E.C. (Captain Fisher). Two days later, on 9 March, the S.A. Indian and Malay Corps company's long convoy pulled into Villagio Duca degli Abruzzi to unload its supplies before hurrying back to report to 22nd East African Brigade at Merca, whilst one section of thirty trucks was dispatched further north with medical supplies. At Merca all except Company Headquarters trucks were distributed among units of the East African Brigade, to leave again next morning carrying troops and equipment on the first stage of a headlong rush which was to take them all the way to Addis Ababa.
By the time Brigadier Pienaar reached Jijigga, 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. was already heavily engaged against enemy positions barring the Marda Pass on the way to Harar. Remnants of 102nd Colonial Division units and garrisons of posts in Italian Somaliland had withdrawn in bounds and arrived in the Harar area between 1 and 4 March. The Italian Empire, it appeared to the Duke of Aosta, already owed one month of its life to General de Simone, and he envisaged a fighting withdrawal to gain more time. There was always hope that Germany would win the war for the Axis before Italy had lost everything. But the troops from the Juba Sector were exhausted and shaken in morale.13 Units arriving at Harar from Somaliland found other troops who had not previously been engaged, but the European detachments were made up of heterogeneous elements haphazardly thrown together and never properly organized in fighting formations. Among the Native Colonial units some were already tired out from chasing
rebels in the Shoa province. The Banda Irregulars, in some cases, were as great a danger to the Italians as they were to their enemies and were barely distinguishable from bandits.
By 10 March General de Simone had concentrated in the Harar area some 26,000 Colonial and 5,000 Italian white troops. The latter, with the exception of artillery units not in Colonial Brigades, 2nd Battalion, M.V.S.N.* and 504th Blackshirt Battalion of recalled reservists, were mainly drivers, Sapper specialists, Carabinieri, Customs Guards and members of the Italian Africa Police. On paper, this oddly assorted force was deployed in orderly array.
A forward line which was no more than a thin screen ostensibly stretched from the Red Sea border of French Somaliland in the north right along the frontier and back to the coastline on the north of British Somaliland, and then all the way along the shore of the Gulf of Aden to the northern border of Italian Somaliland. This so-called 'thin cordon' vanished like a piece of burning tissue paper at the first sign of any real threat from Berbera or from the south.
More tangible was the defensive line running through Goggiar southward to block the Jijigga-Harar road by closing the Marda Pass and the smaller Dandi Pass to the south of it, while continuing east to west to form a barrier facing southward below Harar. General de Simone's paper plans envisaged a compact nucleus in the Diredawa zone. Small garrisons were on internal security duties and the 14th Colonial Brigade in Addis Ababa could be moved to Diredawa by rail.14
To the rear of the Italian front-line troops, the lines of communication were now being unmercifully hammered by the South African Air Force and by the Royal Air Force operating from Aden. They were smashing up the Regia Aeronautica in Abyssinia as they had done in Italian Somaliland and on 15 March Lieutenant R. H. C. Kershaw, rescuing Captain J. E. Frost in a very gallant action at Diredawa, where he landed to pick up Frost, became the first member of the South African Air Force to gain the immediate award of the Distinguished Service Order.
Glenn Martins of No. 12 Squadron, S.A.A.F., operating from Mogadishu, were taking photographs at Awash, 700 miles from their base, by 8 March. Six Battles bombed enemy concentrations at Harar by refuelling at Belet Uen, and on the nights before and after the South Africans' successful attack on Diredawa, Blenheims of the Royal Air Force hit the same airfield. By the time the Nigerians assembled for their attack on the Marda Pass, large fighter escorts for South African and Royal Air Force bombers had become unnecessary.
No. 11 Bomber Squadron, S.A.A.F. was at Belet Uen and No. 12 Bomber Squadron, S.A.A.F. at Gorrahai, and the defenders of the pass were being subjected to air attacks which had a most demoralizing effect on the Native troops. With the arrival of the Eritrean-Amhara 20th Battalion from Babile as reinforcements, desertions reached alarming proportions in the enemy Dubat Groups deployed on their left flank.15 One of the best Italian Colonial units, the 38th Colonial Battalion, simply abandoned its positions during the night.
At first sight, as 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. recorded, the Marda Pass
* The Milizia Volontaria della Sicurezza Nazionale, or National Militia.
appeared to be impregnable. However, at about 10 a.m. on 21 March the brigade received orders to deploy 18th and 1st Field Batteries also, in support of 1st Nigerian Regiment, which had been detailed to capture the heights known as Marda's Breasts and Camel Saddle Hill. They were to attack at noon.
These formidable positions commanded the pass on the right and were part of the enemy line along the hilltops completely overlooking the plain across which any attack would have to be made. The aerodrome, from which close support might be lent to the Nigerians, was in full view of the hills only 9,000 yards away and General Wetherall had initially intended waiting for the South Africans and launching a two-brigade attack on 23 March.16 By 21 March, however, definite indications that the enemy intended a further withdrawal made speed essential and in spite of the obvious strength of the wired and mined enemy positions, held by an estimated three to four battalions with pack artillery and two Banda groups,17 the attack was launched by 23rd Nigerian Brigade alone, even though 3rd Nigerian Regiment had not yet returned from its foray to Hargeisa.
No. 41 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. moved its Hart-beests up to Jijigga aerodrome. General Wetherall had planned what he termed a 'Waterloo Battle', with everyone rushing forward in motor transport as far as possible before deploying. As surprise would be impossible, he found out from prisoners that the Italians had their midday meal round noon and ordered the attack to go in while their ration parties would probably be out of the line and the rest left to fight on an empty stomach against attackers who had just had a good meal.
The 1st Nigerian Regiment, supported by 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. and 18th Field Battery, S.A.A., was to take Camel Saddle Hill, which was believed to be unoccupied, and then to capture Marda's Right Breast. Meanwhile 2nd Nigerian Regiment was to put in a holding attack against Observation Hill and The Ledge between it and Saddle Hill, supported by the Nigerian Light Battery. The guns of 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. were to be sited to fire on both objectives. Twin Lewis guns and captured Bredas of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. were disposed on the flanks and immediately to the rear of the field batteries to protect them from low-flying air attack and one Section was deployed to cover the Nigerian Brigade's vehicle park. A Section from 1st Anti-Aircraft Brigade, S.A.A. also arrived at Jijigga and it was placed on the aerodrome, from which South African reconnaissance and fighter aircraft were already operating.
So quickly did 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. and 18th Field Battery, S.A.A. deploy, in full view of the enemy only some 5,000 yards ahead of them, that the guns dropped into action a mile in front of the advancing Nigerian infantry. There was no cover of any sort, but in other respects conditions were almost ideal from a gunner's point of view.
The enemy was engaged by all batteries till about 1 p.m. when Italian 105 mm guns retaliated sharply. Counter-battery fire by the South African 18-pounders was impossible, as their guns were outranged and the enemy batteries up in the hills completely covered from observation. Bombing attacks were made on enemy positions, on their troop movements and on the railway between Diredawa and Awash,
but these valuable air force efforts had no immediate effect on the enemy artillery.
Situated where they could be fired at through the pass, 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. became a target for accurate and intensive shelling, but 1st and 18th Field Batteries, to get within range of the enemy, were sited inside the enemy's minimum crest clearance range.
The 1st Nigerians, starting their attack on Camel Saddle Hill soon after midday, were held up by machine-gun, mortar and light artillery fire, but the machine-gun posts were quickly silenced by the South African gunners when the Forward Observation Officers with the infantry called for support,18 just as 20th Colonial Battalion and remnants of 101st Dubat Group moved to counter-attack.19 'As the troops were approaching the south end of Camel Saddle Hill,' the Royal West African Frontier Force historians record, 'they were driven back temporarily by a well-timed counter-attack. This, in its turn, was driven back with loss by a furious burst of fire from the supporting batteries.'20 The 1st and 18th Field Batteries put over ninety rounds within two minutes, killing more than ninety Italians as well as a large number of Native troops.
THE BATTLE OF MARDA PASS.
By 4.30 p.m. two platoons of Nigerians had managed to establish themselves on Marda's Right Breast, where they were joined by the rest of their own company, a second company and a King's African Rifles machine-gun platoon. Another company, with the northern end of Camel Saddle Hill as objective, met unexpectedly tough opposition along the whole of the supposedly unoccupied ridge. However, so effective was the fire from the South African guns that only darkness prevented the objective being taken.21 Shortly after nightfall, as the result of a fine effort by Captain H. Dyke-Wells, Battery Commander of 18th Field Battery, S.A.A. and some of his signallers who laid line up the mountain, a South African artillery observation post was established on the newly captured Marda's Right Breast. By that time, the South African gunners had fired 1,100 rounds in seven and a half hours.
To the left of the road leading into Marda Pass, the 2nd Nigeria
Regiment's attack on Observation Hill was held up, but the Nigerian Light Battery knocked out the enemy observation post on the hill and 'by means of some artistic shooting' set fire to the grass near the summit, which burned for the rest of the day.22 After sundown the flashes of an enemy gun in the middle of the pass could be clearly seen but 5th Field Battery's fire could not knock it out, as it was in a tunnel hewn out of the mountain.23
'C' Company of 2nd Nigerian Regiment had obtained a foothold on The Ledge during the afternoon, and orders were issued for a night attack by two companies on a feature to the left of Saddle Hill--not to be confused with Camel Saddle Hill. During the bitterly cold night, with the enemy shining a blue searchlight down the road, the headlights of vehicles approaching and leaving the pass were observed. In their turn, the Italians were apprehensively watching signs of increased activity from Jijigga as the South African Brigade Group moved in.
The 1st Nigerians decided to attack Marda's Left Breast by moonlight, with supporting fire from 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., but at 3.15 a.m. on 22 March the enemy searchlight suddenly doused and three-quarters of an hour later a patrol found the pass unoccupied. The enemy had also withdrawn from Marda's Left Breast. A most formidable obstacle on the road to Addis Ababa had been cleared by the Nigerians and supporting South African artillery at the cost of only two officers killed and three wounded, with five Africans killed and thirty-four wounded.24
A section of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. was quickly sited to cover the Nigerian columns passing through and within half an hour the section was being bombed by two Savoia 79s, but the Italian pilots did not press home their attack.
During the main assault by the Nigerians, 'C' Company of 1st Transvaal Scottish, with a section of South African light tanks, carried out a minor operation to the north, capturing remnants of the enemy force at Gogetti. The villages of Genaserai and Goggiar, north of the Marda Pass, were cleared after a brief and innocuous encounter with some light field guns.25
At the same time the Dukes carried out two similar expeditions in a westerly direction to an area where enemy forces had been reported. None were located, but when the Dukes moved up the pass at night, they disobeyed standing orders and drove with headlights full on--to the consternation of enemy outposts who counted the vehicles, allowed for forty men in each and visualised pursuit by overwhelming forces.26 With disaffection mounting among his Native troops, the Duke of Aosta had already ordered the Commander of the Eastern Sector at Diredawa to concentrate all the forces from the Harar area along the line of the Awash River between Mount Dofan, north of the railway, and the Mecciara Heights in the Chercher Mountains to the south of it.27
Three roads led from the Marda Pass to Harar. The Southern and Middle roads were thought to be well surfaced and joined one another at the Babile Gap, another defile 30 miles to the west of Marda Pass. Further to the north ran an old Abyssinian road which linked up with the others beyond the Babile Gap. The Middle road was believed to be
heavily mined and blocked by demolitions, and the Nigerians were therefore to advance along the Southern route while the Dukes passed one company through the Marda Pass behind them on one of the minor operations which 1st S.A. Brigade--after the event--considered as imposing undue consumption of petrol.
While the Nigerians moved along the Southern road on 23 March, the Natal Carbineers and 17th Field Battery, S.A.A. were ordered to advance along the Northern route, which air reconnaissance wrongly reported to be in use by enemy transport. The battalion was soon descending 'literally by a series of rocky steps'28 to the floor of a deep valley, where Natives were ploughing their fields with primitive implements. To provide cover for South African Engineers repairing the road, the Natal riflemen had to scale the heights and at night a protective screen had to cover the main body bivouacked in the valley below.
The enemy thus found themselves seriously threatened in the flank, which they had scarcely expected to be approachable along the old road. Unfortunately, delays prevented the Carbineers from cutting off the Italians and the Nigerians reached the Babile Gap before the Natal battalion. Here the country was very difficult, with the road winding through deep-cut ravines, and enemy rearguards offered stiff resistance under General Sirigatti's direction.
The 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. and 52nd Nigerian Light Battery went into action to cover an attack by 3rd Nigerian Regiment after the leading armoured cars had bumped a road-block in the defile and come under machine-gun fire. Making short work of the enemy defences, the Nigerians captured nine machine-guns, and by 2.30 p.m. on 23 March the Engineers had the road-block cleared and the column pushed on till they came under heavy shellfire beyond the Tug Dakato River and about 2 miles further up the road, where they halted for the night.29
Next day the Nigerians hacked their way forward through barbed-wire entanglements under fire, but again they were overtaken by darkness. The Natal Carbineers column was already threatening to cut the enemy's line of retreat beyond the Gap, and by next morning (25 March) the Italians had gone and 1st Nigeria Regiment took over the lead. Guns and vehicles of 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. were sporadically attacked from the air but suffered no damage or casualties.
The troops which had held up the Nigerians at the Babile Gap now fell back on a line Diredawa-Carsa, with their numbers steadily dwindling. Of 140th Colonial Battalion, only about 150 men were left with their white officers to struggle back to the Bisidimo River southeast of Harar. Meanwhile General Liberati, Commander of the Savoy Grenadier Division, had been ordered up from Addis Ababa to the Awash River with a machine-gun company of his own Division (the rest of whom were fighting at Keren), the 210th Infantry Regiment of the Africa Division, a Shoan Banda Group and artillery. Air attacks on the trains carrying the Banda forwards delayed them so long that they arrived too late to go into action. By lorry, by train and on foot, General de Simone was desperately trying to muster forces to occupy the new line along the Awash River gorge, with General Liberati commanding the northern sector and General Santini the southern part of the line in the Chercher Mountains.30
At the Babile Gap, detachments of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., with captured Bredas, went into action four times against enemy aircraft and drove them off, and by the evening of 25 March the Nigerians had reached the approaches to the Bisidimo River south-east of Harar. They decided to attack next day.
An announcement had been picked up over the radio that Harar had been declared an open town, but as he had had no official notification of this, General Cunningham had a message dropped on the town to warn the Italian authorities that unless all troops were withdrawn to the west, Harar would be occupied by force.31 Nevertheless, the Nigerians came under artillery fire as they approached the foothills near the Bisidimo River at daybreak, and it was decided to call up 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. and the whole of 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. while 2nd Nigeria Regiment deployed for an attack on the enemy's right flank.32
The 60-pounders were to shell the road to Diredawa beyond Harar, though not Harar itself, but they had considerable crest clearance troubles and could not open fire.
Italian forces under General Alborghetti were holding a strong line on the far bank of the Bisidimo only a few miles from Harar, and while 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. was moving down the road to go into action it was again attacked by enemy aircraft. A gunner was wounded but no serious damage was done. The only possible battery positions from which to support the Nigerians were on a bend in the road as it emerged from the hills, in full view of the enemy, and as 18th Field Battery reconnaissance party moved forward they were heavily shelled by artillery of large calibre.
The first battery position selected soon became untenable. An alternative position was selected just before the guns arrived, and this was successfully occupied in spite of intense and accurate enemy shelling. No one was hurt. The 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. came into action shortly afterwards, followed later by 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. An artillery duel raged throughout the morning, with the South Africans replying fiercely though the enemy could observe their every movement.
Shortly after 11 a.m. the limber of No. 3 gun of 18th Field Battery, S.A.A. received a direct hit. Three men were badly shell-shocked, and 5th Field Battery's anti-tank gunner, Lance-Bombardier C. L. Impey, who had taken up position in a ditch beside the road, was hit by a 105 mm shell and killed instantly. Heavy shelling was concentrated on 18th Field Battery especially, and Lieutenant E. F. Schuster, the Gun Position Officer, set an outstanding example by his coolness under fire, for which he was subsequently awarded the Military Cross.
In face of the continued bombardment from the field batteries and then also by the 6-inch howitzers of 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A., the enemy artillery fire gradually died down. Some time after 1 o'clock the Italian guns became silent, but not before a homeward-bound enemy flight had raked the South African gun positions with machine-gun fire. One of the straffing aircraft was seen to receive a direct hit, which was claimed for a non-commissioned officer of 18th Field Battery, S.A.A.
At 2 p.m., with the 6-inch howitzers still firing, the 1st Nigeria
Regiment moved forward and half an hour later it was across the river and advancing through the hills, while 2nd Nigeria Regiment attacked the enemy's right flank, where he was already retiring. The howitzers of 2nd Medium Battery, S.A.H.A. put three salvoes into an Italian battery as it was about to pull out, and East African armoured cars collected the guns, vehicles and personnel complete. The South African gunners had put up a performance of the type which kindled General Wetherall's admiration for their quickness and zeal in supporting the infantry of his division.
It was drizzling drearily, and no sooner had the enemy troops withdrawn than an Italian civil official appeared with a white flag, while General de Simone's battered forces fell back on a general line Carsa-Collubi-Diredawa, where General Santini already had what remained of 13th Colonial Brigade and 64th Colonial Battalion. They were about to be joined by General Alborghetti's 14th Colonial Brigade, which was already reduced to a single battalion, 83rd Colonial.
The envoy from Harar was met by General Wetherall, and at 6 o'clock that evening 1st Nigeria Regiment formally entered the town. More than 500 prisoners were taken and large quantities of war material were captured, including two batteries of 105 mm guns, the first collected in the fighting in East Africa. The Italian Medical Supply Depot in the town had unfortunately been badly looted. 'When we arrived on the scene,' wrote Captain Willem P. Steenkamp of 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., 'there were hundreds of Natives smashing the bottles, breaking open packing cases and scattering their contents.' However, Headquarters Company, 10th Field Ambulance, under Major Jack Wicht, established themselves in the Agricultural Institute buildings, salvaged a good quantity of the stores and were soon handling a number of medical cases.
From Mogadishu to Harar, 11th African Division had accounted for a further 19,000 Italian troops, bringing the total of killed, prisoners or deserters up to an estimated 50,000. The Nigerians under Brigadier G. R. Smallwood had led the Division till the capture of Harar on 25 March. During the previous thirty days they had covered 1,054 miles at an average of 35 miles a day, the last 65 of which had been accomplished against three strong positions in only three and a half days.33
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation