Onward to Addis Ababa
General Cunningham, on 21 March, had received a telegram from General Wavell to say that he saw no military advantage in East Africa Force's going beyond Diredawa unless such a move was likely to end the campaign in Abyssinia. The dangers of becoming too deeply committed--when the forces in the Middle East were stretched almost to the limit--were also pointed out. General Cunningham reckoned that the capture of Addis Ababa was quite possible, and though he was not banking on that resulting in general capitulation he felt that if Eritrea were also taken then the Italians would give in.1
Counting on the use of the Jibuti-Addis Ababa railway within Abyssinia, he assured General Wavell that any advance from Diredawa would not raise any new demands for transport, and the Commander-in-Chief authorized the continuation of the advance.2 On 25 March, the day that Harar fell, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group (less the Natal Carbineers) moved up along the middle road from Jijigga.
Behind Brigadier Pienaar's Brigade Group, no further operations were required in Italian Somaliland and 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Mobile Column under Lieutenant-Colonel H. P. van Noorden, which left Nanyuki on 15 March with 642 vehicles and 1,600 men and reached Mogadishu on 22 March, was ordered to move up immediately to reinforce 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group. Colonel van Noorden, with no petrol for the long column, had flown up to Advanced Force Headquarters at Gabredarre on 22 March and petrol was provided on 26 March. The force, known as 'Mob-Col', on 27 March set off along the route already taken by 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group.
Way off to the east the rest of the infantry of 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade ('Buc Force') had sailed from Mombasa on 16 March and had begun their laborious disembarkation at Berbera on 22 March, handicapped by lack of usable wharfage, as the piers had been damaged during the British evacuation and again by the Italians. By the time 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group moved forward from Jijigga, Brigadier Buchanan had patrols out in all directions from Berbera, and civil administration was being re-established in British Somaliland in spite of the fact that the South Africans had no transport other than what could be commandeered. No. 3 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. was doing everything possible to restore telephone and other communications in British Somaliland.
On 27 March, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group--dropping Headquarters Company of 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C.--passed through Harar after extensive demolitions had been cleared by South African Engineers. The same day it picked up the Natal Carbineers on the road and now took over the lead from the Nigerians on the day that Keren, key position in Eritrea, fell to 4th and 5th Indian Divisions after holding out for fifty-four days in the bitterest and most decisive battle of the East African Campaign.
No South African combatant troops were involved at Keren, but the East African Campaign cannot be seen in true perspective without some reference to this stern test of strength, in which the bulk of the Duke of Aosta's central reserve--the Savoy Grenadier Division--was involved, after moving north from Addis Ababa. British casualties amounted to 536 killed and 3,299 wounded,3 and Italian losses were estimated at over 3,000 killed and 4,500 wounded.*
Between 15 and 27 March, the Royal Artillery facing Keren fired more than 110,000 shells, all carried by lorry from railhead over 150 miles away.4 Supply was the vital factor and the fighting troops owed much to the splendid work of 121st, 122nd, 124th and 125th† R.M.T. Companies, Cape Corps, who had gone overland from Kenya along the Nile route to Eritrea with the 'Cape lorries' to support the British and Indian troops. Lieutenant-General Piatt, Commanding Sudan Force, commended them to Sir Pierre van Ryneveld and related in a letter on 12 April 1941 how they had been doing 150 miles a day two days out of three and loading on the third day, seven days a week.
In the south, with 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. back with 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group after completing the bridge at Balad, 1st Transvaal Scottish went into the lead along the main road to Miesso, with the Natal Carbineers in support, while the Dukes were directed along the old Southern route. The Transvaal Scottish, with Addis Ababa 320 miles ahead, drove through the almost deserted streets of Harar before daybreak on 27 March, and pushed on in the direction of Diredawa. Less than 10 miles out from Harar the advance guard was held up on the high plateau by a demolished bridge. A near-by brickfield provided material for filling the gap and a section of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. soon had the column on the move again, only to strike another blown bridge 2 miles further on. Here a Transvaal Scottish platoon, almost all of whom were miners from the Sub Nigel Gold Mine, helped the Sappers build up two stone walls some 30 feet high and had the vehicles pushing on in an amazingly short time.5
With the Hubeta Pass plunging down 4,000 feet into the Great Rift Valley in a 10-mile defile of twisting spirals only a few miles ahead, Lieutenant-Colonel Hartshorn chafed at every delay, but after only another 4 miles 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. had to tackle a further demolition and build a deviation over a stream.
Speed was imperative if the Italians were to be driven off the pass before nightfall and 'A' Company and armoured cars from No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company, once they were through the detour, moved
* By comparison, total battle casualties of the 6th S.A. Armoured Division up to the fall of Florence in the Italian Campaign amounted to 2,100, and in the whole of that campaign they totalled 5,176, of whom 753 were killed.
† They were still known as 'A', 'B', 'D' and 'E' Companies, Cape Corps, at the time.
fast near the shores of Lake Aramaio as they headed for the long straight stretch of road before the top of the pass. The road ran between the cultivated slopes of two mountains but only a short distance ahead, where it plunged down in a serpentine descent to Diredawa, the country was wild, and reminiscent of the Barberton district. Carved out of almost perpendicular cliff faces, the road invited major demolitions and road-blocks of the most formidable kind.
A thousand feet below, a stream ran through a deep gorge, and the mountain rose sheer from the other side of the road. Here the Italians had decided to fight a further delaying action before their Awash River line, with two machine-gun companies consisting largely of regular officers whose units had disintegrated. They had taken up position in the hills at right angles to the road, but with a flank exposed as the inevitable result of continued desertion by Colonial troops. Bombardment from the air hit Italian columns on the move at Diredawa, Gota and Miesso; and Native soldiers vanished with their arms. Battalions were rapidly reduced, sometimes to 100 men or less, and at Miesso the 15th Artillery Group of 65 mm guns had no men left in the ranks and had to load its guns on to lorries, while the 13th Pack Artillery Group had to employ officers and Blackshirts in place of African gunners and muleteers. The Italians had no option but to fall back, with rearguards imposing what delay they could.6
At about 3.30 p.m. Captain Briscoe's force of five armoured cars and nine troop-carriers entered the Hubeta Pass. Two armoured cars quickly fell out. As the column rounded the next bend another came to a halt and less than half a mile down the pass they reached the first demolition, which brought the whole convoy to a stop. Captain Briscoe and an Engineer officer were approaching the hole in the road at about 4 p.m. when a '7-pounder' shell whistled overhead and exploded not far away.
Deploying quickly, Lieutenant Deryck Klapka's No. 5 Platoon was soon scrambling up and down the slopes of a series of hills on which the Italians had dug in their machine-guns on the approaches to Hubeta Mountain. The dominating, boulder-strewn hills opposite the enemy positions, though covered by fire, had been left unoccupied and Numbers 6 and 7 Platoons clambered up them. No. 5 Platoon, climbing steeply, descended equally steeply into a gully. Then, climbing again as they crossed the hills, they toiled for an hour in full fighting kit before reaching a point near a Native village on Hubeta itself. Here they came under vicious machine-gun fire. On the far side of the road, Numbers 6 and 7 Platoons were also under fire from small-arms and artillery, apparently from a motorized rearguard under Colonel Buonamico and the 1st Artillery Group of 77 mm guns.
'C' Company of the 1st Transvaal Scottish had by now debussed and Lieutenant A. O. McLaren's No. 11 Platoon was ordered to scale the heights dominating the turn-off to Carsa and Asba Littorio, while Major H. A. Olsen took the other two platoons of the company across miles of open field to outflank Hubeta and force the enemy off the crest.
Under fire from some thirty enemy machine-guns, No. 5 Platoon was pinned down behind a cactus hedge which hid it but offered no protection from the spray of bullets. It could make no headway with
its three Bren guns and the men's rifles. The platoon signaller could not stand up and Lieutenant Klapka borrowed a steel mirror from one of his men to flash a message saying he was pinned down. He was ordered to attack while No. 14 Platoon tried to lend support by firing on Hubeta at long range with its Vickers guns. No. 16 Platoon, close to the convoy, was finding its mortars outranged by the Italians and one bomb almost hit Klapka's platoon before the Transvaal Scottish mortar detachments had to cease fire.7 To knock out two machine-gun posts, Major B. J. H. Mawson brought one gun of 2nd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. into action on the pass.
As No. 5 Platoon moved forward, the owner of the steel mirror, who had just returned it to his left-hand breast pocket, was hit three times. The mirror deflected a bullet which almost certainly would otherwise have proved fatal. While the platoon pressed on towards the western extremity of the enemy-occupied crest, Major Olsen's two platoons made all speed for the feature's eastern flank, swarming up it at sunset. To their astonishment, they found the position unoccupied.
Moving on and firing Brens from the hip and throwing grenades, Major Olsen's men stormed the Italians from the rear as they tried to beat off Klapka's attack from one side.8 Enemy resistance collapsed and prisoners were being rounded up by nightfall. Fifty Italians with sixteen machine-guns and two mortars had manned the positions which had peppered Captain Briscoe's men.9
During the particularly hazardous advance of No. 5 Platoon, Private F. R. Potterill evacuated two badly wounded comrades and earned the immediate award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal.10 Private W. A. Flemmer, who died of wounds, was the only South African lost in the action. Booty included thirty lorries, three field guns, two mortars and numerous machine-guns, and some 200 prisoners were taken.11
While 'B' Company of the Transvaal Scottish was trying to link up with 'A' Company across the rough terrain during the bitterly cold night, enemy ammunition dumps in Diredawa were being destroyed, and thunderous explosions lit up the sky. Disintegration among enemy troops was mounting and 17th Colonial Brigade left the town with only 600-700 men. The Italians themselves had withdrawn the arms from two Colonial Battalions, whose men dispersed. Reaching Miesso in no condition to fight, remnants of the Brigade had to be directed straight back to Adama, while the Italian motorized group took up positions to block the road south from Miesso into the Chercher Mountains and to Asba Littorio.12
By daybreak on 29 March, the enemy had withdrawn from the Hubeta Pass and patrols were pushing forward down the pass, on which they encountered some enormous demolitions, of which the third was the most serious. Luckily, the Italians made little serious attempt to cover these demolitions with fire, and 10th and 12th Batteries of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. helped to discourage them from increasing their efforts in this respect. At five of the steepest places on the descent to Diredawa the enemy blasted the mountainside and cut the road. One of the craters was 70 yards across and it was at first estimated that it would take eight days to fill.
The 2nd Nigeria Regiment was moved up to help13 repair the road
and with 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. and 54th East African Field Company working round thejclock the road was open within thirty-six hours.14
While work on the pass was proceeding, a patrol of the Transvaal Scottish worked its way down towards Diredawa. An enemy armoured car and staff car were sighted but fled. Vickers guns covering the road opened fire and the staff car overturned. Its occupants were unhurt and jumped on to the armoured car, which then sped on and touched off another demolition, which cut off a working party of forty of their own men, three field guns and four huge 10-ton diesel lorries.
On the morning of Saturday, 29 March, an Italian car drove out from Diredawa towards the pass, carrying an agitated Assistant Governor with a letter begging Lieutenant-Colonel Hartshorn to enter the town before nightfall as the Italian troops had disappeared and the citizens were being menaced by the local Natives.15 Seven Italians had been murdered and mutilated by armed deserters from the Italian Colonial Infantry,16 and the Transvaal Scottish swooped down into the Great Rift Valley to block the last enemy outlet to the sea and restore order in Diredawa. There they were met with harrowing and conflicting tales of mutiny by Somali, Abyssinian and even Eritrean troops.
General Gazerra had already been called from the Southern Command to Addis Ababa on 25 March to be told that the Viceroy no longer intended to hold the line of the Awash River. The capital was to be declared an open city and the Comando Superiore was being moved northward to Amba Alagi. All troops south of the Blue Nile were to pass to Southern Command if and when possible. They were to hold out as long as they could to tie up maximum British forces.17 The Duke of Aosta's Chief of Staff, General Trezzani, had flown to see General de Simone on 28 March to tell him the same discouraging news, with exhortations to hold on the Awash River line at least long enough to allow time for the troops at Addis Ababa to pull out towards Dessie and Amba Alagi.18 The same day, General Varda, previously commanding the Addis Ababa garrison, was instructed to establish defences in the area of Dessie to cover the southern approach to Amba Alagi, where the Duke himself was to take command on 7 April.19
Guards were posted at strategic points in Diredawa, but when darkness fell danger of serious trouble was still imminent. The arrival of armoured cars and troop-carriers after nightfall brought the unruly mob somewhat to its senses, but the Transvaal Scottish were forced to fire on rioters looting European homes.
Next day, shooting continued and a force of rebels tried to take possession of the aerodrome, where the South African and Royal Air Force attacks had left the runways littered with burnt-out aircraft and reduced the hangars to little more than steel skeletons. Cars from No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company at last brought the town under control and also cleared the aerodrome. The Italian civilians, thankful that they had been saved from a blood-drunk mob, offered champagne to South Africans in the shabby hotel, and local Greeks predicted the fall of Addis Ababa and the utter collapse of the Italian forces within twenty days. South African War Correspondent Carel Birkby thought
them too optimistic.20
At Awash, while the Transvaal Scottish were averting a blood-bath in Diredawa, remnants of various columns were massing chaotically between the railway station, the bridge and the village itself, with further trainloads of troops and material, and convoys of lorries arriving continually from Diredawa and Miesso to add to the confusion. Wholesale desertion had left many units in a state of hopeless disorganization, and throughout the night frantic efforts were made to try to disentangle the demoralized mass of men before daylight21 presented the South African Air Force with an irresistable target.
During the brisk engagement, before the positions covering the Hubeta Pass, when he saw 1st Transvaal Scottish fully committed, Brigadier Pienaar had sent forward a company of the Dukes as a reserve, but it was not brought into action. It appeared that the demolitions ahead were likely to cause considerable delay and the Brigade Commander, to keep the enemy on the run, therefore ordered the Dukes, with 11th Field Battery, S.A.A., one medium gun and "two sections of Engineers from 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C, to move along the mountain road through Carsa and Collubi towards Asba Littorio. If possible, they were to cut down on to the Diredawa-Awash road from Deder or Irna, thus by-passing the Hubeta Pass.
This tortuous track at high altitude demanded very skilful driving and the utmost vigilance, and led through defiles and passes ideal for ambush. Bends were extremely sharp, necessitating reversing by the larger trucks to round some of them and in a few cases even requiring the cutting away of the mountainside to enable the Medium Battery's 6-inch howitzer to negotiate a corner.22 At Carsa the first of a number of demolitions was encountered, holding up the column for twelve hours. Some enemy troops, mainly Natives, surrendered, rather to the annoyance of the Dukes, who were beginning to find the supplying of escorts for prisoners irksome. However, their admiration was aroused by one small party who had to be overcome by a platoon of 'A' Company supported by a section of machine-guns.
At Collubi the Dukes caught up with an enemy rearguard--part of General Santini's force falling back on Mecciara--waiting in well-chosen positions on the heights dominating a narrow defile where there was no room for the infantry to deploy or for the guns to come into action on level ground. The 18-pounders of 11th Field Battery, S.A.A. dropped trails on the road and quickly opened fire while the Dukes' mortars put in some accurate shooting. A platoon under Lieutenant B. O'Leary went in to attack the enemy, who withdrew as two platoons of 'B' Company overran the position at a cost of five casualties, including Private C. F. Pearce, who died of wounds on 8 April.23
A demolition prevented pursuit and required hard work throughout the night by 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C, before the advance could be resumed next morning, only to be further delayed by the surrender of a couple of hundred Native troops who had been left by their white officers. Deder was easily taken, but the Italian Divisional Commander and his staff, who had been thought to have their headquarters there, were already well away, leaving behind 700 European and 200 very dejected Native troops--the largest single haul of prisoners made in
Abyssinia by any unit of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group up to that rime. A large number of serviceable arms, including a complete battery of field guns, was taken by 'A' Company (Captain P.J. O'Sullivan). The guns were loaded, with the breech blocks buried nearby and unearthed next day.24
Moving on to Irna, with the signals personnel from No. 10 Brigade Signals Company making extensive use of permanent Italian lines to maintain intercommunication, the column 'acquired' a valuable replenishment of Italian petrol25--a fact which may have had some bearing on later events, had it been known to Brigadier Pienaar. A bridge had been blown up in the village, and Sappers and infantrymen worked through the night once again, chest deep in water, to enable the advance to continue. On this, as on other occasions Sergeant M. M. Coetzee, the Dukes Transport Sergeant, set a splendid example. His ability and devotion to duty over long periods were to earn him the award of the British Empire Medal.26
Corpses and abandoned guns and lorries marked the course of the Italian withdrawal, but after turning north a serious road-block on the approaches to Asba Littorio threatened to hold up pursuit by the Dukes, who knew that the Natal Carbineers were by that time moving through Miesso to cut off enemy forces withdrawing before the Cape Town battalion.27
The Carbineers, whose 'B' Company had unsuccessfully tried to beat 1st Transvaal Scottish into Diredawa by finding an alternative route, had passed through into the lead westward on 30 March, advancing smoothly and without any trouble as far as Erer, where the bridge had been blown. The enemy covering party was captured and work begun to replace the bridge. This delay enabled the Transvaal Scottish, who had been relieved by a Nigerian battalion in Diredawa, to close up on 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group column, though road repairing put a severe strain on the troops involved in the clearing of demolitions.
Beyond Erer, two further demolitions required Engineers and working parties to labour day and night to re-open the road, but the advance to Miesso was pressed on and, on 31 March, the Natal Carbineers entered it in time to cut off and capture enemy forces withdrawing in front of the Dukes.28 They were by no means all the enemy forces who had been retreating along the 'Upper Route' through the Chercher Mountains, for the track continued westward beyond the point where the Dukes had turned up towards Asba Littorio and Miesso. Well beyond this turn-off, the mountain road was again linked with the main Diredawa-Addis Ababa road by a track running to Arba, about 10 miles east of Awash village. Fearing that Arba--like Miesso--might fall into British hands before it could be cleared by all his rearguards, General de Simone on 30 March sent radio instructions to General Santini's Chercher Mountains column to employ all available motor transport to withdraw the European elements of his force and all artillery other than mule-pack guns through Arba as rapidly as possible. A motorized group on the lower road would halt east of Arba at a road-block till General Santini's troops were through. The rest of the Chercher column--now solely Colonial troops on foot or muleteers--was to carry on along the mountain route westward to Mecciara at the southern
The fort at Wajir.
Time off for cards at a mortar position during a lull at Gobwen.
(Photo: Terence McNally.)
An infantry patrol approaches Buna rock.
(Photo: Terence McNally.)
South African Air Force Hurricanes about to take off from an airfield in Kenya.
South African armoured cars cross the Juba River over 'Union Bridge' at Yonte.
extremity of the Awash line.29
An attempt by 1st Transvaal Scottish to make contact with the Dukes via a flank route from Bichet was frustrated by demolitions and a veld fire across the road to the south, on which a small enemy post was captured by a South African patrol.
On arrival at Miesso the Natal Carbineers discovered the bridge over the narrow but deep and sheer gorge on the southward road to Asba Littorio to have been destroyed. Work was immediately begun to bridge the gorge so that the Transvaal Scottish could move through to contact the Dukes next day. However, heavy rain during the night rendered some crossings on the main road itself temporarily impassable and the Carbineers had to take over the duty, which entailed the clearing of still further demolitions, with the result that the reunion of the brigade at Miesso was tedious and laborious. The pursuit had developed into an almost continuous day and night Engineer task, with major and minor road-blocks and demolitions having to be cleared and bridges replaced all along the route; gaping holes in the road, tangled masses of steel sprawled in the beds of gorges which had once been spanned, and piles of rubble were offering stiffer opposition to the advance than were the Italian forces.
The Dukes were impatient to be the first to enter Asba Littorio and Lieutenant Peter Bairnsfather-Cloete went forward with a platoon on foot from the point on the approach to the town where the battalion was held up by demolitions. They disarmed the white officers and several hundred Native troops and then directed the Dukes column to a parking-place as it moved on after repairing the road. Soon the battalion was also on its way to Miesso, less than 20 miles to the north as the crow flies.
All the way back to the Marda Pass and further back to Mogadishu and Berbera work was proceeding, to improve the lines of communication and ensure supplies for further advance. Although the South African Air Force was meeting negligible fighter opposition, antiaircraft detachments from 5th and 6th Anti-Aircraft Batteries, S.A.A. were strung out all along the road from Jijigga to Miesso, on the alert for enemy bombers, which made two daring raids on Jijigga.
Just after midday on 27 March, three Fiats approached Jijigga very high, as three South African JU 52s carrying personnel from Advanced Force and Air Headquarters were coming in to land on the airfield where nine communications aircraft were dispersed at the time. The enemy, by very effective bombing, meted out some severe punishment to the newly arrived transport aircraft, all three of which were so badly holed that they were rendered unserviceable. One of the communications aircraft on the aerodrome was badly damaged, and the Fiats were untouched by the light anti-aircraft fire. Hurricanes on a near-by satellite landing ground took off, but arrived to find that the enemy had escaped into the clouds. During the attack, two men were slightly wounded.
On 29 March, the Italians returned to Jijigga in force, four Fiats coming in very low out of the morning sun while three others circled overhead as top cover. Light anti-aircraft sections went into action rapidly but in the first attack one JU 52, a Valencia and a Hartbeest
were set on fire, and two of the JU 52s already damaged in the previous attack were again shot up. Many hits were registered by the light antiaircraft gunners and one Fiat CR 42 was shot down by No. 3 Section of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., probably with 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery guns contributing to the success, which earned for Lieutenant Mike Stott a bottle of whisky from a delighted Brigadier Blaker, R.A.
Four Hurricanes from the satellite landing ground were soon in action and in the ensuing dog-fight Lieutenant Venter shot down another Fiat, which crashed in flames, while his own aircraft was also damaged in the fight. Two other Italians were chased through the valleys by Captain Frost, who eventually destroyed one of them, while the only South African casualty was Captain S. v. B. Theron, with a wound in the leg--plus a suspicion in some quarters that it came from a Lewis gun on the ground and not from the 12-7 mm machine-gun of a CR 42. The coolant tank of his aircraft was, in any event, also hit and he was forced to land on the satellite airfield, in the process of which two Fiats got on his tail and set his machine on fire as it touched down. Captain Theron managed to get clear before the flames reached his cockpit.
Next morning two Savoias dropped about 200 small bombs ineffectually on Jijigga, and managed to get away when attacked by two Hurricanes which succeeded in damaging an engine on each aircraft. Two Gladiators were also in the air but were too slow to intercept the 255-mile-an-hour bombers, one of which sustained 450 bullet holes and returned to base with all the crew killed except the pilot.
Reunited at Miesso, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was earmarked by General Wetherall to push on to occupy Addis Ababa, but he felt a little disturbed in view of suggestions which had already reached his ears to the effect that the Brigade was short of fuel. In fact, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade recorded that considerable difficulty was being experienced with petrol supplies. The problem was complicated by the necessity to mix two types of Italian fuel to produce a reasonable running mixture, and by the additional fact that much of the supply was in cased tins which, in Abyssinia as in the Western Desert, were not strong enough to stand up to transport over rough roads. Many of these tins were found to be empty before being required for use--a misfortune which befell other formations just as it did the South Africans. To make matters worse, according to 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade, many of the drums of Italian spirit were found to be only partially filled or to contain nothing but water. Petrol cases were also found on many occasions to hold tins of water, as a result of having been dumped over the side from ships and floated ashore at Kismayu or elsewhere.*
However, at Irna only a few days before arriving at Miesso, the Dukes had--according to their own account--'acquired a valuable replenishment of Italian petrol',30 which must have compensated in some measure for any fuel consumed unexpectedly in the minor operations at the Marda Pass, to which Brigadier Pienaar partly
* At the Juba crossing on 19 February Major-General Godwin-Austen had recorded with rather obvious irritation that 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade required 1,000 cases of petrol on the strength of an original indent for only 1,200 cases--when 524 cases had been delivered only the previous day. The Brigade 'Q' Staff had apparently been wide of the mark in estimating their requirements.
attributed his Brigade's fuel shortage.
Whatever the reasons for the South Africans' lack of fuel General Wetherall was understandably taken aback when he was presented with a message from Brigadier Pienaar to announce that the South African Brigade Group could advance no further unless they were provided with petrol. Setting off post-haste to visit Brigadier Pienaar's Headquarters, the Divisional Commander passed through Brigadier Fowkes's 22nd East African Brigade, which was in reserve, and took the precaution of warning them to be ready to move within twenty-four hours if necessary.
When General Wetherall arrived at Brigadier Pienaar's Headquarters, he asked if it were true that the Brigade could not move without being given further supplies of petrol. The South African assured the Divisional Commander that such was the case, and General Wetherall took the precaution of insisting that he be given a statement to that effect in writing so as to avoid any recriminations.
Reluctant to risk the loss of any of the impetus of the hitherto highly successful advance on Addis Ababa, and with no doubts about being able to cross the Awash, General Wetherall then ordered 22nd East African Brigade to pass through the South Africans and push on towards the Abyssinian capital.
Oddly enough, there appears to be no record of the South Africans ever actually being issued with more petrol to get them to Addis Ababa. General Wetherall charitably assumed that they must have captured some en route. Far from wishing to hold them back, he had intended that they should lead the way into the Abyssinian capital. The East Africans were to pursue the enemy along the southern route recently left by the Dukes, forcing the Awash River from the south at Ponte Malcasa and Bole, while the South Africans were to move forward along the main road to Adama preparatory to occupying Addis Ababa. The 23rd Nigerian Brigade was to remain at Diredawa until petrol and rations became available. That things were to work out somewhat differently could not be foreseen at the time.
General Cunningham, sensing that demoralization among the enemy Native troops was spreading to the Blackshirt Battalions and other white units, was confident that the fall of Addis Ababa was imminent. To the best of his knowledge, the city had a white civilian population of some 20,000 and a Native population of about 100,000 and the protection of the white population under circumstances which were now developing in Abyssinia was causing him concern. He was anxious to avoid any pillage or more serious incidents in the period between the withdrawal of Italian military forces and the entry of 11th African Division. With the United States still neutral and the eyes of the civilized world on the conduct of the war, any untoward incident could have considerable repercussions, and on 30 March he had already telegraphed to General Wavell suggesting that the time had come to approach the Duke of Aosta on the question of protecting the civilian population of Addis Ababa.31
Next day General Cunningham received from the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, a message expressing to the Duke of Aosta General Wavell's anxiety for the safety of women and children and authorizing General Cunningham to get in touch with the Italian Supreme
Command and to report back any suggestions for ensuring their safety. The message was dropped on Addis Ababa from the air, with a further message from General Cunningham to say that an envoy could be sent by air to land behind the lines in safety at certain hours.32
At 8 o'clock that night the Comando Superiore called together the Italian regional commanders at Moggio and told them that there was no longer any chance of reinforcing the Awash River Line or of guaranteeing continued protection for the thousands of European civilians in the capital. It had therefore been decided to transfer the High Command to the Dessie-Amba Alagi sector and to negotiate with the British concerning the surrender of Addis Ababa. All troops in the capital not required for police duties were to be withdrawn, partly to Dessie and partly into Galla-Sidamo.33
Meanwhile, there was no slackening in the pace of General Wetherall's operations, which owed much to the efforts of the South African wireless operators, linesmen and dispatch riders of No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. They kept communications open even though the length of the column they served on the way to Miesso sometimes reached 200 miles, which was covered at least once and sometimes twice daily by dispatch riders, who were to average eighteen hours a day on the move for the next few days as the push continued towards the capital. The wireless teams kept continuous round-the-clock watch, cablemen noted and fixed all breaks in the permanent telephone lines and sometimes had the regular services re-established in record time, for the full 200 miles back to Divisional Headquarters. Following up in rear, the South African G.H.Q.. Signals Company made all temporary repairs permanent.
As if this were not enough for their not unlimited resources of skilled men and equipment, on 1 April the Brigade Signals Company learned during a visit from the C.R.A., Colonel C. L. de W. du Toit,* who had arrived from South Africa on 22 March, that owing to shortage of equipment among the artillery units, No. 10 Brigade Signals Company would have to take over responsibility for the gunners' communications. The Company then proceeded to cover 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A., 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A., and 1st Medium Battery, S.A.H.A. in addition to providing the highly trained personnel for the C.R.A.'s own control terminal. 'Mob-Col', from 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade, following up in rear of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade and taking over tasks on the lines of communication, reached Jijigga on 1 April and was in Harar next day.
On 1 April and all through the night, 22nd East African Brigade columns, complete with 110th Reserve Motor Transport Company of the South African Indian and Malay Corps, poured through Miesso towards the Awash River where General Wetherall hoped to capture the bridges intact. Behind the river the enemy columns from the lower road had withdrawn, with their motorized group as a rearguard at Arba till a number of the vehicles from the Chercher mountains force, under Colonel De Cicco, had also passed through to the safety of the Awash Line. Other remnants of their original force continued towards
* Later, for some time Commander of 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade in North Africa and, after the war, Chief of the S.A. General Staff.
Sire and the Galla-Sidamo on the upper route through Mecciara.34 At 2.30 p.m. on 2 April the Italian Engineers blew up the road between Arba and Ghelemso, thus blocking the way back to the upper route, and at 5.30 p.m.--to the great disappointment of General Wetherall who heard the explosions as he approached--they demolished both the road and the rail bridges over the Awash River gorge.35
Under command of the East African Brigade, 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. and 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. were involved in a wild dash which ended in a bivouac 3 miles short of the deep gorge of the Awash River that evening. With them from Miesso went 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. and 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. None of the South African field guns was needed to brush aside the Italian opposition at Arba, but 1st Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. (Captain Carl Leisegang) here came into action for the first time. Tank tracks had been seen and the anti-tank gunners were keyed up when they sighted armoured fighting vehicles at about 2,500 yards. The Right Section was called forward, but owing to doubts as to the identity of these camouflaged vehicles the guns were not permitted to fire. Nevertheless, they opened fire on enemy motor transport withdrawing from Arba and destroyed three lorries. In an unconventional counter-battery role, the 2-pounders also put seven anti-tank shells into the gunpit of a light enemy field gun, scoring a direct hit on one of the gunners and another on the gun itself. Meanwhile the Left Section had also been brought up and several long-range shots were sent after enemy tanks covering the withdrawal of their rearguard. Hits were scored but apparently did little damage at such long range.
The enemy held a strong line on the west bank of the river, which swings to the south-west, almost parallel with the main road, a few miles south of the railway station at Awash village. Of the troops from the Harar area, various Italian white units had reached the Awash Line, including two companies of Carabinieri under Major Morelli, 504th Blackshirt Battalion, an air force battalion, 200 Customs Guards, one Engineer Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Florio, a signals company, two transport units with 500 vehicles, several batteries, and Buonamico's motorized group with a company of medium tanks--some 4,000 men in all, plus about 2,000 Native troops and Eritrean noncommissioned officers, and about seventy-six guns. In the line already under command of General Liberati, they found the two 'Africa Division' Blackshirt battalions under Colonel Cherosi, three Savoy Grenadier machine-gun companies, and thirty-two guns, with the Shoan Banda Group of some 1,800 under Colonel Rolle expected any minute by train.36
On the morning of 3 April 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. deployed on the east bank of the Awash gorge without incident, and contrary to expectations the East Africans managed to cross the river almost unopposed, although both road and railway bridges had been demolished. A place where the river could be waded had been found about half a mile from the main Italian position, and as soon as he realized that his flank was being turned the enemy withdrew from his forward positions.37 The South African artillery brigade shot in its guns on Awash village and on the road west of the village.38 Having also moved forward, 1st
Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. engaged enemy machine-gun posts across the gorge at 1,000 yards.
Later that morning the South African guns came under intensive gunfire from enemy 65s for a brief spell, but at 5.30 p.m. a fighting patrol of one company of 1/5 King's African Rifles, accompanied by Forward Observation Officers from 1st Field Battery, C.F.A., and 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., fought their way into Awash village against light opposition.
On the only two occasions on which 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. had tried to use its No. 1 wireless sets they had failed completely, and now, at least 500 yards from the Forward Observation Officers' positions, the telephone wire ran out. No less than 1\ miles of cable had been laid by 1st Field Battery alone during the operation, and fire orders could not reach the guns by any other means. Suddenly, the village was strongly counter-attacked by the enemy, with mortar and artillery support--apparently a force under Colonel Di Marco, who was seriously wounded a few days later. Bombardier A. J. Uys,39 under continuous enemy fire, ran back from the forward observation post to the telephone with fire orders and the South Africans immediately put down a curtain of defensive fire, under cover of which the village was evacuated without loss. Bombardier Uys was mentioned in dispatches.
During the night, enemy transport was brought under fire and the following morning the King's African Rifles, supported by the Cape Field Artillery battery, successfully reoccupied the village and the South African guns registered on the Awash-Addis Ababa road. Air operations at the time were mainly directed against enemy columns retreating by both road and rail towards Adama, where the Italians now faced an ugly situation, as deserters joined local rebels. A train carrying drums of fuel was derailed near Moggio and the precious freight was only recovered by force. Meanwhile, the Awash force fell back on the Gariboldi Pass. The railway between Diredawa and Addis Ababa, which could itself become a vital line of supply for East Africa Force once it could be brought into full working order again, was a main target for the South African Air Force, with trains being effectively bombed on several occasions.40
East African armoured cars were hauled across the Awash by block and tackle and now they were racing on from the river, where the South African Engineers rapidly threw a box-girder bridge across the gorge to replace the road bridge41 and studied the possibilities of restoring the railway bridge, whose tangled wreckage presented formidable problems.
The South African Air Force on 4 April sent six separate waves of bombers, each with its own fighter escort, to attack the airfield at Addis Ababa, while the East African Brigade, with 110th Reserve Motor Transport Company of S.A. Indian and Malay Corps carrying hundreds of its men, pushed on towards Moggio from the Awash River. By the time the last wave of bombers turned back from the capital, the airfield presented a scene of chaos. The only enemy fighters which had interfered with the Glenn Martins which were first over the target had been driven off by Hurricanes and Gladiators, which shot one down. One formation of four Battles dropped 208 fragmentation bombs within five minutes, one stick falling on eight enemy aircraft parked in front
of the main hangar, where a fire was soon raging.
Four JU 86s and two Gladiators in the fourth wave met no opposition and caused considerable damage to hangars and buildings. They were followed by three Blenheims of the Royal Air Force, protected by two Hurricanes of No. 3 Squadron, S.A.A.F., and they were followed in turn by another four JU 86s with Hurricane escort. All bombs fell in the target area and the Hurricanes machine-gunned aircraft on the ground and left a Caproni and a Savoia burning furiously. Late that afternoon Captain J. E. Frost led two separate attacks on the same airfield, setting fire to three Savoias and one Caproni, while Lieutenant R. H. C. Kershaw destroyed a Savoia and a Caproni and Lieutenant Glover severely damaged other aircraft, which failed to catch alight. In the second raid, Captain Frost destroyed two more bombers while Lieutenant Marsh severely damaged others.
When the opportunity arose to inspect the airfield later, thirty aircraft were found burnt out, damaged by machine-gun fire or completely wrecked. The Regia Aeronautica had been dealt an almost crushing blow, at a juncture when the position of the women and children in Addis Ababa was becoming a matter of increasing concern. An Italian aircraft had dropped a message for General Cunningham at Diredawa42 on 2 April, saying that the Duke of Aosta's envoy would land there next day to discuss the situation. On arrival early on 3 April, the envoy had been hurried off to Advanced Force Headquarters at Harar by car, while the Italian pilots adjourned to the local hotel with Captain Frost and their other adversaries for a voluble discussion of their air battles.43
The Italians pressed invitations on the South Africans to call at their homes when they reached Addis, and when the envoy returned he was flown back to the capital with a list of conditions laid down by General Cunningham, who had been unable to decipher a badly mutilated message on the subject just received from General Wavell. Next day, with the air force already smashing the Addis Ababa aerodrome, General Cunningham received a direct wire to say that the Defence Committee did not endorse conditions put forward by General Wavell and that no responsibility for the Italian civil population was to be assumed without unconditional surrender of their armed forces.44
Through a misunderstanding of the situation--which only concerned the capital itself--the new instruction also stated that ships in Massawa harbour were to be handed over intact to the British for the evacuation and feeding of the Italian civilian community. It was apparent to General Cunningham that the Defence Committee had not grasped that the proposed conditions were to apply only to Addis Ababa, which was the junction of all main roads in Abyssinia and would have to be occupied if military operations were to continue. With no forces other than his own making any direct threat to the capital, he feared that any insistence on conditions such as proposed by the Defence Committee would simply harden the Italian attitude, as they might well be in a position to deal with any actual threat of which East Africa Force alone was capable at the time. As the Comando Superiore had not accepted his own conditions in full, General Cunningham cabled General Wavell, offering to delay his advance and reopen
negotiations. No reply was received within twenty-four hours, so General Cunningham allowed the troops to continue their advance.45
By the afternoon of 5 April, the King's African Rifles column was already only 10 miles outside Addis Ababa, halted at Akaki.46 In the capital itself everyone's nerves were on edge and desperate efforts were still being made by the Italians to create a good impression with the Abyssinians and to build up some pro-Italian feeling at all costs, while the Fascist Radio still tried to keep up a pretence that the enemy were not advancing on the city. The Corriere del Impero was already being printed--with the news of resistance on the Awash! Even the Italians laughed at this,47 while the Abyssinians waited expectantly for the triumphal entry of their victorious liberators.
Escorted by motor-cycle police, General Mambrini, Inspector-General of the Italian East African Police, drove out with a white flag to meet the advance guard of the King's African Rifles and surrendered the city, in which he feared for the lives of Italian troops and civilians alike. But General Wetherall halted the advance.
In fact, the formal entry into Addis Ababa only took place on 6 April, and was, in the words of Kenneth Gandar Dower, who was an eyewitness, something which 'had a Central African plus Gilbert and Sullivan atmosphere'. South African War Correspondent Carel Birkby's description bears this out.48
The King's African Rifles had won the race for Addis Ababa, so Brigadier Fowkes was to lead the column behind the armoured cars in the triumphal entry.49 The war correspondents, film cameramen, Ministry of Information Representative and others had been up since first light at Akaki, awaiting the great moment. General Wetherall arrived at about 8 a.m. and staff officers began forming up a column representative of 11th African Division, and including a company of the Natal Carbineers. The war correspondents, in a motley caravan of fourteen heterogeneous cars and trucks, most of which had come the whole 2,000 miles or more from Nairobi and were sadly in need of repair, entered Addis Ababa ahead of the troops.50
The arrival of the correspondents at the Little Ghebbi, formerly the Emperor's private palace and more recently the Duke of Aosta's viceregal residence, was a bad let-down for the expectant officials, but at last the great moment arrived, and the approach of the victor's procession was heralded by the roar of an Italian motor-cycle escort near the palace. Led by a solitary East African armoured car named 'Billie', flying a little home-made Union Jack and with a sergeant grinning broadly from the turret, Major-General Wetherall, accompanied by Brigadiers Fowkes, Pienaar, and Smallwood, drove into the palace grounds.
Unceremoniously the Italian flag was hauled down and the Union Jack rung up in its place. Addis Ababa had been liberated.
That afternoon a green, gold and red flag emblazoned with the Lion of Judah, the Royal Standard of Ethiopia, was ceremoniously hoisted at the Grand Ghebbi amid delirious rejoicing by the Abyssinians. Shots rang out all through the capital as the local inhabitants celebrated. Still believing in the 'Phantom Fourth', an Italian recorded in his diary that Australians were guarding the palace.51
General Wetherall found himself faced with having to protect Italian civilians to prevent a massacre. To have employed his own brigades for this purpose would have immobilized his whole division, as some of the forts in the neighbourhood were held by anything up to a battalion of Italian troops. He therefore called together representatives from each of the Brigades--Major Gerrard representing Brigadier Pienaar--to discuss the situation, and it was unanimously agreed that the Italians should be allowed to retain their arms for the protection of their own women and children till proper order could be restored, and the immense task of repatriating them and evacuating the prisoners of war could be begun. In fact, the Abyssinians displayed considerable restraint.
First South African unit into the liberated city--an honour claimed by the Natal Carbineers--was probably 10th (later 110th) Reserve Motor Transport Company of the S.A. Indian and Malay Corps, whose trucks carried the troops of 22nd East African Brigade into the capital on the morning of its formal surrender. The S.A. Indian and Malay Corps, with some 2,620 men in East Africa at the time, had just reached the peak of its strength in that theatre, and a section of their 107th Reserve Motor Transport Company also reached the capital at the time of its liberation.
The 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, on arrival at Addis Ababa, had completed a trip of 1,500 miles in twenty-five days, as part of the amazing advance of 1,725 miles by East Africa Force in a total of only fifty-three days against an enemy always numerically superior, and in face of all the most trying problems presented by bad roads, heavy demolitions, a pressing scarcity of water in the early stages and, now, torrential rain which robbed many of the men of rest during the final night's move before entry into the capital. During the whole of its advance from the Juba, 11th African Division had only once, at the Babile Gap, found it necessary to use more than one brigade at a time. Even then, only one extra battalion was employed.52
Though 1st Transvaal Scottish, with tammies and red hackles, did later march through the streets of Addis Ababa to the strains of their pipes' 'Athol Highlanders', there was as little ceremony about the South African brigade's entry as there was about General Wetherall's acceptance of the city's surrender. The Natal Carbineers helped police the town and guarded prisoners at the racecourse. In one of the suburbs the Adjutant discovered two hitherto unnoticed cavalry regiments, complete with horses, and these troops were also disarmed, to add to already arduous guard duties.53
The Dukes had to supply three companies to cover the main approaches to Addis Ababa and also had to cope with so-called Patriot bands converging on the city, keeping them in good humour so that the Italian garrisons of the forts could be disarmed and relieved, before the Abyssinians attempted forcible reprisals against them, their women and children. Patrols had to be sent out to neighbouring towns and villages to succour Italian civilians and even armed outposts, only too willing to surrender to the South Africans but fearful of vengeful Shifta, some of whom had relapsed into brigandage. Barely a mile from the outskirts of Addis Ababa a full battalion of Italians fought a pitched
battle against Abyssinian rebels before being shepherded under escort to the Dukes' headquarters, suffering from hunger and thirst and carrying their dead, their dying and their wounded with them.54 Addis Ababa posed immense problems for 11th African Division and East Africa Force.
In only two months, the Italians had suffered enormous losses. Over and above the thousands killed, no fewer than 50,000 prisoners had been captured by East Africa Force, which had suffered a total loss of less than 150 of its own men killed,55 in striking contrast to over 500 British and Indian dead at Keren. Now, in addition to civilians who had to be fed and protected, thousands more prisoners were being brought in, adding to the already almost insuperable problems of supply.
THE NEXT PHASE
Disorganization among the Italian forces was widespread. At Hera, south of Adama, General Bertello with No. 1 Echelon of the forces from Awash was trying to hold the road junction for General Santini's column from the Chercher Mountain area to get through along the mule tracks via Engheda and Sire, so as to join up with the columns heading south for Shashamanna. Meanwhile the rest of the troops which had got away from the Awash--in four other groups under General Tosti, Colonel Agosti, General Liberati and Colonel Buon-amico--were on their way south. Only the troops who had been north of the railway line at Awash were making direct for Dessie. By early morning on 5 April, they were all through Hera, harassed by rebels.
General Bertello held on at Hera, waiting for Santini's footsore Chercer column, now moving in two echelons, with the 13th Brigade under General Sirigatti and the 14th under General Alborghetti. On 8 April, the 13th Brigade remnants were attacked and decimated by rebel bands and General Santini had to report by radio that it was impossible to get through even to Robi and Ticcio to bypass Hera. Together with General Sirigatti and all that was left of 13th Colonial Brigade, he surrendered near Arba railway station on 12 April.56
General Alborghetti and remnants of 14th Colonial Brigade managed to reach Guna, only to be mercilessly attacked by Arussi tribesmen on 9 April. Desperately he fell back on Minne,57 where the South Africans were to see more of him later.
In the Awash River area on 7 April, Captain W. Lyall and Lieutenant Seymour, with only sixteen men of 'H' (128th) Reserve Motor Transport Company, Cape Corps, had already captured 24 Italian officers and 766 other ranks in an operation carried out with courage and skill, in which Private Joshua's behaviour was particularly meritorious. General Cunningham considered that the action reflected particular credit on the company. A mobile force, sent out by the Dukes under Major Neil Hare, to deliver a message to Colonel Orde Wingate, who was accompanying the Emperor back to the capital, missed Win-gate but became almost swamped by Italians beseeching the South Africans to accept their surrender so that they could escape the wrath of the Abyssinians. Wives and children of the Italian garrison at Licce joined the column, which set off on its return journey with a large
Union Jack at its head and an even bigger Abyssinian banner bringing up the rear. This could in no way stop the Abyssinians sniping at the easily recognizable Italian vehicles all along the route. The climax came when Major Hare's strange convoy was fired on when entering a defile. He ordered the armoured cars to take on board as many of the women and children as possible,58 and had to run the gauntlet of fire from the overlooking high ground to get through to the open road leading back to Addis Ababa.
Round the outskirts of the city, No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company was kept busy mopping up and only passed through Addis Ababa on 8 April, to camp some 4 miles further on.59 Whatever problems had to be solved in restoring order and reviving some form of civil administration in Addis Ababa--a process complicated by the suspicion with which the Emperor Haile Selassie and his British advisers, Sandford and Wingate, regarded East Africa Force--General Cunningham's primary task still remained the defeat of the Italians. After only two days in the capital, 1st Transvaal Scottish was formed into an advance guard of the South African Brigade for operations aimed at the capture of Jimma.60 Attached to the column were 10th and 11th Field Batteries, S.A.A., a composite section of one 60-pounder and one 6-inch howitzer from 1st Medium Brigade S.A.H.A., 2nd Anti-Tank Battery, S A.A., a section of South African light anti-aircraft guns, a section of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C., a section of 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., and two sections of 2nd Reserve Motor Transport Company coping with the carrying of supplies.
The Transvaal Scottish column, with whom No. 10 Brigade Signals Company maintained contact by wireless, carried sufficient petrol for only about 100 miles, and its orders were to make good the Omo River crossing on the Abalti-Jimma road, which runs almost directly southwest from Addis Ababa.61
Hundreds of miles to the east, with some twenty 30-cwt. lorries sent over from Aden and some hired transport, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade had been cleaning up isolated pockets of the enemy in British Somali-land and establishing political control over the country62 through which the main line of communication now ran from Berbera. All the brigade's transport was still with 'Mob-Col', which had been acting as garrison at Harar since 2 April. With Brigadier A. R. Chater back in British Somaliland as Military Governor under the general direction of General Cunningham, Brigadier Buchanan was preparing to move up towards Addis Ababa.
All vehicles in the Berbera vicinity had to be commandeered to move 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade. Most were derelict, whilst others had to be built up from parts taken from vehicles on the scrap-heap. Fortunately numerous enemy petrol dumps had been unearthed, so fuel was plentiful. Major Eugene Maggs, the Brigade Major, was put in command of an advance party for a move to Hargeisa, where 'Mob-Col' on 8 April had its proposed operations cancelled and was ordered to rejoin the Brigade. Both 'Mob-Col' and 'Buc-Force' ceased to exist and reverted to 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group. Colonel van Noorden's column, with the workshop personnel sometimes working right through the night, had not lost a single vehicle on its 1,972-mile journey. On 13
April, he himself returned to South Africa on account of ill-health and Major J. R. Wocke took over command of 1st Field Force Battalion.
Transport and men were now desperately needed further north, and on 8 April, from as far south as Nanyuki, a long column of nearly 150 vehicles from Regiment Botha was already en route for Juba, Khartoum and Aswan on its long trek to Mersa Matruh via Cairo under command of Lieutenant W. H. Oldrieve.
The re-establishment of railway communication from Diredawa to Addis Ababa was vital to any solution of East Africa Force's supply problems in early April 1941, but midway between the two points the most formidable of all demolitions in Abyssinia blocked the way. Destruction of the railway bridge over the Awash gorge presented a challenge which was to bring out the very best in the South African Engineer Corps. Their achievement in surmounting this great obstacle was itself a minor epic, but until it could be accomplished the road itself had to be kept open and improved to cope with the endless stream of convoys moving in both directions.
No sooner had it arrived from Kenya than Major G. F. Newby's 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. was encamped west of Diredawa, Lieutenant J. M. Gosnell and a small party were sent on railway reconnaissance to the French Somaliland border and the Company provided a detachment to develop the water supply at Hargeisa for 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade. By the time Colonel G. H. Cotton and the C.R.E., Corps Troops, arrived on inspection on 22 April the company had tackled repairs to a drift and four bridges, in addition to making good road demolitions and flood damage.
Working as a giant consortium, the South African Engineer Corps at the time was virtually conducting a mammoth campaign of its own to develop the water supplies and communications of the whole of East Africa. Other units interrupted and complicated the task by fighting a colonial war on the grand scale like over-enthusiastic gladiators staging contests before the Colosseum arena had been levelled. Sapper units' tasks were so closely interlinked and co-ordinated that the Engineer units almost coalesced at times. While the Officer Commanding, 12th Field Company would design a bridge, 18th Field Park Company would provide the material; men from the Field Company would go to 39th Railway Construction Company to cut up a demolished bridge on the railway line near Mello, and a detachment from 29th Road Construction Company would simultaneously report to 12th Field Company to help repair the road for 49 miles beyond Diredawa, shortly to be taken over by Major H. D. W. Smith's 16th Field Company, which had arrived at Harar on 30 March and immediately started repairing not only bridges but also three steam locomotives found at Diredawa with damaged cylinders.
Four days later Greek civilians, accompanied by a South African Sapper, drove one of the locomotives to Ourso to pick up another 'dead' engine which was also soon in running order.63
With a section of 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. and a section of 33rd Works Company, S.A.E.C. under command, 16th Field Company, in spite of rain, rapidly repaired road demolitions, built a deviation to clear over 800 vehicles held up by a washaway on 12 April, constructed
bridges, widened the roads through the gorges between Jijigga and Diredawa, and by 9 May was moving sections well forward to Adamitullo on the road down through the Lakes area, just as a cloudburst interrupted the finishing-off of tasks at Harar. The work of the Engineer units of all kinds was dovetailed, with 36th Water Supply Company, S.A.E.C. even doing pile-driving to help bridge construction. Amazing progress was made as a result.
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (17) ** Next Chapter (19)
Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation