The Battle of Combolcia and Dessie
With Addis Ababa occupied more than a month before the target date set for the capture of Kismayu1 by the Cairo Conference of 2 December 1940, General Cunningham wished to employ East Africa Force to the west and south-west to reduce enemy resistance centred on Jimma, headquarters of General Pietro Gazzera's Southern Command, into which General de Simone's remnants had now retreated. East Africa Force would thus also secure the lines of communication in the Lakes sector for 12th African Division moving up from the area already probed by General Brink's South African Brigades.
On the day that 11th African Division entered Addis Ababa, 12th African Division Headquarters moved to Neghelli and took over from 1st S.A. Division both 21st and 25th East African Brigades and all Divisional Troops not proceeding to the Middle East.2 The 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. (less No. 3 Section, which had been sent to assist 12th and 16th Field Companies on the Jijigga-Harar road) now also came under 12th African Division, and the first rain on 7 April heralded a period of tough campaigning for them, with the Juba coming down in flood just when pursuit beyond Neghelli required a bridge at Lugh Ferrandi.3
The 24th Gold Coast Brigade, less 3rd Gold Coast Regiment at Neghelli, was still under Force command, clearing the area Lugh Ferrandi-Oddur-Iscia Baidoa,4 but the stage was set for what had originally been planned as the major thrust on Addis Ababa--by way of the Lakes.
Serious problems in the Middle East overshadowed the plans of East Africa Force. The Germans had invaded Greece and Jugoslavia, the situation in Syria was causing concern, Rashid Ali had seized power in Iraq, Generals Neame and O'Connor had been lost in North Africa, Tobruk was invested and Axis forces were back on the Egyptian frontier by 10 April.5 General Wavell was anxious to move the whole of the South African Division and a large quantity of transport to Egypt as quickly as possible. He therefore ordered General Cunningham to advance north to open the main road from Addis Ababa to Asmara so that troops and transport could reach Egypt by embarkation at Mas-sawa or Port Sudan as well as by the Nile route.6
Accordingly, on 11 April, Brigadier Pienaar--who had gone forward from Addis Ababa to the Omo River to plan operations towards
Jimma--was recalled and ordered to move northward on Dessie, which marked the southern boundary of the Dessie-Amba Alagi Sector created by the Italians on 7 April with General Luigi Frusci in command in the south, General Valletti-Borgnini in the north and the Duke of Aosta himself as Commander-in-Chief.7 For the South Africans, Dessie was intended as a first step to Asmara, which had been entered by 5th Indian Division on 1 April. The Red Sea port of Massawa had been occupied on 8 April, the day after the occupation of Debra Marcos in the Gojjam by the assorted forces of Colonel Bousted and the Emperor Haile Selassie. On 11 April the President of the United States declared the Red Sea open to American shipping.
The two main enemy centres of resistance in northern Abyssinia were Amba Alagi and Gondar. Dessie, covered by the Karramarra Gorge, or Combolcia Pass, blocked the way to either of them from the south. General Piatt's forces had been so stripped to provide sorely needed help in the Middle East that he had available for operations against Gondar and Amba Alagi, as well as for internal security in Eritrea, only 5th Indian Division, two Motor Machine Gun Groups of the Sudan Defence Force, one Commando, one Royal Artillery medium battery and two companies of mounted infantry from the Sudan Defence Force.8
Only light mobile forces could initially be spared to pursue General Frusci's units southwards along the two roads from Asmara, the one to Amba Alagi and the other to Gondar.9 Help from the south would be essential to clear the way from Addis Ababa to the Red Sea.
Meanwhile the 1st Transvaal Scottish column, having reached the Omo River from Addis Ababa without incident other than a brush with Balambaras Gurassu's Patriots who mistook them for Germans, captured a few Italian prisoners and themselves suffered some casualties on 9 April near a road-block of twelve Italian lorries in a field of 383 anti-personnel mines which had to be cleared by the section of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. accompanying the column. Company Sergeant-Major C. J. McLewee was fatally wounded, and Sapper F. J. du Plessis was killed in action the same day. Work on clearing road-blocks and mines, and on reconnaissance of possible river crossings in the deep Omo gorge was proceeding. The artillery (now including 10th and 12th Field Batteries, S.A.A. and a composite 60-pounder/6-inch howitzer section under Lieutenant Frank Solomon with Lieutenant G. Grimbeek as Gun Position Officer) was pounding Italian positions across the Omo when orders were received by Lieutenant-Colonel Hartshorn to hand over to a battalion of 23rd Nigerian Brigade and return to Addis Ababa. The rest of the South African Brigade Group had already left the capital, as 'Pincol' once more.
On paper, 'Pincol' was a formidable force,* with a proportion of Divisional Troops allotted to it; but units were sadly under strength
* 'Pincol' now included Headquarters, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade and Signals; the Royal Natal Carbineers; the Duke of Edinburgh's Own Rifles; 1st Transvaal Scottish; 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A.; one Composite Section, 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A.; 'C' Section, 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A.; one detachment, 'D' Section, 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A.; 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C; No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company; 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C.; No. 2 R.M.T. Company; 1st Brigade Company, 'Q' S.C., and No. 1 Mobile General Workshops, 'T' S.C.
and widely dispersed at the time. An armoured car patrol sent to Deder had not yet returned, one company of the Natal Carbineers and a company of 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. were retained in the capital and sixteen armoured cars were still awaited to bring No. 3 Armoured Car Company up to strength. In addition, replacement front wheels and springs for the armoured cars, which were to have been received as far back as Belet Uen in Italian Somaliland, were still awaited, as also were reinforcements for all units.
The column moved rapidly on 13 April with the Natal Carbineers leading along the asphalt Strada Vittoria and climbing out of the warm valleys up into the lofty magnificence of the wild mountain ranges between the Awash River and the Blue Nile. Enemy garrisons had been reported at Sciano and in the windy village of Debra Berhan, but except for a minor road-block near the latter there was nothing to delay the first day's journey. Elements of 631st Blackshirt Battalion covering the road-block were rounded up and 'Pincol' covered about 110 miles before halting for the night. The unaccustomed cold on the high slopes of misty Mount Termaber plagued the men in their thin summer bushshirts and slacks.
The main garrison of Debra Berhan had already withdrawn to join the forces covering Dessie--87th Colonial Battalion deserted before reaching Debra Sina; the 93rd was cut off and later captured in the Molale area. Of the troops from the Awash Line ordered to fall back direct on Dessie, none reached their destination, and those ordered up from southern Gojjam were still marching tortuously towards Woggidi on the Blue Nile to ultimate surrender. However, General Varda, charged with the defence of Dessie,10 had considerable forces at his disposal.
The Dukes--now much under strength and with no attached artillery--took over the lead of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group on 14 April. Some 14 miles north of Debra Berhan, 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. had to repair a blown-up stretch of road, but to their astonishment they found that the first of the Mussolini road tunnels had not even been mined. 'C' Company of the Dukes overcame slight opposition, capturing about seventy Italian prisoners and then, about a mile beyond the tunnel, the South Africans met the first of a series of spectacular demolitions.
The Italians had blown up portion of the mountainside so that it lay sprawled across a hairpin bend in the twisting pass. Helping 1st Field Company to cope with this obstacle, the Dukes were mortified to see an enemy column pulling out unmolested from Debra Sina in the valley far below. No guns were available to engage the Italians, but to avoid any possibility of the enemy returning to occupy the excellent observation posts and gun positions round the village 'A' and 'B' Companies were sent down on foot to take possession. While heavy rain and driving mist brought rocks down the mountainside and hampered road repairs, the Dukes occupied Debra Sina and rounded up a considerable number of Native troops who laid down their arms and agreed to clear the roadblocks in return for their freedom.11 Late that afternoon 1st Transvaal Scottish caught up with 'Pincol'.
Next morning a single Savoia and three Fiats attacked the column
When considerable demolitions, such as this on the Harar-Diredawa road, threatened to hold up the advance,
'barrel bridges' proved a most effective means of keeping columns on the move.
A South African Vickers machine-gun outpost near Carsa on the way to Addis Ababa.
(Photo: Terence McNally.)
Thrown across the Awash River at high speed by the South African Engineers, this box girder road bridge enabled 22nd East African Brigade to push on towards Addis Ababa within twenty-four hours of the river line being forced.
This twisted mass of metal in the Awash gorge was all that the retreating Italians left of the railway bridge.
Its replacement represented a major achievement by the South African Engineer Corps.
from the air, focusing their attention mainly on Column Headquarters and the field artillery while many of the other troops found perfect shelter in the tunnels. On the afternoon of 15 April the troop carriers began the descent to the lush subtropical bush along the western wall of the Great Rift Valley.
Next day the column completed the move into Debra Sina, having done only 35 miles in two days. The advance was continued with a Transvaal Scottish platoon and a section of No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company left to garrison the village, where 10th Field Ambulance, now under command of Major J. D. Wicht, as Lieutenant-Colonel Strachan had been evacuated on account of ill-health, established a staging post, under Captain J. D. Allen, in a wayside hotel. The 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. left a small detachment to supervise and maintain repairs to the road.
From this point on, the South African signallers encountered increasing difficulties in maintaining wireless communications. Bad atmospheric conditions, lack of trained operators and the acute shortage of experienced cipher staff at 11th African Division Headquarters combined to make the task of No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. increasingly frustrating, till eventually it had to send back to Addis Ababa a party of its own highly skilled men under an officer and including a cipher sergeant.
With the Natal Carbineers again in the lead, the advance on 16 April was rapid, except for an appreciable hold-up near Carcori at a block consisting of a number of abandoned lorries with wheels removed. The advance continued with little interruption till about 5 p.m., when the leading elements reached a point some 4 miles north of Giarra, where a demolished bridge barred the way. A deviation having been found, 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. constructed a rough stone causeway across the stream during the night.
Reports had been received of enemy columns in the hills to the west, and next day, 17 April, the Dukes took over the lead. Their attached armoured cars and the 18-pounders of 11th Field Battery, S.A.A. were too much for the causeway, which had to be repaired, but was washed away by a cloudburst in rear of the Dukes, who were thus cut off from 'Pincol' and its supporting artillery. With 'A' Company under Captain H. L. Silberbauer leading, at about 9.15 a.m. that morning the Dukes were in the Karramarra Gorge approaches to Combolcia Pass when heavy fire poured on to the leading armoured cars from well-sited enemy positions hidden on the heights more than 6,000 feet above sea-level. 'A' Company deployed quickly, ably handled by Captain Silberbauer, who earned the Military Cross for the skilful disposition of his troops while himself continuously under fire from mortars and artillery.12
Expecting reinforcements at any moment, the Dukes moved 'B' and 'C' Companies forward along the road, which was under constant enemy shellfire. The 11th Field Battery, S.A.A., seriously hampered by lack of suitable gun areas in the mountains and by the enemy's dominating observation posts, dropped trails to the left of the road and began what was to develop into a furious six-day artillery duel against tougher opposition than any hitherto met by the South Africans on their long
THE ROUTES FOLLOWED DURING THE BATTLE OF COMBOLCIA PASS
trek from Kenya.13
Ahead lay the road to Combolcia, twisting and turning over a series of saddles with mountains rising steeply to either side. Not very far ahead the road was cut by a blown-up bridge, beyond which it was massively blocked by enemy vehicles. To the west, fairly level ground stretched for about a mile to the Dukes' left, but it was impossible for trucks to move off the road in this direction as the River Borchenna ran through a marsh between the road and the mountains. Completely under enemy observation, the area could only safely be crossed in darkness even on foot. To the east, on the right of the road, it was even more steeply mountainous, but Brigadier Pienaar felt that greater possibilities offered in that direction.
Enemy forces in the Dessie area numbered well over 10,000 of whom 6,000 were Italians, with 52 guns. No fewer than 2,500 Italians, 2,000 Colonial groups and 41 guns were blocking the immediate advance of 'Pincol'. The enemy were in fortified positions on high ground overlooking the road from the north and west, and had deployed with 11th and 12th Blackshirt Battalions, two Colonial companies, a Banda detachment and five artillery groups south of the Combolcia road junction, a naval battalion, one Colonial battalion plus one company, and two batteries to the east of it. Two Engineer companies were in immediate reserve and two Italian battalions plus cavalry squadrons in general reserve. To the west, extending the line well towards the Bascilo River and the Blue Nile and holding off bands of rebels, were a battalion of Blackshirts of the 'Africa Division'--apparently the 3rd--and some thousands of armed Natives.14
As 11th Field Battery, S.A.A. came into action the Italian gunners switched their fire from the Dukes on to the South African artillery. Fifteen guns concentrated on Major Murray's four old 18-pounders and only the poor quality of the Italian shells and the soft mud in which they buried themselves before exploding saved his battery from being wiped out. Direct hits were scored on the gunpits and two guns were damaged during three hours of continuous firing before the battery was ordered by Brigadier Pienaar to pull back to a less exposed position on the right of the road, where it was joined later by Major Jack Storey's 10th Field Battery, S.A.A. with its 4-5-inch howitzers. Both batteries continued their retaliation, scoring direct hits on some of the twelve naval guns--built by the British in 1916 and brought from Assab--which the Italians had set in concrete on Gun Emplacement Ridge beyond the demolished bridge.
An armoured car crew commanded by Corporal Coleman made continual sorties up the exposed road to bring out casualties and also helped to recover the two damaged 18-pounders for repairs during the night. Seven men of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. had been wounded during the day, while the Dukes lost Sergeant N. Karg and Private H. de Swardt, both of whom died of wounds. In addition, the infantry suffered seventeen other casualties.
Plans were made for a full reconnaissance next day, while the Dukes maintained contact and tried to gauge the extent and locate the limits of the enemy positions. A mile or two to the east of the Karramarra Gorge there appeared to be another valley running parallel to it and
offering some promise of a covered approach towards the mountains of Melco and Ericche. But there was no trace of any track suitable for motor vehicles. Any movement in this direction would thus necessitate the carrying of rations, water and ammunition over long distances and the manhandling of heavy support weapons. Ironically, troops whose high degree of motorization had contributed so much to their recent successes, now felt the need for pack transport.
The 1st Transvaal Scottish, with a platoon of armoured cars, had moved off on a flank road to the village of Ricchia, which they found to have been taken by loyal Abyssinians. By nightfall Lieutenant A. G. S. Campbell of the Black Watch, commanding several hundred Patriots, had reported to Brigadier Pienaar and it was arranged that he should accompany the reconnaissance next morning, as the arrival of his Abyssinian force promised to simplify approach to the flanks of the Italian positions.
After a short preliminary reconnaissance on the evening of 17 April, the Dukes were ordered to seize certain commanding features, including Dukes Hill, well forward of 1 Oth and 11th Field Battery positions and to the right of the blown bridge. Before dusk, one company of the Dukes was already moving into position. It was bitterly cold at that high altitude after dark, and rain poured down hour after hour, immobilizing all transport parked off the road and forcing Brigadier Pienaar and his unit commanders to do all reconnaissance on foot. The 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. had established an Advanced Dressing Station at Giarra in a disused filling station, where 'A' Company (Captain J. D. Fleming-Johnson) dealt with casualties, and another Advanced Dressing Station was opened about 10 miles south of the forward infantry positions while the Dukes struggled forward and upward during a night of torrential rain and icy squalls.
Gunners of Captain E. H. T. Thompson's 'horse-and-cow' Z Section of 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A., with their one 1915-vintage 60-pounder and one old 6-inch howitzer, were called up. The Gun Position Officer, Lieutenant Sheppard, had great difficulty in finding gun positions. Though ingeniously 'pneumatized' for travelling, the heavy 60-pounders had to change back to their original wooden wheels before firing, an exercise which took only eight minutes under normal conditions but was considerably complicated in the mud, slush and darkness of a thoroughly unpleasant night well off the road.
The 12th Field Battery, S.A.A. (Major John Gordon-Gray) was also brought up under cover of darkness into the same general area as the rest of 4th Field Brigade's guns, as one step in the lengthy, tedious and harassing process of assembling 'Pincol' for a very difficult operation in surroundings reminiscent of the North-West Frontier of India.
With the Transvaal Scottish occupying the lower positions which the Cape Town battalion had vacated, the Dukes pushed on, thus protecting the artillery observation posts, the battery positions and Brigade Headquarters. The Carbineers remained in reserve, with their 'A' Company back after its spell of duty in Addis Ababa. Reconnaissance was now possible from a good observation post established the previous day. Early morning fire by 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. brought no response, and at first it seemed as though the enemy might have
withdrawn during the night. With the dual purpose of getting ready to engage and to draw the enemy's fire, Brigadier Pienaar ordered the artillery to register and an armoured car was sent forward towards the road-block.
Registration by the field batteries caused no reaction at all, and the 6-inch howitzer registered without attracting retaliation. The 60-pounder then opened fire and had only sent over four rounds when the Italians replied with heavy and accurate shelling of all except the 4-5-inch howitzer battery positions. The bombardment forced No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company's and the Dukes' transport several miles back along the road but fortunately caused only light casualties and little damage. Brigadier Pienaar ordered the Dukes to push forward along the high ground to the right of the road so as to gain contact with the enemy whilst a small party of Campbell's Scouts operated on their right flank up the valley further to the east to locate and harry the enemy's left flank and rear. A larger body of Patriots was to cross the open, marshy plain to the west of the road and gain the more distant heights on that side before advancing upon and seizing enemy cross-observation posts suspected to be on that flank. The Abyssinians--many caparisoned in lion's manes and plumes like part of a medieval host--were then to harry the Italian artillery positions and get astride the enemy's rear lines of communication.
Brigadier Pienaar ordered the South African gunners to move to new battery positions if possible, preparatory to a general advance next day, and Major Gordon-Gray's guns were heavily shelled on their portees.15 Again dud Italian shells and soft mud helped to keep casualties low, but while the infantry struggled forward in the rain the enemy kept up heavy shelling of all the South African artillery positions and Brigade Headquarters.
A further enemy force was reported to be in the hills to the left rear of'Pincol'. From the beginning of April there had in fact been a large column trying to reach Dessie from the Southern Gojjam, from which they had been hounded by Sudanese and Patriot forces.16 Campbell's Scouts located them and left a party to keep them under observation, and then yet another enemy force was reported by 11th African Division to be moving on Dessie through the hills to the west. Actually the Blackshirt battalion holding off rebels in the west was moving towards Dessie, but Brigadier Pienaar could take no action in that direction. During the night, Campbell's Abyssinian Patriots proved their worth by capturing the Italian observation posts on the high ground west of the road, thus bringing welcome relief by blinding the Italian long-range 105 mm guns. The Patriots followed up their success on the morning of 19 April.
On the other flank and supported by the rest of the Patriots, the Dukes were steadily working their way to Dukes Hill, or Spitzkop as it was alternatively called. They captured a number of enemy patrols without firing a shot or in any way alarming the Italians.
Daylight again revealed no sign of the enemy until about 9 a.m., when a South African Air Force machine, making the best of a break in the clouds, flew over and was immediately engaged with heavy antiaircraft fire. An armoured car patrol towards the road-block was also
fired on by light artillery and the Italians then resumed their shelling of'Pincol's' gun positions of the previous night--now unoccupied. The new gun positions appeared to be safer from enemy observation.
In such mountainous terrain, short-range wireless communication between units was almost impossible, and No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. had an extremely difficult, complex and hazardous task in maintaining telephone lines and setting up visual terminals while the weather cut visibility drastically. Lines had to be repaired under fire time and again. A Collins 18M wireless set was destroyed by enemy shellfire, the mobile signals office was damaged and three signals vehicles were perforated by shell splinters, yet there were no casualties among the signallers.
Infantry progress on 19 April was still slower than had been hoped for and the men were becoming worn-out in the wet, cold, rarefied air at an altitude equal to that of the peaks in the Drakensberg. Nevertheless, the Dukes occupied Dukes Hill during the day and then lay concealed whilst overlooking the enemy left flank positions. Late in the afternoon Campbell's Scouts on the South Africans' opposite flank were involved in a brisk engagement and shortly afterwards, when one of their compatriots to the right of the Dukes prematurely fired a shot it alerted the Italians, who put in a massive but ill-prepared counterattack by Italian and Colonial troops on the Cape Town battalion. The Dukes inflicted heavy losses on enemy European troops and took some 400 prisoners in what the Italians recorded as 'particularly tough fighting' against the 'III battaglione fucilieri Duca di Edimburgo'.17
Spasmodic shelling by the Italians continued, but the repulse by the Dukes had shaken them and during the night several companies of their Colonial Infantry deserted and had to be replaced by a mixed company of Customs Guards and 3rd Blackshirt Battalion. As immediate support the Italians moved three companies of the Naval Battalion from the eastern sector across the Assab road.18 Under cover of darkness the South African artillerymen made further adjustments to their gun positions, but 10th and 11th Field Batteries stayed where they were, the former having achieved satisfactory concealment and the latter because it could find no better positions.
During the night the Natal Carbineers, still in reserve, carried rations, water and greatcoats forward for the Dukes and Scottish, who were becoming exhausted by effort and lack of sleep. Every available driver, clerk or cook had to become a carrier, to allow the forward troops some rest the next night. Drivers attached to 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. rendered valuable service by keeping up the supply of ammunition, often under fire. Luckily the weather was improving slightly, but communications remained a problem. The pack wireless sets were not robust enough to stand up to the arduous conditions, and the signallers laid mile upon mile of line.
On 20 April Brigadier Pienaar issued orders for the Dukes to be relieved the following night by the Natal Carbineers. General Wetherall, the Brigadier, Royal Artillery, and the Commander of the Divisional Artillery, Colonel C. L. de W. du Toit, visited 'Pincol' during the day and Brigadier Pienaar was urged to push on to Dessie.
Early on 21 April the Natal Carbineers began to relieve the Dukes
and to work forward into positions for an assault next day. Immediately ahead of their advanced patrols was a formidable valley offering virtually no cover, and beyond it rose four peaks running in a line almost due north, approximately at right angles to the front and designated, from south to north, Hill 1 or Village Mountain, Hill 2 or Table Mountain, Hill 3 and Hill 4. Most imposing of all was Hill 3, the most extensively fortified strongpoint of the enemy's defences and almost impossible of approach except from the direction of the still further Hill 4, which was believed to be in the hands of Abyssinian Irregulars.19
A constant stream of prisoners and deserters was now coming in. With 960 prisoners in their hands, 'Pincol' fully realized that the way was still blocked by a force very much greater than the 1,760 which Intelligence reports had led them to expect. From the heights already taken there was observation of enemy positions estimated to be held by at least 2,000 European troops, with a squadron of cavalry in reserve, quite apart from African battalions.
Available maps were so inadequate that no method could be found for satisfactorily pin-pointing enemy forward troops so that the South African Air Force could act in close support, but through 21 April the artillery duel continued, with added weight coming from another composite medium section hurriedly brought up from Addis Ababa by Major H. K. Hull and Lieutenant R. M. Newby. In spite of their lesser gun strength, the South Africans began to establish artillery superiority, with the Italians wasting much ammunition in shelling the empty valley to the east.
Ras Abebe Aragi, the Abyssinian Patriot leader, had been ordered from Debra Marcos by Haile Selassie to support the attack on Dessie,20 and was reported to be approaching to assist 'Pincol' with 500 followers, but there was no sign of him as plans for the assault on Combolcia were completed on 22 April. From a feature ahead of Dukes Hill already occupied by Campbell's Scouts, the Natal Carbineers were to move round the enemy's left flank, with the Scouts still on the extreme right of 'Pincol' to harry and contain any threat on that fringe of the major battle. The Natal Carbineers were to attack the last main enemy positions on Hill 3 and then work back towards Hill 1. Speed was essential, as there were already signs of the enemy extending his line and digging in.
Once the dominating features were in possession of the Natal Carbineers, 1st Transvaal Scottish was to advance over a moderately covered approach across the lower area facing the Hill 1 position and also along the tops of the slopes leading down to the main road on its left. This could only be done after the Natal Carbineers' move had got well on the way to success, so as to attract enemy fire away from the Transvaal Scottish.
The Dukes were ordered to be ready to move at a moment's notice, while the artillery were to engage targets detailed from Battle Headquarters or by Forward Observation Officers with the infantry.
At the end of their long and tiring approach march over difficult, broken terrain, the Natal Carbineers bivouacked in the valley behind Dukes Hill and the last ridge facing the enemy's prepared positions. It was still uncertain whether Patriot forces had actually occupied
Hill 4, most northerly of the eminences stretching away almost at right angles to the Natal Carbineers' front, but the Italians were in fact painfully conscious of Abyssinian detachments on their flanks.21 Hill 1, with strong machine-gun and Breda posts covering the road and facing the Transvaal Scottish, seemed the most obvious point of attack and it was essential that the Natal Carbineers should make their move round the enemy flank unseen until the last possible moment. Lieutenant-Colonel McMenamin issued orders to his battalion for a night approach across the open valley ahead of them by a route which would take them in a wide semicircle--east, then north, then back west--to bring them round the Italians' left and on to the saddle between Hills 3 and 4.
As dusk fell, all men not absolutely fit for a strenuous night march across unknown country were weeded out, and the Battalion Commander addressed his men and explained the plan of attack.22 At 2 a.m. on 22 April the Natal Carbineers, reduced to 32123 fit fighting men, set off in single file on their silent, hazardous compass march in almost total darkness. With 'B' Company leading, by dawn they were already well up towards the saddle between Hills 3 and 4. 'B' Company was ordered to occupy the nek and gain a foothold on Hill 3, and as the cold and misty pre-dawn darkness lifted, the company moved forward upon a completely unsuspecting Blackshirt battalion.
Captain M. P. Comrie went forward with two leading sections under Lieutenant R. W. P. Nicholson and Sergeant P. V. Otto, and by 4.30 a.m. two platoons were astride the steepest part of the hill, opening to extended order and pushing on towards the crest after a brief rest.24
The leading Natal Carbineers were within ten yards of the Italian outposts before the alarm was raised. Visibility was improving rapidly and many of the enemy were shot before they could even throw off their blankets. Privates F. M. Joyner and Wally Shaw put two machine-guns out of action and Henry Otto and John Kerr acted as runners under a hail of fire in an indescribable melee, to call up the mortars.
With the first line of enemy machine-guns overwhelmed, the Natal Carbineers found fresh Italians rushing out from inside the perimeter defences towards them. At close range the Natal men dropped one of the enemy after another whilst a machine-gun nest poured a stream of bullets into their own ranks. Sergeant Dennis Armstrong and Corporal J. Raw tried to put the machine-gun out of action from a distance with hand-grenades and then attacked it with rifle fire and silenced it.
Throwing captured Italian grenades into the bushes ahead of them to flush out hidden enemy, the Carbineers pushed on up the hill in improving light, and prisoners began to be taken as the mortars came into action and caused panic among enemy machine-gunners beyond a ploughed field to the right of the advance. Moving clean through the Italian key positions in the early part of the morning, the Carbineers were in control of Hill 3 by about 7 a.m. and under air-burst from enemy artillery. They now looked down upon the Italian naval men and 22nd Colonial Battalion facing the Transvaal Scottish from Hill 2, with Hill 1 beyond it. The South African guns were hammering Hill 2 and other previously selected targets. The Natalians' success had been rapid and casualties were mercifully low, but among them was
Lieutenant-Colonel J. G. McMenamin, who had been killed by machine-gun fire.
Brigadier Pienaar and Lieutenant-Colonel Hartshorn, watching from 'Pincol' Battle Headquarters, saw the first mortar bombs bursting and knew that the Natal Carbineers had succeeded. Only later did a message flash to them the news of Lieutenant-Colonel McMenamin's death. Brigadier Pienaar was visibly upset, the only consolation being that Major Gordon le Roux was on the spot to take over the battalion in the midst of battle.
Battle Headquarters itself was being accurately shelled, but the South African guns blasted the enemy line between Hills 1 and 2 before switching three batteries on to Hill 2, on which 12th Field Battery alone fired 382 rounds25 while the Natal Carbineers sprayed positions on the hill with fire from Bren guns and captured Italian machine-guns. Abyssinian Patriots--attracted by the noise--now joined in the general engagement.
By 11 a.m. the Natal Carbineers had occupied the whole eastern face of their objective. The Transvaal Scottish, meanwhile, had been moving forward since very early morning, led by 'B' Company (Captain A. B. Inglis) with 'A' Company (Captain 'Doolie' Briscoe) following. 'B' Company began to move in sections towards the foot of Hill 1, which was now erupting as bursting shells and mortar bombs hurled bushes, rocks and soil into the air. From behind hedges Vickers gunners swept the slopes ahead while 'A' Company was still moving up from the rear. Realizing suddenly that they had to face a major attack on their front as well as the Carbineers' assault from Hill 3 in their rear, the enemy replied with terrific machine-gun and artillery fire, much of it from Hill 1, which was still out of range of the Carbineers' weapons.
At about 12.30 p.m. the Carbineers could see enemy transport bringing up reinforcements from Dessie, but they pressed on to occupy Hill 2 so that they could command the saddle and trenches beyond, from which the enemy were subjecting the Transvaal Scottish to a murderous fire. Lying in the open in full view of the Italians, the Scottish of 'B' Company could not move.
In the hope of being able to help, Captain Briscoe, who had been recently awarded the Military Cross for previous gallantry,26 came down the path with his runner, Corporal H. St. C. Lightfoot. Someone shouted for him to get back, but it was too late. Briscoe fell, mortally wounded, as Lightfoot dived for cover. In a moment, Lightfoot was up again, bandaging his Company Commander's wound and trying to help him, but by the time the field dressing was applied, Captain Briscoe was dead, and his orderly had been wounded in two places. Corporal Lightfoot won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his gallantry.
Tormented by sun and ants, the Transvaal Scottish could not move. Two Bren gunners, Privates E. Ford and H. J. Guest, both won Military Medals by crawling forward and destroying three enemy machine-gun nests. Private A. M. Ruda, knowing a mortar to be useless without its sights, dashed forward under heavy fire to retrieve the sights slung round the neck of an unconscious comrade, and also won the Military Medal. But no progress could be made by the trapped company unless a
gully ahead of them could be cleared. Though No. 6 Platoon was already close to the enemy, a 6-inch howitzer was switched on to the gully. As the heavy shells crashed into it, any of the enemy who rose to run were shot down.27
By then, the Natal Carbineers had seized the summit of Hill 2 and resistance came only from the crest of Village Mountain, Hill 1, ahead of the Transvaal Scottish, who began filtering across the gully towards their objective.
The Carbineers were being continuously shelled, their rifle ammunition was running low and Bren gun ammunition was virtually expended. It was essential for the Transvaal Scottish to take their objective quickly, and Major le Roux signalled to 'Pincol' Battle Headquarters accordingly.
Rushing up the Transvaal Scottish Reserve Company under Major H.A. Olsen, Lieutenant-Colonel Hartshorn ordered an immediate advance of the whole battalion, and Major N. B. Getfliffe, the Second-in-Command, went forward to get the attack moving. With bayonets fixed and hurling grenades, the Transvaal Scottish stormed forward and up the hill. Fighting was still in progress when local Natives swooped down on to the battlefield for loot. Italian artillery still fired across the gorge, for Colonel Raugei had managed to maintain resistance long enough for the enemy's mobile guns to pull back to alternate positions.28 The Italian infantry had been dislodged, however, and by 2.30 p.m. they were in full flight.
Prisoners by the hundred were rounded up. No rapid pursuit was possible with transport, owing to the road-blocks, and the exhausted infantry could not chase the enemy far on foot across such rough terrain after days of toil and exposure. Movement over such difficult country, by troops who had operated as a motorized column for weeks, was slow. Air pursuit fell through because of poor communications and bad weather, but the South African guns continued to harass the routed forces withdrawing towards Dessie.
The Dukes were ordered to move forward to the area of the roadblocks by 9 a.m. next day, 23 April, and 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. quickly had its Engineers busy clearing the road and lifting mines.
Between 17 and 23 April, 'Pincol' had sustained comparatively low casualties, losing only 10 killed in action or died of wounds, with 28 wounded, as against 180 of the enemy known to have been killed and 39 wounded on 22 April alone out of a total of some 400 dead and I,200 prisoners of war,29 including Alpini and Italian air force men fighting as infantry. Congratulatory messages were received from General Wetherall and from 22nd East African Brigade.
The Natal Carbineers had lost Lieutenant-Colonel J. G. McMena-min and Privates D. J. Davidson and L. Zietsman killed in action; the Dukes had lost Sergeant N. Karg and Privates H. de Swardt, A. E. Ellis and A. R. A. Scrimgeour, and the Transvaal Scottish share in the victory had cost the lives of Captain A. W. Briscoe and Private F. H. Ralls. The 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. had lost Gunner M. Clark, who died of wounds on 19 April. On 22 April Sergeant A. R. Scott of the Natal Carbineers also died.
The battle marked a notable achievement by the gunners of 4th
Field Brigade and the composite sections of 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. With only thirteen guns for most of the time, between 17 and 22 April they had fired over 1,400 rounds and gained the upper hand over forty-four guns of the enemy. Among captured enemy arms and material were eight medium, twelve naval, four field, three light and four anti-aircraft guns30--which alone had given the enemy more than twice the artillery firepower of'Pincol'. Another twelve field guns were to be taken later.
A number of awards for gallantry were earned during the drawn-out mountain battle which, combined with outstanding performances on other occasions, earned the Distinguished Service Order for Lieutenant-Colonel P. M. G. le Roux, the new Commanding Officer of the Natal Carbineers, Major Noel Gettliffe of 1st Transvaal Scottish and Majors R. H. E. Murray and John Gordon-Gray of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. The Military Cross was awarded to Capt. M. P. Comrie and Lt. R. W. P. Nicholson of the Carbineers and to Capt. J. S. Storey and Lts. N. T. Coetzee, J. J. Oosthuizen and S. v. d. V. Snyman of the artillery; the Distinguished Conduct Medal to Sgt. D. W. Armstrong, Bdr. J. H. S. Bettle, Cpl. J. D. Raw and Cpl. H. St. C. Lightfoot, and the Military Medal to Sgt. J. D. Putter, Gnr. J. P. Vosloo and Ptes. V. B. F. Clarke, E. Ford, H. J. Guest and A. M. Ruda.
By midday on 23 April, 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. had cleared the first road-block. Next came a demolished bridge over a chasm which the South African Engineers dealt with remarkably easily before they ran into a mass of eighty derelict enemy vehicles on an 'S' bend in the road, chained together and interspersed with concrete blocks. Using tractors, helped by strenuous manhandling, the Sappers sent the derelict lorries hurtling down the mountainside. By 4 p.m. the road was clear and in the evening Dukes reconnaissance parties moved forward till they bumped what at first sight appeared to be only a light road-block, consisting of a large fuel-tanker with wheel-nuts removed. It was sprawled across the road at a point where no deviation was possible, and any attempt at approaching it was met by instant fire from enemy artillery under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Guilio Pecorini.
Brigadier Pienaar ordered the Dukes to remove the road-block at night, but they were unable to do so, and the following morning an armoured car patrol in that direction drew immediate fire. The Dukes sent a screen forward to reconnoitre the forward and lower ridges. Captain J. M. de Beer's 'C' Company, which was in the lead, debussed and occupied ground above the road while 'B' Company under Major F. W. Wells deployed to the right of 'C' Company to move along high ground and get round the left flank of the enemy's strongpoints covering the road-block. No. 6 Platoon (Lieutenant A. H. E. M. Shaw) moved well forward to cover the men of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. trying to remove the tanker, but their appearance caused such violent enemy reaction that the Engineers had to be pulled back. The platoon itself held on grimly for almost forty-eight hours in positions dominating the Italians' left.31
The weather had improved and some excellent observation posts were obtained, from one of which the Dukes could clearly see Combolcia, which was full of Italian troops under Colonel Vanetti, whose
anxiety was increased by Campbell's Patriots pushing round the flanks. That night, Engineers again tried unsuccessfully to remove the road-block.
On 25 April the infantry continued to advance slowly on foot, and in the afternoon the Carbineers were brought in on the left flank of the Dukes' main body and between them and the platoon covering the road obstruction. The Dukes in turn were ordered to reinforce their right flank and to push forward to seize the main feature dominating Com-bolcia, where the morale of the Italian Command had dropped to such a level that General Varda had reported that 'the new line cannot be expected to hold out long, as casualties have been so heavy, particularly among the officers, that some units are completely disorganized'. Though he still had sufficient forces numerically to resist strongly, the Italian sector commander decided on 25 April that the defenders should retreat to Dessie.
Falling back in considerable disorder, the Italians left only a rearguard covering Combolcia while General Varda permitted the premature blowing of a road-block between Combolcia and Dessie and departed with his Staff in the opposite direction, heading north-east for Assab--conduct which was to prompt General Frusci later to accuse him of having premeditatedly retreated to avoid capture, a course which Lieutenant-Colonel Pecorini refused to follow.
The South Africans spent another cold, wet night on the mountain slopes, but one of the Engineers managed to remove the tanker by the ingenious expedient of turning the propeller shaft under the vehicle with a large wrench whilst a companion steered it slowly off the road. At about 9 a.m. an armoured car patrol was ordered forward to a saddle overlooking Combolcia and the Dukes seized high ground with little opposition.
The 1st Transvaal Scottish were immediately ordered forward with armoured cars, a battery from 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. and a section of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C., to enter Combolcia village unopposed at about 11 a.m. and find the right flank conveniently secured by demolitions on the Assab road, along which General Varda's entourage had long since disappeared. With the infantry mopping up the area as quickly as possible, the armoured cars found Combolcia air station deserted and littered with the wreckage of ten Fiats, six Savoias and three Capronis, which brought the total of confirmed enemy air losses in six weeks to thirty-five fighters and fifty-six bombers.
It was to this aerodrome and to Jimma and Shashamanna in the south that the remnants of the Regia Aeronautica had withdrawn from Addis Ababa, only to be pounded by the South African Air Force on 6 April, when they bombed both Combolcia and Dessie. By 12 April the whole of No. 41 Army Co-operation Squadron and No. 3 Squadron were at Addis Ababa, operating against every enemy military target within 120 miles of the capital in spite of atrocious weather, which was all that saved Dessie from a hammering by six Junkers 86s, though the escorting Hurricanes managed to get below the clouds to destroy two Savoias at Combolcia.
On 19 April a Battle was hit by enemy ground defences whilst attacking Dessie and force-landed near the Combolcia airfield, where
the crew were taken prisoner. When the fall of Combolcia was only a matter of hours the Italians flew off their last two airworthy Savoias and two Fiats to Jimma. On 24 April two Hurricanes searched for the fugitive aircraft and in diving very low Lieutenant J. Howitson's aircraft was hit by intense anti-aircraft fire and he was killed.
From 24 April onwards only a further four enemy aircraft were destroyed in Abyssinia and six are known to have escaped northward from Jimma. During the period from 13 March to 24 April, the South African Air Force lost six Hurricanes, eight bombers and four other aircraft, but by the time Combolcia was occupied they had practically shot the Regia Aeronautica out of the skies.
The Transvaal Scottish pressed on from Combolcia towards Dessie, perched on its mountain eyries some 9,000 feet above sea-level and surrounded by peaks towering yet another 2,000 feet and dotted with prepared positions. The only eastern approach, already menaced by Patriots, was by a road zigzagging across rock faces in full view of the Italian forts round the town, but the Transvaal Scottish drove intrepidly on. Within 2,000 yards of Dessie in a straight line but still some 5 miles from it by the road, on which General Varda's panicky troops had prematurely blown up the bridge, the Italian artillery commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Pecorini, had been cut off with six medium guns plus their tractors and forty-six other vehicles, including a mobile operating theatre.
Patrols advancing on foot came across the 180-foot stone bridge in ruin at the point where it had spanned a deep re-entrant between two spurs. Immediately, Sappers of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. began work on the demolition. As they tried to bridge the gap guns opened fire from around Dessie and defenders appeared on the mountain tops. Nevertheless, by using 2,752 captured drums, a 'Barrel Bridge' across the chasm was later completed.
Soon 'Pincol' field guns were firing on a fort above the town, which was defended by a force of some 5,000 Italians and 3,000 Native troops under Colonel Vanetti, well provided with guns, ammunition and stores32 and considerably outnumbering the whole of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group.
'A' and 'C' Companies of 1st Transvaal Scottish deployed into the hills above the road and the 60-pounders came into action on Combolcia airfield, firing over open sights at a range of more than 10,000 yards. The engagement continued until a car carrying a white flag was seen emerging from the town at 3 p.m. It descended the pass with a deputation who were deeply concerned for the safety of 1,500 women and children, now seriously threatened by bands of Abyssinians who were appearing all round the town. The South African Brigade Commander was not prepared to discuss anything less than unconditional surrender of the town with all its troops, arms and material, together with the provision of transport for the Transvaal Scottish into Dessie to take over and ensure the safety of its citizens. After a brief discussion the Italians accepted these terms, and at dusk 'A' Company of 1st Transvaal Scottish began to move into Dessie, just in time to prevent wholesale slaughter by Shifta, who had already left a number of Italian soldiers lying at the roadside with throats cut.
Once again the Italians had to be permitted to keep their arms for self-defence, and during the night more of the Transvaal Scottish came forward, while looting and arson were gradually brought under control and terrified civilians locked themselves in their homes. On 27 April--the day that the Germans entered Athens--a beginning was made with the task of disarming some 8,000 prisoners and collecting all the captured arms, equipment and war material round Dessie and Combolcia airfield.
'Pincol's' task was complicated by some of Campbell's wilder Patriots getting to the rear and north of Dessie, whose local Native populace apparently resented their Amharic presence and retaliated when fired on by these liberators.
With no pack transport for mountain operations, with troops easily tired at unaccustomed altitudes after weeks of operating as motorized infantry, and using extremely poor maps, 'Pincol' had achieved in the Battle of Combolcia and the capture of Dessie what General Cunningham stamped as 'a considerable victory'.33 Outnumbered in men and guns by an enemy in naturally strong and well-prepared positions, between 13 and 30 April they had accounted for a definite 183 enemy killed, 59 wounded, 8,024 captured (including 290 Italian officers and 4,968 European other ranks, mainly of the 'Africa Division').
They had taken 52 guns, 236 machine-guns, 40,151 rifles, 264,000 gallons of petrol at Dessie and another 150,000 gallons at Combolcia, plus 76,000 gallons of oil.34 The quantities of captured rations, ammunition and other stores left in the hands of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group were incalculable, and the Italians had abandoned on the road between Addis Ababa and Dessie no fewer than 241 vehicles. No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. took possession of enemy signalling stores including 100 high-tension batteries, 50 miles of single cable, 24 buzzer and magneto telephones, 12 motor-cycles and some switchboards, nearly all of which were taken over by 11th African Division.
The remarkably low South African losses, in the words of the British Official History, were 'a tribute to Brigadier Pienaar's careful plan and a proof of the saying that hard work saves casualties'.35 All that now remained between the South African Brigade Group and Major-General A. G. O. M. Mayne's troops from 5th Indian Division was a force with the Duke of Aosta himself at Amba Alagi, the defenders of which numbered considerably less than those just defeated at Combolcia and Dessie. However, they were ensconced in seemingly impregnable positions. The final task in clearing the Dessie-Asmara road would be to capture the Italian stronghold built round the 10,000-foot Toselli Pass, dominated by Amba Alagi itself, which towered 11,186 feet above sea-level within a mile of the almost incredibly serpentine road that twisted between precipitous cliffs honeycombed with defensive positions.
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