General Smuts fulfils his promise
At Zonderwater, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group had had transport sufficient for one motorized battalion issued to it a few days before Italy's declaration of war and on the night of 10 June, the 1st Transvaal Scottish, as duty battalion, was ordered to Komatipoort on the Lourenco Marques-Pretoria railway line, right on the Portuguese East African border. With 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. (Lieut.-Colonel D. B. Strachan) having only one company at Zonderwater, as the rest were on their way to Kenya, 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. (Lieut.-Colonel G. D. English) had to draw transport hurriedly to move 'A' Company to Nylstroom and the rest of the unit to Komatipoort on 12 June. As the Transvaal Scottish hurried eastward, the Dukes were also given orders to move.
Colonel J. G. Rose, Director of Transport, commandeered transport from the Military College during the night and --to quote the regiment's own history--'in this the battalion solemnly rounded the brigade's own tuckshop, the Black Cat Cafe, and returned to its quarters!'1 Meanwhile, the Transvaal Scottish had secured the village, the railway station and causeway at Komatipoort and within 48 hours the 'OJ Services Corps had established supply dumps. A detachment was left to garrison the border post and the Transvaal Scottish returned to Premier Mine,2 having learned some valuable lessons about movement by road.
The exercise, in the opinion of higher authority, had not proved an outstanding success. On 19 June, just one month after the brigade had been mobilized, Colonel D. H. Pienaar, a Permanent Force gunner officer, took over command, his appointment back-dated to 12 June.
Meanwhile the infantry component of the under-strength Field Force Brigade was completed by the mobilization of 1st Battalion, Natal Mounted Rifles (Lieut.-Colonel N.D. McMillan, V.D.). Colonel F. L. A. Buchanan, M.C, V.D., who had been in command of the peace-time 9th Infantry Brigade at the outbreak of war, had vacated the post of Deputy Director of Infantry Training at Premier Mine to assume command of the Field Force Brigade before the mobilization of the 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade. He now became Commander of what was redesignated 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade as from 25 June 1940. As his Brigade Major, Colonel Buchanan had Major Eugene Maggs.
The first battalions of the Imperial Light Horse (Lieut.-Colonel
E. J. R. Blake), the Royal Durban Light Infantry (Lieut.-Colonel J. Butler-Porter, V.D.) and the Rand Light Infantry (Colonel J. O. Henery, M.B.E., V.D.) had been concentrated at Zonderwater since 8 June as 3rd S.A. Infantry Brigade commanded by Colonel C. E. Borain, M.C, V.D.
While the infantrymen were awaiting departure for the North, in Kenya the number of South Africans was steadily growing. The 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. within two days of arrival at Mombasa were assisting in rounding up Italians for internment; their guns, stores and equipment reached Gilgil on the day Italy declared war. The 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. reached Kabete camp the same day as No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company, for which men had been found only by the en bloc transfer of personnel of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company. Soon after arrival in Mombasa they took over twelve light tanks shipped from Egypt. These tanks--in appearance not unlike Bren-gun carriers fitted with turrets--had been built in 1933 and were powered by Rolls-Royce engines. Each carried a crew of two. They were armed with Vickers machine-guns, and top speed was 30 miles an hour. An instructor accompanied them.
Meanwhile, almost unmitigated disaster was sweeping over the Allies in Europe, and Britain braced herself for the worst. The Royal Navy miraculously evacuated 366,000 men--224,000 British--from Dunkirk by 4 June.3 All their guns, vehicles and heavy equipment were lost. By 16 June the French army was disintegrating completely and Marshal Petain was negotiating with the Germans for a ceasefire. General Alan Brooke's 'prescience, decision and moral courage' made possible the evacuation of nearly 150,000 more British troops, more than 300 guns and another 47,000 Allied servicemen,4> but, after the surrender of France, Britain and the Commonwealth were left to face Germany alone.
Though separated by thousands of miles from these calamitous events, South Africa was fully aware of the gravity of the crisis and the efforts of those who supported General Smuts were redoubled. The 3rd Transvaal Scottish (Lieut.-Colonel Walter Kirby, M.C), who had gone off to their normal 30 days' training at Pietermaritzburg on 16 May, were mobilized while still in camp.5 Colonel B. F. Armstrong had moved from the post of Adjutant-General to Officer Commanding, Natal Command, in place of Colonel John Daniel and now he found himself attending manoeuvres, on which he was instructed to take over 3rd Transvaal Scottish, 1st S.A. Irish (Lieut.-Colonel D. I. Somerset, M.C.) and 2nd Regiment Botha (Lieut.-Colonel J. C. du Preez). With these three battalions, Colonel Armstrong was told, he was to build a camp at Barberton, where he was to weld them into a brigade, to be designated 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade. Major N. J. O. Carbutt, M.C, came from Natal Command Headquarters as Brigade Major of the new brigade, which was soon on a sound footing. Thus infantry units sufficient for a whole division were concentrated at Zonderwater, Ladysmith and Barberton.
On 17 June 6th S.A. Infantry Brigade (Colonel F. W. Cooper), which was eventually to include 1st and 2nd S.A. Police Battalions (Lieut.-Colonel R. J. Palmer and Lieut.-Colonel H. C. du Preez) and
2nd Transvaal Scottish (Lieut.-Colonel W. E. Dalrymple), was formed. Like 3rd Transvaal Scottish, 2nd Natal Mounted Rifles (Lieut.-Colonel H. A. Taylor, V.D.) had gone into camp in May and while on continuous training they were placed on a full-time footing to become part of the 4th S.A. Infantry Brigade (Colonel W. D. Hearn, M.C, V.D.) together with 2nd Royal Durban Light Infantry (Lieut.-Colonel L. G. C. Baylis, V.D.*) and the Kaffrarian Rifles (Lieut.-Colonel J. Geddes Page)--2nd Natal Mounted Rifles being later replaced by the Umvoti Mounted Rifles (Lieut.-Colonel G. E. L'Estrange). The Cape Town Highlanders (Lieut.-Colonel H. L. Sumner, M.C, M.M., V.D.) were mobilized on 1 July as one of the battalions already earmarked for a 3rd S.A. Division,6 and the Pretoria Highlanders were mobilized the same day, only to lose some 300 men within three weeks as key men were pulled out for railways, the mint, Iscor and other vital services.
July 1 saw the authorization of full-time service for the headquarters of three infantry brigades for 3rd S.A. Division--7th S.A. Infantry Brigade temporarily at Premier Mine, 8th S.A. Infantry Brigade at East London and 9th S.A. Infantry Brigade at Premier Mine. The same day, No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. (Major E. V. Fryk-berg); though originally formed to provide for the Special Service Brigade, was attached to 1st S.A. Brigade.
In addition, Headquarters of 1st Mounted Commando Division had been established at Piet Retief on a full-time basis as from 10 June, preceded and followed by a veritable flood of further ancillary units to cope with the administrative requirements of the fighting formations.
With the number of infantry battalions on full-time service thus increasing almost daily, supporting field artillery brigades were concentrating at Potchefstroom, with cadet courses running at high pressure to train the sorely needed gunner officers. Lieut.-Colonel Maurice de Villiers left for East Africa on 14 June as Artillery Adviser to the General Officer Commanding, East Africa, who would have to rely almost entirely on South Africa for artillery. By the end of June 1940, no fewer than 3,400 recruits had passed through the Artillery Recruits' Training Depot at Potchefstroom and the flow was just beginning to ease up.†
Major D. C. ('Daantjie') Kruger was appointed Commanding Officer of 2nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, S.A.A., which mobilized at Cape Town on 17 June and moved to Potchefstroom with only two batteries, the 5th (Major N. G. Wessels) and 6th (Major W. H. Morris).
PRECARIOUS POSITION IN KENYA
In Kenya only the physical presence of more men could help to assuage the anxiety not only of the Kenyans themselves but also of the military authorities. There Colonel Sir Brian Robertson, Bt., D.S.O., M.C, from Durban joined Colonel A.C Duff, M.C, as Assistant Quartermaster-General at Force Headquarters, thus bringing together
* Later succeeded by Lieut.-Colonel L. C. Wendt, V.D.
† Organization of the gunner units was still simple--almost primitive by the complex standards applying later in the war. Field artillery brigades each consisted of three four-gun batteries, which in turn had two sections of two guns each and required only five officers-- a battery commander, who usually directed the fire of the guns himself, a battery captain, a gun position officer and two section commanders. It was a modest establishment compared with the 11 officers per battery in a three-battery British field regiment of twenty-four guns.
two outstanding men who were 'undaunted by the magnitude of the demands made on them'.7 No Engineer units existed in Kenya when war broke out, nor was there a single Royal Engineer officer available before the end of September 1939.
Information regarding enemy strength in Italian East Africa-- partly as a result of the earlier policy of non-provocation--was scanty. Revised estimates five weeks after Italy's declaration of war put the total at 255,000,8 of whom 95,000 were whites. It was a remarkably accurate appreciation, as the actual total on 1 June 1940 was 255,950, to which the Italians could add another 35,226 in the Carabinieri, Customs Guards, Police, Navy and Air Force.9 By the beginning of August, with enemy Irregular unit strengths constantly changing, the figures were up to 112,731 whites and 258,322 Natives, a total of 371,053 including the navy and air force.10 (See Appendix 5.)
General Dickinson still had in Kenya only about 8,50011 men, whom the Italian authorities by some extraordinary stretch of the imagination put at between 39,000 and 42,000.12 In British Somaliland there was a total force of 1,475, which the Italians reckoned at about 9,600. The Sudan, with 1,200 miles of frontier to guard against enemy incursions, relied on three British battalions, the Sudan Defence Force, the Police and sundry Irregular detachments,13 giving a grand total of about 9,000 men, whom the Italians estimated at more than three . times that figure.
In the face of any determined enemy attack, General Dickinson's . position was precarious. In the air as on the ground he was faced by overwhelming numerical superiority. On top of this, the French collapse of 17 June destroyed the foundations of Allied strategy in East Africa, where the French port of Jibuti was to have been the main base for future Anglo-French offensive operations against Italian-occupied Abyssinia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland.
At the end of June, West African reinforcements, in the form of the Nigerian Brigade Group (Brigadier G. R. Smallwood) and the Gold Coast Brigade Group (Brigadier C. E. M. Richards, D.S.O., M.C.) arrived in Kenya.14 With the impending arrival of the South Africans in mind, it was decided to establish two divisional headquarters for the formations originally known as the Northern Frontier Districts Division and the Coastal Division. These now became 1st and 2nd African Divisions--later 11th and 12th African Divisions. The 1st African Division took under its wing 1st East African Brigade and the Nigerian Brigade, while 2nd African Division took over 2nd East African Brigade and the Gold Coast Brigade, with 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group to be attached on arrival.
Major-General H. E. de R. Wetherall, D.S.O., M.C, was appointed to command 1st African Division. On his way to Nairobi he met Major-General A. R. Godwin-Austen, O.B.E., M.C, who had recently visited East Africa and was later appointed General Officer Commanding, 2nd African Division, which had been temporarily under Brigadier C C. Fowkes, C.B.E., M.C. Staff for the two new Divisional Headquarters had to be gathered from far and wide.
The 1st African Division took over the coastal and Tana River sector, while the 2nd became responsible for the northern sector. Neither
formation could find a third brigade nor adequate supporting divisional troops or transport. It was obvious that the only place these were likely to come from was South Africa, on whom the divisions were likewise to be almost wholly dependent for air support, and for the build-up of administrative, engineering, medical and supply services to make any worth-while operations possible.
1ST S.A. INFANTRY BRIGADE GROUP
In fulfilment of General Smuts's promise to have a brigade group ready to send to Kenya by the end of June, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade on 27 June was given warning at Premier Mine regarding the possible move of individual battalions. On 2 July the Brigade Major and Intelligence Officer were on their way by air to Nairobi, where news had already been received of the repulse by a single company of 1st King's African Rifles of an attack on the outpost of British Moyale. Reinforcements were being moved up in support.
Two days later the move of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade was postponed while--hundreds of miles to the north of Nairobi--12,000 Italians advanced on Kassala in the Sudan under command of General Vin-cenzo Tessitore.15 To oppose them, Major-General W. Piatt could concentrate nothing more than three companies of the Sudan Defence Force,16 who simply had to fall back after causing the Italians 15717 casualties as against only 10 of their own.
Simultaneously the Italian 27th Colonial Battalion and 1st Banda Group18 drove the one-platoon Arab Corps garrison out of Gallabat, on the Sudan-Abyssinian border north-west of Lake Tana, and then occupied Karora, a frontier post from which a Sudanese police party had been withdrawn. On 7 July an Italian Colonial Battalion, with Irregulars, artillery and air support, pushed sixty Sudanese police out of the more southerly village of Kurmuk.19
Early on 13 July the move of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was confirmed, and twelve hours later the brigade assembled at Zonderwater for a farewell parade attended by General Smuts, the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, and the Deputy Chief of the General Staff and Director of Army Organization and Training, Brigadier-General George Brink. It was a Sunday and was being observed as Delville Wood Day, the solemn anniversary of that heroic battle on the Western Front in July 1916, when the South African brigade of 3,032 men had gone into Delville Wood, to suffer 2,815 casualties in six days of the bitterest fighting of World War I.
'From personal experience I know what awaits you', General Smuts told the great gathering of volunteers as he bade them farewell. T know what war means--seven years of my life have been spent in wars. They were among the hardest years of my life, but they were also full of the richest experiences that life can give. I would not exchange my war experiences of the Anglo-Boer War and the last Great War for all the gold on the Rand. You are going to face danger, hardship and sacrifice --perhaps death itself--in all its fierce forms. But through it all you will gather that experience of life and enrichment of character which are more valuable than gold or precious stones.
'You will become better and stronger men. You will not return the
same as you went. You will bring back memories that you and yours will treasure for life. Above all, you will have that proud consciousness that you have done your duty by your country and rendered your contribution to its future security and happiness.
'We have fought for our freedom in the past. We now go forth as Crusaders, as children of the Cross, to fight for freedom itself, the freedom of the human spirit, the free choice of the human individual to shape his own life according to the light that God has given him. The world cause of freedom is also our cause and we shall wage this war for human freedom until God's victory crowns the end....
'Farewell, my friends; and may God bless and prosper the Right.'20
On that very day that General Smuts was bidding farewell to 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, the outnumbered defenders of British Moyale were planning to withdraw under cover of darkness. General Wavell was setting out from Cairo on a visit to the Sudan and Kenya, where he met the South African advance party,21 and discussed the situation with General Dickinson, whom he advised to postpone any offensive until the beginning of 1941, because he was not fully satisfied that training or administrative arrangements were sufficiently advanced to make an early attack advisable.
East Africa Force's difficulties--real, imagined or both--were partly explained in a revealing note made by one of General Wavell's Staff Officers at the time, recording that it had been repeatedly stressed that White troops were not suitable for operations in East Africa. They could not sleep on the ground, fresh meat and vegetables were difficult to deliver, the note went on, and the South African Brigade required 672 lorries in first line transport as against only 120 for the King's African Rifles. General Wavell's Staff Officer, thinking in pie-war Colonial Service terms of porters and headloads, had not yet grasped that the South African idea of motorization was the key to mobility in Africa, nor did he realize South Africa's ability to produce the vehicles, with the Ford Company alone assembling 18,349 trucks for the South African Forces during the first year of war.
At Zonderwater, twenty-four hours after General Smuts's visit, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was entraining. Embarkation began at Durban next morning, with Brigade Headquarters, 1st Transvaal Scottish and attached troops in the Dilwara, the Roya) Natal Carbineers and a number of Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses in the Devonshire and the Duke of Edinburgh's Own Rifles in the Rajula.
The 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., now commanded by Lieut.-Colonel R.J. W. Charlton, had been on embarkation leave the day the brigade entrained and only left Zonderwater on 16 July, to be further delayed in Durban when their ship, the Navasa, developed engine trouble.
With troops crowding the rails and thousands of civilians waving good-bye, the ships of the convoy cast off on the afternoon of 17 July 1940 and headed out into the Indian Ocean.
THE DUKE OF AOSTA
Any news of the dispatch of reinforcements to Kenya could hardly have been welcome to the Commander-in-Chief of the forces in Italian
East Africa, His Royal Highness Prince Amedeo of Savoy, the Duke of Aosta, who had succeeded the hated Marshal Graziani as Viceroy of Ethiopia in November 1937 and had since done much to quench the flames of hatred kindled by the harshness of his predecessor. Forty-two years old and with a very creditable record of service in both the army and the air force, the Duke of Aosta had earned the respect of the British in the Sudan as an administrator and he was liked as a neighbour.22 He had no illusions about the vulnerability of Italy's colonies in East Africa.
In April 1940, the Duke had visited Rome to put the position to Mussolini. His sea communications could easily be cut and Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia could be neither reinforced nor reprovisioned from the homeland or North Africa. The air would be the only remaining link between the widely separated parts of the Italian Empire. An allotment of 900 million lire, reinforcements, arms and military stores was promised, but only 300 officers and a handful of specialists, one company of 24 light tanks and one of medium tanks, 48 field-guns and 24 20 mm machine-guns and some 81 mm mortars reached East Africa before Mussolini intervened in France.23 Other ships carrying material for the Duke's forces were intercepted by the Royal Navy or recalled to Italy.24
At the end of May 1940, Marshal Badoglio, Chief of the Italian General Staff, had signalled the Duke that his forces were to be on a full war footing, in a defensive role, by 5 June. Suggestions from the Viceroy's side for offensive action to anticipate any British moves met with disapproval, and he was informed that hostilities would begin at midnight on 10/11 June.
Not only Rome's defensive policy acted as a brake on the staff in Addis Ababa. To virtually no one except the peoples of the Commonwealth and British Empire in June 1940, did anything but a crushing German victory seem even remotely possible ... and Italy was now Germany's ally. With her numerical superiority of more than ten to one in East Africa, and with the strategic threat from French Somali-land about to be removed by the Vichy Government, it seemed pointless for the Italians to launch out into the Sudanese desert or the forbidding Northern Frontier District of Kenya with troops whose services were sorely needed as a guarantee for the lives of Italian colonists living among the predatory, if not actively vengeful, Abyssinians.
Particularly in the Gojjam, the chieftains nursed bitter memories of Graziani's cruelties and commanded willing support from a populace who--it must be granted--enjoyed a bit of brigandage, especially when it could be sanctified in the name of patriotism and blessed with supplies of free arms and ammunition from the British.
The Italians in Abyssinia were morally quite unprepared for war. Even in the Motherland the news that war had been declared did not arouse much enthusiasm.25 The general attitude of the colonist in Abyssinia was summed up by a Polish merchant when he said that the common feeling in 1939 was 'At last we are now to make from the war of others a wonderful business.... We will get rich at the expense of the belligerent countries, and, if we have two years like that, we are made....' Mussolini's declaration of war had thus come at a most
inopportune and unhappy moment, for the average Italian, warmhearted and compassionate, could not subscribe to the policy of stabbing France in the back at the most painful moment of her history.26 In Addis Ababa, news of the declaration of war was received with incredulity in official circles.27
Mombasa, thinly protected by South African aircraft and guns, was not bombed because the Italians had no desire to endure retaliatory bombing of Mogadishu or Addis Ababa; nor were their airmen, accustomed to little more than co-operation in policing duties, straining to face aerial combat and anti-aircraft fire. In the whole of Italian East Africa they themselves had only six heavy anti-aircraft batteries to cover an area six times the size of Italy, and four of those batteries consisted of guns which were antiquated.28
The Duke of Aosta and the Comando Superiore could see in June 1940 that they held the initiative but that it would be lost if action were delayed long enough for the British to bring reinforcements to the Sudan, British Somaliland and Kenya. With the Italian Empire now irrevocably involved in full-scale war, its difficulties became painfully more apparent as the dream of swift victory faded.
The Italians had large reserves of lubricants (over 4,700 tons), more than 91,500 tons of petrol, 27,000 tons of diesel gas oil (gasolio) and some heavy fuel oil (nafta pesante).29 Stocks of food, medical supplies, arms and ammunition were adequate, but the army's motor transport -- a vital factor in a country of such vast distances--had been in use for five years and was worn out. The Viceroy asked repeatedly for at least 10,000 new tyres.30 He found himself with a superabundance of manpower which was not only untrained but also immobile.
With Italy about to enter the war, all political, military and administrative powers had been concentrated in the hands of the Duke of Aosta as Governor-General and Viceroy of Ethiopia. His immediate subordinates were the Deputy Governor-General, Dr. Guiseppe Doadiace, and the Chief of Staff, Lieut.-General Claudio Trezzani. Military commands were organized initially in four sectors:31
The Northern Sector under Lieut.-General Luigi Frusci, contiguous with northern Sudan. Major-General Vincenzo Tessitore and Major-General Agostino Martini commanded the troops in Eritrea and Amhara respectively.
The Southern Sector under Lieut.-General Pietro Gazzera, with fronts on the southern Sudan and northern Kenya. The command included the whole of the Galla-Sidamo province and a small part of Somalia, as far as Dolo. It was thus of special interest to the South Africans in Kenya.
The Eastern Sector was under Lieut.-General Guglielmo Nasi, with Lieut.-General Sisto Bertoldi as his deputy. This immense command bordered on French and British Somaliland and included the provinces of Harar (Major-General Carlo de Simone) and Shoa (Lieut.-General Ettore Scala) as well as Dancalia (north of French Somaliland), Dessie, Addis Ababa, the Ogaden between Harar and Belet Uen, and the Indian Ocean coastal area of Somalia northward from Harardera.
(I. to r.): Brigadier D. H. Pienaar, Major-General A. R. Godwin-Austen and General Smuts during one of the South African Commander-in-Chief's visits to South African troops in East Africa.
Brigadier F. L. A. Buchanan, Lieut.-General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, Lieut.-General Alan Cunningham, and General Smuts on a visit to troops of 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group.
The narrow track across the forbidding Dida Galgalla Desert between Marsabit and Moyale.
Dry desolation in the Chalbi Desert north-west of Marsabit.
Two and a half miles in eight days --in the Chalbi Desert after rain.
The Juba Sector under Lieut.-General Gustavo Pesenti, comprised that part of Somalia bordering on Kenya, from the sea up to Mandera. It thus included the whole of the Juba River line, threatened Mombasa and loomed large in East Africa Force's fears and calculations.
Italian naval forces were under Admiral Carlo Balsamo and the air force came under General Pietro Pinna.
ITALIAN FORCES AVAILABLE
Total forces available to the Duke of Aosta at the outbreak of hostilities were 291,000, increasing daily. (See Appendix 5.) He had at his disposal ample small arms, 39 light tanks and 126 armoured cars or vehicles fitted with armour plating deemed suitable for the purpose, and more than 800 guns, ranging from 4 149 mm howitzers to 24 Breda 20 mm anti-aircraft guns. There were also 71 excellent 81 mm mortars, which considerably outranged the South African 3-inch mortar, and another 57 of 45 mm. But the numerical impressiveness of this array of personal and support weapons was deceptive, as most of them were museum pieces dating back to before World War I and some even to the turn of the century. On the other hand East Africa Force itself was never to possess a field-gun of more recent vintage than the 18-pounder (which had been brought into service thirty-three years earlier and had been completely replaced in the British Army) and it had only obsolete Lewis guns for anti-aircraft protection in the field.
The most effective troops at the Duke's disposal were the regulars of the Savoy Grenadier Division, consisting of a Regiment of two Grenadier battalions and one Bersaglieri battalion, and an Alpini Regiment of three battalions, plus a Blackshirt Legion equivalent to three battalions (Appendix 6) and an artillery regiment, some cavalry, a machine-gun battalion and a light tank squadron. As they were to prove convincingly at Keren, these troops could face the world's best and, with Eritrean veterans beside them, they would not easily be disconcerted. None of them were on the Kenya front.
There was also the Cacciatori d'Africa Division of locally recruited Italians, with its Blackshirt battalions keeping rebellious elements in check, particularly in the province of Shoa and in Addis Ababa itself.32 The Viceroy's only professional soldiers other than those in the Savoy Grenadier Division were in artillery, engineer and other specialist units. The bulk of the white soldiery, poorly trained, badly equipped and under officers with no experience of modern warfare, were somewhat unwilling Blackshirts nearly all over 30, who were33 understandably loath to leave their wives and families to the mercies of Abyssinians eager for vengeance.
The Italian Colonial Native troops varied widely in fighting ability, as they did also in loyalty. The veteran Eritrean Brigades--not organized in divisions when war broke out34--originally dated back to 1889. They were regulars, as good as any black troops in Africa and respected by friend and foe alike. Some of the Somalis, including the Zaptie as the Native Colonial Police were called, were also tough, cunning fighters; but the newer Abyssinian and other Native levies could hardly be relied upon. Not only were they half trained, but their efficient control or direction was almost impossible, since very few Italian
officers or even Native non-commissioned officers could speak the same language as the men under their command,35 a difficulty which also made itself felt on the British side, as the European officers and noncommissioned officers were not always familiar with the language of the men in the ranks of the King's African Rifles or the Nigerian and Gold Coast battalions.36
Italian Native Irregular levies--all classed together as 'Banda' by their adversaries--patrolled the extensive no-man's-land along the borders of the Italian Empire, and included detachments of the Dubat Brigades, descendants of the Somali frontier forces or 'bande armate di confine'.37 Drawn mainly from the warlike Somali tribes and commanded by picked Italian officers intimately acquainted with Native habits and customs, the Somali Dubat and 'Banda' were tough, stealthy fighters completely at home in the harsh bush country along the Kenya frontier. They constituted a constant menace to patrols and supply columns as long as Italian prestige remained high enough to impress them.
All these Italian forces were organized, when war overtook East Africa, into 2 divisions (the Savoy Grenadiers and the Africa Division), 16 Italian battalions, 28 independent Colonial brigades, 17 independent Colonial battalions, 2 companies of medium tanks, 1 squadron of light tanks, a squadron of armoured cars, 8 Colonial cavalry groups, 12 artillery groups, 22 Irregular Banda groups and 15 smaller detachments of Banda.38 Good, bad or indifferent--by sheer weight of numbers-- they should have been able to overrun the few battalions facing them during the first critical weeks after Italy's entry into the war. This was particularly so on the Kenya front, where General Dickinson's forces had no guns at all on the outbreak of war in 1939, and only eight reserve motor transport companies even at the end of June 1940. No more than 70 rounds per 3-inch mortar were to be available for the whole campaign.
THE OPPOSING AIR FORCES
The Regia Aeronautica in East Africa had a total of 325 aircraft available when war broke out.39 At Massawa the Italian Navy had eight old submarines and ten fleet destroyers and torpedo-boats which could wreak havoc in the Red Sea, now Britain's main supply route to the Middle East. They were quickly and effectively neutralized by the Royal Navy.
The attitude of the South African Air Force was in marked contrast to that of the Regia Aeronautica. Whilst the bombing of the Banda camp at Moyale on 11 June was of no great importance it exemplified an aggressive spirit of which further evidence was displayed next day, when three Hartbeests were out on offensive reconnaissance along the Somaliland border in the Colbio area, as part of the plan of operations drawn up by South African Colonel Hector Daniel, D.F.C., who was senior Staff Officer to Group Captain W. Sowrey, commanding the air forces in East Africa.
It was not till 14 June that the Italian Air Force conducted its first --and one of its most successful--raids, destroying two of the Rho-desian Squadron's Hardys at Wajir, setting alight their main stock of 5,000 gallons of aviation fuel and causing the death of four Africans
who tried to control the flames, and wounding eleven others. With no fighters available to interfere, the three attacking Capronis flew off unscathed.
Five days later the Italians met the South Africans in the air, when three Junkers 86's escorted by two Hurricanes attacked the enemy airfield at Yavello, where they were surprised by three Fiats which dived out of the sun, shooting down one Hurricane piloted by Second-Lieut. B. L. Griffith, the first member of the South African forces to be killed in action. The aircraft then became involved in a general dog-fight. Two Capronis were destroyed on the ground.
The same day, 19 June, the one and only Fairey Battle in No. 11 Bomber Squadron, S.A.A.F., flown by Major R. H. Preller, with Air-Corporals B. R. Ackerman and E. H. Petterson as crew, was hit and force-landed in the bush some 60 miles from the frontier on the way back from Afmadu. Only twelve days after the crash a pilot of one of the Rhodesian Hardys flying low along the Garissa-Liboi road spotted the South African Air Force badge on the cap of a man riding a camel laboriously along the road, with two Somalis as escort. Transport was soon sent out to rescue the sunburnt, blistered and worn-out pilot, whose first concern was for his crew, left exhausted at a waterhole near the border. Major Preller was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air-Corporals Ackerman and Petterson were mentioned in dispatches.
Even with his limited resources, Sir Arthur Longmore, the Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, decided on the bold course of maintaining an active offensive, so as to reduce the numerical superiority of the enemy.40 In the East African theatre the policy was to destroy the enemy's reserves, in the knowledge that he could not replace them, and early successes encouraged Sir Arthur to increase the effort there even in face of the difficulties of providing adequate defence for Egypt and the Suez Canal.
Whilst 1st S.A. Brigade was travelling up from Mombasa to Nairobi on 24 July, South African Air Force pilots were flying nine Gladiators from Egypt to Nairobi to join No. 2 Fighter Squadron, S.A.A.F., which was then operating with only four Hurricanes and six obsolete Furies. The squadron, with one flight already an embryonic second squadron, on 7 August flew another nine Gladiators from Egypt to Khartoum to build up No. 1 Fighter Squadron, almost immediately after which the growing No. 2 Fighter Squadron, S.A.A.F. had detachments at Nairobi, Mombasa, Nanyuki and Archer's Post.
The South African pilots maintained a regular series of bombing and reconnaissance sorties, the main responsibility for such operations falling on No. 11 Bomber Squadron's old Hartbeests until it was re-equipped with obsolescent Battles in July after handing over its Hartbeests to No. 40 Squadron, S.A.A.F.,* which was to become No. 40 Army Co-operation Squadron under Major J. T. Durrant,† whose Furies and Hartbeests based on Isiolo and Wajir were assisting the ground forces as early as the first Italian attacks on Moyale. Four Hartbeests
* These air operations are fully dealt with in Mr. J. A. Brown's forthcoming publication of the S.A.A.F. in World War II.
† Later Major-General J. T. Durrant, C.B., D.F.C., Commander of South East Asia Air Group.
were attacked there on 11 July by six Fiats escorting five Caproni bombers. Second-Lieutenant N. K. Rankin and Air-Gunner D. H. Hughes were killed in a Hartbeest which crashed, two other Hartbeests got away, though badly mauled, and the fourth took cover in the clouds, to return and drop his bombs when the coast was clear.
In mid-July Major Durrant's squadron continued its daily offensive reconnaissance flights in the Wajir-El Wak-Moyale triangle, attacking enemy camps and transport with virtually no interference and gathering information. The Junkers 86's and Fairey Battles carried out the longer range attacks on enemy airfields, as far afield as Shashamanna, Yavello, Neghelli, Lugh Ferrandi, Kismayu and Mogadishu, not only taking toll of Italian aircraft but also gravely affecting enemy morale.
EAST AFRICA FORCE EXPANSION
On the ground, however, neither General Piatt in the Sudan nor General Dickinson in Kenya was in any position to take the initiative. In Kenya, the first troops from West Africa had already arrived and, in July, 1st S.A. Light Tank Company, without waiting to complete its training, moved up to Wajir to support patrols of the King's African Rifles and the Gold Coast Regiment. On 24 July 1940, 1st S.A. Brigade Group disembarked at Mombasa and entrained for camp at Gilgil, a dusty Indian trading village 82 miles north of Nairobi set in beautiful country on the Kenya Highlands, between Lake Naivasha and Lake Elmenteita.
At Gilgil the South African brigade group was joined within a few days of its arrival by both 11th and 12th Field Ambulances, S.A.M.C. (Lieut.-Colonels R. J. W. Charlton and C. H. Fouche respectively). Distinctive in the bush-shirts and polo-type helmets which were typical of Springbok troops, the Dukes, the Natal Carbineers and 1st Transvaal Scottish, together with their attached signals platoons from No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S., settled down to serious training under Colonel Pienaar, still kept ostentatiously junior among the British Brigadiers of the East African, Nigerian and Gold Coast Native troops in Major-General Dickinson's growing force, in which the South African brigade group was the first properly organized formation.
At a ceremony on 31 July, the Governor of Kenya, Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore, clad in the epauletted blue uniform and cocked hat of the Colonial Service and looking rather incongruous among the suntanned, bush-shirted soldiers camped in the Kenya 'bundu', took the Royal Salute, read a message to the brigade from the King and added a few words of welcome from the people of Kenya. The formalities over, the battalions returned to training and toughening up.
Distances were so great by European standards that Major Frykberg of No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. soon discovered that--in striking contrast to the optimistic views of the latest Field Service Pocket Books and training manuals which showed a single signals section as providing communications for a whole brigade--he really needed a complete corps layout for Colonel Pienaar's brigade alone.
Thus, with East Africa Force still occupied with setting the stage for the future, the enemy was left undisturbed by more than patrols on the
south of their extensive front and along the Sudanese border. The Italians rested on their laurels after their capture of Kassala, Gallabat and British Moyale, but to the east things were shaping well for them even before the arrival of 1st S.A. Brigade Group. General Legentil-homme was overruled by the French civil authorities at Jibuti and, with Vichy-sponsored General Germain as Governor of French Somaliland, the whole of the Italian Eastern Army was released for an offensive against British Somaliland.41
MR. CHURCHILL'S VIEW
On 5 August, the day that Golonel Pienaar left Gilgil for a reconnaissance of the Turkana area in north-west Kenya, an Italian force commanded by Lieut.-General Sisto Bertoldi entered Zeilah in the north of British Somaliland through the Pass of Jirre, from which the French had withdrawn. Under Major-General Carlo de Simone another force was advancing on Hargeisa, a sun-scorched little town of about 20,000 people, which they took after superior numbers had forced out a solitary motor company of the Somaliland Camel Corps.42
By 14 August it was apparent to Major-General A. R. Godwin-Austen, the G.O.C. designate of 12th African Division, who had arrived in British Somaliland from Palestine to take over command, that there was a danger of his being cut off from Berbera by enemy infiltration which--with his limited troops--he was powerless to stop. The following day, after four days of resistance against overwhelming numbers, General Godwin-Austen withdrew under cover of darkness. His troops pulled back to Berbera without interference, began embarkation on the night of 16/17 and sailed away on 19 August.
Strategically, with Jibuti denied the British, the Italian occupation of Berbera represented no irreparable loss, but with due exaggeration it provided a much-needed boost to the morale of the Duke of Aosta's forces. It also shortened his frontier lines by some 250 miles. Britain, contrary to the expectations of II Duce, had refused to collapse in face of German threats, the Battle of Britain was raging in its full fury in the skies over England and now the Italians themselves could boast of being the first to occupy British territory by force of arms. Before August was out, Marshal Badoglio was hopefully prophesying a successful German landing in England and the end of the war in October, and encouraging the Duke of Aosta to expect his much-needed tyres from Japan by sea.43 Eventually they did arrive, but none would fit Italian vehicles.
In Cyrenaica Marshal Graziani was ordered to attack, thus rendering General Wavell's Middle East problems even more acute, just at a time when his position was being made no easier by critical telegrams from the War Cabinet44 after the loss of Somaliland and the mud huts of British Moyale, which Italian propaganda had elevated into an 'invasion of British East Africa and capture of an important centre'.
Mr. Churchill was already showing concern about East Africa. He agreed that General Wavell had no option in North Africa but 'to await the shock of the Italian onslaught near the fortified position of Mersa Matruh'45 until such time as an army could be gathered in the Middle East. But, in the British Prime Minister's opinion, 'the idea of an
Italian expedition of fifteen or twenty thousand men, with artillery and modern gear traversing the four or five hundred miles before they could reach Nairobi seemed ridiculous.46
On 23 July 1940, whilst the convoy carrying 1st S.A. Brigade Group was approaching Mombasa, Mr. Churchill addressed a memorandum to his Military Secretary, General Ismay.47 'Where is the South African Union Brigade of 10,000 men? Why is it playing no part in the Middle East ? We have agreed to-day to send further reinforcements of Hurricanes and other modern aircraft to the South African Air Force.... Now that large naval operations are contemplated in the Mediterranean it is all the more essential that the attack on the Italian position in Abyssinia should be pressed and concerted by all means. Make sure I have a report about the position, which I can consider on Thursday morning.'
The Prime Minister's obvious impatience betrayed a lack of appreciation of the magnitude of the problems posed by shortages in Egypt and East Africa. It was hardly fair to the officers and men in Kenya, battling as they were with deficiencies of every description, for the existence of which they were in no way responsible.
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation