The Battle of the Lakes--Dadaba
Though the fall of Addis Ababa, Asmara and Massawa and the removal of the Italian threat to the Middle East's supply route through the Red Sea meant the attainment of the major strategical objective of the East African Campaign, any enemy forces remaining in the field in Abyssinia still represented a threat to the lines of communication or even the possibility of renewed offensive action in conjunction with Axis operations in North Africa. To the south, in the Galla-Sidamo, the enemy forces--estimated by East Africa Force at about 40,000 infantry and militia with some 200 guns--were in three groups spread over a vast area some 400 x 300 miles in extent.1 Still wedded to the policy of tying down the maximum number of British troops, there were seven Colonial Divisions (with establishments comparable only to British brigades) under Lieutenant-General Pietro Gazzera's Southern Command, with Headquarters at Jimma.
With the arrival of the remnants retreating from Harar, the enemy forces in the Galla-Sidamo were regrouped into three zones, the first (with about 15,000 men) in the region bounded by the Sudanese frontier, the Blue Nile, the Upper Omo River and the Baro River. This 'Didessa Group' as it was called fell under General de Simone's command and its units, deployed along the Upper Omo, faced east to cover the flank against General Wether all's forces advancing from Addis Ababa. Headquarters were at Gimbi.
The second group, under General Tissi, with Headquarters at Soddu, was the Omo Left-bank Group, with divisions north of Yavello and Neghelli and around the northern lakes, Zwai, Langana, Abyata (Algato) and Shala above Shashamanna. In all, the Italians reckoned, General Tissi could muster some 10,000 poorly equipped men.
In a central zone between these two groups, General Gazzera kept under his own command 22nd Colonial Division in the Maji-Bonga area south-west of Jimma, and other troops on a new front--the North-East Front on either side of Abalti--commanded by General Ettore Scala.2
General Cunningham's nearest available troops to deal with these widely separated forces were those elements of 11th African Division at Adama and 12th African Division troops attacking northwards from Yavello, where the aerodrome had been occupied without opposition on 16 March by two companies of 1/4 King's African Rifles, lifted by
109th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps, who were now acting as transport pool for 21st East African Brigade. Towards the Mega-Moyale escarpment the South African Engineers were rapidly building an all-weather road, with 26th (Major J. E. Beveridge), 31st (Major B. G. Weale) and 32nd Roads Construction Companies (Major T. R. Morton), S.A.E.C. all occupied in one of the most remarkable engineering achievements of the whole campaign, linking Marsabit with Mega over the Huri Hills.
The 24th Gold Coast Brigade, restoring order in Italian Somaliland, could spare only one battalion to garrison Neghelli, while 25th East African Brigade was now advancing towards Maji on the other side of the Omo River. The quickest means of wiping out Italian resistance in southern Abyssinia appeared to be to take Jimma,3 but after relieving 1st Transvaal Scottish with 3rd Nigerian Regiment in the Abalti area, General Wetherall was left with few troops and many administrative problems south of Addis Ababa, where 22nd East African Brigade on 7 April had secured a bridgehead over the Awash on the road to Hera and Aselle at Ponte Malcasa, where 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. fought a brisk action.
N.M.R. AND F.F.B. ON LOAN
With insufficient troops to advance north of the Lakes, as well as south from Addis Ababa, but with the Italians at Shashamanna threatening the lines of communication at both Moggio and Adama, General Cunningham therefore ordered 11th African Division to concentrate on attacking Shashamanna from the north while 12th African Division advanced on the same objective through Dalle and Hula from Yavello and Neghelli in the south.4 Thus was initiated the involved series of operations which collectively came to be called 'The Battle of the Lakes'.
When the operations began, 11th African Division was still pushing on towards Jimma against General Scala's front whilst also operating southwards from Ponte Malcasa. The 22nd East African Brigade, with a composite section of 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. under command, entered Aselle on 9 April and Bocoggi on 13 April in torrential rain. Simultaneously, 12th African Division was pushing northward with great difficulty from Kenya, where the rains had also set in.5
The 23rd Nigerian Brigade was moving up to relieve the South Africans for their northward drive from Addis Ababa to Dessie, and the need to keep two battalions in the area of the capital for internal security left General Wetherall only three battalions for the southward thrust.6 General Cunningham therefore decided to lend him 1st Natal Mounted Rifles and 1st Field Force Battalion, both under orders for Egypt, but awaiting shipping.7
Far to the west, across the Sudanese border, small Belgian Congo forces and Abyssinian Patriots were threatening General de Simone's positions at Dembidollo, but the westward advance from Addis Ababa had to be postponed. On 18 April, as 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group began to assemble for its attack on Combolcia, the Natal Mounted Rifles passed to command of Advanced Force Headquarters at Jijigga, where 'A' and 'C' Companies had relieved a company of 1st Field
Lieut.-General Alan Cunningham (right), with the Emperor Haile Selassie, on the Emperor's return to Addis Ababa a month after it had been entered by South African, East African and West African troops.
Major-General H. E. de R. Wetherall, Commanding 11th African Division (right), accepts the formal surrender of Addis Ababa from General Mambrini of the Italian Africa Police (left) on 6 April 1941.
The 1st Transvaal Scottish march through Addis Ababa.
Men of the Italian light tank company captured at the Little Dadaba River by the Natal Mounted Rifles,
photographed with their tanks in more peaceful days.
A detachment of 2nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, S.A.A., with a captured 20 mm Breda mounted on a truck,
halts for a meal during the advance on Jimma.
(Photo: N. Bennett.)
On 20/21 April, after handing over to 2nd Field Force Battalion, the Natal Mounted Rifles, carried by vehicles of 'A' Company, 2nd S.A. Division Motor Transport, and driven by men of the Imperial Light Horse, set out via Harar and Diredawa for Adama, about 60 miles south-east of Addis Ababa with an attached platoon of 2nd S.A. Armoured Car Company. The main body of the battalion with a platoon of No. 3 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. providing communication, reached its destination on 21 April and came under command 11th African Division. 'C' Company joined them on 23 April.
ADVENTURES OF 'LEACOL'
The battalion saw no action till the formation (on the day that news arrived of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade's entering Dessie) of a detachment known as 'Leacol' to destroy or capture an enemy force reported at Minne, some 100 miles south-west of Adama, in the Arussi Mountains below the lofty 10,000-foot peak of Mount Gugu. Led by Captain C. P. Greyling, the detachment included No. 7 Platoon, 'A' Company, N.M.R. (Lieutenant John Butcher),8 a section of mortars and 200 Abyssinian Patriots under Lieutenant C. R. O. Bell. They came directly under 11th African Division and the infantry were carried in Imperial Light Horse vehicles.
Progress was hampered by rain and broken bridges, but the day after setting out the little column reached Guna on the slopes of the Arussi, where General Alborghetti's disintegrating 14th Colonial Brigade had been plagued by disaffected tribesmen and out-and-out bandits. From Guna the motor vehicles could go no further. With pack mules carrying supplies, the N.M.R. detachment set off on foot across precipitous Slopes after an Italian priest, Padre Michelangelo from the Guna Mission Station, had gone ahead with a message calling on the Italians to surrender.
Slowed down by unbelievably difficult terrain and by the activities of purportedly friendly Abyssinians,9 the column at last came in sight of the fort at Minne on 29 April. Here General Alborghetti lay isolated with all that was left of his command--the remnants of 1/83rd Colonial Battalion and three guns of 14th Pack Artillery Group. As Captain Greyling's force hove in sight the Italian commander sent out a messenger to say that he would surrender, but only to white troops. Soon General Alborghetti himself was a prisoner, together with 38 officers, 78 Italian other ranks, 121 askaris of the Colonial infantry and 108 Banda Irregulars. The 3 pack artillery guns, 14 machine-guns, 260 rifles and some pistols, plus a wireless transmitter, a large quantity of ammunition, a tractor, 4 lorries and 120 mules were captured. The surrender was complete before the real trouble started.
Both captors and captives were practically besieged by armed Shifta and bandits roaming the mountains and it took the South Africans, with Lieutenant Bell's Patriots and their bag of prisoners, five days to climb and fight their way back to Guna, from which they had descended in a single day. At moments the fate of the column was so precarious that Captain Greyling had to rearm his prisoners to assist in beating off the attackers. It was days before they were all safely out
of the mountains and it was 11 May before the Natal Mounted Rifles detachment rejoined their battalion at Dadaba. Captain Greyling was mentioned in dispatches and General Cunningham sent his congratulations to the detachment.10
It was thought that General Bertello, who had now fallen back all the way from British Somaliland, had a mobile column of infantry, tanks and artillery concentrated near Shashamanna, ready to strike northward11 to retake Adama, and Brigadier Fowkes had to choose between two routes south to avoid this threat.
On 9 April the Awash had been bridged south of Adama and Towed' had bivouacked round Aselle next day, with 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. attached. What lay south of them was not known with any certainty, but in fact General Liberati had in the area Shashamanna-Soddu-Lake Margherita about 6,000 Italians and 3,000 Colonial troops with 115 guns of various calibres and more than 500 vehicles.12
On 13 April, after General Wetherall himself had intervened to solve their petrol problems, No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company under Major W. P. Clark came under command 22nd East African Brigade, whose columns soon became bogged down on the 12,000-foot Carra Pass over Mount Caeca south of Bocoggi13 on the eastern route to Shashamanna. In ceaseless rain, the light tanks were marooned south of Aselle, but the South African Air Force managed to bomb the woods covering General Bertello's troops and transport near Shashamanna.14
With the Italian 25th Division being reorganized, General Liberati was trying to form a new line from the Cofole saddle east of Shashamanna to the Dadaba River, then west to Mount Fike and along the Gidu River to Mount Muggo. By 20 April his under-strength units were disposed with five companies and two 70 mm batteries at Cofole, three battalions and 121st Artillery Group of 77 mm guns on the Dadaba and a Colonial battalion with two 65 mm and one 20 mm battery in the Mount Fike-Gidu River positions. The rest of the force available in the Lakes area included a mechanized group of nine medium tanks, five armoured cars and a 65 mm artillery section, one squadron of mechanized cavalry, two 75 mm batteries and a Banda detachment.
In the Mount Muggo area further west were remnants of three Colonial battalions, 2nd Blackshirt Battalion, two Engineer companies and one battery each of 105s, 77 mm and 65 mm guns. Shashamanna and Sole to the south of it were garrisoned, as also was Hosanna, west of Mount Fike.15
Meanwhile, the South African light tanks were temporarily withdrawn from 'Fowcol', but 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. had been ordered down to the marshy area round Mount Fike in support of two companies of 1/5 King's African Rifles. The Left Section of two guns managed to get through the mud and shelled an enemy position betrayed by the smoke of cooking-fires at dusk. At first light a King's African Rifles attack supported by the Cape Town field battery resulted in the capture of twenty Europeans, a number of Native troops and a section of 20 mm Breda guns.16 The Italians admitted 73 killed,
including 8 officers and 14 European other ranks, 48 wounded, 31 missing and 109 taken prisoner.17 A handful of Colonial troops escaped to Colito.
General Bertello's threatened counter-attack brought the Cape Field Artillery battery back to the main force and into action again with 1/6 King's African Rifles, between Lake Abyata and Lake Langana, at a river-crossing where one gun was mounted at the bridgehead in an anti-tank role. After the Mount Fike action, however, General Bertello sensed the possibility of his mobile column's being attacked on both flanks, and he pulled back to Dadaba.
CROSSING THE GIDU RIVER
On 3 May the Natal Mounted Rifles left Adama for Adamitullo to reinforce Brigadier Fowkes's column, and by 8.30 a.m. next day they were occupying defensive positions astride the road about 5 miles south of Adamitullo village. There were reports of strong enemy forces only a few miles to the south, with tanks, artillery and mortars,18 and Captain G. M. Beaumont, with 'B' Company, two sections of mortars, a Vickers gun section, one platoon of 5th King's African Rifles and a platoon of armoured cars from No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company under Captain C. A. Ff. Heard, was sent forward to probe enemy positions across the Gidu River and reconnoitre crossings and routes to Bubissa Hill, which was known to be in enemy hands. The South Africans had struck General Liberati's main line.
When the armoured cars were about 50 yards from the river, they ran into machine-gun and mortar fire, to which they could only reply by firing in the general direction of the enemy, as the thick bush made observation extremely difficult. The firing stopped as suddenly as it had started and the advance continued cautiously.19
An Italian laying mines to cover their retreat was captured, and the country beyond the Gidu River was found to be quite unsuitable for motor transport. A half-hearted attack on Captain Beaumont's halted column by a small Banda patrol caused neither damage nor casualties, but the Italians were much discomfited by two South African aircraft bombing Bubissa Hill.20
While 'Fowcol' also pushed down towards the Neghelle heights (not to be confused with Neghelli further south), on 7 May the Natal Mounted Rifles less 'A' Company were assigned to raiding enemy positions across the Gidu River west of Lake Shala. A section of 18-pounders from 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. was provided to support the raid, and as the river flowed through thick woods in this area near Mount Fike, gun positions had to be cleared by chopping down trees along the river bank so that the guns could fire upstream.21
A King's African Rifles detachment had gone off early in the morning to secure the drift over the Gidu River, which was flowing deep and swift and was thus impassable to motor transport. As the Natal men debussed on the north bank at about 9.40 a.m. the King's African Rifles completed their task and carried two or three enemy wounded shoulder high back across the river. The South Africans waded across fully dressed; and 'B' Company advanced to the left of a small track leading towards the objective, with 'C' Company to the right of it. Tangled
undergrowth and trees limited visibility to a few yards, and dongas cut across the line of advance. A burst of machine-gun fire directed at No. 13 Platoon at about midday came almost as a relief.
The South Africans were quickly pinned down, but Captain Blarney called for mortar support and rifle grenades were used with good effect.22 Captain Hills, Support Company Commander, and Captain J. H. Freeman ran forward through comparatively open ground to find a good position from which to direct the mortar fire, but observation in such flat, wooded country was virtually impossible and they had to return. So difficult was it to see anything that at one stage Lieutenant D. D. Kay and Lance-Bombardier A. N. Vorster of 1st Field Battery C.F.A. were directing the fire of their guns from a tree-top under continuous machine-gun fire until the infantry could move forward.23
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Peter Banham and his platoon of 'B' Company, Natal Mounted Rifles had moved well to the left in an outflanking movement and the enemy began to withdraw. By 4.30 p.m. the objective was in the hands of the Natal Mounted Rifles.
Two South African light tanks and aircraft co-operated, but the tanks had considerable difficulty in crossing the river and only arrived in the afternoon, when they helped 'C' Company in exploitation to a near-by Native village, where the huts were set alight and ammunition dumps destroyed. The Company then re-formed to march wearily back in the dark, wade through the river and sleep beside its vehicles in heavy rain.
The 1/5 King's African Rifles and 18th Indian Mountain Battery passed through and advanced towards Bubissa. With vehicles sinking axle-deep in mud, the Natal Mounted Rifles and the Cape Field Artillery 18-pounder section returned to Adamitullo next morning. Private Webb of the Natal Mounted Rifles had been wounded, but the South Africans suffered no other casualties. The enemy lost two killed and only four were taken prisoner, as they managed to evacuate their wounded.
ARMOURED CARS AT BUBISSA
Two sections of Captain C. A. H. Heard's armoured car platoon supported 1/5 King's African Rifles, and by late in the afternoon of 10 May they had struggled through morass and swamp to within 5,000 yards of Bubissa Hill, where the track marks of Italian medium tanks were ominously impressed on the mud. With East Africa Force's few 2-pounder anti-tank guns already withdrawn from the front line and on their way to the Middle East, this was an unfortunate development. The top crust of the ground was hard, but beneath this was an oily, muddy ooze and the armoured cars had great difficulty in moving forward. Four or five cars, running on a path of branches and bushes, were sometimes needed to tow a single car out. Nevertheless, during the night a section of armoured cars under Second-Lieutenant C. K. Brown set out in support of 1/5 King's African Rifles while Captain Heard took another section to demonstrate on the enemy's left.24
At 6.15 a.m. on 11 May the Indian guns began shelling Bubissa Hill. The infantry began to move forward over the marshy ground an hour later. Soon one of the three armoured cars of Captain Heard's
section became bogged down and had to be left, while the other three armoured cars under Second-Lieutenant Brown protected the Indian mountain battery. The King's African Rifles were making good progress on the right and had occupied the crest of the hill before the Italians launched a counter-attack with seven medium and three light tanks, against the more heavily armoured of which the King's African Rifles had no effective reply. They appear to have been Mils, with 30 mm armour plating, twin 8 mm machine-guns in a turret mounted off-centre to the left, and a 37 mm gun firing forwards.
With the East African infantry forced to withdraw, Captain Heard ordered his second car back under cover of the Indian guns while he attempted to unditch the stranded car of his section, without success. Brown moved his three armoured cars forward to try to cover the withdrawal of the infantry and draw the fire of the tanks.
The Indian gunners hit one enemy tank, but when Brown's section got within about 400 yards of the tanks the Italians spotted them and opened fire with their 37 mm guns and machine-guns. At the critical moment Corporal Gordon Stott's armoured car bogged down, and the other two cars went on, to distract the tanks from the infantry, who were pulling back with a number of prisoners. Three tanks were seen, trying to outflank Brown, who had to withdraw. An attempt to pull out Corporal Stott's armoured car failed, but the machine-guns were transferred rapidly to another car.25 With the front car carrying two severely wounded askaris and the rescued crew in the other car, Second-Lieutenant Brown began to run the gauntlet as the Italian tanks closed in.
Corporal Stott's car received a direct hit and blew up just as the overloaded second car also came to a halt in the mud. The crew pulled out the machine-guns under heavy fire and ran to the only armoured car of the section still mobile. Carrying eleven men apart from the two wounded askaris, six machine-guns and a big load of ammunition, the armoured car somehow covered almost a mile before meeting some officers and men of the King's African Rifles.
The brief halt was enough for the armoured car to sink into the ooze, but it was extricated by Captain Heard's section, while the Italian tanks retired for fear of the Indian guns. With a doctor and Indian medical orderlies attending the wounded, who included a number of captured Alpini, the South Africans slept beneath the surviving armoured cars in pouring rain.
Bad weather made further operations in the Bubissa area temporarily impossible, and Captain Heard's armoured cars were on the way back to 'Fowcol' Headquarters by 13 May. With the Gidu River in flood, it took them two days to get the wounded and the armoured cars across through water that was shoulder deep.26
By now 'Fowcol' had been augmented by the addition of 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., which had had time to overhaul its equipment in Addis Ababa and move directly north on 8 April on Fiche on the Debra Marcos road near the source of the Blue Nile and en route for Gondar. They formed part of a small detachment co-operating with the Sudan Defence Force and ubiquitous Patriots, trying to capture an Italian force retiring in that direction.
From Fiche, 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. had returned to Addis Ababa in time to herald the belated entry of the Emperor Haile Selassie into his capital on 2 May, when it fired a salute from the palace steps. Order was being rapidly restored round Addis Ababa, where No. 1 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company, with its highly trained South African Police personnel, assisted the civil authorities both before and after the rebirth of the Ethiopian Police Force, who paid tribute to Captain R. D. Jenkins and his men by adopting the unit's headgear as their own. Colonel A. A. Hayton, the Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal of East Africa Force,* was largely responsible for training the new police force, a most difficult task which he accomplished 'in very delicate circumstances with calm and efficiency', according to General Cunningham's report.27
While 5th Field Battery was still in Addis Ababa the rest of 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. had moved down to Abalti to support 3rd Nigerian Regiment at the crossing of the Omo River, where the Nigerians on the eastern escarpment looked towards the enemy across six miles of rugged gorges and deep valleys. There 17th and 18th Field Batteries, S.A.A. were to remain in action for fifty-eight days.
THE BATTLE OF THE DADABA RIVER
The 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. joined 'Fowcol' about 6 miles south of Adamitullo on 7 May. Two days later the Natal Mounted Rifles--still short of 'A' Company--moved forward with 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., 22nd Mountain Battery, a section of No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company and a detachment of East African Armoured Cars under command. The road ran along a narrow ridge at an altitude of some 6,000 feet between Lakes Abyata and Langana, and mud rendered progress painfully slow. At about midday patrols reached the Auada River and found the bridge demolished. A crossing was discovered downstream and all vehicles were across within the next three hours. Defensive positions were prepared on the south bank where the column spent a damp night, and first came in contact with Henfrey's Scouts, a somewhat wild Patriot band, kept in check by the iron discipline of Captain T. H. Henfrey.28
Considered a 'barbaric, bloodthirsty, filthy-looking lot', by some of the South Africans,29 these so-called Patriots were left well alone by the Natal Mounted Rifles, and on the night of 9 May Lieutenant-Colonel McMillan held an order group and issued operation instructions for the next day. That evening the Dadaba River crossing had been occupied without opposition by Henfrey's Scouts, but the enemy held the Little Dadaba in strength not much further down the road. Next morning Captain Blarney's 'C' Company with a section of No. 5 Platoon of 'A' Company, two detachments of anti-tank rifles, a mortar platoon, one section of 22nd Mountain Battery, three East African armoured cars and a section of No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company were to move to the river and hold the crossing, taking up a defensive position on the south bank. The little force was instructed to concentrate on the west side of the demolished bridge and to sent out patrols.30
At 7.30 a.m. on 10 May Captain Blarney's force set out with No. 12
* Later Brigadier A. A. Hayton, commander of 4th S.A. Infantry Brigade in North Africa.
Platoon, and two armoured cars patrolling ahead. With some difficulty all vehicles crossed the river and dispersed among the trees on the southern bank. The men then took up defensive positions astride the road leading for some 3 miles to the Little Dadaba River. After coming forward himself, the Battalion Commander ordered 'C' Company to advance with two armoured cars to make contact and attack the enemy.
With No. 12 Platoon in the lead, the company moved forward, halting after about 2 miles and dispersing the vehicles on the side of the road while it waited for reports from the forward platoon. After a few minutes the air was rent by the sound of artillery and machine-gun fire just as Brigadier Fowkes arrived in his staff car.
Tension was broken by a message from Lieutenant D. W. London, reporting that the enemy was astride the road south of the Little Dadaba River. The bridge had been destroyed and the drift below it was covered by enemy artillery. An anti-tank gun had already put one of the armoured cars out of action, seriously wounding one of the crew, who had been transferred to the other car and evacuated. London's platoon, in positions on either side of the road about half a mile from the river, was pinned down.
The rest of the company advanced in their vehicles to support No. 12 Platoon. Covering the last stretch on foot, they were about to launch their attack when an urgent message from Battalion Headquarters informed Captain Blarney that the enemy was too strong for his small force, which was ordered to withdraw 1,000 yards and take up defensive positions.31
The Italians chalked this up as the repulse of 'a South African battalion, inflicting appreciable losses'.32
Rain soon came down again, and in the late afternoon 'B' Company was sent forward to help guard the extensive river front. The South African and Indian guns came into action and 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. also moved up in support, shelling the enemy for the rest of the day and sending over harassing fire intermittently during the night. The Italian 77 mm field guns replied. Cold, wet and without cover, the South African infantry spent a miserable, restless night.
The following day the two companies moved forward to prepare new positions while the artillery duel continued. Lieutenant J. G. Potts of No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company got to within 500 yards of the river with a patrol before the Italians opened up on him, scoring a direct hit on his light tank. Penetrating the visor flap, the shell missed the engine but passed out through the rear of the tank, wounding both Lieutenant Potts and Sergeant I. M. Davidson.33 The tank was put out of action, but Potts snatched the machine-gun and opened up on the enemy anti-tank gun. Sergeant Davidson tried to restart the engine but failed. The two men then climbed out and crossed the open under a hail of machine-gun bullets. They returned with a second tank to make several attempts to tow out the damaged tank, but this also failed in spite of all their efforts in what a senior officer described as 'an example of gallantry of the highest order'.
Lieutenant Potts was later awarded the Military Cross and Sergeant Davidson the Military Medal.
With roads further back almost impassable, most units were down to bully beef and biscuits as a daily ration.34 The enemy, with South African Air Force attacks on his supply centres and convoys, had whole Colonial Brigades reduced to rations of mealie meal and honey. Payment in now worthless paper money did nothing to bolster enemy morale under the circumstances.35
While Brigadier Fowkes was planning a full-scale attack on the Little Dadaba River, Lieutenant-Colonel McMillan became ill and had to be evacuated. Major L. M. Harris took over command of the Natal Mounted Rifles on 11 May. Pouring rain had turned the countryside into a sea of mud, observation for the artillery was extremely difficult and every stream had become a minor torrent. Italian 77 mm guns had the only available observation posts accurately registered and gave 5th Field Battery's forward observation officer a most uncomfortable time.
The artillery duel was an overture to one of the shortest but most vicious actions in Abyssinia, though fortunately many Italian shells were merely burying themselves with a dull thud in the mud when 'A' Company of the Natal Mounted Rifles, including Captain Greyling's detachment, rejoined the regiment on 11 May.
Next morning the battalion Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant W. Grinrod, with an officer from each of the rifle companies, went out on reconnaissance and found three possible crossings of the Little Dadaba River, north-west of the enemy's positions. At midday 1/6 King's African Rifles took over the Natal Mounted Rifles' defensive positions and the South African infantry withdrew to an assembly area west of the road.
The brigade plan was for the Natal Mounted Rifles to cross the Little Dadaba and attack from the west at 5.30 a.m. on 13 May, while 1/6 King's African Rifles less one company engaged the enemy frontally with machine-gun and rifle fire during the night of 12/13 May and put in a diversionary attack at 4 a.m. with one platoon on the Neghelle crossing east of the road, supported by a detachment of mortars and Henfrey's Scouts. The artillery--the South African 1st and 5th Field Batteries and 22nd Indian Mountain Battery--would put down harassing fire during the night and a barrage at 5.15 to 5.30 on the morning of 13 May before lifting east of the road.
The three Natal rifle companies, with three detachments of mortars and one of anti-tank rifles, were to do the flank attack, with all other support weapons opening fire directly in front and north of the enemy positions to constitute a feint attack from the front from 5.25 to 5.30 a.m.36
It was intended that after accomplishing their crossing at one or more of the fords, the Natal Mounted Rifles would form up on a two-company front covering about a mile, with one company in reserve, and then turn eastwards to advance and envelop the enemy positions. Surprise was imperative for success, and it was assumed that the attack would be one continuous drive with bayonets fixed and Bren guns firing from the hip.
At 11.30 p.m. on 12 May the Natal riflemen moved off from their assembly area, trudging through wet grass under a watery moon. At
the river crossings there was no sign of opposition. A group of deserted Native huts in unharvested mealie fields loomed vaguely nearby as the companies formed up and final instructions were passed in whispers.37 Ahead lay a compass march of close on 4 miles to the road running right through the enemy positions.
Apparently some alteration had been made to the plans, for the companies deployed in line with 'A' on the right, 'C' in the centre and two platoons of 'B' Company on the left, with the southern bank of the Little Dadaba as their boundary. Major Harris retained one platoon of 'B' Company and a composite platoon from Support and Headquarters Companies in reserve.38 The long, extended line began its forward move shortly after 3.45 a.m. while the artillery kept up steady harassing fire.
CAPTURE OF ITALIAN TANKS
As the South Africans plodded heavily over sodden mealie fields and skirted clusters of bush, the enemy gave no sign of having spotted them till suddenly, at 5.15 a.m., the artillery barrage crashed down in front of them and machine-guns, mortars and rifles barked sharply into awakening life as the feint attack of 1/6 and 1/3 King's African Rifles developed way off to the left and well ahead of the Natal Mounted Rifles. The shelling caused considerable havoc among the Italians, knocking out their 37 mm anti-tank guns and 20 mm Bredas, destroying their radio and scoring a direct hit on the Command Post.39
It was already getting light, but the South African infantrymen were still moving cautiously forward when a green Very light blossomed above the skyline only a hundred yards or so ahead of C Company. Then bullets came over fast from an old but empty watercourse to the left front.
Moving forward in bounds, the South Africans came through almost unscathed. Someone shouted the order to charge and soon the whole long line was surging forward across flat ground that offered not a vestige of cover.40
One after the other enemy trenches and machine-gun posts were overrun as the Natal Bren gunners sprayed them with bullets. Pressing on, 'C' Company struck heavy machine-gun fire coming from a large clump of bush and fig trees. When less than 60 yards away, Captain Blarney realized that the fire was coming from three enemy light tanks hidden beneath the trees. Shouting something incoherent to his men, he rushed on and they closed on the 'carri veloci'.
The Company Commander, revolver in hand, captured one tank himself and when a wild scuffle ended he was amazed to discover that his handful of men had rounded up three light tanks and taken some twelve Italians prisoner. Bursts of Bren, Breda and rifle fire were still creating a frightful din when someone spotted another Italian light tank moving among a near-by cluster of trees. Without hesitation, Captain Blarney and a daring little group charged a second trio of tanks. These crews were more determined, and at one stage Captain Blarney leapt on to a tank, grabbed the twin barrels of its machine-guns and tried to force their fire high above his men, as a wild melee developed. A detachment with a heavy Boyes ·55-inch anti-tank rifle arrived. Private Brian Godbold rolled a hand-grenade under one tank
and a few seconds later the anti-tank detachment brought it to a standstill with a shot through the engine. As 'A' Company came closing in from 'C' Company's right, the remaining two light tanks surrendered.
Riflemen charged a battery of Italian field guns firing on them point-blank. South Africans and their prisoners were becoming inextricably entangled in a bitter hand-to-hand struggle, and the Natal Mounted Rifles overran the artillery headquarters, finding an Italian colonel and a major mortally wounded.
By 7.30 a.m. all resistance had ceased.
Mess-tins, rifles, respirators and other equipment marked with the names of the men of 2nd Field Force Battalion who had been captured at The Crossroads near El Sod were found in an enemy lorry at Little Dadaba. Nine light tanks from among those which had escaped Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht's avenging column now fell into the hands of the Natal Mounted Rifles, who were permitted to retain two,
which proved very useful in later operations for extricating vehicles stuck in the mud.
The success at Little Dadaba opened the way to Shashamanna crossroads and the aerodrome only 8 miles to the south, a fine reward for an action accomplished with remarkably low casualties. Private G. W. Hogg of the Natal Mounted Rifles was killed in action and Private G. C. Burns died of wounds next day. Among the twelve wounded were Corporals W. N. Pemberton and G. W. Bannister-Jones, Privates J. Gordon, B. Massey, R. V. Jackson, O. B. Godbold and six others.
Enemy casualties were 41 killed--mostly Eritreans--21 wounded and 796 taken prisoner, including personnel of the light tank squadron, 121st Artillery Group with all their twelve 77/28 guns, 18th Anti-Aircraft Battery with its 20 mm Bredas, 4th Anti-Tank Group, 12th Eritrean Battalion, 210th Infantry and 219th and 565th Blackshirt Battalions.
Major L. M. Harris, who led the assault, was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order and Captain A. E. Blarney was awarded the Military Cross. Lance-Corporal R. K. Purdon, commanding a Bren section, led an attack on the enemy artillery in the face of a heavy machine-gun and 77 mm field-gun fire and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Private M. E. Cole, a Bren gunner who disposed of several enemy machine-gun posts and also supported Purdon, won the Military Medal.
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (19) ** Next Chapter (21)
Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation