The Battle of the Lakes--Soddu

Mopping up was still proceeding in Italian Somaliland when Lieutenant G. Barton-Bridges's section of 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. had to put in four days of back-breaking work salvaging pontoons of the Yonte bridge, which was wrecked when an Italian 10-ton truck and 8-ton trailer overturned into the river. By mid-April the bridge was being dismantled and moved to Lugh Ferrandi by 73rd East African R.M.T. Company. On the eve of launching the bridge at this new site, the South African company suffered its only fatal casualty of the campaign when the cable of the existing Italian ferry parted and the pontoon sank.

Sapper R. B. Wilson, the strongest swimmer in the party on the pontoon when it broke away, had been selected to help the only non-swimmer, Sapper L. T. Jones, but Wilson disappeared almost immediately the pontoon sank and he was not seen again. Sapper Jones was brought ashore 180 yards downstream by the courageous action of Corporal J. A. Martin, Lance-Corporal W. E. Middleton and Sappers G. A. Stubbs and B. G. Veronie, the last-named being awarded the British Empire Medal for his outstanding part in the rescue.

Disaster was to overtake the newly launched bridge, for torrential rain fell during the night after its opening to traffic on 27 April, the river rose 4 feet in forty minutes and the main suspension cable broke under the strain of hundreds of tons of debris carried down by the 6|-mile-an-hour current.

Six days of arduous effort was needed to get a rope across the Juba, which had widened from 370 to 425 feet at Lugh Ferrandi. Clamps on the original 58-inch rope broke and it was only saved by Lance-Corporal F. A. Humphreys grabbing the loose end, turning it round one of the achorages and holding on, with the palm of his hand cut to the bone. In the end, a ferry had to be installed with the approval of Brigadier Minnis1--but that still left the Dawa Parma River to be crossed only 40 miles to the north-west at Dolo, where the old Italian bridges had also succumbed to the floods and likewise had to be replaced by a ferry.

In spite of such adverse conditions, 12th African Division continued its laborious push up from Yavello and Neghelli with 21st East African and 24th Gold Coast Brigades respectively.2 Spread over a front of nearly 300 miles, from Neghelli westward to Maji, was No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company.3


Everywhere, heavy rains and shocking roads combined to delay both the East African and Gold Coast columns with their supporting South African armoured cars and the guns of 7th Field Battery, T.H.A. (Major P. Cotter), 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. (Captain L. S. Thomas), 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery (Major Harry Scholtz), a section of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. (Major K. T. Gilson) and 19th Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. (Major C. Brand). At Giabassire on the Yavello road and at Wadara on the road from Neghelli the Italians offered stern resistance in positions which, during the Italo-Abyssinian War, had held up their own forces for nearly a year.4

While 1st S.A. Brigade Group was still on its way to Addis Ababa, 21st East African Brigade was at Yavello and on 31 March No. 2 Platoon of 1st S.A. Armoured Cars (as the company was called while serving with the British troops) was in action at Soroppa5 beside the East Africans, who had been brought up from Yavello in the dark by 109th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps. They had 7th Field Battery, T.H.A., 52nd East African Light Battery and 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. supporting them in an attack, about 12 miles north of Yavello, on an enemy position on high ground held by General Zauli's 21st Colonial Division, which was attempting to impose sufficient delay to allow for completion of strong defensive works in rear of Alghe at Giabassire some 60 miles north of Yavello.

Surrounded by rebellion in the forests of Fincioa, with sanguinary attacks on Burgi in particular, the Italians had protected the approaches to Soroppa with minefields covered by machine-guns and artillery fire.6

Carrying out a night occupation for a dawn attack by the East Africans, 7th Field Battery, T.H.A. opened with four-gun salvoes in their maiden action at first light on 31 March. The East African light battery was not yet in position, but the Transvaal gunners provided continuous covering fire to the infantry till they had taken their first objective. Meanwhile the Italian artillery gave an object lesson in how to hold its fire. It was thought that they had withdrawn, but the moment the South African Air Force dropped its bombs the Italians brought all their firepower to bear.

Four 65 mm guns sited on a forward slope of Soroppa Hill strafed the East African light battery's gun positions, and 7th Field Battery, T.H.A. joined in counter-battery fire, scoring a direct hit on an Italian gun position. By midday all four Italian guns had been silenced.

Captain L. S. Thomas and his men of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. had the galling experience of not firing a shot during the action.

The appearance of infantry and armoured cars on their left flank threw the Italians off balance and they pulled out for Alghe after losing more than 50 killed, and 18 Italians and some 200 Colonial infantry taken prisoner.7 The battery of 65/17 pack guns was also captured8 and the 21st Colonial Division fell back in confusion.

This success by 1/4 and 1/3 King's African Rifles was followed by a move of 'Lake Force' under Lieutenant-Colonel Lynn Allen and including 7th Field Battery, T.H.A. and 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. to the north-west of Yavello towards Giarso. Air reconnaissance had reported the presence of a fair-sized enemy force, which was in fact


made up of an advanced post from the reconstituted 101st Colonial Division under General Baccari, who had taken over the Soddu-Gardulla-Baco area, with troops at Giarso, Gardulla, Cengia and Baco9 dispersed in typical colonial warfare style.

Askaris of 1st Northern Rhodesia Regiment, in action for the first time, went in to attack Giarso in pitch darkness and pouring rain early on 9 April, but an assault on a powerfully defended fort failed and it was only the appearance of three South African armoured cars and heavy machine-gun fire from South African Air Force Hartbeests which stopped the Italians sallying forth in a counter-attack which could have routed the inexperienced Northern Rhodesian troops.10

Meanwhile, Lieutenant R. D. Meeser, having picked up new vehicles for 1st Armoured Cars at Nairobi, had been ordered to Lokitaung to join 25th East African Brigade, with whom 3rd Field Company, S.A.E.C. were also serving. He was quickly followed by Captain G. de Marillac with two further armoured cars. After some delay owing to incessant rain, Major Harry Klein and the balance of his armoured car company, with new cars, did the 450-mile journey from Nanyuki back to Yavello in three days,11 in time for the renewed advance into the Lakes area from the south.

However, the East African Armoured Car Regiment, attached to 24th Gold Coast Brigade, had suffered serious losses at Wadara12 on the Neghelli-Wondo road, which 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. was patching up. Major Klein was ordered urgently to Neghelli with his Company Headquarters and seventeen armoured cars. Captain E. H. Torr with twelve armoured cars remained with 21st East African Brigade for an attack on Magado Ridge in the Fincioa woods, where 8th Field Battery, T.H.A. and the East African Light Battery were supporting J King's African Rifles on 6 May, as the Natal Mounted Rifles moved southward with 'FowcoF from Adamitullo for the crossing of the Dadaba River. Frightful weather had delayed the attack on Magado, which was made under unbelievably difficult conditions. Even with the help of 150 askaris, the S.A. Indian and Malay Corps drivers with 21st East African Brigade took five days to move twenty trucks five miles through the dripping cedar forest.

When West African Engineers blew an enemy road-block with a Bangalore torpedo on 7 May, the Italians fired with everything they had, and Captain Torr got three armoured cars through virtually impassable ravines to help beat off what had the appearance of a counter-attack on a company of 1/4 King's African Rifles on Brown Hut Hill at about 2.30 a.m. The South African armoured cars drove up and down the track, firing short bursts, with their spotlights piercing the darkness. Captain Irwin's three cars, managing to work their way along the Alghe track, supported an infantry attack on the Italian flank and the enemy were routed.13> Lieutenant B. C. Wheeler of the T.H.A., with a mule borrowed from the Abyssinian Irregulars, laid 15 miles of telephone cable whilst accompanying the King's African Rifles as forward observation officer, and thus provided the attacking company with its only communication with its battalion headquarters. The Italians falling back on Giabassire did what they could to impose delay, while further east Italian nationals at Hula had been massacred


by Abyssinians as a prelude to an advance southward towards the road which lay ahead of 24th Gold Coast Brigade. The Gold Coasters had meanwhile been joined by Major Klein's detachment of South African armoured cars before Wadara,14 where General Pralormo's 24th Colonial Division had dug in.15

By the time the Natal Mounted Rifles, moving down from the north, had overrun the enemy along the Little Dadaba River, it was clear that 12th African Division would not arrive in time from the south to co-operate immediately with 11th African Division to clear Soddu and then turn on Jimma. General Wetherall was therefore instructed to press on to Soddu and then to 'go it alone' in attacking Jimma. General God win-Austen's troops coming up from Kenya would take over responsibility for the rear areas during 11th African Division's offensive operations west of the Lakes.16

For the advance on Jimma, 23rd Nigerian Brigade, which had been garrisoning Addis Ababa, was to be made available, and 1/1 King's African Rifles were brought up from the lines of communication and attached to this brigade in place of 2nd Nigerian Regiment,17 which was already with 'Fowcol', whose advance continued on 14 May. Patrols of No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company that day entered Shashamanna and 'B' Company of the Natal Mounted Rifles, with Vickers and mortar sections, 22nd Indian Mountain Battery, two detachments of anti-tank guns and some East African armoured cars occupied the aerodrome and the junction of the roads from Colito and Dalle unopposed. There they were joined by the remainder of the Natal Mounted Rifles next day.

The main body of the Italians from Shashamanna had withdrawn westward above Lake Awasa to the undulating hills known as Mount Cassi, and the activities of the South African Air Force were seriously affecting the attitude of the local population as well as of the Italians' Native troops. British propaganda was helping to spread rebellion, and bombing was interrupting traffic on supply routes already rendered almost unusable by rain. News of the serious plight of the Duke of Aosta's forces, now besieged in the fastness of Amba Alagi far to the north, was also undermining morale and encouraging desertion among ill-fed Native troops, many of whom wanted only to return home. In General Tissi's sector, with its headquarters at Soddu, two out of four divisions had virtually dissolved. The other two were in full retreat to cross the Omo River and join up with the western forces.18

On 16 May 'B' Company of the Natal Mounted Rifles, with a column of armoured cars and South African light tanks under Major Clark, moved south from Shashamanna via Sole and encountered an enemy force at Adela, where they captured 602 prisoners, three anti-tank guns, three armoured cars and eighteen lorries. But they had not prevented part of 24th Colonial Division pulling back from the south through Wondo, nor had they stopped some units from 21st Colonial Division doing likewise through Dilla, in a withdrawal westward towards the Omo River beyond Soddu.

Coming under Major Harris's command on 17 May, the little South African force was reinforced by 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. and 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., and 18th Indian Mountain Battery. They were


moving through beautifully fertile country and morale was high when information was received that 2,000 Italians were advancing from the south and could be expected to attack.19 Since their only line of retreat was in danger of being cut off, the Italians would have to attack or surrender, and they might put up a bitter fight.

With the main body of Major Harris's column based on the village of Adela, the armoured cars and 'B' Company of the Natal Mounted Rifles pushed on and captured another enemy group at the junction of the Dalle-Soddu roads. Here 120 prisoners and nine lorries, one containing bulk petrol, were taken. The patrol cut off the retreat of elements of the Italian 21st and 24th Colonial Divisions falling back before General Godwin-Austen's brigades, thus bottling up the enemy east of Lake Abaya, between 'Fowcol' and 12th African Division.

The Natal Mounted Rifles set up their headquarters at the Dalle-Soddu road junction, leaving a small post at Adela, and at noon armoured cars and one platoon occupied Dalle, where the Italian commander was too nonplussed by the rapidity of developments to put up a fight. In the pretty, well laid-out village which served as a transit and hospital depot as well as a civil administration centre, 38 enemy officers and 980 other ranks were made prisoner.

Meanwhile, at Wadara, miles to the south, General Pralormo's two brigades had put up one of the stiffest fights of the East African Campaign. It had taken 24th Gold Coast Brigade Group, including 7th Field Battery, T.H.A., 1st S.A. Armoured Cars, 19th Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. and a detachment of 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. (whose forward role the Field Park Company had temporarily taken over) more than a month to break through the defences of Wadara, first contacted on 8 April and assaulted on a full scale on 3 May.20 Here the Italians scored their only major success against armoured fighting vehicles, when they knocked out three East African Armoured cars which had failed to take the normal precaution of finding hull-down positions.21

Major Klein's armoured cars, called from Yavello to restore the situation, had an extremely difficult time getting to Neghelli along 153 miles of road, which had become a quagmire. They could do little in the unfavourable country round Wadara, but sections under Staff-Sergeant C. W. Hallowes and Staff-Sergeant E. H. Hangar provided covering fire for Gold Coast infantry on the flanks.22

Also ordered from Yavello to Neghelli on 19 April to help at Wadara, 7th Field Battery, T.H.A. left in pouring rain and along an atrocious road. Sheer determination brought the column to the Dawa Parma River about 50 miles from Neghelli. The bridge had been blown up; 19th Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. was still constructing a new bridge under flood conditions and it was quite impossible to cross. The battery settled down to await completion of the bridge while Major P. Cotter, the Battery Commander, on 22 April crossed the river slung in a breeches buoy, so that he could hasten to report the situation to 12th African Division Headquarters at Neghelli. He had not yet returned when instructions arrived from General Godwin-Austen that the battery had to cross the Dawa Parma or go down with colours flying.

Throughout the night of 24/25 April ammunition was ferried across


South African Engineers constructing a pontoon bridge over the fast--flowing Omo River in June 1941.
South African Engineers constructing a pontoon bridge over the fast--flowing Omo River in June 1941.
(Photo: N. Bennett.)

The Omo River ferry between Soddu and Jimma, with the demolished bridge in the background.
The Omo River ferry between Soddu and Jimma, with the demolished bridge in the background.
(Photo: D. Townshend.)

The Mussoloni Tunnel north of Debra Berhan, which 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. was surprised to find not even mined.
The Mussoloni Tunnel north of Debra Berhan, which 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C.
was surprised to find not even mined.

Lieut.-Colonel J. G. McMenamin, Commanding Officer of the 1st Royal Natal Carbineers, killed in action at the Battle of Combolcia.
Lieut.-Colonel J. G. McMenamin, Commanding Officer of the 1st Royal Natal Carbineers,
killed in action at the Battle of Combolcia.

Italian prisoners, taken at Dessie, struggle across one of their own demolitions.
Italian prisoners, taken at Dessie, struggle across one of their own demolitions.

Map: Abyssinia--Omo River and the Lakes Area
Abyssinia--Omo River and the Lakes Area

the swiftly flowing river on a raft of petrol drums, while the 18-pounders were stripped. All working parts were greased and muzzles plugged. With the help of 19th Field Park Company, the guns and limbers were dragged along the river bed, one by one, completely submerged, until the whole battery was on the opposite side of the river. A nightmare journey in pelting rain eventually brought them to Wadara, from which the Italians withdrew during the night 9/10 May, falling back towards Afrara, with a 54th Colonial Battalion rearguard holding up the pursuit till late evening.

British casualties in the Wadara battle amounted to 22 Europeans and 96 Africans killed--more than the total number of South African ground forces killed in action in the whole campaign--while the enemy were known to have lost 20 Europeans and 150 Africans killed and four times that number wounded. Three Italian guns, nine heavy machine-guns and large quantities of small-arms and ammunition were captured.23

Lieutenant E. J. W. Rees, Adjutant of 1st S.A. Armoured Cars, was given command of four armoured cars attached to the Gold Coast Company under Captain J. S. McGavin, leading the pursuit,24 which continued apace.

With both 21st and 24th Colonial Divisions known to be withdrawing on to the Natal Mounted Rifles' position at Dalle, imperative orders were received by Major Harris to hold the Dalle-Soddu road junction and to prevent any link-up between the Italian forces from the south and those at Soddu, towards which an advance party of 1/6 King's African Rifles with seven South African armoured cars under Captain C. A. H. Heard moved some 18 miles westward on 17 May in an attempt to locate the enemy and establish a base for further operations. They were held up in the morning by heavy artillery fire and the infantry had to withdraw under cover of the armoured cars' machine-guns.25

Later the same day 'C' Company of 1/6 King's African Rifles, with the South African armoured cars, continued to a point 7 miles east of Colito, sighting two enemy patrols. When the infantry advanced on foot, their Company Commander, Captain R. M. Cresswell, went forward in an armoured car towards what he took to be a white flag. When he got out to peer through his glasses, he was mortally wounded. The patrol withdrew.26

With the deterioration of their whole position in the Lakes area, the Italians east of the Omo River had by now been instructed to regroup, with 24th Colonial Division abandoning the Afrara positions on the road from Neghelli, to move north-westward on to Wondo. The 21st Colonial Division was to pull off the heights at Giabassire towards Dilla, on the Yavello road some miles south of Wondo, where they would await further orders. At the same time, 101st Colonial Division was instructed to withdraw from Gardulla and to move northwards to Cengia west of Lake Abaya. They were to move the bulk of what remained of the division into the Soddu-Billate River zone27 in which Captain Cresswell's advance patrol was already operating.

South of the Natal Mounted Rifles the Italians were already at Hula, less than 30 miles from Dalle, and intercepted messages indicated that


an attack on Dalle was imminent. It looked as if the Italians intended retaking Dalle, then moving up the road across the Falla River and assaulting the Natal battalion at the road junction.28

The 21st Colonial Division had already received orders: 'Dalle fallen, 21st and 24th Division will attack. Objective of 21st is position barring way to west. 24th to attack from the east.' On reaching Dilla on the evening of 18 May, 21st Colonial Division there received fresh wirelessed instructions to head for Soddu instead of Dalle.29

The Natal Mounted Rifles, meanwhile, anxiously faced the prospect of meeting the full force of two desperate Colonial divisions, and Captain Blarney's company, with a Vickers and a mortar section, was ordered to take up defensive positions just forward of the bridge over the Falla River, where the road turned into Dalle village. It was to destroy the bridge if the enemy attempted to cross. Not till 2.30 a.m. next morning had Engineers of 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. completed the setting of demolition charges, but even then the infantry company, which could easily be outflanked, felt horribly isolated.30 They were 7 miles ahead of the main body, who were dug in at the road junction where 52nd Nigerian Battery joined them in place of the South African 1st and 7th Field Batteries, which were ordered along the Soddu road to support the newly arrived 2nd Nigerian Regiment, who had made contact with the Italian rearguard holding the approach to Colito, west of Shashamanna.

Armoured cars probing forward from the Falla River bridge reported the enemy dug in only 8 miles down the road. With 12th African Division closing on them from the south as quickly as 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. could clear the road, it seemed inevitable that the trapped Italians must launch a full-scale attack on General Wetherall's forces to the north, where 11th African Division had been reinforced by 1st Field Force Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Wocke. The fresh South African battalion had already joined the troops in the Dalle area on 20 May, and it was looking forward to facing the Italians from prepared positions31 while 22nd East African Brigade attacked Soddu.

Actually, General Pralormo's 24th Colonial Division south of Dalle was in very poor shape. North of Wadara, in a series of most remarkable exploits, Lieutenant E. J. W. Rees's four South African armoured cars and the Gold Coast advance guard's leading company under Captain McGavin had taken more than 4,000 prisoners in three days!32

In hot pursuit and regardless of road-blocks, rain and the possibility of running out of petrol, the Gold Coasters' open lorries had pushed on behind the South African armoured cars. Forced to cut his little column to only 60 Gold Coasters and 17 South Africans, Captain McGavin literally ran into the midst of some 500 Italian Colonial infantry breakfasting beside the road in thick mist. By daring bluff he captured them and their officers while Rees's armoured cars rounded up a whole mountain-pack battery and a group of Italian cavalry officers plus the Italian gunner officer who had destroyed the East African armoured cars at Wadara.33

In one of the most fantastic episodes of the war in Africa, Rees and McGavin rounded up the Italian Brigade Commander and staff and captured 91 Europeans, 1,300 Africans and 300 horses and mules34


without firing a shot, before the rest of McGavin's brigade arrived with fuel, which enabled him to push on towards Hula with his bold handful of men.35 Unchallenged, the South African armoured cars drove straight into the defensive perimeter of Hula and Captain McGavin dismounted, approached a group of Italian officers and demanded their surrender. Another 36 Europeans and about 1,000 Africans were captured!36

To cap everything, at dawn on 22 May, led by Lieutenant Rees's four South African armoured cars, Captain McGavin's company sallied forth from Hula and headed up the road for Wondo, where the Commander of 24th Colonial Division had the previous day had his orders for an attack on the Natal Mounted Rifles position cancelled, and replaced by instructions to set out across country for Soddu, following General Caffaratti's 21st Colonial Division.37

At a hill called Garbachita, where the 3,000-foot descent of the Rift Valley to Wondo begins, Rees drove on at speed. Rounding a corner, he almost crashed into two Italian armoured cars driving down to Wondo. Before the Italians could traverse their turret guns, he pulled up so close to one car that its gun could not be brought to bear. The second car Rees covered with his Vickers guns. In a few moments both enemy armoured cars were in the hands of Gold Coast Infantry. In Wondo itself another 600 Europeans and 1,000 Native troops were made prisoner, together with 7 armoured cars, 100 lorries, a complete hospital and large stocks of stores.38

'B' Company of 1st Field Force Battalion with support weapons and armoured cars, probing forward from the Natal Mounted Rifles positions the previous day under Major Will, had had quite a sharp engagement with large Italian elements a few miles north of Wondo,39 where the Falla River bridge had been blown. Here, on 22 May 1941, Lieutenant Rees's detachment of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company met a platoon of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company with 1st Field Force Battalion. The road from Nairobi to Addis Ababa was open--rain permitting.

The 21st East African Brigade, under Brigadier A. McD. Ritchie, D.S.O., was still struggling forward from Yavello and had taken Giabassire. On roads still impassable to motor vehicles, Brigadier Ritchie was pushing forward a battalion on a mule-pack basis.40 So bad were conditions that vehicles from 109th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps, carrying rations forward from Yavello to Alghe, were taking fourteen days to cover 67 miles. Between Magado and Alghe a whole battalion was tied down, maintaining the road and pushing lorries out of the quagmire. Eventually, thanks largely to the efforts of 27th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C, the vehicles got through. All the infantry barring 1/2 King's African Rifles had to return to Yavello, but seventeen S.A. Indian and Malay Corps vehicles carried on and, incredibly, covered the round trip through Giabassire past Lake Margherita to Dilla and Wondo and then cut across to Hula and drove down again through Wadara to Neghelli.

The 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. had steadily cleared the road north from Neghelli, salvaged numerous Italian diesel lorries at Wondo and kept convoys moving with the help of their four-wheel-drive



Meanwhile, far to the north at Amba Alagi the collapse of Italian resistance in Abyssinia was brought nearer by the surrender of the Duke of Aosta himself. But to relate the final episodes of the Battle of the Lakes in sequence, we need to turn west at Shashamanna, along the road to Colito, where 22nd East African Brigade Group was probing towards Soddu while 23rd Nigerian Brigade bore down upon Jimma from the north at the crossing some 60 miles upstream on the Omo at Abalti.

First step for the East Africans was to clear Colito.

Ordered to fall back behind the Billate River, the enemy at Bubissa--with about 400 men, two guns and several medium tanks--withdrew across the river on the night of 18/19 May. At first light on 19 May, after a barrage by 1st Field Battery, C.F.A., 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. and the two Indian Mountain Batteries, 2nd Nigerian Regiment--who had joined 1/6 King's African Rifles near the Billate River--attacked the 25th Colonial Division rearguard covering Colito on the east bank and pushed them back with little difficulty.

The East Africans then advanced into the deserted village, which was soon being shelled from the west bank. The South African and Indian guns were quickly in action and 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., spotting the enemy gun-flashes, immediately engaged; 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. followed suit and the enemy guns were soon silenced.

By 3 p.m. one company of 1/6 King's African Rifles had crossed the Billate River north of Colito and was advancing along the west bank through the bush to get in rear of the enemy. When they made contact with the Italian flank the rest of their battalion attacked the bridge on the main road from the east bank while 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. dealt with machine-gun nests holding up the advance. With the King's African Rifles going in with the bayonet the position was taken by 5 o'clock in the afternoon and soon large numbers of prisoners were being evacuated.

Suddenly the Italians counter-attacked with seven M.ll medium tanks. South African gunners manning two Italian anti-tank guns captured at Shashamanna immediately opened fire and forced the tanks to retire under cover of thick bush, where they were almost in the midst of the East African infantry. The field battery officers watched helplessly, as the telephone line to their guns had been cut. Re-establishing communication, 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. engaged and the tanks began to fall back.

Sergeant N. G. Leakey of the mortar platoon with the East Africans, occasionally crawling in the open, but mostly doubling from bush to bush, got to within a few yards of one tank unnoticed and then leapt on to the front of it. Forcing open the turret hatch-cover, Leakey poked his revolver inside and fired rapidly. The tank stopped and he jumped off and pulled open the side door. Leakey then hauled out two dead men, one of whom was Colonel De Cicco, who had taken over command of the 25th Division's central sector on 12 May and was accompanying the armoured squadron,42 which had withdrawn all the way from the Awash.

Crawling into the tank himself, Sergeant Leakey tried unsuccessfully to bring it into action against the other tanks, then rushed off in pursuit


with two askaris. He was last seen attempting to open the top of a second tank, which carried him away into the bush.43

Sergeant Leakey's body was never found, but his gallantry ended all action by the Italian tanks and earned him the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross--the third gained in the campaign, as two had been awarded at Keren.*

The rout of the tanks put the final stamp of victory on the Battle of the Lakes. At Colito 489 Italians and 300 Colonial infantry were taken prisoner with 10 field guns, 38 machine-guns, 3 tanks and 15 diesel lorries. Nearly 100 dead were buried and many wounded were captured later when 22nd East African Brigade pursued Colonel Agosti's column towards Soddu44 as it withdrew to join up with remnants of 101st Colonial Division from Gardulla when they reached the junction of the road from Dalle.

Six miles out of Soddu three South African light tanks of No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company, together with a captured Italian medium tank operated by Lieutenant P. G. F. Shaw, bumped Italian guns holding the last line of defence before the town on 22 May.45 Gunner P. S. van der Westhuizen of 5th Field Battery, N.F.A., who had been lent to the Light Tank Company to operate the M.ll's 37 mm cannon, silenced the enemy battery and the advance proceeded. The section of South African light tanks and two South African armoured cars entered Soddu that afternoon, followed by a company of infantry. At 4.15 p.m. Major Clark hauled down the Italian flag46 as a prelude to a continuation of the advance towards Godicio, in rear of 25th Colonial Division's remnants, so as to open the road to Jimma which, on the strength of a ruling from the Duke of Aosta, was to be defended against the threatening rebels but surrendered to the British when pressure became too great.47

General Liberati and the Staff of the Italian 25th Colonial Division, General Baccari and the Staff of 101st Colonial Division, some 4,800 officers and men, 6 medium tanks, 4 light tanks, 100 machine-guns and the remnants of General Caffaratti's 21st Colonial Division were all captured at Soddu, the fall of which signalized the complete dissolution of General Tissi's command. It also heralded the end of the activities in Abyssinia of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company, the Natal Mounted Rifles and 1st Field Force Battalion, all of whom were withdrawn and ordered to Hargeisa preparatory to departure for the Middle East via Berbera early in June.48 No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company and the gunners of 1st Field Battery, C.F.A., 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. 7th Field Battery, T.H.A., as well as various detachments of 2nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, S.A.A.--the latter acting in infantry and anti-tank roles--were left to carry on operations with 11th African Division, which was now set on the capture of Jimma.

South-east of Jimma the garrison of Coca withdrew to the west bank of the Omo River on 28 May. Hounded by rebels between the Billate and Omo Rivers, the few survivors of 25th, 21st and 101st Colonial Divisions had all been rounded up by the end of May49 except for some 1,800 Italian and 1,500 Colonial troops of the 24th Colonial Division.

* Other recipients of the Victoria Cross during the East African Campaign were Second-Lieutenant Premindra Singh Bhagat and Subedar Richpal Ram.


Fording the Billate on 26 May, they struggled on and, after suffering considerable privation, began crossing the Omo on improvised rafts south-west of Soddu.50 Further up the river at Sciola, where there was nothing but a foot-bridge and a pontoon ferry across the 150-yard stretch of water, 22nd East African Brigade on 30 May made contact with a Blackshirt Battalion and three batteries of artillery who repulsed an attempt to rush the bridge.51

The bridge at Abalti had been destroyed in front of 23rd Nigerian Brigade and here, too, June opened with General Wetherall's forces held up by the flooded river after weeks of delay.52 Meanwhile, in the far north, 1st S.A. Brigade Group was involved in events which destroyed the last vestiges of hope the Italians may have entertained of any revival of their fortunes in their East African Empire.


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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation