End of an Empire

With the occupation of Amba Alagi on 19 May, followed by the fall of Soddu on 22 May and East Africa Force's closing up on the Omo River at Abalti and Sciola by the end of the month, the Italians had passed the point of no return as regards any hope of military recovery in East Africa. The capture of Dessie had cut off in the Danakil country north of French Somaliland a force of some 2,800 Colonial troops under Colonel Raugei.1 West of Dessie, a column of about 14,000 under Colonel Maraventano had stubbornly trekked over extremely difficult country in an attempt to get back to Worro Ilu and then to Debra Sina. Reduced to about 7,000, they had finally surrendered on 22 May.2

In Migiurtinia--the northernmost tip of Italian Somaliland--a small British column from Aden undertook a march of 800 miles to clear isolated Italian garrisons, the last of which, Alula, was in its hands by 21 May.3 In the remote reaches some 350 miles north-east of Mogadishu, thirty vehicles from 107th R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps, carried men of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment to occupy Rocca Littorio.

Far to the west of the Galla-Sidamo, remote from the Battle of the Lakes and the main axes of 12th African Division's complementary advance up through Neghelli and Yavello, 25th East African Brigade had been ordered to move north from Kalam to occupy Maji and make contact with the Sudan Equatorial Corps and then hand over to them.4 Major Steven's 27th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. had built an all-weather road for 70 miles from Lodwar to Kalin and further north--in March--they had had to be supplied by air while cut off by rain during operational work across the Omo River near Lake Rudolf.

With this threat from the south and the general deterioration of the Italian position, General Caffaratti's 22nd Colonial Division had already begun to withdraw towards Maji when 2/3 King's African Rifles, supported by Captain de Marillac and Lieutenant Meeser's armoured cars of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company and a section of South African Engineers, set out from Kalam on 8 April. Washa-Waha, 75 miles to the north, was reached next day but, with almost continuous downpours, 2/4 King's African Rifles only reached there three days later in vehicles of 'B' Section, 129th R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps.


In almost incredible conditions, plagued by mosquitoes and at one stage with vehicles bogged down for three days, the Cape Corps men achieved the virtually impossible. Their leading vehicles became separated from the rest of the column and their rations; sixteen men had to exist for three days on three tins of bully beef and three of peas before they begged a petrol can of mealie meal and 5 lb. of meat from the King's African Rifles, to last them another five days, almost to within sight of Maji, when they were ordered back to Washa-Waha which their lightened vehicles reached in only two days. There the main body was sharing the last of their rations with the Sappers of a South African Road Construction Company. Only after building a new bridge with trees which they felled themselves did the Cape Corps company manage to get back to Lokitaung, a base from which they were to accomplish other extraordinary journeys, for which Lieutenants G. M. Campbell and C. G. Goldsbury and Sergeant Fredericks were all highly commended.

It was administratively impossible to support more than a single battalion beyond Washa-Waha, yet the askaris, the Cape Corps drivers and the South African Engineers, working at nearly 8,000 feet in biting cold and mist, continued the advance and Maji was occupied on 20 April. Contact was established with the Equatorial Corps by wireless next day, and at Masci on 28 April the 2/4 King's African Rifles linked up with the Sudanese and sent a company on to clear the road to Baciuma, 58 tough miles nearer Jimma. With the enemy pulling back towards Golda, the East Africans handed over to the Sudanese, only to find themselves immobilized at Maji for a month owing to torrential rain.5

On half rations from 12 April to 27 May and with over 60 per cent of the men affected by malaria, the South African armoured car crews shared the ordeal before returning to Nairobi, where Major Klein collected the scattered platoons of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company, to sail for the Middle East from Mombasa on 15 August 1941.6

General Cunningham was left with many problems, aggravated by the urgent necessity to release troops for the Middle East, while his own lines of communication grew longer and more difficult each day. By the end of May 1941, South African motor transport units of 1st S.A. Division and the two companies of 2nd S.A. Division Transport, assisted by ancillary units, had brought no fewer than 15,500 vehicles from South Africa to Kenya, of which some 13,000 had travelled overland all the way from South Africa. Such a fleet of vehicles could do much to solve transport problems in the Middle East, and great efforts were being made by the South African Engineers to replace the demolished railway bridge across the Awash River gorge, so as to release more road transport on the long road from Berbera to Addis Ababa.

Meanwhile, Italian efforts to pull right back to Dembi, north of Maji, had been rendered almost impossible by operations on the Omo River, where East Africa Force had to conduct a tussle against nature even more than against the forces of General Gazzera. South African Engineers, artillery, light tanks and aircraft contributed greatly to 11th African Division's success.


The beginning of June found 22nd East African Brigade still held up south-east of Jimma before the flooded Omo at Sciola, with 23rd Nigerian Brigade's advance 60 miles to the north similarly blocked by broken bridges. The South African composite medium battery had moved to the Omo River on 29 May, and now the Nigerian Brigade had among units under its command the 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. (less two guns at Sciola), 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A., a South African anti-tank battery (actually 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. and 'C' Troop of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. with their captured Bredas) and 17th Field Park Company, S.A.E.C.7 under Major Tyson.

An Abyssinian Patriot attack on the enemy left flank failed. With Lieutenant-Colonel I. B. Whyte recalled to Addis Ababa to act once again as C.R.A., 11th African Division, Major F. Theron was commanding 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. by the time preparations had been completed for an attack across the Omo on the night of 30/31 May, but the river came down in flood and the attempt had to be cancelled.8 Luckily the rain slackened on 2 and 3 June and Italian artillery positions were hammered by South African and Nigerian guns and the South African Air Force's close support group under command of Lieutenant-Colonel M. C. P. Mostert, employing two flights of Hartbeests, No. 15 Squadron's Battles and the Hurricanes and Gladiators of No. 3 Squadron operating from Algato.9

On the night of 2 June a party of South African gunners attempted to cross the river and climb the opposite escarpment, but only Lance-Bombardier E. H. Wocke managed to swim across, as an Italian patrol spotted the rest of the party. Naked and at the mercy of mosquitoes, Wocke had to lie up in the bushes all day before being able to get back. The Nigerian light battery and 17th Field Battery with its 3·7-inch howitzers moved to positions near the river on the main road on 3 June. The floods subsided next day and Lieutenant J. D. Heath of 51st Nigerian Field Company managed to swim the Omo with a line for the assault boats.10 A crossing was accomplished, with a Forward Observation Officer from 18th Field Battery, S.A.A.11 accompanying a King's African Rifles company on a night march towards the escarpment cuttings below the Abalti plateau, while the Nigerians wheeled right to cover the road westward from the New Bridge.

A strong attack, supported by 17th Field Battery, S.A.A. and the Nigerian Light Battery on the morning of 5 June overcame the enemy's forward positions along the river and the whole of the Italian left flank crumbled. The Nigerians repulsed a counter-attack and in the afternoon their further advance was supported by the South African guns. By nightfall the King's African Rifles had reached the point where the road begins its zigzag climb up to Abalti, demolition charge lines were cut and the rest of 1/l King's African Rifles and a company of 1st Nigeria Regiment began crossing the Omo. By 10.45 a.m. on 6 June Abalti had been captured. Italian casualties were heavy and 2,800 prisoners were taken.12

Meanwhile, to the south, 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. on 28 May was joined by 7th Field Battery, T.H.A. With No. 1 Light Tank Company in its own and captured Italian tanks spearheading the advance,13 the two South African batteries and a composite section of 1st Medium


Brigade, S.A.H.A. left for Sciola escarpment to support 22nd East African Brigade. The 18th and 22nd Indian Mountain batteries were also with the brigade and the guns were brought into action on the escarpment in darkness and pouring rain.

As at Abalti, at Sciola the river came down in flood on the night of 30/31 May and all attempts at crossing on 1 June failed. Special bridging equipment was needed for the 150-yard-wide river at this point, but was not yet available forward of Berbera.14

Some 3 miles north of the destroyed footbridge at Sciola, a few platoons of 5th King's African Rifles and 2nd Nigeria Regiment managed to cross in assault boats under fire and established a precarious bridgehead. During the night another platoon was moved over the river. For nearly three days the little force of less than two companies held their confined bridgehead in spite of heavy enemy shelling.15 The Italians made half-hearted attempts at counter-battery fire against the South African field guns on the left bank and 'A' Troop of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. came in for some shelling while covering the crossing point. Fire from both the Cape Field Artillery and the Transvaal Horse Artillery batteries was kept up most accurately, and the old World War I 18-pounders even managed to register on the road leading up the western escarpment at no less than 11,200 yards from the gun positions.

On 5 June, with reinforcements ferried across the previous night, 2nd Nigeria Regiment and 5th King's African Rifles attacked, with South African artillery support. During the night the enemy withdrew, leaving 1,100 Italians and 100 Colonial troops in the hands of the King's African Rifles, besides nine 105 mm guns, eight 65 mm guns and 150 vehicles.16

The South African field batteries put down harassing fire on the retreating enemy and fortunately the South African Engineers arrived with more bridging equipment and put across a bridge with 'an ugly bend in the middle'.17 It nevertheless served its purpose. East Africa Force was thus across the formidable Omo River both at Abalti and at Sciola. Brigadiers Smallwood and Fowkes make contact west of the river, while 22nd East African Brigade advanced towards Jimma and 23rd Nigerian Brigade transferred its main weight on to the Addis Ababa-Lechemti road.

It was already apparent to General Cunningham that the enemy east and south of Jimma had been defeated, and he refused to be drawn when General Gazzera tried to hand over responsibility for the town on 9 June. That evening, 3rd Nigeria Regiment reached Ambo on its way towards Lechemti, with the rest of its brigade and artillery following.18

On 16 June, 1st Field Battery, C.F.A.--still with the East African Brigade west of the Omo River--was also ordered to the Lechemti area to join 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. in support of a Nigerian attack on the remnants of General de Simone's 23rd and 26th Colonial Divisions. With the Omo again in flood at Abalti, the battery had to turn back.

Meanwhile, in response to desperate appeals, the Gold Coast Brigade on 17 June had rescued survivors of General Pralormo's 24th Colonial Division from massacre by bandits south of Soddu.19


Jimma itself was invested by Patriots under Garassu Duke with British officers, but by now the lawless elements had swelled this force to an unmanageable 12,000, and even representatives from the Emperor could not re-establish proper control. The town was therefore occupied by 22nd East African Brigade Group,20 including No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company and 'A' Troop of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., on 21 June. Generals Scala, Tissi, Bisson and Majnardi and eight Brigade Commanders were among the 12,000 Italian and 3,000 Native troops captured in the Jimma area.21 On 25 June 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. also moved into Jimma, where they remained till 10 July, when they left for Addis Ababa, en route for the Middle East.

By the end of July No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company was also on its way to Egypt, leaving behind only a group of officers and men who had been sent down to Gilgil to fetch some light tanks for 12th African Division.

Meanwhile, along the lines of communication from the south, with 32nd Roads Maintenance Company similarly occupied, 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. had steadily cleared the road up from Neghelli, salvaged Italian diesel lorries at Wondo and helped 37th Forestry Company, S.A.E.C. to get machinery working in the bombed-out sawmills at Shashamanna to cut timber for bridge-building and other purposes. On the Soddu-Jimma road Captain J. N. Cowin found a section of 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. under Lieutenant Jock Stewart, with the C.R.E., 11th African Division, maintaining the pontoon bridge against a raging torrent. With the Abalti bridge destroyed, this route had to be kept open at all costs, and No. 1 Section took over the ferry and rebuilt it, only to find the flow of traffic dwindled to almost nothing, as the Soddu road had succumbed to the everlasting rain and heavy use. Then came floods and fever.

The ferry was washed away and seven men narrowly escaped drowning in the Omo, Sergeant J. R. Paintin being mentioned in dispatches for his handling of the crisis. By July the section had twenty-three men sick with fever and had to be ordered to dismantle all bridging material and pull out. By the time they reached Shashamanna on 25 July, they had suffered 100 per cent malaria casualties and here they found that 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. with its headquarters at Moggio, was also running a rest camp, with 37th Forestry Company, S.A.E.C.22

In the Lechemti sector 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. reached Ambo on 11 June along the Italian military road from Addis Ababa, which ended at its next night's bivouac site at Sire. The 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. and 'C' Troop of 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. were also with the Nigerians on the Lechemti road, and three days after arrival at Sire 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. resumed its march. On the morning of 15 June 1st Nigeria Regiment made short work of the enemy rearguard at Orde Mule or 'Massacre Hill', where the assistance of what the Royal West African Frontier Force historians called 'some gangs of patriots'23 swelled casualties among the 367 Italians and 83 askaris of the garrison to 113 Italians and 51 Colonial troops killed and 76 wounded or missing. Italian engineers then blew up the Ponte del Greco over the Didessa River.24


Road-blocks caused delay, but on 17 June the Nigerians again moved forward, 5th Field Battery, N.F.A. and 18th Field Battery, S.A.A. going ahead with 3rd Nigeria Regiment. The enemy had withdrawn beyond the Didessa River, with the blown-up bridge behind them, but the Nigerian battalion deployed in face of sporadic shelling while the G.R.A., Lieutenant-Colonel Whyte, went forward on reconnaissance with Majors F. Harpur and S. W. English. Moving south of the road, they clambered on to a high rock which commanded an excellent field of view, and as they were about to leave, enemy artillery opened up. Major English was seriously wounded and died on 19 June on the way to hospital.

That night the two South African 18-pounder batteries went into action and next morning Captain Allen, who had taken over command of 18th Field Battery, S.A.A. shelled an enemy section out of its gun positions in an open glade. At dusk the two 3·7-inch howitzer batteries, South African and Nigerian, occupied positions well forward while the infantry again faced the task of crossing the swift-flowing Didessa.

From 20 to 24 June, while the newly arrived 16th Field Company was reconnoitring possible crossings of the Didessa, the whole of 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. was in action, with Italian guns subjecting both observation posts and battery positions to accurate harassing fire. For the first time in the brigade's experience, the Italians here used both shrapnel and high explosive shell. The 3·7-inch howitzer positions of 17th Field Battery, S.A.A. and the 52nd Nigerian Light Battery were singled out for vicious treatment, but 'duds' and soft ground minimized damage.

The enemy right flank rested on the Dabana River, a tributary of the Didessa, and when eventually the Nigerians found a crossing they had thus to cross both rivers. Forward Observation Officers from 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A., as well as from 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A., accompanied the infantry when they crossed at 6.30 a.m. on 23 June. Assault boats were so scarce that ferrying of the troops took all day and then the Dabana delayed the advance another day, though Lance-Bombadier Wocke took a line across.

That night the guns put down a heavy barrage to cover the crossing of the Dabana. Next morning 1st and 3rd Nigeria Regiments occupied the enemy positions without opposition and 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. began throwing a footbridge over the Didessa after Lieutenant Skelton had swum across with a line.

All enemy troops had been ordered to make for Dembidollo via Jubdo for a final stand.25

Dembidollo itself was menaced from the west, rain was hampering all movement and the South African Air Force was bombing and machine-gunning the Italian columns. On 27 June the 1/1 King's African Rifles, moving out from Jimma, attacked Dembi and captured General Nam and 700 prisoners. Next day, General Bertello, at the end of his long retreat from British Somaliland, surrendered to the East Africans west of Jimma.26 On 30 June the Gore garrison surrendered.27 Bure was occupied by Patriots, thus cutting off General Pialorsi and 22nd Colonial Division.28

With the narrow tracks ahead almost impassable, 7th Field Brigade,


S.A.A. was still in bivouac at the Didessa River on 3 July. A Belgian contingent consisting of a small Congolese force was operating from the Sudan and attacking towards Dembidollo from Gambela, which they and part of 2/6 King's African Rifles had reached as long ago as 25 March. At 2 o'clock on the morning of 4 July 1941 General Gazzera sent delegates down the Dembidollo-Gambela road to negotiate the surrender of all Italian forces in the Galla-Sidamo. Major-General Gilliaert, the Belgian General Officer Commanding, who happened to be visiting his troops at the time, drove into Dembidollo and accepted the formal surrender of Generals Gazzera and De Simone29 on 6 July 1941.

Barely twenty-four hours later, hundreds of miles away to the east in the Danakil country, Colonel Raugei's last remnants laid down their arms, and on 10 July the air force men of 4 Battaglione Azzurro surrendered near Manda on the Assab-Batie road.30 By the time 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. reached the camp at Adda, 30 miles east of the capital, on 12 July, all enemy resistance in the vast territory under the authority of East Africa Force had ceased, except round Gondar.

Behind them the gunners left 25th Roads Construction Company and 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. still struggling in shocking conditions which decimated them with sickness before they could return to Addis Ababa, where all South African artillery units in East Africa Force were concentrated by 20 July 1941. On 22 and 23 July all but the newly created 7th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. (Captain L. G. F. Wolf) left by road for Massawa and the Middle East.

Gondar, some 7,000 feet up in the highlands north of Lake Tana, is the chief town of Amhara and the communications centre for the whole district, but any army capable of overcoming General Guiglielmo Nasi's 25-30,000 dug-in troops in 1941 was limited to two roads, one running north-west from Debra Tabor past the formidable mountain outpost of Kulkaber and the other running south-west from Asmara. Only the latter was usable during the rains. Seventy road miles before Gondar, this road twisted up one of the most spectacular passes in the world, to climb the 4,000-foot escarpment of the Wolchefit Barrier, where the way was blocked by a strong Italian force31 in apparently impregnable positions.

From Gondar a poor road westward to Gallabat was blocked by a garrison at Celga. Lake Tana barred any direct approach from the south, but on the south-east quite a good road ran as far as Debra Tabor and then over black cotton soil--almost impassable in wet weather--to Dessie. There were garrisons both at Debra Tabor and closer to Gondar at Kulkaber, where the roads passed over a 'nek' between Lake Tana and the rough, high hills to the north of it.32

After plans for co-operation with the Patriots had failed on five separate occasions, a small British column finally entered Debra Tabor,33 but in the Middle East on 5 July 1941 General Sir Claude Auchinleck had taken over from General Wavell and was continuing his predecessor's policy of withdrawing every unit it was possible to release from East Africa. Only 11th and 12th African Divisions remained to carry out security duties over a vast area whilst also containing General Nasi at Gondar and enforcing the landward


blockade of French Somaliland.34

South African Engineers of Lieutenant-Colonel D. E. Paterson's Railway Construction Group, in one of the most noteworthy achievements of the East African Campaign, replaced the railway bridge over the Awash River gorge and had trains running right through from Diredawa to Addis Ababa by 11 July 1941, thus releasing a great number of motor vehicles and personnel for the Middle East, but this could contribute little directly to the reduction of the last Italian stronghold at Gondar, around which operations were almost at a standstill until 31 October 1941.35

Well over 10,000 South African troops--White, Coloured and Native--were still in East Africa, including a certain number of combatant troops, but they were widely scattered. The fixed defences of Kismayu and Mogadishu had taken on a new significance with the increasing danger of Japan's entering the war and a special repository party under Captain P. F. van der Hoven had not only been busy getting heavy coastal guns back into action but had also mounted at Dar-es-Salaam, Tanga and Zanzibar 6-inch naval guns sent to East Africa from Ceylon. The 1st and 2nd Special Service Detachments, S.A.A. had been sent up from South Africa to man these new defences.

With 75 per cent of its personnel in hospital with malaria at one stage, the repository party had completed its tasks by November 1941, leaving the coastal batteries to the new East Africa Command which had been formally created on 15 September 194136 to free the overburdened Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, from East African affairs. General Cunningham had left Abyssinia on 29 August to take command of the newly constituted 8th Army in Egypt and Major-General Godwin-Austen and then Major General Wetherall acted temporarily as Commander-in-Chief of the widespread new command.

Among South African units under East Africa Command was 7th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., which helped convoy 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. to Massawa before establishing its own Headquarters in the latter half of July between Dessie and Amba Alagi at Alomata, where they were soon joined by No. 15 Squadron (Battles), No. 16 Squadron (JU 86s), No. 3 Squadron (Hurricanes and Gladiators) and No. 41 Army-Co-operation Squadron, all of which fell under No. 2 Wing, S.A.A.F., commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel M. C. P. Mostert.

Of the Nigerian and Gold Coast Brigades, only 51st Gold Coast Light Battery (soon to be re-equipped with the old South African 60-pounders) and 53rd Gold Coast Field Company remained with 25th East African Brigade. Together with 22nd East African Brigade, they now came under the reconstituted 12th African Division commanded by Major-General Fowkes. The 25th East African Brigade moved up from the Lake Rudolf area to Massawa, and on arrival there on 15 September was ordered to Wolchefit.37

The 7th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. virtually took over command of the Alomata area, but at the beginning of October a composite troop of Bredas and twin Lewis guns under Lieutenant Potts left for Wolchefit where, after an unsuccessful attack with the help of 3/14th Punjab Regiment, the Patriots--in the words of the British official


Men of the Dukes about 11,000 feet above sea-level during the final stages of the Amba Alagi operations.
Men of the Dukes about 11,000 feet above sea-level during the final stages of the Amba Alagi operations.

Brigadier D. H. Pienaar mounted on one of the sure-footed Abyssinian mules at Amba Alagi.
Brigadier D. H. Pienaar mounted on one of the sure-footed Abyssinian mules at Amba Alagi.
(Photo: Terence McNally.)

The Duke of Aosta <i>(centre)</i> accompanied by Major-General A. G. O. M. Mayne, Commanding 5th Indian Division, comes down from Amba Alagi after its surrender.
The Duke of Aosta (centre) accompanied by Major-General A. G. O. M. Mayne, Commanding 5th Indian Division, comes down from Amba Alagi after its surrender.

A 60-pounder of 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. in action at Combolcia Pass.
A 60-pounder of 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. in action at Combolcia Pass.
(Photo: Terence McNally.)

One of the tanks of the S.A. Light Armoured Detachment being run off its portee before the Kulkaber operations.
One of the tanks of the S.A. Light Armoured Detachment being run off its portee before the Kulkaber operations.
(Photo: J. Gage.)

history--'continued their activities, which fluctuated with the weather, the supplies of money and food, and their own feuds and rivalries'.38

To the surprise of the British, the Italian Commander at Wolchefit, Colonel Gonella, surrendered to 25th East African Brigade on 27 September with 1,631 Italian and 1,450 Colonial troops. He had lost hundreds of men through desertion and food was running out. The pass, which was cleared of mines and demolitions by Lieutenant G. Barton-Bridges's section of 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. assisted by Indian Sappers, almost dumbfounded the South African anti-aircraft gunners who moved up it on their way to Dabat, where they were in action within five minutes of arrival, against one of the last two Italian aircraft capable of flying in Abyssinia, a CR42 and a CR32.*39 With a fairly substantial hole in it, the Italian biplane got away, only to be shot down on 24 October by Lieutenant Hope of the South African Air Force, whose own men had cleared the landing ground at Dabat with the help of 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C.40

On 11 November 1941, the 7th Anti-Aircraft Battery left Massawa to rejoin its regiment in the Middle East.

The surrender of Wolchefit did not change General Fowkes's plans for attack on Gondar, on which two brigades were to move from the south-east through Dessie and Debra Tabor after the end of the rains in October. By that time 26th East African Brigade--watching the French Somaliland frontier, with a section of 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. and a small party of 25th Roads Construction Company, S.A.E.C.41--would also be available. With this brigade concentrating at Dessie, the 25th East African Brigade was to come back there from Wolchefit--a good 400-mile journey--for a two-brigade attack through Debra Tabor.42

Reconnoitring a route for the advance of the 'South Force' along the Dessie-Debra Tabor road, Major Gilson led a platoon of 1/6 King's African Rifles, a platoon of 1st East African Pioneers and a handful of men from his own 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. to ascertain the state of the road to Kulkaber from Debra Tabor. After an eventful journey right across the gorge of the Ghidda River, work on the road was put in hand and Major Gilson returned to report his findings to Divisional Headquarters in Addis Ababa.

Acting as C.R.E. (Roads) he was soon on his way back to Dessie with his own Field Company--now some fifty under strength--part of 25th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. and 1st East African Pioneers. Pushing on into magnificent country south-east of Lake Tana they reached a point where the road was blocked by a gigantic landslide and there found Lieutenant Whiley and his detachment of Cape Corps drivers. With their headquarters 9,000 feet above sea-level at Debra Tabor, the Sappers made contact with Major G. Douglas of the Highland Light Infantry and his Patriots,43 but continual rain made a two-brigade attack through Debra Tabor impossible.

* The British Official History states that the last Italian aircraft to fly in East Africa did so on 20 November (History of the Second World War--The Mediterranean and Middle East, vol. II p. 319), but in the Italian Official History it is claimed that this aircraft, a CR32, was still strafing columns on the Kulkaber-Azozo road on the eve of the fall of Gondar, on 26 November. On landing it was destroyed by the Italians to avoid its falling into British hands (La Guerra in Africa Orientale, note (1), page 310).


Map: Battleground of Kulkaber, November 1941
Reproduced by permission of Major J. N. Cowin.


Changing his plans,on 27 October General Fowkes ordered 25th East African Brigade to attack from the north on about 9 November, leaving 26th East African Brigade to clear up Italian positions further south. A detached 'South Force' under Lieutenant-Colonel R. G. T. Collins was to capture Kulkaber two days before the main attack. Simultaneously, 2nd Ethiopian Battalion and Patriot Irregulars were to thrust towards Gondar from west of Lake Tana and a Sudanese composite battalion with still more Irregulars was to advance from Gallabat along the road through Celga.44

'South Force' included 1/6 King's African Rifles, 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. (Major K. T. Gilson), some companies of 1st and 2nd East African Pioneers, detachments form 25th Road Construction Company, and a squadron of the Kenya Armoured Car Regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Collins also had at his disposal a flight of No. 41 Army Cooperation Squadron, S.A.A.F. based on Combolcia, Dabat and Alomata, a King's African Rifles machine-gun company, and the four 60-pounders now manned by 51st Gold Coast Medium Battery.45 For the very difficult northern thrust Brigadier W. A. L. James of 25th East African Brigade had to rely on the lighter 3·7 and 4·4-inch howitzers of 18th and 22nd Mountain Batteries, Royal Artillery and 53rd East African Field Battery. General Fowkes felt compelled to modify his plans, sot that 25th East African Brigade would operate on the right of the 25th.46

With this in view, parties were out in the mountains seeking an old track the Italians were believed to have made from near Amba Giorgis down to Dancaz, south-east of Gondar and in rear of Kulkaber. If found, it would link the Gondar-Wolchefit and the Gondar-Debra Tabor roads, and perhaps make it possible to move 25th East African Brigade to the south for a two-brigade attack in that area, where the Italians at Kulkaber--it was mistakenly thought--only awaited the arrival of regular troops before surrendering.47

To the north, 24th East African Brigade had now been reinforced by the arrival from Kenya of a S.A. Light Armoured Detachment, consisting of the officers and men whom Major Clark had sent to Gilgil to collect light tanks. This novel unit under Captain G. A. Elliott, M.C., had a section of three light tanks and another of four Bren carriers, plus four L.A.D. workshops and some 30-cwt. trucks.48

By 11 November 'South Force' had concentrated, its fighting units including only 1/6 King's African Rifles, the machine-gun company, armoured car squadron and 51st Gold Coast Medium Battery. Anyone still dreaming that Colonel Ugolini's troops at Kulkaber were waiting to surrender to this force was in for a rude awakening.

The East African Pioneers were used as infantry, and South African Sappers bolstered up the whole force, and even drew fire by camouflaging a bulldozer as a tank.49 On Lake Tana they took to the water in any available craft and Lieutenant H. A. Wright completed a close reconnaissance of enemy positions; Lieutenant 'Butch' Stadler of 25th Roads Construction Company, S.A.E.C. even flew over the Italian lines in a Gladiator found abandoned in the veld--but the main encounter with the Italians was a shock for 'South Force', and


particularly for the Patriots.

The Italians fought back with determination and repulsed all attacks. The only South African casualty with the East Africans was Sapper W. G. Banner, who was wounded with the King's African Rifles, whose askaris were led into battle by South African Engineers acting as section leaders.

Meanwhile, the track leading south from Amba Giorgis had been found, largely through the efforts of Lieutenant Sutherland of 17th Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. Herculean efforts made this 56-mile 'road' passable, with tractors to haul lorries up the severest gradients, and General Fowkes ordered 25th East African Brigade to push down the track to Dancaz and to prepare to attack Kulkaber from the flank and rear on 19 November while 'South Force' put in another frontal attack after a night march on foot behind the precipitous Amba Mariam. The whole Gondar area was systematically attacked by Hart-beests and Mohawks of the S.A.A.F and the R.A.F.'s Wellesleys, and on the west the Sudanese column repeated its attacks on Celga, but without success.50

The S.A. Light Armoured Detachment forced its way down the frightful track from Amba Giorgis for three days, till they came out on to the green plain and struck the Debra Tabor-Gondar road51 north of Lake Tana between Azozo landing ground and Kulkaber. While they spent three days in reconnaissance, Sappers improved the Dancaz track and 25th East African Brigade moved down from Amba Giorgis out of range of the guns at Gondar. On 20 November nine tons of bombs were dropped on Kulkaber and at first light next morning Brigadier James attacked from the east with two battalions of 25th East African Brigade, from the south with 'South Force', and from the west with Captain Pilkington's Wolla Banda and the Shoan Patriots under Captain K. Nurk.52

South African Engineers from 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. again led askaris into battle, cleared mines and dealt with booby traps and obstructions. Tank and Bren sections of the S.A. Light Armoured Detachment split, and east of Fercober Hill Lieutenant D. T. Kenyon's tank section--in which Sergeant Pretorius was shot through the eye--effectively silenced machine-gun and mortar fire, before pulling back to refuel and replenish ammunition. When the Patriots faltered, Lieutenant Jack Gage and men of the detachment went forward on foot and rallied them, to push on and capture nearly 500 prisoners, including the Area Commander.*53

In the meantime, four Bren carriers under Captain G. A. Elliott and Lieutenant L. A. Larson took the Italians in the rear and covered an assault on Kulkaber by the King's African Rifles. The 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C. suffered five casualties. Sappers J. A. Brener and J. P. Pienaar, clearing mines and cutting barbed wire for Major Molloy's Patriots, were both wounded, the former very seriously. Sapper H. W. Funchall, with an arm almost blown off, spent a terrible day and night on the hillside and his life was saved by Sapper N. H. Bunn who, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire, moved him 70 yards

* In Springboks in Armour, the story is told that Lieutenant J. Gage led the attacks in a tank. This is not so, as he was not in the Tank Section and was operating on foot.


Map: Gondar, 27 November 1941
Reproduced by permission of Major J. N. Cowin.


to the shelter of the bush, applied a tourniquet to his arm and piled up stones to protect him. Wounded in the face and losing consciousness while cutting through the wire, Sapper Pienaar was similarly rescued by Sapper H. Treharne after Captain Anslow of the King's African Rifles had been hit three times in trying to reach him and had to be dragged out himself by a courageous askari.54

Attacked from all sides at once, the Italians under Colonel Ugolini fought well, but to no avail. A total of 1,648 Italians and 775 Native troops were taken prisoner and when all resistance had ceased the attackers counted 99 British casualties and 107 Patriot dead among their own losses.55

Lieutenant G. Barton-Bridges, commanding No. 1 Section of 9th Field Company, S.A.E.C, with Lance-Corporal Ian McPhee of 17th Field Park Company, S.A.E.C, with pack mules carrying mines and explosives, operated behind the Italian lines with a subsection of South African Sappers at Kulkaber during both attacks. The road to Gondar was mined and the party joined up with the Patriots, Lieutenant Barton-Bridges mortaring the Italians from the rear during the first attack on Kulkaber. When the enemy retaliated with artillery fire, Lance-Corporal McPhee had a leg blown off and died of his wounds on 15 November while being treated by a Russian doctor attached to the Patriots.

The section continued operating with the Patriots and harassing the enemy till the fall of Gondar, and Lieutenant G. Barton-Bridges was awarded the Military Cross for his exploits.

With 26th East African Brigade striking from the Dancaz track on the east and the 25th attacking from the south, with the main Patriot force between the two and the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders and some divisional troops containing the enemy in the north, the assault on Gondar began at 5.30 a.m. on 27 November with close support from the South African and Royal Air Forces. The S.A. Light Armoured Detachment spearheaded 2/4 King's African Rifles' attack on Azozo and early in the afternoon Major J. L. Yeatman and patrols of the Kenya Armoured Car Regiment entered Gondar and withdrew again. Seeing the way open, the Wollo Banda turned north and also entered the town at 2.45 p.m.

At 3.40 p.m. on 27 November 1941 Italian delegates arrived at 25th East African Brigade Headquarters to ask for terms; Major Yeatman went forward again with armoured cars and South African tanks and General Nasi surrendered. Next day, S.A.A.F. Hartbeests dropped the Italian General's orders to surrender on Celga and Gorgora. Some 10,000 Italian and 12,000 Native troops were taken prisoners at a cost of 32 killed, 182 wounded and 6 missing.56 The fighting in East Africa was over.

Total South African battle casualties on land throughout the campaign had been only 270, of whom 73 had been killed.58 The South African Air Force had flown over 5,000 sorties, destroyed 71 enemy aircraft in combat and at least as many on the ground for the loss of only 79 killed and five missing. For a young army of volunteers, it was a most promising record, but by the time General Nasi surrendered at Gondar, disaster in the Western Desert had already brought South


Africa face to face with the realities of a manpower crisis largely of her own creation. Even before it left East Africa, the 1st S.A. Division was 1,000 men under strength; no replacements were available for most of the South African administrative and technical units still in East Africa and they could not be withdrawn without creating chaos within the Command. It was decided that all South African personnel must be released from East Africa Command within four months except for about 1,000 officers and other ranks who would be permitted to remain until September 1942.

With the forces of the Commonwealth faced by well-trained, well-equipped and well-led German troops in North Africa, with Japan poised for attack and with arms and equipment still in short supply, South Africa had already committed herself to support her Allies in North Africa with two infantry divisions which she could not possibly support within the limitations imposed upon her by a policy of employing only Europeans as fighting troops.


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