Setting the Stage
When Major H. H. Coldicott and Captain B. A. R. Jones, on 28 May 1940 selected a site at Kabete, 19 miles outside Nairobi and 6,209 feet above sea-level, for a South African base depot and camp, they figuratively if not actually turned the first sod in the digging of foundations for an administrative organization which was to transform the scene in East Africa. Colonel A. J. Orenstein, C.M.G., the South African who was Director of Medical Services on East Africa Force Headquarters, and Captain H. Mullins, Staff Captain 'W', approved the site. Here, on 16 June, No. 2 Section of 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. detrained while the rest of the company--less No. 3 Section dropped at Mombasa--went on to Nairobi, where Major H. D. W. Smith, the Company Commander, was told that his company would be responsible for constructing camps for South African troops not only at Mombasa and Kabete, where 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., was already established, but also at Nairobi, Gilgil and Tigoni. Helping to prepare for the reception of fighting formations at Gilgil were also 1st S.A. Divisional Petrol Company, a Divisional Field Butchery and Divisional Field Bakery of the S.A. 'Q' Services Corps, while the 1st Divisional Ammunition Company, 'Q' S.C., with headquarters and seven sections, was settling in at Kabete.
The South African Engineers had begun an immense task, for which the Corps had been expanded beyond recognition since the mobilization of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C, on 20 May 1940 as a first step in the calling up of engineers to swell the ranks of a branch of the Defence Force which shortly before the outbreak of war numbered only 423 officers and men.1
To appreciate the problems facing East Africa Force, whom the South Africans were to help, the topography of Kenya itself must be considered, as it dictated the lines on which the services, especially the engineers, transport companies and field ambulances, would have to develop and operate. The frontier of Kenya and Italian East Africa stretched for 1,200 miles from Lake Rudolf to the Indian Ocean between Lamu and Kismayu, and throughout almost its entire length it ran through bush and semi-desert, except where it traversed a rocky but green escarpment at Moyale, near which some efforts had been made at
On the Kenya side of the frontier a barrier of desert nearly 300 miles wide spread like an impassable cordon between the border and the rich farmlands of Central Kenya. Inside this forbidding Northern Frontier District the only points of importance were those places where the ancient camel-tracks met because they boasted water. Wajir, a Somali village with a picturesque fort facing Italian Somaliland, was one such place, and the mountain oasis of Marsabit, between Isiolo and Moyale, was another. These were the keypoints in the defence of Kenya, and a seemingly impassable barrier of waterless desert separated them both from Italian-occupied territory.
Some 150 miles south of Wajir the River Tana makes a wide sweep to the south after flowing due east from Central Kenya to the village of Garissa. It then runs parallel to the frontier, which lies about 100 miles further east, and enters the sea south of the small but ancient port of Lamu. The Tana thus formed an important defence line about 160 miles north of Mombasa, a first-class, deep-water port linked to the interior by both road and rail. Nairobi, the capital of the colony and centre of communications, lies on the edge of a rich farming district and, climatically, Central Kenya provides an admirable base for concentrating and training a field army. But to undertake operations towards either Abyssinia or Italian Somaliland across the almost trackless and uncharted aridity of the Northern Frontier District in 1940 was to embark on a hazardous venture.
To the east, in the direction of Italian Somaliland and its obvious defence line along the Juba River, the absence of roads and total lack of water between the Juba River and the Tana had convinced experts that any large-scale military operations were impossible. West of a line drawn from Moyale through Isiolo, where 1st S.A. Division was destined to operate, the front spread for some 300 miles to well west of Lake Rudolf, across some of the most inhospitable country in Africa, ranging from impenetrable forest or trackless thorn bush to scorching lava masses, rugged mountains and waterless deserts of soda ash and volcanic dust.
For months on end the temperature in the deserts surrounding Marsabit's mountain paradise never dropped below 100 degrees Fahrenheit by day, yet on the Mega-Moyale escarpment to the northeast, where the enemy was known to be firmly established, operations might have to be carried out at night in temperatures scarcely above freezing point.
To such topographical and climatic conditions were added the complications of poor or non-existent communications. Nanyuki, the eastern railhead for troops in this sector, was 126 miles from Nairobi and almost on the edge of the fertile Kenya Highlands. Beyond this point the road followed the top of an escarpment over 6,000 feet above sea-level for 20 miles, only 12 of which were macadamized. Then followed the steep descent to the Northern Frontier District--the N.F.D.--with a mean altitude of about 1,500 feet, and with expanses of sand covered with sparse bush and broken by outcrops of lava rock. For about 125 miles this uninviting prospect faced the transport drivers as far as Merille, where they ran into the grim lava-dust waste of the
Kaisut Desert, crossed by nothing better than deeply-rutted, potholed, loose sand tracks when first encountered by the South Africans.
In rain, the Kaisut became an impassable quagmire, but in dry weather the only water between Isiolo and Laisamis was from strictly limited supplies at Merille. Forty miles of waterless waste separated Laisamis from the foot of the mountain up which the road wound its way over masses of volcanic rock to the 400-square mile plateau of Marsabit, a green oasis 5,000 feet above sea-level.
To the north and east of Marsabit and some 3,000 feet lower than the plateau, General Brink's troops were to find the grim challenge of the Dida Galgalla--the Desert of Night--with its 80-mile stretch of lava rock and thorn bush separating Marsabit from the 4/5,000-foot Mega-Moyale escarpment along the southern edge of Abyssinia. Only one rough track, which even the South African Engineers would not attempt to improve, wound for 154 miles over the desert's surface of burning rock, jagged stones, powdery fine lava and sand from Marsabit to Moyale, which could otherwise only be approached from further east, through Buna. Just south of British Moyale the road from Wajir via Buna joined the narrow track from Marsabit, which then climbed through very dense bush and past almost impregnable natural positions--such as one might find on the slopes of the Hottentots-Holland mountains near Sir Lowry's Pass--to the villages of British and Italian Moyale, the latter with its Foreign Legion style fort which could be completely isolated from the world by rain.
The only other road from Marsabit to the Abyssinian frontier ran north-west across 28 miles of practically solid lava before dropping down to the utterly desolate Chalbi Desert, a vast, flat white waste of soda and soft lava dust, totally devoid of vegetation and mercilessly reflecting the scorching sun which baked the 168-mile track to North Horr, which was passable though dusty for about three months of the year. For the rest of the time, the Chalbi was impassable to wheeled mechanical transport, even one inch of rain turning it into a sea of mud from which no wheeled vehicle could be extricated until the return of the dry season.
Behind such a barrier, defenders of the southern border of General Gazzera's command in Galla-Sidamo could be excused if they believed themselves to be almost immune from attacks by motorized forces, for the only relief in the cheerless desolation of the Chalbi came from the scattered and picturesque palm-clad waterholes at Maidahad, Mai-kona, Gamra, Korowe, Kalacha and Woroma. North Horr, well to the west of Kalacha, boasted a waterhole at the foot of low sand dunes surrounded by a few trees and palms and some bush, and to the northeast of it, at Balessa, there were some ancient wells with a limited yield. Onward from North Horr the track led north across still more lava rock and dust to Dukana, where it simply petered out some miles short of the Abyssinian border, along which one struck dense thorn bush in the direction of El Gumu, Gorai and Hobok.
Almost the whole area across the frontier, bounded by Lake Stefanie on the west and the Mega-Moyale road on the east, was so thickly wooded that vehicles could seldom move off existing tracks. Large areas covered with lava rock, especially round Gorai, Hobok, Banno, Mega
and Moyale, made cross-country movement by motor transport extremely difficult and the inaccuracy of existing maps, which even ignored mountain ranges and depicted non-existent roads, made planning still more hazardous.
Here, as elsewhere in Kenya, operations depended on the rains, which fell--some 28 inches a year round Moyale--in fairly well-defined seasons, the short rains coming during the period October-December and the long rains from mid-March to the end of May.
Such was the area in which General Brink's main operations were to take place, but this was not the limit of his responsibilities, for the sector extended right across Lake Rudolf, which presented an effective barrier 185 miles long between troops to the east and west of its alkaline waters, which at the widest measured some 37 miles across. West of the lake, where the Dukes and later 25th East African Brigade were to spend much time patrolling and training round Kalin and Lokitaung--both on the northward track from Lodwar to Todenyang and to the Italian frontier post of Namaruputh--the terrain was very broken, with rugged mountains running the whole length of the lake and falling steeply on the east, with a narrow strip of comparatively flat but arid country, averaging only about 5 miles wide, between their foothills and the shores of the lake. The Kenyan, Abyssinian and Sudanese borders met in the Namaruputh-Todenyang area, where the head of Lake Rudolf ran along the southern frontier of Abyssinia.
Here the country was comparatively flat and sandy with thick thorn scrub. This changed to forest along the impassable Omo River, which was navigable to flat-bottomed craft up as far as Murle, through which ran the continuation of the barely recognizable Moyale-Mega-Banno track that then dropped southward along a dry-weather road through Kalam to Namaruputh. Rainfall north of the lake greatly increased the incidence of malaria in the Omo Delta during part of the year. From Lokitaung two indifferent roads ran to Todenyang and Namaruputh. To east and west, troops in Turkana had no communications with anyone except by air, and to visit Lokitaung from Marsabit entailed an overland trip of 750 miles via Nanyuki and Lodwar.
Operations on any scale across such terrain would pose enormous problems to the best equipped and most highly organized of forces. East Africa Force, in June 1940, was neither; and Kenya had not the trained manpower nor the industrial capacity to solve the problems facing General Dickinson and his Staff, whose main asset other than willing askaris and their own ability lay in the possession of a fine harbour like Mombasa.
'The needs of Europe and Egypt', in the words of the official British History, 'left little for East Africa, and General Dickinson, with a modest staff and practically no administrative services or tradesmen or military stores or reserves of equipment of any kind, was obliged to fend largely for himself. He was helped in every way by the Colonial Government Departments; India came to his rescue over some of the most urgent requirements, notably ammunition; but it was on South Africa that he soon came to rely for help at every turn. The Union Government were naturally interested in the country to which their forces were being sent; they understood the difficulties, and they provided
invaluable equipment and skilled men of all kinds. Best of all, they supplied transport, the key to the whole problem.'2
That South Africa was able to do this was fortunate and remarkable, especially when one realizes that before the outbreak of war her modest Engineer Corps embraced no units of any sort whatever other than half a dozen Active Citizen Force field companies allotted to infantry brigades, whilst her serviceable military vehicles numbered almost nil. So profitably had the S.A. Engineer Corps employed its time between September 1939 and Italy's declaration of war on 10 June 1940 that 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. (Major H. D. W. Smith) and the Headquarters of the new and highly specialized 36th Water Supply Company, S.A.E.C. (Major J. F. Oldfield) were already embarked at Durban before the news of Mussolini's gamble came over the radio. They were the advance guard of a veritable army of South African Engineer units preparing for East Africa, and by 18 June they were already constructing camps at Langa-Langa and Gilgil, where a South African Advanced Supply Depot had been established, and personnel for 'OJ Services, for the 1st Advanced Medical Stores Depot, P.T.G. Services and for a reception camp in Nairobi were already arriving. Three days later Lieutenant-Colonel Buller, C. R. E. Field Units, instructed Major Smith that one section was to build and throw a pontoon bridge across the 300-foot wide Tana River at Garissa, about 255 miles north-east of Nairobi, by 1 August. Within less than a week Captain K. T. Gilson* was at Garissa, busy with detailed survey and cutting approaches for the bridge.
On the camp site, work proceeded in spite of shortages of gum poles, scantlings and pipe fittings, and by 25 July when 1st S.A. Brigade arrived, to be shortly followed by 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. (Major H. Mill Colman), 28th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. (Major J. McLennan), 35th Works Company (Major A. D. Hughes) and 37th Forestry Company (Captain F. S. Laughton) the camp at Gilgil was ready to receive them, with sufficient cover for the troops, plus kitchens, ablutions and water. The same day, Major Smith received a report from Garissa that the pontoon bridge over the Tana had been completed forty-two hours ahead of schedule, and six days before the original date set by Lieutenant-Colonel Buller. On 31 July, 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. was told that 35th Works Company, S.A.E.C. would take over all construction at Gilgil, but this certainly did not signalize the end of such work for the Field Companies, whose versatility fitted them for many roles. A pattern was already being set and work was proceeding with increasing speed as the rapid expansion of the S.A. Engineer Corps in South Africa bore fruit.
Less than two months previously, as the result of consultations between Defence Headquarters and the heads of various other Government departments since February 1940 (in succession to Mr. A. D. Lewis, Director of Irrigation, who had been advising the Defence Department in a civilian capacity)--the Chief Civil Engineer of the
* Subsequently, as a lieutenant-colonel, Divisional Engineer Officer of 1st S.A. Division in North Africa and of 6th S.A. Armoured Division in Italy.
South African Railways, Colonel J. M. Greathead, M.C, had been seconded to the Defence Force to form Engineer companies (other than field companies) from railway, public works, road construction and Irrigation Department sources. On 6 June 1940, Colonel Greathead assumed duty as Engineer-in-Chief, U.D.F.* and set up an administrative organization at Defence Headquarters, Pretoria, to organize the formation and equipment of roads and railway construction and maintenance companies, survey and water supply companies, with the collaboration of Lieutenant-Colonel S. B. Shannon, M.C. (Chief Technical Adviser to the National Roads Board) in charge of a Road Construction and Maintenance Group already forming; Lieutenant-Colonel L. A. Mackenzie of the Irrigation Department in charge of a Works, Water Supply and Forestry Group and Lieutenant-Colonel D. E. Paterson of the South African Railways in charge of a Railways and Harbours Group. A process was thus accelerated which was eventually to draw no fewer than 14,000 South African Railways and Harbours employees into various units on a full-time basis.
Colonel J. F. Craig was appointed Deputy Engineer-in-Chief and left almost immediately for East Africa to set up a South African Engineer Headquarters in Nairobi, whilst Lieutenant-Colonels Whit-tingdale and Holzer of the Government Survey Department arranged to send to Kenya a Survey Company under Major Walter F. Short and Major N. G. Huntly. Their advance parties arrived in East Africa on 8 July.
With the accent on mobility, the vital importance of road-building was obvious, and Lieutenant-Colonel Shannon, assisted by Captain S. W. L. de Villiers, after considering potential manpower, available plant and its possible use, had already recommended the formation of a battalion, consisting of four road construction companies and four road maintenance companies. This was approved, Lieutenant-Colonel Shannon himself was appointed to command the battalion, Captain de Villiers became Adjutant and Captain G. E. Gascoigne Quartermaster. The eight companies, which in fact were all, for practical purposes, construction companies, were numbered 25 to 32† and soon seven had been established on an Active Citizen Force basis, though not yet called up, and the 28th was in training at Zonderwater. Major W. P. F. McLaren became Second-in-Command to Lieutenant-Colonel Shannon and Major F. J. Hugo took over 25th Roads Construction Company, S.A.E.C in his place.
On 28 July 1940, when 28th Roads Construction Company, S.A.E.C. arrived in East Africa, together with 35th Works Company, 37th Forestry Company and 1st Field Company, which was with 1st S.A. Brigade, they thus brought the number of S.A. Engineer companies in Kenya to seven, representing a strength of more than 1,300 officers and men. Before the year was out their numbers would be greatly
* Colonel Greathead was released from full-time service on 25 October 1940 to become Assistant General Manager (Technical), South African Railways, and the position of Engineer-in-Chief was allowed to lapse. The administrative work was taken over by Colonel Cotton's S.A.E.C. Headquarters.
† The Roads Construction companies' original commanding officers were: 25, Major W. P. F. McLaren; 26, W. R. Greathead; 27, A. F. Steven; 28, J. McLennan; 29, E. D. S. Fergus; 30, B. G. Weale; 31, O. M. Bell; 32, A.J. Conacher.
increased. During September the 25th Road Construction Company--like the 29th which reached Mombasa on 21 October--was formed on a full-time basis entirely from personnel of the Cape Provincial Roads Administration. After three weeks' concentrated military training, they drew their full establishment of first-class roadmaking machinery from the Provincial Administration's resources at Kimberley and were soon on their way north, arriving in Kenya on 11 November. In the Transvaal the Provincial Roads Administration likewise provided practically all the men for both the 26th and 27th Road Construction Companies, as they were also to provide the plant and stores necessary to equip these units before they left for Kenya, where they arrived on 18 September and 11 November respectively. They needed no training in roadmaking; they were already experts, and had some of the finest road construction equipment available, without equal on the African continent, and in some respects better than any then available to the British Army. Like the other South African road construction and railway construction and operating units, they were composed of highly trained specialists, who had worked together in civilian life and understood one another and their work. They were, in the opinion of a high-ranking British officer, 'splendid units', and they were to prove their worth in East Africa even before operations began. It would be fair to say that operations would have been virtually impossible without them.
The 28th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C., almost from the day of its arrival in Kenya, was put to work on the Isiolo-Wajir road, the more northerly line of communication to the eastern front. On the more southerly line of communication eastward, both 25th and 29th Road Construction Companies, S.A.E.C. were employed by mid-November, and two months later they had the added support of a detachment of about half of 27th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. under Captain E. W. N. Driver.
The 25th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. had landed at Mombasa on 11 November, with the 27th Road Construction Company, and by the end of the month the former had arrived at Garissa, where Captain R. D. Hawkins and Lieutenant Tromp were already busy with reconnaissance. Here the Company divided into two working sections, the one under Lieutenant Edwards working down on the west of the Tana River towards Bura and the other under Captain Hawkins pushing down the left bank of the river to the same point, and then building a road eastwards from Bura for 100 miles to Colbio on the Italian border, along the direct route to Kismayu. Two bridges over the Tula River on the Bura Road had already been built by 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C.
Protected by a company of the King's African Rifles, these South African Engineers were working well forward of their own front lines, and Lieutenant Win Williams's attached Survey Detachment had its first taste of enemy action in the bush early one morning when a Caproni came over at only about 100 feet and bombed them while they were on their way from Bura to relocate the road for the 70 miles to Galmagalla. No casualties were suffered, but several local Natives employed by the detachment vanished and were not seen again.
A small detachment under Lieutenant Tromp maintained some 120
miles of the Thika-Garissa road eastward from Msoings, and work in the forward areas was pushed ahead steadily, with Major-General Wetherall, Commanding 11th African Division, taking a personal interest in the Company's progress.
The line northward from Isiolo, to Marsabit and then on to Mega, was entrusted to 26th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C, which was soon hard at work after its arrival in the theatre during the second half of September. The 27th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. worked north from Kitale railhead into the Turkana after moving up from Mombasa in November.
All four main road lines of communication radiating from Central Kenya towards Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia were thus being improved by South African Engineer companies before the end of November 1940, by which time Lieutenant-Colonel Shannon, Major A. F. Steven and Mr. Kerr of the Public Works Department had reconnoitred the Kitale-Lodwar-Kalin roads right up to the northern end of Lake Rudolf.
Early in December, 27th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. began building an all-weather road for 70 miles from Lodwar to Kalin, while other construction sections moved up to improve the Suk Pass and build a new road from the bottom of the pass to Lodwar. On the Isiolo-Marsabit-North Horr-Dukana roads east of Lake Rudolf, men from no fewer than four South African Road Construction Companies were busy--the 26th, 28th, 30th (which arrived in December under Major B. G. Weale) and a detachment of the 27th--together with 1,600 men of the East African Military Labour Services. The bulk of 27th Road Construction Company, west of the lake, had 300 Turkana tribesmen as a labour force, while the 29th, with 300 East African labourers attached, was at Isiolo to help cope with the road to Wajir as well as that to Marsabit.
These units were followed later by 31st Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C, and in February 1941 by 32nd Road Maintenance Company, S.A.E.C. (Captain T. R. Morton).* To the east, Captain R. D. Hawkins, evacuated from Garissa to Nairobi on 3 January 1941, was 25th Road Construction Company's first malaria casualty, and thereafter the company was troubled by intermittent cases of fever and dysentery. In January 1941 yet another unit, 48th Bitumen Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. was formed in Nairobi, with a proposed establishment of 6 officers, 139 European other ranks and 400 attached Non-Europeans. This company--for the formation of which no authority was ever granted--later set about bitumenizing the Nanyuki-Isiolo road from Mile 14 to Isiolo, under command of Lieutenant J. P. Hollingdale. Having done its job, it simply dissolved, with its personnel being reabsorbed into other road construction units.
Direction and control of this large body of Engineers, whose numbers were greatly swollen by other specialized units of a different nature, required constant attention. Lieutenant-Colonel Shannon and Captain S. W. L. de Villiers were already in Nairobi early in September 1940,
* In 32nd Road Maintenance Company, S.A.E.C, Major H. E. Saffery had become Commanding Officer in succession to Major A. J. Conacher, but was himself succeeded by Captain T. R. Morton before the unit embarked for East Africa.
with Major W. P. F. McLaren remaining in Pretoria to watch over the recruiting, formation and equipping of the road construction companies. With the Mobile Field Force merging with East Africa Force, Brigadier A. Minnis (Royal Engineers) became Chief Engineer, East Africa Force, Colonel Craig became Deputy Chief Engineer (Lines of Communication), and under him Lieutenant-Colonel Shannon became C.R.E. (Roads),* with Lieutenant-Colonel MacKenzie as C.R.E. (Works)--Lieutenant-Colonel Shannon later taking over from Colonel Craig when the latter returned to the Union on account of ill-health.
All three Works Companies, S.A.E.C--the 33rd (Major D. H. Levinkind, M.C), the 34th (Major C. W. A. Sandrock) and the 35th (Major A. D. Hughes)--had reached East Africa before the end of 1940, and were kept fully occupied constructing camps at Gilgil, Nairobi, Mbagathi, Nyeri, Arusha and elsewhere, installing sewerage at No. 5 Casualty Clearing Station at Gilgil, putting up buildings, digging slit trenches, building a hospital at Nyeri, special signal stations at Thika, Athi River and Rurake, erecting bridge material, and numerous other tasks, including the construction of all manner of defences.
Almost all Engineer construction tasks required timber of some sort, and its provision was largely the responsibility of 37th Forestry Company, S.A.E.C, one of South Africa's most unusual units, formed and recruited at Knysna under Captain F. S. Laugh ton of the Union Forestry Department, with a nucleus of 2 officers and some 53 other ranks with an intimate knowledge of the work in the dense Tsitsikama and other forests along the Garden Route. By the end of August the company was felling trees, sawing and delivering sisal poles, bamboo and papyrus from Naivasha and from north of Gilgil, for building hutments. During the second half of October they were at work in the Elburgon Plantations, felling, preparing, transporting to rail, and loading poles for building at Gilgil. Meanwhile, a party had been on reconnaissance in Tanganyika, and by the end of October 37th Forestry Company, S.A.E.C. was settling in at Shume, on the crest of the Usumbara Mountains, to put back into full production the timber-mill owned by the Tanganyika Forest and Lumber Company, where they only ceased milling on 20 March 1941.
Initially there was no call for railway or harbour construction units in Kenya, but with an eye to future demands, Lieutenant-Colonel D. E. Paterson, M.C, with Major W. Marshall Clark as Second-in-Command went ahead with the organization of a Railway Construction and Maintenance Group in South Africa, with headquarters initially at Germiston. The 38th Railway Construction Company, S.A.E.C. (Major J. G. Pauling) was called up and concentrated at Zonderwater on 8 October 1940. On 13 November, 41st Harbour Construction Company, S.A.E.C. (Major G. H. Deas) was mobilized, and twelve days later 39th Railway Construction Company, S.A.E.C. (Major W. H. Evans) was called up at Stutterheim.
Early in 1941 the first elements of 39th Railway Construction Company reached East Africa, to be followed by 38th Railway Construction
* The abbreviation 'C.R.E.', though actually indicating 'Commander, Royal Engineers', was used indiscriminately within East Africa Force, applying to officers of either British or South African Forces, and through common usage was well understood.
Company, 41st Harbour Construction Company and part of the Group Headquarters, which set itself up in Nairobi as Headquarters, 1st Railway Engineering Battalion, S.A.E.C. Lieutenant-Colonel Paterson and the rest of his staff left for East Africa on 6 February 1941 to form the Staff of C.R.E. (Railways and Harbours), S.A.E.C. in Nairobi, and the main body of 39th Railway Construction Company and 47th Railway Survey Company, S.A.E.C. (Major Goldstein) accompanied them from Durban.
The major tasks for the whole Group lay beyond the borders of Kenya, but it is of interest that the 38th Railway Construction Company, S.A.E.C, from 11 February to 7 March 1941, took over the construction of a railway from Thika to Garissa, which had been started by Kenya Railways. A survey detachment drawn from 38th and 39th Railway Construction Companies, S.A.E.C--between 19 January and 15 March--carried out a survey of and staked out 36 miles of the proposed line over the Tana River, continuing it northwards towards Garba Tula. Eleven miles of plate-laying had been completed before operations elsewhere caused the abandonment of the whole scheme and a move to the east.
The 38th had meanwhile lost Sapper C. Rumney, who died as a result of accidental injury, and the 39th faced a minor disaster on 5-7 March, when the Tana River came down in flood. Six African labourers were washed off a rock on an island and drowned the first day of the floods; temporary bridges over both gorges were washed away; two more Africans were lost while trying to swim the gorge next day and finally two more failed to hold on to a rope during rescue operations on 7 March and were swept away.
East Africa was largely uncharted and may have remained so, had it not been for South African help provided by the Field Survey Company, S.A.E.C. (Major Walter F. Short), which included a Trigonometrical Group and a Mapping Group as well as a Headquarters complete with the necessary trained geodetic officers, computers, map production staff, draughtsmen, instrument repairers and other technicians, who all reached Kenya between 8 July and mid-December 1940. Major N. G. Huntly, who had helped Major Short recruit the company, was already in Nairobi as Assistant Director of Survey when the main body, arriving on 3 August settled down to work on the surveys necessary for future operations, which would require the maps which the Mapping Group under Lieutenant F. E. le Roux would produce on their arrival. A Mobile Map Printing Section was available for reproducing maps by the beginning of October, by which time the Army Printing and Stationery Services (Lieutenant-Colonel P. Kruger) were fully operative in East Africa.
A Survey Directorate--with the South African Surveyors and East African Survey Group at its disposal--was established at East Africa Force Headquarters at the end of October, at which stage the only available maps for operations were an out-of-date 1:1,000,000 series3 quite inadequate for military purposes. Organized mapping of the areas most likely to be involved in future operations was started on a 1:500,000 scale, with data being collected largely from Italian maps though also from other sources. Strip maps of important roads were
Morass of mud at Melka Galla after rain. (Photo: Terence McNally.)
Members of a South African Motor-Cycle Company on patrol in Kenya.
Raising the dust on the road from Marsabit, 1st S.A. Division transport heads north into the Chalbi Desert.
compiled from aerial photographs, and details were incorporated in the maps, which were constantly revised as new data became available.
Artillery maps on a 1:25,000 scale were prepared from aerial photographs of the Juba River line from its mouth near Jumbo up to a point north of Mabungo, as well as large-scale maps of Kismayu and Mogadishu.
Detailed organization of the survey effort, which so greatly facilitated the work of the Staff and commanders in East Africa Force, was under the direction of Colonel M. Hotine, 'whose special knowledge and ability and untiring drive were outstanding', in the words of General Wavell's Despatch.4
More vital than anything else was water, not only for the troops but also for the vehicles, and the matter was seriously studied in conjunction with the Quartermaster-General of the Union Defence Force, Brigadier-General J. Mitchell-Baker. Special motor transport convoys for the carriage of water were organized and other special vehicles and equipment were also supplied by the South African Government.5*
One of the most highly specialized of all units in Kenya was what Colonel H. Sugden, Brigadier Minnis's Chief Staff Officer, aptly called the South African 'water divining unit', officially designated the 42nd Geological Survey Section, S.A.E.C. (Major H. F. Frommurze). With an establishment of only 4 officers and 20 men, but with the most modern equipment available and very specialized knowledge, the Section arrived in East Africa on 3 October 1940 and was highly successful in its constant search for new sources of water, which 36th Water Supply Company, S.A.E.C. (Major J. F. Oldfield)-often assisted by one of the Field Companies--did an enormous amount to develop at points scattered all over Kenya. On 12 October, the first plant left Gilgil for Garissa for water-boring.
In the area around and north of Marsabit, 36th Water Supply Company had two drills operating and another available for a forward move, while the field companies developed existing supplies, so that the activities of the different types of Engineer company became very tightly interlinked.
On the green plateau of Marsabit the South African Engineers had to build roads to inaccessible waterholes, erect pumps and develop supplies in an area where the peculiar lava formations often precluded improvement of existing wells. With the water lying on impervious strata below ground, any deepening cracked or penetrated the bottom of the well and the whole supply was irretrievably lost.
However, steady development was so effective that during 1st S.A. Division's stay at Marsabit the 6,000 gallons a day available was raised to over 52,000 gallons a day in four weeks. Developing water supplies in the area during the last week of December 1940, 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. (Major C. J. Venter) found the waterhole at Lake Paradise so filthy that it required filtration and super-chlorination. Nevertheless they could soon deliver 20,000 gallons a day from this point alone, and constructed 3| miles of road for access to camp sites and water-points.
* South Africa was to provide 360 tank lorries, 120 water purification lorries and 2,200 water-tank trailers for the South African and Allied forces before the war was over.
The 36th Water Supply Company, S.A.E.C. had sent detachments ranging far and wide in search of water, from Lokitaung and Kalin to Habaswein, Garissa and Thika since their arrival in June. Starting with the development of water supplies at Langa-Langa and the Maldwa River, they had installed pumps and pipelines, built reservoirs and erected tanks and sunk boreholes at widely separated points. Often no water was struck and the disappointed crews had wearily to dismantle their drilling rig and move elsewhere; but what they did find was beyond expectation.
At Laisamis in November they struck water at 290 feet with a yield of 120 gallons an hour; Borehole S.A.35 on the Habaswein-Muddo Gashi track was yielding 400 gallons an hour. Sometimes the sides of boreholes caved in, sometimes they went down well over 300 feet without success, but always they tried again elsewhere. One borehole at Lokitaung showed promise and then slowly dried up, but another yielded 140 gallons an hour.
Water was struck at Langata Camp in November and at Kaberai and a number of other spots during December. Boreholes were operating at Garissa, Wajir and Loruth. At Kalacha the 2,500 gallons a day yield was raised by the South Africans to 15,000 gallons and a daily flow of only 1,000 gallons at Woroma was likewise raised to 15,000 gallons. North Horr's yield of good water was pushed up from 1,200 to 4,000 gallons a day. At Balessa 5th Field Company took over the ancient wells from 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. and when one section of the company pushed on to Dukana, where the water supply had been developed from 1,300 to over 6,000 gallons per day by 12 Field Company, S.A.E.C, they increased the yield to as much as 16,150 gallons a day, an achievement of considerable importance in view of Dukana's proximity to the southern Abyssinia border.
Early in January 1941, while one subsection of 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. was removing landmines originally laid by the King's African Rifles, Lieutenant Barker was busy reconnoitring a road from Kalacha to Balessa, while the company moved its headquarters north from Marsabit to Maikona. With the assistance of 2 officers and 100 other ranks of 21st Field Park Company, they tackled the task of building a 21-mile road across the lava escarpment from Maikona to Kalacha.
Working in stifling heat, with the thermometer registering up to 141 degrees in the sun--there was no shade--the men had to roll away the enormous rocks and boulders by hand. No work could be done after midday, and work of any sort was impossible without copious draughts of water for the men. When no liquid was consumed, a thick oily fluid oozed from the pores and perspiration stopped. Weight was rapidly lost and not even the local Natives could stand up to the strain. Nevertheless the 21 miles of new road were completed in ten days, its value being amply demonstrated later when it was the means of rescuing 300 vehicles from the morass of the Chalbi during heavy rain.
Hardly rested from their magnificent effort between Maikona and Kalacha, one subsection of 5th Field Company moved to Karoli with an officer and 169 other ranks of the East African Native Labour Service to construct a road from Karoli to Maidahad which would eventually link up with that running further north from Maikona to
Even in the sweltering aridity of the Turkana, the South African Engineers were not disheartened. A section of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. under Lieutenant D. A. Anderson, attached to the Dukes from the last week in August till early October, assisted a detachment under Lieutenant J. G. Lentzner of 36th Water Supply Company, S.A.E.C. in sinking a well forward of Nepau Pass on their way to Lodwar, on reaching which they found the Turkwell River already running dry. With stone and bricks from the village 6 miles away they initially decided to build a reservoir, but then scrapped the idea and raised 1,000-gallon tanks on a 12-foot stand instead. By 2 September the tanks were in commission, 2,120 feet of pipeline had been laid, showers and washtaps were installed in the Dukes' camp, and water distribution had been stepped up from 4,000 to close on 10,000 gallons a day.
Meanwhile, 36th Water Supply Company had sunk a second well. By 15 September, water-points had been installed for all units in camp and 4,970 feet of pipeline was in use. At Kalin and Lokitaung water supplies were being developed, sanitation provided and defences built. This was typical of the work of the field companies, and while their companions were busy at Lodwar, other members of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. under Lieutenant J. M. Stacey were building a 70-foot bridge over the Kenyao River and repairing the roadway at the Lorogumu River to facilitate movement on the lines of communication to Lodwar and Lake Rudolf, along which 2nd R.M.T. Company ran a supply train from a base at Kitale railhead. Sandy and muddy patches on the primitive roads caused endless trouble to the long convoys, but the South African Engineers did much to solve the problem by laying what 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. called their 'army track'--made from No. 10 SWG wire and Kenya olive battens about 2' 3" X If X If, which greatly simplified motoring over the many difficult watercourses, whether wet or dry.
With its one section at Lodwar and another just returned from completing the Kenyao Bridge, 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. set out for Nanyuki on 18 September from Gilgil, where they left No. 2 Section. Ordered on to Wajir, they halted about 10 miles beyond Habaswein on the night of 20 September, on the alert for raiding parties of enemy Irregulars and with sentries posted. One of the guards, hearing movement in the dark and spotting what he took to be hostile Banda, opened fire. Sapper R. A. H. Simpson was killed and Sapper G. D. Jackson seriously wounded. Though rushed back to Habaswein, where he was attended to by 4th Gold Coast Field Ambulance, Sapper Jackson died of his injuries early next morning.
Moving on, 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. immediately began work on the defences of Wajir, with their compressors going day and night to complete a tank trap. It was some days before a convoy of cement, steel, concrete mixers and other necessary equipment arrived with Major A. D. Hughes and one section of 35th Works Company, S.A.E.C. At a conference called by Brigadier Richards at the Headquarters of the Gold Coast Engineers, it was decided that 35th Works Company, S.A.E.C. would take over the building of pillboxes, and 1st Field
Company, S.A.E.C. continued working round the clock on tank traps. A visit by three Italian aircraft which dropped incendiaries and 30 lb high-explosive anti-personnel bombs caused no casualties but left the South African Engineers the dangerous task of collecting and dismantling unexploded bombs.
Everything that was difficult seems to have been grist for the mill of the S.A. Engineer Corps, who by Christmas 1940 had five field companies, seven road construction, three works, two field park and a water supply, a forestry and a field survey company operating in East Africa, where all the rest of East Africa Force provided only four field companies and a water supply maintenance unit. Work on airstrips and airfields was under the control of Captain--later Major--Humphrey Mullins, S.A.E.C, and on 8 October, No. 2 Section of 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. was given the 'stupendous job' of clearing 675,000 square yards of bush for an aerodrome at Chesmarapa, 40 miles or so north-west of Garissa--without bulldozers! With commendable ingenuity, they pulled out large trees by using a treble-sheave 3-inch tackle attached to a 3-ton troop carrier. Having lost Captain K. T. Gilson (temporarily returned to South Africa), with Lieutenants A. H. Rocyn-Jones and A. N. Gill both sick and with up to thirty-one men at a time unable to work on account of illness, the Company was hard put to it to meet all the demands made upon it by 1st African Division and 1st East African Brigade at Garissa until the arrival of replacements. Isolated as they were, and working in oppressive heat right on the Equator, not only this section but all the South African road construction and field companies often worked without infantry protection of any sort, sometimes well ahead of their own front line, and in constant danger of ambush by Banda.
It was largely on their preparatory work that the mobility of East Africa Force would depend, for only with roads and water would it be possible to move any large bodies of troops. Yet even that would be quite impossible without transport, and here again it was fortunate that development in South Africa itself was such that motor vehicle assembly and body-building manufacture could be rapidly expanded to meet the requirements of war. All that General Dickinson had available by way of transport in June 1940 was about eight Reserve Motor Transport companies in dire need of serviceable vehicles, but South Africa provided the answer not merely by producing the vehicles but also by delivering them to Kenya without calling upon the sorely needed shipping resources of the United Kingdom.
As early as 21 May 1940, with an eye to the future and with the possibility of a Japanese threat to sea communications always in mind, the Assistant Director of Transport, Lieutenant-Colonel C. S. Pot-gieter, had been instructed by the Quartermaster-General of the Union Defence Force to prepare a convoy of 45 vehicles to proceed the 1,300 miles by rail from Pretoria to Broken Hill in Northern Rhodesia at the end of the month with 5 officers and 127 other ranks. A similar convoy had already gone by sea to Mombasa and thence by road to Nairobi, but Lieutenant-Colonel Potgieter's instructions were to report on the
feasibility of running overland conveys from Broken Hill to Nairobi, at the same time reconnoitring all routes affecting a possible Great North Road to Egypt. On the way he was to select camping areas and sites for petrol dumps.
On 7 June the convoy left Broken Hill and not many weeks passed before 2nd Reserve Motor Transport Company, 'OJ S.C.--the first of many such units and 'reserve' only in name--was on its way overland from South Africa to the East African theatre of operations, where no fewer than twenty-nine South African transport companies were to be operating before the end of 1940, with four more joining them early in 1941, by which time the number of East African motor transport companies had risen to twenty-five. Some 9,000 vehicles had already reached Nairobi from South Africa without requiring any precious shipping space.
One of General Wavell's Staff had been daunted by the fact that motor transport would have to operate 200 miles from a railhead--more than the distance from London to Paris or Brussels--but South African convoys were soon reaching Nairobi regularly overland from Broken Hill, a distance of some 1,600 miles by motor lorry. The first South African motor transport units, with European personnel, were rumbling northward by the end of July 1940, and auxiliary units soon joined the convoys. Early in September the first Cape Corps and S.A. Indian and Malay Corps drafts from South Africa were drawing vehicles and equipment which had been railed to Broken Hill and, in spite of inexperience, broken springs and mud, their convoys began coming through to Nairobi steadily.
There the convoys split up, some motor transport companies going to support the forces in the west near Lake Rudolf and others operating along the lines of communication Nairobi-Nanyuki-Wajir, from which they could later branch out toward the Juba River and the coast if necessary. Within four months of the first overland convoys reaching Nairobi from South Africa, trucks were arriving in Kenya at the rate of 70-80 per day, rising to 90-100 vehicles per day by mid-January 1941, to swell the total of vehicles brought from South Africa by road before end of May 1941, to 13,000 out of a total of 15,500 South African vehicles in East Africa.
Typical of the transport units arriving in East Africa was 'G' (later 127th) Reserve Motor Transport Company, Cape Corps, which entrained at Kimberley on 9 October for Broken Hill, where they collected 212 Ford three-tonners and one-tonners. With no spares available, they brought all the vehicles barring one safely in at Nairobi. Within a few days they were on the road again, travelling through beautiful country with their proper war establishment of vehicles--137 three-ton Fords, 7 one-tonners and 3 sedans. On arrival at the well laid out, healthy camp already set up by 1st R.M.T. Company, 'OJ S.C. at Londiani, they linked up with their own 'A', 'B' and 'C Companies--later the 121st, 122nd and 123rd R.M.T. Companies, Cape Corps. Then they got down to serious night-driving practice--one of the first essentials for future operations--and general training for tasks that would eventually take some of them overland from Cape to Cairo and hundreds of miles beyond.
To cope with the increasing movement of traffic and supply convoys on the 'hush-hush' Nile River road route to Egypt, at Soroti and Gulu in Uganda a field hospital had already been established by 'A' Company of 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. (Lieutenant-Colonel R.J. W. Charlton) under Major M. Renton, the former post being 350 miles from the unit Headquarters. At Kitale, the railhead for Lokitaung, Captain L. Melzer, with a section of 'B' Company of the same unit, provided medical services.
This was simply one small aspect of the many-faceted medical organization which had grown up since April 1940, when Colonel A.J. Orenstein* and Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. de Villiers† had arrived in East Africa, to find the Royal Army Medical Services battling to build up medical facilities with inadequate staff and equipment. The appearance of these two senior officers of the S.A. Medical Corps marked a significant stage in developments which could be traced back directly to General Smuts's appointment in November 1939 of Drs. A. J. Orenstein, J. H. Orford and F. Bester to advise on the formation of a medical service for--in the first instance--the projected campaign in East Africa. The report of this Commission can be summarized in a single paragraph: There was very little of useful medical equipment and stores available in the Union; there were virtually no suitable ambulance vehicles; there were a few medical officers and other personnel at Defence Headquarters and half a dozen Active Citizen Force field ambulances with very inadequate equipment and training.
While the Commission was making its investigations, an appeal was made by East Africa Force for medical personnel to serve with the troops mobilized there. It was agreed to make this appeal known, and a number of medical men in South Africa immediately volunteered, although they knew they would have to accept local commissions and pay--the latter considerably below the South African scale.
The report of the Commission was accepted in toto. Dr. Orenstein, who had served as Director of Medical Services in East Africa during the latter part of World War I, was appointed Director of Medical Services in the rank he already held, as a colonel.
It was clear that South Africa would not only have to provide an efficient medical service for its own troops but also for most of the other troops operating in East Africa. The response of the medical and nursing professions in South Africa was overwhelming, and had all volunteers been accepted the Union would have been denuded of doctors and nurses.
On arrival in Nairobi in April 1940, Colonel Orenstein found Colonel R. E. Barnsley, M.C,‡ of the Royal Army Medical Corps, in command of the medical services. He confirmed that help, immediate and on a large scale, was essential before any active campaign could be undertaken. General Dickinson, who had been advised by higher authority that the medical service should be based on a ratio of 10 per cent of his total force, confirmed Colonel Barnsley's view of the urgent
* Later Major-General A. J. Orenstein, C.B., C.M.G., C.B.E.
† Later Brigadier J. P. de Villiers, C.B.E., E.D.‡ Later Major-General R. E. Barnsley, C.B., M.C.
need for help.*
Of necessity the S.A. Medical Corps and S.A. Military Nursing Service, as well as such auxiliaries as were provided by the women's services, had to work in complete integration with their counterparts from other parts of the Commonwealth. This co-operation was never even hesitant. Colonel Orenstein, as Director of Medical Services, was directly responsible to the General Officer Commanding, East Africa Force, with Colonel Barnsley as his Deputy-Director. Lieutenant-Colonel H. Higgins, the senior Royal Army Dental Corps officer in East Africa, was in charge of the whole dental service. The Medical Headquarters staff consisted of British, Colonial and South African officers and other ranks, and there was never even a hint of friction throughout the campaign.
While Colonel Orenstein was occupied establishing an efficient Directorate in Nairobi, Lieutenant-Colonel de Villiers, who was shortly to become Assistant Director of Medical Services with 11th African Division, pending the arrival of South African forces, made a start in Mombasa, where he was soon working in close collaboration with the Colonial medical authorities. With the aid of Headquarters and one other company of 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C.--the first South African ambulance unit in East Africa--of which he was Commanding Officer, he converted an Arab school into a hospital staffed entirely by this unit, including Major J. D. Wicht, the ambulance's second-in-command. When 10th Field Ambulance later moved into the field under Lieutenant-Colonel D. B. Strachan, to join 1st S.A. Brigade Group, the hospital became 6th S.A. Casualty Clearing Station (Lieutenant-Colonel L. I. Braun).
It was soon appreciated that once action developed, the great distances between Abyssinia and the settled portion of Kenya would demand services from the field ambulances far beyond those envisaged in peacetime, when Staff doctrine could advocate a neat chain of evacuation for casualties through three zones. The first or 'Collecting' zone consisted of the Regimental Aid Post, the Field Ambulances and Motor Ambulance Convoys, with each of the Field Ambulance's two companies providing one Advanced Dressing Station, and its Headquarters furnishing a Main Dressing Station with a capacity for 100-150 casualties.
Beyond the Main Dressing Station, evacuation was a Corps responsibility, with casualties being taken by Motor Ambulance Convoy to the Casualty Clearing Station and then onward by ambulance train, barge or aircraft through the 'Evacuating' zone to the 'Distributing' zone, which consisted of the general hospitals, convalescent depots, hospital ships, and home hospitals all suitably staffed.
In Kenya, things had to be organized on quite a different basis. As Lieutenant-Colonel Charlton, commanding 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., was to put it, instead of simply rendering first aid and strengthening the wounded sufficiently to travel a few comparatively comfortable miles to a well-appointed hospital staffed by 'angels in white', the South African field ambulances were therefore equipped to
* It is a high testimonial to the S.A. Medical Corps and S.A. Military Nursing Service that although this ratio was never reached, the medical service was entirely adequate.
operate separately if necessary, so that they could cope with any problems when an infantry battalion and supporting arms was sent off for operations 50--or even 500--miles from the main body of the brigade or division. Gaining experience on manoeuvres and from their own wide dispersal, the South African field ambulances developed the Light Medical Aid Post--later the Light Section--in each company, and refined it to meet any emergency.
Ultimately, with 'OJ Services providing the necessary vehicles, the field ambulance represented a 250-bed hospital on wheels, subdivisible at a moment's notice into five fully functioning, separate segments.
While 11th Field Ambulance operated in the west, to the east at Tulia on the Nairobi-Garissa road, Captain T. M. S. Spilhaus and 'A' Company of 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. (Lieutenant-Colonel C. H. Fouche) took over the Casualty Clearing Station from 2nd Tanganyika Field Ambulance and were shortly joined by their own Headquarters Company. They treated South African land forces' first battle casualties, and one of their early accomplishments was the saving of the life of a member of the local Labour Corps, suffering from severe blackwater fever, when members of the South African unit acted as donors for blood transfusions.
A fourth South African field ambulance was added to those already in Kenya with the arrival on 11 November of 15th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. (Lieutenant-Colonel Eric McKenzie, M.C). By this time some fifty South African nurses were already working at Nos. 5 and 6 Casualty Clearing Stations (which together were to form No. 6 S.A. General Hospital). No. 7 Casualty Clearing Station, S.A.M.C. (Lieutenant-Colonel L. v. R. Becker) was to arrive later.
Apart from forcing reorganization upon the field ambulances, the great distances to be covered in East Africa also posed considerable other problems for the S.A. Medical Corps, which was determined that there would be no repetition of the dangerously high figure of noneffectives experienced in East Africa in World War I, which had had a powerful influence on military thinking. The pre-war Kenya Military Report had stressed the unsuitability of other than Native troops in East Africa for this very reason.6 Apart from insisting on all possible preventive measures against illness, arrangements were also made for the quickest possible evacuation of casualties, whether caused by ill-health or enemy action. There were already six S.A. Motor Ambulance Convoy units in East Africa by December 1940.*
The 10th and 11th S.A. Motor Ambulance Convoys, each with fifty ambulances initially, had both arrived in East Africa on 28 July, and they were in training at Tigoni before the 10th moved to Isiolo, which was on a convenient road fork for Archer's Post. Merille, Marsabit, North Horr, Mega and Yavello on one hand and Garba Tula and Habaswein on the other, when evacuating patients to No. 4 S.A. General Hospital (Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan Mackenzie) at Nyeri.
With Headquarters at Isiolo, 10th S.A. Motor Ambulance Convoy was quickly able to arrange the evacuation of patients from 1st S.A.
* They were 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 S.A. Motor Ambulance Convoys, later to be combined into three--with the 16 and 17 S.A. Motor Ambulance Convoys--to form 10, 11 and 16 S.A. Motor Ambulance Convoys, each with one Medical Officer and seventy-five ambulances.
Division at Nanyuki. They soon had fourteen ambulances stationed on the road north--at Merille and Marsabit--with an efficient evacuation system covering the whole lines of communication beyond Nyeri and Marsabit.
However, it became apparent that evacuation of battle casualties from the Abyssinian frontier to hospital in Nyeri would be impracticable. As Major W. G. McDavid of 15th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. stated in his personal notes, 'Marsabit to Nyeri was a nightmare journey of at least two days of heat, boulders and lava dust, which was enough to exhaust a healthy man, let alone a wounded one'. It was therefore decided that 15th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. would take on the role of a casualty clearing station, for which the necessary stores and fifty beds were provided, so that they could establish a small field hospital in the forest at Marsabit, where they carried out quite major surgery. The number one surgical team included a peace-time customs officer and two watchmaker brothers, but they, like others who had never seen an operation before, reached a very high standard.
Dental requirements were attended to by six Mobile Field Dental Units of the S.A. Medical Corps. Three Mobile X-Ray Units were doing invaluable work by 3 October 1940, and before the end of the year the South Africans had three Mobile Bacteriological Laboratories also in the field. No. 4 S.A. General Hospital at Nyeri included sixty-three members of the S.A. Military Nursing Service (the first six of whom had reached East Africa in June and started active service in the Arab School Hospital in Mombasa) and on 1 November 1940 No. 6 S.A. General Hospital was formed in East Africa from personnel of Nos. 5 and 6 Casualty Clearing Stations (including fifty members of the S.A. Military Nursing Service), though they appear to have remained at Gilgil and Mombasa respectively for some time. A small convalescent depot at Gilgil was being disbanded in October and its thirty-one members were reposted later.
Hygiene officers and orderlies did excellent work and greatly assisted in keeping down the sickness rate which, up to 5 April 1941, was to register for the whole of East Africa Force an admission rate of 500 per thousand per year for all diseases, as against 2,200 per thousand during the 1916-18 East African Campaign. The death-rate from malaria over the same period was 0 -28 per thousand per annum for Europeans and 0-26 per thousand for Non-Europeans as compared with 42 per thousand per annum in 1916-18.7 In 1st S.A. Division, where General Brink gave unstinting support to his Assistant Director of Medical Services (Colonel J. P. de Villiers) the records for January and February 1941 showed significantly that of 1,597 cases admitted to hospital, only 18-75 per cent were for acute bowel conditions, as opposed to 58-75 per cent in the case of 21st East African Brigade. In both cases about 8 per cent of all hospital cases represented admissions on account of malaria.
The Marjorie Juta Company, a London Ambulance Unit of twenty-six women volunteers, arrived in Kenya as early as 3 October 1940 and assisted with driving and other duties for the S.A. Medical Corps, whose main units, by the end of 1940, were distributed throughout East Africa, with the Directorate in Nairobi. The 11th and 12th Field
Ambulances, S.A.M.C. were with 1st S.A. Division at Isiolo and Marsabit respectively; 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. was at Habaswein, with one company at Melka Galla, and it was serving 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group under 12th African Division. The Gold Coast, Kenya, Tanganyika, Zanzibar and Nyasaland each provided one field ambulance to serve the rest of 12th African Division and the three brigades of 11th African Division at that time, while Uganda provided a field ambulance for 25th East African Brigade, garrisoning Turkana. Spread between Gilgil and Mitubiri round Christmas time, the 15th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. fell under Force Troops, which also included 5th and 6th S.A. Casualty Clearing Stations at Gilgil and Mombasa, No. 4 S.A. General Hospital at Nyeri, eight South African Motor Ambulance Convoys and the various smaller mobile bacteriological laboratories, X-ray and dental units at widely separated centres.
Inevitably, with the steady increase in units of all natures in East Africa and concentration on mobility, maintenance requirements for vehicles and equipment grew rapidly. As a result, the S.A. Technical Service Corps was engaged in a never-ending struggle to rectify the shortcomings that were a legacy of pre-war political complacency and lack of foresight.
Shortages were the order of the day. There were still only 18 rounds of -55 ammunition for each Boyes anti-tank rifle in 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group and no more became available in East Africa. Units had been issued with their full establishment of Vickers and Bren guns in South Africa, but some of the Vickers had been withdrawn and were not replaced. Many of the Lewis guns were incomplete and there were no mortar bomb carriers nor anything suitable for carrying either Vickers guns or the mortars themselves. Improvisation was called for at every turn.
The 'T' Services Corps had set up its Directorate under Colonel K. C. S. Layzell as early as June 1940, with three sections--Equipment (Major McKay), M.T. Stores (Major Montgomery) and Workshops (Major S. Ethelston), No. 1 Mobile General Workshops, 'T S.C. (Captain A. E. Coy) arrived with 1st S.A. Brigade Group. Further 'T' Service personnel arrived during September and proceeded to Kabete, where the Main Stores (Captain Cockburn) were established. Base General Workshops (Captain N. D. Morris) was set up in Nairobi temporarily in August while awaiting completion of new buildings at Kabete.
No. 2 Mobile General Workshops, T S.C. (Captain R. N. W. Jeff and then Captain R. H. Patterson) was attached to 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group and No. 3 (Captain F. Walker) was expected later with 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, while the steadily increasing number of vehicles all over Kenya necessitated the sending of Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Field Workshops, T S.C. (Lieutenants Green, Huddlestone and Johnstone) to widely separated parts of the Colony to cope with vehicle maintenance and repairs. No. 4 Mobile Field Workshop, 'T' S.C. (Lieut. L. B. MacKinlay) was formed in Nairobi in January 1941 and sent to Nanyuki.
The 4-5-inch howitzers and 18-pounders with which the South African batteries were equipped, reported the Base General Workshops, were in some cases marked 'For Drill Purposes Only' on arrival in East Africa. They were without spares, yet they were thoroughly overhauled by 'T' Services artificers attached to the batteries and all parts needing replacement were obtained by 'T' Services Directorate in Nairobi, who were afforded the facilities of the Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours workshops, where all labour was done by Indian and East African Native 'fundies' or mechanics, who were first-class tradesmen but found it very difficult to work from blueprints. They were therefore supplied with the old or damaged part and made excellent copies under the supervision of the Directorate Staff.
Soon modifications were being made to equipment to render it more suitable for conditions in East Africa, and some items were designed from scratch and manufactured, as in the case of the 'Eddie' and 'Fortress' armoured cars later used successfully by East African forces. They were largely designed and built by Captain N. D. Morris in conjunction with the Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours workshops and a local engineering firm. The same workshops also built portees for guns and transporters for the tanks of the S.A. Light Tank Company.
Anti-aircraft trucks, with special mountings for twin Lewis guns--some of which later saw action also in the Western Desert--were built locally. One of the outstanding achievements was the mounting of each of 1st Medium Brigade's 60-pounder guns on four standard 3-ton Ford rear wheels by the railway workshops, with Major S. Ethelston and the workshops staff attending to design and supervision. These formidable guns, which could hardly have travelled in East Africa on their original iron-clad wheels, were towed thousands of trouble-free miles, sometimes at high speed, along all sorts of roads and bush tracks.
So rapidly did the numbers of 'T' Services personnel increase--to reach a total of 1,683 at one stage--that it was found necessary to form a special section of the Directorate offices in Texaco House, Nairobi, under Captain R. N. W. Jeff--who had brought up No. 2 Mobile General Workshops originally--to cope with the administrative work relating to promotions, pay and postings. On General Cunningham's own staff, Brigadier O. J. Hansen was now Technical Adviser, which he would remain until he moved up to Middle East Headquarters in a similar capacity in April 1941. The setting up of a 'T' Services directorate was indicative of the almost insatiable demand for qualified men in all the technical branches of the army, which was making noticeable inroads on South Africa's manpower resources, at the expense of the essential requirements of personnel for the two field divisions.
As a part of this process in the wider interest, which inevitably robbed combatant units of potential recruits, Major H. Myers opened a remarkable wireless station outside Nairobi with men from 2nd G.H.Q\ Company, S.A.C.S. With home-made transmitters built by Sergeant-Major Britz, the station was established in a shack housing both transmitters and receivers. The operating staff under
Staff-Sergeant D. Matthews consisted of twenty expert South African operators and three First Aid Nursing Yeomanry teletypistes. Providing a direct link with Pretoria initially, in no time the first draft took over operation of the land lines to Mombasa, Nanyuki, Isiolo, Marsabit and Garissa, and from the moment it opened, the station and its successors remained on the air twenty-four hours a day.
Soon links were opened with Elisabethville, Brazzaville, Leopoldville, Khartoum, Juba (in the Sudan) and Accra, while the station was in constant touch with 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade and was also transmitting news items to South Africa for the daily Press. Pretoria sent 'blind' throughout the night, absolutely confident that the South African manned station in Kenya was receiving without any need to check back. The standard of operating, said the official report of 3 Company, L. of C. Signals (S.A.C.S.), was without doubt unequalled in the world. The claim was put forward in no boastful spirit and without the slightest fear of contradiction.
For the Signals Corps alone, 500 men had been released by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in June 1940, and the first detachment of them left for East Africa in July. Within a few months of the opening of Major Myers's Nairobi station, more than 500 officers and men of Nos. 1 and 2 G.H.Q,. Signals Companies, S.A.C.S.--quite apart from the signals companies with brigades and divisional headquarters in the field--had reached East Africa and were occupied in construction, operation and maintenance of signals services. More than 1,700 members of the S.A. Corps of Signals were serving in East Africa when the number of South Africans in the theatre reached its peak in 1941, and they included men occupied on most highly secret work resulting from the development locally in South Africa of efficient radar equipment, based on knowledge of Britain's new method of aircraft detection imparted to Professor B. F. J. Schonland* of the Bernard Price Institute of Witwatersrand University, by the New Zealand physicist, Dr. Marsden, who was on his way home from the United Kingdom by sea, via the Cape, when war broke out.
With no British equipment available, Professor Schonland and a small group of brilliant men built from scratch a training set, modestly named 'No. 0', which gave its first echo on 19 December 1939. By mid-June 1940 improved equipment, 'No. 1', was tested in great secrecy at Durban by what had now become the Special Signals Service, and by 1 August the South African-built radar set had been erected in East Africa and was operating satisfactorily, to give warning of the approach of Italian aircraft. The set was the forerunner of others, including one of different design for 1st Anti-Aircraft Brigade, S.A.A. at Mombasa, which aroused considerable interest in Royal Air Force circles in the Middle East. Within a year South African sets were keeping unbroken watch along the Sinai coast.
Inevitably, purely administrative work increased with each new unit's arrival in Kenya, throwing an increasing load on the Adjutant-General's Section (S.A. Forces), headed by Colonel J. J. C. Venter,
* Professor Schonland, later Chief Scientific Adviser to Field-Marshal Montgomery in 21 Army Group and Director of the Atomic Research Institute at Harwell after the war, was assisted in 1939-40 by Professor (later Lieut-Colonel) D. B. Hodges; Mr. (later Major) E. Phillips, Captain P. G. Gane, Mr. Hewitt, Major G. R. Bozzoli and Major N. H. Roberts.
Assistant Adjutant-General (S.A. Forces), who came under the Deputy Adjutant-General on the Staff of the General Officer Commanding, East Africa Force in Nairobi. The original establishment of the Section--excluding 2nd Echelon--made provision for three deputies, each with a staff captain, and a total of fourteen clerks, but with East Africa Force dealing with prisoners-of-war, the third deputy's post was never filled.
On 1 September 1940, the amalgamation of the South African and East African branches of the Staff was effected as far as possible, but the step was 'vigorously and successfully opposed' as far as the Administrative Branch was concerned, mainly on account of the complete dissimilarity of the two organizations. If common files were used, it was feared on the South African side, then it would result in the loss to South Africa of all important records and inevitable delay in dealing with correspondence.
Another problem would arise from the fact that East Africa Force had a separate organization to deal with promotions, whereas they were an integral part of the South African Administrative Branch. As a result, the Assistant Adjutant-General (S.A.F.) became directly responsible to the Deputy Adjutant-General, East Africa Force, for all administrative matters affecting South African personnel, and Colonel Venter's branch was organized accordingly. A separate Legal Section was set up under a Deputy Judge-Advocate-General to handle discipline, and smaller sections handled pay, graves registration, Provost services, Non-European Army Services and the Chaplain's Service.
Second Echelon, with its masses of paper-work arising out of unit records and correspondence, fell under an Assistant Adjutant-General with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, with two deputies, each with three staff captains.
Here, as in all sections of East Africa Force Headquarters, typing and clerical work of all kinds increased with the arrival of each new unit and a large number of men would have been continually employed handling such work had not keen and competent women been available to undertake the task. The first members of the Women's Auxiliary Army Services were recruited on 7 June 1940, from the ranks of voluntary organizations, mainly the S.A. Women's Auxiliary Service. In Nairobi, 2nd Echelon struggled along with the aid of a few civilian typists at first, but in August 1940 the first eight members of the W.A.A.S. under Captain (Mrs.) Hamman were flown up from the Union to Nairobi, and the rest of the first draft, another thirty-four girls, arrived at Mombasa by sea early in October. They were the forerunners of a total of 4 officers and 105 other ranks of the W.A.A.S. who were to render excellent service in East Africa as drivers, clerks, typists and secretaries, thus releasing sorely needed men for front-line service. The authorities soon recognized that these women performed certain clerical and typing duties more efficiently than the male clerks whom they had released.
At the outset, with the number of South African units rapidly increasing in East Africa Force, it was necessary to appoint officers for posts
not yet authorized. Once operations began, reinforcement and the replacement of casualties became of increasing importance, with reinforcement base depots situated in the general area of Nairobi. About 100 miles to the north-west of the city was the S.A. Infantry Base Depot at Gilgil, which included reinforcement and training depots for the S.A. Tank Corps, S.A. Engineer Corps and S.A. Signals Corps. The S.A. Artillery Reinforcement Depot was at Larkhill, about 30 miles from Nairobi, while Kabete, about 9 miles west of Nairobi, was used largely for non-combatant reinforcements.
South African camps and depots everywhere were initially established by and responsible to the Assistant Adjutant-General's Branch, but once they were functioning smoothly they were handed over to sub-area commanders. No fewer than nineteen such camps and depots were established, including the S.A. Transit Camp at Mombasa, leave camps for both Europeans and Non-Europeans, the Cape Corps and S.A. Indian and Malay Corps Depot at Tigoni near Nairobi, a Provost Headquarters Camp, a Native Military Corps Depot at Langata and the staging camps at Soroti, Gulu and Kirrippi on the Soroti-Juba line of communication to the Middle East. Even an Inland Water Platoon was formed, to operate launches on the Juba, and subsequently in Kismayu harbour.
These and scores of other activities, all contributing to the rapid build-up of the necessary administrative organization and to the effective preparation of the ground for active operations, threw together hundreds of men from vastly different backgrounds, many of whom had only the briefest acquaintance with military discipline or procedure. It would have been a miracle if there had been no conflicts of personalities, and General Dickinson's task was made all the more delicate as a result of his having under command so many men of diverse outlook and accomplishments, who naturally took some time to understand one another.
'Among the fighting troops and their immediate commanders there were few difficulties, no more than might be expected in any hastily organized force', recalls General Lord Robertson--who was Assistant Quartermaster-General on East Africa Force Headquarters at the time with the rank of Colonel. 'On the lines of communication, and especially in Nairobi the situation was rather different. The senior officers of General Dickinson's staff were high-class Camberley trained men for the most part. They took some trouble to have good relations with the South Africans, though they were not completely free from the quiet conceit of the average Englishman. Among the more junior staff officers were a lot of men who had been given jobs in Kenya, reserve officers who had settled in the colony. They were sometimes not very efficient and not very tactful.
'The South Africans themselves came up to Kenya determined to run their troops themselves administratively and to take such orders from the Force Commander as they thought to be consistent with their directions from Pretoria. They were really an excellent lot of men and proved themselves to be so, but they possessed that independence of mind which is such a feature of the race. Some difficulty also occurred through differences in organization. The South African Defence Force
authorities, for example, had divided the functions of the Ordnance Corps and had created a Technical Corps to look after all workshops and hold technical stores. This, of course, was a complication to the British Staff and they did their best to have it altered. In the end it was the British who changed their organization, but that did not happen until 18 months later.
'To sum up, the South Africans really got on very well in Kenya with their British colleagues. There were incidents, there were cases of personal animosity and there were mistakes made on both sides, but there was no general or serious quarrel between the two elements in the Force.'
All the evidence bears out General Robertson's remarks. Relations between General Dickinson's Staff and the South African Liaison Officer were always very cordial, and it would not be too much to say that the opportunity of working closely together in East Africa Force then and later contributed greatly to the very close and friendly relationships between the British and South African Staffs for the rest of the war.
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (2) ** Next Chapter (4)
Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation