1st S.A. Division arrives
On 7 October the Dukes were relieved in the Turkana and returned to Habaswein to rejoin 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group,1 which was engaged in intensive training in night driving in the scorched wilderness where a daytime temperature of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit2 in the shade was commonplace--if one could find any shade. With 1st Transvaal Scottish also returning to Habaswein from the nomads' crossroads of Melka Galla, with its grass huts and abundant game, there was a feeling among the men that at last action was in the offing. After light rains--not yet enough to turn the silt back into a swamp--blades of grass and tiny flowers peeked out above the dry mud and sprouting leaves on the trees brought welcome shade.3
On 11 November 1940, the Headquarters of 1st S.A. Division--totalling 26 officers and 132 other ranks apart from Divisional Troops--landed at Mombasa and entrained for Gilgil, where they opened on 16 November. With them came 15th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. (Lieutenant-Colonel Eric McKenzie), which had originally been intended as a 2nd S.A. Division unit, but had engineered its attachment to 1st S.A. Division.
Sir Pierre van Ryneveld was now offering General Cunningham a further five brigades of field artillery still in South Africa, temporarily equipped with 3-inch mortars and becoming restless through lack of action. The Force Commander, with barely enough ammunition for available mortars, could not accept the offer but hoped that 18-pounder and 4·5-inch howitzer equipment for these batteries might shortly become available in the Middle East on replacement there by new 25-pounders. In the meanwhile he would gladly accept any 18-pounder battery if it came with its stores complete.
The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group came under command 1st S.A. Division the day the Divisional Headquarters opened, but 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group remained attached to 12th African Division, under whose wing it was conducting rehearsals for its first operation against the enemy. 'A' Company of 15th Field Ambulance was also attached temporarily to 12th African Division and moved from Gilgil to Mitubiri, where it treated many West African patients.
Bad weather and deficiencies in equipment led to postponement of the projected operation in which 1st S.A. Brigade Group was to be associated with other troops in the capture of some small post, as 12th
African Division had put it.
Major R. S. Berry, 6 officers and 117 other ranks of 3rd Field Brigade, Transvaal Horse Artillery (Lieutenant-Colonel G. Harrison) had arrived at Mombasa with the vehicles, guns and equipment of their brigade on 4 October. They formed a four-gun battery at Gilgil and were ordered to Garissa under 11th African Division, leaving the balance of the equipment at Gilgil in charge of Major A. Block, D.S.O., to await arrival of the main body of their brigade on 23 October. Before the end of October 1st Medium Brigade, S.A.H.A. (Lieutenant-Colonel L. W. K. Stephens) and 2nd and 3rd Anti-Tank Batteries, S.A.A (Major B.J. H. Mawson and Captain L. S. Thomas) were also at Gilgil, and on 3 November 7th Field Battery, T.H.A. (Major P. Cotter) left Gilgil for Marsabit. Captain E. E. Steyn and an artillery survey party were also ordered to Marsabit on 11 November for preliminary survey work.
The anti-tank batteries were issued with only four 2-pounders each instead of six, and surplus men went to the 4th (Rhodesian) Anti-Tank Battery.4 The 1st Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. (Captain C. S. Leisegang) had one section at Garissa with 23rd Nigerian Brigade and the other at Wajir with 24th Gold Coast Brigade.
Plans drawn up by General Cunningham's Headquarters envisaged the taking over by 1st S.A. Division of the area from and including Wajir to the eastern shores of Lake Rudolf. The 24th Gold Coast Brigade, then at Wajir, was to have come under command of the Division also, and on 20 November General Brink, accompanied by Brigadier Buchanan, the Divisional Engineer Officer (Lieutenant-Colonel A. Fraser-Lawrie) and others, left for Marsabit to reconnoitre the area.
General Brink got no further than Marsabit owing to the effect of rain on the atrocious roads, along which his main line of advance was to run. On 25 November, at a conference at Force Headquarters it was decided that his Division should take over only the Marsabit area, leaving Wajir to 12th African Division, which still had 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group attached and soon took it under command. General Brink asked the Force Commander to return 1st S.A. Brigade Group to his command but was told that it was necessary to have white troops with the 12th African Division, not only to bolster the morale of the black troops but also because the Italian Colonial forces would fight with greater determination against Native troops.
Two days later 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters (Brigadier B. F. Armstrong), with two of its infantry battalions, arrived at Mombasa.*
They were soon settling down to training at Gilgil, temporarily without their own Engineers, as 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. (Major C. J. Venter) was travelling overland from Zonderwater and only reached Gilgil on 5 December. No. 1 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S., serving 5th S.A. Brigade, also travelled overland and its journey was remarkable for the fact that the dispatch riders rode their heavy
* Averaging a European strength of only 691 other ranks in each of its infantry battalions, as against 882 per battalion in 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade and 730 in 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade strength returns were an enlightening reflection of the manpower situation in 1st S.A. Division. More and more non-combatant posts were having to be filled by men of the Cape Corps or the S.A. Native Military Corps.
Harley-Davidson motor-cycles all the way from Broken Hill to Gilgil, fourteen days of hard going being needed to reach Nairobi. While the Brigade's various units gathered there, Captain F. G. Zeppenveld and Lieutenant C. Macaulay of 1st S.A. Divisional Engineer Headquarters were reconnoitring a site for Divisional Headquarters at Isiolo. By 15 December 5th Field Company, S.A.E.C. was also at Isiolo with 250 other ranks from 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade as an advance working party to prepare a camp for their own brigade.
Hopes that General Brink would be able to bring under unified South African command the three Infantry Brigade Groups comprising the first of the two divisions in South Africa's field force were unlikely to be fulfilled. General Cunningham felt he should be in a position to move South African formations and units from one division to another as the situation demanded. He appreciated that the desire to keep 1st S.A. Division complete would be strong, and put this point to General Smuts, who gave him a free hand, with the exception that he did not wish to break the Brigade Group organization.5
DEMANDS ON MANPOWER
Apart from the infantry battalions in the brigade groups already in Kenya, and the increasing number of technical and administrative units, the South African troops now included a number of other units which were already being used on tasks not connected with their parent formations at all, as was inevitable in so mixed a force, in which they were blessed with more and better equipment than anyone else. The 1st Anti-Aircraft Brigade, S.A.A. was protecting Mombasa. The light anti-aircraft component of 1st S.A. Division, as envisaged in the 1939 proposals, was widely scattered, with 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. attached to the heavy anti-aircraft brigade in Mombasa and the other two batteries of 2nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, S.A.A. spread far and wide over Kenya since the Brigade's arrival on 8 September. The 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., in the latter half of September, had sections at Nanyuki and Archer's Post, while 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. at Kabete was called upon to provide a section of 2 officers and 67 other ranks, with nine twin Lewis guns, to protect the pontoon bridge at Garissa, where 12th African Division now had its headquarters.
It was at Garissa that the anti-aircraft detachments came into action for the first time on 19 October against the three Capronis attacking the bridge. One enemy aircraft was crippled and became easy prey to the South African Air Force. The 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery now also had a section at Nakuru aerodrome and by the time General Cunningham assumed command in East Africa the anti-aircraft element of the South African forces in Kenya was so dispersed as to make administration difficult.*
The lack of men in fighting units was to loom larger with each passing week, and the urgent need for services of all kinds in East Africa set in train a process of robbing combatant units that would eventually almost
* It is debatable whether the specialized employment of well over 1,000 men on the manning of obsolete twin Lewis guns could be justified at all when other combatant units were already feeling the manpower shortage and were themselves quite capable of handling such light automatic weapons.
cripple the country's fighting formations for the sake of contributing technicians to the Allied cause.*
Men of the South African forces were already engaged in multifarious activities by the time that General Brink assumed command of the Marsabit area on 1 December, at which stage the South African Engineers were developing the necessary water supplies and improving the lines of communication.
At the suggestion of General Cunningham, who wished to remain in close touch with General Brink, the South African Divisional Headquarters at first moved only the 176 miles from Gilgil as far as Isiolo. Here a camp had been prepared by 21st Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. under Lieutenants Ellis and Macaulay, from material available on an old King's African Rifles site, and they were busy building bridges and repairing fords between the camp and Isiolo; the bulk of 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. (Major G. F. Newby) only nine days after arrival at Gilgil was completing the camp, when 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group--which with attached troops now numbered 3,003 men--began to move from Gilgil by road on 27 November to Marsabit. They travelled through beautiful country before crossing an area of scrub, and then torrential rains struck them and introduced the men to driving through deep mud before they bivouacked at Happy Valley near Isiolo. Through more mud, and after a total of some 250 miles, on which the wireless operators and dispatch riders of No. 3 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. did much to help control the long convoy, the head of the Brigade Column reached Marsabit on 29 November. The same day, No. 1 Divisional Signals Company, S.A.C.S. (Major G. A. King) reached Isiolo.
On 1 December 2nd S.A. Brigade Group took over the defences of Marsabit from 22nd East African Brigade and took under command ten companies of Abyssinian Irregulars under Major A. T. Curie, 2nd Battalion of King's African Rifles Pioneers, No. 1 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company, 7th Field Battery, T.H.A., the Kenya Independent Scouts (Captain E. McK. Nicholl) and two companies of the King's African Rifles holding forward positions at Kalacha and North Horr, where they were to be relieved by 'A' and 'B' Companies of the Natal Mounted Rifles in a few days' time. No. 3 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. relaid 26 miles of cable originally laid by the East African brigade and provided intercommunication to the Kalacha and North Horr outposts by wireless, with visual signalling to Gamra. At the same time 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. took over two of the wells and stocks of mines and borehole charges from 54th Field Company, East African Forces.
The two Natal Mounted Rifles companies with supporting Vickers and mortar sections descended the escarpment from Marsabit into the blistering heat of the forbidding Chalbi Desert, bivouacking at Gamra the same afternoon,6 together with a detachment from 'B' Company,
* For example, by June 1942, 2nd S.A. Division had only two instead of three infantry brigades; yet there were four South African Signals companies with 8th Army and some twenty-eight South African Engineer Companies of many different types employed in the Middle East on road and railway construction, tunnelling, bomb disposal, survey, water treatment, harbour operating and other work of a non-divisional nature. (See Crisis in the Desert, Appendix 'D', p. 339.)
12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C, under Captain G. Dietrich. Next day the track across the lava waste was quite impassable owing to rain. The following day, laboriously pulling and pushing vehicles out of mudholes, they struggled on to Kalacha, where 'A' Company remained while 'C Company moved on to take over at North Horr. Here the detachment commander, Major L. M. Harris, V.D., also set up his headquarters. Major J. J. Drought, the British Liaison Officer7 and founder of the Kenya Independent Scouts,8 who had a thorough knowledge of the surrounding country, shared the mess, and within the perimeter of the camp were also the quarters of Major Curie, whose Abyssinian Irregulars had outposts at Dukana, Maikona, the Huri Hills and Balessa (where 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. at once began developing the wells and building a road). With assistance from Major Tapson's Pioneer Company, the Irregulars patrolled to El Besa, Fora and other points.
The Natal Mounted Rifles now took over the patrolling to Derati, El Adi, Tas, Lake Rudolf as far as Maud's Line, and to the Huri Hills area, while the hardened horsemen of Major Drought's Kenya Independent Scouts on their small, surefooted Somali mules patrolled the eastern areas to the waterholes at Gombo and towards Arba Jahan.
Lieutenant Frank Jackson and a detachment of a South African Motor-Cycle Company had been stationed at North Horr for some time under command of the King's African Rifles, patrolling the forward areas on their motor-cycles.
'North Horr', recorded Captain A. E. Blarney, 'is an oasis on the Chalbi Desert but, like many other places to be found on the map, is a place in name only. Palms and thorn trees are dotted about and there are water holes. The large sand dunes are almost pure white, while the heat, insects and flies made conditions almost unbearable.' Shortly afterwards there was plenty of water as a result of the efforts of the South African Engineers, but it was all chemically treated and tasted like it.9
FIRST CONTACTS AT DERATI
The 2nd Field Force Battalion occupied the defences on the Marsabit-Moyale road and for a couple of days Headquarters Company of 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. moved out to Merille with them before returning to Marsabit. The 1st Field Force Battalion took over the defences along the Marsabit-North Horr road, but found the existing positions to be badly sited on the crests of hills or craters and it took a whole month to resite the defences, dig in properly and rewire the rocky, hard ground. Meanwhile, on 5 December, according to 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade's report, patrols made their first contact with the enemy, exchanging shots at Derati and wounding one Banda.
One can only assume that this contact must have been made by the Abyssinian Irregulars, for Captain Blarney, whose patrols visited Derati, made no mention of the skirmish at all. In fact, his account gives a different picture.
'Patrols were sent to: Dukana, El Had, Balessa, El Bes, Derati, Karsa, Kokoi and to the shores of Lake Rudolf, but no contact whatsoever was made with the enemy, not a single "Banda" was ever seen. The recurring question to our Native guides was always "Wapi Banda?"--
Where are the Banda? The same monotonous reply came "Hapana Banda"--There are no Banda.'10
General Brink's Headquarters had now been established on a reasonable all-weather road between Isiolo and the railhead at Nanyuki, 56 miles further south. From there he could supervise the further training of his division, but the 160-mile road northward to Marsabit across the forbidding Kaisut Desert had not yet been completed, and the track of fine lava dust soon broke up under heavy traffic as supply convoys carried rations and fuel forward. In a short time protruding boulders were taking a heavy toll of springs on all types of vehicles. Evacuation of wounded or sick under such circumstances was a particularly worrying problem.
At Kalacha, 'B' Company of 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. soon had an advanced dressing station functioning under rugged conditions. On 26 December, for an emergency appendix operation in an E.P.I.P. tent by the light of torches held by spectators, Captain Sam Wayburne, the anaesthetist, had to be called from North Horr and only arrived by motor-cycle combination after a thirty-minute ride. The surgeon, dressed in vest, shorts and sand-shoes beneath his operating gown, was so running with perspiration that he had to be continually mopped with a towel. The operation was completely successful.
Though lacking experience with troops, No. 1 Divisional Signals Company, S.A.C.S., freshly arrived at Isiolo, organized intercommunications with remarkable alacrity. By 4 December an elaborate network of intercommunications was operating from Isiolo. Divisional Headquarters was in constant touch with Force Headquarters in Nairobi by telephone, superimposed telegraph, wireless and daily dispatch rider service; there was a wireless and dispatch rider service to 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade at Marsabit; telephone, telegraph and wireless links were provided to 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade at Gilgil and later--when General Brink moved his Headquarters to Marsabit--at the end of December--a detachment with two wireless sets was sent on a journey of 900 miles to 25th East African Brigade at Kalin. Telephone lines were laid to 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. on the local airfield and to the Headquarters of 3rd Field Brigade, T.H.A.
Within the Divisional Headquarters area there were some thirty local lines and two trunk lines on the exchange, and dispatch riders were available from the Divisional Signals Company. The Company was still linking formations and units when Lieutenant-Colonel N. E. Poulton, the Divisional Signals Officer, had to be evacuated medically unfit, and on 13 December Major G. A. King succeeded him as Divisional Signals Officer and was promoted. Almost simultaneously Major J. Swart, M.C, the Second-in-Command of the Divisional Signals Company, was declared medically unfit and Major G. Cook, commanding No. 3 Brigade Signals Company, shared his fate. Major W. G. Perkins was now Assistant Divisional Signals Officer, Captain H. G. Lee was Signals Staff Captain, Captain F. G. Slack took over command of No. 1 Divisional Signals Company* and No. 1 and No. 3 Brigade
* Major W. G. Perkins took over No. 1 Divisional Signals Company early in January 1941, and Captain F. G. Slack then became Officer Commanding, No. 1 Brigade Signals Company, and was promoted.
South African Engineers boring for water in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya.
Men of the S.A. Native Military Corps in training.
A South African mobile workshop in the field in East Africa.
Batches of fresh loaves being carried from the ovens to coolers at a South African field bakery in Kenya.
Signals Companies were under command of Captain G. I. D. Emanuel and Major W. Hearn respectively. Traffic at Isiolo averaged 200 messages a day even at this early stage.
Numerous roads reconnaissances were carried out by the Divisional Engineer Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser-Lawrie, and by officers of 21st Field Park Company, 5th Field Company and 30th Roads Construction Company, S.A.E.C, and consultations were held with the Chief Engineer, Brigadier A. Minnis, and the South African C.R.E. (Roads), Colonel S. B. Shannon. Plans were made for improvements to the very poor lines of communications from Marsabit, especially towards the north-west in the direction of Karoli, Maidahad and Gamra en route to North Horr in the general line of approach to Dukana.
By 1 December the roadhead had already been extended to Merille, only 66 miles south of Marsabit, and a large part of 26th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. was fully occupied--from its headquarters at Laisamis--in pushing on with road-building, assisted by a company of the East African Military Labour Service.
The South African Divisional 'Q' Services Company, on whom the troops were dependent for their rations and supplies of all kinds, was only organized to maintain units 50 miles in front of railhead; yet with a whole brigade group already more than 200 miles from railhead at Nanyuki, over bad roads and sometimes in the worst of weather, they--like the supply services throughout East Africa Force--were achieving what would previously have been thought impossible. Within two days of arrival at Railhead on 23 December, 'K' (later 130th) R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps, was running convoys to both Marsabit and Wajir, under No. 8 Non-Divisional Group. 'J' (later 129th) R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps, took over vehicles from 127th R.M.T. Company, Cape Corps, and from 102nd R.M.T. Company, S.A. Indian and Malay Corps on 14 December, within eight days of arrival at Londiani camp. Five days later it was running some 150 vehicles, with neither escort nor spares, on supply convoys from the western railhead at Kitale all the way up to Lokitaung.*
GRIM DESERT COUNTRY
Marsabit itself, with its deep forests teeming with game and its beautiful Lake Paradise, was a supply point surrounded by deserts--the Kaisut to the south, the soda-sand wastes of the Chalbi in its unbroken desolation north-westward to the oases of North Horr and Dukana, and the grim lava of the Dida Galgalla, the Desert of Night, stretching north and east to the Huri Hills, Garba Turbi and the Moyale escarpment above which the enemy lay entrenched. Through the scorching heat which threw up mirages over the Chalbi, or struggling axle-deep in mud after rain, somehow the supply convoys kept even the most advanced outposts supplied. This was only accomplished by overloading, and in a short while half the vehicles were immobilized, as new springs were not available in Kenya and repairs had to be done by men within the units, working without suitable tools. Through
* Within less than a month their Company Commander, Captain W. C. Wolfe, M.C, was killed in an air crash, with the aircraft's pilot, Captain C. H. D. Wardrop, when taking off from Kitale.
some oversight chassis and engines had been shipped to South Africa from the United States, for assembly without spares. Whatever wet-weather chains there may have been with the vehicles, had been withdrawn and failed to reappear. Yet supplies never broke down.
That anything such as this was possible had not previously been apparent, and there was no guarantee that it could continue even in good weather. It was not altogether surprising, therefore, that when General Wavell--in the midst of planning a Desert offensive and already deeply concerned regarding German intentions in the Balkans--called a conference of the General Officers Commanding East Africa and the Sudan in Cairo on 2 December, General Cunningham found himself no longer able to advocate the same bold and speedy course which he had espoused under General Smuts's influence at Khartoum a month previously.
KISMAYU THRUST CONSIDERED
Colonel Frank Theron, as South African Liaison Officer, again put to the conference the South African view, urging a thrust along the coast past Kismayu, but General Cunningham felt the time was too short and General Wavell refused to allow more than one South African brigade to participate in operations in the unhealthy coastal belt. He wished to use the other South African brigades on high ground east of Lake Rudolf, where the climate was healthier.
Intelligence in Cairo--in accordance with the unanimous views of pre-war experts--failed to appreciate the possibilities of reaching Addis Ababa through Italian Somaliland. In 1940, the Italians had not yet completed their project of a highway across the desert of the Ogaden which separates Somaliland from the Abyssinian Highlands, but this grim almost waterless country, with its sparse bush maintaining a nomadic population, had none of the great mountain barriers and escarpments which barred the 1st S.A. Division's way to Addis Ababa from Kenya's Northern Frontier District.
General WavelPs Deputy Director of Military Intelligence saw the Massawa-Asmara area as the head and nerve centre of Italian East Africa, with Addis Ababa the heart. Without Jibuti, he asserted, the British could not penetrate the heart. He favoured the conserving of British regular forces in Kenya and the use of intensive irregular warfare.
General Wavell appreciated that the Sudan and Kenya had to be considered together. In the Sudan, the immediate operation in course of preparation was designed to capture the Kassala-Sabdarat-Tessenei triangle astride the Sudanese-Eritrean frontier. In Kenya the idea was to take Kismayu, which would incidentally plug one of the holes in the blockade of Italian East Africa which the Japanese and others were supplying by running Native dhows into the Somaliland ports. Regimental officers of 1st S.A. Brigade could not fathom the reasons for delay.
The ruling idea in General Wavell's mind, was that 'the fomentation of the patriot movement in Abyssinia' offered the best prospect of making things impossible for the Italians and eventually retaking Abyssinia.11 From East Africa he favoured a thrust north or north-east
from above Lake Rudolf. At no time were there cut-and-dried plans for any meticulously drafted scheme of conquest conceived on Teutonic lines.
A PLAN FOR OPERATIONS
General Cunningham returned to Nairobi, having undertaken to attempt the Kismayu operation only after the rains, in May or June 1941, which was later than General Smuts had hoped. An advance to the frontier was to start forthwith, to the general line Colbio-Dif-Wajir-Huri Hills-Dukana, and administrative facilities were to be developed in the coastal districts for 'Operation Canvas' as the Kismayu plan was called. The Commander of East Africa Force had only very reluctantly decided to postpone the Kismayu operations, but he had been driven to the decision through shortage of water supplies and by finding that the morale of the Italians, flushed with their conquest of British Somaliland, was good--El Wak had not yet been raided--while many of his own troops were still 'untrained in fieldwork and movement by MT; some battalions had not even completed their musketry'12--a remark which referred especially to 25th East African Brigade, an under-strength, ill-equipped and still raw formation soon to come under command of 1st S.A. Division in place of 1st S.A. Brigade Group. The Force Commander also felt that there were not enough vehicles available to motorize the six brigades he considered necessary or to cope with the long lines of communication and transport the vital supplies of water involved in capturing Kismayu.13
Harrying of the Italians north of Lake Rudolf was to begin as soon as possible, and these operations to open up the Patriot country in the Galla-Sidamo province of southern Abyssinia were to be entrusted to South African troops on the specific instructions of General Wavell who 'considered their organization and training rendered them more suitable for it'.14 At the time 1st S.A. Division was sent up to this front, therefore, General Cunningham clearly thought that operations on other fronts before the rains would have to be limited, and he hoped to cast the South African Division for the more active role involved in the northward thrust on Addis Ababa as part of General Wavell's rather vague 'convergent' plan.
The taking of Kismayu was nevertheless regarded by East Africa Force as its priority task, to provide another sea base, to shorten the front and remove the threat to Mombasa--since Nairobi had no means of knowing that in fact the strictly defensive policy imposed upon the Duke of Aosta by Rome and immobility had already eliminated the latter danger. Jelib on the Juba River was regarded as the key to the operation.
The stretch of country between the Tana River and the Juba--the natural 'cordon sanitaire' between the opposing forces--was completely waterless.15 This was a very serious matter and expert military opinion before the war was unanimously agreed that any attack on Italian Somaliland from the south was impossible. Nothing more than the occasional game trail or camel track crossed the 280-mile tract of bush between the two rivers and the task of constructing roads suitable for motor transport, so that large forward supply dumps could be
established, was immense. Under such circumstances, there was a recognized possibility that at some time there might be an advance into Abyssinia northward from the Marsabit area, where General Cunningham initially placed the South African division, in the belief--at that stage--that this northern front offered the most likely line of approach to Addis Ababa.
FORCES AVAILABLE FOR OFFENSIVE
In round figures, General Cunningham now had 77,000 men, of whom 27,000--more than the white population of Kenya--were South Africans. Another 6,000 were Europeans serving with the East and West African forces; there were 33,000 East African Native troops and 9,000 West Africans.16 Problems of administration and maintenance, to anyone accustomed to thinking in terms of conventional European warfare, were almost frightening. Forward troops on the Tana, long before any full-scale offensive could be launched, were already 230 miles in front of railhead; at Wajir 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was 300 miles from railhead, and at Dukana General Brink's two South African Brigade Groups would be 390 miles from railhead--further than from Alexandria to Tobruk as the crow flies. The third brigade under General Brink's command, 25th East African at Lokitaung, was 317 miles from the railway, with most of the roads impassable in wet weather.17
General Cunningham could see that every forward move was going to aggravate supply and medical problems, not to speak of road maintenance, which involved 1,300 miles of road even before operations began.18
The gratifying progress made in constructing roads and developing water supplies could only inspire hope for the future, and in the meanwhile General Cunningham persisted in trying to gain complete ascendancy over no-man's-land, while the South African Air Force kept up a constant hammering of known Italian airfields and depots, whittling down the Regia Aeronautica's numerical superiority. The Kassala-Tessenei operation from the Sudan was scheduled for February 1941, but it seemed unlikely that East Africa Force would be able to mount any worthwhile operation to coincide with it as General Smuts would have liked.
By 13 December General Brink had opened his Advanced Headquarters at Marsabit, was inspecting the defences and then going on to North Horr to reconnoitre a possible line of advance into Abyssinia, where General Wavell wished General Cunningham 'to employ regular troops on irregular lines, as small, mobile columns harrassing Italian communications, isolating their posts and encouraging rebels'.19 General Brink's visit was cut short when he injured his back and had to be flown back to Nairobi, but the ball had been set rolling and on 16 December, as 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group went into action at El Wak, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group came under operational control of 1st S.A. Division.
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