Raid on El Wak
By mid-December 1940, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was occupied in 'the first of the cutting-out operations', as General Cunningham called it. Directed against El Wak, a series of five defended localities straddling the frontier some 110 miles north-west of Wajir, it was a raid by an overwhelmingly superior force against what General Cunningham recorded as one enemy battalion, sixteen guns and some Banda Irregulars1--though the Duke of Aosta rated the garrison at the equivalent of about three battalions.
After the first postponement of this culmination of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group's training, on account of the weather, another rehearsal was completed in the area about Arbo by the beginning of December. Then a reconnaissance in force confirmed that the Italians had withdrawn a large proportion of their troops from the locality it had been intended to raid. An alternative operation area was brought forward, only to have a final, combined rehearsal of a Buna raid under Divisional control delayed by rain and eventually cancelled altogether.
Yet another area was selected and a rehearsal was carried out with all troops destined to take part in the raid proper. The enemy manning the outposts at El Wak were selected as appropriate victims.
On the morning of the approach march, Major-General Godwin-Austen passed on the latest information from an enemy deserter and made minor modifications to air and artillery programmes accordingly. Wireless silence--the merits of which were to be queried on this and later occasions--was imposed on 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade group from the moment it moved from the area of the 'Beau Geste' fort at Wajir, but special arrangements were made for aircraft to drop situation maps during the operation.
The attacking force, for which Lieutenant-Colonel M. D. McKenzie of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. was acting as artillery commander, was divided into two very unequal parts (Appendix 7), 'Dickforce' under Brigadier C. E. M. Richards of 24th Gold Coast Brigade, and 'Pin-force' under Brigadier Dan Pienaar. 'Dickforce' was to move forward at dusk and seize the area of the British landing ground and then split into two. Chief components of Column 'A' under Lieutenant-Colonel I. R. Bruce were 1st Gold Coast Regiment, 51st Gold Coast Light Battery and No. 1 S.A. Light Tank Company. Their objective was Italian El Wak.
British El Wak and the near-by waterhole of El Ghala were allocated as objectives of Column 'B' under Lieutenant-Colonel G. T. Senescall, which included the Dukes, 'A' Squadron of the East African Armoured Car Regiment, and the two 4·5-inch howitzer batteries of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A.
As 'DICKFORCE' Troops, Brigadier Richards retained with his 24th Gold Coast Brigade Headquarters the 3rd Gold Coast Regiment.
Divisional Troops included a platoon of No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company, one company of 1/6 King's African Rifles and one section of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C, who were mainly concerned with maintaining the road.
'PINFORCE' under Brigadier Pienaar was made up of what was left of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group after its cannibalizing to provide light tanks, howitzers, anti-aircraft detachments, a whole infantry
battalion and other elements for 24th Gold Coast Brigade and 12th African Division Headquarters. Objectives of this purely South African column were the Somali village of El Buro Hacha east of Italian El Wak, and the defended camps covering an Italian Brigade Headquarters still further east, on the road to Bardera.
The leading vehicles of 'PINFORCE' passed the starting point on the Arbo-Wajir road at 10.30 a.m. on 14 December, and the column included No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company (less two platoons), 1st Transvaal Scottish, Natal Carbineers (less one company), 12th Field Battery, S.A.A. and 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C.
Condescending instructions ahout the whole operation being commanded by the Commander, 4th (Gold Coast) Infantry Brigade--like ideas about the unsuitability of white troops--had fortunately been forgotten. The field company of South African Engineers in 'PINFORCE' had been split up over the whole column as the result of experience, so that Sappers would be available in almost any section of the column to carry out repairs as the track broke up under heavy traffic. In practice the Engineer detachments with 'PINFORCE' Headquarters and 12th Field Battery, S.A.A. regarded their task as the rather less orthodox one of protective troops.
As so often in orders, no specific reference was made to some of the vital elements involved in the operation, namely Major P. H. Lewis's 2nd S.A. Reserve Motor Transport Company, whose 'B', 'C and 'D' troop-carrying sections had become semi-permanently attached to the Dukes, Natal Carbineers and 1st Transvaal Scottish, with a reserve section serving 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C, 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. and 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. The presence of No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. was also taken for granted.
Perhaps more important than any other individual item in the preparations, and symptomatic of the state of affairs at the time, was the long-overdue issue to 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade at an early morning conference on 14 December of forty-two oil compasses. Without them, the advance to the attack might well have been so slow as to have failed in attaining its object. As it was, with 'DICKFORCE' leading the advance, some difficulty was experienced in getting the Dukes' quota of compasses to them--a situation almost incredible by normal standards later in the war.
The Approach March continued at fair speed on the first day until 5 p.m., when the head of 'PINFORCE' was held up near El Katulo, some 70 miles from the starting-point. Here 'DICKFORCE' had halted, as it was not considered advisable to go further in daylight, since the hills about Dimo were known to be occupied by hostile Banda.
The last vehicle of 'DICKFORCE' did not proceed until 9.30 p.m., and from then on through the night of 14/15 December the long columns moved slowly forward until 4 o'clock in the morning. There were many halts, with movement of any kind in 'PINFORCE' becoming largely a matter of physical strength and endurance as men struggled to get their vehicles through the loose sand. Nevertheless, by 3.45 a.m. 'PINFORCE' was again close on the tail of 'DICKFORCE' in hilly country south of Dimo, where deep dongas cut the surface ahead. In 'DICKFORCE' the South African light tanks on their improvised portees were making very
As they parked in under the bush in the early hours, the Natal Carbineers were on the worst section of the road. Major Mill-Colman, moving up with men of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C, began repair work immediately and had to carry on without respite in the scorching heat till midday, as the road could not be restored to anything like a reasonable state before the time laid down for all road movement to cease.
The tail of'PINFORCE', delayed for reasons never explained--though possibly through drivers falling asleep--was not parked in till dawn on 15 December, and it was realized that some of the ambulances were suffering from the serious handicap that only one man could travel in front. It was the kind of thing which had never before been brought to light, for the simple reason that no such motorized approach march through bush under cover of darkness had ever before been attempted in actual warfare.
Nevertheless, straggling over 7-10 miles though it was, the whole of 'PINFORCE' was accounted for.
There was no sign of the enemy and General Godwin-Austen, after visiting 'PINFORCE', ordered the advance to continue at 5.15 p.m. on 15 December. Progress was slow but steady till about 2 o'clock on the morning of 16 December. Then a section of the road disintegrated about 11 miles short of the wide clearing which served as a landing ground some 3,000 yards from the border, south of British El Wak. Here the West Africans had secured the airstrip--not without minor casualties in a brush with Banda on the track to El Wak. The South African antiaircraft posts of 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., under Lieutenant Peters, came under grenade and rifle fire but suffered no casualties.
'PINFORCE' Battle Headquarters had by now moved forward ahead of the Natal Carbineers and pushed on with a small escort to regain touch with the rest of the advancing column. Well ahead, gun flashes lit up the darkness and the sound of bombing could be heard--from Capronis rather haphazardly bombing the bush round the landing ground where the anti-aircraft posts, in Brigadier Richards's presence, hit one plane repeatedly. Two bombs straddled 11th Field Battery vehicles but failed to explode even after the lorries had driven over them. The noise of shelling rumbled above the racket of the straining vehicles.
The armoured cars of 'PINFORCE' had already reached the landing ground and the Staff Captain 'T' (Captain H. C. Leon) from Brigade Headquarters went forward to direct them on to the 70-degree course for their cut through the bush to the selected debussing and assembly point (see map) due south of Italian El Wak (Area X) which had been allocated to the Gold Coast column. To the north-west of Italian El Wak and overflowing on both sides of the frontier cut through the bush was El Ghala (Area Y) with the Dukes' first objective further west at British El Wak (Area Z).
The outer perimeter of the Natal Carbineers' objective at El Buro Hacha (Area W), was barely 1,200 yards north-east of Italian El Wak, and along the track leading south-east from it was the Transvaal Scottish objective (Area V), possession of which would cut the Italian
line of retreat to Bardera.
The Dukes, with Pioneers hacking away the bush ahead of them to improve the track and cut deviations round mined areas,2 were on their way towards British El Wak with East African armoured cars leading the column when enemy aircraft dropped anti-personnel bombs and began to machine-gun their troop-carriers from about 60 feet. One man was wounded and some trucks perforated, but damage may have been more serious had it not been for the fact that the Second-in-Command of the Dukes, Major Neil Hare, and his brother, Lieutenant E. (Teddy) Hare, on their own responsibility had moved the column out towards the Boundary Cut during the night. The South Africans claimed to have hit the enemy aircraft with small-arms fire, and the West Africans also reported that it vanished low over the bush with smoke issuing from one wing ... most probably the work of the antiaircraft Lewis gunners.
By the time 1st Transvaal Scottish reached the landing ground with its subsection of Sappers under Lieutenant E. W. Bibby, at about 2 o'clock in the morning, it found it being lightly shelled. It moved forward and at 4.10 a.m. 'PINFORCE' Headquarters arrived and then pushed on slowly for about 2 miles over an extremely rough track bashed through the bush by the armoured cars and the Transvaal Scottish, who were soon reporting great difficulty ahead. This seemed to diminish as the track surface was compacted by an increasing number of trucks.
About 4 miles from the landing ground and still some 2 miles from the Boundary Cut through the bush, the track became so difficult that Brigadier Pienaar's Battle Headquarters proceeded on foot. Here they found the armoured cars, which were then ordered to move forward on a wide front with the rear cars making their own tracks. At first light the Transvaal Scottish, the first South African unit to enter enemy territory in full battle order in World War II, crossed the frontier and by 5.30 a.m. 'PINFORCE' Battle Headquarters found their trucks at the debussing point with Staff Captain 'OJ (Captain G. W. Hamper) organizing the parking of further units as they pulled in. A hostile aircraft was circling overhead without attacking the column.
Uncertain to what extent the other units of his column would be able to get forward in the time available, Brigadier Pienaar moved to the assembly area with his Battle Headquarters and amended some details of his orders to Lieutenant-Colonel Hartshorn, whose battalion was complete with its fighting vehicles by 6.15 a.m.--no mean feat after a night march through unknown bush country.
As 1st Transvaal Scottish moved forward to its forming-up position preparatory to attacking at 6.30 a.m., it left some support weapons for the Natal Carbineers, as it was feared that the Natal regiment would not be able to bring its mortars and Vickers guns up in time. Major Gwillam arrived with his armoured cars and by 7 o'clock Lieutenant-Colonel McMenamin was already on his way forward with his heavy support weapons vehicles, thus releasing the Transvaal Scottish mortars.
The Natal Carbineers (less 'A' Company in Brigade Reserve) were on their way to the forming up position at 7.30 a.m., accompanied by Sappers under Lieutenant D. M. Cowin and by 'PINFORCE' Battle
Headquarters, so that Brigadier Pienaar could use the battalion wireless set to maintain communication with 12th African Division and 'DICKFORCE' once contact had been made. It was still long before the days of lavish provision of wireless sets with a brigade.
Though the whole move was now far behind schedule, Staff Captain 'A' (Captain S.A. Horton, O.B.E.) was able to bring up Advance Headquarters Group, closely followed by 12th Field Battery, S.A.A., most of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C, and then 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. Lieutenant-Colonel D. B. Strachan established a main dressing station at the debussing point while the Advanced Dressing Station moved forward with the assault troops. By 9 o'clock the fully co-ordinated move of 'PINFORCE' was under way.
On the right, 1st Transvaal Scottish, with an average age of about 21 and wearing an aspect not unlike that of a crowd of school cadets on a field day, advanced as South African aircraft bombed the strongpoints ahead. The Natal Carbineers, with 'B' Company leading and 'C Company under Captain M. P. (Moray) Comrie* close on their heels and No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company ahead of them, were moving on the left, still some 5,000 yards south of Zariba.
Following the infantry battalions came 12th Field Battery, S.A.A., with Brigadier Pienaar's Battle Headquarters in rear of and between the Transvaal Scottish and the Natal Carbineers, closely followed by the medical company detailed to establish the Advanced Dressing Station. No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S., using wireless for intercommunication from the startline--with dispatch riders as a stand-by--experimented with laying telephone line behind the advancing infantry. There was never a hint of a delayed message nor any avoidable breakdown in 'PINFORCE' communications.
Two and a quarter hours behind schedule on the forming up positions, the leading elements of 'PINFORCE' covered 3,000 yards on a compass bearing through thick bush on foot in fifty minutes, with fighting vehicles still with their units. The Natal Carbineers, crossing the start line ten minutes later, pushed straight on, and the Transvaal Scottish, already east of Zariba, were heading for Area V, doing another 1,000 yards in only ten minutes.
The advance from the assembly area proceeded at great speed and in good order. Vehicles stuck in the sand were cleared by manpower, except for a few ambulances which had to be temporarily left behind.
An officer of No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company, ahead of the Natal Carbineers, was surprised at the lack of resistance. The armoured cars didn't even fire a shot, he wrote. The enemy attempted to plaster them with 7-pounder shells, but couldn't quite get the range.
Orders were sent back by Brigadier Pienaar to the debussing point to retain 'A' Company of the Natal Carbineers there, and at 10.15 a.m. the main body of the Carbineers reported that Zariba had been captured. Three-quarters of an hour later the Natal battalion was pushing on to the village of El Buro Hacha, where they could see enemy movement. Thick bush hampered observation, and as
* Later, as Lieutenant-Colonel M. P. Comrie, he succeeded Lieutenant-Colonel P. M. G. le Roux as Commanding Officer of the Royal Natal Carbineers in March 1942. He won the M.C. and Bar and was Mentioned in Despatches, and commanded the Carbineers both in North Africa and in Italy.
Lieutenant-Colonel McMenamin was not sure just how far his foremost troops had advanced, he could not use his mortars. Rifle fire soon announced that the Natal Carbineers had made contact with the enemy.
Almost simultaneously 1st Transvaal Scottish, over on the right, overran the Italian Headquarters area and fired a prearranged success signal which, unfortunately, was unobserved by the rest of the force. In one hour, the Transvaalers had completed their advance over the last 3,000 yards and captured their objective, with some prisoners.
With armoured cars having to be extricated from soft sand between the start line and Zariba on more than one occasion, the Natal Carbineers' move was only a little less rapid. No opposition had been encountered at Zariba apart from a few shots fired at 'PINFORCE' Headquarters. Things were moving so fast that the operation was almost up to time again.
The Transvaal Scottish had taken Area V astride the road to Bardera without even waiting for the armoured cars, and in the El Bura Hacha area the fighting started before the armoured cars had moved out from their rendezvous at Zariba, where they were then ordered to remain, as enemy guns had opened fire in front of the Natal Carbineers.
In Column 'B', it would appear, there was some difference of opinion on tactics between the South African infantry and the East African Armoured Cars, and the latter were not keen to move forward without an infantry screen ahead of them. Consequently, the Dukes sent forward Lieutenant J. C. Molteno with their own scouts in 3-tonners, which made a great din.
With the enemy thrown in a state of bewildered shock by an eight-gun salvo from the 4-5s of 10th and 11th Field Batteries, the Dukes made short work of British El Wak and El Ghala waterhole.
Meanwhile the Gold Coasters, with the South African light tanks forcing a passage through thick bush and throwing the enemy into confusion, had forged their way into Italian El Wak and were being shelled from El Buro Hacha, some of whose guns were ranging on 'PINFORCE' Headquarters when this information was received by Brigadier Pienaar. One light tank had to be towed out of a tank trap and another received a direct hit from a mountain gun, which barely cracked the armour. With the barbed wire blown by Bangalore torpedoes and the light tanks pouring through the gap, followed by Gold Coasters with bayonets fixed, Italian El Wak was quickly taken and its guns overrun.
The 12th Field Battery, S.A.A. dropped its guns into action south of Zariba, but the line to its Forward Observation Officer had been cut and, in the absence of wireless links, the guns could not fire.
By midday the Natal Carbineers were briskly engaging round El Buro Hacha, supporting their attack with mortar fire and forcing the enemy out of their positions. Fixing bayonets, the Natal Carbineers then put in a frontal attack that routed the defenders, who abandoned their guns just as they had bracketed 'PINFORCE' Headquarters. Corporal Frank Foxon was conspicuous for the example he set his men as the Natal Carbineers finally surged forward, chanting a Zulu war song, and he was awarded the Military Medal for his courageous leadership.3
On their right the Natal Carbineers bumped stiffer resistance. About
a hundred of the enemy bolted into the bush with a handful of white Italian officers who managed to organize a counter-attack a few minutes later.4 This was quickly smashed up with assistance from mortars and some judiciously placed Brens, which inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.
Back at 'PINFORCE' Headquarters, enemy shelling killed Captain G. S. Strydom of 'Q' Services and Sergeant A. M. Paton of the Natal Carbineers, who were picking up mortar ammunition at the time, and there were some wounded, but the Transvaal Scottish success was achieved with no casualties at all, though 'C Company on the battalion's left flank had struck a machine-gun nest and overrun it5 well before sighting the Bard era road and the tents, trenches and underground stores of the Italian Headquarters, which was their immediate objective.
El Buro Hacha, a village of mud huts surrounded by a stockade of thorn trees, was in the hands of the Natal Carbineers shortly after noon and demolitions were begun while mopping up proceeded. Unfortunately some valuable medical stores were destroyed in huts set on fire earlier by mortar fire. With the Transvaal Scottish rounding up prisoners and exploiting towards the Natal Carbineers, a big enemy ammunition dump was discovered largely through the co-operation of Lieutenant John Human, a pilot of 'B' Flight, 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F., who swooped low to drop a map directing the battalion to the site.6 It was a good example of the extraordinarily close co-operation between the South African ground and air forces, which owed much to the pre-war policy of all Permanent Force officers qualifying in both arms.
Even more important than the ammunition was the discovery of the Italian force's main headquarters, complete with all documents and papers, including information which helped in breaking the Italian secret cyphers.7
Large quantities of stores and arms were found during the afternoon, but after a march totalling some 15 miles and with water very low, reaction was inevitably setting in by the time Division at 3 o'clock in the afternoon asked 'PINFORCE' to comb an area at least 7,000 yards away on foot for a suspected enemy force. With his own operations still being completed and 1st Transvaal Scottish on the march westward towards El Buro Hacha to clear the area, Brigadier Pienaar felt that his troops could not undertake this extra task. On receiving verbal orders not to withdraw till the following day, he allotted defensive positions for the night, which was quiet but--for all except the Dukes--unpleasant owing to lack of water, which the men felt acutely after days of strict water discipline culminating in such strenuous exertion. The Dukes, considering orders regarding the carrying of only sufficient water for one gallon per man per day for four days as being incredible, had simply ignored the instruction and suffered no inconvenience on this score, as they had their full reserve water supply in each vehicle.
Early morning bombing and machine-gunning by enemy aircraft on 17 December caused neither casualties nor damage and shortly afterwards three Savoias appeared, followed by a Caproni, which was shot down by 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. after being engaged by 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery posts. Not long after the action,
General Godwin-Austen himself arrived, bringing with him sufficient water for the immediate relief of the entire force.
'PINFORCE' began its withdrawal at 1 p.m. and completed assembly back at Arbo on 20 December after a most successful and instructive operation, for which Brigadier Pienaar was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He himself, in a letter to 12th African Division, specially mentioned Major F. I. Gerrard, his Brigade Major, Lieutenant-Colonels J. G. McMenamin and E. P. Hartshorn, Major H. Mill Colman of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C, and Captain A. E. Coy, of No. 1 Mobile General Workshops for their part in the operation. Captains J. D. Fleming-Johnston and J. D. Allen of 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C were also singled out by name for their contribution to the success of the operation.
The raid, in General Godwin-Austen's words, had given the enemy 'his first really sharp lesson' and it had also confirmed the General's confidence in the South Africans, whose leadership, dash and enterprise he praised unstintingly in a special message to Brigadier Pienaar on 18 December.8
The enemy, on 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade estimates, had suffered 123 casualties apart from others killed by the armoured cars but unaccounted for. Four light field-guns had been taken with breechblocks and another five without breech-blocks. Other captured weapons and material included 1 heavy machine-gun, 3 light machine-guns, 109 rifles, large quantities of ammunition, 2 ten-ton lorries, a three-tonner, a touring car, numerous documents and the Colours of both the 191st Regiment and of the Fort. Among the men the most prized spoils of war were the Italian water-bottles, which was not surprising in view of the unsuitability of the South African issue.
General Cunningham had used an elephant gun to kill a hare, but the raid paid high dividends. The enemy who escaped proved to be more valuable to the Allied cause than those who had been captured, for they were emissaries of gloom and despondency. Even the Duke of Aosta had to do some lengthy explaining to Rome, especially as regards the behaviour of the commander of the El Wak subsector.
'Even if it were accepted that he took to flight,' the Duke had to assure Marshal Badoglio in a signal on 21 December, 'it would be absurd to believe that he had fled in a mulecart when he could have done so in a car.'
Such attempts to explain away a British report, which also appeared in South African newspapers,9 did not satisfy Mussolini. He was keen to have details, from which it transpired that two Italian companies on the left had withdrawn to Bardera and left the artillery unprotected. After a 'fierce' battle lasting all day--according to reports from Addis Ababa--the Italian gunners retreated with the rest of the force northeast towards Lugh Ferrandi, since the road leading south-east to Bardera was in enemy hands. The alternative route to Lugh Ferrandi, strangely enough, appears to have been ignored by 12th African Division.
Admitted Italian losses were 8 Italians and 200 Colonial troops killed and 12 guns, 1 radio station, ammunition and food supplies lost. The reverse had shaken the enemy more than they cared to admit.
Lieutenant-General Gustavo Pesenti, Governor of Italian Somaliland and Commander of the Juba Sector, an official inquiry revealed, had never even visited El Wak. He was very soon replaced by Major-General Carlo de Simone, a World War I veteran, previously commanding the Harar and Jijigga area and hero of the conquest of British Somaliland, where he had led the main invading column which had advanced through Hargeisa in August.
Though the Boundary cutting was not crossed in force, the Italian Comando Superiore appreciated the significance of the co-ordination achieved by 12th African Division. Such co-operation between tanks, motorized troops and aircraft10 was something quite unattainable by the poorly trained, ill-equipped and undisciplined mass of the Italian Colonial forces. 'This action', General Cunningham was to report on El Wak, 'marked the start of the ascendancy of the morale of East Africa Force over that of the Italians.'11 General Wavell's sweeping successes along the Egyptian Frontier were extolled in pamphlets dropped on El Wak and duly reported back to Rome in a back-handed slap at Marshal Graziani. The capture of Solium on the same day as the El Wak raid, and the growing strength of the forces in Kenya and the Sudan had once and for all robbed the Italians of the initiative in East Africa. An advance on Kismayu no longer seemed so formidable an undertaking as General Cunningham had been led to believe.
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