Preparation for Action

El Wak provided proof that 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group and 24th Gold Coast Brigade were trained and fit for bush warfare, but it could not eliminate the water shortage and lack of roads for a co-ordinated move up to the border of Italian Somaliland. Before 11th and 12th African Divisions could occupy Kismayu or close up on the defence line of the Juba, much had still to be done, and South African field and road construction companies were pushing ahead with the work, whilst East Africa Force grew in strength. (See Appendix 8.)

The 25th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. was troubled by cases of fever and dysentery, but on nothing like the scale experienced on the coast, where 1st Anti-Aircraft Brigade, S.A.A., after reaching a peak with 2 officers and 92 other ranks in hospital on 20 September, still had 50-70 per day in hospital throughout December 1940. The Brigade was 419 under strength on its own war establishment, and no less than 9 officers and 694 other ranks short of actual requirements with 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A. (Major Harry Scholtz) attached. Here, within one unit, was an example not only of the South African manpower problem but also of the danger of fever, which had prompted General Wavell to allow only one South African Brigade Group to operate along the Juba River front.

By the end of January 1941, 16th Field Company, S.A.E.C. had moved to Bura and were preparing forward defensive positions, bridging the river and developing the water supplies. The company had 56 men in hospital, and malaria cases had totalled 64 since the unit's arrival in East Africa. The road was now complete as far as Galmagalla, where 25th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. had set up headquarters. The whole company was working hard to push the road through to Colbio.

Meanwhile, 26th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. (Major W. R. Greathead) was pushing another road through from Garissa for some 70 miles north-east to Hagadera on the route to Afmadu, the key meeting-point of the main tracks between the frontier and the Juba River. Towards the end of January a detachment under Lieutenant Warren from 27th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. also moved from Thika to Garissa and got busy repairing the approaches to the pontoon bridge over the Tana River before a small party with two road-graders, a bulldozer and two trucks was attached to 22nd East African


Brigade on its advance to the border of Italian Somaliland, to which a rough track then existed.

No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company (Major S. B. Gwillam), based on Wajir, was kept busy supporting infantry patrols both north-west towards Moyale and eastward towards the Somaliland frontier, covering which the Italians had a series of advanced posts at El Wak, Can-tama and Fafadun in the Middle Juba sector, and at Afmadu and Beles Gugani on the Lower Juba. Elements of independent Dubat groups and Banda Irregulars extended their occupation to Malka Murri, Sadei, Gerille, Liboi and Colbio.1 They also had detachments at the Juba River fords at Bardera and Dugiuma, and they held two bridgeheads on the Webi Iero (the branch of the Juba on the west of the 'island' of Alessandra), at Mansur and Bua Baragi.

The 1st Transvaal Scottish had taken over Wajir Fort from a Gold Coast Battalion on 22 December,2 while the rest of the brigade was at Arbo. They thrust a patrol from 'A' Company over the border to Dif3 on the Wajir-Afmadu track on New Year's Day, and, after being relieved at Wajir by the Dukes on 16 January, the Transvaal Scottish on 22 January moved off from Arbo towards Dif with armoured cars, antitank guns, an anti-aircraft section, a section of Sappers from 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. and 'A' and 'D' Sections of 2nd R.M.T. Company, to be the first South African unit to establish itself permanently on enemy soil. They aimed to secure the waterholes at Dif and Gerille and to protect the left flank of 22nd East African Brigade, whilst establishing a jumping-off point for 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, the rest of whom were demonstrating towards Moyale, after something of an anticlimax when the Dukes, with artillery support, made a difficult cross-country march at night to attack the hill post at Buna. The position was bombed and shelled, and heavy machine-gun fire was directed at it before it was discovered that there was no one there.4


South of 1st Transvaal Scottish, 22nd East African Brigade on 24 January advanced on the enemy outpost at Liboi, with No. 2 Platoon of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company leading a Company of the King's African Rifles and a handful of picked Abyssinian Irregulars. The South African armoured cars were only about half a mile from their objective when the enemy opened fire and began hurling grenades at them. Neither had any effect on the armour plating and in several cases grenades burst backwards and disconcerted the Banda. Scattering the Banda with machine-gun fire, the armoured cars advanced steadily.5 >Lieutenant C. A. H. Heard's car fell into a tank trap, detonated a mine and was set upon by Banda with rifles, hand-grenades and petrol bombs, but a supporting car drove them off and towed the platoon headquarters car to safety.6 The Banda withdrew, first to Tabda, and after another brush on 30 January, to Beles Gugani, where they were reinforced.7

At Dif the Transvaal Scottish dug in. A platoon under Lieutenant C. St. J. Rodda was sent forward to Gerille--well north of Dif--where they found a number of Banda who gave them some anxious days before Lieutenant-Colonel Hartshorn sent 'B' Company up with support


Building an all-weather road through the desert in northern Kenya.
Building an all-weather road through the desert in northern Kenya.

Lieut.-Colonel A. Fraser-Lawrie, Divisional Engineer Officer, 1st S.A. Division in East Africa.
Lieut.-Colonel A. Fraser-Lawrie, Divisional Engineer Officer, 1st S.A. Division in East Africa.

South African Engineers fill a culvert during road construction through the African bush.
South African Engineers fill a culvert during road construction through the African bush.

Part of No. 4 S.A. General Hospital at Nyeri.
Part of No. 4 S.A. General Hospital at Nyeri.

Colonel J. P. de Villiers, Assistant Director of Medical Services, 1st S.A. Division in East Africa.
Colonel J. P. de Villiers, Assistant Director of Medical Services, 1st S.A. Division in East Africa.

An officer of one of the S.A. Medical Corps' mobile field dental units in the forward areas in Kenya examines an infantryman's teeth.
An officer of one of the S.A. Medical Corps' mobile field dental units in the forward areas
in Kenya examines an infantryman's teeth.

weapons to entrench itself in the area.

Within a week the Transvaal Scottish reckoned they had cleared the Digh Merer area of Banda,8 though Italian reports claimed that the 8th Dubat Group had repulsed an attack on Mata Uarsissa--a few miles east of Digh Merer--on 25 January and inflicted considerable damage next day at Digh Merer, where they 'surprised a convoy composed of 200 lorries, 30 light armoured cars, 10 heavy armoured cars and artillery'. Further information available on 27 January enabled the Duke of Aosta's Headquarters to enlarge upon this report, claiming to have killed twenty South Africans in an attack which the Transvaal Scottish recorded simply as easily repulsed.


On 26 January, however, the Italians did give the South Africans a nasty surprise. Determined to avoid a second El Wak, the Regia Aeronautica, two of whose CR 42s had shot down a Hartbeest in the Gerille area on 22 January and worried a Transvaal Scottish patrol two days later, had also bombed the near-by Baghtiti waterhole without causing casualties. Now, unopposed, they began an eleven-day bombardment of the Transvaal Scottish at Digh Merer. Capronis and the occasional Savoia with Fiat escort came over daily, bombing the vehicle park in particular. Bren gunners were 'piqued to discover that a magazine of ammunition will not necessarily cause an aircraft to disintegrate in naming fragments'.9

In 2nd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. (Major B. J. H. Mawson), which moved to Digh Merer on 27 January, Gunner A. B. Frank, on an antiaircraft light machine-gun next day, engaged enemy planes almost continuously for eighty minutes with complete disregard for his personal safety, and earned the Military Medal for his gallantry. Even the 2-pounders of 2nd Anti-Tank Battery were tilted up on sandbags with trails dug in to engage the bombers, but the aircraft still came over, apparently unscathed, and caused a number of casualties, including Lance-Corporal S. L. Gettliffe and Privates A. J. Dyer, E. G. Feather-stone and K. A. Brown killed, Private J. G. W. Reid mortally wounded and eight others injured in Captain A. W. ('Doolie') Briscoe's company when the enemy scored a direct hit on his trench. Lance-Corporal T. L. Botha of the S.A. Medical Corps was also killed, and there were two shellshock cases among the anti-tank gunners. The camp, it was said, had been clearly marked with a ring of petrol tins placed around it by Banda, and the Transvaal Scottish were forced to move.

On the same day three RO 37s shot up the Gerille area without effect, and on 29 January Savoias in the Colbio area and Capronis at Dif dropped bombs which caused negligible damage. The Transvaal Scottish and 2nd R.M.T. Company's trucks could now only move at night to pick up supplies 120 miles away at Wajir. With no co-drivers, the men at the wheel got little or no rest and became exhausted, whilst at Digh Merer the strict enforcement of passive air defence measures,10 so as to conceal new positions, robbed them even of the feeling that they were hitting back. This had the unfortunate side-effect of increasing the tension among troops who had as yet not become accustomed to attack from the air. The Reserve Motor Transport Company suffered no


casualties but lost one sedan car destroyed by bombing.

In an attack by Banda on 2 February, 2nd Anti-Tank Battery picket was the first to open fire and the enemy was dispersed after about twenty minutes. Two anti-tank gunners were wounded by grenade splinters and had to be evacuated.

Still with 22nd East African Brigade, Lieutenant Heard's platoon of South African armoured cars on 27 January overran and silenced an enemy post--already harassed by mortar fire from two companies of 5th King's African Rifles under Major R. A. F. Hurt11--at Haweina waterhole. Patrols pushed on almost to Beles Gugani, which was taken in a bayonet charge by 1/1 King's African Rifles12 on 4 February, but such minor advances had no immediate bearing on the Italian air effort. Questions began to be asked among the infantry as to the whereabouts of the South African Air Force, which could render no support without landing grounds within striking distance of the enemy. The Hurricanes of No. 1 Fighter Squadron, S.A.A.F., led by Capt. Servaas van Breda Theron, were simply not making contact with these enemy raiders.

With its headquarters far back at Nairobi and with detachments at Mombasa, Lamu, Bura and Garissa, the squadron was widely dispersed and out of effective range of the most advanced positions.

The 27th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. had not even completed a 1,000-yard landing strip at Aligabe near Liboi when Captain Jack Frost, who had that afternoon shot up a Ca.133 on the ground at Afmadu, landed his Hurricane in the wake of the bulldozers. The sound of the bulldozers and road-graders drowned the roar of three CR 42s which swept down and machine-gunned the new landing ground, but the Hurricane took off again with only superficial damage.


Next day, 3 February, the South African Engineers and Transvaal Scottish were treated to a brilliant display by Frost who, single-handed, shot down three Capronis tormenting the Transvaal Scottish camp near Dif, plus one of their two escorting Fiats--a performance which earned him the immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later the same day, Hurricanes of No. 3 Squadron, which had moved from Nairobi to Galmagalla, took off to escort three JU 86s on a bombing mission to Gobwen, where the combined efforts of Captain Theron and Lieutenants Dudley and Upton accounted for another four enemy bombers plus one fighter. With the South African Air Force thus destroying seven enemy bombers and two fighters in a single day, the Regia Aeronautica's offensive spirit rapidly declined.

Already, on 31 January, the Duke of Aosta had reported to Rome that 'the enemy has achieved a clear superiority in the air as far as numbers of aircraft and their quality is concerned', and on 1 February he almost predicted General Cunningham's next move when he reported the massing of two divisions and a movement towards Dif and Colbio for an imminent attack on Kismayu. He confessed that his own air force would cease to be an effective instrument of war within a fortnight; the men were to be re-formed on the ground into a 'Divisione Azzurra'--the Blue Division--of both Italian and native personnel.


While the South African Air Force was thus establishing ascendancy over the Regia Aeronautica and the ground forces were closing up on the frontiers of both Italian Somaliland and southern Abyssinia, there were important developments in a wider sphere.

General Smuts on 8 January had offered Mr. Churchill a second South African Division13--a generous gesture made with a fine disregard for the realities of the manpower situation in South Africa or for the wishes of Generals Wavell or Cunningham at the time, or even for the need to bring South African units in East Africa up to strength. General Wavell pointed out that the maintenance, supply and signal facilities in Kenya could not cope with an addition to the number of troops in East Africa until Kismayu was captured. To administer another division would have swallowed up transport and stores to such an extent as to cripple other moves General Cunningham had in train. Mr. Churchill reacted quickly and with characteristic asperity to General Wavell's lack of enthusiasm, and on 26 January he sent the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, a signal which pointed out that he had asked General Smuts to keep the destination of the new division fluid,14 as he hoped that by the time transport could be made available for its movement it might be able to join the 'Army of the Nile' in Egypt.

Brigadier-General Frank Theron was that day on his way from Pretoria to Cairo and stopped the night in Nairobi, where General Cunningham received a signal that General Wavell intended coming down to Kenya to see things for himself. General Cunningham gave General Theron a letter which anticipated later impatient prodding and criticism from the British Prime Minister. For greater secrecy General Cunningham wrote the message in pencil himself and kept a carbon copy.

'General Cunningham to A. P. Wavell. 26th January, 1941.

'I am proposing to make an attempt at the capture of Kismayu round about February 12. The finding of water at Hagadera* has released just enough transport to make it possible, and I am hoping that the enemy morale is sufficiently shaken to make up for any lack of resources....'15

In fact, the work of 42nd Geological Survey Section, S.A.E.C. and 36th Water Supply Company, S.A.E.C. (Major J. F. Oldfield) had led to the discovery of water at both Hagadera and Liboi on the road from Garissa to Afmadu and at Galmagalla between Bura and Colbio. At Hagadera the finding of the all-important water supply had been a matter of touch and go, and East Africa Force owed a great debt to the faith of Lieutenant A. G. Richardson, the South African Engineer officer in charge of the water-boring detachment. With no rope to spare on his machine and the drill already almost at maximum depth, he remained confident that they would strike a good supply of about 600 gallons an hour--and they struck water at 356 feet. Working up to twenty-four hours a day, by 20 January 1941 the borehole was cleared and lined. Five days later, pump and engine were installed. At Galmagalla, after the first borehole had caved in, 400 gallons an hour was obtained at another site on 4 February.

* Connell transcribes this as Hagadesu, an obvious error.


On the subject of a second South African Division General Cunningham told General Wavell that he was getting more and more convinced that South Africa would not be able to keep two divisions going in manpower.

I have spoken to Theron', he said in his letter. 'He is an ex-A.G. of the Union, and I am pretty sure he thinks the same.'16


Strangely enough, moves were already afoot to help solve General Cunningham's immediate transport problems by using the very division he could not accept as a fighting formation. Within less than a week of his conversation with General Theron, the first of more than 400 men from 2nd S.A. Division were on their way to Kenya--some of them in the firm belief that they were the advance guard of the whole division. The men came from 1st Royal Durban Light Infantry, the Imperial Light Horse and Rand Light Infantry, with some men from other 2nd S.A. Division units, including the Umvoti Mounted Rifles. According to what they were told in Nairobi, there was 'some delay' regarding the arrival of the rest of 2nd S.A. Division and in the meantime they would retain their identity and act as 3rd line transport. Another composite transport company of 257 men from 3rd S.A. Infantry Brigade, No. 5 Brigade Signal Company, S.A.C.S., 4th S.A. Armoured Car Company and 2nd Royal Durban Light Infantry, with seven from Technical Services and six from 3rd S.A. Brigade Headquarters17 loaded stores, springs and tyres at Broken Hill into 151 vehicles and proceeded via Nairobi to Nanyuki, as 'B' Company, 2nd S.A. Division Motor Transport.

On 11 February, another thirty men from 2nd Royal Durban Light Infantry set out from Zonderwater for East Africa. Meanwhile, 6th S.A. Infantry Brigade had also begun to move north. The transport personnel of 2nd Transvaal Scottish entrained for Broken Hill on 8 February.18 The 1st and 2nd S.A. Police Battalions had their transport there already, when the move was cancelled and the whole brigade was recalled to Kafferskraal. Those of 2nd S.A. Division already in Kenya were formed into 7th Non-Divisional Transport Group, and were soon hard at work.

General Brink's division was already embarrassed by calls to provide technicians for the growing number of specialist units in the Union Defence Force. He suggested to General Cunningham that he should stress in correspondence with Pretoria the fact that in the absence of lines of communication troops, fighting formations had to secure their own lines of communication which meant that the troops available for actual fighting were considerably reduced.

Both 2nd and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigades, General Brink pointed out, would have only two battalions available for actual fighting and it was therefore a matter of vital importance to keep units up to strength. The division was operating over a road line of communication of about 406 miles, which he expected shortly to be increased by some 60-70 miles. All supply convoys had to be escorted by fighting troops and General Brink was concerned about the lack of lines of communication troops whom, he felt sure, could be found in South Africa. He recorded his


own doubts as to whether General Smuts was fully aware of the actual position.

In a memorandum enclosed with his letter to General Cunningham, General Brink stressed that not only he but also his brigade and battalion commanders were concerned at the fact that unit strengths were dwindling while no reinforcements were coming forward. Regiment Botha, once at full strength, was already 120 under strength; when Lieutenant-Colonel du Preez gave up his engineering and mechanical specialists, as he would have to do shortly, then his battalion would be 154 short of establishment. On this basis, 1st S.A. Division might have to go into battle lacking almost the equivalent of the combatant strength of a complete battalion in each brigade.


European drivers in the South African Forces were gradually being replaced by Cape Coloured personnel and would possibly be later replaced by South African Natives; Cape Corps R.M.T. Companies were moving all over the Northern Frontier District completely unarmed and in many cases unprotected. Every vehicle and driver, during operations in the forward areas, had to be protected by a European, which made nonsense of the whole policy of 'dilution' of units with Non-Europeans. The Divisional Commander recommended the only sensible course from a military point of view, namely to arm all Coloured, Indian and Malay Corps and Native drivers forthwith and provide each South African R.M.T. Company with an establishment of Coloured anti-aircraft gunners. He also asked for Native stretcher-bearers and more batmen to be provided as soon as possible to relieve white troops for combatant duties. The Cape Coloured personnel, he said, were doing excellent work and their discipline had, on the whole, been exemplary.

Such were some of the problems occupying the minds of General Brink and his staff late in January 1941, when events all along the Kenya front combined to inspire a new confidence in East Africa Force and to present General Cunningham with a chance he was quick to appreciate and grasp. Air supremacy along the Juba, the discovery of water along the border of Italian Somaliland and the clearing of enemy outposts in the Northern Frontier District were achieved almost simultaneously, and the General Officer Commanding, East Africa, judged the time ripe to exploit the passing of the initiative into his own hands.

There had been considerable developments in Turkana and in the areas where 1st S.A. Division found itself in operational control of both 2nd and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Groups on the day that 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade was busy at El Wak. The 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade was living in grass huts originally built at Marsabit by the King's African Rifles. The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group was sending out regular patrols, with the Natal Mounted Rifles responsible for the Chalbi Desert route from Kalacha, Gamra, Maidahad and El Had, while 2nd Field Force Battalion watched the Dida Galgalla, especially the stretch some 56 miles north-eastward to the Turbi Hills on the way to Moyale.

Reports of enemy concentrations were conflicting, but it seemed


fairly certain that they had detachments at El Yibo, El Sardu, El Gumu, Mogado and Buluk, with garrisons of anything up to 500 at Hobok and Gorai and considerable forces at Mega and Moyale, which had an outpost west of the fort, at Sololo.

Encouraged by the presence of South African troops, the Abyssinian Shifta had begun guerrilla warfare against the Italians, and one of their leaders, Fitwrary Damassi,* came down from Abyssinia to see Major Curie and Lieutenant Jack Bonham of the Abyssinian Irregulars, bringing with him useful information, including Italian mail captured between Hobok and Gorai. Before Christmas No. 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. and a fighter flight had also arrived to operate from Marsabit aerodrome and they began bombing enemy posts, including the fort and buildings at Gorai, which they optimistically claimed to have destroyed.

As a Christmas-box, Major G. F. Newby of 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. was given the news by the Divisional Engineer Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser Lawrie, that by the end of the month he would have to provide water for twice the number of troops at Isiolo. By 29 December the whole of his company was fully occupied in developing water supplies, and coming under command of 1st S.A. Division two days later, they had detachments busy at Gamra, Mai-kona, North Horr, Balessa, Marsabit and Kalacha.

An advance signal party from No. 1 Divisional Signals Company, S.A.C.S. had been sent up from Isiolo to Marsabit on Boxing Day, and when General Brink's Headquarters moved on 29 December there was no delay in opening communications from the new location.

Also on Boxing Day, 15th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. took over the Casualty Clearing Station from 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C, in whose operating theatre Lieutenant J. F. P. Erasmus had performed a number of operations during the latter unit's sojourn in the locality. The 12th then moved to a new site and established a Main Dressing Station, with Headquarters and 'A' Companies encamped at Paradise Lake early in the New Year.


The 1st S.A. Division now also took under command the raw 25th East African Brigade of only two battalions. Of the three field artillery brigades shown in the South African divisional organization as drawn up in September 1939, however, General Brink retained only one, 3rd Field Brigade, T.H.A. The other two--the 4th and the more recently arrived 7th Field Brigade, S.A.A. (Lieutenant-Colonel I. B. Whyte) as well as the 1st Field Battery, C.F.A. (Major Rex Simpson) which had reached Mombasa with its 18-pounders on 2 January--had been allocated to 11th and 12th African Divisions.19

The South African divisional anti-tank brigade had been parcelled out so that General Brink had with him only 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. (Captain L. S. Thomas). In fact, the anti-tank batteries were never brigaded in East Africa.

Of the light anti-aircraft brigade which the division should have had

* Fitwrary (Commander of the Vanguard) is an Abyssinian title, more or less equivalent to that of Knight in English. (See Ethiopia, by Richard Greenfield. Appendix II.)


for its own protection, only one section of 6th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A.20 was actually with General Brink. The position was similar with almost all supporting arms and services. The divisional light tank company had been retained as Force Troops and the heavy anti-aircraft brigade was tied down at Mombasa, till they also took over the antiaircraft defences of Nakuru, Nanyuki and Archer's Post. By 1 January 1941, the South Africans were also providing an armoured car platoon, a light anti-aircraft section from 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery, S.A.A., a flight of 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. and various services in 25th East African Brigade area in addition to 3rd Field Company, S.A.E.C.

The 11th African Division likewise had a South African Field Company of Engineers--the 16th--while 12th African Division had 19th Field Park Company, S.A.E.C. under its wing. South African motor transport companies were operating all over East Africa.

In the back of his mind, while making the best use of all the forces at his disposal, General Cunningham constantly had the idea of concentrating the whole of 1st S.A. Division for a major operation as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Though disturbed by the unfavourable manpower situation now that two South African infantry divisions were to be maintained and a third was being organized as a 'feeder', in addition to Brigadier-General H. N. W. Botha's Mounted Commando Division at Ladysmith,* General Brink concentrated on his own operational problems. The 1st S.A. Division's area was bounded on the east by a line which excluded Moyale in the north but included Isiolo in the south. On the west the boundary with the Sudan Defence Force ran south from Jimma (in Abyssinia almost due north of Lake Rudolf) through the area known generally as Shoa-Gimira, to Maji (about 20 miles west of the Omo River) and on to the junction of the Kenya and Sudan borders. General Brink's Division thus had a front of some 300 miles.

In 1st S.A. Division's area, as elsewhere, the search for water went on through the first weeks of the New Year while regrouping of East Africa Force on a three divisional front was being completed, with instructions for 1st South African, 11th African and 12th African Divisions to be ready for operations by 9 January. To avoid drawing attention to any particular sector, operations on all three divisional fronts were to begin on or about 15 January.

* The Mounted Commando Division consisted of two Mounted Brigades under the veterans, Colonel D.J. C. B. van Deventer, D.T.D., D.S.O., and Colonel J. J. Koen, D.T.D., D.S.O., both of whom had served with distinction in the Republican Forces in the Anglo-Boer War and in the South African Forces in World War I.


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