Capture of El Tibo
The task of 1st S.A. Division--less 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, but with 25th East African Brigade under command--was the securing of the area Dukana-Hobok-Gebel Affur, so as to protect and develop communications to the north and to operate with flying columns in support of the Shifta rebellion in the general area Gardulla-Baco--in other words, in the Lake Chamo region north of Banno. To the west, the division was to capture Namaruputh and Todenyang and to plan to occupy Kalam, while co-operating with the Sudan Force's Equatorial Battalion.
On New Year's Day 1941, while 1st Transvaal Scottish was probing the Italian Somaliland frontier in the east, Captain C. A. C. Saunders, Second-in-Command of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company, took a platoon of armoured cars forward to North Horr to work in collaboration with the Natal Mounted Rifles and the Abyssinian Irregulars, and following General Brink's conference with his Brigade Commanders the next day, the 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Intelligence Officer, Captain W. F. Steedman, together with Lieutenant Jack Bonham of the Irregulars, left by air in a JU 86 and dropped twelve cases of ammunition for the Shifta rebels who were on the escarpment in the Tertalli Hills west of Yavello, from which position they were co-operating with the Irregulars. Emissaries of the Shifta Chieftain, Haile Degaga, had come to see for themselves whether the South Africans meant business, and Robi, their leader, was impressed by the armoured cars. 'Kwaheru,' he saluted before departing, 'We shall meet again.'1
On the day that ammunition was being dropped for the Shifta, two armoured cars of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company, supporting a patrol under Major Wocke of 1st Field Force Battalion, were fired on from Turbi Hills, but broke contact. Next day they attacked a Banda post and put the enemy to flight. The armoured cars then cleared the road for 6 miles north of Turbi with no further contact.2 The significance of this brush with outposts of their 21st Colonial Division could not have been lost on the Italians, for they appreciated that there were three possible lines of invasion from Kenya. The first and longest, with the best roads, was through Italian Somaliland; the most direct though more difficult route was through Moyale on to the motorable Neghelli-Dolo road and then via the Lakes to Addis Ababa. Finally, there was the extremely difficult route from Lake Rudolf northward, through
Maji to Jimma and then on to Addis Ababa.3 The South Africans were already probing towards Moyale.
Unfortunately, rain had begun to fall in the Chalbi Desert, forcing troops to seek high ground.
On 4 January 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, which had been joined by 11th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C, began taking over defensive positions at Marsabit, with 3rd Transvaal Scottish relieving 1st Field Force Battalion on the Marsabit-Moyale road and 2nd Regiment Botha taking over from 2nd Field Force Battalion on the road to North Horr. The brigade front stretched over 30 miles, and yeoman service was rendered by the linesmen of No. 1 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. (Major W. G. Perkins).
The balance of the Natal Mounted Rifles moved forward to North Horr and reinforced Dukana, where Headquarters Company of 12th Field Ambulance (Lieutenant-Colonel C. H. Fouché) on 10 January established a Main Dressing Station. Their 'A' Company later did likewise at North Horr--each of the S.A.M.C. companies now operating virtually as a separate field ambulance, with both advanced and main dressing stations.
The 2nd Field Force Battalion took over the Kalacha area. The 8th Field Battery, T.H.A. (Major Roger Berry) now also became attached to Brigadier Buchanan's brigade group and one section of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A. and a section of 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. were also sent forward.
With armoured cars of No. 1 S.A. Armoured Car Company supporting the infantry, 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Group continued with patrolling as much as 50 miles towards Moyale, locating a landing ground close to the south-eastern extremity of Turbi Hills. In the opposite direction, north-west of Marsabit, a natural aerodrome had been found at Kalacha and this was being improved.
With 11th and 12th Field Ambulances, S.A.M.C. attached to 5th and 2nd S.A. Brigades respectively, 15th Field Ambulance now acted as a Casualty Clearing Station sufficiently mobile to take over patients from the other two units. Whilst a casualty clearing station or a base hospital could, at least in theory, be satisfactorily staffed by civilians in uniform the field ambulances were peculiar in that they were part and parcel of military formations. Hence the field ambulances with brigades were subject to dual control, Brigade Headquarters being responsible for military administration, tactics, feeding and purely military supplies, while the Divisional Assistant Director of Medical Services (Colonel J. P. de Villiers) was responsible for medical administration and supplies and for ensuring that the dispositions of medical units fitted in with the tactical requirements of the situation. While the A.D.M.S. felt himself lucky in having a Divisional Commander whose World War I experiences had convinced him of the inestimable value of close co-operation between the combatant troops and the Medical Corps, 11th Field Ambulance in turn felt equally happy at having an A.D.M.S. who understood their problems so well. Very soon they were providing light sections to accompany patrols and conducting reconnaissances through Gamra and Kalacha up to North Horr.
Reports indicated that Moyale and Mega, on their dominating
features guarding the only roads entering southern Abyssinia from Kenya east of Lake Rudolf, had been developed into veritable fortresses. Italian prestige throughout this area depended on retaining these two strongholds, and information early in 1941 indicated that the garrison at Moyale included the headquarters of the Italian 25th Brigade, with 7th and 12th Colonial Infantry Battalions, 105th Blackshirt Battalion and 25th Pack Artillery Group. At Mega, the Italian 9th Colonial Brigade headquarters was established with 2nd, 54th and 60th Colonial Infantry Battalions, 585th Blackshirt Battalion and 9th Pack Battery.
Hobok, manned by about 750 Banda, and Gorai with 250 Banda, were known to be heavily entrenched and there were believed to be 200 Banda at El Gumu and at Buluk, with 100 each at El Yibo and El Sardu. At El Dokolle, north-west of Mega, 17th and 59th Colonial Infantry Battalions were reported to be in position.
The Italian 21st Colonial Division's headquarters, like the brigade headquarters in the whole area, had only been formed since the outbreak of war, and militarily speaking General Gazzera's command was primitively organized. Co-ordinated operations on anything like divisional scale were impossible; depots and stores were lacking and the three divisional commanders, Generals Tissi, Caffaratti and Van den Heuvel, had only arrived from Italy on 6 June.4
Having studied the area, General Brink was confident that providing East Africa Force would 'lend' him 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group for a wide encircling movement from Buna through Derkali and Burduras, to be made simultaneously with an encircling movement by 2nd and 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade Groups through El Gumu and Kunchurro, he could seize the Moyale-Mega-El Dokolle area and probably secure Neghelli and Yavello before the long rains began in mid-March. The operation would require strong bomber and fighter support, and an adequate supply of mortar bombs and rifle grenades would be needed.
At a conference with General Cunningham in Nairobi on 7 January the South African Divisional Commander put forward his proposals, adding that he would like to reconnoitre the Gorai-Hobok, Kunchurro-El Dokolle area before submitting a final scheme in the light of road conditions. He would prefer to bypass Hobok, as its seizure and the subsequent inactivity might give the enemy a hint of the South African plans and enable them to take counter-measures.
General Cunningham had no intention of limiting any operations which held out reasonable prospects of success. At the same time, he felt that the Gorai-Hobok area should first be secured, but he was quite ready to consider any proposals General Brink put before him.
Without delay, 1st S.A. Division began preparatory moves, which were outlined in an Operational Instruction, issued two days after General Brink's discussions with the Force Commander in Nairobi. Immediately 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade had established its headquarters at Dukana, the Natal Mounted Rifles were to clear the El Yibo-El Sardu area on the Kenya side of the frontier facing Hobok; 2nd Abyssinian Irregulars were to co-operate by moving round the flanks and rear and, on the capture of El Yibo, they were to occupy and hold it.
The Natal Mounted Rifles were then to patrol towards the Abyssinian border on the road Dukana-Gorai without evincing any great keenness to cross the frontier at that stage. With one company of the Natal Mounted Rifles as escort, 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. was to develop the water resources both at North Horr and in the Dukana area, to supply 5,000 men if possible, and the Engineers were also to put the Dukana landing ground in order, with assistance from the infantrymen.
General Brink had counted on a road, or at least a good track, between Gorai and El Dokolle, and had also hoped that the Dukana-Gorai road would be passable to motor transport, but air and other reconnaissance showed him that for the last 5 or 6 miles the northward Dukana-Gorai road was virtually non-existent, while the Gorai-Hobok road on the other hand appeared reasonably good. There did not seem to be any road or track running east from Gorai to El Dokolle, but there was a track fit for vehicles from Hobok to Kunchurro, north of Gorai. The broken and bushy nature of the country seemed to preclude cross-country movement by wheeled vehicles.
In view of this, General Brink told General Cunningham, who visited 1st S.A. Division at Marsabit on 12 January, that he agreed that he would have to occupy both Gorai and Hobok before operating against Kunchurro and El Dokolle. But he still thought he could occupy the El Dokolle-Mega-Moyale area successfully if he were lent 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group for the turning movement and given the necessary air support, mortar bombs and rifle grenades.
Such aggressive fighting talk must have been refreshing, but unfortunately General Cunningham, with the capture of Kismayu still his first priority task, and with the limited forces available, could not help much towards the realization of General Brink's plans. He had been allotted a certain role in Abyssinia which was largely to foster rebellion, said General Cunningham, and in this 1st S.A. Division could play an important part. This was in keeping with General Wavell's ruling idea 'that the fomentation of the patriot movement in Abyssinia' offered the best prospects, but now that British victories in the Western Desert had put paid to any Italian hopes of assistance from that quarter, any timidity in the formulation of plans in Kenya did not fit in with the ideas of Mr. Churchill* or General Smuts for the building up of a general reserve in the Nile Valley--hopes which were in any event shattered by the decision to send an expeditionary force to help the Greeks.
On 8 January General Wavell had already been asked whether it would not be better to bring the South Africans to Egypt,† to which he had replied that though the dividend in East Africa was not likely to be high, no change of investment was possible. 'Continuous pressure in East Africa could lead to the liquidation of this commitment in the summer or autumn of 1941, and in the long run the release of all his
* See page 107.
† There were South Africans already expected in the Middle East--from the Seaward Defence Force. On 11 January 1941, months ahead of the land forces, 22nd S.A. Antisubmarine Flotilla's first four little ships arrived at Alexandria, to begin their dangerous task as escorts on the Tobruk run. Eight minesweepers and the salvage vessel, H.M.S.A.S. Gamtoos, joined later. (Union Year Book, No. 23. 1946. Chap. XXIX, page 17, sect. 3, para. 3.)
forces there more quickly than an immediate withdrawal which would take time and mean a relaxation of effort.'5
In sticking to his original plans, General Cunningham was acting fully in accordance with his Commander-in-Chief's ideas. The 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade, he told General Brink, was needed for other operations; no mortar bombs or rifle grenades were available, nor could he promise any appreciable air support, as South Africa could not provide any more aircraft. General Brink's plan, which offered a possibility of opening the approaches to Addis Ababa from the south, in line with General Wavell's overall strategy, had perforce to be dropped and a less ambitious alternative had to be sought. At this stage, lack of water in the 280-mile-wide wilderness east of the Tana River still made the priority move to the Juba appear hazardous, if not impossible.
While the generals were conferring at Marsabit, 2nd S.A. Brigade Headquarters and 1st Field Force Battalion moved out, Lieutenant-Colonel H. P. van Noorden's battalion taking over the Gamra-Kalacha area while the Brigade Headquarters and other elements moved to North Horr. The heat was so intense in the Chalbi Desert that radiators were soon boiling and extra water had to be carried to replenish them between waterholes, but when Brigade Headquarters moved on to Dukana they found that 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. could already provide half a gallon of water per man per day.
The enemy, noticing increased air activity in the far north, was expecting an attack either against the line Gallabat-Gondar or towards Agordat in Eritrea; on the Juba he foresaw attacks either on the Moga-dishu-Neghelli road or on Kismayu, and he also expected a landing in British Somaliland.6 By mid-January the Italians were putting into effect a deliberate policy of withdrawal from Kassala and Tessenei in the far north in accordance with decisions taken in Addis Ababa some time earlier,7 and they thus anticipated General Piatt's offensive from the Sudan. By that time, 1st Field Force Battalion was established at Kalacha, with a section post at Gamra. The 2nd Field Force Battalion was at North Horr, while 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters was at Dukana with the Natal Mounted Rifles, 8th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.), a section of 3rd Anti-Tank Battery, S.A.A., most of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company and No. 1 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company. The latter's men, like those of No. 2 S.A. Motor-Cycle Company, had already been taking severe punishment on machines totally unsuited to the type of country in which they were operating, as it imposed every type of physical torture and mental strain on the riders.8
Also under 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group were the ten companies of 2nd Abyssinian Irregulars, who had their headquarters at North Horr, four companies of about fifty men each at Dukana, two companies at the Derati Wells over towards Lake Rudolf, about one company each at Huri Hills, El Adi and El Had and a section at Balessa. The landing ground at Dukana was being cleared by 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C.
Patrols of the Irregulars north of Dukana and the Huri Hills made no contact with the enemy, while 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade patrols from Marsabit for 50 miles along the road to the Turbi Hills on the route to Moyale and 35 miles towards Gombo also drew a blank. In
fact, at the time, the consumption of the abstainers' brandy ration by thirsty non-abstainers seemed to be concerning 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade as much as any enemy activity in their area, where nothing of interest took place to break the tedium of long patrols and the search for water, lack of which was seriously holding up operations by 21 January.
The only information reaching General Brink about the Division's future area of operations came from Lieutenant Bonham, whose Marsa-bit Headquarters gathered information from the Abyssinian Shifta coming into Kenya to collect rifles and ammunition for the rebellion on which General Wavell pinned considerable hopes, especially after the return to his own country of the Emperor Haile Selassie on 20 January. At a little place called Um Idla on the plain of the Blue Nile some 30 miles inside Abyssinia, with Colonel Orde Wingate at attention behind him, he had raised his country's flag anew.9
According to reports from the supposedly patriotic and expert guerrillas in southern Abyssinia--subsequently proved to be quite unreliable--the Shifta were virtually in control of the Tertale (Gar-dulla) area and there were adequate supplies of water at El Yibo, El Sardu, Hobok, Gorai, El Dokolle, El Gobso, Mega, Moyale and other places. Apparently one had only to cross the frontier to find a country in which trouble-free movement by motor transport was possible in all directions. General Brink's South African staff were not so naive as to accept these glowing accounts from Natives whose knowledge of the capabilities of motor vehicles was infinitesimal. Air reconnaissance helped little, as pilots found it almost impossible to judge the suitability of ground for cross-country motoring. Existing maps, suitable as a rough guide for strategic purposes, were tactically of little or no value, and planning of operations was therefore a gamble.
With the Division limited by Air Force Headquarters to only four air sorties a week and No. 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. using old Hartbeest machines with a limit of about two and a half hours' flying time from Marsabit, not much help could be hoped for from the air force. It took the obsolescent machines about an hour to reach the Hobok-Gorai area, which left little time for reconnaissance of any sort. Though refuelling at North Horr eased the situation and the pilots took considerable risks in carrying out an extremely difficult task, the information they could gather was meagre.
At 8 p.m. on 15 January Brigadier Buchanan ordered Lieutenant-Colonel N. D. McMillan of the Natal Mounted Rifles to clear El Yibo and El Sardu next day. Patrols towards the El Yibo waterhole, which was situated in the Lugga Bulal--a deep donga about 12 miles northwest of Dukana--reported the intervening country suitable for motor transport to within about 3 miles of El Yibo itself. No information other than Shifta gossip was available regarding the location of enemy forces there or at El Sardu, and it was planned to hold Dukana and protect 'B' Echelon transport with Headquarters and one other company of the Natal Mounted Rifles, with a section of Vickers guns and a section of mortars under command. The balance of the battalion, with two companies of the Abyssinian Irregulars and five armoured cars of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car company, was to assemble a mile north of
Dukana at 3.15 a.m. on 16 January with more than enough food, petrol and water to get to within striking distance of Addis Ababa, if a good road had existed.
It had been generally known for some days that the Natal Mounted Rifles would do the operation, so when the Company Commanders were given their orders at 10 p.m. on 15 January they were not taken completely by surprise, 'C Company had done most of the patrolling of the area, but 'B' Company was selected as the spearhead of the attack. The men had little opportunity for rest that night, but no great difficulty was experienced in marshalling the attacking column in three small forces in bright moonlight before dawn on 16 January, Force 'A', consisting of a company of Irregulars* in Natal Mounted Rifles transport, with two pack wireless sets, was to move to a point 6 miles northwest of Dukana, debus and then proceed on foot along high ground west of the Lugga† Bulal to attack the enemy's right rear and cut off his withdrawal. One platoon of the Natal Mounted Rifles with a wireless van was detailed to guard the transport at the debussing point and to protect the rear of the advancing Irregulars.
Force 'B' was made up of 'B' Company, Natal Mounted Rifles, with five armoured cars of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company led by Major Walker, a section of Vickers guns and one section of mortars, all moving in transport to attack El Yibo from the north-east.
Force 'C, which consisted of 'C Company, Natal Mounted Rifles, less one platoon, with two armoured cars, a Vickers and a mortar section, was to move in transport behind Force 'B' and to attack simultaneously. Lieutenant J. M. Gosnell and seventeen Sappers from 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. also went forward. Lack of experience in co-operation between infantry and armoured cars showed itself at once in the splitting of Major Walker's armoured cars without any really clear understanding as to just who was ultimately to control their movement and employment.
The 12th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C. had established its field hospital at Dukana, ready to receive battle casualties, and at 4.10 a.m. the head of the attacking column left the Assembly Area, with Force 'B' leading, followed by Force 'A' with its Irregulars, and with Force 'C bringing up the rear. Force 'A' reached its debussing point without incident by 6.15 a.m. then advanced on foot through the Lugga Bulal and northward along high ground west of the dried-up river bed. Over very broken country which was a maze of luggas and thick bush, they made slow progress, while Force 'B' pushed on east of the lugga until 9.20 a.m. when the long line of vehicles reached a point south-east of El Yibo. Here they sighted some enemy Native troops in a position in the bed of the lugga.
This position Force 'B' wrongly assumed to be El Yibo, which was still 1| miles further north. Armoured cars of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company opened fire at 1,200 yards and then moved further to the right, across boulder-strewn country no one would have thought them capable of negotiating. It was after 1 o'clock before one platoon of the
* The 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade stated that there was one company of Irregulars in Force 'A', though the orders referred to two companies.
† A 'lugga' is a dried-up watercourse of a kind very similar to the South African 'donga', caused by erosion during heavy rain.
Natal Mounted Rifles was able to cross the lugga under cover of mortar fire, to occupy high ground to the west while another platoon moved to occupy a commanding feature east of the lugga. The intention to attack from the north-east was forgotten.
The enemy then withdrew without putting up any sort of fight and Native troops in slouch hats were seen by the armoured cars, who took them for their own Irregulars and left them unmolested, little realizing that they were enemy Banda decked out in hats probably looted after the Italian attack on British Moyale.
By 1.40 p.m. in intense heat, the two Natal Mounted Rifles platoons were moving on to their immediate objectives, while the rest of Force 'B' was making its way north along a course parallel with the lugga, to what they imagined was El Yibo waterhole, The Divisional Commander intended that the attack was definitely to have been made from
the north-east, in which case they should have been on a course south-westwards at this stage, so it is difficult to reconcile the actual sequence of operations with what was envisaged in the orders.
At this stage the Natal infantrymen could hear rifle fire some distance to the north and assumed that Force 'A' was engaging the retreating enemy. In fact, the sound came from Force 'A' actually engaging the main enemy position about one mile to the north, while they, who were to have delivered the main attack, were not even within sight of El Yibo.
Wireless communication with Force 'A' had broken down and no information had been received from them for some seven hours since they debussed at 6.15 a.m. Force 'B', therefore, simply pushed on, with one platoon on each side of the lugga and company headquarters and one platoon moving along the watercourse itself. Meanwhile, No. 3 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S., under Captain W. R. Boag, had managed to re-establish communication by laying cable over 10 miles of rough country.
The infantry Company Commander, unaware of what was going on ahead of him, thought El Yibo had been captured and at 2.30 p.m. signalled to 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters that he was mopping up while the enemy was retreating towards El Sardu.
In fact, the armoured cars with Force 'B' were still advancing across indescribably broken country west of the lugga, firing intermittently on small enemy groups, and it was only on the infantry's approaching Sugar Loaf Hill--a high lava outcrop rising like an island in the dry river bed but joined to the eastern bank by a low spur--that they realized their mistake. Ahead they could see the enemy's main position, very well placed and still intact. Exhaustion and lack of water made further progress impossible. Force 'A'--among whose Irregulars discipline was by no means of the best--was incapable of further effort, and they also fell back on the Natal Mounted Rifles position.
Deep dongas across the line of advance prevented the armoured cars getting to close quarters with the enemy, and their task was not made any the easier by conflicting orders from sundry infantry officers.11 There seems to have been little of the smooth co-operation that comes with long training and experience.
Meanwhile 12th Field Company, S.A.E.C. had completed a road into the lugga and water could be supplied to the troops by about 5 o'clock in the evening. Half an hour later some of Major Walker's armoured cars, with one platoon of the Natal Mounted Rifles and a mortar section, got on to a high feature in rear of the enemy's main position and fired on the fortifications at about 1,200 yards. The only fatal casualty so far was one Abyssinian Irregular killed. Major J. J. Drought of the Kenya Independent Scouts, whose coolness under fire was an inspiration to the young men of a 'C Company platoon sent forward during the afternoon,12 was wounded in the hip and evacuated in an armoured car.
The forward troops, however, had reached the end of their endurance and were withdrawn at dusk into laager on high ground east of the lugga.
Late that night 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters sent off a message to Rear Divisional Headquarters at Marsabit, worded as
Robi the Shifta, with two of his compatriots, inspects South African armoured cars at Marsabit. (Photo: H. Klein.)
An armoured car crew cleaning their Vickers machine-guns.
South African armoured cars during the advance into southern Abyssinia.
Lieut.-Colonel N. D. McMillan, Commanding Officer of the Natal Mounted Rifles.
South African Engineers cleaning out the wells at El Yibo.
though emanating from Lieutenant-Colonel McMillan and stating that 'after conference today's action realize enemy's resources have increased and are considerable, which confirms your last information air recce today'. Someone--presumably the Brigade Commander--thought it most advisable that additional troops, ammunition, bombs, wire and water be immediately available, and gave it as his opinion that El Yibo lugga presented considerable tactical problems--an idea which was to recur in 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade thinking in a later operation. After suggesting air co-operation, strong reinforcements of armoured cars and additional medical services, the message also reported the unfortunate breakdown of communications. Some error in decoding at Division apparently added fuel to the fire by misinterpreting a request for an ambulance with extra-low gear--to evacuate Major Drought--as a plea for an extra two ambulances, which conjured up a picture of bitter fighting.13 There was thus some delay in the evacuation of casualties from the Regimental Aid Post to 12th Field Ambulance's main dressing station at Dukana as a result of misunderstanding.
The signal, enough to cause anxiety, if not actual alarm, did not in any event reach Rear Divisional Headquarters till an hour and a half after General Brink himself had left Marsabit at 7 a.m. on 17 January with his Advanced Headquarters. The road between Kalacha and Dukana had been so badly cut up during the previous week that his party took fourteen and a half hours to cover 190 miles and did not reach Dukana till 9.30 that night.
In the meantime, early on 17 January, while General Brink was delayed on the road not far north of Marsabit, 'C Company of the Natal Mounted Rifles assembled after a reconnaissance by the Company Commander, Captain A. E. Blarney, who led them forward at 9 a.m. on foot with Nos. 11 and 13 platoons and a section of mortars to carry out a frontal attack on the enemy positions of El Yibo--or the 'advance post of Giubbo' as the Italians called it. Major L. M. Harris, Second-in-Command of the Battalion, who was co-ordinating the attack, moved with this group, while No. 12 Platoon, supported by a Vickers and a mortar section moved by troop-carrier to reoccupy the position they had reached in the valley the previous afternoon, due east of Sugar Loaf Hill.
On the right flank two sections of 'B' Company co-operated, while 'A' Company--brought up from reserve--covered 'C Company's left as the men moved cautiously forward in extended order, with three armoured cars in support. The sun had already turned the world into a vast oven once again, and 'C Company at this juncture, could see no sign of 'A' Company on its left. Major Harris ordered a section to be detached as a flanking patrol along low ground on 'C Company's left, where the section, under Sergeant L. T. Essery, came under fairly heavy fire,14 which soon spread and sent the South African infantry to ground intermittently.
By 11.30 a.m. the Natal Mounted Rifles were working their way painfully forward through thorn bushes and over the lava rocks, with the sun beating down on them unmercifully. Major Harris's group, moving on foot over a long, squat ridge to the east of the lugga proper, with an infantry screen in front of them and two armoured cars out on
the right flank, came upon deserted weapon pits but went on without any disturbance for another twenty minutes or so before the Second-in-Command spotted dug-in positions about three-quarters of a mile ahead. W. F. Ashburner, who was with Major Harris's group and kept shorthand notes of his experiences in East Africa, recorded that the positions 'were cunningly sited on a steep, blunt hill, and consisted of strongly fortified 'pill-boxes' of rock and covered trenches. The positions had an excellent field of fire and the lugga and the hills and ridges to the east of it were well covered.'15
Skirting the lugga on their right at about 1 o'clock, 'C Company climbed a steep slope to the top of what was to become known as Harris Ridge, about 800 yards south of the enemy's main positions.16> As the Natal infantrymen reached the crest they immediately came under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. Major Harris called for mortars to range on the enemy positions, and No. 12 Platoon on the right flank of 'C Company worked its way up to within about 500 yards of the enemy, who fired on it heavily but fortunately did not appear to possess any mortars.
'A' Company was pushed forward on the left, west of the lugga, but was reported to be under heavy fire even at 2,500 yards, though observers from Harris Ridge did not notice it.17 The heat was now so severe that men firing from the prone position were being burnt on the chest and arms by the searing hot lava rocks, and as 'A' Company moved forward on the left a message was sent to Lieutenant D. London of No. 12 Platoon to make contact with the right flank of'C Company's main body on the eastern slopes of Harris Ridge. He was about to pass on the order when he received an urgent message from the Support Company weapons of his small detachment, informing him that they were being outflanked by a counter-attacking force some 150-200 strong. No. 12 Platoon moved back at once to assist but they were in an awkward situation and under fire from two sides until the arrival of four armoured cars of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company, which forced the enemy to withdraw in disorder under some sharp bursts of fire. Luckily enemy fire, here as elsewhere in East Africa, was consistently high.*
Major Harris's group had now taken up position on the lava ridge with 'C Company, and they lay or sat panting in the motionless hot air, with every sip from their waterbottles breaking through the pores of their skins in copious sweat, which only increased the men's thirst. The armoured car crews simply roasted in the claustrophobic confines of their mobile ovens, while some 700 yards away the enemy positions stood tantalisingly in front of green clusters of trees round the wells in the lugga below Sugar Loaf Hill.
Two 3-inch mortars coughed intermittently behind Harris Ridge. Their bombs plummeted down on the slabs of rock covering the Italian pill-boxes and dugouts. Meanwhile, a lone South African Air Force aircraft had circled over the enemy positions several times, and about half an hour later three Hartbeests of 40 Army Co-operation Squadron,
* Throughout the campaign, East Africa Force was spared casualties by this inaccuracy of enemy rifle fire. In Addis Ababa, General Wetherall had some twenty brand-new Italian rifles tested by an expert armourer and all were found to be sighted very high. Colonel Joubert noted the additional fact that the enemy dug their trenches very deep, with no fire-steps, which resulted in their fire being almost invariably unaimed.
S.A.A.F. bombed El Yibo, returning again some time later to repeat the performance without opposition. By 3 o'clock in the afternoon, still persisting in a frontal attack, the Commander of 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade considered the enemy's position to be impregnable to unsupported infantry attack and decided to carry out the assault the following day, supported by artillery and aircraft.
Far off to the left, the one company of infantry were still a good 1,500 yards from Sugar Loaf Hill and very bunched up--fortunately undisturbed by an enemy lacking both artillery and mortars.
Spasmodic fire continued throughout the afternoon, but in intolerable heat the attackers became increasingly sorely afflicted. Urgent messages sent back for more water were of no avail. The afternoon was almost spent before enemy fire gradually died down. As the air became a few degrees cooler, the men were tortured by the thought of the water only a few hundred yards ahead in the wells at El Yibo. A sergeant suggested an attack after sundown, but was quickly silenced by an excitable infantry officer who reckoned that the enemy position was so well wired that the South Africans would be cut to pieces.
'That remark struck me as very funny', wrote an other rank in Major Harris's group. 'It was obvious that the enemy force was entirely concentrated on the Sugar Loaf and that we easily outnumbered them. The obvious answer to the defence was an outflanking movement. It seemed a simple matter to cut round on both sides of the hill and occupy the ragged lava ridges that overlooked it.... The enemy's line of withdrawal was clearly open and the odds were that with aircraft and mortars against him he would get away in the night.'18 It was a possibility which had been foreseen, but the failure of the Abyssinian Irregulars to cut off withdrawal was allowed to pass.
The Natal Mounted Rifles were ordered to consolidate and 8th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.) was brought up during the night of 17/18 January, which the men on the lava ridges spent in bitter cold after the scorching day, with throats painfully parched, while Major R. S. Berry did his reconnaissance with the aid of a sketch-map drawn for him on the back of a cigarette box by Major Walker. No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company provided guides for the artillery reconnaissance party and the gun group party on the journey over the rough lava in the dark. Major Berry himself moved up on to Harris Ridge, and the survey was done by moonlight with the aid of torches, whilst a telephone line was laid to the infantry Battalion Headquarters. By first light the gunners had firmly established an observation post about 1,200 yards from Sugar Loaf Hill, with the infantry on high ground to either flank.
The Adjutant of the Natal Mounted Rifles, Captain L. C. Clarkson, set out from Battalion Headquarters on foot during the night with two or three men carrying cans of water and temporarily relieved the situation as regards parched throats on his arrival in the forward area at about 3 a.m. Two hours later the sorely tried infantrymen were refreshed with plentiful food and water and by daybreak they felt fit for the final assault19 which they now eagerly awaited.
As a result of a message dropped on his convoy while he was still on the road from Marsabit to North Horr on the 17th, General Brink sent for and gave personal instructions to Lieutenant-Colonel Engelbrecht
to move forward, as the Divisional Commander was not satisfied that the brigade was acting aggressively enough. The 2nd Field Force Battalion, less Headquarters Company, one Rifle Company and Support Company, was to move up to Dukana immediately, and at 6 a.m. on 18 January it was pushing on towards El Sardu, west of and beyond El Yibo, with a section of armoured cars in support.
At 8.15 a.m. on 18 January, with the enemy positions ominously silent, aircraft of 40 Army Co-operation Squadron, S.A.A.F. began bombing Sugar Loaf Hill. From 8.45 to 8.50, the 18-pounders of 8th Field Battery, S.A.A. (T.H.A.) opened on the enemy's main positions with salvoes. The first rounds fell plus, scoring a direct hit on a rear position. Corrections were made and for fifteen minutes Sugar Loaf Hill was raked with gunfire. Sixty-five rounds burst on the enemy positions, and a Forward Observation Officer went out in an armoured car to direct the fire of the battery. Under cover of the artillery fire the Natal Mounted Rifles, with bayonets fixed, charged down the ridges and began the steep ascent to the stronghold on the hill. Not a shot was fired, and by 10.10 a.m. the whole of Sugar Loaf Hill had been occupied.
Well sited and thoroughly prepared positions had been abandoned during the night. The enemy, leaving filth behind him, had withdrawn along the lugga, apparently towards Hobok, about 18 miles to the north. Equipment was scattered far and wide. The El Yibo wells were in the hands of the Natal Mounted Rifles, and even they could hardly have dreamed that the 100 gallons of poor water a day would soon be developed to 18,500 gallons daily by the South African Engineers, who were at work on the main position within half an hour of its occupation.
The operation had been a stern reminder of the dependence of all troops on water and the South Africans' water discipline had on the whole been good. The troops had been through a physical ordeal of heat and thirst and had stood up to it most creditably. But it did not blind them to shortcomings in the planning and execution of the operation.
'The battle for the wells had been a shocking flop', wrote Ashburner. 'All we had were two wounded prisoners (both Natives) and a couple of corpses. One of these was the body of an Italian lieutenant--probably the Commanding Officer of the garrison--who had been killed in his pillbox by a mortar bomb. Had a little enterprise been shown we could easily have surrounded the Sugar Loaf on the first day of the attack and forced its surrender.'20
The Company Commander of No. 2 S.A. Armoured Car Company (Major C. G. Walker) maintained that the armoured cars should have been given orders exclusively by the infantry Force Commander through their own Commanding Officer. He objected to the fact that cars from a reserve group had been sent off on at least one occasion without his knowing where they were going, and the infantry use of armoured cars as escorts in the middle of an action also drew criticism. The bullet-proof tyres of two armoured cars, it was found, had been punctured by jagged sticks, but on the whole the cars had performed well over difficult ground, and they contributed considerably to the lowness of the casualties on the South African side.21
For intercommunication, the Brigade Signals Officer had decided to rely mainly on line between 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters and the Natal Mounted Rifles--maintaining a wireless link until the line was through--and 11 miles of cable was laid by No. 3 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. during the action, mostly at night. The Signals platoon attached to the Natal Mounted Rifles also did good work, but it was felt that the officer commanding the platoon was not given much opportunity to use his own initiative and was not kept fully informed of what was going on. Visual and line equipment was not sufficiently used and too much reliance was placed on the heavy pack sets, which were kept working continuously at extreme range. Nevertheless, good communication was provided 95 per cent of the time.
Enemy casualties amounted to one Italian officer and two other ranks plus at least nineteen Natives killed, about 40 Banda wounded and two prisoners, of whom one was wounded. Captured material included three heavy machine-guns, two light automatics, a considerable amount of small-arms ammunition including·303 taken in British Somaliland, and three mules with pack equipment. Our casualties were one King's African Rifles attached officer (Major J. J. Drought) wounded, one Irregular other rank killed and two wounded.
On the afternoon of the occupation of El Yibo, 2nd Field Force Battalion occupied El Sardu without opposition, but found the water there so bad that the battalion had to withdraw to Dukana with a solitary prisoner, according to whom El Yibo had been held by about seven Italians and 400 Banda of the 2nd Sub-Group, with nine machine-guns. Their Headquarters, he stated, were at Hobok.*
With El Yibo taken and El Sardu also evacuated by the Italians, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade had thus driven the enemy from their last outposts on British soil in the Dukana sector.
General Brink and his staff set out to visit the newly captured wells on 19 January and were twice attacked on the road by Capronis, which bombed and machine-gunned them without causing casualties or damage. Next day the Divisional Commander sent off a telegram to Force Headquarters to say that he was well satisfied that 1st Natal Mounted Rifles operating in intense heat and over exceedingly difficult rock-strewn country had done very well. The armoured cars, he felt, had done very good work and their handling undoubtedly accounted for the absence of casualties in 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade. From strong and well prepared positions the enemy had fought back determinedly and would undoubtedly have held up a small force for some time.
With any shortcomings in the conduct of operations thus tactfully covered up, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade began active patrolling towards Hobok in the north, Mount Murdur, El Gumu and El Had, to gather information on which to base future operations against Gorai, El Gumu and Hobok.
General Cunningham had intended visiting 1st S.A. Divisional
* The Comando Superiore in Addis Ababa reported to Rome on 18 January that the attack on Giubbo (El Yibo) had been supported by aircraft and tanks and repulsed with heavy losses. They admitted to 1 Italian wounded on 17 January, 3 Colonials killed and 14 wounded. The Duke of Aosta's next dispatch reported the withdrawal in the face of 'considerable enemy forces', with 1 Italian officer and 20 Dubat killed and 35 Dubat wounded.
Headquarters on 18 January, but on receiving a report from them indicating the difficulties with which 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group appeared to be faced at El Yibo and learning that General Brink himself was on the road to Dukana, he postponed his visit until the situation had cleared up. On 21 January he visited El Yibo, the fall of which had encouraged a large number of Abyssinians to come over and offer their services, a proceeding which the Italians discouraged somewhat by bombing them--fortunately without success.
The G.O.C., according to 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade, visited the battlefield and said he was satisfied. In fact, there appears to have been a little more to it than that. General Cunningham--who flew up to Dukana on 21 January--apart from discussing with General Brink the South African division's manpower problems on its very extended front and other matters, had obviously felt it necessary to analyse the El Yibo operation in some detail with General Brink. In a personal letter some days after his visit to El Yibo, he could barely disguise some misgivings.
I hope 2nd Brigade will get more accustomed to the heat', wrote General Cunningham. 'Actually the conditions up at El Yibo are not so severe in that respect as in the South, where many of your South African units have been working for some time and have managed very well. I feel 2nd Brigade, having been only at Gilgil and Marsabit have probably not had time to get acclimatised.' General Brink himself felt the heat in the area to be the most exhausting he had ever experienced, and General Cunningham's remark took no account of the scorching effect of the rocks on men taking cover during the action.
'I was interested to see the ground up at El Yibo and appreciate that the extended depth of the enemy position was puzzling', General Cunningham graciously granted.
General Cunningham was also interested in the co-operation between the infantry and armoured cars, and had discussed the subject with both Lieutenant-Colonel McMillan and Major Walker. 'To my mind, in a case of this type', he wrote, 'the Armoured Cars' job is to locate and report the extent of the enemy position, to find the flanks and depth, and to get this information to the infantry as quickly as possible. Their fire power I look on during this period as protective and not offensive, and they should only use it offensively when more information cannot be gained without it. After the infantry have been informed, the role of the Armoured Cars may be to pin the enemy by getting behind him, to enable the infantry to develop their encircling movement, and if necessary to give supporting fire and help the infantry on.'
That General Cunningham's brief exposition was sound in respect of any well-trained enemy could not be doubted, and the outstanding later record of the South African armoured cars in the Western Desert was to show that it was a lesson well understood. Against Banda opposition at El Yibo, the situation was somewhat different, and General Brink wrote in the margin beside the Force Commander's well-meant remarks: 'Yes, but my object in using the Armoured Cars boldly was to put the fear of God into the enemy's Native troops and in this we were most successful'.
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation