South African Force
World War II
Volume I

East African and Abyssinian Campaigns

Neil Orpen



On 7 November 1943, Field-Marshal Smuts decided to establish a UDF Hitorical Advisory Committee, the designatino of which wa changed to Union War Histories Advisory Committee in November 1945. This committee became directly responsible to the Prime Minister and formed part of the Union War Histories Section of the Prime Minister's Office. Three volumes of Histories were eventually published: Crisis in the Desert, The Sidi Rezeg Battle, 1941 and War in the Southern Oceans. Four more books were planned, but in July 1959 the Committee's activitiesi came to an end, and on 30 June 1961 the Union War Histories Section was closed down.

Lieutenant-General George Brink, as Chairman of the Council of Corps, Regimental and Kindred Associations, requested that the decision be reviewed. He was advised that the material collected would be transferred to the Union Archives and it would be available for research.

Further volumes which were planned were intended to cover the History of the South African Air Force; the Abyssinian Campaign; the Italian Campaign and the war in North Africa (excluding those actions covered by the Sidi Rezeg and Crisis in the Desert volumes). In 1961 General Brink stressed that unless early action was taken to raise funds these books would never be published. An appeal was then made to all ex-service organizations and R 10,000 was raised.

The South African War Histories Advisory Committee was formed by Colonel Dom Ollemans at General Brink's request. Colonel Olle-mans obtained further contributions, totalling R7,000, from three newspaper groups shortly before his untimely death.

The Committee then appointed Commandant N. N. D. Orpen, J.CD., to write the history of the East African campaign and Mr. James Ambrose Brown to write the story of the South African Air Force.

It was apparent that the available funds would not be sufficient to meet the production costs of the works commissioned, particularly as the story of the South African Air Force would need three volumes. The Committee appealed to Commerce and Industry for donations. Sir Keith Acutt sponsored this appeal and due to his energy and enthusiasm there was an immediate and generous response.

General Hiemstra, Commandant-General, South African Defence Force, has given his encouragement and support to this venture and appointed Commandant J. Ploeger and Captain E. Jonker as representatives of the S.A. Defence Force on the Committee.

At the suggestion of Dr. Verwoerd, then Prime Minister, General Brink approached the Department of Education, Arts and Science fcr a research grant. A generous grant through the National Council fcr Social Research has made it possible to continue with the story of the North African Campaign. Professor D. W. Kriiger has been appointed to the Committee to represent the Council.

The Committee is as follows:


In the absence of an Official History we hope this volume, and those to follow, will be accepted as the authoritative records of the part played by, the South African land and air forces in this campaign. Although these volumes will record the contribution to final victory made by South African forces as a whole, it is fitting to acknowledge in this Foreword the importance to the Allied cause of those individual South Africans who served in or were seconded to the British forces. Their numbers were substantial.

In addition to the many who hastened to the call in the fight against tyranny at the outbreak of war, some 3,000 South Africans saw action with the Royal Navy, almost 1,500 South African officers alone were seconded to the British Army and more than 500 South Africans flew in the Royal Air Force.

Whether or not their story may be found elsewhere their gallantry and their memory are honoured by their fellow South Africans.

These volumes have been deliberately planned as popular scientific and, above all, human accounts of the South African Forces at war. Each manuscript is scrutinized by the Military Historical and Archival Services of the S.A.D.F. and the Department of Defence.

With the publication of this history an important part of the story of the South African Forces has been told. For this, not only is praise and gratitude due for the unflagging interest and zeal of General George Brink and for the encouragement afforded to him by the late Hon. Dr. Verwoerd, but also particular thanks must be expressed to the Departments of Defence and of Education, Arts and Science for all the interest shown and the assistance they have given.

The author of this volume, Commandant Neil Orpen, is one of our most distinguished South African military historians. He served with the old Coast Garrison Force before the outbreak of World War II, was on active service throughout the War and subsequently commanded the Cape Field Artillery.

He has carried out, in this most readable and authoritative book, the full directive of the War Histories Advisory Committee who


directed that this, the first volume, should be written to gain wide popular appeal, particularly amonst South Africa's youth today, whilst at the same time stamping it as a work of authority for future research historians. He was directed to highlight the roles played by all arms on land and the personal contributions and exploits of South Africans of all ranks and, last but not least, to show how the youthful South African forces and the men and industries behind the lines, starting with a deficiency in men and materials, accomplished what they did in East Africa.

We believe that he has carried out his task admirably in every way.

  C. G. KERR
Chairman, War Histories Advisory Committee




Lt.-General George E. Brink, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O.

In writing the introduction to this book I make no excuses for quoting freely from the Armed Forces of South Africa, by that outstanding military historian, Major G. Tylden, E.D., whose words express my thoughts more lucidly than I myself could hav edone and I give full acknowledgement to him in making use of his writings for this introduction.

For over two hundred years South Africans have waged war, either independently or as allies of the British Army and, with the exception of the Indian Army, have stood side by side with the British in more campaigns than troops of any other country.

The record is a fine one, and includes operations in Southern, Eastern and Northern Africa and in Flanders, France and Italy as well. Individuals have also enlisted freely in the British Forces in the last two World Wars, and ships of the South African Navy and squadrons of the South African Air Force have ranged even further afield. Men of both European stocks, English and Afrikaans-speaking, Bantu (Native), Cape Coloureds, Malays and Indians have all gone to swell the total.

For many years what is now the Republic of South Africa consisted of a number of States and Colonies (Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State) each of which raised its own forces, mainly on the voluntary system, and demobilized them at the end of each war.

From 1880 to 1881 the Transvaal was at war with Great Britain and British forces suffered defeats at the hands of the Republican (Boer) forces at Bronkhorstspruit, Laings Nek, Schuinshoogte and Majuba. The peace that followed was uneasy and war broke out again in 1899 when the two small South African Republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State) were plunged into conflict with the British Empire. The Boer riflemen, reckoned to be the finest marksmen in the world, were more than a match for the 448,000 Imperial troops thrown against them. Foiled in their efforts to destroy the Boer forces in the field, Lords Roberts and Kitchener introduced a policy of devastating farms throughout the two Republics, destroying crops and killing livestock to deny food supplies to the enemy. Not satisfied with this ruthless policy, they then interned thousands of men, women and children in forty-two concentration camps where the death-rate rose to a figure that shocked the world. 26,000 people, mostly women and children, were estimated to have died in those camps. The result was a bitterness never known before and which has made it difficult for the descendants of the Boers to forgive and forget. The repercussions were felt in 1914 when the First World War broke out and Britain called upon her Empire for help.

In 1910 the four separate Provinces of South Africa became the Union of South Africa and it will be understood that the problem the newly-formed Government of the Union faced with its Armed Forces was not an easy one. Not eight years had elapsed since the two


sections, English- and Afrikaans-speaking, had concluded a long and hardly contested war, of which the scars were still apparent.

With the introduction in 1912 of the S.A. Defence Act, the Union Defence Force came into being. Training had barely started when war broke out in 1914. Upon the entry of South Africa into the First World War everything that could happen to disorganize the embryo Defence Force occurred at once. A large section of the Afrikaans-speaking population refused to serve in support of the English and a considerable number went into armed rebellion against their own Government in protest against the intention to invade German South West Africa. The movement affected the bulk of the newly-formed regiments and practically the whole of the Defence Rifle Associations (Commando units). The situation was saved by the extraordinary efforts of the Prime Minister, General Louis Botha, and the Minister of Defence, General J. C. Smuts. Thirty thousand men were placed under arms to suppress the rebellion and about sixty thousand for the conquest of German South West Africa, which was occupied and subdued at the request of the British Government. A Brigade of Infantry was sent to Egypt and eventually to France, while several batteries of heavy artillery, two more brigades of infantry with artillery and ten regiments of mounted rifles went to German East Africa (now Tanzania). Two regiments of dismounted rifles went to Nyasaland (now Malawi) and two battalions of Cape Coloured men as infantry were recruited for German East Africa.

A large number of Coloured and Native labourers went to German South West Africa, German East Africa and France.

The German South West Africa Campaign, conducted by General Louis Botha, the brilliant leader of the Boer forces during the Anglo-Boer War, was the first successful campaign of World War I. It was followed by a series of brilliant successes by General Smuts in German East Africa and he was succeeded by his one-time senior Boer War Combat-General, Lieut.-General J. L. van Deventer, as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in German East Africa. Van Deventer drove the Germans out of that territory into Portuguese East Africa, and from there into Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) where the German Commander, General von Lettow Vorbeck, laid down arms when the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918.

'The War to end all Wars' had been fought and won at an exorbitant cost of lives. General Smuts returned from the Peace Conference at Versailles sick of the war and its aftermath and handed over the portfolio of Defence to Colonel Hendrik Mentz. Smuts had lost interest in the fine defence organization he had created. The thought of another war was inconceivable. He was, however, to be faced with more trouble sooner than he anticipated.

During 1922 the miners on the gold-mines of the Witwatersrand went on strike. The strike developed into a revolt, which was eventually put down with military force by the Smuts Government. The Labour Party now formed a pact with the National Party and ousted General Smuts's South African Party during the 1924 General Election. The Defence Force was in bad odour owing to the stern measures it was called upon to adopt during the 1914 Rebellion and the 1922 Revolt.


Colonel Creswell, leader of the Labour Party, who had served under General Smuts in East Africa, became Minister of Defence in the Pact Government but he was unable during his nine years of office to persuade his Cabinet colleagues to maintain a reasonably strong Defence Force, so for years the Force languished in the doldrums.

The Imperial Conference met in London in 1926 and was attended by the Union's new Prime Minister, General J. B. M. Hertzog. The Committee of Imperial Defence met at the same time and recorded an opinion that 'no major conflict could be expected for ten years'. So for nearly another seven years the Union Defence Force subsisted on a shoe-string. The answer given to all representations made by the General Staff to make more money available for South Africa's defence was invariably: 'Whom do you intend to fight?'

The depression of the 1930's saw the Defence Force at its lowest ebb.

During 1933 Generals Smuts and Hertzog sank their differences and, in the interest of the country, formed the United Party with General Hertzog as Prime Minister, General Smuts as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice, and Mr. O. Pirow, K.C., an intelligent and energetic young barrister, as Minister of Defence. The new Defence Minister quickly infused new life and vigour into the ailing Defence Force. A transformation took place, new regiments were formed, new Staff appointments made and the Air Force, which for years had existed as a glorified Flying Club, was reorganized and built up to a pitch where it was capable of shooting the Italian Air Force out of the skies in East Africa, Abyssinia and Eritrea. But still there was no potential enemy. During 1935, however, Mussolini invaded and, following much brutality, conquered Abyssinia. Mussolini was building an empire in Africa. Hitler had his eyes on South West Africa (formerly German territory) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania, formerly German territory). Yet, by 1937 the Government had not informed the General Staff what its Defence policy was.

During 1938, however, after the Minister of Defence had been pressed to state what Defence training policy had to be, the reply came; 'The organization, equipment and training of the Union Defence Force is to be based on meeting an enemy on African soil in bush warfare.' That was good enough. During this year, too, Mr. Pirow visited Great Britain, Germany and Spain and, upon his return, a change in his attitude was apparent. He had obviously been greatly impressed by what he had witnessed in Germany. But senior officers of the U.D.F. had also visited the U.K., Germany, France and Italy and had come to the conclusion that Germany and Italy were making military preparations of a nature which boded ill for the future. Warnings by the officers referred to were ignored but training was stepped up and planning went ahead. The General Staff aimed at putting two divisions in the field. There was, however, a total lack of fighting equipment of all kinds which could not be met from overseas sources.

On 4 September 1939, the South African Parliament voted by 80 votes to 67 in favour of severing relations with the German Reich, which meant that 67 M.P.s were in favour of adopting a policy of neutrality. General Hertzog tendered his resignation and General


Smuts became Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. War had come and had found South Africa dangerously unprepared, with a large section of the Afrikaans-speaking population opposed to war with Germany. However, preparations were stepped up and, before long, another appeal (the third in twenty-five years) came from the British Government for help —again in East Africa.

How the challenge was met and how it succeeded is told in this history by Commandant Neil Orpen. It is a story of high endeavour and significant military achievement.

Pride of place must go to the S.A. Engineer Corps which paved the way for the South African Air Force to establish its landing grounds and operational airfields to enable it to tackle, and eventually shoot out of the skies, the much larger and better equipped Italian Air Force. Without the magnificent part played by the Sappers, and the gallant young airmen flying their outdated and often obsolete aircraft, the land forces would have struggled for a much longer time to overcome and conquer the enemy over the vast distances and difficult terrain in which they had to operate. In the end South Africa put into the field a total of 43,730 troops to enable General Alan Cunningham to build up his two African Divisions—unfortunately at the expense of the 1st S.A. Division, which was given an independent role. In this campaign, too, as in the German South West African and East African Campaigns of World War I, our Cape Coloured, Indian, Malay and Bantu (Native) troops played a significant role, serving in road motor transport companies or acting as cooks, stretcher-bearers and pioneers. They provided 9,750 of the total strength. To quote Commandant Orpen: 'This considerable South African contribution gave the East Africa Force the vital impetus which set it off on the way to victory.'

Just as in World War I, South Africa had given the Allies the first wholly successful campaign.



Author's Acknowledgements

It has been a privilege to be entrusted with the writing of this history, which I hope will serve in some small way as a tribute to those who took part in the East African and Abyssinian Campaign. The work has only been possible because of the generous assitance lent me by individuals too numerous to mention in detail, but I must place on record my special indebtedness to the following:

Lieutenant-General George Brink, for his unfailing encouragement and assistance; General Sir Alan Cunningham, and Lieutenant-General Sir E. Wetherall for their invaluable comments and advice; General Lord Robertson of Oakridge for permission to quote from his notes; the Controller of Her Brittanic Majesty's Stationery Office, London, for permission to quote from The History of the Second Wo? Id War—The Mediterranean and Middle East and from official despatches published as Supplements to the London Gazette; the Ufficio Storico, Stato Maggoire Esercito, Rome, for permission to quote from La Guerra in Africa Orientale and also from the Duke of Aosta's despatches; Major-General B. F. Armstrong, Major-General W. R. van der Riet, Brigadier S. J. Joubert, Brigadier J. P. de Villiers, Brigadier Bruce Guildford, Colonel L. G. F. Wolf, Lieutenant-Colonel C. L. Engelbrecht, Commandant D. B. H. Grobbelaar, Major Neil Hare and Mr. W. F. Ashburner for their help and access to their records; Mr. P. Alton for the general map of the theatre of operations and Major J. N. Cowin for permission to reproduce the maps of Kulkaber and Gondar on pages 324 and 327.

For the provision of individual photographs I must thank Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Klein, Major J. H. Gage, Mr. Terence McNally, Mr. Norman Bennett, Mr. D. Townshend and Mr. N. S. Kearns. The copyright of other photographs rests with the S.A. National War Museum, and I thank both its Director, Commandant George Duxbury, and also the staff of the Cape Times Reference Library for prints of different pictures. Likewise, I record my sincere appreciation of the assistance given me by the Staff at the Government Archives, Pretoria, the Cape Archives, Cape Town, the Defence Force Archives, Pretoria, and by the Cabinet Office Historical Section, London.

Finally, I should like to pay tribute to the enormous amount of preliminary research done by the Union War Histories Section before 1959, and to acknowledge with thanks the patience and consideration displayed by the Chairman and members of the War Histories Advisory Committee since our very first discussion of this project.

None of the above is any way responsible for opinions expressed in this book, which are entirely my own.

A List of Sources appears at the end of the book.


October 1968.



Foreword, by Mr. C.G. Kerr, Chairman of the War Histories Advisory Committee iii
Introduction, by Lieutenant-General Geo E. Brink, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O. vi
Foreword, by Mr. C.G. Kerr, Chairman of the War Histories Advisory Committee iii
Acknowledgements x
Donations x
Chapter   Page
1. South Africa declares War 1
2. General Smuts fulfils his promise 11
3. Setting the Stage 25
4. Teething Troubles Overcome 50
5. 1st S.A. Division Arrives 61
6. Raid on El Wak 71
7. Preparation for Action 81
8. Capture of El Yibo 90
9. 1st S.A. Division enters Abyssinia 105
10. Outflanking Moyale 115
11. Interlude at Banno 129
12. Confusion at the Crossroads 136
13. Battle of Mega 152
14. The Taking of Govwen and Kismayu 172
15. Rolling up the Juba Line 192
16. Redistribution and Disappointment 214
17. Into the Abyssinian Highlands 224
18. Onward to Addis Ababa 236
19. The Battle of Combolcia and Dessie 256
20. The Battle of the Lakes--Dadaba 273
21. The Battle of the Lakes--Soddu 286
22. Amba Alagi--Surrender in Eritrea 297
23. End of an Empire 315
1. The Union Defence Force before 1933 331
2. After the Depression 335
3. Recommended Organization of Defence Headquarters 339
4. Organization of a Field Division, 9 October 1939 340
5. Italian Forces Deployed in Italian East Africa, 1 June 1940 342
6. Blackshirt Battalions 344
7. Composition of El Wak Raiding Force 345
8. S.A. Forces in East Africa 346
9. 1st S.A. Division Troops involved in securing the Line Gorai-El Gumu-Hobok 352
10. Order of Battle, 11th African Division, 11 March 1941 353
11. Honours and Awards for Service in East Africa and Abyssinia, 1940-1 354
Annotations 357
List of Sources 370
General Index 373
Index of Units and Formations 387
El Wak--The Attack 72
El Yibo, El Sardu and Approches 97
Attack on Gorai 117
Attack on El Gumu 121
Attack on Hobok 122
Mega, El Sod and Approaches 140
Mega and Environs 160
Juba River, Yonte Area 194
Capture of Jelib 202
Graph--Strength of S.A. Forces 222
Battle of Marda Pass 231
The Italian Retreat  facing page 242
The Battle of Combolcia Pass 260
Battle of Dadaba 284
Omo River and the Lakes facing page 290
Amba Alagi from Khaki Hill 299
Battle of Amba Alagi 303
Battleground of Kulkaber 324
Gondar 327
The East African Theatre of Operations, 1940-1 inside back cover



Donations toward defraying the cost of producing a series of histories recording the part played by the South African forces during World War II have been received form the following and are gratefully acknowledged.

African Cables Limited African Explosives and Chemical Industries Limited
African Oxygen Limited
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Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa, Limited
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Bradlows Stores Limited
Caltex Oil (S.A.) Limited
Cerebos (Africa) Limited
Chapelat Industries Limited
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C.N.A. Investments Limited
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Coronation Brick and Tile Co., Ltd.
Credit Corporation of South Africa Limited
Crittall-Hope Metal Windows (South Africa) Limited
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Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company, Limited
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Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Co. Ltd. (Barnato) Group of Mines
G. H. Langler and Co. Ltd.
Leyland Motor Corporation of South Africa Limited
Lion Match Company Limited LTA Limited
Messina (Transvaal) Development Co., Ltd.
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Netherlands Bank of South Africa Limited
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Mr. S. Ornstein (Steel & Power Products Ltd.)
Ovenstone Holdings (Pty.) Ltd.
Rand Mines Limited
Rembrandt Tobacco Corporation (S.A.) Limited
Rcunert and Lenz, Ltd.
Ropes and Mattings Limited
Rvan Nigel Investment Company Limited


S.A. Forest Investments Limited
Scottish Cables (South Africa) Limited
South African Breweries Institute
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Union Acceptances Limited Union Corporation Limited
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Argus Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd.
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Cape Town Highlanders
First City Regimental Association
Gunners' Association
Memorable Order of Tin Hats
Die Middellandse Regiment Association
Natal Carbineers
P.A.G. (Comrades) Association
Pretoria Regiment P.A.O. Association
Royal Durban Light Infantry Association
S.A.A.F. Association
Sappers Association
S.A.R. & H. War Services Union
South African Legion
Transvaal Scottish Regimental Association


Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation