Chapter 1: The Background
The end of the first world war brought disappointment to Italy. She had hoped to gain much from her participation in it but the peace settlement left her bitter and sore, with a feeling that the sacrifices had been made in vain. Nonetheless, it was not Italy but Japan who first threatened international peace by committing aggression against Manchuria in 1931. In January 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, taking office as Chancellor. His advent marked a new epoch in the history of Europe and brought the spectre of a second war nearer. In October 1935 Italy attacked Ethiopia thus putting the League of Nations to a crucial test. It was a clear violation of the Covenant of the League of Nations and constituted a challenge to it. Other nations with the possible exception of the United Kingdom were slow in waking up to the danger, and when the League of Nations decided on a policy of limited economic sanctions against Italy it was enforced half-heartedly, and was consequently ineffective in compelling her to abide by the League’s decision. “A large number of commodities, some of which were war materials, were prohibited from entering Italy, and an imposing schedule was drawn up but oil, without which the campaign in Abyssinia could not have been maintained, continued to enter freely, because it was understood that to stop it meant war”.1 “Not a ship, not a machine, not a man had been moved by any other member state,” said Sir Samuel Hoare in the House of Commons on 19 December 1935.2 Italy got away with her defiance of the League of Nations and conveniently annexed Ethiopia. A little earlier in March 1936 German troops had marched into the Rhineland, thus showing that Germany too poured scorn on the European settlement as effected by the Treaty of Versailles. The League could do nothing. The Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, fled from his country. The crisis revealed clearly that the League of Nations, by itself, lacked power to enforce respect for its decisions, its authority might be flouted with impunity and that aggression might be rewarding. As events showed the experiment of Mussolini was not lost on Hitler.
The annexation of Ethiopia showed the weakness of the League of Nations. It also drew British attention to their interests in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, the defence of which was closely linked to the security of the line of supply to India, Australia and the Far East. The developments in North Africa and the Mediterranean concerned Britain vitally. Apart from the possibility of Italy endangering her interests there, she was disturbed by the growing menace of Nazi Germany. Even greater was the danger from a combination of hostile Germany and Italy. Though danger was anticipated, the British Government continued to look on the bright side of the picture and hope for the best. But the signs were too clear on the wall to be mistaken. In the situation that was developing the Chiefs of Staff of the three services warned the British Government of the danger of a simultaneous hostility of Germany, Japan and Italy. The last occupied an important position in the Mediterranean and was well placed to cut off British communications with the east. It was considered therefore important to be on friendly terms with her, at any rate outwardly, and to take such military precautions unobtrusively by sea, land and air as were feasible, without raising an alarm. In the meantime, the British Government also set about improving its diplomatic relations with the other powers. A treaty was signed with Egypt which was ratified on 26 May 1937. It provided for the termination of the military occupation of Egypt and for the stationing of British forces in the canal zone for the security of the Suez Canal. The British Government was to help in training and equipping the Egyptian army and air force. The treaty made Egypt responsible for her own defence.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. The efforts of the British and French Governments were directed to prevent it from spreading beyond the Spanish frontiers. Both, therefore, advocated a policy of non-intervention. Germany and Italy however failed to abide by their undertakings not to intervene in the Spanish affairs and sent men and material to Spain and gave General Franco their active support. Before long Italy also started developing the Balearic Islands. â€¢ In November both Germany and Italy had accorded recognition to General Franco’s government. They were now showing a common outlook. For some time Italy had been suspicious of German designs on Austria and that had stood in the way of co-operation between these two powers. But now Italy was diverting her attention from the Danube and thinking in terms of expanding in the Mediterranean zone. Events in Ethiopia and Central Europe had clearly shown that the two powers might gain
mutually by sticking to one another. It was not surprising therefore that their unity of interest was formally expressed by the formation of the Rome-Berlin Axis.3
On the other hand, elements of irritation and friction between the United Kingdom and Italy were not wanting. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was not well received by the latter, who could not but resent, observed the Giornale d’ Italia, the strengthening of British influence in a region where Italy had her own interests to safeguard. Britain yet hoped for the restoration of friendly relations with Italy in the interest of peace in the Mediterranean, the importance of which was again stressed by the Chiefs of Staff. There was a gleam of hope for amiability when the Anglo-Italian Joint Declaration (popularly known as the Gentlemen’s Agreement) was signed on 2 January 1937. It had the effect of reducing tension momentarily between the two countries. By this agreement the two powers recognised freedom of movement in the Mediterranean Sea as vital to the interests of both of them. Both of them disclaimed any desire to modify or see modified the national sovereignty of any country in the Mediterranean area. But the Gentlemen’s Agreement failed to achieve any lasting improvement in the relations of the two powers. On the contrary, tension tended to increase. Mussolini felt that his ambitions would succeed only at the expense of British interests in the Mediterranean, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. He started hostile propaganda against her. The Italian press fed public opinion with unfavourable references to the British. Broadcasts were made in Arabic to undermine British influence in the Middle East countries. This propaganda became more offensive in tone and content with the passage of time. In a broadcast to the Arabs of Libya, Mussolini was even extolled as the protector of Islam. The harbours of Massawa and Assab in the Red Sea were developed and the African army in Ethiopia increased. The British Government viewed these developments with concern and in July 1937 the British Cabinet felt that Italy could no longer be regarded as a reliable friend. Precautionary measures were adopted to improve the defences of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea ports. Nonetheless, it was Germany which constituted the main danger, and it was desirable that no action should be taken which might alienate Italy and provoke her hostility.4
Meanwhile events elsewhere added to the tension. In November 1937 Italy joined Germany and Japan in their Anti-Comintern Pact. Then came Italian withdrawal from the League of Nations. The British Chiefs of Staff found the situation “fraught with greater risk than at any time in living memory, apart from the war years.” The German menace was also casting its ugly shadows. Hitler had set his eyes on Austria. On the first page of Mein Kampf he had written, “German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland ... people of the same blood should be in the same Reich.”5 He was resolved to achieve it. The Austrian republic succumbed to German intimidation and in March 1938 German forces marched into Austria and Hitler entered Vienna in triumph. He had made a bloodless conquest. Things were now heading for a climax. It appeared almost certain that before long Hitler would strike his next blow at Czechoslovakia. Munich Settlement which sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia was signed on 30 September. According to it the Sudetenland was to be evacuated in five stages starting from 1 October. Thus the British Prime Minister, Mr. Neville Chamberlain who had thrice flown to Germany and believed that he had brought “peace with honour” had allowed himself to be outwitted by Hitler.
Early in February 1939, the British Cabinet decided to approach the French Government with the suggestion that staff conversations might take place on the basis of defence against Germany and Italy who might possibly be joined later by Japan. They were to cover all possible fields of operations, especially the Mediterranean and the Middle East. These conversations were held at the end of March 1939. The Allied strategy was conceived in terms of a long war. It was appreciated that Germany would start her offensive on land in Europe; Italy would strike principally by land from Libya and Ethiopia and would menace British supply route through the Mediterranean Sea.6 In April 1939 Italy invaded Albania. It was followed by the conclusion of a political and military agreement between Italy and Germany. The situation soon deteriorated steadily. In March 1939 Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. He denounced the naval agreement with Britain and the non-aggression treaty of 1934 with Poland. On 23 August the Non-Aggression Pact was signed between Russia and Germany. It was a prelude to the invasion of Poland on 1 September and the entry into the war of France and Great Britain. On 3 September
1939, they declared war on Germany on the strength of their alliance with Poland. Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany the same day. The Second World War had thus begun.
On the outbreak of war with Germany the Middle East Command assumed operational control over the troops in Egypt, Palestine and the Sudan.7 The British forces at the time in those countries were:–
The 7th Armoured Division–
Two armoured brigades (each of two regiments only)
One armoured car regiment
One motor battalion.
The 4th Indian Division–
One regiment of artillery
One infantry brigade.
Royal Artillery Group–
7 Medium Regiment
3 Regiment RHA (AT)
4 Regiment RHA
31 Field Regiment RA
Eight British infantry battalions.
The 8th Division–
Two brigades, each of three British battalions.
Two British cavalry regiments.
Four additional British battalions (less one company of one battalion in Cyprus)
In the Sudan,
Three British battalions
Sudan Defence Force consisting of twenty companies in all, the greater part of which was employed on internal security.
In British Somaliland,
The headquarters and three companies of Camel Corps.
The above forces in the Middle East and East Africa were not complete formations. There were in all twenty-one battalions
of infantry, but only 64 field guns and there were only 48 anti-tank and 8 anti-aircraft guns8.
When the war with Germany had commenced the possibility of Italy’s joining in was kept in view by the Allied Governments and precautionary measures were taken against a possible surprise attack by the latter. The plans for the defence of the western frontier were brought into execution and the security of the Suez Canal was a matter of primary consideration in view of the danger of sabotage by Italian ships going up and down the canal. With Poland eliminated and secure on her eastern frontier by the Soviet- German Non-Aggression Pact, Germany was free to strike either west or south through the Balkans towards Egypt. The chances of Italy participating in this venture had thus increased.
General Sir Archibald Wavell9, who was responsible for the conduct of operations in all African theatres, in the ensuing months established relations with the French commanders in Syria, in North Africa and in French Somaliland with the object of co-ordinating Allied plans and efforts. Later he made contacts with the military authorities in Turkey also when she had signed the Treaty of Alliance on 29 October 1939. In the winter of 1939–1940 there took place tripartite discussions between the French in Syria, the British and the Turks on the means of carrying out the military clauses of that treaty.
But Mussolini hesitated to strike, and meanwhile by March 1940, the British position had also somewhat improved by the arrival of reinforcements. A second Indian infantry brigade (the 5th) had arrived from India in October. An unattached battalion had arrived from China by the end of February. The 1st Cavalry Division had arrived in Palestine from England in the third week of March. The 16th Australian Infantry Brigade and a portion of the 6th Australian Division arrived in February. Also the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade and some of the Divisional troops of the 1st New Zealand Division arrived soon after. Although these reinforcements totalled 20,000 men in all they did not add greatly to the
fighting strength of the Allies. Only the Indian Infantry Brigade was complete, though with obsolescent equipment, and fit for fighting. Other formations were not fully trained and lacked equipment especially of the latest type.
Meanwhile events were taking shape which indicated that Italy would show her hand soon. Hitler and Mussolini had met on the Brenner Pass on 18 March 1940 and, from the information that leaked out, it appeared that Mussolini had made up his mind now to hurl Italy into the fight. By early May the situation was serious enough and orders were issued for the forward troops to reoccupy positions which they had held in the previous August. It was definite now that Italy had for some time been preparing for war. Her navy was in a state of preparations as also the air force. The army had been in the process of mobilisation since 10 May. Her army in Libya, Albania and the Dodecanese had received reinforcements. The balance of evidence indicated that, in spite of deficiency of material in the fighting services and strained finances, Italy might throw her weight on the side of Germany.
On 10 May German armies invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. A few days later German forces crossed the line of the Meuse. With the military collapse of France the tempo of war had greatly increased. At the end of three weeks France contemplated capitulation. These events which followed in rapid succession had a great psychological effect on the people in the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East. Every German success confirmed Nazi military strength and created doubts about the ability of the Allies to win the war. With Germany triumphant in Europe it was certain that Italy would join the winning side and she had not long to wait. It appeared to Mussolini that Germany had already won the war and that he had everything to gain and little to risk by aligning Italy with Germany. Hence on 10 June the General Headquarters Middle East was warned that France was on the point of collapse and that Italy was certain to come into the war on the opposite side. It proved true and at 1645 hours the same day the British ambassador in Rome was informed that at one minute past midnight Italy would be at war with the United Kingdom. Her decision to enter the lists did not come as a surprise as for some time it had been anticipated.10
We may now review the situation in East Africa where the British forces were opposed by an Italian army of which the Duke of Aosta,
as Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief of Italian East Africa, was the head, and General Frusci in actual command. In that zone British troops were organised in three subordinate commands; the Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland and the forces were scattered and not numerous. In the Sudan, with a long and vulnerable frontier of 1,200 miles, were three British battalions and Sudan Defence Force which, together with the police and irregular formations, totalled about 9,000 men. In Kenya, which had a frontier of 850 miles, were two East African brigades and two light battalions or some 8,500 men. British Somaliland had one battalion of the King’s African Rifles and five companies of the Somaliland Camel Corps, in all about 1,475 men.11 The British garrison there was inadequate for the defence of British Somaliland and reinforcements were not in sight. Hence the co-operation of the French was considered essential for the defence of this territory. Aden was garrisoned by two Indian battalions.
The exact strength of the Italian forces in Italian East Africa at the time was not known with certainty. There were assumed to be, on the Sudan frontier, eleven brigades of African troops and twelve Blackshirt battalions with 200 guns; in Southern Ethiopia about 7,000 African and 1,000 white troops; in Italian Somaliland 7,000 African troops and 4,000 levies. A metropolitan division was at Addis Ababa and six African brigades at Dire Dawa and Harar. The total was estimated at 30,000 white and 100,000 African troops with 400 guns, 200 light tanks and 20,000 lorries. Thus the Italians were far superior to British in numbers.12
As far as air force was concerned the Italians in East Africa, exclusive of reserves, were believed to have 36 modern bombers and 114 of Colonial types; 45 modern fighters, and 18 others; a total of 213 aircraft. They suffered from one disadvantage, however, that as long as the Allied blockade by land and sea was complete Italian stocks of fuel, ammunition and other items, could not be increased. On the British side, in the Sudan, there were three bomber squadrons (Wellesley) and one fighter flight (Gladiator). “Excluding the aircraft of the Rhodesian squadron and the Kenya Auxiliary flights, there were, by the outbreak of war, some 85 Wellesleys and Blenheims, 9 Vincents, 24 Hartbeests, 15 Junkers 86, and 30 Gladiators and Furies in Aden, Kenya and the Sudan.”13
The entry of Italy into the war was likely to have far-reaching effects on British imperial interests, in general, and on the military situation in the Middle East, in particular. The British depended for easy communication with their outstretched possessions and the Dominions of the Commonwealth on the sea route of the Mediterranean. The shift of Italy into the Axis camp and her declaration of war against the United Kingdom inevitably affected the utilisation of this route and thereby prejudiced the transportation of men, equipment and war supplies to the eastern theatres of war and India. The Italian navy, by no means negligible, having turned hostile, the whole balance of naval power in Mediterranean waters was upset. For, by operating from its home bases, the Italian Fleet could, at least for some time, close the Mediterranean to the Allied shipping. Even with the help of the French Fleet it was not possible to keep the ordinary sea routes through the Mediterranean open. With the collapse of France the situation grew even more critical. The closing of the Mediterranean sea route, it was feared, would greatly delay the arrival of reinforcements from the United Kingdom. A voyage which had averaged two weeks was expected to take six times that number by the route of Cape of Good Hope. This also required a large amount of additional shipping, and ships were in short supply—which meant that the arrival of reinforcements to the Middle East would be further delayed.
The defence of the Suez Canal was another factor to be considered. The problem of its defence against mine-dropping by aircraft was very difficult. Another problem was the effect of the French surrender on the personnel of the canal since the technical staff in charge of it had been largely French from the early days of its construction. Their withdrawal from the operation of the canal was likely to create a critical situation.
Lastly, there was the Red Sea route the safety of which was more important than before for the success of operations in East Africa and the Middle East. With the closing of the Mediterranean as a supply route British forces in East Africa and the Middle East could receive reinforcements both from the United Kingdom and India only through this route. General Wavell considered the Red Sea his real life-line and he had been anxious for the defence of Port Sudan and Jibouti from the beginning. The principal danger in the Red Sea came from eight Italian submarines and seven fleet destroyers which were based on Massawa, in addition to other vessels for local defence. If properly used they could menace the Allied shipping in that area. There was, however, a
counterbalancing factor as Massawa was cut off and could not receive supplies and reinforcements from Italy and her threat was expected to grow progressively weaker.
To meet the new danger, the Allied strategy at the outset was generally defensive. Egypt, Palestine and Syria were to be defended. The Suez Canal and the sea communications to French Africa were to be kept intact and the Red Sea route was to be maintained as a safe supply line. In the Sudan the plan approved by General Wavell was that the key towns of Khartoum, Atbara and Port Sudan were to be defended firmly by the three British battalions there. The Sudan Defence Force companies were to harass an Italian advance, inflict casualties and exploit the natural difficulties to the full. It was realized that it would not be possible to hold Kassala or Gallabat and these would probably have to be given up. In any case a fighting withdrawal was envisaged which was to be made as expensive for the Italians and as cheap for the Allies as was possible.
This then was the general background against which the campaign in Italian East Africa was conducted.14 The situation for the Allies was far from pleasant, the Italians being vastly superior in numbers. But this was offset to some extent by other factors which favoured the Allies. It was apparent that with the declaration of war the Italian army in East Africa would be cut off from its supplies and would not be able to hold on indefinitely. The second factor was the internal situation of Ethiopia. Here the activity of the Patriots could not but undermine Italian position, who were to be hard put to keep internal order by suppressing the Patriots and at the same time to defend Ethiopia from external attack. The
British were naturally expected to exploit the situation and ensure that Patriot revolt was festered and supported by all means at their disposal.15 An Ethiopian rising while Italian forces fought in Ethiopia was to become General Frusci’s worst fear.