Chapter 3: The First Encounters
When Italy joined the war against the Allies in June 1940, British forces in the Sudan comprised three British infantry battalions1 and the Sudan Defence Force, a total of about 9,000 men. Italian forces in East Africa were estimated to be over 100,000 men. Viewed in the context of the general situation in the Middle East this position was highly unsatisfactory. Egypt, the Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland, all were liable to attack by the Italians as their extensive frontiers were guarded by inadequate forces. In Egypt a strength of 36,000 men was pitched against an Italian force of over 215,000 in Libya. In other countries also bordering on Italian East Africa, British garrisons were equally weak. Kenya had about 8,500 men and British Somaliland about 1,475. These figures included local frontier police forces also. The Italians had also considerable numerical advantage in the air, though this was balanced by the superior skill and training of British airmen2.
On 17 June 1940 the French Government asked for armistice terms. It was at first hoped that the French colonies and oversea territories would continue the struggle even after the French capitulation. But French General Nogues in North Africa decided to obey orders to surrender and his example was followed by the French Commander in Syria. At Jibuti, General Legentilhomme held out for nearly a month longer. The French collapse in North Africa changed the strategical situation for the Axis powers. It removed a major threat to Libya. The Italian forces in North and East Africa had no longer to concern themselves with Tunisia and French Somaliland and could be used for large-scale offensive operations. Egypt was now certainly to be attacked. The defection of Syria meant that the French force of three divisions which could have been used for helping Turkey, Greece or Egypt, if necessary, could not be counted upon by the British. Egypt and the Sudan were now to feel the pinch of Italian forces on their borders more than ever before.
With inadequate forces it was hardly possible for the British to cover the long and vulnerable 1,200 miles of the frontier of the Sudan with Italian East Africa. Therefore, a policy of defending only important places on the frontier with small mobile forces was adopted. They were asked to hold on till attacked by superior Italian forces. General Wavell who laid down this policy knew that these small numbers could not resist an advance by Italian forces—greatly superior in numbers. But he thought it desirable that they should fight a delaying action against the Italians rather than surrender without any fighting at all.3
The first three weeks of war passed without definite signs of Italian intention to start a large-scale offensive, though operations in the form of skirmishes did take place. Air forces on both sides attacked each other’s places. Kassala, Port Sudan, Atbara, Kurmuk and Gedaref were subjected to air attacks. These affected the civilian morale to some extent though no military damage of any importance was caused. British air force attacked Italian warships based on Massawa and bases and supply depots in Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, on land the Italians made no advance. The Sudan Defence Force, on the other hand, frequently engaged in offensive patrolling across the Sudan frontier opposite Kassala and Gallabat. They made several successful raids on the Italian frontier posts. Major-General W. Platt, the General Officer Commanding Troops in the Sudan at this time intended to hold three important places, Khartoum, Atbara and Port Sudan and to delay an Italian advance as long as he could in the hope of receiving reinforcements. Anything beyond the defence of the Sudan was hardly feasible.4
Early in July 1940 there was a change in Italian attitude and they attacked the frontier posts of Karora, Kassala, Gallabat and Kurmuk, and by the end of the first week they were in possession of all these places. The defending troops offered resistance and inflicted heavy losses on the Italians which perhaps prevented them from following up their successes in spite of their superiority in numbers. Nonetheless these successes secured some important advantages to the Italians. Apart from enhancing their prestige, the Italians had succeeded in obtaining an important entrance into the Sudan at Kassala. The capture of Gallabat further made it difficult for the British to establish connection with the Patriots in Gojjam.5 The
Italians were also successful in taking Moyale on the borders of Kenya and in overrunning British Somaliland in August.
The British forces even after these initial reverses continued to patrol the frontier offensively and to be prepared against deeper thrusts by the Italians. Platt by these offensive patrols along the frontier succeeded in making a good show of his strength. He bluffed the Italians into thinking that he had far greater strength than he actually commanded. This perhaps had its effect in preventing an Italian advance against Port Sudan, Atbara and Khartoum. It is curious that the Italians failed to exploit their early successes and to take advantage of their superiority in numbers, weapons and aircraft. They at the time were in control of the entrance of the Red Sea and could well have tried to sweep up through the Sudan. An Italian pincer movement held chances of success, the northern arm of which would be Marshal Graziani’s army advancing from Libya and the southern arm, Italian forces from East Africa. By a resolute and well-planned effort they might have succeeded in closing the two arms of the pincer. For the British it would have resulted in the loss of the Sudan, who would then not have been in a position to send reinforcements up the Red Sea to the Middle East and would have lost their supply route across Africa and Takoradi to Khartoum. But the Italians attempted no such venture which later, with the arrival of British reinforcements, ceased to be a practical proposition. “Any Italian general,” it has been said, “who looks back at that time must feel inclined to kick himself for the waste of those precious weeks when, if he had only known it, resolute and co-ordinated attacks might have closed the jaws altogether—The wave of Italian opportunity swelled, rose, hung, and sank back again with a whisper like ‘Italy’ instead of bursting with a roar like ‘Rome’”.6
In September strong British reinforcements arrived in the Sudan. B Squadron 6th Royal Tank Regiment (cruiser and light tanks) arrived in early September from Egypt and in the second half of that month, the 5th Indian Division7 less one brigade arrived from India. Soon after Wavell instructed Platt to make plans for minor
offensive operations as soon as it might be practicable. The recapture of the frontier post of Gallabat was suggested as a suitable objective. No general offensive was contemplated at this stage. In Kenya, General Dickinson was to concentrate upon an active defence and to make plans for a future offensive.
With the arrival of reinforcements reorganisation was effected to make use of the available forces to the best advantage. A provisional plan was made on 26 September according to which the Headquarters 5th Indian Division was placed in command of all the troops in the area. They had under their command the 10th and 21st Indian Infantry Brigades, one Motor Machine Gun Group, Sudan Defence Force, 1st Essex and a mixed tank company. These troops were reorganised in 9th, 10th and 29th Indian Infantry Brigades, giving full complement to the division.8 Reorganisation continued till about the middle of October when a mobile force was formed, known as Gazelle Force, to watch the frontier.9
A Division Operational Instruction, issued on 13 October 1940, provided for the defence of Khartoum as the main objective. The line of British defence extended from Port Sudan in the north to Roseires in the south. Kassala, an important communication centre, occupied the middle of this line. The defence force was so disposed as to prevent any incursion of hostile troops from the north or west of this line. Certain places were declared vital for the defence of Khartoum. These were Port Sudan, Haiya Junction and Atbara, in the north, and in the south these included Gedaref, Showak, Khashm el Girba and Sarsareib. The defence of Khartoum was assigned to the 5th Indian Division and it was disposed in the neighbourhood of Kassala. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade under the direct command of Headquarters Troops was deployed on the coast. Gazelle Force was employed in the Gash Delta north of Kassala under the command of the 5th Indian Division.
On 25 October a patrol of 1 Motor Machine Gun Group sent by Gazelle Force cut over a thousand yards of telegraph line east of Kassala. Another patrol returned to the same area on 28
October, removed the cable put down to repair the damage caused by previous patrol, and ambushed an Italian party, destroying three lorries and capturing six prisoners. The patrol returned without suffering any loss10. From 1 to 11 November Gazelle Force fought an action with an Italian force in the area of Yodrud, twenty-five miles to the north-east of Kassala. During the night of 31 October/1 November, an Italian force, estimated about six hundred strong, crossed the frontier and established itself in the area of the Tehamiyam Wells, to the south of Yodrud. It was watched by 6 Motor Machine Gun Company and information about it was passed to the Commander Gazelle Force, who ordered A Squadron 1 Horse to proceed to the area of the Tehamiyam Wells and with 6 Motor Machine Gun Company to surround the hostile force so as to capture or destroy it. The remainder of 1 Horse, due to move from Derudeb to Mekali Wells between 1 and 6 November, was ordered to move up as soon as possible.
The position by the evening of 1 November was that the hostile Italian force was being watched by a force consisting of A Troop 1/5 Field Battery RA, A Squadron 1 Horse, and 6 Motor Machine Gun Company, the last of which, with the field troop in support, was based on the area of Haldeid, five miles to the south-west of Tehamiyam Wells. A Squadron 1 Horse was to the south-east of the Italian position in the area of Tamanau.
On 2 November the Italians spent the day in improving their positions and working on their defences, while British artillery kept up a continuous harassing fire. B Squadron and Headquarters 1 Horse arrived at Mekali Wells in the evening and were ordered to move as early as possible on 3 November to the area of the battle and close the gap to the north and north-east of Tendelai. Meanwhile, at dawn on 3 November, another Italian party of three hundred men with some animals, was seen moving from east to west through the gap near Tendelai. It joined the other party at Tehamiyam
Wells. However, the gap was finally closed at midday by B Squadron 1 Horse. On the same evening one company 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment, also arrived with four medium machine guns. The Commander Gazelle Force decided to take personal command of the operation and moved to Girger near Haldeid on the evening of 3 November.
At 0630 hours on 4 November, another party of the Italians, four hundred strong, was reported to be moving from the east towards the Tendelai Gap. It was engaged by A and B Squadrons 1 Horse and pinned to ground by a fire-fight which lasted the whole day. As the area was found clear the next day it was assumed that they had withdrawn towards Serobatib. In the evening, orders were issued for a company 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment to advance, on 5 November, to Tehamiyam Wells through the Tamanau Gap. After leaving its camp (near the Advanced Headquarters of Gazelle Force in Girger) A Company 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment moved on Tehamiyam Wells at 0300 hours on 5 November when it found that the real Italian position was not at Tehamiyam Wells, as marked on the map, but at a place two-and-a-half miles to the north in Yodrud. It was, therefore, withdrawn to its old camp, and forces were regrouped in the following manner:–
C Squadron 1 Horse was ordered up to join the regiment. A Southern group of A and C Squadrons was formed with the role of preventing the Italians from reinforcing from the south and breaking the cordon.
B Squadron 1 Horse and 6 Motor Machine Gun Company were to hold the close ring round the hostile force and prevent it from escaping.
At 2300 hours on 5 November, a party of the Italians, escorting animal transport carrying stores to the Yodrud area, ran into a small picquet of A Squadron 1 Horse on a small feature in the Tamanau Gap. The picquet was overrun. C Squadron was sent in to gain touch with A Squadron but had some difficulty in doing so at first. In the morning on 6 November, A and C Squadrons were in contact with the Italians on the foothills in the gap and were engaging them with fire form the west. At 1000 hours an attack was launched from the south by A Company 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment and by 1300 hours the hill was captured, the Italians losing one hundred and fifty prisoners. The remainder of the hostile force retreated to the main hill, and was pursued. By 1630 hours ninety more soldiers were taken prisoners and a considerable quantity of arms and ammunition was captured. The
hostile force was a party of II Group Bande Polizia, with detachments from 35th and 101st Colonial Battalions, escorting one hundred camels carrying stores and provisions for the Italian troops in the Yodrud area. On the British side three persons were killed and five wounded. The losses of the Italians amounted to one Italian officer and two hundred and forty-one other ranks captured and twelve killed.
The Italian air force had been active and, on 7 November, it carried out extensive raids in which the Advanced Headquarters Gazelle Force came in for a good share. The Headquarters lost four killed and four wounded in one of these raids. It was accordingly moved to Mekali Wells area the same evening. On the same day a further regrouping was ordered to take place on 8 November. A detachment from 2 Motor Machine Gun Company (four Bren vans, four armoured cars and one infantry platoon) was to move up and take the place of B Squadron with the task of keeping the inner ring tight round the hostile force. B Squadron was to revert to the command of 1 Horse, whose sector was extended to include the Tendelai Gap. Two companies of 3/2 Punjab (29th Indian Infantry Brigade) arrived at Mekali Wells during the night of 9/10 November in support of the forward troops. On the evening of 8 November, A Troop Sudan Regiment (four 3·7-inch howitzers) also joined Gazelle Force and was placed under the command of 1 Horse.
An operation was planned to take place on the morning of 11 November, in which 1 Horse and 1 Motor Machine Gun Company were to hold the possible exits for the Italians to the south while the infantry was to attack from the north. Starting at 0500 hours the infantry was to capture Big Hill, a large feature extending for one mile from north to south, and immediately to the north of the Italian position. It was then to exploit through the Italian positions to the south for a distance of one thousand yards. This plan was based on information obtained from intelligence to the effect” that the strength of the hostile force was only four hundred and that their morale was so low that the majority would surrender at the first opportunity.11 In actual fact this estimate proved to be wrong both regarding the strength and the morale of the force.
At 0500 hours on 11 November, the advance started according to the plan. By 0700 hours the company on the east side of the hill
could be seen half way along Big Hill. At this stage the advance was held up by fire from a ridge in the southern half of the feature. Further artillery support was arranged and the reserve company put in. Some more ground was gained but, owing to the steepness of the ground, accurate artillery support was difficult and in some cases the shells fell too near the troops and in one case behind them. This had an adverse effect on the momentum of the attack. The Italians fought stubbornly and no headway could be made against them. At 1200 hours, the commander of the infantry force was ordered to hold the ground gained, and told that the Commander Gazelle Force would visit him and see the situation for himself. The latter arrived forward at 1300 hours. By this time the Italians had started infiltrating single men round the flanks on to Big Hill, who began sniping the observation posts and the Headquarters. It was obvious to the Commander Gazelle Force that the attack had no chance of success. He, therefore, issued orders to the commander of the infantry force to start thinning out at 1500 hours and finally abandon his position at 1700 hours. The withdrawal was carried out without any incident and was completed by 0100 hours on 12 November. Gazelle Force then moved back to its normal dispositions in the Gash Delta.
It was a bitter blow to have to break off the engagement without having captured or destroyed the hostile force, after Gazelle Force had kept it encircled so tenaciously for eleven days. But the infantry had been loaned only for a short time and was required to return to its own formation. The Italians had been seen supplying the troops from the air, a factor over which Indian forces had no control at that time. The Indian and British troops had been continuously in action for eleven days without rest.
Gallabat (6–7 November 1940)
Another engagement was fought in the Gallabat–Metemma area which also failed in its object. As mentioned above, with the arrival of the 5th Indian Division in the Sudan some offensive action was considered desirable. At a conference held at Khartoum in October which was attended by Mr. Anthony Eden, then Secretary of State for War, and General J.C. Smuts, offensive plans and preparations were considered. Eden expressed the general feeling when he proposed that Gallabat should be attacked early in November and Kassala early in January.12 On the instructions of Wavell a plan
was prepared by Major-General L. M. Heath Commanding 5th Indian Division for an operation against the Italian troops in the Gallabat–Metemma area, to be carried out by the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade and a squadron of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment.13
At this time the Italians were estimated to have the following forces in the Gallabat–Metemma area:–
27th Colonial Battalion in Gallabat
25th and 77th Colonial Battalions camped outside the wire east of Metemma.
Bande in Metemma.
Some pack artillery (four to six guns).
Some anti-tank weapons (about one platoon)
A column reported on the road from Gondar, was believed to include one Blackshirt battalion and some anti-tank guns.
British Forces consisted of:–
10th Indian Infantry Brigade: 1st Essex, 4 Baluch
3 Royal Garhwal Rifles
B Squadron 6th Royal Tank Regiment (Six medium and six light tanks)
28 Field Regiment RA (less one battery)
7/66 Field Battery RA.
21 Field Company (Sappers and Miners)
20 Field Ambulance
No 3 Company AEC SDF
The operation was originally planned to start on 8 November, and concentration of troops was therefore arranged to take place by that date. At the end of October, however, reports of Italian reinforcements moving up from Gondar were received and the date of attack was advanced to 6 November in the hope of forestalling these reinforcements. There were to be two phases of the operation. In the first phase, 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles, with B Squadron 6th Royal Tank Regiment in support, was to capture Gallabat Fort and
advance up to the Boundary Khor and, if possible, establish a bridgehead there with a view to enable the tanks to cross the Khor in the later operations against Metemma. The attack was to be preceded by air and artillery bombardment. In the second phase, 1 st Essex was to attack Metemma. 4 Baluch, which was holding the outpost line before the start of the operations, was to be in brigade reserve throughout.
On the evening of 5 November there was a heavy local shower of rain which rendered the advance landing ground, at Saraf Said, unserviceable until 0900 hours on 6 November. This affected the momentum of operations by the air force. However, air and artillery bombardment opened at 0530 hours on 6 November. The bombardment lasted up to 0615 hours and at that hour 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles, with the tanks leading, attacked the fort and the ground round it. The leading company of the battalion advanced through some scrub for two hundred yards, to reach the Right Golf Course, a clearing burnt by the Italians to obtain a field of fire and dominated by the Dog’s Head portion of the Gallabat Fort. The shape of the ground in the Right Golf Course was slightly convex and, aided by this fact and the tanks, the company reached the wire. The tanks, however, failed to cut the wire or to break down the stockade of Dog’s Head. Instead, they wheeled left and right of the fort and eventually effected an entry further down.
The company of 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles was faced with uncut wire and a strongly fortified stockade. The advance was held up and a close battle ensued in which grenades were freely exchanged. A second company of the battalion was brought up at 0700 hours and put in to attack Dog’s Head from the north. Machine guns were brought into action within fifty yards of the stockade and silenced an Italian light automatic gun. Thereupon, two riflemen dashed forward and, with great gallantry, cut the wire and both the companies poured through the gap. The fort was soon overrun and occupied by 0730 hours, although isolated posts still hung on courageously and had to be mopped up later.
The tanks had come to grief very early in the operation. Six cruisers and four light tanks had crossed the start line at 0615 hours and four cruisers had managed to effect an entry into the fort at 0640 hours. The remainder had broken down before then. Of these four, three broke down soon after entering the fort and could
only give fire support. The fourth did manage to circle round inside the fort and neutralize some Italian machine gun posts.
Two companies of 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles had been directed to advance along the west of the road and to capture the Left Golf Course clearing and then advance as far as the Boundary Khor and establish a bridgehead across it where the road crossed the Khor. Two light tanks were in support of these companies. The company advancing on the Left Golf Course captured its objective and consolidated the ground gained. In this area it came under fire from the fort. This fire was returned and the attack on the fort supported. The other company had good cover and advanced to within five hundred yards of the Khor. Here the cover was thinner and the ground was generally flat, but shallow nullahs afforded good approaches to within two hundred yards of the Khor, where the plateau dropped steeply into the Khor itself. The advance was continued to the edge of the plateau without much difficulty but on reaching that line the company came under heavy fire from machine guns in the Khor itself and in the forward positions in Metemma.
The company in the Left Golf Course area, with its two light tanks, also started advancing towards the Khor and arrived on the left of the other company just as an Italian counter-attack was being made. At the same time the one surviving tank from the fort came to the Khor. The counter-attack was soon repulsed and heavy casualties were inflicted on the Italians. Meanwhile, the situation as regards tanks was serious. Only one cruiser tank, out of the six cruiser and four light tanks, which had taken part in the attack on the fort, was serviceable. In view of this and the strength of the wire round Metemma, the Commander of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade decided not to go on with the attack on Metemma and ordered the ground gained to be consolidated. 1 Essex was brought up and with a detachment of 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles, less the detachment, was concentrated in the area just outside the fort and the two companies on the Khor were withdrawn as there was no point in holding the bridge-head.
The air situation deteriorated after this and the Italians gained complete command of the air over the battle area. Starting from 0915 hours on 6 November they carried out four heavy raids, during the day, on the Gallabat Fort and the area round it. In the fort itself there was no cover from view, the existing slit trenches were inadequate and the digging of fresh ones was very difficult because of the hard ground. In the area round the fort there was cover
from view but proper slit trenches were not completed until after the first raids. The air defence was negligible, there were no antiaircraft guns except the unit light machine guns, and the casualties among the forward troops were heavy. In the afternoon, there was a certain amount of confusion and demoralization on account of this, and elements of battalions in the rear areas started a withdrawal without orders. Those in the front, however, did not take part in the withdrawal and the situation was soon brought under control.14
The night passed quietly; some Italian patrols crossed the Boundary Khor, moved up as far as the wire of Gallabat and then retired. There were no counter-attacks on the fort. On the morning of 7 November, the Italians continued their heavy air raids. There was no hope of improvement in the matter of tanks. The one workshop vehicle had been hit and there was no chance of a replacement. In view of this and the continued Italian air superiority, Brigadier Slim, the Commander of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade, decided to evacuate Gallabat and withdraw to positions within artillery range of Metemma, and make it untenable for the Italians. Before the withdrawal a successful destructive shoot on Metemma stores dump was carried out without interference on the evening of 7 November, and was completed by 2000 hours. The Italian casualties were 189 killed, 231 wounded and 214 captured. On the British side 33 were killed and 154 wounded. The operation had failed to capture the objectives. Though losses were inflicted on the Italians and the Patriots got encouragement to defy their rulers the results were rather disappointing. The operation had failed mainly due to two reasons. The first was the breakdown of tanks from mechanical causes. The second was the Italian superiority in the air. There was a general shortage of anti-aircraft guns in the Middle East and none was available for the support of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade. Hence when the British fighter aircraft had been shot down the Italian bombers had an easy time. The operation showed the necessity of protection against air attack for all forward troops.
The 5th Indian Division continued active patrolling during the rest of November and December, which enabled it to dominate the situation. Frequent ambushes were laid on the lines of
communication and losses were inflicted on the Italians. This had a beneficial effect on the morale of the Indian troops and accounted, to some extent, for the dash with which the pursuit of the Italians was carried out later on. In addition the screen put up by these patrols was very effective and the Italian Intelligence was unable to assess correctly the strength of the British forces in the area which they were led to over-estimate.
Planning for further Offensive Action
Early in December 1940, planning for a bigger attack was started. In view of the limited resources, the object was to capture Kassala and the area east as far as Sabderat. This attack was to be carried out early in February 1941, provided the necessary reinforcements were available. In the south, the policy was to maintain pressure at Gallabat, but not to attempt any large-scale operations for the time being. The main idea behind these decisions was to foment the Patriot revolt in Ethiopia to the greatest possible extent and thus to render Italian position impossible. “I did not intend”, General Wavell observed in his despatch, “at the time a large scale invasion either from Kassala towards Asmara and Massawa, or from Kismayu to the north. The two operations to Kassala, and Kismayu were designed to secure our flanks and I intended that our main effort should be devoted to furthering and supporting the rebellion by irregular action. I intended after the capture of Kassala and Kismayu to withdraw as many troops as possible from the Sudan and East Africa for the theatres further north.”15
The Italian strategy of this time was supposed to be (1) to prevent help reaching the Patriots from outside and to suppress the revolt inside the country (2) to protect Asmara and Massawa and to be on the defensive in the Kassala and El Ghena areas. Though the main Italian strategy was defensive an attack to recapture Gallabat appeared likely. If this were successful it would prevent the British from sending men and material from the Sudan to Ethiopia to further the Patriot revolt there.16 However, the success of British offensive in the Western Desert of Egypt in December 1940 enabled General Wavell to transfer the 4th Indian Division to the Sudan to enable the Kassala operation to be undertaken early in 1941. It was led by Major-General Sir Noel de la P. Beresford-Peirse. The
decision for this transfer was made at a very short notice while the battle in the Western Desert was being fought, because otherwise it was thought shipping would not be available. Part of the 4th Indian Division was actually moved from the battle of Sidi Barrani to ships which brought them to the Sudan. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade led by Brigadier R. A. Savory arrived in the Sudan before the end of December, the division as a whole, however, could not be concentrated and be ready for action for some more time. The transfer of the division presented difficult administrative problems. It entailed moving the division partly by sea and partly by the rail-river route. The Sudan railways were single-track and very limited rolling-stock was available. The signal resources were also inadequate and the quick transmission of orders was very difficult. On account of the pressure for time, some units had to move to their concentration areas without their transport which followed later. However, this difficult task was creditably accomplished. The only mishap during the move occurred on 19 January when a train carrying 3/14 Punjab was bombed by the Italians and the battalion suffered some loss. The concentration of the 4th Indian Division was expected to be completed by 31 January.
Regrouping in the Sudan
With the arrival of the 4th Indian Division, a regrouping of forces was carried out on the frontier as below:–
Headquarters Troops Sudan
7th Indian Infantry Brigade (Coastal sector, Headquarters, Port Sudan)
Northern Force (Sector Kassala–Haiya, Headquarters, Derudeb)
Headquarters 4th Indian Infantry Division
Gazelle Force (Gash Delta)
11th Indian Infantry Brigade (moving to area south of Aroma)
Southern Force (Sector ER Rakuba–Sarsareib, headquarters, Gedaref)
Headquarters 5th Indian Infantry Division
5th Indian Infantry Brigade (Butana Bridge)
9th Indian Infantry Brigade (Gallabat area)
10th Indian Infantry Brigade (Road Gedaref–Kassala, about 20 miles from Kassala)
29th Indian Infantry Brigade (Butana Bridge)
At this time, the Italians had the following forces in the frontier area:–
Kassala—two divisions in strong defensive positions.
Kassala–Tessenei–Sabderat area—one division.
Gallabat–Gondar area—about two divisions.
Possible offensive action by the Italian forces had to be kept in view during the planning for the attack and imposed a limit on the forces which might be spared for actual operation.
An elaborate deception plan was worked out by the 5th Indian Division to give the impression to the Italians that they were reinforcing Gallabat area thus inducing them to send troops to that part of the front. The deceptive measures included the building of dummy camps, landing grounds with dummy aircraft and bogus wireless traffic. Actual concentrations of troops were carefully concealed.
Withdrawal of Italian Forces
From early January there were indications of Italian intention to withdraw from the Kassala area. In the beginning it was difficult to ascertain whether they were regrouping their forces or preparing for a withdrawal. It was feared that a hurried attack, launched with insufficient force, would probably prove disastrous. However, as time passed the Italian intention to withdraw became clearer. An operation was, accordingly, planned to prevent the Kassala garrison from getting away and to destroy it. This operation was to take place on 19 January and troops of both the 4th and the 5th Indian Divisions were to participate. On 18 January, the Italians forestalled the attack by evacuating Kassala. Orders were issued for the pursuit to be taken up immediately. The pursuit started on 19 January.
Preparations for stimulating the rebellion in Ethiopia were also made with energy. The idea was to place a sufficient quantity of food and stores before the escarpment before the rains. A small force of one battalion of Sudanese and a number of specially selected British officers were also sent forward. The emperor, Haile Selassie, himself crossed the border and entered his kingdom on 20 January. Subsequent operations were undertaken to clear the Gojjam district of large Italian forces.
In organising this work two British officers took a leading part. They were Colonel D. A. Sandford, head of 101 Mission and Colonel O. C. Wingate.
The Italians had started withdrawing from the Sudan frontier. They had lost the initiative and the chance of a regular invasion of the Sudan which lay in their grasp after their initial successes. The danger to the Sudan was now over. After the disaster suffered by the Italians in Libya the only role left for Italian East Africa was protracted defence in order to prevent as long as possible the transfer of British reinforcements to Egypt. The initiative now came to rest with the British and once having seized it they were never to lose it. They could now well think of effecting a speedy conquest of Italian East Africa and of stepping up the Patriot revolt there which had received an impetus by the arrival of the Emperor in his country.