Chapter 22: The Advance on Addis Ababa through Somalia and Gojjam
See Maps 25 and 26
LIEUTENANT-GENERAL Dickinson had achieved much in the fourteen months during which he commanded East Africa Force in Kenya. It is true that the Italian policy had been defensive, but the British were now well established in localities stretching from the sea to Lake Rudolf and their patrols were masters of the wide no-man’s-land before them—so far as there could be mastery in so huge an area. On the administrative side, the foundations of the supply and transport systems had been laid; the procuring and production of war stores had been organized; administrative units of all types were in training; and the financial and legal difficulties that had hampered the raising of local forces had been overcome. Over more detailed matters an immense amount remained to be done.
The British strength had steadily risen and at the end of November 1940 was, in round numbers, 77,000. Of these roughly 27,000 were South Africans, 6,000 were Europeans serving with the East and West African forces, 33,000 were East Africans, and 9,000 were West Africans. Among them were the 1st Northern Rhodesia Regiment, 2nd King’s African Rifles, and 1st East African Light Battery, all of which had returned in September from British Somaliland via Aden. The principal additions to the South African forces during October and November included Headquarters 1st South African Division (Major-General G. L. Brink), the 2nd and 5th Infantry Brigades, a regiment of field artillery, and many engineer, transport, and other technical units.
After No. 237 (Rhodesian) Squadron had been transferred to the Sudan in September, the air units remaining in Kenya, with the exception of the Communication Squadron, Royal Air Force, all belonged to the South African Air Force. They were Nos. 2 and 3 Fighter Squadrons (Fury, Gauntlet and Hurricane), Nos. 11 and 12 Bomber Squadrons (Battle and Ju. 86), Nos. 40 and 41 Army Co-operation Squadrons (Hartbeest). The maintenance of so many
different types of aircraft disposed over a very wide area was a most difficult problem. Squadrons were administered by the South African Army, but by agreement with the Government of South Africa operational control was exercised on behalf of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East by Air Commodore W. Sowrey, RAF, with Brigadier H. Daniel, S.A.A.F., as his senior air staff officer. The air operations had three objects: to neutralize the Italian air forces in southern Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland; to defend Mombasa and Nairobi and other vulnerable points; and to cooperate directly with the army. A limit was set on operations of all types by the small numbers of aircraft, the scarcity of spare parts, and the great distances to be flown, but the Italians were lacking in enterprise and completely failed to take advantage of their numerical superiority. The South African squadrons, by their pugnacity, resource and endurance, soon won ascendancy over the Italian Air Force and never lost it.
General Cunningham’s first task on relieving General Dickinson early in November was to examine the project for capturing Kismayu, and as a result he advised its postponement until after the spring rains.1 General Wavell supported this view and General Cunningham gave orders for the forward movement of part of his force to the frontier during January; in the meantime, the moral ascendancy of his troops over the Italians was to be secured by various enterprises. The first raid was entrusted to 12th African Division, and its commander, Major-General Godwin-Austen, suggested as its objective the frontier post of El Wak, which lay north-west of Wajir across 110 miles of very indifferent going. It consisted of five defended localities held by colonial infantry and bande, perhaps 2,000 men in all with a few light guns. General Godwin-Austen decided to attack it with 1st South African Brigade, 24th Gold Coast Brigade, and 1st South African Light Tank Company, not because he over-estimated the opposition but because he wished to encourage his unseasoned troops with a success, and to give them experience in an operation involving the use of a large number of vehicles, including a long move by night. On December 16th—Dingaan’s Day—after a successful approach march, the attack was delivered with the support of five fighter aircraft, three bombers and nine army co-operation Hartbeests. The Italian troops dispersed rapidly into the bush and their aircraft made little attempt to intervene. Next day the raiding force was withdrawn, having accomplished all it set out to do and having captured 13 guns and 44 prisoners. A British radio communiqué referred somewhat contemptuously to the Italian resistance, and Mussolini ordered the Duke of Aosta to hold an enquiry: as a result Lieutenant-General
Pesenti, Governor of Italian Somaliland and Commander of the Juba sector, was replaced by Major-General De Simone.
General Cunningham’s next object was to open up the Galla-Sidamo province of Ethiopia, where it was hoped to start a revolt among the Patriot leaders with whom contact had been made. This entailed operating both east and west of Lake Rudolf, and the task was given to the 1st South African Division, comprising its own 2nd and 5th Infantry Brigades and the 25th East African Brigade, with six Ethiopian irregular companies under command.2 At the end of December the South African brigades were at Marsabit and the 25th East African Brigade was at Lokitaung near the Sudan border, 200 miles away across Lake Rudolf.
From the mountain oasis of Marsabit there were two possible routes into Ethiopia. The one by Moyale passed through the easily defensible country of the Ethiopian escarpment and was correctly believed to be strongly garrisoned. The other led across the lava rock and dust of the Chalbi desert and through Dukana, and was expected to be only lightly watched. This was the route chosen. On 6th January the 1st Natal Mounted Rifles of the 2nd Brigade (Brigadier F. L. A. Buchanan) and two irregular companies attacked El Yibo, whose garrison of bande held out for two days before slipping away. The 5th Brigade (Brigadier B. F. Armstrong) then moved up to Dukana and on 31st January both brigades crossed the frontier; the 2nd captured Gorai and the 5th Hobok. The division had thus achieved its first object with little difficulty other than that due to the great distance—400 miles from railhead—and the terrible heat.
This penetration of the fringe of the Italian defences did not produce a Patriot rising, and General Brink’s next thought was to secure a better line of communication, for the approaching rains would make the Chalbi desert impassable. This entailed the capture of Moyale, and General Cunningham agreed with the proposal to take Mega first and then advance on Moyale from the north. General Brink intended to attack Mega with both brigades simultaneously on 16th February, but for various reasons the 2nd South African Brigade did not make its attack until two days later, and that afternoon the garrison surrendered. Twenty-six officers, 972 Italian and African soldiers, and seven guns were captured. On 22nd February one of the irregular companies acting with 2nd Brigade entered Moyale unopposed, and found a large quantity of war material abandoned. Throughout these operations the supply of water had been a vital factor; some had to be carried over 200 miles, and more than 300 wells were developed. Moreover the troops had to endure sharp contrasts of climate from the heat and dust of the shadeless Chalbi desert, where the lava rock blistered the flesh, to the rain,
mud, and cold of the Ethiopian escarpment. Once again the Italian Air Force failed to intervene, no doubt as the result of the attacks made by Nos. 11 and 12 Squadrons on the airfields at Shashamanna, Yavello and Neghelli.
On the western side of Lake Rudolf, the 25th East African Brigade (Brigadier W. Owen), of two newly formed battalions of the King’s African Rifles, had advanced to Namaraputh with the eventual object of capturing Kalam. But the wild Merille tribesmen of that area showed themselves to be so hostile that it would first have been necessary to operate against them. In General Cunningham’s view this would have been unprofitable at this stage, and he directed that the brigade should act defensively.
By the time that Mega and Moyale were captured, the advance into Italian Somaliland, now to be described, had reached Mogadishu. General Cunningham expected that he would require the 2nd and 5th South African Brigades for the coming thrust into Ethiopia, and, having been told by General Wavell that the South African Division might have to be taken from him at short notice, he relieved these brigades by the 21st East African Brigade (Brigadier A. McD. Ritchie) from Wajir, and moved them back to Kenya.
Meanwhile preparations for closing up to the frontier of Italian Somaliland had been steadily going forward. Since the raid on El Wak it had been apparent that the Italians had been withdrawing to the river Juba, leaving west of it only bande and a single colonial battalion at the landing ground and wells of Afmadu and a garrison at Kismayu. On the lower Juba was the 102nd Colonial Division of two brigades with some bande, in all about 14,000 men, and on the upper Juba the 101st Colonial Division also of two brigades with bande, in all only just over 6,000 men. At the end of January General Cunningham, correctly judging from events on other fronts that great risks could be taken against the Italians, asked for, and received, General Wavell’s permission to aim at capturing Kismayu.3 On 2nd February he issued his orders.
The difficulties to be overcome were mainly due to distance, shortage of equipment, lack of water, and the bad routes leading forward. From railhead near Nairobi to the line of the river Tana was nearly 250 miles, and it was another 250 miles to the river Juba. The routes running eastward from Bura and Garissa on the Tana were bush tracks of unstable surface, unfit to stand the passage of many vehicles. Between the Tana and the Juba water was believed to be very scarce. The administrative problem might well have been insoluble had not the declining Italian morale encouraged General Cunningham to believe that he could succeed with a smaller force than he had originally thought necessary—four brigade groups
instead of six. Thanks to the unceasing help of the Union Government there was now enough transport to move and maintain this force for the time thought necessary for the capture of Kismayu. Stocks of ammunition, stores, and supplies of all kinds had been built up at Bura and Garissa. Under a light protective screen the South African Engineers improved the main routes forward of these places; on both they discovered and developed limited amounts of water. Depots of all kinds were made as far forward as the frontier, and preparations were begun to deliver stores and supplies by sea from Mombasa to Kismayu.
General Cunningham’s plan was for 12th African Division (1st South African, 22nd East African and 24th Gold Coast Infantry Brigades) to capture Afmadu on February 11th. The South African Brigade was then to turn south, capture the airfield at Gobwen, and seize a bridgehead over the river Juba at Jumbo. Meanwhile, the Gold Coast Brigade was to move east to Bulo Erillo and Jelib to prevent the reinforcement of the Gobwen area from the north. The 23rd Nigerian Brigade of 11th African Division, on the southern route from Bura, was to advance on Kismayu a little later when the enemy’s attention would already be occupied by the 12th African Division. The Royal Navy was to provide a force of six warships (Force T) under Captain J. H. Edelsten, R.N., to bombard Brava and the coastal road during the early stages of the operation, and also to bombard Kismayu if necessary.4 In order to preserve secrecy no written orders were issued, and an attempt was made, with some success, to persuade the enemy, by bogus wireless activity, that there was an Australian division in the Wajir area. The orders only covered the capture of Kismayu and the Jumbo bridgehead, and it was calculated that if Kismayu were not captured by the tenth day the troops would have either to be maintained across the open beaches, or to be withdrawn. General Cunningham informed his commanders that, if the Italian resistance broke, his next aim would be to advance to Mogadishu, Isha Baidoa and Lugh Ferrandi. Much would depend upon the administrative situation.
For the Air Force to be ready to support these operations a general move forward of squadrons was necessary, in some cases as much as 200 miles. In order to provide as many aircraft as possible Air Commodore Sowrey withdrew all the fighters from the defence of Nairobi and nearly all from Mombasa. The system of command was one fighter squadron direct under Air Headquarters; the other fighter squadron with both bomber squadrons under No. 2 Wing; with the two army co-operation squadrons apportioned to the three
divisions. This made a total, including reserves, of 94 aircraft, in addition to which all the obsolete aircraft from the Operational Training Unit were made available as further reserves for the army co-operation squadrons, while every other possible aircraft was pressed into service for ambulance and communication tasks. The Italian strength, apart from reserves, was estimated on February 10th at 123, of which only 14, mostly bombers, were thought to be in Italian Somaliland and 26 others in southern Ethiopia. The true figures were a total of 188 in the whole of Italian East Africa, of which 78 were in workshops and depots.
Air attacks were made from 2nd February onwards by Nos. 3, 11 and 12 Squadrons S.A.A.F. on the Italian airfields at Gobwen, Afmadu and Dif, and a particularly heavy one on the Afmadu defences on the 10th; this was too much for the garrison, which melted away, so that the 22nd East African Brigade (Brigadier C. C. Fowkes) moved in next morning unopposed. The 24th Gold Coast Brigade (Brigadier C. E. M. Richards) had then 60 miles to cover in reaching Bulo Erillo, where it overcame fairly strong resistance and captured 141 prisoners, 4 armoured cars and much equipment. In the 2nd Gold Coast Regiment, which led the assault with great gallantry, eight of the white officers and NCOs were killed or wounded. Meanwhile, the 1st South African Brigade (Brigadier D. H. Pienaar) had reached a position ten miles from Gobwen, where they were to remain under cover throughout the day. Brigadier Pienaar had strict orders not to patrol and not to break wireless silence, so that his attack next day should come as a surprise. When, therefore, he heard explosions which suggested that the enemy might be preparing to evacuate Kismayu there was nothing he could do. His brigade with twelve light tanks advanced by night through the thick bush, colliding occasionally with fugitives from Kismayu, and secured Gobwen early on February 14th but not in time to intercept the garrison of Kismayu. On the previous evening, however, the information reaching General Cunningham from the air and from Force T, which was keeping a close watch on the coast, had suggested that the enemy was withdrawing. As the Nigerian Brigade was not yet within reach he ordered the 22nd East African Brigade from Afmadu to move at once on Kismayu, which it occupied by the evening of February 14th—six days ahead of the critical date.
Realizing that the enemy was considerably disorganized, General Cunningham determined to force the Juba with all speed. At Gobwen the pontoon bridge was destroyed, the river was 200 yards wide, any movement drew heavy fire, and it was clear that an attempt to cross here would be very costly. Brigadier Pienaar soon found a more suitable place ten miles upstream at Yonte where a company
of the Royal Natal Carbineers crossed in assault boats on the afternoon of the 17th. Next morning the Transvaal Scottish, which had taken over the bridgehead, beat off a counter-attack with heavy loss to the Italians. On the 19th a pontoon bridge was completed, and the brigade swooped down on Jumbo, capturing most of the garrison and fourteen guns.5 The same day the Gold Coast Brigade crossed at Mabungo. It now remained to capture Jelib, in order to open the Mogadishu road. A converging movement was made with the Gold Coast Brigade moving down the thirty miles from Mabungo while the South Africans came up fifty miles and attacked from the south. The 22nd East African Brigade was sent south-east from Mabungo to cut the Mogadishu road. On February 22nd Jelib fell, and the Italian forces then disintegrated.
Thus ended the first phase. Casualties had been light, for the enemy had nowhere offered any systematic opposition, though sharp local clashes had been frequent. The troops had shown determination and endurance, having had to move far and fast in extreme heat, with little water, along dusty tracks or else through dense unfriendly bush. The passage of even a brigade column did grievous damage to the tracks, and it was largely due to the South African Road Construction and Maintenance Companies that the advance did not come to a dead stop.
The Air Force had given very effective support of all kinds and had practically driven the enemy out of the air, with the result that General Cunningham was able to lift the restriction he had placed on daylight movement of vehicles, thus speeding everything up and greatly relieving the strain on drivers. A large number of prisoners had been taken, many Italian colonial units had vanished into the bush, and the enemy were clearly in great confusion. They had concentrated their efforts on defending the Juba, and it seemed to General Cunningham that there was now nothing to stop him securing Mogadishu, and further that by denuding troops in Kenya of transport he could carry three brigade groups to Harar and maintain them. On February 22nd he suggested that, if General Wavell approved of this, the port of Berbera should be captured and opened so as to shorten his overland line of communication. He was informed in reply that this would be done by a force from Aden, but that he would have to provide the base units himself.
The first convoy by sea from Mombasa arrived at Kismayu on February 19th, and was unloaded with great difficulty from lighters, there being only one jetty that could be used, and even that was almost inaccessible from the landward side, since all the roads broke up at once under lorry traffic.6 The power plant, the ice factory, and
the bulk oil stores were all out of action. There were great difficulties therefore in developing the place as an advanced base for all troops on or east of the Juba, as intended. Although the port was invaluable, it was necessary to keep the overland line of communication from Kenya in being for a long time.
The 23rd Nigerian Brigade (Brigadier G. R. Smallwood) had meanwhile moved up via Kismayu and Afmadu to the bridgehead at Mabungo, where they repulsed an attack made from the north on the evening of 22nd February. The 22nd East African Brigade from east of Jelib led the pursuit to Modun, where the Navy assisted with a bombardment which, according to the Viceroy, caused heavy losses. Next day the 23rd Nigerian Brigade took over the lead; they reached Mogadishu unopposed on the 25th, having advanced 235 miles in three days. The 1st South African Brigade was withdrawn into reserve. The 12th Division, now consisting of 21st East African and 24th Gold Coast Brigade Groups, was ordered to move northwards on Bardera and Isha Baidoa, but the difficulties at Kismayu prevented their doing so until the end of the month.
At Mogadishu there was a pause. Some of the harbour facilities were damaged, but the main cause of delay in opening the port was that apparatus was not immediately available for sweeping the magnetic mines which had been dropped there by the British. Meanwhile stores were coming forward by road from Kismayu, and the small lighterage port of Merca was quickly brought into use with the expert help of officers and men of the Merchant Navy who had been discovered in captivity at Mogadishu. Great quantities of stores of all kinds were found in Mogadishu, the most valuable items being 350,000 gallons of motor fuel and 80,000 gallons of aviation spirit. On the airfield were the remains of 21 aircraft. A particularly useful find was a handbook of every airfield and landing ground in Italian East Africa.
The 102nd Colonial Division was of no further account as a fighting formation, and the Duke of Aosta ordered General De Simone to withdraw what he could towards Jijiga. He was to send the 101st Division from the Upper Juba to Neghelli, where it would come under General Gazzera, the commander of the southern sector. General Cunningham instructed Generals Brink and Godwin-Austen to encourage the enemy to believe that the main British advance would be through Neghelli, his real intention being to exploit his advantage by pushing on as rapidly as possible to Harar. This was a large undertaking, although little opposition was expected, because there was no time to make forward depots, as there had been before the advance to the Juba. The first objective of importance was Jijiga, the junction of the roads from Harar and
Berbera. Of the 660 miles of single road from Mogadishu to Jijiga about one-third was very good and the remainder very rough, while north and south of Dagabur there were two stretches where there was no road at all. A small mobile force from the Nigerian Brigade with parties for road, water, and airfield reconnaissance was pushed boldly ahead to Dagabur.
On 11th March the 1st South African Brigade Group and 22nd East African Brigade at Brava were placed under command of the 11th African Division (Major-General H. E. de R. Wetherall), which now comprised 1st South African, 22nd East African, and 23rd Nigerian Brigades, while a large part of the divisional troops, including all the field and medium artillery, were South African. On the 13th the administrative situation permitted the remainder of the Nigerian brigade to move up to Dagabur. The division was then strung out on a single road, with its groups moving at about 48-hour intervals to permit the passage of the necessary supply columns. The Air Force, too, was moving up as quickly as it could. Advanced Air Headquarters and No. 2 Wing and its squadrons were in the Mogadishu area by March 2nd, and No. 41 Army Co-operation Squadron followed the moves of 11th African Division Headquarters as closely as possible. Full use was made of captured transport and all the workshop equipment that was found intact on the main Italian airfields; this made it necessary, as the advance went on, to send forward for repair work only airmen and stores. The opportunity was taken to send seven bomber aircraft back to Nairobi for overhaul.
At this stage air operations consisted mainly of offensive reconnaissances, from which it was clear that the enemy was withdrawing at least as far as Jijiga. The airfield at Dagabur was found abandoned and a detachment of No. 3 Fighter Squadron moved there close behind the leading troops; but the speed of the advance and the state of the road made the supply of bombs and petrol difficult and it was necessary to curtail operations by short-range aircraft accordingly. When it became clear that most of the Italian squadrons were now using the Diredawa airfields, it was decided to attack them heavily with the object of helping both the advance on Jijiga and the landing in British Somaliland. The attacks were made by No. 8 Squadron RAF from Aden on two successive nights, and twice by low-flying fighters of the S.A.A.F. by day, and were very successful in destroying and damaging Italian aircraft.
The landing in British Somaliland began on March 16th with the arrival off Berbera of H.M. ships Glasgow, Caledon, Kandahar and Kingston with transports containing two battalions and supporting units from the garrison of Aden. After a short naval bombardment the landing was accomplished with little opposition, and the 70th Colonial Brigade melted away. The primitive port was quickly
brought into working condition in the face of many difficulties—shortage of lighters, no cranes, no electric light, extreme heat, and frequent interruptions by the Kharif wind which scattered the sand and stirred up the surf. Yet within a week the 11th African Division was being partly maintained through Berbera, at a saving of 500 road miles. On 23rd March the 2nd South African Brigade, less one battalion, arrived by sea from Mombasa, and the third battalion, with all the transport, arrived a fortnight later, having come all the way by road. On April 8th Brigadier A. R. Chater was appointed Military Governor of British Somaliland and under his direction the country was rapidly re-settled.7
On March 17th patrols of the Nigerian Brigade entered Jijiga and next day found the enemy to be holding the Marda Pass, through which the road climbs out of the flat bush country straight into the tangle of steep hills of the Ethiopian highlands This road was the only route through the first barrier of hills practicable for vehicles, and it was heavily blocked at the Pass. Of the three brigades known to be in the Harar area, it seemed that three battalions with two bande groups and pack artillery were holding the Pass, disposed over a wide front on each side of it. There was no question here of making the quick frontal thrust accompanied by an outflanking movement before which Italian resistance had hitherto always collapsed; General Wetherall decided to await the arrival of the South African Brigade and more artillery, which meant postponing his attack until 23rd March. Bombing attacks were made on the position itself, upon troop movements on the roads behind it and upon the railway between Diredawa and Awash. As operations were now within range of Italian fighters it was necessary to provide fighter escort for the bombers.
Early on 21st March reports reaching General Wetherall from patrols and deserters indicated that the enemy intended to withdraw. He decided that the Nigerian Brigade, supported by all the available artillery (three field batteries and one light battery), should attack as soon as possible, in spite of the fact that the ground to be covered was in full view of the enemy. The attack began at noon, the main thrust being made towards a prominent hill on the right, from which it was hoped to advance along the crest to the Pass itself. Fairly heavy small-arms and mortar fire was encountered, but by nightfall a secure lodgement had been made and during the night the enemy withdrew. British casualties had been seven killed and thirty-seven wounded.
The advance was held up by road demolitions until the afternoon of 22nd March, and next day the Italians were found in another
strong position at the rocky Babile Pass; but after a brisk engagement they withdrew to a position on the Bisidimo river where they were attacked by the Nigerian Brigade on the morning of 26th March. The same morning General Cunningham learned from a BBC broadcast that Harar had declared itself an open town. He at once had a message dropped on Harar stating that it would not be considered an open town unless the Italian troops withdrew from it. By noon the Nigerian Brigade had driven the enemy from the Bisidimo, whereupon an Italian civil official came out to parley, declaring that General Cunningham’s message implied that the Italian troops would be permitted to withdraw unhindered. General Wetherall quickly disillusioned him and sent forward his armoured cars to Harar, where 572 prisoners and 13 guns were taken. At this point the 23rd Nigerian Brigade had advanced just under 1,000 miles in the last thirty-two days.
The lie of the roads now had an important bearing on the pursuit. A few miles south of Diredawa the road from Harar divided ; one branch led steeply down to Diredawa itself and then followed the railway to Miesso, Awash and Addis Ababa, while the southern road led to Miesso through Asba Littorio. The 1st South African Brigade was called forward to take the lead through Diredawa and force the passage of the river Awash at the place of that name. But so badly obstructed was the Diredawa road that General Wetherall decided to divert the South Africans to the tortuous southern road, although there were demolitions here too. On March 29th an urgent request for help came from the Italians in Diredawa, where native deserters were attacking the white civilians. Two companies of the Transvaal Scottish entered Diredawa on foot, drove out the rebels in a street fight, and finally restored order next morning. Meanwhile the block on the main road was cleared much sooner than was expected, and the advance continued by both roads for about 100 miles to Miesso, at which point the brigade was held up for lack of petrol.
The 22nd East African Brigade (which had covered 910 miles in 12 days) then passed through, drove in an enemy rearguard, and made for the river Awash. This was a formidable obstacle, with the road and railway bridges both destroyed, and the enemy in position on the far bank. The 5th King’s African Rifles, supported by 22nd Mountain Battery R.A. and 7th South African Field Brigade, quickly forced a crossing a little distance upstream, captured Awash village, and established a bridgehead under cover of which a new road bridge was built.8 The speed of this move to the Awash had important results, for the Italians, relying on the road demolitions to hold up pursuit for several days, had withdrawn most of their forces through Asba Littorio with the intention of approaching
Awash from the south. The advance of the British by the northern road outstripped them, and their way northwards was barred. There was no passable road to the west, so the remnants of the 13th and 14th Colonial Brigades were cut off, and a few days after the capture of Addis Ababa they surrendered.
Towards the end of March the Italian Air Force began to play a rather more active part. Their fighters, working from the Addis Ababa area and refuelling at intermediate landing grounds, began to attack our forward airfields, and although every effort was made to disperse aircraft on the ground a few were destroyed in these attacks and others damaged. The South African bomber squadrons were now very short of serviceable aircraft and had to be reinforced from Nairobi. A welcome reinforcement of twelve Gladiator fighters was received from No. 94. Squadron at Aden, whose airmen were being transferred to Egypt to be rearmed. As contact with the enemy was becoming more frequent, a system of close support was organized in the form of a ‘close support flight’ of four Gladiators from No. 3 Squadron, and four Hartbeests from No. 41 Squadron operating as bombers. This flight responded to calls from the forward troops for immediate help in clearing away light opposition.
The Aden Air Command had for months past been carrying out reconnaissance and escort tasks over the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and successfully attacking Italian supply, fuel and ammunition depots and airfields. Among their principal targets were Assab, Dessie, and the railway through Diredawa. The withdrawal at the end of November of the two bomber squadrons to Egypt left the striking force at Aden very weak.9 From February No. 203 Squadron was used, half as bombers, half as fighters, against targets in the Addis Ababa and Awash areas and traffic on the roads through Dessie. The necessary operational zones were decided upon by arrangement with No. 203 Group in the Sudan.
By 30th March General Cunningham felt certain that he would soon capture Addis Ababa. The Italian forces had just suffered a major disaster at Keren, and on his own front it was evident that the enemy’s morale was, deteriorating rapidly. The disorders at Diredawa had made him apprehensive of what. might happen on a much larger scale in the capital after the Italian troops had withdrawn. He therefore suggested that touch should be made with the Duke of Aosta, whereupon General Wavell sent a message for the Duke which was dropped on Addis Ababa from the air on April 2nd. This stated that General Wavell was anxious to co-operate in ensuring the safety of Italian women and children so far as would be consistent with his military duty in continuing action against those of the Duke of Aosta’s forces still in arms. General Cunningham would
receive and report any proposals. The Viceroy replied that he would send an emissary to visit General Cunningham on 3rd April, while he pointed out to Rome that a pause in hostilities would be very useful in enabling troops in the Addis Ababa area to be transferred elsewhere.
Early on 3rd April General Cunningham received from General Wavell a telegram containing further instructions, but so corrupt as to be unintelligible. The Italian envoy arrived and was given General Cunningham’s proposals: the Italians were to be responsible for protecting the women and children in Addis Ababa until the British could arrange to do so; essential services and staffs were to be left intact, with stores of food and fuel; and the railway between Awash and Addis Ababa was to be handed over with rolling stock and staff complete. The written Italian reply stated that the security and maintenance of the population of Addis Ababa had been provided for; that the British would be responsible for order as soon as they entered the city; and that Italian officers would assist with all necessary information. The Italian military command would undertake nothing further. However, the Duke of Aosta sent a verbal message by his envoy expressing his appreciation of the British initiative in the matter.
At this moment the Defence Committee in London, which had been kept informed by General Wavell, signalled to say that they disagreed with the instructions he had given to General Cunningham, and wished the terms to cover unconditional surrender and the handing over of the ships in Massawa harbour. General Cunningham, who was unaware of what General Wavell had written, could only ask for further guidance in view of the fact that his own lesser proposals had not been fully accepted by the Italians. Having received no reply by the time the road bridge over the Awash was ready, he ordered the advance to continue, but decided not to let his troops enter the city until General Wavell had had 24 hours in which to reply.
On April 4th, 5th and 6th bombers of Nos. 11 and 12 Squadrons S.A.A.F. and fighters of No. 3 Squadron S.A.A.F. attacked the airfield at Addis Ababa and reduced it to a shambles. About thirty aircraft were later found burnt out, damaged or crashed, a sight which, in General Cunningham’s words, further increased the confidence of the troops in the efficiency of the support they had had from the Air Force. In the early hours of 5th April, as soon as the bridge was ready, the 22nd East African Brigade crossed the Awash and resumed its pursuit of the enemy known to be withdrawing not to Addis Ababa but to the south-west. At the same time there was much movement northwards from Addis Ababa towards Dessie. At 7.40 a.m. an Italian police officer arrived to ask that Addis Ababa
should be occupied as soon as possible, as looting had begun.
Brigadier Fowkes thereupon sent part of his force towards Addis Ababa, but General Cunningham stopped him short of the city and directed that a representative force should enter next morning. Early on April 6th, therefore, Major-General Wetherall, Brigadier Pienaar and Brigadier Fowkes, escorted by East African armoured cars, entered the city and drove to the Duke of Aosta’s palace for the ceremony of formal surrender.
In southern Ethiopia the relief of the 2nd and 5th South African Brigades at Moyale and Mega in the first week of March had left the 21st and 25th East African Brigades under General Brink’s command, while the 24th Gold Coast Brigade (12th African Division) was clearing up the area to the north-west of Mogadishu. On 17th March a small column from the latter brigade left Dolo for Neghelli, which it entered on the 21st after overcoming some opposition. Operations had to be undertaken to quell inter-tribal disturbances and to restore order generally, for the overthrow of the Italians had had an unsettling effect, and many fugitive native soldiers, as they scattered to their homes, readily turned bandit. General Godwin-Austen was, however, soon able to make a semblance of a threat from Neghelli and Yavello, though nothing on a large scale was administratively possible.
Early in April the 21st and 25th East African Brigades passed to the command of the 12th African Division, and later in the month the Headquarters, 1st South African Division, and the 5th South African Brigade sailed from Mombasa for Egypt. The 2nd South African Brigade, which had been moved to British Somaliland in the middle of March, was awaiting shipping to take it north also.
In a campaign of eight weeks the British had covered the 1,700 miles from the Tana to the enemy’s capital and had destroyed, captured, or dispersed a large proportion of his total land and air forces at a cost of 501 battle casualties and the loss of eight aircraft. It is evident that the Italian commanders lost control of the battle at a very early stage, and that thereafter the resistance was piecemeal. There were many occasions when the ground greatly favoured the defence, but the unreliability of the colonial troops and the general lack of the will to fight prevented the most being made of these opportunities for imposing delay. With the rains and the monsoon approaching, delay was what the British had most to fear.
The Italian Air Force were never allowed to work to any methodical or practical plan—even if they had one. There were plenty of vulnerable targets, such as the port of Mombasa, the Kenya railway, the crossings of the Tana, the interminable columns of motor traffic, and
the airfields, but the South African Air Force allowed the enemy little or no opportunity of attacking them, and, instead, the Italians lost numbers of aircraft destroyed in the air and on the ground. It is true that the Italian Air Force played a rather more active part in the close country of the Ethiopian Highlands, but here again they were prevented from making the most of the great opportunities for imposing delay.
The quantity of war material abandoned intact points to a failure to appreciate the difficulties that would face the British in the course of a long advance; otherwise the Italians would have taken care that the ports were thoroughly destroyed before being evacuated and that no stocks of petrol, food, machinery, engineer stores, and motor spares were left for the British to use.
Nevertheless, the British must be given credit for carrying out their plan with energy and determination. The squadrons of the South African Air Force took the initiative from the outset, and never lost it, and their success removed one of the Army’s biggest anxieties. On land there was no lack of the offensive spirit, and all the contingents of this very mixed force showed great fortitude and adaptability. The efficiency of the administration, on which everything depended, was largely due to the help that General Dickinson and his successor received from the South African Government, who provided most of the transport and ancillary services by which their own troops and the East and West Africans were maintained and rendered mobile.
Mobility was in fact the keynote of the whole campaign; it gave formations the ability to manoeuvre and to take the opportunities offered of thrusting boldly forward regardless of what was happening on the flanks. To keep up the momentum of such a rapid advance it was necessary for the administrative staffs and services to exercise great foresight and resource; the campaign is full of examples of both.
Some idea of the size and difficulty of the struggle against the climate and the conditions is given by the following figures, which are for the whole of East Africa Force from June 1940 to May 1941: battle casualties, 1,154; cases of sickness or accidents, 74,550, of which over 10,000 were due to dysentery and the same to malaria; 744 of these died. These figures serve as a reminder not only of the medical implications of campaigning in an under-developed country but also of the organization necessary to provide the trained men with which to keep up the effective strength of the force. The very varied composition of East Africa Force made these problems no easier.
When General Cunningham was beginning the advance that led from Kenya to Addis Ababa, the Emperor of Ethiopia had entered his country and was waiting at Belaya, 70 miles from the Sudan border. Lieutenant-Colonel Wingate, the new head of 101 Mission, then went ahead in command of Gideon Force to clear the way for the Emperor’s advance to the capital. It quickly became known that the Italians, alarmed by the nearness of supposedly numerous British and Ethiopian troops, the increasing hostility of the inhabitants, and the withdrawals on other fronts, were about to quit western Gojjam and retire to Bahrdar Giorgis and the neighbourhood of Debra Markos, thus releasing the very road that General Platt wished to secure. By 19th February Gideon Force reached the top of the escarpment at Matakal, by a route which was in a friendly area and by remarkable good fortune was found passable by the all-important camels. Hearing that Colonel Torelli’s brigade from Dangila had retired towards Bahrdar Giorgis, Wingate sent Major A. C. Simonds with one company of the Frontier Battalion and one Operational Centre in pursuit, and decided to use the rest of Gideon against the Italian garrisons which remained on the main road. His intention was that Gideon should turn guerrilla; it would attack secretly and often, and so create in the minds of the Italians the same erroneous impression of strength that had led them to quit Dangila.
The Italian Commander of the brigade in Burye and Enjabara, Colonel Natale, withdrew from the latter place before Wingate could arrive, but he deferred the evacuation of Burye so long that Gideon Force was able to get into position to operate at points on the road east of Burye; the result was that Natale’s withdrawal was made in distinctly difficult circumstances, and by 4th March, when he was hustled out of Burye, he had lost nearly 400 killed and wounded, 2,000 prisoners, 4 guns, and many vehicles and stores. The losses were not confined to the enemy, however, for the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion in a sharp engagement lost 100 men and so many animals that little more than a company played any useful part in subsequent operations.
The whole of the western loop of the important Gojjam road was now clear of the enemy, and with Colonel Torelli’s brigade rendered passive by Major Simonds’s small force the way was open for the Emperor to enter Gojjam. He climbed the escarpment at Matakal and was given a ceremonial reception by Dejesmach Mangasha at Enjabara on 12th March. Two days later he entered Burye.
The precipitate withdrawal of the Italians from Burye left them with the Debra Markos group of forts as their most advanced position. Colonel Wingate decided to push ahead to the Blue Nile with a part of his force, leaving the remainder under Lieutenant-Colonel J. E. H. Boustead, commanding the Frontier Battalion, to
invest Debra Markos. He had begun his march when Ras Hailu appeared with several thousand men, presenting a danger to Wingate’s small force and exerting a bad influence on the local leaders who were sitting watchfully on the fence. Disregarding Wingate’s peremptory order to surrender, Ras Hailu joined the Italians at Debra Markos. By this time General Nasi had realized how weak were the forces before which the Italians had retreated; he visited Debra Markos, replaced Colonel Natale by Colonel Maraventano, and announced that the Italians would return to Burye. As an earnest of their intentions they reoccupied Fort Emmanuel, half way back to Burye, while Torelli launched a simultaneous attack on the small force opposite Bahrdar Giorgis.
Wingate was thus faced with a crucial decision. He had the choice between falling back on Burye to afford closer protection to the Emperor and to his own stores and communications, and taking the initiative against the greatly superior forces at Debra Markos. Choosing the bolder course, he began a series of small sudden onslaughts and raids on the Italian positions. They were made by night, now here, now there, after very careful preparation, and required much of the Sudanese troops, whose skill, discipline, and dash were nevertheless equal to the occasion. When Wingate himself had to leave the forefront in order to resolve some acute problems on his line of communication, the battle was continued with such success by Colonel Boustead that on 4th April the Italians withdrew from Debra Markos and Ras Hailu surrendered.10 Meanwhile Colonel Torelli’s attack, made by five battalions supported by pack artillery, had been repulsed. On 6th April, the day of the fall of Addis Ababa, the Emperor entered Debra Markos and the first task of Gideon Force was accomplished.
General Cunningham’s capture of Addis Ababa and General Platt’s success in Eritrea placed the Patriot movement in a new setting. It was no longer a matter of fostering a stubborn revolt against unyielding Italians. Italian rule was crumbling and it was already possible to aim at getting the Emperor to his capital, there to take charge of his own forces, which, it was hoped, would play an increasing part in overcoming the remaining Italian resistance.
The new conditions brought about a dispersion of Gideon Force to a variety of tasks. General Platt’s instructions to Wingate were to operate against roads over a wide area in order to prevent the Italian forces at Amba Alagi, Gondar, Dessie, and those in the southwest around Jimma, from reinforcing each other. Major Simonds and two Operational Centres had already set out for Begemdir, to the east of Lake Tana, with the object of keeping cut the main road through Debra Tabor. This small and very isolated force had many
hardships to contend with, but it made several effective ambushes and succeeded in rousing a large number of Patriots to action, so that the Italians were firmly penned in their posts. Towards the end of April the company of the Frontier Battalion in front of Bahrdar Giorgis beat off another attack, and a few days later the Italian brigade retired along the eastern side of Lake Tana. Ras Hailu was still at Debra Markos, and, as his local prestige was high and his relations with the Emperor cool, it was necessary for part of the Frontier Battalion to remain there; it accompanied the Emperor to Addis Ababa and then followed the 1st South African Brigade north to Asmara. Part of the battalion went north from Debra Markos to Lake Tana (a march which took the Sudanese plainsmen in their cotton uniforms over a 14,000 foot pass in a blizzard) and by enterprise and deception they persuaded an Italian colonial battalion at Mota—the last remaining garrison in Gojjam—to surrender.
On 5th May General Platt handed over control of Patriot operations east and south of the big curve of the Blue Nile to General Cunningham, who exercised it largely through the Emperor and Brigadier Sandford. Colonel Wingate disliked this turn of events, for he was always happier giving orders than receiving them. Appropriately enough, however, it was he who completed the downfall of the Italian force he had chased through Gojjam.
When, in the middle of March, Wingate made his decision to deal with Debra Markos, he arranged for the chieftain, Lij Belai Zalleka, supported by Bimbashi W. Thesiger and Captain T. M. Foley of 101 Mission with a platoon of the Ethiopian Battalion, to block the escape route to the Blue Nile. Unfortunately Belai Zalleka, who had an understanding with Ras Hailu, did nothing, and the Italians crossed almost unhindered and turned north-east to Addis Derra. Bimbashi T. C. Johnson, with three platoons of the Frontier Battalion and one of the Ethiopian Battalion, had clung grimly to their heels, and continued to do so though his men were well-nigh starving and out of ammunition. By the last week in April two Operational Centres had joined the force in order to work on the Patriots, and Major D. H. Nott of 101 Mission took command of the whole.
By the end of the month, in spite of disappointments over Patriot help, Major Nott was pressing the enemy as they climbed the Addis Derra escarpment. By ingenuity and great activity by day and night he kept them in a state of unrest, and a successful raid followed by the repulse of a counter-attack stimulated the somewhat hostile local population to offer help and, better still, to bring in food. There seemed little hope, however, of dislodging the Italians.
On 15th May Colonel Wingate himself arrived from Addis Ababa, determined to settle with Colonel Maraventano. By coincidence the
Italians left their strong fort that night and made north for Agibar and the road to Debra Tabor and Gondar. Disregarding orders calling him to other tasks, Wingate followed like a bloodhound. He sent part of his force to cut the Italians off, and he himself was joined by 300 chosen Patriots and various others who came in to snap at the retreating enemy. On 19th May Maraventano was called upon by Wingate to surrender; he refused, but admitted that he had asked his superiors what he should do. The Italians continued to resist, and even made a counter-attack, but Wingate repeated his demand and added that as his troops were needed elsewhere he would have to leave the Italians to the mercy of the large Ethiopian force which had now collected. This was a bluff, for the Ethiopians were almost out of ammunition, but it worked. Colonel Maraventano duly received permission to negotiate, but what he did was to surrender, and 1,100 Italian and 7,000 colonial troops with their arms, equipment and transport were made prisoners, and were passed in review by the Emperor.
So ended the campaign of Gideon Force.11 At its strongest it had numbered 50 officers, 20 British NCOs, 800 trained Sudanese, and 800 partly trained Ethiopians. It had a few mortars, no artillery, and no direct support from the air—though it was helped by the occasional bombing of enemy centres. It operated in wild and often hostile country, at the end of an immensely long line of communication along which nearly all the 15,000 camels died. With help from the local Patriots Gideon chased General Nasi’s forces out of Gojjam in six weeks. Its total captures amounted to 1,100 Italians and 14,500 colonial troops, 12 guns, large quantities of machine-guns, rifles, and ammunition, and more than 200 transport animals.
In this remarkable achievement the honours were mostly to the Sudan Frontier Battalion. It was vital for Colonel Wingate to have a trained and disciplined unit as the hard core of his very mixed force, and this battalion showed great spirit and endurance, and responded to every call that his exacting and highly individual leadership made upon it. The amount of help from the local Patriots varied greatly, swayed as they were by tribal jealousies and internal politics; but the fact remains that from the first they presented a threat to the Italians, who had been having trouble from intractable chieftains like Mangasha and Nagash long before the British took a hand. As the impression of British strength grew, so did Patriot influence increase. With the news of the Emperor’s triumphant return the number of desertions of Italian colonial troops mounted at a rate which no army could endure for long.
The outstanding feature of the whole enterprise was the success of the timing. The idea of turning the internal situation in Ethiopia to good account was not in itself remarkable; indeed, after French Somaliland had gone over to Vichy there seemed little else to be done. What is remarkable is the good fortune and the ability to make use of it which enabled the spadework of Sandford and his colleagues to produce its results, Gideon to take the field as a force capable of deep penetration, and the Emperor to enter his country as a conqueror—all these at the moment when General Platt had just become strong enough to attack the enemy’s main forces in Eritrea, and General Cunningham was on the point of turning a success in Italian Somaliland into a threat to Addis Ababa. The combined effect of Gideon and the Patriots cannot be precisely assessed, but there is no doubt that it was considerable and that it reached its climax at exactly the right moment.