Chapter 16: The Final Campaign in East Africa
See Map 26
The first volume of this history described the campaign against Italian East Africa fought by the forces from Kenya under General Cunningham and from the Sudan under General Platt; the connected campaigns of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the South African Air Force; and the operations of the Ethiopian Patriots. The account ended with the surrender of the Duke of Aosta and the remains of General Frusci’s Northern Army at Amba Alagi on 19th May 1941. By then over three-quarters of the enemy’s troops had been accounted for, his air forces in the theatre had been almost destroyed, and his warships in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean had been sunk or captured. The Emperor of Ethiopia had returned to his capital of Addis Ababa on 5th May 1941, although his country remained for the time being mainly under British Military Government. British Somaliland had been reoccupied. French Somaliland was still in Vichy hands.
The Italian forces yet to be defeated were those in the southwest, in Galla-Sidamo, under General Gazzera, and those in Gondar, to the north of Lake Tana, under General Nasi. There was also a small isolated garrison at Assab on the Red Sea. General Nasi had about 41,000 men and 70 guns. General Gazzera had at first about 38,000 men and 200 guns, but he was joined by thousands of fugitives, mostly of no fighting value, from Somalia, Harar, and Shoa. After the fall of Amba Alagi General Gazzera was appointed Head of the Civil Government and Supreme Commander, but no concerted action between the widely separated Italian forces was possible. To make things worse the Italian national troops were losing heart and the Colonial troops, who greatly outnumbered the Italians, were becoming more and more unreliable. Nevertheless over 80,000 men were still in the field with ample supplies for continued resistance, if not for a prolonged war. The weather would favour a defensive policy because in central Ethiopia the ‘Big Rains’ begin in June—farther south they begin sooner—are heaviest in July and August, and do not cease before the end of September. The current belief was that large operations would be impossible in the wet season. Moreover, Generals Nasi and Gazzera had
the reputation of being resolute commanders, and to round them up might not be easy.
The policy of the British Commanders-in-Chief was to withdraw all the forces possible from Italian East Africa and to leave the minimum of resources for a campaign which was regarded as almost won; at any rate the strategic object, which was to make the Red Sea safe for shipping, had been achieved early in April. Of General Platt’s force the 4th Indian Division had gone to Egypt after the battle of Keren, and most of the 5th Indian Division was soon to follow. This left him with the Sudan Defence Force and a few other units which were sufficient to contain General Nasi, and enough resources to encourage the Ethiopian Patriots in the enterprises which they chose, or could be induced, to undertake. At this time General Wavell had been inclined to instruct General Cunningham to act defensively with the fewest possible troops, but in order to make the lines of communication more secure he authorized him to continue to act offensively until the end of May. The successful course of these operations caused this restriction to lapse in spite of the weather. Most of the South African troops had then left General Cunningham’s command, though South African artillery and engineers remained to play an important part in his campaign.
The collapse of the Italian Air Force was a powerful factor in the success of the final campaign, for, although few enemies could be found in the air, there were plenty of profitable targets to attack on the ground. It was therefore fortunate that the South African Air Force, together with the Royal Air Force in the Sudan, remained strong enough to play a decisive part. Their effort was especially valuable at Gondar between July and October, because it not only damaged the Italians but steadied the rather mercurial Patriots, to whom circumstances had at that time given most of the work on the ground.
There were two main phases in the final campaign: first, from April to July, General Cunningham’s operations in Galla-Sidamo, in which some of General Platt’s troops from the Sudan took part; and second, mainly in October and November, the operations against Gondar begun by General Platt and taken over by East Africa Command. This was a new command created in September, in circumstances to be described presently. Rather apart from these two main phases were events in French Somaliland, which belonged more to the political than to the military field, but which nevertheless added to the difficulties and responsibilities of General Cunningham and his successors.
See also Map 27
General Gazzera had his headquarters at Jimma, the administrative centre of Galla-Sidamo. Under Italian rule Galla-Sidamo was one of the five provinces and occupied the whole of south-western Ethiopia.
From north-west to south-east it stretched about 500 miles, and a width of nearly 300 miles across gave it an area as large as Italy. The most striking feature of the region is the chain of great lakes which begins with Lake Zwai, sixty miles south of Addis Ababa, and ends with Lake Chamo, 200 miles farther to the south-west. The lakes lie in the Great Rift Valley: to the west the land sweeps up into highlands and mountains cut by many deep valleys; to the east and south it rises to a high plateau and then falls in a great escarpment through wood and forest to the plains of Kenya and Somalia. Roads and tracks from east to west are confined to the gaps between the lakes, and the most important of these gaps is at Shashamanna, north of Lake Wasa.
As in many other countries the principal roads in Ethiopia radiate from the capital, and cross-country communication between them is very poor. In 1941 three motor roads ran from Addis Ababa into Galla-Sidamo, one west to Lechemti, one south-west to Jimma, and one south to Moggio. After this point the last road rapidly worsened as it passed west of Lake Zwai down to Adamitullo, Shashamanna, Dalle and Wondo. From Wondo fair-weather roads branched to Neghelli and Yavello, and joined again at Mega. To this point the South African Engineers were building a new all-weather road over the Huri Hills from Marsabit in Kenya. All the other roads and tracks in the Lakes area were fit for fair-weather use only; one ran from Shashamanna west to Colito, where it was joined by a track from the north, and then ran on to Soddu, Sciola, and Jimma across appalling country. Such were the principal routes used by General Cunningham’s troops, but there were two back doors from the Sudan which were used by other forces: one followed the valley of the Baro river through Gambela up to Dembidollo, the other from the Boma plateau led to Maji.
General Gazzera’s forces were in three main areas. Four Colonial Divisions covered the principal approaches from east and south: the 25th at Shashamanna, the 101st at Soddu and to the south of it, the 24th at Wadara on the Neghelli road and the 21st at Alghe on the Yavello road. The 22nd was protecting Jimma, and, in the west, the 26th was at Lechemti and the 23rd at Ghimbi and Gambela. All these divisions were much below strength and only about thirty light and medium tanks remained. The Viceroy’s orders to General Gazzera, later confirmed by Rome, had been to draw out his resistance and so pin down British troops for as long as possible. His policy was therefore defensive, and he intended to preserve his forces by repeated withdrawals: the one counter-attack, ordered by the Viceroy to be made against British communications near Moggio, was a failure.
General Cunningham’s first plan, made early in April, had been to move on Jimma and on the Lakes from Addis Ababa and at the same time advance northwards from Yavello and Neghelli. Then came General Wavell’s order to clear the Addis Ababa-Asmara road, which
led to the operations at Amba Alagi.1 The number of troops left with General Cunningham were not enough for his three simultaneous advances. The 11th African Division (Major-General H. E. de R. Wetherall) had only the 22nd East African Brigade at Addis Ababa and the 1st Natal Mounted Rifles and 1st Field Force Battalion on temporary loan from the 2nd South African Brigade, which was under orders for Egypt. The 12th African Division (Major-General A. R. Godwin-Austen) had the 21st East African Brigade at Yavello and the 24th Gold Coast Brigade at Neghelli. General Cunningham was obliged to postpone his advance on Jimma and ordered the 11th African Division to attack Shashamanna while the 12th African Division advanced on Dalle from Yavello and Neghelli. When the two divisions had joined he intended to drive the enemy from the Lakes region and open the more direct line of communication to Kenya through Mega and Marsabit. An attempt to move the 25th East African Brigade from the north of Lake Rudolf to join the 12th African Division was defeated by the country and the weather.
The operational air units in this campaign belonged to the South African Air Force and were commanded by Air Commodore W. Sowrey, RAF, with Brigadier H. Daniel, SAAF, as his Senior Air Staff Officer. The Squadrons were No. 3 (Hurricane and Gladiator), No. 11 (Fairey Battle), No. 12 (Ju.86) and Nos. 40 and 41 Army Cooperation (Hartbeest). On 20th May the ‘Close Support Control’, which had been disbanded after the fall of Addis Ababa, was revived and placed with the headquarters of the 22nd East African Brigade. On 1st June No. 15 Bomber Squadron replaced No. 11, and No. 40 Squadron was disbanded.
The supply of General Cunningham’s forces along their fantastically long lines of communication presented some big administrative problems. The 11th African Division was being supplied by sea from Aden through Berbera and thence by 560 miles of road and rail to Addis Ababa. At Berbera something resembling a base port had had to be developed from a poor anchorage, some demolished or damaged jetties with no equipment for handling cargo, and a hinterland which had no other advantage than space. Sections of the railway were quickly brought into use between Diredawa and Addis Ababa, but through trains could not be run until July, when the rebuilding of the demolished high-level bridge over the river Awash was finished. The port of Jibuti and the section of railway through French Somaliland would have been invaluable, both for shortening and improving the line of supply and for getting away the thousands of Italian prisoners and civilians. Not only did these facilities never become available to General Cunningham, but he had to post the 26th East African
Brigade to keep watch on the land frontier of French Somaliland.
The supply position of the 12th African Division was even more unsatisfactory. Until early in April its main line had run all the way from Mogadishu by road through Dolo. This road grew steadily worse when the rains began, and the main supply line was shifted as soon as possible to run from Nanyuki through Marsabit and Mega. Unfortunately the cross link between Mega and Neghelli was very bad, and the swollen and violent Dawa Parma river frequently interrupted communication completely. The irony of the situation was that, although it had become easier to deliver supplies to Yavello than to Neghelli, the road forward from Neghelli, though bad, was much better than the road forward from Yavello.
The general northward drift of the rains has already been mentioned. The first rains struck the southern Ethiopian escarpment early in April, and the 12th Division had therefore to battle with them before their effect was fully felt by the 11th Division farther north. By May both divisions were seriously affected. Lorries were not plentiful; many were wearing out and there were few replacements for campaigns which were closing. Supplies of all sorts, thanks to large captured stocks, remained on the whole sufficient, although there was some anxiety about petrol. The real nightmare was distribution, especially in Galla-Sidamo. The unmetalled roads broke up under rain and traffic, the streams and rivers flooded, and the bridges and causeways were washed away. Road convoys were reduced to a crawl and met with every sort of delay and accident. A transport column might spend a fortnight on a round trip of 300 miles, and lorries sometimes ran only three miles to the gallon of petrol. One difficulty bred another; bad roads and slow turn-rounds called for more transport; more transport made the roads worse; worse roads increased the petrol consumption—and so on. It is greatly to the credit of units and staffs that the campaign was able to keep going at all during the rains.
On 11th April the 22nd East African Brigade Group (Brigadier C. C. Fowkes) got off to a false start towards Aselle, due to wrong information about the enemy and an inaccurate Italian map. It soon became clear that few enemy were on this line; the road turned into a mud track, and the brigade started off again to the west of Lake Zwai. On 1st May the Italians were swept from a position at Mount Fike, between Lakes Abyata and Shala, and then there was a pause partly to reconnoitre the unknown and ill-mapped country and partly to give 12th African Division time to advance within supporting distance. On 9th May the advance began again on both sides of Lake Shala; the enemy were scattered whenever met, and in spite of heavy rain, flooded streams, demolished bridges and other obstacles. Shashamanna was reached on 14th May and a small column pushed on towards Dalle, forty miles away.
Dalle, which was about 150 miles from Yavello and Neghelli, has already been mentioned as 12th African Division’s objective. But in the appalling conditions this division was only making slow progress. On 21st April the 24th Gold Coast Brigade (Brigadier C. E. M. Richards) had made contact with the main Italian position at Wadara and found it immensely strong, consisting of three defensive lines on precipitous and forested ridges. The country was so blind and intricate that patrolling to gain the information on which to make a plan took a very long time. It was not until 4th May that the Gold Coast Brigade was able to attack. The action became a series of struggles in the depth of the forest, often in torrential rain, to turn the enemy’s flank. The artillery and air could help little because neither could see much. On 10th May the enemy was driven out and the advance continued for another 100 miles to Wondo, which was reached on the 25th. The enemy’s rearguards offered no serious resistance, but the floods, the mud and the demolitions made any greater speed impossible. On the Yavello road the 21st East African Brigade (Brigadier A. McD. Ritchie) had fared even worse. The enemy was turned out of his positions near Alghe on 6th and 7th May, but it soon became clear that the whole brigade could not be maintained along this frightful road.
On 17th May General Cunningham modified his plan. The enemy was obviously in great confusion but was trying to rally east of Soddu. General Cunningham therefore ordered the 11th African Division to press on to Soddu as soon as possible. In order to be able to launch an attack down the all-weather road from Addis Ababa to Jimma, he instructed the 12th African Division to hasten forward and take over operations in the Soddu area from the 11th African Division and free it to attack Jimma. General Godwin-Austen, seeing that not more than a battalion column could be maintained along the Yavello road, decided to try the rather better Neghelli road. But by 21st May it was apparent that 12th African Division, try as it might, could not move fast enough. General Cunningham therefore decided that the 11th African Division must advance alone to both Soddu and Jimma, and that the 12th would take over the back areas.
By 21st May the 22nd East African Brigade had taken Colito after a sharp action during which Sergeant N. G. Leakey, attached 1/6th King’s African Rifles, routed six Italian tanks single-handed. This extraordinary deed cost him his life and won him a posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. On 23rd May the Brigade entered Soddu and captured the commanders and staffs of the 25th and 101st Colonial Divisions. General Gazzera thereupon ordered the 21st and 24th Colonial Divisions to make their way north of Lake Abaya, and then as best they could to the west of the river Omo, his main concern being to get the Italian nationals across this considerable obstacle. Even this
plan failed, for the cross-country move was terribly difficult. The 21st Division was quickly rounded up, and the 24th, which reached the Omo but could not cross it, surrendered in mid-June, bringing the total of prisoners taken east of the Omo since 1st May to 18,396.
For the advance on Jimma the 23rd Nigerian Brigade (Brigadier G. R. Smallwood) was relieved from its duties on the lines of communication and given to General Wetherall, who also received from the 12th African Division most of its artillery. The 1st Natal Mounted Rifles and the 1st Field Force Battalion left to rejoin their brigade. The main problem was now the crossing of the Omo, which barred the northern line of advance at Abalti and the southern at Sciola. This river was likely to be a serious obstacle. It was over 100 yards wide and, though normally shallow, was likely at this season to come down in spate and run fast and deep. Beyond it the ground gave strong positions for defence. The big concrete bridge at Abalti had been destroyed and at Sciola there was only a footbridge and a pontoon ferry. The British had already built some seventy bridges during their advance, and had few assault-boats and very little bridging equipment left; what there was had mostly to be brought from Berbera. The 22nd East African Brigade was to force a passage at Sciola, and the 23rd Nigerian Brigade at Abalti. Whichever brigade succeeded in crossing first was to help the other by cutting the enemy’s communication with Jimma. Patriots, who were not tied to roads, and who could contrive to cross the river at unguarded points, went ahead to harass the Italians in Jimma. The Air Force constantly attacked the enemy’s positions at Abalti and Sciola, the transport on the roads to Jimma, and Jimma itself.
At Sciola the Italians were believed to have at least a battalion of Blackshirts and three batteries of artillery, and when the leading British troops made contact on 30th May the bridge seemed strongly held.2 Next day an attempt to rush it failed, and preparations for an assault-crossing were begun. The river was now coming into spate. That night the Italians demolished the bridge and withdrew to their main positions about three miles upstream, but left a troublesome battery to cover the site. On 1st June the strong current defeated all attempts to cross, but next day an easier place was discovered and a few platoons of the 2nd Nigerian Regiment and 5th King’s African Rifles crossed before damage to the assault-boats compelled a halt. There was a lull for reconnaissance and repairs, and Brigadier Fowkes decided to ferry over the remainder of the 5th King’s African Rifles on 4th June, their task being to encircle and destroy the hostile guns. This plan succeeded admirably and on 5th June the battalion took 1,100
Italian prisoners. They also took nine guns and destroyed nine more.3
Something similar occurred at Abalti. Here also the spate rose just soon enough—seven feet in one night—to frustrate a carefully prepared attempt to force a crossing on 31st May, and the boats, bridging gear and ammunition had to be laboriously shifted to a narrower part of the river. The next attempt was made on the night of 4th/5th June, by which time the torrential rain had eased off and the river had subsided a little. The air force and artillery delivered a preliminary bombardment, and the 3rd Nigerian Regiment and one company of the 1/1st King’s African Rifles crossed in assault-boats and soon seized their objectives on the steep hillside. Fighting went on all day, but the enemy nowhere resisted very strongly. More troops crossed by a footbridge and a pontoon ferry, and by dawn on 6th June the enemy was in full flight towards Jimma, and 2,850 prisoners were taken.4
General Cunningham now felt that he could take Jimma when he pleased, but was in no haste to burden himself with the care of yet more Italian civilians by doing so. He decided that his main effort would be an advance by the 23rd Nigerian Brigade along the Addis Ababa-Lechemti road against the 23rd and 26th Colonial Divisions. The 22nd East African Brigade was to advance on Jimma by the all-weather road.
At this moment the Italians declared that Jimma was an open town, and tried earnestly to hand it over. General Gazzera himself left, and messages passed between him and General Cunningham, who declined to let his troops enter the town except in the course of operations. He would not accept responsibility for the Italian civilians, though in fact his troops were ready to move in if serious danger threatened. This might well have occurred because the large Patriot forces all round had attracted vagabonds whose object was to loot. By 20th June General Cunningham decided that the 22nd East African Brigade must advance beyond Jimma to cooperate with the Nigerian Brigade. Accordingly Brigadier Fowkes entered the town next day and in all 12,000 Italian and 3,000 Colonial troops surrendered or were later mopped up.
By this time the 23rd Nigerian Brigade, moving on Ghimbi, had captured the last Italian rearguard east of the river Didessa and had reached the river. The country between Lechemti and Jimma swarmed with Patriots. On 27th June the 22nd East African Brigade compelled another rearguard to surrender at Dembi. The air force, as it had done from the beginning, harried the lines of retreat and on 28th June received an unexpected bonus: a Hartbeest dropped 40 lb. of bombs on Belleta and the Italian force there surrendered on the spot. The 23rd and 26th Colonial Divisions were now making for Yubdo and Dembidollo. The 11th African Division was beginning to be much delayed by bad roads and demolished bridges and the weather was daily becoming worse. There was a chance that the Italian remnants, marooned in a sea of mud, might prolong their existence until the rains ended. However the air force continually attacked them, the Patriots hung on their flanks and rear, and finally pressure from the Sudan broke them.
General Platt’s advance, which ended at Amba Alagi in May, had occupied nearly all his troops and had ruled out all operations except very small ones. However there had become available the 2/6th King’s African Rifles, the Composite Battalion of the Sudan Defence Force, and a Belgian contingent from the Congo, consisting of a small headquarters and the 5th Infantry Regiment of two battalions and a company of heavy mortars. During March the Blue Nile region around Asosa had been cleared of Italian posts and attention turned to the Baro river. The Belgian contingent and part of the 2/6th King’s, African Rifles had taken Gambela on 25th March and had then made touch with Dembidollo, which the Belgians contained while waiting for the effect of General Cunningham’s operations to be felt.
On 27th June General Platt instructed the Belgians to attack when opportunity offered. The Belgian General commanding in the Congo, General-Major Gilliaert, who was visiting his troops, wasted no time and attacked on 3rd July. The same day General Gazzera broadcast to Addis Ababa that he was sending delegates to the Belgians to negotiate a surrender. The Italians asked that hostilities in Galla-Sidamo should end south of the Blue Nile, and requested the honours of war. General-Major Gilliaert granted these terms and took the formal surrender on 6th July. The rump of General Gazzera’s forces was composed of 2,944 Italians, 1,535 Colonial troops, and 2,000 bande. So ended the operations in Galla-Sidamo, which were chiefly remarkable for the severity of the struggle with the country and the elements.
See Map 28 and Photo 43
There now remained General Nasi’s force at Gondar and the outlying defended localities. Gondar, the chief town of Amhara, stands in
the mountain highlands to the north of Lake Tana at a height of nearly 7,000 feet. It is the road centre of the district, but only the road from Asmara was fit for use in all weathers. At Wolchefit, seventy miles from Gondar, this road climbed in fantastic coils up 4,000 precipitous feet of escarpment; one stretch was actually cut out of the sheer cliff. A strong Italian force blocked this route, the only possible one for large bodies of troops. Between Wolchefit and Gondar the road followed generally the top edge of the escarpment through country admirable for defence. There was a small garrison at Dabat, thirty miles from Gondar, and another closer in at Amba Giorgis. This length of the escarpment was scaled by no roads except a minor one from Um Hagar in the north.
Westwards from Gondar a poor fair-weather road led to Gallabat, and was guarded by a garrison at Chilga. West of Lake Tana there were only some rough tracks, converging on Gorgora, but on the east an important road ran through Debra Tabor to Dessie. Debra Tabor itself was a defended post, and there was a garrison at the strong position of Kulkaber, thirty miles from Gondar, where the road passed through a neck of land between Lake Tana and the hills. Between Debra Tabor and Dessie the road lay on black cotton soil and in the rains was almost impassable.
Thus the obstacles to an advance on Gondar were considerable, while there was great scope for the use of irregular Patriot forces, who were not dependent upon roads.
Before describing this advance some account must be given of General Platt’s operations since April 1941. Having cleared the Italians from Eritrea in April 1941, General Platt intended to tackle first Wolchefit and then Gondar. But General Wavell ordered him to clear the Asmara-Dessie road which was wanted for the transfer northwards of some of the South African troops. General Platt gave his whole force to this task, as it was not strong enough to carry out both operations at once. Wolchefit was watched by small detachments of the Sudan Defence Force, but for some months most of the operations against General Nasi were carried out by the air forces and the Patriots, for by the time General Cunningham had overcome General Gazzera in Galla-Sidamo, and was able to spare any forces, the weather in northern Ethiopia had become too wet for elaborate land operations.
In April 1941 Air Commodore Slatter had in his Sudan Command No. 47 Squadron RAF (Wellesley), No. 237 (Rhodesian) Army Cooperation Squadron RAF (Hardy, Lysander, Gladiator), the Free French Bomber Flight (Blenheim IV), and a few South African communication aircraft. No. 237 Squadron left on 20th May for Kufra, and on 16th August the Free French Flight left for Syria. On 3rd August some South African squadrons came under the operational control of the Sudan Command, as a result of the winding up of the campaign in Galla-Sidamo. These were No. 3 Fighter Squadron
(Hurricane, Gladiator, Mohawk), No. 15 Bomber Squadron (Fairey Battle), No. 16 Bomber Squadron (Ju.86) and No. 41 Army Cooperation Squadron (Hartbeest). No. 15 Squadron had only two aircraft and ceased to operate by mid-August. No. 3 Squadron, less one detachment, left on 27th August to rearm completely with Mohawks and returned on 31st October. Air Commodore Spackman, who had succeeded Air Commodore Slatter on 14th July, directed operations until 25th September, when control passed to the new Air Headquarters, East Africa,5 and No. 2 Wing SAAF (Lieut.-Col. M. C. P. Mostert, SAAF) took over the South African Squadrons and No. 47 Squadron RAF.
The general object of the air operations was to provide close support for the army, destroy the few remaining enemy aircraft, and sap the enemy’s morale by systematic bombing, especially in the areas to the east of Lake Tana, around Wolchefit, and along the road from there to Gondar. The complement of this process was the harrying action of the Patriots. The size of the Patriot bands in the field varied with the prestige of their chefs, who were usually extremely independent and often rivals. A few adventurous British officers and non-commissioned officers strove to direct their activities, the basis of the organization being the Operational Centre, which normally consisted of a British officer, five N.C.Os, and a few picked Ethiopians—all trained in guerrilla warfare. It says much for the character and determination of these few leaders that they were able to gain the confidence and respect of some highly intractable warriors, secure their obedience, and turn their activities to good military account as part of a general plan.
East of Lake Tana the local aim was to cut the Debra Tabor-Gondar road and clear the country of Italian posts. Major A. C. Simonds of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry with No. 2 Operational Centre and Fitaurari Birru’s small band began to invest Debra Tabor in April.6 He was joined by the Begemdir chieftains Dejasmach Daniyo and Dejasmach Bellai, and for a short while by part of the Sudan Frontier Battalion. In May Major Simonds was succeeded by Major G. Douglas of the Highland Light Infantry, who planned five attacks but could not get the Patriots to do more than harass. It was the air force which kept up the pressure. In June No. 47 Squadron attacked almost daily; for example on 20th and 27th June 3,520 and 5,195 lb. of bombs were dropped from little over 3,000 feet. With no prospect of any relief the Italian commander surrendered on 6th July with 2,553 Italian and 2,800 native troops. His 79th Colonial Battalion entered
the British service as the ‘79th Foot’, under Captain N. L. D. McLean, Royal Scots Greys. A banda company also changed sides and became the Wollo Banda under Captain M. Pilkington, Royal Horse Guards.
Major Douglas and his Shoans, thus augmented, now moved on to hem in Kulkaber in order to prevent supplies from the cultivated plain near Lake Tana reaching Kulkaber or Gondar. His men lurked watchfully near the main road and there was a band as far north as Aiva. But the weather was bad and their own supplies were not easy to get, and towards the end of September even the money, so important in Patriot warfare, ran out. Six Wellesleys of No. 47 Squadron saved the situation by dropping 100,000 Maria Theresa dollars, and Major Douglas continued to harry the Italians, on the whole successfully, until the end of the rains allowed regular operations to begin in November.
At the formidable obstacle of Wolchefit the Italians held about a dozen well-chosen defended localities, with a depth of about three miles. The garrison was thought to be 3,000 Italian and 2,000 Colonial troops—a fairly accurate total—with thirty guns (an over-estimate) and plenty of machine-guns and mortars. From below the escarpment No. 2 Motor Machine-Gun Group of the Sudan Defence Force kept watch while to the west in Armachaho Patriot bands were gathering. With them were Major B. J. Ringrose, Nottinghamshire Yeomanry, Bimbashi L. F. Sheppard, Sudan Defence Force, and Lieutenant A. S. Railton, South Staffordshire Regiment, who had with him a company of the 3rd Ethiopian Battalion. These Patriot operations were not easy to direct, because the chiefs from Armachaho were at odds with the chiefs of the Wogera plateau, who were unfriendly to the Emperor for tribal reasons and were often pro-Italian. However Major Ringrose gradually obtained control and the Patriots filtered up the escarpment. By mid-April Major Ringrose and the Wogera chief Ras Ayalu Birru had seized Dabat and on 5th May the Italians evacuated Amba Giorgis.7 Wolchefit was now cut off, and General Platt ordered an attempt to be made to break into the Italian positions there. Two unsuccessful attacks were made in May and another set-back followed in June, when the Italians made a counter-attack and captured Ras Ayalu Birru. The Patriots then melted away for a time.
Meanwhile from Gallabat the Composite Battalion, Sudan Defence Force, with the 3rd Ethiopian Battalion and a troop of Sudanese light howitzers, attacked Chilga on 17th May. The place was resolutely defended and proved to be too strong, though the Italian casualties were heavy. The attempt was not renewed until November.
All this time Wellesleys of No. 47 Squadron and Blenheims of the Free French Flight daily bombed targets which included Gondar,
Azozo airfield, Dabat, Chilga, Debarech and Wolchefit. Their attacks were generally made from low-level and a usual weight of bombs was 4,000 lb. The few Italian aircraft were inactive, though two C.R. 42s once attacked the Patriots and were chased off by three Wellesleys. The continual and unchallenged appearance of British aircraft convinced the Patriots that the Italians’ day was over; it encouraged the waverers and sustained all when set-backs occurred.
By early July the Patriots had rallied again. Major Ringrose had for some time thought that the Italians at Wolchefit might surrender to regular troops, of which so far only very few had been available. On 10th July, however, the 3/14th Punjab Regiment arrived from Asmara, and after a long and difficult climb up the escarpment joined the Patriots at Bosa in order to attack the Wolchefit defences from the south-west. The attempt miscarried and was not repeated. The Patriots, however, continued their activities, which fluctuated with the weather, the supplies of money and food, and their own feuds and rivalries. The air force bombed persistently, mainly Gondar and Azozo, but did not neglect Wolchefit, and No. 47 Squadron five times dropped food and ammunition on the Patriots. In August No.2 Wing SAAF took over operations against Gondar town and its environs, and No. 203 Group concentrated on Wolchefit and Debarech, but towards the end of the month and in September both air forces made almost daily attacks on these two positions. Machine-gun fire from the 20-mm Bredas was heavy, and the South Africans lost three aircraft.
The Italians at Wolchefit were known to be running short of supplies and to be having trouble with their native troops. Conflicting reports and indications of their intentions reached the British, but by mid-September there seemed little reason to expect that Wolchefit would fall except to a deliberate attack. It is appropriate to turn for a moment to consider the changes in organization and composition of the British forces then in progress, as a result of which fresh forces appeared upon the scene.
In July General Platt’s Command comprised the Sudan and the northern part of Eritrea. Gondar was thus excluded from his sphere but for convenience’ sake he continued for some time to direct the operations against it. Almost all the remaining South. African troops left General Cunningham’s command in July and the 23rd Nigerian and 24th Gold Coast Brigades were required by the Chiefs of Staff to return to West Africa to reinforce Freetown, the important convoy-collecting port which the nearby Vichy French might threaten in retaliation for events in Syria. To offset the loss of these brigades the two African Divisions had to be reconstituted with East African brigades. The 12th Division was given the 22nd and 25th Brigades, and the 11th Division was to have the 21st and the new 28th, but it was later decided that the latter should replace the 26th Brigade in its
watch on the border of French Somaliland and that the 26th should join 12th African Division for the Gondar operations. The Gold Coast Brigade left behind the 51st Gold Coast Medium Battery and the 53rd Gold Coast Field Company, which also went to reinforce the 12th African Division.
The creation of an East Africa Command directly responsible to the War Office has already been referred to. The object was to free the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, from East African affairs and allow him to attend solely to the war in the Mediterranean theatre. The idea had been discussed for some time but had been put aside while the campaign in East Africa was in full swing under General Wavell. It was later revived and on 2nd September the War Office gave instructions for the Command to begin formal existence on the 15th. Lieut.-General Sir William Platt was appointed to command but was granted preliminary leave of absence, and first Major-General Godwin-Austen and then Major-General Wetherall acted for him. General Cunningham had left Ethiopia on 29th August to command the new 8th Army in the Western Desert, and General Godwin-Austen followed to command the 13th Corps. Lieut.-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse came from Egypt to take command in the Sudan.
The new East African Command comprised Ethiopia, Eritrea (for a short time only), Italian Somaliland, British Somaliland, Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanganyika, Uganda, Nyasaland, and Northern Rhodesia. Its headquarters were at Nairobi. The General Officer Commanding-in-Chief commanded and administered all land forces in these areas. He had political responsibilities also, but of these it is enough to say that he was assisted by a Chief Political Officer, Sir Philip Mitchell, appointed by the British Government, who combined in himself a number of functions; he was British Representative in Ethiopia, Chief Political Officer for Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, and civil adviser of the Military Governor of British Somaliland.8 Air cooperation with the new Command remained the responsibility of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Middle East, who delegated executive action to the A.O.C. in East Africa.
The account of these changes has partly outstripped the story of the operations. The new East Africa Command was of course but an expansion of the old East Africa Force and able therefore to take control of the campaign before its own formal existence began. The 25th East African Brigade from Lake Rudolf arrived by sea at Massawa on 15th September and was at once moved up to Wolchefit. On the 20th General Platt conferred with General Wetherall and General Fowkes (now commanding the 12th African Division) to consider plans. Wolchefit was such a formidable obstacle that it seemed best for two
brigades to advance on Gondar by the Debra Tabor road, which should become passable after the end of the rains in October. The 26th Brigade could not in any case be relieved from the frontier of French Somaliland before the third week in October. Preparations for an advance from Dessie through Debra Tabor had just begun, when, to the surprise of the British, Colonel Gonella, the Italian commander at Wolchefit, proposed an armistice to Major Ringrose. He had lost many men by desertion and was short of food.9 On 27th September he surrendered with 1,631 Italians and 1,450 Colonial troops to Brigadier W. A. L. James, commander of the 25th East African Brigade.
This event, although very welcome, caused no immediate change in the British plans. A fortnight’s work would be necessary to repair the extensive road demolitions at Wolchefit, and it was premature to think that the appearance of a single brigade on this route would cause General Nasi to surrender; he was more likely to attack it with the mobile striking force which he was known to have formed. The main British effort would still be made from Debra Tabor, and Brigadier James was ordered to move from Wolchefit towards Gondar, making touch with the Patriots but taking no risks. Resources and supplies would meanwhile be collected at Dessie, where the 26th East African Brigade would concentrate. When all was ready Brigadier James’s Brigade would return to Dessie; this was a move of 400 miles, but it was preferable to sending the 26th Brigade, and all the supplies necessary for two brigades, the same distance forward. Brigadier James wasted no time in reconnoitring the north-eastern defences of Gondar and found them to be well sited in formidable, rugged, and scrub-covered hills.
Mid-October came; the rains showed no signs of ending, and it was clear that there would be much delay before the Debra Tabor road became fit for heavy traffic. General Fowkes therefore conceived the idea of switching his attack to the northern front, where Brigadier James was probing, and thus taking advantage of the all-weather road which led to it. By this time he had reason to think that General Nasi might surrender as soon as he was attacked by a regular force of respectable size. The administrative difficulties of a switch were many, but General Wetherall agreed to the change of plan, in view of the indefinite delay imposed by the rains on the preparations for an advance from Debra Tabor. On 27th October General Fowkes, at Addis Ababa, issued his orders. The 25th East African Brigade was to attack from the north on about 9th November and be ready to enter Gondar. The 26th East African Brigade would then be ready to pass through and clear up the Italian positions farther south. Two days before the northern attack a detached force (South Force) under Lieut.-Colonel R. G. T. Collins,
commanding 1/6th King’s African Rifles, with Major Douglas’s Patriots, was to capture Kulkaber and advance on Gondar.10 A detachment of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion with more Patriots was to advance west of Lake Tana. A third column, provided by the Sudan, and consisting mainly of the Composite Battalion, Sudan Defence Force, and yet another force of Patriots, was to attack Chilga from Gallabat.
At the end of September the few remaining South African Ju.86s went to join the blockade of French Somaliland, and No. 2 Wing SAAF controlled, for operations against Gondar, only No. 47 Squadron RAF and No. 41 Army Cooperation Squadron SAAF. The heaviest attack in October was on the 17th, when seven Hartbeests, four Gladiators, and a Hurricane dropped 7,810 lb. of bombs on the northern positions. A week later two Gladiators shot down a C.R.42 which was reconnoitring the Gondar–Wolchefit road. No. 3 Squadron SAAF returned with its new Mohawks on 31st October, and air operations were intensified while the 12th African Division was preparing its attack. On 11th November thirty sorties were flown against Gondar and its environs. On the 12th over 10,000 lb. of bombs were dropped on Kulkaber and on the 13th 680 lb. Hardly a day passed without an attack on some position, and many offensive and photographic reconnaissances were made. This activity was the more valuable because of hitches in the Army’s plan.
An important question of artillery support now arose. There were available for Brigadier James only the 18th and 22nd Mountain Batteries RA and the 53rd East African Field Battery. The 54th Nyasaland Field Battery was coming from Kenya to Massawa, where it was to be equipped with eight 25-pdr guns, but the date by which it would be ready was uncertain. General Fowkes asked Brigadier James if the support of only eight 3.7-inch and four 4.5-inch howitzers would be enough, and Brigadier James, who had begun to doubt whether a single brigade could tackle the formidable position in front of him, replied that the chance of success would be very much less without the 25-pdrs. General Fowkes then visited the front and made a new plan, in which the 26th Brigade was to operate on the right of the 25th.
Before fixing a date for these operations on a two-brigade front General Fowkes was busy with a third plan. The belief existed that the Italians had made a road of sorts during their conquest of Ethiopia linking the Gondar-Wolchefit and Gondar-Debra Tabor roads.11 Parties
were out in the maze of mountains and ravines searching eagerly for it, for, if it were found, both brigades would be able to move to an area south of Gondar, and attack in a quarter where the ground was easier and the defences less formidable. An essential preliminary to this plan, in General Fowkes’s view, was for South Force to break through at Kulkaber and bring forward its 60-pdr guns to support the main attack, because it was still uncertain when the Nyasaland Field Battery could arrive. Reports were current that the Italians at Kulkaber would surrender as soon as regular troops appeared, and General Fowkes seems not to have doubted a quick success.
South Force completed its concentration on 11th November and two days later they and the Patriots attacked. A deep wedge was driven into the Italian positions, but the defenders under Colonel Ugolini fought hard, the British and Patriot efforts were not well coordinated, and the arrangements for air support did not achieve the desired results. Far from producing the quick success hoped for, the operation failed altogether.
This was a blow to General Fowkes, who was expecting the field guns to be in action by the 17th for the main attack on Gondar, but who still felt that the 60-pdrs were wanted also, if a long drawn out battle was to be avoided. In other words it was still necessary to break through first at Kulkaber. The engineers had just confirmed that a very rough road from near Amba Giorgis to Dancaz existed. Accordingly on 14th November General Fowkes ordered the 25th East African Brigade to move down to Dancaz and be ready to attack Kulkaber from the north on 19th November, while South Force—also under Brigadier James’s command, attacked from the south. The Brigade set out next day, but beyond Dancaz the track was found hardly to exist, and the engineers, pioneers and two infantry battalions had to set to work to rebuild it. This task meant postponing the attack on Kulkaber until the 21st. Meanwhile the air force was continuing its systematic attack of the Gondar area; on 17th November, for instance, twenty-four sorties were flown by Hartbeests, twelve by Mohawks, and nine by Wellesleys, and the aircraft in waves of three attacked various targets with machine-gun fire, and dropped nearly 12,000 lb. of bombs. The last Italian aircraft to fly in East Africa did so on 20th November.
All this time the net was being drawn in. The 2nd Ethiopian Battalion, which had been advancing up the tracks west of Lake Tana, took Gianda on 11th November and by the 13th had hemmed in Gorgora. The Sudan Column from Gallabat attacked Chilga on 20th November and again found it too strong to take, but successfully pinned down the garrison of four battalions. In General Fowkes’s view everything now depended upon the fresh attack on Kulkaber.
The Kulkaber positions were held by two Blackshirt battalions, one
Colonial Battalion and two companies of Carabineri. The field-works were strong, well wired, and protected by mines and booby-traps. Brigadier James decided to attack the eastern sector from the north with two of his own battalions and from the south with South Force. Captain Pilkington’s Wolla Banda and the Shoans, now under Captain K. Nurk, were to tackle the western defences. On 20th November the air force delivered a preparatory bombardment in which Mohawks, Wellesleys and Hartbeests in forty-four sorties dropped nine tons of bombs. Next morning at about first light all the attacks went in. The Italians under Colonel Ugolini fought well, but they could not hold off well-executed attacks from so many directions. In the afternoon their posts began to surrender piece-meal and soon it was all over. There were 99 British casualties and 107 Patriots were killed. 1,648 Italian and 775 native troops were taken prisoner.
See Map 29
General Fowkes had already decided that for the capture of Gondar the 26th East African Brigade was to strike from the east and the 25th from the south, with the main force of Patriots between the two. In the extreme north 1st Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, lent from the Sudan, with some divisional troops and the 53rd East African Field Battery, were to contain the enemy in the neighbourhood of the Wolchefit road. The 26th East African Brigade, with the 22nd Mountain Battery RA and 54th Nyasaland Field Battery, was to assemble south of Aiva on the Dancaz track and attack the positions called Daflecha and Maldiba. A force of Patriots under Captain A. G. S. Campbell (Camforce) would cover their right flank. The 25th East African Brigade with 18th Mountain Battery RA, 51st Gold Coast Medium Battery, the Kenya Armoured Car Regiment, and the South African Light Armoured Detachment12 was to advance on Azozo from the south. Between Azozo and Maldiba were the initial objectives of Douglas’s Force under Captains Pilkington, Nurk and McLean. 27th November was the appointed day. The air force prepared to give close support all day, and meanwhile made preliminary attacks against the Azozo area and the Gondar defences.
The 26th East African Brigade (Brigadier W. A. Dimoline) was ready below Daflecha just before midnight on 26th November. There had been much to prepare. The ground presented a series of precipitous ridges impassable to vehicles, and each battalion had had to organize pack transport with 150 mules and donkeys locally commandeered. At 5.30 a.m. on 27th November the guns opened on Daflecha and the 2/2nd King’s African Rifles began to clamber up the
steep slope to the main Italian position.13 On their left 1/6th King’s African Rifles advanced towards a lesser position known as Lower Daflecha. The 2/2nd were met with heavy shellfire, and ran into a minefield and cross-fire from machine-guns, but took part of their objective by 11.30 a.m. and the whole by 2 p.m. The 1/6th, diverted to reinforce this success, had come up an hour earlier. It was now the turn of Maldiba. The air force had begun a bombardment at 1.50 p.m. under cover of which the 4/4th King’s African Rifles advanced to the attack. In just over an hour this battalion took its first objective and the enemy then fled into the arms of Nurk’s Shoans coming up from the south.
On the previous night McLean’s ‘79th Foot’ had captured an outlying position at Diridiba by a surprise attack, and at first light they and the Patriot forces converged on the Fanta posts. The Blackshirt garrison fought well, but the Patriots were on their mettle and by 8 a.m. had killed nearly all their opponents. McLean and Pilkington moved on to their objectives east of Azozo, and Nurk to Maldiba. Seeing the way to Gondar open, Pilkington and the Wollo Banda then turned north, and entered the town at 2.45 p.m.—the first of the infantry; patrols of the Kenya Armoured Car Regiment under Major J. L. Yeatman had been in earlier.
The 25th East African Brigade met only moderate opposition and by noon had taken all its objectives.14 At 3.40 p.m. Italian delegates arrived at Brigade Headquarters to ask for terms. Major Yeatman was sent back with the available tanks and armoured cars to summon General Nasi to surrender. After a little delay he did so, and next day Hartbeests dropped his orders to surrender on Chilga and Gorgora. The capture of Gondar cost the British forces 32 killed, 182 wounded, and 6 missing; 10,000 Italian and 12,000 native prisoners were taken. In all the operations since 7th April fifteen British aircraft were lost, and the remnant of the enemy’s air force was annihilated.
The campaigns in Galla-Sidamo and around Gondar completed the downfall of Italian rule in East Africa. They were perhaps overshadowed at the time by greater events elsewhere, and now seem small compared with the later victories won by British forces in the Middle East. But they were nevertheless worthy achievements. They marked a memorable stage in the development of the African soldier and their
success was the fruit of skill and determination. The story has shown how effective were the contributions of the air forces and of the Patriots to the common purpose. Of the many remarkable features of the campaign of 1940 and 1941 in East Africa perhaps the most astonishing was the number of different races which had at one time or another fought and worked together. In the parades held to mark the fall of Gondar stood officers and men from Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, the Sudan, Ethiopia, the Gold Coast, France, India, South Africa, Northern Rhodesia and the United Kingdom.
This chapter has referred in passing to French Somaliland, where there existed a political and military problem which had vexingly encroached upon General Wavell’s time and continued to be a nuisance after his departure. In November 1940 Generals de Gaulle and Legentilhomme proposed that a small Free French force under Legentilhomme, with some British help, should seize Jibuti by a bloodless coup d’état. They felt sure of an easy success because they were convinced that French Somaliland was anti-Vichy and that the troops there, commanded by an old comrade and friend of Legentilhomme, would not oppose him. The Prime Minister and Chiefs of Staff approved this plan (MARIE) in principle and proposed that General Legentilhomme should carry it out under General Wavell’s direction. General Wavell was told of the plan in January 1941 and was to judge when to put it into action.
General Wavell, however, disliked the enterprise as an unprofitable diversion, and General Catroux, the Free French representative in the Middle East, advised against it because he believed that it would not be a walk-over and French Somaliland was for the moment doing little harm. The Chiefs of Staff became lukewarm and there was much discussion among the leading Free French personalities, into which General Wavell was reluctantly drawn. Nothing was done for the moment against French Somaliland, although the territory had of course been suffering, and continued to suffer, from the strict contraband control designed to prevent supplies from reaching the Italians through this obvious back door.
In March 1941 the Free French proposed another plan and the Chiefs of Staff sent fresh instructions, approved by the Prime Minister, to General Wavell. The object now was ‘to rally French Somaliland to the Allied Cause without bloodshed.’ The Free French were to bring about the rallying—which should seem to be voluntary—by propaganda; the British were to assist by preventing all supplies from entering French Somaliland. General Wavell pointed out that events in Italian East Africa had now removed the danger of supplies reaching the Italians. and that if the conversion of French Somaliland came about
partly as a result of blockade it would not seem to be voluntary.15 He suggested that the propaganda should be assisted by a small consignment of supplies, and reinforced by judicious control in future. This suggestion was not accepted, because British policy was being guided by considerations affecting the general relations with the Free French and Vichy, outside the narrower field of the Middle East.
Propaganda and blockade began, but had no apparent effect. General Wavell, after consulting General Catroux, proposed a different approach, namely that he should try to negotiate an agreement with the Governor of French Somaliland, M. Louis Nouailhotas. The aim would be to secure the use of the railway and the port of Jibuti for the British, and to get permission for volunteers to join the Free French—all this in return for some supplies. Covert propaganda could also go on, and it would be made clear that the blockade would be lifted as soon as French Somaliland rallied to the Free French.
Whitehall approved these proposals, but at this moment the concessions made by Vichy to the Axis in Syria suggested that a strong line ought to be taken with Vichy everywhere; an attack on French Somaliland was even considered. At length, in June, the Governor was told that the blockade would continue until French Somaliland came into the war and joined the Free French. The blockade was tightened, and the Italian garrison at Assab on the Red Sea was eliminated by a small combined operation mounted from Aden.
Policy towards French Somaliland was constantly reviewed during the next six months, but the appointment of a Minister of State in Cairo at the end of June relieved the military commanders of much of the responsibility for it. M. Nouailhotas’s attitude remained firm. He seems to have been ready to allow the British to use the port of Jibuti and the railway on terms, short of admitting the Free French. but he would not consider joining the Free French at any price. Thus a door seemed ajar to the British but shut to the Free French, which added to the delicacy of their relations. Moreover the British were never very dear whether their main purpose was to force French Somaliland to join the Free French, or to control the country, perhaps at the cost of excluding the Free French. or whether it was really to obtain the use of the port and railway.
The blockade was continued, but by October political, as well as military, opinion in the Middle East had turned against it. The decision was made in England to continue it till near the end of November and then to re-examine the situation. But the outbreak of war with Japan caused all but two warships to be withdrawn from the blockade, which became more or less ineffective. On 2nd January 1942 the Vichy Government offered the use of Jibuti port and railway in return for the
raising of the blockade and supplies of food to French Somaliland, but the British Government felt that the proposal now offered little advantage and that to negotiate might be taken as a sign of weakness. It continued to grow clearer however that the blockade was a feeble instrument of policy, and in March 1942 it was given up.
By the autumn of 1941, after some anxious months, the outlook for the British in the Mediterranean and Middle East had begun to improve. This eventful year had started well, for by early in February the Italians had been driven out of Cyrenaica with immense loss, and their ill-conceived invasion of Greece had foundered. In both these theatres the Germans had felt obliged to intervene; in Libya because they feared that any fresh British success might cause Italy to collapse altogether, and in Greece because they wanted to have no interference from the British with their all-important plans for the summer. In each case their intervention met with spectacular success. By the middle of April the whole of Cyrenaica—with the important exception of Tobruk—was once more in Axis hands, and with it some very important airfields. By the end of the month the British forces in Greece had been bundled out of the country. A month later the island of Crete passed into German hands, and the Luftwaffe then became established on both sides of the strip of sea, only 200 miles wide, through which ran the sea route between Malta and Alexandria. As the whole position of the British in the Middle East depended on keeping their base in Egypt secure, and as Malta was of great importance to that end, these developments were extremely disquieting.
Things might have been worse still but for the British success in Iraq, where bold action soon caused the hostile rising to collapse. At this moment the Germans lost interest in the Middle East, for they could now think of little but the attack on Russia. They did nothing to help the Vichy French to defend Syria against the British and Free French, who invaded the country with the object of forestalling the German help that never came.
The Italian Navy, badly shaken by its experiences at the battle of Cape Matapan, had made no further attempt to interfere with British movements by sea during the Greek and Cretan campaigns, nor to challenge seriously any other operations of the Mediterranean Fleet or of Force H. The transfer of the Luftwaffe eastward from Sicily had restricted the movements of Admiral Cunningham’s ships in the Eastern Mediterranean, but the Italian Air Force, left to itself, had not been able to prevent either the supply of Malta from the west or the
growth of the air and sea striking forces at Malta, which were by the autumn causing serious losses among the Axis ships plying between Italy and Libya.
By now the Germans had relegated the Mediterranean to the position of a subsidiary front and were determined that it should not attract resources wanted for the much more important operations against Russia. For it was in Russia that the next round was to be won, and nothing was to be allowed to weaken their capacity to win it—and win it quickly. In the Mediterranean they had done what they set out to do. Italy was still in the war, though greatly dependent on German help, and the British, driven off the territory of Greece, could do nothing to take the pressure off their Russian ally. The strategic objectives that the Germans had set themselves were sound enough, provided that success could be achieved in the decisive theatre. In the event it just eluded them.
Meanwhile the ocean convoys from the United Kingdom were slowly but steadily bringing relays of men and munitions to Egypt. The flow had received a timely and welcome increase when the successes in East Africa removed the threat from Italian warships and aircraft in the Red Sea, for United States ships were then allowed to come all the way to Suez. This greatly eased the strain on British ships and helped the forces in the Middle East to grow stronger than ever before.
So the autumn of 1941 found the British, after many set-backs, still in possession of their vital bases. The spirit and confidence of the three Services had survived the shocks and disappointments of the spring and early summer. With their strength growing, their morale high, and their resolution undiminished, they were able to turn once more to the prospect of resuming the offensive in the Western Desert.