'Canvas' was the British conquest of Italian Somaliland and advance into southern Abyssinia within the context of a larger campaign to take all of Italy’s East African empire and retake British Somaliland (10/25 February 1941).
On 9 May 1936 the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had proclaimed the creation of 'Africa Orientale Italiana' (Italian East Africa) as the Italian empire in East Africa by the amalgamation of Abyssinia, which the Italians had taken in the 2nd Abyssinian War (1935/36) and the existing Italian colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. During the 1st Abyssinian War (1895/96), Italy had been thwarted in its colonial ambitions when the forces of Emperor Menelik II soundly defeated the Italian army in the Battle of Adowa. During the 2nd Abyssinian War, the Italians again invaded Ethiopia and, by using weapons such as poison gas, were finally able to defeat the Abyssinians.
The kingdom of Egypt remained neutral in World War II, but the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 allowed British military forces to occupy Egypt in defence of its strategic interest in the Suez Canal. At this time, Egypt included Sudan within the context of a condominium, dating from 1899, between Egypt and the UK to create the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
On Italy’s entry into World War II in June 1940, the Italian forces in Africa became a potential threat to the vital British maritime supply routes passing through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. While Egypt and the Suez Canal were Mussolini’s most obvious but also most difficult primary targets, an Italian invasion of either French Somaliland or British Somaliland was a reasonable secondary and more feasible option. But Mussolini initially ignored these small and isolated colonies, and instead cast his greedy eyes toward larger targets such as Sudan and British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika).
The Italian military high command was planning for a war starting only after 1942, however, and in the summer of 1940 was not prepared for a prolonged war or the occupation of large areas of Africa.
In the early part of the war, General Sir Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in the Middle East, had some 86,000 British and commonwealth troops at his disposal to handle the possibility of war in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran and East Africa. His forces were therefore scattered in Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, British Somaliland, Kenya and several other areas. This meant that the British and commonwealth forces were spread very thinly along potentially hostile frontiers, and Wavell therefore decided to fight the Italians with delaying actions in the most important areas and hope that the Italians would concede their inability to proceed farther, and/or await the arrival of significant reinforcements. Bolstered by aggressive raids into Italian territory, these delaying actions were fought with skill and determination. British and commonwealth reinforcements began to arrive only from July 1940.
Given his shortage of military manpower and modern weapons, Wavell needed all of the local support he could find. One answer was the deposed Emperor Haile Selassie I of Abyssinia, who had been had been living in England since the loss of his throne. On 13 June, only three days after Mussolini declared war against France and the UK, the deposed emperor departed the UK in a Short Sunderland four-engined flying boat, reaching Alexandria, on the northern coast of Egypt, on 25 June. Seven days later, Haile Selassie was carried by air to Khartoum in Sudan, and here met Lieutenant General William Platt to discuss plans to free Abyssinia from Italian rule.
By the time of its declaration of war on France, Italy had already planned the seizure of French Somaliland, the colony opposite the Aden Protectorate and thus lying between Italian Eritrea and British Somaliland on the eastern coast of Africa. An Italian force was assembled to capture the port city of Djibouti, the major French base, against the seven battalions of Senegalese and Somali infantry under the command of Général de Brigade Paul Legentilhomme, who also had three batteries of field guns, four batteries of anti-aircraft guns, one company of light tanks, four companies of militia and irregulars, two platoons of camel corps, and an assortment of aircraft. After the fall of France in June 1940, however, the neural stance of the new Vichy French government allowed the Italians to shift their focus to the east against the more weakly defended British Somaliland.
On 18 June, Legentilhomme had left French Somaliland and joined the Free French. But French Somaliland, remained loyal to the Vichy French government until the British seized it after a blockading the enclave for 101 days in October 1941.
In July, the British government recognised Haile Selassie and promised to help him to reclaim his throne.
On 3 August, about 25,000 Italian troops invaded British Somaliland. The Italian force included five colonial brigades, three 'Blackshirt 'battalions, and three 'bands' of native troops, and the Italians also had a small number of light and medium tanks, artillery and superior air support.
The Italians were opposed by a British force of about 4,000 men of the lightly armed Somaliland Camel Corps, the 2 (Nyasaland)/King’s African Rifles, the 1/Northern Rhodesian Regiment, the 3/15th Punjab Regiment and the 1st East African Light Battery with four 3.7-in (94-mm) howitzers, and this initial strength was augmented on 7 August by the arrival from Aden of the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment and on 8 August of the 2/Black Watch. The British forces were critically short of artillery, and also lacked tanks and armoured cars nor, and the anti-tank weapons with which to oppose the Italian tanks.
The Italians advanced in three columns. The western column advanced toward Zeila, the central and main column toward Hargeisa, and the eastern column toward Odweina in the south. The Somali Camel Corps was used to skirmish with and screen against the advancing Italians as the other British and commonwealth forces pulled back toward Tug Argan in order to form defensive positions in the rugged Assa hills overlooking the main road to the capital, Berbera.
On 5 August the Italians took Zeila and Hargeisa , the loss of the former effectively sealing British Somaliland from French Somaliland. Odweina fell on the following day and the Italian central and eastern columns combined to launch attacks against the main British and commonwealth positions at Tug Argan. On 11 August, a new and more senior commander, Major General A. R. Godwin-Austen, reached Berbera.
The Italians began their attacks at Tug Argan on 11 August and, early on 15 August, Godwin-Austen concluded that further resistance to the Italians would be futile as his troops were close to being cut off. Godwin-Austen requested and received authorisation to withdraw his forces from British Somaliland, and the determined effort of the Black Watch battalion, which covered the retreat, allowed the entire British and commonwealth contingent to withdraw to Berbera with almost no losses. By 17 August, most of the contingent had been evacuated from Berbera to Aden. Rather than be evacuated, the Somaliland Camel Corps was disbanded, its men retaining their weapons and being advised to wait for the British undertaking to retake the colony.
As a result the increasing Axis threat in the Middle East, at the end of October 1940 the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, convened a conference in Khartoum between Haile Selassie, General Jan Smuts (who held an advisory brief for the region with Prime Minister Winston Churchill), Wavell and the senior military commanders in East Africa including Lieutenant Generals Platt and Cunningham. The general plan, which included the use of Ethiopian irregular forces, was agreed at this conference.
In November 1940 the British and commonwealth forces gained an intelligence advantage when the government code and cypher school at Bletchley Park broke the high grade cipher of the Italian army in East Africa and, later in the same month, the replacement cipher for the Italian air force was broken by the Combined Bureau, Middle East. From this point on, the commanders-in-chief in Cairo knew Italian plans as soon as they were issued.
The Principe Amedeo, Duca d’Aosta was the viceroy and governor-general of Italian East Africa, with his headquarters in Addis Ababa, and had available to him something between 250,000 and 280,000 Italian troops. On 10 June 1940, these men were deployed in four command sectors: Generale di Corpo d’Armata Luigi Frusci’s Settore Settentrionale in the north around Asmara in Eritrea, Generale d’Armata Pietro Gazzera’s Settore Meridionale in the south around Jimma in Abyssinia, Generale d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi’s Settore dell’Est in the east on the borders with French Somaliland and British Somaliland, and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Carlo de Simone’s Settore di Giuba in the southern part of Italian Somaliland around Kismayo.
The forces in Abyssinia included two Italian infantry divisions in the form of Generale di Divisione Giovanni Varda’s 40a Divisione 'Cacciatori d’Africa' and Generale di Divisione Amedeo Liberati’s 65a Divisione 'Granatieri di Savoia'. The Italians also had one battalion of elite Alpini mountain troops, one battalion of Bersaglieri highly mobile infantry, numerous Fascist paramilitary Blackshirts (Camicie Nere) battalions, Security Volunteer Militia (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale or MVSN), colonial militia, and other smaller units.
Some 70% of the Italian troops in East Africa (about 70%) were local East African askaris. While the askaris of the regular Eritrean battalions and the Somali colonial troops of the Royal Corps of Colonial Troops (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali) were among the best Italian units in East Africa, the majority of the colonial troops had been recruited, trained and equipped primarily for internal security purposes. And while the Somali dubats (irregular bands) recruited from border clansmen proved to be useful in the light infantry and skirmishing roles, the irregular bande were considerably less effective. Ethiopian askaris and irregulars, recruited during the brief Italian occupation, expressed their real nature of their allegiance by deserting in large numbers after the outbreak of war. The Royal Corps of Colonial Troops included horse-mounted Eritrean cavalry known as Penne di Falco (white feathers), and on one occasion a squadron of these horsemen charged British troops throwing grenades from the saddle.
The equipment of the Italian ground forces was very mixed, and included 3,300 machine guns, 24 M11/39 medium tanks, a large number of L3/35 light tanks (tankettes), 126 armoured cars and 813 assorted pieces of artillery, as well as standard small arms. Among their many problems, the Italians had to cope with the physical isolation of East Africa from Mediterranean supply lines, with very little opportunity for reinforcements or resupply, and this led to many difficulties including ammunition shortages.
A few foreign merchant vessels captured by German merchant raiders in the Indian Ocean arrive in Somali ports, but their mercantile cargoes were seldom of any use to the Italian war effort.
Another problem with which the Italians had to cope was their lack of adequate medicines to treat the diseases, and most particularly malaria, endemic in the Horn of Africa area. It is estimated that nearly 25% of the Italians troops defending Amba Alagi in April 1941 had malaria during the siege, but no medicine.
The British and commonwealth forces in East Africa initially comprised some 30,000 men under Major General W. Platt in the Sudan, Major General D. P. Dickinson in Kenya, and Lieutenant Colonel A. R. in British Somaliland. These forces were slightly better equipped than those of the Italians, and had comparatively ready access to resupply and reinforcements. However, they were vastly outnumbered by the Italian forces already available in East Africa, and the Italians had at least another 208,000 men (14 divisions) in Libya, whose south-eastern corner abutted the north-west corner of Sudan.
On 10 June 1940, in Sudan and before the arrival of Major General P. Neame’s (from 5 August Major General N. Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division and Major General L. Heath’s Indian 5th Division, Platt had only three regular British infantry battalions, which were absorbed into the understrength Indian 5th Division when this arrived, and the 21 companies (4,500 men) of the Sudan Defence Force, of which five (later six) were organised as small mobile machine gun companies. The three British battalions were the 1/Worcestershire Regiment, the 1/Essex Regiment and the 2/West Yorkshire Regiment, which in mid-September became part of the Indian 29th, 10th and 9th Brigades respectively. Platt had no artillery, though the Sudan Horse was in the process of conversion into a 3.7-in (94-mm) howitzer battery.
In Kenya, the King’s African Rifles was composed of two brigade-strength units organised as a 'Northern Brigade' and a 'Southern Brigade'. In 1938, the combined strength of both units amounted to 94 officers, 60 non-commissioned officers, and 2,821 African other ranks. After the outbreak of war, these units provided the trained nucleus for the rapid expansion of the KAR. By March 1940, the strength of the KAR had reached 883 officers, 1,374 non-commissioned officers, and 20,026 African other ranks. The size of a KAR battalion was established at 36 officers, 44 non-commissioned officers and other ranks, and 1,050 African other ranks.
Initially, the King’s African Rifles deployed as Brigadier D. M. Barchard’s 1st (East Africa) Brigade responsible for coast defence and Brigadier C. C. Fowkes’s 2nd (East Africa) Brigade responsible for the defence of the interior. By the end of July, two additional East African brigades had been formed as Brigadier W. Own’s 5th (East Africa) Brigade and Brigadier A. MacD. Ritchie’s 6th (East Africa) Brigade. These four East African brigades were later redesignated as the 21st, 22nd, 25th and 26th (East Africa) Brigades. Initially a Coastal Division and a Northern Frontier District Division had been planned, but what came into existence were Major General H. E. de R. Wetherall’s 11th (African) Division with the 21st and 26th (East Africa) Brigades and the 23rd (Nigeria) Brigade, and Major General R. Godwin-Austen’s 12th (African) Division with the 22nd and 25th (East Africa) Brigades and the 24th (Gold Coast) Brigade.
On 1 June, the first South African unit reached the Kenyan port of Mombasa, and by the end of July Brigadier D. Pienaar’s South African 1st Brigade had joined the first unit. On 13 August Major General G. L. Brink’s South African 1st Division was formed with the South African 1st Brigade, Brigadier F. L. A. Buchanan’s South African 2nd Brigade and Brigadier B. F. Armstrong’s South African 5th Brigade. By the end of 1940 about 27,000 South Africans were serving in East Africa in the South African 1st Division and the 11th and 12th (African) Divisions. Each South African brigade comprised three infantry battalions, one armoured car company, and supporting artillery, signal, engineer, medical and other units.
By July the implementation of a war contingency plan saw the movement into Kenya of two brigades from the Royal West African Frontier Force: these were Brigadier C. E. M. Richards’s 24th (Gold Coast) Brigade and Brigadier G. R. Smallwood’s 23rd (Nigeria) Brigade. It was the Nigerian brigade, together with two East African brigades and some South Africans, which formed the 11th (African) Division, and the Gold Coast brigade, together with two East African brigades and some South Africans, which formed the 12th (African) Division.
In British Somaliland, Chater commanded the British-officered Somali troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps together with the small numbers of reinforcements which were reaching the area. At the outbreak of hostilities with Italy, Chater had 1,475 men with which to defend the colony, these men being on the strength of the Somaliland Camel Corps and the 1/Northern Rhodesian Regiment. By August 1940 an additional two infantry battalions, in the form of the 2 (Nyasaland)/King’s African Rifles and 3/15th Punjab Regiment, and an artillery battery had arrived, giving the newly promoted Brigadier Chater 4,000 troops under command, and the 3/2nd Punjab Regiment and 2/Black Watch arrived on 7 and 8 August respectively.
The British and commonwealth forces employed a relatively small number of armoured vehicles in East Africa. Most of these were an assortment of armoured cars, but B Squadron of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment did include small number of Matilda infantry tanks.
A notable element of the Allied campaign to retake Abyssinia was a number of Abyssinian irregular forces known to the British as 'patriot units'. Wavell expected that these would be able to pin large numbers of Italian units throughout the occupied territories, although Platt in Khartoum did not believe that Haile Selassie had the support of the majority of the people, and was therefore chary in providing support to the patriot groups. In August 1940, Mission 101 under Colonel Daniel Sandford began operating successfully in Gojjam province, its method being the despatch of so-called operational centres (small groups of commissioned and non-commissioned officers) to supply arms and training to the patriot groups and co-ordinate attacks on the Italian forces. After serving with distinction in World War I, Sandford had spent the rest of his career in Abyssinia and Sudan, and in the process had become a close friend and adviser to Haile Selassie.
With the encouragement of Sandford, Haile Selassie had reached Khartoum on 3 July 1940 but had been received with coolness by Platt. However, Eden’s Khartoum conference in October agreed to boost supplies and support to the Abyssinian irregular forces. Part of the increased support saw the posting, early in November, of Major Orde Wingate, who had spent five inter-war years with the Sudan Defence Force, to Khartoum as the staff officer tasked to liaise between Platt, Mission 101 and Haile Selassie. Wingate soon impressed Haile Selassie as a man of drive and enthusiasm.
However, his poor opinion of Haile Selassie, Sandford and Wingate meant that Platt paid little attention to the operation, and the resulting lack of clearly defined areas of responsibility and chains of command combined with Wingate’s abrasive character to create friction throughout the many elements of the campaign.
Wingate formulated a plan for action in Abyssinia and presented this to Wavell and some of his senior staff officers at Cairo early in December 1940. The plan included the formation of a small regular force under Wingate to act as a spearhead for military operations in Gojjam. This was 'Gideon' Force, which comprised the Frontier Battalion of the Sudan Defence Force, the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion, and Nos 1 and 2 Operational Centres. The force had four 3-in (76.2-mm) mortars in place of artillery and 15,000 camels to provide transport. Although he did not formally take command until 6 February 1941, Wingate set off with 'Gideon' Force into Gojjam during January 1941.
'Gideon' Force was able to travel relatively freely throughout the countryside for, at any time during its brief history, Italian East Africa was only nominally under Italian control, and it had been estimated that as much as 33% of Abyssinia remained under the control of local nobles.
The Italians had not endeared themselves to the Ethiopians. On 22 May 1936, when Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani was made viceroy of Abyssinia, the Italians had in effect selected for the position the man least likely to achieve the pacification of the country. On 6 June Mussolini informed Graziani that all rebels were to be shot, and this Graziani, already infamous for his savage 'pacification' of Libya, all the power he needed. Graziani’s reputation for brutal repression quickly earned him the epithet 'Butcher of Ethiopia'. The Duke of Aosta replaced Graziani as viceroy in 1937, and while it was generally conceded that he was a vast improvement over Graziani, he was unable to undo much of the damage achieved by Graziani’s brutality.
For their part, the Abyssinian patriots gave the Italian troops every reason to fear defeat, as the Abyssinians seldom took prisoners.
Very importantly for the success of operations in the north-western part of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie crossed the border from Sudan to join the Ethiopian patriots, who already had forces in the provinces of Gojjam, Shoa, Gimma, Galla-Sidama and Harage.
In June 1940, the Italian air force in East Africa had between 200 and 300 warplanes, and while many of these were obsolescent in western European combat terms, they were some of the best aircraft available to either side in East Africa during 1940. Of the bombers, 82 were Caproni Ca.133 three-engnied high-wing monoplanes with fixed landing gear. Used as a bomber or a transport, this slow and poorly armed aeroplane was useful only when the opposition possessed negligible air defences. Of the other bombers, 42 were Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 three-engined aircraft. While possessing better performance than the Ca.133, the SM.81 was still so ineffective that it was quickly relegated to night bombing missions. Only the 12 SM.79 bombers equipping the 6a Squadriglia and 7a Squadriglia can be described as modern in terms of speed, range and bomb load, and these aircraft were certainly the most capable bombers employed by either side in East Africa, although they were available in numbers too few to be able to make much of a difference.
Of the Italian fighters, the 24 Fiat CR.42 single-engined biplanes of the 412a Squadriglia, 413a Squadriglia and 414a Squadriglia were the best such warplanes on either side at the start of the war. The rest of the Italian fighter force in East Africa comprised the 410a Squadriglia and 411a Squadriglia flying the Fiat CR.32 single-engined machine, the forerunner to the CR.42 and, by 1940, an obsolete type. The CR.32 often proved to be slower than the bombers it was tasked to intercept, although its pilots did enjoy some success over East Africa. In addition to the five squadrons of Fiat biplane fighters, a sixth unit, the 110a Squadriglia, was equipped with nine wholly obsolete IMAM (Meridionali) Ro.37 single-engined two-seat reconnaissance biplanes which proved ineffective as interceptors.
The third element of Italian air power in East Africa was a force of 25 transport aircraft, most of them of the Ca.133 and Savoia-Marchetti S.73 three-engined types. Along with their generally obsolete airframes, most Italian aircraft were not equipped with radio equipment, a fact which made air-to-air and air-to-ground co-ordination difficult if not impossible. The Italians also possessed another 134 aircraft either under maintenance or in reserve for lack of pilots. These aircraft comprised 83 Ca,133, 17 SM.81, six SM.79, 16 CR.32, eight CR.42 and four Ro.37bis machines.
With only 12 modern operational bombers and 24 barely modern operational fighters, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Pietro Pinna Parpaglia’s air forces were indifferent at the beginning of the war, but the general obsolescence of the aircraft was compounded by an acute shortage of munitions, of which those available in the smallest numbers were bombs of more than 220 lb (100 kg). The small stock of 551 lb (250 kg) bombs was held in reserve for use against ships in harbour, while aircraft flying other missions generally carried 110 or 220 lb (50 or 100 kg bombs) hardly large enough to do significant damage against most targets unless a direct hit was scored. Additionally, the majority of the Italian airfields were around the periphery of Africa Orientale Italiana, and were therefore vulnerable to air attack and also of being overrun by any Allied incision, while only a small number of airstrips were long enough to operate the CR.42 and SM.79 that were the two most modern aircraft types employed by the Italians. As a result of the lack of suitable airfields, the fighters and the units equipped with the more modern bombers were therefore concentrated in the central part of Abyssinia or near the coast of the Red Sea in Eritrea. It was with this obsolete and poorly supported air force that Pinna Parpaglia had to undertake the air defence of an area six times the size of the Italian homeland while also conducting offensive operations against British airfields, ports and naval units at sea.
The British and commonwealth forces had about 100 aircraft in June 1940. In the north-west, in Sudan, were three RAF bomber units (Nos 14, 47 and 223 Squadrons) equipped with obsolete Vickers Wellesley single-engined aircraft, and one flight of Vickers Vincent single-engined biplanes formed from No. 47 Squadron was available for army co-operation duties. These squadrons were later reinforced from Egypt by No. 45 Squadron (flying Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers, and at Port Sudan were six Gloster Gladiator single-engined biplane fighters. The air force tasks in Sudan included the protection of shipping in the Red Sea against attack by surface vessels and submarines, the air defence of Port Sudan, Atbara and Khartoum, and close support for the land forces. No. 1 Squadron of the South African Air Force, equipped with Gladiator fighters, reached Khartoum as reinforcement in August.
In the south, in Kenya, were No. 12 Squadron of the SAAF equipped with Junkers Ju 86 twin-engined medium bombers, No. 11 Squadron of the SAAF equipped with Fairey Battle single-engined light bombers, No. 40 Squadron of SAAF equipped with Hawker Hartebees single-engined army co-operation aircraft, No. 2 Squadron of the SAAF equipped with Hawker Fury single-engined biplane fighters, and No. 237 Squadron of the Rhodesian Air Force equipped with Hawker Hardy single-engined army co-operation biplanes.
Unlike those of the Italians, the aircraft available to the British and commonwealth forces improved with time. However, at the outset much of the equipment initially available tended to be older and slower, but the British and commonwealth forces nonetheless managed to make do with what they had, and the South Africans even pressed an old Vickers Valentia twin-engined biplane transport into service as a bomber.
The war in East Africa had started on a slow note soon after Italy’s entry into the war. It was the Italians who made the initial running as they tested the British resolve along the Abyssinian borders on the west with Sudan and on the south with Kenya, and also in the shipping lanes of the Red Sea.
Early in the morning of 13 June, three Italian bombers attacked the Rhodesian air base at the fort located at Wajir in the north-eastern part of Kenya. Here, as the Rhodesian aircraft were still warming up and preparing to take-off on a dawn patrol, the Caproni warplanes bombed the fort, the airfield and nearby housing. The unit of the King’s African Rifles, then garrisoning the fort, lost four men killed and 11 wounded. Two Rhodesian aircraft were badly damaged and a large aviation fuel dump was set on fire. After this, the air base at Wajir received regular visits from the Italian bombers every two or three days, and the Rhodesian pilots soon ruefully appreciated the speed and armament shortages of their Hardy army co-operation biplanes.
At dawn on 17 June the Rhodesians riposted as they supported a successful raid by the King’s African Rifles on the Italian desert outpost of El Wak in Italian Somaliland, some 90 miles (145 km) to the north-east of Wajir. The Rhodesian-manned aircraft bombed and set alight thatched mud huts and generally harassed the Italian troops with light bombs and machine gun fire. But as the main fighting at that time was centred on the Italian advance toward Moyale in the far north of Kenya, the Rhodesians concentrated on that town. In conjunction with elements of the South African Air Force, the Rhodesian units undertook the task of reconnaissance and bombing in that disputed area.
On 4 July, Italian forces crossed the Eritrean/Sudanese border and forced the small British garrison holding the railway junction at Kassala to withdraw, though the Italians lost 117 men to the British loss of just 10 men. The Italians also seized the small British fort at Gallabat, just across the border from Metemma, some 200 miles (320 km) to the south of Kassala, and also took the villages of Qaysan, Kurmuk and Dumbode on the Blue Nile river. After taking Kassala and Gallabat, however, the Italians decided that their shortage of fuel made it impractical to push forward any deeper into Sudan, and they therefore set to work on the protection of Kassala with anti-tank defences, machine gun posts, and strongpoints. The Italians were also disappointed to find that the Sudanese population had no any anti-British feelings. The Italians established a garrison of brigade strength at Kassala.
In the northern part of Kenya, heavy fighting led to the Italian occupation of Fort Harrington in Moyale, and at the end of July Italian forces reached Dabel and Buna. These villages were almost 60 miles (100 km) inside Kenya, and marked the furthest penetrations into Kenya by the Italians. Further expansion was impossible as a result of the Italians' dire shortage of supplies.
Early in August, an Italian force of Eritrean irregulars raided Port Sudan on the Sudanese coast of the Red Sea, this undertaking being designed to distract the attention of the British even as the Italians were finalising their plans for the conquest of British Somaliland.
Mussolini had laid claims to Kenya, but Adolf Hitler planned in his normal overblown and wholly unrealistic manner to divide this British colony, the southern part and the capital Nairobi to form a territory of the proposed German 'Mittelafrika' (Central Africa), and the northern part to go to Italy as part of its Africa Orientale Italiana empire, which was also to receive Sudan and thereby create a land link between the Italian possessions in North Africa and East Africa.
The British had other plans, of course. For the advance into Italian Somaliland from northern Kenya, Dickinson, promoted to lieutenant general in August and commanding the East Africa Force, expected that he would need Buchanan’s South African 2nd Brigade and Armstrong’s South African 5th Brigade of Brink’s South African 1st Division but, after being informed by Wavell that this latter formation might have to be removed from East Africa with little notice, instead opted for Ritchie’s 21st (East Africa) Brigade.
It was clear by a time late in January that the Italians were withdrawing their main forces from the border with Kenya farther to the north-east, basically to the line of the Juba river, leaving to the south-west of it only irregular forces and one colonial battalion at the landing ground and wells of Afmadu, and a garrison at Kismayu on the western bank of the Juba river’s estuary. On the lower Juba was Generale di Brigata Amedeo Liberati’s 102a Divisione coloniale of two brigades with some irregular forces totalling about 14,000 men, and on the upper Juba was Generale di Brigata Alfredo Baccari’s 101a Divisione coloniale also of two brigades and irregular forces, totalling slightly more than 6,000 men.
At the end of January Lieutenant General A. G. Cunningham, who had succeeded Dickinson in command of the East Africa Force on 1 November 1940, received Wavell’s authorisation to advance into Italian Somaliland and take Kismayu, and issued the appropriate order on 2 February. The problems faced by Cunningham’s forces were primarily distance, equipment shortages, lack of water, and generally very poor overland communications. The distance between the railhead near Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and the line of the Tana river was almost 250 miles (400 km), and then there was the same distance again to the line of the Juba river. The routes stretching east from Bura and Garissa on the Tana were nothing more than bush tracks, and therefore not suited for large quantities of motor transport. Further complicating the task faced by Cunningham’s staff was the belief that fresh water was very scarce in the region between the Tana and Juba rivers.
On the other side of the coin, however, it was known that Italian morale was very low, and this persuaded Cunningham that success could be attained with four brigade groups rather than the six he had originally deemed necessary. The South African government was very supportive, and as a result there was now sufficient motor transport to move and maintain the force earmarked for the capture of Kismayu. Ammunition and supply dumps had already been established at Bura and Garissa, and engineers of the South African army upgraded the primary routes forward from these dumps without the Italians becoming aware of the fact. An added bonus was the discovery of limited water supplies, which were then further developed, on both axes of advance. Further improvements were made to Cunningham’s capabilities by the establishment of depots of all kinds right up to the frontier, and the completion of planning for the delivery of necessities by sea from Mombasa to Kismayu.
The offensive planned by Cunningham’s staff was for Godwin-Austen’s 12th (African) Division, with Pienaar’s South African 1st Brigade, Fowkes’s 22nd (East Africa) Brigade and Richards’s 24th (Gold Coast) Brigade, to capture Afmadu on 11 February. The South African brigade was then to turn south, capture the airfield at Gobwen, and seize a bridgehead over the Juba river at Jumbo. Meanwhile, the Gold Coast brigade would move east to Bulo Erillo and Jelib in order to prevent any reinforcement of the Gobwen area from the north. Smallwood’s 23rd (Nigeria) Brigade of Wetherall’s 11th (African) Division, on the southern route from Bura, was to drive on Kismayu a short time later after the Italians' attention had been drawn to the activities of the 12th (African) Division.
Spurious radio traffic was used in an effort to persuade the Italians that there was also an Australian division at Wajir farther to the north. The Royal Navy was to provide Captain J. H. Edelsten’s Force 'T' (the light carrier Hermes, the heavy cruisers Shropshire and Hawkins, the light cruisers Capetown and Ceres, and the destroyer Kandahar) to bombard Brava and the coast road during the initial part of the undertaking, and to bombard Kismayu in 'Begum' if necessary.
Cunningham’s instructions extended only to the capture of Kismayu and the Jumbo bridgehead, and it was calculated that if Kismayu had not been taken within 10 days the troops would have either to be maintained across the open beaches or to be withdrawn.
Cunningham informed his subordinate commanders that if the Italian resistance broke, his next aim would be an advance along the coast to Mogadishu (at the mouth of the Shibeli river), Isha Baidoa and Lugh Ferrandi if this was logistically feasible.
To provide the required support, the air force had to move forward all the squadrons it was possible to maintain. In some cases this involved a redeployment of 200 miles (320 km). So that his command could offer the army the support of as many aircraft as possible, Air Commodore W. Sowrey withdrew all the fighters from the defence of Nairobi and nearly all from Mombasa. One fighter squadron remained under the direct command of air headquarters, and the other fighter squadron and both bomber squadrons were allocated to No. 2 Wing, and the two army co-operation squadrons were allocated to the three infantry divisions. The six squadrons available for the offensive had 94 first-line aircraft, including reserves, while all the obsolete aircraft from the operational training unit in Kenya were made available as further reserves for the army co-operation squadrons. Civilian aircraft were impressed for the air ambulance and communication tasks.
It was estimated on 10 February that the Italians had 123 aircraft, excluding reserves, in East Africa, and that of this total a mere 14 (mostly bombers) were based in Italian Somaliland and another 26 in southern Abyssinia.
From 2 February Nos 3, 11 and 12 Squadrons of the South African Air Force attacked the Italian airfields at Gobwen, Afmadu and Dif, and an especially heavy attack was made on the defences of Afmadu during 10 February. This was too much for the dispirited garrison, which melted away, so that the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade advanced during the morning of the following day and met no opposition.
The 24th (Gold Coast) Brigade then covered 60 miles (100 km) to approach Bulo Erillo, where it overcame fairly strong resistance and captured 141 prisoners, four armoured cars and much equipment.
The South African 1st Brigade had meanwhile reached a position 10 miles (16 km) from Gobwen, where it remained under cover throughout the day. Its commanding officer had strict instructions not to patrol and not to break wireless silence so that the brigade’s attack on the following day fell on a wholly unsuspecting defence. Thus when Pienaar heard explosions which he believed to be demolitions, and as such indications that the Italians might be preparing to evacuate Kismayu, there was nothing he could do. With the support of 12 light tanks, the South African 1st Brigade advanced by night and secured Gobwen early on 14 February, though not early enough to prevent the retreat of the garrison of Kismayu.
On the previous evening, however, the information reaching Cunningham from aircraft and the ships of Force 'T' had indicated an Italian retreat. As the 23rd (Nigeria) Brigade was not yet in any position to intervene, Cunningham issued orders for the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade to move from Afmadu as quickly as possible to Kismayu, which it occupied by the evening of 14 February, some six days ahead of the critical date.
The total dislocation of the Italian defence had by now convinced Cunningham that this was the moment to force the line of the Juba river. At Gobwen the pontoon bridge was destroyed, the river was 200 yards (180 m) wide and all movement drew heavy fire, so it was evident that any crossing attempt at this point would inevitably attract heavy casualties. Pienaar soon found a more suitable point some 10 miles (16 km) upstream at Yonte, however, and here a company of the Royal Natal Carbineers crossed in boats during the afternoon of 17 February. On the following morning the Transvaal Scottish, who had taken over the bridgehead, repulsed an Italian counterattack and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers. On 19 February a pontoon bridge was completed, and the South African 1st Brigade fell on Jumbo, capturing most of the garrison and 14 guns.
On the same day the 24th (Gold Coast) Brigade crossed at Mabungo, and the only obstacles now left between the commonwealth forces and Mogadishu were distance and the Italian position at Jelib. A converging movement was now launched with the 24th (Gold Coast) Brigade moving the 30 miles (48 km) from Mabungo and the South African 1st Brigade travelling 50 miles (80 km) to attack from the south. The 22nd (East Africa) Brigade was sent to the south-east from Mabungo to cut the Mogadishu road.
On 22 February Jelib fell, and the already demoralised Italian forces almost instantly disintegrated. Thus ended the first stage of 'Canvas', with only a few British and commonwealth casualties. The commonwealth units had shown grit and perseverance under very taxing operational, geographical and climatic conditions. 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 could continue. The air forces had provided very effective support of all kinds and had practically driven the Italians out of the sky, with the result that Cunningham was able to lift the restriction he had placed on the daylight movement of motor transport, so speeding transport and lifting much of the strain from drivers. A large number of prisoners had been taken, and many Italian colonial units had simply disappeared into the bush.
The Italians appeared to have concentrated on forward defence along the line of the Juba, and Cunningham now thought that there was little to prevent his forces from taking Mogadishu and, by stripping the forces still left in Kenya of their motor transport, moving and maintaining three infantry brigade groups as far as to Harar in north-western Abyssinia. On 22 February Cunningham suggested that the port of Berbera in Italian-occupied British Somaliland should be captured and opened, so to shortening the overland lines of communication, but was then informed that the recapture of Berbera was under preparation by a force from Aden in 'Appearance', but that this forces would have to provide the base units.
The first convoy by sea from Mombasa arrived at Kismayu on 19 February, and was unloaded only with great difficulty. The electricity generating plant, the ice factory and the oil tank farm were all inoperable, which rendered all the more difficult the task of turning Kismayu into an advanced base for all the forces on or east of the Juba, as had been planned for the start. Although the port proved useful, it was also necessary to keep the overland line of communication from Kenya in being for a long time.
The 23rd (Nigeria) Brigade had meanwhile arrived, via Kismayu and Afmadu, in the bridgehead at Mabungo, where it repulsed an Italian counterattack from the north on the evening of 22 February.
The 22nd (East Africa) Brigade from east of Jelib led the pursuit to Modun, where the Royal Navy assisted with a bombardment which, it is believed, caused major Italian losses.
On the next day the 23rd (Nigeria) Brigade took over the lead and reached Mogadishu unopposed on 25 February, having advanced 235 miles (380 km) in three days. The South African 1st Brigade was withdrawn into reserve at this stage.
The 12th (Africa) Division, now comprising only the 21st (East Africa) and 24th (Gold Coast) Brigades, was ordered to move to the north in the direction of Bardera and Isha Baidoa, but the continuing logistical problems at Kismayu prevented this advance from being undertaken before the end of the month. There was a delay at Mogadishu, where some of the harbour facilities had been damaged, but the main difficulty in opening the port was the absence, at least in the short term, of the equipment to sweep the magnetic mines which British aircraft had dropped while the Italians still held the city. Supplies had to be delivered by road from Kismayu, meanwhile, and the small lighterage port of Merca was quickly brought into use with the expert help of merchant navy officers and men rescued from incarceration at Mogadishu.
Stores of all types were found in great quantities at Mogadishu, the most valuable items being 350,000 Imp gal (1.59 million litres) of motor fuel and 80,000 Imp (364000 litres) of aviation fuel. On the airfield were the remains of 21 aircraft. Another particularly useful discovery was a handbook of every airfield and landing ground in Italian East Africa.
Although it appears not to have received a codename, the British had also started a campaign farther to the west to achieve the defeat of the Italian forces in Abyssinia, where the primary British eastward offensive had been launched from Sudan. As noted above, the victorious British and commonwealth forces in conquered Italian Somaliland later launched parallel advances up the Juba river from Kismayu and up the Shibeli river from Mogadishu toward the Abyssinian towns of Negelli and Jijiga, which they took on 21 and 17 March respectively. Negelli was taken with the aid of a force which had advanced to the north from Kenya, in the area between Moyale and Lake Rudolf, via Mega. Here the force had divided, the eastern portion moving on Negelli, and the western force on Yabelo and thence Lake Abaya in the direction of Shashamanna.
The creation of a useful offensive force in the eastern part of Sudan began early in September 1940 with the arrival of Heath’s Indian 5th Division started to arrive in the Sudan in early September 1940. Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott’s Indian 29th Brigade was deployed on the Red Sea coast to protect Port Sudan, Brigadier M. Mayne’s Indian 9th Brigade was located to the south-west of Kassala and Brigadier W. J. Slim’s Indian 10th Brigade was sent to Gedaref, accompanying the divisional headquarters. On 6 November a surprise attack was made by the Indian 10th Brigade to retake Gallabat. The attacking infantry were supported by a squadron of 12 medium and light tanks, a field regiment of artillery, and the RAF. The attack began at 05.30 and took Gallabat by 08.00. A follow-on attack on Metemma, on the other side of the ravine forming the border, had to be delayed because by this time nine of the tanks were unserviceable.
The acting governor of Eritrea and commander of the Italian forces there, Frusci was not prepared to relinquish the positions the Italians had taken in Sudan. The Italian defenders occupied strong prepared positions with barbed-wire defences which could be broken only by tanks. As Slim paused while the British tanks were repaired, Generale di Divisione Agostino Martini, the Italian commander at Gondar, responded with an air attack in what was, by local standards, many aircraft. The Italians shot down seven Gladiator fighters for the loss to themselves of five CR.42 fighters, and over a period of two days methodically bombed the 1/Essex Regiment and 3/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles. This persuaded the British and commonwealth ground forces to withdraw from the positions they had just won. The Indian 10th Brigade reoccupied the ridge to the west of Gallabat three days later, but the operation against Metemma was discontinued.
For the next two months, the Indian 10th Brigade and the Indian 9th Brigade, which relieved the Indian 10th Brigade in December, simulated the activities of a full division. The brigades created obvious lines of communication to the east from Gedaref, and created dummy airfields and stores depots. The object was to persuade Italian intelligence that main thrust being planned by Platt would be directed toward Gondar rather than Kassala.
On 16 October 'Gazelle' Force was created in Sudan, under the command of Colonel F. W. Messervy, as a mobile reconnaissance and fighting force. The new force comprised three motor machine gun companies of the Sudan Defence Force, the 1/Duke of York’s Own Skinner’s Horse detached from the Indian 5th Division, the 4/11th Sikh Regiment from the Indian 7th Brigade, and some mobile artillery.
Through November, December and the early part of January, Platt (promoted to lieutenant general on 7 January) applied constant pressure on the Italians along the the full length of the Sudanese/Abyssinian border with constant patrolling and raiding using both ground and air forces. During this period, the British began to replace some of the their older aircraft types, most especially with Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighters. At the same time more Gladiator fighters were delivered. The Hurricane was altogether superior to the CR.42, and the Gladiator was at least its equal, and both the Hurricane and the Gladiator offered superiority over the Savoia-Marchetti bombers.
On 6 December, commonwealth aircraft bombed and then strafed a large concentration of Italian motor transport a few miles to the north of Kassala. The same aircraft then strafed the nearby positions of Blackshirt and colonial infantry. A few days later, the same aircraft bombed the Italian base at Keru, some 50 miles (80 km) to the east of Kassala, and their pilots had the immense satisfaction of seeing supply dumps, stores and transport enveloped in flame and smoke as they flew away.
One morning in mid-December, a force of Italian fighters paid a visit to a Rhodesian landing strip near Kassala, where they strafed some Hardy biplanes caught on the ground and destroying several of them. While successful, the attack caused no casualties.
After their conquest of British Somaliland, the Italians adopted a more defensive posture. Late in 1940, the setbacks suffered by the Italian forces elsewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, in the Western Desert, in the skies over the UK, and on the Albanian border with Greece prompted Generale d’Armata Ugo Cavallero, who had succeeded Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio as the Italian chief-of-staff in Rome, to adopt a new course of action in East Africa. In December 1940 Cavallero argued to the Comando Supremo that the Italian forces in East Africa should abandon offensive actions against Sudan and against the Suez Canal, and instead concentrate their energies of the defence of Africa Orientale Italiana. The Duke of Aosta also requested authorisation to pull the Italian forces back from the Sudanese frontier. The Comando Supremo agreed, and issued orders for the Italian forces in East Africa to withdraw to better defensive positions.
Frusci was instructed to withdraw his forces from Kassala and Metemma in the lowlands along the Eritrean/Sudanese border and instead hold the more easily defended mountain passes on the roads running to the east from Kassala to Agordat and from Metemma to Gondar. Frusci chose not to withdraw from the lowlands, however, and argued that withdrawal would involve too great a loss of prestige, and that Kassala was, moreover, was an important railway junction. By holding it, Frusci argued, the Italians prevented the British from using the railway to carry supplies from Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast to the base at Gedaref.
Information about the Italian withdrawal was quickly decrypted by the British and, now with a detailed knowledge of the Italian plans available to him, Platt was able to start his offensive into Eritrea on 18 January 1941, three weeks ahead of schedule.
After the fall of British Somaliland, Wavell’s plan for the counter-offensive by British and commonwealth forces included a 'northern front' commanded by Platt and a 'southern front' commanded by Dickinson (later Cunningham). Wavell planned for Platt to advance from Sudan east into Eritrea and then south into Abyssinia, and for Cunningham to advance from Kenya to the north through Italian Somaliland and thence to the north-west into Abyssinia. Wavell also planned that as Platt advanced from the north and Cunningham from the south, a smaller third force would be landed from the sea in British Somaliland in an amphibious assault, retake that colony and then advance to the south-west into Abyssinia. All three forces were then to link at Addis Ababa, the capital of Italian East Africa.
The capture of Italian East Africa would remove land-based threats to supplies and reinforcements coming from Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and British East Africa and passing through the Suez Canal for the campaign in North Africa and open the overland route from Cape Town to Cairo.
As noted above, on 18 January 1941 Haile Selassie crossed the border from Sudan near the village of Um Iddla, and two days later joined 'Gideon' Force, which was already in Abyssinia. The crossing point is some 450 miles (720 km) to the north-west of Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie and Wingate’s 'Gideon' Force then undertook a three-month campaign in the Abyssinian province of Gojjam, where they initially faced opposing forces of about 25,000 men. Haile Selassie and 'Gideon' Force rallied Abyssinian patriots wherever they went, making effective use of powerful loudspeakers which had been supplied to the patriot forces to announce the presence of the emperor and to induce local tribal leaders and Italian askaris to desert the Italian cause. Making clever use of surprise and bluff, this relatively small force disrupted Italian supply lines and provided important intelligence to the more conventional British and commonwealth forces.
In March Sandford and Wingate clashed strongly. Sandford maintained in a signal to headquarters in Khartoum that the resources being absorbed by Wingate for the 'comparatively slow advance of [his] conventional forces' was 'paralysing Patriot activities by diverting rifles, ammunition and pack saddles exclusively to Wingate’s force, instead of giving equal priority to the Patriots', who would have a greater impact through swift and dispersed action not just in Gojjam but, with the assistance of Sandford’s Mission 101, in other provinces as well. This was followed by a signal of rebuttal from Wingate, and Platt had to rebuke both officers. The dispute overflowed into Wingate’s force, leading to the mutiny of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion at the start of April. Wingate had to leave his bed, to which he had been confined with malaria, to dismiss the battalion commander, after which the battalion rallied to its new leader and performed well for the rest of the campaign.
On 6 March the patrol forces won their first victory when they took Bure. From 27 February to 3 March 'Gideon' Force had made life difficult for the well-sited forts at Bure while propagandists used megaphones to help foster in the Italians the belief that they were being attacked by a substantial force, and this provoked many desertions from the Italian ranks. Finally on 4 March, fearing his line of communication to Debre Markos was threatened and not knowing that the attacking force was a mere 450 men, Colonnello Natale pulled his garrison out of Bure and headed for Dembacha on the road to Debre Markos. Harried from behind by the Frontier Battalion, Natale’s column met the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion head-on just to the west of Dembacha. The Ethiopian battalion put up a stiff resistance but were overwhelmed, though Natale had been so shaken by recent events that he abandoned Dembacha on 8 March and pulled all the garrisons of the area back to Debre Markos.
In less than three months, 'Gideon' Force (less the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion which was no longer capable of combat after the engagement at Dembacha) and an ever-growing army of Abyssinian patriots were advancing on the Italian fortifications at Debre Markos, the capital of Gojjam province. Lieutenant Colonel J. E. H. Boustead, commanding the Frontier Battalion, embarked on a guerrilla campaign using small parties of 50 or so men to infiltrate silently to within a few yards of an Italian position in the middle of the night, and then attacking with grenades and bayonets to clear the defenders. By a time early in April the Italians had been forced back to the inner defensive ring at Debre Markos. Now faced with a critical situation to the south, the Duke of Aosta ordered the Italians holding Debre Markos to withdraw, and on 4 April 12,000 people (including 4,000 women) under their commander, Colonnello Maraventano, began the journey of 200 miles (320 km) to Safartak and thence to Dessie. On 6 April Haile Selassie entered Debre Markos and was formally greeted by Wingate, 'Gideon' Force and Ras Hailu, the powerful local patriot leader.
While Debre Markos and Addis Derra were being captured, other patriot elements under Ras Abebe Aregai consolidated themselves around Addis Ababa in preparation for Haile Selassie’s return. In response to the rapid advances of the British and commonwealth forces and the general uprising of Abyssinian patriots, the Italians in Ethiopia retreated to the mountain fortresses of Gondar, Amba Alagi, Dessie and Gimma.
From Debra Markos, Wingate followed the retreating Italians and undertook a series of harrying actions. In early May most of 'Gideon' Force had to break off to provide a suitable escort for Haile Selassie’s formal re-entry into Addis Ababa, and after this Wingate returned to 'Safforce', the main Mission 101 element which was harassing the column led by Colonnello Saverio Maraventano, commander of the 3a Brigata coloniale, and by 18 May this column had emplaced itself at Agibor.
Facing Maraventano was a force of about 2,000 including only 160 trained soldiers (100 of the Frontier Battalion and 60 of the re-formed 2nd Ethiopian Battalion). By this time each side was short of food, ammunition, water and medical supplies. Wingate sent a message to Maraventano painting a completely false picture of the imminent arrival of very substantial forces and playing on the withdrawal of British troops that would follow, leaving the Italian column at the mercy of the patriots. By 21 May, having referred the matter to higher authority in Gondar, which left the decision to him, Maraventano indicated his intention to surrender on 23 May. Wingate accepted the surrender of 1,100 Italian and 5,000 colonial troops, together with 2,000 women and children, and 1,000 muleteers and camp followers. By this time Wingate’s force had been whittled down to just 36 regular soldiers to constitute the formal guard of honour at the surrender, the rest of his force being patriots.
In January 1941 Cunningham had decided that the time was ripe to launch his first attacks across the Kenyan border directly into southern Ethiopia. Although he realised that the rainy season, now fast approaching, would make impossible a direct advance via Mega, Yabelo and Shashamanna straight to Addis Ababa, he hoped that this action would spur the population of southern Abyssinia to rise against the Italians. He also believed that this action would pin Italian forces in the area and thereby prevent their redeployment to bolster the Italian strength in Jubaland when the main offensive was launched through this region. Cunningham sent the South African 1st Division, comprising the 2nd and 5th South African and 21st (East African) Brigades, and an independent East African brigade into the Galla-Sidamo province. From 16 to 18 January 1941 they captured El Yibo, and on 19 January an advance force of the South African division captured Jumbo. On 24/25 January Cunningham’s troops fought its way along the Turbi road, but his hopes of an Abyssinian rising were not realised.
The British and commonwealth offensive in southern Abyssinia came to a halt in mid-February as heavy rains made further movement and maintenance of the force very difficult. On 1 February the Allied forces took Gorai and El Gumu, on 2 February Hobok, and on 8/9 February Banno. By 15 February there was fighting on the Yavello road. The two South African brigades then launched a double flanking movement on Mega. After a three-day battle, in which many of the South Africans, who were equipped for tropical conditions, suffered from exposure because of the heavy rains and near freezing temperatures, they captured Mega on 18 February. Some 70 miles (115 km) to the south-east of Mega and on the border with Kenya, Moyale was occupied on 22 February by a patrol of Abyssinian irregular troops which had been attached to the South African 1st Division.
On 6 April Cunningham’s forces liberated Addis Ababa after a 53-day advance of 1,725 miles (2775 km) from Kenya. The highly disciplined Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (police of Italian Africa) remained in the city to maintain order.
Haile Selassie made his formal entry to the city on 5 May, exactly five years after he had been compelled to flee as the Italians captured his capital during the 2nd Abyssinian War.
On 13 April, Cunningham sent Pienaar and a force comprising the South African 1st Brigade and Campbell’s Scouts (Ethiopian irregulars led by Lieutenant A. G. S. Campbell) to continue the advance to the north and link with Platt’s forces advancing to the south. On 20 April, after a rough battle, Pienaar’s force captured Dessie on the main road north from Addis Ababa to Asmara. At this time Pienaar was some 200 miles (320 km) to the south of Platt’s forces gathering for the decisive Battle of Amba Alagi.
Wavell’s strategic priority was for Platt’s forces to push to the south from Sudan to Addis Ababa and meet Cunningham’s forces driving to the north from Kenya. However, a major obstacle faced by Platt’s forces was Amba Alagi, a mountain approaching 12,000 ft (3660 m) in height between Asmara and Addis Ababa.
The Italians decided to defend the area around Amba Alagi in force, and in preparation for an extended defence drove galleries into the solid rock to protect their troops and to stock ample quantities of ammunition and stores. In this mountain fortress, the defenders commanded by the Duke of Aosta thought themselves to be impregnable.
Platt gave newly promoted Major General Mayne and the Indian 5th Division the task of taking Amba Alagi. Mayne was able to deploy only one, albeit expanded, brigade. This was Marriott’s Indian 29th Brigade, comprising the 1/Worcestershire Regiment, 3/2nd Punjab Regiment and 6 (Royal)/13th Frontier Force Rifles, and Mayne’s attacking force was therefore numerically inferior to the Italian defenders. Mayne’s limited deployment was the direct result of the demands on the British for internal security and for protecting their lines of communication. The supply route to Amba Alagi extended nearly 250 miles (400 km) to the south of Asmara and some 400 miles (640 km) to the south-east from the main railhead at Kassala.
On 3 May Mayne sent in a feint attack from the east while, in the early hours of 4 May, the main attack was made from the north-west over the hills, which defended with great determination by the Italians. On 11 May, Pienaar’s brigade arrived from the south and was put under Mayne’s command, and by 14 May the British and commonwealth forces had surrounded Amba Alagi. With the arrival of Pienaar’s brigade, the 7,000 Italian troops were directly attacked by 9,000 British and commonwealth troops and more than 20,000 Ethiopian irregulars.
A final assault was planned for 15 May, but a fortuitous artillery shell hit an Italian fuel dump and ruptured a vessel containing oil. This caused oil to flow into the Italian defenders' last drinking water, and this forced the Italians to surrender on 18 May. The Italians marched out with full honours, and in exchange provided the victors with details of the locations of all mines and booby traps and an agreement that the surviving Italian equipment and stores would not be sabotaged or destroyed.
The campaign in Italian East Africa was all but over. Despite the Duke of Aosta’s surrender at Amba Alagi on 18 May, however, some Italian forces continued to hold out. The port city of Assab and the strongholds of Gondar and Jimma remained under Italian control with garrisons of about 40,000 men.
On 10 June 'Chronometer' landed an Indian battalion at Assab, the last Italian-held harbour on the Red Sea, and this had fallen by the following day. On 13 June, the Indian trawler Parvati initiated a magnetic mine near Assab and became the last naval casualty of the campaign.
An Italian force under Gazzera, the governor of Galla-Sidama and the new acting viceroy and governor-general of Italian East Africa, continued to resist at Jimma in south-western Abyssinia. However, even before Cunningham moved against him, Gazzera was faced with the threat of a growing force of Abyssinian patriots, and many of his units started to melt away. The colonial troops were especially prone to defection. On 21 June, Gazzera abandoned Jimma, where about 15,000 of what was left of his command surrendered. On 3 July, Gazzera and his last 7,000 men surrendered when they were cut off by the Belgian Général de Division Auguste-Éduard Gilliaert, the commander of the Free Belgian forces in East Africa.
On 28 September, the 3,000-man Italian garrison of Wolchefit Pass surrendered to the King’s African Rifles.
The 40,000-man Italian force at Gondar, under the command of Nasi, the acting governor of Amhara, held out for almost seven months in the last Italian stand of the Italian presence in Abyssinia. Gondar was the capital of Begemder province in the north-western part of Ethiopia, about 120 miles (190 km) to the west of Amba Alagi. After the surrender of Gazzera, Nasi became the acting viceroy and governor-general of Italian East Africa. Like Gazzera, Nasi faced not just conventional forces (from Platt’s command), but also an ever increasing force of Abyssinian patriots.
While the Italian air force in East Africa had quickly been degraded in overall capability in an asymmetric war of attrition, the Italian pilots nonetheless held on to the bitter end, and it was only on 24 October that the last Italian aeroplane of the campaign was shot down.
After the Italian defeat at Keren on 1 April, as the climactic battle of the British and commonwealth 'Atmosphere' seizure of Eritrea, many of the remaining Italians withdrew to three final strongholds, and as noted above Amba Alagi fell in May and Jimma in July. This left Gondar as the last Italian foothold in East Africa. On 13 November, a mixed force from the 12th (African) Division under Major General Fowkes, supported by Abyssinian irregular troops, attacked the key defensive position of Kulkaber and were repelled. A new attack on Kulkaber one week later was successful.
Two mountain passes overlooked the town of Gondar, and the Italians forces holding these passes were invested by the two brigades of Fowkes’s division. Cut off, the two Italian groups in the passes were compelled to surrender when their supplies ran out. Once they had taken the passes, the British and commonwealth forces had control of the heights overlooking the town, and Nasi’s 23,500-man Italian garrison in the town was attacked on 27 November and surrendered after the Kenya Armoured Car Regiment had penetrated the outskirts of the town.
Despite the surrender of this last formal element of the Italian strength in Abyssinia, fighting nonetheless continued at a lower level of intensity between the summer of 1941 to the autumn of 1943 as the remnants of the Italian forces undertook a campaign of guerrilla resistance.
When Nasi surrendered the last organised forces of the Italian colonial army in East Africa at Gondar in November 1941, many of the surviving Italian units opted to fight a guerrilla war in the mountains and deserts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. It is believed that as many as 7,000 Italian soldiers were involved in this struggle against the victorious British and commonwealth forces in the hope, never realistic, that the German and Italian forces in North Africa would take Egypt and the Suez Canal, and then move to the south with the object of retaking the territories which the Italians had lost in East Africa.
There were originally two main Italian guerrilla organisations, namely the Fronte di Resistenza (resistance front) and the Figli d’Italia (sons of Italy). The Fronte di Resistenza was led by Colonnello Lucchetti and centred in the main cities and towns of the former Italian East Africa. Its main activities were military sabotage and collection of information about British troops to be sent to Italy in multiple ways. The Figli d’Italia organisation was formed in September 1941 by Blackshirts of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (a Fascist organisation of volunteer soldiers), and engaged in a guerrilla war against the British troops and harassed those Italian civilians and colonial soldiers it deemed to be traitors for co-operating with the British and Abyssinian forces.
Smaller groups were the Tigray fighters of Tenente Amedeo Guillet in Eritrea and the guerrilla group of Maggiore Gobbi around Dessie, and from the beginning of 1942 there was a resistance group in Eritrea, under the command of Capitano Aloisi dedicated to the assistance of soldiers and civilians wishing to escape from the British prisoner of war camps near the cities of Asmara and Decameré. In the first months of 1942 Italian guerrilla elements were also operational in British Somaliland.
Many Eritreans and Somalis, and a smaller number of Abyssinians, helped the Italian guerrillas, bit the level of this local support dwindled rapidly after the Axis defeat by the British and commonwealth forces in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein in November 1942.
These guerrilla units operated over a very large area from northern Eritrea to southern Somaliland, and their weapons were machine guns, rifles, pistols, hand grenades, explosives and, on rare occasions, 2.56-in (65-mm) guns. Ammunition was always in short supply, especially for the 2.56-in (65-mm) guns.
From January 1942, many of these groups began to co-operate under the leadership Generale di Brigata Ludovico Muratori, the commander of the Fascist MVSN. Muratori was able to encourage a revolt against the British in northern Abyssinia by the Azebo Oromo, a tribe with a history of rebellion. The revolt was put down by the British and Abyssinian forces only at the beginning of 1943.
In the early summer of 1942, Haile Selassie started to open diplomatic channels of communication with the Italian insurgents, allegedly because he had been impressed by the capture of the North African port of Tobruk by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel. After the end of the guerrilla war, Lucchetti stated that, had the Axis forces reached Abyssinia once again, the emperor would have been prepared to accept an Italian protectorate on conditions including a total amnesty for all the Abyssinians sentenced by Italy, the presence of Abyssinians at all levels of the administration, and the participation of the emperor in the future government of the protectorate.
In the summer of 1942, the most successful guerrilla groups were those led by Colonnello Calderari in Somalia, Colonnello di Marco in the Ogaden, Colonnello Ruglio among the Danakil, and de Varda in Abyssinia. Their successful ambushes forced the British to dispatch troops, with aircraft and light armour, from Kenya and Sudan to the guerrilla-ridden territories of the former Italian East Africa.
In the same summer, the British decided to put most of the Italian population of coastal Somalia into concentration camps, in order to avoid their possible contact with Japanese submarines. In November 1942, the Italian guerrilla groups started to lose heart with Rommel’s major defeat in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein and the capture of Lucchetti. Even so, the guerrilla war continued until the summer of 1943, when the remaining Italian soldiers started to destroy their weapons and, in a few cases, escape to Italy: Guillet, for example, reached Taranto on 3 September 1943 and asked the Italian government for a long-range aeroplane to transport equipment for the guerrilla groups in Eritrea, but the Italian armistice with the Allies, pronounced on 8/8 September, effectively ended his plan.
One of the last Italian soldiers to surrender to the British was Corrado Turchetti, the last of whose men were still fighting in October 1943, and the very last Italian officer involved in the guerrilla war was Colonnello Nino Tramonti in Eritrea.
It worth noting that the Italian guerrilla war was even waged by civilians. In August 1942, forces led by Dr Rosa Dainelli successfully sabotaged the main British ammunition dump in Addis Ababa.