How South Africa Helped Expel Mussolini From Ethiopia

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Italian Defense at the Marda Pass

De Simone was retreating across the Ogaden, with his army a disorganized rabble. What had once been a vast array of transport organized for the war of conquest six years before was now little more than a heap of junk. One prize find did appear: 350,000 gallons of gasoline. Cunningham was jubilant. It was, he said, “enough to carry the whole show into Abyssinia … the fuel problem is solved!”

The 23rd Nigerian Brigade led off on March 6 along the Via Imperiale toward Jijiga and on to Harar. At Marda Pass, where the Ethiopian mountains begin, the Italians tried desperately to organize a defensive line. Aosta thought he could still buy precious time, although he did not know that in Mogadishu the South Africans had found detailed plans describing every airfield and landing strip in the country.

This information would prove extremely useful to the Allies, whose aircraft now began a relentless attack on the Italian air transport system. Soon, motorized columns could move only at night. On March 15, a heavy attack was made on the main Italian airbase at Diredawa, destroying a number of aircraft and reinforcing Allied aerial superiority.

As British engineers struggled to repair the numerous bridges along the route of advance, everyone wondered at the lack of interference from the Regia Aeronautica. SAAF aerial photographs revealed a strong defensive position at Marda Pass. Would this prove to be another Keren? Supported by South African artillery, the 23rd Nigerian Brigade attacked, and the Italians withdrew from the pass during the night.

“I Want Every Bridge Destroyed”

The advancing Allies were now entering a land in which nothing is below 5,000 feet elevation. Three roads led from the pass to Harar, and these were taken by different formations. The Nigerians forced a position at Bisidimo, and two Italian colonial infantry regiments mutinied against their commanders. The beginning of the end was clearly in sight. Harar was surrendered on March 26, and Italian troops were rounded up by the hundreds. Intelligence estimates put total Italian losses from battle, desertion, and disease at about 50,000. Addis Ababa lay 320 miles away, a mere eight days for fully motorized forces.

Haile Selassie was also hundreds of miles from his capital, but his progress seemed less assured. Ras Hailu wanted to negotiate only with Wingate. One of Wingate’s party noted, “Only a man who from his youth played the game of patience with long-term strategies of a cool head could have shown the forbearance that Haile Selassie now displayed.”

De Simone’s plan was to hold the Awash Gorge long enough to permit Aosta to withdraw from Addis Ababa to his chosen last place of refuge, Amba Alagi. He said, “I want every bridge destroyed. At Hubeta Pass, if the engineers do a good job of demolition, they (the Allies) should be held for weeks.” But the South Africans now took the lead in the advance, and the destroyed or damaged roadways in Hubeta Pass were quickly repaired. The Johannesburg gold miners of the Transvaal Scottish repaired the roads with the inventory of a nearby brickfield.

The Allied column raced on but failed to intercept the evacuation from Diredawa. The area was full of mutinous colonial troops and a frightened white population of some 150. The arrival of armored cars restored order. A similar situation was expected in Addis Ababa, so Cunningham was granted permission by Wavell to approach Aosta, who agreed that Addis Ababa be declared an open city.

The 5th King’s African Rifles led the 22nd East African Brigade, which had covered 910 miles in 12 days, across the Awash, and so earned the honor of leading the Allied entry into the city of the King of Kings on April 5. Thus ended the southern portion of the campaign to liberate Ethiopia, following an advance of 1,700 miles in eight weeks. To the rear, mop-up operations continued, and the 2nd and 5th South African Brigades were freed for transport to Egypt. Their compatriots in the 1st South African Brigade still had work to do.

Meanwhile, in the central areas, the fall of the capital provided additional impetus to the patriot uprising and Wingate’s operations. It was apparent that Italian rule was crumbling. The Italians had withdrawn from Debra Markos, and Ras Hailu surrendered on April 4, although operations in Gojjam continued until May 19 before Italian resistance ended there. Platt now assumed control of the final operations. He was faced by three remaining centers of resistance, at Gallo-Sidamo, Gondar, and Amba Alagi, but he could deal with only one at a time.

Haile Selassie’s Return

The 1st South African Brigade was brought up from Addis Ababa on April 13 and came under shellfire at Combolcia, some six miles from the key town of Dessie. For six days, the South African gunners worked their pieces in a fierce duel while the infantry battalions eventually managed to roll up the position from the left flank. Dessie fell on April 27 after little more fighting, and another 8,000 prisoners were bagged. That same day, Haile Selassie was given permission to make his final journey to Addis Ababa.

The demolition of bridges and roadways once more held up the progress of the South Africans, and once more their engineers were swiftly able, through skill and improvisation, to bridge the gaps. Aosta was ensconced in a stronghold in mountains 10,000 feet high. The Italian fortress was, nevertheless, more a showpiece than a bastion. The 5th Indian Division was given the task of breeching it, and the plan was to stretch the thinly held Italian line until it broke.

The Allies gradually increased the pressure, and the Italians were jittery about their treatment at the hands of the Shifta irregulars of Ras Seyoum who were assisting the Allies. On May 19, the Italians surrendered to the sound of “The Flower of the Forest,” played by the pipers of the Transvaal Scottish.

This still did not mark the end of the campaign. Operations against scattered remnants of the Italian forces continued in the mountains until the end of November 1941, when the final battle was fought at Gondar. The Italians showed a fighting spirit to the bitter end but were simply not capable of winning against a modern enemy. The finale was as ignominious as the entry into Addis Ababa had been triumphal on May 5, 1936.

On May 5, 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie reached the green hills of Entoto and looked down on his capital city. Far from returning as the Conquering Lion of Judah, the little emperor was the last to enter his capital, an irony that was not lost on him. Being deeply religious, however, he believed the British were mere instruments of God, and His ways, inscrutable but infallible, had enabled Selassie to accept his burden with patience.

The emperor delivered an address before an honor guard from the 5th King’s African Rifles. “My people, do not repay evil with evil … do not stain your souls by avenging yourselves on your enemies …” He had returned.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

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