How South Africa Helped Expel Mussolini From Ethiopia

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Raid on Dingaan’s Day

With the Italian invasion of Egypt in full swing, Wavell’s attention was concentrated northward. He was still convinced that the best way of eliminating the threat posed in Ethiopia was through an armed uprising of patriots. The eventual campaign in Ethiopia would be the result of evolution rather than a comprehensive plan. Smuts argued that plans made for regaining Kassala and Gallabat should be accompanied by a plan for an attack up the Somali coast to remove the threat to Mombasa posed by Italian forces at Kismayu. This was regarded as impractical by both British and Italian experts. Neither, however, seemed to possess the Boer genius for mobility. Everything depended on the rains. These would reduce roads to impassable mud and were expected around March. Lt. Gen. Alan Cunningham, appointed to command in Kenya in November, advised against moving before May.

Before that, raids were to be conducted in preparation. The first was to be made by the 12th African Division under Maj. Gen. Alfred Godwin-Austen with the 1st South African Brigade, the 24th Gold Coast Brigade, and the 1st South African Light Tank Company, against El Wak, which was held by some 2,000 colonial infantry and a few light guns. El Wak was attacked on December 16, Dingaan’s Day as it was known to the South Africans, anniversary of the Battle of Blood River in 1836.

When the light tanks could not pierce the frontier wire, 2nd Lt. Christopher Ballenden of 1st Battalion, Gold Coast Regiment, rushed forward through machine-gun fire with a Bangalore torpedo to blow a gap, and the Gold Coasters followed with fixed bayonets. By 11 am, the 1st Transvaal Scottish had battered through thick bush for three miles to capture the 191st Colonial Infantry’s headquarters, and the 1st Royal Natal Carbineers went in singing a Zulu war song in the final rush across 150 yards of open ground.

Apart from the material gains of victory, El Wak demonstrated to both sides the moral ascendancy of the Allied forces and the ability of the South Africans to operate armor, motorized infantry, and air forces in unison. In mid-January, Cunningham directed the 1st South African Division, with the 2nd and 5th South African Brigades and the 25th East African Brigade, to attack El Yibo and its wells. A three-day ordeal ensued in which air force bombs and artillery accounted for the neutralized defenses but heat and lack of water prevented a follow-up attack. The divisional commander, Maj. Gen. George Brink, was most displeased. With the rains threatening to make the Chalbi Desert impassable and no sign of a patriot rising, Brink wanted to secure better communications. He advanced first on Mega, where 1,000 Italian troops surrendered without a fight, then on to Moyale, which was found abandoned. By this time, the main advance on Italian Somaliland had reached Mogadishu.

The Impractical Juba Line

The Italians had been colonial masters of Somaliland for nearly 30 years. In the south, the Juba River forms a natural defense line that Mussolini had ordered fortified into the “Juba Line” for some 360 miles of its length. The impracticality of this was obvious, and in February 1941, with the news of the destruction of the Italian Army at Beda Fomm and the beginning of the assault on his northern bastion of Keren, Aosta could only tell his commander, Maj. Gen. Carlo de Simone, “There is no hope of reinforcement.” Both men knew talk of “no withdrawal” was mere bravado and fooled nobody.

With the South African engineers once more producing Herculean efforts (170 miles of road in 17 days), the Italians abandoned Kismayu. An aerial bombardment led to the rout of the 94th Colonial Infantry, which was rapidly followed by the retreating 12th African Division, and on February 14, the 1st South African Brigade reached Gobwen, some six days ahead of schedule.

Realizing the disarray facing them, Cunningham pressed on for the Juba. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles and the 1st Transvaal Scottish reached the river only to discover the pontoon bridge destroyed and find themselves under intense fire. The First Royal Natal Carbineers were sent north to find a way across and succeeded in making a crossing in canvas boats. Engineers then facilitated the support of the 1st Transvaal Scottish and several armored cars. Just before dawn on February 18, an attack was made by the 208th Colonial Infantry, and repulsed with heavy loss.

The South Africans resumed the advance in an attempt to outflank the Italians and encountered the 193rd Colonial Infantry. The armored cars, charging in line abreast like true cavalry, put the Italians to flight. Now a rush was on for the key road junction at Jelib. Both Cunningham and de Simone had their eyes fixed on the next encounter, and the latter decided, in effect, to abandon Somaliland and retreat into the fortress of Ethiopia.

The SAAF attacked repeatedly to add to the confusion of the Italian retreat. Aosta wrote Mussolini to complain: “The Dabat [soldiers from a province of Ethiopia] state they were employed to fight men and not airplanes. They dislike the air raids so intensely that some units refuse to fight.” The support services for the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) had largely broken down, and the South Africans dominated the skies. In two weeks, the entire province of Jubaland was captured and 20,000 Italian prisoners taken. The 23rd Nigerian Brigade and the 11th African Division (into which the 1st South African Brigade was merged) took over the lead, covering 90, 120, 80, and then 65 miles per day to reach Mogadishu, barely 17 days after the opening of the campaign. Now they pressed on across the Ogaden Desert toward Harar.

At precisely 40 minutes past noon on January 20, 1941, Haile Selassie knelt to kiss the ground of his homeland once more. He was escorted by Colonel Orde Wingate during the trek to mountainous Belaya, in an area still loyal to the emperor. When they reached the green uplands, the little emperor could not keep up despite the urgings of Wingate. “You go ahead Colonel Wingate” he said, “and let us hope the people will recognize which of us is the emperor.” Behind them trailed the miles- long caravan of arms and ammunition with which to raise the Rases (feudal lords) and their people, many of dubious loyalty. One of particular importance was Ras Hailu in Gojjam Province, a wily traitor whom nobody trusted. Treachery and disloyalty among the feudal lords were traditional and had been endemic for centuries. As Wingate prepared to take on the Italians, Hailu blocked the progress of the emperor. Meanwhile, the fortress of Keren blocked the Allies’ entry into Eritrea.

Battle of Keren

Once the Italian invasion of Egypt had been defeated at Sidi Barrani, Wavell had taken the 4th Indian Division and sent it south to join operations against Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Italians had withdrawn from the open ground of Sudan but held up the progress by the Allied forces into Eritrea at Keren.

The South African Gazelle Force, under Lt. Gen. William Platt, reached Keren on February 2. The Italians had already deployed a colonial brigade and the 11th Savoia Grenadiers with two more brigades en route under the command of General Nicoangelo Carnimeo, who was known as the Lion of Keren. Platt stuck to the Indian Army tradition, formulated after so many fights in the mountains of the Northwest Frontier: always take the high ground. The first efforts over 10 days or more had failed in the Italian view because of the Allied inability in the first hours to get around the obstructions in the pass itself. Consequently, the battle became what one historian called “a miniature Passchendaele, with heat substituting for mud.”

The key for Platt was the Dongolaas Gorge, and for 57 days the battle raged across the surrounding peaks in arid and boulder-strewn wilderness and in the face of a determined enemy. As the infantry struggled up the sheer slopes carrying the minimum equipment necessary and constantly short of water, the artillery fire was forced to lift as they approached the summit. Alert Italian defenders then manned the parapets to shower grenades among the rocks.

On February 21, Carnimeo sent a message to his men. “Your valor has thrown back the enemy … the troops have demonstrated the heroic qualities of the Italian soldier.” This was true. As the battle progressed, however, the air situation became increasingly favorable to the Allies. Platt devised a plan involving both the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions, and careful preparations were made. On the night of March 15, following large-scale air attacks and supported by heavy artillery concentrations, the attack was resumed.

Engineers finally managed an inspection of the roadblock that they had said would take two weeks to deal with and concluded that it would take two days. While this obstacle was being overcome, the Italians launched a series of fierce counterattacks against Fort Dologorodoc, a system of trenches on a bare hill surrounded by wire that had finally fallen to the Allies after changing hands numerous times. The attack along the gorge took place on March 25, and the roadblock was cleared the next afternoon. The Allies had lost 536 dead and 3,229 wounded, but the Italians lost more than 3,000 dead and 4,500 wounded. The greatest set piece battle of the campaign was over. But by no means was the campaign itself finished.

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