World War II: How South Africa Helped Expel Mussolini From Ethiopia

World War II: How South Africa Helped Expel Mussolini From Ethiopia

Troops of the British Commonwealth, particularly those of South Africa, played a key role in driving the Italians from Somaliland and Ethiopia.

Here's What You Need to Know: For this greed, Mussolini paid a heavy price in North and East Africa.

Boarding a train at the famous station built by the French as a terminus on the line from Djibouti, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Ras Tafari, Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia left his capital Addis Ababa on May 2, 1936. He had been forced to abdicate by the indifference of the world to his plight and the impotence of the League of Nations to stop the march of fascism.

The emperor addressed the League on June 30, describing the suffering of his people at the hands of the Italians who had been prepared to use mustard gas to defeat his own hopelessly medieval forces. “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.” The Italians themselves cared only that they should avenge the terrible stain of Adowa, the field where they had so ignominiously failed in Abyssinia 40 years before. But at the same time, Jan Smuts, one of the great leaders of the Boers in their struggle for freedom from the British at the beginning of the 20th century asked, “Shall we fight evil with its own weapons? Can we allow force to submerge everything without mustering greater force to stop it?”

Mussolini’s Ill-Conceived African Empire

This was the dilemma facing the people of the Union of South Africa when war came. Indeed, it was a close call in Parliament before South Africa joined the rest of the British Empire in going to war with Germany in September 1939. At this stage, however, war with Italy was but a distant prospect. Mussolini’s declaration of war against the British Empire on June 10, 1940, was a typical piece of opportunism, designed to benefit from the successful German campaign in Western Europe while casting a covetous eye on British possessions. For this greed, Mussolini would pay a heavy price in North and East Africa.

Despite the warnings of his senior officers, Mussolini was glibly unaware of the realities of modern warfare and of Italy’s unpreparedness for it. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Italian East Africa. The strategic position of its colonies in Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia (Abyssinia) was weak. Sea communications could be strangled easily; the British protectorates of Egypt and Sudan sat astride the air routes so that the nearest Italian post and landing ground lay over 1,000 miles away at Uweinat in Libya. If these links were cut, there was little enough that could be provided locally, and Ethiopia was a military liability during the best of times.

The situation presented an internal security nightmare to Viceroy Amadeo di Savoia, the Duke of Aosta, and despite the 250,000 troops present, these were organized and equipped only with security duties in mind. After pleading with Rome for reinforcements as war became increasingly likely, all that had arrived by the outset was a company of medium tanks, 48 field guns, and assorted specialists. Of the logistic backup needed for mobile warfare, Aosta had none, and his vehicles and aircraft were short of fuel, spare parts, and, above all, tires.

The Great North Road

The South Africans were as unprepared as everyone else when war came, but one of the first actions taken was the requisition for war production of the Ford and Chevrolet plants located in the country. A survey was made of the “Great North Road” between Pretoria and Nairobi in Kenya. The commander in chief of British forces in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, took a keen interest in the progress of the Union’s defense forces. By May 1, 1940, some 20,000 South Africans were in Nairobi together with three South African Air Force (SAAF) squadrons, and the 1st South African Brigade was soon to disembark at Mombasa. For the British, this contribution was enormously significant; the South Africans were fully motorized, and previously only 8,500 troops had been on station to guard a frontier with the Italians that was over 1,000 miles long.

British forces in Sudan were equally sparse, and during July the Italians had little difficulty occupying Kassala and Gallabat in eastern Sudan. They remained nervous, however, and a mere company of British troops nearby was inflated on Italian staff maps to a unit of 20,000 men! The British took advantage of this until, in August, Wavell sent the 5th Indian Division to Port Sudan.

To the northeast of the Italians lay British Somaliland. Wavell was instructed not to augment the garrison there, but he eventually resolved to make a total of five battalions available for its defense, adding the 2nd Battalion of his old regiment, the Black Watch. The Italians duly crossed the frontier on August 3 heading for Berbera, the capital and main port. Greatly outnumbering the defenders, they inevitably forced them back after a stout resistance based on a line of hills at Tug Argan and entered Berbera after losing 2,052 casualties and failing to interfere with an evacuation on the 19th.

By now, a steady stream of vehicles was making its way along the Great North Road. By the end of the year, some 9,000 mainly one- and three-ton trucks driven by inexperienced Africans had made the trek across desert and bush, which would make a major contribution to the British move on Addis Ababa. There would be 29 transport companies for the South Africans and 25 to support the East African forces now assembling. As these operations were unfolding, the air campaign commenced with the SAAF beginning a series of raids from Kenya against their opposite numbers at Yavello and Naghelli. Wavell also took steps to encourage a revolt of patriots to prepare the way for a return of Selassie. All these measures would take time, and before any attempt to wrest Ethiopia from the Italians could be attempted, months of hard work would be necessary.

The Logistics of Invasion

The invasion of Ethiopia from Kenya was to be a feat of military engineering that possibly ranks alone in history. Smuts called on the resources of the various government departments in Pretoria: roads, forestry, irrigation, survey, and railroads. They were staffed by men who knew Africa and knew about the lack of expertise and trained manpower in Kenya. They also knew the difficulties that would face a modern force with all its ancillary support services across waterless, trackless desert and bush. Smuts brought in Colonel A.J. Orenstein, who had been director of medical services during the East African campaign of 1916-1918 when the men of the Union and Empire had been decimated by the equatorial illnesses prevalent there. This time, both men were determined that these services would be the most efficient the times could supply, and here the engineers’ provision of the means to go forward fully motorized would both spare the soldiers from the worst privations and enable casualties to be quickly evacuated.

From the gold mines came geodetic and map-making personnel who would produce 1:25,000 maps from aerial photography. Previously, the only maps available had been 1:1,000,000 scale. As the process of assembling the supply infrastructure took place, the Geological Survey Section was operating in the Northern Frontier District, searching for the water supplies that would be needed once the troops were on the ground. Much was needed immediately; the engineers were engaged in building roads through such areas as the 21-mile stretch of lava escarpment from Maikona to Kalacha in the Chalbi Desert. This tremendous effort was in preparation for a move that the Italians were convinced was impossible.

By October, the 1st South African Brigade had been joined by the 2nd and 5th South African Brigades, and the engineering tasks were steadily continuing. The SAAF in their Pretoria-built Hartebeest aircraft made systematic attacks on enemy camps, fuel dumps, and transport assets. Week after week, these operations continued, with the air crewmen risking an appalling fate if shot down in open bush.

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.