East African Campaign (World War II)

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East African Campaign
Part of Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre of the Second World War
South African soldiers with a captured Italian flag, 1941
Date 10 June 1940 – 27 November 1941
(1 year, 5 months, 2 weeks and 3 days)
Location Horn of Africa
Result Decisive Allied victory
Fall of Italian East Africa

 United Kingdom


 South Africa




Commanders and leaders

United Kingdom Archibald Wavell
United Kingdom Reade Godwin-Austen
United Kingdom William Platt
United Kingdom Alan Cunningham
Ethiopian Empire Haile Selassie
Ethiopian Empire Abebe Aregai

Belgian Congo Auguste-Éduard Gilliaert

Kingdom of Italy Duke of Aosta
Kingdom of Italy Guglielmo Nasi
Kingdom of Italy Luigi Frusci
Kingdom of Italy Pietro Gazzera

Kingdom of Italy Carlo De Simone
  • Kenya, June 1940: 9,975
    November 1940: 70,000[lower-alpha 1]
  • Sudan, June 1940: 9,000
    November 1940: 28,000
    4th Indian Division, January 1941.[2]
  • Ethiopian: Arbegnoch (from January 1941)
June 1940: 290,476[lower-alpha 2]
August 1940: 371,053[lower-alpha 3]
Casualties and losses
battle: 1,154
sickness/accident: 74,550
(dysentery: 10,000
malaria: 10,000, fatal: 744)
aircraft: 138
230,000 POW[4]
aircraft: 250

The East African Campaign was fought in the Horn of Africa during World War II by Allied forces, mainly British Empire forces, against Axis forces, primarily from Italy, between June 1940 and November 1941. Allied forces, under the British Middle East Command, included units from the United Kingdom and the British colonies of British East Africa, British Somaliland, British West Africa, the Indian Empire, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, the Mandate of Palestine, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and Sudan. Ethiopian irregular forces, the Free French and Belgian troops of the Force Publique also participated. Axis forces included units from the Italian Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali (recruits from Italian-occupied Abyssinia, Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland), Italian regulars, and the small Compagnia Autocarrata Tedesca (German Motorized Company). The majority of the Italian forces were colonial troops from the Horn of Africa led by Italian officers.

Fighting began with an Italian bombing raid on the Southern Rhodesian Forces air base at Wajir in Kenya and continued until Italian forces had been pushed back through Somaliland, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. The remaining Italian forces surrendered after the Battle of Gondar in November 1941, except for scattered groups of Italian troops who refused to surrender fought a guerrilla campaign against the Allies for nearly two more years until the Armistice of Cassibile of 3 September 1943 ended hostilities between Italy and the Allies.


Political situation


Italian East Africa (1938–1941)

On 9 May 1936, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini proclaimed his Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI, Italian East African Empire), formed from the newly occupied Ethiopia and the colonies of Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. During the First Italo-Abyssinian War (1895–1896), Italy was thwarted in its colonial ambitions, when the forces of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia defeated the Regio Esercito (Royal Army) at the Battle of Adowa. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in October 1935, the Italians again invaded Ethiopia, this time from Italian Somaliland and Eritrea.[5] While the Kingdom of Egypt remained neutral during World War II, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 allowed the military forces of the United Kingdom to occupy Egypt in defence of the Suez Canal. At this time, the Kingdom of Egypt included the Sudan as a condominium between Egypt and the United Kingdom known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.[6]

On 10 June 1940, when Mussolini led Italy into World War II against the British and the French, Italian forces in Africa became a potential threat to British supply routes along the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. While Egypt and the Suez Canal were obvious targets, an Italian invasion of either French Somaliland or British Somaliland were reasonable choices too. Mussolini initially looked past both of these small, isolated colonies and instead looked forward to propaganda triumphs in the Sudan and British East Africa (Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda). The Italian General Staff (Comando Supremo) was planning for a war starting after 1942. In the summer of 1940, they were not prepared for a long war or to occupy large areas of Africa.[7]


The British had based forces in Egypt since 1882 but these were greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The small British and Commonwealth force garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route. The canal was vital to British communications with its Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories. In mid-1939, Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the new Middle East Command, over the Mediterranean and Middle East theatres. Until the Franco-Axis armistice, the French divisions in Tunisia faced the Italian 5th Army on the western Libyan border. In Libya, the Royal Army had about 215,000 men and in Egypt, the British had about 36,000 troops, with another 27,500 men training in Palestine.[8]

Wavell had about 86,000 troops at his disposal for Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran and East Africa. Faced with frontiers guarded by about eight men to the mile, Wavell resolved to fight the Italians with delaying actions at the main posts and hope for the best. The Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden convened a conference in Khartoum at the end of October 1940. In attendance were Emperor Selassie, the South African General Jan Smuts (who held an advisory brief for the region with Winston Churchill), Wavell and the senior military commanders in East Africa, including Lieutenant-General Platt and Lieutenant-General Cunningham. A general plan of attack on Ethiopia, including the use of Ethiopian irregular forces, was agreed upon at the conference.[9] 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 cypher of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) in East Africa. Later that month, the replacement cypher for the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) was broken by the Combined Bureau, Middle East (CBME).[10]

Military balance


Main article: Red Sea Flotilla
Italian East Africa in 1936. British Somaliland later annexed in 1940

Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, had been the Viceroy and Governor-General of Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, AOI) since November 1937 and on 1 June 1940 had from 290,476 local and metropolitan troops (including naval and air force personnel) available and on 1 August the number had been increased to 371,053 troops.[11] On 10 June, the Italians were organised in four command sectors, the Northern Sector (the area near Asmara, Eritrea), the Southern Sector (Jimma, Ethiopia), the Eastern Sector (near the border with French Somaliland and British Somaliland), and the Giuba Sector (southern Somalia near Kismayo, Italian Somaliland). Lieutenant-General Luigi Frusci commanded the Northern Sector, General Pietro Gazzera commanded the Southern Sector, General Guglielmo Nasi commanded the Eastern Sector, and Lieutenant-General Carlo De Simone commanded the Giuba Sector. The Duke of Aosta commanded from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

The Duke of Aosta's command included two metropolitan divisions, the 40th Infantry Division Cacciatori d'Africa and the 65th Infantry Division Granatieri di Savoia. The Italians also had one battalion of elite mountain troops (Alpini), one battalion of highly mobile infantry (Bersaglieri), numerous Fascist paramilitary Blackshirts (Camicie Nere) battalions, Security Volunteer Militia (MSVN) (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale) and smaller units. About 70 percent of Italian troops were Askari from the Horn of Africa region.[12]

While the regular Eritrean battalions and the Royal Corps of Somali Colonial Troops (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali) were among the best Italian units in the Horn of Africa, the majority of the colonial troops in Italian East Africa were recruited, trained and equipped for colonial repression. The Somali Dubats recruited from the border provided useful light infantry and skirmishers but the irregular bande were much less effective. Ethiopian Askari and irregulars, recruited during the brief Italian occupation, deserted in large numbers after the outbreak of war. The Royal Corps of Colonial Troops included horse-mounted Eritrean cavalry known as Penne di Falco (Falcon Feathers). On one occasion a squadron of these horsemen charged British and Commonwealth troops, throwing small hand grenades from the saddle.

Italian ground forces in the Horn of Africa were equipped with about 3,300 machine guns, 24 M11/39 medium tanks, a large number of L3/35 tankettes, 126 armoured cars, and 813 pieces of assorted artillery.[citation needed] The most common Italian rifle in the Horn of Africa was the Carcano Mod. 91. Due to the isolation of the Horn of Africa from the Mediterranean, the Italians had very little opportunity for reinforcement or supply, leading to severe shortages, especially of ammunition.[citation needed]

On occasion, foreign merchant vessels captured by German merchant raiders in the Indian Ocean would arrive in Somali ports, but their cargoes were not always of much use to the Italian war effort. (e.g., the Yugoslav steamer Durmitor, captured by the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis, came to Warsheikh on 22 November 1940, with a cargo of salt and hundreds of prisoners.)[13]

A major problem afflicting Italian forces was the lack of medicine for treatment of diseases endemic to the Horn of Africa area, particularly malaria. It is estimated that nearly one-quarter of the Italians troops defending Amba Alagi in April 1941 had malaria during the siege, with anti-malarial medicine being all but gone during the last months of fighting.[citation needed] The commander of Amba Alagi, the Duke of Aosta, was himself afflicted with malaria during the siege, and died of tuberculosis and malaria on 3 March 1942, a few months after his surrender.

In June 1940, the Regia Aeronautica in the Horn of Africa had 183 aircraft, 61 in reserve and 81 under repair.[12] In relative terms these were some of the best aircraft available to either side of the Horn of Africain 1940 but almost all were obsolete. Of the bombers, eighty-two were Caproni Ca.133, a high-wing monoplane with a fixed undercarriage. Whether it was used as a bomber or a transport, this slow and poorly armed aircraft was only useful when the enemy possessed negligible air defenses. Of the remainder, forty-two were Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 and while this aircraft was superior in performance to the CA.133, it was still so ineffective that it was quickly relegated to night bombing missions. Only the twelve Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 equipping the 6th and 7th Squadrons could be called modern bombers in terms of speed, range and bomb load. These aircraft were the most capable bombers employed by either side of the Horn of Africa, although they were too few in number to make a decisive difference.[citation needed]

Of the fighters, the twenty-four Fiat CR.42 Falcos of the 412th, 413th and 414th Squadrons were the best fighters on either side at the start of the war. The CR.42 was the pinnacle of biplane fighter design and was the primary fighter of the Regia Aeronautica during the early years of the war. Four pilots made ace flying the CR.42 of the Horn of Africa, including Mario Visintini, the top scoring biplane ace of World War II. Four other aces also made some of their claims while flying the nimble biplane in the skies of the Horn of Africa. The remainder of the Italian fighter force in AOI consisted of the 410th and 411th Squadrons equipped with the Fiat CR.32, the forerunner to the CR.42. An excellent fighter when introduced in 1934, the Cr-32 enjoyed a considerable degree of success in the Spanish Civil War, but by 1940 it was obsolete and often proved to be slower than the bombers it was sent to intercept, although its pilots did enjoy some success over the Horn of Africa, with three aces making a portion of their claims in the Cr-32.

The Fiat G.49 Italian fighter.

The 110th Fighter Squadron was equipped with nine obsolescent Meridionali IMAM Ro.37, two-seat reconnaissance biplanes that proved ineffective as interceptors. Along with their generally obsolete airframes, most Italian aircraft did not carry radio, making air-to-air and air-to-ground coordination difficult if not impossible. Only the SM.79 aircraft carried radio. A transport force of 25 aircraft consisted of CA.133s and Savoia-Marchetti S.73, the transport aircraft upon which the SM-81 bomber was based. The Regia Aeronautica in AOI also had 134 aircraft in various states of maintenance or in reserve due to a shortage of pilots. This force comprised eighty-three CA.133s, seventeen SM-81s, six SM-79s, sixteen Cr-32s, eight CR.42s, and four Ro-37bis reconnaissance aircraft. With only twelve modern operational bombers and twenty-four barely modern operational fighters, General Pietro Pinna was also short of munitions, with bombs over 100-kilogram (220 lb) in short supply. The small stock of 250-kilogram (550 lb) bombs was held in reserve for use against ships in harbors and aircraft flying other missions generally carried 50-kilogram (110 lb) or 100-kilogram (220 lb) bombs, hardly large enough to damage a target unless a direct hit.

Most of the airfields in AOI were on the periphery of the territory, vulnerable to air attack and invasion, while only a small number of airstrips were long enough to operate the two most modern aircraft employed by the Italians—the SM.79 and CR.42. Due to the lack of suitable airfields, the fighters and the units equipped with the more modern bombers were concentrated in central Ethiopia or near the coast of the Red Sea in Eritrea. It was with this obsolete and poorly supported air force that General Pinna was assigned the mission of defending an area six times the size of the Italian homeland, while also conducting offensive operations against British airfields, ports and naval units operating at sea.[14]

The Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina Italiana) maintained a presence in the Red Sea region with its "Red Sea Flotilla". Most vessels were stationed in the port of Massawa in the Italian colony of Eritrea; lesser port facilities existed at Mogadishu in Italian Somaliland and Assab in Eritrea. The Red Sea Flotilla included seven destroyers organised into two squadrons, five motor torpedo boats (MTB, or in Italian; Motoscafo Armato Silurante, MAS) organised into one squadron, and eight submarines organised into two squadrons.[citation needed] The Italian naval squadrons were viewed by the British as a threat to Allied convoys heading from the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, but as Italian fuel supplies in Massawa dwindled, so did the Italian fleet's opportunity for offensive action in the Red Sea. The Red Sea Flotilla and its home port of Massawa did however represent a link between Axis occupied Europe and the naval facilities located in the Italian concession zone in Tientsin in China.


Main article: Eastern Fleet

Initially, the British and Commonwealth forces in East Africa amounted to about 30,000 men under Major-General William Platt in the Sudan, Major-General Douglas Dickinson in British East Africa and Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Reginald Chater in British Somaliland. The British and Commonwealth forces were slightly better equipped than the Italians and had sources of supply and reinforcements but were vastly outnumbered by the Italian forces in Italian East Africa.

On 10 June 1940, in all of the Sudan, prior to the arrival of the 4th Indian Infantry Division and 5th Indian Infantry Division, Platt had only three regular British infantry battalions (which were absorbed into the under-strength 5th Indian Division when it arrived)[15] and the 21 companies (4,500 men in total) of the Sudan Defence Force of which five (later six) were organised as small mobile machine gun companies. The three battalions were the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment and the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment which in mid-September became part of 29th, 10th and 9th Indian Infantry Brigades respectively. Platt had no artillery though the Sudan Horse was in the process of conversion into a 3.7 inch howitzer battery.[16]

In Kenya, the King's African Rifles (KAR) 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.[17]

Initially, the KAR deployed as the 1st East African Infantry Brigade and the 2nd East African Infantry Brigade. The first brigade was responsible for coastal defence and the second for defence of the interior. By the end of July, two additional East African brigades were formed, the 3rd East African Infantry Brigade and the 6th East African Infantry Brigade. Initially, a Coastal Division and a Northern Frontier District Division were planned. But, instead, the 11th African Division and the 12th African Division were formed.[17]

On 1 June, the first South African unit arrived in Mombasa, Kenya. By the end of July, the 1st South African Infantry Brigade Group joined the first unit. On 13 August, the 1st South African Division was formed. This division included the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Infantry Brigade Groups. By the end of the year approximately 27,000 South Africans were serving in East Africa, in either the 1st South African Division, the 11th African Division, or the 12th African Division. Each South African brigade group consisted of three rifle battalions, an armoured car company, and supporting signal, engineer, and medical units.[18]

By July, under the terms of a war contingency plan, two brigades were provided on rotation for service in Kenya by the "Royal West African Frontier Force". These were the 2nd (West Africa) Infantry Brigade, from the Gold Coast (Ghana), and the 1st (West Africa) Infantry Brigade, from Nigeria. The Nigerian brigade, together with two East African brigades (the KAR brigades) and some South Africans, formed the 11th African Division. The 12th African Division had a similar formation with the Ghanaian brigade taking the place of the Nigerian brigade.[17]

In British Somaliland, Chater commanded the British-officered Somali troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps together with the reinforcements that were trickling in. At the outbreak of hostilities, there was a total of 1,475 men to defend the colony including the Somali Camel Corps and a battalion of the Northern Rhodesian Regiment. By August 1940 an additional two infantry battalions and an artillery battery had arrived and the newly promoted Brigadier Chater had 4,000 troops under command. A further two battalions of infantry arrived in the first week of August.

The British and Commonwealth forces employed a relatively small number of armoured vehicles in East Africa. For the most part, an assortment of armoured cars were used and B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment had a few Matilda infantry tanks.

The British and Commonwealth forces in June 1940 had c. 100 aircraft; in the north (Sudan) were Nos 14, 47 and 223 Royal Air Force (RAF) bomber squadrons, equipped with obsolete Vickers Wellesley aircraft. A flight of Vickers Vincent biplanes from No. 47 squadron performed Army Co-operation duties, and these squadrons were later reinforced from Egypt by No. 45 squadron with Bristol Blenheims. In Port Sudan there were six Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters flying trade protection and anti-submarine patrols over the Red Sea, responsible for air defence of Port Sudan, Atbara, and Khartoum, as well as close support of land forces. No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron of the South African Air Force (SAAF), with Gladiators, arrived in Khartoum as reinforcement in August.[16] In the south (Kenya) were No. 12 Squadron SAAF, equipped with Junkers Ju 86 bombers, No. 11 Squadron of the SAAF (equipped with Fairey Battle bombers), No. 40 Army Co-operation Squadron SAAF flying Hawker Hartebees, No. 2 Fighter Squadron SAAF with Hawker Furies, and No. 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron with Hawker Hardys. Better aircraft became available to the British and Commonwealth forces over time but the planes initially available tended to be older and slower, the South Africans even pressing an old Vickers Valencia biplane into service as a bomber.[19]

The British Eastern Fleet faced the Italian Red Sea Flotilla. Until World War II the Indian Ocean had been considered a "British lake", ringed by significant British and Commonwealth possessions. Many of the strategic supplies needed by the United Kingdom in both peace and war had to pass across the Indian Ocean, including Persian oil, Malayan rubber, Indian tea, and Australian and New Zealand foodstuffs. In war, Britain relied upon the manpower of Australia, New Zealand, and India, which often had to be shipped over the Indian Ocean. Safe passage for British cargo ships was critical.[citation needed] Despite this the Royal Navy had long tended to station its older ships in the east, using the China Station and the Far East Station as sources of reinforcement for other theatres. Even in times of grave threat, the Eastern Fleet still consisted largely of older capital ships that had been deemed too slow or too vulnerable to be of use in the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea.[citation needed]


Main article: Gideon Force

Ethiopian irregular forces, called Patriots (Arbegnoch) by the British, were expected by Wavell to tie down large numbers of Italian units, although Platt in Khartoum doubted that Hailie Selassie had much popular support and was lukewarm towards the Arbegnoch.[20] In August 1940, Mission 101 under Colonel Daniel Sandford, began operations in Gojjam province, to send Operational Centres, small groups of officers and NCOs, to supply arms and training to the Arbegnoch and to co-ordinate attacks on Italian forces. (Sandford had fought in World War I and spent the rest of his career in Ethiopia and the Sudan, becoming a friend and adviser to Hailie Selassie I. The deposed emperor had been living at Fairfield House, Bath in England since the Italian invasion in 1936 during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. On 13 June, only three days after Mussolini declared war against Britain and France, a "Mr. Strong" took off in a Short Sunderland flying boat from Poole Harbour on the south coast of England.[21]

On 25 June, he arrived in Alexandria, Egypt and seven days later, as "Mr. Smith," he flew to Khartoum in the Sudan. In Khartoum he met with Lieutenant-General William Platt and the two discussed plans to free Ethiopia from Italian rule.[21] In July, the British government recognised Emperor Selassie and pledged to help him to reclaim his throne. Selassie had arrived in Khartoum on 3 July 1940, with Sandford's encouragement, to a cold reception from Platt.[22] At Eden's Khartoum conference in October, the British agreed to give more supplies and support to the Arbegnoch. In early November, Major Orde Wingate was posted to Khartoum as a staff officer, with the brief of liaising between Platt, Mission 101 and the Emperor. Platt paid little attention to the operation and vagueness about areas of responsibility and chains of command, made worse by Wingate's abrasive manner, caused friction and animosity between Wingate and the other commanders.[23]

Wingate presented a plan to Wavell and senior staff officers in Cairo in early December 1940. The plan included the formation of a small regular force under Wingate, to act as a spearhead for military operations in Gojjam. Wingate argued that

To raise a revolt you must send in a Corps d'Elite to do exploits and not just as peddlers of war material and cash.... A thousand resolute and well-armed men can paralyse 10,000.

— Wingate[24]

This unit was named Gideon Force and was composed of the Frontier Battalion from the Sudan Defence Force and the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion, equipped with four, 3-inch mortars (in place of artillery) and 15,000 camels for transport and supply. Wingate departed with Gideon Force into Gojjam in January 1941.[25] Gideon Force was able to travel relatively freely because the Italian East African Empire was only nominally Italian control, about a third of Ethiopia was still controlled by Ethiopian nobles.[26][page needed]

On 22 May 1936, General Rodolfo Graziani was made Viceroy of Ethiopia and on 6 June, Mussolini cabled Graziani and indicated: "All rebels captured are to be shot." and Graziani earned a reputation for brutal repression as the "Butcher of Ethiopia". The Duke of Aosta replaced Graziani as Viceroy in 1937 and ended the worst of the repression[citation needed] but Ethiopian Patriots continued to take revenge by killing prisoners.[26][page needed] Selassie crossed the border from Sudan to join the force of Ethiopian Patriots. Sizeable Patriot forces were already concentrated in the provinces of Gojjam, Shoa, Gimma, Galla-Sidama and Harage.[27]

Military operations, 1940

Sudan and Kenya

In June 1940, the Italians tested the resolve of the British and Commonwealth forces along the borders of the Sudan and Kenya and in the shipping lanes of the Red Sea. On 13 June, early in the morning, three Italian Caproni bombers appeared and bombed the Southern Rhodesian air base at the fort at Wajir in Kenya. The Rhodesian aircraft were still warming up and preparing to take-off on a dawn patrol. The Capronis bombed the fort, the landing-ground, and nearby housing. The KAR, then garrisoning the fort, lost four killed and eleven wounded. Two Rhodesian aircraft were badly damaged and a large dump of aviation fuel was set on fire. Following this, the air base at Wajir received regular visits from the Italians every second or third day and the Rhodesian pilots were made to realise the significant shortcomings in speed and fire power of the Hawker Hardys that they flew.

At dawn on 17 June, the Rhodesians struck back and supported a successful raid by the KAR on the Italian desert outpost of El Wak in Italian Somaliland, some ninety miles northeast of Wajir. The Rhodesians bombed and set alight the thatched mud huts and generally harassed the enemy troops. But, since the main fighting at that time was centred on Italian advances towards Moyale in Kenya, the Rhodesians concentrated on that town. In conjunction with the South African Air Force, the Rhodesians undertook the task of reconnaissance and bombing in that disputed area. On 4 July 1940, Italian forces in Eritrea crossed the Sudanese border and forced the small British garrison holding the railway junction at Kassala to withdraw.[28] The defenders lost 10 men, the attackers 117. The Italians also seized the small British fort at Gallabat, just over the border from Metemma, some 200 miles (320 km) south of Kassala and took the villages of Qaysān, Kurmuk, and Dumbode on the Blue Nile. From there the Italians ventured no further into Sudan, owing to lack of fuel. They proceeded to fortify Kassala with anti-tank defences, machine-gun posts, and strong-points, ultimately establishing a brigade-strong garrison. The Italians were disappointed to find no strong anti-British sentiment among the native population.[29][30]

In Kenya, after heavy fighting, the Italians occupied Fort Harrington in Moyale. At the end of July, they reached Dabel and Buna.[31] These small villages, nearly one-hundred kilometres from the Ethiopian-Kenyan border, were to be the deepest points inside Kenya reached by the Italian army. Any further expansion was impossible because of the poor supply situation.[29]

In the first days of August, an Italian force of local irregulars raided Port Sudan[32][page needed] as a prelude to the Italian campaign to conquer British Somaliland.

Mussolini had laid claims to Kenya, but Hitler planned the dissection of the colony, with the southern part and the capital Nairobi forming a territory of the German Mittelafrika.[33][29] Italy was also to replace the British administration in Sudan: Italian-Egyptian Sudan was to link Italian North Africa with Italian East Africa.[34]

French Somaliland

Initially, an Italian force was assembled to capture the port city of Djibouti, the major French base in French Somaliland (modern Djibouti). The French commander, Brigadier-General Paul Legentilhomme, had some 7,000 men in seven battalions of Senegalese and Somali infantry. Legentilhomme also had three batteries of field guns, four batteries of anti-aircraft guns, a 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, the Vichy French government's neutrality allowed the Italians to shift their focus to the more lightly defended British Somaliland.[35] On 18 June 1940 Legentilhomme left French Somaliland and joined the Free French. The colony remained loyal to the Vichy government. The British seized it in October 1941, after a 101-day blockade.[36]

British Somaliland

File:Somaliland Italian invasion.png
Italian invasion of British Somaliland in August 1940.

On 3 August 1940, approximately 25,000 Italian troops under the command of General Guglielmo Nasi invaded British Somaliland.[37] The Italian force included five colonial brigades, three Blackshirt battalions, and three bands (banda) of native troops.[38] The Italians had armoured vehicles (a small number of L3/35 light and M11/39 medium tanks), artillery and superior air support.

The Italians were opposed by a British contingent, commanded by Brigadier Arthur Reginald Chater, of about four-thousand men. These included the lightly armed Somaliland Camel Corps, the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion KAR, the 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesia Regiment, the 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment, and 1st East African Light Battery (four 3.7 inch howitzers). They were joined on 7 August by the 1st Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment from Aden, and on 8 August by 2nd Battalion Black Watch.[39][40][41] Chaters' force was not only critically short of artillery, but had no tanks or armoured cars nor any anti-tank weapons with which to oppose the Italian medium and light tanks.

The Italians advanced in three columns, with the western column advancing towards Zeila, the central column towards Hargeisa, and the eastern column towards Odweina in the south. Lieutenant-General Carlo De Simone commanded the main central column. Chater used his Somali Camel Corps to skirmish with and screen against the advancing Italians as the other British and Commonwealth forces pulled back towards Tug Argan to form defensive positions in the rugged Assa Hills overlooking the main road to the capital, Berbera.

Battle of Tug Argan

On 5 August, two days into the invasion, the towns of Zeila and Hargeisa were taken. The occupation of Zeila cut British Somaliland off from French Somaliland. Odweina fell the following day and the Italian central and eastern columns combined to launch attacks against the main British and Commonwealth positions at Tug Argan. At the end of the first week in August the British and Commonwealth forces in British Somaliland received reinforcements with the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment and the 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment from Aden and the Camel Corps, with 37 attached officers and NCOs from the Southern Rhodesia Regiment; the 2nd Battalion, The Black Watch arrived on 8 August. On 11 August, a new, more senior, commander, Major-General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen, reached Berbera. The Italians commenced their attacks at Tug Argan on 11 August, and early on 15 August, with his troops close to being cut off, Godwin-Austen concluded that further resistance would be futile. He contacted Wilson at the British Middle East Command headquarters in Cairo and received permission to withdraw from British Somaliland. The determined effort of the 2nd Black Watch, supported by two companies of the 2nd King's African Rifles and parties of the 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment covered the retreat, allowed the entire British and Commonwealth contingent to withdraw to Berbera, having lost about 260 men, most from the Northern Rhodesia Regiment and the Camel corps machine-gunners. By 17 August, most of the contingent was evacuated from Berbera to Aden; rather than evacuate, the Somaliland Camel Corps was disbanded and the Italians entered Berbera on 19 August.[42]


On 19 August 1940, the Italians took control of Berbera and then moved down the coast to complete their conquest of British Somaliland, which was annexed to Italian East Africa.[43] British, imperial and Commonwealth casualties were 38 killed, 102 wounded and about 120 taken prisoner.[38] About 1,000 Somali irregulars were killed or wounded fighting with the British.[lower-alpha 4] Italian casualties were 465 killed and 1,530 wounded and about 2,000 unaffiliated local Somalis were killed or wounded fighting against the British.[lower-alpha 5]

Churchill criticised General Archibald Wavell concerning the loss of British Somaliland. Wavell's Middle East Command which was responsible for the loss of the colony. Because of the low casualty rate, Churchill fretted that the British had abandoned the colony without enough of a fight. In response to this criticism, Wavell claimed that Somaliland was a textbook withdrawal in the face of superior numbers. He pointed out to Churchill that "A bloody butcher's bill is not the sign of a good tactician." According to Churchill's staff, Wavell's retort moved Churchill to greater fury than they had ever seen before.[46][47] The conquest of British Somaliland was the only campaign during World War II in which Italy achieved victory without the support of other Axis troops. British Somaliland was also the first British colony to fall to enemy forces in World War II. With the first months of the war over, Mussolini was able to claim that Italy had conquered a territory the size of England which included British Somaliland, the Sudanese border outposts of Karora, Gallabat, Kurmak and Kassala and the area in Kenya around Moyale and Buna.

Operations in Sudan

The 5th Indian Infantry Division started to arrive in the Sudan in early September 1940. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade were placed on the Red Sea coast to protect Port Sudan, the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade were positioned southwest of Kassala, and the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade were sent to Gedaref, accompanying the divisional headquarters.[48] On 6 November a surprise attack was staged to take back Gallabat. The attacking force comprised William "Bill" Slim's 10th Indian Infantry Brigade. Slim was accompanied by a squadron of 12 medium and light tanks and a field regiment of artillery; he also had support from the RAF.[49] The attack began at 5:30 am and Gallabat was captured by 8:00 am. The planned follow-on assault 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 out of action.[50]

Italian counter-attack

Lieutenant-General Luigi Frusci, acting Governor of Eritrea and commander of the Italian forces there, was not prepared to relinquish the Italian-held positions in the Sudan. The Italian defenders occupied strong prepared positions with barbed-wire defences which could only be broken by tanks. As Slim paused while his tanks were repaired, General Martini, the Italian commander at Gondar, launched a powerful counter-attack by the Regia Aeronautica.[50] Italian aircraft appeared in great strength, shooting down seven RAF Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters while losing five Fiat CR-42s. For forty-eight hours they methodically bombed the 1st Battalion/Essex Regiment and the 3rd Battalion/18th Royal Garwhal Rifles, finally compelling the British and Commonwealth troops to withdraw from the positions they had just won. The 10th Indian Brigade re-occupied the ridge west of Gallabat three days later but the operation against Metemma was not continued.[51]

For the next two months the 10th Indian Brigade (and then the 9th Indian Brigade, which relieved the 10th Brigade in December) simulated the activities of a full division. The brigades blazed lines of communication east from Gedaref and created dummy airfields and stores depots. The British forces did this to convince Italian Intelligence that Platt's main thrust would be towards Gondar rather than Kassala.[52]

Gazelle Force

On 16 October, Gazelle Force was created in the Sudan as a mobile reconnaissance and fighting force. It comprised three motor machine-gun companies from the Sudan Defence Force, the 1st Duke of York's Own Skinner's Horse (the reconnaissance regiment from the 5th Indian Infantry Division), and some mobile artillery. Gazelle Force was commanded by Colonel Frank Messervy.[53]

The war in the air

From November 1940 to early January 1941, Platt continued to apply constant pressure on the Italians all along the border with the Sudan by continually patrolling and raiding with both his ground troops and his air force. During this time, better British aircraft began to replace some of the older models. The British and Commonwealth air forces were now starting to get Hawker Hurricanes and more Gloster Gladiators. The Hurricanes were superior to the Italian Fiat CR-42 fighters and the Gladiators were at least their equal. Both the Hurricanes and the Gladiators were capable of playing havoc with Italian Savoia-Marchetti bombers.

On 6 December, a large concentration of Italian motor transport was bombed and strafed by Commonwealth aircraft a few miles north of Kassala. The same aircraft then proceeded to machine-gun from low level the nearby positions of the Italian Blackshirts and colonial infantry. A few days later, the same aircraft bombed the Italian base at Keru, fifty miles east of Kassala. The Commonwealth pilots had the 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. The Italians strafed some Hawker Hardys caught on the ground. As a result of the Italian attack, several aircraft were destroyed. However, while successful, the attack resulted in no casualties.

The war at sea

Main article: Attack on Convoy BN 7

The Italian Red Sea Flotilla saw early action as they attempted to make their presence known. But they introduced themselves at a high cost. In mid to late June, four of the eight submarines based in Massawa were lost. On 15 June, the Italian submarine Macalle ran aground and was a total loss. On 16 June 1940, the Italian submarine Galileo Galilei sank the Norwegian tanker James Stove approximately 12 miles (19 km) south of Aden. On 18 June, the Galileo Galilei captured the Yugoslav steamship Dravo but, in the end, released it. On 19 June, the Galileo Galilei was on patrol off Aden and encountered the armed trawler Moonstone. During a gun duel, the commander of the Galileo Galilei was killed, and the submarine was then captured by the armed trawler. The submarine was subsequently used by the British as HMS X2.

On 23 June, in the Gulf of Aden off French Somaliland, the Italian Brin class submarine Evangelista Torricelli was sunk by the British destroyers HMS Kandahar and Kingston with assistance from the sloop Shoreham. Several hours afterwards, the British destroyer Khartoum suffered an internal explosion following a fire and sank in shallow water off Perim Island.[54] The British destroyer was a total loss. Later on 23 June, the Italian submarine Luigi Galvani sank the Indian patrol sloop Pathan in the Indian Ocean. However, on 24 June, the Luigi Galvani was sunk by the sloop Falmouth in the Gulf of Oman.

Between the Italian conquest of British Somaliland and the Allied counter-offensive in 1941, shortages of fuel and parts continued to hamper the ability of the Italian flotilla to interfere with either convoys or individual vessels of the British Eastern Fleet. On 13 August, the Italian submarine Galileo Ferraris tried to intercept the British battleship Royal Sovereign in the Red Sea. Royal Sovereign, coming from Suez, escaped the Italian ambush and made it safely to Aden. On 6 September, the Italian submarine Guglielmo Marconi waited for prey south of the Farasan Islands. The Guglielmo Marconi succeeded in torpedoing and sinking only one ship, the oil tanker Atlas.

From 20–21 October, the Italian submarines Guglielmo Marconi and Galileo Ferraris tried to intercept a large British Red Sea convoy coming from the Indian Ocean and sailing to Port Sudan and Suez. The BN7 convoy included 31 cargo vessels escorted by the New Zealand cruiser Leander, the British destroyer Kimberley and five sloops. The convoy also had an air escort provided by 50 fighters and bombers based in Aden. The Guglielmo Marconi and Galileo Ferraris did not succeed in intercepting the convoy. On 21 November, the same convoy was attacked by the Italian destroyers Pantera, Leone and Francesco Nullo. The convoy escorts drove the Italian destroyers off. Two of the convoy escorts, the New Zealand cruiser Leander and the British destroyer Kimberley drove the Italian destroyer Francesco Nullo ashore with their combined gunfire. The Francesco Nullo was destroyed the next day by RAF Blenheim light bombers.

Italian defensive strategy

After the conquest of British Somaliland the Italians adopted a more defensive posture. Throughout late 1940 Italian forces suffered a series of setbacks in the Mediterranean, the Western Desert, the skies over Britain, and on the Albanian border with Greece. This prompted the new Italian Chief of the General Staff in Rome, General Ugo Cavallero, to adopt a new course of action in the Horn of Africa. In December 1940, Cavallero argued to the Italian High Command (Commando Supremo) that Italian forces in the Horn of Africa should abandon offensive actions against the Sudan and the Suez Canal, and focus instead on defending the Italian East African Empire.[55] In response to Cavallero and the Duke of Aosta, who had requested permission to withdraw from the Sudanese frontier, the Commando Supremo issued orders for the Italian forces in East Africa to withdraw to better defensive positions.

Orders were sent to Frusci to withdraw his forces from Kassala and Metemma in the lowlands along the Sudanese border with Eritrea. He was instructed to hold the more easily defended mountain passes on the roads running eastward from Kassala to Agordat and from Metemma to Gondar; however, Frusci chose not to withdraw from the lowland. He argued that withdrawal would involve too great a loss of prestige. Furthermore, Kassala was an important railway junction. By holding it, 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.[55] Information on the Italian withdrawal was quickly decrypted by the British, and knowing the Italian plans, Platt was able to begin his offensive into Eritrea on 18 January 1941, three weeks ahead of schedule.[10]

Military operations, 1941

British offensive strategy

General Wavell's plan for a counter-offensive by British and Commonwealth forces included a "northern front" led by William Platt (who was promoted to Lieutenant-General in early January 1941) and a "southern front" led by Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham, who had taken over the East African Force at the start of November 1940. Wavell planned for Platt to advance southward from the Sudan, through Eritrea, and into Ethiopia, and for Cunningham to advance northwards from Kenya, through Italian Somaliland, and into Ethiopia. While Platt advanced from the north and Cunningham from the south, Wavell planned for a third force to be landed in British Somaliland in an amphibious assault and to then re-take that colony prior to advancing into Ethiopia. According to the plan, all three forces were to ultimately join forces at the capital of Italian East Africa, Addis Ababa.

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, via the Suez Canal, for the campaign in North Africa; it would also open the overland route from Cape Town to Cairo.


On 18 January 1941, Emperor Selassie crossed the border into Ethiopia near the village of Um Iddla, some 450 miles (720 km) northwest of Addis Ababa, the capital he had been forced to flee when the Italian General Pietro Badoglio had captured it in 1936. Two days later he joined Gideon Force, which was already in Ethiopia, and the standard of the Lion of Judah was raised again.[56]


Emperor Selassie and Gideon Force under Major Orde Wingate conducted a campaign for three months, early in 1941, in the Ethiopian province of Gojjam, where they initially faced opposing forces of about 25,000 men.[57] Emperor Selassie and Gideon Force rallied Ethiopian Patriots wherever they went using powerful loudspeakers which had been supplied to the Patriot forces to announce the presence of the emperor and inducing local tribal leaders and Italian Askari to desert the Italian cause.[57] Using 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, there was a furious clash between Colonel Sandford and Wingate. 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" which 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 to Platt who had to rebuke them both.[58] The dispute overflowed into Wingate's formations leading to the mutiny of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion at the start of April. Wingate had to leave his sick-bed (he was suffering from an attack of malaria) to dismiss the battalion's commander, after which it rallied to its new leader and performed well for the rest of the campaign.[59]

Capture of Bure

On 6 March 1941, Ethiopia's Patriots won their first victory when they took Bure. From 27 February to 3 March Gideon Force harried the well-sited defensive forts at Bure while propagandists yelling through their megaphones fostered the Italian belief that they were being attacked by a substantial force, provoking many desertions. Finally on 4 March, fearing his line of communication to Debre Marqos was threatened, Colonel Natale, not knowing that the attacking force counted only 450 men, pulled out of Bure and headed for Dembacha on the road to Debre Marqos. Harried from behind by the Frontier Battalion, Natale's column met the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion head-on just west of Dembacha. The Ethiopian battalion put up a stiff resistance but were overwhelmed. However, Natale had been shaken by recent events and abandoned Dembacha on 8 March and pulled all the garrisons back to Debre Marqos.[60]

In less than three months, Gideon Force (less the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion which was no longer a combatant force after the engagement at Dembacha) and an ever-growing army of Ethiopian Patriots were advancing on the Italian fortifications at Debre Marqos, the capital of Gojjam. Lieutenant-Colonel Bousted, commanding the Frontier Battalion, embarked on a guerrilla campaign which involved small parties of 50 or so men silently infiltrating to within 10 yards (9 m) of an enemy position in the middle of the night and then attacking with grenades and bayonets to clear the defenders. By early April the defenders had been forced back to the inner defensive ring at Debre Marqos. Because of the critical situation to the south, the Duke of Aosta ordered the withdrawal from Debre Marqos and on 4 April 12,000 people (including 4,000 women) under their commander, Colonel Maraventano, began the 200-mile (320 km) trek to Safartak and then beyond to Dessie. On 6 April Hailie Selassie entered Debre Marqos and was formally greeted by Wingate, Gideon Force; Ras Hailu, the local leader surrendered.[61][62]

Addis Ababa

Ethiopian men gather in Addis Ababa, heavily armed with captured Italian weapons, to hear the proclamation announcing the return to the capital of the Emperor Haile Selassie in May 1941.

While Debre Markos and Addis Derra were being captured, other Ethiopian Patriots under Ras Abebe Aregai consolidated themselves around Addis Ababa in preparation for Emperor Selassie's return. In response to the rapidly advancing British and Commonwealth forces and to the general uprising of Ethiopian Patriots, the Italians in Ethiopia retreated to the mountain fortresses of Gondar, Amba Alagi, Dessie and Gimma.[56]

From Debra Marqos, 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 Hailie Selassie's formal entry into Addis Ababa. Following the ceremonials Wingate returned to Safforce, the main Mission 101 force which was harassing Maraventano's column. By 18 May the column was dug in at Agibor.

Facing Maraventano was a force of about 2,000 including only 160 trained soldiers (100 from the Frontier Battalion and 60 from the re-formed 2nd Ethiopian Battalion).[63] Both sides by this time were short of food, ammunition, water and medical supplies. Wingate sent a message to Maraventano falsely telling of very substantial forces about to join him and playing on the likely imminent withdrawal of British troops leaving the Italian column at the mercy of the Patriots. By 21 May, having referred the matter to higher authority in Gondar which had left the decision to him, Maraventano indicated an intention to surrender with the formal honours taking place on 23 May. Wingate accepted the surrender of 1,100 Italian and 5,000 colonial troops, 2,000 women and children and 1,000 mule men and camp followers. By this time his force contained only 36 regular soldiers to make the formal guard of honour at the surrender, the rest of his force being Patriots.[64]


Northern front: Allied advances in 1941.

On 12 January, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, sent his elite Savoy Grenadiers Division to defend Keren, along with three colonial brigades. The Savoy Grenadiers included one battalion of highly mobile infantry (Bersaglieri) and the Uork Amba Battalion, the one battalion of elite mountain troops (Alpini) in the Horn of Africa. Lieutenant-General Platt's attack from the Sudan to take Eritrea could only begin once reinforcements arrived from Egypt; in the meantime he continued to conduct harrying raids on Italian positions. The arrival of an Australian division in Egypt allowed General Wavell to release the 4th Indian Infantry Division from Operation Compass in the Western Desert. Further reinforcements in the form of a battery of 6-inch howitzers and a company of "Infantry" tanks were also forthcoming.[50]

The arrival of the 4th Indian Infantry Division (beginning on 7 January), together with intelligence concerning the Italian plans, greatly aided Platt's preparations.[50] The main British attack on Eritrea, originally scheduled to start on 8 February with an assault on the railway junction at Kassala, was brought forward to 18 January. In late December, however, aggressive skirmishing prompted the Italians to pull their northern flank back to Keru and Wachai, and on 17 January, Frusci finally acceded to his orders from Rome and withdrew from Kassala and Tessenei to concentrate in the Keru – Biscia – Aicota triangle, where the mountains began.[65][66]

Platt's forces advance into Eritrea

On 19 January 1941, Lieutenant-General Platt's two divisions, the 4th Indian Infantry Division (commanded by Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse) and the 5th Indian Infantry Division (under Major-General Lewis Heath), entered Kassala and began making for the heavily fortified town of Agordat to the east. On that first day, as the British and Commonwealth troops passed through Kassala and entered Sabdaret and Tessenei, the Italians were already dug in among the jagged foothills of the Eritrean Plateau on the approaches to Agordat.[67]

Briggs Force

As the Indian divisions crossed the Eritrean border in the west, Briggs Force, operating independently from the main force and under Platt's direct command, advanced eastwards from the Sudan and entered Eritrea from the north through the border town of Karora. Briggs Force was four battalions under Brigadier Harold Rawdon Briggs—two battalions from Briggs's own 7th Indian Infantry Brigade (from the 4th Indian Infantry Division), together with two battalions from the French "Brigade of the East" (Brigade d'Orient)—one Senegalese colonial battalion and one Free French battalion. After capturing Italian positions near Karora, Briggs Force fought its way to the northern defences of Keren and linked up with the main force in March.[68]

Agordat and Barentu

Advancing east from Kassala towards Agordat, the 4th Indian Division, still with only one under-strength brigade available (11th Indian Infantry Brigade) but with Gazelle Force under command, took the northern road via Wachai and Keru. Meanwhile, the two brigades of 5th Indian Infantry Division (the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade had remained to cover the Gallabat position) took the southern road via Tessenei, Aicota and Barentu. Both roads were mined and sown with spikes placing a heavy burden on the engineers to maintain the momentum of the advance.[65]

On 21 January, the 5th Indian Division had occupied Aicota without opposition and Gazelle Force had reached the strongly defended position at the Keru Gorge held by five Italian battalions. The Italian position at Keru was undone by a bold move by Major-General Heath who sent the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry and the 2nd Motor Machine Gun Battalion from 10th Indian Brigade northeast along a track from Aicota to the rear of the Italian position at Keru. On 22 January when 4th Indian Division put in their attack, the 5th Indian Division detachment were across the Italians' rear line of communication. The Italian position, which should have been held for weeks, became untenable and while some elements of the Italian 41st Brigade managed to escape across country in the night, General Fongoli with his staff and guns and 1200 men were taken prisoner.[69][70]

File:Italian soldiers in East Africa in 1942.jpg
Italian soldiers in East Africa 1942

By 25 January the lateral line of communication between Agordat and Barentu had been cut, leaving these two strong points isolated from each other. Agordat was defended by four infantry brigades supported by 76 guns and a company each of medium and light tanks, all under the command of General Lorenzini. The 4th Indian Division's second brigade (5th Indian Infantry Brigade) had by now concentrated from Egypt and Beresford-Pierse therefore paused to allow it to move into the front line, along with four infantry tanks. On the evening of 28 January he sent 11th Indian Brigade's 3/14th Punjab Regiment on a flanking move into the Cochen hills to the south. On 29 January they were joined by a second battalion, 1/6th Rajputana Rifles. On 30 January they were counterattacked by five Italian colonial battalions with mountain artillery in support. The Indian battalions came under intense pressure and were forced to give way, but counterattacked on the morning of 31 January and regained the lost ground. With Lorenzini's attention fully occupied by the events in the Cochen, Beresford-Pierse launched 5th Indian Brigade in his main attack on the plain below supported by the four I tanks. The tanks proved decisive and by the evening the road to Keren had been cut and the Italian defenders isolated. Once again the Italian forces attempted to get away in the hours of darkness, but 1,000 prisoners were taken and 43 guns captured.[71]

Meanwhile, 5th Indian Division had attacked Barentu and despite facing 8,000 defenders and 32 guns settled in prepared defences, they had prevailed without help from the infantry tanks, occupying– the town on 2 February. Within nine days, the forces of Beresford-Peirse and Heath had advanced 100 miles (160 kilometres) and broken through the Italian positions in the foothills to capture Agordat on 1 February. In total 6,000 prisoners had been taken and 80 guns, 26 tanks and 400 trucks captured.[72] On 21 January, during the advance of the 5th Indian Division, Brigadier William "Bill" Slim was wounded by aerial strafing. Slim's command of 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was assumed temporarily by Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Fletcher, commander of the brigade's 2nd Highland Light Infantry battalion, until March, when Brigadier Thomas "Pete" Rees took over.[73]


On 31 January the Italian garrison at Metemma in northern Ethiopia, having been under increasing pressure for three weeks, and realising that Platt's main thrust would not be coming from the Gallabat direction, withdrew towards Gondar. This withdrawal allowed the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 5th Indian Infantry Division to occupy Metemma. Brigadier Mosley Mayne, 9th Brigade's commander, sent units along the road towards Wahni to harry the retreating Italian forces, fighting sharp engagements 20 miles (32 km) and 45 miles (72 km) east of Metemma. Progress on the road was difficult because of the thickly laid minefields. It was during this period that 2nd Lieutenant Premindra Singh Bhagat of the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners won the first Victoria Cross for the British Indian Army in World War II for a "...continuous feat of sheer cold courage", clearing 15 minefields and 55 miles (89 km) of roads in 48 hours of unbroken effort.[74] By 31 January, the Duke of Aosta reported that Italian military forces in the Horn of Africa were down to 67 operational aircraft with limited fuel.


Main article: Battle of Keren
Battlefield of Keren.

Following the fall of Agordat, Gazelle Force set off in pursuit of the retreating Italian troops, only to be delayed at the Baraka River, where the bridge had been blown and the banks and dry riverbed mined. The eight-hour delay gave time for the Italians to consolidate their remaining Eritrean forces with strategic reserves (which had travelled for three days without stopping from Addis Abbaba) at Keren and then blow the cliff into the Dongolaas Gorge, blocking the only road access to the Keren plateau from the west.[75]

General Frusci commanded the Italian forces in Eritrea, the Italians at Keren were commanded by General Nicolangelo Carnimeo. The battle began on 3 February with assaults by elements of 4th Indian Infantry Division (Gazelle Force and 11th Indian Brigade) on the Italian positions in the mountains leading to Keren. Initially the resolute Italian defenders prevailed, with heavy casualties on both sides. Further heavy attacks took place over the next ten days, but the Italians held and there was no breakthrough.[76]

Platt decided to regroup and concentrate his forces before attacking again. Planning for a set-piece battle, he disbanded Gazelle Force (with Messervy taking over 9th Indian Brigade) and brought 5th Indian Infantry Division (which had been mopping up at Agordat) to the front. On 1 March his command was expanded by the arrival of Briggs Force from the north. Although it lacked the artillery for a major offensive, Briggs Force drew off a significant part of the Keren garrison. This aided Platt's main offensive, which was being launched from the south west. Briggs Force also posed a threat to Massawa to the east, thereby obliging the Italians to maintain a reserve on the coast.[77]

On 15 March, when the next assault on Keren commenced, Platt's force of about 13,000 men faced a reinforced Italian defence of about 23,000 men. Once again, both sides fought with determination and suffered heavy losses. It took until 27 March for Keren to fall.[78][79] In the account of the battle in Eastern Epic, an official history of the British Indian Army in World War II, Compton Mackenzie wrote,

Keren was as hard a soldiers' battle as was ever fought, and let it be said that nowhere in the war did the Germans fight more stubbornly than those [Italian] Savoia battalions, Alpini, Bersaglieri and Grenadiers. In the [first] five days' fight the Italians suffered nearly 5,000 casualties – 1,135 of them killed. Lorenzini, the gallant young Italian general, had his head blown off by one of the British guns. He had been a great leader of Eritrean troops[80]

The unfortunate licence of wartime propaganda allowed the British Press to represent the Italians almost as comic warriors; but except for the German parachute division in Italy and the Japanese in Burma no enemy with whom the British and Indian troops were matched put up a finer fight than those Savoia battalions at Keren. Moreover, the Colonial troops, until they cracked at the very end, fought with valour and resolution, and their staunchness was a testimony to the excellence of the Italian administration and military training in Eritrea.[81]

Ethiopians transporting supplies by camel through vegetation, 22 January 1941 (Photographer: FE Palmer, No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit, (UK).)

Casualties at Keren were relatively high for both sides. The British and Commonwealth forces lost 536 men killed and 3,229 men wounded and the Italians lost about 3,000 men killed and about 1,000 men wounded or missing.[82] Keren was decisive in terms of the strategic objectives of the Allied forces (to the extent that when Wavell was created an earl he chose as his second title the viscounty of Keren and of Winchester).[81]


After Keren fell, the Indian 5th Infantry Division pursued the retreating Italians eastward towards the Eritrean capital of Asmara, some 50 miles (80 km) away. The Indian 4th Infantry Division remained in Keren to conduct mopping up operations, then returned to Egypt, leaving behind for a little longer the formations it had detached to Briggs Force. The retreating Italians fought minor skirmishes but mounted no major stand. A new defensive position was formed at Ad Teclesan, in a narrow valley on the route from Keren to Asmara. The 80th Colonial Division was brought in from Gondar and the remaining two battalions of the Savoia Grenadiers from Addis Ababa. However, the Keren defeat had shattered the morale of the Italian forces and when Heath's attack came early on 31 March there was little fighting. On 1 April, Asmara was declared an open town and 5th Indian Division entered to take 5,000 prisoners and capture the entire equipment reserve of the Italian East African armies, including 1,500,000 shells and 3,000,000 rounds of small arms ammunition.[83] Three days later, after resupply along the lengthening road to the Kassala railway junction on the Sudanese border, 10th Infantry Brigade of Indian 5th Infantry Division set off east again towards Massawa, some 50 miles (80 km) away and 7,000 feet (2,100 m) lower, on the coast. On 10th Brigade's left flank was Briggs Force, which had advanced cross-country from Keren and was approaching Massawa from the north along the coast.[84]


Italian ship Ramb I sinking, 1941.

Rear Admiral Mario Bonnetti, commander of both the Italian Red Sea Flotilla and the garrison at Massawa, had been ordered by Mussolini to defend the town to the last man. The Italians had 10,000 troops and 100 assorted tanks and armoured cars to defend Massawa.[85] About 1,000 of the defenders at Massawa were veterans from Keren and another bloody battle seemed likely.

On 20 February 1941, the armed merchant cruiser Ramb I broke out of Massawa with the colonial ship Eritrea and the armed merchant cruiser Ramb II. The Ramb I and Ramb II were known as auxiliary cruisers or merchant raiders, armed ships which disguised themselves as noncombatant merchant vessels. Ramb I and Ramb II were relatively modern and fast. They had been transformed into auxiliary cruisers with the installation of four 120 mm guns and some 13.2 mm anti-aircraft machine guns. The Eritrea was similar in concept, but, while older and slower, was able to carry more cargo. The Eritrea was armed with four 120 mm guns, two 40 mm guns, and two 13.2 mm machine guns. On 27 February 1941, the Ramb I was located off the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean by the New Zealand cruiser Leander and was sunk. Both the Eritrea and the Ramb II evaded detection and reached Kobe, Japan.[86]

From 1–4 March, the remaining Italian submarines at Massawa escaped destruction by sailing south. The Guglielmo Marconi, the Galileo Ferraras, the Perla, and the Archimede planned to break out, sail south, navigate past the Cape of Good Hope, turn north, and sail north to Bordeaux, France, via the west coast of Africa.[85] On 29 March, the Perla was refueled by the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis in the Indian Ocean. The other submarines were refueled by the German fleet tanker Nordmark in the South Atlantic between 16 and 17 April. All four Italian submarines arrived at Bordeaux between 7 May and 20 May.[87]

Elements of 5th Indian Division coming from Asmara and Briggs Force, cutting across country from Keren, converged on Massawa. After some strong initial opposition, the Italian ground forces defending Massawa, lacking fuel, ammunition, and food, crumpled and resistance collapsed. French units from Briggs Force took Montecullo and Fort Umberto on 7 April and the Allies pressed into Massawa on 8 April.[88] Colonel Ralph Monclar of the 13th French Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade captured the Italian admiralty building and accepted the surrender of 10,000 Italian naval personnel, bringing the unit's tally to 14,000 Italian prisoners.[88]

The harbour facilities themselves were a prize the British were hoping to use to ease the maintenance backlog of naval ships needing repair in Alexandria. When Asmara was captured, Bonnetti had been told by the British using the undamaged telephone line to Massawa that they would not be responsible for the feeding of the 40,000 Italian civilians in Asmara if the port installations were damaged. On referring the matter to Rome, Bonnetti was told to proceed and destroy the port.[89] In the week preceding capture, Massawa harbour was thoroughly wrecked by Italian sabotage of machinery in shore facilities, the sinking of two large floating dry docks, and the calculated scuttling of sixteen large ships in the mouths of the north Naval Harbour, the central Commercial Harbour and the main South Harbour, blocking access in and out. Scuttled, too, was a large floating crane. The harbour was rendered useless until repairs and salvage efforts could clear it thirteen months later.[lower-alpha 6]

On 11 April, Major-General Lewis Heath was promoted to command the Indian III Corps in the Far East. Command of the Indian 5th Infantry Division was assumed by Mosley Mayne who had previously commanded the division's 9th Brigade. Bernard Fletcher, who had for two months until March had temporary command of 10th Brigade, was promoted and given command of the 9th Brigade.[91]

Before Massawa fell, Bonnetti had ordered the remaining seven Italian destroyers and the remaining motor torpedo boat (the other four boats were no longer operational) to put to sea from Massawa on "do or die" missions. In late March, three destroyers were to attack Port Suez but when one ran aground outside Massawa and had to be sunk by its sisters, this operation was abandoned and the two survivors joined the remaining division in their mission. Four, now six, destroyers had been ordered to attack the fuel tanks at Port Sudan, in early April. Two of these destroyers, the Sauro-class destroyers Daniele Manin and Nazario Sauro, were sunk by shore-based Swordfish aeroplanes (of the Fleet Air Arm) from the carrier Eagle. Two more destroyers were damaged and scuttled on the coast near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The seventh destroyer suffered engine problems and remained in Massawa to be scuttled during the port demolitions. Before being scuttled by its crew, the Italian motor torpedo boat (MTB) MAS-213 torpedoed and damaged the cruiser Capetown. The cruiser was escorting a convoy off Massawa.[83] The remaining Italian port facilities at Assab, within easy striking distance of British aircraft based in Aden, held out for several weeks after the fall of Massawa.

Operation Appearance

The operation began on 16 March 1941 from Aden, two battalions from the Indian Army and one Somali commando detachment were landed on both sides of Berbera by "Force D", the cruisers HMS Glasgow and Caledon, destroyers HMS Kandahar and Kipling, auxiliary cruisers Chakdina and Chantala, Indian trawlers Netavati and Parvati, two transports and ML 109.[92] The 1st Battalion/2nd Punjab Regiment and 3rd Battalion/15th Punjab Regiment, which had been part of the defending force evacuated in August 1940, made the first successful Allied landing on an enemy-held beach during World War II.

When the Sikhs landed, an Italian colonel (suffering from malaria together with half of his troops)[93][page needed] waited with the 60 men who constituted the Berbera garrison. The garrison had been low on food and water for weeks. The Italians stood in formation on the beach and waited to surrender to the arriving British force. The British promptly "secured" Berbera. A British officer present at the Italian surrender later wrote: "War can be very embarrassing".[94]

On 20 March, Hargeisa was captured. The British and Commonwealth forces in British Somaliland spent the next months clearing the colony of the last remnants of its former invaders. The Somaliland Camel Corps was re-founded in mid-April and, in addition to looking for Italians, re-acquired its job of rounding up local bandits. From British Somaliland, British and Commonwealth forces advanced westward into eastern Ethiopia. In late March, they linked up with advancing forces from the Southern Front around Harar and Diredawa in Ethiopia. The link-up meant that Cunningham's forces could be re-supplied more efficiently through the port of Berbera as they advanced into Ethiopia. Some Italians, under the orders of Colonel Di Marco, started a guerrilla war in the Ogaden area that is reported to have lasted until the summer of 1942.

Italian Somaliland and southern Ethiopia

Cunningham's forces on the southern front included the South African 1st Division, the 11th African Division and 12th African Division (the latter divisions were composed of East African, South African, Nigerian and Ghanaian troops under British, Rhodesian or South African officers). The South African division was led by Major-General George Brink. The 11th African Division was commanded by Major-General H. E. de R. Wetherall. The 12th African Division was commanded by Major-General Godwin-Austen.

Southern Ethiopia

Hobok Fort captured by 1st South African Infantry Division, February 1941.
Mega Fort prior to the attack by the 1st South African Infantry Division.

In January 1941, Cunningham decided to launch his first attacks across the Kenyan border directly into southern Ethiopia. Although he realised that the approaching wet season would preclude a direct advance this way to Addis Ababa, he hoped that this action would cause Ethiopians in southern Ethiopia to rise up in rebellion against the Italians. It was also anticipated that this action would pin Italian forces in the area and prevent them being sent as reinforcements when the main offensive was started in Jubaland.[95] Cunningham sent the South African 1st Division (composed of 2nd and 5th South African and 21st East African brigades) and an independent East African brigade into the Galla-Sidamo Province.[96] From 16 to 18 January 1941, they captured El Yibo and on 19 January, an advance force of the South African division captured Jumbo.[97] From 24 to 25 January, Cunningham's troops fought on the Turbi Road. His hopes that the Ethiopians would rise up, however, were not realised.[10]

The southern Ethiopia attack ground to a halt in mid-February as heavy rains made further movement and maintenance of the force very difficult. From 1 February, they captured Gorai and El Gumu. On 2 February, they took Hobok. From 8 to 9 February, Banno was captured. On 15 February, the fighting was 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, equipped for tropical conditions, suffered from exposure because of the heavy rains and near freezing temperatures, they captured Mega on 18 February. Moyale, 70 miles southeast of Mega on the border with Kenya, was occupied on 22 February by a patrol of Abyssinian irregular troops which had been attached to the South African Division.[98]

Invasion of Italian Somaliland

On 24 January, Cunningham's main force, including the 11th (African) Division (* Major-General H. E. de R. Wetherall) and the 12th (African) Division (Major-General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen), invaded Italian Somaliland from Kenya. Earlier in January, the Italians had already decided that the plains of Italian Somalia could not be defended. The 102nd Colonial Division and bande (about 14,000 men) retired to the lower Juba river and the 101st Colonial Division and bande (about 6,000 men) to the upper Jube on the better defensive terrain of the mountains of Ethiopia. Cunningham encountered few Italians west of the Juba, only bande and a colonial battalion at Afmadu and troops at Kismayu, where the Juba River empties into the Indian Ocean.[99]

Against an expected six brigades and "six groups of native levies" holding the Juba for the Italians, Cunningham launched Operation Canvas with four brigade groups. Little resistance was expected and little was encountered. On 14 February, the first objective, the port of Kismayu, was captured. North of Kismayu and beyond the river was the main Italian position, Jelib. On 22 February, Jelib was attacked on both flanks and from the rear. The Italians were completely routed and 30,000 were either killed, captured, or dispersed into the bush. Italian aircraft took no part in the defence having been roughly handled by South African aircraft. There was nothing that now hindered Cunningham's advance of 200 miles (320 km) to take the capital and major seaport of Italian Somaliland, Mogadishu.[100][101]


Haile Selassie with Brigadier Daniel Arthur Sandford (left) and Colonel Wingate (right) in Dambacha Fort, after its capture, 15 April 1941.

On 25 February 1941, the motorised Nigerian Brigade of the 11th African Division advanced up the coast and occupied the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Meanwhile, the 12th African Division pushed up the Juba River in Italian Somaliland towards the Ethiopian border town of Dolo.[102] On 1 March, the 11th African Division began a fighting pursuit of the retreating Italian forces north from Mogadishu. The division pursued the Italians towards the Ogaden Plateau. By 17 March, the 11th African Division completed a seventeen-day dash along the Italian built "Imperial Road" (Strada Imperiale) from Mogadishu to Jijiga in the Somali region of Ethiopia,

By early March Cunningham's forces had captured most of Italian Somaliland and were advancing through Ethiopia towards the ultimate objective, Addis Ababa. On 26 March, Harar was captured.[103] On 29 March, Dire Dawa fell. Ethiopians massacred many Italian civilians living in Dire Dawa.[104] During this time there was a link-up with the forces advancing from British Somaliland and Cunningham's supply route became much improved.

Addis Ababa

On 6 April 1941, Addis Ababa was liberated by Cunningham's force. In 53 days, Cunningham had advanced 1,725 miles (2,776 km) from Kenya to reach the Ethiopian capital. The highly disciplined Police of Italian Africa (Polizia dell'Africa Italiana) stayed in the city to maintain order and keep the peace.[105] The Italian Viceroy Amedeo d'Aosta ordered the Italian governor of Addis Abeba, Agenore Frangipani, to surrender the city to the British commanders without any fight, in order to forestall the massacre of Italian civilians that happened in Dire Dawa. Frangipani-who was prepared for a defensive battle- accepted the order of surrender but committed suicide the next day.

Emperor Haile Selassie made a formal entry to the city on 5 May. This was five years after being forced to flee when the Italians captured his capital on 5 May 1936 during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Since then, 5 May has been observed in Ethiopia as Liberation Day, a national holiday. On 13 April, Cunningham sent a force under Brigadier Dan Pienaar comprising 1st South African Brigade and Campbell's Scouts (Ethiopian irregulars led by a British officer) to continue the northward advance and link up with Platt's forces advancing south.[106]On 20 April, after a rough battle, Pienaar's force captured Dessie on the main road north from Addis Ababa to Asmara. Pienaar was some 200 miles (320 km) south of Platt's forces gathering at Amba Alagi. [107]

Amba Alagi

Wavell's strategic priority was for Platt to push southwards from the Sudan to Addis Ababa and for him to meet up with Cunningham pushing northwards from Kenya. A major obstacle for Platt was located at Amba Alagi, a 12,000-foot (3,700 m) high mountain between Asmara and Addis Ababa. The Italians decided to defend the area around Amba Alagi in force. They drove galleries into the solid rock to protect their troops and to hold ample ammunition and stores. In this mountain fortress, the defenders, under command of the Duke of Aosta, thought themselves to be impregnable.[108]

Platt gave newly promoted Major-General Mosley Mayne and the Indian 5th Infantry Division the task of taking Amba Alagi. Mayne was only able to deploy a single expanded brigade, the Indian 29th Infantry Brigade, for this action. His attacking force was therefore inferior in numbers to the Italian defending force. Mayne's limited deployment was due to the demands on the British for internal security and protection of their lines of communication. The supply route to Amba Alagi extended nearly 250 miles (400 km) south of Asmara and some 400 miles (640 km) from the main rail head at Kassala.[107]

On 3 May 1941, Mayne sent in a feint attack from the east while, in the early hours of 4 May, the main attack was made from the northwest over the hills. The hills were fiercely defended by the Italians. On 11 May, Pienaar's brigade group arrived from the south and was put under Mayne's command. By 14 May Amba Alagi was surrounded.[109] With the arrival of Pienaar, the 7,000 Italian troops of the Duke of Aosta were directly attacked by 9,000 British troops and more than 20,000 Ethiopian irregulars. A final assault was planned for 15 May, but an artillery shell hitting an Italian fuel dump caused oil to flow into the remaining drinking water of the Italian defenders. The lack of drinkable water then forced the Italians to surrender.[110]

On 18 May, the Duke of Aosta surrendered his embattled forces at Amba Alagi. General Mayne agreed to a surrender with "full military honors" (allowing the troops to march off the battlefield in formation and then surrender their arms) in exchange for the Duke's agreement to hand over the battlefield 'clean'. This put the Duke on his honour to identify all mines and booby-traps to the troops taking over the area and included his agreement that the Italians' remaining equipment and stores should not be sabotaged or destroyed. Mayne later wrote:

The Duke of Aosta was delighted with my concession and, as he told me, gave a rigid and unmistakable edict that the hand-over was to be complete and clean, making it quite clear that any breach of his orders would mean that he had broken his own word. So the Italians did play up. We got everything intact and no one, save Abyssinian Patriots who broke all bounds in their search for loot and deserved their fate, suffered so much as a scratch from a hidden mine, although there were plenty of them about.[111] While the Duke of Aosta faced defeat in the Horn of Africa, his brother, the Duke of Spoleto was being made the King of Croatia after the successful invasion of Yugoslavia.[112]

The Duke of Aosta had endured the last months of fighting while suffering a severe attack of malaria (and died of malaria and Tuberculosis a few months later).[93][page needed] The campaign in Italian East Africa was all but over.

Further operations

In spite of the Duke of Aosta's surrender at Amba Alagi on 18 May 1941, some Italian forces continued to hold out. The port city of Assab and the strongholds of Gondar and Jimma remained under Italian control. Both Gondar and Jimma started with garrisons of roughly 40,000 men.[113] On 10 June, in Operation Chronometer, a battalion from the Indian Army landed at Assab, the last Italian-held harbour on the Red Sea.[114] By 11 June, Assab had fallen. On 13 June, the Indian trawler Parvati struck a magnetic mine near Assab and became the last naval casualty of the campaign. An Italian force under General Pietro Gazzera, the Governor of Galla-Sidama and the new acting Viceroy and Governor-General of Italian East Africa, continued to resist at Jimma in southwest Ethiopia.

Gazzera had replaced the Duke of Aosta as Viceroy and Governor-General of Italian East Africa. Before Cunningham moved against him, Gazzera was faced with a growing irregular force of Ethiopian Patriots (or Arbegnoch). Many of his units started to melt away. His colonial troops were especially prone to defection. On 21 June 1941, 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 Belgian Major-General Auguste-Éduard Gilliaert, the commander of the Free Belgian Forces in East Africa who had defeated the Italians at Asosa and Saïo.[115] On 28 September, the 3,000 man garrison of Wolchefit Pass surrendered to the King's African Rifles.[113]

Battle of Gondar

Main article: Battle of Gondar

The force at Gondar, under General Guglielmo Nasi, the acting Governor of Amhara, held out for almost seven months. Gondar was the capital of Begemder Province in northwest Ethiopia, about 120 miles (190 km) west of Amba Alagi. After General Gazzera surrendered, Nasi became the new acting Viceroy and Governor-General of Italian East Africa. But, like Gazzera, Nasi faced not just conventional forces (from Platt's command), but also an ever increasing force of Ethiopian Patriots. While the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) in the Horn of Africa had been worn down quickly by a lop-sided war of attrition, the Italian pilots held on to the bitter end. On 24 October 1941, the last Italian aircraft of the campaign was shot down.[116]

On 27 November 1941 General Nasi and his last 23,500 men surrendered Gondar[113] to a combined force of British and Commonwealth troops and a force of Ethiopians. The Italians received full military honours. From 31 October, after the death of his CO Tenente Malavolti, Sergente Giuseppe Mottet he was the only Italian fighter pilot in A.O.I. On 22 November 1941 the last CR.42 (MM4033) in A.O.I., flown by Mottet, was sent out and attacked British artillery at Kulkaber. Lieutenant Colonel Ormsby, the CRA, was killed with the one burst of fire it fired. This was Regia Aeronautica's last sortie to be flown in the East African campaign.[117] Upon landing, he destroyed the CR.42 and joined the Italian troops, fighting until the surrender five days later.[118]



The Italians had replaced their ciphers in the Horn of Africa during November 1940 but by the end of the month, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) in England and the Ciper Bureau Middle East (CBME) in Cairo had broken the new Regio Esercito and Regia Aeronautica ciphers and by the new year, sufficient low-grade ciphers had been broken that the Italian order of battle and supply situation was known when the British offensive began on 19 January 1941. Italian reliance on wireless communication, on frequencies which were easy for the British to eavesdrop, led to a flood of information from the daily report from the Viceroy, to the operational plans of the Regia Aeronautica and Regia Esercito as it retreated from Keren.[119] On occasion, British commanders had messages before the recipients and it was reported later by the Deputy Director Military Intelligence in Cairo, that

... he could not believe that any army commander in the field had [ever] been better served by his intelligence....

— DDMI (ME)[119]

In 2004, Porch wrote that the "pearl of the fascist regime" had lasted only five years and that although the performance of the Italian army exceeded that in North Africa, there was still a high ratio of prisoners to casualties. The mass defections of local forces suggested that Fascist imperialism had made little impression. The Italian navy at Massawa showed a "stunning" lack of energy and failed to challenge British access to Mombasa and Port Sudan or the landing at Berbera. The army had not tried to exploit British supply difficulties and when retreating had left stores behind for the British to use. The British had withdrawn the 4th Indian division and RAF squadrons for North Africa in February 1941, despite the Italian forces remaining at Amba Alagi, which from 20 April to 15 May, were steadily pressed back until they surrendered on 19 May. More British forces were sent to Egypt and local forces mopped up the remaining Italian forces at Galla-Sidom and Gondar, the final surrender being taken by the Belgian contingent from Congo. Mussolini blamed the disaster on the "deficiency of the Italian race" but the regime survived and the British victory had little influence on Japanese strategic intentions.[120]

With the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden coastlines cleared of Axis forces, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to declare that these areas were no longer combat zones. As a result, ships of the United States were able to proceed to the Suez Canal, which helped to relieve the enormous strain on the shipping resources of the United Kingdom.[10]


In 1954, I. S. O. Playfair et al. the British official historians, recorded that from June 1940 to May 1941, the East African Force had 1,154 battle casualties and 74,550 cases of sickness or accident, of which 10,000 were of dysentery and 10,000 were of malaria, of which illnesses, 744 were fatal. The RAF lost 138 aircraft and the Regia Aeronautica lost 250 of the 325 aeroplanes in the Horn of Africa when the war began and of the 75 flown to the region during the campaign. By May 1941, of the c. 350,000 men available for military operations in June 1940, only the c. 80,000 men in the garrisons near Gondar and the seven colonial divisions in Galla-Sidamo remained to be taken prisoner.[121][122]

Subsequent operations

French Somaliland capitulation

After the British and Commonwealth forces occupied Italian East Africa, the Vichy forces in French Somaliland were isolated. Instead of blockading the port, the Royal Navy scrupulously allowed Vichy ships to supply Djibouti's garrison, ensuring the area remain in passive obedience to Vichy but also forestalling, to Free French consternation, a spontaneous rallying of the isolated garrison to de Gaulle's forces.[88] The Vichy French continued to hold the colony after the Italian collapse until in October 1941, after a 101-day British blockade, French Somaliland capitulated.[123] Free French and Allied forces then occupied the French colony.[124] A local battalion from French Somaliland participated in the liberation of France in 1944.[lower-alpha 7]

Italian guerrilla warfare, 1941–1943

Until 27 November 1941, two African divisions mopped up pockets of resistance until the last formed Italian units surrendered.[131] From the end of 1941 to September 1943, c. 7,000 men in scattered Italian units fought a guerrilla war from the deserts of Eritrea and Somalia to the forests and mountains of Ethiopia.[32][page needed] They supposedly did so in the hope of holding out until the Germans and Italians in Egypt (or even possibly the Japanese in India) intervened. Amedeo Guillet was one of the Italian officers who fought with the Italian guerrillas in Ethiopia.[132] Other Italian officers were Captain Francesco De Martini in Eritrea, Colonel Calderari in western Ethiopia/Somalia, Colonel Di Marco in Ogaden/British Somaliland, "blackshirt centurion" De Varda in Somalia/Ethiopia and Major Lucchetti in Ethiopia. Civilians participated and in August 1942, forces led by Dr. Rosa Dainelli sabotaged the main British ammunition dump in Addis Ababa. Hostilities in the Horn of Africa officially ceased on 9 September 1943, when the Italian government signed an Armistice with the Allies. Some Italian soldiers continued the guerrilla war until October 1943, as they were unaware of the agreement.

Africa Orientale Italiana after 1945

In January 1942, with the final official surrender of the Italians, the British, under pressure from the American administration, signed an interim Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement with Emperor Haile Selassie I acknowledging Ethiopian sovereignty. Makonnen Endelkachew was named as Prime Minister. On 19 December 1944, the final Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement was signed.[lower-alpha 8] The Italian colony of Eritrea was placed under British military administration for the remainder of World War II and in 1950, Eritrea was made part of Ethiopia.[lower-alpha 9] Following World War II, Britain regained control of British Somaliland and the conquered Italian Somaliland, administering both militarily as protectorates.[lower-alpha 10]

Victoria Cross

The following is a list of recipients of the Victoria Cross during this campaign:

  • Eric Charles Twelves Wilson (captain, Somaliland Camel Corps) – Received during the Italian invasion of British Somaliland.[138]
  • Premindra Singh Bhagat (second lieutenant, Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners) – Received during fighting on the Northern Front.[139]
  • Richhpal Ram (Subedar in 6th Rajputana Rifles) – Received posthumously during fighting on the Northern Front.[140]
  • Nigel Leakey (sergeant in the 1/6 Battalion King's African Rifles and cousin of the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey) – Received posthumously during fighting on the Southern Front.[141]

See also


  1. South African: 27,000, East African: 33,000, West African: 9,000.[1]
  2. Italian: 91,203
    Askari: 199,273
    (Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Somali colonial troops)[3]
  3. Italian: 112,731, Askari: 258,322
  4. Unofficially, De Simone estimated that nearly one thousand irregular Somalis fighting against the Italian invasion were casualties during the campaign. These armed men operated as local "Bande", with only minimal control from British officers (like Brigadier Chater).[44]
  5. Lieutenant-General Luigi Frusci, commander of the Italian East Africa Northern Sector, wrote in his memoirs that the Somalis fighting as "armed Bands" on the Italian side suffered two thousand casualties. He stated that the most popular local tribal chief of British Somaliland greeted the Italians after the conquest of Zeila and offered him his men against the British.[45]
  6. Edward Ellsberg later wrote "On May 8, 1942, five and one-half weeks after my arrival in Massawa, the United States Naval Repair Base, Massawa, commenced operations. The only thing naval about it was its Commanding Officer. The only things American about it were, in addition to the Commanding Officer, one Army officer as assistant and six civilian supervisors on loan."[90]
  7. In 1958, on the eve of neighbouring Somalia's independence in 1960, a referendum was held in French Somaliland to decide whether or not to join the Somali Republic or to remain with France. The plebiscite turned out in favour of a continued association with France.[125] There was also widespread vote rigging, with the French expelling thousands of Somalis before the referendum reached the polls.[126] In 1966, France rejected the United Nations' recommendation that it should grant French Somaliland independence. In August of the same year, an official visit to the territory by then French President, General Charles de Gaulle, was also met with demonstrations and rioting.[127] In response to the protests, de Gaulle ordered another plebiscite. A second referendum was held on 19 March 1967 to determine the fate of the territory. Initial results supported a continued but looser relationship with France. However, the plebiscite was again marred by reports of vote rigging on the part of the French authorities.[128] Shortly afterwards, the former Côte française des Somalis (French Somaliland) was renamed to Territoire français des Afars et des Issas after the Afar and Issa majority.[129] On 27 June 1977, a third plebiscite took place. A landslide 98.8 percent of the electorate supported disengagement from France, officially marking the Republic of Djibouti's independence.[130]
  8. Selassie reigned until 1974 when the monarchy was abolished by the Derg. Since about 1994, the country has been known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  9. The unification of Eritrea and Ethiopia proved to be unacceptable to the Eritreans and led to the Eritrean War of Independence. The unification ended in the early 1990s: Eritrea became independent on a de facto basis in 1991 and on a de jure basis in 1993.
  10. In 1948, under pressure from their World War II allies and against Somali objections, the British "returned" the Haud (an important Somali grazing area that was presumably 'protected' by British treaties with the Somalis in 1884 and 1886) and the Ogaden to Ethiopia.[133] The decision was based on a treaty of 1897, in which the British ceded Somali territory to the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II, in exchange for his help against raids by Somalis.[134] Britain included the proviso that the Somali inhabitants would retain their autonomy, but Ethiopia immediately claimed sovereignty over the area. This prompted an unsuccessful bid by Britain in 1956 to buy back the Somali lands that it had turned over.[135] In November 1949, during the Potsdam Conference, the United Nations granted Italy trusteeship of Italian Somaliland, but only under close supervision and on the condition—first proposed by the Somali Youth League (SYL) and other nascent Somali political organizations, such as Hizbia Digil Mirifle Somali (HDMS) and the Somali National League (SNL)—that Somalia achieve independence within ten years.[135] British Somaliland became independent on 26 June 1960 as the State of Somaliland, and the Trust Territory of Somalia (the former Italian Somaliland) followed suit five days afterwards. Later the same week, on 1 July 1960, the two territories united as planned to form the Somali Republic.[136][137]


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  4. Tucker & Roberts 2005, p. 400.
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  6. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 6–7, 69.
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  8. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 19, 93.
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  59. Rooney 1994, p. 63.
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  101. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 411–417.
  102. Time 1941c.
  103. Time 1941d.
  104. War in Italian eastern Africa (in Italian)
  105. Hammerton 1941, p. 86.
  106. Wavell 1946a, p. 3,530.
  107. 107.0 107.1 Mackenzie 1951, p. 68.
  108. Mackenzie 1951, p. 67.
  109. Mackenzie 1951, pp. 69–70.
  110. Mackenzie 1951, p. 70.
  111. Brett-James 1951, ch 10.
  112. Time 1941b.
  113. 113.0 113.1 113.2 Jowett 2001, p. 7.
  114. Rohwer & Hümmelchen 1992, p. 78.
  115. Weller 2010, p. 117.
  116. MolloMcGregor & Turner 1981, p. 91.
  117. Gustavsson 2014.
  118. Shores 1996.
  119. 119.0 119.1 Hinsley 1994, pp. 64–65.
  120. Porch 2005, pp. 137–138.
  121. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 423, 447.
  122. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 303.
  123. Time 1941e.
  124. Time 1941f.
  125. Barrington 2006, p. 115.
  126. Shillington 2005, p. 360.
  127. Lea & Rowe 2001, p. 132.
  128. AUFS 1968, p. 3.
  129. Cottrell & Burrell 1972, p. 166.
  130. NW 1973, p. 254.
  131. Raugh 1993, p. 183.
  132. Comando Supremo: Amedeo Guillett
  133. Metz 2004, p. 38.
  134. Laitin 1977, p. 73.
  135. 135.0 135.1 Zolberg, Aguayo & Suhrke 1992, p. 106.
  136. Somalia
  137. NEB 2002, p. 835.
  138. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 177.
  139. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 401.
  140. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 435.
  141. Playfair et al. 2004, p. 308.


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Further reading

External links

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