World War II: East African Campaign (1941)

World War II East Africa
Figure 1.--Ethiopian Warriors Fighting for Liberty Aid British Troops: Among the Ethiopian warriors are fathers, sons, and brothers. A 14 year-old boy who have been wageing war against the Italians for 5 years. He is wearing the cap of an Italian officer sniped during one of his encounters with the enemy." Source: British official photograph. No. BM 122º.

On paper it looked like the Italians also had a large force in Ethiopia. The Italian forces were, however, weak and their Ethiopian auxileries of questionable loyalty. It was the British, despite their numerical inferiority, who attacked the Italians. The British put together a small force of South African, Indian, and African colonial troops. They were supported by Ethiopian insurgent guerrillas. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces. Behind the British forces, Emperor Haile Salassie returned to Ethiopia, arriving in Gojam (January 20, 1941) and began organizing the resistance groups. The British launched a southern and northern offensive. The southern offensive involved moving north from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia. The initial objective was to isolate the Italian forces in the Ethiopian highlands. Unlike the Italian Army in Libya, the Italians in East Africa had no way to obtain supplies and refinforcements as a result of the Royal Navy control of the Indian Ocean. The failure of the Italian offensive in the Western Desert left Italian East Africa cut off. The major British offensive was directed at the Harer and Dire Dawa, which was designed to cut the rail line between Addis Ababa and French Djibouti which at the times was in Vichy hands. The British were incontrol of Italian Somaliland (March 3). A scond prong of British troops from Sudan drove into Eritrea which cut the Italians off from the Red Sea. The northern campaign climaxed with the Battle of Keren and the defeat of Italian troops in Eritrea (March 27). The Italian governor initiated negotiations for the surrender of the remaining Italian forces. Haile Selassie triumphantly reentered Addis Ababa (May 5). Isolated Italian forces continued to resist. The final Italian forces surredered at Gonder (January 1942). Ethiopia thus became the first country the Allies liberated from Fascist invaders in World War II. There were some Italian resistance activities, primarily in the north, until Italy surrendered to the Allies (September 1943).

Italian East Africa

Italy entered the scaramble for Aftrica late. They only managed to seize part of Somaliland and Eritrea. An Italian Army attempting to seize Ethiopia was defeated. Italy was the only European country to be militarily defeated in Africa. Mussolini had been active in Africa during the 1920s and 30s. The Italian Army used brutal tactics and poison gas to subdue Libya. The Itlalaons invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and again employed poison gas. They were condemned by the League of Nations, a major factor in turning Mussolini away from the Allies into a closer relationship with Hitler. Mussolini after seizing the independent kingdom ofEthiopia, annexed it to Italy (May 9, 1936). Italy proclaimed Ethiopia to be part of Italian East Africa Africa Orientale Italiana ), a federation which also included Eritrea and Italian Somaliland (June 13, 1936). Italian authorities proclaimed King Victor Emmanuel III, emperor. …The Italians attempted to consolidate their colonial information of their East Afrrivan colonies. A variety of development projects includred road building, found industries, and establish agricultural plantations. There was resistance to Italian rule, especially in Ethiopia.

Military Forces

The Italians on paper had a largge force in East VAfrica. There were about 70,000 Italian soldiers and additional local formations of about 180,000 men. The Italian forces were, however, weak with little desire to fight the British. Their Ethiopian auxileries of questionable loyalty. Ethiopia is a very large country with virtually medieval communications. As a result, there were substantial areas of the country that were never under Italian control. There were also Ethiopian armed resistance groups known as "Arbengoch". It is difficult toassess the effectiveness of the groups or the area under their control. Some Ethiopian historians claim that it was as much as a quarter of the country. They did prove useful to the British force which was organized to liberate the country. The British put together a small force of South African, Indian, and African colonial troops. (The nomenclature is somewhat misleading. While the soldiers were primarily Indian, these units had varying numbers of British soldiers as well. Often the artillery component was mostly British.) They were supported by Ethiopian insurgent guerrillas. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces with the British regular forces.

Italian Offensive (1940)

Mussolini declared war on Britain and France as German armies were moving south into France (June 1940). The Italians had already ammassed a sizeable army in Libya. The main Italian offensive was the invasion of Egypt from Libya (September 1940). Despite a sizeable numerical advantage, the offensive faltered. The Italians in East Africa also launched offensive actions. Italian forces moved west and took Kassala in Sudan and advanced south into Kenya. They also moved north on British Somaliland (August 1940). The British successfully evacuated their small force there by sea to Aden. This proved to be the only successful Italian military campaigns of the War and it ws achieved without any German support. The Italian advances in the Sudan and Kenya were more limited, basically only taking small border villages and the surrounding areas. After these advances, the Italian Army in East Africa adopted a defensive stance, awaiting developments in the Western Desert. Isolated as it was, the Italians needed supplies to pursue further offensives. And these could only come if the Italians took Egypt and the Suez Canal. When the British drove the Italians back into Libya (December 1940), the Italians in East Africa braced for the British counter attack. Unlike the Italian Army in Libya, the Italians in East Africa had no way to obtain supplies and refinforcements as a result of the Royal Navy control of the Indian Ocean. The failure of the Italian offensive in the Western Desert left Italian East Africa cut off (December 1940).

Naval Operations

East africa itself was only of minor importance in World War II. The major importance is that Italian East Africa commanded the approaches to the Red Sea and ultimately the Suez Canal. If British convoys could be stopped, the British positiion in Egypt and the whole Eastern Mediterranean would become untennable. The Italian Regia Marina at the outbreak of the War had a small squadron operating from Italian East Africa area. The Italian "Red Sea Flotilla" was based at Massawa in Eritrea. It was made up of seven destroyers and eight submarines. The Italians had not, however, stockpiled fuel beforethe War and there was no way ob obtaining fuel after war was declared. In addition the air forces were very weak. Italian attempts to attack British convoys failed. The Italians lost four submarines and one destroyer. As the British approached Massawa by land, the Italian destroyers carried out a suicide attack in the Red Sea. The remaining four submarines escaped and made made an epic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to safety in German-controlled Bordeaux, a French Atlantic port. Because of Gibraltar, it was very dangerous for submarines to eter the Mediterannean.

British Offensive (January 1941)

After stopping the Italian invasion of Egypt from Libya, the British launched a counter attack in the Western Desert (December 1940) which looked for a time might completely defeat the Italians in Libya. With the immediate Italian threat defeated, the British began to address the problem of Italian East Africa. The British, despite their numerical inferiority, attacked the Italians. Generals Cunningham assembled a mix group of Empire forces including Indian, Nigerian, South African, Rhodesian and Kenyan units. There were also other allied contingents (Free French and Belgian). The British a southern and northern prong supported by Ethiopian guerilla forces. And ampibious force also attacked from Aden.

British southern prong

The southern offensive consisting of the the South African 1st Division, the 11th African Division, and the 12th African Division drove north from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia. The initial objective was to isolate the Italian forces in the Ethiopian highlands. The major British offensive was directed at the Harer and Dire Dawa, which was designed to cut the rail line between Addis Ababa and French Djibouti which at the times was in Vichy hands. The British were in control of Italian Somaliland (March 3, 1941).

British northern prong (January 1941)

A second prong of British troops from Sudan drove into Eritrea. This was composed of the Indian 4th and Indian 5th Infantry Divisions. The drive into Eritrea cut the Italians in Ethiopia off from the Red Sea and any hope of resupply. The northern campaign climaxed with the Battle of Keren (February-March). The fall of Karen setted the fate of Italian East Africa (March 27). With the major Italian formations defeated, Asmara and Massawa fell (early April).

British amphibious assault

The British conducted an amphibious assault from Aden to retake British Somaliland which they had earlier evacuated. This meant that the Italians lost the fruits of their only successful World war II campaign.

Ethiopian guerilla actions

Emperor Haile Selassie who had lived in refuge in Britain. He returned and behind the British forces. He arrived at Gojam (January 20, 1941). He began organizing the resistance groups. A few days after Addis Ababa fell, the Emperor staged a triumphant entry (May 5). That was 5 years to the day that he had fled as a result of the Italian invasion.

Italian Surrender (January 1942)

The Italian governor initiated negotiations for the surrender of the remaining Italian forces. The capital Addis Ababa fell (April 1941). The Italian Viceroy of Ethiopia, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, surrendered at the stronghold of Amba Alagi (May 1941). He was accorded full military honors. Isolated Italian forces continued to resist. The Italians made a final stand around the town of Gondar which fell (November 1941).

Italian Military Performance

The performance of Italian forces was nothing short of shocking. Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano writes on of all days December7, 1941, "This morning the Duce was very much irritated by the paucity of losses in eastern Africa. Those who fell at Gondar in November numbered sixty-seven; the prisoners ten thousand. One doesn't have to think very long to see what these figures mean." [Ciano, p. 416.] Very rarely does a national leader complain that caualties in his army were not high ebough. What is starteling about this is that Mussolini was a Fascist leader who wanted Italy's future to be settled by force of arms. Yet the Italian Army in East Africa had collapsed when confronted by a rag-tag British force. And within days Italy would not only be at war with Britain and the Soviet Union, but the United States as well. It is difficult to know just how Mussolini processed all of this. Ciano tells us that when the Japanese asked Musslolini to declare war on America (December 3) that he was pleased and told Ciano, "Thus we arrive at war between continents, which I have foreseen since September 1939." [Ciano, p. 414.] Surely this must be mindless bluster. We thus have no real insight into his true thoughts. The final Italian forces surredered at Gonder (January 1942). This ended formal Italian military action. Ethiopia thus became the first country the Allies liberated from Fascist invaders in World War II.

Resistance

There were some Italian resistance activities, primarily in the north, until Italy surrendered to the Allies (September 1943). We have few details at this time.

Sources

Ciano, Count Galeazzo. Hugh Gibson, ed. The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943 (Garden City Publishing: New York, 1947), 582p.








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Created: 6:15 AM 3/6/2009
Last updated: 7:02 AM 1/20/2011