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The Dismantling of the ltalian East African Empire

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Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta

ln early December 1940, General Wavell made plans for the removals of the 250,000 strong Italian army commanded by the Duke of Aosta in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland, it was also occupying British and French Somaliland.  T o implement this, an uprising of Ethiopian patriots would be led by Emperor Haile Selassie who was flown back into his country on the night of January 15-16th by the RAF. The uprising was organized by Colonel D.A. Sandford who had farmed in Ethiopia before the war, and who was guided by a British officer, Orde Wingate.

The uprising would be backed by a pincer movement, the north of which would strike into Eritrea from the Sudan and the south pincer would attack Italian Somaliland from Kenya. The 4th Indian Division was withdrawn from Operation Compass to take part in the attack.

The Northern Pincer

Lieutenant-General W. Platt had both the 4th and 5th Indian Division. The latter had already so threatened the Italian position at Kassala that when they advanced on 19th January it was found to be vacated.  The first contact with the Italians was at Keru, 40 miles inside Eritrea, where they found themselves attacked from half a mile away by a cavalry charge by Askari natives led by Italian officers, all of them on small shaggy ponies from which the riders hurled percussion grenades.

Once the British recovered from their surprise, the riflemen and machine gunners and even light artillery were in action before the enemy cavalry could even get within range to cause any damage. Within ten minutes the survivors were fleeing into the scrub leaving the battlefield strewn with dead or wounded men and horses.

While this was happening, one Brigade of the 4th Indian Division had driven across the frontier 20 miles south of  ‘Gazelle Force’ as the 5th Indian had been nicknamed, the 4th Indian herded some Italian colonial formation north into the Gazelle Force’s grasp, the 4th Indian joining Gazelle Force at Biscia and both formations drove on towards Agordat, one 5th Indian Brigade having detached towards Barentu.

The Battle of Agordat lasted three days from 28th January and was fought by both sides with vigor and was in the end won by the 4th Indian Division after the timely arrival of four Matilda infantry tanks which the Italians could not counter.

On the last day of the month, the leading squadron of the 4th Indian’s reconnaissance regiment reached the Ascidera Valley and saw a steep, narrow gorge in front of them. The Italians blew in the sides of the gorge as they retreated to Keren and the Asmara plateau beyond.

The Southern Pincer

The southern arm of the pincer movement against Italian East Africa was under the command of Lt-General Alan Cunningham.  At his command was the lst South African Division and Brigades from the Gold Coast, Rhodesia and East Africa assembled in the Chalbu Desert between Lake Rudolf and the borders of Italian Somaliland.

On 7th February, Cunningham sent the 22nd East African Brigade across the border with orders to capture Afmadu. On l0 February, the town was heavily bombed by the South African Air Force and when the Africans arrived the following day they found that the garrison had fled.

Cunningham now leap frogged the 24th Gold Coast Brigade to Bulo Erillo by the Ujba river on the following day, where they caught up with the retreating Afmadu garrison. Two Days later, Cunningham sent the 22nd East African Brigade down from Afmadu at the double in response to an urgent signal from naval units monitoring the port of Kismayu, when they arrived on 14th February they found the port practically deserted and demolitions had been carried out ineffectively.  The port was operational within a week.

The South Africans were meanwhile storming across the Juba to take Jumbo on 14th February and drove north from Bulo Erillo to reach Bardera.  With his formation now tiring in the stifling conditions, Cunningham brought up the fresh 23rd (Nigerian) Brigade which had come by sea to Kismayu and launched them between Webi Shebeli and the coast towards the provincial capital, Mogadishu.  They reached Modun before encountering any opposition and this was overwhelmed with the aid of naval shellfire which bombarded the town shortly before the troops arrived.  The Nigerians reached Mogadishu on 25th February, the Allied force having advanced 240 miles in three days.

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