World War II/Fall of East Africa and War in North Africa

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North Africa[edit | edit source]

Italian tanks in North Africa.

Italian Invasion of Egypt[edit | edit source]

Things did not go well for the Italians in North Africa almost from the start. Within a week of Italy's declaration of war on June 10, 1940, the British 11th Hussars had seized Fort Capuzzo in Libya. In an ambush east of Bardia, the British captured the Italian Tenth Army's Engineer-in-Chief, General Lastucci. On June 28, Marshal Italo Balbo, the Governor-General of Libya and apparent heir to Mussolini, was killed by friendly fire while landing in Tobruk.

Mussolini ordered Balbo's replacement, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, to launch an attack into Egypt immediately. Graziani was the commander of the Italian Tenth Army in Libya. He complained to Mussolini that his forces were not properly equipped for such an operation. Graziani further complained that an attack into Egypt could not possibly succeed. Mussolini ordered Graziani to attack anyway.

At the time, General Wavell's Middle East Command included some 36,000 troops (including support and administration units) based within Egypt to defend against 250,000 Italian Invaders. On September 13, a large element of Graziani's Italian Tenth Army re-took Fort Capuzzo and crossed the border between Libya and Egypt. The Italian advance proved to be a struggle. One division got lost, and many engines over-heated. On the opening day of the offensive, the Italians dropped paratroopers into Sollum. The British, being greatly outnumbered, left mines and retreated. After four more days, Graziani halted the advance, citing supply problems. During this time the Italians captured a number of British airfields. Despite Mussolini urging Graziani to continue the advance, the Italians dug in at Sidi Barrani and established several fortified camps. Graziani was now 60 miles in Egypt and 80 miles west of the British defences at Mersa Matruh. He planned to return to the offensive after his troops had been resupplied. During the offensive, 120 Italians and 40 British were killed.

East Africa[edit | edit source]

Italian Advances[edit | edit source]

Starting 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 June 13, early in the morning, three Italian Caproni bombers appeared and bombed the Rhodesian air base at the fort located 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 King's African Rifles (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 realize the significant shortcomings in speed and fire-power of the Hawker Hardys they themselves flew.

At dawn on June 17, 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 centered around 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.

Early in July, Italian forces in Eritrea crossed the Sudan border and forced the small British garrison holding the railway junction at Kassala to withdraw. The Italians also seized the small British fort at Gallabat, just over the border from Metemma, some 200 miles (320 km) to the south of Kassala. Even the villages of Ghezzan, Kurmuk and Dumbode on the blue Nile were conquered. Having taken Kassala and Gallabat, however, the Italians decided to venture no further - because of lack of fuel - and they proceeded to fortify Kassala with anti-tank defences, machine-gun posts, and strong-points. The Italians sent a brigade-strong garrison to Kassala.

In Kenya, after heavy fighting, the Italians occupied "Fort Harrington" in Moyale. At the end of July, Italian forces reached Debel and Buna. These small villages, nearly one-hundred kilometers from the Ethiopian-Kenyan border, were to be the deepest points inside Kenya reached by the Italian army.

In the first days of August, an Italian force of irregular Eritreans raided Port Sudan as a prelude to the Italian campaign to conquer British Somaliland.

On August 3, 1940, approximately 25,000 Italian troops invaded British Somaliland. The Italians were commanded by General Guglielmo Nasi.

The Italian force attacking British Somaliland in August included five colonial brigades, three Blackshirt battalions, and three bands (banda) of native troops. The Italians had armoured vehicles (a small number of both light and medium tanks), artillery, and, for the moment, superior air support.

The Italians were opposed by a British contingent of about four-thousand men consisting of the Somaliland Camel Corps (commanded by Colonel Arthur Reginald Chater), elements of the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion King's African Rifles (KAR) and the 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesian Regiment, the 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion Black Watch.

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 strong central column. Colonel Chater, used his camel corps to skirmish with and screen against the advancing Italians as the other British and Commonwealth forces pulled back towards Tug Argan.

On August 5, within two days of the invasion, the towns of Zeila and Hargeisa were taken. The occupation of Zeila effectively sealed 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.

On August 7 the British and Commonwealth forces in British Somaliland received reinforcements with the arrival of the 1st Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment. On August 11, a new commander, Major-General Reade Godwin-Austen, reached Tug Argan.

But, early on August 15, Godwin-Austen concluded that further resistance to the Italians would be futile in Tug Argan. He contacted the British Middle East Command headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. Godwin-Austen requested and received permission to withdraw his forces from British Somaliland. The determined effort of the Black Watch battalion, which covered the retreat, allowed the entire British and Commonwealth contingent to withdraw to Berbera with reduced losses. By August 17, most of the contigent was successfully evacuated from Berbera to Aden. Rather than evacuate, the Somaliland Camel Corps was disbanded.