Italian East Africa 1940-41








The colony of Italian East Africa was to be short lived, and on 18 January 1941 Emperor Haile Selassie would cross the border into Abyssinia and raise his flag and march at the head of his irregular army into Addis Ababa on 5 May.

The second Italo-Abyssinian war was devastating for Abyssinia. Over three-quarters of a million people were killed, half a million houses were destroyed, along with six million cattle, seven million sheep and goats, a million horses and mules and two thousand churches.

By June 1940 the balance of power, as we shall see, was entirely in favour of the Italians. The bulk of British strength was concentrated to defend the Suez Canal, and so was in Egypt. There were small forces of both British and French troops in their respective Somaliland territories.

With France falling in May 1940, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and East Africa were all vulnerable. It was very much a question of what Mussolini would choose to do, as it seemed that the initiative was very much with him. It would have been relatively easy for the Italians to seize almost anything for very little cost.

There was an enormous danger with Italy joining the war for the Mediterranean to become untenable for the Allies. If Italy were to press its claim for control of the Mediterranean, then British forces bound for the Middle East would have to be brought all around Africa and come into the Middle East via the Red Sea. This, then, made East Africa all the more important. A strong and determined Italy, in control of the entrance to the Red Sea, could place Britain’s tenuous control of the Suez Canal, Egypt and vital oil assets in jeopardy.

Some attempts had been made to strengthen the Royal Air Force in the Sudan, British Somaliland, Kenya and Aden. Any such move, however, would only seek to weaken the already stretched forces in Egypt. There could be no hope of launching any offensive action in this theatre either on the ground or in the air. What assets could be spared in East Africa were little more than police forces and patrol units.

Although Italian East Africa was vast, it was not an ideal theatre of war with its enormous highlands, deserts and rainy seasons. Across the region there were areas that were virtually deserts, while others were sub-tropical. There were few good roads, and in the rainy season they became almost impassable. There were just two railway lines: one ran from the Eritrean port of Massawa to Asmara and Tessenei, and the other ran from Addis Ababa to Djibouti in French Somaliland.

Although Italian East Africa was some 600 per cent larger than Italy itself, it was effectively cut off. To send troops, supplies or ammunition meant that the vessels would have to pass Gibraltar and then proceed down the west coast of Africa, around the Horn and up the east coast towards Italian Somaliland. In any case, both the Italian army and the air force were designed primarily as a colonial force. There was only a single, regular, Italian division – the Savoy Grenadiers. There were also territorial units, or Blackshirt battalions. These were men predominantly middle aged, with little in the way of training or equipment, who had somehow been persuaded to avoid the humiliation of unemployment at home for the uncertain virtues of life in East Africa.

The bulk of the army was, however, native units. They were recruited on a tribal basis. They were not designed to fight conventional wars; they lacked mobility, were terrified of artillery fire and were led by aloof Italian officers on horseback. There were also native scouts and skirmishers, again led by Italian officers. Added to this there were also irregular troops, who tended to be used for police duties. To support the ground forces there were a handful of tanks and armoured cars, mostly old and poorly maintained. The artillery was also outdated, and even anti-aircraft defences were poor. In all, the ground forces could muster some sixteen battalions, a pair of armoured car companies, two squadrons of tanks, ten artillery units, 123 native battalions, eight units of cavalry, some light artillery carried by mules and some irregulars. In total the Italians could muster upwards of 280,000 men. This was increased to 330,000 in June 1940. Reservists had been called up, although most of these men were either too old or too poorly trained to be of any use. There was a shortage of rifles, and many native units had been deployed as road builders.

Considering the enormous distances involved and the poor infrastructure, added to which the troops available were not suitable for large-scale offensive actions, it was understandable that Italian commanders in East Africa were unwilling to consider much more than defence.

Facing the northern borders with the Sudan were some 100,000 troops. These were primarily concentrated from the Red Sea coast to the border facing Khartoum. Some 83,000 men were on the borders of French and British Somaliland, 20,000 men formed the Army of the Juba, 40,000 were in central Abyssinia and just a scattering of forces covered the rest of the Sudanese border and the border with Kenya.

Ground forces were supported by a small Italian navy based in the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab. They had two squadrons of destroyers and eight largely unserviceable submarines.

The Italian Air Force, or Regia Aeronautica, was of a reasonable size. The bulk of the aircraft were Caproni Ca 133s. They were perfectly designed for their original purpose. The aircraft were monoplanes with three engines, and could be used for bombing, troop carrying or cargo carrying. But they were only any good if the enemy did not have their own aircraft or anti-aircraft defences; simply they were too slow and too poorly armed.

Another common aircraft was the Savoia S.81. This was a three-engined monoplane with fixed undercarriage. It would turn out to be so poor that it would only be used at night. Another aircraft deployed by the Italian Air Force in June 1940 was the Savoia S.79. It was a three-engined monoplane with a retractable undercarriage. Two of its five machine-guns were 12.7 mm, and it was without doubt the best aircraft to be deployed by any force in the region. The third engine, in the nose, limited its effectiveness, particularly when it was used on bombing missions. Added to this, there were very few spare parts for the aircraft.

Two of the fighter squadrons were flying the Fiat CR.32. It was a biplane, and, as the Italians would discover, it was far too slow to catch their bombers. Three other fighter squadrons were equipped with Fiat CR.42s. It was to be one of the more successful Italian aircraft in the theatre. The Italian pilots would discover that it was more manoeuvrable than the Hurricane and faster than the Gladiator. The three squadrons of CR.42s – 412th, 413th and 414th Squadrons – would have mixed fortunes. The best squadron was the 412th.

Another fighter squadron, the 110th, was flying Meridionali Ro.37bis, twin-seat biplanes. They were originally designed for reconnaissance, observation and army co-operation. They were to prove particularly useless when ordered to intercept enemy aircraft.

The most powerful striking force of the Italian Air Force in East Africa was, of course, the three main bomber groups. The fighters were scattered all around East Africa. Generale Pietro Pinna was the air commander in East Africa. His instructions on the outbreak of war were to hit any British airfields or ports within striking distance. The availability of bombs was to be a considerable problem. He would reserve his 250 kg bombs for stationary ships in port. Ships at sea would be attacked with 50 kg bombs.

In all, across Italian East Africa, there were nine Italian aircraft groups. Each of the groups could have from two to eight squadriglie. Broadly speaking, the strength of one of these was similar to an RAF flight. However, the Italian fighters were usually in the larger squadriglie, and these could be as large as an RAF squadron.

The Italian Air Force was organised into three distinct areas. Comando Settore Aeronautico Nord (Air Sector Headquarters North) was based in Asmara in Eritrea. The 26th Group could muster twelve Caproni Ca 133s (11th and 13th Squadriglie). These were based at Gondar and Bahar Dar. The 27th Group had the 18th and 52nd Squadriglie, also with a dozen Ca 133s at Assab. The 118th Squadriglia, also part of 27th Group, with half a dozen Savoia S.81s, was also based at Assab. At Zula was 28th Group with the 10th and 19th Squadriglie, and they had twelve S.81s. The 62nd and 63rd Squadriglie of 29th Group were based at Assab with a dozen S.81s. The rest of the group was scattered, apart from 413th Squadriglia, with its nine CR.42s at Assab. The 412th Squadriglia had four CR.42s at Massawa and five at Gura. Also at Gura was the 29th Group’s final squadriglia, the 414th, with six more CR.42s. At Agordat there was Gasbarrini Group, with twelve Caproni Ca 133s (41st Squadriglia and Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore Nord).

On the western side of Italian East Africa, based at Addis Ababa, was the Comando Settore Aeronautico Ovest. The 4th and 44th Gruppi were based at Diredawa. The 4th Gruppo, consisting of the 14th and 15th Squadriglie, mustered some twelve Savoia S.81s. The 44th Gruppo, consisting of the 6th and 7th Squadriglie, had twelve Savoia S.79s. The 49th Gruppo, based at Jimma, was made up of the 61st and 64th Squadriglie with some twelve Caproni Ca 133s. Both the 110th and 410th Squadriglie were also at Diredawa; the 110th had nine Ro.37bis and the 410th had nine CR.32s. Based at Addis Ababa was the 411th Squadriglia, also with nine CR.32s, and Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore Centrale with six Ca 133s. The 65th Squadriglia had six Ca 133s and was based at Neghelli, and the 66th Squadriglia was at Yavello with three Ca 133s.

Based around Mogadishu was Comando Settore Aeronautico Sud. This consisted of the 25th Gruppo, which had the 8th and 9th Squadriglie with twelve Ca 133s. Half of these were based at Gobwen, and the other half at Lugh Ferrandi. Finally, at Mogadishu were the seven Ca 133s of the Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore.

The Italians also had a considerable number of transport aircraft. There were nine Savoia S.73s and a similar number of Ca 133s. There was one Fokker FVII and six Ca 148s. The reserve forces consisted of thirty-five Ca 133s, six CR.42s, five CR.32s, four S.79s and two Ro.37bis. In addition to this were aircraft that were currently under repair, and these included forty-eight Ca 133s, sixteen S.81s, eleven CR.32s and two of each of S.79s, CR.42s and Ro.37bis.

Although the numbers of aircraft presented an impressive total, one of the key problems was the position and the state of the airfields. The bulk of the airfields were at the edges of the Italian territories and therefore potentially vulnerable. Many of the airfields had also been designed primarily for use by Ca 133s, and as a consequence the runways were too short for S.79s and CR.42s. The crews were not, by and large, the most adept of pilots; few had decent navigation skills; maps were at a premium; few of the aircraft had radios, and this meant that it was difficult not only to communicate between ground and air but to co-ordinate the flights themselves.

Allied forces in the region were neither that impressive nor necessarily well positioned. In the Sudan, based at Erkowit, was the impressively named Advanced Striking Force of the RAF. It comprised 254 Wing, which had three squadrons, all of which had been supplied with the Vickers Wellesley. This was a single-engined bomber, and in every other theatre barring the Sudan it had already been phased out. No. 47 Squadron, commanded by Wg Cdr J.G. Elton, was actually based at Erkowit. At Port Sudan was Sqn Ldr A.D. Selway’s 14 Squadron, and at Summit was 223 Squadron, commanded by Sqn Ldr J.C. Larking.

Attached to 47 Squadron was D Flight of the Sudan Defence Force, commanded by Gp Capt Macdonald. They had been supplied with seven Vickers Vincent biplanes. On 3 June 1940 they were reinforced by nine Gloster Gladiators of 112 Squadron. They would be based at Summit and would be responsible for protecting Port Sudan and other bases in the Sudan. By August 1940 Air Cdre L.H. Slatter would be in position to take command of all forces in the Sudan, as part of 203 Group.

AVM G.R.M. Reid commanded both the ground forces and air assets in the Aden Protectorate. Reid’s responsibility was not only to deal with tribesmen in Aden, but also to protect vessels passing through the Red Sea. Based at Khormaksar was 8 Squadron, commanded by Sqn Ldr D.S. Radford. No. 8 Squadron had a flight of Vincents and a flight of Bristol Blenheims. No. 94 Squadron, based at Sheik Othman and commanded by Sqn Ldr W.T.F. Wightman, had a single flight of Gladiators. Working alongside 8 Squadron at Khormaksar was 203 Squadron. Wg Cdr J.R.S. Streatfield had Blenheim IVs, which had been converted to operate as long-range fighters. In June 1940 Blenheim Is of 39 Squadron were en route from India to Sheik Othman, and more Blenheim Is were coming from Singapore, as part of 11 Squadron. They were also due to set up at Sheik Othman.

To the south of Italian East Africa, in Kenya, there were no RAF units available at the start of 1940. In April, 1 Squadron of the Southern Rhodesian Air Force arrived at Nairobi and became part of 237 Squadron. They were equipped with Army Co-operation biplanes, mainly Hawker Harts, Hardies and Audaxes.

Additional air assets would be provided by the South African Air Force. In September 1939 the South Africans could muster sixty-three Hawker Hartebeests (these were converted Hawker Harts), eighteen Junkers Ju86s (these were former South African Airways airliners that had been converted into bombers and reconnaissance aircraft), six Hawker Fury Is, four Hawker Hurricane Is and a single Blenheim IF.

Britain had provided South Africa with several additional aircraft by May 1940, including Avro Ansons (maritime reconnaissance) and some Vickers Valentia Transports. A further ten Ju52/3M aircraft, belonging to South African Airways, had been requisitioned as military transports. The South Africans had also been able to create three squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and Furies. The flights, commanded by Capt S. Van Schalkwyk, Lt B.J.L. Boyle and Lt S. van Breda Theron, became operational by the middle of 1940. The unit was commanded by Maj N.G. Neblock-Stuart.

On 13 May 1940 the pilots of the first two flights were transported to Egypt to be converted to use Gloster Gladiators. They were trained on Gloster Gauntlets. Once the training period was over, they would ferry their own aircraft south to Nairobi. Six days later, on 19 May, Maj R. Preller’s 11 Bomber Squadron, with twenty-four Hartebeests and a Fairey Battle, headed for Nairobi.

There was more reshuffling; 12 Bomber Squadron had their Ansons replaced by Ju86s, and along with 1 Squadron’s Hurricanes they too headed for Nairobi, arriving there on 25 May. The Ju86s were commanded by Maj C. Martin, and the Hurricanes were led by Lt Theron. Once 12 Squadron had arrived at Nairobi, together with 11 Squadron, they became 1 Bomber Brigade under Lt Col S.A. Melville. No. 1 Squadron’s Furies were disassembled on 26 May and ferried to Kenya on board the SS Takliwa, arriving in Kenya on 1 June. Two of 11 Squadron’s flights shifted to Mombasa.

By the second week of June there were forty-six South African aircraft, a single Rhodesian squadron and additional aircraft for liaison duties available in Kenya. No. 12 Squadron’s Ju86s were dispersed, with A Flight, commanded by Capt Raubenheimer, at Dar-Es-Salaam, B Flight at Mombasa under Capt D. Meaker, and Capt D. Du Toit’s C Flight remaining at Nairobi.

Completing the Allied air forces available was a tiny force in French Somaliland. This was the Armée de l’Air. It had eleven Potez 25 Army Co-operation biplanes, four Potez 631 reconnaissance bombers, three Morane 406 fighters and a pair of Potez 29 transport and liaison biplanes.

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