19 January 1941

Northern Front

General William Platt orders the beginning of his offensive from Sudan. The objective is to capture Eritrea in order to remove all means for the Italians to threaten the communication routes in the Red Sea. The ultimate goal is the capture of the port of Massawa. To this end, he has two divisions of the Indian Army: the 4th and 5th Indian Infantry Division, to which is added the B Squadron (Matilda) of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment. [1]

Four Bristol Blenheim Mk IV, of No.14 (RAF) Squadron, bombs Massawa in the night of 18 – 19 January (22h00 – 02h40), during which several propaganda leaflets are dropped in order to incite, without success, the local population to revolt. Three hits are claimed against the searchlights of the naval base. [2]

After a long pause, No.237 (Rhodesia) Squadron found some activity as three aircraft (Lysander L4676, Hawker Hardy K4314 and K5921) patrolled all day over the Kassala and Tesseney areas in support of reconnaissance troops of the 4th Indian Infantry Division. [3] Gloster Gladiator and Hawker Hurricane, of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron, make several sorties during the day to keep away the enemy fuighters. An encounter with five Fiat CR.42 is reported late morning, although without confrontation. [4]

Southern Front

In preparation for the new attack against El Yibo, the 8th S.A. Field Battery, several additional armored car of No. 2 S.A. Armored Car Company and the 2nd S.A. Field Force Battalion were sent to reinforce during the night of 18 – 19 January. The new attack is launched, starting at 08:15, when the 18-pounder guns of the South African artillery fire on the Italian positions for about thirty minutes. At 08:50, three Hawker Hartbees, of No.40 (SAAF) Squadron, arrive on the sector to support the troops on the ground. As in previous days, the Natal Mounted Rifles launch frontal assaults with bayonets, pushing the traditional Zulu war-cries.

According to a pilot of No.40 (SAAF) Squadron : 

“We airmen could not understand why the commander did not outflank the position but persisted in a frontal attack (…) in the event when we saw the bayonets of the NMR glinting as they went forward there was not a shot against them. We could see the dead sprawled in the trenches from our biombing and the artillery.” [6]

The diary of Douglas Baker is very succinct on this last assault :

“On the following morning, El Yibo was occupied by the NMR. In fact the bird had flown the night before.” [7]

The South African soldiers do not find many italians on the spot, just an Italian officer and nineteen irregular killed and two wounded. In the afternoon, the 2nd S.A. Field Force Battalion is able to occupy the well of El Sardu without any opposition. However, the well was sabotaged and the troops were forced to abandon the position, which no longer has any interest, in the afternoon. The South African press is then in a position to announce the triumphant victory achieved by its troops who captured a heavily fortified Italian position without suffering any loss : “a record that would be difficult to parallel in moderne British military history”.

Nevertheless, the reality quickly appears after the interrogation of one of the rare prisoners: El Yibo and El Sardu were occupied only by a detachment composed of seven Italians as well as a hundred irregulars of Banda and nine machine guns. The rest fell back on Hobok. Needless to say, General George E. Brink (1st South African Division) is far from satisfied when he receives the first reports, while General Alan G. Cunningham notes that :

“Bichanan’s brigade had had it rather soft at the Shangri-la oasis of Marsabit and at Gil Gil’s coop green parklands. (…) The armoured cars had been mismanaged, being given conflicting orders by all and sundry. (…) The Armoured Cars’ job is to locate and report the extent of the enemy position, to find the flanks and depth, and to get this information to the infantry as quickly as possible. Their fire power I look on during this period as protective and not offensive, and they should only use it offensively when more information cannot be gained without it. After the infantry have been informed, the role of the Armoured Cars may be to pin the enemy by getting behind him, to enable the infantry to develop their encircling movement, and if necessary to give supporting fire and help the infantry on.

 


[1] The case of the French forces (Bridage French Orient) will not be discussed here, but later in a specific chapter depending on the evolution of my research.

[2] No.14 (RAF) Squadron : Operations Record Book (Form 540 and Form 541). Kew : TNA, AIR 27/192.

[3] No.237 (Rodesia) Squadron : Operations Record Book (Form 540 and Form 541). Kiew : TNA, AIR 27/1450.

[4] No.1 (SAAF) Squadron : War Diary. Kew : TNA, AIR/54/1.

[5] ORPEN Neil. East African and Abyssinian Campaigns, Raid on El Wak : http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/UN/SouthAfrica/EAfrica/EAfrica-6.html ; KATZ, David Brock. South Africans versus Rommel : The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War II. Stackpole Books, 2017.

[6] J.-A. BROWN, The War of a Hundred Days, Springboks in Somalia and Abyssinia (1940 – 1941), Johannesburg, Ashanti Publishing, 1990, p.110.

[7] KATZ, David Brock. South Africans versus Rommel : The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War II. Stackpole Books, 2017.

[8] ORPEN Neil. East African and Abyssinian Campaigns, Raid on El Wak : http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/UN/SouthAfrica/EAfrica/EAfrica-6.html

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