On 17 May 1941, when the Third Reich was preparing to launch an airborne attack against Crete where Commonwealth troops were driven out of the European continent for the second time in just one year and Operation Brevity (1) of Marshal Wavell turns to failure, Britain learned the capitulation of the Duke of Aosta, Vice-King in charge of the AOI (Oriental Italian Africa) in Amba Alagi. It is not the end of the fighting, since it will be necessary to wait for the surrender of General Guglielmo Nasi, in Gondar, on 27 November 1941. But the theater of operation loses all interest while the various troops and Squadrons are transferred to North Africa, and with the capitulation of Amadeo di Savoia-Aosta, the East Africa War is Over.
Paradoxically, this victory will make little mention, just a few lines, in the British press. However, this capitulation, which takes place after an extremely rapid campaign (just 100 days) carried out, in particular, by the motorized units of the 1st SA Brigade of General Daniel H. Pienaar, will seal the destiny of this African Italian Empire dreamed by the Duce.
This is one of the first total victories (land, air and sea) won by Commonwealth forces since the outbreak of the war.
In addition, this victory is not negligible on the strategic level :
- secure access to the Red Sea (and, at the same time, the Suez Canal) ;
- improvement of the situation in Egypt by preventing the opening of a second front from the south ;
- elimination of any risk of the Axis being installed in the heart of the African continent (and its wealth) ;
- positive impact on the morale of the Commonwealth at a time of defeat.
Yet this campaign will attract little interest in historical literature and will soon fall into oblivion. Indeed, the campaign takes place in the horn of Africa, an area far from Europe and very little known at the time (which is still, perhaps the case). It occurs at the same time as events considered much more important and, more importantly, much closer (Battle of Britain, operation in the Balkans, preparation for Operation Barbarrosa). Finally, it was carried out, on the Commonwealth side, by African, Indian, Rhodesian and South African troops (whites in the latter case, but bearing names and speaking a language not British), and very few Europeans. In its aerial part, it must be recognized that the duels between Hawker Fury and Fiat CR 32 are much less glamorous than those having opposed the Spitfire to Bf 109 over the Channel.
The focus here will be on the aerial part of this forgotten campaign. However, some clarification on land operations will allow a better understanding of the general framework.
After a few indications concerning the Italian East Africa, as well as the forces involved, the campaign will come, cut in a completely arbitrary way in several phases, in order to make the presentation clearer. Indeed, if it begins when Italy enters the war in June 1940, it will be necessary to wait until the 4 August 1940 to see the Italians take the initiative, by an offensive, which will lead to the occupation of British Somaliland, of which fall on the 16th.
Then, the theater of operations would fall into a long slumber, before waking up in January-February 1941, when the Commonwealth troops launched two offensives : one directed north, led by Indian troops, and another from the south, sith South Africans and colonial troops. The second will quickly turn into success with the taking of Addis Ababa and Amba Alagi in April and May 1941. The last Italian troops will capitulate in Gondar on 27 November, although guerrilla actions will be carried out until 1943 when Italy will join the Allied camp (2).
(1) While the Axis forces are breaking their teeth on Tobruk’s defenses, Marshal Wavell decides to launch a counter-offensive aimed at repelling the enemy, far from the borders with Egypt. This operation will last from 15 to 16 May and will result in a failure of the British.
(2) The colonization of Ethiopia has never been successful, nor has it achieved its objectives (Italian cruelty, rebellions …), but an Italian guerrilla has survived despite a hostile environment without any help from the indigenous population. There are several reasons for this. The first is that 7,000 Italian soldiers will escape captivity. Some of them, fanatized by the propaganda of the Duce, will believe to the end to a reversal of situation, notably thanks to a victory of Rommel in Egypt. There is also the fact that the territory facilitates particularly this type of “resistance”: isolated mountainous areas or deserts. One can add, the very important presence of Italian civilians, maintained on the coast of Eritrea. Finally, if indeed the colonization of Ethiopia was a failure, those of Eritrea and Somaliland will be more solid and many of the Askaris will remain faithful to the Italians.