The defeat of the Italians in East Africa

The defeat of the Italians in East Africa

The campaign in East Africa opened, with the occupation by the Italians of British Somaliland; this provided the Italians with the opportunity to strengthen their control over the southern mouth of the Red Sea. Following this "wonderful victory" Mussolini declared total embargo of Britain's colonies and settlements in Africa and the Mediterranean basin. This was the peak of Italy's achievements in World War II.

On December 2, 1940, General Archibald Wavell, Commander of the Middle East High Command, met in Cairo with Lt. General William Platt and Lt. General Alan Cunningham, Commanders of British Forces in Sudan and Kenya. Platt was ordered to organize a revolt in Ethiopia and re-occupying Kassala in February 1941. To carry out these missions he was assigned the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions. Cunningham needed to put pressure on the Italian Somaliland and at the end of the rainy season - in May or June - advance to Kismayo (within Italian territory). Cunningham was given the 1st South African Divisions, and the 11th and 12th African Divisions. These two campaigns, which were conducted from Khartoum and Nairobi, from bases two thousand kilometers apart, were described by military historians as the fastest pincer movement ever carried out."

And so while Wavell planned the offensive against the Italians in Libya, he laid the groundwork for two ambitious campaigns that might, if successful, eventually clear one of his transport arteries - the long way round the Cape of Good Hope and up the Red Sea.


Instead of the Italians advancing to Khartoum, as might be expected, they were deceived by small British raids and believed that they were facing much stronger forces than were actually under General Platt's command. Unexpectedly, the Italians evacuated Kassala in mid-January 1941, and thus Platt could launch his attack earlier than planned, crossing the Eritrean border on the 20th of January, reached General Luigi Frusci and defeated him at the Battle of Agordat on the 31st of the month. The Italians took shelter in their mountainous stronghold Keren at the point where the Kassala –Asmara road goes through a giant gorge. The Italians fought well; their force numbered 30,000 infantrymen, including elite formations of the Italian army, Bersaglieri, the Alpini and the Grenadiers of Savoy - with 144 guns. The vital area in the Italian deployment was the Dologorodoc Fortress. And after it fell the Italians made 8 counter-attacks, sustaining heavy losses amongst their forces. The death of General Lorenzini, the commander who was the living spirit in the Italian defense, weakened the garrison. The fort fell on March 27, at the cost of 4,000 British casualties and 3,000 Italians. The fall of Keren broke the back of Italian resistance in Eritrea. 8 Commando Regiment with had some soldiers from the land of Israel, participated in the battle for Keren). On April 1, Asmara was captured with 10,000 prisoners, and the vital port of Massawa fell three days later. Nevertheless, the Italians fought in Eritrea far more effectively than Graziani's army in Libya.


Meanwhile, ignoring the rains, on January 24th Cunningham started to advance and struck the Italians at the Juba River on 16th February. Wavell now permitted further advance,. Cunningham's army, though small in numbers, had great mobility. He set up a transport logistics deployment that included 40 companies of 75 trucks of 2-3 tons each. Between 0600 on the morning of 23 February and 1700 on 25 February, a 450-strong reinforced African motorized brigade moved 450 km to Mogadishu - capital of Italian Somaliland. This was an unprecedented operation. In Mogadishu they captured 1,400,000 liters of fuel and 320,000 liters of aircraft fuel

The weakness of the Italian resistance encouraged Cunningham to seek Wavell's permission to advance to Harar, via Jijiga - a distance of 1,200-kilometeron the paved road.

Cunningham set out on March 1 and after advancing 900 km - made contact with the Italians in Daggabur on March 10, continued his advance and captured Jijiga on March 17. Meanwhile, a small force left Aden and recaptured Berbera on March 16. This shortened Cunningham's maintenance line. Jijiga is located 2,500 km from Kenya, but only 320 km from Berbera. Cunningham continued his advance, passing the Marar Mountain Pass and capturing Harar on March 25. He had covered 1600 kms in 30 days passed. - An average of 55 km per day.

The Italians withdrew from Addis Ababa on 4 April. After a battle fought at the Kombolcha Mountain pass, Cunningham captured Dassie on April 20th. The army of the Duke of Aosta dug-in in Amba-Allagi. But now the pincer movement closed - Cunningham to the south and Platt to the north. Aosta whose water sources were damaged surrendered unconditionally on 18 May.

The Italian empire in Africa came to an end with hundreds and thousands of its soldiers. On May 5, Emperor Haile Selassie entered Addis Ababa, the first of the legal rulers to be expelled from his throne and country by the Fascist-Nazi criminals and the first to return victorious.

Guerrilla warfare which was waged with expertise in Western Ethiopia and in which Colonel Orde Wingate excelled, also contributed to this result.