16 December 1940

16 December 1940

Northern Front

The day is again very eventful over Port Sudan. Three Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 of 44bis Gruppo BT attacked the harbor at 11:45. Three Gloster Gladiator of K Flight and a Hawker Hurricane of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron are able to take off to intercept the bombers. Flying Officer Robert H. Chapman (K6143) is the first to open fire on the second and third Italian aircraft of the formation. The attack does not seem successful and he exhausted all of its ammunition. He is followed by Pilot Officer Alan Tofield (K7974), without much success. His aircraft is also hit by machine gun fire, which forced him to break off the fight with the radiator damaged. Finally, the Pilot Officer S.R.F. McPhee (L7619) also made several passes, on the same formation, before having to return to land, the propeller damaged by enemy fire.

The three British pilots claimed several hits, without having been able to damage the Savoia-Marchetti SM.79. They are, however, replaced by the Hawker Hurricane of Captain Kenneth W. Driver (no. 274). If the first two bombers managed to escape into the clouds, the third eventually fell in flames (two crew members jumped by parachute).

The fights are not yet finished and a second formation of three Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 of the 44bis Gruppo BT cames after the first, at 12:30. The British and South African pilots are completely taken aback, in full refueling, and only a Gloster Gladiator and a Hawker Hurricane manage to take off without being able to catch them.

Finally, a last group of four Italian bombers is reported at 12:50. This time, two Gloster Gladiator and two Hawker Hurricane are able to take off. Major Lawrence A. Wilmot (n°285) is, however, the only one who can intercept them. He managed to damage the last one (engine stopped) before losing sight of it. He is, however, credited with a victory.

Throughout the confrontation, the Italians admit the loss of one aircraft, as well as two others damaged (including three dead and seven injured). The bombing hit, in particular, the Suakin military camp with serious damages, while four Indian soldiers are killed, as well as three others wounded. Two additional Hawker Hurricanes: No. 272 (Captain Brian J.L. Boyle) and No. 273 (Lieutenant Andrew Duncan) arrived in the afternoon. [1]

A Hawker Hurricane Mk I, of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron, in Sudan. Unfortunately, the identification number is difficult to see, but it could be n°273 (ex-L1711). This aircraft was destroyed on 5 March 1941 by Lieutenant Dennis L. Taylor, following an accident while landing at Port Sudan. Collection : Imperial War Museum.

 

The day also marks the sad end of the Escadrille d’Aden. As usual, the Glenn Martin 167F n°102 (Flight Lieutenant Jacques Dodelier, Warrant Officer Yves Trecan, Flight Sergeant Robert Cunibil and Ronan Michel) take off for a sortie above Ethiopia. Approaching Dire Dawa, they are attacked by two Fiat CR.32 of 410 Squadriglia CT.

Sottotenente Alberto Veronese quickly manages to damage the Glenn-Martin, whose right engine is cut. He must, however, break the fight and land, victim of discomfort probably due to lack of oxygen. Sergeant Maggiore Athos Tieghi begins his attack. The Glenn-Martin 167F n° 102 crashes in flames near Dire Dawa, killing Jacques Dodelier. Yves Trécan managed to jump, but his parachute got caught on the tail, which led to his death. Ronan Michel is also dead, having apparently not been able to equip himself with a parachute.

The only survivor, Robert Cunibil will be taken to the prison of Addis Ababa where he finds Pierre de Maismont. The captivity is particularly hard, since they are brought before a court as irregular fighters, condemned to death, but pardoned by the Duke of Aosta, viceroy of Ethiopia. Unfortunately, Italians “forget” to inform them of this grace. They will be released on 26 April 1941, by the British advance.

The story of the Ecadrille d’Aden stops at this date due to lack of aircraft and crew. The rest of the staff returns to Egypt under the command of Sergent-Chef Étienne Poisson. The record of the five months of operation is particularly heavy as six of them were killed : Capitaine Jacques Dodelier and Roger Ritoux-Lachaud, Adjudant-Chef Officer Yves Trecan, Adjudant  Raymond Rolland, Sergent Emile Lobato de Faria and Ronan Michel, while two others were captured: Lieutenant Pierre de Maismont and Sergent-Chef Robert Cunibil. The other members (ground personnel) known are: Sergent-Chef Étienne Poisson, Sergent René Bauden, Roger Méry and Joseph Portalis, Soldat Jean Cassan, Guy Delautre, Raphael Delpino, Robert Montillaud and Jean Pinson.

Note that despite the dissolution of the Escadrille d’Aden, No.8 (RAF) Squadron still has French in these ranks. Flying Officer René Loiseau (mentioned under the pseudonym of Montcalm) is born on 25 June 1908 in Paris and the former director of the Indochina Bank in Addis Ababa. His name appears in the No.8 (RAF) Squadron ORB from 18 August. However, he fly exclusively on Bristol Blenheim with various British crews, and does not participate in any of the Escadrille d’Aden’s missions. Flight Lieutenant René Bonnafe joined the unit on 20 December 1940. The latter is a former aviator of the Marine Nationale (since 1922) before transfer to the Armée de l’Air in 1934, with the rank of Capitaine. Based in Syria at the time of the defeat, he decided to continue the fight alongside the British. Unfortunately, only limited details of his presence in the British squadron are available.

Southern Front

The main event that concentrated all the activity is the start of the Battle of El Wak. The latter constitutes the second stage, after Gallabat (6 November 1940) of the plan to prepare the troops of the British Empire for the future offensive of early 1941. However, the operation relating to El Wak differs in many points with three essential objectives:

  • to provide combat experience to the South African and colonial troops that make up almost the entire force of General Alan G. Cunningham in Kenya ;
  • strengthen cooperation between these two entities ;
  • provide a political pledge to the Prime Minister of South Africa.

These elements dictate the choices for the attack on El Wak.

The goal is to move towards a relatively simple objective through a limited attack. Unlike Gallabat, it is not necessary to occupy part of Italian territory as a future launching pad, but only to face the Italians in a very specific place. Once the attack is successful, the troops will have to retreat to their lines (18 December) after retrieving or destroying all of the enemy’s equipment. The main objective remains the lesson to be learned, as well as the acquisition of experience in order to prepare the future offensive towards Italian Somaliland. This simplicity also makes it possible to minimize the risk of failure in order to boost the morale of South African and British colonial troops.

This offensive also aims to be a political asset for the Prime Minister of South Africa Jan Smuts. In a strongly divided country, within the white community, between the partisans of the alliance with the British Empire and the nationalists opposed to any implication in a conflict considered strictly European, a certain number of compromises are made. These agreements therefore have the consequence of limiting South African military participation. This situation in no way corresponds to the political vision of Jan Smuts. This one is deeply obsessed, since its political beginnings, by three big ideas. One internal to South Africa is that of a search for union between the two components of the white population: in this case the Anglo-Saxons and Afrikaners. He thus considers this military adventure as a means of forging a common spirit through trials. The second major dominant in his political vision is on the international order. He is one of the essential actors in the constitution of the League of Nations after the WWI, even if part of his ideas were rejected by the United Kingdom and France, in particular that of the creation of a permanent body, relatively close to the current Security Council of the United Nations, and having the capacity for military action against a State which does not respect international legality. In this sense, intervention in Italian East Africa seemed to be a means of subsequently restoring a legal situation violated by the Italians. There is a final vision, that of the establishment of a large South Africa grouping together the Union of South Africa and all the British colonies under the Zambezi river, plus the south of Portuguese Mozambique. This great South Africa would then be able to bring progress to the entire African continent, which would be liberated by negotiation from the European colonial empires. Here again, the expulsion of the Italians and the re-establishment of the Emperor Hailé Sélassié, thanks to the prestige which ensues, is in conformity.

It is therefore necessary to turn South African public opinion as quickly as possible. A first victory, however small, is essential on this point, even if it is exaggerated in the press. Conversely, a defeat would be catastrophic, hence the need to avoid a risky operation. The political impact is perfectly visible in El Wak because of the choice of the day. 16 December is, in effect, the Dingaan Day commemorating the victory of the Voortrekker Boers against the Zulu, supposed to be unexpected (16 December 1838). This victory is quickly crowned like a true myth by the nationalist construction (and conscience) birth of the Afrikaners. More than a myth, it becomes the symbol of the alliance forged with God in order to dictate the predestined of the white tribe of Africans. Jan Smuts then sought to establish a certain affiliation between Dingaan Day and the Battle of El Wak. South Africa’s military participation in the liberation of Ethiopia (and more generally in the conflict) is only a continuation of the divine alliance supposed to guide the Afrikaner community.

The attack targets the El Wak border fort. The position is far from impressive. A small village of a few huts, as well as a rectangular fort made of dried mud walls. A rocky desert, and a few scattered brush elements. On site, only a Colonial Battalion (191st Colonial Battalion), as well as some Banda and three light artillery batteries. Morale is relatively low. The opposition is far from the elite of the Italian army described by the South African press. Opposite, the British Empire with the Pineforce (1st South African Brigade, mainly the Royal Natal Carbineers and the 1st Transvaal Scottish, as well as the 1st South African Light Tank Compagny, in reality Bren Gun tracked vehicles, under the command of Brigadier Daniel H. Piennar) and the Dickforce (24th Gold Coast Brigade, under the command of Major-General Douglas Dickenson). To these ground troops can be added an aerial component consisting of four Hawker Hurricane of No.2 (SAAF) Squadron, three Junkers Ju.86 of No.12 (SAAF) Squadron and two Hartbees of No.40 (SAAF) Squadron.

According to a South African soldier :

“ We were into that blazing village, the smoke drifting, the Italian colonial soldiers sprawled in their rifle pits, the ground scarred by our artillery and the deadly flat craters of our mortar fire. Foxton firing from the hip, was in the forefront of bayoneteers probing dugouts for fugitives. Then suddenly… all was quiet again… we stood, smoke-grimed and sweating, gulping water from Italian water-bottles.”

If this vision is somewhat exaggerated, it is clear that the confrontation is limited. Losses are limited on both sides (102 dead or missing on the Italian side, probably less in reality, two on South African sides, as well as four injured). South African soldiers charge with bayonets and Zulu cries. The “rhino” tankette (the local modification of Bren Guns) charge in line, with roaring sirens to scare the opponent. Everything is finished at noon.

More interesting than the confrontation, several lessons are learned. First of all, logistics appears in all its difficulty. Despite a reduced distance, 177 km between the headquarters and the battlefield, only one road is avaiable (whose condition is deplorable) for vehicles which are forced to transport all the equipment and water reserves for five days : 1 200 vehicles needed to provide logistics for a minor confrontation. Six hours of marches are, moreover, necessary to connect the battlefield, implying an extreme fatigue of the troops. On the South African side, vehicle drivers have never used the scarce vegetation to camouflage themselves, making all of the logistics vulnerable to air attack. A lack of discipline is also to be noted, the different formations often not having followed the orders to the letter (reinforced, it is true by absolute radio silence). Finally, the lack of experience of the staff is strongly highlighted. [2]

Concerning the strictly aerial side, what interests us most here, we note a flagrant evolution compared to Gallabat. During this offensive, Regia Aeronautica had been able to intervene actively in order to obtain air superiority, in particular by quickly eliminating  the No.1 (SAAF) Squadron and the K Flight, in order to lock the battlefield, allowing bombers to operate efficiently. The bombardment, coupled with artillery, on rocky terrain unsuitable for defense had the effect of blocking the advance and ultimately causing a panic among British troops. It is clear that the situation is very different in El Wak and Italian aviation is almost absent (according to the documentation available, only one Caproni Ca.133 dropped a few bombs) during the day of 16 December.[3] An intervention will take place the next day, but remains very shy with three Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 and three Caproni Ca.133). In any case, South African and British troops are starting their withdrawals as planned during planning and this late action by Regia Aeronautica have no effect.

However, this apparent failure must be put into perspective. First, the geographic location is not the same. Gallabat’s offensive takes place along the northern border of Sudan, in an area where Regia Aeronautica has a greater concentration in terms of airfields and aircrafts, which favors quick reaction. Conversely, the Regia Aeronautica in southern Somalia and Ethiopia is more limited, particularly with fighters and modern bombers. According to the diary of Tenente Tardini on 13 December 1940 [4], the Regia Aeronautica has only twelve Caproni Ca.133 and three IMAM Ro.37bis in the southern sector. In his case, the 8a Squadriglia BT (25bis Gruppo BT) is reduced to only four Caproni Ca.133 in flight condition.

In addition, at Gallabat, the advantage of Regia Aeronautica is obtained by a redeployment to support the Italian defense. This redeployment implies a logical delay. The brevity of the battle of El Wak (one morning, with a withdrawal the next day) can only favor an attacker, unlike the defender who will need to react. As proof, we note on 17 and 18 December a number of movements, for example, six Fiat CR.42 of the 413a Squadriglia CT or Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 of the 29bis Gruppo BT. It is, therefore, obvious that a reinforcement is taking place. Thus, two IMAM Ro.37bis are sent in reconnaissance on El Wak, in the afternoon of 18 December, while several bombings take place during the night.

Certainly, for the first time, the aviation of the British Empire (in this case the South Africans) is able to exercise full control of the sky and effectively support the action of the troops on the ground, while at the same time Regia Aeronautica is absent. However, subsequent reinforcements demonstrate that the situation could potentially have turned in the opposite direction in the event of a longer offensive. The reduced time of the battle for El Wak actually dictated the air battle.

In any case, the South Africans are able to line up four Hawker Hurricane of No.2 (SAAF) Squadron to patrol the area. We know the identity of two pilots : Captain Frank J.M. Meaker and Lieutenant John R.R. Wells or John S.R. Wells. The latter damaged his Hawker Hurricane (propeller and tail wheel) during the landing at 14:30.[5] No.12 (SAAF) Squadron is also present with three Junkers Ju.86 who opened the battle by taking off from Habaswein at 07:25 to drop several bombs against the fort and the village in preparation for the ground attack.[6] The results seem limited and the crews indicate in their reconnaissance reports that El Wak was not damaged.

Thus, most of aircrafts are provided by the No.40 (SAAF) Squadron : nine Hartbees carry out seventeen sorties (forty hours and twenty-four minutes), alternating between reconnaissance in order to follow the advance of the troops, and some attacks on targets of opportunity from 08:00. Communication, however, remains complicated with ground troops due to the lack of radio. Crews continue to drop old-fashioned written messages, while no developments can be reported after takeoff. This situation greatly limits air – ground cooperation. [7]

Bombing of an Italian column by a Junkers Ju.86 of No.12 (SAAF) Squadron with Captain Bert Rademan in command. The photo is taken by Air Sergeant George van Rhyn. Collection : Lawrie Shuttleworth, via Tinus le Roux.

 

Despite the success of the day, we must recognize the weakness of the SAAF, which is mainly based on the Hartbees particularly vulnerable to Italian fighters. While four Hawker Hurricanes are available, they could hardly have been active for the entire day, even if aircrafts have the advantage of being close to the battlefield.

Hartbees, of No.40 (SAAF) Squadron, over El Wak. Collection : SAAF Museum, via Tinus le Roux.

[1] Logobook Captain Brian J.L. Boyle ; SHORES, Christopher ; RICCI, Corrado. Dust Clouds in the Middle East – The Air War for East Africa, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Madagascar, 1940 – 1942. London : Grub Street, 2010 (Reprinted). p. 86 et 87.

[2] For more information on the Battle of El Wak, the reader may refer to the following sources : BROWN James Ambrose. Springoks in Somalia and Abyssinia (1939 – 1941). Johannesburg : Ashanti Publishing, 1990. p. 88 à 92. STEWART Andrew. The First Victory : The Second World War and the East African Campaign. Yale University Press New Haven and London, 2017. p. 117 à 118. The South African Military History Society. COETZEE Emile. El Wak or Bust : http://samilitaryhistory.org/lectures/elwak.html. BENTZ Gustav. From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh: The Union Defence Force’s First Experience of Battle in East and North Africa, 1940-1941. Scientia Militaria South African Journal of Miliatry Studies. Volume 40, Numéro 3 : http://scientiamilitaria.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/1027. ORPEN Neil. East African and Abyssinian Campaigns, Raid on El Wak : http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/UN/SouthAfrica/EAfrica/EAfrica-6.html/

[3] No.2 (SAAF) Squadron, War Diary. Kew : TNA, AIR 54 / 2.

[4] BROWN, James Ambrose. A Gathering of Eagles : The campaigns of the South African Air Force in Italian East Africa (1940 – 1941). Cape Town : Purnell and Sons, 1970. p.95.

[5] No.2 (SAAF) Squadron, War Diary. Kew : TNA, AIR 54 / 2.

[6] No.12 (SAAF) Squadron, War Diary. Kew : TNA, AIR 54 / 4.

[7] No.40 (SAAF) Squadron, War Diary. Kew : TNA, AIR 54 / 79 ; December – Narrative Northern Operations SAAF. Kew : TNA, AIR/54/9.