31 Décember 1940
The last day of December 1940 is relatively calm except a sortie by three Bristol Blenheims, of No.8 (RAF) Squadron, over Assab, where once again reports are limited to noting that “most of the bombs may have fallen in the area of attack – no damage observed”.
This rather insignificant event illustrates quite well operations on the British side during this period. Activity is relatively intense. For example, the four bombing squadrons deployed in Sudan and Aden have recorded nearly 150 operational sorties. However, it is difficult to describe these sorties: they are limited to one or three aircraft sent to different targets to drop a few bombs, almost all the time without being able to give the slightest evaluation of the bombings. In any case, the results are likely to be quite negligible, if not non-existent, in terms of damage.
These raids, however, has a psychological effect that should not be forgotten by maintaining a certain pressure on the Italians and the native troops, while reinforcing the impression of power of the British. They also have an additional impact in the war of attrition that Regia Aeronautica is forced to wage with a very limited reserve of aircraft.
At the same time, some of the Vickers Wellesley are also used to support the Ethiopian “Patriots” in order to disrupt the Italian. Thus, on 31 December No.47 and No.223 (RAF) Squadron succeeded in concentrating six Vickers Wellesley (three for each unit) to mount an attack against the Italian camps of Dangela and Wanbera, between 03:50 and 11;15, in support of the Ethiopian patriots. If all the bombs fall on the target, causing a large cloud of dust, it remains very delicate here again to analyse the result, regardless of the psychological aspect which remains the major objective.
The situation is not much better for the Regia Aeronautica. From 15 December onwards, the latter launched a series of attacks on Port Sudan with its Savoia-Marchetti SM.79s. The British and South Africans responded as two Italian bombers are claimed destroyed the next day by Major Lawrence A. Wilmot and Captain Kenneth W. Driver of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron. At the same time, the Gloster Gladiator K 7974 (Pilot Officer Alan Tofield) of K Flight, is damaged during an interception attempt. However, the air battle over Port Sudan will end on 22 December with a draw due to the weather conditions.
It is true that the RAF and the SAAF are essentially aiming to strengthen after the heavy bloodletting of the Battle of Gallabat. Thus, the month of December is mainly characterised by the deployment of additional aircraft, including several Gloster Gladiators for the K Flight (five aircraft), while five Hawker Hurricanes are transferred by the South Africans to Sudan. The latter have been regrouped with the K Flight to provide protection for Port Sudan (where Indian troops continue to land for the future offensive). At the same time, the rest of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron remains deployed on the border airfields with its Gloster Gladiator.
These events over Port Sudan, however, highlight the failure of the Regia Aeronautica whose bombers are unable to disrupt navigation in the Red Sea and the arrival of Indian reinforcements. This inability can be explained by several reasons. First of all the reaction of the British and South African fighters, even if their impacts remained minor, but also and above all the permanent protection provided by the Bristol Blenheims of No.203 (RAF) Squadron, and more punctually those of No.14 (RAF) Squadron. These aircraft have the consequence of putting the Italians at risk of casualties. The Regia Aeronautica suffered from a real lack of aircraft. The old and slow Caproni Ca.133s are absolutely unable to carry out anti-ship attacks and defend themselves effectively against the enemy fighters in the absence of an escort. They are therefore essentially reserved to operate on the front line in a more favourable situation such as during the Battle of Gallabat.
Of course, there are more modern Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and SM.81. Here again, however, there is many difficulties: the crews are not specifically trained to attack ships ; the relatively small numbers of modern aicrafts discourage the Italian command to employ them in very risky missions with a high risk of loss. The bombings, as in mid-December on Port Sudan, thus took place mainly during periods when weather conditions made it difficult for the British to intercept, but obviously with consequences for the effectiveness of the bombardment.
Conversely, the Italian fighter proved to be very effective in defeating the opposing bombings. The British found themselves in a similar position, preferring to use the obsolete Vickers Wellesley in night attacks, again with little success. This choice did not prevent casualties and one Bristol Blenheim and two Vickers Wellesley were claimed by the Italians, while at least five others were damaged to varying degrees.
However, this success hides an additional problem for the Italians. Almost all of them are won by the 412a Squadriglia CT (and in particular the Tenente Mario Visintini). Here again, the Regia Aeronautica suffers from a crying lack of modern fighters to ensure a real air defence and are forced to concentrate aircrafts, leaving large gaps elsewhere. At the same time, the Italian fighters tried to multiply attacks as at the Goz Regeb airfield (12 December) or Gedaref (27 December). If these attacks are successful, resulting in the destruction of several enemy aircraft on the ground, they illustrate the same problem. They are again and again the work of the 412a and 413a Squadriglia CT, whose aircraft and pilots are gradually being eroded and whose future is increasingly uncertain due to the lack of reinforcement in quantitative and qualitative terms (unlike their adversaries, who are able to compensate their losses).
At the same time, activity on the southern front has been relatively limited for two main reasons: the Regia Aeronautica has aligned few aircrafts and there have been profound changes within the SAAF. The latter now has significant reinforcements with the No.3 (SAAF) Squadron, fully equipped with Hawker Hurricane, and the No.41 (SAAF) Squadron, whose Hartbees, allow for closer cooperation with the ground units whose interest has been shown during the Battle of El Wak. In a more anecdotal way, the No.34 (SAAF) Coastal Flight (Avro Anson) and No.14 (SAAF) Squadron (Martin Maryland) can be mentioned.
This abundance should not make us forget certain limits. Some of aircrafts : Junkers Ju.86, Hawker Fury or Hartbees are obsolete, others such as the Avro Ansons suffer from a deplorable condition making maintenance very difficult, as the Fairey Battle case has shown. It must be noted that South Africans are still largely lacking qualified personnel and material to ensure proper maintenance. However, it cannot be denied that in Kenya they now have substantial aircrafts that are far superior to those of their adversaries. If the Italians, as in the events of 29 December, are still able to dominate the South African fighter, which loses two pilots, it is more due to the superior experience of Italian pilots. Unfortunately, this qualitative human factor can hardly make up for the growing inferiority in terms of the number of aircraft, but also in terms of their quality. The Caproni Ca.133 and Fiat CR.32 can hardly compete with the Hawker Hurricane, Fairey Battle or Martin Maryland.
The two offensives (Gallabat – El Wak) mark the end of what could be defined as the first phase of the East African campaign. The campaign has been characterised by three main elements. Firstly, the British will to neutralise the threat of a blockade of the Red Sea by the Italians through a series of attacks on the ports and airfields of Eritrea.
Certainly, it appears that the Regia Aeronautica will gradually transfer its units to the interior. However, it is difficult to attribute sole responsibility for this to British bombardments. Indeed, the majority are carried out by a small number of aircraft, and the results are often very limited (in this sense, the available records show that crews are often realistic about their actions). It must also be acknowledged that the Italian command is faced with several imperatives: avoiding a war of attrition ; managing a delicate domestic situation ; failure of its own bombing operations or attempts to act on maritime traffic.
Moreover, in accordance with its defensive strategy, Italy saw the need to launch a series of limited border attacks in order to secure the Empire and reduce its lines of defence. Hence the need to redeploy its bombing units to support land operations. The major characteristics of air operations is the extreme extent of the theatre of operations imposing a significant autonomy of the different fronts.
Throughout this period, the British found themselves in a wait-and-see attitude due to a lack of resources on the ground, but with the hope of the exhaustion of their opponent for lack of connection with the metropolis and an initial strategy of isolation and not occupation. The memories of the campaign against the elusive General Von Lettow-Vorbeck during the First World War are surely still present.
In any case, the Regia Aeronautica, in spite of its victories in 1940, finds itself facing a battle that she cannot win. Thus, on 1st January 1941, the Regia Aeronautica has only 132 operational aircraft, including 41 modern bombers (and 52 Caproni Ca.133) and 35 fighters. About 137 aircraft, 83 of which were shot down or destroyed on the ground. By the time the British decided to change their strategy, the Regia Aeronautica had definitively lost its advantage (quantitative and qualitative) and found itself fighting for its survival while actively intervening in ground operations on the three fronts (North, South and inland).
As indicated by General Pietro Pinna:
“We are forced, from now on, to assume a strictly defensive attitude on the entire front and prepare to be subjected to the enemy’s initiative”.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron at Port Sudan with Major Lawrence A. Wilmot. Collection : Imperial War Museum.