6 November 1940

6 November 1940

Northern Front

The village of Gallabat is one of the border posts between Sudan and Ethiopia, and controls one of the main roads in the region (with the village of Metemma on the other side of the border). On 4 July 1940, a column under the command of General Pietro Gazzara occupies the various British forts on the border. The Gallabat – Metemma sector is then entrusted to Tenente Colonnello Castagnuola with the 25th, 27th and 77th Colonial Battalion, as well as several Banda formations (irregular troops often from Eritrea or Italian Somaliland). In order to facilitate the future offensive to the north, and to test the relatively inexperienced troops, Major-General William Platt decided to organize a limited offensive to retake Fort Gallabat and, depending on the situation, push towards Metemma. The operation is entrusted to the command of Brigadier William Slim placed at the head of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade, just arrived in Sudan. He has also, for this purpose, eight armored Matilda of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment. The air component is formed by Vickers Wallesley No.47 of (RAF) Squadron and nine Gloster Gladiator of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron and K Flight.

The attack began at 05h30 when the British artillery opened fire towards Gallabat, taking the Italian garrison completely by surprise. At the same time, six Vickers Wellesley of No.47 (RAF) Squadron took off between 02h55 and 03h18, under the command of Flight Lieutenant Graham R. Magill. If the K7733 crashes at takeoff, although with no consequence to the crew, the other five bombers arrive at the target around 05h00 to bomb the fort and the radio station. They are followed by several Vickers Vincent of No.430 (RAF) Flight. Two Hawker Hardy No.237 (Rhodesia) Squadron are also above between 04h55 and 08h35, to cooperate with ground troops.

Things seem to start well for the British and at 08h00 the first elements engage the Italian troops for the control of Fort Gallabat. Despite several Italian counterattacks, the fort quickly falls into the hands of the opponents, and Brigadier William Slim is already starting to consider a movement towards Metemma. However, the events are about to switch, at least initially, on the air.

In order to cover the troop’s progress against the potential Italian bombers, three Gloster Gladiators of K Flight take off : Lieutenant Flight Kenneth H. Savage (L7614), Pilot Officer Jack Hamlyn (L7612) and Henry B. Kirk (K7969). While patrolling east of Metemma, they are totally surprised by a formation of six Fiat CR.42s of 412a Squadriglia CT under the command of Capitano Antonio Raffi. British pilots do not have time to react. Lieutenant Flight Kenneth H. Savage is killed, while Pilot Officer Henry B. Kirk must evacuate his aircraft. If the Pilot Officer Jack Hamyln manages to escape, injured at his foot, he is quickly forced to a crashed-landing with his Gloster Gladiator L7612. From his first fight, the K Flight is now reduced to one aircraft (K7977). The victories are claimed, on the Italian side, by the Capitano Antonio Raffi, Tenente Niso Provinciali and Sergente Pietro Morlotti.

Shortly after, the Italians spot another isolated fighter. This is Major Schalk van Schalkwyk of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron in charge of a reconnaissance flight. He is immediately engaged in combat. Immediately at Heston’s advanced airfield, Captain Brian J.L. Boyle was ordered to take off to assist him. He arrives just in time to see his squadron leader attempt to parachute, the clothes on fire. Severely burned, Major Schalk von Schalkwyk will die the next day despite medical care by the Italians. Now isolated with the Italian fighters, Captain Brian J.L. Boyle has no choice but to try to escape. He finally managed to put his Gloster Gladiator (N5852) severely damaged in friendly lines. Injured, he is evacuated to the hospital of Wadi Seidna. He will receive the DFC on 7 January 1941. The two victories are claimed, respectively, by Capitano Antonio Raffi and Sottotenente Fiorindo Rosmino.

Logbook of Captain Brian J.L. Boyle. Collection : SAAF Museum, via Tinus le Roux.

If Indian troops are able to capture the fort, the loss of air cover allows the Italians to bring into some Caproni Ca.133 who are able to harass the troops on the ground.

To try to turn the situation around, four Gloster Gladiators of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron take off around 13h20 to patrol over Gallabat. They are joined by the latest aircraft of K Flight, the K7977 piloted by Flying Officer Jack M. Hayward. They intercept a Caproni Ca.133 formation, two of which are claimed destroyed by Lieutenant Andrew Duncan and John L. Hewitson (N5824).

They are, however, once again surprised by Fiat CR.42 of 412a Squadriglia CT. The K Flight continues is bad luck and Flying Officer Jack Mr. Hayward is quickly shot and killed. The South Africans are doing better because Lieutenant Johan J. Coetzer and Robin Pare, assisted by the other two pilots, are able to claim two Italian fighters. In practice, 412a Squadriglia CT only reports a damaged aircraft during the day. Tenente Mario Visintini claims a victory during the clash.

n any case, the day ends very badly for the British and South Africans that has lost six Gloster Gladiators, loss three pilots and three others wounded. K Flight is literally decimated, while No.1 (SAAF) Squadron no longer has an officer with a rank higher than Lieutenant. As a result, Air Commodore Leonard H. Slatter is ordered to come quickly to take control.

Air Commodore Leonard H. Slatter, C.O. of No.203 (RAF) Group, Soudan. Collection : Imperial War Museum.

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