8 - 10 November 1940
If the bulk of the battle of Gallabat – Metemma is over, Major General William Platt decides to regain control. He decides to move towards a new method by using the Gazelle Force. This denomination designates a group, under the orders of Colonel Frank Messervy, composed of elements coming from the Indian 5th Infantry Division, in particular a motorized reconnaissance regiment : the Skinner’s Horses. This unit, which in some ways is reminiscent of the Long Rand Desert Group, is tasked with conducting a number of raids on the border to make the area untenable for the Italians. In parallel, with the 10th Baluch Regiment all these actions will gradually force the Italians to retreat to the fortified position of Metemma and abandon Gallabat.
The type of operation conducted by Gazelle Force is illustrated by the memories of Pilot Officer Eric Smith :
« Colonel Masservy tackled his task with great enthusiasm, initiative and audacity achieving remarkable results.
While A and C Flights were fully occupied doing reconnaissance and dive-bombing in the centre and south to keep up the illusion (of strenght) B Flight in the north had been placed under the direct tactical command of this adventurous colone.
They were immediately involved in a whirlwind of wild escapades from stampeding and herding mule caravans into our lines, to the more serious low-level strafing and bombing of strong points as a prelude to attack by Masservy’s mobile force. Modern tacticians would raise eyebrows at our techniques and it might be of interest of descriibe the pattern of these attacks.
The mobile force consisted of seven Rolls-Royce armoured cars (1914 – 1918 vintage), nine ordinary Didge trucks with wooden platforms on the back mounting a single Vickers water-cooled machine-gun. In addition, there wera five Howitzers also of 1914 – 1918 vintage, always tagging a mile or so behind.
B Flight mustered eight Hardys carrying 16 20-lb (9 kg) anti-personnel bombs, one Vickers firing through the propeller and one Lewis gun in the rear, fully guaranteed never to fire more than one pan without a stoppage. Special equipement of the Hardys consisted of a fine pitch wooden airscrew, which over-revved in a dive, set up a beautiful scream, flying wires deliberately set off true, making more vibrations than any amplified modern pop band, and a sack of empty beer bottles for the gunner to throw overboard when hs Lewis gun finally and inevitably stopped. Seriously, these had an effet. They whistled like bombs, made a satisfacoty bang on hitting a desert rock and the glass splinters were equally as lethal as our 20-lb bombs.
The plan was that B Flight would attack first, dive-bombing and machine-gunning. To prolong the suspense some dummy attacks were thrown in for good measure. Under cover of this, Masservy would race his column in, in line astern and keep circling. The Howitzers, being more discreet, shelled from a distance but with remarkable accuracy – as well they had to, not to knock out the circling cars.
From the air, this was not unlike the modern cowboy films with the Red Indians circling covered wagons. Meanwhile the flight would hop back a few miles where our three trucks were waiting at a convenient spot, to land, refuel, rearm and off immediately, back to the attack. Side bets were laid by both ground crews and pilots as to who could land nearest to the trucks. This led to heated arguments when the drivers took evasive action and moved. Pilots claimed that this was unnecessary, drivers being adamant that it was imperative. Under cover of our second attack, Messervy would break off at hight speed, collecting the Howitzers and our trucks en route.
This sort of escapade and other oddities from Masservy’s fertile brain had a somewhat depressing effect on the Italian troops and soon we were warned by our Intelligence thar the Duke of Aosta had issued an order of the day to his fighter pilots, Destroy the Hardys at all costs. In passing, this charming and courteous gentlman confirmed this to me personally when I escorted him down to Nairobi and a POW camp much later.
For B Flight life bacame somewhat tedious. Under considerable harassment, they moved to a new strip every three days. These strips were mere clear sports in the scrub – the smaller and more crooked the better – but they were confined to the vicinity of the Artbara River for water this is the Italians well knew. Sorties became a trifle dicey and often we had to scuttle love for a Balbo made them less effecive. A few sections scattered around would have been deadly to us. All flights now began to suffer casualties and the war took a moch more serious turn. »
At the same time, the air activity remains constant especially for the Regia Aeronautica which continues to send several bombers. The situation is calmer for South African No.1 (SAAF) Squadron who are waiting for reinforcement. Four Gloster Gladiator of No.2 (SAAF) Squadron take off from Kenya to reach Sudan. One of the fighter is however lost on 9 November during the transfer when the Sudanese troops opened fire on the planes. The N5813 is damaged, forcing Lieutenant Ronald Dimmock to land in disaster on a Nile island, 16 km south of Juba.
Two Gloster Gladiator Mk II, from No.2 (SAAF) Squadron flying towards Khartoum to reinforce No.1 (SAAF) Squadron in Sudan. Three aircraft (N5851, N5815 and N5813) took off for this purpose on 9 November 1940 under the command of Captain Gerald J. le Mesurier. Collection : SAAF Museum, via Tinus le Roux.
Gloster Gladiator N5813 of No.2 (SAAF) Squadron. Collection : SAAF Museum Swartkops via Tinus le Roux.
The Gloster Gladiator Mk II, N5813, after forced landing. Lieutenant Ronald Dimmock is only slightly injured. He was killed on 7 May 1941, during a ferry flight from Takoradi. Collection : SAAF Museum, via Tinus le Roux.