Until now the situation of the two belligerents was relatively balanced and oriented towards a wait-and-see attitude or at least a defensive attitude. On the Italian side, this strategy corresponds to the orientations of the Duce and the General Staff. Isolated geographically, poorly prepared and lacking modern equipment, the Italian troops have no interest in embarking on a more offensive strategy. While some attacks are launched during the summer of 1940, they are more to strengthen the lines of defense by capturing the main border forts controlling access to water points and road infrastructure. The conquest of British Somaliland has the same objective of eliminating an opposing enclave and shortening the front to be covered. The idea, conveyed by some authors, that the Italians have missed the opportunity to inflict a serious setback on British forces must be strongly relativized. First of all, the situation of the British is far from being so weak with the gradual arrival during the autumn of reinforcement from India, South Africa, as well as from various African colonies. In addition, an offensive towards Sudan would have been a logistical nightmare for the Italians given the size of the area to cross to go toward Egypt and the absence of any infrastructure. In addition, we must not forget the need for the Italian troops to fight a rebellion in area of eastern and northern Ethiopia.
On the British side, this strictly defensive position can be explained by the need to strengthen the forces on the ground and especially to train inexperienced troops. Nevertheless, East Africa is in the thinking of the British Command and General Archibald Wawell. He is aware of the need to secure his rear lines and logistics before considering a victory in North Africa. The Red Sea is one of these vital arteries. As a result of the closure of the Mediterranean Sea, the needs can only go in two directions: the Indian Empire or bypassing Africa. In both cases, the ships must cross the Red Sea to access Egypt, that is to say within reach of aerodromes and Italian ports. In addition, the Italian presence has the consequence of classifying the Red Sea as a war zone, which excludes the navigation of any American ship. It is therefore essential to eliminate this danger.
Without going into the details of the British strategy, which will be discussed later, the situation changes gradually in October for several reasons. First, there is a change in command with the arrival of General William Platt in Sudan and Alan Cunningham in Kenya with instructions to relaunch the offensive spirit. Then, significant reinforcements are progressively deployed on both fronts.
Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham, the new Commander-in-Chief for Kenya (East Africa forces). Collection : Imperial War Museum.
Finally, a double political pressure is imposed by General Jan Smuts, the South African Prime Minister, to obtain a victory during the first half of 1941, as well as by Winston Churchill. Pending a simultaneous offensive on both fronts for the beginning of 1941, decision is nevertheless made to launch a series of progressive attacks to strengthen the starting positions and train the troops.
The first begins on 6 November 1940, in Sudan, taking advantage of the arrival of the first elements of the 5th Indian Division General William Platt decides to prepare an attack to reclaim the border position of Gallabat. He can used the Sudan Defense Force, the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade and eight Matilda of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment. The clash turns, initially, in favor of the British who quickly take the position with heavy losses for the 27th Italian Colonial Battalion. Following the initial success, Brigadier Willaim Smit, in charge of the units, is instructed to continue in the direction of Metemma where the Italian position is nevertheless stronger. In parallel, the Regia Aeronautica receives the order to concentrate all its forces to support the Italian troops. The aerial battle that engages turns to the advantage of the Italians who conquer the air superiority. From the first day, the K Flight and No.1 (SAAF) Squadron are virtually eliminated as a fighting force with the loss of five Gloster. The South Africans also deplore the loss of their squadron leader. On the ground the situation is hardly better and General Slim is forced to order a general retreat while destroying the equipment remained on the spot so the last three Matilda available. The losses amount to about 200 men.
This first battle marks a first turning point in East Africa as it is the last Italian victory and British defeat. At the same time, the Italian decision to concentrate Regia Aeronautica in a specific sector shows real limits in terms of logistics. Suffering from an absence of any possible reinforcement, obliged to disperse more and more these units to intervene on the various zones of confrontation, the Regia Aeronautica will not be able any more to concentrate its forces against the British offensives. This at a time when the RAF and SAAF are able to receive more more modern aircraft like Bristol Blenheim and Hawker Hurricane.
On the southern front, a similar operation was launched on 16 December 1940 in the direction of El Wak with elements of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, the 24th Gold Coast Brigade and the 1st South African Light Tank Company, under the orders of General Dan Pienaar.
Le General Dan Pienaar, commandant de la 1st South African Infantry Brigade. Collection : Imperial War Museum.
The attack is a success and the Italian position falls before the end of the day. Without going into the details of this battle, rather minor in its objective and scale, it allows to highlight several elements. First, there is the air superiority by the presence of the South African Hawker Hurricanes. In parallel, No.40 (SAAF) Squadron’s Hartbees are able to ensure very good cooperation with ground troops, while several Junkers Ju.86 of No.12 (SAAF) Squadron are sent to bomb italian positions before the assault. On the ground, the action is conducted with a very good coordination between the infantry and motorized troops to bypass and cut the enemy lines of retirement, which illustrates the future aspect of operations on the southern front.
Finally, the political aspect is strongly present with the choice of the date of the attack at the request of the South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts. 16 December is Dingaan’s Day in South Africa, a sacred event in Afrikaner nationalist mythology, when about five hundred Voortrekkers under the orders of Kapitan Andries Pretorius and Sarel Cilliers win a major victory against the Zulu troops in the battle of Blood River in 1838. Jan Smuts wishes to attract the support of the nationalist circles and the majority of the white Afrikaner population relatively hostile to the idea of fighting alongside the British Empire, while strengthening the position of the South Africans troops. As proof, he hastens the following days to propose the sending of an additional South African division.
El Wak’s victory marks the second turning point in events in East Africa with one of the first Italian defeats in this theater of operations, while providing the first elements of future allied success on the southern front: a “blitzkrieg” with motorized troops, a willingness to bypass the defenses by multiple movements, the conquest of air superiority and cooperation with troops on the ground, but also a very strong political influence in the choices. On the Italian side, this very relative failure is nonetheless clearly evident since General Gustavo Pesenti, commander of the Juba sector, is immediately replaced by Carlo de Simone (at the head of the offensive against British Somaliland). In addition, the Italian reports express strong concern over the total inefficiency of anti-armor ammunition, mostly from stocks captured during the conquest of British Somaliland.