The War Illustrated No 177 Vol 7 March 31st 1944

THE BATTLEFRONTS by Maj.-Gen, Sir Charles Gwynn> D.S,0. Native troops and native communities in Africa have played apart in the war which I suggest our American friends should not lose sight of when they indulge in criticisms of the Empire and its relations with the coloured races. Their part necessarily has been small, blit we should appreciate the loyalty displayed and the fact that the contribution made was of great strategical value, out of all proportion to the numbers engaged. For example, let me take the Anglo- Egypfian Sudan, a country which I knew in the early years of its occupation after the liquidation of the Khalifa’s regime, and when even the most optimistic never hoped to see it reach its present stage of prosperity, or that its occupation could ever be more than a safeguard of the interests of Egypt, especially her water supply. When Mussolini conquered Abyssinia the strategic importance of the country increased, obviously, though it was equally obvious that so long as Britain could control the Suez Canal route there was no immediate danger, and that Italy had merely acquired a hostage to fortune. In the first year of the war that fact no doubt partly accounted for Italy's attitude of non-belligerency, and it was not considered necessary to strengthen the military forces in the country, although those forces were astonishingly small. They con­sisted primarily of the Sudan Defence Force. TVTa t iv e Sudanese troops commanded by a few British regular officers seconded for limited periods of service, but with educated Sudanese providing the bulk of the officer cadre. To give an idea of the quality of the latter, the first Sudanese to win a British decoration was a young officer of 6 months’ service who, in the earlier fighting at Gallabat, was awarded the M.C. for rallying his platoon with lasting effect when it showed signs of wavering in its first encounter with bombs and other modern weapons. The force, only some 4,500 strong, though highly trained, was organized as an irregular army consisting of self-contained units of great mobility— motorized machine- gun groups and mounted infantry companies, as the nature of the districts in which they were normally stationed demanded. Essen­tially it was an armed constabulary available to support the civil police and to maintain order in outlying areas. In addition, at Khartoum a small number of British and Egyptian units were stationed, partly as a guard to the Headquarters of Government, but mainly as a token of the political status of the country. TV/riDDLE East Position Precarious 1V1 When France Collapsed While Italy remained non-belligerent, beyond patrolling 1,200 miles of common frontier, no action was taken and friendly relations were maintained, British officers on occasion dining with Italians and re­ceiving invitations to visit Italian H.Q. at Asmara in Eritrea. But when the collapse of France and the entry of Italy into the war rendered our position in the Middle East precarious the Italian Army of over 250.000 men in Abyssinia became a serious menace to surrounding British possessions, and General Wavell. requiring everyman he could muster for the defence of Egypt, was unable to reinforce them. British Somali­ land, unless strongly reinforced, was clearly indefensible, especially when the neighbouring French Colony of Jibuti became by the Armistice terms with Italy an Italian ad­vanced base. Its loss in August 1940 had only prestige importance. Kenya was protected by great stretches of difficult country on both sides of the frontier, and reinforced by South African troops seemed unlikely to be seriously attacked. The Sudan, on the other hand, was specially threatened. Even if a major invasion of Egypt through the Sudan seemed to be pro­hibited by great distances, yet its loss might gravely affect the attitude of the Egyptian Government, and a comparatively small force might have secured control of the Nile waters by capturing the great Aswan Dam. Moreover, Eritrea, the headquarters and base of the Italian main forces in Abyssinia, well stocked with material accumulated for the Abyssinian war, gave an easy line of approach to the Sudan at the most vulnerable section of its frontier. A glance at the map shows that Kassala, lying 40 miles from the frontier on the railway from Port Sudan to Kordofan, was the main gateway for in- ic.S b<U atein W aiii,. Haifa' Kareim Miles 100200300 Railways -¦>»>-Roads -----------------K^ f ron tiers -----------Red Khartoum k o r d o zAnE t'OE eid ?1**--^5-\', AhG I-0-^Y ^TIA ^J^.'o Deb r a Mar f cos naLikalJ- "r''x„\ AcLdjslAb'aba'¥ A/"*¦ kobo''**-^ 0'\f6 ABYSSINIA¦ 5 H > 1 i l ^KMonqalia '•*. SELGIAf?''- 'I?'-''^S I f "v-----/“‘~/i C0N6U T /UGANDA V \\KEN Y A/S (.ITALIAN SOMALI0 IMPORTANCE O F SUDAN DEF ENC Eat the time of the Ita lia nth are tin July 1940 is shown above the A n glo-E gyptian Sudan frontier line was within easy reach from Italian E ritre a .Specially drawn for TheW a k I l lust rated vasion, and that farther south. Gallabat, on the main route from Gedaref to northern Abyssinia and Addis Ababa, agave sub­sidiary point of entry. From Kassala the invader could strike direct at Khartoum, with possibly a column co-operating from Gallabat and Gedaref. In the dry season the River Atbara would have been no great obstacle, and with motor transport the lack of water between that river and the Blue Nile would have presented no great difficulty. For political and prestige reasons the enemy might have struck direct at the capital, but at the time I thought it more probable his main objective would be Atbara, where tbe river of that name joins the Nile, and where the railways from Port Sudan and Wadi Haifa meet. The capture of these railways would have meant the Isolation of the whole of the Sudan and would have rendered the recapture of the country an exceedingly difficult operation. Why the Due d ’Aosta did not seize his opportunity but waited till Wavell, having defeated Graziani in Libya, was in a position to reinforce the Sudan and to take the offensive, is inexplicable. He may have had PAGE! 675 no heart in an aggressive war, but he was undoubtedly imposed upon by one of the greatest bluffs in military history ?nd which became more potent when news of Wavcll’s victories in Libya shook Italian morale. Immediately on their declaration of war the Italians began a series of bombing raids on Kassala, Gedarcf and other centres. Their frontier posts, particularly opposite Kassala and Gallabat, were reinforced and there was a concentration at Umm Hagar which threatened an advance on Gedaref. These were indications that an invasion was contemplated, but it was unlikely it would be attempted seriously til! after the rainy season, which had already started in Abyssinia and was soon to begin in the Sudan. F E A RING Desert Frontier Raids by Sudan Defence Force Preliminary attempts to capture Kassala and Gallabat were, •however, expected and though, with the weak forces available, determined resistance at either place was out of the question, in face of a strong attack there was no question of lightly abandoning them. On the contrary, adopting the same offensive policy as Wavell pursued in Libya, the S.D.F. began at once to harass the enemy, raiding across the frontier and ambushing his patrols— the motor-machine-gun group at Kassala-being especially active and succcssful. As typical of its work, one day a patrol bumped into an Italian battalion which promptly dispersed into the bush, firing wildly. A few days later another patrol met the same battalion and, closing to 100 yards range, inflicted heavy casualties on it without loss to themselves. On another occasion an Italian cavalry force 1,200 strong was routed by a machine-gun company. These activities soon established a com­plete moral ascendancy over the enemy and caused him grossly to over-estimate our strength. On July 4,1940, however, he advanced and, supported by aircraft, occupied Kassala and Gallabat. our own troops with­drawing according to plan to previously prepared positions without losing contact or abandoning their harassing tactics. At Kassala withdrawal was in any case necessary during the rains. The enemy having occu­pied these frontier posts settled down into defensive positions. T Tntii. well on in autumn rains caused a lull in October, when the enemy might be expected to make a serious attempt at invasion, offensive patrolling was resumed with renewed strength and vigour newly recruited units had slightly increased our strength, and by constantly changing points of attack the enemy was given the impression that strong reinforcements had arrived. After changing hands several times Gallabat was finally recaptured on November II. The enemy’s morale steadily deteriorated and news of Wavcll’s victory at Sidi Barani, on December 11, did not improve it. Having removed all immediate danger to Egypt at Sidi Barani, Wavell was able at last to reinforce the Sudan and to put into oper­ation his plans for the liquidation of the menace from Abyssinia. On January 18,1941, General Platt’s campaign into Eritrea and Northern Abyssinia was launched, the Italians withdrawing from Kassala on that date. Sudan Defence Force units co­operated with distinction with the various columns of General Platt’s command and with the Emperor’s patriot forces. Space does not permit tome record their exploits in the campaign, but an interesting account of them will be found in the Journal of the Royal African Society of July 1942. To give an example, however, of the tasks they carried out. When an Italian force, 12,000 strong, retired on Debra Marcos, ^two companies of the newly-formed Frontier Battalion of the S.D.F. totalling 300 men sufficed pinto them to their trenches.
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