25 Apr 17

Ethiopian Campaign

The Ethiopian Campaign – 1940-1941

Early Setbacks

Aftermath of an Italian Air-Raid
An 8 Sqn Blenheim Mk1 Khormaksar, June 1940

In June 1940, Italy declared war on Great Britain and France.  In the summer of 1940, they had an empire in East Africa that consisted of Ethiopia (Abyssinia), Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland.  This empire threatened the Sudan to the north, Kenya to the south and British Somalia to the East, as well as the entrance to the Red Sea and Suez Canal.  French Somaliland had passed to the Vichy Government with the collapse of France.  At this time, the Italians were greatly superior in numbers to the British, who were ill-coordinated, and not fully prepared for an offensive.

The Duke of Aosta, in command of all Italian forces in Ethiopia, invaded British Somaliland on 3rd August 1940.  One half of the invading force moved north to seal off French Somaliland from British influence.  The other half, commanded by General de Simone, entered British Somaliland, heading for Berbera.  On 5th August 1940 the Squadron twice struck a MT column that was advancing east along the road to Hargeisa.  Later in the afternoon three Blenheims dive-bombed the convoy which by this time had reached Hargeisa.  Attached to the convoy was a mobile anti-aircraft battery, and this was beginning to be effective when two enemy fighters arrived.  Although one of the Blenheims was shot down, it was later learned that three lorry loads of dead enemy soldiers were removed after the day’s bombing.

The Battle for the Tug Argan Pass

Italian East Africa
De Simone’s March On Berbera

Up until the 10th of the month the Squadron made spasmodic attacks on the Italian troops who were advancing virtually unopposed.  By the 10th of August they had reached the Tug Argan Pass where they encamped on the western side opposite the British position on Observation Hill.  Although they were heavily outnumbered it was here, if possible, that the British meant to hold out and stem the Italian advance.  On this day a flight of Blenheims went to attack the Italian positions.  They flew low over the target area though no troops were seen; possibly they were hidden under thick bush.  On returning to drop their bombs they were attacked by fighters both front and rear.  The Blenheim formation was completely split, and when the number two eventually shook off his attacker and returned home he was surprised to find that he had been reported shot down in flames.

Later the same day, the CO led two other Blenheims to the pass and bombed some camouflaged lorries.  There was an unfortunate incident on the return journey when the aircraft were in echelon because of the low sun.  The leader made a small navigational turn into the formation but the number 3 did not drop down and lost sight of the other two when he put on bank.  The number two pulled into him and both aircraft plummeted into the sea.  There were no survivors.  The third section that day attacked a gun position in the same area, and the army observation post reported considerable damage.

The targets for the next two days were also gun positions in the Tug Argan Pass, but by the night of the 15th it was clear that our military position was untenable, and General Godwen-Austen determined to withdraw.  The withdrawal from the Tug Argan Pass was successful, and by the 18th the Black Watch, the Indian and East African Battalions and the Somaliland Camel Corps had all withdrawn to relative safety at Berbera.  The Hargeisa to Berbera road was then open for 8 Squadron to attack, and there was a successful raid on a large Italian convoy.  On this raid another 8 Squadron Blenheim was shot down, and only the pilot survived.

By the evening of 18th August the evacuation of Berbera was complete well before the Italians reached the town.  So ended the busiest week of the war for 8 Squadron.  Although the evacuation of British Somaliland was done efficiently and successfully, it certainly fostered no satisfaction.  It remained on record as our only defeat at Italian hands.  At this particular time, when formidable events were impending in Egypt and when so much depended on British Prestige, this rebuff caused injury far beyond its strategic merit.

The Campaign from Aden

From the end of August until December 1940, 8 Squadron Blenheims were involved in many raids on strategic targets in East Africa.  They included Hareisa, Berbera, Tandelho (where a large oil fire was started), the naval barracks at Assab where a Flak ship in the harbour caused trouble, and Dessie airfield.

During October, dissident tribesmen caused trouble in the protectorate and the Sqn Vincents flew over 115 sorties before the insurrection was brought under control.  In November, the Vincents were taken under Khormaksar GD Flight control and removed from the Sqn inventory – this greatly simplified operations for the Squadron.

The Flak Ship an Assab Harbour
Bombs Straddling the ship during the first wave of a strike by 8 Sqn on 25th November 1940 The nearest bomb caused many casualties amongst the crew.

Early in December, a new list of decorations was published.  Eight Squadron’s share was two DFMs and Three DFCs – all awarded for a period of less than two months.  On the last day of the year, the Squadron history noted with approval that the Italians had at last taken the hint and had removed the Flak ship from Assab harbour.

By the New Year, operations had settled down to a regular routine and it was unusual for any unusual events to upset the even tenor.  On 16th January the Sqn lost a Blenheim which force landed on the coast of French Somaliland.  One of the 40lb bombs, which would not jettison, blew up during the landing and broke the aircraft in half, also setting it on fire.  The crew were lucky to escape without serious injury.  Before they could be rescued they were captured and interned by the French, but after 3 months they escaped.

Dessie Airfield
Dessie was a regular target for 8 Squadron’s Blenheims It was photographed here on 27th November 1940

In January, the Squadron received 2 Blenheim Mk IV aircraft, which were used for reconnaissance duties.  The bombing offensive shifted from Assab, where the flak had become intense even with the removal of the flak ship, to the airfield and MT park at Dessie.

The British Empire Strikes Back.

General Wavell’s counter-offensive got under way in January 1940.  He planned a double attack on Ethiopia: one from the Sudan under Lt Gen Platt and the other from Kenya under Lt Gen Cunningham.  The backbone of the northern attack was provided by two Indian Infantry divisions; the 4th and 5th.  A battalion of Free French troops from Senegal, and a regiment of the French Foreign Legion joined the Anglo-Indian troops.  The southern group consisted of forces from Britain and South Africa.  At first both sides moved cautiously, each over-estimating the strength of the opposition.  Platt advanced from Kassala on 19th January 1941, crossed into Eritrea, defeated one Italian force at Agordat on 31st January and pressed the Italians back to the heavily defended fortress defile of Keren, which fell on 27th March after heavy fighting.  Platt was then able to advance to Asmara and Massawa and complete his victory in Eritrea before turning south towards Amba Alagi.

Meanwhile, Cunningham had advanced rapidly from Kenya across the border into Italian Somaliland.  By 25th February he had reached Mogadishu.  Deciding it would be better to move at once into Ethiopia before completing the conquest of Italian Somaliland, Cunningham turned North from Mogadishu and made a remarkable advance to Jijiga, which he reached on 17th March.  At the same time, a small allied force advanced through British Somaliland from Aden.  Cunningham then moved west to Harar and Addis Ababa.  The Ethiopian capital fell on 6th April, having been abandoned by the Italians two days earlier, and the Duke of Aosta withdrew to the mountainous retreat of Amba Alagi to join the Italian forces that had been pushed out of Eritrea.   The remaining Italians in Ethiopia he divided into two forces of resistance, one based on Gondor in the north and one south west of Addis Adaba.

Victory in Sight.

End Of The Italian East African Empire

By 9th March 1941 the South African forces were already into Abyssinia and had reached a point less than 100 miles down the Mogadishu road from Jiyiga, and were preparing to attack the town and Diredawa from the air.  In order to stop the Italians from evacuating Diredawa, 8 Squadron was called on to attack the railways and aircraft there.  At the crucial moment, at the beginning of the bombing run, about seven fighters appeared and the Blenheims were badly mauled by them.  One fighter pressed his attack to within 30 yards of the leading Blenheims, and the leader managed to limp back as far as Perim Island, where it was written off in a crash landing.  The rest of the squadron was scattered, one of them taking half an hour at very low level to shake off a fighter.  Later it was decided to do the bombing of Diredawa at night and bombs were used with delay fuses set for as long as 18 hours.  However, once the Hurricanes of the South African Air Force were in range and strafing Diredawa there was no need to bomb at night.  On one sweep the Hurricanes destroyed ten Italian aircraft on the ground and damaged eight others.  In this way the air opposition soon evaporated leaving only some ineffective flak.  An additional task for 8 Sqn at this time was interdiction, mostly attacking railways, trains, and MT columns on the roads.

Final Operations in East Africa.

During April 1941, the operations in British Somaliland were brought to a successful conclusion and the fighting in Abyssinia had moved beyond the Squadron’s range.  As a result of the virtual cessation of hostilities within the sphere of Aden, the Squadron was again reorganised with one flight of Blenheims, the second being made up of the Vincents which were released back from Khorkaksar GD Flight.  In addition to maritime reconnaissance, the Squadron was called on to undertake police patrol and communications work in the Aden Protectorate as well as Somaliland, Abyssinia and Eritrea.  This was at the time of momentous events taking place in North Africa.

During the years flying against the Italians, 8 Squadron flew 832 sorties involving 2,879 operational flying hours.  The following letter was received by the Squadron:

Royal Air Force
Middle East
CAIROApril 1941

To:-   Officer Commanding
         No 8 Squadron
         Royal Air Force.

In my despatches dealing with Operations carried out in the Middle East during the period 13th May to 31st December 1940, I had occasion to mention the work done by No 8 Squadron.

The extract referring to your unit reads as follows:-

“The bombing from Aden in recent months has principally aimed at rendering Assab unusable as a port or airbase and this to a large measure has been achieved. Other objectives have included Dessie and Diredawa with the purpose of destroying resources and dislocating railways, operations in which No 8 Squadron, Blenheims, has been particularly prominent”.

WHL Longmore
Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief



The End Of The Italian Empire In East Africa

Cunningham moved north through Dessie to tackle Amba Algai.  The battle for the pass lasted two weeks and, when finally the Duke of Aosta surrendered on 19th May, he was accorded full honours.  In the South West, Jimma was entered on 21st June and shortly afterwards the remaining Italians in that area surrendered.  The last Italian resistance in Ethiopia ended at Gondor on 27th November when 22,000 Italians under General Nasi laid down their arms.  The Emperor Haile Selassie had already returned to Ethiopia at the beginning of May, five years after he had been forced to flee from his country by the Italian conquest of 1936.  The Italian Empire in East Africa was finished.

Apart from safeguarding the southern flank of Egypt and other British possessions in East Africa, the conquest of Italian East Africa enabled President Roosevelt to lift the embargo on the United States shipping using the Red Sea, which had been imposed on 10th June to avoid American casualties.  American merchant ships could now unload at Suez itself: the increasing number of supplies being sent from the United States for use by the British army in the Middle East.