The Ethiopian Campaign - 1940-1941
|Aftermath of an Italian Air-Raid|
An 8 Sqn
Blenheim Mk1 Khormaksar, June 1940 (Sqn Archive)
Click Image to Enlarge
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
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
The Battle for the Tug Argan Pass
|Italian East Africa|
De Simone's March On Berbera
Click Image to Enlarge
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
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 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.
Click Image to Enlarge
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 was a regular target for 8 Squadron's Blenheims
It was photographed here on 27th November 1940 (Sqn Archive)
Click Image to Enlarge
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
Victory in Sight.
|End Of The Italian East African Empire|
Click Image to Enlarge
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
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".
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.