Chapter 5


Those “Happy” days in Nairobi came to a sudden end on the 13th January 1941 when we received orders to pack up camp and be ready to move by 1400hrs that afternoon. No time for a fond farewell to those dear friends – the Burgess’, the Balls and the Walmsleys. They would have to wait for letters to tell of our move but they would understand the reason when they heard of the advance into Somaliland. The words of the song “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places, that this heart of mine embraces”, brought back nostalgic memories of our friends in Nairobi.    Our destination was the Tana River at Garissa and Bura, in preparation for the long awaited advance against the Italian forces in Somaliland and Abysinnia.

During the last months of 1940,the build up of South African forces along Kenya’s borders continued as preparations were made for the forthcoming advance into Abysinnia and Somaliland. Gen. Cunningham was determined to move on to the Juba River and Kismayo by February 1941. South African troops had already moved up to Wajir and had raided El Wak in December 1940. From Wajir the forces then moved southeast towards Gurati, Dif and Afmadu. The greatest difficulties facing an advance were the bringing up of supplies and the lack of a good water supply. The SA Engineers were hastily pushing a road through to Colbio from Bura and the search for water was finally successful when bore-holes at Liboi, Hagadera and Galmagulla were able to supply up to 1000 gallons per hour. With the question of supplies solved General Cunningham proceeded with his plans to advance into Southern Italian Somaliland.

When we left Nairobi on the 13th January 1941, we were attached to the 22nd East African Brigade under Brig. Fowkes whose column was to be known as “Fowcol”. The column was soon out into the Kenyan bush country and the road deteriorated rapidly due to the number of army vehicles moving up to the Northern Frontier and the Tana River. We made our first night’s stop near Thika at about 1700hrs where we made camp and our evening meal and then got rid of a lot of pent up energy with a game of rugby.

Soon, a full orange moon rose over the African veld and there was a strange hush and peacefulness save for the crackle of the fires and camp sounds. Harry de Stadler (well known in Fish Hoek soccer circles and who, after the war, was to become Mayor of Fish Hoek) was ordered to collect water in Thika and so some of us joined the “fatigue” in order to buy beer, wine and biscuits at a small Indian trading store. On our return we enjoyed a convivial party and finally crept into our blankets near midnight. Thika was the last little town we would see for many weeks and we would become accustomed to the arid desert areas of NW Kenya and Somaliland.

We were up before dawn on the 14th and by 0600hrs we had had a hurried breakfast and were ready to move off. The day was clear and hot and, already, the heat haze was making the distant hills shimmer. The road was extremely rough and the dust swirled into the backs of the covered trucks and, as we perspired, the dust clung to our faces until we all looked like brown clowns. We jolted and bounced around in the back of the 3 tonners until we were bruised, bored, tired and “browned off”. The South African Engineers were still busy bulldozing the rocky track between Mirwani and Kaningo and the thorn bush gradually thinned out as the desert-like conditions encroached. It was a backbreaking day and we felt bruised, battered and bewildered as we completed the 250-mile trip to Garissa on the Tana River. It was dusk as we reached this most desolate spot and our first task was to make fire and our evening meal. As we slaked our thirst with a warm beer our spirits rose and, as someone strummed a guitar and a mouth organ joined in, there was soon a sing-song on the go. It didn’t last long, however, as everyone was dog-tired and, like the others, I made up my blanket bed, hollowed out a hip-hole and, with a haversack for a pillow, was soon settled down for the night.

The night was clear with a bright, full, orange moon and the African bush veld had its own special sounds. A far-off Jackal called to its mate; there was a distant roar of a lion and the chuckling laugh of a hyena disturbed the silence of the African bush. It was dawn before we knew it and we were on the road again heading southwards along the Tana River. There was no real road now and the dusty track wound its way through tall fever trees to Bura. Two pontoon bridges had been built across the river at Bura and, having crossed to the eastern bank, we met fellows from two other sections of our battery, who had been guarding the pontoon for some time. The tropical heat was intense and the humidity kept us permanently soaked in perspiration.

We finally reached our Camp area and, after settling in and having grub, we were able to go for a swim to cool off and wash off the dust and grime of two days travel. Our enjoyment was short-lived as tragedy struck when Gunner Cox got into difficulties and disappeared in the murky water. Although many attempts were made to locate his body no trace was found for two days when his body was found further down-stream. It was our first tragic moment and left its mark on all the chaps for a long while. He was given a military funeral.

Preparations for an advance to the border continued as the King’s African Rifles Infantry Regiments, Artillery and Stores moved up. One air raid took place but it was only a Recce flying at great height and no bombs were dropped. On 20th Jan Sgt.’s Commerford and Moorhead with two groups moved forward to Galmagulla and the following day we moved up with Sgt. Murray with another convoy. My companions were now Denis de Villiers, Gordon Jolly, Reg Oldridge, Farrell, McArthur and Sgt. Murray. Harry Rose-Innes and Pierre de Villiers were now on another gun crew, but still in the same Section.

The heat, dust, flies and continuing discomfort of bouncing along the ghastly roads took its toll and we became bad-tempered and disagreeable. The tension came to a head when Murray helped himself to an abundance of our precious water supply and, Sergeant or not, we ended up having an almighty row. Engineers were still bulldozing the road to Galmagulla through thick thorn bush and we had to keep a sharp watch for “Banda” and for enemy aircraft. All was quiet though, and, while Moorhead’s group protected the Road construction gang, we moved off to an emergency landing strip nearby. Here we took up gun positions, camouflaged our vehicles and made ourselves comfortable.(See my letter dated 12th Feb. 1941.)

The days were hot and dry and away from the river there was less humidity. We wore helmet, shorts and boots only and were soon as brown as berries. There was little to do except keep a watch out for Banda, so we made ourselves raised camp beds and played records on the gramophone Harry had brought along. Reg Oldridge always enjoyed listening to “Revenge” and “My heart belongs to Daddy”. During the day we sometimes went off into the bush to see if we could shoot any game. At night, in the pitch darkness, we often saw the glistening eyes of animals shining in the bush around us. It was here that one gun crew had a close encounter with a lion. One night they woke when it roared and growled around their tent. One fellow lifted the tent flap and saw the lion at the front of the tent. Panic stations! Stealthily they crept out of the rear of the tent and leapt into the back of their 3 tonner where they spent the rest of the night. Next morning they were still a bit jittery from the ordeal. During our ten-day stay at this spot I took the opportunity to learn to drive the Ford truck, which proved to be invaluable later on. The landing strip was never occupied by the SAAF but one day a Hawker “Hartebeest” and a Hurricane did land there. The only other use made of it was when the KAR played football on it.

At last, on the 8th January, we packed up and moved up to Red Ridge and then on the Colbio on the Somali border. Here there was an atmosphere of expectancy and the whole area was heavily protected with barbed wire entanglements. There was also a forward landing strip and a strong force of Artillery and Infantry. Stand-to at dawn and dusk was strict and we were on constant look-out for air raids. After a few days our section returned to Red Ridge to join an Artillery Group and, on the 12th February, we received further orders for the advance to Kismayu. On the 14th we moved across the border into Somaliland. The advance was slow through Savannah and bush country and the going was extremely rough as there were deep elephant spoor which had been made during the wet season.(See my letter dated 1st March 1941.)

Our armoured cars recce’d up ahead and a Recce plane, a “Hart”, kept the column well informed of developments but we did not encounter any hostile forces. Near a watering place we did see some Somalis with camels but they were nomads and were only curious and perhaps a little concerned about this invasion of their grazing areas. The first real signs of war were seen as we passed a destroyed armoured car and some freshly dug graves. The veld had been set alight by shelling which worried us somewhat as some of the 4-gallon petrol drums were inclined to leak. The billowing smoke caused some inconvenience and burning eyes. All went well, however, and we continued on our way with frequent stops as our forward troops forced the enemy to withdraw. During these stops we managed to fit in a snack lunch and supper while sitting on the trucks.

The convoy kept moving after dark and, despite the brightness of the moon, it was difficult to keep the vehicle in front in view as we dodged around thorn bushes. Finally, we stopped for the night but it was almost midnight by the time we had crawled into our blankets. The stars were bright and clear and all around there was a sudden silence as tiredness manifested itself and we fell into the deep sleep of the weary. Morning came too soon and, after another hurried breakfast, the column advanced to Budana, which was deserted, so we continued the advance towards Kismayu. Once more the heat was stifling and the fine red-brown dust rose in clouds as we pressed on. It was a “Hell-ride” with many stops and long waits but, at last, we heard that Kismayu had been hastily evacuated by the Italians and had been occupied by S.A. forces advancing from Afmadu. We bivvied for the night and received rations and water and then, the next afternoon, Fowcol turned inland on the road to Afmadu. There was fighting at various points along the Juba River, as the main object of our forces was to establish a bridgehead across the Juba River as soon as possible. Our main attacks centered around Gobwen and Yonte and very heavy shelling took place with counter-attacks by the Italian forces. Sgt. Moorhead and his section went ahead with a Recce group to locate a forward campsite and our section followed with Brigadier Fowkes and the main force. The tracks were atrocious and many vehicles sank down to their axles in the deep, soft sand causing us many hours of sweaty, dusty, hard work to do to get them out. Once again we camped late and ravenously ate a meal of Bully, Biscuits and Jam before turning in. The following morning there was a great deal of confusion as, firstly, Sgt. Commerford and two trucks lost themselves and then Lt. Broster lost contact with our attached troops. There was also an air raid warning but we were well dispersed and quite well concealed under the large umbrella thorn trees. We had time to prepare a hot midday meal, for a change, before moving on once more. However, the strain of long hours on the move, the discomfort of the heat and dust gradually took its toll and tempers were frayed and jagged at times. On one occasion Cecil Murray helped himself to a generous couple of spoons of our precious condensed milk and also used an excessive amount of water for a complete wash-down. We were furious and a heated row ensued. Poor Lt. Basil Broster had to intervene once more and gave us a lecture on friendliness and comradeship in the section. We were still “browned off” and his pep-talk didn’t help very much when, a few days later, Sgt. Commerford reported that his section was short of food and our crew was ordered to share out our carefully husbanded rations. Consequently, our displeasure with Cecil Murray took some time to abate.

During the period around the 17th February, while the Battle along the Juba River continued, there was much confusion as orders and counter orders were issued. Eventually, our group with the 11th African Division, including the Nigerian and Gold Coast Regiments with the 22nd East African Brigade, finally moved up to Bulo Erillo and then to Mobruga. This was one of the bridgeheads across the Juba. There were large fires blazing along the far bank of the river and the Artillery were still firing at enemy positions. A force of “Banda” had made an unsuccessful attack but had been driven back and they then hastily withdrew. A pontoon bridge had already been placed across the river and, while other forces crossed, we remained long enough to prepare a meal and some coffee. In the late afternoon a “Hart” recce plane flew along the river and then we moved forward and crossed the Juba. Here the country became greener and more cultivated. There were large gum trees and signs of farms and civilization. We moved on long after dark and Harry de Stadler’s truck broke down so we stopped and towed them in to our night position. So far our only hardship had been the long hours on the move each day and the exhausting conditions of heat and dust. We were thankful that we had not been involved in any direct contact with the enemy in any major enemy action. Sleep that night, however, was disturbed by a plague of small grey beetles. They were quite harmless but crawled over everything and we were eventually forced to sleep on the trucks.

Next day – the 21st February – we moved off again with the Gold Coast and Nigerian Regiments towards Gelib to cut the Main Gelib – Mogadishu Road 18 miles East of Gelib. The S.A. Infantry were rounding up “Banda” Prisoners and collecting captured war material and equipment and we saw the first ravages of war with 25 huts and buildings still burning and the effect of sighting the first dead enemy soldiers was a sobering thought and not a very pleasant experience.

There was more habitation along the coastal strip of Somaliland and the road surface improved tremendously and travelling was a joy. Signs of the hurried Italian withdrawal were everywhere. Burnt out trucks, equipment and papers, clothing, suitcases and Haversacks were lying around in disarray. We were able to collect many useful tools and equipment for use on our guns and trucks. Our column was now heading for Mogadishu along a good tarred coastal road. What bliss without the bumps!.

The Italians were in full retreat towards Mogadishu but the battle for Kismayo and the Juba River had not been easy. Both the Italian and South African forces had suffered casualties and I realised that our particular column had been fortunate in not being involved in the main battle. Our column, “Fowcol”, was making good time and we camped that night at a Somali Village near Brava. The HMS Shropshire had shelled Brava and the Merca and Modun areas from the sea. During our advance, several merchant seamen, who had been put ashore by German submarines, were released and more Italian prisoners captured. During the night an Italian officer who tried to escape was shot by a Nigerian sentry.

On the 24th February we moved on once more and passed the small port of Merca and a large experimental farming area at Vittorio d’Africa. All the farms were now deserted and Somalis were looting furniture and stores. We were now only 30 miles from Afgoi, a large town near to Mogadishu. Mogadishu had been declared an open city to save the civilians and buildings and the Italian forces had already retreated northwards. On the 25th February a representative force made a victorious entry into the city. We moved off at midday, passed through Afgoi, and enjoyed the luxury of the beautiful tarmac road into the city. As we topped the last hills to the coast we could see the whole town of Mogadishu below us, and the sea in the distance. A spontaneous cheer went up as we realised that we had been involved in a spectacular advance and that we would probably have a rest here. Our billets were on the coast, south of Mogadishu, in large barracks near the aerodrome where there were many burnt out planes scattered around (See letter dated 10th March ’41). Here we stayed until the 5th March and enjoyed a well-earned rest, free from dust, noise, heat and the discomfort of jolting around in the back of the 3-ton truck. We were able to swim in the sea near our billets and were given passes to go into Mogadishu on leave almost every afternoon and evening. Our unit was allocated certain areas in which to provide Ack-Ack defence and half of each gun crew had to remain on duty each day. We soon had all our clothes well laundered again and had to clean up, sort out and repack the vehicles. The British Command established an occupying authority and soon had Mogadishu operating in an orderly fashion and some shops and businesses were open for trade.

The town had a special kind of atmosphere with some well-kept, large Italian Villas with many trees and palms. The buildings were square, flat-roofed and nearly all painted white and the cafe’s and shops were able to supply the odd souvenir and liquor – Italian wines, liquors and sweet sherry. The evenings usually developed into uproarious parties causing many of the revellers to suffer with severe hangovers the next morning. It was here that many South African soldiers first came in contact with legalised brothels. The “Madame” had wisely decided to stay and serve the “Victors”. It was very amusing to see so many of our fellows queuing up for the afternoon session when “other ranks” were accommodated, and then, in the evening, only the officers were entertained by the “Madame”. Mama, Mia!!

During our stay, converted one-ton trucks arrived with a flat platform at the back for the mounting of the twin Lewis guns. The trucks soon earned the nickname “Mosquito”. Some sections also inherited captured “Breda” 20mm guns. The harbour at Mogadishu had been heavily mined and several ships had been scuttled there so, while clearing and salvage operations took place, Merca was used as a harbour to bring in supplies. Many British officers and merchant seamen, who had been prisoners in Mogadishu, were released and they were overjoyed to be free again.

Soon after our arrival at Mogadishu, the Engineers and ground staff of the SAAF moved onto the Aerodrome to clear up the wrecks and repair the runways. On completion of this work we had the thrill of seeing 28 planes of the SAAF fly in. JU 52’s of the Bomber squadron and “Hartebeest”, Hurricanes and Fairey Battles. They made an impressive formation fly past and then came in to land.

Fuel supplies were the main problem holding up any further advance and it was rather fortunate that a poor and shabby Somali reported that he knew where the Italians had hidden some petrol. General Wetherall took advantage of this and offered a reward of a few thousand lire for any further information and there was an immediate stream of Somalis claiming rewards. Thus, fortuitously, 350,000 gallons of petrol and 80,000 gallons of aviation fuel were located and the fuel problem solved.

Rumours had been rife that “Home Leave” was a certainty, but, now with the supply of fuel available and a supply route open, it became obvious that the advance into Abyssinia would be made from Mogadishu via Jigiga, Harrar and Diredawa to Addis Ababa. This was the route taken by the Italians during their attack on Abyssinia in 1935. So our “Home Leave” dream came to naught and, on the 5th March 1941 we moved off into the dry desert wastes of Northern Somaliland with other elements of the 11th African Division en route for the Abyssinian border and Addis Ababa.

A collections of tour poems and verses and office Christmas party doggerel written by Howard J. Bates