Chapter 6


Our section moved out of Mogadishu on the 5th March – 4 days after the 23rd Nigerian Brigade – to continue the advance against the Italians. We now had a good supply of fuel but were still short of good rations as the supply route was long and tedious and the Somaliland harbours were still not clear of sunken ships and blockages.

Mogadishu to Bulo Burti

So it was good-bye to the sea once more and, as we left Mogadishu, we passed large coastal batteries and the large fuel dumps, which had been captured. The well-constructed road had been badly damaged by the Italians as they withdrew and culverts and bridges had been demolished by their rearguard. There were, as a result, many deviations through deep, dry, wide riverbeds. Despite the deviations, however, the convoy made good time and we reached our first nights stop by mid-afternoon at Bulo Berti, some 125 miles North of Mogadishu. After a late lunch of bully, biscuits and cheese, we were allocated gun positions on the perimeter of the camping area and dug in for ground defence with the Lewis machine guns, which meant a continuous guard throughout the night – 1 hour on for each crew member. We were up again at daybreak for stand-to and were able to make porridge and coffee before moving off.

The Italians were expected to hold a delaying position somewhere South of Gabredare, where SAAF aircraft had seen their aircraft on the ground. Some of the Italian forces had been re-routed to Neghelli while the others had withdrawn northwards towards Jijigga.

Bulo Burti to Ferfer via Belet Uen
Bulo Burti to Ferfer via Belet Uen

The road deteriorated rapidly and most of the time we had to traverse rocky terrain or deep, soft sand as the country became barren and monotonous. It was grueling work for the drivers and I took over from Gordon Jolly to give him a well-deserved rest. We made a night stop some miles short of Belet Uen and then moved in to the village the following morning. Belet Uen was a small village on the Shebelli River about 210 miles from Mogadishu. The river was turgid, slow moving, dirty, slimy green and mosquito infested. Our billets were old, slatted, broken down wooden sheds, which we shared with the Nigerian and Gold Coast troops. We remained in this horrible hole for 6 hot, stifling, humid days and there was little activity to keep us occupied. Rations were still basic and the tea or coffee tasted dreadful due to the local water. Soon several of our chaps were ill with dysentery and malaria and Cecil Murray was taken off to hospital. The Nigerians went out on nightly patrols and often returned with automatics and old six-shooters, which they sold to us so; everyone was soon toting a gun.

At last we moved on to the old border post between Abyssinia and Somaliland at Ferfer, which was now disused and deserted. The country was semi-desert and barren and now there were only deep sand and dust tracks to follow. The vehicles and the drivers took an awful hammering with the constant low-gear work and the grinding, jarring strain on the bodywork. Our night stop needed no choosing – we just halted away from the tracks and, while the Nigerians patrolled the perimeter we settled down and made fires to cook our evening meal of bully and onions, and M and V (Meat and Vegetables). The night was peaceful and still as a red-gold moon rose and bathed everything in translucent light.

Conditions, the next day (14th March), deteriorated as strong winds whipped up dust storms making life unbearable. Through hilly country we reached Gorrahai where there was an emergency landing ground. After Gorrahai the weather cleared and, as we approached Gabredarre, the country became hillier and greener with more bush and another quiet night was spent under the African sky and a myriad stars. On the 15th March more wind and dust and difficult terrain gave us another exhausting day. Vehicles broke down with clogged carburetors from the dust and the dirty, unfiltered petrol and we were forced to make frequent stops to effect repairs. There was no time for a good meal and we nibbled at biscuits and cheese while on the move. In order to catch up with the rest of the Brigade we had to travel on until well after dark and eventually reached Sassabaneh. We were now almost up with our forward troops and were nearly 500 miles from Mogadishu. We pulled off the road into an area of tall trees and thorn bush for our night stop and dispersed the vehicles. We all went about our usual chores and, while cooks prepared fires and a meal, drivers checked vehicles and prepared to fill up with petrol. Others collected water and made comfortable campsites.

Ferfer to Gabredarre
Ferfer to Gabredarre

The filling of the fuel tanks was a slow tedious job as petrol had to be siphoned out of 44-gallon drums into containers and then poured into the tanks.  Because it was already dark this chore had to be done by the light of hurricane oil lamps, which caused a tragic disaster. Ivor Poswell was the driver of the stores truck and he and Peter Slade with Billy Allister were in the rear of the truck to attend to the siphoning. During the heat of the day the empty space in the drum had filled with petrol fumes and, when the bung was unscrewed, the stream of gas was ignited by the oil lamps. There was a huge flash of flame and Ivor was the first out, diving through the flames and landing on the ground. He was unscathed but Peter and Billy were a little slower and they tumbled out covered in flames. The flames were hastily put out with great coats and blankets but both were very seriously burned and a Medical officer from the N.F.A.(Natal Field Artillery), Gordon Jolly and Anderson made them as comfortable as possible till the following morning. They were then taken forward about 30 miles to Dagabur and flown back to Mogadishu. There Billy Allister died but Peter Slade recovered and returned to the Union. Later in 1942 we met him again at Mersa Matruh in the Western Desert with the Natal Carbineers. Meanwhile the truck was a blazing inferno and, as we frantically cleared the bush round about the area, there was a second explosion when another petrol drum blew up. Large chunks of red hot metal were flung skyward and, as I tore through the thorn bush, these and droplets of burning petrol came down like rain. One large piece sliced into the ground a few feet from Lex Brink – “It was panic stations, Ou Maat”, as “Cooky” Brown remarked afterwards.

All of the section’s extra kit and rations, which were on the truck, were destroyed and, during the uproar and turmoil Gnr. Sparks reversed his truck through the bush into the front of our truck damaging the radiator and the front bodywork. By midnight we were exhausted and, as the fire died down we dropped wearily into our blankets and slept. The following morning (16th) we moved up 30 miles to Dagabur where we all had to give an account of the disaster and our gun crew had to repair our truck. A complete inventory of our losses was made but it was many weeks before we were re-issued with new kit and, consequently, the clothing we were wearing suffered severely from constant wear and tear.

We were now well up with the vanguard of the advancing Nigerians and, at Dagabur aerodrome our air force had arrived, and were very active. Two Hurricanes engaged two Savoias, which flew into a cloud, but Capt. Theron chased one and shot it down. Then one Hurricane was lost when it ran out of fuel. The pilot was rescued by an armoured-car section and the plane saved. Another Hurricane was shot down on take-off but the two Fiats were caught in the act, by returning fighters and shot down.

Dagabur to DireDawa via Jijigga
Dagabur to DireDawa via Jijigga

After leaving Dagabur we climbed into the foothills of the Chercher mountain range and left the barren wastes of Somaliland behind. Away to the east the Ogaden stretched towards British Somaliland and ahead lay the Abyssinian Highlands. The weather changed too, for there had been widespread rain, which caused the temperature to drop dramatically. The road became muddy and treacherous and there were still many detours making our advance slow and exhausting. However, in the late afternoon, we reached a good road and could see green undulating hills and vast plain stretching to the distant mountains at Marda Pass and Jijigga.  After the unbearable heat of Somaliland we now shivered in the icy wind as evening drew on and, as we arrived at Jijigga, we saw signs of earlier fighting with dead and wounded Banda alongside the road. Above the town the Italians were well dug in on either side of the Marda Pass and, as we settled down for the night, there were expectations of the impending battle. We were in range of the Italian 105mm Guns but the following morning (18th March) we were moved to a new position where we dug in. Denis de Villiers had a touch of dysentery which had worried him for a few days but he preferred to stay with the crew instead of reporting sick. There was great activity as support troops arrived and a decoy convoy moved out along the Berbera road in the evening showing plenty of light and then returned, blacked out. Meanwhile Nigerian troops were advancing on three fronts towards the Marda Pass and we took up our positions around the aerodrome where ranging shots from the enemy artillery gave us some anxious moments. Then we were ordered to accompany the Natal Field Artillery to the north of Jijigga in support of the right flank of the attack.

Throughout the night artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire kept up a steady thump, crunch and chatter as our troops worked their way forward. The Italians positions were well concealed and protected and during the night they used a searchlight to sweep the lower mountain slopes and directed their artillery fire when any movement was spotted. Our attack was now in its 3rd day and the Nigerians had occupied high points on the right of the Pass. The altitude of Jijigga was about 5000 feet and the nights were bitterly cold but our attack had hotted up and our forces were closing in. The Italians kept up a determined and steady defence until, suddenly, at about 0300hrs,the searchlight was doused and the firing stopped. The Italians had hastily packed up and pulled out and a major obstacle to our advance into Abyssinia had been removed.

Early on the 22nd March we were already on the move and a large column of vehicles started going through the Pass. While we were on the Pass two Savoias bombed the area but were off target and the raid was not of long duration. This was fortunate as the vehicles were nose to tail and could not have escaped severe damage had the bombing been more accurate. Once through the tunnel at the head of the Pass, a panorama of high mountains, deep ravines and valleys spread before us. It was surprising that the Italians had not been more determined in their defence of the Pass as this was an almost impregnable area where the Abyssinians had taken a heavy toll of Italians in the 1935 Italian conquest of Abyssinia.

There were further air raids by Savoia’s and Fiats on the Pass and Jijigga aerodrome and the following morning we awoke to the sound of rifle and machine-gun fire. Bullets whipped through the bush around us but did no damage. It was a small group of “Banda” who were soon silenced by the Nigerians. We were now in an area of trees and thorn bush and well screened from the air but there was another attack by four Fiats, which fired blindly into the bush hoping to cause some damage. Later there was another bombing raid by Savoia’s with much Ack-Ack firing and with the rear-gunners shells zipping through the bush. Once again there were no casualties and the raids were quite ineffective. However, we did feel that we were on the receiving end during these raids and the experience was one we could happily have done without. We moved forward once more, towards Babile, down a long pass until well after dark and then halted for the night in a rather damp and swampy area infested with myriad’s of Mosquitoes. On the 24th we moved off at dawn and took up positions to protect the Artillery. Having “dug in” we sat back and admired the view of the plain below and the Tug Dakato River. I remarked on the peacefulness of the morning, which, no doubt, tempted fate, for the “Peace” was suddenly shattered when our Artillery put down a barrage on Italian positions across the River to cover the Nigerian infantry advance. The Italian reply was intense and accurate and gave us some anxious moments but the advancing Nigerians forced them to withdraw to new positions.

On the following morning there was practically a repeat performance as our Artillery occupied new positions in full view of the Italian O.Pip (Observation Post). Our section was placed in strategic positions near the artillery as Ack-Ack defence and we could see that another artillery duel was about to take place. Our “arty” sent off some ranging shots and the Italians replied with some accurate shooting. One of the gun limbers was hit and 3 men were injured while another 105mm shell made a direct hit on an anti-tank position and killed one gunner. These artillery duels since the Jijigga battle had been our first real taste of battle conditions and, although I was experienced in the 18-pounder artillery shoots in the CFA during our pre-war camps at Klaasjagersberg, near Cape Point (now in the Cape Point Reserve),I must say that the whine and whistle of approaching shells followed by the burst was devastating. By midday the barrage had ceased and the Italians were forced to retreat when our troops crossed the Bisidimo River. Harrar was reported to have been declared an open city and soon an Italian envoy appeared with a white flag and surrendered the town. By the time the S.A. forces had entered the town, much looting had already taken place and vital Medical supplies had been destroyed.

The weather remained cold and drizzly and we rested on the following day as units of the S.A.1st Brigade moved past us. Then at last, mail caught up with us, after a long break, and there was the thrill and joy and longing as we all sat around catching up on news from “HOME”. Jimmy Riddel, our 2nd officer, seemed to be suffering from nervous tension for he had been drinking steadily for several days. It was most embarrassing but we realised that we had all been under a lot of strain and made great fun of it all at the time. Between Harrar and Diredawa, the Huberta Pass had been badly damaged by several huge roadblocks and demolitions, and our Ack-Ack sections were dispersed to protect the S.A. Engineers from air attack while they repaired the road. Meantime, we stocked up with sweet potatoes from a nearby farm and collected fresh supplies of Italian bread and vegetables from Harrar.(See letter dated 27th March ’41)

At this time, there were several large explosions in Diredawa as Italians destroyed fuel dumps and we could see the red glow of the fires in the night sky. There was also a regrouping of our crews as more Italian Breda guns were captured. The Breda fired a 20mm shell and was more effective than the Lewis machine guns. Gordon Jolly was also showing signs of intense strain but would not report sick, as he did not want to be separated from us all. Finally the Pass was opened and we moved down to a very pleasant campsite outside Diredawa. Our R.H.Q. moved into the town and, at last, we were told to send trucks in to collect fresh rations and water. Jock Sullivan had been in charge of rations for some time but there had been several complaints of bad distribution and Lt. Broster had to intervene and supervise the issue of rations himself, in order to solve that little problem. The episode was soon forgotten and we all enjoyed the well-earned rest from the constant moving and were able to wash and clean up our kit and regain our equilibrium.

From Diredawa to Addis Abeba
From Diredawa to Addis Abeba

When we moved on again the road, more or less, followed the Diredawa – Addis Ababa railway route, which skirted the huge Chercher Mountains to the South and the lower Awash River valley to the North. There were many drifts and detours to negotiate and, in the afternoon, we experienced a very severe thunderstorm, which soaked us to the skin. The Medium Artillery ground to a halt as their heavy equipment could not negotiate the flooded donga’s. To add to our discomfort, the generator on our truck packed up and, as daylight faded, we had to feel our way along behind another truck. Our unit was ordered to pass the Medium Arty and, although we managed to squeeze past, we were unable to go too far as we reached a river in full flood and were forced to stop for the night. Somehow we managed to get a fire going in the rain and a piping hot dixie of M & V Meat and Vegetable) revived our dampened spirits. Tired and exhausted we all slept like logs on the back of the truck.

The 1st April dawned, the weather had cleared and the river had subsided. The defective generator was replaced and, after a good dixie of “Mielie Pap”, we felt refreshed and ready for another day. Our Brigade (22nd East African) moved ahead of the S.A. 1st Brigade, with orders to capture the rail and road bridges over the Awash River before it was demolished. However, Artillery fire from the Italians impeded the advance and, on 2nd April, another artillery battle ensued as our Arty fired on Awash town across the river. The shelling from both sides was accurate and some of the Italian shells fell rather close. That was the day that Reg Oldridge refused a second helping of canned fruit!! The bridges were not saved as the Italians set off demolition charges before withdrawing and effectively held up our advance for 48 hours.

Our section was sent forward as Ack-Ack protection for the Engineers, who immediately moved up with all their equipment to sling a single span bridge across the river. We were rather apprehensive because of our exposed position and, during the night sporadic firing by our guns shattered our sleep but, no doubt, also harassed the Italians. Ken Taylor’s gun-crew was ordered to cross the river to assist the Nigerians with perimeter defence. They had to strip and ford the strongly flowing river. Finally, they were ordered to return only to find that the bridge had been rebuilt and our vehicles were about to cross! While the bridge was being rebuilt, armoured-cars and Nigerians had also crossed lower down-stream on the 3rd April, forcing the Italians in Awash town to withdraw.

Then there was more heavy rain and we got soaked again as there was no shelter around the gun positions. Despite the rain the bridge was completed by 4th April and, having handed our positions over to the 4th Section of our Battery, we moved forward with the main column en route for Addis Ababa. While we were at Awash River several fellows were transferred to us from the 1st Ack-Ack Regiment. They were a rather rough crowd but we were lucky to get a chap with the name Maggot, “Maggie” for short, who turned out to be a good-hearted, tough, hard-working fellow, with a great sense of humour. He got on well with all of us.

During the day, Brigadier Fowkes received orders to advance to Addis with all speed, as negotiations were in hand between General Wetherall and the Italians re the occupation of the Capital and the protection of the civilian population. All along the way there were abandoned trucks and equipment and, here and there, some dead Italians. Through the villages the Abyssinian women lined the road to cheer and welcome us. During a short break we had a hurried lunch and had to fit a new battery to our truck. Then, after a “Hart” Recce plane had dropped messages, we sped on once more through well-cultivated farms and undulating hills to Hadama, which was about 50 miles from Addis. Here the column split and the Nigerians turned south towards the Lakes while the rest of our column headed on towards the Capital. It was evening and getting dark by the time we reached Moggio and many trucks were late getting in due to breakdowns and lack of fuel. We finally all arrived and, although we were all exhausted, we still had to prepare camp, make a meal and erect the tents for the officers.

The following morning, the 6th April, Italian officials drove out under a white flag and met our Commanders in a house opposite our position and then the formal entry to Addis Ababa took place. We joined the column and drove in about 10 miles through groups of “Abbo’s” whose cheers, ululations and clapping welcomed us to the city. Some Greek civilians had stretched a large white banner across the street praising the British Forces while an Italian regiment also lined the streets as we drove in. Our unit’s destination was the Aerodrome where there were many burnt out planes scattered around. Wreckage of Caproni and Savoia bombers and Fiat fighters was strewn around and damage to the Hangars and buildings had been caused by heavy raids by our Airforce some days before.

In one month our column had travelled approximately 950 miles from Mogadishu to Addis Ababa under extremely difficult conditions and we had been involved in four of the most vital actions against the Italian forces. The severe terrain and climate had been a greater test of endurance than the actual fighting for, although each action and battle had been intense, they had been of short duration.

We had been in the main advance to the Capital, Addis Ababa, and were hoping to lie up and relax for a spell. There were still strong Italian forces to the Southeast, in the Lake District and Jimma area, and the main force to the North, which had to be accounted for, so our stay in Addis was to be short-lived. However, we were to have a few days respite in Addis and, in between our various duties, we were able to wander around the aerodrome examining buildings, damaged planes and the surrounding areas. K.A.R. and Nigerian troops guarded the perimeter of the aerodrome and many thousands of Italian prisoners were brought in and camped on the aerodrome. All their military equipment was taken away and there was soon a steady trade in the collection of souvenirs. Gordon Jolly even found a radio set and, though damaged slightly, he did manage to pick up a few stations. Shifta – the Abyssinian bands who had been harassing the Italians – were causing a lot of trouble as they looted shops and homes and fired their rifles indiscriminately. The Nigerians were deployed to deal with the problem.

After completing our various duties most of us took the opportunity to clean up our own kit, do some washing and write letters home. Our Battery HQ received a backlog of mail and so there were many happy faces around as fellows swapped “Home News”. The following day the first leave was granted and groups were allowed to go into “Addis”. There was not a great deal to do in the town as most of the shopping and business area was still closed. However, there were a few Italians on the streets trading cameras, watches, pens and jewellery in order to get British currency – (One Pound was worth 480-500 lire). The following morning (8th April) Harry Rose-Innes and I went into Town. Some shops and restaurants were now open and we enjoyed a super mixed grill. Harry tells the story of going to the Bank with his letter of credit (see articled attached) and how he looked after the bank while the sole manager went off to procure some food. We returned to camp by midday to allow others time off in the afternoon but, when I drove the duty bus over to HQ, I was told that all leave had been cancelled and that I was to return to camp immediately as our section was to pack up and be ready to move off the next morning (9th April).

Preparations began immediately – rations were drawn and stacked in the stores trucks and our own equipment and kit packed onto the “Mosquito”. A re-shuffle of sections took place as several fellows had reported sick with Malaria and Dysentery and were taken off to hospital. We were disappointed to be moving off again as we had expected to have a rest period after so much travelling. However, we knew that we would have to return to Addis some time and, as Addis wasn’t very attractive just then and was still in a very unsettled state, we felt that, perhaps, it would be better to spend some time there later on. Many buildings were damaged and dilapidated and the roads in bad shape. The hospital was a magnificent building and the Government buildings and Palace and the elite quarters were in beautiful surroundings. The commercial and small business areas and homes were dirty and ill kept. At least we had been in the forefront of the advance to Addis with the 21st E.A. Brigade, under Brig. Fowkes and with the excellent Nigerian and Gold Coast troops. Now another phase in the Campaign was beginning.

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