British forces enter Italian Eritrea

Indian troops cross the Atbara river with their motor transport on a pontoon raft, as they move into Italian occupied Eritrea.

The Indian troops that had so successfully opened Operation Compass now found themselves fighting an entirely different war in a remote corner of Africa. The 4th Indian Division now joined up with the 5th Indian Division who had already engaged the Italians at Gallabat. On the 19th January British forces moved across the border from southern Sudan and took the border town of Kassala. The British comprised a variety of forces, some with very improvised equipment. Ken Potter joined the campaign from Kenya, then a British colony, from where he brought a collection of artillery:

In the middle of January I took the workshop up through Nanuki and Isiolo and then on a 200 mile trek through a desert of larva boulders and rocks to Marsabit. At that time Marsabit was just an oasis in the middle of a desert. You suddenly came from an inferno of heat, dust and impassable rocky terrain into a few miles of tall green trees flowing streams, birds – and a local vicar! It was here that with my workshop I was officially attached to the 1st South African Division in the joint capacity of ‘gun wallah and diplomat’.

The South African equipment was all old first World War stuff, 4.5 howitzers, 18 and 60 pounders. Nearly all of them needing urgent workshop attention for which neither we nor they had spares. Particularly the 4.5 howitzers whose recuperators are all on the borderline of ‘u/s’. No amount of signalling to Nairobi seem to produce any replacement spares, so we had to fiddle, fudge and improvise as best we could.

On the 19th January the first of the 4.5 Batteries went into action and did some very accurate shooting, so vindicating or justifying our ‘fudging and improvisation’. On the same day Italian Savoyas strafed us and we managed to bring one down with rifle fire and one LMG. A newly arrived Hurricane, probably the only one in East Africa, brought down another. Although all a little bit “gung ho”, the South Africans were all a very good crowd but so different from the Army types I had been used to. Discipline was there one assumed, but it wasn’t too obvious.

By now everyone was getting very impatient to get on with it. If we were to take Abyssinia in 1941 we had to get to and take Addis Ababa by March otherwise the rains would make it impossible until a year later. By today’s (1995) standards of equipment, techniques and communications, this may sound a bit exaggerated. However with our then pretty antiquated equipment and no roads in the rainy season, it was a ‘no go’ situation.

Round about this time we were unfortunate to be in an area swarming with ticks. They were anything in size from pin heads to good sized garden peas. They tend to attach themselves to your person everywhere and can only be removed with the red hot end of a cigarette. Three or four consecutive attacks and you usually got tick fever that would last for several days.

Read his full account on BBC People’s War

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