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Italian East Africa

When Italy declared war against France and the United Kingdom on 10 June 1940, the Italian armed forces found themselves facing newly hostile forces on several fronts: metropolitan French forces in the Maritime Alps along the Franco-Italian border; more French forces at the Mareth Line along the border of Libya and Tunisia; British units along the border wire dividing Libya from Egypt; and, most distantly, British and French units nearly surrounding Italian East Africa.

In that latter theater, with only tenuous air and sea connections to the Italian homeland, relatively large numbers of Italian troops controlled a vast block of territory comprising Eritrea (an Italian colony since the late 19th Century), Abyssinia (also known as Ethiopia; conquered by Mussolini's armies in 1935-1936), and desolate Italian Somaliland on the Horn of Africa. Facing these Italian forces were small British detachments in Sudan and Kenya, light French units in French Somaliland, and a tiny British presence -- notably the native troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps -- in British Somaliland. Despite the advantage of their numerical superiority, the Italians suffered the drawbacks of limited stocks of supplies, fuel, and ammunition which would be almost impossible to replenish; poorly trained and equipped levies of dubious combat value; and the necessity of facing the threat of Allied land forces from almost every direction on a lengthy and remote perimeter.

Thus, the stage was set for a series of campaigns -- the initial Italian offensives and the eventual British counter-offensives -- which in many respects more closely resembled British colonial wars of the 19th Century than the relatively high-tech industrialized warfare which came to characterize the Second World War.

This survey offers a guide to some of the most informative and entertaining books covering the battles in Italian East Africa during 1940 and 1941, with a small selection of titles providing background material on the pre-war Italian conquest of Abyssinia.

Italian invasion of Abyssinia
Coffey, Thomas M. Lion by the Tail. New York: Viking, 1974
   Thorough study of military, diplomatic, and political aspects of the 1935-1936 war. Although very much about the war itself, also places the campaign in the context of the rise of Fascism and failure of collective security. Definitely worth reading.
Del Boca, Angelo. Ethiopian War, 1935-1941. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969
   Despite the title, concerned almost entirely with the 1935-1936 campaign. Much on Italian colonial policy and achievements. Translated from the Italian by P. D. Cummins. 
Dugan, James and Lafore, Laurence. Days of Emperor and Clown. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973
   Like Lion by the Tail, another excellent study of the war and its wider meaning. 

The 1940-1941 campaigns
Barker, A. J. Eritrea 1941. London: Faber and Faber, 1966
   Very detailed account of the campaigns in the north: British Somaliland, the Italian push into Sudan, the British offensive, Keren, and the fall of Massawa. A full Allied order of battle, plus an excellent essay covering all the Allied units involved. Does not cover later operations or advance from Kenya.
Glover, Michael. Improvised War: The Abyssinian Campaign of 1940-1941. London: Leo Cooper, 1987
   Not the most original or the most detailed, but the best synthesis and the broadest coverage of all the military operations from 1940 through the final mopping up and surrender in 1941. Full Allied OB.
Mackenzie, Compton. Eastern Epic, volume 1: Defense, September 1939-March 1943. London: Chatto and Windus, 1951
   Mackenzie's book chronicles employment of Indian units from September 1939 through March 1943 in every theater of the war, so only a small part of the work is devoted to Italian East Africa. However, as the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions played an important role there, this is a valuable resource.
Mockler, Anthony. Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941. New York: Random House, 1984
   Mockler's very readable book offers the best single-volume coverage of events in East Africa from 1935-1941. Other books offer more depth on the international setting for the events of 1935-1936; still others provide more definitive military detail for 1940-1941; but for readers who want only one book on the topic, this is it. 

Official histories
Hinsley, F. H. et al. History of the Second World War: British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, volume one. London: HMSO, 1979
   Not a great deal on this theater, but very instructive. By January 1941 the British were regularly reading all Italian communications traffic, usually faster than the Italians themselves, and putting the knowledge promptly to use. For example, upon learning in this fashion that the Italians intended to withdraw from Kassala, the British launched their attack three weeks sooner than planned.
Ministero della Difesa. Italian Official History: La Guerra in Africa Orientale, Giugno 1940 - Novembre 1941. Rome: Ufficio Storico, 1952
   The Italian perspective on the campaigns. Written in Italian, but with a little effort this yields a treasure of materials on units, plans, and operations.
Orpen, Neil. South African Forces World War II: East African and Abyssinian Campaigns. Cape Town: Purnell, 1968
   The British offensive from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia was mostly a South African show, and this is the definitive history of that part of the war. Detailed SA OBs.
Playfair, I. S. O. et al. History of the Second World War: Med and Middle East, vol 1: Early Successes Against Italy. London: HMSO, 1954
   As always, Playfair provides an excellent starting point. This volume covers operations through May 1941.
Playfair, I. S. O. et al. History of the Second World War: Med and Middle East, vol 2: Germans Come to Help of Their Allies. London: HMSO, 1956
   The second volume of Playfair takes the story through the end of the campaign in Italian East Africa.
Prasad, Bisheshwar. Official History of Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War: East African Campaign, 1940-41. Delhi (?): Combined Inter-Service Hist, 1963
   Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the uneven Indian official histories. More detailed Allied OBs. Perhaps most valuable is the "Estimated Italian OB" appendix with notes on the location, actions, and fate of each unit.
Vincent, Jean-Noel. Guerre 1939-1945: Les Forces Francaises dans la lutte contre l'Axe en Afrique: Les Forces Francaises Libres en Afrique, 1940-1943. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1983
   Although mostly concerned with Free French operations in North Africa, about forty pages are devoted to the "Brigade francaise d'Orient" in Italian East Africa, including its role in the capture of Massawa. 

Air operations
Brown, James Ambrose. South African Armed Forces in the Second World War: Gathering of Eagles: The Campaigns of the South African Air Force. Cape Town: Purnell, 1970
   This volume contains much detailed information on South African fliers who comprised an important component of the Allied air forces in the campaign.
Guedalla, Philip. Middle East, 1940-1942: A Study in Air Power. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1944
   One weak chapter on Italian East Africa.
Richards, Denis. The Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, vol 1: Fight at Odds. London: HMSO, 1953
   Some useful material.
Shores, Christopher. Dust Clouds in the Middle East. London: Grub Street, 1996
   Far and way the best and most important work on air operations. The section on Italian East Africa was written with an Italian co-author and makes up almost half the book. Day by day chronicle of aerial exploits for both sides with complete air OBs and identification of individual aircrew and aircraft. Excellent.
Terraine, John. A Time for Courage: The Royal Air Force in the European War. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
   Fewer than ten pages on the topic (out of 800), but thoughtful, useful material. (UK edition: The Right of the Line.) 

Naval operations
Bragadin, Commander Marc. Italian Navy in World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1957
   Good material on the Italian naval force in the Red Sea, a force which should have been able to interfere with Allied convoys en route to Egypt. Translated from the Italian by Gale Hoffman.
Rohwer, J. and Hummelchen, G. Chronology of the War at Sea, 1939-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1992
   Thorough day-by-day entries on naval operations in the Red Sea as part of global, chronological coverage. Always a great source.
Roskill, S. W. History of the Second World War: War at Sea 1939-1945, vol 1: The Defensive. London: HMSO, 1954
   Succinct, authoritative paragraphs -- scattered throughout the book -- on warships of the Royal Navy operating from Mogadishu to Massawa under Commander-in-Chief, East Indies. 

Unit histories
Birdwood, Lord. The Worcester Regiment, 1922-1940. Gale and Polden, 1952
Brelsford, William Vernon (ed). Story of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment. Lusaka, N. Rhodesia: Government Printer, 1954
Brett-James, Anthony. Ball of Fire: 5th Indian Division in World War II. Gale and Polden, 1951
Farndale, Martin. History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery: Years of Defeat. London: Brassey's, 1996
Fergusson, Bernard. Black Watch and the King's Enemies. London: Collins, 1950
Macdonald, J. F. War History of Southern Rhodesia, 1939-1945, volume 1. Salisbury: Southern Rho Govt Printer, 1947
Martin, T. A. The Essex Regiment, 1929-1950. Essex Regimental Association, 1952
Martineau, G. D. The History of the Royal Sussex Regiment. Moore and Tillyer, 1955
Stevens, George Richard. Fourth Indian Division. Toronto: McLaren, 1952

Reviewed 15 November 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
 

 

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