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Making do: the air war in East Africa, 1940-1941.


In the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War it was said that you could tell how far your unit was from the Home Islands by the type of aircraft with which it was equipped. This maxim more than applied to the air units of the British Commonwealth deployed to East Africa in 1940 and 1941 to protect British Imperial interests from Italian forces attempting to conquer Benito Mussolini's new Roman Empire. Flying a mixed bag of British, American, and even German aircraft, many of which were better suited for training squadrons or even museums, and tasked to defend an area half the size of the United States, Commonwealth air forces faced a daunting task. Fortunately for the British, the Italians were in even worse shape. Although more homogenous in terms of equipment, the aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica in Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI--Italian East Africa) were generally inferior to that of their enemies and Italian forces were primarily trained and equipped for colonial operations, not modern warfare. (1) Additionally, due to British control of the sea-lanes, the Italians could not expect substantial reinforcements whereas British naval superiority and external lines of communication ensured Commonwealth air forces received meager, yet crucial reinforcements from the far-flung reaches of the British Empire. (2) While lacking the intensity of other theaters, the air war in East Africa still saw more than seventeen months of fierce fighting in difficult conditions and over long distances and the ultimate victory of the Allies in this theater played a key role in securing important air and sea lines of communication to North Africa, the Middle East, Iran, and India.


Aerial warfare was not new to the skies of East Africa. In World War I, British colonial forces employed aircraft in limited numbers against Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's Schutztruppe with varying degrees of success. (3) Most notably, in 1915, a small number of land- and sea-based British aircraft were instrumental in helping to locate the German cruiser Konigsberg which had taken up refuge in the Rufiji River Delta after preying on British shipping in the Indian Ocean early in the war. After Konigsberg was located, British aircraft also played an important role as gunnery spotters and in assessing damage for the Royal Navy monitors tasked with destroying it. (4) Elsewhere in East Africa, British colonial forces operated their small air force of land based aircraft and float planes from crude airfields and lakes in roles such as close air support, reconnaissance, and liaison with limited success although this theater of operations in the Great War did see the first use of an airplane as an ambulance. (5)

More significantly, in 1935 and 1936, Italy employed an air arm of 150 aircraft in its conquest of Abyssinia. The Italians employed aircraft for transport, close support, and the terror bombing of cities and even used aircraft to drop mustard gas on Abyssinian troops. In fact, in one week in February 1936, forty tons of mustard gas was dropped on Abyssinian troops by the Regia Aeronautica, and in March 1936, air dropped mustard gas played a key role in halting an Abyssinian counter-attack against Italian Somaliland. (6) The subsequent capture of Abyssinia's capital, Addis Ababa, on May 5, 1936, ended a short but devastating war that saw the death of more than 700,000 Abyssinians along with approximately fourteen million of their farm animals. (7) Strategically, the war led to the consolidation of Abyssinia, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland into the single entity of Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI), continuing a downward spiral in Italian relations with Great Britain and France and setting the stage for the fighting in the East African Theater between Italian and Allied forces during World War II. (8)

While aerial warfare was not new to East Africa, during World War II, for the first time, both sides possessed not only an air force, but also enough aircraft to have a decisive impact on operations in the theater. While Italy's decision to go to war on June 10, 1940, caught the Italian commander in AOI, Prince Amedeo, the Duke of Aosta, unprepared, his strategic position appeared quite advantageous at first glance. His ground forces consisted of 250,000 soldiers and his air force, numbering about 200 operational aircraft, supplemented by approximately 130 more in reserve or various states of maintenance represented, at that point in the war, a significant commitment of air power by a continental nation to its overseas colonies. (9) Italy also possessed a small naval force in the region known as the Red Sea Flotilla consisting of seven destroyers, eight submarines, and fourteen additional vessels, such as, torpedo boats, armed merchant cruisers, and a hospital ship. This small force meant that beginning in June 1940, when Italy entered the war, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden were declared combat zones by the United States and thus due to its neutrality laws, American merchant ships were forbidden from delivering supplies to British controlled ports in the region. (10)



Although impressive in numbers, the Regia Aeronautica in AOI under the command of General Pietro Pinna was not prepared for modern warfare. Of the 187 operational combat aircraft deployed at the beginning of hostilities, 136 were bombers organized into twenty-three squadrons of about six aircraft apiece and fifty-one were fighters organized into squadrons of about nine aircraft apiece. Of the bombers, eighty-two were Caproni CA.133s, a hope lessly obsolete high wing monoplane with a fixed undercarriage. Whether it was used as a bomber or a transport, this slow and poorly armed aircraft was only useful when the enemy possessed negligible air defenses. Of the remainder, forty-two were Savoia-Marchetti Sm-81s and while this aircraft was superior in performance to the CA.133, it was still so ineffective that it was quickly relegated to night bombing missions. Only the twelve Savoia-Marchetti SM.79s equipping the 6th and 7th Squadrons could be called modern bombers in terms of speed, range, and bomb load, and overall these aircraft probably represented the most capable bomber employed by either side in East Africa although they were too few in number to be able to make much of a difference. (11)

Of the fighters, the twenty-four Fiat CR.42s Falcos (Falcons) of the 412th, 413th, and 414th Squadrons represented the most well equipped fighter squadrons on either side at the start of the war. The CR.42 has the distinction of the being the pinnacle of biplane fighter design. It was the Regia Aeronautica's primary fighter during the early years of the war and was produced in greater numbers than any other Italian aircraft in World War II. (12) Faster and more heavily armed than its British counterpart, the Gloster Gladiator, and more maneuverable than the Hawker Hurricane, Italian pilots employed the CR.42 to good effect during the war in East Africa. Four pilots made ace flying the CR.42 in East Africa including Mario Visintini, the top scoring biplane ace of World War II. Four other aces also made some of their claims while flying the nimble biplane over East African skies. (13) The remainder of the Italian fighter force in AOI consisted of the 410th and 411th Squadrons equipped with the Fiat Cr-32, the forerunner to the CR.42. An excellent fighter when introduced in 1934, the Cr-32 enjoyed a considerable degree of success in the Spanish Civil War. However but by 1940, it was obsolete and often proved to be slower than the bombers it was tasked to intercept although its pilots did enjoy some success over East Africa with three aces making a portion of their claims in the Cr-32. (14) In addition to the five squadrons of CR.42s and -32s, a sixth fighter squadron, the 110th, was equipped with nine aging Meridionali Ro-37bis two seat reconnaissance biplanes that proved ineffective as interceptors. (15) Along with their generally obsolete airframes, most Italian aircraft did not carry radios making air-to-air and air-to-ground coordination difficult if not impossible. (16)

Balancing out the bomber and fighter squadrons was a transport force of 25 aircraft consisting primarily of CA.133s and Sm-73s, the transport aircraft upon which the Sm-81 bomber was based. The Regia Aeronautica in AOI also possessed 134 additional aircraft that were in various states of maintenance or were placed in reserve status due to a shortage of pilots. This force was comprised of eighty-three CA.133s, seventeen Sm-81s, six Sm-79s, sixteen Cr-32s, eight CR.42s, and four Ro-37bis reconnaissance aircraft. (17)

With only twelve modern operational bombers and twenty-four barely modern operational fighters, General Pinna's forces were in bad enough shape when the war began. However, an obsolete inventory of combat aircraft was only the tip of the iceberg. The Regia Aeronautica in AOI was also desperately short of munitions with bombs over 100kg in short supply. The small stock of 250kg bombs was held in reserve for use against ships in harbors while aircraft flying other missions generally carried 50 or 100kg bombs hardly large enough to do significant damage against most targets unless a direct hit was scored. (18) Additionally, the majority of the airfields in AOI were around the periphery of the territory and thus vulnerable to air attack and of being overrun, while only a small number of airstrips were long enough to operate the two most modern aircraft employed by the Italians--the SM.79 and CR.42. Due to the lack of suitable airfields, the fighters and the units equipped with the more modern bombers were concentrated in central Ethiopia or near the coast of the Red Sea in Eritrea. (19) It was with this obsolete and poorly supported air force that General Pinna was assigned the mission of defending an area six times the size of the Italian homeland while also conducting offensive operations against British airfields, ports, and naval units operating at sea.


Facing Regia Aeronautica in AOI were the equally obsolete air forces of the British Empire. With roughly 100 operational aircraft available in June 1940, British and Imperial air forces began the war outnumbered almost two to one and dispersed at bases throughout the region. To the north and west of AOI, in the Sudan, was the Advanced Striking Force of the RAF under the control of 254 Wing composed of three bomber squadrons: Numbers 14, 47, and 223) equipped with the obsolete Vickers Wellesley, based at three airfields near Port Sudan. (20) Withdrawn from service in all other theaters, the Wellesley had set a world long distance flight record in 1938 when two aircraft completed a 7,162-mile flight from Ismailia, Egypt, to Darwin, Australia, in forty-eight hours. (21) Despite its obsolescence, the rugged and long-legged Wellesley was a workhorse of RAF bomber squadrons in East Africa, providing valuable service throughout the theater of operations flying long range missions against Italian airfields and ground troops. (22) Attached to 47 Squadron was a flight of seven Vickers Vincent general purpose biplanes for Army co-operation duties while a detachment of nine Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters from 112 Squadron arrived on 3 June 3, and were split between Summit and Port Sudan. (23) The Gladiator represented the ultimate in British biplane fighter design and served as the primary fighter for British air forces operating in East Africa through early 1941 and five aces, all South African, made some of their claims while flying the Gladiator over East Africa. (24) The missions of British air units over the Sudan included the protection of shipping in the Red Sea (including anti-submarine patrols), air defense, and close support for land forces.


Complementing the forces in the Sudan was a small number of air units based in the protectorate of Aden under the command of Air Vice Marshal (AVM) George Reid. This force consisted of 8 Squadron operating a mix of Bristol Blenheim I bombers and Vincent biplanes, 94 Squadron equipped with sixteen Gladiators, and 203 Squadron operating Blenheim IV long range fighters. Also, at the start of hostilities reinforcements were already flowing to Aden. Blenheim I bombers of 39 Squadron arrived from India while the Blenheim Is of Singapore based 11 Squadron were on their way. (25)

South of AOI in Kenya there were no RAF units and none scheduled to reinforce the British colonies in Southern Africa. However, in this area the forces of the Empire were able to lend a hand. In April 1940, the Rhodesian Air Force deployed to Nairobi its lone squadron equipped with a mix of Hawker Audax, Hardy, and Hart two seat general purpose biplanes where it was designated 237 Squadron RAF. (26) In May 1940, South African units began arriving in Kenya to reinforce the Rhodesians. On May 19, 11 Squadron equipped with twenty-four Hawker Hartebeeste ground support biplanes and a single Fairey Battle deployed to Nairobi, followed on May 25, by 12 Squadron equipped with thirteen South African Airways Junkers Ju-86 airliners converted for bombing. In early June, I Squadron of the South African Air Force (SAAF) was in place with its Hawker Fury and Hurricane fighters with a further twelve pilots detached to Egypt for conversion training with the Gladiator--they were to arrive in Kenya in late July. Overall, by the start of hostilities with Italy in June 1940, three SAAF squadrons equipped with a total of forty-six aircraft were operating out of bases at Nairobi, Mombasa, and Dar-Es-Salaam. For transportation and logistics, the SAAF also contributed 10 Junkers Ju-52 transports, requisitioned from South African Airways and three obsolete but still useful Vickers Valentia biplanes from 50 Squadron. (27) The employment of Ju-86s and Ju-52s by the SAAF is one of the few examples of an Allied air force employing German built aircraft in combat during the Second World War. (28)


War in East Africa began on June 11, 1940, when eight Wellesleys of 47 Squadron struck three Italian airfields destroying 780 gallons of gasoline. This effort was complemented by four SAAF Ju-86s bombing Italian positions near the Kenyan border, six hours before South Africa officially declared war on Italy while six Blenheims from Aden attacked Italian targets along the Red Sea coast. (29) The first air-to-air kill of the campaign was a Sm-81 shot down by a Gladiator of 94 Squadron on June 13, during an attack on Aden. (30)

Initial attacks by the Italians focused on port facilities at Aden, airfields in the Sudan, and Alhed positions in Kenya in support of Italian ground troops pursuing raiding parties from the King's African Rifles. (31) One of the most successful Italian air attacks of the early stages of the war came on the early morning of June 13, when three CA.133s attacked the airfield at Wajir in Kenya. Braving heavy anti-aircraft fire, the Italians pressed their attack and according to British records damaged two Hawker Audaxes and destroyed 5,000 gallons of fuel. (32) These types of harassment attacks with small numbers of aircraft characterized the air war in East Africa for both sides and while sometimes the attacks caused significant damage, for the most part the damage was minor in spite of the often optimistic claims from the air crews.


Despite the best efforts of the Commonwealth Air Forces to apply pressure to the Italians, the first offensives and the first victories in the war in East Africa went to the Italians. In early July, in order to tie down the British and prevent raids into Italian territory, the Italians attacked along the frontiers of the Sudan and Kenya. In the Sudan, supported by the Regia Aeronautica, Italian troops captured the border towns of Cassala, Gallabat, and Kurmuk, while in Kenya the Italians took the town of Moyale without the loss of any aircraft. In all cases Italian troops heavily outnumbered the colonial garrisons which retreated in good order after offering initial resistance. (33)

However, these actions were nothing more than minor border skirmishes and the Italians failed to use these early victories to make further territorial gains in the Sudan or Kenya. The real prize, at least from the standpoint of Italy's initial war aims was British Somaliland. The Italian invasion of the British colony began in early August 1940, with Italian commanders under enormous pressure from Rome to produce a victory. The British were outnumbered and with no hope of reinforcement, particularly after the fall of France and the elimination of any assistance from French Somaliland. However, the British were determined to put up a fight and RAF units did their part to keep pressure on advancing enemy troops. (34) Fighters based at airfields in Somaliland and bombers flying from Aden attacked Italian airfields and advancing Italian columns. During the height of the campaign, between August 5 and 19, Aden-based air units flew 184 sorties, dropping sixty tons of bombs for the cost of seven aircraft. (35) Wellesleys flying from Aden even provided air cover to convoys in the Red Sea. Bomber sorties from Aden were often flown without fighter support due to Italian pressure on RAF fighter airfields in Somaliland. (36) South African units operating from airfields in Kenya contributed to the fight with attacks on Italian airfields in Ethiopia. However, it was not enough and on August 19, 1940, the last British troops were evacuated from Somaliland. The Italians had the victory they needed, albeit after suffering almost ten times the casualties they inflicted on their British opponents. (37)


Despite the initial victories in East Africa going to the Italians, the long term trends were not on their side. All of Italy's victories in Somaliland as well as capture of border towns in the Sudan and Kenya involved higher casualties than they inflicted on their enemies in battles where Italian troops held a significant numerical advantage. Additionally, while the Regia Aeronautica managed to receive a trickle of reinforcements through the end of 1940, the year ended with Italy's air component in East Africa weaker than when the war began. The Regia Aeronautica began the war with 187 operational fighters and bombers and flew in an additional 74 aircraft during the early months of fighting, including thirty-six CR.42s disassembled and stowed in the cargo holds of Sm-82 transports. (38) However, the Regia Aeronautica in AOI closed out 1940 with only 132 operational fighters and bombers (along with another 125 in various states of repair) due to high losses in seven months of fighting. Making matters worse, British success against Italian forces in Libya in early 1941 shut down the airborne reinforcement route and Italian forces would only receive twenty-one new aircraft in 1941. (39) On October 22, the Regia Aeronautica also began to feel the pinch of its untenable supply situation when it was put on strict fuel rationing. (40)

For the Allies, the opposite was the case. A small but steady stream of reinforcements improved both the quantity and quality of aircraft available to the British and South Africans. Throughout the summer and fall of 1940, 1 and 2 Squadrons of the SAAF replaced their aging Hawker Furies with Hawker Hurricane Mark Is to complement their Gladiators. In October 1940, 3 Squadron SAAF arrived in Kenya equipped with Hurricanes. The arrival of 3 Squadron in Kenya enabled the transfer of some of 2 Squadron's aircraft north to the Sudan to reinforce a detachment of 1 Squadron that had transferred there in September. The British even welcomed two French Air Force, U.S.-built Martin 167F reconnaissance bombers flown to Aden from Syria by French pilots aider the fall of France. In early August 1940, Fairey Battles of 11 Squadron of the SAAF flew their first sorties against the Italians. Obsolete in other theaters, the Battles proved effective in close air support and offensive counter air missions in East Africa. One mission by Battles of 11 Squadron highlights the difficulties aircrews in East Africa faced in assessing damage done to enemy targets. On August 28, 1940, 11 Squadron dive bombed a "substantial vehicle park" at Mogadishu in Italian Somaliland claiming the destruction of 800 trucks. However, when Mogadishu was captured in February 1941, the trucks were discovered to be worn out wrecks that had been dumped there in 1936 after the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. (41)


Additional bombers also arrived in theater with aircraft from the Blenheim equipped 84 Squadron of the RAF based in Iraq arriving in Aden and Blenheims from 45 Squadron arrived in the Sudan from Egypt in August and September. By the end of 1940, Allied units had achieved quantitative parity and qualitative superiority over the Italians with the aircraft available to the SAAF in Kenya more than doubling from its strength at the start of the war. The British and South Africans also consistently employed the flexibility of their exterior lines of communication by shifting units to satellite airfields, between Kenya and the Sudan as needed, as well from the Sudan and Aden to Egypt and from Egypt to the Sudan and Aden based on the demands of commanders in theater. This flexibility increasingly allowed Imperial air forces to achieve local air superiority when and where needed. (42)

After the fall of British Somaliland, the British spent the fall of 1940, consolidating their positions in East Africa, integrating the above mentioned reinforcements, and launching harassment raids into Ethiopia. Italian air operations mirrored British attacks and on October 16, 1940, the Regia Aeronautica executed a particularly impressive counter air mission. In the early morning hours a single Vickers Vincent attacked the Italian airfield at Tessenei in Ethiopia. The offending aircraft was in turn followed home to its base at Gedaref in the Sudan by a single CA.133. After making an unsuccessful attack run the CA.133 returned to Tessenei and reported the location of the British airfield. A follow up attack by nine CR.42s of 412 Squadron led by a single SM.79 destroyed eight of 47 Squadron's Wellesleys and two Vincents while also damaging an ammunition dump. Participating in the attack was the Regia Aeronautica's leading East African ace, Capt. Mario Visintini. (43)


The year 1941 began with the Allies poised to take the offensive and in early January British troops reoccupied the frontier posts in the Sudan after the Italians pulled back to consolidate their lines. (44) With an increasing number of Gladiators and Hurricanes equipping their fighter squadrons RAF and SAAF operations put a great deal of pressure on the Regia Aeronautica wearing it down through the attrition of constant operations. In early February, Italian commanders informed Rome that without reinforcements the Regia Aeronautica's ability to conduct effective operations would cease. Losses due to all causes as well as damage to aircraft meant that on February 1, the Italians had eighty-two fighters and bombers available for operations, a drop of almost 40% in one month. By March 1, the number of operational aircraft available to the Regia Aeronautica was down to forty-two despite a small number of reinforcements from Italy and the return of damaged aircraft to service, a drop of almost 70 percent from the beginning of the year. Additionally, increased RAF and SAAF fighter activity meant that the Italian's primary bomber, the CA.133, could not operate without heavy fighter escort. (45) During the fighting in early 1941, three South African pilots from 1 Squadron Ken Driver, Brian "Piggy" Boyle, and Robin Pare all earned their fifth victories, achieving ace status. (46)

Allied offensive operations in East Africa in early 1941, quickly gained momentum. In February, troops under the command of Lt. Gen. Alan Cunningham, younger brother of the renowned Fleet Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, launched what was intended to be a limited offensive from Kenya into Italian Somaliland. Cunningham's army composed of troops from East, West, and South Africa reached the port of Mogadishu before the end of the month and pursued the retreating Italians into Ethiopia. (47) During the advance, Cunningham's troops were ably supported by SAAF units based in Kenya. Ju-86s of 12 Squadron conducted deep strikes against Italian positions and lines of communication while Fairey Battles of 11 Squadron flew close support missions and harassed retreating Italian columns. Cunningham's advance was also received air and gunfire support from the Royal Navy. Fairey Swordfish bombers operated from the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes while in one particularly effective joint operation on February 15, the cruiser HMS Shropshire provided gunfire support to Cunningham's troops with Hurricane's from 3 Squadron flying air cover and a U.S. built Martin Maryland reconnaissance bomber directing the cruiser's gunfire. (48) Cunningham's forces continued their advance and on April 3, 1941, they entered Addis Ababa. In less than eight weeks, Cunningham's men advanced almost 2,700 kilometers, through harsh terrain, while defeating a numerically superior army. (49)


Although they faced tougher opposition, British offensive operations in the north were just as impressive as Cunningham's drive on Addis Ababa. After a hard fought siege of over one month, the Italian fortress town of Keren in Eritrea fell on March 27, to British, Indian, and Free French troops. (50) Outnumbered on the ground, but better trained and better equipped the Allied troops, led by the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions ultimately succeeded against the determined Italians in large part due to air superiority won by the RAF and SAAF. On March 15, alone, Blenheims and Wellesleys dropped 38,800 pounds of bombs on the Italian defenses. (51) Sustained ground support operations were enabled by the air cover provided by 1 and 2 Squadrons of the SAAF with 1 Squadron now fully equipped with Hurricanes. The importance of the increasing number of Hurricanes in achieving air superiority during the fight for Keren over the Regia Aeronautica's dwindling inventory of Cr-42s and Cr-32s was later acknowledged by Winston Churchill in his postwar writings. (52)

During the offensive against Keren, Italian pilots fought back valiantly against impossible odds. Italian pilots often launched single attacks against Allied bombing raids and continued to make claims with aces Mario Visintini, Luigi Baron, Aroldo Soffritti, Antonia Giardina, and Carlo Canella from 412 Squadron adding to their scores. However, down to only fifteen serviceable CR.42s, the end result was inevitable and the fighting around Keren even saw the death of Italy's East African aces of aces, Mario Visintini, who crashed into a mountain on February 9. (53) Once Keren fell, the Italian position in Eritrea became untenable with Allied troops capturing Asmara just north of the Ethiopian border on April 1, 1940, and the port of Massawa a week later, although the destruction at the port rendered it useless until repairs could be made. In addition to the drive through Eritrea, on March 16, two battalions of Indian troops landed at Berbera in British Somaliland, only to find the Italian garrison commander and sixty of his men lined up in formation waiting to surrender. (54)


During the final drive through Eritrea, British air power scored a significant strategic victory in early April 1941, with the final destruction of the Regia Marina's Red Sea Flotilla. While the original force had been gradually worn down due to combat losses and lack of fuel and spare parts, the flotilla remained a small but viable fleet in being that still posed a threat to Allied shipping. This continued to keep the Red Sea designated as a combat zone by the United States and thus forbade entry to American merchant ships. (55) However, as the situation on the ground deteriorated for Italy, the Red Sea Flotilla's position became untenable. Its commander, Admiral Mario Bonetti, ordered the remaining four submarines to Bourdeaux, France, to join the Regia Marina's submarine flotilla operating there, while three armed merchant cruisers were ordered to Kobe, Japan, with one succumbing to the guns of the light cruiser HMNZS Leander en-route. (56)

Finally, in late March 1941, with British troops closing in on their main base at Massawa, Admiral Bonetti ordered the six remaining destroyers of the flotilla on a desperate mission to attack British shipping in the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. One destroyer ran aground and had to be scuttled on April 1, 1941, while on April 3, the other five came under attack by the Swordfish attack aircraft of HMS Eagle's 813 and 824 Naval Air Squadrons, temporarily operating ashore at Port Sudan as well as by RAF Blenheims from 14 Squadron and Wellesleys from 223 Squadron. Two of the destroyers were sunk, while the other three were damaged and eventually scuttled. (57) In addition to losses in warships, almost 90,000 tons of Italian and German merchant shipping were scuttled in Massawa on April 4, with another 62,000 tons of Italian merchant ships scuttled on April 10. (58) While the final destruction of the Red Sea Flotilla by the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF in April 1941, is not listed among the great victories of air power over naval forces in World War II, the battle had a strategic effect on the course of the war disproportionate to the tonnage of ships sunk. The destruction of the Red Sea Flotilla cleared that crucial waterway of Axis warships, allowing President Roosevelt to declare on April 10 that the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden were no longer combat zones, permitting unarmed American merchant ships to directly supply British forces operating in Egypt and the Middle East. (59) In addition to securing sea lines of communication, British victories in East Africa and the Red Sea also helped secure air lines of communication which would permit the movement through the region of air units destined to reinforce Allied positions in North Africa, the Middle East, and India.

With the capture of Massawa and Addis Ababa in April 1941, the fighting in East Africa began to wind down although Italian troops would continue to hold out at the inland fortress of Gondar until November 1941. However, after April, the air war for the Italians was for all practical purposes over. Down to just seven fighters, six bombers, and minimal supplies, the Regia Aeronautica in AOI was limited to occasional harassment attacks and attempting to provide aerial resupply to isolated Italian garrisons. (60) To the credit of the Italians, they managed to keep two CR.42s operational through October 1941, flying reconnaissance missions and attacking British ground troops and vehicles. For the British, while some units re-equipped with new aircraft and were redeployed to Egypt after the fall of Addis Ababa, most units continued to soldier on with their aging and well worn equipment flying reconnaissance, bombing, and close support missions until the end of the campaign. Very little air to air combat occurred although the remaining two CR.42s along with occasional supply flights flown to Gondar from Italy through Vichy French controlled Djibouti proved to be a considerable annoyance to the British who were determined to end these activities by the Italians. In September 1941, B Flight of 3 Squadron SAAF, recently re-equipped with twenty P-36 Mohawk fighters deployed to the theater where one of their missions was flying patrols against Italian aircraft using Djibouti's airspace. (61) On October 5, 1941, Capt. Jack Parsonson strafed an Italian Sm-75 cargo plane on the airfield at Djibouti, the only enemy aircraft destroyed by the P-36 in East Africa. (62) Later that month on the 24th, one of the two remaining CR.42s in AOI was shot down while on a reconnaissance sortie by Lt. L. C. H. Hope of the SAAF. Appropriately, Lieutenant Hope was flying a Gladiator, the CR.42's primary opponent in the theater of operations. His victory was the last against an Italian aircraft in East Africa and the last air to air kill by a Gladiator pilot serving in British markings. On the 25th, Hope flew over Italian positions and dropped a message, "Tribute to the pilot of the Fiat, he was a brave man, South African Air Force." (63)

Except for mopping up operations against Italian troops operating as guerillas in the mountains, the war in East Africa came to an end in November 1941. The last sortie flown by the Regia Aeronautica in AOI was on November 22, when the remaining Cr-42 strafed a British artillery position, killing the regimental commander. The Italians burned the Italians to prevent its capture. On the 27th, British and South African aircraft flew their last sorties of the campaign when thirty planes dropped some 12,000 pounds of bombs on Italian positions around Gondar. The Italians surrendered later that day. (64) It was a hard fought campaign by both sides with imagination, courage, and determination in extremely difficult conditions with obsolete equipment and particularly for the Italians, at the end of very long and often tenuous supply lines was over. The campaign ended with the capture of more than 20,000 Italian and native troops and resulted in the first substantive ground victories for the British in the Second World War and secure lines of communication through southern and central Africa and in the western Indian Ocean. These lines of communication would be vital to sustaining the flow of supplies to Allied forces in North Africa and once Japan entered the war in December 1941, throughout the periphery of the Indian Ocean.


(1.) Christopher Shores, Dust Clouds in the Middle East--the Air War for East Africa, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Madagascar, 1940-42, London: Grub Street, 1996), pp. 4-5.

(2.) Giovanni Massimello and Giorgio Apostolo, Italian Aces of World War H, London and N.Y: Osprey Publishing, 2005, p. 15.

(3.) Byron Farwell, The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986, p.135.

(4.) Ibid. pp. 149-50.

(5.) Ibid., pp. 280-82.

(6.) Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell, Air War East Africa 1940-1941, the RAF Versus the Italian Air Force, (South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Aviation, 2009), pp.19-20.

(7.) Ibid., p. 20.

(8.) Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory--the Mediterranean Theater in World War H, N.Y.:: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004, p. 128.

(9.) Shores, p. 11 and Porch, p. 129.

(10.) Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950, p. 80 and Francis L. Loewenheim, Harold D. Langley, and Manfred Jonas ed., Roosevelt and Churchill--Their Secret Wartime Correspondence, New York: De Capo Press, 1975., pp. 137-38.

(11.) Shores, pp. 7-8.

(12.) Sutherland and Canwell, pp. 184-86.

(13.) Hakan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, Fiat CR-42 Aces of World War H, London and New York: Osprey Publishingk, 2009, pp. 87-88; Massimello and Apostolo, pp. 86-87; and and Shores, pp. 9-11.

(14.) David Mondey, Axis Aircraft of World War II, London: Chancellor Press, 1996., pp. 54-55 and Massimello and Apostolo,, pp. 86-87 ; and Shores, pp. 59-11.

(15.) Shores, pp. 10-11.

(16.) Sutherland and Canwell, p. 25.

(17.) Mondey, Axis Aircraft of World War II, p. 240 and Shores p. 11.

(18.) Shores, p. 10 and Sutherland and Canwell, ,pp. 23.

(19.) Shores, pp. 1-12.

(20.) Ibid., p. 12.

(21.) David Mondey, British Aircraft of World War H, London: Chancellor Press, 1994, p. 216.

(22.) Shores, p. 92.

(23.) Andrew Thomas, Gloster Gladiator Aces of World War H, London and N.Y.: Osprey Publishing, 2002, p. 70 and Shores, p. 12.

(24.) Ibid., p. 84.

(25.) Thomas, p.70 and Shores, pp. 13-14.

(26.) Shores, p. 14.

(27.) Sutherland and Canwell, pp. 26-7 and Thomas, p. 72.

(28.) In addition to the South African Air Force, both Greece and China employed small numbers of German built aircraft during World War II, see Mondey, Axis Aircraft of World War II.

(29.) Sutherland and Canwell, p. 31.

(30.) Thomas, p. 70.

(31.) Sutherland and Canwell, p. 36.

(32.) Ibid., pp., 33-34.

(33.) Ibid., pp., 43-48.

(34.) Ibid., p., 61.

(35.) Shores, p. 54.

(36.) Ibid., pp. 46-47, 54.

(37.) Sutherland and Canwell, pp. 58-60.

(38.) Mondey, Axis Aircraft of World War II, p. 242.

(39.) Shores, pp. 90-91.

(40.) Sutherland and Canwell, p. 70.

(41.) Shores, p. 57.

(42.) Shores, pp. 91-93.

(43.) Gustavsson and Slongo, p. 70 and Shores, pp. 67-68.

(44.) Shores, p. 94.

(45.) Ibid., pp. 104, 120.

(46.) Thomas, Gloster Gladiator Aces of World War II, p. 76 and Andrew Thomas, Hurricane Aces 1941-45, pp. 59-61.

(47.) Michael Wright ed., The Reader's Digest Illustrated History of World War II, London and N.Y.: Reader's Digest Association, 1989, pp. 77-79.

(48.) Sutherland and Canwell, pp. 97-98.

(49.) Michael Wright ed., p. 79.

(50.) Ibid., pp. 77-78.

(51.) Shores, p. 124.

(52.) Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance, p.79.

(53.) Gustavsson and Slongo, pp. 62-65.

(54.) Anthony Mockler, Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941, (N.Y.: Random House, 1984), pp. 365-66.

(55.) Loewenheim, Langley, Jonas ed., pp. 137-38.

(56.) Ashley Jackson, The British Empire and the Second World War, (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006), p. 281.

(57.) David Brown, Warship Losses of World War II, (London: Arms and Armor, 1990), p. 43; Jackson, p. 283; Sutherland and Canwell, pp. 124-25; and Shores, pp.138-40.

(58.) Shores, p. 140.

(59.) Churchill, p. 80; Loewenheim, Langley, and Jonas ed., pp. 137-38; and Sutherland and Canwell, p. 128.

(60.) Sutherland and Canwell, p. 133.

(61.) Ibid., p. 148.

(62.) Andrew Thomas, Tomahawk and Kittyhawk Aces of the RAF and Commonwealth, pp. 96-97.

(63.) Sutherland and Canwell, pp. 150-51.

(64.) Shores, p. 161.

Lt. Col. Daniel J. Kostecka is a reservist with the Air Force Historical Support Office in Washington, D.C. Lieutenant Colonel Kostecka has a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from The Ohio State University. a master of liberal arts in military and diplomatic history from Harvard University, a master of arts in national security policy from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, and a master of science in strategic intelligence from the National Intelligence University. He is also a graduate of Squadron Officer School and the Air Command and Staff College.
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Author:Kostecka, Daniel J.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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