5th Indian Division and the Sudan Defence
Force in action against Italian Forces
Africa in 1940
When Italy declared war on Britain and
France on 10th June 1940 a serious threat confronted British
Somaliland, Kenya and the Sudan, as the Italians had built up large forces in
Eritrea, Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland.
A strong air force of over 200 aeroplanes in Italian East Africa
supported an estimated 30,000 European and 100,000 locally enlisted colonial
troops who possessed 400 artillery guns, 200 light tanks and 20,000 lorries. In comparison British forces were very weak
and generally had been trained and equipped for Internal Security duties.
British Somaliland was successfully invaded
by Italy in August 1940, the British defenders fighting a withdrawing action
before evacuating themselves to Aden (1). Italian units crossed into the Northern
Frontier District of Kenya, occupying British border posts at Moyale and El
Wak, and sending irregular troops to raid further into the District; the three
battalions of the King’s African Rifles in the District could only watch,
harass and withdraw as the enemy advanced.
For the maps relating to this Campaign please go here
Above: Officers of 4-10th Baluchis in 1940
In the Sudan, as in Kenya, the three British
Army battalions there and the units of the Sudan Defence Force – a total of
9,000 men - could only offer a mobile defence against enemy intrusions, and by
the end of July Italian troops were in possession of British frontier posts at Karora,
Kassala, Gallabat and Kurmuk. However,
having crossed the British frontiers the Italians did not take advantage of
British weaknesses and they remained static instead of exploiting military
opportunities further inside British territory (2). This pause in enemy activity allowed British
reinforcements to arrive. Indian troops
were landed in the Sudan whilst West and South African troops moved into Kenya. In the Sudan this reinforcement allowed
aggressive British action to be mounted but initial military encounters with
the Italians were not as successful as had been anticipated, and some hard
military lessons were learned.
forces in the Sudan
On the outbreak of hostilities with Italy
the British military commander in the Sudan, Major-General W. Platt CB, DSO, had
under command the British Army 21st Brigade, an administrative rather than a
tactical formation, which consisted of three pre-war Regular Army battalions:
the 2nd Battalion The West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’
Own), the 1st Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment, and the 1st
Battalion The Essex Regiment. He also
commanded the locally-enlisted Sudan Defence Force (SDF) whose units were
battalion-sized but named as Corps: the Camel Corps, the Eastern Arab Corps,
the Western Arab Corps and the Equatorial Corps. These Corps were organized into a total of 20
Companies, six of them being Motor Machine Gun (MMG) Companies that were small
mobile units whose main weapon was the light machine gun. A unit titled the Sudan Horse was in the
process of being converted into a 3.7-inch howitzer battery.
Right: the badge of the Sudan Defence Force
The MMG Companies of the SDF contained
tough individuals who wanted to fight and kill Italian troops as the following
citations for two awards of the Military
Medal show. Both men served in 3MMG
Company, Western Arab Corps, Sudan Defence Force.
No. 45230 Shawish (Sergeant)
On October 19th 1940 Shawish Gubartalla
Yassin was in command of a patrol of a sub-section of a Bren Gun Platoon. On approaching Jebel Gulsa he was informed
that a large number of enemy were lying in ambush for him about one mile to the
North. He immediately decided to attack.
Having made his plan he led his patrol against the enemy. Fire was opened on him at 30 yards range and
the Bren gun on his own car was quickly put out of action but notwithstanding
this he displayed great coolness and decision in the manner in which he led his
patrol so that the other Bren gun was able to engage the enemy and inflict
heavy casualties. Having withdrawn his
platoon safely to some distance he attacked again from another direction and
inflicted further casualties on the enemy.
Fifty enemy dead were counted while several others must have been
wounded. The patrol had two men slightly
Again on October 20th 1940 Shawish
Gubartalla Yassin was in charge of the Bren guns which attacked about 1,000
enemy near Jebel Gulsa inflicting very heavy losses on them without loss to
themselves. At all times this
Non-Commissioned Officer has shown skilful and determined leadership and a
desire to close with the enemy.
Throughout he has set an example of disregard of danger which has
inspired his men.
No. 45324 Shawish Dekheir El Deif.
On October 20th 1940 Shawish Dekheir El
Deif was in command of a mixed patrol of a section of armoured cars and a
sub-section of a Bren gun platoon. He
was ordered to seek out the enemy who was suspected of being in ambush near Jebel
Gulsa, to engage and to inflict as many casualties as possible. Owing to this Non-Commissioned Officer’s
determination, foresight and initiative in leadership and coolness in action
the encounter was a complete success, very heavy casualties were inflicted on
the enemy without any loss to the patrol.
On all occasions Shawish Dekheir El Deif has shown courage and
cheerfulness in the face of the enemy.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) in the Sudan
supported General Platt with three squadrons of obsolete Wellesley bombers and
six Gladiator fighter aircraft, plus a few army co-operation planes for liaison
reinforcements for the Sudan
The first reinforcing unit to arrive was
the 2nd Mahratta Light Infantry from Aden. The 4th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery,
left Egypt in August for the Sudan. Then
in early September ‘B’ Squadron 6th Royal Tank Regiment also arrived
from Egypt with a mixture of Cruiser and light tanks, but the tanks could have
done with an overhaul and the drivers were used to open desert conditions
rather than the scrub and long grass of the Sudan which often concealed
boulders and other impediments. Later in
the month the 5th Indian Division, less one brigade, arrived from
India having been diverted from Basra, Iraq, its original destination. General Platt made up the Division to full
strength by reorganising it so that his three British battalions were each in
an Indian brigade alongside two Indian battalions; this resulted in the
Division containing the 9th Indian Brigade (Brigadier A.G.O. Mayne
the 10th Indian Brigade (Brigadier W.J. Slim MC (4);
and the 29th Indian Brigade (Brigadier J.C.O. Marriott CVO, DSO, MC (5). The Divisional Commander was Major General L.
M. Heath CB, CIE, DSO, MC (6). Divisional Troops included the 25th
and 28th Field Regiments, Royal Artillery, and the 2nd
and 20th Field Companies Royal Indian Engineers.
Some air reinforcements also arrived from
Egypt and Kenya and at the end of September the RAF had a first-line strength
in the Sudan of 38 bomber and 19 fighter aircraft; facing the RAF was an
Italian force of about 160 serviceable aircraft out of 260 that were in the
Above: Gloster Gladiators in the Middle East, 1941.
On the arrival of 5th Indian
Division the British were able to form Gazelle Force which was designed to
patrol long areas of the Sudan-Italian border, principally in the area of the
Gash Delta in the Kassala area, and to deliver a punch when it made
contact. The Gash Delta was a fertile
region with crops and tree growth that allowed Gazelle Force vehicles to
conceal themselves from Italian aviators.
The GSO I (senior staff officer) of 5th Indian Division,
Colonel Frank Messervy (7),
was selected to command Gazelle Force.
The principal unit in the Force was the Divisional Reconnaissance
Regiment, 1st Duke of York’s Own Cavalry, Skinner’s Horse
(abbreviated to 1 Horse), which was accompanied by No. 1 MMG Group of the SDF
that contained Nos. 2, 4 and 6 MMG Companies.
Fire and logistical support was provided by a troop of ‘P’ Battery Royal
Horse Artillery, a troop of 28 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, a section of No.
4 Ordnance Workshop and No. 170 Cavalry Field Ambulance (less a detachment). Infantry support was attached as and when
Left: A Garhwali Senior NCO wearing his slouch-hat
Gazelle Force justified its existence by successfully
harassing and ambushing enemy convoys and by raiding enemy outposts, and its strenuous
activities multiplied the British strength in the Sudan in the minds of Italian
intelligence officers. During the first
eleven days of November 1940 Gazelle Force was engaged with parties of Italian
troops totalling 900 men or more in the area of Temahiyam Wells. During this operation infantry support was
provided by ‘A’ Company 3rd Royal Battalion (Sikhs), 12th
Frontier Force under Major H.M. de V. Moss, and by two companies of the 3rd
Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment under Major T. Mainprise-King. Sometimes the fighting was heavy and three acts
of gallantry resulted in the Indian
Distinguished Service Medal being awarded.
Risaldar Amar Singh of Skinner’s Horse
fought hard when he was heavily outnumbered by an enemy force that was
escorting a camel convoy:
Indian officer was commanding a camp picquet of eleven men when, at 2240 hours
on the 5th November 1940 it was attacked by a very superior enemy
force estimated to number 300 men.
Throughout the attack, which lasted over an hour, Risaldar Amar Singh
showed great coolness and courage under very trying circumstances and set a fine
example to his men. Later, when he was
running short of ammunition and when two out of his three Light Machine Guns
had jammed he withdrew to another position where he was reinforced by another
section. He maintained this position
which was in close contact with the enemy throughout the next day and his
resolute and skilful leadership was instrumental in paving the way for the
subsequent defeat of this enemy detachment.
Two days later Subedar Bela Singh fought
his Frontier Force Regiment Sikhs up onto a ridgeline in the Tendelai Hills
against heavy machine gun fire. The
result was the capture of three heavy machine guns, the death of around 50
enemy troops and the surrender of the remainder. Only 3 men in ‘A’ Company 3rd
Sikhs were wounded.
Bela Singh was the senior Indian Officer of ‘A’ Company, 3rd Royal
Bn (Sikhs), 12th Frontier Force Regiment which, on the 7th
November 1940, attacked a much superior enemy force in the Tendalai Hills. It was largely by his personal example and
initiative that the action was brought to such a successful conclusion, that
241 prisoners were taken and the remainder of the force of nearly 300 were
killed. On the 11th November
at Khor Yodrub Subedar Bela Singh, who was in command of his company, displayed
resolution and soldierly qualities of a high order.
Major Moss was later Mentioned in Despatches.
In the Mekali Wells area on 11th
November No. 12223 Lance Naik Udho Ram, 3rd Battalion 2nd
Punjabis, displayed rare courage and leadership ability in a rapidly
operations in which this Non-Commissioned Officer’s (NCO’s) Company was taking
part with Gazelle Force in the Mekali Wells area on 11 November 1940, he displayed
great bravery and devotion to duty.
Under pressure of enemy counter attack, heavy machine gun and small arms
fire, his platoon was forced to withdraw.
This NCO after his section commander had been killed took command of the
Section and kept his gun in action throughout the withdrawal, being the last to
leave the position. By this time most of
his section had been killed or wounded and he himself was firing the gun. On his way back he found No. 11451 Sepoy
Munshi Ram lying badly wounded. Lance
Naik Udho Ram without thought for his personal safety carried Munshi Ram, his
rifle and equipment back to cover. He
then returned and brought back his own light machine gun and whilst doing so
fell and dislocated his knee but in spite of this handicap and considerable
pain, he managed to get back with his gun.
This NCO’s bravery and devotion to duty was outstanding.
Right: Italian Caprioni Ca 133 light bomber and transport plane
However Gazelle Force in its attack on 11th
November had bitten off more than it, a light reconnaissance force, could
chew. Although Gazelle Force had
encircled the opposition the Italians fought back, infiltrating men in and
around the British positions. Meanwhile
the Italian air force was dropping supplies to its encircled men without
interference from British aeroplanes, and there were no compelling reasons to
make the Italians surrender. Colonel
Messervy called off the operation and Gazelle Force withdrew to its operational
area in the Gash Delta on 12th November.
and Metemma Forts
Gallabat was a British fort on the border
with Abyssinia and it directly faced a strong Italian fort at Metemma. The international boundary between the two
forts ran along a deep khor (dry watercourse).
The Italians had attacked Gallabat Fort in mid-June and they finally
captured it on 4th July.
However the SDF platoon defending the fort had fought hard, as this
citation for a Military Cross
awarded to Mulazim Thani Abdulla Effendi Mohammed Mustafa shows (8):
At Gallabat Fort at
about 1000 hours on 17th June 1940 El Mulazim Tani (2nd
Lieutenant) Abdulla Effendi Mohammed Mustafa of the Sudan Defence Force was
commanding the covering platoon when the enemy opened heavy fire on our forward
positions. Under cover of this fire the
enemy, about 150 strong, supported by machine guns advanced on the Fort. Some of his men were unsteadied by the
density of the fire but this officer by his personal example and leadership
rallied them, continuing fire with Bren guns until the enemy retreated inside
their wire. On a second occasion on July 4th 1940 El
Mulazim Tani (2nd Lieutenant) Abdulla Effendi Mohammed Mustafa was
again commanding the covering platoon at Gallabat Fort. At dawn, after the bombing of the Fort
itself, 500 enemy Colonial troops attempted to attack from both flanks under
cover of smoke and bombardment. This
officer’s coolness of action and disregard of danger caused the enemy to lose
one aircraft from Anti-aircraft fire and some 60 casualties before he finally withdrew
his platoon in good order with the loss of one killed, two wounded and five
missing. This officer on both occasions
set a fine example to the men under his command.
Left: Italien troops in East Africa
of Abdulla Effendi’s soldiers, No. 33751 Nafar (Private) Ali Abdulla Hassan, Sudan
Defence Force, displayed gallantry on the 4th July that earned him a
Gallabat Fort on the 4th July 1940 this soldier was No. 2 of a
machine gun post when the enemy launched an attack in superior numbers under
cover of an air bombardment which destroyed part of the gun post equipment. In spite of a determined attack from both
flanks Nafar Ali Abdulla Hassan continued to serve the gun coolly and heavy
casualties were inflicted on the enemy.
The post was finally ordered to withdraw and it was then found that the
gun mules had bolted. Under continual
fire this soldier then carried the gun back to the main position 1½ miles in
rear, suffering severe burns from the heat of the gun in doing so. The conduct of this soldier is deserving of
seized Gallabat the Italians strengthened the defences with a zareba (thorn
hedge), a wall of logs and stones and barbed wire entanglements; outside the
zareba all vegetation was cut down for hundreds of metres around the Fort, to
give clear fields of fire for the defenders.
The surrounding area was very rocky but elephant grass grew to a height
of over two metres, hindering the visibility of attackers, especially those in
vehicles. Metemma Fort was also
surrounded by strong defensive wire obstacles.
British decided to re-take Gallabat Fort and to capture Metemma Fort in one
operation; with the two forts in British hands camel convoys of weapons and
supplies could be sent through Metemma to the Abyssinian Patriots who were
fighting the Italians in an intense guerrilla warfare campaign inside
Italian commander in Metemma was Lieutenant Colonel Castagnola and it was
estimated that his troops holding the two forts were:
§ 27th Colonial Battalion (regular
African troops) in Gallabat Fort.
§ 25th and 77th
Colonial Battalions bivouacking adjacent to Metemma Fort.
§ Bande (irregular) troops garrisoning
§ up to 6 pieces of pack artillery.
§ two companies of Blackshirt (9) machine
§ one company of mortars.
§ one anti-tank platoon using British
anti-tank rifles captured in British Somaliland.
§ moving from Gondar to Metemma was a
column of reinforcements believed to include a Blackshirt battalion and a
number of anti-tank guns.
British 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was selected to make the attack. Because of the Italian reinforcements moving
towards Metemma the date of the British attack was moved forward a couple of
days to 6th November. 10th
Indian Infantry Brigade and its supporting troops were:
Headquarters with a RAF squadron commander attached for liaison.
Battalion the Essex Regiment.
Battalion 10th Baluch Regiment.
Battalion 18th Royal Garhwal Rifles.
Squadron 6th Royal Tank Regiment (6 medium and 6 light tanks).
Field Regiment Royal Artillery (1/5th and 3/57th Field
Batteries – both equipped with 18-pounder guns).
Battery Royal Artillery (4 x 18-pounders and 4 x 4.5-inch howitzers).
Field Company, Sappers and Miners, Indian Army.
Indian Field Ambulance.
company of the Sudan Defence Force.
Above: 18-pounder gun towed by Morris Tractor (IWM photo)
British 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was selected to make the attack. Because of the Italian reinforcements moving
towards Metemma the date of the British attack was moved forward a couple of
days to 6th November. 10th
Indian Infantry Brigade and its supporting troops were:
Headquarters with a RAF squadron commander attached for liaison.
Battalion the Essex Regiment. ·
Battalion 10th Baluch Regiment. ·
Battalion 18th Royal Garhwal Rifles. ·
Squadron 6th Royal Tank Regiment (6 medium and 6 light tanks). ·
Field Regiment Royal Artillery (1/5th and 3/57th Field
Batteries – both equipped with 18-pounder guns). ·
Battery Royal Artillery (4 x 18-pounders and 4 x 4.5-inch howitzers). ·
Field Company, Sappers and Miners, Indian Army. ·
Indian Field Ambulance. ·
company of the Sudan Defence Force.
to the very honest account of the battle written by Brigadier Slim in his book Unofficial History supported by the
detailed information given in A.J. Barker’s Eritrea
1941 we can follow the fighting stage by stage. The Brigadier was concerned that in the
recent Divisional reorganisation he had lost an excellent Punjabi battalion (10) and had gained a British battalion of unknown capability; events proved his
concern to be well-founded.
deceive enemy observers the tank squadron had not moved to Gallabat wearing
their regimental insignia and black berets but had worn ordinary Wolsely cork
helmets. On coming into action the tank
crews had put on their black berets, but this action was to prove dangerous if
not fatal for some of those soldiers. As
a deception measure the British guns and tanks were only brought forward under
cover of darkness in the hours preceding the attack.
attack was the first offensive action by a British formation in the Second
World War and the plan had two phases.
Firstly the Garhwalis and the tanks were to attack and seize Gallabat
Fort, exploiting up to the boundary khor to establish a bridgehead; secondly
the Essex and the tanks were to attack across the khor and capture Metemma
Fort. The Baluch and the Sudanese were
to remain in reserve, holding an outpost line to prevent enemy interference
from the flanks and rear. Phase 1 was to
be preceded by a British bombing raid and an artillery barrage.
The British attack on Gallabat Fort
0530 hours on 6th November 1940 British air (11)
and artillery bombardments commenced, but the RAF advance landing ground at
Saraf Said had received rain during the night and this made it unserviceable for
fighter aircraft until 0900 hours. The
bombardments ceased at 0615 hours and the Garhwalis advanced with six Cruiser
and four light tanks; most of the tanks quickly lost tracks or were otherwise
damaged on concealed boulders in the undergrowth or on mines, and only four
Cruiser tanks got up to Gallabat Fort.
The Garhwalis had expected the tanks to cut the wire surrounding the
Fort and when that did not immediately happen the advance was held up. No. 6620 Rifleman Indar Singh Rawat, 3/18th
Royal Garhwal Rifles, then displayed courage and initiative for which he
received the Indian Distinguished
November 1940 during the assault on Galabat, his platoon was held up by a
machine gun firing from behind a double apron fence of barbed wire. With an utter disregard to danger, this
rifleman dashed forward and cut the wire.
His prompt action undoubtedly saved a number of casualties and made a
gap through which his platoon was able to pass and rush the post. His courage and determination were of the
The remaining tanks continued to develop
problems but No. 7887112 Sergeant Charles Stanley Elliott, 6th Royal
Tank Regiment, gallantly continued fighting and was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal:
Non-Commissioned Officer having got called into Gallabat while working round
inside the Fort with his tank broke a track and became immobile. Soon after he
saw another of our tanks commanded by Sergeant Manders about 40 yards to his
left that was on fire. He got out of his
tank although still surrounded by enemy and rescued Sergeant Manders and Lance
Corporal Wood who had been seriously wounded by an Anti-Tank Rifle fired from
the top of a building 15 yards from Sergeant Manders’ tank. He laid the two wounded men between his tank
and a bank and dismounted a machine gun and went into action with it, as owing
to the position of his tank he found it impossible to man his guns properly
from his tank. I consider that this
Non-Commissioned Officer behaved with great coolness and resource.
unfortunate result of the tank crews exchanging their Wolsely helmets for black
berets during the attack was that when their tanks broke down or hit mines and
the crews dismounted to survey the damage, other members of 10th
Indian Infantry Brigade did not recognise the crews and thought that they were
Italian Blackshirts, and fired at them. One
man killed in this way was the Squadron Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class
III Robert Yeeles, Royal Tank Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps.
some Garhwalis cleared and captured the Fort others seized and held ground
outside it, and during these operations an Indian
Order of Merit, (2nd Class) was won by No. 5108 Havildar Balwant
Singh Qusain, 3/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles, who displayed bravery and
fortitude: On 6th
November 1940 this Non-Commissioned Officer’s company which had been ordered to
exploit north of Gallabat was heavily counter attacked and he himself was shot
through the thigh. In spite of his wound
he refused to go to the rear and continued to command his section with great
gallantry, and his skilful control of light machine gun fire was responsible
for inflicting a considerable number of casualties on the enemy. Later on, seeing that the number of stretchers
available was insufficient to carry all the wounded he, he insisted on walking
and continued to command his position.
It was only when his company had been withdrawn into battalion reserve
that he eventually went back to the Regimental Aid Post. His conduct throughout the operation was of the
the commander of the only remaining mobile tank, No. 3447153 Corporal W.
Dunning, 6th Royal Tank Regiment, carried out his mission to the
letter and received a Military Medal
(downgraded from an application for a Distinguished Conduct Medal):
Officer after going through the wire broke into the Fort at Gallabat. He went round the right hand half of the Fort
as ordered three times, putting out of action two enemy machine gun posts and
firing at enemy running away from the Fort.
He then went out of the back of the Fort and with his single tank
advanced downhill towards the Boundary Khor.
As he was passing the Jail between Gallabat and the Boundary Khor he was
fired on by machine guns from the Jail, he silenced these and continued his
advance. When about 100 yards from
Boundary Khor he was fired on by an Anti-tank Gun from 300 yards on the Metemma
side of the Khor. This he knocked out
with his two-pounder and killed or wounded six men that ran from the Anti-tank
Gun post after his first shot had landed in it.
He then withdrew to a hull-down position 300 yards to the rear and for
20 minutes shelled and machine gunned all obvious machine gun posts near
Metemma. As he found no other tanks near
him he returned to Gallabat where he found four Cruiser tanks immobile with
broken tracks. He and his crew spent the
remainder of the day helping to tow tanks and to refit them for action.
Right: British Cruiser Tank Mark 1 with 2-pounder (40-mm) gun
So far Phase 1 of the attack plan had
succeeded and 10th Indian Infantry Brigade held Gallabat Fort,
however Brigadier Slim saw that Phase 2 of the plan was in doubt as he had
insufficient tanks in action to force ways through the wire into Metemma
Fort. A pause was necessary whilst the
damaged tanks were repaired. Slim
decided to consolidate his gain and 1st Essex was ordered forward
into and around Gallabat Fort, where the battalion found it extremely difficult
to dig slit trenches in the hard and rocky ground. The two Garhwali companies that had exploited
forward to the khor were withdrawn onto the high ground near the Fort.
Then the Italian air force, having been
alerted by wireless messages from the enemy commander in Metemma Fort, began a
series of heavy bombing raids on Gallabat Fort that changed the whole course of
the battle. British Gladiator planes
arrived in dribs and drabs to challenge the Italians but this was contrary to
the agreed air plan which had stipulated a concentration of British fighter
aircraft before engaging the enemy. The
result of this piecemeal approach was that five Gladiators were soon shot down
by Italian Fiat CR 42 fighters flying from Gondar; it was believed later that
the Italians were using new incendiary bullets that quickly set the British
The commander of the 1st South
African Air Force Squadron, Major Schalk van Schalwyk, was seen to bail out of
his plane with his clothes alight, but he did not survive. Lieutenant B.J.L. Boyle of the same squadron
attempted to protect his squadron commander but was wounded in the hand and leg
and shot down, crash-landing between the lines; later Brian “Piggy” Boyle was
awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross
for his gallantry in going to van Schalwyk’s assistance:
In October, 1940, Captain Boyle led three aircraft in an attack on
an enemy aerodrome 100 miles within Eritrea. Owing to his care in studying the
approaches complete surprise was achieved, three enemy fighters being destroyed
and six bombers severely damaged.
In November, 1940, when his squadron commander was engaged by eight enemy
fighters, Captain Boyle alone succeeded in taking off from a waterlogged
aerodrome, and attacked in an attempt to extricate his comrade. Though wounded and covered with oil he
continued to fight, after his squadron commander had been shot down, until his
engine was so damaged that he was compelled to land, being rescued from his
wrecked aircraft by the front line troops. Captain Boyle has repeatedly led his
flight into action over enemy territory and against superior enemy forces with
skill, courage and determination.
The Italians had air superiority and used
it to effect, calling in Caprioni Ca
133 bombers from across their East African territories. No British anti-aircraft guns were available
for the Gallabat operation, and the soldiers being pounded from the air only
had light machine guns with which to engage the enemy aeroplanes. The hard
ground around Gallabat multiplied the effects of bomb splinters causing deaths
and serious injuries and the casualty figures increased with each enemy air attack. This imposed nervous strain on the Essex and
Garhwali soldiers around Gallabat in their inadequate trenches. Whilst those men in contact with the enemy in
Metemma Fort remained stoic and professional, despite the incoming Italian machine
gun, mortar and artillery fire, soon some of the Essex Regiment men in the rear
positions panicked and cracked. This was
partially due to an Italian bomb hitting a British ammunition truck and
detonating the cargo of small arms ammunition; to the inexperienced this
sounded as though an Italian counter-attack had got into the heart of the
Most of these men had never before been in
combat or experienced aerial bombardment.
An Indian officer from the Baluchis ran to Brigade Headquarters to
advise Slim that British soldiers were fleeing from Gallabat, having
commandeered their battalion’s First Line Transport. Slim was disinclined to believe this until he
went down and witnessed it for himself; he was particularly incensed at seeing
a British officer joining in the panic-stricken rush. The Essex could not be easily stopped, as
they shouted that the enemy was attacking, and when their transport halted the British
soldiers jumped off and fled into the bush.
At one point Slim found a Royal Artillery battery commander with pistol
drawn threatening to shoot any man who took another step towards the rear.
Some bewildered Garhwalis also retreated,
stating that the Essex had said that a withdrawal was ordered, these men were
quickly turned around and returned to their positions. The bulk of the Garhwalis had remained in
action at their posts. Meanwhile the
Baluch and Sudanese were holding their outposts as ordered, having had to fight
for some of them, and they watched in amazement as the fleeing rabble streamed
past their positions.
Not all the Essex ran, and No. 6012035
Lance Corporal Robert Clarkson, 1st Battalion the Essex Regiment,
was later awarded a well-deserved Military
6th November 1940, Gallabat. During a bombing attack on Gallabat Fort when
this Non-Commissioned Officer and his men were taking cover in a slit trench,
he jumped out and maintained his Bren gun in action in the open, firing
continuously, and shouting words of encouragement to his section. He continued to fire his gun, in spite of the
fact that bombs were dropping as near as 30 yards from him. Prior to this when volunteers were called for
by his Company Commander to provide protection for Officer Commanding Tank
Squadron who had three disabled tanks well to the right flank and in front of
the front of the Fort, Lance Corporal Clarkson’s section killed two snipers
whilst affording protection to the tanks, subsequently returning with the enemy
rifles. Throughout the action this Non-Commissioned
Officer displayed great courage and coolness in action and set a fine example
to his section.
Royal Artillery signallers in Forward Observation parties on Gallabat Hill, No.
856160 Signaller James McMullen and No. 843911 Signaller Cyril Moore, both of
3/57th Field Battery, each received the Military Medal. Both men had
similar but slightly different citations (12). Cyril Moore’s read:
On November 6th at Gallabat this
Signaller was continually under small arms and machine gun fire and was on
several occasions under heavy aerial bombing and field gun fire; he never the
less remained at his work keeping his Forward Observation Officer telephone
line “through”. He was on several
occasions observed by officers lying on his stomach working on the line with
great cheerfulness during intense bombing.
He was eventually wounded by enemy shrapnel while at his work. His devotion and disregard to his personal
safety were most praiseworthy.
Slim then received a report from the tank squadron commander who advised that
the squadron workshop truck carrying all the spares had received a direct hit
from an enemy bomber and had been destroyed; three fitters had been wounded and
there was now no possibility of repairing the disabled tanks quickly as it
would take a few days to bring spares forward.
wrestled with the tactical problem of seizing Metemma Fort. At first he believed that his only option was
to give up and withdraw, but then, appreciating the position from Lieutenant
Colonel Castagnola’s point of view in Metemma Fort, he thought that the enemy
commander might himself crack mentally if he awoke next morning to find the British
occupying Jebel Mariam Waha which lay behind and above Metemma Fort. Slim decided to task the Baluchis and the
Sudanese to occupy Jebel Mariam Waha during the night and to attack the
Italians from the rear at daybreak; the Baluchis under Lieutenant Colonel B.L.
Sundius-Smith planned a route from Baluch Hill across the khor and then
eastwards behind Metemma to the Jebel.
when posing this aggressive option to the senior officers in Brigade
Headquarters and seeking their opinion, Slim was told by them all that such an
attack was too risky, especially with one battalion incapable of fighting and
most of the tanks needing repairs, as failure would leave the Italians free to
advance into the Sudan. Slim took heed
of this and ordered 10th Indian Infantry Brigade to withdraw from
Gallabat to a location within artillery range of Metemma Fort, and from where
aggressive patrolling could dominate the Gallabat area. British artillery fire was effective and the
enemy petrol dump in Metemma Fort was spectacularly destroyed. When Brigadier Slim later received British
intelligence intercepts of enemy signals stating that the Italian commander at
Metemma had indeed been extremely concerned and that he had demanded immediate
reinforcement (13), Slim
knew that he should have disregarded the doubts and fears of his staff and that
he should have chosen the boldest option and attacked.
The domination of the Gallabat area
The Baluch were now tasked with patrols and
ambushes in the Gallabat area and they quickly dominated the ground,
reoccupying Gallabat during the night when the Italians withdrew to Metemma. No. 15649 Naik Zari Marjan, 4/10th
Baluch Regiment, was awarded an Indian
Distinguished Service Medal for leadership displayed in a night ambush:
the night of the 10th November at Gallabat this Non-Commissioned
Officer who was in command of a section forming part of a company which laid an
ambush for the enemy, found himself almost encircled by the enemy who were in
unexpected strength. Although his left
flank and rear were threatened, he by his example and steadiness maintained his
section in action and even after being given permission to retire remained in
position “as good targets were presenting themselves”. When his ammunition was almost expended he
skilfully extricated his section intact.
He inflicted heavy casualties and contributed notably to the success of
The commander of the company laying the
ambush, Major Lancelot Vincent Stoneham Sherwood, 4/10th Baluch
Regiment, was later awarded the Distinguished
Service Order and part of his citation referred to the Gallabat operations:
Previously at Gallabat on 5th November
1940 Major Sherwood led the successful dawn attack on Zariba Hill. On November 10th he took his
company to ambush the enemy at Gallabat Fort.
By his skilful handling of the situation the ambush was successful and
severe casualties were inflicted on the 77th Colonial Battalion with
small loss to himself. (14)
Above: The Keren Cremation Memorial (CWGC photo).
The casualty figures for the British attack
on Gallabat Fort were:
33 killed; 154 wounded and nil captured.
189 killed; 231 wounded and 214 captured (15). The Italian 27th Colonial
Battalion that defended Gallabat Fort was destroyed and did not fight again
during the East African campaign.
The British dead are buried or commemorated
in the Keren War Cemetery, Eritrea, on the Keren Cremation Memorial within that
cemetery, or on the Khartoum Memorial within the Khartoum War Cemetery, Sudan.
Above: The Khartoum Memorial (CWGC photo).
Lieutenant Colonel Skipwith Edward “Snap”
Tayler, commanding the 3rd Battalion of the 18th Royal Garhwal
Rifles was awarded the Distinguished
Lieutenant Colonel S.E.
Tayler commanded the assault on Gallabat Fort and throughout the attack
displayed courage and leadership of the highest order. The success of the attack was largely
attributed to his personal example.
Later he was placed in command of all troops on the Gallabat
position. Subjected to prolonged and
intensive air bombardment he invariably remained cool and imperturbable. He displayed at the time they were most
needed outstanding qualities as a commander.
Sadly Colonel Tayler was not destined to live
much longer as he was killed in action at the age of 42 on Mount Sanchil which
lay before Keren, Eritrea, on 17th March 1941. He is buried in Keren War Cemetery.
10th Indian Infantry Brigade
remained facing Gallabat for a month living in bunkers and tukls (small grass
shelters), always concealing its locations and movements from Italian pilots
and observers. Guns and vehicles were
screened from view by camouflage netting.
Vultures circled overhead, packs of baboons disturbed sentries, the
occasional lion made an appearance, and snakes sometimes slithered into the
shelter of bunkers and tukls along with scorpions; mosquitos were amongst the
myriads of insects attracted to the sepoys.
However rations were enhanced with privately shot gazelle, guinea fowl
and duck. The Baluchis and the Sudanese dominated
Gallabat and the boundary khor area with their patrols and ambushes. The 1st Essex was withdrawn from
the Order of Battle and given time to re-compose itself, which it did.
On 15th December 1941 the 9th
Indian Infantry Brigade took over the 10th Brigade’s tasks before
Gallabat. Metemma had not been taken and
the camel supply convoys to the Patriots were not moving as anticipated, but
British commanders had learned that air superiority had to be gained and
maintained whilst troops attacked in daylight, and that strong enemy defences
needed to be reduced by groups of tanks before the infantry could force a way
in. And a British Brigadier who was to
rise to be one of the most popular and successful wartime Army Commanders had
learned to believe in his own judgement and military instinct rather than to
subordinate himself to a Counsel of Fears (16).
Slim and the 2nd Battalion the Highland Light Infantry
When 1st Essex had left 10th
Indian Brigade it was replaced by the 2nd Battalion the Highland
Light Infantry. The following paragraph
is taken from the book Ball of Fire. The
Fifth Indian Division in the Second World War:
‘The celebrated tale is told of Slim’s
first visit to the Highland Light Infantry, who joined Ten Brigade after
Gallabat. At the end of the Brigadier’s
talk to the officers and NCOs of the battalion, a Jock jumped to his feet and
cried: “Don’t you worry, sir! We’ll
follow you anywhere.” Like a flash came
the retort from Slim: “Don’t you be so bloody sure about that. I’m going to follow you!”
(3) Later Sir Mosley Mayne, GCB, CBE, DSO, ADC (6th Duke of
Connaught’s Own Lancers and Royal Deccan Horse).
(4) Later Field-Marshall Sir William Slim, GCB, GBE, DSO, MC, ADC (6th
and 7th Gurkha Rifles). The
only Indian Army officer to become Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
(5) Later Major-General J.C.O. Marriott, CB, CVO, DSO, MC.
(6) Later Lieutenant-General Sir Lewis Heath, KBE, CB, CIE, DSO, MC (14th
Punjab Regiment and Sikh Regiment).
(7) Later General Sir Frank Messervy, KCSI, KBE, CB, DSO (Hodson’s
Horse and 13th Duke of Connaught’s Own Lancers).
(8) This was the first gallantry award made to a Sudanese soldier in
the Second World War
(9) Blackshirt units were composed of fascist-orientated European
soldiers who wore black uniforms.
(10) The 3rd Battalion of The Second Punjab Regiment – 3/2nd
(11) The British bombers were Vickers Wellesleys and Vickers Vincents.
(12) James McMullen’s citation read: On November 6th and 7th
at Gallabat this Signaller was continually under small arms and machine gun
fire and was on several occasions under heavy aerial bombing. He never the less remained at his work
keeping his Forward Observation Officer telephone line “through”. He was on several occasions observed by
officers lying on his stomach working on the line with great cheerfulness
during intense bombing. His devotion to
duty and disregard of his personal safety were most praiseworthy.
(13) The Italians at Metemma believed and reported that Gallabat had
been attacked and captured by an Australian division. This was because the Italians mistook the
Garhwali slouch hats for Australian military headdress.
(14) Major Sherwood’s full DSO citation read: For conspicuous gallantry and
dash in the fighting in Sudan & Eritrea.
Major Sherwood is again recommended for the award of the Distinguished
Service Order, particularly for his gallantry in the fighting at Barentu. On 30th January 1941 on Five
Tebaldi Ridge when 90 men of 4 Baluch in a temporary defensive position were
twice strongly attacked by greatly superior enemy forces, Major Sherwood was
instrumental in organizing the defence and beating off the first attack. He then with great dash and determination,
led a counter attack which drove off the enemy and though himself wounded
continued to direct operations on his sector of the front. During the second enemy attack Major Sherwood
in one of the foremost posts, was again wounded. This officer displayed a complete disregard
for his personal safety and was an encouraging inspiration to his men. Previously at Gallabat on 5th
November 1940 Major Sherwood led the successful dawn attack on Zariba
Hill. On November 10th he
took his company to ambush the enemy at Gallabat Fort. By his skilful handling of the situation the
ambush was successful and severe casualties were inflicted on the 77th
Colonial Battalion with small loss to himself.
(15) Many other wounded Italian soldiers retreated into Metemma Fort.
(16) Counsel of Fears is the
title of the chapter describing the Gallabat attack in Unofficial History.
Ahmed, Major General
Rafiuddin. History of the Baluch Regiment 1939-1956. (Naval & Military
Press reprint). ·
Barker A.J. Eritrea 1941. (Faber & Faber, London
Betham, Lieutenant Colonel
Sir Geoffrey and Geary, Major H.V.R. The Golden Galley.The Story of the Second Punjab Regiment 1761-1947. (Oxford
University Press 1956). ·
Brett-James, Anthony. Ball of
Fire. The Fifth Indian Division in the
Second World War. (Gale & Polden Ltd 1951). ·
W.E.H. The Frontier Force Regiment. (Gale & Polden 1962). ·
Director of Public
Relations, India (Compiler). The Tiger Strikes. (Thacker’s Press & Directories Ltd,
Calcutta 1942). ·
Farndale, General Sir
Martin. History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The Years of Defeat, Europe
and North Africa, 1939-1941. (Brassey’s 1996). ·
Jackson, H.C. The Fighting Sudanese. (Available on-line at: https://digitalt.uib.no/handle/1956.2/2899
Mackenzie, Compton. Eastern Epic. Volume I. September 1939-March
1943. Defence. (Chatto & Windus, London 1951). ·
I.S.O. History of the Second World War. The Mediterranean and Middle
East. Volume I. The Early Successes
against Italy (to May 1941). (Naval
& Military Press reprint). ·
(General Editor). Official History of the Indian Forces in the Second World War 1939-45.
East African Campaign 1940-41.
(History Division, Ministry of Defence, Government of India. 2012
Shores, Christopher. Dust
Clouds in the Middle East. The Air War for East Africa, Iraq, Syria, Iran and
Madagascar, 1940-42. (Grub Street, London 1996). ·
Slim, Field-Marshall Sir
William. Unofficial History. (Cassell, London 1959). ·
Sutherland, Jon and
Canwell, Diane. Air War East Africa 1940-1941.
(Pen & Sword Aviation 2009). ·
Wavell, General Sir
Archibald P. Despatch: Operations in the
Middle East from August 1939 to November 1940. (London Gazette No. 37609 pages 2997-3006). ·
Archives. Citations under WO 373. ·
Commonwealth War Graves
Commission on-line records.