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The EK1

East Africans Fighting the Italians, 1940

Kenya in June 1940

When Italy declared war on Britain on 10th June 1940 the Northern Frontier District and the northern coast of Kenya were threatened by enemy troops from Abyssinia and Somalia.  2nd (East Africa) Infantry Brigade under Brigadier C.C. Fowkes was responsible for the defence of the inland sector of Kenya and the KAR battalions in the Brigade were 1 KAR (Nyasaland), 5 KAR (Kenya) and 1st/6th KAR (Tanganyika).  The British defence plan was loosely based on “Resist invasion but do not get yourself wiped out” and the battalions were soon in action.

On the 10th June ‘B’ Company 1 KAR (Captain R.D. Blackie, Sherwood Foresters) was located at Moyale and Blackie immediately sent reconnaissance patrols across the border to identify enemy positions.  The Italians responded with mortar fire and on the 12th June enemy planes bombed the British fort, wounding Private George – the first British casualty in the theatre.  From Wajir on 13th June a company of 5 KAR under Captain R.A.F. Hurt (Royal Welch Fusiliers) raided the Italian post at Dif to the south-east; three Italian Banda irregular troops were wounded and captured but enemy planes responded by bombing Wajir, killing four Askari of ‘C’ Company 5 KAR, wounding 18 others and setting the fuel dump alight.

Above: Sketch Map of Northern Frontier District

Attacking El Wak, 18th June

Brigadier Fowkes ordered an attack on the Italian positions at El Wak and this operation went ahead on 18th June under Major J.F. Macnab (Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders); Macnab’s force consisted of ‘D’ Company 1 KAR, (Captain J.D.N.C. Henderson, Royal Scots Fusiliers), ‘A’ Company 5 KAR, a section of medium mortars, a detachment of Engineers and a troop of the East African Reconnaissance Squadron (EARS).  However the operation was beset with problems due to inexperience in moving through unknown bush at night; Macnab took so long to move to the objective that a British reconnaissance aircraft that was scheduled to arrive an hour after the attack in fact arrived before it, causing the enemy irregulars to scatter.  The British attacked an empty enemy camp and set fire to it after seizing the Italian flag that was flying; meanwhile the British plane received an enemy bullet in its radiator and landed nearby where it had to be abandoned and destroyed.  Macnab and his exhausted men withdrew to a firm base that was held by Henderson and called up their transport.

However Italian colonial troops began arriving on the scene and the British had to beat a very hasty retreat.  British military honour was saved by No. 11787 L/Cpl Asamu, ‘D’ Coy 1 KAR, who later received a Military Medal with the citation:  On the 18th June 1940 during the raid on El Wak, L/Cpl Asamu, ‘D’ Coy 1st Bn KAR, showed conspicuous coolness, when under enemy fire he continued to feed and supply his Bren gun at the cross roads.  He remained in action until all his men were able to reach safety owing to his covering fire, and then he carried his gun to a Reconnaissance truck.  The example that he set was an inspiration to his section.   

The withdrawal from Moyale, 14th July

From 1st July the Italians started hostilities against the British fort at Moyale, which was garrisoned by ‘A’ Company 1 KAR (Captain F.C. Drummond, Leicestershire Regiment).  Heavy shelling was followed by an infantry attack that was successfully resisted, and reinforcements under Macnab were sent to Moyale from Buna; the reinforcing troops included a section of 22 Mountain Battery, Indian Army.  The shelling continued and on 9th July Henderson’s ‘D’ Company moved into the fort to relieve Drummond’s ‘A’ Company, however Lieutenant Sarel Eloff Du Toit of ‘A’ Company stayed on in the fort to acquaint Henderson and his men with the surrounding ground.

On the following day the enemy artillery caused casualties and No. 11591 Askari Willie, 1 KAR, displayed conspicuous bravery in action for which he was awarded the Military Medal: During the bombardment of MOYALE on the 10th July 1940, the section post in which the Askari was serving received a direct hit from a shell.  The section commander with two other soldiers were killed and four other soldiers wounded, and the remainder of the section suffered from considerable shock.  But Askari WILLIE took charge of the post, reorganised the defence, and got a light automatic into action again.  His example and presence of mind in collecting the survivors and detailing them to the defences was responsible for the successful defence of this post.  Through the remainder of the siege he set an exemplary example of fortitude and leadership.

A further casualty caused by enemy fire that day was Captain Frederick Cecil Drummond who was mortally wounded in the head as he took his ‘A’ Company back up the escarpment to the south where the British water source was being secured.  More British troops were sent to Moyale as reinforcements but on 13th July the decision was made to evacuate Moyale Fort; supporting troops manoeuvred but the message ordering Henderson to withdraw never reached him.

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Above: Postcard depicting Italian Colonial Troops

During the following day communication was re-established and that night, after destroying all stores and removing boots, the defenders silently moved between Italian positions and withdrew.  Sarel Du Toit led the move and for his conspicuous leadership he received the Military CrossLieutenant DU TOIT was in Moyale from the 24th June until the withdrawal on the 14th July 1940.  During the whole of this time he was most determined and enterprising on patrol and conspicuous in his efforts to encourage the African troops in their defence of the post.  When on the 9th July his company was relieved in Moyale he volunteered to remain in the fort to give the in-coming commander the benefit of his knowledge gained by his frequent patrols and, when the withdrawal took place on the 14th July, it was he who led the garrison of some 300 men through the enemy lines to our troops.

Three badly wounded Askari were left in the fort but one of them later managed to get out and was picked up by an EARS vehicle.  The British commander in the fort, John David Neil Henderson, also received the Military Cross: For conspicuous leadership and devotion to duty.  He was in command of the garrison at MOYALE from the 10th July until the 14th July 1940.  During that period the garrison was completely surrounded and subjected to continuous bombardment from both the air and from the ground and several attacks were made on the position.  Captain HENDERSON remained master of the situation and encouraged those under his command, both European and African to continue the defence although completely isolated.  When on the 13th July efforts to relieve the Garrison had failed, and arrangements for their withdrawal had miscarried Captain Henderson did not lose heart and on the night of the 14th/15th July withdrew the garrison through the enemy lines and re-joined our own troops five miles from the fort.

Meanwhile No. RB 10134 Lance Corporal Colin Adrian Alexander Manning of the EARS had been in action, earning a Military MedalLance Corporal Manning was ambushed while on patrol in the leading car on 14th July 1940.  The car came under fire from two machine guns and from rifles at about 100 yards range.  Lance Corporal Manning immediately got his Bren Gun into action at the side of the road and returned the fire.  Then, leaving his gun to be fired by his No. 2 he returned to the car, turned it round on the road, and as the country was too rocky to move the car off, collected the car crew and brought the car back.  He was under machine gun and rifle fire at short range during the whole of this time.  The car was not armoured in any way.

Turkana operations

West of Lake Turkana the Italians armed Merille tribesmen and encouraged them to raid into British territory, supporting the Merille with both Banda irregulars and regular Colonial troops.  In early July both 1st/6th KAR and 2nd/4th KAR (Uganda) were in action along with Abyssinian Irregulars who had been recruited from the refugee camps at Taveta, Kenya.  The Italian post at Namaraputh was captured on 13th July but the garrison escaped and ambushed the two platoons of ‘D’ Company 2nd/4th KAR that were involved.  Whilst the Ugandans extricated themselves and the Abyssinian Irregulars crossed into their homeland to raid Italians,1st/6th KAR attacked enemy troops in British Namaraputh.

The ferocity of the action and its outcome can be assessed from the citation for a Distinguished Conduct Medal that was awarded to No. 5567817 Warrant Officer Class II (Company Sergeant Major) Percy Jones, Wiltshire Regiment attached to 1st/6th KAR:  CSM P. Jones took command of the left hand forward platoon to assist in the co-ordination of that platoon with the movement of the centre platoon in the attack on BRITISH NAMARAPUTH, on the 14th July 1940, when within 300 yards of the enemy the left flank platoon came under very heavy fire from the enemy.  CSM Jones moved forward with the two light automatic sections of this platoon to within about 250 yards of the enemy, bringing controlled and well-aimed fire to bear on the enemy position.  He himself then proceeded to bomb the enemy position with rifle grenades.  On finding his bombs falling short of the target, he moved forward with one light automatic section to within about 150 yards and fired more rifle grenades with great accuracy, causing heavy casualties amongst the enemy.  In order to bring his fire to bear on an enemy position further to the right front, he advanced yet again and continued bombing.  He then tried to lead his platoon into the assault, but was held up by heavy fire and was himself wounded.  Unable to stand and finding his position to be under enemy fire from both flanks he crawled back to his Lewis Gun sections and carefully organised the Light Automatic fire, sending an accurate description of enemy movements by runner to Headquarters.  He continued to control and co-ordinate the movements of the left flank until evacuated to RAF.  By his determination, personal example and leadership, he proved to be an inspiring example to the men, and was directly responsible for the outstanding success of the operation.

In early October the remainder of 2nd/4th KAR arrived in northern Turkana under the command of Lieutenant Colonel V.K.H. Channer (Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry), but the Italians were to deliver a vicious setback to the operational activities of the battalion.  On 27th November a Turkana scout came into the Loruth post that was manned by No. 9 Platoon of ‘B’ Company, 2nd/4th KAR.  The scout reported to the post commander, 2nd Lieutenant J.C.G. Littlehales, that Merille tribesmen were attacking a routine patrol that had been sent out to the Lomogol River.  Littlehales ordered his British sergeant to remain in the post with one section whilst the other two sections, each armed with a Lewis Gun, deployed in two trucks.

On reaching the scene of the action Littlehales was led into an ambush by the sight of Merille supposedly fleeing from him.  The British Askari jumped from their transport and fought on foot but they were swiftly outnumbered and surrounded in the bush where the 25 soldiers, two truck drivers and five Turkana scouts were all killed.  Littlehales, having been wounded and being the sole British survivor, was about to be killed when an Italian officer appeared and took him prisoner.  Until he was later discovered in a prisoner of war camp in liberated Italian East Africa it was thought that Littlehales was dead. 

John Crisp Gascoyne Littlehales was awarded the Military Cross with the citation:  For conspicuous gallantry in action.  At the Lomogol River on 27th November 1940, 2nd Lieutenant Littlehales, although wounded twice and unable to walk, was surrounded and outnumbered by 6 to 1.  He fought his patrol until all his men were killed or so seriously wounded they could use their weapons no longer.  He was finally taken prisoner.

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Above: KAR Askari with Italian flag captured at El Wak, 1940


The latter half of 1940 was a challenging time for the KAR and East African Forces that held the line along the borders with Italian-controlled territory.  Fortunately the Italians displayed only limited aggression and initiative, and by the end of 1940 the threat of invasion had receded due to the arrival of substantial British reinforcements from South and West Africa.

Frederick Cecil Drummond is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission War Cemetery on Ngong Road, Nairobi, and the dead Askari are commemorated on the East Africa Memorial that is located inside that cemetery.

·         Carnelly, M.D. The History of the Kenya Armoured Car Regiment during the Abyssinian Campaign 1939-1941.  (Private publication).
·         Dower, Kenneth Gandar.  Abyssinian Patchwork. An Anthology.  (Frederick Muller Ltd, London 1949).
·         East Africa Command (producer).  The Infantry of the East Africa Command 1890-1944. (East African Standard Ltd, Nairobi 1944).
·         Moyse-Bartlett, Lieutenant Colonel H. The King’s African Rifles.  (Naval & Military Press reprint).
·         Playfair, Major-General 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).
·         Rosenthal, Eric.  The Fall of Italian East Africa.  (Hutchison & Co, London 1942).
·         Sutherland, Jon and Canwell, Diane.  Air War East Africa 1940-1941.  (Pen & Sword Aviation 2009).
·         The National Archives.  Citations under WO 373.
·         Commonwealth War Graves Commission on-line records. 

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