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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Tuesday 17 March 2020

The First Victory

A book selling pal sold me this book with the line 'you are a sucker for an obscure campaign'. How true! This is Andrew Stewart's study of the East African Campaign during the Second World War.

The conflict was overshadowed by the Greek campaign and Rommel's arrival in the western desert. The troops and their commanders also get less credit than they deserve because of Churchill's irrational dislike of the CinC Archibald Wavell.

The campaign did not start well, with the Italians occupying British Somaliland, an isolated colony with only a small garrison compared to the massive 300,000 Italian army in Ethiopia.

The response was the gradual build-up of troops in Kenya and Sudan. They came from many parts of the Empire including South Africa, Nigeria, India and Kenya itself. The 'gradual' build-up was always likely to irritate Churchill, who viewed campaigns from the perspective of a small scale map.

Wavell, on the other hand, understood the region and the importance of supply to units fighting over huge areas of rugged terrain. Water was crucial and when Churchill asked Wavell, 'When the hell is Cunningham going to get moving towards Kismayu?' The answer should have been, as soon as the South African engineers strike water at Hagadera en route. Each man needed a gallon of water a day.

Cunningham's southern front advance was an outstanding achievement. His troops advanced more than 1,700 miles from the Kenyan frontier to the Ethiopian capital, occupying some 360,000 square miles and capturing more than 50,000 prisoners, all for the loss of 135 men killed. In comparison, it had taken Marshall Badoglio seven months to advance 425 miles in 1936, against ill-equipped Abyssinian forces.

The northern front advance from Sudan was also impressive. The distances were smaller but the Italians were defending mountainous terrain. Wavell ordered the deployment of irregular forces to distract the Italians. These included Wingate, who went on to make his name in Burma. Slim was another commander who fought in this campaign. His 10th Indian Infantry Brigade faced what was probably the last cavalry charge faced by British troops in any war. The battles around Keren were particularly challenging, but victory was achieved, aided by a squadron of Matilda tanks.

The Matilda in 28mm - my favourite WW2 tank
Logistics were important for supplying the irregular forces. Wingate's forces had 15,000 camels, although only 54 survived the campaign.

This campaign was an important boost to morale across the British Empire. Mussolini lost an empire as well as 300,000 troops, 325 aircraft, 23 ships and many tanks and artillery. Wavell's strategy was a triumph of improvisation, offensive spirit and the imaginative use of limited resources. As the author concludes 'Never have so many been defeated by so few'.

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