SOUTH AFRICA’S FIRST BATTLE OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Including a brief discussion on some of the exhibits in the
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
Allan Sinclair
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
November 2020
Introduction

The date 16 December is an important day in South African military history. Originally it was officially known as the Day of the Covenant and commemorated the Battle of Blood River fought in 1838.  In the years following from 1961, it also came to recall the date of the official founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the African National Congress, and the commencement of its campaign to destabilise the state in response to South Africa’s apartheid policies. More recently, following the establishment of democracy in 1994, the date has become celebrated as the Day of Reconciliation.

Not many people are aware that that the same date also commemorates another event in our nation’s military history.  The Battle of El Wak, fought on 16 December 1940, was South Africa’s first action of the Second World War (1939 – 1945). The encounter was relatively minor in comparison to the number of other crucial battles of that conflict and has largely been forgotten over the years. This article will provide insight into the decision taken to fight the battle, the preparations involved and a brief account of the action that took place. The article will also look at examples of the equipment that were unique to the East African campaign and which can be viewed on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

The decision to move South African forces to East Africa

Various factors contributed to South Africa’s participation in the campaign against the Italian East African colonies in 1940 and 1941.

Firstly, the Union Defence Forces (UDF) had taken a decision in the years preceding the outbreak of the war to prepare for warfare in tropical bush country as found in southern and central Africa.[1] Secondly, following the country’s entry into the war on 6 September 1939, the Prime Minster, Gen J C Smuts, openly stated that he did not wish to see South African lives wasted again in a futile war of attrition as was experienced on the Western Front in Europe during the First World War (1914 – 1918). The Government therefore limited operations to the defence of the African continent and all volunteers were required to take the Africa Service Oath on 29 March 1940 which bound them for service anywhere on the continent.[2]

It remained unclear at the start of the war just how the UDF was expected to engage enemy forces under such conditions. Italy had not yet become belligerent and the prospect of any German military activity in Africa seemed remote at that time. Although it was believed that the Italian presence on the continent was a threat to British interests in the Middle East and Africa, Britain was hesitant to take any action, considering that such incitement should be avoided to keep Italy out of the war.[3]

Italy’s eventual declaration of war on the Axis side on 24 June 1940 altered this approach and the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, Gen Sir Archibald Wavell, argued that Britain had to defend its positions in East Africa and, if possible, attack the Italian forces in Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. Smuts was concerned that the Italians had the capacity to threaten southern Africa and immediately agreed to the formation of a South African brigade to be sent to Kenya in support of the British colonial forces.[4]

It was also suggested that this brigade should represent the whole country and contain the senior regiments of the Cape, Natal and Transvaal provinces of the time.  The 1st South African Infantry Brigade was consequently established on 13 May 1940 with the 1st Battalions of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles (DEOR), the Royal Natal Carbineers (RNC) and the Transvaal Scottish (1TS) under its command. Brig D H Pienaar was appointed Officer Commanding the Brigade on 12 June 1940.[5] While technically a component of the 1st South African Division, the Brigade nonetheless remained independent of the Division throughout the campaign in East Africa.

Brig D H Pienaar DSO, OC 1 SA Brigade        A map of Kenya. Wajir and El Wak can be

(DNMMH EA333)                                                  seen in the north-east.

                                                                                 (https://www.worldatlas.com/maps/kenya)

 

1st SA Brigade on Parade, Kenya (DNMMH EA 5)

The 1st SA Brigade eventually arrived in Kenya on 24 July 1940. In September 1940 the Brigade was ordered to move to the Northern Frontier District (NFD) north of the equator where a base had been established at Wajir.

Preparations for the Battle

In October 1940 Lt Gen Sir Alan Cunningham was appointed as C-in-C British Forces in East Africa. He took an instant decision to attack the Italian positions located along the border of the NFD.[6]

Lt Gen Sir Alan Cunningham,

British C-in-C East Africa

(DNMMH EA 191)

 

His plan was important for three reasons. It would reduce that vast area of no-man’s land between the forward British positions in Kenya and those of the Italians in Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland.  It would also provide engineering units with the opportunity to improve communications and water supplies throughout the NFD to support further offensives. Finally, a successful attack would result in a psychological dominance over the Italians. Cunningham was equally eager to test the light tanks and armoured cars under his command in operations in thick bush and sand.  The defended Italian outpost of El Wak, north–east of Wajir, presented him with an ideal target for such an attack. El Wak consisted of two settlements astride of the British/ Italian border and was inhabited by both Italian regular and colonial (Banda) forces.[7]

 

The five Italian Frontier posts (Kleynhans 2018)              Wajir Fort where 1 SA Brigade was based (DNMMH EA 31)

The South Africans immediately commenced with an intensive period of training under the harshest of conditions. The pre-war training strategy of the UDF, using light raiding columns, capable of carrying out operations in the dense southern African bush, paid dividends in the East African theatre. Nevertheless, this would be the first action in which the UDF would operate as a mobile force and as Hartshorn writes:

“As 16 December 1940 – the date chosen for the attack – drew nearer, the South Africans were in fine fettle [sic], tough as nails with their morale high.”[8]

 

Final training manoeuvres took place between 10 and 12 December with everything being arranged to the smallest detail. The training included swift deployment from vehicles, movement through the bush using compass bearings and rapid camouflaging of vehicles and equipment.

1 Bn Transvaal Scottish carrying out a route march (DNMMH EA 78)

The Battle – 16 December 1940

 

South Africa’s first land battle of the Second World War took place more than a year after she had entered war. For the purposes of the operation 1st SA Brigade was placed under the 12th African Division commanded by Maj Gen A R Godwin-Austen. The 24th Gold Coast Brigade, under the command of Brig C E M Richards, also formed part of the Division.  Godwin-Austen divided the Division into two raiding forces. The first raiding force, named Dickforce (Richards), consisted of all the units of the 24th Gold Coast Brigade with the DEOR and elements of South African armoured car and artillery units attached. The second raiding force, referred to as Pinforce (Pienaar), comprised the bulk of the 1st SA Brigade less the units that had been attached to Dickforce. [9]

Troops of the 24th Gold Coast Brigade in East Africa (DNMMH EA 31)

Both Dickforce and Pinforce trained to carry out a double envelopment of the target area. They then moved out of Wajir on 14 December and made their way through the dense bush to their respective staging areas near a landing ground established close to El Wak. On commencement of the attack Dickforce was given the task of capturing British and Italian El Wak while operating in two columns. Pinforce was required to manoeuvre to the east of El Wak and cut the road to Bardera and capture the village of El Buru Hachi in the process.[10]

The plan of the attack (Orpen 1968)

The South African Air Force (SAAF) was tasked to provide air support and to distribute valuable intelligence on the Italian positions and the approaches to El Wak. Four Hawker Hurricane Mk I aircraft of No 2 Squadron, three Junkers Ju86s of No 12 Squadron and nine Hawker Hartbees aircraft of No 40 Squadron were placed at the disposal of Godwin-Austen.[11]

A Junkers Ju 86 Bomber of No 12 Squadron, SAAF (DNMMH EA 149)

The raid commenced early on 16 December. Each attack followed a similar pattern of troops advancing while being engaged sporadically by Italian artillery.  At the same time the armoured cars ploughed through the bush ahead of the charging infantry. The advance of Column B of Dickforce into British El Wak was led by the DEOR under the cover of heavy artillery fire. In the Pinforce sector, the RNC attacked El Buru Hachi. After taking part in a fire fight with the defending Banda troops of the 191st Colonial Battalion, the RNC charged amid the machine gun and artillery fire with bayonets fixed, suffering the UDF’s first battle casualties of the war. Two members of the mortar detachment were killed in action and another wounded in the process. At the same time 1TS attacked further east in an attempt to block a possible Italian counter-attack from Mandera and to capture any retreating enemy troops. In little more than an hour 1TS had captured its objective and taken a number of POWs.[12]

 

         South African vehicles in dense bush                                      Bren-Gun Section of the RNC

                                (DNMMH EA 420)                                                                  (DNMMH EA 68)

 

Following the successful capture of its objective, Pinforce discovered that the main Italian headquarters had been located at El Wak and in the process succeeded in capturing valuable documents that provided details of the Italian defensive lines and troops dispositions both in Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia.[13]

 

The withdrawal of both Pinforce and Dickforce commenced at 13:00. By 20 December all attacking units were back at Wajir. In the coming weeks Pienaar was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order for his leadership in carrying out a successful and instructive operation. A number of other South African senior officers were also signalled out for their contribution to the victory.[14]

1st SA Brigade moving back from El Wak to Wajir (DNMMH EA 335)

Exhibits on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History that are unique to the Campaign in East Africa

 

  1. The South African Bush Warfare Uniform

 

Prior to the outbreak of the war, changes in uniform style had been intended to make the UDF better equipped for bush warfare. A new design of helmet, known as the Polo Helmet, replaced the Wolseley Pattern helmet that had been standard issue since the establishment of the UDF in 1912. The principal demand for a uniform that would be effective in the bush led to the production of the bush shirt which, along with the Polo Helmet, trousers, canvas anklets and brown ankle boots, came to symbolise South African troops in East Africa. Most infantrymen were also issued with the 1937 loadbearing equipment from June 1940.[15]

 

SA infantryman in                        Bush Shirt issued to                                     Pattern 1937 Loadbearing Equipment

Bush Warfare Uniform                Sgt Lukas Majozi DCM – Native                   (Display DNMMH)

As worn at El Wak                        Military Corps (Display DNMMH)

(Osprey 1975)

 

  1. The South African Reconnaissance Car Mk I

 

This was the first South African armoured vehicle to be produced during the war.  It was moderately successful in East Africa. However, the crews found the going through rough terrain very heavy due to the fact that the car was only a two-wheel drive.  At El Wak they were often required to dismount and push the cars through the numerous bad patches of heavy sand. The local inhabitants of the NFD referred to the vehicle as Garri Kifarru which translated means rhinoceros car.

No 1 Light Tank Company was the first South African armoured car unit to traverse the difficult countryside into the NFD and also became the first operational armoured car unit. At El Wak the unit was placed in support of Dickforce while No 3 Armoured Car Company provided support to Pinforce. No 2 Platoon of No 2 Armoured Car Company was given the honour of being assigned as Gen Godwin-Austen’s bodyguard.[16]

South African Reconnaissance Car Mk I

(Display DNMMH)

  1. The Hawker Hartbees

The aircraft on display at the DNMMH arrived in Kenya on strength with No 3 Squadron, SAAF.  After the squadron had been re-equipped with more modern aircraft, the Hartbees aircraft were transferred to No 40 (Army Co-Operation) Squadron, SAAF. This squadron was formed on 30 May 1940 under the command of Maj (later Brig) J T Durrant.  At El Wak the Hartbees aircraft were tasked with providing the advancing infantry with situation reports and up to date intelligence on the Italian positions. In the process of the battle one particular Hartbees came into contact with three Italian Savoia 81 aircraft and a Caproni 133 bomber. In the ensuing action the Hartbees rear-gunner succeeded in shooting down the Caproni.[17]

Hawker Hartbees (Display DNMMH)

  1. The Quick-Firing 18 Pounder Mk II Field Gun

 

The 18 Pounder Field Gun was practically obsolete by the beginning of the war and was being superseded by the 25 Pounder Field Gun. Nevertheless, the UDF utilised the 18 Pounder to good effect during the campaign in East Africa. No 4 Field Brigade, South African Artillery Corps, which had been equipped with the gun, was placed under command of 1st SA Brigade. At El Wak two batteries were allocated to Dickforce and provided supporting fire for the DEOR as they charged on the objective.   The barrage proved effective and cleared the area of all Italian defenders even before the infantry got there. The remaining battery operated in support of Pinforce.[18]

Quick-Firing 18 Pounder Mk II Field Gun

(Display DNMMH)

An Analysis of the Aftermath of the Battle

The success of the Battle of El Wak had a resounding effect on the future conduct of the war. A number of scholars who have studied the battle confirm that it was an effective tool in measuring both the peacetime preparation of the UDF and its subsequent mobilisation for war. It confirmed the merits of using combined arms – that being combining the use of infantry, artillery, armour and aviation – in battle. Pienaar would become a major adherent of this approach in his tactical planning as the war progressed.  The South Africans also succeeded in manoeuvres under night conditions, an achievement they would be required to undertake repeatedly in later months.

The Battle confirmed many inadequacies in the combat capability and morale of the Italian forces. The Italians were found to be demoralised and lacking any willpower to make a concerted stand and as the campaign progressed a large majority surrendered on mass.  Many would later find themselves in prisoner-of-war camps in South Africa.[19]

By contrast it is well documented that South African morale was excellent and the UDF proved itself as a fighting force.  Coetzee believes, nonetheless, that there were lessons to be learnt from the battle. He writes that there was evidence of a certain amount of ill-discipline which was partially due to a lack of battle experience. Cases of troops not remaining in their vehicles during the night and drivers not even attempting to hide their vehicles from enemy aircraft were apparent. In certain cases many drivers succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep under their vehicles while resting on route to the objective. Intelligence reports were also found to be wanting with much of it being based on miss-information provided by captured Banda troops.  He does point out that it was fortunate for the UDF that these problems were not ignored and future staff planning was adjusted as such in the months and years ahead.[20]

Conclusion

Despite the problems mentioned above, the attack on El Wak was considered a textbook execution of a military operation and contributed to the speed and intensity of the remainder of the campaign in East Africa. It was also a turning point marking the ascendancy of the morale of the British, South African and colonial forces over that of their Italian counterparts.  The initiative had been taken away from the Italians who until then had considered themselves, their armaments and their numbers to be invincible. Consequently, the Italian East African Empire would surrender just six months later.

South Africa was fortunate that its first battle had ended in complete victory at a relatively minor cost of two men dead and a small number injured.  For Smuts it was a blessing. Having taken a divided nation into war, it is easy to envisage how a large portion of the population who had been vehemently opposed to fighting on the side of Britain would have reacted to a defeat the first time the UDF went into battle. The victory boosted the South Africans’ appetite to continue the war effort and confirmed British confidence in the UDF’s ability as a fighting force.

The weapons and equipment which are on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History are tangible embodiments of South Africa’s contribution to the Battle of El Wak and the remainder of the East African campaign.

Troops of 1/6 Bn King’s African Rifles displaying an

Italian flag captured at El Wak (DNMMH EA 63)

 

[1] . I van der Waag, “The Union Defence Force between the two World Wars: 1919 – 1940”, p 216.

[2] . G Bentz, “From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh”, p 179.

[3] . F A Hattersley, Carbineer: The History of the Royal Natal Carbineers, p 64.

[4] . N Orpen, East African and Abyssinian Campaigns, p 6.

[5] . E.P Hartshorn, Avenge Tobruk , p 32.

[6] . E Kleynhans, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”.

[7] . E Coetzee lecture, “El Wak or Bust”.

[8] . E. P. Hartshorn, p 41.

[9] . N Orpen, p 70.

[10] . E Kleynhans, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”.

[11] . J Ambrose Brown, A Gathering of Eagles p 101.

[12] . G Bentz, “From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh …” p 184.

[13] . E Kleynhans, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”.

[14] . N. Orpen, p 79.

[15] . H Paterson, “South Africa’s Second World War Bush Warfare Uniform” pp 87, 88, 91, 92.

[16] . H Klein, Springboks in Armour, pp 13, 27, 28.

[17] . J Ambrose Brown, p 102.

[18] . N. Orpen, pp 76, 77.

[19] . E Kleynhans, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”.

[20] . E Coetzee, “El Wak or Bust”.

 

Bibliography

Academic published articles

Bentz, G, “From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh: The UDF’s first Experience of Battle in East and North Africa” in Scientia Militaria Vol 40 No 3, 2012

Kleynhans, E, “The Apostles of Terror: South Africa, the East African Campaign and the Battle of El Wak” in Historia Vol 63 No 2, 2018

Paterson, HR, “South Africa’s Second World War Bush Warfare Uniform” in  Museum Review (Vol 2 No 3, September 1989)

Van der Waag, I, “The Union Defence Force between the two World Wars” in Scientia Militaria Vol 30, No 2, 2000

Publications

Ambrose Brown, J,  A Gathering of Eagles (Cape Town, Purnell, 1970)

Hatshorn, E P, Avenge Tobruk (Cape Town, Purnell, 1960)

Hattersley, F A, Carbineer: The History of the Royal Natal Carbineers (Aldershot, Gale and Polden, 1950)

Klein, H, Springboks in Armour (Cape Town, Purnell, 1965)

Orpen, N East African and Abyssinian Campaigns (Cape Town, Purnell, 1968)

Public Lecture

Coetzee, E, “El Wak or Bust” (Lecture to the SA Military History Society Johannesburg Branch, 14 October 2010)

Internet Source

Kleynhans, E, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”

www.academia.edu

Archival Sources

Instruction for Dress for the Union Defence Forces (Approved December 1934).

East Africa Album (Official Second World War Photographic Collection)

Both sources located in the archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.