Mussolini's East African Empire in June, 1940, comprised Eritrea, Abyssinia, and Italian Somaliland. From East to West, from the shores of the Indian Ocean to where the Blue Nile enters the Sudan, it measured twelve hundred miles. From Karora in the north of Eritrea to the southern slopes of the Abyssinian highlands it stretched for a thousand miles. An amazing variety of country it embraced - the grilling, boulder strewn desert of the Red Sea coast near Massawa; dark rain forests of podocarpus festooned with orchids and ferns in the mountain country of the lakes; wastes of Somaliland white with lava dust, studded with meagre thorn scrub; rolling pastures of Galla and Gojjam, damp, cool and misty; Jubaland with its impenetrable thickets of thorn and cactus - but chiefly it was desert. The Italian showed a genius for collecting deserts.
The colonisation of Eritrea had been his first venture, sponsored by the British Government who had felt that Italy - decent, quiet, harmless Italy - would be a suitable neighbour for the Sudan. Another desert waste, Somaliland, was added soon after, and, as part compensation for Italy's share in the Great War, Jubaland, a barren wilderness which had been a constant drain on Kenya's exchequer, was ceded to Italy by Great Britain.
With the growth of Fascism a new spirit prevailed. From his burning plains on the Red Sea coast the Italian gazed with envy on the green uplands to the south and wondered whether he dare risk another Adowa. By nature he was peaceful and industrious. He doubted the value of war. His military record was not reassuring; there had been Caporetto and of course Adowa, where Menelik and his Danakil barbarians had mutilated the prisoners. But fifteen years of skilful propaganda can work wonders - fifteen years of bombast and rant from the Palazzo Venetia, of military displays, of marching, trumpetblowing and drum-beating, of debasing literature and press to extol the splendour of war and the military virtues. The Italian began to feel that the blood of Caesar and Augustus flowed in his veins. He began to believe that, to quote II Duce in one of his more purple passages, ''war was to the Italian what maternity is to woman," that Italy would no longer be the dupe of other nations, that she had a ''sacred mission."
The result was the Abyssinian campaign, a tremendously increased Italian prestige, and long lists of battle honours emblazoned on the banners of every regiment that had shared the dangers of operations against an almost unarmed foe.
Abyssinia was added to the Empire. Italian energy, skill, and money were lavishly expended on its development, and ambitious schemes for colonisation accomplished in the teeth of all difficulties of communication, transport, and supply. Road-making, bridge-building, erection of wireless stations, clearing of landing-grounds went forward with industry and zeal. The Italian prepared to develop and exploit the wealth of his colonies. He also prepared for war in Africa.
By May, 1940, much had been done with this object in view. Magnificent roads had been engineered and built across the Somali deserts through the Abyssinian foothills, up and over passes nine thousand feet high. An excellent military road had been constructed from the Red Sea port, Massawa, through Asmara and on to Addis Ababa.
From there the Strada Imperiale, tar-macadamised over large sections of its length, ran down to Mogadiscio. Another branch ran south from Addis Ababa past the lakes to Neghelli and thence onward across the desert to the sea.
Isolated Italian posts containing perhaps a battalion of colonial infantry and a few hundred Somali herdsmen, and surrounded by scores of miles of burning sand, were equipped with powerful radio stations with the most up-to-date sets. First-class and strategically sited airfields were numerous, and most of the forts and posts on the Jubaland and Eritrean frontiers were provided with landing grounds. The vital British bases at Mombasa and Nairobi were within easy bombing range of Kismayu. On the Sudan front, too, Capronis and Savoias could load bombs at the Agordat aerodrome while pilots and aircrew dined, take-off soon after moonrise, plaster Khartoum, Port Sudan or Suakin with high explosive and return for an early breakfast. At least that was, no doubt, how the Regia Aeronautica saw it.
In no part of the world theatre of war was our unreadiness more apparent than in East Africa. Here Italy was presented with a golden opportunity. Had the Fascists shown but one-quarter the energy and initiative of the Japanese, England might have received a setback from which there was no recovery.
Briefly summed-up the situation was this. After Italy's entry into the war the Mediterranean became a very precarious line of communication to our forces in the Middle East. During 1941 and most of 1942 attempts to run the gauntlet of Axis attacks meant the loss of anything up to fifty per cent of each convoy. The long voyage round Africa had therefore to be undertaken by troops, ammunition, and supplies. This again depended on a safe passage through the Red Sea. To have had an active enemy holding the whole or part of the coast of that sea would have jeopardised our sole remaining link. There was, of course, an air-link with Britain and America from Takoradi via Chad to Khartoum but that in turn depended on our holding the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
In June, 1940, General Graziani had in Libya an army of fifteen divisions, well over 200,000 men. In Italian East Africa the Duke of Aosta commanded a force of 300,000. To oppose this General Wavell had some 30,000 troops in Egypt, 2,000 in British Somaliland, 7,000 in the Sudan, 6,000 in Northern Kenya. On any of the frontiers the odds against England were more than ten to one. A second-rate Rommel, a third-class Von Lettow Vorbeck, would have ground Wavell between the upper millstone of the Army of Libya and the nether of the Army of East Africa, seized the Canal and the Red Sea ports, and proceeded at leisure to liquidate resistance south to the Limpopo.
The possibility of such a situation arising had been foreseen as far back as 1938 by the Committee of Imperial Defence. But at that time it had never occurred to anyone that France with her strong colonial army in Tunisia and French Somaliland would not be at our side to share the burdens of the campaign. With the collapse of France, however, the full grimness of the position was brought home to the whole British Empire, especially to the East African Colonies, the Rhodesias, and the Union. The Home Government could do little to help. It was too busy organising the Home Guard and looking for barbed wire for the beaches. The contemptible little armies of the British frontiers had to shift for themselves. They were small but of good heart and well led. They came from many parts of the Empire - from East Africa, from India, from the Union, West Africa and the Sudan. And most eager for the fray, and among the most gallant were the men of the Rhodesian Air Squadron.
The Squadron had been the first Rhodesian unit to leave for active service, a week before Britain's declaration of war on Germany. They mustered thirteen officers and fourteen other ranks, with six service aircraft under command of Squadron Leader Maxwell. Their destination was Nairobi. Other contingents followed in November, 1939, and March and June, 1940.
Operational training at Nairobi had for stimulus the knowledge that sooner rather than later the aerial combat tactics and air-to-ground firing which occupied so much time would be of very real value. Meanwhile, ground personnel from Rhodesia were busy receiving extra instruction in their work as riggers, fitters and armourers. To show their appreciation of the efforts of the R.A.F. instructors who provided the tuition, the Rhodesians presented each N.C.O. with a silver beer mug of ample proportions.
Then, as the squadron was an Army Co-operation Squadron, it was necessary for it to achieve close liaison with the ground forces which it was to serve, to learn how the infantry, the gunners, and the armoured forces fight, to learn how to reconnoitre in appallingly difficult country, to observe, and deduce from observation information which might be priceless to their commander. Much of this was assimilated by pilots during the exercises held by the Northern Brigade of the King's African Rifles early in 1940. These exercises had taken place in the low thorn scrub desert of the Northern Frontier District of Kenya - a type of country with which Rhodesian pilots were to become only too familiar in the next twelve months.
During this training period the squadron was stationed near Isiolo, a sun-drenched, dusty village near the base of the 5,000-feet escarpment of the Kenya Highlands. Isiolo consisted of a score of Somali huts and half-a-dozen dukas or Indian stores, but it had built up a reputation as the centre of the finest buffalo country in the Empire and had easily the record list of buffalo-hunting casualties. Rhodesians will remember it chiefly for the relentless dust-storms and small, but very companionable, red ticks.
In times of peace it had not been easy for Europeans to obtain permission to visit the Northern Frontier District. To begin with, there was a big risk of losing one's way and perishing miserably of thirst. The Kenya Government had a rooted objection to financing search parties. Moreover, the country was inhabited by tribes whose tale of evil-doing would make the record of a Chicago gangster read like a Life of the Holy Catherine of Siena. The Somalis of the eastern borders, the Borana of Southern Abyssinia, the Marihan dreaded throughout the Juba Valley, regarded murder, pillage, slave-raiding and cattle theft in the light of gentle relaxation. Nor was it an easy matter to keep a semblance of order in such a howling wilderness of camel thorn and stark desert. No roads existed; no reliable maps had been made. Cartographers, when they came to this part of Africa, painted it a cheerful red, traced a vague form-line or two, put in a dot here and there beside which they printed ''Buna" or "Dif" in the same type as they used for ''Nairobi," little realising that the seething metropolis so indicated consisted of a waterhole, three dom palms, five camel thorns and two deserted huts round which the graceful little dik-dik played in the freshness of dawn and the hyenas howled at night.
Away over to the west near Lake Rudolf lies the wilderness of Dida Galgalla - the "Desert of the Sunset." It is a lava desert of fine grey sand and brown and grey boulders. From it can be seen the mountains of Abyssinia far to the north, purple and blue in the heat haze. To the south, Mount Marsabit rises from the torrid sand, an oasis of misty beauty, resplendent with tropical vegetation and lily-fringed crater lakes. From Marsabit a track, used before the war only by camel caravans, winds down to Archer's Post and Isiolo. Over to the east in the direction of Italian Somaliland the waste stretches for hundreds of miles, seamed and furrowed by dried-up watercourses - Lak Bor, Lak Dimo, Lak Boggal - which in the tropical rains become rushing torrents in a sea of mud, torrents which strain through reeds and papyrus and lose themselves in the Lorian Swamp. Long before explorers and hunters penetrated inland from Mombasa, the Lorian Swamp had become legendary as the home of immense herds of elephant and the graveyard which all elephants sought when they came to die.
Some fifty miles north-east of the Lorian Swamp and within sixty miles of the Italian border was the hub of the desert universe, Wajir Fort. The country around was pitted with numerous wells reputed to have been sunk through the limestone when the world began, by a race of giants. Here the most important caravan routes of the desert came together. From Moyale and Buna in the north, from the upper reaches of the Juba River through the grim thorn scrub desert of El Wak, south-east to Dif and over the border to Kismayu on the coast, these tracks led from well to well. The fort, loneliest outpost of the British Empire, with its glaring white battlemented walls, its square keep with Union Jack afloat on the furnace blast from the desert, its date palms in the courtyard and its tiny cemetery of British graves, outran the wildest fancies of a Hollywood scenic artist .
This then, was the country over which No. 237 Squadron, R.A.F., lately known as No. 1 Squadron, Southern Rhodesia Air Force, was to receive its baptism of fire.
ln June, 1940, the Italians had in East Africa between two and three hundred aircraft. Some were undoubtedly obsolescent but there were many of the latest Savoia bombers and Fiat fighters based on excellent airfields with most competent ground staffs.Full of confidence were Mussolini's airmen. The Regia Aeronautica would "go through the R.A.F. like a knife through butter."
There appeared little to hinder them. The line-up on the British side was not nearly so convincing. From North to South its dispositions were: Port Sudan, two R.A.F. Bomber Squadrons, one with aircraft of hoary antiquity; Sudan frontier, one R A.F. Army Co-operation; Kenya, No. 12 Bomber Squadron, S.A.A.F., flying Junkers 86 bombers; No. 11 Bomber Squadron, S.A.A.F., with Fairey Battles; No. 40 Army Co-operation Squadron S.A.A.F., with Hawker Hartebeests; No. 2 Fighter Squadron, S.A.A.F., with Hawker Furies; and No. 237 (Rhodesian) Army Co-operation Squadron, equipped with Hawker Hardys.
In May, before Italy entered the war, the squadron suffered its first casualties - Flying Officer H. C. Peyton and Corporal F. H. Kimpton. These airmen, engaged on a reconnaissance of the Somaliland border, failed to return. It is presumed that they lost their way in this extremely difficult country, and made a crash-landing. Months afterwards their aircraft was located and the engine salvaged.
On the outbreak of war with ltaly the Squadron Headquarters was at Nairobi, with "A" Flight at Wajir, "13" Flight at Malindi, "C" Flight at Garissa. Duties were most varied, from bombing to low-level reconnaissance. Hostile forces could enter Kenya at any point on an eight hundred-mile frontage. It was of vital importance for the army to know where the enemy was massing his troops and transport, how far into British territory his patrols were moving, what artillery and armour he was about to use, and where his supply lines were. Ground reconnaissance by patrols of six battalions of the King's African Rifles and the small but ubiquitous East African Reconnaissance Squadron could achieve little in an area half the size of Southern Rhodesia. Agents were notoriously unreliable. Commanders were therefore dependent to a great extent on the reports of reconnaissance aircraft.
The Italian, however, understood very fully the value of concealment. His irregular African troops, or Banda as they were called, and his Colonial infantry were adept at hiding themselves in the thorn scrub or among the tall anthills. A British observer might fly at five hundred feet over a fully-manned Italian position without gaining any information. Tracks, especially vehicle tracks, in the sand, equipment or clothing left carelessly in the open, were frequently the only signs of an enemy concentration, and to see these our army co-operation 'planes had to fly dangerously low. At two or three hundred feet aircraft are exceedingly vulnerable to rifle and machine-gun fire, and the Rhodesians were lucky to escape from those hair-raising sorties as lightly as they did.
"A" Flight, at Wajir, were involved with the enemy very soon after the declaration of war. The landing-ground at Wajir was an uneven stretch of brown dust outside the fort. South-west there stood a group of white dukas, some of which served for unit offices and messes. Early on the morning of June 13th when the Rhodesian 'planes were warming up preparatory to taking-off on the dawn patrol, three Capronis appeared out of the grey obscurity. They bombed the fort, the landing-ground, and the dukas. The King's African Rifles, then garrisoning the fort, lost four killed and eleven wounded. Two aircraft were badly damaged and, most unfortunately, a large dump of aviation spirit set on fire.
Thereafter Wajir received regular visits every second or third day, usually about ten or eleven o'clock in the morning - visits which made the Rhodesian pilots realise the inadequacy in speed and fire-power of their own outmoded 'planes. Nevertheless, their work did not suffer. At dawn on June 17th they supported a successful raid of the King's African Rifles on the Italian desert outpost of El Wak some ninety miles north-east of Wajir, bombing and setting alight the thatched mud huts and harassing the enemy. Then, as the main fighting was centred at Moyale on the Abyssinian border, the flight, in conjunction with the South African Air Force, undertook the task of reconnaissance and bombing in this area. Buna, a few mud huts round a waterhole, on the road from Wajir to Moyale, became a base for aircraft detached from the flight to assist in the grim little struggle on the frontier.
Early in July,"A" Flight was delighted to greet another band of Rhodesians who had travelled 6,000 miles to this lonely outpost. They were officers and British N.C.O.s of the Gold Coast Regiment, who had arrived to relieve the K.A.R. at Wajir. At the same time down to the south at Garissa and Malindi, "B" and "C" Flights were welcoming the Rhodesians of the Nigeria Regiment, who were taking over that portion of the front.
With the gradual increase in strength of the British air and ground forces during July and August there was a proportionate decrease in Italian bombing. "C" Flight, stationed at Garissa on an aerodrome just a few miles south of the Tana River, had been subjected to several fierce bombing attacks without suffering much damage, but even those raids grew less frequent until the time arrived when the Italian airmen, in spite of their superiority in numbers and equipment, were very loth to venture far into Kenya. Daylight raids on Wajir almost ceased, but occasionally on a quiet moonlit night a Caproni, throwing caution to the winds, would approach the fort, drop its bombs in the thorn scrub two miles short of its target and scurry back over the Juba. On one such moonlit night, about eleven-thirty, an urgent message was received at the headquarters of the Gold Coast Brigade from the Air Force officer on duty at Wajir landing-ground, to the effect that he could hear what he thought was a strong force of Italian bombers approaching from the north. He estimated the strength at about six Capronis. They were still some miles off and appeared to be searching for the fort in the moonlight. The information was rapidly passed on to the battalions, where all troops were shortly standing-to in preparation for the impending attack. But strangely enough no sound of Caproni engines could be heard by any infantry officers. "Perhaps", they reasoned as they yawned and hitched up their equipment, "the ears of the Air Force are better than those of the P.B.I. where such sounds are concerned." But the mystery deepened. From the officer in his hut on the landing-ground came further reports, "Are you silly blighters all deaf? They'll be right overhead soon. I thought I caught sight of them a second ago."
Surely three thousand men could not be smitten with deafness simultaneously. Ten more minutes passed. The voice from the landing-ground, more subdued this time and bordering on the apologetic, came through, "Sorry, you fellows. It was the empty bottles." The night wind of the desert whispering over the serried ranks of empty beer bottles outside the duty officer's hut had roused and brought to alarm-posts a whole brigade.
In September, 1940, 237 Squadron embarked on the first of a series of moves which later gained it the reputation of being "the lost squadron," the little group of Rhodesians who worked and fought in remote, unfriendly places where conditions were unpleasant, operations difficult and hazardous, and the chances of recognition or praise, small. The Squadron handed over its duties to the South African Air Force, which had assumed responsibility for the Kenya front. Then, with perfunctory and unregretful farewell to the old battle-grounds of Garissa and Wajir it concentrated at Nairobi airport preparatory to departure for the Sudan. Some of the personnel travelled by air, while others, less fortunate, went by rail and motor convoy to Juba, and then by river-boat through the steaming, sweating Sud country with its floating islands and masses of rotting vegetation. This journey by river with trucks, equipment, two hundred personnel and the crew, firmly wedged into a small steamer and three barges, was an experience calculated to sour the most cheerful. The waters of the Upper Nile were low, and Khartoum, ovenlike in its humid heat, hardly bearable. The air hummed with vicious insect life, and Rhodesians had every chance of experiencing what an enterprising blister-beetle can do. It was only in the evenings when a breeze stirred the date palms and casuarinas that anyone felt equal to even the smallest exertion; but constant exertion and that not of the mildest was demanded of all in the effort to organise rapidly for the new and completely unfamiliar battle-ground of the Sudan.
The Sudan had this in common with all the British fronts in the year of grace 1940 - it was being held by a mixture of courage, energy, and bluff. What was true of the Kenya front was true of the Sudan - had the Italians shown a little initiative and resolution they could hardly have failed to win a prize that would have sent il Duce strutting and clowning on his balcony. Had they at any time between June and September, 1940, mustered a force of strength equal to that sent against Berbera, they could have sallied forth along any one of half-a-dozen natural lines of advance between Karora and Metemma in to the Sudan and seized our bases of Port Sudan, Atbara, and Khartoum. They would have found opposing them a tiny force under Major-General Platt, of only three British battalions - the 1st Worcesters, 1st Essex, and 2nd West Yorks - and the tough, well-trained machine-gun companies of the Sudan Defence Force. The result would inevitably have been the loss to Britain of the Sudan and the precious Red Sea line of communication by which our Middle East army was supplied. Our position in North Africa would then have been untenable and the Middle East campaign an impossibility.
Early in July the Italians had crossed the Sudan border, had forced the small British garrison holding Kassala to withdraw, and had seized the little fort at Gallabat. Then for some unknown reason, instead of taking bold action, they went no farther. Their passion for defence got the better of them and they proceeded to fortify Kassala with anti-tank defences, machine-gun posts, and strongpoints, and to garrison it with a brigade. The weeks so precious to Mussolini - critical weeks of the war they were to prove - were wasted and frittered away, while England, beaten to her knees after Dunkirk, had taken the bold decision to reinforce Africa rather than play for safety on her own shores. The 5th Indian Division, hurried to the rescue in the Sudan, arrived early in September. The Italians were too late.
That briefly was the situation when the Rhodesians arrived. Squadron Headquarters was established at a new camp at Gordon's Tree near Khartoum, while "B" Flight moved forward to begin operations in the Kassala area. Here the huge, dark, volcanic hills, like the Jebel Kassala, a landmark to airmen for miles around, rise sheer from the burning sand - pillars of lava cooled in grotesque shapes aeons and aeons ago. ''C" Flight was based on Blackdown Strip near Gedaref, an unhealthy, malarious spot, two hundred miles south-east of Khartoum, whence the flight operated over the Gallabat sector, where the Italians had gained temporary ascendency in the air. Not long after the arrival of the Rhodesians, a surprise attack, made by the 10th Brigade of the 5th Indian Division with R.A.F. co-operation, had begun with the successful capture of Gallabat, but had ended in failure owing to the fierce onslaught of the Regia Aeronautica, which appeared in great strength in support of the hard-pressed Italian infantry. The Italian airmen shot down seven R.A.F. fighters and proceeded to bomb the Essex Regiment and Garhwalis methodically for forty-eight hours until these troops were compelled to withdraw from the forward positions won.
This setback, however, damped the spirits of General Platt's army not a whit. Throughout November and December constant patrolling and raiding by our ground troops and air force rendered the Italians nervous and jumpy. In those operations the Rhodesian Squadron played no inconsiderable part.
The work of an army co-operation squadron is highly specialised. It is gruelling but unspectacular. It has all the danger but little of the glamour that is associated with fighters or bombers. In the campaign that lay before them the Rhodesians were required to perform miracles of adaptation. In addition to their normal and highly skilled role of reconnaissance, frequently they had to undertake dive-bombing operations, road-strafing and artillery "spotting," and at all times they were ready, handicapped as they were, to try conclusions with Italian fighters.
Since coming to the Sudan they had to some extent been re-equipped, if the substitution of the obsolescent for the completely obsolete can be termed "re-equipping." A flight of the old Hardys was retained and was to prove useful for bombing. Some pilots swore by the Hardy for dive-bombing, for in a power-dive it was reputed to touch a speed of 200 miles per hour, and the din it created filled the Italian Colonial troops with terror and dismay. A newcomer to the squadron was the Westland Lysander II, an army co-operation monoplane, which, with an accredited top speed of 230 miles per hour, was nearly eighty miles faster than the Hardy. It had a ceiling of 26,000 feet - a distinct improvement on the Hardy's 21,000 -a range of 600 miles, and carried three guns. It had also the advantages of great manoeuvrability and a low landing speed, and was particularly well-suited for message-dropping, ground-strafing, and dive-bombing. Another new aircraft was the Gladiator, a fighter biplane, which had been giving a very good account of itself in the Western Desert. It had a top speed of about 250 miles per hour and a ceiling of 32,000 feet. To the Squadron thus equipped Savoias were no longer a worry, but the Fiat CR42 with its 280 miles per hour could not be lightly regarded.
During the last weeks of 1940 the squadron was kept busy with reconnaissance over the grim hills and forbidding scrub-desert, with an occasional break to the monotony, as when, on 6th December, one flight attacked, with disastrous results to the enemy, a large concentration of Italian motor transport a few miles north of Kassala, and then proceeded to machine-gun from low level Blackshirts and Colonial infantry in their positions among the thorn trees. A few days later, aircraft of the squadron bombed the Italian base at Keru, fifty miles east of Kassala. Pilots had the satisfaction of seeing dumps, stores, and transport enveloped in flame and smoke, before leaving the target area and heading westwards for home. On Christmas Eve came one of the most satisfying episodes of the month. That night Squadron Headquarters received a signal from one of the flights, which read-
"Happy Christmas unto thee
We have downed a one-three-three;
If we only get our due,
We shall down a forty-two."
At first the tendency at Headquarters was to regard the message as an unfortunate example of cheap facetiousness, but a later signal confirmed the happy tidings. Aircraft of the flight, returning from a pamphlet-raid over Kassala had surprised and shot down an Italian bomber.
The Rhodesians, however, did not have things entirely their own way. One morning in mid-December a force of enemy fighters paid a brisk visit to the landing-strip near Kassala and caused some havoc among the dispersed Hardys of ''B'' Flight. As a result of the attack several aircraft were destroyed but no casualties sustained.
The close of 1940 brought to an end the first sixteen months of the Squadron's overseas service. It brought also a minor calamity which caused dismay to ground staff and aircrews alike. On Old Year's Night the canteen and all its stores vanished in a gust of flame, and within five minutes nothing remained of £23O's worth of supplies but charred and smoking embers. It is pleasing to relate that when news of this mishap reached the public of Rhodesia the loss incurred was soon made good.
With the New Year came increased activity along the Sudan front. The squadron, in addition to carrying out its army co-operation duties, became, like the remainder of General Platt's forces, more and more offensively minded. Bombing of enemy transport, convoys, and landing-grounds, became almost daily tasks, the aircraft ranging far abroad over Eritrea to attack targets at Tessenei, Barentu, and Umm Hagar. It was on one such attack on 4th January that Sergeant A. K. Murrell won the D.F.M. when bombing a target near Metemma. Italian anti-aircraft fire set the 'plane alight and wounded him. With great coolness he extracted a shell-splinter from his body with a screwdriver, and then attempted to extinguish the flames in the cockpit with his naked hands. Then he assisted the pilot to make a forced landing on a forward landing-ground, where the fire was extinguished.
On 19th January the assault on Eritrea began. Reinforced by the 4th Indian Division, hurried down from the Western Desert after sharing in the victory at Sidi Barrani, General Platt pushed forward into the vast tumbled mountains that overlooked Kassala. The R.A.F. had also struck with their Hurricanes, swooping over the aerodrome at Agordat and its satellite landing-grounds to riddle with bullets the grounded Savoias and Capronis, and gain supremacy over the Italian in the air at one blow. As one correspondent reported, ''Enemy air opposition has been practically wiped out of the skies. ltalian machines are burning on half-a-dozen landing-grounds; transport has been ditched on the roads; and smoke is rising from buildings as far South as Wombera in Abyssinia, and as far North as Keren and Dessie as the result of blows dealt at the enemy by our air force in a series of practically continuous assaults during the last three days."
In the earlier stages of the attack "A" and "B" Flights co-operated with the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions, gaining a high reputation among the infantry for thorough and invaluable work. During those feverish days there was rest for neither air- nor groundcrews, bombing and reconnaissance sorties being kept up from dawn to dusk. Before the sun had cleared the Eritrean foothills the aircraft had already been "bombed-up," and the roar of engines thunderous with power sent the marabou storks clattering among the dead thorn trees. Then, as dawn transfigured the drab desert ranges with crimson and shadowy purple, the Lysanders would rise from the landing-ground high above the heads of British and Indian troops to search along the valley track to Biscia for a retreating enemy. Dust clouds inevitably betrayed the movement of his transport, whether that transport was huge ten-ton troop-carrying diesels, light armoured cars, camels of the Colonial infantry, or laden mules of the pack-batteries. Nosing down on them would come the Rhodesian airmen to bomb and harass, to spread havoc and destruction.
Back on the landing-grounds the fitters and flight mechanics would snatch a few minutes for breakfast and a smoke. Heroics were not part of their life. To them belonged the unremitting toil in overalls covered with grease and filth, the days of struggle with recalcitrant engines, but to them belonged also the proud achievement of keeping the 'planes in the air. It was remarkable how young Rhodesians from farms, mines, and offices had adapted themselves to that strange technical world of spanners, drills, mag drops, angle of bend allowance, and boost problems. Their work began at the end of the runway after all the excitement was over, and continued far into the breathless night, when over the desert would come the song of Punjabi soldiery - thin melancholy, quavering - like the bleat of an unhappy goat. Until, at length, tired-eyed with long vigil and toil, they were able to hand over a "kite" fit to bomb Barentu or strafe the Keru road.
In army co-operation work with the older types of aircraft a pilot has to rely for his safety to a very great extent on his air-gunner. Speed will not save him, for his machine is probably eighty miles an hour slower than the opposing fighter. Moreover, his work demands concentration on enemy ground activity, and therefore, unless his gunner is wide awake, he is exceedingly vulnerable to surprise attack from above. The Rhodesian pilots were well served by their gunners. One incident during the fighting in Eritrea will show how well. Sergeant J. G. P. Burl was the gunner of a 'plane piloted by Pilot Officer Miles Johnson, which was making a reconnaissance sortie when it encountered three S.133s. Although hardly a match for three enemy the Rhodesians decided to make a fight of it. The Sergeant's first burst on the nearest enemy aircraft sent it down in flames. A moment later the success was repeated on the second, while the third made off. So far everything had gone well. The Rhodesians turned for home triumphant. But heavier odds awaited them. Out from the sun in front floated three midge-like Fiats. The first dived on the Lysander's tail. Again the air-gunner saved the situation, and the Fiat pulled out with smoke pouring from its fuselage. But the struggle was a hopeless one. Both pilot and air-gunner were now wounded. A few more breathless seconds and their 'plane was forced down on the sand. By a miracle they escaped alive, and undaunted, the gunner assisting the pilot, proceeded to trudge for two weary days towards their base before being rescued. Both were decorated for their courage and tenacity.
As the advance into Eritrea proceeded, Italian resistance stiffened, until a fierce battle for Keren developed - the bitterest struggle of the whole East African campaign. The position chosen by the Italians for their stand was indeed a formidable one, where the road from Agordat to Asmara, after crossing the Baraka River, rises to a range of hills through a narrow gorge - the Dongolas Gorge. Here the enemy had blown down some two hundred yards of the hillside to block the valley and had improved, with every possible device, a natural stronghold; and here, in the rocky, gnarled mountainsides, General Frusci, the Italian commander, with infantry equivalent to more than three divisions, including the crack Alpini and Bersaglieri of the Savoia Grenadiers, was confidently ready to bar the way.
From the first rush of the Cameron Highlanders up the mountainside at Sanchil on 3rd February to the evening when the Baluchis and Garhwalis of the 10th Indian Brigade poured through the gorge of the Baraka, the struggle lasted seven weeks, with the Italians opposing our troops manfully. Of the bitter fighting involved 237 Squadron took its share with the rest of General Platt's force.
Moving up from one advanced landing-ground to another, by way of Tessenei, Barentu, Biscia, and Agordat, the flights operated during the battle from three forward strips within twenty miles of each other. To "A" Flight was allotted the role of artillery observation, of ''spotting" for the six-inch howitzers and assisting them to register on Brig's Peak, Fort Dologorodoc, or any other of the half-dozen mountain strongholds that time and again shattered so murderously our assaulting infantry. ''B" and ''C" were given bombing tasks in common with three other squadrons of the R.A.F. tasks which grew in scope and magnitude as the operations reached their climax, until from 19th to 24th March all bombing was concentrated with deadly effect on the last remaining enemy positions, the infantry struggled upwards, and Keren, the toughest fight of all, was won.
A few days later the Squadron moved forward with the 5th Indian Division to Asmaras, the Eritrean capital, perched on its 7,000-feet cliff. From the airfield here bombing sorties on Massawa, down in the grilling Red Sea plain, were carried out, until, on 8th April, Admiral Bonnetti, commanding the garrison, surrendered.
One last fight remained. Away, two hundred miles to the south, where the splendid highway from Asmara to Addis Ababa, the Strada Imperiale, zigzags through a narrow gorge among tumbled, fantastic mountains, the Duke of Aosta, Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief of a rapidly dwindling empire, had chosen to make a last stand. It could be little more than a gallant gesture. For, with the 1st South African Brigade hurrying north through Dessie and General Platt's force probing down the road from Asmara, twilight was descending on the Italian Empire of the East. Yet the enemy position was strong. The ungainly bulk of Amba Alagi, with its fearsome ridges and group of satellite mountains, commanded the valleys and passes leading south to Abyssinia. Under the eastern shoulder of the mountain the road coiled and twisted through Toselli Pass. Above it, with every prominent rock in the bleak landscape meticulously registered, scowled the guns of Toselli Fort.
During most of April tireless air reconnaissance of the position brought much useful information, and kept check on the first-class work of the Italian engineers. Rhodesian observers with their comrades of the R.A.F., sailing low over Commando Hill or Sandy Ridge, would see newly-dug soil shamelessly uncamouflaged, and pinpoint new gun positions, freshly-built sangars of grey boulders, or belts of wire along the rough slopes. Or the task might be a raid on Toselli Fort - a cold flight in the misty grey of dawn up the long valley past Ma Meshik, an easy, if prayerful, descent on the target, a roaring power-dive and sickening heave as rocks, fort, and hills spun aloft and around as the 'plane pulled out. Then perhaps a second run through the tracer-shell and a wide sweep down the pass just to see if any enemy transport was stirring.
Operations at Amba Alagi were among the most exhausting the squadron had yet tackled, twenty-five to thirty sorties per days being no unusual programme. So no one was more pleased than the Rhodesians when on 18th May the defeated Italian garrison marched past a guard of honour to the music of the pipes of the Transvaal Scottish, into captivity.
For 237 Squadron the East African campaign was now ended.
Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea, Abyssinia, made a proud list of battle-honours for Rhodesia's "First in the Field." There was relief to be away from the dreary wastes, but bitter sorrow at leaving so many good comrades behind. It would have been strange if, in such operations, the squadron had escaped without considerable loss. Since that day on the Sudan front when Sergeant A. P. Burl was killed in action over Gedaref, several excellent pilots and plucky air-gunners had been lost. Among these were Flight Lieutenant N. S. F. Tyas, Pilot Officer W. Cooper, Flying Officer J. W. J. Taylor, Sergeant R. W. Horobin, Sergeant G. C. D. Stowe, and Sergeant J. O. Collins.
For months the Squadron had been where the fighting was stiffest, engaged on tasks that demanded tenacity and grit. It had operated over some of the worst flying country in the world, where for hours it was impossible to make a landing, and where the local tribes had sharp knives and poor notions of sportsmanship. Some airmen had been incredibly lucky, arriving back from sorties with wings slashed to ribbons by shrapnel, or just struggling in with controls shot away. The work of maintenance had been unceasing, and conditions, in spite of the amenities associated with looted ltalian refrigerators, very trying. It was therefore with great satisfaction that everyone looked forward to a period of rest and re-equipping.
The squadron's record was a distinguished one. When in April the award of the D.F.C. to Flight Lieutenant E. T. Smith for ''outstanding courage and leadership" was gazetted, the Rhodesians could boast of two D.F.C.s, two D.F.M.s, and five Mentions.
Towards the end of May after a short spell of rest there was regrouping at Asmara. Soon afterwards orders were received and the long squadron convoy was bumping over the old Italian road to Kassala, there to entrain for Wadi Halfa. It was at this point that Squadron Leader Maxwell, who had so ably led the unit since hostilities began, relinquished command. Flight Lieutenant Graham Smith now took over.
Wadi Halfa lies near the Nile, close to the Egyptian border and six hundred miles south of Cairo. To the Rhodesians it was a spot quite in keeping with the stations and camps they were fast growing accustomed to in their wanderings. All around was a howling desolation. Occasionally the early dawn or late evening, with the play of light and shadow, brought colour to the landscape. Mostly, however, there was only shimmering heat reflected from white sand and iron sheds, or raging dust-storms to relieve the monotony of glare.
There were, however, compensations. Away, six hundred miles to the west of Wadi Halfa, in the heart of the Libyan Desert, lay the green oasis of Kufra, with its palmshaded pools. The Italians had had a landing-ground here and a small garrison, but had been dispossessed by the Fighting French and the oasis was then held by us. Although it was more than seven hundred miles from the main battlefield in Libya, yet there was always a risk of the enemy seizing it as a base for a small harassing force to strike at the Nile Valley. It was therefore necessary to maintain a careful watch on Kufra and the neighbouring wilderness, for with an enterprising enemy like Rommel it was unwise to neglect precautions.
It fell to the lot of 237 Squadron to provide for the patrolling of the Kufra area, each flight undertaking the task in turn. The journey out by motor transport was a long and tiring one, convoys carrying supplies, rations, and mail, taking ten days to do it; but apart from this disadvantage Kufra Oasis was a lotus land and a haven of bliss after the dreary stretches of desert the Squadron had known in the past. There was fruit of various kinds in abundance. The desert heat was tempered and sandstorms were unknown. The plague of flies that made life a burden in Eritrea, Abyssinia, and the Western Desert was absent. One could sleep without a mosquito net. One could bathe in the lakes and then loaf in the shade absorbing the home news, the harmless activities of Umtali, Marandellas, Gwanda, the Farmers' Meetings, the Women's Institute concerts, the amateur productions of Barrie - all the short and simple annals that made existence seem so restful. And there were so many cigarettes to smoke from the bountiful hands of the Rhodesian Tobacco Association.
But this life in Arcady could not last for ever. In two months' time the Rhodesians were once more on the move up the Nile Valley to meet an enemy more resourceful and more enterprising than any they had yet encountered.
The outlook in Egypt that summer was not rosy. Rommel with his panzers had swept through from El Agheila. Greece had fallen, Crete had fallen, but Tobruk still held. Along the frontier a constant skirmishing went on, as each side sized the other up and both stealthily acquired such reinforcements as were available.
In August the Rhodesians arrived in the Canal Zone, where they joined the Middle East R.A.F. pool at Kasfariet, there to begin training and re-equipping for the Western Desert. At this time, life in the Canal Zone was seldom dull, as the Luftwaffe rarely failed to pay a nightly visit. September found pilots and ground-staff working hard at "Y" 'Drome, near Ismailia, for the squadron had just received its Hurricanes, and a five weeks' intensive course of training was necessary. To the flight mechanics and fitters the mastery of the new engine entailed as much effort as that expended by the pilots in perfecting their new technique. Most of the air-gunners, however, now no longer required, returned to Rhodesia to undergo training as pilots. Flight Lieutenant E. T. Smith now took over command of the Unit.
In late October the Squadron moved forward to Gerawla, ten miles east of Mersa Matruh, the transport following the coast road through El Daba and Fuka. Everywhere there was bustle and activity, and a concentration of men and vehicles such as the Rhodesians had seen on none of their former fronts. New Zealand and South African transport, and vehicles of the 7th Armoured Division marked with the sign of the desert jerboa, sped up and down past the roadside notices which exhorted drivers to watch their speed, tyre pressure, water, oil-gauge, and general behaviour, or said in accents of exasperation, "DON'T BE A BLOODY FOOL. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE." It appeared that in those parts care had to be exercised.
General Auchinleck's offensive was about to be launched and all preparations were being made with skill and thoroughness. Night after night bombers of the R.A.F. roared westward to attack Rommel's supply lines, while the Navy dealt with what shipping it could find. South African, Australian, and R.A.F. Squadrons, flying Hurricanes and Tomahawks, carried out fighter sweeps, maintaining a careful watch for enemy reconnaissance aircraft while Auchinleck's attacking force was being concentrated in the forward area.
There now began for 237 Squadron a succession of moves that was bewildering. A dismal stretch of desert fifty miles east of the Libyan frontier, known as Landing Ground 75, became the home of one flight and later of Squadron Headquarters. Then, in mid-November, the superior attractions of Landing Ground 112, forty miles due south of Sidi Barrani, proved irresistible. Gradually it became apparent that a squadron of the R.A.F. in the desert had to be almost as mobile as an armoured brigade, and instead of making itself comfortable in the static conditions of a permanent aerodrome, it had to descend almost to that level of comfort at which the P.B.I. eked out their sombre existence - which was all very wrong. Still, there was always a spare truck for running in to the N.A.A.F.I. at Matruh.
To locate a forward landing-ground in featureless desert requires skill. The pilots of 237 Squadron when operating in Kenya, Somaliland, the Sudan, and Eritrea, had had landmarks to guide them - tracks through the bush, hills like Buna feature or Jebel Kassala, rivers, even tarmac roads. The desert, however, provided few such aids to navigation for the lost airman. He could identify his landing-ground only by the marking and the presence of a few scattered vehicles. The difficulties of locating one's flight were almost as great on the ground. Supply convoys had sometimes to map out laboriously a compass course from one bir, or well, to another. There was no ostentation or advertisement about an air force camp. Scattered on the bare face of the desert were a few tents made of bivvy sheets, well dug-in and protected with sandbags, the quarters of officers and men. The mess was slightly more roomy but equally well dug-in, its interior furnishing - two trestle tables and four forms - expressing a quiet decorum.
On the 18th November, while the squadron was still at Landing Ground 112, the British offensive began, its object being the encirclement and destruction of Rommel's army. While the ground forces swept forward in their enveloping movement, the R.A.F. assisted with large fighter sweeps over the frontier area. Hardly any German or Italian aircraft were sighted during the first two days of the attack, for there had been heavy rain over the coastal district where most of the enemy aerodromes and landing-grounds were located. Stukas and Messerschmitts were well bogged-down on water-logged dispersal areas and no air combats were reported for forty-eight hours.
In the meantime the Rhodesians were once more on the move, this time to Landing Ground 128, thirty miles due east of Fort Maddalena. Here operations began in earnest, operations which kept everyone fully occupied. With the first dismal grey of a bitter dawn, the ground crews were out by the aircraft peering morosely at engines and checking the dials. Soon one engine would splutter reluctantly to life, then another and another, until the air was heavy with a throbbing that rose in pitch as the engines were boosted. A sharp burst of fire as the guns were tested, and the aircraft was ready for the pilot who, muffled to the ears in flying-kit, beat his chilly hands together before climbing into the cockpit. Then away the machine would taxi from the dispersal point, and, as the grey in the east brightened, the sinister, malicious-looking Hurricane, shadowy in the first light, would rise over the desert camp.
Even with Hurricanes operating in pairs, army co-operation work in the Western Desert, whether it was reconnaissance or spotting for a battery, was fraught with heavy risks. Hostile aircraft were more formidable than anything the Rhodesians had met before. Lurking Macchis or Messerschmitts 109F, the new German fighters, were a frequent source of danger, and casualties were to be expected. About this time the Squadron lost Pilot Officer B. D. White, killed in action, and two pilots who crashed behind the enemy lines and were taken prisoner.
The British offensive had come as a surprise to Rommel, and for several days there was desperate fighting in the Sidi Rezegh-El Duda area, where an attempt was being made to relieve Tobruk. Then, on the 24th November, Rommel decided on a daring counterstroke. Concentrating the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions with elements of the Italian Ariete Division, he swept south at top speed, crossed the Egyptian frontier near Sidi Omar, and carried out a large-scale raid on British lines of communication, spreading great confusion wherever his armoured columns appeared. Among the units to suffer in this counter-attack was 237 Squadron, a flight of which was at this time operating from one of the farthest forward landing-strips. Here the surprise was complete, and the personnel were lucky to escape with their transport, the aircraft having to be destroyed.
A few days later the Squadron suffered another heavy blow. Shortly after noon on 8th December, when many of the ground-staff and Headquarters personnel were congregated near the cookhouse, a sudden raid was made on the camp by a force of nearly a score of hostile aircraft, most of which were Messerschmitts 109 and 110. There was hardly time to reach the shelter of slit-trenches before the storm broke. The attack was short but severe. Thirty seconds of savage bombing and strafing from low level left the area a shambles of smoking debris. Four Rhodesians were killed - Corporal J. Smith, L/A/C.s A. G. Ednie and A. R. Meldrum, and AC.1 E. G. Lenthall, and ten wounded, of whom five had severe injuries. It was one of the blackest days the Squadron had known.
A few days later Squadron Headquarters was shifted from Landing Ground 128 to Gambut. In this area enemy raids on camps, landing-grounds, and supply convoys were frequent, and the detached flights were lucky on several occasions to escape casualties. Sandstorms raged frequently, bringing a sinister, all-enveloping gloom, and an unpalatable grittiness to the cold bully and potatoes. At six p.m. all lights had to be out except for a hurricane-lamp in the office tent, which was hastily extinguished when the wind brought the low menacing hum of approaching enemy bombers.
Christmas was spent at Tmimi with a dinner much enlivened by captured enemy rations, pea soup and Christmas pudding, though drinks were a difficulty with water scarce and beer almost unobtainable. Then once more the squadron moved westward, this time to Berka aerodrome at Benghasi, which town had been occupied only a few days previously. Constant rain had transformed the aerodrome into a brown sea of slithering mud in which several vehicles were firmly embedded. The Squadron was due for operations in the coastal area to the south, where Rommel was preparing to make a stand at Jedabya, but not a 'plane could be moved on the water-logged surface. To lift a bogged Hurricane out of a morass was a back-breaking task. Back to Tmimi was therefore the order.
The New Year, 1942, did not promise to be much better than 1941 had been. It began inauspiciously. For the first three weeks of January General Rommel had been reorganising and supplying his army behind a strong position south of El Agheila. On the 21st he started to move east again, sweeping the light British resistance aside. On the 22nd he was back at Jedabya and a day later at Msus. On this occasion 237 Squadron was to be more fortunate than other units. It was to escape the full force of Rommel's onslaught and a summer campaign in the desert which was surpassed in hardship and strain by nothing in the earlier operations of 1940 and 1941. In mid-January it had been decided to withdraw the Squadron from Libya, and on the 20th it began to move back to the Ismailia area in the Canal Zone, there to spend a week or two before being sent to the Tenth Army in Irak.
The Squadron was to return to the Western Desert once more, but not for many months, and then no longer in its original role of army co-operation. Although its personnel was still ninety-eight per cent Rhodesian - there was the faintest leavening of Scot and South African - not many remained who had flown or helped maintain the old Audaxes and Hardys in the thorn scrub deserts of the N.F.D., who had seen the squadron in its early days with its obsolete 'planes pitted against the strength of the Regia Aeronautica. lt is fitting and pleasant to leave them after all their wanderings and vicissitudes, locked in no more deadly combat than a rugby match against the London Scottish, and preparing for operations no more serious than the squadron sports with which they celebrated the third anniversary of their departure from Southern Rhodesia.