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Italian East Africa 101

In 1936, Mussolini created two colonies in Africa known as Italian Libya and Italian East Africa. This article is about the latter one. This colony was created by merging the Ethiopian Empire, Italian Somaliland, and Italian Eritrea. Italian Somaliland was acquired in 1889 by Italy through various treaties. Italian Eritrea was acquired the following year through a different treaty. But the Ethiopian Empire was conquered by Italian forces in 1935.

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For Mussolini, Italian East Africa gave him another place in launching a second front against the British forces in Egypt and take the Suez Canal. The British needed to remove that threat as well as any threat to the supply route running through the Red Sea. But before attacking Egypt from the south, Mussolini needed to remove the British forces located in neighboring colonies down there.

Italy made the first move on 13 June 1940 (three days after declaring war on Britain and France) by bombing a Rhodesian airfield in Kenya, both belonging to the British Commonwealth. This proved premature as he did not have sufficient forces down there to invade anyone, but neither did the British.

The British discovered they needed to rely on their Commonwealth forces to do most of the fighting down there. These particular troops were furnished by Sudan, British Somaliland, British East Africa, the Indian Empire, South Africa, Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, and British West Africa, as well as the British Mandate of Palestine. Later, French Free Forces from their African colonies found there way over to help.

On 4 July 1940, Italy went ahead and invaded Sudan against the even less prepared British. They were able to secure areas all the way to the Blue Nile. But due to low supplies, mainly gasoline, the Italians had to stop short of taking all of Sudan. A few weeks later they were able to take Port Sudan on the Red Sea. In August the Italians attacked and took British Somaliland. These were the only Italian victories against the Allies without the assistance of Germany during WWII.

These victories were hollow victories. Mussolini had spread his already small forces even thinner than before. His naval forces on the Red Sea took a heavy beating. Thus far, his casualties were ten times greater than that of the British forces. On top of that, his supplies were very low. The Italian troops were forced to take a defensive stand. For the rest of the year, there were very little gains by either side.

In January 1942, the 4th Indian Infantry Division arrived. These battle tested men had already proven themselves fighting the Italians in North Africa and were sent here to make the difference. They entered into Eritrea from Sudan and cut right through the Italian forces all the way to the sea. Then they turned south and began taking Ethiopia.

On 16 March 1941, the British launched Operation Appearance which was a beach landing. With two Indian battalions and one Somali commando force, they made the first successful Allied landing on an enemy-held beach during WWII.

The British forces kept on driving and by 27 November 1941, they cleared all Axis forces throughout East Africa. To the end of the war, the Red Sea, Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden were secure under British forces. However, there were a few small Italian units left scattered about who resorted to guerrilla type actions sabotaging whatever they could while hoping one of the Axis powers would be coming soon. They continued fighting until Italy switched sides in 1943.

Following the battles of East Africa can be difficult because many of these colonies have different names today and their borders have changed.

The quest for East Africa is rarely mentioned in WWII history and very few are aware of what happened there. Perhaps because the Axis weren't able to shut down the Allied shipping, it isn't regarded as a major campaign. Or maybe it's because most of the British forces were irregulars from third world Commonwealth states, thus drawing little media attention. But make no mistake, they did make a difference.

Paul Arnett


This WWII Article was last modified on Tuesday, September 20, 2011
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