A historical analysis of the influence of climate and terrain on the South African operations in East Africa, 1940-1941

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It is well-established that there is an ever-present relationship between warfare and the physical environment. Throughout history, key elements of geography have served as decisive factors in the conduct and outcome of military operations at the
  Page | 1 A historical analysis of the influence of climate and terrain on the South African military operations in East Africa, 1940-1941   Abstract  It is well-established that there is an ever-present relationship between warfare and the physical environment. Throughout history, key elements of geography have served as decisive factors in the conduct and outcome of military operations at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. In each area of military operations, a number of geographic characteristics, unique to that area, combine to create a distinctive operational environment. The elements making this operational environment unique, provide useful tools in the study of the historical impact of climate and terrain on warfare. The deployment of South African troops to the East African theatre during 1940, afforded the Union Defence Force (UDF) the opportunity to test its military capabilities under operational conditions against the Italians in Ethiopia and Somaliland. This shows that the East African operational environment, best described as complex and hybrid, distinctly influenced the operational deployment of the UDF throughout the campaign. From the sprawling deserts of the Northern Frontier District to the coastal plains of Somaliland and the mountainous bastions of central and northern Ethiopia, the East African climate and terrain served as key determinants during the planning and execution of the South African and Allied military operations throughout the campaign. Introduction  This paper has three aims. First to discuss the East African operational environment. Second, to evaluate the influence of the operational environment on the planning for the campaign. Last, to investigate the influence of the physical environment on the South African military deployment to East Africa during 1940 and 1941. This paper thus evaluates the influence of climate and terrain on the South African military deployment in East Africa during 1940-1941. The East African Operational Environment  Between December 1939 and March 1940 the office of the Chief of the General Staff of the Union Defence Force drafted two separate military appreciations on the strategic situation in East Africa. These documents provided the South African defence planners with valuable information on the East African operational environment, more in particular on the topography and climate of the theatre. These documents confirmed that the topography  of East Africa conferred both a strategic and tactical advantage in defence on the Italians  –   though they rarely used it for their benefit during the campaign. The unforgiving East African terrain encompassed an area of approximately 870,000 square kilometres which extended from the flat, featureless and almost waterless bush of the Northern Frontier District in Kenya, to the coastal plains of Italian Somaliland and the rolling bush country and mountains of Ethiopia. After crossing the Kenyan border into southern Ethiopia, the altitude rose to 1,200 metres above sea-level and continued rising gradually until a high range of mountains was reached which traversed the spine of Italian East Africa from north to south. These mountains formed a solid defensive position and consisted of high ridges and deep valleys at roughly 2,750 meters above sea-level. To the west, the Ethiopian plateau also presented a firm defensive position at an average height of 1,500 meters above sea-level, especially against attacks srcinating from the Sudan or Kenya.  Page | 2 Kenya, in turn, was described as bush country at altitudes below 1,200 metres above sea level, where it is arid and hot. Areas over 1,500 meters, in both territories, were known as the highlands, where the climate was described as healthy. There were also certain areas which consisted of impenetrable jungles which severely curtailed operational movement. The Kenyan Highlands offered the Allied forces a strong defensive position from which they could protect their lines of communications stretching into the Northern Frontier District. The Northern Frontier District, roughly 360 meters above sea level, bordered on Southern Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland and was considered very hot and arid. It comprised a low-lying, waterless, semi-desert which had very few defendable positions. During the rainy season, this area turned into a quagmire which proved a significant obstacle to any military force trying to traverse it. Lake Rudolph, situated to the west of the Kenyan Highlands, formed the Allied left flank, while the Tana River formed the right flank of the Kenyan Highlands from Garissa. The area to the west of Lake Rudolph was considered very difficult country, though the flank could be turned. The River Tana in the east was a serious obstacle from Garissa to its mouth, especially in wet weather, and it provided excellent protection to the Allied right flank. The coastal route from Malindi to Mombasa had two ferry crossings, which could both be easily outflanked by Italian forces. South African defence planners realised that an advance into Ethiopia from the south or south-west would be tough, owing to the relentless topography. It was further believed that Italian forces in East Africa, despite their numerical superiority over the Allies, were too few for the Duke of Aosta to consider an advance across the Northern Frontier District into the Kenyan highlands. Regarding climate , East Africa had extreme variations in rainfall and temperature, which, in turn, fostered a diverse disease ecology. The relatively close position to the equator as well as the Indian Ocean and the inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ), greatly influenced the climate of East Africa. When combined, the extreme rains, varied temperatures and the prevalence of disease, made East Africa an extremely difficult theatre in which to conduct military operations. There were two distinct rainy seasons in East Africa; a ‘small’ one towards the end of the year, and a ‘big’ one from April onwards . The campaign seasons were thus limited by the rains to the months January and February and about the end of May to October. The rainfall nearly always consisted of thunderstorms, which naturally affected the movement of armed forces. In the Northern Frontier District, torrential rains turned the black cotton soil into an impregnable morass. Despite the rain and the presence of some large rivers, water remained a scarce commodity in the areas below 1,200 meters above sea level throughout the year. Water was, however, more plentiful in a 240-kilometre belt to the north of Kenyan-Ethiopia border, owing to the presence of permanent streams. Regarding temperature, the low lying areas of East Africa were described as arid and hot, with warnings against sunstroke, while the temperatures inland and in the highlands were considered to be moderate to fresh and healthy. At sea-level the average temperature varied between 26°C and 29°C, in the Northern Frontier District between 21°C and 27°C, and from 2,400 metres above sea-level it dropped to about 16°C. The annual range of mean monthly temperatures was small and rarely differed more than 3°C. The diurnal range, however, was considerable and varied from 9°C at sea level to as much as 15°C on fine days at certain inland stations. In the Northern Frontier District and the coastal areas, marked by sporadic rainfall and extreme temperatures, diseases were particularly prevalent. Malaria, especially common in the Northern Frontier District, necessitated the issue of adequate supplies of Quinine. Dysentery, owing to the high levels of salts present in the soil and water, also caused major health problems  –   and was referred to as the ‘Habaswein Itch’, ‘Wajir Clap’ or ‘Buna Balls’. The preponderance of the Tsetse flies and Horse sickness meant that no animal transport could be considered for an advance across the Northern Frontier District.  Page | 3 Strategic and Operational Planning  At a strategic meeting held in the Sudan in October 1940 the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East, General Wavell, decided that if a series of coordinated attacks were launched from Kenya and the Sudan, the Italians could be driven from East Africa. It was agreed that the conquest of Italian East Africa was dependent on two key factors. First, the strategic port of Kismayu needed to be captured before an all-out invasion of Ethiopia could be considered, as this would shorten the Allied lines of communication across the inhospitable Northern Frontier District. Second, the coordinated attacks had to be effected between December and March when a gap in the rainy weather conditions existed, because of the severe influence of rainfall on operational mobility. By the end of the conference, it was agreed that the Allied offensive in East Africa would start early in 1941. During the first week of December, Wavell met with Generals Cunningham and Platt, the commanders of East Africa and the Sudan respectively, to decide on an overall plan of action for the upcoming offensives. It was agreed that if the strategic nerve centre of Italian East Africa was threatened in unison, Italian resistance would crumble piecemeal. The success of the combined offensives, however, rested on three pillars: an advance from Sudan  by Platt’s forces ; from Kenya Cunningham had to advance and capture Kismayu; last, an internal revolt needed to be fostered amongst the Ethiopians which would harass Italian lines of communication and make the countryside ungovernable. Upon his return to Nairobi Cunningham decided to postpone Operation Canvas, the offensive operation aimed at capturing Kismayu, until May/June 1941. His decision, contrary to Wavell’s srcinal plan, was based on several considerations. First, Cunningham argued that a shortage of water supplies would prevent the movement of a large body of men over the waterless Northern Frontier District. Second, Italian morale was thought to be extremely high after the capture of British Somaliland and, third, some of his troops were not yet fully trained for offensive operations. Last, Cunningham argued that he did not have the disposal of sufficient motor transport to provision his forces on the long lines of communications that would be created by an advance on Kismayu. Cunningham thus decided to immediately advance on the frontier with Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland and establish a defensive line. These movements were collectively known as the ‘cutting out’ operations and would culminate in the establishment of a series of administrative facilities and supply depots to secure sufficient stockpiles before the main Allied offensive began in 1941. Throughout December Cunningham grew eager to launch an attack somewhere along the Kenya-Italian Somaliland border. The planned attack was significant for three reasons. Firstly, an attack would reduce the vast area of no- man’s -lan d between Cunningham’s forward positions and that of the Italian vanguard. Secondly, such an attack would provide Allied engineers with the opportunity to improve vital communication links and water sources in the Northern Frontier District to support future operations. Lastly, Cunningham believed that he could gain psychological ascendancy over the Italian troops by attacking isolated outposts. On 16 December elements of the 24 th  Gold Coast and 1 st  SA Brigades successfully attacked and captured El Wak situated on the Kenya/Somaliland border. The victory at El Wak was significant for three reasons. First, the belief that Italian morale was far superior to that of the Allied forces was immediately proven wrong. Second, after the fall of El Wak, the Italian High Command decided to withdraw all Italian forces to their defensive line on the Juba River. Only a handful of irregular troops were left to the west of the river to act as harassing troops, while two well-fortified Italian outposts remained at Afmadu and Kismayu. Finally, the victory at El Wak decided the pace and intensity of the remainder of  Page | 4 the campaign in East Africa. The Allied forces’ thrust towards Addis Ababa was  now hastened by six months after the success at El Wak because Cunningham realised that it was possible to secure a firm foothold across the Juba River by the time the dreaded ‘long’  rains arrived. The influence of climate and terrain on SA operations The nature of the South African operations in East Africa varied considerably between that of the limited deployment of the 1 st  SA Div to southern Ethiopia, and the 1 st  SA Bde which served with the 11 th  and 12 th  African Divisions through Italian Somaliland and into central Ethiopia. In a theatre where topography and climate relentlessly influenced offensive operations, it is best to divide the South Africa operations into two broad categories: those of the highly mobile opening stage of the campaign, and the infantry slog and penultimate battles in the mountains of central Ethiopia. The rough nature of the terrain severely hampered the efficient employment of the UDF troops throughout the campaign and led to the novel employment of the South African forces in East Africa. In hindsight, it was principally the lacklustre Italian resistance encountered, the nature of the terrain, and the distinct weather-gap during the opening salvos of the campaign, which convinced the South Africans that the nature and speed of their operations called for the accepted doctrine to be abandoned in lieu of tactical and operational requirements. This became a hallmark of the South African operations in East Africa, which was marked by a high degree of mobility during the early part of the campaign. During the opening salvos of the campaign, the terrain allowed for the varied employment of the South African armour and motorised infantry, owing to the ability of the vehicles to deploy cross-country. With few undulations in the initial terrain encountered, armour was often used in wide flanking movements throughout the bush. This allowed the South African commanders to effect an envelopment and gain both a tactical and operational surprise by deploying their armour boldly, which often left the accompanying infantry with only mopping up operations around the objectives. Concurrently, the fording of the Juba River in February 1941, the only natural defendable terrain feature in Italian Somaliland, has been described as one of the most significant events, not only of the campaign but of the entire war fought in Africa. The successful crossing of the Juba River before the arrival of the ‘long’  rains ensured that the hinterland of Italian Somaliland was opened for a rapid advance along the tarred Strada Imperiale  highway. The new route of advance and terrain drastically influenced the deployment of South African troops. The dense bush and open desert flats so characteristic of the Somaliland coastal belt, and to a large extent conducive to the mobile warfare, gave way to sweeping mountains which dominated southern and central Ethiopia. The South African armour, now confined to roads and tracks, lost their freedom of movement and infantry operations gained primacy. After the capture of the Marda Pass and the occupation of Addis Ababa, the ever-present open flanks disappeared, and the highly mobile phase of the southern advance was replaced by a tedious infantry slog for the mountains of central Ethiopia. In a mere fifty- three days, however, Cunningham’s troops advanced more than 2,700 kilometres from the Kenyan frontier to Addis Ababa and occupied some 580,000 square kilometres. At the time these operations were considered a military record, with the offensive operations carried out at a pace seldom surpassed in history mainly due to favourable terrain and a feeble Italian resistance. The fall of Addis Ababa did not see the end of hostilities in Ethiopia as the Duke of Aosta and his Eritrean and Central Armies still occupied a series of well-established mountain defences at Combolcia, Dessie and Amba Alagi where they intended to make a final stand.  Page | 5 The battles of Combolcia, Dessie and Amba Alagi, were primarily infantry affairs supported by artillery and were fought in some of the harshest conditions of the entire campaign. For the South Africans, more adept to mobile operations, mountain warfare, and the challenges it brought with it was something distinctly new. Despite the defensive advantages offered by the key terrain, the Italian defence of the mountains were negligible, to say the least, and after victory at Amba Alagi in May, the Italians sued for an armistice. Despite the armistice, the last Italian forces only surrendered at Gondar in November. The East African climate, especially extreme temperature variations and unpredictable rainfall, greatly influenced the operational efficiency and employment of the South African forces throughout the campaign. A clear distinction must once more be made between the opening stages of the campaign fought during the dry season in the period after the ‘short rains’, and the mountain battles of central Ethiopia fought in the cool season during the ‘long rains’. During the opening phase of the campaign, the South African troops experienced average daily temperatures ranging from 37°C to 43°C  –   the latter measured in the shade. The severe temperatures experienced, and often fluctuated by a hot wind, had a determined effect on the offensive employment of South African troops. Water consumption by men and machines increased exponentially in areas where it was limited and naturally added strain on the extended lines of communication. The unpredictable nature of the East African climate was first experienced by the South Africans during the Battle of Mega in February 1941. When the fighting started the average daily temperature was more than 37°C. During the ensuing night, however, the East African weather closed in and a sudden, unexpected, torrential downpour engulfed Mega and its surroundings which ensured that the South African soldiers had to endure a freezing and uncomfortable night out in the open. The South African infantrymen furthermore had to deal with severe exposure, because they were fighting in summer issued field dress and that their blankets were unable to reach them. This was only a taste of what was to come as the campaign progressed into the higher altitudes of Ethiopia, where changes in temperature were more distinct. During the battles for Combolcia, Dessie and Amba Alagi the South Africans often had to attack in driving rain and mist. The arrival of the dreaded ‘long rains’ furthermore influenced the South African  deployment, in that the deteriorating terrain of central Ethiopia was often turned into muddy quagmires by torrential downpours. In fact, after the fall of Amba Alagi the remaining Allied offensive operations aimed at capturing Gondar and subjugating central Ethiopia, were halted until the ‘long’  rains had ceased all together  –   owing to the fact that all lines of communication had been rendered useless by the impassable stretches of mud across large tracts across the East African theatre. Conclusion In conclusion, this paper shows that the East African operational environment served as a key determinant during the planning and execution of the South African and Allied military operations throughout the campaign. This subject deserves further study.
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