HL Deb 28 May 1941 vol 119 cc297-311

LORD BIRDWOOD rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any information with regard to recent operations in the East African campaigns; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is with very great hesitation that I have put down the question which appears in my name because I am so fully aware, as all your Lordships must be, of the very heavy burden of work which is placed on the shoulders of the Secretary of State for War and everybody in the War Office, but, having spent by far the greater part of my life in very close association with officers and men of the Indian Army, most of our Dominions, and a great many of our Colonies, I have had an uncomfortable feeling that, quite unwittingly, full justice has not been done to, or credit given for, the magnificent work accomplished by those troops throughout the fighting in East Africa and Abyssinia. I need hardly say that I do not for one moment imply that news of their deeds has been kept back willingly, but it so happened that during these operations others were of even greater import, and certainly of a far more serious nature. I refer, of course, to operations in Greece, where our troops sustained a very serious set-back, and in Libya and on the north coast of Africa, where our troops had to be withdrawn right away from Benghazi to Tobruk and Mersa Matruh.

I know that there have been people who have been inclined to be pessimistic, who have felt that everything was not right. Indeed, they have been more than pessimistic; they have been really terrified that something terrible was going to happen owing to these withdrawals. I think they did not fully take into account the fact that, simultaneously with these withdrawals, we were able to carry out those very fine operations in Abyssinia which resulted in the destruction of the Italian force there. I think also that we may feel that General Wavell has made a very fine strategic clearance of his rear in Abyssinia at a time when our troops were fighting both in Greece and Libya. There is no doubt that if the Duke of Aosta's Army had remained intact and able to take the offensive, Germany would have had the freedom she wanted not only in order to take Egypt but possibly to take Syria and encompass the territory of Turkey.

I wish that I had the necessary detailed knowledge of the fighting that has been going on in Abyssinia to enable me to pay anything like a just tribute to the very fine work performed by General Wavell and his staff which resulted in such signal success. General Wavell, General Cunningham and General Platt have had to work out most meticulously and carefully a whole series of very difficult operations and they have done it with great success. They have had to arrange for columns starting at very great distances apart and their plans in every case were excellently carried out, while the troops employed have shown bravery, determination and endurance. These troops represent a very great part of our wide-flung Empire. The majority of them, I think, come from South Africa and India, but I think I am right also in saying that practically every one of our Dominions and our African Colonies has been represented. I received only yesterday a letter from an officer serving with the Sudanese troops and I was rather amused by reading in it that on one occasion in talking to a Sudanese sergeant he said: "What a terrible war this is." The sergeant replied: "Yes, effendi, it is a terrible war, but of course it is better than no war at all." I do not know that we should all subscribe to that.

As regards the Indian Army, I am glad to think that many of those out there are men I know intimately for we have serving in that part of the world troops from the Punjab and from the hills bordering on the United Provinces. We have the Pathans, the Dogras, the Jats and others, all of whom, I believe, have done well. But in praising the work of the Indian troops I hope that none of us will forget that an Indian Division is not composed entirely of Indian troops. With the Indian troops we have men from the Midlands, from the south of England and from Yorkshire, we have Highlanders also, and, of course, the artillery has been provided by the British Army. It is well I think, that we should realise what the troops from our widespread Empire have been able to do. We may take it for granted that Hitler gave orders to his unfortunate subordinate, the Duke of Aosta, that he was to contain our troops as well as he possibly could in Abyssinia, not only so that we should be compelled to keep troops there but in order to make us use up a large amount of supplies.

The feature of the whole fighting that struck me most was the extreme rapidity with which it was carried out. That is all the more noticeable if we reflect upon what happened when Italy made her base attack on Abyssinia, an attack for which there was no justification, as Abyssinia had no regular Army, no guns and no aeroplanes. Even so, Italy took three times as long as we have taken over the campaign and only succeeded then by the brutal use of lethal gases against which the Abyssinians had no means of defending themselves. Our operations commenced in January when the Italians were driven out of Kassala and by the end of January Agordat railhead, Massawa and Asmara were taken. Then there was the advance from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and by February seven columns had pushed along the coast to Mogadishu, Bardia, Gorai, Gojjam and Gondar. At the end of Mh Keren, a position of great strength, fell and by April our troops were in Addis Ababa, and the Duke of Aosta, as we know, capitulated last week. I am afraid that a string of names like that will convey very little to most people, especially as they have the misfortune to be able to refer only to small scale maps, which means that if one puts one's thumb on the map it covers perhaps several square miles. It is extremely difficult therefore to realise the significance of these operations.

Columns were started hundreds of miles apart because the country is 1,200 or 1,400 miles across from north to south and from east to west. There is no railway that we could use—the French Jibuti Railway at Addis Ababa was not used—and there were no roads of importance, while a great deal of the country is covered with thick thorny bush. Our troops, too, had to fight in very precipitous mountainous country and the Italian troops nearly always exceeded ours in numbers. Great credit may not be given to the Italians for their fighting qualities, but certainly on the retreat from Dessie and at Tobruk, Keren, and Jibuti they did show some good fighting. Although we might not have a very good opinion of the fighting qualities of the Italian forces, we must all of us realise what extraordinarily clever, astute and resourceful engineers and miners they are, especially in work connected with fortifications and demolition. Nobody has more reason to be thankful for this than our troops who are now occupying Tobruk under one of my former commanding officers, who is now General Moorshead. I thought it was a splendid example of wisdom on the part of General Wavell to occupy Tobruk on the retreat from Mersa Matruh. Thereby he got a place where he can make dagger thrusts at the heart of any troops attempting to by-pass him on the path to Egypt. In circumventing all these difficulties and in carrying out demolitions and mining, I feel that no troops would have done better than old friends of mine among the Indian sappers and miners.

I am sure that General Wavell and his staff and the troops generally will never fail to give full credit to the magnificent help which they received from the Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Union of South Africa Air Force. I can perhaps speak with more knowledge of the value of amphibious operations in view of the fact that throughout the Gallipoli campaign I was in daily touch with the British Navy. We were dependent upon them in a great number of ways, and perhaps, nobody more than the Australian and New Zealand troops, who then saw what was done, were better able to realise that the Navy was our father and our mother. It kept up our supplies, tucked us up in our beds at night, and during the hours of darkness its searchlights were on our flanks to assist in our protection. We all know now what good work the Navy has done in connection with operations in Somaliland. But if the Navy is the father and mother of the Army, the Air Force is certainly its eyes. In difficult country like that it would have been impossible to see any distance but for the help of the Air Force. They have also provided us with the heavy artillery which we so badly wanted.

It is a matter of great satisfaction that throughout this fighting only one small portion of British territory, in British Somaliland, has had to be ceded. We know that the small Indian garrison had to be evacuated from Berbera some time ago. That evacuation has been more than fully justified and more than fully made up for now. Not only have we occupied Berbera, an operation in which, I may say, the troops used were mostly from the Punjab, but also we have retaken British Somaliland and have re-occupied the whole of that pinchbeck Italian coast there.

There is one other point in this connection for which I think every credit should be given to the Secretary of State and to General Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. It is a matter of great Imperial significance that we have been able to carry out the whole of these operations without unduly weakening our strength here at the very hub and bastion of our great Empire. While all this fighting has been carrying on overseas we have maintained our grip on our own shores. Troops from this country, from Australia and from New Zealand have been able to take part in historic battles in the East, and have been sent to Greece, while these fine operations were being undertaken in Libya, in Abyssinia and in East Africa generally. It will be realised of course that a great burden of responsibility has rested on General Wavell's shoulders, and I think your Lordships will agree that he has borne it wonderfully. It has proved that to him is very applicable the saying Mens œqua in arduis. Not only he but a great many of our soldiers, sailors and statesmen, I am thankful to say, are blessed with that great attribute. And they will always remain so. As long as that remains so we need have no fear about the future. Let us thank God that the people of the British race are men like General Wavell. I am sure we shall be very grateful for any information which Lord Croft can give us about these operations. I beg to move,


My Lords, on March 25, in answer to an inquiry from Lord Milne, we were able to report that our columns advancing from Mogadishu had driven the enemy from the whole of Italian and British Somaliland, had joined hands with the columns advancing from Berbera and had captured Jijiga. I think the gallant Field-Marshal my noble friend Lord Birdwood, will probably not want me to go back on past history and, if he will permit me, I will take up the matter from that date. I may say that even one of his military vision and experience could hardly have contemplated when he tabled this Motion the very dramatic events in those theatres of war which have taken place and to which he has just referred. On that day, March 25, these columns had proceeded along the Harar road and had captured the Marda Pass, which was regarded as a formidable obstacle to early progress on the road to Harar. Our Nigerian troops, which had already such fine achievements to their credit, assaulted the position and so easily disposed of the opposition that they were able to reach the outskirts of Harar on March 27. This is the second town of importance in all Abyssinia and it was occupied that day. This column, in spite of numerous road blocks, on April 1 occupied Diredawa, a vital point on the Addis Ababa-Jibuti railway, thus cutting the only railway in Abyssinia to the coast. It then proceeded rapidly on the road to the capital, taking Miesso and Asba on April 3, and forcing the Awash river on April 4.

Troops of the Union of South Africa, which took such a decisive part in forcing the Juba river, were in these later operations the spearhead of the advance under the umbrella of their South African airmen, whose daily contribution to the British victory in East Africa has been so very effective since the war in this area commenced. They have flown an immense mileage with an astonishing immunity from losses, and with their comrades of the R.A.F., inflicting destruction on the Italian air force. To the Union troops fell the honour of that remarkable uphill advance from the Awash river and they entered Addis Ababa at 2 o'clock on Saturday, 5th April. Much to our surprise no attempt was made to defend the highlands surrounding the capital which the enemy had left just before our troops entered. Instead of a well-earned rest in Addis Ababa, the South Africans started in pursuit of the enemy moving southeast and west. The last time I spoke on 25th March I described the advance of General Cunningham from Kenya to Jijiga as "surely a world record of distance in such an astonishing time." To that record must be added 300 miles which his force covered to Addis Ababa and 330 miles thence to Dessie and Amba Alagi—1,400 miles from the Kenya frontier and 1,731 from their original railhead. It is rather interesting, I think, in trying to visualise these distances, to realise the colossal space covered by the great hunt for the German battleship "Bismarck," which hunt ended so happily, that she in all that great traversing of the ocean actually covered 1,700 miles. That gives us some idea of the vast distances to which the gallant Field-Marshal has referred, covered by this force which came up the sea coast to Addis Ababa.

Whilst the tentacles of our attack had been closing like that of the grip of an octopus, there remained an enemy salient in the Baro area on the Abyssinian-Sudan border. Our native forces, with the cooperation of Belgian troops from the Congo, on April 3 cleared the northern portion of this salient and captured Gambella, and advanced, as also did our south-western column north of Lake Rudolf, and our southern column which captured Negelli. On April 5, Abyssinian patriots under British officers occupied Debra Markos, which was very important, and the Sudan Defence Force advancing 60 miles east of this town captured 8,570 prisoners with guns and equipment on Saturday last. The pressure here continues and each day since the total of prisoners has increased

Important as these tactical gains were, our troops under General Platt on the left flank of the great circle gained a decisive victory in finally driving the enemy off the mountainous positions which are known as the Keren range, and Keren was also captured on March 27. Your Lordships will remember how our main force advancing from the Kassala area, Agordat and Barentu in two victorious columns were halted by the forbidding defences of the great Keren range. There for a fortnight the severest fighting in all these African operations took place. Persistent attacks had been pressed by our fine Indian troops with English and Highland regiments in order to secure the vital peaks which dominate the range and command Keren beyond. These peaks were lost and won again and the Italians counter-attacked with vigour in several attempts to drive our troops from the high ground they had so brilliantly secured for us. The Italians proved ingenious in the numerous blocks they made on the Agordat-Keren road, which called for strenuous efforts by our sappers frequently under artillery fire. Such an obstacle to our advance was the very serious obstruction which the Italians had effected by dynamiting a big stretch of the main roadway, which goes from Agordat to Keren, causing a landslide through a mountain pass, without the command of which our vehicles could not pass. At last the job was done, and after the final Italian counter attacks failed to drive us from the middle peaks, our armoured vehicles were able to stream through the road to occupy Keren, whilst Indian troops swept round on their right flank.

Our troops then pressed forward to find the main body of the enemy in rapid retirement on the Asmara road. In spite of a success on of road blocks the pursuit was so rapid that Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, surrendered on 1st April, leaving much material and. several thousand prisoners in our hands. As the most important centre in the whole of the onetime Italian East African Empire, the moral effect of this success was great and part of the enemy forces retreated on Massawa, which we took on April 8, the remainder going south-east, when Adowa fell to us on April 5. Thus Mogadishu and Asmara fell, Berbera was restored, Addis Ababa, the centre of government, surrendered, and Massawa, the great port of entry to the Italian- African Empire, fell into our hands. Within a space of little more than I month every capital of the Italian East African Empire was occupied. It has been a great race against the long rains. We won that race in securing the main objectives and subsequent rain notwithstanding we never let go our grip on the retreating enemy.

The remnants of the once great forces of the Duke of Aosta retreated on Dessie, Gondar and Jimma. After brisk fighting Dessie was evacuated by the enemy and occupied on Saturday, April 26, the Duke's Army retreating north to Amba Alagi, where South Africans had to storm a series of very stiff positions of the formidable mountain range rising to 10,000 feet, whilst troops of India advancing from Massawa pressed the enemy from the north. These concentric attacks rounded up the enemy in a space of five miles, and finally, on May 18, the Duke of Aosta asked for terms, and on May 19, with the remnants of his Army surrendered, with their guns and considerable equipment. On May 20, the Duke, his Chief of Staff and all his Staff officers, likewise surrendered. Total prisoners in this area reached the figure of 9,000.

There now only remain the two pockets of the enemy to be cleaned up. There may still be some 17,000 in the Gondar district, where Sudanese troops took 800 prisoners on May 17, and a further 300 on May 21 and still more have been coming into the bag in the last three days. The other considerable enemy force—25,000—is in the Jimma area, where, in the battle of the Lakes last Wednesday, 600 prisoners with 10 guns and five tanks were captured in the north of the district and 4,400 with 32 guns and 14 tanks to the south. Here the two columns of African native troops which started from the southern frontier of Abyssinia, fighting for months over 170 miles of most forbidding country, have carried out an essential part of the plan. They captured Negelli and latterly Allata, and driving the enemy north, in spite of torrential tropical rains, caught him in a nut-cracker movement by this northward advance co-operating with our column of West Africans which came south after the capture of Addis Ababa. Operations here should prove most fruitful and possibly decisive, for four Divisions have ceased to exist; and six Colonels, two Brigadiers, and two Divisional Generals—General Baccali and General Liberati (a happy name to the Abyssinians!)—surrendered at the same time. Nothing now remains but the ultimate [...] up of these beaten Italian [...]. We must not belittle the [...] value of such despairing efforts, [...] we have so hammered the Italian [...] that we may reasonably hope that [...] cannot supply their scattered [...] in isolated districts amongst a far [...] I friendly population with our columns preventing any egress by the main usable roads.

There are certain outstanding facts in these important successes. First, in the vital strategic battle at Keren, we were assailing heights of an altitude varying from 4,000 to 7,000 feet of precipitate approach. Alpine climbing at a snail's pace and then to assault at the summit again and again demands great physical strain and determination. To bring up supplies of ammunition, food and water and to evacuate wounded must have been a task of supreme difficulty with great heat in the valleys and cold nights on the mountains. I agree with my noble friend that it is very doubtful if any troops in the world could have tackled this formidable job as successfully as the hardened troops of India, of whom, as the Father of the Indian Army, he may well feel proud. Part of these troops fresh from their great assault at Sidi Barrani, on the Mediterranean, had come some 1,600 miles by sea, rail and marching, and operated a very long way from any prepared base. The supply services worked in most arduous conditions requiring great resolution, energy and endurance. The initiation of this attack must have been a great surprise to the enemy, but fighting on interior lines he was able to concentrate a very strong defence force. To attack such altitudes frontally under these conditions and so far away from their base, meant moral courage on the part of our leaders as great as the physical courage and endurance of our troops.

We must not forget the splendid contribution of that northern column which advanced through the extreme north-west point of Eritrea from the sea coast through Cub Cub, and pinned down the right flank of the Italians. This adventurous force consisted of British troops from the south of England, Indians and gallant soldiers of Free France. In the defence of Keren the Italians and their native troops fought stubbornly and bravely in a series of counter attacks, all the time suffering heavy casualties. Certainly the Duke of Aosta made a terrific effort to save the honour of his country so tarnished by the Dictator who calls the tune in Italy. The pace with which the victors of Keren took up the pursuit to Asmara was in keeping with the whole performance of General Wavell and his executive commanders. Equally laudable was the amazing advance of the South Africans and West Africans, who came all the way from Kenya by the coast route to Addis Ababa and had to fight continuously from Dessie.

Lastly, let us pay tribute to the Royal Air Force and to their gallant comrades of the South African Air Force. To the incessant and intrepid intervention of our airmen amongst these great mountain peaks and on the enemy's lines of communication our infantry owe much. They appear day after day to have plastered the enemy positions and thus harassed his retreat, and no doubt shook his morale by this most timely and persistent cooperation. In all these great events the brotherhood of the Royal Air Force and the British Army has been something of which both Services may well be proud, a unique combination which augurs well for those far sterner struggles which lie ahead.

In conclusion, two widely separated Armies of a great military Power have been defeated on its own ground with the loss of its vast East African Empire with which it started the war, indeed actually the year. In addition the Air Force of the Italian East African Empire was literally destroyed. You may ask why we lay stress on these East African operations. The answer is that the obvious strategy of the Axis is to pinch out Egypt and the Suez Canal and to endeavour to drive us from the Mediterranean. What then was the first great essential to thwart the enemy plan? Surely to remove from Egypt's rear the great strategic menace of the Italian Armies in East Africa, so that when we were at grips with the enemy East and West of Egypt, the Duke of Aosta should not attack us through the Sudan and Suez with an Army of 250,000 well-equipped troops. This great peril has been removed by the Forces of General Wavell, and that part of the Indian Ocean which covers the approaches to Northern and East Africa, the whole of the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Suez are now freed for the operations of the Royal Navy without danger. We hope that the clearing up of the land situation will have done something to show our gratitude to the Royal Navy for all their co-operation in these operations.

In all this hard fighting in a war of continuous movement and assault we have captured in East Africa alone some 90,000 prisoners and inflicted severe casualties on a well equipped enemy defending a succession of very strong positions. If our eyes had not been fixed on other great events our countrymen would have been full of pride and enthusiasm—as I am sure they are—at the success of these remarkable achievements. As it is they may well have a very decisive influence on the momentous days which face us in the Middle East. Our congratulations, I am sure, go out not only to the commanders but to the men of all these various units which have come from India, South Africa and all the Colonies of Africa and from the Sudan; and we can appreciate the fact that they have struck great blows for our cause and have done much decisively to clear the great menace to our rear.

We are very grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for raising this question in such a sympathetic manner, which the whole Army will appreciate, coming from him. I am also grateful for the words which he used in conclusion with reference to the burden which is being borne. During these operations, which required such an immense amount of Staff work and which involved such colossal supply problems, we were simultaneously defeating another great Italian Army under Marshal Graziani in Libya. We then had to resist the counter-attack of the Germans, which we have held at Tobruk and Sollum, while almost simultaneously we were fighting with great honour in Greece. We then had to switch over to counter the treasonable betrayal in Iraq, where we had to send additional forces, while we are new having to fight this very bloody contest in Crete, with such terrible odds against us in the air. It is indeed a burden which my right honourable friend has to bear, and he and Sir John Dill and all his staff will appreciate very much the words which fell from the noble and gallant Lord, as they always appreciate the moral support which comes from your Lordships' House.


My Lords. I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to the noble Field-Marshal for the Motion which he presented, and which has elicited this remarkable statement. It is thrilling and a wonderful story that the noble Lord has so very briefly outlined, a story of planning and organisation and endurance and valour which cannot, I think, be surpassed in the annals of the British Army. In particular, we must all be inspired by the thought that the men taking part in it came from all parts of our Empire, motivated by the same high ideals. It is impossible on the spur of the moment to say anything more than this, that I hope that this wonderful story will be made available to our fellow-countrymen throughout the whole Empire in the best possible way. I am sure that we must be grateful to the noble Lord for having presented us with this outline to-day.


My Lords, I should like to join with Lord Addison in expressing pleasure at the fact that my noble and gallant friend Lord Birdwood has moved this Motion, and, speaking from his almost unique experience, has given us the benefit of his opinion. We all feel, I am sure, that this combination of perfect organisation and marvellous courage and efficiency on the part of those concerned, is a chapter in British history of which we can all be proud. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Croft, a question which he may not be able to answer, and it is this: would not it be possible to publish, without any danger, some more accurate particulars of the actual units which have been engaged in these operations? We all understand, of course, that nothing ought to be revealed which would give information to the German General Staff, or to the Italian General Staff, which appears to be in a more fluid state than the German; but I should have thought that it would be possible to give some fuller details of the Forces actually engaged than merely to speak of "South African regiments," and occasionally go so far as to speak of "Highland regiments." I should not have thought that in the case of these operations there could be any risk in naming the actual regiments and other units engaged in them. It is very difficult to suppose that there would be any risk in making such a statement, which would give vast satisfaction to the relations of the officers and men of the units concerned. The noble Lord may. not be able to answer that question in the way in which I hope he will answer it, but I hope that I may be forgiven for putting it.


My Lords, I will certainly convey the views of the noble Marquess to my right honourable friend. I think that this question was raised in a debate by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Milne, and on that occasion I tried to explain that these African campaigns resembled a chess board on which it was vital to be able to conceal as far as possible the development of our moves. There is a very great desire on the part of everyone that the names of the units concerned should be known, and I am very anxious that they should be known; but, so long as we were moving forces over distances of a thousand or two thousand miles, it was probably regarded as essential by the Commander-in-Chief that names should not be mentioned, because, by a process of elimination, the enemy might otherwise have discovered which Divisions had been moved from one theatre to another. I shall, however, convey to my right honourable friend the request of the noble Marquess, and, now that the position seems to be clearing up in East Africa, that argument may no longer apply, at any rate to the Divisions which have been fighting in that area.


My Lords, I am sure that I express the opinion of you all in offering grateful thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Croft, for the information he has given us, containing details which neither I nor, I think, any of your Lordships knew of before. Having heard them, I feel more than ever proud to be associated with them as I am, as the Father of the Indian Army, after having served in that country for over forty years. Knowing the men as I do, I know what brave comrades they are in time of peace and on active service, and they have acquitted themselves here, in all this hard fighting, just as they did in years gone by on the Indian frontier and in South Africa. It is a real pleasure to hear the noble Lord speak of them as he has done, and I am grateful to him for what he has said about my other colleagues, from South Africa and from the Colonies generally. I am sure that we are all deeply grateful for this account of what has occurred, which makes us confident that our Forces will acquit themselves just as well in future, whatever may be before them. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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