East African Campaign

World War II in Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa 1941.0301

East African Campaign

World War II, East African campaign, Madagascar campaign (1 March 1941)

Historical Map of Sub-Saharan Africa

By 1941, Italy's attempt to build an empire in the Mediterranean had turned into a fiasco, further isolating Italian East Africa. In January the British invaded from both Sudan - into Eritrea and western Ethiopia - and Kenya - into southern Ethiopia and Somalia. On 25 February this latter force captured Mogadishu, allowing it to push across the Ogaden into eastern Ethiopia.

Main Events

Operation Compass

In Operation Compass, some 30,000 British troops with air and tank support attacked an Italian force double their size at Sidi Barrani in western Egypt. The swift defeat of the Italians encouraged the British to extend what had been intended as a five-day raid into a full-scale invasion of Libya, pursuing the remnants of the Italian 10th Army to El Agheila. By the time fatigue and the diversion of men to Greece had forced the British to call a halt, they had taken 138,000 Italian prisoners, hundreds of tanks and over 1,000 guns and aircraft for a loss of just 1,900 men killed and wounded.

British conquest of Eritrea

The British 4th and 5th Indian Divisions under General William Platt reoccupied Kassala, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and invaded Italian-ruled Eritrea. After an initial victory at Agordat on 1 February, the British were held back by the Italian defenses among the formidable ridges and peaks around Keren. Keren finally fell on 27 March, allowing the British to capture the capital of Asmara a few days later - although the southern port of Assab would hold out until June.

British invasion of Ethiopia

On 20 January 1941 exiled Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, accompanied by British troops, crossed the border from Anglo-Egyptian Sudan into Italian-controlled Ethiopia at Um Idla. He was supported in the north by the 9th Indian Brigade, which retook Gallabat and invaded Ethiopia, occupying the border town of Metemma on 31 January. Meanwhile to the south in Kenya, the 1st South African Division reoccupied Moyale and, on 30 January, launched a feint attack in the Mega region of southern Ethiopia.

Operation Canvas

The British 11th and 12th African Divisions under General Alan Cunningham invaded Italian Somaliland from Garissa and Bura in Kenya, capturing Kismayu on the Juba River on 13 February. While the 12th African Division advanced north up the Juba, the 11th proceeded along the coast to capture Mogadishu on 25 February. By 1 March, with Italian Somaliland largely conquered, the 11th African Division began its pursuit of the Italian forces retreating northwest across the Ogaden.

Capture of Kufra

After raiding the Italian airfield at Murzuk in southwest Libya from Chad in early January 1941, a Free French battalion consisting of some 350 men under Colonel Philippe Leclerc advanced across the Sahara towards the main southeastern Italian stronghold of El Tag in the Kufra region. The Free French were supported by 76 men of the Long Range Desert Group - a British-New Zealand reconnaissance and raiding unit. Although El Tag's 400 or so Italian defenders had superior firepower and 4 aircraft to back them up, their inexperienced captain surrendered after a short fight on the condition that he could withdraw northwest with his garrison.

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