East Africa 1940-1941 (Land Campaign)
by Marek Sobski
Reviewed by Peter Brown
While Italy’s part in the campaign in North Africa is fairly well known, its forces were also involved in another part of Africa. It had extensive possessions in East Africa in the area they knew as Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI - literally Italian East Africa.
With its coast on the Red Sea it was a threat to shipping through the Suez Canal which linked the United Kingdom with India, Malaya, Australia and New Zealand as well as to the oil fields of Iran and Iraq. As such it was of great strategic importance to the UK and the Axis. It was bordered by the British-controlled areas of Sudan and Kenya with Uganda close by while Egypt was not far away. This made attacks by either side on the other an easy matter.
The campaign there lasted from June 1940 - when Italy declared war - to November 1941. Most of the Italian forces involved were locally-raised troops with various units from Italy itself, while on the British side troops came from the UK, all over Africa, Indian Army contingents and even included Belgian, Cypriot and Palestinian forces. While it was mostly fought by infantrymen, there was some use of armoured cars and tanks with support from the air and sea although these are only covered as part of the land fighting.
While the British side was more able to supply fresh troops and modern equipment the Italians were hampered by having to rely almost entirely on what they had at the start of the war. Much of this was obsolete or at least obsolescent while ammunition and fuel were major concerns. It could be said that the outcome of the campaign was a foregone conclusion but it is a credit to the Italians that the campaign lasted 18 months.
The overall situation is described with basic details of the area’s history and the equipment used by both sides, then each part of the campaign is followed. These began with Italian attacks on Sudan and Kenya as soon as war was declared, then the conquest of British Somaliland. From then on they were on the defensive and steadily pushed back. Many small actions were fought, including attacks on tanks by cavalry.
Overall this is a balanced account giving equal coverage to both sides. Useful appendices cover equivalent ranks and biographies of major Italian leaders, an extensive bibliography and finally - somewhat strangely! - the contents. Photos and maps are also included.
This is a campaign which is often overlooked or dismissed as a side show. But it was far more than that and deserves coverage in its own right. This is the first in a planned series of books on Mussolini’s forces at war which is intended to cover land, sea and air matters. If the remainder are up to the same standard as this they will be very useful to English-speaking readers.
Reviewer’s footnote - I will confess to having played a small part in the preparation of this book as I was proof reader to the translation from Polish by Tomasz Basarabowicz and eagle-eyed readers might spot that I have a one-page inclusion as Appendix 4. But like the author I have tried to be balanced in my comments.
Peter Brown 8 February 2021
Text and Images by Peter Brown