The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Emile Coetzee

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 14 October 2010

A reappraisal of the first confrontation of the South African infantry and mobilized forces during the Second World War at El Wak in Italian Somaliland (16 December 1940)

The title of this paper comes from a poem which I discovered while researching this attack on El Wak, written by one of the servicemen who served in the No. 3 Armed Car Company. (One of the regiments of the South African forces during the confrontation). The last two verses read:

This poem might just be plain soldier arrogance, looking forward to the chance of looking the enemy in the eye, but it is for me as if they knew, as servicemen in the East African Campaign, that this first major engagement which they were on their way to, would be the only chance they would have as soldiers of South Africa to prove that they are able to achieve the objectives which were laid out for them. They had to prove it to their fellow British comrades, to the South African government and public and also to themselves. This was the first action which the Union Defence Force's infantry and mobilized regiments experienced during the Second World War. It made headlines across the Union and the British Commonwealth, and yet, the fight at El Wak has been forgotten for many years now, by the same nations which fought against each other on that desert and rocky plain. South Africa is not the only one to blame. El Wak and many other battles, in which South Africa fought in, are not even mentioned in new international publications which are commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Second World War. Whatever the reason for the exclusion might be, it is time for South African military historians and enthusiasts to relook at the battles, skirmishes and raids in which South Africa can claim agency to. To contribute to this endeavour, I will look at the attack which the South African forces launched at the small settlement called El Wak, there where our bayonets came in contact with human flesh for the first time.

Thus, to study this confrontation from a fresh perspective, we must connect it with the actions which happened before the first shot was fired and after the last shot was fired. In other words, rather than looking at the way how the confrontation occurred, the fighting itself, we have to look at the situation which the UDF were facing before the engagement started and the lessons which were learnt after the fight. Only then, one might argue, we in the present time would be able to understand what the total odds were which we, the Springbok forces, had to overcome, when the order was given to attack our first target, at El Wak. To be able to understand the scenario in which these obstacles and lessons were formed, I will first give a brief explanation about the territory which the fighting commenced upon and also a short narrative on the attack itself.


There are in reality two El Wak settlements in the area of this study. In 1940, there was a British El Wak which was located in Kenya and also then the Italian El Wak settlement which was invaded and sacked by the UDF and the accompanying Gold Coast regiments. These settlements fall into the so-called Northern Frontier, where the Banda and Turkana have been fighting each other for centuries in hot rocky deserts with small deposits of thick bush across the landscape. The Italian El Wak settlement was described to be a few huts made of straw and a mud-walled square-shaped fort at the Italian El Wak settlement which was inhabited by the ITl's (Italians) and their Banda allies.

Across the faintly drawn colonial border, the forces under the command of Gen. Dickenson (called Dickforce during the operation) and Brig. Danie Pienaar (called Pinforce) were ordered to move into Italian Somaliland to take over the three major targets. Concerning Pinforce, from which the majority of soldiers came from the 15th South African Brigade, they had to make a path through a large area of thick bush and shrubbery, to get to their assembly area on the day of action. The Royal Natal Carbineers, which were under the command of Pinforce, were ordered to take the closely located settlement of El Bura Haja and the Jocks took standing positions on the road to Berbera, which was the HQ of the Italian forces. A column from Dickforce, consisting of the Gold Coast Regiment and the Dukes, with the assistance of Tank and Armed Cars, took the settlement of Italian El Wak.

The attack overall was over quite quickly as one of the Veterans, Private Mick Gell, of the TS, stated. "This was no Battle. We saw some ITI's, fired some shots at them and then for me it was over. I was at El Wak only for a short while, at least thirty minutes". (Private Mick Gell, 26 June 2010). According to the official casualty list, 102 ITI and Banda soldiers were killed, more of the latter, and two South Africans were killed and four were wounded. One of the casualties according to Coghlan was the brother of Alan Paton, Athol Paton, but due to no references which are included in his book about the Natal Carbineers, Pro Patria, it is quite hard to say that for certain. What we do know however about one of the casualties is that he was wounded by his own hand grenade due to the fact that he did not release it on time. The confrontation was over within a morning and orders to move out were already issued by the afternoon. By the 18th of December 1940 all of the soldiers were back at Fort Wajir.


Now before any barrel was loaded with a projectile, a lot of planning had to be made, to make sure that the operation would succeed. The issues standing in the way of a successful operation came from a multitude of sources, these being stated in the "Abridged report of the operation at El Wak". These issues derived from difficulties sprouting from the soldiers themselves, from logistics, intelligence and from the commanders. In this specific order, I will discuss them briefly.

The 1st SA brigade knew that they had an army consisting of inexperienced young men who never had the opportunity to really see combat from up close. These soldiers were fresh from the training camps, such as Sonderwater, close to Cullinan, and had to go through a sort of "crash-course" training programme. These programmes had to show the troops how to use their firearms, to teach them navigational skills and to follow military battle formations. This sort of "rushed" training might account for the mistakes which the casualties made during the confrontation, especially referring to the soldier who wounded himself with his own hand grenade. But it was not just the average rifleman or Armed Car soldier who had no experience. Even the NCO's could not really claim that they were veterans in comparison to the older generation of officers which did see combat in the First World War, such as Brig. Dan Pienaar who fought in East Africa.

Another major issue regarding troops were the lack of discipline. These UDF troops knew what they were allowed to do and what they were ordered not do but yet some still did not obey the instructions which were given to them at Gil-Gil or on the way to El Wak. It is told that Dan Pienaar had his hands full with keeping troops in their transport Lorries during the night, while they were crossing the border area. However, it was also the drivers of these Lorries who did not obey their orders while they were driving to their appointed destination. Many of them did not even try to keep their vehicles out of sight from enemy aircraft, when they were asked to park them. There were even incidences where drivers were almost run over because they went to get some sleep under the vehicles to escape the uncomfortable heat of the vehicle's driving compartment. This was off course against the orders given by Dan Pienaar and many soldiers were reprimanded for their disobedience.

The Springbok soldiers were also under pressure from local soldiers, the Banda, which were becoming in their own words a "nuisance" To quote: "Up to now the difficulty of "fixing" the Banda of which the enemy advance elements are always composed of had not been overcome" (Abdriged Report, 1940). These Banda were masters of camouflage and gave the UDF forces a run for their money, especially on the 15th of December when they attacked DICKFORCE, who stopped a few miles south of British El Wak.

From a logistical point of view, the movement of troops and supplies became a giant of an issue to handle. It was calculated that 1 200 vehicles had to cross the tough terrain taking with them all of the men including their water supplies and rations for five days. The plan to move from Fort Wajir to El Wak was maybe the main hurdle before the start of the attack. The whole element of surprise had to be maintained and the whereabouts of the convoy only to be known by the commanding officer travelling with them. During the first seventy miles of the journey, the group travelled slowly over the rough terrain with terrible roads, with the help of an SAAF fighter plane hovering above the convoy. The SAAF pilot was ordered to alert the convoy if trouble was ahead. Because for a period of time, the SAAF did not see any enemy plane flying over the area and it was believed that this would also be the case while the convoy travelled to their destinations. The last forty miles of the journey had to be done at night, without the use of any lights or radio communication. When the convoy rested for a short while during the night, the chain was broken by a minority of drivers who could not keep their concentration and submitted to fatigue.

The intelligence report on which the attacking plan was based upon were full of voids and mistakes. Though no evidence had been found about an aerial reconnaissance action which was taken to scan the area of El Wak, it is known that a large part of the attacking plan was based upon the information given by a captured Banda soldier. It was later realized that the Banda did not tell the whole truth on the whereabouts of all the Italian gun emplacements in the fortification at Italian El Wak, having negative results for the overall success of the South African offensive.

From the commander's tent, not everything was in order. Before the battle started, internal feuds between Dickenson and Pienaar erupted because of Dickenson's idea to divide the 1st South African Brigade and attached them to local, meaning native, forces. Dickenson argued that this would suit the objectives because it had been successful in India. After the intervention of Smuts this idea was scrapped but the pressure for the South Africans to prove that they were a force to be reckoned with if they are united in a Brigade, became larger.

Proper planning was however done on the medical, provisions and water supplies. Enough rations for five days were given to each troop, thus making sure that they had enough if the fighting took longer than expected. The minimum amount of water per day for a soldier, which was one gallon per day, was brought with the convoy so that there would be enough for all if they found El Wak to have no drinkable water sources (which happened to be the case). The medics were also standing ready to evacuate 500 casualties if necessary and a Valencia aircraft was ready to fly any seriously wounded soldiers back to the closest field hospital.


When the dust settled and the last South African armed car was making its way back to Wajir, the commanders and the analysts had their hands full in searching for new ways in how they would be able to adjust their next battle plan, by looking at the mistakes made for the operation at El Wak.

It was argued that, if possible, the whole attack had to be rehearsed at the force's field HQ before they moved out for the real thing. Yet this is not always possible but it was believed that the soldiers would be more certain about their duties when they were under fire. In this case where the average soldiers had little amount of training, this rehearsal had been beneficial for them by making all of the training they did back in the Union fully understandable.

The main alterations had to be made on the discipline of the transport drivers and their ability to follow orders to the letter. It was decided to make it clear to drivers of UDF vehicles to make sure that the vehicle remains invisible to any enemy aircraft while they are travelling. This issue had to be handled because many of the drivers did not even drive into the bush when the vehicles had to hide. It was also decided that vehicles had to use different signals between them, such as the flashing of lights when they reached their predetermined destinations and to place a red flag at the rear of the vehicle, so that it could be seen by the vehicle at their back. To keep an armed man beside the driver was also a requirement which would be continued in the rest of the campaign, even though it was not adhered to in full during the journey to El Wak. Many of the armed men dozed off while the driver continued to fight the pressure of fatigue, making the convoy slower. Thus, part of the armed passenger's duty would be to remain awake and to keep the driver aware at all times.

During this operation it became clear that the strict regulations regarding radio control were not that necessary. This conclusion was made when the drivers of the transport vehicles were unable to communicate with each other, while they drove around in pitch darkness. The only thing which counted was that the driver had to stick to a strict time table which contained all of the stops they had to make during the night. At the end of this operation, more grace was given for the use of radios in the areas which had been captured by the UDF and specific frequencies for each attacking force were to be installed.

To plan an attack on the incomplete version of a captured soldier would never again be repeated. More trustworthy sources had to be used such as the scribbled maps by pilots surveying the area. The pilot would fly over the area, scribble down all of the data when he was back at base and give to the Base Commander.

Other lessons were also learned regarding the personal services for officers. It was decided that no officer may take servants along with them on the convoy, and that unarmed personnel such as cooks, had to be classified as troops for their families to receive the monetary reward if they are killed in hostile areas. Uniforms also had to be altered such as the tarbush which gave the troops little to none protection against the sun, while the men were driving during the day.


It can be argued that El Wak is for South Africa, such as what D-Day is for the United States, our first action taken to invade our enemy's territory. After a long time of hibernation, we awoke from our sleep to fight an enemy, which was seen as the communal enemy of the British Commonwealth. For us to have been able to take this enemy on, we had to fix up our Defence force and have it ready for the first attack. Some of the planning and training occurred on South African soil but the later stages of preparation happened close to the front, making it quite impossible to have everything ready for all troops. In the operation at El Wak, the UDF had to figure out how it would overcome its issues regarding slightly trained soldiers, logistical issues, commanding feuds and to utilize the intelligence gathered, before it could fire anything at the ITI's and Bandas. It took quite an effort to do this and luckily for them, the enemy fell into their hands. Though, in the Abridged Report of the operation at El Wak, it is stated that one can wonder how it would have been if the South Africans were facing a greater force at El Wak. Maybe then the obstacles which they had would have brought them down and give the British Commonwealth its third defeat in the year of 1940. Yet as one can do with all battles lessons can be learned and new ideas put into place for the next confrontations which will come. That is exactly what the UDF did after it had opened its campaign in East Africa and therefore showed to the rest of the Allies that they could also achieve victory, even if difficulties were experienced before the attack was launched. The soldiers knew that their situation was to reach El Wak or go bust and that Victory was only achieved when El Wak was dust!

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