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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : East African Campaign

19 January to 27 November 1941

Theatre: East Africa
Location: Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), Eritrea, Italian and British Somaliland (now Somalia)
Players: Allies: Lieutenant General William Platt's 4th and 5th Indian Divisions; Lieutenant General Alan Cunningham's 11th and 12th African Divisions and 1st South African Division; Irregular British/Ethiopian forces led by Major General Orde Wingate; British colonial forces based in Aden (now Yemen). Italy: Italian colonial forces commanded by the Duke of Aosta.
Outcome: Defeat of the Italian forces in East Africa.

In 1940, Italy controlled Abyssinia, which it had conquered in 1936, as well as the 19th-century conquests of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. In August 1940 the Duke of Aosta invaded neighbouring British Somaliland, whose long borders with Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland made defence impracticable. British forces evacuated to British held Aden (now Yemen) across the Persian Gulf.

Italian East Africa bordered both British-held Kenya and the Sudan, which was jointly controlled by Britain and Egypt; it also threatened the approaches to the Suez Canal.

In January 1941, British forces launched a counter offensive. From Sudan in the north, Platt advanced into Eritrea on 19 January. Battling through mountainous territory, his forces reached the heavily garrisoned town of Agordat, 160km (100 miles) from the border. On 28 January it fell after two days of hard fighting.

Platt now made for the town of Keren, 80km (50 miles) away and the gateway to Eritrea's central plateau. The route lay through the Dongolaas Gorge, a wild, craggy area where progress was only possible after enemy forces were dislodged from the commanding heights. RAF units based inside Eritrea provided air support.

Platt was also assisted by a diversionary manoeuvre in which a body of Indian and Free French troops was sent by sea from Sudan to northern Eritrea. Nevertheless, it was only on 15 March that Platt began the final assault on Keren, which fell 11 days later. Platt's forces marched to the coast at Massawa, 160km (100 miles) away, and took it on 8 April. Within days, Eritrea was liberated.

At the same time, Italian East Africa was also attacked from the south. In Kenya, Cunningham assembled a force of three divisions, one South African and two composed of Nigerian and Ghanaian troops under British officers.

On 10 February, Cunningham led part of his force east from Kenya into Italian Somaliland, while the remainder marched north into Abyssinia. The Italian Somali capital of Mogadishu fell on 26 February and by 5 March the enemy was routed.

Cunningham's force now divided; he led one group further north while the other advanced north west into Abyssinia, to be reunited with the group that had been sent north from Kenya.

The town of Jijiga in north eastern Abyssinia, 1,600km (1,000 miles) from Cunningham's Kenyan starting point, fell on 20 March. On 6 April Cunningham's reunited forces entered the Abyssinian capital Addis Ababa. The Duke of Aosta surrendered on 16 May, but some isolated Italian forces fought on until 27 November.

Two other participants in this extraordinary victory should be mentioned. One was the exiled garrison of British Somaliland: in April, exploiting the general collapse of Italian power, a force embarked from Aden and recaptured British Somaliland.

The other was Gideon Force, an irregular group organised by Major General Orde Wingate. Gideon Force was intended to aid Ethiopian rebels and hold down Italian forces in the north west of the country; Wingate interpreted this mandate as including the liberation of Abyssinia and the reinstatement of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Gideon Force, with Selassie, crossed the border from Sudan on 20 January and made for Addis Ababa, harassing the Italians and enlisting support from local rebel groups. Their advance was outstripped by Cunningham's, however: Wingate and the Emperor first entered Addis Ababa in a victory march on 5 May, about a month after Cunningham. Gideon Force played a part in the mopping-up operations during May, but was disbanded on 1 June.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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