The British Empire Library

Adui Mbele (Enemy in Front)

by John Pitt

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Sir Roger Swynnerton (Tanganyika and Kenya 1934-1963)
Some recollections of a platoon commander in the East African Campaign (1940- 41) and on 22nd East African Brigade Staff in Madagascar (1942-43). These theatres represented the first conclusive Commonwealth victories of World War II. John Pitt was a young Tanganyika Forest Officer on Kilimanjaro who, in anticipation of the Italians entering the War in Abyssinia, Joined up in June 1940 for training in the Kenya Regiment and was then posted to the Tanganyika l/6th Battalion, Kings African Rifles (the 1st to 5th coming from Nyasaland, Kenya and Uganda). Until new battalions were formed, this small force was strung across 1,000 miles of Kenya’s arid Northern Frontier from Sudan to the Indian Ocean confronting a massive army of Italians and Ethiopians while a Commonwealth force of all arms was being assembled from East Africa, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, South Africa and supporting units from India. They went into battle as the East Africa Command.

After skirmishes on the border and attacking Afmadu, from February 1941 a rapid advance was made up the Somali Coast to and onwards from Mogadisho, as much by circumventing enemy strongpoints as by pitched battles, then turning west from Somaliland and entering Abyssinia to cross the Awash River on the way to Addis Ababa. By that time the rainy season had set in and very wet it was. Pitt probably encountered greater hardships from the climate than the enemy, being rationed to a gallon of water a day, with half handed over to mess cooking in Somalia, but being flooded out at night under his groundsheet in Abyssinia. The l/6th KAR, the South Africans and the Nigerians were the first to enter Addis Ababa.

There remained two main areas of resistance, to the south and west to capture Jimma and to the north-west later to capture Gondar. An immediate move was made to the south and south west, l/6th KAR being with the force that moved south through the Lakes, then west to fight a significant battle at Colito on the Bilate River and an opposed crossing of the large River Omo, collecting prisoners by the thousand, numerous generals and the occasional Italian paymasters. By that time the Emperor Haile Selassie had entered Addis Ababa.

In July 1941 1 / 6th KAR moved north through Addis over the good Italian roads to Dessie to relieve the 22nd Indian Division, which had captured Eritrea and the Duke of Aosta at Amba Alagi, to fight in the Western Desert. In November, after the rains had eased in the north-west high country, the final assault was made, 1 / 6th KAR making the move 200 miles to the west to Lake Tana and undertaking some of the most severe actions of the campaign to capture Kulkaber and Gondar, thus ending the East African campaign.

After 22 EA Brigade returned to Kenya, it was re-equipped and in June 1942 was shipped to Madagascar to garrison Diego Suarez after capture by a force from UK. Pitt was now a Liaison Officer between l/6th KAR and Brigade, which gave him scope for reconnaissance, especially after the Brigade sailed to Majunga on the west coast and undertook the capture of the rest of the Island from Tananarive in the centre and down to the east coast, with sorties to east coast harbours from June to November 1942, which involved a series of actions. Pitt had been allocated a motorcycle, then a truck, which gave him scope for reconnaissance, not least for local provisions and French cuisine. During the period to July 1943, when the Tanganyika Government recalled him to Forest duties, Pitt undertook a number of assignments which involved being a railway transport officer, reporting on airfields and military features lest Japan moved east, and preparing information for a handbook for the War Office of southern Madagascar so that he obtained a thorough insight into the local conditions and ecology.


For the sake of the historical record, I should like to correct a small point in Sir Roger Swynnerton’s review. It was the 5th Indian Division which fought the campaign through Eritrea to Amba Alagi, January to May 1941, together with the 4th Indian Division, which had been transferred to the Sudan after their success in the Western Desert at Sidi Barrani. The 4th Indian Division fought through to the finish of the battle of Keren at the end of March, when they returned to the Western Desert.

These two Regular Army divisions were supported throughout the campaign by the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry, 144th Field Regiment RA, of which I was a member. The Duke of Aosta surrendered to Major General Mayne, commanding the 5th Indian Division, and the Duke was escorted down the mountain, Amba Alagi, by Brigadier Marriott (29th Indian Infantry Brigade), whom he had known in pre-war days, at Eton I believe.

Dr. Francis G. Smith (Tanganyika 1949-62)

British Empire Book
John Pitt
The Author


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