British Army – The Abyssinian Crisis

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British Army Middle East Command

The brewing crisis in Abyssinia found the Army’s Middle East Command in a state of confusion and ill-preparedness. Years of successive budget cuts and the reluctance of men to sign-up had left it under-manned and under-equipped. The Italians had amassed ten divisions on the Libyan-Egyptian Border, besides those forces assembled for the invasion of Abyssinia itself. To face them Britain had the equivalent of two reinforced infantry divisions and the forming Mobile Force (Egypt), all spread over an area of some 3.5 million miles.

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Egypt

The resident division consisted of two brigades; the Cairo Brigade (2/ Grenadier Guards, 1/ Scots Guards and 1/ Irish Guards) and the Canal Brigade (2/ Royal Sussex, 1/ Manchester and 1/ King’s). The division was supported by a field artillery regiment (three batteries). The 6th Battalion Royal Tank Corps (RTC) had also just been formed from two former RTC independent armoured car companies, but those two companies mustered only a company of light tanks between them.

Lumbering over the wastes of the Egyptian Desert near Cairo, the 6th battalions of the Royal tank corps are carrying out extensive maneuvers near their base at Abbassia. The battalion’s equipment includes the largest tanks used in the British Army, each weighing 15 tons unloaded and armed with one three pounder and three machine guns. These exclusive pictures were made by special permission of the army authorities in Egypt. Some of the giant tanks in action over the desert sands near their base at Abbassia, Egypt in an undated photo. (AP Photo)

Lumbering over the wastes of the Egyptian Desert near Cairo, the 6th battalions of the Royal tank corps are carrying out extensive maneuvers near their base at Abbassia.

MG-armed Carden Loyd Carriers were two to a battalion of RTC as their recce section, or one per Vickers MG or without an MG per 3″ mortar in those infantry battalions that had them. So yes a company in the 6th RTC had 5 Mediums, 7 lights, and could be accompanied by the recce section and its VCLs. The ‘cavalry’ had two Austin 7s in the same role for an entire regiment, so the 8th Hussars had them, as did the 11th. 7th Hussars had nothing. 12th Lancers possibly, they deployed two squadrons with 29 Lanchesters, which implies the RHQ went to Egypt with them.

The former cavalry brigade had been designated for conversion to become ‘The Mobile Force (Egypt)’ and in light of the developing crisis was given priority over the corresponding formation being converted in the UK. It consisted of three cavalry regiments and a horse artillery regiment. The 11th Hussars were fully equipped with ageing Rolls Royce armoured cars and the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) had the full complement of three batteries of QF 3.7” howitzers, towed by Light Dragon tractors. The lack of vehicles for the remaining two regiments in the brigade led to it becoming known as the ‘Immobile Farce’ however.

As of late 1935 the 8th Hussars, now designated as ‘motor-cavalry’ had only one squadron operational (with Ford V8 15cwt and 30cwt trucks mounting Vickers-Berthier light machine guns) and another in training, but awaiting vehicles. The 7th Hussars had been designated as a light tank regiment and had dutifully surrendered their mounts to the remount depot. No tanks were actually available for them however and for the present they were cavalry in name only. The 1st Royal Dragoons had been en-route for home service in the UK from India, but were ordered to disembark and to collect the horses formerly belonging to the 7th Hussars. For the duration of the crisis they would be patrolling the Suez Canal.

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The Sudan

In the Sudan there were only two regular battalions (1/ Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and 2/ Essex) and the Sudan Defence Force (SDF), which consisted of five motor-machinegun companies, four camel-mounted companies and 16 infantry companies. These were nominally organised into a four-company camel corps regiment and four four-company infantry battalions. Each of these was further supported one of the motor-machine gun companies and by a howitzer battery. Reinforcements were urgently required however and 2/ Royal Sussex from the Canal Brigade were sent to build the regular forces up to brigade strength.

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British Somaliland

If Egypt and the Sudan could be said to be struggling to co-ordinate an effective defence, the task facing the forces in Somaliland was monumental. The sole military unit in the colony was the Somaliland Camel Corps of five hundred men in four companies. ‘A Company’ was the only part of the unit actually mounted on camels, the rest were infantry without transport. One company was formed with troops from Nyasaland (present day Malawi) and it was thought that a further company of Europeans might be formed from volunteers within the colony with their private vehicles.

The best case scenario was that the Italians would not attack British Somaliland; however the possibility had to be considered. At the very least ‘Mad Dog’ attacks and raids were the very things that were expected in response to the proposed oil embargo. Not only was the border with Italian Somaliland vulnerable, but the Ethiopian-held parts of their border were also steadily being reduced.

 

Indian troopsin Somlia

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Palestine

Tensions in the mandate had been running high, ever since the 1929 riots. Increasing Jewish immigration was further angering the Palestinians and had resulted in the garrison being increased to brigade strength in 1932 and ultimately to two brigades by 1935, making it the second largest cluster of military forces outside of Egypt itself. The two formations in place in 1935 were 16th Infantry Brigade (1/ Gordon Highlanders, 1/ Worcestershire, 2/ Dorset) and 17th Brigade (1/ Seaforth Highlanders, 2/ Royal Scots Fusiliers, 2/ Cheshire).

Besides the occasional low-level attacks on Jewish settler convoys, sabotage of the Baghdad-Haifa oil pipeline and rail lines and riot control duties in Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Nablus and other towns, the Syrian and Lebanese Borders were the routes through which arms, ammunition, explosives and Syrian and Iraqi ‘volunteers’ were entering the mandate. As such the situation warranted additional troops, not the removal of them and reluctantly GOC Middle East decided to maintain the troops deployed there at their current strength.

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Malta

Malta’s proximity to both Italy and Libya made it vulnerable to attack from both air and sea, and truth be told, should the island fall to Italy, then Britain may just as well hand over the Suez Canal too, as one was useless without control of the other. Besides anti-aircraft and artillery units, the garrison of the island consisted of two battalions (2/ Rifle Brigade and 1/ Duke of Wellington’s). Added to these was the single territorial battalion of the King’s Own Malta Regiment, whose final company (‘D’ company – on the island of Gozo) had only been raised in 1934).

Malta’s value was not under-estimated however and in September 1935 the island was ordered to be reinforced by 14th Infantry Brigade (2/Lincolnshire, 2/South Wales Borderers and 1/King’s Own Scottish Borderers) from the UK.

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Gibraltar

Gibraltar’s key strategic position was reflected by its brigade-strength garrison (1/ King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 2/ Gordon Highlanders, 2/ Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry). As the Italian intent to invade Abyssinia became known however, the Gordons were dispatched to Egypt, to replace 2/ Royal Sussex, who had been sent to the Sudan.

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Kenya

The forces present in Kenya were considered sufficient for its defence under normal circumstances. The area headquarters ‘Northern Brigade HQ’ was located in Nairobi, where the 3rd Battalion King’s African Rifles (KAR) was also based, along with the HQ of the European territorials of 1st Battalion The Kenya Regiment and its No. 1 Company. No. 2 Company was based at Nakura and No. 3 Company at Eldoret. At Mombasa 4th Battalion KAR (less one company at Turkana) was based, along with the Coast Defence Rifle Company KAR and the Coast Defence Battery of the Kenya Regiment.

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Reinforcements: September to December 1935

Intelligence received on the Italian dispositions in London, prompted a consideration of what could be drawn from the Home Service Establishment to reinforce the Middle East. The initial commitment in September was to be 1st (Light) Battalion RTC, a new unit formed by the removal of the light companies from 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Battalions RTC. The unit was intended to supplement 6th RTC in Egypt in any case, to create a tank brigade there. Ten Vickers Medium Tanks MK. II were also sent to bring 6th RTC’s two companies up to full strength (each company was ot have seven light tanks and five mediums).

Two squadrons of the 12th Lancers (‘A’ Squadron was in the Saar with the International Force), each with a mix of Rolls Royce and Lanchester 6×4 armoured cars, was also despatched to Egypt. Infantry anti-tank capability was currently non-existent, as the new Ordnance QF 2 pdrs were not due for issue until the following year. As a short-term solution 33 Hotchkiss 25mm anti-tank guns were purchased from France and despatched to Egypt, at an issue rate of three per battalion currently there, or due to arrive shortly.

13th Infantry Brigade (2/ Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, 2/ Wiltshire Regiment, 2/ Inniskilling Fusiliers) was also given movement orders, so as to bring the Egyptian garrison up to its war-footing complement of three brigades. Arriving in October the brigade was ordered to the resort town of Mersa Matruh, roughly mid-way between Alexandria and the border town of Sollum, in order to fortify it against a potential Italian advance into Egypt. A squadron of the 11th Hussars was also sent to conduct patrols in the area.

In the event that additional forces might be required in the coming year, the following elements were ordered to prepare for a possible deployment to the Middle East; 1st Infantry Brigade (3/Coldstream Guards, 2/Scots Guards, 2/Hampshire), 2nd Infantry Brigade (2/ North Staffordshire, 2/ Black Watch, 2/ Royal Irish Fusiliers), 15th Infantry Brigade (2/ King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 1/ Yorks and Lancaster, 1/ Royal Warwickshire) and 18th Infantry Brigade (2/ Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 2/ Royal East Kent ‘The Buffs’, 1/ Essex).

Besides the normal artillery, engineer and other support elements required to support such a force, 2nd Battalion RTC was also included. As plans were developed for their movement it became apparent that there was insufficient motor locally to transport to move these elements to their embarkation ports and that individual brigades might need to hire as many as seventy buses from their local public transport companies.

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The Royal Air Force Middle East

The Royal Air Force had garnered a large share of the responsibility for policing the vast area the Middle East Area formed. In Iraq there was actually no army presence at all, the last battalion having been removed in 1930. The proliferation of light bombers in the region, supported by three squadrons of the RAF’s pattern of Rolls Royce armoured cars, did however prove they were capable of the task.

While bases remained fairly static, each had a number of unmanned outlying airfields, which squadrons or individual flights could occupy to deal with a short-term task. If a substantial threat developed in a specific area, squadrons could even be deployed from another part of the region accordingly. As the Abyssinian Crisis began to unfold, this was demonstrated by the formation of ‘Truforce’ in a group of airfields created near Mersa Matruh. In the event of an Italian invasion Truforce would carry out attacks on Italian forces as they advanced along the coast and could operate as far as the city of Tobruk.

It became apparent however that more aircraft would be required and additional squadrons would need to be sent from the UK. By December 1936 the RAF’s presence in the Mediterranean was as follows;

Malta – No. 22 Squadron (Wildebeest), No. 74 Squadron (Demon), No. 200 Squadron (Nimrod).

Alexandria – No. 801 Squadron (Nimrod) – RAF Fleet Air Arm awaiting ship.

Truforce (Mersa Matruh) – No. 14 Squadron (Gordon), No. 23 Squadron (Demon), No. 33 Squadron (Hart), No. 65 Squadron (Demon), No. 70 Squadron (Victoria/Valentia), No. 142 Squadron (Hart), No. 208 Squadron (Atlas, Audax, Demon).

Palestine & Trans-Jordan – No. 6 Squadron (Hart/Demon).

Iraq – No. 30 Squadron (Hardy), No. 55 Squadron (Hart/Gordon), No. 84 Squadron (6 Wapiti, 3 Wildebeest, 3 Vincent).

Aden – No. 8 Squadron (3 Vickers Vincent, 9 Fairey IIIF), No. 12 Squadron (Hart), No. 41 Squadron (Demon), No. 203 Squadron (Scapa).

Sudan – No. 47 Squadron (3 Vincents, 9 Gordon), No. 3 Squadron (Bulldog), No. 35 Squadron (Gordon), No. 207 Squadron (Gordon)

Kenya – No. 216 Squadron (Victoria/Valentia), No. 45 Squadron (3 Vincent, 9 Hart) from Iraq.

 

Royal Air Force Squadrons also provided the complement of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers. While only HMS Glorious was present in the Mediterranean (Eagle had sailed to the UK for a re-fit), it had a full complement of aircraft.

No. 802 Squadron (Nimrod), No. 812 Squadron (Baffin), No. 823 Squadron (Fairey IIIF), No. 825 Squadron (Fairey IIIF)

 

No. 208

No. 208 Sqn

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