Authors: John Harris
© John Harris 1983
ISBN 0 09 932960 3
When Mussolini declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940, he thought he was on to a good thing. With the British Expeditionary Force evacuated from France at Dunkirk, and France reeling back before the onslaught of Hitler’s armies, victory must have seemed not very far away. He not only expected to lay hold of Nice, Corsica, Savoy and a few other places he claimed belonged to him, but also to pick up from British Somaliland and the Sudan a substantial slice of empire for Italy.
Ever since the conquest of Abyssinia and the dethronement of the Emperor Haile Selassie in 1935-6, he had been piling up in Italian East Africa - which consisted of Italian Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia - troops by the thousand: crack regulars and blackshirts as well as battalions of colonial infantry, and raggle-taggle groups of native guerrilla fighters called bandas. Victory there must have looked easy, especially when, under the terms of the armistice with France, French Somaliland was ceded.
This meant that British Somaliland was cut off and surrounded. To the west lay the great mass of Abyssinia, to the north Italian Eritrea, to the south Italian Somaliland. The only link with the outside world that remained was by sea but, with Italian submarines locking up the Straits of Perim where the Red Sea narrows almost to nothing, and the British hanging on by their teeth in Egypt, there was not much hope of help. South of the Red Sea there was little that could be sent north. Kenya, the Rhodesias and South Africa had entered the war but their forces were ill-equipped and thin on the ground, while Aden, fourteen hours away, had little to spare.
In any case, there wasn’t much sense in trying to hang on to British Somaliland. It was tiny, virtually empty and consisted chiefly of desert and mountain. Berbera, its capital, was a huddle of buildings on a blistered shore where the thermometer could climb to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Besides, while Italy had been piling up weapons and men to the north, south and west, all there was to hang on to the place was a skeleton force, mostly consisting of the King’s African Rifles - native troops with white officers and sergeants. And though the Italians had been storing petrol for the possibility of an invasion in British Somaliland, the British had barely enough to get what troops there were to the coast.
Finally, odd as some of the events in the story might seem, many of them actually happened.
Allah created the Arabs, then all the other peoples of the world, then he created the Somalis. Then he laughed.
‘What with their ice cream, their “Oh Soul Mio” and that,’ Tully said, ‘I reckon the Italians are a right set of twits.’
Gooch studied him, bouncing up and down in unison as the Bedford lorry they were travelling in shook and shuddered on the uneven road. ‘Typical of ‘em to stab the French in the back,’ he agreed.
‘Always were untrustworthy buggers with knives,’ Tully went on. ‘I remember Jimmy Dillon getting involved with one once in Aden. Sailor, I think. Jimmy sent him back where he came from with a few missing teeth.’
Tully smiled reminiscently. He was a small shrivelled man with wide-open innocent eyes that had misled many a girl and many a young officer, a leprechaun face adorned with a thin-nostrilled nose, and a shock of black hair that stood upright on his skull like a yard brush.
‘He was a right boy, was Jimmy Dillon,’ he went on. ‘He was stripped, you know. In front of everybody.’
‘Drunk in charge of the guard, wasn’t he?’
Tully nodded. ‘CO came along and found him. Sergeant tried to save him by backing him up against the wall of the guard ‘ouse with a man either side of him and his bayonet jammed in the woodwork. It stopped him swaying, but it didn’t hold him up. They shoved him in the cells. I was one of his guards.’
The lorry hit another stretch of ruts and clanked and clattered so much Tully had to remain silent and hang on, bouncing about in the back until it reached level road again.
Gooch looked up. ‘Who was the officer, Paddy? When they stripped him.’ Gooch leaned forward to offer a cigarette, a big man with shoulders that seemed to be bursting out of his shirt, squarely built with hands like shovels and mad dangerous eyes. ‘Who was it?’
Tully grinned. ‘Fiddleface Patey. You know the one. Long head with hollow cheeks and a big chin.’ He looked at the third man in the back of the truck. ‘You ever come across Patey, Corp?’
Corporal Harkaway didn’t appear to hear. He was a tall good-looking man with well-cut features, pale amber eyes and red hair, and at that moment his mind seemed to be on something beyond the ken of his companions. Tully looked at Gooch and shrugged.
‘Go on about Dillon,’ Gooch said. ‘It isn’t everybody gets to see a man stripped in front of the whole battalion.’
Tully obliged willingly enough. ‘They forgot to work on his stripes beforehand so they’d come off easy, and Fiddleface’s knife wasn’t very sharp. Dillon lent him his. He even helped pull ‘em off. He was always polite. He’d still have been serving his sentence but for the war. They sent him out here. I expect they thought that with ten armoured cars, eight old tanks and about four thousand fellers to look after the place, British Somaliland needed every man. Especially Dillon. He knew more about soldiering than everybody else put together, Fiddleface included. They gave him back his stripes and when the Italians came into the war they made him sergeant.’
‘Somaliland’s different from England,’ Gooch agreed.
‘A good job, too. One of these days I hope to go home and I hope to Christ it won’t be the same as this bloody place.’
There was something in what Tully said. They were travelling across a hot hazy land towards the hills. Small scarlike dongas, or gullies, seamed the scorched thirsty plain which seemed to stretch ahead of them to infinity, incredibly empty, the light brown sand glistening with mica, even the few thorn bushes, grey and brittle with their skeletal branches, seeming to have only a precarious hold on life. There was no green anywhere, not a leaf or a blade of grass, the termite mounds rising like grotesque towers from the wind-flattened, bone-white earth.
As they rattled on, they passed a solitary herdsman by a waterhole with a few goats and hairy fat-tailed sheep and a line of faltering camels, their humps shrivelled and flabby on their bony backs. Over the waterhole, vultures swung in the sky, and nearby were the graves of people who had died trying to reach it, grey acacia branches and brushwood piled on top to protect the bodies from hyenas. Despite the speed at which it was travelling, in the heat of the sun the back of the lorry was stifling.
‘It’ll be worse now the Eyeties have come into the war,’ Gooch said.
Tully nodded. British Somaliland had always been a lost little colony on the shores of the Red Sea. There had never been much contact with the outside world and now, with Hitler rampaging across Europe and France knocked out of the war, it was virtually cut off.
Gooch put his head out, squinting at the empty plain. Vast stretches of it were soft red sand too hot to walk across, others consisted of rough lava boulders which no truck could travel over without rattling itself to pieces. Small dust devils danced among the anthills and, apart from the single macadam strip they were on, the roads were merely motorable camel tracks, traditional paths trodden by Somali or Arab traders, the only arteries of commerce in the whole country away from the highway or the sea coast. It was a land fit only for nomads and fearsome for mechanized transport, and even the best of travellers were brought down by the heat, the dust, diseases such as dysentery and malaria, or stomach disorders caused by the heavily mineralized water.
Gooch seemed to be still preoccupied with the thought of the Italians. ‘Think they’ll come here?’ he asked.
‘The buggers are on the border already,’ Tully pointed out. ‘I’ve heard there are a few Germans with ‘em, too. Liaison officers. To stir ‘em up.’
‘If they’d been coming,’ Gooch said, ‘wouldn’t they have come in June? After they declared war? Or else when they got French Somaliland in the armistice terms?’
Harkaway smiled and spoke for the first time. ‘They’re coming all right,’ he said. ‘Why do you think they’re bombing Berbera?’
‘In answer to
raids, p’raps,’ Gooch said. ‘We’ve been laying ‘em on all over the shop: Diredawa, Gura, Macaca, Asmara, Assab, Kismayu. Besides, it’s August now and the South Africans aren’t going to sit back and do nothing. That bastard up front who’s driving’s wondering if he ought to go home and join up. Grobelaar.’ He listened to the sound. ‘Who’d have a name like that?’
‘He would,’ Harkaway said. He seemed to have progressed from his brooding mood to an aggressive one. ‘He’s from the Orange Free State.’
‘They’re Dutch there, aren’t they?’
doesn’t seem to think so. He says they’re South African.’
Gooch thought for a moment. ‘What’s he doing driving a British army truck, anyway?’
‘He’s a Public Works Department foreman and runs the garage in Berbera for the official cars and, because everybody’s getting ready for the Italians whom you say aren’t coming, there was nobody else who knew the way. Only Grobelaar, Willie up front and one or two others. Sergeant Conyers, who was there last time, went with everybody else to the Tug Argan to stop the Eyeries.’
‘Grobelaar’s a civvy.’ It seemed to worry Gooch. ‘With a glass eye,’ he added.
Harkaway gave him a cold look. ‘If the Italians come,’ he said, ‘there won’t be any such thing as a civilian. Not even Grobelaar.’
There was a long pause, because what Harkaway said was true. There were so few Europeans in British Somaliland they’d all be in it.
‘Italians,’ Gooch announced with ponderous wisdom, ‘are treacherous bastards. What did Willie think of it?’
Willie - Lieutenant William Watson - riding in the cab with Grobelaar, the driver, his eyes everywhere, knew a little more than the three in the back and was well aware that the moment of crisis had already arrived. If Mussolini decided to launch an onslaught south from Abyssinia, there wasn’t much to stop it. The British East African countries had nothing, and the South African Air Force planes were largely old passenger transports - and German ones at that! The Brigade Intelligence Officer, in fact, had bet him the Italians would invade before August and when August had come had offered double or quits for another week, but wouldn’t go beyond that.
Restlessly, Gooch stuck his head out of the vehicle again. Not far away a range of razor-sharp hills rose in ridges, first blue, then purple, then misty grey. Up there in a cave was a hidden dump the British had set up against the possibility of invasion and when Lieutenant Watson had been given the job of destroying it he had picked Harkaway, Gooch and Tully because they were all specialists - Gooch an armourer, Tully a radio operator and Harkaway an engineer. Between them, they would make sure the job was done properly. There had to be no mistake because the Royal Navy had already prepared plans for an evacuation.
Gooch was scowling. ‘Why did they put the bloody dump so far out, anyway?’ he asked. ‘It’s right on the border.’
‘I expect the idea was to stop them before they left Abyssinia,’ Harkaway said. ‘But that was when we had French Somaliland with us. When French Somaliland was ceded to the Italians, a lot of people changed their minds.’
Tully looked at Gooch. Harkaway always seemed to know the answer to any military problem. They assumed it was because he had a friend in the officers’ mess - his educated accent seemed to suggest he might have - but in fact there was more to it than that.
‘We’ll be lucky to find it,’ Gooch grumbled.
‘I know where it is,’ Tully said. ‘I went once. You turn off into the hills when you get to Eil Dif. You ever been to Eil Dif? Used to be a trading station or something. Usual wog town with a few bigger houses where Europeans used to live. Willie said they were built by the slavers and abandoned when the ivory and ostrich feather trade fell off. The local wogs won’t live in ‘em. They say they’re haunted by djinns. There’s a camel track goes up into the hills. The Habr Odessi used it to hide their animals when the Hararis came raiding.’