- - Wednesday, January 4, 2017



By Andrew Stewart

Yale University Press, $38, 328 pages, illustrated

It says a great deal for the British fighting spirit during World War II that they were able to maintain it through years which, for the most part, brought only one disaster after another. Occasionally, one of these, like the withdrawal from Dunkirk in May 1940 salvaging part of the British Expeditionary Force, which otherwise would have fallen into German hands, could be cast in a positive light. Although Winston Churchill was quick to point out that wars were not won by retreats. So the triumphant liberation of Mussolini’s grandiloquently named Italian East African Empire almost exactly a year later must have been an occasion for great satisfaction in government and strategic circles and a real shot in the arm for morale among ordinary soldiers and civilians alike.

Andrew Stewart, who teaches at King’s College London and is the author of four previous books on World War II, tells the complicated story of how this much-needed victory was achieved, giving due attention to the political crosscurrents as well as the military strategy behind this remarkable event. A two-pronged attack from British-controlled Sudan to the north and the Crown Colony of Kenya to the south expeditiously drove Italian forces not just from Ethiopia — which Mussolini had brutally occupied in the face of the world’s indignation but inaction in the mid-1930s — but from their long-held territories of Eritrea and Somalia. Restoring Emperor Haile Selassie to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in the spring of 1941 had enormous symbolic significance, but the long Red Sea and Indian Ocean coastlines of the other two former Italian possessions were of even greater strategic value.

This left just Libya from Italy’s African empire and one of the minor but nonetheless intriguing aspects of “The First Victory” is that the early conflict it chronicles was in many ways a dress rehearsal for the much more hard-fought campaign in North Africa’s Western Desert. Many of the chief players, from Field Marshall Wavell at the top to the British and Commonwealth troops who fought so gallantly, went straight from one to the other.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this forgotten corner of the war is that although the British were in command, the military effort was a truly imperial and Commonwealth effort:

“In East Africa an exotic and potent range of forces were demonstrating the power available to an empire still trying to come to terms with the defeats of the summer of 1940 . ‘Platt’s force [from the north] consisted of two Indian divisions Cunningham’s force [from the south] was even more multinational, with South Africans, regiments from Kenya and British Somaliland, Indians, Ugandans and Ethiopian irregulars who fought alongside Rhodesians, Nigerians, Gold Coasters, Belgians, French and even a handful of Australian sailors.’ “

Unlike in so many future campaigns, when Germany would ride to its rescue, this time Italy had to fight against this formidable coalition on its own.

What becomes absolutely clear from Mr. Stewart’s clear exposition based on exhaustive research and informed judgment is the vital part played by South Africa in this theater of the war. Not only did its brigades advance deep into all three of Italy’s East African possessions, but they fought bravely and victoriously with remarkably few casualties among their own ranks while devastating enemy forces.

This vigorous effort was all the more remarkable because of a sharply divided population back home, with considerable political opposition to entry into the war, let alone active participation. Mr. Stewart leaves us in no doubt of the crucial role played by its prime minister, Gen. Jan Smuts, in making this possible through a combination of adroit domestic maneuvering and use of the considerable influence he enjoyed over the all-important Winston Churchill, who valued him perhaps more highly than any of his other advisers.

At the conclusion of his book, Mr. Stewart quotes another military historian as arguing “that, when compared to the outcome in the Western Desert, the successful campaign in East Africa ‘was no less sensational in its results and more lasting in its consequences.’ ” “The First Victory” does a fine job of confirming that judgment and goes on to explain its undeserved obscurity:

“It has remained largely forgotten, superseded by later victories that gained much more fame in British memory. The fact that the entry into Addis Ababa took place on the same day as the beginning of the German attacks that would ultimately lead to the disaster in Greece and Crete provides a clue as to why this might have been the case. It also helps to explain why the heroics of the British and Commonwealth forces that fought and won so decisively in East Africa remain largely overlooked in the vast narrative of the Second World War.”

Mr. Stewart’s achievement in his excellent contribution to World War II historiography is to have redressed that imbalance by giving this remarkable episode some long overdue attention.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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