Friday 26 October 2012

The Horn

By Mitch Stirling

Like the horn of an old rhinoceros, the 'Horn' of Africa has been the focus of some very disturbing  news over the years.

In1936 Benito Mussolini's troops invaded the ancient Kingdom of Abyssinia in the Horn. Halie Selassie's instructions to his troop commander was tragically comical: "One should leave large open roads and wide meadows and march in valleys and trenches and by zigzag routes along places which have trees and woods. When an aeroplane comes to drop bombs it will not suit it to do so unless it comes down to 100 metres; hence when it flies low, one should fire a volley with a good and very long gun and then quickly disperse. When three or four bullets have hit, it is bound to fall down". Hopelessly naive and completely ignorant of the devastating power of aerial bombardment - death from the skies - 'His Imperial Majesty, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Elect of God', fled to England.

The Horn hit the headlines again in 1940 when Mussolini's jingoistic posturing from the Palazzo Venezia in Rome became a reality and the fascist 'Caesar reincarnate' made his next move by attacking British Somalia. Anticipating this aggression, No 1 Squadron of Southern Rhodesia Air Force had been moved up to the front line in 1939 for advanced training and acclimatization in Nairobi/Isiolo in support of Allied ground troops. By 22 April 1940 - the date 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron adopted its new name - it was skirmishing along the Kenya/Ethiopia border with an  Italian East Africa force of over 300 000 men and 200-300 aircraft. The aristocratic figure of Amadeo, Duke of Aosta, Viceroy of East Africa was Commander-in-Chief. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Amadeo was a powerful adversary with all the skills of modern tactical warfare at his finger tips and supported by a sophisticated infrastructure of roads and aerodromes and communications. His Regia Auronautica was formidable, with long arms of logistical support. The Italians in East Africa were confident, well-trained and very well-equipped. "Your highness", said one war correspondent when addressing him. "One hundred and ninety six centimetres", came the reply. He  had humour too...!

Ph-1, The Horn
Tail insignia on Regia Auronautica.

Ph-2, The Horn
Commander-in-Chief Amadeo.

Initial encounters along the border were 'hit-and-run' bombing excursions from Italian aircraft which degraded Rhodesian morale. Several Hawker Hardys of 237 Squadron were destroyed on the ground and there was an unfortunate fatal accident when two members of the squadron failed to return from a reconnaissance mission. It was soon clear that the Hawker Audax and Hardys flown by Rhodesians were no match for the Regia Aero with their Caproni and Savoia bombers (the Pipistrello 'bats' and Sparviero 'sparrowhawks') and Fiat CR32/42 fighters. They were out-gunned and out-manouevred. And it was not until the arrival of Gloster Gladiators and Westland Lysanders, striking from the Sudan, that the odds began to swing and Italian aggression waned. The Gladiators and Fiat CR42's were very similar in speed and manoeuvrability, but the Gladiators were radio equipped which made a huge difference in planning aerial combat. Even so, RAF Hurricanes were impressed after five of their Glad's were knocked down in the first hour of engagement.

Ph-3, The Horn

Hawker Hart of Southern Rhodesia Air Force. Most widely-used light bomber of its time. With Audax and Hardy variants.

Ph-4, The Horn
RAF's last British built bi-plane fighter: Bristol Gladiator.

Ph-5, The Horn
SM81 'Pipistrello' and CR42 'Falco's

By January 1941 there were only 67 Italian aircraft left in the sky over East Africa and by October 1941 it was all over. The last big battles took place in Italian Eritrea with the enemy on the back foot and the Allies pushing them hard into the Red Sea. Amadeo surrendered finally on 19 May at his 'impregnable' mountain fortress of Amba Alage. If not for the contamination of his water supply he would have held the fort to the bitter end. Full military honours were afforded him for his gallant resistance. He later died in a POW camp in Nairobi of tuberculosis and malaria. But victory took a heavy toll on the ranks of 'the lost squadron' - a little group of Rhodesians who fought in remote, unfriendly places. Some of them are memorialised on 'Rolls of Honour' in schools and churches around Zimbabwe and South Africa, along with other airmen killed at later stages of the War. Four pilots and five air gunners of 237(Rhodesia) Squadron were lost in eighteen hard months in East Africa. It was a particularly nasty corner of WW11 that is often overlooked in the history books, but it was crucial in defence of the Suez canal. Two DFC's were awarded, two DFM's and five Mentions.  

I am in awe of men who fought so hard for King and Country and in particular... those who paid the ultimate price. What a travesty that the same country today has chosen to turn its back on those individual acts of valour and national sacrifice... in favour of political appeasement. What an outrage that one Mengistu Halie Mariam, mass murderer from Ethiopia, lives in luxurious exile in Gun Hill, Harare!

Sergeant Ken Murrell of 237 Squadron won the DFM as an observer/gunner on a Hardy during the action in Eritrea. His pilot was Ron Christie.
Ken Murrell was Chief Pilot RUAC in 1975 when he won the Pat Judson Trophy. He was a wonderful man and an excellent flying instructor. His civilian career included time with the Department of Civil Aviation and DC3 operations with Hunting Clan. He also flew with Roy Smart at Lesbury Estate near Rusape, that well-known check point between Salisbury and Umtali that every  learner cross-country pilot knew so well. 

The Examiner 26 Feb 1941:
'Two young Rhodesian fliers received the highest honour as the crew of a reconnaissance plane who shot down an Italian bomber and then survived threat of death from a plane crash' Ian Pringle wrote:

Miles Johnson, like John Nettleton VC, went to Western Province Preparatory School (Wetpups). My son did a project at Wetpups on Johnson and came up with the following: 'Flying Officer Miles Johnson and his air gunner Sergeant JGP Burl were flying a reconnaissance mission in a Lysander aircraft near Scipitole in Central Eritrea when he spotted three Italian Caproni bombers. He did not see any escort fighters so he attacked the bombers. He shot one down but suddenly three Fiat CR42 fighter aircraft attacked Johnson’s plane, shooting away the controls, and Burl’s wrist, forcing Johnson to crash land. Despite his pain and loss of blood, Burl managed to drag the unconscious Johnson from the wreckage. Burl carried Johnson on his shoulders for two days before they reached British lines. Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and Burl received the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM)'. P.S. Miles Johnson took command of 208 Squadron in North Africa during 1942 and 1943. But he died in an air accident in Italy on 28 September 1944, when flying as a passenger in an aircraft that  had to ditch. Apparently drowned trying to save a passenger from the stricken plane.

Ph-6, The Horn
Vanguard in the Sky we salute you


Thanks to Mitch  for sharing this great article with ORAFs.

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At 28 October 2012 at 11:47 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Comment from Air Marshal (retired) Sir John Walker KCB CBE AFC. via Mitch Stirling (Air Rhod.)

Thank you for that. Very interesting. As you say, there were parts of the WW2 that tend to be forgotten.

Next time I am there, I shall see whether 237’s crest is hung in the RAF Club. I have an idea that I have seen it there. I shall let you know.


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