It was the unlikeliest of turning points. A forgotten defeat of 1940 that involved friendly fire, mutiny and a commander’s failure to follow his intuition helped to forge one of Britain’s finest generals.
The two-day battle at Gallabat, on the Sudan-Ethiopia frontier, has been viewed, if at all, as an ignominious footnote. Yet a military historian argues that hard lessons learned there by the future Field Marshal Viscount William Slim paved the way for his extraordinary successes in India and Burma only a few years later.
In his paper, Professor Andrew Stewart argues that, despite a cascading sequence of disasters, Slim came close to achieving a “tremendous” breakthrough and it was only his failure to act decisively that prevented him from turning things around. He said: “People have heard of Bill Slim. But do they know where his career began? I would say at Gallabat, because he experienced this defeat, he learnt a lot and made important changes to his approach.”
The mud and stone hilltop border fort of Gallabat in British-administered Sudan was captured by troops from Italian Ethiopia in June 1940, shortly after Italy’s declaration of war. The operation to recover the outpost in November that year was intended to open the way for the capture of Metemma, a strategic gateway position on the Ethiopian side, ahead of a major offensive in the coming months.
The audacious combined arms plan was devised by Slim, a 49-year-old brigadier and First World War veteran who had been a major only two years previously. The battle pitched Slim’s force of around 4,000 Indian, Sudanese and British soldiers against a similar number of Ethiopian and Italian troops under Lieutenant-Colonel Alessandro Castagnola. The British objective was protected by barbed wire entanglements and slopes cleared of scrub for hundreds of yards to provide a clear field of fire for the Blackshirt machine-gunners.
The assault began shortly before dawn on November 6, when aeroplanes of the Royal Air Force attacked Gallabat and the Italians’ potential reinforcement routes. The bombing was followed by a heavy artillery barrage. Nine light and cruiser tanks then smashed through the Italian wire, closely followed by Indian Army soldiers of the Royal Garhwal Rifles who occupied the fort.
Having made the most of skilled reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering sections, Slim had moved his various forces into place with stealth and achieved total surprise. He had brought in artillery that was superior to Castagnola’s. What is more, the Italian commandant had no tanks and never expected to be confronted by British armour. As Stewart writes in his paper in in the International Journal of History and Historiography: “While just one Italian officer and six or seven other ranks were captured, it was estimated the enemy dead and wounded numbered around 600, evidence of the devastating effect of the initial air and artillery bombardments.”
Things were not going to plan, however. The nine tanks that began the assault were the remnant of an original force of 15. Six vehicles had been disabled during the 65-mile advance from the railhead — some as a result of the difficult terrain and Italian mines, but also due to a defect in the tracks caused by the heat, with temperatures reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.
Compounding that, on more than one occasion the Garhwalis mistook the black berets of the Royal Tank Regiment for Italian headgear and opened fire on dismounted crews, injuring several and killing a squadron sergeant major.
By the end of the first day’s fighting, only two light tanks remained operational. With his “secret weapon” neutralised, Slim’s initial advantage was greatly reduced.
Making matters worse, an Italian wireless set had survived the opening attacks, allowing Castagnola to request help from the city of Gondar, 150 miles to the east. The Italians there promptly sent seven aircraft to bomb the British forces in successive waves. Slim’s soldiers were sitting ducks and the solid rock of the exposed hilltop exacerbated the effects of the anti-personnel bombs. In his 1959 memoir, Unofficial History, Slim recalled: “The whole of Gallabat hill spouted with great gouts of smoke and flame.”
To Slim’s fury — and against the appeals of the British air liaison officer on the ground — the senior RAF commander, Air Commodore Leonard Slatter, disregarded a previously agreed plan to send all available fighter planes to combat any Italian air attacks. Instead, the available Gloster Gladiator biplanes were sent in “driblets” and picked off by the Italians’ superior Fiat CR.42 Falcos with relative ease.
As if the situation wasn’t gloomy enough, the British force’s medical unit had lost its way during the march to Gallabat and there was no first aid post. Terrified by the bombing and the sight of wounded comrades lying unattended, inexperienced soldiers of the Essex Regiment’s 1st Battalion broke and started to flee in disarray after an ammunition truck was hit and exploded. Slim, commanding from a forward position, turned some of them back himself and urged Indian soldiers around him to attempt to halt the Essex stampede. He later recalled: “I had seen panic before and I recognised it.”
Through the night and during the following day, further waves of Italian heavy bombers pounded the fort until, finally, Slim made the decision to withdraw. He had considered sending some of his Indian and Sudanese troops to occupy the Jebel Mariam Waha ridge 1,000 yards to the east of Gallabat fort at dawn. This flanking move would have threatened the Italians’ rear and exposed Metemma to possible attacks from two sides.
Slim later remembered thinking: “Could I play on that, gamble on it? Even if I could not fight him out of Metemma, could I not frighten him out?”
His senior officers didn’t think so. In a battlefield conference, they argued that it would be too great a gamble and might — by splitting their forces — make the whole area vulnerable to an Italian breakthrough into Sudan. Slim accepted the consensus and, following the withdrawal, the Italians committed more troops to the area.
It was, on the face of it, a fiasco. As the official British History of the Second World War, has it: “The hard fact remains that the operation at Gallabat, carried out early in November, failed of its object.”
Yet, in spite of all the glaring failures, the Battle of Gallabat was portrayed in the British press as a plucky defeat of a much larger Italian force, followed by an orderly tactical withdrawal. As The Sphere reported on December 28: “The Italians were under the impression that the British had no guns or mechanised units south of Khartoum. They were undeceived when Gallabat was retaken, with a very useful display of tanks and artillery.”
On the British side, there were 167 casualties. However, the Italians lost an entire battalion and two others were rendered useless. None of the Essex Regiment troops who fled the battlefield received serious punishment and their “loss of nerve” was blamed on poor training and inadequate officers.
News of the attack contributed greatly to the morale of British-backed Ethiopian insurgents loyal to the ousted emperor Haile Selassie. And, most significantly, the attack helped to concentrate Italian forces away from the sites of the British offensive of January 1941 that punched successfully into Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.
In Stewart’s analysis, Gallabat might even have proved a victory in its own right if Slim had followed his battlefield contingency plan. Days after the withdrawal it was discovered, from intercepted signals, that the garrison at Metemma had been on the point of collapse. A threat from the ridge would likely have resulted in their abandoning the position, which was the access point to a good road running deep into Italian territory.
Stewart, who is based at the Royal Danish Defence College, said: “There are military commanders who were considered to be not particularly mindful of the human cost of their activities. And there are others who are the opposite. Slim definitely fell into that category. But, unfortunately, war is a horrible, violent business. And if you want to win battles, you sometimes have to do awful things. Slim was the brigadier. He had to make the decision and use his intuition and he felt he could win that battle. He was talked down from doing it by what I imagine were very reasoned and logical arguments. But sometimes that’s what determines great commanders — not that they take risk, but they can see an opportunity to win.
“His contingency plan at Gallabat was a hasty one, but it very nearly accomplished tremendous things. Who knows? He could have broken through the Italian line and been on the road, heading towards the Red Sea. It might have been a very different outcome.”
Writing nearly 20 years after the event, Slim reflected: “Like so many generals whose plans have gone wrong, I could find plenty of excuses for failure, but only one reason — myself. When two courses of action were open to me I had not chosen, as a good commander should, the bolder. I had taken counsel of my fears.”
Slim is best remembered for his command of Fourteenth Army — comprising Indian, Gurkha, British and African soldiers — in Burma and India, when he combined conspicuous care for his men’s wellbeing with a willingness to act boldly and decisively. This boldness was evident when he allowed the Japanese to cross into India and overstretch their supply lines ahead of the crucial victories at Imphal and Kohima in 1944. His strategy during his subsequent advance through Burma famously relied on top-notch logistics and ground-air coordination. The lessons of Gallabat had undoubtedly been learned.
Stewart said: “Slim was just the man for a crisis. He had seen one first-hand as a brigadier at Gallabat. In Burma he proved quiet, steady and unflappable. He took command of a position that looked lost but was able to regenerate his force and eventually move forward. You have to be able to apply a formative experience and that is the genius of what he did — he was able to take what he learned and expand on it.”
The photograph at the top of the article shows Sudanese soldiers training for operations against Italian forces in the winter of 1940. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy