The British East-Africa Campaign 1940-41

A historic operation, analysed by means of modern operational conceptions

Gregor Scheucher

The British East-Africa Campaign appears to have been a mostly unnoticed military operation, whereas the battles between Montgomery and Rommel in Egypt and Libya represented the much better-known theatres of war on the African continent. At the same time, one tends to miss the role the operation in East Africa played for the continuation of the war of Great Britain against Italy in North Africa. It gave Great Britain the first victory in the Second World War. The Axis Powers liberated Ethiopia as the first country from the occupation, and the campaign made a continuation of the operation in North Africa possible. Italy considered East Africa to be the region, which rendered the chance of a quick victory over the distinctly outnumbered British troops in British Somaliland possible. The Italian dictator Mussolini pursued the target of establishing a line of communication between North and East Africa. Great Britain, on the other hand, in June 1940 in the defensive practically in all war theatres, was able to convert the operation in East Africa into a victory. This turned out to be of essential relevance for the North African theatre of war, because as a consequence the Red Sea could be used by the US mercantile marine. Due to this, a decisive step for the endurance of the British in North Africa was made. This essay aims at presenting in detail the strategic and operational objective targets of the United Kingdom on the Horn of Africa, thus outclassing a mere historical paper about the incidents there. The thesis is presented that Great Britain was able to change her operational objectives, and thus could segue from originally defensive operational objectives into offensive ones, and the decisive factors for this are identified. For this purpose, modern operational tools of the NATO Comprehensive Operational Planning Directive (COPD) are selected and superimposed to the incidents of that time. Concretely, the essay uses elements of operational design, lines of operation (LoO) and operational objectives (OpObj). For a better contextualisation, the operational objectives are defined according to modern diction, and the influences concerning the change of the operational objectives are presented in detail. Ideally, the operational forces deployment depends on the objectives and the operation plan concerning the achievement of objectives. For this purpose, a balance of objectives and resources appears necessary. If there is an unbalance, a change of the remaining factors is required, either an increase of resources, or a reduction of the objectives. In the case of the operation in East Africa, it was possible to refine the objectives and the resources in a coordinated way. The tactical successes were fed by inadequate Italian reconnaissance results, the defensive attitude of the Italian troops, and the superiority of the British reconnaissance. Here the influence of tactics on the operation becomes visible. The objectives, which had been limited in the first place, could be achieved, and influenced the operational management level when readjusting the following objectives. Finally, the reader is to be animated to reflect on to what extent modern operations (e.g. the military engagement against the Taliban in Afghanistan) take account of volatility by changing resources and/or by reducing ambitious strategic and operational objectives.