1st Essex - a battalion in disgrace ?

Discussion in 'British Army Units - Others' started by Owen, Jul 15, 2010.

  1. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    I've just read this in Colin Smith's England's Last War With France on page 174. Regarding the 1st Bn Essex Regt when the author is discribing the make up of Habforce, off to relieve Habbaniya in Iraq.

    ..and 200 riflemen of the 1st Essex, a battalion in disgrace ever since their baptism of fire on the Sudanese-Eritrean border six months before when they bolted under Italian bombing.

    Has anyone more info on that action where they "bolted" ?
    Where they seen by the rest of the Army as being in disgrace?
    Would like to know more, cheers.
  2. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    Slim's first experience of leadership in combat, commanding 10th Indian Brigade against the Italians on the Sudan-Ethiopian border in November 1940 might well have been his last. His task was to recapture the fort of Gallabat just inside Sudan, followed by the strongly held nearby fortress of Metemma across the frontier. Gallabat was quickly taken but at high cost. Nine of Slim's 12 tanks were knocked out by mines or boulders and their crews were then shot up by his Garwhali troops who mistook them for Italians. With his own slender air cover destroyed, Italian bombers and fighters pounded Slim's troops inside the fort, and the Essex regiment, recently inserted into his brigade under protest, panicked and fled. This was a cause of lasting bitterness on the part of Essex regimental officers toward Slim, whom they accused of poor planning, and helps to account for General Noel Irwin's unsuccessful attempt to get Slim removed from his corps command in Burma in 1943.
    And from Ball of Fire:

    For Brigadier Slim this was a testing experience. He had planned and executed a successful attack on Gallabat. The fort had been recaptured. And now within his grasp was the chance of commanding the first attack of the war on to Italian soil. But Slim realized the grave difficulties. Success was in the balance. With imperturbable confidence he took the decision to call off any further attack beyond the khor.

    Instead, Ten Brigade was to consolidate its positions round Gallabat.
    But our casualties were mounting. Their evacuation was slow and difficult. By nine o'clock it was evident that if the Italian Air Force continued to hold supremacy, Gallabat would become untenable. Our tanks were still not repaired: an L.A.D. lorry had been bombed, three fitters wounded, and most of the spare parts and tools lost. For the infantry alone, with neither tank nor air support, to attack the double-apron wire that encircled Metemma was out of the question. Further, the battalions had suffered too severely from the bombings to make the difficult flank attack against the enemy outside the wire on the hill-slopes.

    At half-past three that afternoon some elements of the 1st Essex withdrew in some disorder from their positions in and about Gallabat fort. So hard and rocky was the ground that even the defence-minded Italians had failed to dig trenches. And when the Italian bombers delivered their most concentrated attack of the day, the troops were still not properly consolidated, and were unsheltered and defenceless against aerial attack. In the midst of this unnerving ordeal an ammunition lorry was set on fire by burning grass, and the noise was thought to be an enemy counter-attack from the rear. One platoon deliberately advanced with bayonets fixed towards the he sound of popping bullets to deal with the situation. Other troops mistook this move for a general retirement, and some confusion ensued.
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  3. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    Cheers, chap.
    Does anyone have the regimental history?
  4. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    Less than two months after that 1st Essex was replaced and sent to Palestine.

    Early in the new year the 2nd Highland Light Infantry (Lieutenant- Colonel B. C. Fletcher, M.C.) were ordered to move by night. This battalion had joined Ten Brigade at Christmas time, after four months in Port Said, to replace the 1st Essex, who were transferred to Palestine after Gallabat.
  5. idler

    idler GeneralList

    Had a quick read through the History's account last night. It doesn't use words like 'panic' and 'bolted', but neither is it a list of excuses and blame.

    Considerable mention is made about the quality of training in Palestine after Gallabat under a new CO. Reading between the lines, the battalion came from garrison duty in the Sudan where it had been split into two, at least, so no bn-level training had been possible. I wonder if the 'under protest' was simply concern over the training state of the bn; nothing controversial like not wanting to serve in an Indian brigade. Backing up this suspicion is the fact that the CO did not go with the bn (cf 6 DWR in Normandy). At Gallabat, the bn was commanded by a major (2i/c?) who reported sick shortly after the battle.

    The battle itself was planned as a two-phase attack. Phase 1 would have the air and arty bombardment, then the tanks leading the Garwhalis through the obstacle belt to Gallabat. Phase Two was to have seen the same process repeated on Metemma with 1 Essex as the infantry element.

    1 Essex moved up to Gallabat for Phase Two (they weren't meant to consolidate on the feature) but the attack was delayed because most of the tanks were out of action. The SAAF Gladiators also presented themselves to the Italians in dribs and drabs to be picked off; doubly unnerving as they knew the pilots who had been guests of the Bn. Then the Italians started bombing a rather small target with two infantry battalions stacked in it.

    Presumably, 1 Essex's issue with Slim was to be kept hanging around in an exposed position while the decision was made either to continue with or abort Phase Two.
  6. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    I wonder if the 'under protest' was simply concern over the training state of the bn; nothing controversial like not wanting to serve in an Indian brigade.

    It was Slim who protested, I didn't find any reference about some protest from officers from 1st Essex.

    Slim had to start on the wrong foot. Platt held back one brigade of his division down at Port Sudan and to make up divisional strength on the frontier from the rest - 9 and 19 Brigades - he gave Major-General Heath, the divisional commander, the three British battalions which had previously been showing the flag in the Sudan. Heat, following standard practice, replaced an Indian with a British battalion in 9 and 10 Brigades, completing his divisional order of battle with a third brigade composed of the spare British and two displaced Indian units. Slim thus lost his Punjabis, whom he had trained and trusted, for a battalion of the Essex Regiment. He protested vigorously against this disruption of his well-knit teem, but he was over-ruled. He felt anxious and angry. Not surprisingly, because his directive was of the type so much easier to issue than to implement; while he was to attack, at the same time his over-riding duty was to prevent any Italian advance via Gallabat into the Sudan.
  7. idler

    idler GeneralList

    Sound like a bit of a lash-up.

    Having got back into it, there are consistent references to the need for surprise when attacking Gallabat; surprise which would have been absent for the second phase of the attack on Metemma.

    I can add a bit more detail on the tanks, though it doesn't shed any light on the Essex. From The Tanks Vol 2:
    B Squadron 6 R.T.R., under Major J. G. Stephens, was sent from Mersa Matruh to the Sudan in mid-September 1940, to co-operate in the attack on the Italian fort at Gallabat. The attack took place on October 17. Of the three light and five cruiser tanks used in support of the Indian infantry, four went right through the fort, whilst one tank went on each flank to close in on the rear, firing and inflicting casualties as they went. The two remaining tanks were used to help the infantry onto the second objective beyond. The fort fell at the first rush. All except two of the tanks were eventually put out of action, through breaking their tracks on the boulder-strewn ground cut up by hidden ditches. Under heavyground and air attack the crews repaired them, and all tanks got back to their jungle harbour before dawn.

    Aside from the detail that Gallabat was an Italian-occupied British fort, it's interesting that there is no mention of mines. Was the 'second objective' Gallabat village, east of the fort, or the khor, rather than Metemma itself? The date seems a bit out, though, the battle was 6 November.

    Wavell's London Gazette Despatch covers the battle from p6, para 36 onwards. Edit: the Essex and Garwhals were on the hill for the best part of two days - taking it early on the 6th, withdrawing on the evening of the 7th. Having read the Essex history a little more thoroughly, they rated Gallabat as nastier than Tobruk and Burma!
  8. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    Continue from the post #6:

    Nevertheless, by 6 November his plan and preparations were complete. Gallabat itself consisted of a mud and stone fort surrounded by strong perimeter defences, and standing above a deep rift, in fact a dry stream bed, which formed the frontier between the Sudan and Ethiopia. Beyond this Khor stood the larger and more powerfully protected post of Metemma. The two areas had been organized for mutual protection, and while the Italian and African troops available were about equal in number to Slim's, they hat the immense advantage of barbed wire, thorn zaribas, field-works and solid buildings. Their air superiority was overwhelming and they had substantial reserves close at hand. For his part Slim had better artillery and the six light and six cruiser tanks of 6 Royal Tank Regiment. Deployment of the guns and route-reconnaissance for the armour had been carried out undetected.

    The obvious answers to the technical problem presented by the Gallabat-Metemma complex were surprise and shock. Slim achieved both. At dawn six ancient Wellesley bombers - all he had on call - accurately plastered Gallabat, his field regiment put down concrentrations and the tanks rolled from their hiding-places. The Garhwalis went through the wire and over the walls, and Gallabat fell without much resistance. Slim moved up to the fort to set in motion the second phase of his plan - the capture of Metemma - but now ill luck compounded with the inexcusable to produce anticlimax. In spite of route-reconnaissance, nine of twelve tanks were immobilized with tracks damaged by mines and boulders invisible in the long grass. To conceal their reconnaissance, the Tank Corps men had substituted tropical helmets for their black berets; on going into action they naturally wore berets, and some, mistaken by the Indians for Italians, had been fired on and even killed, including their sergeant-major. The nine Gladiators fighters, Slim's frail air cover, were not supposed to operate except in their greatest strength - never in once or twos; inexplicably, orders were ignored and they were eliminated piecemeal by an Italian air force superior in numbers and performance.

    The sky was thus free for the Capronis. By mischance, a heavy raid on Gallabat secured a direct hit on the lorry carrying the only tank spares, which effectively destroyed Slim's hope of keeping up the momentum of his attack on Metemma by directing his repaired tanks on probably demoralized Italians. Nor was it the Italians whose morale cracked. After the bombing, the Essex battalion broke and cascaded to the rear, Slim himself having to take part in checking the fugitives - and this was the battalion he had meant to send in against Metemma.
  9. idler

    idler GeneralList

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  10. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    Thanks chaps, a most excellent thread.

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