Skip to content

Extracts from the letters of Gerald Spence Smyth, Capt., 1st South African Irish Regt., Abyssinian campaign, 1941


I am given to understand that this is the 6th day of Feb. but for the life of me I don’t know what day of the week it is. Anyhow it doesn’t make any difference here. Excuse the dirt. A.A.¹ has just spilt some tea on my pad.

The journey from the forest² to these parts was long and trying but most interesting. The first day lava and then desert. My car buried its rear portion in the sand and while we were waiting for some assistance Cyril Cochran came up, had a good laugh and took a photo which I hope to be able to send you in due course. Camels, dried white bones, and mirages cause the most fantastically beautiful marine illusions. Sometimes the dunes were converted into rocky promontories with the sea below them – just like some of those places we photographed round Cape Point – a solitary goat in the distance looks like someone bathing.

Camped for the night in the sand dunes and moved north again before dawn. Camped again in a rocky dusty area near the frontier and rested for 36 hours. Then began the most remarkable journey of my life – the advance onto our first objective through many miles of dense bush and undulating lava hills. The armoured cars went ahead and made clearings in the thorn bush and the troop carriers followed. In the early afternoon we came on open ground and got into battle formation and soon after this the fun started and by 5 p.m. we had occupied the Italian position. I rushed round with my company on the left flank to head off the fugitives but they were too quick for us. It was an extraordinary advance and we got great praise for it. The Itos were taken by surprise and no wonder because no one would have ever dreamt of a motorised force advancing through such country.

The next day, Sunday, Jimmy’s crowd (a nephew of Gerald Fayle’s) did a stunt with my company in reserve, so we saw some more fun. The fort was occupied before dark and here we are on the qui vive and having a rest. I didn’t see Jimmy but he is O.K. His unit captured some weapons and stores . . . . . . . . For some days I had attached to me two Abyssinian rebels – i.e. whom the Italians haven’t yet captured or subdued. They told the same story, the desire for revenge has become fanatical. On one occasion while we were guarding some prisoners these two birds were all for cutting the throats etc of the wounded and had to be restrained. These rebels are very much on our side. They carry Italian rifles and plenty of ammunition. They are a mixture, I think, of Arab and negro and the former strain gives them a rather noble but desperately cruel look.

¹ Allan Arnott
² Marsabit


Tuesday(?) 11.2.41

The hiatus is due to a sudden move with little warning. Another long advance and another successful action.  “A” Company (Gerald’s¹) bumped it first and we had an anxious time for a while when we walked into something that looked innocent enough but was in fact a rather clever trap. But the Italians spoilt things for themselves by not withholding their fire long enough. It is fortunate that we were entering a fort at the time so we were able to take cover and give the other side something to go on with. When I say “we” I mean Micky Williamson with an armoured car, myself, and one platoon. We were cut off temporarily from the others. But thanks to somebody’s prayers and bad shooting on the part of the Italians you’ve nothing to worry about. Anyhow our “chance” was to come. Mickey and I spotted a lot of enemy troops crossing a ridge so we let them have it good and plenty. Yesterday I went up to the spot to have a look and they certainly left in a hurry taking their casualties with them. Allan came on their dressing station and saw the evidence. Where we opened fire on this particular formation the ground was littered with red fezes, clothing, food and ammunition. I have acquired a very nice Ito aluminium water carrier, double lined and holding about 2 gallons. It was originally a vacuum container but it became loosened and the air has got in between the linings. I have put a rubber washer on the opening and it’s grand.

The troops we are up against are Italian Somalis – not Abyssinians – with European officers. The p.c. I sent Gerald² gives a good idea. Please frame this for the boys. It was taken from a prisoner. The different Italian Colonial Infantry Regts. wear different coloured woollen waist bands like scarves. I have two, one black and white (17th Col. Inf) and one yellow (9th Col. Inf). If these ever arrive wash them (I haven’t enough water) and keep them for fun. The family group photo was discarded by some Italian Somali on the run. Just had a bit of a clean up. Had no wash or shave for four days, so I was pretty grubby . . . . . . . . There is no shortage of medals in the Ito army.

¹ Fayle’s, presumably (see first letter)
² Gerald Spence Smyth’s son, Gerald Fayle³ Preston Smyth
³ named after Gerald Fayle (see first letter, and fn. above)



. . . . . . . . We’ve all had a pretty gruelling time during the past week and at the moment we are taking things a bit quietly. There is the satisfaction at any rate of knowing that we have achieved a great measure of success in capturing an important Italian position.¹

¹ Mega fort


2nd letter 21.2.41

Just after my last letter written a week ago we had a busy and trying time. After leaving the place from which I last wrote we began an advance which culminated in a final successful attack. The hardships endured by all concerned from wind, cold and exposure were far greater I think than from enemy action. For three days and two nights we were soaked to the skin without shelter and in most cases without greatcoats or groundsheets in cold and almost continuous rain. How the men stuck it I don’t know but they deserve the highest praise for the way they carried on throughout this trial. The more experienced campaigners (chaps who were in the last war) say they haven’t seen anything like it. It’s a great tribute to the Regt. The Italians greeted us with shell fire at the beginning of the show. This went on most of the time as well as M.G. and small arms fire. We captured a large number of prisoners and guns etc. The prisoners who included some officers were anything but downcast: in fact they seemed decidedly cheery.

By this time you will have heard that Mickey¹ died of wounds. It is one of the saddest and greatest losses we could have had. He was terribly plucky up to the end.

. . . . . . . . We have acquired a fair amount of Ito food, e.g. spaghetti tinned tomato, cheese, flour, meal and a lot of tinned curried meat specially prepared for their Mahomedan troops. This morning for breakfast we had spaghetti cheese tomato and bacon. Very good too. One day all I had to eat was an army biscuit and a piece of biltong. It’s most nutritious and I always have a bit in my pocket.

Just had a most gratifying message from the C.O. to be read out of the Company thanking them for their great effort in the last show.

¹ The typescript here says: ‘(not the one of the armoured car).’ This seems an unlikely clarification for GSS to have made to his wife, who – the general tone would otherwise suggest – probably knew all these people, at least socially. Also it seems too casual, given the remarks that follow. My suspicion – as with a couple of other bracketed asides, is that my grandmother added these when typing, for the benefit of whichever secondary reader. There seems no reason to think the amendment is incorrect, though: the man’s name is spelled differently, after all (albeit the typescript, once again, is full of typing errors).



Now that the rain has ceased for nearly a week the climate here is delightful. Cold at night and warm and bracing in the day at about 7000ft. My attack of dysentery has completely passed off and I now feel grand. We get excellent bacon from Kenya and wonderful tinned tomatoes from sunny Italy.

¹ The typescript here says: ‘(so smeared from rain I could hardly read it, it came to-day)’. Either my grandmother’s typescript has these letters in the wrong order, or in the order that they arrived in South Africa (when was ‘to-day’?), or she has misread and/or introduced a typo and the date should actually be 2.3.41. The reference to tomatoes and the rain suggest the last one, as does the altitude.

Typescript endnote: ‘All these extracts have been passed by the military censors and most of the bits about the war have appeared.’

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *