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NOTES ON THE WAR, Evening Post, Volume CXL, Issue 21, 25 July 1945
NOTES ON THE WAR
EPISODE IN ERITREA
When in 1941 the Allied position in the Mediterranean became serious and transport had to be re-routed round the Cape, and when, towards the end of the year, the strengthening of the Axis forces in North Africa appeared to threaten the British base in Egypt— a threat that became very real in the summer of 1942—the need for a new, alternative African arsenal for the Allies was obvious. How this arsenal was created is a little-known episode in the story of Eritrea, told in "The First to be Freed." The entry of Japan into the World War by the action at Pearl Harbour, December 7-8, 1941, doubled the importance of the Middle East as the Allied base protecting not only the adjacent territories, but also covering the shortest route for Britain to India, and •thus to the Far East, to meet the threat of Japan to the Indian Ocean. The possibilities of Eritrea, stretching 500 miles down the western coast of the Red Sea, practically to its southern entrance in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, were quickly recognised by the Allied High Command. The Italians, says the author of "The First to be Freed," the late K. C. Gandar Dower, had "militarised the territory ... with efficiency, imagination, and disregard for expense. The capital, Asmara, lay on the main air route from West Africa, by way of Khartoum and Aden, to the East. Secondly, Massawa was capable of considerable expansion as a port. Thirdly, had Egypt fallen, Eritrea was the nearest place to the south at all suitable as a base." An American Job. What happened then was that Massawa was adapted to her part in Red Sea and Indian Ocean strategy at a time when the Germans were threatening Alexandria and the Japanese were striking at Ceylon. As Britain was all out at the time, in the darkest period of the war since Dunkirk and the 1940-41 air blitz on her cities, the task of creating an African arsenal fell to the Americans, and a great job they did. They took over at Asmara the running of the works the Italians had left-and expanded them into what became known as the Asmara Arsenal. Here tyres were reconditioned and retreaded, quantities of accumulator plates made, spare parts of every kind manufactured, including thousands and thousands of pistons, and1 lorries were reconditioned on an American scale. "In short," says Gandar Dower, "thirdline maintenance was undertaken for Eritrea, the Sudan, and for part of the Middle East. 'American projects,' as they were called, gave employment to thousands of Italians." ' ~ "J.D. and P." and Douglas. Bu\ it was the activities of " two American civilian firms that were specially notable. These were Johnson, Drake, and Piper ("J.D. and P." for short), contractors, and Douglas Aircraft. "The main activities of 'J.D. and P.' were in Massawa, in Ghinda, and at the airport of Gura. Of the many ships that had been scuttled, with varying degrees of efficiency, in Massawa Harbour, a number had been salvaged by the British, but others had remained beneath the water. At the beginning of 1942 'J.D: and P.' got to work upon these ships with expert divers and excellent equipment. They succeeded in raising a number of vessels, hitherto believed irretrievably lost. Their greatest triumph was the recovery of the dry dock, m each of the air compartments of which the Italians had blown a hole. Massawa's climate and sanitary conditions were below standard, and 'J.D. and P.' set to alter all that. They constructed refrigerators, improved machine shops, and air-conditioned the barracks. At Ghinda, the nearest point in the mountains, where the climate was cool enough for Europeans to live in reasonable comfort, tßey built' a transit camp for the army, which also served as a rest camp for Royal Navy personnel and civilian employees." An African "Little America." But it was at Gura that the most important work was dene in converting a large Italian airport, 6000 ft above sea-level, into the great American air base of the Middle East. "On this site," says Gandar Dower, "under lend-lease, Douglas Aircraft was to establish a complete supply and maintenance organisation. It was one of the tasks of M. D. and P.' to prepare for their arrival an African edition of Byrd's 'Little America'—a small city complete in every detail. 'J. D. and P.' therefore set to work, rebuilt about fifty of the old Italian barracks, and installed new plumbing features, including a new sewage system to dispose of a problem the Italians had contentedly ignored. Meanwhile, Douglas Aircraft was collecting technicians from all sections of the aircraft industry in the United, States, together with a small army of men versed in everything from handling X-ray machines to waiting at tables, from showing motion pictures to running a telephone switchboard, from operating a powerplant to making ice-cream sodas. Recruitment of personnel was complicated by the high physical, technical, and moral standards required of men who were to be transplanted into a strange piece of occupied enemy territory in the heart of Africa. It was not easy to procure supplies for such an undertaking." What Gura Did. ' Yet it was all done, and done quickly. Gura opened up and carried on. If special equipment did not arrive on time, the Douglas workers adapted and improvised or else invented what was wanted to get sorelyneeded planes in the air again. "When the need for an optical instrument arose, the Project's instrument shop, one of the largest and best-equipped in the world, designed and manufactured 90 per cent, of the parts required. Gun-sights, bomb-sights, and cameras presented no problems that could not be solved at Gura. Parachutes were repaired, dried, refolded, and packed in record time. Propellor blades were straightened on the spot. A special type of machine drawing, since widely adopted, the 'distorted perspective' drawing, was first invented at Gura. Military secrecy still covers much that was done at Gura when' the organisation was working at full blast." Farewell. "Today," concludes the author, "the American Projects are no more. U.S. Ordnance has vacated its arsenals, Johnson, Drake, and Piper have returned to the United States, and Doug-, las Aircraft's 'Little America' will soon be almost an empty city. The tide of war has rolled away from Egypt and from Africa, and the days when the United Nations needed a great base in Eritrea are happily now past."
NOTES ON THE WAR, Evening Post, Volume CXL, Issue 21, 25 July 1945
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