Baptism by Fire of Indian AA Gunners

The first Indian AA Battery was raised in September 1940 but Indians had been serving as AA gunners as part of Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA) much before that. The HKSRA gunners served for most part at Hong Kong and Singapore; their two homes but the batteries of HKSRA served imperial interests in distant outposts as well from Aden to Papua New Guinea. 

On 1st  September 1939 when World War II broke out Aden had only the 9th Heavy Battery, RA with four 6in guns for coast defence and  for air defence a section of 8th AA Battery, RA was stationed at Aden. The Battery was located at Peshawar in N.W. India and was part of British Army in India. 

To strengthen the defences at Aden 5th Heavy Regiment was formed on 8th September 1939 from RA personnel available there. It had two batteries regimented with it –  9th Heavy Battery, RA that was already located at Aden and a new AA Battery that was formed at Aden with Indian gunners. The latter, 15th AA Battery, was a part of Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery and marked the beginning of HKSRA’s presence at Aden though a Battery of HKSRA had previously served in the Middle East during World War I.

HKSRA AA Crew training for operations during Gas attack at Singapore

Shortly afterwards 23 (Singapore) HAA Battery, HKSRA was formed at Singapore on 6 December 1939 and was regimented with the 1st HAA Regiment, HKSRA also at Singapore but the Battery did not stay at Singapore for long and left for Aden on 9 February 1940 to form part of 5th Heavy Regiment, RA. The Battery reached Aden on 28th February 1940.  On 30th March 1940 24th (SL) Battery, HKSRA was formed at Aden and was also regimented with 5thHeavy Regiment, RA. This was the only Searchlight Battery that formed part of HKSRA.

The Second World War has already six months old but with Germany engaged in the European theatre the threat to Aden was not much. The situation changed in June 1940 when Italy declared war on Britain and France, after the fall of the Vichy government. The threat from Italy now manifested itself as air and naval attacks against Aden but it was still not critical enough to warrant any further increase in artillery presence at Aden especially when there was a greater requirement of the same at Britain.

According to one source 5th Heavy Regiment, RA was reformed as an AA Regiment in June 1940 with the 9th Coast Battery, RA becoming an independent battery but this is not corroborated by other sources. 

One of the purported aims of Italy was to expand its presence in Africa and towards this aim it carried out operations in Africa from Egypt to Somaliland. The first campaign by Italy in Africa was from its East African colonies of Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland, and Eritrea in June 1940 with initial Italian attacks directed towards two divergent targets- Sudan and Kenya. As the Italian forces in Italian Somaliland could threaten the British Somaliland, the British military presence was built up, mainly from Aden and India.

The first blow in East Africa was however dealt by the RAF when at dawn on 11 June 1940, eight single-engined Wellesleys of 47 Squadron, RAF based in Sudan, took off to strike at Italian airfields at Asmara, Gura and Massawa. The Italians retaliated but with a solitary aircraft attacking Port Sudan and another carrying out a reconnaissance mission over the Red Sea. This was followed by a three ship mission against Aden but one turned back and one of the other two hit a hill near Massawa while coming into land. The following day seven S.81s of 29 Gruppo (Assab) attacked the port of Aden and Khormaksar airfield during daylight hours. 

The war had come to Aden and the batteries at Aden became the first of the HKSRA to see action in World War II, much before Japan entered the war more than a year later. The AA and searchlight Batteries were kept busy for the next two days as the Italians returned the following day with seven S.81s of 29 Gruppo (Assab) to attack the port of Aden and Khormaksar airfield during daylight hours. The S.81 was a three-engined Italian monoplane with fixed undercarriage and had such limited capabilities that it was used mostly at night. Though the AA defences did not shoot down any aircraft, the raid by the S.81s during the day expectedly did not achieve much.

The searchlights of 24th (Singapore) SL Battery, HKSRA was hard pressed during the night as ten Caproni Ca 133s returned to hit the same targets. The Ca 133s also a monoplane with three engines and could be used for bombing, troop carrying or cargo carrying but they too slow and too poorly armed to be of use against a well-equipped enemy. 

On 13th June four S.81s belonging to 4 Gruppo attacked Aden. They were intercepted by four Gladiators of 94 Squadron, RAF that shot down S.81. Two of the Italian aircrafts developed technical difficulties and were forced to carry out forced landings. The fourth S.81 was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Aden. It was flown by Colonnello Mario Pezzi and Capitano Parmeggiani and though it managed to land back safely at Assab, this marked the first success for the AA guns of HKSRA. Not only the HKSRA but this was actually the first hit achieved by  Indian AA gunners with the Indian AA Batteries yet to be raised.

The Italians returned just three hours later with nine Savoia S.79s this time around. The S.79 was a three-engined monoplane with a retractable undercarriage armed with five machine-guns two of which were  12.7 mm. It was considered to be the best aircraft deployed by either side in the region though its effectiveness as a bomber was somewhat affected by  the third engine in the nose. One of the S.79 s was hit by anti-aircraft fire from a British warship and crashed. A second, flown by Capitano Serafini was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The undercarriage of the aircraft dropped down and the port engine failed. Serafini  managed to  land at Assab but the  undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft was written off. One other damaged S.79 managed to land at Assab but it was not clear if the aircraft had been hit by anti-aircraft fire or by one of the RAF fighters.

On 17 June the Italians suffered another loss as one of the three S.81s attacking Aden was hit by anti-aircraft fire and had to land at Debra Sina. As the air operations were gathering steam, Italy launched the first ground action in East Africa on the Kenyan border as a sizeable force attempted to overrun the border town of El Wak. The RAF hoped to disrupt the Italian air operations in support of their ground forces and attacked the Italian air base but lost an aircraft to anti-aircraft fire instead. In the ongoing air operations, the Italian S.79s attacked Port Sudan while three S.81s bombed Aden and three more hit the British airfield at Zeila in British Somaliland. One of the S.81s of 29 Gruppo attacking Aden was hit by anti-aircraft fire and had to force land at Dancalia.

The opposition in French Somaliland collapsed in the last week of July. The completion of the ground operations against Kenya and French Somaliland freed large forces for Italy that could be use against newer territories and now the Italians turned their attention towards British Somaliland especially the capital and port of Berbera. 

Even though Britain did not have adequate forces to defend its territorial possession, it was of the view that it was preferable to defend the approaches to Berbera than to give a free pass to the Italians. To build up its forces for a credible denial  reinforcements were sent from Aden to British Somaliland by July end. These included a section of 23rd AA Battery, HKSRA with two 3in AA guns. The section was deployed for the defence of the port of Berbera. 

3in 20cwt AA Gun

The British had a presence of RAF in Somaliland and Italian Air Force had been active in the region but the paucity of anti-aircraft guns meant that none could be spared for their defence leaving them vulnerable to enemy air attacks as all they had was small-arms defence.

Berbera had been attacked earlier by the Italian Air Force on 14 June 1940 when three S.79s, operating out of Diredawa attacked Berbera. With no opposition ( there were no anti-aircraft guns at Berbera in June) the Italians went about their mission unopposed but did not cause much damage. The Italians returned on 17 June when a solitary S.81 bombed Berbera but it was damaged by ground fire forcing it to abort the raid. On 10 July three S.81s of 63 Squadriglia attacked Berbera airfield and again faced no opposition.

After a brief pause the air raids on Berbera resumed on 3rd August when their S.81s attacked at around 1400 hours. The Italians had crossed the border entering British Somaliland the same day. The Italian aircraft were intercepted by the RAF Gladiators and one of the S.81s was hit though it managed to land at Jijiga. 

As the Italian Army advanced they were opposed by the columns of British and Indian units but it was a losing battle for the defenders and an evacuation from British Somaliland was inevitable. When the evacuation started on 16 August the Italian Air Force tried to stop the withdrawal and concentrated its attacks on the port of Berbera. The first air raid was at dawn as a pair of S.81s came in over the port and  both of them were hit by anti-aircraft fire. The next raid was at noon by two S.79s of which one was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Later in the afternoon three S.79s came in but were intercepted by a pair of Martin 167Fs (8 Squadron). The RAF intercepted the next raid at noon and claimed a hit.

The see-saw battle between Italian Air Force and the defenders continued on 17 August when five  Ca 133s and a pair of CR.32s attacked Berbera. The raids could not stop the evacuation and it was complete as the  dawn broke on 19 August. Italians launched the last raid on the same day by three S.79s but were not able to disrupt the evacuation. 

During the brief campaign the British losses were thirty-eight killed, 102 wounded and 120 missing, most of whom had become prisoners of war. Among them were nine wounded jawans of the Section of 23rd AA Battery, HKSRA who were able to withdraw all its guns and equipment. They had shot down five Italian aircraft and had “proved their worth as fighting men, steady and keen and accurate”.

The exact number of Italian aircraft shot down by the AA guns was never verified as the RAF  also claimed some of the aircraft hit by AA fire. As an officer noted “We now know the tremendous deterrent effect of good anti-aircraft fire and we know that at least one plane of those that came down (as claimed by RAF) was hit by anti-aircraft fire before the fighter finished him off”

The largely overlooked Italian invasion of British Somaliland was one of the few successful Italian campaigns of World War II. The Italians scored some successes in the air war also but the short campaign is also relevant for another reason that this was the baptism by fire of the Indian AA gunners albeit as part of Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery and they had performed creditably. 


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