SOE in Abyssinia


Vickers Vincent.



Orde Wingate, the Gideon Force Commander, talking with the Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia


The Abyssinian venture began before ever SOE did. Indeed, while MI R was striving to mount it, section D was striving to wreck it by independently appealing to the Galla tribe in the south of the country to secede from the rest. Wavell – who had a great deal else on his mind, as commander-in-chief in Cairo – remembered that when he had commanded in Palestine in the mid-thirties, three young officers had impressed him as likely to do well with irregular forces or at irregular jobs. He sent for them. Dudley Clarke, whom Holland had used, with Gubbins, to found the commandos, created for Wavell a body with the dull name of A Force: its main task was to confuse the enemy. The other two, Orde Wingate and Tony Simonds, Wavell sent up to Khartoum to get on with dislocating Mussolini’s hold on Abyssinia; this hold dated back to the recent war of 1935–6.

In Khartoum Wingate and Simonds joined Mission 101 – another dull name to cover work a good deal less dull – which was remotely controlled, through G(R) in Cairo, by MI R and then by SOE in London, but was answerable also to Wavell in Cairo and to General Platt, the army commander on the spot. Its aim was to unsettle the Italians’ hold on Abyssinia. The head of Mission 101, D. A. Sandford, was older than most in the irregular war – he had just turned fifty-eight – but he knew Abyssinia well, had been consul in Addis Ababa before he left to win two DSOs as a gunner officer in the Great War, and had farmed there for fifteen years between the wars. This calm, stocky, balding, bespectacled colonel (soon made a brigadier) went forward, on his own initiative, into enemy territory not long after Italy joined what Mussolini supposed to be the winning side on 10 June 1940. By mid-September he had established himself at Faguta in the Chokey mountain range, south of Lake Tana, and began to distribute arms to friendly tribesmen. A year before, he had been quietly ensconced in Surrey as treasurer of Guildford cathedral; the prescient Wavell, spurred on by the intelligence staff who operated in Cairo, had summoned him eastward again.

Wingate’s personality was so powerful, and the influence he wielded over reporters so mesmeric, that it has hardly yet been possible to rebuild the history of SOE’s effort into Abyssinia as a coherent whole, and to present it in its proper context in the history of the war: Wingate, Wingate, Wingate has overshadowed everything, even the luminous gallantry of Platt’s soldiers, most of them Indian, who stormed the all-but-untakeable fortress of Keren in Eritrea. Moreover, the fact that Wingate had any connection with SOE, though well known to such well-informed authors as W. E. D. Allen (who was in SOE himself, at Wingate’s elbow) or Christopher Sykes, had to remain secret so long as SOE itself was secret: that is, till the mid-sixties. It was not too hard to hide it from the war correspondents, who stuck to Wingate like burrs, having discovered that wherever he went there was sure to be a story. In the end, long after he had left SOE, two of them died with him in an air crash.

Ronald Lewin has reminded us that the whole east African campaign of 1940–1 awaits reassessment in the light of the hitherto ultra-secret papers from Bletchley that transformed the picture of how the very senior staff made up their minds. The SOE aspect of the campaign, though less important, also calls for some rethinking. As this was the first of SOE’s enterprises east of the Atlantic that got anywhere worth going, it deserves to be glanced at, at least, in these pages. It provided several pointers useful for SOE’s future.

According to Dodds-Parker, MI R’s and then SOE’s anchorman in Khartoum – he had been in the Sudan political service before he joined the Grenadier Guards – many of the ideas loosely attributed to Wingate, such as the hiring of camels, and naming those Abyssinians who would join the British against the Italian’s patriot forces, had been put in train before ever Wingate reached Khartoum, by the G(R) branch there over which Terence Airey (then a colonel) presided.

Sandford knew, better than most, that the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, which had begun on 3 October 1935, was incomplete in the autumn of 1940; just as was, in the early summer of 1984, the Russian conquest of Afghanistan, which began in December 1979. In remote mountain areas the locals disdained the Italian conquerors, as well as fearing them, and if given arms and a lead might be brought to move against them. The ideal leader was sent out from England to Egypt, by a Foreign Office initiative, on one of the last flying-boat sorties before the short route closed down, on 24/25 June 1940: a small, neat, copper-skinned, dark-bearded man of upright stance and princely bearing. In Alexandria he was called Mr Strong; on 2 July, with a new alias – Mr Smith – he settled at Jebel Aulia, near Khartoum. He was at once recognised. The bush telegraph spread word that he was on his way back to his throne: for he was the Lion of Judah, King of Kings, the Emperor Haile Selassie.

One English friend had come with him, as part of his small entourage: George Steer, who had been The Times’s man in Addis Ababa in 1935–6, and belonged in turn to EH and to SO1.

The emperor’s presence was welcome to many Abyssinian refugees in the Sudan; somewhat less welcome to British political officials, easily embarrassed by potentates and uncertain about high government policy. Sandford had had orders direct from Wavell to start a rebellion in Abyssinia, intended to weaken the Italian hold on the country from within, while formal armies attacked it from without. It was not at first perfectly plain to those most concerned whether the British meant to restore Haile Selassie, or simply to use him as a tool for replacing Italian power in east Africa by British.

These doubts were resolved by a conference of senior personalities which began at Khartoum on 28 October (the day Mussolini invaded Greece) and lasted for three days. Eden, then war minister, General J. C. Smuts and Wavell were all present, backed by two lieutenant-generals, Dickinson and Cunningham who was about to succeed him. (Where, one wonders, was Platt?) The governor of the Sudan, the British embassy in Cairo and G(R) were represented also; and the emperor appeared in person to assert his right to fight in his own cause. Eden backed him, sticking to the line he had tried to follow five years earlier as Minister for League of Nations Affairs. The meeting approved the emperor’s will to fight – thus implicitly approving his right to rule when he got back; and accepted his proposal that the tribes who joined his effort should be called patriot forces.

A four-pronged strategy was approved. Platt was to attack Abyssinia from the north, Cunningham from the south-east; G(R) – that is, SOE – was to put in two attacks from the west, with one of which the emperor was to travel. This was where Wingate and Simonds came in: they arrived a week later, on 6 November 1940. Wingate brought with him a credit for £1 million (later doubled). Much of the first instalment was swallowed up in a business on which G(R) had already embarked: the hiring of camels, mules, muleteers and camel-drivers.

G(R) collected 18,000 camels, 15,000 of which set out on the long trek eastward into the mountains. Fewer than sixty of these went all the way through to Addis Ababa. Indeed, so many died on the way that the hinder parts of the columns could navigate by smell – the stench of the dead camels’ bodies ahead of them showed them the way. Wingate was excellent with horses, but knew little about how to manage camels. No one senior on the spot realised that the Sudanese camel is a splendid creature for work over sandy deserts, but is unlikely to flourish on the mountain plateau of the Gojjam, some 2000 metres above sea level, where Sandford was already lodged and which formed the emperor’s first objective.

Many of the recruits attracted locally for the mission were urban Arabs, who knew no more of camels than their new masters did. For them, the promise of £E10 – to be paid when they got back – and free food on the journey was enough. Wavell authorised a quick call for volunteers from the officers and NCOs of the household cavalry division in Palestine – those units that by tradition ‘hadn’t reckoned on going farther out of Town than Windsor’ – and of the dominion troops in the Nile delta: the call that became familiar in the army, for hazardous service, no details given. By tradition, again, sound regimental types stayed with their regiments (‘never apologise, never volunteer’). Yet men who disliked the formal side of regimental life, or were merely bored with garrison duty and in search of adventure, could seize on this as a way of escape. A number of striking characters turned up in Khartoum. Among them were (Sir) Laurens van der Post, the naturalist from South Africa; Wilfred Thesiger, the traveller, who became political officer with Wingate’s column; and A. H. Wienholt, a 63-year-old Australian senator, bored by politics, who had hunted lion in central Africa and was large-hearted enough to be ready to hunt bigger game still. They were squadded into small groups with the cumbrous title of operational centres. Their task was to go forward, with or near the two guerilla columns, to issue arms and provide leadership for such patriot forces as came to join the emperor’s – the allied – cause. The experience of such old hands as Wienholt was to prove most useful when it came to collecting and loading kit.

Wingate reconnoitred forward, as a good commander should. On 20 November 1940, in the RAF’s first successful operation for SOE, Pilot Officer Collis of 47 Squadron flew him – he then hated air travel – into Abyssinia, gave him a sight of the mountain escarpment that lines its western edge, took him over parts of Gojjam province, landed him on an improvised air strip at Faguta, and flew him back to Khartoum two days later when he had finished talking to Sandford. Landing and take-off at the edge of a precipice in an obsolete Vincent biplane were so exceedingly tricky that for this feat alone – SOE’s first pick-up operation – Collis was awarded a DFC.

At this first meeting Wingate got on well with Sandford (with whom he quarrelled dreadfully later). Fortunately, Wingate and the emperor – who had met once briefly before, at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair – got on well with each other also. Haile Selassie had all the readiness of exiled royalty to take umbrage, though he also had the good sense to keep his manners under tight control. He knew, especially after Eden had taken his side at the Khartoum conference, that he had such weight as the British government could exert behind him, and was cheerfully ready to put up with the little troubles of camp life on the march. Wingate had been notorious, ever since he had been a cadet at Woolwich, for awkwardness: he seemed one of those men ‘born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward’. His gifts for rubbing the pompous up the wrong way were without limit. He shared with his distant kinsman, T. E. Lawrence, keen blue eyes, short stature and bounding ambition. In Palestine he had organised the special night squads to which the Israeli army traces back its origin; in Palestine he had felt he had a mission, and he was smarting under an order from Wavell that he was not to set foot there again. A pen picture of him by his transport officer, one of the volunteers from the household cavalry, though well-known, is too vivid to leave unquoted:

He never spared his own body, and other critics would complain that he thrust into every action to gain the credit for himself. I think rather that he had a thirsty passion for battle as others have for gambling. His pale blue eyes, narrow-set, burned with an insatiable glare. His spare, bony, ugly figure with its crouching gait had the hang of an animal run by hunting yet hungry for the next night’s prey.

It took Wingate, Simonds and Dodds-Parker two months to settle the final details. Till Simonds’ memoirs appear, little will be known about the more northerly guerilla thrust towards Lake Tana – called Begemder Force, after the province it worked in – beyond one brilliant anecdote: that Wienholt, the old lion-hunter, last seen by his own side crawling badly wounded into the bush after his convoy had been ambushed by some Italians of enterprise, was captured by them, and – though in uniform – sentenced to be shot: he faced his firing party calmly, wrapped in a Union Jack. From the southern column also, four Sudanese prisoners captured in uniform wereshot by the Italians, not too careful of international law.

Before ever he left Cairo, Sandford had been warned by Sir Arthur Longmore, air commander-in-chief in the Middle East, that in principle no aircraft were available; but that if he absolutely must have one or two sorties, he could ask for them. Communications and supply went therefore mainly by land; but a few of the cumbrous early short-wave W/T sets were perfectly portable on muleback, and with them Wingate and Simonds were able to keep their headquarters back in Khartoum informed of their progress, with really very little trouble.

One scandal arose: from the conduct of a detached officer who need not be named. He appealed by wireless to his friend Dodds-Parker for help. He was surrounded by delectable African damsels, who were pressing their services on him; he thought they all had syphilis; could Dodds-Parker parachute him in some protective kit? He did not know, as the agonised Dodds-Parker knew only too well, that all the expedition’s telegrams were read both by G(R) and by Wavell and Platt, who were appalled. From this unsavoury incident derived part of SOE’s unsavoury reputation among parts of the high command. Wingate did not need to know.

He, aware that he was wielding the sword of the Lord and of Gideon, called his wing of the mission Gideon Force. The emperor marched with him. They had a battalion of Sudanese, commanded by Hugo Boustead, the mountaineer; a battalion of Abyssinian volunteers; and several operational centres. The total force available to Mission 101 was about 1800 men; they set off in January 1941 to displace several thousand Italian and Abyssinian troops, if they could. On 21 January, two days after Platt’s attack on Eritrea began, Haile Selassie raised his flag at Um Idla, just inside his state’s border, some 250 miles SSE of Khartoum.

Wingate did not make himself loved by his next decision, which was to set off – forgetting how bad his maps were – on a cross-country march on a compass bearing. It took some days’ toil and the loss of many animals before he relented. The Italians who might – should – have barred the way to Gideon Force, overestimating its numbers because the camels straggled so, were outfaced by a single platoon of Boustead’s, and withdrew instead of fighting. The force pressed on into the interior.

Currency might have made trouble. Mission 101 took care to pay for all the forage and food it secured from the Abyssinians, who welcomed it, but the payments had to be made in the only money that was locally recognised as worth having: Maria Theresa silver thalers (dollars) dated 1764. These huge coins, as big as an English crown piece and then worth an English florin (10p), were treasured. It is a mark of MI R’s extraordinary range and foresight that in April 1940 they persuaded the Indian Mint, that august body where coin had long been struck for the Raj, to coin several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of Maria Theresa thalers, all duly dated 1764, out of silver MI R provided. All passed Abyssinian scrutiny as authentic coin.

The mission was not well put together formally – there were incessant troubles between Sandford and Wingate, whose spheres of action had not been clearly enough laid down; but what it lacked in formalities it made up for in courage. By prodigious efforts, the stores and a few lorries were hauled up the escarpment into the Gojjam, where the camels started to die faster than ever, but the men in the force could rejoice in the cooler air and the varied scenery. Not till the last two days of February and 1 March 1941 did they have serious contact with the enemy. On those three days Wingate and Boustead, with a fighting force of about 450 men, routed 7000 Italian and auxiliary soldiers: by dint of rapid patrolling, better marksmanship, a fragment of air support (three Wellesleys attacked an Italian fort at Burye on 1 March), and sheer instinct to win. Unluckily the surviving Italians, fleeing south-eastward, stumbled on 6 March on the Abyssinian volunteer battalion, which had already bypassed them – had heard nothing of the fighting at Burye – and was caught resting, not dug in, not even with sentries posted. After a brief, savage tussle, the volunteers broke; they killed 200 Italians and wounded a great many more, but were brushed off the road (or what passed for a road), and had their own morale shattered: they never operated as a formed battalion again.

This was the Italians’ last victory against Abyssinian forces. Wingate pressed on, with Boustead’s cheerful Sudanese, with his operational centres and with the many hundred volunteers who had by now come in to join the emperor but had not been brigaded into formal units. As always, he led from in front. Once, operating a mortar by himself with an Abyssinian friend, he found himself under shellfire, and ordered the friend to move back under cover; England, he said, had plenty of men as intelligent as himself, but educated Abyssinians were so far rare and should be kept away from harm. Not far from him, he had Steer with an Amharic printing press, brought up on muleback; Steer busied himself putting out leaflets to those of the locals who could read, and blaring out suitable slogans through megaphones for those who could not. There were also several newspaper correspondents, who had at least found picturesque scenes to report, and were moving forward – so far in the war a rare happening – against axis forces.

The battle on 6 March had revealed to the Italians who won it that they were not, as they had thought, campaigning against a British division; Wingate’s next task was to convince them that, after all, they were. He brought it off through a combination of daring and bluff.

His enemies stood at bay round the town of Debra Markos and a short string of forts to the west of it, called the Gulit position. One of the Sudanese companies, led by Bimbashi Johnson, distinguished itself by particularly vigorous patrolling in the hills north and east of Gulit and Debra Markos. His party bore out a remark of Allen’s about British survival, against the odds, in 1940: ‘Perhaps God fights on the side of the great hearts and not of the big battalions.’ Boustead’s troops pressed hard against Gulit, and took the position at the end of March, while Wingate was having another slap-up row with Sandford – this time about administrative planning – a few miles back up the road. On 3 April, Johnson and three platoons who had got right round to the east of Debra Markos ambushed a convoy of reinforcements coming up from the capital: out of twenty-eight lorries and a pair of armoured cars, only a few lorries got away back eastwards. Eleven Italian officers and a large number of natives were left dead on the road or in the wrecks. The Boyes rifle, useless against tanks, proved itself effective against Italian armoured cars; an Abyssinian NCO volunteer had disabled two armoured cars with one Boyes rifle four weeks earlier.

On 4 April, the garrison of Debra Markos, unnerved by Boustead’s pressure from the west and the unexpected appearance of Johnson’s ambush behind them, scarpered – not even pausing to destroy all their stores. Wingate had by now come forward again; and was present in one of the captured forts when the telephone rang. Edmund Stevens of the Boston Christian Science Monitor, who happened to speak flawless Italian, was standing beside it and picked up the receiver.

The call was from Safartak, the fort at the Blue Nile crossing, Wingate’s next objective; what was happening at Debra Markos? Wingate said: ‘Tell them that ten thousand British troops are closing in on them.’ Stevens did so. What, the voice at the far end wailed, was to be done? ‘There’s only one thing to do,’ Stevens replied in Italian. ‘Clear out subito,’ straight away: the Italians did. By this elementary ruse, Wingate forced the crossing of the Blue Nile.

An attempt to ambush the Italians at the Safartak crossing as they withdrew miscarried, but so did their attempt to destroy the bridge. A lull in operations followed, broken only by Boustead’s bluffing (with a couple of platoons) the Italian battalion at Mota, the last enemy stronghold in the Chokey mountains, into surrender. Political difficulties supervened; some between the emperor and such local chieftains as Ras Hailu, who taught Wingate what the grand manner really was when he approached the emperor for a public reconciliation and made a bow that would not have disgraced the court of Louis XIV; some, more awkward, between the emperor and General Cunningham. Cunningham had advanced fast from Kenya, and took Addis Ababa the day after Wingate took Debra Markos. Both events were at once pushed out of the world’s headlines by the German attack on Yugoslavia and Greece on 6 April.

Haile Selassie was determined to enter his own capital. Gideon Force was with him when he finally did so on 5 May 1941. He had had enough of riding, and politely refused the white horse offered him in favour of a limousine. Wingate, ill dressed for the part in khaki shorts and sun helmet, leaped on the white horse and led the procession.

His force had done its principal job of distracting and confusing the enemy. Some use was made of fragments of it in the months that followed; the last Italians in Abyssinia to surrender did so in November. As Christopher Sykes put it, ‘From first to last Gideon Force was an essay in deception. It was never an essay in common sense.’ Wingate was prostrated by his extraordinary efforts, and had a nervous breakdown in hospital in Cairo. Eventually he was sent back to London, where he and SOE decided they would see no more of each other; he went off to gain his immortal name as the Chindit leader in Burma, where he died in 1944. Simonds was collected by SOE in Cairo to take over their nascent Greek section from Ogilvie Grant, who wanted to go on operations (he was parachuted into the Peloponnese, and almost at once became a prisoner). Later Simonds moved over to run N section of A Force, which dealt with escapes. Van der Post moved on to the Far East, where he disappeared – for the time – when the Japanese overran Singapore; to the distress of those who had known him.

Dodds-Parker returned to London to report the lessons learned; which he has recently summarised. There had not been many air drops to Wingate or to Simonds, but there had been enough for the British armed forces to take in – what the German General Student was about to prove again in Crete – that airborne and air-supplied operations had now arrived to take their place beside others as normal forms of warfare. There were plenty of minor points, about wireless and packing, that were worth reporting and improving. The ill-named operational centres had most of them only got into action in the closing stages, after the fall of Debra Markos; but in them inhered what became one of SOE’s leading ideas: that patriot forces – however named, however organised – could be given a sharper cutting edge by the presence of small groups of officers and NCOs trained in tactics, especially the tactics of sabotage and attack. The many groups working with partisans in Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia in 1943–5, and the ‘Jedburgh’ teams in France, Holland and Norway in 1944, thus have an origin that can be traced back to Gideon Force.

The main lesson of interest remained: that a major guerilla war could be mounted with effect, provided that it was timed to join in with the efforts of more regular forces in the same theatre of war. It would be all the more effective if it had such a magnet attached to it as the emperor; on the other hand, there were always likely to be local personages – such as Ras Hailu of the marvellous bow – who might work for one side, or might work for another, and would need special watch and special treatment. On the sabotage and weapon fronts there were lessons to be learned, as well; it is worth remarking that the details of the Sten were fixed a couple of months after the capture of Debra Markos.

It is less agreeable to have to report that Dodds-Parker found himself less often invited to lecture about the exploits of Gideon Force than he had expected; because, he gathered, the South African government had been upset at the ease with which a largely white army had been defeated by a largely black one.

It is time to turn from victory and farce to tragedy.

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