Extracts of Fire in the night
(From Chapter Eleven)
The same people saw Haile Selassie, a dapper bearded little man with the fine-boned
features of his race, as a joke figure, an emperor without an empire2,
an amusing little wog whose nickname was Highly Salacious. Nothing
could have been better contrived to arouse Wingate, to dull the ache he felt
at being diverted from his true purpose in life which was to harness the forces
of Zion to the British cause.
Once again, just as in Palestine, it was his destiny to rescue potentially valuable
allies from the clumsy and prejudiced hands of the military apes,
Wingates usual description for all superiors who failed to share his vision.
Here again was a worthwhile cause, another David against Goliath, about to be
squandered by insensitive handling. He had found an ideal scabbard for
his sword, noted Mosley.
While others mocked, Wingate made it his business to take Mister Smith very
seriously indeed. He visited him regularly in the the Pink Palace, a villa in
the village of Jebel Aufia about thirty miles south of Khartoum closely guarded
against the possibility that Aosta might have hired an assassin. At their first
meeting Wingate found Haile Selassie to be as depressed as only an exiled monarch
can be so close to what he believed to be his birthright. He had come to Sudan
expecting the British to put an army at his disposal. This may have been naive
so soon after Dunkirk when everything was in short supply and Londons museums
were handing over their pikestaffs to the newly raised Home Guard. Nonetheless,
the Emperor was justified in complaining that little had been done towards making
the Patriot campaign a reality.
Wingate told him that the liberation of Ethiopia was an indispensable part
of British war aims and it was of great importance that the Ethiopians
themselves should play their part. This was, of course, the diplomatic thing
to say but Wingate meant every word of it.
I told him... that he should take as his motto an ancient proverb
found in Gese, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? and
trust in the justice of his cause. It was vital for Ethiopias future
that the Patriots should fight a successful campaign under their Emperor, and
if the aid he had hoped to get from us was not forthcoming, then he must go
to war without it
However, Wingate was determined to see that His Majestys Government
honoured all its pledges to Haile Selassie and rarely failed to show his displeasure,
regardless of rank, if he felt this enthusiasm was not reciprocated. If he
could not get satisfaction in Khartoum he would hitch a ride with the RAF up
to General Headquarters Middle East in Cairo and demand satisfaction there.
This was not always productive.
My dear Wingate, wrote a harassed officer on Wavells staff
after one such visit. I saw Brigadier Barker the other day about your signals
personnel... the brigadier complained rather bitterly about your vague
demands and also that you left grubby bits of paper on his desk while he
was out of the room. What the truth of the matter is I do not know but it did
not leave him in a very co-operative mood.
On 2 December Wavell presided over a conference in Cairo to discuss the forthcoming
offensive in East Africa. Cunningham and Platt were there and so was Wingate,
the most junior officer present. Wavell probably knew that the chances of his
being seen but not heard were slim and and allotted him ten minutes to tell of
the rebellion he intended to raise in the Gojjam. He took thirty. Even worse,
he strayed into the history and justice of their cause, of ideals as well as
ideas, all territory into which British officers rarely trespassed. Wingate lectured
the generals that it was vital that the world should see that Britain was being
generous as well as just to Ethiopia, that one of the great crimes left unpunished
by the Appeasers was about to be dealt with. And he told them how they should
address the Ethiopian people.
Fifty-two nations let you down in 1935. That act of aggression
led to war. It shall be the first to be revenged. We are not, as your exploiters
the Italians say, merely another imperialism. We offer you freedom and an equal
place among nations. But what sort of place will this be if you have had no
share in your liberation? Fight under your Emperor against odds.
They must, Wingate said, overcome the Ethiopians innate suspicion of all
white men. And they would not do this with offers of money and second rate equipment.
They not only had to fight alongside him but in front of him. His contact
with our young officers must convince him that he had been misinformed. that
we were not only brave soldiers but devoted to the cause of his liberties.
Wingate ended his discourse on an even loftier note, moving from Ethiopia to
Middle East strategy in general. He suggested that, if they only retained a few
troops in Kenya to keep Ethiopias southern border sealed, the bulk of the
forces under Platt and Cunningham would be better employed sweeping the Italians
out of North Africa leaving Ethiopia to him and the Emperor. They would cause
the Italian Empire to waste away from within and oblige Aosta to surrender
by May. It was a bravura performance and even Platt, who had been telling everybody
who would listen that the Patriot effort would amount to no more than a mosquito
bite, did not have the heart to interrupt it. Cunningham was particularly
impressed. Wavells views are unrecorded but, as Wingates mentor,
perhaps it is fair to imagine a certain pride in his protegé.
Five days later Wingate was back in Khartoum. Working with him as a staff officer
at headquarters was a Captain Douglas Dodds-Parker of the Grenadier Guards, formerly
of the Sudan Political Service. Dodds-Parker, who would become a Tory MP and
parliamentary under-secretary, spent much of his time smoothing feathers ruffled
near vertical by Wingate.
In one notorious incident over breakfast on the riparian veranda of the Grand
Hotel Wingate accused two young staff officers of being cowards who had found
themselves a cushy number. The officers concerned, who were valued and hard working,
declared that they had had quite enough of this sort of thing and would request
to be assigned elsewhere. Dodds-Parker told Wingate that, obviously, he would
have to do the same because he was doing similar work and therefore these accusations
must equally apply to him. Then Wingate laughed at himself and good humour
was restored, wrote Christopher Sykes, his authorised biographer. Whether
this laughter included an apology is not made clear.
Dodds-Parker was constantly fulfilling the same function between Wingate and
General Platt. The staff at GHQ found Wingate and Dodds-Parker an odd pair, the
one tall and smart, polite and agreeable, the other short, crumpled and cantankerous.
They seemed living proof that opposites sometimes attract.
There was a more logical explanation. Dodds-Parker was the Khartoum representative
of a new and very secret organisation which was bankrolling all of Wingate and
Sandfords efforts in Ethiopia. This was the Special Operations Executive,
hurriedly set up with Churchills backing in July 1940 to organise resistance
in the countries that had just fallen under Nazi occupation. Dodds-Parker came
under an old acquaintance of Wingate, Terence Airey. They had first met during
his stint with the Sudan Defence Force when Airey had been serving in Khartoum.
Airey, now a colonel, mostly worked out of Cairo and, like Wavell, he thought
that Wingate had talent.
In the empire building way of Britains intelligence services, SOE had somehow
finessed it so that Wingates war chest came from its coffers. Abyssinia
was, after all, the first country to be formally occupied by an Axis power. But
in no way can the extraordinary campaign that was about to unfold in the Gojjam
be properly counted as an SOE operation though they did learn from it. Collis magnificent
flight was SOEs first insertion and pickup by air. In Europe it would eventually
have entire squadrons at its disposal.
But Wingate always made it plain that what he had in mind was quite different
from the licensed terrorism SOE would practise with its trained assassins and
saboteurs. What Wingate preached was regular warfare but behind enemy lines,
something he was beginning to call long range penetration and he
was very aware of the distinction:
While its not denied that great results can be achieved
by fifth-column sabotage... we are not discussing sabotage here, but something
far more effectual; actual war and rebellion on the enemys lines of communication
and in his back areas.
Wingate did play a part in quashing a misconceived attempt by M16, Britains
secret intelligence service which was already becoming jealous of SOE, to initiate
operations in East Africa. A Lt-Colonel Courtney Brocklehurst,a Kenyan settler
who had worked as a game warden, wanted to encourage the mainly Muslim Galla
to rise against their traditional overlords, the Coptic Christian Amhara.
Both Wingate and Haile Selassie regarded this as an outrageous piece of British
meddling in the internal affairs of the country, even proof of Italian allegations
that Britain had a secret agenda to add Ethiopia to its empire.
On sighting a certain Colonel Brocklehurst you will shoot him, Wingate
instructed Tony Simonds, his old friend from Jerusalem who was now a staff officer
at Wavells Cairo headquarters. Simonds had agreed to join him on the Ethiopian
adventure as long as he could walk rather than parachute into the Gojjam as Wingate
had originally suggested. Simonds was frightened of parachuting and didnt
mind admitting it. Wavell cancelled the Brocklehurst plan to the great relief
of Simonds who was never quite sure when Wingate was joking. But it continued
to rankle with Wingate.
Simonds arrival in Khartoum was important for Wingates own morale for,
despite Dodd-Parkers lubrication, his abrupt and abrasive manner was making
him fresh enemies around Platts headquarters by the day. Another familiar
face from Palestine who joined him at about this time was Avraham Akavia, his
Haganah translator for the NCOs course at Ein Harod.
Before leaving England Wingate had received written orders that on no account
was he permitted to enter the Palestine. His response to this was to get Palestine
to come to him. By contacting the Jewish Agency, and by dint of a tremendous
amount of string pulling through a sympathetic brigadier at Wavells headquarters,
he got permission to start recruiting Jewish doctors for his force and for the
immediate dispatch of Akavia who had agreed to work as his clerk.
A clerkless officer is an impotent officer, declared Wingate, an
odd remark from the lips of a fighting soldier. Yet it was true that, off the
battlefield and even on it, probably the best example of Wingates ability
to think on his feet was demonstrated by the fluency of his dictation. Almost
sixty years later Avraham Akavia still remembered it with awe. Ideas, arguments
and reprimands were assembled into lengthy letters and memoranda without any
umms and ahhs, indeed while hardly pausing to draw breath. Wingate set great
store by this and believed that - as long as he can dictate - a staff
officer could quadruple his work load providing he had available a competent
There was another reason he wanted the twenty-four-old civil engineer with his
self-taught Gregg shorthand. Wingate needed much more than a clerk. He needed
somebody who was a combination of personal secretary, a gofer, and an executive
officer. In the British Army such a person was sometimes found filling a post
called Brigade Major. And though Wingate was not a brigadier but still a major
himself, it was now accepted that Wingate not Sandford would be field commander
in the Gojjam. Christopher Sykes, who was in Cairo as a captain on Wavells
staff, found this curious acquiescence to Wingates seizure of command quite
typical of the post-Dunkirk mood which saw at least the temporary deflation of
...the time was an odd one; heroic, generous, irresponsible in
one sense and exaltedly responsible in another... In such a time any man who
believed, and could convey his belief that he knew the way out of the disaster
into victory, was sure of a respectful hearing, and was more likely than at
any other time to obtain a following.
Akavia came to Cairo from Haifa by train and then travelled by river boat up
the Nile to Khartoum. They met at the headquarters Wingate had established in
Gordon College3 where his office was as chaotic
as the one he had kept at Ein Harod with a jumble of kit on the floor. Ethiopia,
Wingate explained to Akavia, was going to be good for Zionism. If he succeeded
there it would further his career and promotion would put him in a better position
to help his friends in Palestine. Meanwhile, there was much to do and not enough
time to do it in. As Akavia was taking this in he realised for the first time
that among the clutter on the floor was a wooden camel saddle.
This was Akavias introduction to Wingates transport problem, something
he had started to get to grips with almost as soon as he stepped out of Collis Vincent
at Roseires. Trucks, like everything else, were in short supply in the Sudan.
Undoubtedly the most suitable animal transport for Ethiopian mountain trails
was the mule. But the Italian army and various Ethiopian banda working
with them had done a good job of rounding up mules before they could be smuggled
to any British expedition forming up across the frontier. Wingates response
was to use camels which were plentiful in the Sudan though almost unheard of
in the higher parts of Ethiopia. At that moment Captain William Allen, a travel
writer and former Tory MP who became Wingates paymaster, was busy buying
camels as fast as he could find them. He had been given permission to acquire
up to 25,000.
By now Wingate had worked out the first stages of his plan of campaign. While
Platt attacked from the north and Cunningham from the south he would take the
Emperor back into his kingdom in a series of staged moves. First they would cross
the frontier along the river Dinder and then set up an advanced headquarters
on Mount Belaiya, a massif rising six thousand feet off Ethiopias western
lowlands about one hundred miles from the Sudanese border. Reconnaissance indicated
that the Italians did not occupy Belaiya and their patrols along the border were
infrequent. Once Haile Selassie was safely ensconced there Wingate, his men and
his camels, would find a way up the Gojjam escarpment. As soon as they could
they would establish another stronghold for the Emperor on the Gojjam which would
serve as a magnet for all the Patriots in the area. The camels would be carrying
arms and ammunition and some rations though it was Wingates intention to
supplement these off the land and with captured Italian supplies.
Meanwhile, Wingate continued his personal guerrilla war with Platt and his staff.
Simonds was astonished to find exactly how acrimonious relations had become.
They didnt like Wingate, they didnt approve of his
mission, and even more, they didnt believe it had any chance of success...
indifference, incompetence, apathy... it says volumes for Wingates energy,
determination and relentless drive that he surmounted the obstacles and barriers
put in his way.
At this time, Simonds was preparing to go to Faguta to take over Mission 101
from Sandford who in turn was going to join the emperor at Belaiya as his political
adviser. When Wingate discovered his old friend had been supplied for his
hazardous journey with three brand new trucks that had not been run-in properly
and were without spare tyres, tow ropes, or the shovels and sand tracks necessary
to get out of loose sand he flew into a rage.
That evening General Platt, while seated at a dinner, glanced up to see a red-faced
Colonel in the Ordnance Corps, the supplier of Simonds vehicles, being
pushed unceremoniously into his presence. Behind him came Wingate who announced, Here
is a traitor - shoot him. Three hours later Simonds was delivered three
trucks in good condition complete with every kind of spare and petrol.
Wingate was impossible and everybody knew it. Whispers of powerful backers made
him even more loathed and they were true. SOE had allotted one million pounds
to the campaign and Dodds-Parker saw that he had an open cheque book. This did
not stop Wingate complaining that he had been given nothing but, sick camels
and the scum of the cavalry division.
But the rudeness quickly stopped if Wingate sensed somebody was worthwhile. He
soon forgave Allen, both for being an Old Etonian and a cavalry officer from
an exclusive regiment, the Life Guards, when he learned he was also the author
of four travel books and a novel. Nonetheless, there were times when Allen wished
that Wingate would not inflict on him a page by page analysis of his current
reading: the American historian John Motleys erudite account of 16th century
empire building, the Rise of the Dutch Republic.
As Christmas 1940 approached, there was an upsurge in British fortunes in the
Middle East. On 9 December Wavell gave General Richard O Connor permission
to attack the 250,000 Italians who had invaded Egypts western desert from
Libya. OConnor had no more than 30,000 men under him but he achieved compete
surprise and in a matter of days had pushed the Italians back across the Libyan
frontier. An even greater humiliation had been inflicted on Italy by Greece,
which Mussolini had invaded in October expecting it to be a pushover. But the
Greeks had first held the Italians then sent them reeling back into Albania where
winter had set in and they were now freezing to death in mountain blizzards.
The Duke of Aosta, Viceroy of an Italian colony whose links with Rome had been
reduced to an occasional risky flight across British territory from the Libyan
capital of Tripoli, began to concentrate his forces and prepare for a siege.
In Khartoum everybody knew there was going to be a British offensive in Ethiopia:
the only question was when. Simonds idea that he was engaged in a mission
of enormous secrecy was knocked sideways from the first day he arrived in Khartoum
when he walked into bar at the Grand Hotel to be greeted by a crowd of journalists
who cheerfully demanded to know what part of Ethiopia he was heading for. Nor
was press interest by any means confined to Fleet Street. The romance of restoring
an emperor to his throne had particularly caught the imagination of the Americans
who were looking for fresh angles on the war now that the Battle of Britain was
over. Among them was Edmund Stevens of the Christian Science Monitor who
had made a name for himself covering the Russo-Finnish war and the German invasion
of Norway. Stevens, already had one advantage over most of his colleagues: he
spoke fluent Italian.
But it was now six months since Italy had declared war and the officers and journalists
under the propeller fans at the bar of the Grand Hotel, or sitting at the veranda
tables watching boats and debris drift down the Nile, were getting impatient.
Nor were American reporters the only romantics. William Allen, Wingates
newly appointed camel master, noted the mood.
Everyone was milling around, talking, listening, hoping and intriguing
to get up into Ethiopia... On the one side was what appeared to be the ghastly
fate of being detailed to train Ethiopians ... on the other was the chance
of manoeuvring for a place with one of the Operational Centres...obscure subalterns
dreamed of wandering as new Lawrences over the face of Ethiopia.
Upstairs in his room Wingate still liked to shock his guests by receiving them
stark naked, sometimes while applying a brush to his body or lashing out at flies
with a knotted hand towel. Startled visitors sometimes found themselves being
unmercifully flogged because an unnoticed insect had sought sanctuary about their
One temporary subaltern who was not much seen in the bar at the Grand was Wilfred
Thesiger, an Oxford boxing blue whose grandfather Lord Chelmsford, had broken
the power of the Zulus in South Africa. Thesiger had been born in Ethiopia, where
his father was Consul, attended Haile Selassies coronation, and like Wingate
believed passionately in the Emperors cause. Tall and big boned, he had
the lean and intelligent face of an ascetic. People who did not know him sometimes
thought he would look more at home in an Oxford common room. But Thesiger was
as tough as nails, a fearless hunter of big game, and already an explorer of
Ethiopias Danakil desert. Like many of his contemporaries, he had transferred
to the Sudan Defence Force from the Sudan Political Service which considered
itself to be the elite of all Britain's colonial services.4 He
increasingly preferred the company of primitive people, preferably nomads, to
most Englishmen, never drank whisky and confessed to Tony Simonds that he had
reached the age of thirty without ever kissing a woman- something he never felt
inclined to remedy. He knew Dan Sandford well and was kicking his heels in Khartoum
waiting for Wingate to give him permission to join him.
One day Wingate asked him if he was happy. Thesiger carefully replied that, generally
speaking, he was. Im not happy, said Wingate, but I dont
think any great man ever is.
Where others saw outrageous egotism, people who got got to know Wingate well
often detected a sly, straight-faced sense of humour. But there is no doubt that
by now Wingates belief in the righteousness of Haile Selassies cause
was only exceeded by his belief in himself, his overweening sense of destiny.
He knew what he was fighting for and loved what he knew. Cromwell was about to
be unleashed on Fascist Italy.
On New Years Eve, while others spent the day celebrating not only the arrival
of 1941 but more British successes in Libya, Wingate was dictating to Akavia
a two-and-half page letter to a certain Colonel MacLean at GHQ Cairo on the urgency
of his requirements.
Finally, I would like to emphasise that every weapon, every round,
every vehicle, gallon of petrol, pound of gelignite, that comes now is going
to its destination under the enemys ribs. The Ethiopian campaign is...a
matter of hand to mouth improvisation. It is also very much a matter of time.
If we push on at all speed the indispensable part of the campaign... can be
completed by May. This done, in a sense, all is done.
The first casualty was code-name Mission 101. Wingate decided to change it to
Gideon Force after his favourite Old Testament warrior. He had wanted to call
his Night Squads something similar but there had been objections. This time there
were none. In all, with its Sudanese and Ethiopian battalions and its British
Operational Centres Gideon Force numbered about two thousand men.