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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”, Wingate’s 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 London’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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 Majesty’s 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 Wavell’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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. Wavell’s views are unrecorded but, as Wingate’s 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 Sandford’s efforts in Ethiopia. This was the Special Operations Executive, hurriedly set up with Churchill’s 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 Britain’s intelligence services, SOE had somehow finessed it so that Wingate’s 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 SOE’s 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 it’s 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 enemy’s lines of communication and in his back areas.

Wingate did play a part in quashing a misconceived attempt by M16, Britain’s 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 Wavell’s 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 didn’t 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 Wingate’s own morale for, despite Dodd-Parker’s lubrication, his abrupt and abrasive manner was making him fresh enemies around Platt’s headquarters by the day. Another familiar face from Palestine who joined him at about this time was Avraham Akavia, his Haganah translator for the NCO’s 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 Wavell’s 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 Wingate’s 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 clerk.

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 Wavell’s staff, found this curious acquiescence to Wingate’s seizure of command quite typical of the post-Dunkirk mood which saw at least the temporary deflation of the Blimps.

...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 Akavia’s introduction to Wingate’s 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. Wingate’s 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 Wingate’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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 Wingate’s 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 didn’t like Wingate, they didn’t approve of his mission, and even more, they didn’t believe it had any chance of success... indifference, incompetence, apathy... it says volumes for Wingate’s 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 Motley’s 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 Egypt’s western desert from Libya. O’Connor 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, Wingate’s 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 person.

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 Selassie’s coronation, and like Wingate believed passionately in the Emperor’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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. “I’m not happy,” said Wingate, “but I don’t 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 Wingate’s belief in the righteousness of Haile Selassie’s 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 Year’s 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 enemy’s 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.


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  Fire in the Night : Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia and Zion
by John Bierman and Colin Smith

Random House
New York, 1999.

MacMillan, London,2000,
Pan Books, 2001 ISBN 0333 72576 x
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