British Empire Article

by A T de B Wilmot
(Northern Rhodesia 1938 - 1946 and Gold Coast 1946 - 1956)

Northern Rhodesia

Who Could Have Known?
SS Dunvegan Castle
The exciting thing about looking back over life is the realisation that it was all so unpredictable.

Sailing on first appointment to Northern Rhodesia on the good ship DUNVEGAN CASTLE in 1938 the prospects were that, in 20 years time, my annual salary would have risen from £350 to £1,000. Those 20 years were to be spent administering a large district in the middle of a continent on which I set foot for the first time in July of that year. It did not turn out that way.

My first district, Mporokoso, numbered a bigger population of elephants than of people. Rex Phillips, the D.C., threw me in at the deep end and, after sending me on one tour of villages of two weeks with an interpreter, sent me off again, six weeks after my arrival at the station, with no-one who knew a word of English. It is largely to Rex's credit that I passed both Lower and Higher language examinations within 18 months.

After 9 months with Phillips and a year with Bush at Abercorn (known locally as Mbala even in those days) the Italian entry into the war turned the reluctance to release manpower into a panic thrusting forth of everyone who would go and several who would have preferred to stay.

War in East Africa

So I took my part, as Senior Cipher Officer of the 11th African Division, in the longest advance of military history. It was about 2,000 miles from Nairobi to Addis Ababa; I did not participate in the continued advance which ended at Gondar, another 350 miles on. The fastest part of the advance was from Bura on 13th February, 1941 to Addis Ababa on 6th April, 1941, an average of 76.6 miles a day. I slept beside the driver of the vehicle, my right knee dropping against the engine cover and getting burnt, my left knee dropping against the metal door which, in the Somali sun, was nearly as hot. My driver, Francis, was a perfect gentleman from Tanganyika. At night we enciphered and deciphered by as little light as possible to avoid enemy detection.

In Addis Ababa we were overwhelmed with the flow of messages. From 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. I did all the administrative chores, changing code-words throughout the division, issuing and withdrawing ciphers, making postings, and so on. My sergeants were forbidden to spend more than 30 minutes trying to unravel a corrupt message. Nor were they to ask for a repeat because the signals people were choked up. So from 10 a.m. I wrestled with corrupt messages, closing for the day at 10 p.m. Occasionally a cipher sergeant would decode the first few words of a message as, "For Wilmot, to be deciphered by Wilmot". Since all cipher messages were secret, that usually meant that the message I deciphered was a pretty abrupt rebuke of General Wetherall, the division's commander, by Cunningham, who was in charge of the East Africa Force (later Command). I had to hand such messages to Wetherall personally. He always struck me as being entirely philosophical about them.

Haile Selassie Enters Addis Ababa
Occasionally, a message for my own attention was simply more top secret than others. One such message was particularly exciting. As we approached Addis Ababa the Italians were planning to circle anti-clockwise starting in a south-westerly direction and coming back from the south-east to attack our southern flank. The instruction from the Duke d'Aosta to his southern general was deciphered by our cipher-breaking section in Kenya, re-enciphered in our own most secure cipher, deciphered by me and handed to Wetherall 30 mintes after the Italians radio-signalled it.

At Addis Ababa I was one of 19 officers on the old palace balcony when Haile Selassie, after 5 years exile, drove up the drive, lined by Nigerian soldiers, mounted the steps and addressed the ecstatic crowds below.

Two months after we reached Addis Ababa I found myself in military government, in de facto charge of the Wollega province, stationed at Lekemti. The man nominally in charge was on the other side of the battle-line further west. We never met. I acted on my own, communicating direct with Addis Ababa, where Brigadier Lush headed the military Government. Lush was from the administration in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. After seven months in Ethiopia I was posted away and never saw Lush again until we met in totally unpredictable circumstances more than 30 years later.

I spent time in British Somaliland, at Headquarters in Nairobi, in the Reserved areas of Ethiopia (the Somali area Lord Rennell of Rodd hoped to be able to hand back to Somalia, to right the wrongs of his uncle who had agreed an unjustifiable boundary with Menelik in 1882), a month in Mogadishu, several months as liaison officer with the military area headquarters at Nanyuki, and back to British Somaliland where I became Secretary to the Government in May 1945.

Transfer to Gold Coast

By courtesy of Commander Aylmer in Aden I hitch-hiked a lift on the frigate Avon in December 1945 arriving in England four days after Christmas. After the Somali deserts the green of the English countryside, seen from the train between Devonport and East Budleigh, was breath-taking. By contrast the sheer lifelessness of the British people, exhausted by a war which had been almost painless in East Africa, depressed me. The exhilaration of the defeat of Japan (a relief now largely forgotten) was soon lost in the drudgery of the years of recovery, with even stricter rationing than during the war.

Who Could Have Known?
Volta River Project
The War Office allowed me to work out my last few months of military service in the Colonial Office where I handled Gold Coast affairs. I married in June and returned to the Colonial Administrative Service in November when a DC-3 took three days to fly me to Accra, bereft of my wife until the following March when a troopship was at last available.

Our first four children were born in Accra where I was a Secretariat officer and then a Ministry officer when the Ministry system began. Almost the whole of my Gold Coast service was spent acting at a level one above my substantive level. I had a close interest, from its inception, in the Volta River project. The Crown Agents identified Sir William Halcrow and Partners as consultants and I worked closely with Peter Scott, the partner who developed the survey. Later, the project was split into two by hiving off the Tema harbour scheme. Robert Jackson took over the Volta River project and, as acting Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Communication and Works, I headed the inter-ministerial committee which handled the harbour project. The construction of the new town and port of Tema was well under way when I left Ghana in August 1955, unwilling to transfer from Her Majesty's Colonial Administrative Service to the new Overseas Service.

C.D.C. and Private Enterprise

I joined the Commonwealth (then Colonial) Development Corporation under Lord Reith and, after four and a half months at the London Headquarters, relieved the Regional Controller, West Africa, in Lagos. When he returned from leave, I was posted to Singapore to relieve the Regional Controller, Far East, who wanted a year to run a project dear to his heart. In January 1958 the Regional Controller, West Africa, was posted elsewhere and I took over. The period under Reith and his successor, Sir Nutcombe Hulme, was challenging and fulfilling but my direct contact with them was perhaps a mistake. When Sir Nutcombe Hulme left, things changed and it was obvious that success does not always commend a man to his superiors.

I was offered the Financial Directorship, and, four months later, the chairmanship of Brandler and Rylke, timber operators in several West African countries. When the company reorganisation was complete, I left to head the African operations of an American economic and management consulting company. Based in Lagos I developed projects all over Africa.

Theological Education

Executive control is more satisfying than an advisory role so I went back into a company which had operations in both Nigeria and Ghana. In my 62nd year I retired from business and from 18 years in Lagos and became an adviser to a church with a 1400 congregation, mainly in Northern Nigeria (the number has doubled since then) and helped them primarily with their publishing and bookselling business. We lived in Jos. This was a three year contract but before it ended I was asked to put a post-graduate School of Theology on the African map. My wife and I spent a year in Nairobi, returned to Jos, and were summoned back to Nairobi in 1981 to be first Principal of the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. We handed over to a Nigerian in 1984 who later handed over to a Sierra Leonean. I spent much of my retirement raising support for the project in Britain, Europe, USA, Canada and Australia, travelling extensively. I visited Kenya regularly and on three occaions gave a series of lectures.

Back in 1938 on the Dunvegan Castle I remember being somewhat apprehensive when confessing to my fellow cadets that I had Christian convictions. In fact the only response I got was from one of them who patronisingly remarked, "It takes all kinds to make a world". During the war, I was given a lay reader's licence by the Bishop of Mombasa and, in the absence of chaplains in every area in which I served, was often involved in taking services - both C of E, and "O.D." (Other Denominations). Throughout my career, in the Colonial Administrative Service and in business, I found or made time and energy for active participation in stimulating Christian events including missions to Universities and meetings for Christian leaders including missionaries. In 1974, between two business appointments, I undertook, for the United Bible Societies, a survey of the development and management needs of the Bible Society of Nigeria. I was asked to discuss my report with the UBS Committee in London and it was then that I met Brigadier Lush again. He was a member of that committee.

It was a pleasant surprise to be remembered by old Ghanaian friends, recently, and to be asked to take an active role in the new Anglo-Ghanaian Society. Africa gets into the blood-stream and stays there. Who would want it otherwise?

Map of Africa
Colony Profiles
Northern Rhodesia
Gold Coast
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 112: October 2016


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