On 3 May 1941 I stood at a window of the old American Hospital in Addis Ababa and
watched the entry of the Emperor Haile Selassie into the city. The procession was
led by a mounted British Colonel wearing a battered Wolseley helmet - my first sight of
To me, a KAR subaltern ignorant of matters strategic, neither the event nor the
personalities were of special importance. Recovering from malaria, I was only interested
in persuading the doctors that I could return to my battalion alongside David Shirreff's in
the Galla Sidamo.
It was only some years later when studying the life of Wingate that I understood what
he and Brigadier Dan Sandford had achieved with their motley collection of units.
In his biography of Wingate, Christopher Sykes gives a general picture of the
Ethiopian operations but understandably he is largely concerned with the Chindit
In this admirable book David Shirreff has now brought into focus with a pellucid
devotion to detail the complete story of the Ethiopian campaign. As well as the military
operations the interplay on the politico-strategic scene is described with clarity and
objectivity. This is especially applicable to the relations between Wingate and the littleknown
Brigadier Dan Sandford. Long overdue praise is given to Sandford. Highly
experienced in Ethiopian affairs and a long time confidant of the Emperor he launched
the initial guerrilla force into the country from the Sudan.
The two men were widely different personalities. Wingate the thrusting and forceful
leader who had already proved himself in the Arab rebellion in Palestine whereas
Sandford, of more equable temperament, ready to support Wingate unless he thought the
position and prestige of the Emperor was threatened. Given the strange command set-up
evolved by Khartoum it was remarkable that disagreements were so few. The only major
one over Wingate's refusal to give the Patriots a more significant role in operations. The
narrative shows how this decision was vindicated by events. Although individually
courageous, co-ordinated action by Patriot groups was all too often negated by
internecine rivalry between their leaders.
The attitudes of the commanding Generals makes for fascinating reading. Wavell the
C-in-C was the first to notice the flair and genius of the eccentric Wingate. Platt in
Khartoum was supportive but always calculating how these relatively minor operations
might affect his main thrust into Eritrea. Cunningham advancing from the South grudgingly
acknowledged Wingate's successes but was really anxious to see the back of him as soon
as possible. In dealing with these vastly differing personalities the author avoids the pitfall
A short review cannot cover the various battles that are described with considerable
attention to tactical detail but mention must be made of the Charaka River action where
the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion were surprised, whilst resting, by a large retreating Italian
column. They resisted gallantly but were finally overwhelmed when the enemy broke
through. This is one of a number of occasions where the author records the bravery on
the Italian side thus giving the lie that they were an 'easy' foe.
The courage and tactical ability of many Italian commanders, often in adverse
circumstances, are given deserving commendation. None more so than Colonel
Maraventano who continued to fight with his depleted force well after the Duke of
Aosta had surrendered the main Italian Army.
Praise is deservedly given to the splendid work of the small band of British officers
and NCOS who provided the command and staff elements of the Force. Time and again
names like Nott, Rousted, Thesiger, Johnson, Tutton, Luyt and many others are mentioned
for displaying outstanding leadership and the British Army's genius for making
bricks without straw. (Several of them either came from or later went into the Colonial
Service, where the same qualities counted.)
The tribute paid to those Sudan Defence Force units that formed the backbone of
Wingate's column would be enthusiastically supported by all who knew them. Their
courage and discipline often turned possible defeat into victory.
A first class book and a valuable contribution to the bibliography of a long neglected