The British Empire Library

Bare Feet and Bandoliers: Wingate, Sandford, the Patriots and the Liberation of Ethiopia

by David Shirreff, MC

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Rowley Mans, Maj.-Gen. (I/6th KAR, and Tanganyika Rifles)
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 Ord Wingate.

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 actions.

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 of over-criticism.

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 campaign.

British Empire Book
David Shirreff, MC
The Radcliffe Press


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