THE LION OF JUDAH HATH PREVAILED
On 10th June 1940, the same day as Italy declared war, letters signed by General William Platt, commanding the troops in the Sudan, had crossed the frontier on their way to Ethiopian chiefs in Gojjam, Armachaho, Wolkait, and Begemder. These letters were in the following terms:
During the preceding six months careful plans had been made for the dispatch of Mission 101, consisting of five English and five Ethiopian officers, with money and letters of credence, to penetrate the circle of fortresses that surrounded Gojjam and to contact the leaders, to give news of the outside world and to stir up enthusiasm amongst the patriots who were still holding out against Italian rule. The head of the Mission was Colonel Sandford, and the Emperor’s representative was Azazh Kabada, later to become Governor of the city of Addis Ababa and later still Afa Negus or Lord Chief Justice. Their task was to blaze the way for the Emperor’s return, seeing to it that the fires that they kindled should spread disaffection and revolt against the Italians throughout the north. They carried with them the Proclamation from the Emperor making known his arrival and calling upon the people to rally to him.
For security reasons warning of the Emperor’s impending arrival had not been given to the Governor-General, Sir Stewart Symes, or General Platt, and when on 26th June a signal was received saying that he would be in Wadi Haifa the next day they were somewhat startled, to say the least of it, to have this new and heavy responsibility so suddenly thrust upon them. From the military point of view they were on the defensive. Though the outbreak of war had been the opportunity for the R.A.F. to bomb Italian aerodromes and fuel tanks and for armoured patrols from Kassala to take the offensive in raids on the frontier, by 4th July the enemy had replied in force and, though the garrisons managed to extricate themselves with little loss, Kassala and Gallabat were occupied by the Italians. That no suitable accommodation was available for his unexpected guest and that very special measures for his safety would have to be taken did not perhaps loom so large in General Platt’s mind as the fact that he himself placed little value on operations carried out by other than the regular forces under his own command. Symes for his part still clung to the forlorn hope that he could keep his Sudanese out of the world conflict. They both felt that they were being hustled into carrying out a policy which they did not approve, and for which they were not prepared.
Sandford, who had been up in the Gallabat area studying his plans for getting his mission into Ethiopia, returned to Khartoum in the early morning of 28th July. He was instructed to fly forthwith down to Wadi Haifa to discuss with the Emperor his immediate plans. At the same time he was to inform him how meagre were the resources available for any forward movement into Ethiopia. As may be imagined, the Emperor, who had left London believing that plans were well advanced for him to cross the frontier at the head of an army of liberation, was bitterly disappointed and greatly upset.
It was arranged that he should continue his journey to Khartoum as soon as arrangements for his reception were in order, and he duly arrived there on 3rd July, and was accommodated in a villa on the banks of the Nile to the east of the town. Extraordinary precautions were taken to preserve his incognito for the first few days until security arrangements had been tested and found to be adequate. To meet him in Khartoum were brought the leading Ethiopians who had been living in exile in Palestine, including Ras Kassaand the Itchegi, the Head of the Monasteries. His younger son Prince Makonnen had come with him.
Meanwhile the messengers, who had left with their letters on 10th June, were bringing back the answers; and as chiefs with their soldiers came down to the frontier in response to the invitation to collect arms and ammunition, they were brought to Khartoum and presented to the Emperor to give him the latest news and to plan co-operation.
It had been intended that Mission 101 should cross the frontier as soon as possible after the Italians came into the war. The Emperor, however, feeling that, as things were, it might be many months before his original idea of riding in at the head of his army might materialize, now suggested that he himself should accompany the mission. This for many reasons was impracticable, but the discussions caused delay in the start of the mission. A further hold-up was caused by the necessity to await the arrival from Palestine of Azazh Kabada, who had been chosen to accompany Sandford as the Emperor’s personal representative. This was an excellent choice that added enormously to the authority and usefulness of the mission. It was not until 12th August that Sandford and his party slipped across the frontier road at dusk, and were lost to view in the tall grass and scrub for the next three weeks.
Meanwhile the Emperor sat in Khartoum, waiting, working out projects for his own return, and chafing at the delay. It was a slow and discouraging business.
There was, however, progress in some directions. A general invitation had been broadcast to all Ethiopians who wanted to fight for their country to assemble in Khartoum. These began to arrive in considerable numbers, and were accommodated in a suitable camp at Soba, where part of the Ethiopians who had been mustered in East Africa were also brought. The training of these men was undertaken by British officers, and a training school was opened also for young Ethiopian officers. A considerable number of arms were issued to patriots just across the border; and then at the end of August a large caravan of pack animals arrived from Dejazmach Mangesha Jambari, one of the most important leaders in Gojjam, escorted by 200 men under the command of Shalaka Mesfin, an officer well known to the Emperor. This party had had a brush with the enemy before they succeeded in slipping through. To welcome and inspect them the Emperor was flown to Gedaref, and great was the propaganda value of this, for when these men got back to Gojjam with their arms, ‘Janhoy is here!’ they said. ‘We have seen him with our own eyes!’
On 27th September the Feast of the Cross was celebrated in the traditional manner by the Emperor and his suite and all the Ethiopians assembled in Khartoum.
At the beginning of September messages began to come in from Sandford by runner and over the wireless, which brought cheering news. He reported that he had been able to establish his headquarters at Sakala in the heart of the mountains in western Gojjam, close to the source of the Blue Nile; that he and Azazh Kabada had secured co-operation amongst the leading Gojjam chiefs—in particular Dejach Nagash and Dejach Mangesha Jambari; and that the advent of the Emperor was eagerly awaited. He told of operations undertaken by the patriots which were causing sufficient alarm to the Italian High Command to make them send reinforcements from Addis Ababa. He was able to report that the sight of British aeroplanes, and above all the dropping of ammunition and supplies at his headquarters, had caused an enormous sensation. In November he was able to report that Ras Hailu had been sent back to Gojjam by the Italians in the hope that his influence might—from the Italian point of view—restore morale and stop the defection and desertions of local chiefs and banda. The Italians were at this time making great use of propaganda, chiefly in the form of leaflets dropped from planes, but most of it was quite ineffective. There was, however, one particularly clever effort in this line. A leaflet was dropped purporting to be the copy of a proclamation by the Emperor appointing Dejazmach Mangesha Jambari Governor of the whole of Gojjam—an appointment which would have made him overlord over all the chiefs of the rival faction, the members of Ras Hailu’s family, and would have split Gojjam in two and destroyed at one swoop all the peace-making and healing of old feuds that Sandford and Kabada had so laboriously achieved in the past three months. Within a few hours horsemen began to arrive in Sandford’s camp with messages from the mission’s most useful supporters showing their extreme perturbation. The situation was indeed unpleasant and Azazh Kabada and his staff showed great uneasiness. The proclamation had all the outward marks of being genuine. It bore the Emperor’s seal; the writing, so they said, resembled that of one of the Emperor’s secretaries; and at the top there was a reproduction of a photograph of the Emperor landing from a British aeroplane at Gedaref. But really the whole thing was too clever to be true. Proclamations are formal documents drawn up in traditional form. The photograph looked out of place and there was an extra official seal on the top of the document which was unusual; and finally it was incredible that the Emperor should have been so maladroit. The matter was soon settled. The wireless was working; a question was asked and answered: the proclamation was a forgery and the horsemen were soon speeding back to allay the alarm, and the incident ended in a good laugh!
The long period of inaction in Khartoum, however, came to an end early in November. Mr Churchill had for some time been discontented with what he considered to be the lack of initiative shown in the conduct of affairs in Africa. Especially was he incensed with the fact that no use was being made of troops available in East and South Africa.
On 28th October Mr. Anthony Eden arrived in Cairo, where he met General Wavell, discussed the situation with him, and then flew on to Khartoum to stir things up. The result was immediate. Plans which had long been simmering but never reaching boiling-point were put into immediate operation.
General Platt was given reinforcements from the Middle East, but for a strictly limited period. He was to invade and overrun Eritrea and then sweep down into Ethiopia from the north. General Cunningham with troops available in East and South Africa should march into Ethiopia from the south; and Haile Selassie with such forces as could be collected for the purpose was to strike in at the centre and exploit the favourable situation that had by now been created in Gojjam by the activities of Mission 101.
Now for the first time the breezes of action began to allay the fever of anxiety and impatience in the house on the Nile. Few people knew who lived there. Now he could talk with someone who had the will and the authority to get things done. He asked that all available refugees in the Sudan and Kenya, including Eritrean prisoners of war, should be assembled, drafted into his bodyguard and other formations, and their training should begin at once. All this was agreed to and set in motion. Major Orde Wingate, who was later to acquire such fame in guerrilla warfare, and who was at that time in Cairo, was appointed to General Platt’s staff. An energetic and capable artillery officer, he had made his name in Palestine, where he espoused with great fervour the Jewish cause. For the next six months his job would be to organize and equip such forces as could be collected and to put them at the Emperor’s disposal. On 20th November Wingate flew into Gojjam to confer with Sandford and inform him of what was toward.
Within ten weeks from Eden’s arrival in Khartoum all was ready and the forward move began. Further, a heartening message from Sandford seemed to offer good augury for the future. On 17th December into all the bustle and turmoil of preparation word came from him that although the local situation seemed critical he was convinced that the boldest measures could be taken and might end in the campaign being over before the rains.
On 19th January Platt’s army crossed the frontier at Kassala; the Emperor marched in at Um Idla on the Sudanese border with Ethiopia the next day. General Cunningham launched his first attack in the south on 24th January.
The Emperor’s crossing the frontier at Um Idla was the occasion for a short ceremony at which the flag (safely stowed away during the occupation) was raised, and by the publication of a proclamation to all his people—I quote below.
At the same time he issued this appeal:
The Emperor’s little army—or escort—at this stage consisted of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion, raised from among refugees abroad, a battalion of the Sudan Defence Force, and his own bodyguard—a total of perhaps two thousand men. The plan was to concentrate this small force at Belaia, a great mountain mass rising out of the plain half-way between the frontier and the Gojjam escarpment. To service and provision this force fifteen thousand camels strung out along the hard and relentless road through the broken country around Belaia. Repeated attempts by motor transport to break through the bush had failed. Once the Emperor’s own lorry rolled over, and repeatedly he himself got out with his lords and officers to build stone tracks over the almost impassable country. All along the track lay the bodies of the camels dead and dying. The Emperor counted fifty-seven of them one day; pointing to one: ‘He too has died for Ethiopia,’ he said.
It was the Sudan Defence Force who reached Belaia first under their commander, Colonel Boustead, going by the way of the old caravan route. The Emperor with his bodyguard went in farther north over country only half reconnoitred and trackless—marching on a compass bearing. Wingate’s motive had been to screen the Emperor’s march, as far as possible, from the Italian garrison at Gubba, only fifty miles away. It proved a tiresome precaution, for the march took fourteen days instead of four or five, and the trucks conveying the Emperor and his suite had finally to be abandoned; a weary company arrived at Balaia on 6th February.
His faithful body servant, Asfaw—later to become a Fitaurari—arrived a few hours earlier to see that the arrangements for the reception of his royal master were suitably in order. Sandford was intrigued to notice an inquiring glance pass between the Emperor and his old servitor as he entered the shelter prepared for him and found all in order. Later he found out that Wingate, who was desperately short of riding animals in the emergency created by the failure of the vehicles to get through, had in ruthless and peremptory tones refused a mount to Asfaw, and prevented him from securing one. History does not relate what wings Asfaw acquired to enable him to arrive before time and have all comfortable for his master. But he certainly did not have the appearance of one who had arrived on foot!
The presence of the Emperor at Belaia acted as a magnet. From all sides men began to pour down to greet him. In a shelter that had been prepared for him, chiefs and retainers came, to prostrate themselves, to tell in the fouqara of their brave deeds, and how many Italians they had killed. It was well that there was much coming and going, stories to listen to, and plans to make, for the long wait on this isolated hillside must have been hard to tolerate. So near, and yet so many miles to go. Stores, ammunition, supplies of all kinds for a six months’ campaign had now to be transported up the track before the first move could be made. The Emperor had arrived in Belaia on 6th February. On 21st February Wingate and Boustead who commanded the Sudan Frontier Battalion began their forward march with Burye in Gojjam as their objective.
Sandford, his work in raising Gojjam against the invader finished, had come down to Belaia to take up his new work as principal Political and Military Adviser to the Emperor. There was no transport and he had to walk down the sixty miles in a pair of sandshoes, all that was left after six months of journeyings hither and thither among the mountains of Gojjam.
He had assured Wingate and Boustead that they would be able to press up the escarpment without opposition, as indeed proved true; and once up on the plateau level they pushed on quickly, through Ingebara to the small town of Burye, leaving behind them a trail of peasants along the road to repeat in excited whispers ‘He himself is here.’ Torelli, the Italian commander, had evacuated Dangila and withdrawn his force of more than one thousand men to the town of Bahardar Giorghis, where he was invested by a company of Sudanese for nearly two months. Then the Italians evacuated Burye, and a message was hastily sent back for the Emperor to come in as quickly as he could. A trail had been blazed up the escarpment and the Emperor left in a truck driven by a French Canadian, le Blanc. Safely negotiating the hastily constructed mountain track he entered Burye in triumph; the feu de joie let off by the patriots that night was far more dangerous than any shots fired in its defence by the enemy.
Burye now became the Emperor’s headquarters, and while Wingate with his diminutive force of little more than six hundred men hung on the trail of the retreating enemy, ten to fifteen times their number, the ‘build up’ for the next move was prepared. Stores slowly accumulated by air and by road; air communication was established with Khartoum, and before long his two sons joined the Emperor by this means. ‘Operational centres’ were briefed here for their respective jobs, furnished with mule transport, and sent off to do them. This meant that a young British officer, together with three or four British sergeants and a hundred or so Ethiopian soldiers who had been given some training in the Sudan, and had been issued with modern rifles and such mortars and light machine-guns as could be spared, would be sent off to stiffen the better organized of the patriot forces, and give them greater effectiveness in clearing the Italians from various outposts all over the country.
The first of these centres was pushed up to join Wingate, who was in the hills north of Debra Markos doing his best with the resources available to him to give the Italians there no peace. When the Keren battle was at a critical stage General Platt requested that everything possible should be done to prevent Italian reinforcements reaching the battle. The Emperor had already dispatched Ras Biru northwards to Debra Tabor, and two operational centres were immediately sent to join him. Their operations round Debra Tabor materially assisted in pinning down the Italian troops in that area.
Meanwhile the Emperor spent long hours every day receiving the Gojjam chiefs, and other patriot leaders from farther afield. It was essential as the troops moved forward to leave some form of stable administration behind them, and to find stable elements in Gojjam, where cohesion had never been the strong point, was not easy. It was essential too that on this return journey after the five years abroad no offence should be given, no sense of grievance aroused. He must also show his appreciation of the patriot effort in the traditional manner. This entailed arranging opportunities for each leader to parade before him, when he and his men could make their fouqara.
The situation of the Italians in Gojjam was now becoming precarious. Keren had fallen to General Platt and his army on 27th March. Cunningham’s troops were already advancing from the south. Under this force of circumstances the Italians withdrew from Debra Markos, crossed the Blue Nile on 3rd-4th April; the town fell to Colonel Boustead and his small force, and the Emperor moved in to take possession of the town and to receive the submission of Ras Hailu, and to be welcomed by the many thousands of countrymen who swarmed in to see their Emperor.
On 6th April General Cunningham’s forces entered Addis Ababa, and on 10th April Brigadier Lush, the deputy chief political officer and Sandford’s brother-in-law, flew from Addis Ababa to confer with the Emperor and Sandford at Debra Markos. Sandford flew back with him the same day, bearing with him the Emperor’s views on the forthcoming operations. It was now that patriot activities took on a larger aspect. General Cunningham, after receiving the surrender of Addis Ababa, had sent his troops in the main towards Jimma, in which direction the major part of the Addis Ababa garrison had withdrawn, but the course of events in the north made it imperative that his troops should take part, with General Platt’s from the north, in rounding up the enemy’s main army, which seemed likely to make its stand on the Amba Alagi massif, the decisive battleground of three previous campaigns. It was necessary, therefore, that the patriot army should help to occupy the attention of the very considerable forces of the enemy in the south-west while Cunningham thinned out his troops in that area in order to provide men for his thrust northwards. It was also necessary that patriot forces should assist in this thrust also.
The Emperor provided forces in four different areas: first on the great north road, to assist the northern thrust; secondly, on the roads leading from the capital to Jimma; thirdly, on the Lekemti road west of the capital, to hold up any diversion that might be made by General Gazzera, commanding the Italian troops in Wallega; and fourthly, to round up the Gojjam garrison, which had retreated by the main roads into the difficult country north-west of Addis Ababa. The Emperor’s preliminary instructions were given to the various leaders while he was still in Gojjam. Ras Ababa Aregai, the great patriot leader who had kept resistance against the Italians simmering ever since the fall of Addis Ababa in 1936, was instructed to send five hundred men immediately to co-operate with the South African forces attacking Dessie, and these men were dispatched by lorry within twenty-four hours of receiving the order and did most useful work during the attack on Dessie. The leadership of the patriot forces converging on Jimma was given to Gherassu Duke, another fighting soldier who had never surrendered to the Italians. Shalaka Mesfin and Azazh Kabada (Sandford’s colleague in Gojjam) commanded the patriots against Lekempti. To Ras Kassa the Emperor assigned the work of rounding up the Gojjam garrison, in conjunction with such of Wingate’s force as could be spared. Wingate himself, as was fitting, commanded the final assault, and thus had the satisfaction of finishing off in person the job he had begun four months earlier.
The last march into Addis Ababa must have been a moving and a heart-warming experience. Driving in from the gorge of the Blue Nile at the head of a long string of cars, past the wreckage of Italian vehicles that lay strewn along the road in mute evidence of hasty retreat, the Emperor would have seen from some fifty miles away the line of the Entotto hills that stand sentinel round the city. Rising to a height of some 10,000 feet they entirely obscure any trace of the capital city that lies to the south of them. The road winds across the long plain of Salulta, keeping close to the foot-hills to avoid the floods of the rainy season. There was a halt at Fiche to make arrangements for the Emperor’s entry into Addis Ababa; a pause at the ancient monastery at Debra Libanos, to remember with grief the treacherous shooting of Ras Kassa’s two sons and the execution of two hundred monks who had been charged with concealing rifles and sheltering patriots; then the approach to the foot-hills and finally the climb up the last 2,000 feet to the church of St Mary that crowns the summit. Here was a delegation of senior British officers sent by General Cunningham to receive the Emperor. But first of all into the church went the Emperor and his sons to give thanks to God for the mercies vouchsafed to them. As he came out the view of his capital burst upon him. The procession was formed; and down the steep road, eucalyptus fringed, came the liberators, Wingate on his white horse at the head of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion leading the procession; the Emperor and his lords; the Englishmen who had worked with and for him; and last, but not least, the smiling faces of the Sudanese of the Frontier Battalion who had helped in the long trek to victory. Lining the road were the patriots under their indomitable leader Ras Ababa Aregai, who had watched and fought and waited for him through the long five years.
‘On this day,’ said the Emperor as he stood on the rostrum in the old Menelek palace, where Lt-Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham, G.O.C. East Africa Force, and a guard of honour of the King’s African Rifles had met him, ‘which men of earth and angels of Heaven could neither have foreseen nor known, I owe thanks unutterable by the mouth of man to the Loving God who has enabled me to be present among you. To-day, I must first tell you, is the beginning of a new era in the history of Ethiopia. In this new era new work for all of us begins.’
Back in his own palace a mile away which had been made ready for him, the Emperor stood with a small group of personal staff and British officers. ‘Vraiment, j’ai ete tres emotionne,’* he said.
* Trans. 'Really, I was very emotional' - Ed.
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October 1 , 2019