Operation Gideon (i)

'Gideon' (i) was the British unofficial name by which the force commanded by Colonel O. C. Wingate under the auspices of the Special Operations Executive fought a guerrilla campaign in Abyssinia against the occupying Italians (1940/1 June 1941).

'Gideon' Force was a small British and African special force, which was in effect an elite element of the Sudan Defence Force, Ethiopian regular forces and Arbegnoch ('patriot') guerrilla forces. Its creator and commander was Major (later Colonel) Orde Wingate. At its peak, 'Gideon' Force had some 1,670 men,,of which 50 were British officers and 20 British non-commissioned officers. The force had a few mortars but no artillery and no air support other than intermittent bombing and supply sorties.

The force operated in difficult country at the end of a long and tenuous line of communications, on which nearly all of the 15,000 camels used as beasts of burden died, largely as a result of the combination of ignorant treatment and their commitment in highland terrain unsuitable for camels. 'Gideon' Force and the Arbegnoch nonetheless succeeded in defeating the Italian forces under Generale di Corpo d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi, who had earlier led the Italian seizure of British Somaliland. The campaign lasted six weeks and captured 1,100 Italian and 14,500 Ethiopian troops, 12 pieces of artillery, many machine guns and small arms together with ammunition, and more than 200 pack animals. 'Gideon' Force was disbanded on 1 June 1941, Wingate then being returned to his substantive rank of major. Wingate and many of his men were returned to Egypt, some of the men joined the Long Range Desert Group.

Having been defeated in the 1st Italo-Abyssinian War (1895/96), the Italians but in the course of the 2nd Italo-Abyssinian War (1935/37) the Italians more successfully invaded Ethiopia from Italian Somaliland and Eritrea, and on 9 May 1936 Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, proclaimed Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa) as an amalgamation of newly conquered Abyssinia and the Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somaliland. On 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on France and the UK, thereby making the AOI a threat to the British supply route to and from the Far East and Australasia along the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. While Egypt remained neutral during the war, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 allowed the British to occupy Egypt for the defence of the Suez Canal. At this time Egypt included Sudan as a condominium known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Egypt, the Suez Canal, French Somaliland and British Somaliland were vulnerable to an Italian invasion, and Mussolini looked forward both to propaganda triumphs and the seizure of Sudan and British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika). The Comando Supremo (Italian general staff) had planned for a war after 1942, so in the summer of 1940 was prepared for neither a long war or the occupation of substantial portions of eastern Africa.

The British had maintained a military presence in Egypt since 1882, but the strength of this presence had been significantly reduced by the terms of the treaty of 1936. A small British and commonwealth force garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route, and on 28 July 1939 General A. P. Wavell was appointed to head the new Middle East Command with responsibilities in the eastern Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Until the Franco-Axis armistice of 22 June 1940, French divisions in Tunisia faced the Italian 5th Army on the western Libyan border. In Libya, the Italian army had some 215,000 men while in Egypt the British had about 36,000 troops, with another 27,500 men training in Palestine. Wavell had about 86,000 troops at his disposal for the defence of Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Iran and East Africa.

Wavell opted for delaying operations as recommended in 'Operations Against Italian East Africa' by his operations section of August 1940. Pressure was to be maintained everywhere to make the Italians exhaust their resources, a limited offensive was to be undertaken from Kassala in Sudan against western Abyssinia, and an advance was to be made from north-eastern Kenya on Kisimayu in south-eastern Somaliland by January or February 1941. Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary convened a conference in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, at the end of October 1940, with the deposed Ethiopian monarch Emperor Haile Selassie and others, and it was decided that efforts would be made to foment unrest among local populations (especially in Abyssinia, where the SOE’s Mission 101 had crossed the frontier on 12 August) and the inclusion of Abyssinian irregular forces was also agreed. In November 1940, the British and commonwealth forces secured a significant intelligence advantage when the Government Code and Cypher School broke the high grade cypher of the Regio Esercito in East Africa. Later that month, the replacement cypher for the Regia Aeronautica was broken by the Combined Bureau, Middle East.

In August 1939, Wavell had ordered the drafting of a scheme for the covert encouragement of the continuing anti-Italian rebellion in the western Abyssinian province of Gojjam, and in September Colonel Daniel Sandford arrived to run the project. Until the Italian declaration of war, however, the British plan was held in check by the British policy of appeasement. Mission 101 was created to co-ordinate the activities of the Abyssinian resistance. In June 1940, Selassie arrived in Egypt and in July travelled south to Sudan to meet Major General (from 7 January 1941 Lieutenant General) W. Platt, the British commander in Sudan, and with him discuss plans for the recapture of Abyssinia, despite Platt’s reservations. In July, the British recognised Selassie as emperor and in the following month Mission 101 entered Gojjam province to reconnoitre. Sandford requested that supply routes be established before the rains ended, to the area lying to the north of Lake Tana, and that Selassie should return during October as a catalyst for the uprising. Gaining control of Gojjam required the isolation of the Italian garrisons along the main road from Bahrdar Giorgis south of Lake Tana, to Dangila, Debre Marqos and Addis Ababa, thereby preventing them from effecting a concentration against the Arbegnoch. Italian reinforcements arrived in October and undertook more frequent patrols just as dissensions among local potentates were reconciled by Sandford’s diplomacy.

The Frontier Battalion of the Sudan Defence Force, which had been created in May 1940, was joined at Khartoum by the 2nd Ethiopian and 4th Eritrean Battalions, raised from émigré volunteers in Kenya. Operational Centres (each comprising one British officer, five British non-commissioned officers and several picked Ethiopians) were formed and trained in guerrilla warfare, in order to provide leadership cadres, and £1 million was allocated for the funding of the operations. Wingate was sent to Khartoum with an assistant to join the headquarters staff of the Sudan Defence Force, and on 20 November was taken by air to Sakhala for a meeting with Sandford. Aircraft of the Royal Air Force lightly bombed Dangila, dropped propaganda leaflets and supplied Mission 101: this usefully boosted Abyssinian Ethiopian morale, which had been degraded significantly from Italian air power. Mission 101 managed to persuade the Arbegnogh in the area to the north of Lake Tana to implement several ambushes on the road linking Metemma and Gondar, and the Italian garrison at Wolkait was withdrawn in February 1941.

Platt planned to take a stronghold in Gojjam, install Selassie and then expand the revolt. The Frontier Battalion was to capture Belaya, 70 miles (110 km) into Abyssinia, as an advanced base for the operational centres that were now moving into the province. Sandford was to send recruits to Belaya and collect 3,000 mules to add to the camels from Sudan as transport and pack animals, and Selassie was to relocate to Belaya as soon as possible. The Italians retaliated by returning Ras Hailu to Gojjam, where he had great prestige, to weaken the Arbegnoch: otherwise Hailu Tekle Haymanot and Hailu II of Gojjam, this man was an army commander, a member of the Abyssinian nobility and typical of a provincial ruling elite often at odds with the Abyssinian central government). By January 1941, the Frontier Battalion had created two routes to Belaya and delivered stores, but Sandford had failed to provide the mules, thought essential for climbing the escarpment if camels proved unsuitable. Only two operational centres were ready, and Abyssian nobles had been reluctant to provide recruits. On 21 January, just after the Italian retirement from Kassala, Selassie crossed into Ethiopia and reached Belaya. Sandford was promoted to act as liaison between Selassie, Wavell, Platt and Cunningham, and Wingate assumed command of Mission 101. In February, the Frontier Battalion, 2nd Ethiopian Battalion and Nos 1 and 2 Operational Centres, were renamed 'Gideon' Force. Wingate was ordered to capture Dangila and Bure, each garrisoned by a colonial brigade, and to gain control of the road to Bahrdar Giorgis, to provide a base for Selassie. The Arbegnoch were to attack the main roads from Gondar and Addis Ababa and keep as many Italian troops as possible back defending Addis Ababa.

After Italian defeats in the Balkans and North Africa, exaggerated reports of British and Ethiopian troops operating from Sudan and the increasing hostility pf the Abyssinian population, an Italian withdrawal from the western part of Gojjam to Bahrdar Giorgis and Debre Marqos appeared likely. An Italian retreat would open the road needed by 'Gideon' Force and on 19 February, the force reached Matakal along a route passable by the camel trains. Selassie and 'Gideon' Force rallied the Arbegnoch forces using loudspeakers to announce the presence of the emperor and at the same time induce local notables and Italian native troops to desert. The Dangila garrison had retreated in the direction of Bahrdar Giorgis, and Wingate ordered that the remaining garrisons on the road were to be eliminated with the employment of guerrilla tactics to magnify the threat perceived by the defenders.

From 27 February to 3 March, 'Gideon' Force harassed the forts at Bure, while megaphones were used to foster the belief that the Italians were being attacked by a substantial force, rather than 450 men, provoking many desertions. On 4 March, fearing that the road to Debre Marqos was threatened, Colonnello Natale, the local commander, retreated toward Dembacha on the Debre Marqos road. Pursued by the Frontier Battalion, the Italians ran into the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion to the west of Dembacha and was overrun after a determined defence, suffering about 400 casualties, 2,000 prisoners, four guns and a quantity of vehicles and supplies. The 2nd Ethiopian Battalion lost 100 casualties and many pack animals, effectively reducing the battalion to the size of a company. The western end of the Gojjam road was freed and Selassie entered Bure on 14 March. The most westerly Italian positions were now at the Debre Marqos forts, which Wingate besieged with the Frontier Battalion and moved the rest of 'Gideon' Force towards the Blue Nile river.

Ras Hailu and several thousands of his followers now appeared, joining the Italians at Debre Marqos. It was at this stage that Nasi realised that the size of 'Gideon' Force had been radically exaggerated. Natale at Markos was replaced by Colonnelllo Maraventano, Nasi announced that Bure would be reoccupied, retook Fort Emmanuel and attacked the force at Bahrdar Giorgis. Wingate could retire on his line of communications toward Bure or attack boldly against the much superior Italian force: he opted for the latter. Nocturnal guerrilla attacks were made after careful preparation and needed great skill, discipline and dash from the Sudanese troops involved. In the middle of the night, parties of about 50 men crept to within 10 yards (9 m) of ant targeted post and attacked with grenades and bayonets. By a time early in April, the defenders had been forced back to the inner defensive ring of Debre Marqos. Maresciallo d’Italia Prince Amedeo Duca di Aosta, the Italian governor of AOI and commander-in-chief, ordered a withdrawal and on 4 April 12,000 people (including 4,000 women), began a 200-mile (320-km) journey to Safartak and thence Dessie. The attack on Bahrdar Giorgis by Colonnello Adriano Torelli’s five infantry battalions and pack artillery also failed. Selassie entered Debre Marqos on 6 April, which was the day on which Addis Ababa was captured from the south. The British successes in Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and southern Ethiopia transformed the strategic position, and the British policy now became one of reinstalling Selassie and mobilising Abyssinian military potential to participate in the reduction of the remaining Italian garrisons.

Wingate arranged for Lij Belay Zeleke, an outstanding leader of the patriot forces operating in Gojjam and Wällo provinces, to block an Italian line of retreat from Debre Marqos over the Blue Nile river, assisted by Bimbashi Wilfred Thesiger and Captain Foley, with a platoon of the Ethiopian Battalion. Zaleka apparently intrigued with Ras Hailu and remained passive, making it possible for the Italians got across the Blue Nile river and make for Addis Deraa. Three platoons of the Frontier Battalion and one from the Ethiopian Battalion pursued, despite running out of supplies and ammunition. At the end of April, two operational centres arrived to encourage the Arbegnoch, and command was assumed by Major D. H. Nott of Mission 101. The local population remained reluctant to participate, but using guile and bluff the pursuers kept the Italians disorganised as they ascended the escarpment before Addis Deraa.

An Italian counterattack was beaten back and a counter-raid inspired the civilian population both to help and to provide food. On 15 May, Wingate arrived from Addis Ababa during the night in which the Italians fell back toward Agibar and the road linking Debra Tabor and Gondar. Wingate ignored the orders calling him away and sent part of the force to cut off the Italians, as the main force with another 300 newly arrived Arbegnoch irregulars pressed the pursuit. On 19 May, Wingate called on Maraventano to surrender, but while refusing this demand nonetheless agreed to consult with the Italian headquarters by radio. The Italians then tried another counterattack, and Wingate claimed that his troops were going to leave and that only the Arbegnoch would remain. The ruse worked and Maraventano surrendered with 1,100 Italian and 7,000 Ethiopian troops.

'Gideon' Force now received orders that it was to cut roads over a wide area to stop the junction of the Italians currently in Amba Alagi, Gondar, Dessie and, to the south-west, Jimma. Two operational centres were sent to Begemdir, to the east of Lake Tana, with the task of severing the main road through Debra Tabor. The centres implemented several ambushes, recruited many more Arbegnoch and kept the Italians inside their fortifications. Late in April, the Frontier Battalion company at Bahrdar Giorgis repulsed an attack, and soon after this the Italians retreated along the eastern side of Lake Tana. Part of the Frontier Battalion remained to watch over Ras Hailu and then went with Selassie to Addis Ababa, joining the advance of the South African 1st Brigade to Asmara. The rest of the battalion, still in summer kit, advanced to the north from Debre Marqos to Lake Tana over a 14,000-ft (4265-m) pass in a blizzard, reached Mota and with a daring bluff persuaded the last Italian battalion in Gojjam to surrender. On 5 May, Platt passed control of the 'Gideon' Force and Arbegnoch operations beyond the curve of the Blue Nile river to Lieutenant General A. G. Cunningham, commanding the East African Force on the southern front, where the East African Force had invaded Abyssinia from Italian Somaliland.

At its peak, 'Gideon' Force had possessed 50 British officers, 20 British non-commissioned officers, 800 trained Sudanese troops and 800 partially trained Ethiopian regulars, a few mortars but no artillery and no air support, except for intermittent bombing sorties. The force had operated in difficult terrain at the end of a long and tenuous line of communications, on which nearly all of the 15,000 camels died. Aided by the Arbegnoch, 'Gideon' Force had defeated Nasi’s Italian forces in just six weeks and captured 1,100 Italian and 14,500 Abyssinian troops, 12 pieces of artillery, many machine guns and small arms, ammunition and more than 200 pack animals.

When 'Gideon' Force was disbanded on 1 June 1941, Wingate reverted to the rank of major and returned to Egypt. Wingate’s request for decorations for his men was ignored and his attempts to get back-pay for them was obstructed. In a report of 18 June to Wavell. Wingate outlined the campaign’s success and added his opinion on the advisability of subsequent actions of a similar nature: 'To sum up it is proposed to assemble and employ a force of the highest fighting qualities capable of employment in widely separated columns…that it should be allocated an objective behind the enemy’s lines, the gaining of which will decisively affect the campaign; and that to enable it to carry out its task it must be given a political doctrine consonant with our war aims.'

Wavell criticised Wingate for the report’s language and undertook to look into the grievances, but was soon sacked and sent to India. Wingate remained in Cairo until he got malaria and was sent back to the UK by troop ship, much to the relief of the general staff in Cairo, who had feared that he would meddle in the post-war politics of Ethiopia.