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Ethiopia’s fate and fortunes in the first part of the twentieth century were closely bound up with those of the participants in World War II.
When that conflict was considered to have begun and ended depended, however, on national circumstances.
Our old friend Ato Zaude Hailemariam, son of Hailemariam Mamo, the Ethiopian guerrilla leader during the Italian occupation, and himself a sometime Ethiopian Ambassador to Sweden, used to argue that World War II began with Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935.
Others, however, have seen the chronology somewhat differently. British commentators invariably assume that World War II started with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany in November 1939. Russians on the other hand reckon that the conflict began two years later with Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, while Americans begin the conflict some months later with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in December of that year.
Questions for all students: In what year did Albania enter World War II, and on which side(s) was Romania?
World War II and the Ethiopian Liberation Campaign of 1940-1.
Mussolini, by declaring war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940 gambled the entire future of his regime on the hope of bringing together victorious forces from Ethiopia and Libya in a pincer movement – and thereby blocking Britain’s links with India and the East, and himself becoming a dominant factor in the Middle East.
Mussolini’s army at the opening of hostilities with Britain enjoyed immense superiority in men, fire-power, amour, and air support. Italy had over half a million well-armed and trained troops, almost 600 tanks and little short of 400 aircraft. This should have enabled the Duce’s men to overrun Kenya and Sudan with little difficulty.
However, the fighting morale of the Italian soldiers was low. Tired of the Duce’s talk of a “civilising mission” in Africa, they found themselves isolated from metropolitan Italy and increasingly harassed by the Ethiopian Patriots whose defeat had long been anticipated – but failed to materialize.
This brings us to a new book on the Ethiopian liberation campaign, written by Duncan McNab, a nephew of one of its Australian participants. This work, entitled Mission 101, published this year by the History Press in Stroud, Great Britain, is sub-titled The Untold Story of the SOE [Special Operations Executive] and the Second World War in Ethiopia. According to the blurb, the Mission, which began operations in January 1941 led “a small force of Ethiopian freedom fighters on an epic trek across the harsh African bush from the Sudan.. against the 250,000 strong Italian army… one of the most successful guerilla actions of the entire war”.
McNab’s interesting new book at least partially re-tells the story of Mission 101. This, you may remember, dear reader, was a British military mission dispatched to Italian-occupied Ethiopia under the renowned Brigadier Daniel Sandford (Royal Artillery) in 1940. – and is well described in David Shirref’s earlier pioneering work Bare Feet and Bandoliers (London, 1995). The Mission’s name was intended to be prophetic, in that it alluded to a fuse widely used by the British army to trigger explosions. The name carried the implication that the Mission, like the fuse, might lead to a popular Ethiopian uprising.
Indeed, Mission 101 did just that: it sparked off an outburst of renewed Ethiopian Patriot activity which led on to the country’s liberation in a matter of months. It had taken much longer for the invader to occupy it, half a decade earlier.
Mission 101, though a British operation, included several non-English participants, of whom no fewer than six were Australian (hence the interest of the author). They comprised Allen Brown, who attained the rank of major, and four sergeants, three of whom had been at school together. They were the author’s uncle, J.R.(Ken) Burke; W.L. (Bill) Howell; F.M. (Ted) Body; and Ron Wood. They are described in a contemporary report as “all gunners – very good type of chaps”.
A sixth Australian was the renowned Arnold Wienholt, a former Australian Member of Parliament, who is noteworthy in that he befriended the Ethiopian Patriots before Mussolini’s involvement in the European war – and whose story deserves to be better known in Ethiopia than it is today.
In collecting the memories – and records – of these six Australians– McNab “fleshes out” the Ethiopian-Australian story; he adds significantly to the historical record – and deserves our thanks.