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The Gideon Force was a small British-led African special force which acted as a Corps d'Elite amongst the Sudan Defence Force and irregular Ethiopian forces fighting the Italian occupation forces in Ethiopia during the East African Campaign of World War II. The leader and creator of the force was Major Orde Wingate.
Background and political situation
Italy occupied parts of Ethiopia in 1936, and eventually created Italian East Africa (covering modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). Italian troops in Ethiopia numbered about 250,000, most of them native Eritreans and Ethiopians recruited into the Italian army.
When Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war against France and Britain in June 1940, Italian forces became a potential threat to British supply routes in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. British troops in Egypt and the Sudan were outnumbered relative to the Italian forces in Ethiopia and Libya. This was put into stark perspective when Italian troops made advances to capture territory on the borders of Kenya and the Sudan in June and July before moving to conquer British Somaliland in August.
Short of men, General Archibald Wavell (the Commander-in-Chief of the British Middle East Command) needed all of the local support he could find. One answer was Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. The deposed emperor had been living in England ever since the Italians invaded his country in 1936 during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Ethiopian resistance fighters called Arbegnoch ("Patriots") had been fighting the Italians ever since the beginning of the occupation. They would raid Italian forts and communication lines. However, they hardly cooperated at all and the Italians were often able to play one group against another.
In June 1940, Wavell invited Emperor Selassie to Sudan so his supporters could rally around him. The British recruited a bodyguard for him from among the Ethiopian refugees in Khartoum. In July the British government recognized Haile Selassie and promised to help him.
In August 1940, the British set up Mission 101 led by Colonel Daniel Sandford, a close friend and advisor of Haile Selassie and who had encouraged him to return from Britain. The role of Mission 101 was to contact the Arbegnoch and make gifts of money to local leaders who agreed to fight the Italians. It would then organise "Operational Centres" (small groups of officers and NCOs) in Gojjam to provide weapons, training and co-ordination for Arbegnoch attacks. Wavell expected that these irregular forces would be able to tie down large numbers of Italian units throughout the colony, although Lieutenant-General William Platt, Wavell's senior commander in the Sudan did not believe that Hailie Selassie had the support of the majority of the Ethiopian people and was lukewarm towards providing support to the patriot groups.
At the end of October 1940, because of the increasing Axis threat in the Middle East, the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden convened a conference in Khartoum. The importance of defeating the Italian Army in East Africa prior to operations in North Africa became a priority in order to avoid any conflict on two fronts. In attendance were Emperor Selassie, South African General Jan Smuts (who held an advisory brief for the region with Winston Churchill), the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command, Archibald Wavell and his senior military commanders in East Africa, Lieutenant-General Platt and Lieutenant-General Cunningham. The general plan of attack, including the use of Ethiopian irregular forces, was agreed upon at this conference. Also agreed was an increased level of support for the Arbegnoch.
Part of the increased support saw the posting in early November of Major Orde Wingate (who had spent five inter-war years with the Sudan Defence Force and was later to gain fame in Burma with the Chindits) to Khartoum as a staff officer with the brief of liaising between Platt, Mission 101 and the Emperor. Wavell had met Wingate during their service in Palestine and selected him for the job. On 6 November 1940, Wingate arrived in Khartoum.
Wingate formulated a plan for action in Ethiopia which he presented to Wavell and senior staff in Cairo in early December 1940. The plan included the formation of a small regular force under Wingate to act as a spearhead for military operations in Gojjam. He argued that:
|“||To raise a revolt you must send in a Corps d'Elite to do exploits and not just as peddlers of war material and cash ... A thousand resolute and well-armed men can paralyse 10,000||”|
His plan was approved by Wavell (in the face of Platt's lack of enthusiasm) and Wingate created his formation from one battalion of Sudanese of the British Sudan Defence Force and one battalion of Ethiopian soldiers of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion, mostly composed of soldiers that had served in the Ethiopian army as well as some members of the Haganah Force who served with him in Palestine in 1936. In total, they numbered only 2,000 men and 18,000 camels meant for transport. The camels were under the care of Laurens van der Post who would go on to become a famous author. The explorer and author Wilfred Thesiger was one of the force commanders. Wingate named these soldiers as the Gideon Force, after the biblical figure of Gideon.
By mid-January 1941 the British had reinforced their troops in the Sudan under Platt to two expanded divisions. They had also built up their forces in Kenya to three divisions under Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham. On 18 and 19 January 1941, the British launched offensives against the Italians: Cunningham's force from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and southern Ethiopia and to the north Platt's divisions from the Sudan into Eritrea. On 20 January, the Emperor, accompanied by Wingate, met Ethiopian soldiers on the border crossing from Sudan into Ethiopia at Um Idla.
Wingate's horse-mounted Sudanese troops reached Mount Belaya in five days, while the Ethiopians with their camel caravan took 2 weeks. Wingate and the emperor arrived at Belaya on 6 February and Haile Selassie established his headquarters there.
Platt's poor opinion of Hailie Selassie, Sandford and Wingate, meant that he paid little attention to Mission 101 and the resulting lack of clear areas of responsibility and chains of command (together with Wingate's naturally abrasive manner) meant that for the whole campaign there was friction and animosity between Wingate and the other commanders. On Wingate's arrival at Belaya there followed a period of considerable tension between Wingate and Sandford because the latter assumed he was in overall command. On 12 February they were both summoned to Khartoum where Platt attempted to resolve the issue by confirming Wingate's appointment to command Gideon Force and making him an acting Colonel. Sandford was very upset but was then summoned to Cairo, congratulated on his work and appointed Brigadier, leaving the overall issue unresolved.
On 18 February Gideon Force started crossing over the escarpment into the eastern part of Gojjam. Aided by Arbegnoch fighters, they attacked the Italian forts, garrisons and patrols. Also due to the advance of Cunningham's forces in Somalia, the Italians withdrew eastward from their positions.
On 24 February, Wingate led Gideon Force to surround the Italian fort at Bure. Some of the Ethiopian force got lost and a grass fire hindered them, but they met with no Italian resistance. Wingate tried to give an impression of a larger force to intimidate the Italians; he spread the men wide and again, accompanied by the Arbegnoch, began to ambush the Italians. Wingate led some groups himself.
At the same time, Selassie approached the area. Formerly neutral or pro-Italian local rulers turned to support him. Ethiopian irregulars attached to Italian units, known as banda, began to desert to the Emperor's side.
The numerically superior Italians retreated to the southeast on 4 March. The British command in Khartoum, which had cracked the Italian codes, informed Wingate of the move. He ordered a Sudanese unit to block and ambush the Italians, but the commander of the unit failed to do so. Disappointed, Wingate ordered a pursuit and his men made small harassing attacks against the Italians. The Italians pushed through a small Ethiopian force near Dembecha on the Chakara River with 325 casualties (Ethiopian casualties were only 48). The Italian commander of Dembecha also retreated to the east against his orders and Gideon Force occupied Dembecha on 8 March.
The next target of the combined British force was a fort near Debre Marqos. This time, the Italians counterattacked and fierce fighting ensued. Gideon Force retreated and began hit-and-run attacks and raids to drain Italian strength. Italian losses amounted to 200 over the next weeks. Their intention to evacuate was blocked by the Arbegnoch.
A couple of days after the Italians had left Debra Marqos, Haile Selassie entered the city on 6 April. At the same time, British regular forces entered Addis Ababa.
Other Italian forces retreating to the east and over the Blue Nile were continuously harassed by the Arbegnoch and Gideon Force. However, some Arbegnoch began looting in the retaken areas and Gideon Force had to restore order.
When most of Gideon Force were ordered to Addis Ababa (which had been occupied by Cunningham's troops on 6 April), a smaller force (Safforce) under Mission 101 pursued retreating Italians to the north towards Debre Sina. While this was going on, on 5 May, Emperor Selassie made his formal entry into Addis Ababa with a victory march in which most of Gideon Force were required to provide his escort. After the ceremonies Wingate returned to Safforce.
Shortly after his return, Wingate received an order from Cunningham to stop the pursuit of retreating Italians and help other British forces elsewhere. He pretended that he could not decipher the message and continued on his course. The other part of the Gideon Force, led by the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, crossed to the north of the Debra Sinai plateau and attacked from the north. On 18 May, the Italians found themselves blocked from the north and south. Thinking he faced superior numbers, the Italian commander agreed to surrender on 24 May.
The Gideon Force was officially disbanded on 1 June 1941. Wingate returned to Egypt. Many of the troops from the Gideon Force were transferred to North Africa and attached to the 8th Army Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). The last Italian troops surrendered in Begemder province in the north to British and Arbegnoch forces.
With the surrender of the Italians, the British, under pressure from the US administration, signed an agreement acknowledging Ethiopian sovereignty in January 1942.
Wingate came down with malaria and was sent back to Britain by troop ship, much to the relief of the general staff in Cairo who had feared that he would get involved in the post war politics of Ethiopia. They also ignored Wingate's request for decorations for his men and obstructed his attempts to get back-pay for his force.
While still in Cairo, out of frustration, Wingate had written a report for Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East, in which he outlined the successes of the campaign and his views on future actions of a similar type. He wrote, in part:
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.
His report impressed the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, who persuaded Wingate to remove the recriminations in the paper, and then passed it to the War Cabinet and Winston Churchill. He also notified Wavell who was now Commander-in-Chief, India that Wingate had been declared medically fit. In February 1942, Wingate left London for Burma at the request of India Command. It was there that Wingate further developed his ideas and put them into practice when he formed the Chindits.
- Rooney, David, Wingate and the Chindits, p. 52
- Keegan, John, The Oxford Companion to World War II, p. 245
- Rooney, David, Wingate and the Chindits, p. 49
- Rooney, David, Wingate and the Chindits, pp. 53, 54
- Rooney, David, Wingate and the Chindits, p. 57
- Keegan, John (2005). Dear, I.C.B.; Foot, M.R.D., ed. Oxford Companion to World War II. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280670-3.
- Mackenzie, Compton (1951). Eastern Epic. London: Chatto & Windus.
- McNab, Duncan (2011). Mission 101. Sydney & Melbourne: Pan Macmillan Australia. ISBN 978-1-74261-042-9.
- Rooney, David (1994). Wingate and the Chindits. London: Cassell & Co. ISBN 0-304-35452-X.
- Shirreff, David (2009) . Bare Feet and Bandoliers: Wingate, Sandford, the Patriots and the Liberation of Ethiopia. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military. ISBN 978-1-84884-029-4.