The 79th (McLean’s) Foot in Bolt Action


This is the third in a series of articles highlighting the Allied units that fought for the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941, for which there are currently no army lists or suitable theatre selectors in Bolt Action

Once completed and play-tested, these articles will become army lists and theatre selectors for the Ethiopian Patriot Campaigns of 1941. Previous articles can be found by scrolling down below.

Two of the more interesting units to take part in the final assaults on the heavily defended Italian strongholds of the Gondar region of Ethiopia in 1941 were the Wollo Banda and the 79th (Mclean’s) Foot

Both were locally-raised units that served with the Italian forces, but after the surrender of the Debre Tabor garrison on 6th July 1941, the majority of men from both units agreed to enlist with the British and fight against their former employers.

This article focuses on the 79th Battalion. A much larger article on the Wollo (the more remarkable of the two units) will follow this one.

79th Colonial Battalion

The 79th Colonial Battalion was a regular Italian ascari unit raised in Eritrea from mostly ethnic Tigreans. At the time of hostilities, they were based at Debre Tabor, an important and well fortified administrative centre on the Gondar-Dessie road. The garrison consisted of 6000 men defending a seven mile perimeter. 

In late March ’41 a small force consisting of No 3 patrol company of the Sudanese Frontier Battalion, No 2 Operational Centre and Ethiopian patriots under Fitauari Birru arrived in the Debre Tabor area with the aim of harassing and isolating the garrison. Birru was an important patriot leader, a commander in Haile Selassie’s 1936 army and a veteran of the Battle of Maychew – the last major battle of the war against the Italians.

In April 11th, the 79th battalion fought a particularly sharp action against Patriots and No 2 Operational Centre at the Limado bridge, three miles north of Debre Tabor on the Gondar road.

The patriots had ambushed an Italian supply column from Gondar whilst the centre troops were attempting to blow up the bridge closer to Debre Tabor. However, the 79th Battalion arrived in force from the garrison and after a fierce engagement, pushed the both patriots and centre troops back.

The bridge was still blown however, when a British Sergeant from the No 2 Centre rushed forward and heroically ignited the explosives at close range with his pistol. Sadly, the Sergeant was mortally wounded in the explosion and later died under Italian care. Sgt King (Royal Artillery) was later recommended for the Victoria Cross by Major Orde Wingate but nothing was ever heard of the award.

Italian ascari miniatures from Empress painted up as the 79th Battalion. In reality most ascari wore a khaki cover over their red Tabooshes when campaiging. The battalion’s tassel and cummerbund colours were actually brown and blue, but look yellow and blue on the illustrations – hence mine are yellow and blue.

79th (Mclean’s) Foot

In a quirk of war, No 2 Operational Centre was commanded by Lt Neil ‘Billy’ Mclean, A cavalry subaltern from the Royal Scots Greys who had volunteered for special duties in Ethiopia whilst ‘cooling his heels’ in Palestine.  Mclean was later present at the surrender of the Debre Tabor garrison in July ’41 and would take command of the 79th Battalion after their defection, leading them into battle alongside the 2nd Operational Centre – men the ascari had fought against only months before at Limado.

The unit was renamed the 79th Foot – or unofficially ‘McLean’s Foot’. McLean was promoted to Captain, his force now totaling 1000 men,  (200 centre troops and the 800 ascari from the 79th).

The ascari were allowed to keep their own weapons and Italian drill. Their graduati remained as corporals, the bulucbasci (sergeants) became platoon commanders and the sciumbasci (warrant officers) became company commanders. The battalion’s Italian officers remained prisoners of war.

Whilst most of the battalion enlisted willingly with the British, some did not. A small group of ascari refused to surrender the 79th battalion’s pennant and escaping capture, attempted to reach Italian lines at Culqualber, 106 kilometers away.

One of these men, Unatù Endisciau, an Ethiopian born graduati, would be awarded Italy’s Medaglia d’Oro – an equivalent award to the Victoria Cross. He was captured by patriots on route, but quickly escaped only to be mortally wounded crossing an Italian minefield as he neared Culqualber. He steadfastly refused to hand over the pennant to anyone and died within the garrison with the pennant still wrapped around his body under his tunic. He is one of only two colonial troops to be awarded the Medaglia d’Oro.

79th Battalion
The 79th Colonial Battalion as represented in Italian propaganda. The painting on the right depicts Unatù Endisciau returning the battalion’s pennant back to friendly lines at Culqualber after the refusing to surrender at Debre Tabor. In reality the pennant was wrapped around his body under his tunic. He was awarded Italy’s highest gallantry honour, the Medaglia d’Oro.

The 79th was immediately sent north to patrol the southern Italian forts around Gondar and the Kamant country to the west. The Kamant were a particularly troublesome pro-Italian tribe who had fought the patriots and Sudanese at Chilga (see previous post). Mclean’s men were not involved in the the two fierce battles to capture Culqualber, but took part in the final battle of the entire campaign – the capture of Gondar itself.

The Gondar battle will be covered in detail in a later article highlighting the Wollo Banda, but suffice to say ‘Mclean’s Foot’, along with the Wollo and a unit of Shoan Patriots played a decisive role in the battle.  This roughly 4000-strong flanking force of local Ethiopians and Eritrean ascari swept over their objectives at such speed on their bare feet it was difficult for the supporting artillery to keep their fire ahead of them.  The Wollo eventually ignoring orders, made for Gondar itself, where they were the first infantry troops inside the city.

Lt Billy Mclean

After serving in Ethiopia, McLean continued in special operations, working for Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) and also MI9.  In 1943 he led a five-man S.O.E mission into Albania, co-ordinating the partisan resistance against the Germans until their withdrawal in late 1944. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel at the age of 24.

After the war he continued working actively for western intelligence services, championing the cause of Turkis, Uzbeks, Kazaks, Tajiks, Pathans and the Kurds, as well as the royalist Yemenis against the threat of ‘communist domination’ (as he perceived it). He was also a Conservative MP for Inverness for 10 years.

McLean was a true larger-than-life character, his exploits are best described in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph written by his friend, author and former S.O.E. operative, Xan Fielding.

Billy McLean in Albania 1944, his uniform a mismatch of British Army battledress and local Albanian costume. 

79th (McLean’s) Foot Infantry Section

Cost : Regular Infantry 55 points
Composition: 1 NCO and 4 men
Weapons : Rifles
– Up to 5 additional soldiers armed with Rifles for 11 pts each.
– One soldier may have a light machine gun for an extra +20 points. Another soldier becomes the loader.
Special Rules :
– Natural Runners: Lightly encumbered, and running on bare or sandaled feet, certain East African troops could cover great distances at high speed.  Units with this special rule can advance 7 inches and run 14 inches.