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.

Ethiopian Battalions and Mortar Platoons 1941 in Bolt Action


D Company of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion march past the Emperor Haile Selassie at Um Idla, inside the Ethiopian border.  The Emperor had flown in to raise the Imperial Standard, 20th January 1941.

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

Eventually, these articles will become army lists and theatre selectors for The Ethiopian Patriot campaign in the Western Provinces of Ethiopia of 1941. 

The first article on the Sudanese Defence Force and Frontier Battalion can be found here.

This article focuses on the Ethiopian Battalions and the Mortar Platoon that was raised by the British for service against the Italians

The Ethiopian Battalions

There were four Ethiopian Battalions raised by the British in 1940-41 for service in the campaign to free Ethiopia – however, it was only the 2nd battalion, and to a lesser extent, the 3rd that played meaningful roles in the Italian defeat.

Both the 1st and 2nd Battalions were raised out of the large refugee camps that had sprung up in Northern Kenya after the 1936 war with Italy, but that’s where any similarities between the two units end.

For years, these refugees had been vainly demanding arms, ammunition and the authorisation to cross the border and attack the Italians. The British high command in Kenya however, was slow to recognise the potential of forming these men into units, despite many of them having fought the Italians in the previous conflict. Subsequently, the formation of the 1st Battalion was rushed and given little thought. It was scandalously under-trained, ill-equipped and was sent over the border into Southern Ethiopia with no logistic support under the command of two exiled Ethiopian chiefs.

The men were given vague orders to link up with existing rebel bandas, but unfortunately they had to pass through a region that was not only harsh, bare and foodless, but was also occupied by hostile, pro-Italian Daasanach tribesmen. Unsurprisingly after 14 days, the 500-strong unit had made little progress and was forced back over the border after skirmishing with a well-armed Daasanach banda. After this incident, which gave the Ethiopians an (undeserved) bad name with the British staff, the 1st Battalion was disbanded with some of its troops finding their way into the 2nd Battalion, Operational Centres and later into Irregular Ethiopian Scout units that proved to be extremely effective in Cunningham’s southern campaign.

2nd Ethiopian Battalion

The 2nd was a half-sized battalion of 600 men that served from the very outset with Gideon Force and fought right through to the final battles of the Gondar campaign.  It was comprised largely of former soldiers of Haile Selassie‘s defeated army, with junior officers being selected due to their former rank under the Emperor. 

In stark contrast to the 1st Battalion however, the 2nd was far more thoroughly trained with the intention that it operate alongside regular Commonwealth troops.  It had 3 months basic training in Kenya, then traveled by train and river streamer to Khartoum, Sudan, where it trained for another month before its deployment with Gideon Force.

In contrast to the Sudanese Frontier Battaion, which was lead by fluent Arab-speaking British officers, all with considerable local experience – the 2nd Battalion was lead by a core of 6 inexperienced British officers, none of whom had been pre-war regulars and none with any local Amharic language skills. Communication between officers and men was done in basic Swahili, a second language both parties had picked up in Kenya.


The Emperor Haile Selassie reviewing the perimeter defenses upon his arrival at the HQ base at Mount Belaiya in Ethiopia. Men of 2nd Battalion stand guard, (note the Lewis gun).

The battalion was originally equipped with outdated French rifles from the previous century, but just prior to deployment they were issued with WW1 era American Springfield rifles – which they kept throughout the campaign. Their armory was rounded out with a handful of Lewis guns, Vickers machine guns and Boyes anti-tank rifles.

The men were natural soldiers with a strong esprit de corps, but they were inexperienced and lead by a core of equally keen but inexperienced British officers. The unit’s performance was initially patchy, fighting with great gallantry and effectiveness at the Battle at Charaka River but found wanting in other actions. 

At the Charaka River bridge, on the road to Dembecha, three companies of the battalion (approximately 300 men) were surprised by a force of 6000 Italians (including two armoured cars) that had abandoned the fort at Burye and were marching in columns to Dembecha. Due to a scarcity of radios, Gideon Force commander Major Wingate had been unable to get word to the Ethiopians that the Italians were headed straight for them. A fierce fire fight developed as progressively more and more Italians entered the battle, with the Ethiopians holding off the vastly superior force across the river for four hours before being overwhelmed and having to retreat into nearby woods.  


Major Wingate reviewing the men of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion at Dembecha after its abandonment by the Italians. The Ethiopians had recently arrived after their battle at Charaka River.

Three weeks after the Charaka battle, during a series of attacks on Italian positions at the town of Amanuel, south of Dembecha, the battalion experienced a crisis of a different type. 60 men of A company mutinied over mistreatment by a pair of British officers, refused orders and marched off to see the Emperor with their grievances. The mutiny threatened to spread through the battalion when several more platoons followed the mutineers and others were found drinking heavily in the camp the next morning. A furious Wingate sacked both the battalion and company commanders, who were poor officers and had been using their fists on their men. 

The mutineers, now numbering over 100 men, were found preparing their own attack on the Italian positions at Amanuel. The men may have lacked discipline but not courage or commitment to the cause. The mutineers swiftly returned to the unit once they realised their former commanders had been dismissed.

The battalion became an increasingly effective unit as the campaign wore on, but the stigma of the mutiny remained. It was not to be until late in the Gondar campaign that its its poor reputation was reversed.  The under strength battalion, together with an small irregular cavalry unit of 50 Sudanese and Ethiopians was ordered to stop the movement of supplies from Gondar to Lake Tana – from whence they were transported by boat to the besieged forts at Kulkulber.

A decision was made to attack the heavily fortified blockhouse at Gianda, the central outpost commanding the road to Gondar. With no mortars or supporting weapons other than Vickers Machine guns, the battalion assaulted the blockhouse with small arms and grenades. After a bloody, four-hour engagement, the Italians surrendered when a Verey pistol set fire to adjacent buildings and the grenades started to find their mark.

The battalion and the cavalry then drove back a relieving Italian force from a nearby fort and in the following weeks, continued to raid the remaining Italian positions in the area. The result of this small but very sharp action at Gianda, was that communications where cut between Gondar and Lake Tana, and the first crack in the Gondar defences had been made. 

The divisional intelligence report for the action records ‘A fierce engagement lasting four hours… Ethiopians are reported to have behaved magnificently’.  

3rd Ethiopian Battalion

The 3rd Battalion was raised in Khartoum, from Italian ascari deserters captured at the Battles at Gallabat and Kassala during Platt’s advances. The unit was retrained by the British, with the existing graduati (NCOs) given British equivalent ranks. They were armed with Springfield rifles and Hotchkiss machine guns and were lead by small core of British officers. 

The battalion (without C Companysee below) fought bravely in their sole action of the war. In April 1941, they climbed a 2000 foot escarpment to capture the heights near the strongly-fortified Italian positions at Chilga on the Gondar road, but were counter-attacked by a larger force of Italian bandas and local Qemant tribesmen and were pushed back to their starting positions.  The battalion remained outside Chilga containing the Italians, who continued to control the naturally strong defenses of the escarpment for six months until the eventual fall of Gondar. The Italians (correctly) claim the defense of Chilga as among their last victories of the war.

C Company of the 3rd Battalion wrote a completely different story to the main battalion. It was formed in Khartoum from a complete Italian ascari company, that had deserted en bloc. They were retrained, re-equipped and sent independently into the Gondar region under Major General Platt‘s direct orders. Lead by Second Lieutenant Railton, a confident (and as it turned out, a surprisingly talented) 20-year old British officer, they operated as a harassing force, with orders to link up with the region’s patriots and disrupt communications along the Gondar-Asmara road. The company proved to be extremely efficient, and became the most valued Allied unit over the tough 5-month campaign to capture a series of strongly-held mountain forts protecting the Wolchefit pass – control of which was needed to launch the final attack on Gondar.  In a number of key actions, C Company out-performed the more experienced Indian battalion, 3/14 Punjabis, sent to bolster the forces besieging Wolchefit.

Two month’s after the final Italian surrender, in January 1942, Railton‘s C Company was chosen to provide the guard of honour at the official signing of the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement in Addis Ababa.


Aftermath of the surrender of the Italian garrison at the Wolchefit Pass. Men of the 2/4th King’s African Rifles (KAR) collect arms from the 3000 Italian troops who marched into captivity after a tough, five-month campaign.

A fourth Battalion was raised in Khartoum but saw no action in the campaigns. After the capture of Addis Ababa and the reinstatement of Haile Selassie to the throne, the Ethiopian Battalions became the first units of the newly re-established Ethiopian Army.

Ethiopian Battalion Infantry Section

Cost : Inexperienced Infantry 40 points
Composition: 1 NCO and 4 men
Weapons : Rifles
– Up to 5 additional soldiers armed with Rifles for 8 pts each.
– One soldier may have a light machine gun for an extra +20 points. Another soldier becomes the loader.
– The light machine gun may be replaced by a Lewis Gun for -5pts.

Special Rules :
– Green:
(at no extra point cost)
– Stoppages (Lewis Gun):  The gun has suffered stoppage if two or more 1s are rolled when testing for hits. It remains out of action for one turn while the gunner clears the blockage. He may not fire other weapons or move (unless in a vehicle) while he does so.

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.

Ethiopian Mortar Platoon

The Ethiopian Mortar Platoon consisted of 50 men led by a single officer, all Ethiopian. They had been recruited in Gedaref from a patriot banda that had presented itself to the officers of  Mission 101 for service against the Italians. They were equipped with four 3-inch mortars made in the Khartoum railway yards and trained in their use by a Sergeant from the local British garrison.

As robustly made as the mortars were, they were fitted with improvised range finders and the men needed to use a keen eye when firing – something they became extremely adept at throughout the campaign.

On their arrival in Ethiopia, half of the platoon was immediately sent with No 1 Operational Centre to invest the Italian forts at Burye and Injibara on the road to Debra Markos.  The five Australians leading this Operational Centre were all artillerymen recruited from the 2/1st Field Battalion and from the outset, took the mortar platoon under their wing.  Throughout the Gojjam camapign, the mortars were often attached to elements of the No 1 Centre, achieving a remarkable level of accuracy with their improvised weapons.

The Mortar Platoon was Gideon Force‘s only artillery.  It served throughout the entire campaign, including the final battles at Gondar, suffering 50% casualties.


The Ethiopian Mortar Platoon training at Gedaref in December 1940.

Ethiopian Medium Mortar Team

Cost : 50 points (Regular)
Team: 3 men
Weapons : 1 Medium Mortar
Options: None
Special Rules :
Team Weapon
Indirect Fire

Improvised Mortars: These mortars were made in the Khartoum railway yards  and lacked appropriate range finders. The team must have line-up sight to their targets to be able to fire. This, combined with a severe shortage of radio sets also means this mortar team cannot take a spotter as an option.

Stay tuned for the next instalments, when we look at the Operational Centres, Ethiopian Irregular Patriot squads, 79th (McClean’s) Foot and the Wollo Banda.

See also, the first article of the series on the Sudanese Defence Force and Frontier Battalion.

The Sudanese Defence Force & Frontier Battalion in Bolt Action


Troops of the Sudanese Defence Force training in Omdurman, 1940. (Imperial War Museums collection).

An Unofficial Army list for Bolt Action. Part 1.

This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the Allied units that fought in the East African campaign of 1940-41 for which there are currently no army lists or suitable theatre selectors for Bolt Action.  These articles will focus primarily on the African forces that played an important, but under-appreciated role in the liberation of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia from Italian rule.

Initially,  I intend to create an army list and two theatre selectors for the Ethiopian Patriot Campaigns in the Western Provinces of Ethiopia of 1941.  But first some background.

The East African Campaign

Despite the East African campaign being the first strategic Allied victory of the war, it was overshadowed by events occurring elsewhere in the Western Desert and Mediterranean theatres – and remains to this day, largely forgotten. 

It was no mere sideshow, however. The Italian forces spread across Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia numbered over 250,000 troops, many of whom had been battle-tested during the recent conquest of Ethiopia and subsequently in attempting to subdue a stubborn Ethiopian resistance movement. 

Their presence not only threatened the British and French colonies in East Africa, but more crucially, endangered the vital Allied shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to the Suez Canal.  Subsequently, Middle East Command prioritised the campaign to defeat the Italians in East Africa above all others (with the exception of the defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal itself). 

The campaign was the brainchild of General Wavell and in early 1941 the Allies launched a sophisticated three-pronged attack.

An entirely African-raised force commanded by Major General Cunningham easily retook British Somaliland from the Italians, and pushed up through Italian Somaliland and into Ethiopia from the South. This was a breathtaking, mechanised advance across hundreds of kilometres, that saw 50 000 Italians captured for the loss of only 500 allied troops.

Martmopn Herrigton Sa

South African armoured car unit cleaning weapons at Hobok in Southern Ethiopia.  (Imperial War Museums collection).

At the same time, Major General Platt‘s Anglo-Indian and Sudanese forces pushed down from the north through Eritrea and into Ethiopia, defeating the bulk of the Italian forces in large, decisive battles at Agordat and Keren.

In addition to these two major offensives, a third front was opened when a number of Anglo-African special forces units infiltrated Ethiopia from the West. These forces were lead by the enigmatic Major Orde Wingate, who named it Gideon Force after the biblical military leader and prophet. 

Gideon Force

Gideon Force was a small Corps d’Elite of approximately 2000 Sudanese and Ethiopian troops lead by Wingate and a core of hand-picked British and Commonwealth officers and NCOs.

It expanded upon a much smaller operation called Mission 101, whereby British Intelligence had been covertly funding and arming the Ethiopian resistance movement since the outbreak of hostilities, and already had small teams of operatives in the field liaising with key rebel leaders across several provinces. 

In early 1941, the Gideon Force infiltrated Western Ethiopia from the Sudan. Their orders were to link up with, and expand the efforts of Mission 101 and the local rebels in harassing and tying down the Italian forces in the Gojjam province in particular. The Italians had never been able to repress the Gojjam rebellion.

After Wingate‘s forces were established, the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie crossed the border to symbolically lead and focus the resistance movement.

Wingate‘s tactics were bold and unpredictable, and the entire operation was an stunning success and exceeded expectations. By a brilliant combination of propaganda and hit-an-run guerrilla warfare, the defence-minded Italians were convinced from the outset, they were being attacked by a much larger British force and retreated to their forts. Thus handing Wingate and his Ethiopian allies almost complete freedom of movement in the countryside.  

As the Italians were forced into retreat, more local chiefs began to see the shift in the balance of power and started pledging support to the Emperor. As the outcome of the campaign became clearer, even bandas who has been previously loyal to the Italians, started to defect. Upon Wingate’s insistence, all Ethiopians fighting for the allies became known as ‘Patriots‘.


Ethiopian Patriots wearing a combination of captured Italian uniforms and civilian dress and carrying Italian Carcano rifles. Wingate insisted that all Ethiopian resistance fighters be referred to as ‘Patriots’ regardless of their ethnic or tribal origins.

Increasingly, isolated, with declining morale, the Italians in the Gojjam were soundly defeated within three months. In total, 1,100 Italian and 14,500 colonial troops were captured, along with armoured cars, other vehicles, artillery pieces and thousands of small arms. 

A month after the capital Addis Ababa had been secured by Cunningham‘s South Africans, the Emperor Haile Selassie entered Addis Ababa with Wingate at the head of a column of men from the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion.

Gideon Force was subsequently disbanded and its units, along with several Patriot bandas, were absorbed into Cunningham’s overall command for the last battles to liberate Ethiopia in the neighbouring northern Gondar Province.

These were tough battles fought for control of the mountain passes and it’s heavily defended forts. The Italians, emboldened by news of Rommel‘s successes in the Western Desert and hoping for a German victory in Egypt, were determined to hang on to the last scrap of their empire for as long as possible. They fought more cleverly and tenaciously than many of their fellow countrymen elsewhere in the countryside had,  but eventually were forced into surrender.

Militarily, Gideon Force played a relatively minor role in the overthrow of Italian rule in East Africa. The bulk of Mussolini’s forces were defeated by the decisive and attritional battles fought in the north around Keren, and by the relentless, ‘blitzkreig’ advance of the Africans from the south. These actions pitted divisions against divisions, involved mechanised warfare and air support. 

There is much more to be written of Gideon Force, its units and its major actions in subsequent articles. There will be new units profiled such as The British-raised Ethiopian Battalions, the Operational Centres (elite mobile columns of Ethiopian patriots lead by commando-trained British officers and NCOs), propaganda units… and of course the Ethiopian Patriot Bandas.

In the subsequent Gondar campaign, these troops fought alongside more new units to Bolt Action such as the Kings African Rifles, turncoat Italian colonial units such as the 79th (McCleans) Foot and notable patriot units such as the Wollo Banda (the ‘Easy Company’ of Ethiopian rebels!)… and more.

Gideon Force remains a fascinating unit in an under-appreciated campaign…. and one to play out on the tabletop. 

The first units we’ll look at are the men from Sudan, The regular Defence Force that fought alongside the British and Indian troops in the north, and the also the Frontier Battalion, a battalion raised specifically for guerrilla fighting that was key to Gideon Force‘s successes.

Sudanese Defence Force


Troops of the Sudanese Defence Force training in Omdurman, 1940. (Imperial War Museums collection).

After the First World War, there was considerable anti-British sentiment in Egypt that developed into unrest and violence across the whole region. After a mutiny in Khartoum, the Egyptian troops stationed in the Sudan were deemed unreliable and plans for a locally recruited force to replace them were drawn up.

When the Sudanese Defence Force (SDF) was formed in 1925, its main function was one of internal security and policing in the event of civil or tribal unrest. Later in the mid 1930s, it would be used to counter the threat of Italian expansionism in the region.

The SDF was successfully organised along ethnic and religious lines, with two battalions recruiting exclusively from Muslim Arabs in the east and west, and one raised from the Equatorial South. These were known as the Eastern Arab Corps, Western Arab Corps and Equatorial Corps respectively. They were supported by artillery, engineer, armoured car and machine-gun units; plus medical, signals and transport services. A Camel Corps was also raised.

The force expanded in the wake of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 and at the outbreak of open hostilities with Italy in June 1940, comprised of twenty-one companies — including five Motor Machine Gun Companies – totaling more than 4,500 men.

More men would be needed quickly, and the SDF expanded rapidly throughout the remainder of 1940 in preparation for the campaigns in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Notably, The SDF took part in the defence of the border towns of Kassala and Gallabat in the early stages of the war when Italian troops went on a short-lived offensive, and also fought in the decisive battles at Agordat and Keren during Platt‘s advance into Eritrea.

The SDF also supplied 3 Motor Machine Gun Companies to Gazelle Force – a small, reconnaissance and strike force that was an early precursor to the Long Rang Desert Group and successfully harassed the Italian forces throughout the northern campaign.

The SDF proved to be solid and dependable troops, fighting alongside the more numerous British and Indian forces and playing their role in the liberation of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

By its charter, the SDF was originally restricted to the defense of Egypt and the Sudan, and after its involvement in the East African campaign, spent the remainder of the war in garrison or supply duties in East and North Africa, freeing up other British and Commonwealth troops for front line service.

The SDF were equipped with modern British infantry weapons.


Troops of the Sudanese Defence Force training in Omdurman, 1940. (Imperial War Museums collection).

Sudanese Defence Force Infantry Section

Cost : 35 Points (Inexperienced), 50 Points (Regular)
Composition: 1 NCO and 4 men
Weapons : Rifles
– Up to 6 additional soldiers armed with Rifles for 7 points each (Inexperienced)
10 points each (Regular)
– One soldier may have a light machine gun for an extra +20 points. Another soldier becomes the loader.

Sudanese Frontier Battalion

The Sudanese Frontier Battalion (SFB) was formed for the explicit purpose of operating as a guerrilla force deep inside Italian-held Ethiopia. Due to the special nature of its service, and the quality of its recruitment and training, the SFB can be viewed as the SDF‘s ‘elite’ infantry unit..

The battalion comprised of 5 patrol companies of 250 men each. The men were mostly recruited from the Muslim north and west and were lead by fluent Arab-speaking British Officers – all with significant local military and/or political service supported by a solid cadre of experienced Sudanese junior officers and NCOs.

The battalion’s second in command, Bimbashi (Major) Peter Acland was sent to Dafur, in Western Sudan with his junior officers and NCOs to recruit a company from the local of tribesmen. He was specifically looking for men who “could move at night and knew how to shoot”. The only civilians with these skills were “camel thieves, bandits and big game poachers” – but they were exactly the type of men he required. He put the word out and received an overwhelming number of applicants

The unit’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Boustead laid down strict rules for the battalion’s training. Anticipating the difficulties of resupply once deployed deep in occupied territory, the battalion was trained to shoot straight and conserve ammunition. Boustead insisted that it only took a single bullet to kill an enemy, and stated that any officer or NCO giving the order to rapid fire would be “sacked”. Additional to the battalion’s regular firing exercises, he had a custom-built range prepared where he drilled his men relentlessly to snap fire at moving targets. Subsequently, the battalion’s fire discipline on campaign was, (to quote Acland) “extraordinary” and Boustead never had to make good on his promise to sack any NCOs or officers!

The Sudanese Frontier Battalion was equipped with modern British infantry weapons and became a highly efficient and disciplined unit, that nearly always performed with distinction throughout the campaign.

To Wingate, “The sight of an emma (turban) on a hillside was worth a hundred men” and South African Sgt. Dick Luyt of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion (later Sir Richard Luyt) described the SFB as “a rock in the whole campaign”.

Lieutenant W.E.D Allen of 5th Operational Centre and later the SFB‘s animal transport officer summed-up the unit thus, “A sword of rare metal has been cast out of a handful of Englishmen and a few hundred Africans”.

The Sudanese also carried the African wide-bladed machete, called a ‘Panga’ – which they used on occasion to devastating effect in close quarters fighting.


Men of the Sudanese Frontier Battalion resting at Gedasef near the Ethiopian border. The Photograph was taken by Captain Mark Pikington, who commanded the 5th & 10th Operational Centres in Gideon Force and later the Wollo Banda in the Gondar campaign. (Imperial War Museums collection).

Sudanese Frontier Battalion Section

Cost : 70 Points (Veteran)
Composition: 1 NCO and 4 men
Weapons : Rifles
– Up to 6 additional soldiers armed with Rifles for 14 Points each (Veteran).
– One soldier may have a light machine gun for an extra +20 points. Another soldier becomes the loader.
– The light machine gun may be replaced by a Lewis Gun for -5pts
– The section may be tough fighters for +1pt per man

Special Rules :
Exceptional Fire Discipline:  Combining the Sudanese recruits innate bushcraft skills with the battalion’s high level of marksmenship made the SFB exceptional skirmishing troops with excellent fire discipline.
Sudanese Frontier Battalion sections gain the Fire & Manoeuvre special rule. They do not suffer the -1 to hit penalty for moving and shooting. This applies to all men in the section regardless of how they are armed. Additionally, this unit cannot benefit from the British National Characteristic of ‘Rapid Fire’ should it be chosen for that force’s characteristic.
– Stoppages (Lewis Gun):  The gun has suffered stoppage if two or more 1s are rolled when testing for hits. It remains out of action for one turn while the gunner clears the blockage. He may not fire other weapons or move (unless in a vehicle) while he does so.

Historical Note:  In April 1941, in a flanking assault on an outlying Italian fort at Debra Markos – one of the Frontier Battalion’s highly-respected officers, Colonel (Bimbashi) Colin McDonald was shot in the head and killed instantly. The Sudanese were incensed and closed on the Italian machine gun positions, dropped their rifles, drew out their pangas and showing no mercy, proceeded to hack at them – systematically killing their way along the defensive perimeter… even going so far as to chase the remaining petrified crews through the fort to cut them down!

Modelling the Sudanese Frontier Force

Currently, (and somewhat surprisingly) there are no 28mm miniatures in the market that represent the SDF. The closest models I can find are Perry Minatures French Senegalese Tirailleurs. These models will need some green-stuffing to represent the SDFs distinctive Turban and long coats. Stay tuned for that project.

Senegalese Tirailleurs advancing with rifles