Orde Wingate

Ethiopian Battalions and Mortar Platoons 1941 in Bolt Action

NEGUS UNFURLS STANDARD IN ABYSSINIA

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.

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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.  

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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.

THE KING'S AFRICAN RIFLES IN EAST AFRICA, 1941

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
Options:
– 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.

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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

Fixed
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.