Sudanese Defence Force

The Sudanese Defence Force & Frontier Battalion in Bolt Action

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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.

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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‘.

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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

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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.

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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
Options:
– 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.

NEW SIDELIGHTS ON THE ABYSSINIAN CAMPAIGN: PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN BY

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
Options:
– 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