The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Bare Feet and Bandoliers: Wingate, Sandford, The Patriots and the Liberation of Ethiopia

David Shirreff

Reviewer - Richard Snailham


The liberation of Italian-occupied Ethiopia in 1941 was achieved by a three-pronged land invasion of British and African forces from the north, west and south. The northernmost, over the Sudan border and into Eritrea, was led by Lieutenant-General Sir William Platt and fought a fierce battle at Keren before reaching Asmara; the southernmost, under Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham, was by an army made up of South and West Africans, Rhodesians, Kings African Rifles, etc., which thrust up through the Ogaden.

In between them, starting from Khartoum and entering Gojjam, was a series of smaller units: Mission 101 led by Colonel (later Brigadier) Dan Sandford and, shortly afterwards, Gideon Force under the unconventional Major Orde Wingate, with the returning Emperor Haile Selassie in tow.

Of the three forces these Khartoum-based units are by far the most written about. Why is this? Apart from Wingate and Haile Selassie there were a few future notables in the cast list: Laurens van der Post, Wilfred Thesiger, Edwin Chapman-Andrews. The presence of the Emperor gave it class. It had a romantic, clandestine, "Special Forces" feel about it.

But above all there was the role played in this Gojjam campaign by the Ethiopian Patriots, the wild, fuzzy-haired bands that had defied and obstructed the Italians for five years and were now to be instrumental in their Emperor's return, the barefoot and bandoliered of this book's title.

A book about the Patriots was reviewed in the last issue of News File. Shirreff's work (first published in 1995 by the Radcliffe Press but long out of print) weaves together the different parts played by the regular forces and the Patriots and gives long overdue credit to Dan Sandford's Mission 101 and the part he played during and after the war in speaking up for Haile Selassie and his right to rule his country, now liberated, as an independent state.

The accounts of the move through Gojjam and the operations in Begemdir, Wollo and Shoa and around Gondar are full accounts, mesmerisingly detailed. Nothing is left unrecorded: the size of participating units, their officers' and NCOs' names, the casualties on both sides, fatal or wounded, officers, men (nationals, Ethiopians and askaris) and pack animals. If you know of someone who was in these campaigns and wish to find out where he was at any given time, there's a good chance this book will tell you. In reading it, it would help to have an ancestor, relative, friend or acquaintance who was there. My interest was sustained by two such links: I was lucky enough to have met Dan and Christine Sandford at Mulu farm in 1968 four years before Dan died; and in my bachelor days I pursued (unsuccessfully) Diana, the daughter of Major Andrew Railton who commanded the 3rd Ethiopian Battalion in the actions north of Gondar and is a prominent figure in the story. Otherwise, for the general reader (not the military historian) it is a dense work, telling as it does the story of small groups of men on the Allied and the Italian sides, scattered over a vast swath of country, often acting independently of the main commanders and each other and all at about the same time. To help make it less confusing for the general reader there are excellent sketchmaps, glossaries of terms, explanations of acronyms and first rate potted biographies of all the main participants.

For me its greatest value is the re-establishment of Dan Sandford, overshadowed as he has often been by Wingate, as a major figure in this important triumph at an otherwise dark time in World War Two.

Bare Feet and Bandoliers: Wingate, Sandford, the Patriots and the Liberation of Ethiopia.

Bare Feet and Bandoliers: Wingate, Sandford, the Patriots and the Liberation of Ethiopia. David Shirreff. Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley, S Yorks 2009.
Hardback ISBN: 9781848840294
336 pages
240 x 160 mm
8 plates; several maps
Price £25

First Published in News File Spring 2010

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