Gideon Force

From Academic Kids

The Gideon Force was a British-led African guerrilla force fighting the Italian occupation forces in Abyssiania (modern-day Ethiopia) during the World War II. Leader and creator of the force was British major Charles Orde Wingate.


Political situation

Italy conquered and occupied Ethiopia in 1936, and eventually created Italian East Africa (covering modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). Italian troops in Abyssinia numbered about 250,000, most of them native Abyssinians recruited to Italian army.

When Benito Mussolini joined the war against France and Britain in 1940, Italian forces became a potential threat to British supply routes in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. British troops in Egypt and Sudan were outnumbered related to the Italian forces in Abyssinia and Libya. Therefore, British government recognized Haile Selassie in July 1940 and promised to help him.

Abyssinian resistance fighters called Arbenyotch ("Patriots") had been harassing the Italians ever since the beginning of the occupation. They would raid Italian forts and communication lines. However, they hardly cooperated at all and Italians were mostly able to play one tribe against another. British sent a small expedition lead by Colonel Daniel Sandford to contact the Arbenyotch, arranged bases in Gojjam and made gifts of money to tribal leaders who agreed to fight the Italians.

General Archibald Wavell invited emperor Selassie in Sudan so his supporters could rally around him. British recruited a bodyguard for him from among the Abyssinian refugees in Khartoum. However, British had no manpower to launch a direct offensive against Italians. Wavell, who had met Wingate during their service in Palestine, sent for him. November 6, 1940 Wingate arrived in Khartoum.


Wingate wanted to create a special force with good training and equipment. Against the protests of the British command in Khartoum, he demanded supplies and met with emperor Selassie.

Wingate created his troops from one battalion of Sudanese of the British-led Sudan Defense Force and one battalion of Abyssinian soldiers of the 2nd Ethiopian Battalion, mostly composed of soldiers that had served in the Ethiopian army. In total they numbered only 2000 men and 18,000 camels meant for transport. The camels were under the care of Laurens van der Post who would go on to become a famous author. Wingate named these soldiers as the Gideon Force, after the biblical figure of Gideon.

Battle begins

Troops of the Gideon Force departed on December 1940 in small columns towards the Mount Belaiyam region in Abyssinia. In January 19, 1941 British launched on offensive against Italians. In January 20 the emperor, accompanied by Wingate, met Abyssinian soldiers in the border town of Um Idla.

Horse-mounted Sudanese troops made it to Mount Belaiyam in five days, while Abyssinians with their camel caravan took 2 weeks. Wingate and the emperor arrived in February 6 and Selassie established his headquarters there. On February 8 Wingate was assigned to command all the British and Abyssinian forces with the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel.

On February 18-19, the Gideon Force crossed over an escarpment to Gojjam region. Aided by Arbenyotch, they attacked Italian forts, garrisons and patrols. Also due to the British advance in Somaliland, Italians withdrew eastward from their positions.

On February 24, Wingate lead the Gideon Force to surround the Italian fort in Burye. Some of the Abyssinian force got lost and a grass fire hindered them but they met with no Italian resistance. Wingate tried to give an impression of a larger force to intimidate Italians; he spread the men wide and, again accompanied by the Arbenyotch, begun to ambush Italians. Wingate led some groups himself.

At the same time, Selassie approached the area. Formerly neutral or pro-Italian chiefs turned to support him. Abyssinian irregulars in Italian units begun to desert to Emperor's side.

Numerically superior Italians retreated to southeast on March 4. British command in Khartoum, who had cracked Italian codes, informed Wingate who ordered a Sudanese unit to block and ambush them but the commander of the unit failed to do so. Disappointed Wingate ordered pursuit and his men made small harassing attacks against the Italians. Italians pushed through a small Abyssinian force near Dambacha on the Chakara River with 325 casualties (Abyssinian casualties were only 48). Italian commander of Dambacha also retreated to east against orders; the Gideon Force occupied it March 8.

Debra Markos

The next target was a fort near Debra Markos. This time Italians counterattacked and fierce fighting ensued. The Gideon Force retreated and began hit-and-run attacks and raids to drain Italian strength. Italian losses amounted to 200 over the next weeks. Their intention to evacuate was stopped by a blockade by the Arbenyotch.

In late April, Italian forces in Dessie surrendered to advancing British troops. Couple of days after the Italians had left Debra Markos, Haile Selassie entered it April 6. At the same time, British regular forces entered Addis Ababa.

Other Italian forces retreating to the east and over the Nile were continuously harassed by the Arbenyotch and the Gideon Force. However, some Arbenyotch begun to loot in the retaken areas and Gideon Force had to restore the order.

When most of the Gideon Force proceeded towards Addis Abeba, smaller force pursued retreating Italians to north towards the Debra Sina. When this was going on, on May 5 the Gideon Force and Emperor Selassie began a victory march on Addis Ababa.

Last battles

When Wingate received an order to stop the pursuit of retreating Italians and help other forces elsewhere, he pretended that he could not decipher the message and continued in his course. Other part of the Gideon Force, lead by explorer Thesinger, crossed to the north of the Debra Sinai plateau and attacked from the north. On May 18, Italians found themselves blocked from the north and south. Thinking he faced superior numbers, Italian commander agreed to surrender on May 24.

The Gideon Force was officially disbanded June 1, 1941. Wingate returned to Egypt. The last Italian troops surrendered in Begemder province in the north to British and Arbenyotch forces.


With the surrender of the Italians, the British, under pressure from the US administration, signed an agreement acknowledging Ethiopian sovereignty in January 1942.

Wingate went down with malaria and was sent back to Britain by troop ship, much to the relief of the general staff in Cairo who had feared that he would get involved in the post war politics of Ethiopia. They also ignored Wingate's request for decorations for his men and obstructed his attempts to get back-pay for his force.

While still in Cairo, out of frustration, Wingate had written a report for Wavell the C-in-C Middle East, in which he outlined the successes of the campaign and his views on future actions of a similar type. He wrote, in part:

To sum up it is proposed to assemble and employ a force of the highest fighting qualities capable of employment in widely separated columns...that it should be allocated an objective behind the enemy's lines, the gaining of which will decisively affect the campaign; and that to enable it to carry out its task it must be given a political doctrine consonant with our war aims.

His report impressed the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, who persuaded Wingate to remove the recriminations in the paper, and then passed it to the War Cabinet and Winston Churchill. He also notified Wavell who was now Commander-in-Chief, India that Wingate had been declared medically fit. In February 1942 Wingate left London for Burma at the request of India Command. It was there that Wingate further developed his ideas and put them into practice when he formed the Chindits.

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