My book about the foreign mercenaries, adventurers, and crusaders who fought for Ethiopia against the Italian Fascist invasion is out on Thursday 15 June. Here’s a taste of the introduction … .
When the first bomb exploded, Vienna’s finest trauma surgeon was elbow deep inside a patient’s guts somewhere in northern Ethiopia. Dr Valentin Schuppler kept his scalpel steady as shock waves blew in half the hospital windows. The Red Cross on the roof was being used as a target by Italian airplanes.
Dessie hospital was an unhygienic pile of bricks in a backwater town whose best feature was its juniper trees. Any patient mobile enough had gone running for the hills when the first Fascist planes appeared. Schuppler stayed in the operating theatre and worked on a patient who was going nowhere without a mile of stitches and a dose of morphine.
The Italians had come over the frontier two months ago. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini wanted an empire in Africa, and Ethiopia was the last free nation on the continent. His war machine targeted civilians. Adwa got hit back in October and other historic towns followed it into the dirt. Most raids were straight terror bombing but today’s assault on Dessie had a specific aim: to kill Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor.
Haile Selassie had set up military headquarters in the town, bringing with him thousands of barefoot troops and a non-combatant army of foreign journalists, photographers, and cinecameramen. Italian spies knew his location within days and the generals sent in two wings of Caproni bombers.
The planes droned into view at 8am and bombs started whistling down. Ethiopian military encampments around Dessie opened up with machine guns and rifles. Haile Selassie jumped on an Oerlikon antiaircraft gun near his tent and started shooting. Courtiers tried to keep the flies away by draping a sheet over the emperor’s shoulders as he wriggled around, plugging bullets into the sky.
A bomb fell a few feet away and knocked out a gaggle of soldiers. The bank in the centre of town was hit. The royal palace was hit. Schuppler’s hospital was hit. A bomb went straight through the stars and stripes painted on the roof of the nearby Seventh Day Adventist medical centre. Smoke rolled through the streets. Doctor Loeb of the Red Cross, a German veteran of the Great War, hustled newsmen over to the body of an Ethiopian woman with both legs and one breast hacked off by shrapnel.
‘This is the best proof of the benefits of civilization I ever saw,’ he shouted bitterly over the gunfire.
Journalists carried wounded to the hospital. The Associated Press boys turned their truck into an ambulance and gave up a trunkload of medical supplies.
Schuppler calmly stitched gaping shrapnel wounds. He amputated limbs. Blood spattered into his precisely side-parted and lubricated dark hair. A bucket filled up with hands and lower legs. A twenty-four-year-old Associated Press photographer called Franz Roth put down his camera and helped with the anesthetic. He was another Austrian, smooth around the jowls, with hair growing low enough on his forehead to give a touch of the werewolf. Schuppler wiped his rimless glasses clean with a rag and went to work on another patient.
‘Dozens of helpless women and many children were wounded or killed,’ wrote a reporter out on the Dessie streets. ‘I heard and saw survivors weeping and beating their breasts, some with eyes torn out or their mouths mangled. Many had their legs crushed and some had deep holes in other parts of their bodies.’
The injured kept coming. Schuppler and Roth continued to operate, barking terse comments at each other in German. Both men were from Vienna; both supported Haile Selassie. And both were fanatical Nazis.
Schuppler had quit Austria in a hurry after police started sniffing round his role in the failed 1934 Nazi coup that left undersized Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuß bleeding to death on the chaise lounge in his office. Roth was a member of Vienna’s Nazi Stormtroopers, pro-Hitler Brownshirts illegal enough to get him two months in prison.
Why were two Nazis risking their lives to save Africans from Italian Fascist bombs?
Find out why in my new book Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion (or Amazon.com) published by Amberley on 15 June 2017 in the UK and 1 October in the US. More details on the book in this blog post.
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