Adwa was a scar on Italy’s heart. Back in 1896 this parched market town in the north of Ethiopia saw the Italian Army humbled by warriors with swords and spears. Politicians in Rome thought they could carve an empire out of the last independent nation in Africa. Ethiopian warriors killed 7,000 men in one day and ended that dream.
The Italians wanted revenge. In 1935 they got it. The land of Dante and Caravaggio was now a boisterously aggressive Fascist state under Benito Mussolini. Provocations at the border late the previous year led to war talk and demands for compensation. European powers tried to intervene but could not afford to alienate Mussolini, needed onside to counter-balance the growing threat of Nazi Germany. In October Italian Fascist legions kicked aside the half-hearted diplomacy and marched into Ethiopia. Bombs, bullets, and mustard gas started raining down.
Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie knew his country was poor and underdeveloped. He needed expert foreign help. Forty foreigners ignored League of Nations resolutions on non-intervention and came to Addis Ababa to fight. Another sixty joined medical units or found other roles. The international press corps gathered in Addis Ababa wrote them up as heroes.
A few mercenaries were honest. A few were competent. The rest was a crazy gang of playboys, Nazis, and black crusaders who could barely shoot straight. Here’s a selection from my book Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or amazon.com].
The Black Eagle
The loudest voice among the foreigners was a pilot who strode around with his chin at a forty-five degree angle to the rest of the world and called himself The Black Eagle. Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was born to a family of well-off plantation managers in Trinidad. Athletic, good-looking, and insufferably arrogant, Julian learned to fly in Canada then made a splash in New York with a series of parachute jumps.
In 1930 Haile Selassie hired the black pilot to perform at his coronation. Julian repaid the honour by flying the emperor’s private plane into a tree. He got kicked out of the country and spent the next few years barnstorming and smuggling bootleg liquor. He returned to Ethiopia in 1935 when Italian tanks began massing on the borders. Haile Selassie couldn’t afford to lose any more planes and gave him a job training soldiers. Julian enthusiastically accepted.
‘I’ll teach those goddam black bastards how to drill if it’s the last thing I do,’ he said.
Julian marched his men around Addis Ababa and in front of any available cameras. He was already plotting to get his air force job back, preferably running the whole show.
Then another foreigner turned up and immediately earned Julian’s hatred for infringing on the Black Eagle brand. The newcomer was an African-American pilot. He called himself The Brown Condor.
The Brown Condor
Life wasn’t easy for an ambitious black Chicagoan in the 1930s. John Robinson clawed his way up from garage mechanic to qualified pilot through sheer force of will. He built a kit plane with a motorcycle engine and pushed his way into a flight school with a whites-only policy. Soon he was heading up an all-black flying club and putting on shows at an air strip carved out of a corn field.
When Italy began threatening Ethiopia, Robinson was determined to do his part. Haile Selassie’s empire fascinated African-Americans. It symbolised independence and freedom. Italian claims about the Ethiopians still practicing slavery were ignored. Black America fundraised, smashed up some Italian ice cream parlours in Harlem, and cheered on Haile Selassie’s army.
Robinson contacted a relative of the emperor living in New York and got himself a job in Addis Ababa as trainer in the air force. It was all going well until Robinson encountered Hubert Julian in a hotel lobby shortly before the Fascist invasion.
Depending on who you talked to, either Robinson pulled a knife and Julian hit him with a chair or Julian slapped an unsuspecting Robinson’s face and had to be dragged away by passing journalists. In the aftermath both men were suspended from their positions. Robinson was soon back in the air. Julian got a distant military posting and spent his time complaining to anyone who would listen.
On 3 October 1935 the Italian army powered into Ethiopia from the north. Robinson served his adopted country loyally, although Fascist domination of the air limited his role to messenger runs and medical evacuations. Hubert Julian seemed less enthusiastic about visiting the front line. Then a sharp-eyed courtier noticed Julian was drawing two salaries and had debts all Addis Ababa. He was kicked out of the country again.
The press corps mourned Julian’s departure. He had always been good for a quote. Robinson preferred to parrot the government’s official line. The Brown Condor’s taste for propaganda would get him into trouble when a bestselling novelist arrived in town.
Most of the foreign journalists covering the war supported Haile Selassie. Anyone looking for a pro-Italian view had to read Evelyn Waugh. The author of ‘Scoop’ and ‘Vile Bodies’ had first visited Ethiopia in 1930 to write about Haile Selassie’s coronation. Back then the novelist had been freshly minted Catholic trying to shake off the horrors of a recent divorce. Addis Ababa had not impressed him. He was even less impressed when he returned five years later to cover the war.
Waugh earned some headlines when John Robinson appeared in the capital claiming to have barely escaped with his life after Blackshirts took the historically symbolic town of Adwa. He told a story of dogfights, bombing, and a blonde Swedish nurse blown to pieces in the ruins of her ward. Waugh smelled a rat. The Brown Condor stuck to his story but a bit of detective work revealed the truth: not only did Adwa lack blonde Swedes, it didn’t even have a hospital.
‘Nurse unupblown,’ Waugh telegraphed triumphantly to London.
It was his last scoop. Increased censorship made writing difficult and he soon quit the reporting game to head home. Another foreign writer would get a closer look at the fighting. A Czech journalist, he had come to explore Ethiopia but found himself face-to-face with Mussolini’s Fascists.
Anyone who read Czechoslovak travel magazines knew the name Adolf Parlesák. The young man from Brno had acquired some literary fame by pulling the plug on a promising business career and setting off to travel the world. Readers liked his colourful descriptions of eating shark fin in China and grappling with poisonous sea snakes in the Pacific Islands.
When Italian troops rolled over the border Adolf Parlesák was in Ethiopia with a friend trekking round the country. It was a bad time to be exploring. Parlesák and Vilém Breyer seemed oblivious to the danger as they wandered around, photographing old churches and interviewing locals.
A local warlord asked them to train his men. The Czechs obliged and found themselves heading north with a 50,000 strong army of barefoot soldiers and their families. In early November the reality of the situation hit them when Italian planes came screaming out of the sky and bombs started falling. The air strikes got more ferocious the closer they got to the front lines.
It was January 1936 by the time the barefoot army linked with up with other Haile Selassie forces perched in the northern mountains. An attack was planned to drive the Fascists back to the border. Parlesák watched as Ethiopian warriors flowed down the mountainsides, white robes flapping against red ground, and crashed into the Italian lines. Bodies fell under machine gun fire; those behind jumped corpses as they ran. Italian bombers swooped low over the fighting.
It was a heroic effort but not enough. In late February the Ethiopian northern front crumbled and gave way. Parlesák and Breyer were among the tens of thousands fleeing south pursued by the Italians. They had something new to fear now: mustard gas. Mussolini had ordered his airmen to drop gas bombs on any Ethiopians they saw, soldier or civilian.
Another foreigner fleeing with the Czechs used his medical experience to help mustard gas victims. He was a doctor, an Austrian, and an unapologetic Nazi.
Dr Valentin Schuppler
The Vaterländische Front ran Austria with an iron fist. Its leader, Engelbert Dollfuß, started out as a war hero who believed in democracy, but pressure from Nazis to the right and Socialists to the left convinced Dollfuß to abolish parliamentary democracy and rule as dictator.
Mussolini approved and cheered on Dollfuß when he smashed the Socialists in vicious street fighting. Homegrown Nazis proved tougher. They campaigned for Anschluß, the union of Austria with Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Dollfuß preferred to stay captain of his own ship and in June 1933 banned the Austrian Nazi party. The next year Hitler backed a coup that left Dollfuß bleeding to death on a couch but ultimately failed after Italy sided with the Vaterländische Front and threatened war.
Austria’s Nazis ended up in prison or in hiding. Only Dr Valentin Schuppler went back to his day job. No-one could believe Vienna’s best trauma surgeon had been part of the coup.
Schuppler had precisely side-parted and lubricated dark hair, round glasses, and an obsessive interest in National Socialism. He wanted Anschluß and was prepared to overthrow his own government to get it. When the Austrian police finally came sniffing round the hospital in 1935 he headed for the one place in the world where he could fight against the Italian Fascists who had ruined the coup: Ethiopia.
No-one seemed to mind that a full-blooded Nazi was helping a black emperor defend his country against white Fascists. Schuppler helped create the Ethiopian Red Cross, saved African lives when Italians bombs came whistling down, and was treating mustard gas victims in the north when the front broke wide open. He joined Parlesák and Breyer in the retreat and was present when Haile Selassie tried a last stand at Maychew in March. It was another heroic failure.
Schuppler and the rest ended up back in Addis Ababa dodging looters and riots while they tried to find a way out. By the time Italian tanks entered the capital in early May, most of Haile Selassie’s foreign volunteers had caught the last locomotive out of town.
One mercenary joined the Ethiopians for a last ditch defence in the south-western town of Gore. He was a rich Cuban playboy with an eye for the ladies and a taste for doomed causes.
Alejandro del Valle
Alejandro Ramón Narciso del Valle y Suero had a round face, glossy dark hair, and the self-confidence of a man who can rebel as much as he likes and still inherit millions. He came from money. His father had interests in banking and export, his mother was an heiress. Their combined bank accounts built the Palacio de Valle in the sun-soaked bay city of Cienfuegos on Cuba’s southern coast.
Del Valle was a born rebel. He quit military school to take part in a failed right-wing coup in Mexico. In the aftermath he joined the crew of a freighter and lived in a world of salt sea, flesh-stripping wind, and sailors brawling in whorehouses. His family tracked him down and persuaded the runaway to attend Texas A&M University. He dropped out to join another failed coup, this time an attempt by Ecuador’s fascists to take power. Back in Cuba he joined a far-right underground army and planted bombs against President Gerardo Machado’s repressive regime.
For once, Del Valle was on the winning side. Then the new government turned out to be worse than the old and he fled the country for Ethiopia. Del Valle ended up on the northern front and had to fight his way out of Italian encirclement when everything collapsed. Back in Addis Ababa he remained loyal and marched out to Gore with the remains of the government.
Even Del Valle’s enthusiasm for lost causes could only stretch so far. When it became obvious the Ethiopians stood no chance against the Italian occupation of their country, he crossed the border into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and a long journey home.
Ethiopia had the Fascist boot firmly on its neck. The emperor’s mercenaries scattered across the world, from Shanghai to Prague, occupied Brussels to the Eastern Front, for stranger adventures, weirder causes, and more than a few early deaths. Few could have predicted Britain would help Ethiopia regain its independence in 1941 or that Haile Selassie would become one of the longest reigning leaders of the twentieth century.
Find out more about these and other foreign volunteers who helped Haile Selassie in my book:
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