I was in Bridport for only three to four hours.
We thus had to cover a lot of ground in a hurry. He had come to
Eritrea in 1941 from what were known as the Rhodesias at the time.
As a one star lieutenant, he had been placed on top of a few Italian
carabinieri and about 150 former Eritrean zabtia, the
indigenous police troopers under Italian rule. "Were the Eritreans
good students?" I asked Cracknell.
"They took to it, as one may say, like a duck to
water. They enjoyed it. They were entirely loyal. I had no case
at all of disloyalty. The Italians, on the other hand, were rather
amusing. Coming into office in 1941, when things were going badly
for the Allies in the desert, the carabinieri wouldn't
even greet me. They would push you off the pavement. But a few
days later, when things were going well for the Allies, Tobruk
had been retaken and so on, they were leaping to their feet and
saluting and bowing and scraping 'Signor Colonello' and all that."
But he went on to praise Italian industriousness and the pivotal
role that they had played in keeping the Eritrean economy going.
We talked about the shifta problem throughout
"The Mossazghi Brothers were bad," he told me.
"But Tekeste Haile was particularly blood thirsty."
"Were the Ethiopians behind that shifta
"There was this blessing. They crossed into Ethiopia
with impunity. They weren't sought out or arrested by the Ethiopians.
I did know that the Ethiopians had a hand in it. There was no
doubt in my mind."
"Do you remember the Sudanese Defence Force massacre
of unarmed Eritrean civilians in 1946?" I asked him.
"Yes, very well. A terrible tragedy."
"Do you know that many Eritreans from that period
accuse the British of connivance in that event at least for having
failed to take prompt action to stop it?"
"I'm sure they would," Cracknell responded. "The
stupidity was that they should never have brought Sudanese troops
into Asmara. In fact, it was understood that Sudanese troops should
not be billeted in Asmara. But the politicians did that. It was
a terrible day."
"Where were you when it happened?"
"I went down to the scene when I heard the shots.
But a Sudanese trooper pointed his bayonet to my chest and I was
there against the wall. I couldn't get to my men."
It was Eid el Fatr that day, he said, and most
of the British army officers had been out playing polo or vacationing
somewhere. Eventually, they did come and the Sudanese withdrew.
"I can understand how the Eritreans can accuse us of complicity,"
he concluded. "In fact, subsequently, they asked me to give them
weapons from the armory, but I refused. Can you imagine what would
have happened had I done that? It would have been more massacres.
The worst part of it was that many of the Sudanese soldiers were
acquitted for lack of evidence linking individuals to particular
crimes. Terrible yes, Eritreans would suspect connivance."
"I understand there were Jewish activists interned
in Asmara. Can you tell me about them?"
"About 1947, I think. They had been accused of
terrorist activities out there and they were brought over and
interned in Sembel. 107 of them escaped in twos and threes, and
one lot of fifteen. 106 were recaptured; only one made it to France
his name was Eliahu Lankin. Another man I had difficulty in recapturing
was to become eventually the Prime Minister of Israel Yishak
Shamir, a little, short fellow. I knew he was trying to get to
Italy on an Italian boat in Massawa. I blockaded the ship so he
would not go down to it. I then arranged, secretly, a water tanker
to be available for him to hide and come back to Asmara. The driver
was my own policeman, you see. I ambushed the water-tanker on
the outskirts of Asmara and there they were, the two of them"
In other words, Cracknell had set the trap.
At last, we talked about Hamid Idris Awate, the
patriot who started the Eritrean armed struggle. "He was a thorn
on our side," said Cracknell, "The man lived by the sword." He
gave me some examples of why he had said that.
"How did he surrender?"
"Determined to bring him in before the hand-over
from British to Federal rule, I took with me the holy man from
Keren (and other dignitaries). I went to Haikota and sent out
spies. Awate said he would meet me at dawn the next day. He surrendered
to me. But he also wanted to be protected, so I allowed him to
have five rifles, provided he kept close to the police post at
Guluj, which he did. In later years, I found he had become far
smarter than the local police there. I have some photographs of
I lit up, of course, and asked if I could see them.
Cracknell brought some old photo albums and after leafing through
them found three photographs of Awate and his men on the day of
their surrender in 1952. I had never seen those pictures before.
In fact, there has been a controversy about whether the man on
horseback that is identified as Awate is actually he. Well, David
Cracknell put that issue to rest by recently sending me that exact
picture and more from his other albums. He also surprised me with
two vivid pictures of Ali Muntaz, the shifta of the early
1940's and Awate's own mentor.