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
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
"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 him somewhere."
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.