CHAPTER 1 - SUGAR MOUNTAIN
“If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked.”
The talk in the bar had been the usual tittle tattle with everyone joining in at some stage. Suddenly the conversation switched to the EEC. The talk became more animated at this stage although it was apparent that not everyone actually new what the letters EEC meant. Common Market was easier. Slowly the subject turned to beef mountains, butter mountains and the like. At this point I interjected and asked,
“What about a sugar mountain”?
No-one had heard of a sugar mountain apparently. I told them that I could remember one in 1940 but all I got was blank looks. Gradually the conversation turned to the forthcoming Olympics. It was at this point that I was approached by an elderly chap, who said,
Pte. Joseph Hutt
“Excuse me but I heard you mention Sugar Mountain in 1940. Were you actually there in Eritrea?”
I had to admit that I was and we were soon deep in conversation and became aware that everyone had gone quiet and were listening to our reminiscences.
When I returned home my thoughts turned again to 1940.
It had been a foregone conclusion that Italy would soon enter the war. The worrying fact was that they did so on the side of Germany. This meant that we were being harassed both in Eritrea and Abyssinia. There had been a determined effort to colonise these countries by Italy after they had invaded but the attempt was met by widespread opposition and a common hatred of Italy developed as a result, who had been accused of using poison gas at some stage. Italy’s presence posed a serious threat to the sea routes through the Mediterranean and it became a priority to curb their influence in the area.
The starting point was the Sudan and a successful campaign began. The Italians were of a different calibre to the Germans and their martial prowess well below that of their Axis partners. They were soon in retreat through Eritrea and back toward Abyssinia. There was strong opposition in some quarters but the allied push was quite relentless.
I was with the advancing Allied army as we approached the border of Abyssinia and after several “skirmishes” we got bogged down at the foot of mountain. The Italians were camped halfway up the mountain which was interspersed with caves so that their position looked impregnable to us. An impasse had developed and we were eventually assembled and heard the words we were dreading. The Italians did not fancy hand to hand fighting, we were told, so it was time for a bayonet charge. If the Italians did not like cold steel it had to be said that neither did we. However, everyone was to be involved with the exception of the medics.
We had hoped for an early morning mist to give some cover but were disappointed to wake up to a bright sunny day. We were lined up at the foot of the mountain and I can honestly say that most of us were quaking in our boots.
Suddenly the cry of “FIX” went out and we slid our bayonets from our scabbards held them aloft and snapped them into position on our rifles. The resulting clash of steel reverberated all along the base of the mountain. It really was a terrifying sound. Perhaps not as terrifying to us as the next sound, which was the command “CHARGE”! With bayonets fixed and hearts aflutter we scrambled up the mountain. It was strangely silent and we were puzzled by the lack of fire and the absence of grenades. Not even the odd stone came bouncing down toward us. We suddenly burst into their forward defensive positions without a shot being fired and what a sight greeted us. The Italians were lined up in ranks with their arms above their heads in a posture of surrender. An Italian interpreter suddenly stepped forward and asked to talk to our commander. He intimated that the Italian commander, a duke, wished to talk terms of surrender. We waited about twenty minutes and terms were agreed. We could not believe that we had occupied their positions with not a single shot being fired and no casualties on either side.
We found out later that the Duke had agreed to surrender provided he was given safe conduct to South Africa, a condition we were led to believe was eventually honoured. We could now begin to move the prisoners to the plain below. It could hardly be called a gallant victory but at least it was bloodless. We actually had more prisoners than we had troops and most of them seemed quite happy to be captured. Incredibly each day when we took a roll call we found the number had risen. Apparently some Italians who fled into the desert were far more scared of the locals than they were of us. An added bonus was that we had all their supplies intact.
There was a roadway of sorts leading up to the caves and after some clearing up we managed to get our 15cwt trucks up there and bring the prisoners down. As we sifted through the supplies we found several sacks of sugar, which was in very short supply. Every driver was collecting bags of sugar and some even found their way into the cookhouse. Now we all had sugar. Even the cookhouse walls were reinforced with bags of sugar. After being without for so long our tea tasted very sickly with the usual two sugars.
Unfortunately some open bags were left lying about and attracted large swarms of vicious bees, only too happy to share our sugar. Many were quite badly stung and our medical staff were quite overwhelmed. In the end the bees did what the Italians could not – they made us retreat and leave the sugar mountain to them.
I never thought I would be asked about sugar mountain some forty years afterwards.