As Aide-de-Camp to HRH Prince Albert my duties included providing reports to His Highness on military affairs around the Empire and conducting probability studies of threats to the Empire. In this I was quite usually duplicating work down by other young officers working for the Imperial General Staff, and we often found ourselves competing against each other in order to provide the most polished report as possible to our respective superiors. Shortly after the Rhineland Crisis, His Highness directed that I prepare a study of the continued Italian offensive against Emperor Haile Selassie I of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then known to the world, and any possible threats the Italians might become to British interests in the Horn of Africa.
Shortly after I started my study I found out that an old roommate of mine from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Miles Agnew, was working on a similar project for the Imperial General Staff. Rather than play the normal game of one-up-manship, Miles and I worked together to find the answers our masters for which they were searching.
The results of that study were quite sobering. We had determined that with an Italian victory and the joining of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland with Abyssinia, a grave threat would exist to the Crown’s interests in East Africa. An Italian East Africa would be an easy springboard for attacks into Egypt, the Sudan, and Kenya.
Little did we know at the time that our report would serve as the catalyst for a major reorganization of the War Office and the Imperial General Staff, the likes of which had not been seen in the Empire since the Crimean War debacle.
From the memoirs of General The Right Honourable Malcolm R. Drake,
4th Earl of Guernsey, KCB, MC, DSO
April 18, 1936
St. James’s Palace
The young officer walked in to the office at the brisk yet relaxed gait that can only be produced by the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. His shoulder epaulettes showed him to be a captain, the shoulder patch on the British Army’s new uniforms identified him as being a member of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and the gold braid hanging from his right shoulder showed that he was an Aide-de-Camp for someone of authority. Approaching the clerk’s desk in the anteroom, the officer smiled in greeting.
“Good afternoon, Cecilia. Is His Highness ready for me?”
“Good afternoon, Malcolm,” she replied with a smile that the young officer thought was equal parts shy, alluring, challenging and today a bit mischievous. Standing from her desk and turning toward the door that led into the main office, she continued, “I hope you are ready, this seems to be a bit important.”
“Aye, lass, it’s important,” Malcolm replied a bit teasingly as he walked through the door she had just opened. Keeping his eyes on the pretty clerk, he continued, “How about after this we run out for a bit of dinner and some dancing?”
Hiding a smile, Cecilia looked purposefully over the officer’s shoulder and replied, “We shall see, Captain.”
Turning to away from her, Malcolm felt himself start to hesitate in his walk as he realized the reason behind Cecilia’s mischievous grin. Instead of finding the Prince alone in his briefing room, Malcolm found His Majesty the King, Prime Minister Churchill, Foreign Secretary Eden, War Secretary Cooper, General Mongtomery-Massingbeard, and two army officers, a Brigadier and a Colonel, and his friend Captain Miles Agnew.
Stopping just inside the doorway, Malcolm allowed his instincts and training to take over while thinking to himself, Cecilia my lass, you and I are going to go round and round after this, but dear God I think I’ve fallen in love! Coming to attention, he gave the King and the Prince a bow and announced, “Your Majesty, Your Highness, Captain Drake reporting as ordered, sir!”
“At your ease, Malcolm,” answered His Highness. “This is an informal meeting. I believe you know my brother, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, War Secretary Cooper, Sir Archibald and Captain Agnew. This is Brigadier Hughmes, Sir Archibald’s Director of Planning and this is Colonel Sanderson, the Brigadier’s assistant director. Your Majesty, m’lords, sirs, I present Captain Malcolm Drake, late of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, currently my ADC.”
“I’ve heard quite a bit about you from my little brother, Captain Drake,” the King said with a charming smile. “I understand that you graduated top in your class at Sandhurst.”
Before Malcolm could even remind himself that it was very bad manners to correct one’s King, he replied, “Actually, sir, I was fourth. My mathematics were not up to standard.”
As the blood drained from his face when he realized what he had done, the King smiled a little broader, “I like honesty, Captain, and the truth. So, are you a polo player?”
“No, Your Majesty,” came the calm but quick answer, tinged with a bit of bravado. “I feel rugby more suited to a infantry officer.”
“If you are quite done interrogating him, Your Majesty,” His Highness said with a grin, “Malcolm has a report I want you all to hear. Malcolm, go ahead.”
Stepping to the podium that was to his right as Cecilia lowered a map from the ceiling that showed East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the whole Indian sub-continent, the young officer pulled a series of folders from his from his brief case. Handing a folder to each person in the room he began. “Your Majesty, Your Highness, m’lords, gentleman. As of today, the Italians are winning across all fronts against the Abyssinians, who are at an extreme disadvantage due to their reliance on primitive weaponry. At this rate an Italian victory and subsequent annexation of Abyssinia has been projected to occur no later than the middle of May. Such an action could have a significant impact on the interests of the Empire. The Italians have close to 100,000 men and close to twice that amount of native Askari under the command of Generals Rodolfo Graziani and Pietro Badoglio, and come the annexation of Abyssinia, complete control of the Horn of Africa within striking distance of Egypt, the Sudan and Kenya, if not further south. If it came to a fight, the Empire does not have much to contest the field. To the west is the Sudanese Colonial Brigade, under General Wille, made up of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Sudanese Colonials, mostly made up of our own Askari but with a good complement of settlers. In Marsabit is the British Army of North Kenya, under General Newth, made up of the 1st Kenyan Volunteers, the Kenyan Rifles, and the Ugandan Royal Volunteers. Finally, in Mombasa, under General Pownall is the British Army of South Kenya made up of the Uganda Rifles, the Tanganyikan Volunteers and the Tanganyikan Colonial Rifles. The make up of both Kenyan armies is an even mix of Askari and settlers, with the Tanganyikan Colonial Rifles being made up mostly of settlers with military experience. All that being said, these three armies are little more than militia armies and stand very little chance of stopping the Italians if they decide to move south or west.
If the Italians move north toward Egypt, there is only the British Army of North Africa under General Alanbrooke, made up of the Welsh Guards and the Irish Foot Guards, currently stationed in Jerusalem. While both Guards units are at full strength and are regular army, the Italians would vastly outnumber them in the event of a battle.”
“This is most disturbing, Captain,” Churchill pronounced heavily. Turning slightly to eye the sitting military officers, the Prime Minister continued, “What is more disturbing is the fact that briefing provided by Col. Sanderson to the Privy Council yesterday failed to mention this amount of threat from the Italians.”
“With all due respect to His Highness’s young ADC,” replied the Brigadier in a smooth voice the belied the sudden anxiety in his stomach and look in his eye that gave away his brain’s work at damage control, “I fear that his report is based upon erroneous data and a slightly over inflated drive to look good in front of the Royals. Col. Sanderson’s report was drawn on the full resources of the Imperial General Staff, and was endorsed by myself.”
“He is correct, Winston,” said General Mongtomery-Massingbeard. “The Colonel delivered the same report to the Imperial General Staff, and I had my aide, Major James go through the Colonel’s support data.”
A hesitant voice spoke up, “I have to correct you on the particulars of that, m’lord.”
As all eyes in the room swiveled toward him with emotions ranging from surprise to shock to wonder to anger, Captain Agnew stood slowly to attention and continued. “The report Col. Sanderson provided to you, Sir Archibald, was not the report that was prepared by my section. The report you have just heard from Captain Drake is what was presented to the Colonel by me as a result of the investigation of my team, Captain Drake and myself, gathering information from both Military Intelligence as well as Foreign Office sources. When it was presented to the Colonel, he advised me that I should stop playing Don Quixote because the Italians lacked the intestinal fortitude to attack the Empire. When I attempted to point out to the Colonel the naivety of his position I was advised in no uncertain terms that in the future, the Colonel, and the Colonel alone would determine what went into the reports prepared by our office, and arranged the supporting data accordingly.”
For the moment the silence that followed Captain Agnew’s remark lasted, the tension was near unbearable as Colonel Sanderson and Brigadier Hughmes glared holes into the young officer’s head, Sir Archibald turned red faced and stared hard at all three of his officers, Churchill looked aghast at the thought of an officer of the British Army willfully altering a threat report on the British Empire, and the Royals grinning as if something had just gone according to some secret plan.
“You step out of line, Captain,” barked Colonel Sanderson, his eyes sparkling and his face red with heat.
“I believe these two officers are attempting to elevate themselves at the Colonel’s expense, Your Majesty, Your Highness,” said Brigadier Hughmes. “This is clearly some sort of pre-arranged plan on their part to discredit the Colonel and myself, and I take offense at that!”
“Brigadier, Colonel,” barked General Mongtomery-Massingbeard, “you forget yourselves and in whose presence you are. I remind you to conduct yourselves accordingly, sirrahs!”
Turning on Malcolm and Agnew, the General said coldly, “ I trust you gentleman can counter this accusation?”
Before either young officer could respond to defend themselves, Prince Albert replied smoothly, “I can attest for both officers, Your Majesty, gentlemen. Captain Agnew’s family has a long history of service to the Crown, his great, great, great grandfather being Sir Andrew Agnew, Lt. Col. Of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, during the battle of Dettingen in which the King and I’s ancestor, George II became the last battle in which a British Monarch personally lead troops into battle, additionally, the Captain’s father served with distinction during the Great War, being wounding at the Somme. Captain Drake is of the same line that provided England Sir Francis Drake, and his own grandfather served with Lord Kitchener in the Sudan, the Boer War, and died with Lord Kitchener when HMS Hampshire went down in 1916. Surely this alone would attest to the fact that neither would have any need to even contemplate such an action as what they are being accused of?”
“That is sufficient proof for myself,” spoke Churchill first.
“Myself as well, Your Highness,” seconded Eden.
“Sir Archibald,” inquired the King.
“Your Majesty, as His Highness will vouch for the Captains,” replied the General, “I will find that sufficient for myself.”
“Good. Now, Captain Drake,” said the King turning his eyes back upon the young officer, “let us consider the possible threat to the Empire’s assets in the Horn. Based upon the information that you have just reported, what would be your response?”
Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Malcolm realized for the first time that if he and Miles were wrong and he pushed forward his proposal and it was acted upon, his career was over. However, on the other hand, if they were correct, well then, he could consider his career almost guaranteed. Squaring his shoulders, he made his decision and replied evenly, “Your Majesty, there is only really one option available to the Empire. That is the transfer of units of the British Empire of India to the Horn area to counter act the Italians and in sufficient numbers to contain them if hostilities commence.”
“Which units would you transfer, Captain,” asked General Mongtomery-Massingbeard asked with an appraising eye cast in my direction and now completely disregarding Brigadier Hughmes and Colonel Sanderson sitting next to him.
“The South Wales Borders, the Warwickshire Yeomanry, the Kashmir Rifles, the Royal Indian Fusiliers, the Somerset Light Infantry, the Royal Berkshire Rifles, the Royal Canadian Fusiliers, and the Royal Madras Infantry, Sir Archibald.”
“Why that would leave all of India undefended,” cried Brigadier Hughmes. “That is madness to leave the jewel of the Empire defenseless to defend some worthless tracts of land in East Africa!”
“The Second and Sixth Indian Infantries would still be available, as well as the Rangoon Rifles,” replied Secretary of War Cooper, “and if truly needed, we could call up Dominion troops, specifically the Australians and the New Zealanders to reinforce India.”
His Highness, Prince Albert added softly, “And Brigadier, if the Italians march into Egypt and seize the Suez Canal or even fortify the Bab-el-Mandeb straits at Djibouti, the resources of India would be forced to divert around the whole of Africa, thereby severally damaging the industries and economies of the British Isles.”
“And that is something that the Empire cannot afford,” said the King heavily, “nor is it something I would tolerate. Winston, I believe we need to reconvene the Privy Council for another briefing about the situation in the Horn.”
“Aye, Your Majesty.”
Glancing back and forth between the two youngest members of the meeting the King continued. “Well, Captains, it appears that the Crown and the Empire owe the two of you a bit of thanks.”
“If I may be as so bold as to interrupt, Your Majesty,” spoke Malcolm, “no thanks are needed. We serve for King and Country.”
“Aye, Your Majesty,” echoed Captain Agnew. “’Tis our service.”
Looking at the rest of the room the King grinned. “Bold ones, we have here, eh? I dare hope there are more like them in the rest of the Regiments, Sir Archibald.”
“Of that, Your Majesty, I can assure you that there are,” replied the General with a smile. “His Highness’ reforms have struck a cord with the younger officers and have given them a boldness I’ve not seen since the days before the Great War.”
“Outstanding. Now, gentlemen,” the King said looking back at the two young captains, “I’m going to reward you two with a trifle.” Reaching into his jacket, the King pulled out a small silver case and extracted two small business cards. Handing one to each officer, he continued, “Captain Drake, go and take my brother’s secretary Cecilia and Captain Agnew, you go and get your favorite lady, and the four of you go have an evening at the Savoy, giving these to the manager. He will arrange something special for the four of you at the Hotel and the Theatre. And before you say that you cannot except, take this as a Royal Command.”
“When you put it that way, Your Majesty,” replied a grinning Malcolm, “then we have no choice but to accept, eh Miles?”
“Aye, Malcolm,” chuckled Captain Agnew, “I quite agree. Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Yes, thank you, Your Majesty.”
“You are both welcome,” answered the King with a smile, “but enough, be off with you both.”
As the two young officers came to attention and gave bows to their sovereign and his heir and then turned to depart quickly, Prince Albert picked up a phone from within the table next to his chair. Speaking into it softly and quickly, he then hung the phone up and turned to his brother the King. “I have Colonel Fergusson and two of his lads coming up for the Brigadier and the Colonel here, Your Majesty.”
“Thank you, Albert.” Glancing disdainfully at the aforementioned officers, the King continued, “Duff, Sir Archibald, I suggest you have the War Office and the Imperial General Staff re-evaluate certain situations around the world and also…. do a bit of house cleaning while you are at it.”
“Both will be done, Your Majesty,” Secretary Cooper replied all the while casting a disgusted look at the same pair, “and done with all haste.”
A knock at the door announced the arrival of Colonel Fergusson. “Your Majesty, Your Highness,” inquired the Colonel in his soft Scottish brogue.
“Ah, Colonel Fergusson,” answered Prince Albert. “Yes, take into custody Brigadier Hughmes and Colonel Sanderson here and convey them to Wandsworth Prison.”
Looking over at the two officers with cold eyes before quickly brining his eyes back to the Prince, Fergusson asked, “And the charges to be logged, Your Highness?”
“Sir Archibald,” Prince Albert asked General Mongtomery-Massingbeard.
“Your opinion on the charges?”
Looking at the two now disgraced officers, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff replied icily, “Articles 3, 9, 10 and 31 of the New Articles of War are the charges, Colonel.”
A quick blink his only sign of shock, Fergusson replied, “Yes sir! If that will be all, Your Majesty, Your Highness, m’lord, sirs, I will take the prisoners from your presence.”
“Aye, Colonel,” answered the King slowly, “that will be all.”
After the door closed behind the former officers and their jailers, the Prime Minister glanced about the remaining occupants and announced wryly, “Well, that will surely get the attention of the dust gathers over at the War Office, eh?”
“That it will, Prime Minister,” General Mongtomery-Massingbeard replied slowly and thoughtfully as he eyed the closed door.
“Back to the matter at hand, gentleman,” the King said gathering the attention of the room. “What shall we do with the information provided by young Captain Drake?”
“Seeing as accurate as it is,” spoke Secretary Cooper, “I believe we really have no choice but to follow thorough with his recommendations. Archie?”
“For a young officer, Captain Drake has a firm understanding of the strategic capabilities of the Empire, his plan of action is quite good. The only thing I would add would be to have the RAF’s India Command send their squadron of HP.52 Hampdens to Mombassa to assist in any actions that would occur.”
Looking over at his Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, the King asked, “Winston, Anthony? What sort of reaction will Parliament and the Italians have with this move?”
Speaking first, Eden replied with a sly grin, “Your Majesty, what can the Italians do? You are merely moving units of the British Army from one outpost of the Empire to another. At the same time, it will send the unwritten message to Mussolini that unless he wishes Italy to go to war with Britain, any further expansion in Africa is over.”
“I agree, Your Majesty,” Churchill followed up. “And the Commons will have no problems once they have been provided with Captain Drake’s report.”
“Good. Very good. Sir Archibald?”
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Have the order issued transferring the units mentioned by Captain Drake to the Horn, put a good trustworthy officer in command and make it a named army group.”
“I’ll have the orders cut this evening, Your Majesty. The British Army of Sub-Sahara should be in the Horn within the month.”
“Outstanding,” replied the King.
“Gentlemen,” spoke the Prince, “unless we have anything else left to discuss, I say we call it an evening, I for one would like to head for my apartments and see my wife and daughter.”