Haile Selassie's Mongrel Foreign Legion 1935-41

In the autumn of 1935 Addis Ababa was getting nervous. The Italians were just over the border building an army. A minor clash earlier in the year had escalated into threats, and military action. Now, Mussolini’s men were preparing to invade.

Some of the Ethiopian capital’s inhabitants were worried by something closer to home: foreigners. Addis Ababa was crawling with them, and the notoriously xenophobic Ethiopians weren’t happy about it.

Every time they looked out their windows they saw a globalist parade: cine-cameramen, diplomats, arms dealers, foreign journalists (including a skinny Latvian ex-circus ringmaster with a monocle, and Harun al-Rashid Bey, a shaven-headed Muslim convert whose parents knew him as Wilhelm Hintersatz), a Greek claimant to the Bourbon throne, two mysterious Japanese men in horn-rimmed glasses, who spent their time playing table tennis, an aging British foxhunter who claimed to be an expert in trench warfare, a pair of Czechoslovak explorers who seemed unaware of the Italian threat, and a black South African representing - according to British writer Evelyn Waugh - ‘another world league for the abolition of, I think, the white races’.

Haile Selassie
Emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings, the Elect of Zion, and the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and his pet dog, Bull, pictured in 1934. (LoC, Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie's Mongrel Foreign Legion 1935-41, Amberley Publishing)

When the war finally began, many of the most dubious characters would flee, be deported, or get pushed out. But others would stay to fight for Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, against the invading Fascists.

It was a battle between far-right modernity and patriarchal traditionalism. The Italians had airplanes, high explosives, and mustard gas. The Ethiopians preferred swords and spears. Haile Selassie needed expert foreign help. What he got was a crazy gang of mercenaries who could barely shoot straight, and leaned further to the right than Mussolini.

Ethiopia’s new foreign friends included Americans posing as fake French counts, Fascist Belgian dogs of war, an African-American pilot duo known as the Black Eagle and the Brown Condor (they hated each other), a Cuban veteran of three failed far-right coups, an Austrian Nazi doctor, Swedish soldiers who preferred fighting communism, and an alcoholic English dropout.

The international powers backing Haile Selassie were equally disreputable. Hitler supported Selassie as part of a plot to grab back the Rhineland, and Japanese secret societies pushed a penniless Tokyo princess into marriage with an Ethiopian prince. Together, this bizarre foreign legion tried to save Ethiopia from Fascism. It would not end well.

Lost Lions of Judah Major Auguste Dothée
Belgian adviser Major Auguste Dothée (centre) with fellow Belgians and Ethiopian Imperial Guard officers, 1935. (Martin Rikli Photographs, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie's Mongrel Foreign Legion 1935-41, Amberley Publishing)

Some mercenaries preferred to fight each other. The Brown Condor tried to stab the Black Eagle in a hotel lobby. The Turks and the Belgians preferred to undermine each other out on the battlefield, throwing around accusations of incompetence and cowardice. When a Belgian died of natural causes, everyone assumed he had been poisoned. A coup in Japan took out many pro-Ethiopia voices, and Hitler began to worry he had chosen the wrong dictator to support. Disillusioned Ethiopians wondered if their foreigners were secretly working for the other side.

While the mercenaries squabbled, Ethiopia died. What started as picturesque exoticism for jaded journalists (barefoot soldiers, despot warlords, cave-dwelling priests) soon degenerated into the abattoir of modern warfare (gas attacks, terror bombing, tortured prisoners). Tens of thousands died.

There were mercenaries who genuinely believed in the emperor’s cause. Czech Adolf Parlesák was in the front lines when the Italians rolled in, and spent his days dodging bullets and bombs. Cuban Alejandro Del Valle had to run for his life when the Ethiopian front lines broke early in 1936. The Russian émigré Feodor Konovalov found himself talking tactics with a warlord, as Fascist shells smashed apart the mountainside around them.

When Ethiopian troops failed to stop the Italians at the Battle of Maychew, even the most dedicated mercenary knew it was all over. The Belgians took the first train out of Addis Ababa. The Brown Condor wasn’t far behind. A few stayed on to the end. Swedish soldiers tried to organise a last ditch defence of the capital; Del Valle continued the fight in the south-west; the American pilot Hilaire Du Berrier hung on in the capital, dodging Italian patrols.

Haile Selassie’s mercenaries would go on to stranger adventures, weirder causes, and early deaths for some. As they scattered from Shanghai to Prague, and occupied Brussels to the Eastern Front, they would always remember the Ethiopian emperor, and their efforts to keep the Fascist boot off the neck of the last independent nation in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Christopher Othen's new book Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie's Mongrel Foreign Legion 1935-41 is available for purchase now.