“First to be freed” – a view of Eritrea in the 1940’s

“Early in 1941, when the army of General Platt was fighting its way up the precipices of Keren and the army of General Cunningham was racing across Somalia’s desolate flats, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland were headline news.”

So begins a pamphlet issued by the British government in 1944, entitled: “The First to be Freed: the record of British military administration in Eritrea and Somalia, 1941 – 1943.” This was in the middle of a world war and the publication was, of course, propaganda rather than an academic review of the subject.


Despite this there is a good deal that’s interesting in the pamphlet.

For a start, it admits that Britain was hardly ready to take control of these former Italian territories. “It all came about in a hurry,” the publication says. “If Britain had been Germany, doubtless a body of men would have been trained for this particular task ever since 1935 – but Britain is not Germany…No one familiar with the military situation in East Africa at the end of 1940 could have dreamed that the fall of this part of the Italian Empire would come about so swiftly.”

The Chief Political Officer writes that he was left looking after a “territory about 720,000 square miles in extent, containing 119,000 European civilians and about 12,000,000 Africans.” Yet in June 1941 he had just 268 officers who reported to him – “almost the exact strength of the European Italian staff of the Post Office at Asmara.”

Trying to maintain law and order was not easy. “In Asmara, in spite of the curfew, there was a great deal of petty crime, chiefly in the native quarter. The town was full of ex-soldiers” (former Italian recruited Askari) “who had returned from the war without work, support or principles…”

The British felt they had no option but to turn to the former Italian police – both the fascist Polizia Africana Italiana and the Carabinieri. Using what the pamphlet describes as “this large but untrustworthy force, salted with a handful of Sudanese Police” the British got to work.

Some help arrived in the shape of “an adequate number of trained officers from Southern Rhodesia.” But the British mostly turned to the Eritrean population. “Six months after the occupation, the Eritrean Police Force began to take to the field. It consists today of 3,000 Eritreans under ninety-seven British Officers and Inspectors.”


These mobile police “a half-squadron of some sixty mounted men” and a “striking force 250 strong for repelling raids from beyond the Ethiopian frontier” helped the British control Eritrea.

The military did their best to give the best impression of what they were doing for the local population.

Education was part of this and to differentiate their work from that of the Italians.

“Under the Italians, native education served a political purpose. All instruction in government schools was given in Italian, and such mission schools as were not repressed in 1932 survived only by agreeing to limit their teaching of Tigrinya and Ge’ez to religious instructions. The text-books, expensively produced, were written in Italian and glorified the Duce on almost every page. Military service was lauded. Boys were encouraged to become ‘little soldiers of the Duce’, the Fascist salute was compulsory and at the morning hoisting of the flag Italian songs were sung.”

First to be freed

It took time for the British to turn this around. “But, since January 1943, schools have been opening fast. Including the mission schools there are twenty-eight today, eleven more than there were in Italian times, unless one counts the twenty-five village schools, which were considered of too dubious a value to re-open. Only half as many boys are being taught, however, for it was decided this year to enrol 3,000 pupils for a satisfactory planned first-year course and increase these numbers next year when present pupils pass into the second year.”

“Teachers, as in Italians times, must be recruited rather from the highways and by-ways, but some attempt is made to see that they know their job; every year they undergo a three-weeks’ course of lectures and demonstration lessons.”

There is much more in the pamphlet which is of interest, despite being a propaganda publication.

How many Eritrean families will be able to identify their family members from these grainy photographs?














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