THE ITALIAN INVASION OF ETHIOPIA

 

DUCE'

BENITO MUSSOLINI

 

 

 

In 1896, when Italian youth Benito Mussolini was a mere thirteen years old, he along with the entire nation of Italy were informed of the disastrous military defeat of the Italian Army at the battle of Adwa in Ethiopia. The event was a severe blow to Italian prestige not only in Europe, but around the world.

In 1922, at the age of thirty nine Mussolini and his Fascist party had assumed power in Italy. Thirteen years later the Italian Dictator had turned the country into a European power, respected and feared throughout the world.

However beyond this facade of a Fascist Utopia, Mussolini was facing some very harsh reality’s. Italy possessed very few natural resources, high unemployment and an economy which was to heavily dependent on the importation of goods and materials.

Mussolini felt that a war of conquest would divert attention from Italy’s domestic problems and would boost the regime’s popularity. A victory in Africa would serve to unify the Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia, therefore the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia was the target.

In early December 1934, tensions between Italy and Ethiopia erupted into violence in what was later refereed to as the “Wal Wal incident” an armed clash which left one hundred Ethiopians and eighty Italian Askari troops dead.

Both Great Britain and France (wishing to keep Italy as a strong ally against Adolph Hitler and a reasurging Germany) did very little to discourage the Italian military buildup along the borders of Ethiopia from neighboring Italian Eritrea and Somaliland.

With an attack appearing inevitable, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie ordered the general mobilization of all able bodied men regardless of age to report for military service. This newly conscripted army although quite large (perhaps 600,000 men) had no military training and seventy percent of which were armed with little more than spears, shield and bow.

Only the Emperors twenty five thousand strong Imperial Guard had military training and were armed with repeating rifles and horse drawn cannons, however these dated back to before the year 1900 and Ethiopia also possessed no tanks, artillery or air force.

The invading Italian forces were considerable, comprising 700,000 front line troops consisting of eight regular infantry, two mountain divisions and six Fascist black shirt battalions. This number would compliment the four hundred thousand soldiers in Eritrea and three hundred thousand already present in Italian Somaliland.

The Italians could also call upon, six hundred aircraft, seven hundred tanks, two thousand artillery guns and nine thousand heavy machine guns. This great force would also be well supplied by one thousand trucks where as thier Ethiopian adversaries relied solely on horse drawn carts.

 

Ethiopian Soldiers

ETHIOPIAN INFANTRY

 

italian infantry

ITALIAN INFANTRY

 

Italian Tanks

ITALIAN ARMOR

 

 

 

General Emilio De Bono would be supreme commander for the invasion. His forces, the Italian 1st, 2nd and the Eritrean corps were to invade northern Ethiopia from Eritrea. De Bono’s subordinate, General Rodolfo Graziani was the commander of two infantry divisions ( 29th Peloritana and 6th Tevere ) along with a variety of smaller brigade size units comprising Somalis, Libyans and Eritrean’s based in Somaliland along the Ethiopian southern border. Graziani’s smaller army was dug in and heavily fortified, they were to act as a defensive force preventing the Ethiopians from reinforcing thier northern armies once the invasion had begun.

On the morning of October 3rd 1935, General De Bono crossed the Mareb River on a fifty mile front and invaded Ethiopia. On the right wing II Corps under General Maravigna advanced on Adwa. In the center General Biroli’s Eritrean Corps moved to secure the mountain passes of Enticho. On the left wing I Corps commanded by General Santini marched on Adigrat.

The Italian Regia Aeronautica now filled the skies streaming ahead of the advancing ground offensive. Enjoying complete and total air superiority they strafed and bombed every town and village without impunity. On October 5th, the Italian I Corps marched unopposed into Adigrat, the next day the mountain passes of Enticho were secured while Adwa capitulated to II Corps without resistance.

Emperor Haile Selassie now ordered both Ras Seyoum Mangasha and Ras Dejazmach Gugsa to withdrawal both thier armies one hundred miles to regroup. However on October 11th, Ras Gugsa and 1,500 other officers defected and surrendered to the Italian outpost at Adagamos, thus abandoning his army of 20,000 men leaving them virtually leaderless.

On October 15th, Italian forces occupied the holy capital of Axum, with General De Bono himself entering the city at the front of his troops riding triumphantly on a white horse. The Italian advance would continue but methodically slow. On November 3rd, an exasperated Mussolini cabled De Bono with a stern and direct order to speed up operations.

On November 8th, the Italian I Corps marched into the deserted city of Makale. Yet the Duce’s appetite for final victory was still not satisfied. Mussolini informed De Bono on the 16th that he had fulfilled his task in the operation and was to be replaced by General Badoglio. To sweeten this bitter pill, the Duce’ promoted De Bono from General to Marshall of Italy.

 

General De Bono               Marshal Bodoglio

GENERAL De BONO                                 MARSHAL BADOGLIO

 

 

 

With this sudden change in the command structure of the Italian forces, Emperor Selassie believed an opportunity had presented itself to launch a major counter attack. The Ethiopian offensive would number nearly 200,000 men and would be a coordinated effort under the command of four of Ethiopia’s finest Ras.

The ambitious Ethiopian plan called for Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum’s 70,000 men to split the Italian army in two, capture the Warieu Pass and isolate the Italian I and III Corps around Mekele. The Ethiopian right wing under Ras Mulugeta (The Minister of War) with 80,000 men would then advance south from Amba Aradam and crush both enemy corps. Ras Imru and his 50,000 strong Army of Shire on the Ethiopian left were to recapture Adwa and invade Italian Eritrea.

On the morning of December 15th, the great Ethiopian counter offensive began. The suprise, shock, speed and sheer weight of the combined attacks had compelled the Italian army to abandon thier front line position and withdrawal along the entire front.

Ras Imru had quickly captured Maitimket, Addi Atcheb and the strategic Dembeuina Pass. Ras Kassa and Seyoum recaptured Abbi Addi and the Warieu Pass. Ras Mulugeta was now in a strong position to sweep down on the right flank of Badoglio’s retreating army.

Ras Mulugheta’s army now moved forward capturing Mount Amba Aradam at the mouth of the Gabat river while also threatening the Italian ammunition depot at Quiha. In desperation Badoglio cabled Mussolini on December 26th asking for then receiving permission to use chemical warfare agents to stem the Ethiopian advance.

On the 27th, the Italian’s began delivering this terrible weapon of the First World War with bombers of the Regia Aeronautica and specially designed canisters in place of artillery shells for the army artillery corps. This combined with superior Italian firepower was sufficient enough to gradually grind the Ethiopian offensive to a complete halt. The mysterious fluid sprayed from the skies which burned and suffocated, was something the Ethiopian’s just could not understand nor defend against.

 

italian bomber 2

 

italian bomber

ITALIAN BOMBERS

 

Although territory was lost, the Italians had now stabilized thier front. Static warfare would now dominate the battlefield. Marshal Badoglio would use this time wisely as he doubled the size of his forces with three fresh infantry divisions from Italy.

This precious time was bought solely by the Regia Aeronautica who’s bomb’s, poison gas and strafing runs prevented the Ethiopian’s from mounting any from of organized attacks. On January 20th 1936, under extreme pressure from Mussolini, Badoglio launched his spring offensive.

From the outset there was initial confusion as Italian units became isolated from the main army, this allowed the Ethiopian’s to resist the first waves of the attack and hold thier lines. By the end of the first day, the 2nd Eritrean Division was stalled at Abaro while the Facist 28th October Blackshirt Division on the Italian right was driven back to the Warieu Pass where itself and the garrison were surrounded and besieged.

For the next three days and nights, wave upon wave of Ethiopian infantry surged forward against the beleaguered Italian forces. Time and again breaching the enemy defenses, where the fighting degenerated into bloody hand to hand combat.

On the morning of January 23rd, the Regia Aeronautica launched a massive poison gas attack upon the Ethiopians base camps, this coincided with the arrival of General Achille Vaccarisi and his 2nd Eritrean Division to the battlefield.

After three more days of hard fighting Ras Kassa’s men could no longer stand up to the superior Italian weaponry and continuous gas attacks, by January 26th, what was left of his army simply melted away and ceased as an organized force.

The battle had now come to an end. Ethiopian casualties numbered 12,000 dead and 20,000 severally wounded in stark comparison to Italian losses of 1,100 men. While the army of Ras Kassa had been virtually destroyed and that of Ras Seyoum badly mauled, the remaining two northern Ethiopian armies had been spared the brunt of the Italian offensive and were relatively intact. However Marshal Badoglio was now free to turn his full attention to the enemy right flank and Ras Mulugeta.

 

Ethiopia Battlemap 1

JANUARY 20TH

 

Ethiopia Battlemap 2

JANUARY 26TH

 

On February 9th, Marshal Badoglio cabled Mussolini that he was ready to launch an offensive against Ras Mulegeta’s 80,000 strong army dug in atop the steep slopes of Mount Amba Aradam. Clearing this major obstacle would open the road to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

Although Ras Mulugeta’s infantry outnumbered the Italians three to one, Badoglio held an overwhelming superiority in weaponry. The Italians possessed nearly five thousand machine guns, three hundred artillery pieces and two hundred aircraft. The Ethiopian’s countered with four hundred machine guns, twenty five pre World War One field cannons and no aircraft.

At 8:00am the next morning Marshal Badoglio launched the maneuver to surround the summit. The Fascist October 28th Blackshirt division supported by native Askaris positioned themselves against the north slopes while the Italian I and III Corps occupied the Calamino and Antola Plains.

With his army now completely surrounded atop Mount Amba Aradam, Ras Mulugeta could only watch in horror as his men now felt the full brunt of Italian weaponry. The combination of Mortar and artillery bombardments, poison gas attacks and entrenched machine guns completely paralyzed the ability of Mulugeta’s army to mount any form of attack.

After five days of continuos pounding the Ethiopian army was on the verge of being completely destroyed. On February 15th, Ras Mulugeta gave a general order for all remaining units to concentrate and attack down the south slopes converging on Addi Kolo and effect a breakout.

The Ethiopian’s attacked the Italian positions repeatedly, suffering immense casualties with each assault. By nightfall they did however manage to create a small break in the Italian line. Through this gap thousands of men made good thier escape falling back through the towns of Amba, Alagi and Sokota.

Marshal Badoglio now unleashed the full power of the Regia Aeronautica his mechagnized Artillery and Armored Corps, pursuing the fleeing Ethiopian’s. After four consecutive days of relentless air and ground attacks, Ras Mulugeta was dead and the helpless survivors of his once proud army lay virtually annihilated.

At the end of the nine day battle Ethiopian losses were horrific numbering 20,000 killed, 35,000 wounded and 15,000 taken prisoner. Italian casualties totaled 1,000 dead and 800 wounded.

 

Ethiopia

THE DESTRUCTION OF RAS MULUGETA’S ARMY

 

The battle of Tembien had been a catastrophic disaster for the country. Ras Mulugeta was dead, both Ras Kassa and Seyoum had been defeated, three of the four Ethiopian armies of the north were practically destroyed. Only one army remained intact, that of Ras Imru and his 25,000 strong army of the Shire.

Ras Imru had very little knowledge or information regarding the battles taking place to his west. The Ethiopian army possessed very few field radios and messages routed by horseback took an average of five days to reach him.

On March 1st, Marshal Badoglio ordered the offensive to now continue against Ras Imru. General Maravigna and II Corps were to advance against the Ethiopian right wing from Axum while IV Corps under General Babbini moved south from the Eritrean border against Ras Imru’s left flank.

On March 2nd, while strung out along a single road, II Corps was unexpectedly attacked by elements of Ras Imru’s rear guard. The assault had materialized with such speed and ferocity that in desperation Italian units were forced to fight in eighteenth century infantry squares. The Ethiopian forces were only driven off by the arrival of Italian tanks.

For the next two days as Ras Imru’s army attempted to escape across the Takeze River and link up with the Emperors forces, Italian aircraft dropped hundreds of tons of high explosive incendiary and mustard gas on the fleeing Ethiopians. When II Corps crossed the Takeze days later, the effectiveness of the Regia Aeronautica was made apparent by the thousands of putrefying corpses.

The battle was now at an end. Ras Imru’s army suffered 6,000 killed, 13,000 wounded and 2,000 prisoners taken, Italian losses numbered 600 dead and 800 wounded.

 

General Graziani

MARSHAL GRAZIANI

 

With northern Ethiopia conquered, Mussolini cabled Marshal Graziani with orders to implement his “Milan Plan”.The objective of which was to attack and destroy all Ethiopian forces along the southern borders. Within days Graziani’s two infantry divisions (40,000) men, had advanced virtually unopposed nearly one hundred miles and captured the key villages and road junctions of Kelafo, Dagnerai, Gerlogubi and Gorahai.

The only Ethiopian forces which could counter Graziani’s advance was Ras Desta’s southern army numbering 25,000 men. After a three day forced march, they approached the Italian positions in and around Dolo.

Ras Desta could see clearly that the Italians were occupying very strong defensive positions ringed with artillery, mortars and machine guns. Desta had also heard of the Ethiopian casualties suffered in the north by attacking enemy fixed positions but felt his situation was tenuous, his army was low on water and no further supplies would be forth coming, therefore the Ethiopian General felt his only recourse was to attack.

While Ras Desta was assembling his forces, Marshal Graziani began the battle by ordering two hundred fighters and bombers of the Italian 7th air wing to attack and drop poison and mustard gas on the Ethiopian positions. The horrific numbers of dead and dying in such a short period of time compelled Desta to order a general withdrawal. Unfortunately the Ethiopian foot soldiers could not retreat fast enough for the Italian forces were fully mechanized.

The Italian’s easily outflanked and bypassed enemy units poisoning the small lakes and few wells that lay along thier path. Dying in the thousand’s, Ras Desta’s army succumbed to dehydration and disintegrated out on the open plains under the blistering hot African sun. Ras Desta did however survive the holocaust making his escape to Addis Ababa to join the Emperor.

For the loss of 600 men, Graziani had completely destroyed Ras Desta’s army inflicting a staggering 14,000 dead, 7,000 wounded and 4,000 prisoners taken. With the annihilation of the southern army, only the Emperor’s Imperial Guard remained as the last organized fighting force within all Ethiopia and was all that stood in the way of Italian victory.

 

Haile Selassie

EMPEROR HAILE SELASSIE

 

 

Ethiopian Guard

ETHIOPIAN IMPERIAL GUARD

 

On March 29th, as he looked across the lush green valleys at the Italian positions in and around the town of Maychew, Haile Selassie contemplated his next decision. For accompanying his army of 60,000 men, was the 30,000 strong Ethiopian Imperial Guard.

These soldiers were not of the fighting caliber Badoglio’s army had defeated in the northern battles. They were armed with modern weaponry, trained by European military advisors, hand picked for thier size and strength, specifically selected for thier fanatical loyalty to the Emperor and patriotic zeal of country. This made them the most feared men and elite forces within the Ethiopian army.

For the up coming battle, Badoglio possessed a total of 100,000 men comprising the 5th Pusteria Mountain Division the 26th Assietta and 30th Sabauda Infantry Divisions and the 4th Fascist Blackshirt Division. In reserve Badaglio held another 40,000 men of the Italian I Corps, the 1st and 2nd Eritrean Divisions along with the 1st Fascist Blackshirts.

At dawn on the morning of March 31st, Selassie ordered 15,000 men under Ras Kassa to attack the Eritrean divisions holding the Mekan Pass on the Italian left flank then swing west and attack the enemy center from the rear.

For most of the morning and well into the afternoon, the Ethiopian assault kept up a steady pace and despite taking heavy casualties was beginning to gain ground. But at 0:600 Badoglio once again unleashed the bombers of the Regia Aeronautica and the Ethiopian’s were forced to withdrawal.

The next morning Haile Selassie ordered Ras Getachew to take command of the Imperial Guard and destroy the weakened Italian left flank. The Italian’s immediately struggled to hold against the fierce onslaught as the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Eritrean Division buckled and was virtually annihilated. In desperation to prevent the flank from collapse, Italian General Achille Vaccarisi called down concentrated artillery fire onto his own positions.

For the entire day the fighting would continue at time hand to hand but by 5:00 pm it was becoming apparent the Imperial Guard was beginning to falter. With his country’s fate hanging in the balance, Haile Selassie felt he had no further option but to order an all out frontal attack along the entire front.

As the Ethiopian army lumbered forward en mass, a horrified Emperor Selassie could only stand silent as the assault began to wither, then simply melted away under the Italian barrage. As the smoke cleared the battlefield lay littered with thousand’s of the dead and dying.

 

Ethiopian Dead

ETHIOPIAN DEAD

 

The Emperor and the remnants of the army now made a desperate bid to escape into the highlands towards lake Ashangi. The retreat quickly became a rout as Italian air power asserted its dominance once again. The Ethiopian’s suffered more casualties over the next three days of bombing than were lost during the entire battle.

However the 15,000 thirsty and weary survivors of the Emperor’s once proud army had no choice but to continue thier death march across the open plains towards lake Ashangi. Unbeknownst to the Ethiopians, the water of lake Ashangi had been sprayed with deadly chemicals by the Italian Air Force. On the evening of April 4th, Haile Selassie arrived and looked on with horror and despair at the sight of the thousands of dead men ringing the poisoned lake.

The Emperor now made his way towards Addis Ababa. When he arrived in the city on May 1st, the capital of his empire was near deserted and the surrounding area in a state of chaos and panic. Then next morning Haile Selassie boarded his imperial train to Djibouti, from there he fled to England.

Marshal Badoglo’s forces marched into Addis Ababa three days later. The second Italian - Abyssinian war was over, back in Italy Benito Mussolini could now claim his empire to the world. On June 1st 1936, Italy officially merged Ethiopia with Eritrea and Somaliland, calling the new state, Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa).

 

italians enter addis ababa

ITALIANS ENTER ADDIS ABABA

 

The war cost the the Italians 15,000 killed and 50,000 wounded. The Ethiopians suffered much greater losses at 275,000 killed and 500,000 wounded. Four years later on June 10th 1940, with France and Great Britain on the verge of defeat. Mussolini declared war on the side of his Axis partner Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany thus plunging Italy into World War Two.

The direct result of IL Duce’s decision was that Italy’s army within East Africa was defeated by the British in early 1941. On May 1st, with the support of his British allies, Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia and entered Addis Ababa raising the standard of the lion of Judah once again, where four years later Italy would lay in ruin and Mussolini dead. 

 

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