Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
14. The Liberation Campaign, 1941 Mussolini’s Entry into the European War
At the outbreak of the European war, on 3 September 1939, Mussolini refrained from involving himself in the war. He nevertheless declared that fascist Italy, a close ally of nazi Germany, was in a state of “pre-belligerency”. By that he implied that he was committed to eventually participating in the struggle. By postponing his entry into the conflict he obviated having to fight with Italy’s neighbour, France, and avoided any immediate Allied attack on the insecure Italian East African empire, where the Ethiopian patriots were still unbeaten. After Hitler’s victory over France in the early summer of 1940, however, the Duce anticipated that Germany would rapidly win the war. Anxious to be participate in an ensuing peace conference he declared war on Britain and France, on 10 June.
Italy’s entry into the European war, for which the Ethiopian patriots had long been waiting, had important, and almost immediate consequences, making it a turning point in Ethiopian history. Britain, as a result, of Mussolini’s action, found itself obliged to modify, if not entirely to abandon, its long-established, pro-colonial, attitude to Italo-Ethiopian relations. The British Government, it will be recalled, had for half a century favoured Italian expansion in Ethiopia. Britain had supported Italy’s occupation of Massawa in 1885, and had thereafter consistently sought to accommodate Italian colonial ambitions: by dispatching the Portal mission to help the Italians after Ras Alula’s victory at Dogali in 1887, by recognising Italy’s Protectorate claim in 1890, by signing the Tripartite Treaty of 1906, by offering Italy a revision of colonial frontiers in 1915, and by participating in the AngloItalian demarche of 1925 against which Tafari Makonnen had protested to the League. Britain’s policy of accommodation had continued into the immediate pre-war period, with the restriction of arms sales immediately prior to the fascist invasion, the limitation of sanctions against Italy and the Hoare-Laval plan of 1935, and, finally, the recognition of the Italian “conquest” in 1938.
Opening of the Liberation Campaign
The opening of hostilities in the summer of 1940 necessarily changed the British perspective. The Italians in East Africa threatened Britain’s important sea route to India, and were in a position to overrun three British or British-run territories: Kenya, British Somaliland, and Sudan. The Italians in Libya to the north and in East Africa to the south seemed furthermore poised to occupy Egypt and Sudan, in a pincer operation. This, if successful, would have severed what a contemporary official British publication aptly described as “the wasp-waist of the British Empire”. The Italians in East Africa, almost entirely cut off from metropolitan Italy, and gravely weakened by the activities of the patriots, were, however, in no position to exploit the situation in their favour.
British Help for the Patriots
The first, and easiest, British response to Italy’s entry into the European war was to offer assistance to the Ethiopian patriots on the borders of Sudan. The British District Officer at Gedaref, on the Sudanese side of the frontier, immediately dispatched twelve already prepared Amharic letters, written in the name of the British commander in Sudan, General Sir William Platt, to patriot chiefs of Gojjam, Armachaho, Walqayt, and Bagemder. These promised the patriots assistance in “destroying the common enemy”. On 23 June 1940, Emperor Haile Sellassie was flown from England, and shortly afterwards proclaimed, on 2 July that Great Britain would grant Ethiopia “the aid of her incomparable might”. The promised assistance was, however, far less than the patriots expected. Haile Sellassie, in his Autobiography, complained bitterly at its inadequacy, as well as its tardy arrival.
The Emperor’s Arrival in Sudan: Wooing the Patriots
Despite such criticism British help proved of decisive importance. News of it, and of the Emperor’s arrival in Sudan, had an electrifying effect. Hundreds of Ethiopians trekked across the frontier into Sudan, while many Italian colonial troops deserted.
Sandford and Wingate
The British in the months which followed continued to woo the patriots. On 12 August, a British officer, Colonel Daniel Sandford, entered Gojjam, as head of a small Ethio-British mission, Mission 101, to make contact with the patriots, and to encourage them to join together in a common struggle. Several leaders, then torn by rivalry, shortly afterwards agreed to sign a unity pact. On 20 November a more senior British officer, Major-General Orde Wingate, arrived in Gojjam by ‘plane, with promises of speedy, though limited, aid. The patriots, thrilled by his coming, spoke of it as a “sign from the skies”. A dynamic, if at times controversial, leader skilled in guerrilla warfare, he had earlier said to General Archibald Wavell, his superior in Cairo: “Give me a small fighting force of first-class men, and from the core of Ethiopia I will eat into the Italian apple and turn it so rotten that it will drop into our hands”.
Three Almost Simultaneous Attacks
Anglo-Ethiopian cooperation bore fruit in the second half of January 1941 when the British launched three major, almost simultaneous, attacks on Italian East Africa. The first began on 19 January, when British and Indian troops under General William Platt crossed the frontier at Kassala into Eritrea. They thus began an attack which took them, with unexpected speed, via Karan, site of a fierce battle, through Eritrea into northern Tegray. The second attack, almost five hundred kilometres to the south, opened on the following day, when a much smaller force of Ethiopians, Sudanese and Britons, led by the Emperor, with Wingate and Sandford, raised the Ethiopian flag at the Ethiopian border village of Um Idla. Making contact with the patriots of Gojjam they began an advance to the Blue Nile on the road to Addis Ababa. The third attack, a thousand five hundred miles further south, started four days later, on 24 January, when British and South African soldiers, under the command of General Alan Cunningham, crossed from Kenya into Italian Somalia. They thus began an immense trek via Mogadishu and Harar to Addis Ababa, which they occupied, on 6 April. The advance to the Ethiopian capital, which had taken De Bono and Badoglio seven months in 1935-6, was thus accomplished by the Allies, with patriot help, in little more than three.
The Victories of the Patriots
The Ethiopian patriots played a major, if at the time perhaps not always sufficiently recognised, role in the Liberation campaign. Throughout their previous four year struggle they had done much to isolate, tie down, and eventually weary, the enemy. On eventually receiving British military assistance, they took the offensive and, when provided with British aerial support, swept across Gojjam to play a significant role in the capture of Burye. The advance of the Emperor’s patriot army was so rapid that the British high command began to fear that Ethiopian forces might reach Addis Ababa before their British – and South African – allies, and thus endanger the safety of the city’s Italian, i.e. fellow European, population. Royal Air Force support for the Patriots was for that reason no longer forthcoming
Ras Ababa Aragay
In Shawa meanwhile, the patriot leader Ras Ababa Aragay, who had fought virtually throughout the entire occupation, now strengthened his position. Addis Ababa, though guarded by Italian garrison troops protected by pill-boxes and barbed wire entanglements, was virtually surrounded by his and other patriot units. The Italians, terrified that the patriots would break into the capital, were seriously demoralised. Rather than fall into the hands of their Ethiopian enemies they hastened, on 4 April, to surrender to the South Africans, who entered the capital two days later. Central Italian resistance thus came ended. Mussolini’s once triumphant army was reduced to a number of isolated, and beleaguered garrisons.
The Emperor, with the patriots, finally entered Addis Ababa, on 5 May 1941, exactly five years after Badogio’s capture of the city in 1936. Patriot forces subsequently played an important role in finally “mopping up” operations throughout Ethiopia, from April to November 1941. They were prominent in the capture of many towns, among them Dase, Jemma, Gore, Dabra Tabor, and Laqamti. The patriots also took part in scaling the heights of Amba Alagi, where the Duke of Aosta surrendered, on 16 May. A South African soldier, recalling this operation, observed: “When we, the mighty white conquerors, fell down exhausted, after climbing a few hundred feet”, the patriots “stared at us in amazement; that we were unable to walk unburdened while they ran with loads never failed to astonish them”. The last battle of the war was fought, one more with considerable patriot help, at Gondar, which succumbed to the Allies, on 27 November 1941.