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Series: Ethiopian Patriots
02. Fighting around Addis Ababa, during the Rains of 1936
The rainy season of 1936, which began at the end of June, greatly hampered Italian offensive operations, and thus provided the Ethiopians with a much needed breathing space in which the Patriot Movement developed.
“Sons of Ras Kassa”
The first significant incident of this phase of the struggle occurred on 6 July, when a force of Patriots, described by the Italian writer Bollati as “incited by the sons of Ras Kassa,” cut the railway and telegraph lines between Akaki and Mojjo, and derailed several carriages near Adda. This, according to Corrado Zoli, caused an eight-day interruption of traffic. The same Ethiopian group then proceeded to attack an Italian force near Adama on 8 July. The Italian dead included one senior officer, General Mercati.
The operation, according to Edward Press of the Bank of Ethiopia, “showed considerable organisation”, and, as he put it, was “certainly not the work of a haphazard band of Abyssinian brigands.” The British journalist, and later novelist, Evelyn Waugh, who travelled by rail from Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa shortly afterwards, reported that “there had been sharp fighting in the previous month. A train was derailed and sacked, two bridges destroyed and a station besieged for a day and a half. For ten days trains could not get through”.
The Italians, Waugh reports, were therefore taking strong precautions: “there was a machine-gun section”, he says, “posted at the front of the train; another at the rear.”
Patriots to the north-west of Addis Ababa were also engaged in fighting at Debra Berhan and Koromesh on 19 July, and launched assaults at Ankober on 21 and 22 July.
“Greatly in Fear of an Ethiopian Attack on the Capital”
An Italian nurse, Maria Giaconia Landi, who was then in Addis Ababa, records that by then many of her compatriots were greatly in fear of an Ethiopian attack on the capital. On 17 July she noted that within a radius of three kilometres of the city the rebels were “attacking continually”, that there was “firing every night”, and that the area of the old Menelik hospital was “not too secure”.
On the following day she reported: “There is always talk of attacks on the city. They say we cannot be quiet until the rainy season ends. It is thought the Abyssinians will try to make an invasion en masse or else infiltrate one day into the market.” It was, however, hoped that even though a “night assault might in part succeed it would expose the enemy to be exterminated with the light of dawn. “On July 20 she reported hearing shooting on the previous night, on 21 July that the “rebel” force outside the city was believed to be 40,000 strong, and on 22 July that Dr. Bora of the Italian hospital on the Gulale road “absolutely did not want her to go to the old Menelik hospital “because it is said to be one of the most dangerous places”.
Addis Ababa was, in fact, attacked, for the first time, on 28 July, when Patriot forces advanced on the city from the northwest and south-east. Zoli describes them as a “strong nuclei of dissidents and rebels “under Aberra Kassa and Dejazmach Balcha, “while Bollati says that a “strong force” – Giaconia Landi quotes the figure of 30,000 armed men under the sons of Kassa “infiltrated the woods around the capital, attempting to attack it in the hope of provoking a revolt in the city.” Landi says the rebels’ attacked near the Italian hospital, and that there was fighting near St. George’s Cathedral. Waugh was later informed by the Italians that several hundred armed raiders got into the centre of the city “before they were discovered and wiped out in the gulleys”, while Woizerit Salome Gabre Egziabher investigating the matter a generation or more later, claimed that contrary to Italian statements, the attacking force was supported by “almost the entire population of the town”.
Italian Aircraft Bombing and Machine-Gunning
On the following day Landi describes hard fighting, while Italian aircraft, according to Zoli, attacked the Patriots around Addis Ababa fiercely “throughout the day of 29 July, bombing them, machine-gunning them and thus finally dispersing them”. Landi relates that the hill above the New Palace had for a time been “entirely occupied by the rebels”, and that there had even been a possibility of the Italian hospital, at Gulale, falling into their hands.
It would seem not unreasonable to argue that, had it not been for Italian control of the air, Patriot forces might then, and later, have actually captured Addis Ababa!
So, far from being demoralized the Patriots seem, however, to have continued in their determination. On 16 August, Landi reported further Italian alarm, She states that it was believed that the Patriot leaders, Aberra Kassa and Fikre Mariam, were about to march on the capital at the head of 11,000 men.
Patriots around this time were also active to the east of the country, in the Chercher area, where Zoli admits that though the population had surrendered 24 machine-guns, 320 Mauser rifles and 1,100 other types of rifles, the Italian advance went slowly.
Ethiopian forces in fact counterattacked in this area, attacking the Italian garrison at Kolubi on 14 and 19 August. On that day they captured the local church, while other groups far away in the north launched an attack on Warra Illu on 20 August.
Addis Ababa Again Attacked
Addis Ababa was again attacked a few days later. Landi wrote, on 26 August, of rumours of enemy “infiltration in the city”, and reports that it was believed that five Patriot leaders, each with ten to twelve thousand men, had agreed to attack together, while another thousand rebels were established near the airport. The expected attack, led by Dejazmatch Balcha came that night. The capital, she says, was in consequence in “a permanent state of alarm,” and a night curfew was imposed, for it was thought that some “rebels” had already succeeded in penetrating the city’s confines.
On the following day Graziani telegraphed to Rome that he had given instructions that all coded telegrams from the ex-foreign Legations, now reduced to consulate level, should be held up to prevent the diffusion of what he termed “alarmist news”, until the Minister of the Colonies had been able to release his own version of events, i.e. some sort of a cooked-up concoction!
“Quite a Battle”
Waugh, who was in the city at this time, recalls that the official of the Italian Ministry of the Press detailed to look after him “seemed embarrassed.” The Patriots, he adds, were “attacking the aerodrome. Bombers arrived from Dire Dawa. It was quite a battle.”
Describing conditions in and around the capital at the time of his visit the English writer goes on to say that “there was a general sense of insecurity.” Writing, it should be remembered, as a sympathiser of fascist Italy, he added:
“The raids on the town were futile; the chance of a rising inside it, remote. But all the time there was an illusion of being besieged. The thick groves of eucalyptus which surround Addis on all sides provided perfect cover for attack and retreat. . . the bandits could and frequently did advance unobserved to a few yards of the outer defences; more than this, the circumference of the town is so large and its boundaries so ill defined, the ground so broken with water-courses and footpaths, that they could effortlessly penetrate the defences at twenty places”.
Such incidents, however, were few and far between, and the Italian garrison, Waugh explains, often had “nothing to do except sit about sheltering from the rain and gaze out from the sentry posts into the dripping eucalyptus; to go into action when it suited the temper of the marauding bands to come and shoot at them”.
Dr. Ladislas Sava, a Hungarian physician then practicing in the capital, wrote more sympathetically of the Patriots. He declares that guerrilla troops often approached Addis Ababa from the forest, harassing the Italian troops whenever they met them. Graziani, he explains, was “master of the town, but on the Gulali road, for instance, in the Italian hospital there, one could often hear quite clearly the noise of rifles and machine-guns in the near neighbourhood”,
Fighting Outside the Capital
Outside the capital, fighting was even more frequent. Italian records tell for example of battles with “strong rebel forces” in the Debra Sina area, as well as in other parts of Shoa and Harar province at the end of August, of Patriot attacks between Kolubi and Chalenko on 1 September, and of guerrilla operations in Menz and near the Termaber pass around 7 September, with the Ethiopians attempting to capture Debra Sina on the following day.
On August 31 Landi reported that “rebel” forces were said to be strong in the area of Akaki, and on 26 September that it was thought that the Ethiopians were planning another attack on the capital. She added that 15,000 armed men were already on the march, and reported, on 9 October, that the railway line had once more been attacked near Akaki.
Next Week: Further Fighting; Further Repression.