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Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopian Patriots
03. Resistance and Repression
Ethiopian Patriot resistance to the Italian fascist invasion, during the rainy season of 1936, which we discussed last week, was so widespread that the Ethiopian Legation in London, which was run by Hakim Workneh, also known as Dr Martin, issued an important report, on 12 September, describing much continued fighting. In this document the Embassy declared that:
“The occupation by the Italians. . . far from being extended, has in some cases been confined to certain points, and in others troops have had to be entirely withdrawn. This has been due partly to the setting in of the rainy season, which has prevented movements of Italian troops and precluded the employment of their weapons of destruction and terror, and partly to the fact that the Ethiopian population has recovered from the effects of their first shock of surprise and is opposing with their full vigour the Italian advance.”
Turning to the forces of resistance the statement went on to declare that the “armies still in the field”, included those of Ras Desta, in Sidamo; Bajirond Fekre Sellase, in Arussi; Dajazmatch Beyene Merid, in Bali; and Dajazmatch Aberra Kassa, in Sallale. They were allegedly all “under the direction-in-chief of Ras Imru, at Gore.”
The whole of Western Ethiopia, it should be emphasised, was still unoccupied. A British officer, Captain Brophil reported, at the beginning of September 1936, that he had “just returned” from a visit to this area, and that “Ethiopia west of Addis Ababa is completely in Ethiopian hands. There is not, so far as I could discover, an Italian between the capital and the Sudan frontier. Trade is being carried on, and the markets are open.”
Large-Scale Italian Offensive Operations: Lasta
Large-scale Italian offensive operations were, however, resumed in September, when the abatement of the rains enabled the fascist air force to launch a fierce assault. Italian aircraft made considerable use of poison gas, as a prelude to renewed fighting on the ground which began again in November. This was a time when Mussolini had declared that the war had come to a triumphal end.
On 11 September Graziani gave orders for a major drive against the Patriots of Lasta. “Reprisals without mercy”, he telegraphed, “should be effected against all districts of Lasta without listening to the flatteries that the priests now try to put forth.” Lasta, he continued, “is the stronghold of the brothers Kassa, now tenacious rebels. Consequently, the villages must be systematically destroyed in order that the people be convinced of the inevitable necessity of abandoning their leaders. Since it is now impossible to use troop columns owing to the rains. . . the goal can be attained by the use of all means of destruction from the air day after day, mainly using asphyxiating gases.”
Reporting progress on the morrow he telegraphed:
“All seven planes which left this morning have returned after accomplishing their task. I have given orders. . . that tomorrow morning all aircraft at the airport of Asmara should carry out bombing with yperite on four zones indicated as the refuge of armed men and leaders of the Lalibela and Bilbela Ghiorghis formations.”
Patriot forces nonetheless kept up their pressure on the invaders in other regions. Italian sources admit that there were Ethiopian attacks in the Kolubi area on l8 and 20 September, and at Debra Sina on 25 September. They also report that trains were attacked at Dukam on 8 October, and near Adama on 16 October, while the line was cut near Walankiti on 18 October.
“The Fighting was Hot”
The Ethiopian Legation in London, commenting on these operations in the neighbourhood of the railway, and by implication rejecting the fascist assertion that the war had come to an end, shortly afterwards declared:
“The fighting was hot Ethiopian soldiers fought together as one man. That was sad for the Italians, but it was a great day for Ethiopia.”
Confirmation as to the extent of resistance, and the manner in which the Ethiopians were now fighting back, comes from a European long resident in Addis Ababa, as an employee of the Bank of Ethiopia, who reported:
“Italian posts are often attacked by the Ethiopian warriors. There are skirmishes all the time. It appears that the Ethiopians overtake them more cleverly, attacking them unexpectedly and retiring before the arrival of reinforcements. One often hears news of burnt lorries on the Dessie Road and of attacks at Bishoftu, Dukham, Mojo, Ambo, etc.”, i.e. places within only a hundred kilometres or so of the capital.
Still concerned with the need to secure their lines of communication with the north, Italian energies, as noted in the official publication GIi Annali dell’ Africa Italiana, continued to be largely directed to the triangle Debra Berhan-Ankober -Debra Sina.
Aerial operations, again involving the use of yperite gas, were extended further afield. Some of the most vigorous Italian attacks were launched in the vicinity of the railway, just east of Addis Ababa, as Graziani reported on October 21 1936: “This morning,” he declared, “I have ordered the air force. . . to carry out reprisal action on the line of villages Mount Zukuala and the plain between the said mountain and the railway line Moggio-Adama.”
Bombing of Zuqwala
Describing these operation in some detail, he continued:
“In the densely populated districts seasonal movements of rebels and peasants have taken place with the usual questioning between those who had submitted and those who had not submitted (see identical phenomenon in Cyrenaica.). Twenty-five airplanes took part in the action, amongst which were ten bombers. Villages were destroyed, first with explosive and incendiary bombs, and then with yperite. Particularly two large villages, one situated at the top and the other half way up Mount Zuquala, were almost destroyed by the action of bombers. In those villages are the two well-known monasteries whose prior some days ago presented hirnself at Moggio with several hundred priests to make solemn act of submission, but during the recent attacks they have given asylum to the rebels. The above mass action will continue throughout all districts along the railway without taking any account of the so-called submissions; accompanying that is the large-scale action by Mariotti’s brigade to destroy rebel centres near the railway. All this has already been included for some time in the operational plan of this command, but could not be started before, for well known reasons dependent on the rains and insufficient forces.”
“A Wonderful Contribution” – but “Very Serious Losses”
Turning to the role of aerial warfare, as he envisaged it, the fascist Viceroy added:
“The air force which, throughout the rainy season, has made a wonderful contribution, suffering very serious losses. . . has nearly completed its offensive regrouping for the operations in progress. . . Following the stormy period of the rains. . . and freed from the mud a fortnight after the end of the rains all ground and air forces have speeded up their rate of movement according to the will and directions of the Duce, and nothing will stop them.”
“Repressive Action” east of Addis Ababa
Italian reports now tell of “repressive action” east of Addis Ababa, which was effected, on 19 October despite “lively enemy opposition”; “punitive action” near Walankiti, on 23 October; the “dispersal of a rebel nucleus near the Awash on 27 October; and “repressive action” near Mount Yerer, on 4 November and again on 9 November.
Such operations often caused the local population great deprivations, and was accompanied by savage acts of repression. An Ethiopian judge, Blatta Haile Wolde Kidan, later testified that at Gorro the Italian army gathered all civilians who had no rifles at all, including mothers who carried their babies on their backs, and shepherds who were found there, in a hollow-place, and machine-gunned them.
An Italian offensive in the difficult Chercher hills was also reported at about this time, but made slow progress. The three Italian columns operating between the Remis and Burca valleys “to mop up rebels”, Graziani recorded on 13 November, “yesterday rested to get provisions and to send back wounded. They will probably rest today as well, because of the difficulty in getting the necessary supplies there. The rest is necessary also because the troops are very tired. Meanwhile the rebels are encircled on three sides and the fourth has been yperited. Of course, the region is large and the ground very broken. Escape in small groups will thus always be possible. Fighting on the 5th, 9th and 10th has shown the rebels setting up a dogged defence and understanding how to lead the fighting into ground that is favourable to them. This explains our losses. Rebel losses are, however, believed to be great and the fighting has split up their formations”.
Three days later, on 16 November, he reported: “Military action with four hard battles has reduced the rebel resistance between the Ramis valley and the Burca valley, is having its effects in the political field. Our patrols are mopping up the valley, forcing submissions followed by disarming. Inevitably groups, even large ones, have fled westwards, crossing yperited zones, where they have no doubt left victims.”
“Bombing Every Morning”
This extensive use of aircraft was also reported by the Djibouti correspondent of my mother’s London-based “New Times and Ethiopia News”. He wrote, on 20 December:
“I learn from Dire Dawa that the Italian aeroplanes go out from there every morning towards Garamullata, and they are all bombers. They come back at noon for fresh supplies of bombs and go out again in the evening. This happens every day; they are trying to destroy the Ethiopians who are fighting round Garamullata.
Supported in this way by their control of the air, the forces of fascist Italy succeeded in advancing, and by near the end of the year had captured in Harar province, as Zoli records, 26,000 rifles and 26 heavy and 26 light machine-guns.