*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- Liberation of Ethiopia

World War II: East African Campaign: Liberation of Ethiopia (1941)

libration of Ethiopia
Figure 1.--Here we see the crowd awaiting the return of Emperor Hailse Selassie to Addis Ababa wih the liberation of their country. The press caption read, "Awaiting for Their Emperor: Children waiving Etiopian bd British flags awaitthe arrival of their emperor, Haile Selassie. The monarch returned to the capital of his liberated country five years to a day after the country was taken back by invading Italian forces." This occurred May 5, 1941. The newspapr was dated June 17.

The principal British concern when Italy declared War (June 1940) was the defense of the Suez Canal, a vital life line of Empire. The entry of Italy into the War cut off the small British force in Egypt from direct contact with Britain, supplies from Britain had to come all the way around the Cape of Good Hope -- greatly stressing British transport capabilities. And with the British Army largely stripped of their arms as a result of the Dunkirk evacuation and German troops massing for an invasion, next to nothing could be spared for the Middle East Africa. The small British Desert Force in Egypt faced a massive Italian force in Libya and could not spare even limited forces to liberate Ethiopia. The first step was to begin assistance to Ethiopian forces. They could now finally begin to aid the Ethiopian Resistance known as the Patriots. The British were pursuing the policy of appeasement and this included Mussolini. As a result, they steadfastly refused to arm the patriots. Mussolini and as a result refused to supply the Patriots. With the Italian declaration of war, this all changed, although at first they had very little to supply the Patriots with and the focus was on the large Italian army invading Egypt (September 1940). A British offensive smashed the Italian Army invading Egypt (December 1940). This freed resources for an East African offensive. The Brutish launched a three prong attack to liberate Ethiopia (January 1941) As well as an amphibious invasion from Aden to drive the Italians out of British Somaliland, The operation gas been described as a rag-tag invasion, but in 3 short month, Ethiopia was largely liberated. The Ethiopian Patriots played an important role. The British/Patriot advance to the Ethiopian capital had taken Gen. De Bono (replaced because of the slow pace) and Gen. Badoglio 7 months against a virtually unarmed Ethiopian force (1935-36). The British and Patriots took only 3 months against a well-armed Italian force. The major limitation was the rugged Ethiopian countryside and lack of infrastructure.

Aid to Ethiopia (June 1940)

Britain and France other than ineffectual actions at the League of Nations provided no assistance to Ethiopia when Italy invaded (1935). Concerned about rising NAZI power, they did not want to drive Mussolini into Hitler's embraces. Thus was, however, just what happened. Mussolini was enraged by even the weak protestations at the League of Nations. Britain and France not only refrained from any aid to Ethiopia, but allowed Italian military convoys to use the Suez Canal, feeble attempt to placate Mussolini. Finally the British could support the Ethiopian resistance (the Patriots). This could be done through Sudan, another British colony. There was a long border with Ethiopia, that the Italians could not begin to control. The British District Officer at Gedaref near the border was ordered to contact the Ethiopian Patriots, he immediately dispatched previously prepared messages in Amharic (the principal Ethiopian language). the messages were from General Sir William Platt, to the Patriot chiefs of Armachaho, Bagemder Gojjam, and Walqayt provinces, offering badly needed military equipment and supplies. The British flew in Emperor Haile Sellassie flown from Britain (June 23). He proclaimed the liberation of his country and Britain commitment to liberate the country and supply Ethiopian forces. (July 2). The Emperor later complain with much validity about the inadequacy of the British support and its delayed arrival. [Sellassie] One source reports 'an electrifying effect'. we are not sure about that, but thee Emperor's arrival set the liberation of Ethiopia in motion. Ethiopians fighters began crossing into Sudan to join Patriot units and obtain arms. Ethiopians in Italian colonial formations reportedly began to desert--sometimes with their arms..

Gojjam (June-December 1940)

Gojjam Province in western Ethiopia was especially important. It was a province bordering Sudan pointing directly at the capital, Addis Ababa. Gojjam even before the British began aiding the Patriots had become a province where poorly armed bands were effectively resisting the Italians. Leaders like Belay Zelleke, Mengesha Jemberie, Negash Bezabih and Hailu Belew organized bands which largely restricted Italian control to heavily fortified positions around major cities and towns like Debre Markos in Gojjam). There there was, however, no central organization and armed clashes occurred between the Patriot bands. Belay Zelleke in particular succeeded in fully liberating and establishing a civil administrations in the eastern part of Gojjam as well as adjacent areas in South Wollo and North Shoa. as a result, the Emperor chose Gojjam to return to his country and begin the drive toward the capital. The advance would include a mixed force of British Army, Gojjamie Patriots, and Ethiopians exiles that had fled the country. The British began to work with the Patriots, although resources were at first very limited. Colonel Daniel Sandford entered Gojjam in command of a small Ethio-British unit (Mission 101) to contact with the isolated, feuding Patriot bands (August 12). His mission was to get them to form a unified national effort. Many of the leader as a result signed a unity pact. Then one of the most storied officers in the British Army, still not well known, entered Gojjam--Major-General Orde Wingate (November 20). He flew in with promises of aid--although still limited. The Patriots after 6 years of a lonely struggle with a smattering of antique weapons were impressed -- a 'sign from the skies'. Wingate rather like Lawrence before him, believed in guerrilla warfare. He told General Archibald Wavell 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." Wingate's unit became known as Gideon Force.

British Offensive (January 1941)

After stopping the Italian invasion of Egypt from Libya, the British launched a counter attack in the Western Desert (December 1940) which looked for a time might completely defeat the Italians in Libya. With a small force, the British succeeded in smashing the Italian Army in Egypt and driving it back into Libya. Until the Italian Army was pushed out of Egypt, few resources could be given to the Italians in East Africa. With the immediate Italian threat defeated, the British began to address the problem of Italian East Africa. The British, despite their numerical inferiority, attacked the Italians, organized a four prong assault. Generals Cunningham assembled a mix group of Empire forces including Indian, Nigerian, South African, Rhodesian and Kenyan units. There were also other Allied contingents (Free French and Belgian). The British launched launched four almost simultaneous, attacks on Italian East Africa (mid-January 1941). There was a northern, central, southern, and eastern amphibious prong assault, all supported by Ethiopian Patriot guerilla forces. this was not what Mussolini had anticipated. He had expected a speedy, victorious entrance in Cairo and seizure of the Canal but despite having a massive army, he was instead losing his hard won African empire. It had taken De Bono and Badoglio seven months to defeat basically unarmed Ethiopian Army in 1935-36, The British accomplished it with Patriot help against a well armed Italian Army , in little more than three.

Northern prong (January 1941)

The British assault from Sudan began in the north (January 19, 1941). British and Indian troops (Indian 4th and 5th Infantry Divisions) under General William Platt crossed the frontier at Kassala into Eritrea along the red sea coast. they advanced speedily toward Karan. Hare the major battle of the campaign was fought. The drive into Eritrea cut the Italian forces off from any hope and the now very limited possibility of resupply. The Battle of Keren included some fierce fighting (February-March). Karen largely sealed the fate of Italian Ethiopia (March 27). Here the he major Italian formations were defeated. Thus Asmara and Massawa fell with little resistant as the British forces moved south toward Addis (early April).

Central prong (January 1941)

The British central prong was a smaller scale operation. The second or central attack was launched by Wingate's Gideon force some 500 kilometers to the south and a day later (January 20). A smaller force of Ethiopians, Sudanese and Britons, ostensibly led by the Emperor, with Wingate and Sandford, entered Ethiopia, also from Sudan. They struck at the Ethiopian border village of Um Idla. They quickly joined with Gojjam Patriots and advanced up the Blue Nile on the mountainous road to Addis.

Southern prong (January 1941)

The southern or third prong was lunched a few days later (January 24). British forces commanded by General Alan Cunningham and consisted of the the South African 1st Division, the 11th African Division, and the 12th African Division. they drove north from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia. The initial objective was to isolate the Italian forces in the Ethiopian highlands. The major British offensive was directed at the Harer and Dire Dawa, which was designed to cut the rail line between Addis Ababa and French Djibouti which at the times was in Vichy hands-- essentially an Axis ally. Ethiopia is a huge country. The southern prong was 1,500 to the south and attacked into Italian Somaliland from Kenya. This began an epic drive through Mogadishu and Harar. The British were in full control of Italian Somaliland (March 3, 1941). They reached Addis a month later (April 6).

Eastern amphibious assault (March 1941)

British Somailand was the northern sector of modern Somalia, separating eastern Ethiopia from the sea (Gulf of Aden). After Italy declared War (June 1940), British Somaliland bordering Italian-occupied Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland was threatened. The Italians had a substantial military force in East Africa, specially Ethiopia. The British had only a colonial police force which was lightly armed. The Italians invaded (August 1940). A small British force attempted to defend the main road to Berbera -- the Battle of Tug Argan. They were forced to retreat, but the battle brought time to evacuate the British forces and civilians in the territory. Soldiers and governmental officials evacuated through the port of Berbera. Some 7,000 soldiers and civilians were evacuated. [Playfair, p. 178] Gen. Wavel when he took command was shocked with the state of defenses which included units like the Somaliland Camel Corps. The men were eventually offered places in the evacuation. Most decided to remain. [Wavel, p. 2724] The men were allowed to keep their personal weapons and presumably the camels. The British evacuated across the Gulf of Aden to Aden, an important British naval base. They regrouped in Aden and were reinforced. Six months later with the liberation of Ethiopia in progress, British forces returned as part of Operation Appearance (March 16 – April 9, 1941) This was an amphibious assault from Aden to retake British Somaliland (Operation Appearance) -- the final step in the East African campaign. This meant that the Italians lost their last port in east Africa. And eventually the fruits of their only successful World War II campaign. There was a small Italian guerrilla movement which was ended with the Italian surrender in Europe (September 1943).

Ethiopian Patriot Actions

The Ethiopian Patriots played an important role in the liberation of their country, nit at the time went largely unrecognized. While the Italians had defeated and occupied Ethiopia in only a few months, pacifying such a large country with a relatively small occupation force was a much more difficult undertaking. With no outside assistant, they for nearly 5 years tied down and harried the well-armed Italian occupation force. Italian control of the country was basically limited to the major cities and towns with a garrison force. . Transport between these centers was tenuous without a substantial military escort. Once even limited British military aid reached the Patriots, the situation in Ethiopia began to change rapidly. and with RAF air support made rapid progress Offensive attacks increased across Gojjam. they played an important role in the capture of Burye. The emperor's progress was so rapid that British commanders. started to become concerned that the poorly disciplined Patriot bands would enter Addis before the British, Indian, and South African units. Their concern was for the many Italian civilians that had moved to Addis after the Italians seized control. Thus RAF support was reduced. In Shawa Province t the east (where Addis was located) Patriot leader Ras Ababa Aragay who had resisted the Italians from nearly the beginning became increasingly active. Addis was protected by a substantial garrison with difficult to attack pill-boxes and barbed wire entanglements. The Patriots basically surrounded and cut off the city. After the Italians in Addis surrendered, the Patriots played a major in reducing the many Italian garrisons scattered around the country. A South African soldier, recalling his experiences wrote, "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."

Addis Ababa (April 1941)

The objective of the British campaign was the capital Addis Ababa. The Italians in Addis became terrified that the Patriots who had been subjected to widespread atrocities would break into the city and seek revenge on the Italian population. The collaborating Ethiopians were also in danger. Both were thoroughly demoralized. Rather than fall to the patriots, the Italians defenders were anxious to surrender to the South Africans approaching from the south (April 4). The South Africans entered Addis without a fight 2 days later. This ended any kind of coordinated Italian resistance. It was one more of Mussolini' growing list of not just military failures, but military disasters.. what was left was a number of isolated, and harassed Italian garrisons. Emperor Haile Selassie, a few days after Addis Ababa fell, staged a triumphant entry (May 5). That was 5 years to the day that he had fled as a result of the Italian invasion. Ethiopia thus became the first Axis-occupied country liberated by the Allies. The Emperor, finally entered Addis Ababa (May 5). This was precisely 5 years after Italian Gen. Badogio had taken the city (1936).

Italian Surrender (January 1942)

It might have been thought that the fight for the capital would be the climatic battle. it was not. The Italian garrison in Addis meekly surrendered without a fight (April 4). At that time there were still substantial Italian garrisons located throughout the country. The Italian Viceroy of Ethiopia, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, surrendered at the stronghold of Amba Alagi (May 1941). He was accorded full military honors. Isolated Italian forces continued to resist. Patriot forces subsequently played an important role in finally mopping up Italian resistance throughout Ethiopia (April-November 1941). Given the size of Ethiopia and the relatively small British force, the Patriot bands inevitably played an important role in the liberation effort. They were important in the capture of many towns, including Dabra Tabor, Dase, Gore, Jemma, and Laqamti. An important battle was fought at Amba Alagi, a storied mountain in northern Ethiopia where the Italians had been defeated by the Ethiopians in 1896. Here the Italians had a strongly defended position, but when an oil fuel dump was hit and leaked into the water supply, the Duke of Aosta had to surrender (May 16). Some Italian units continued to hold out. The last Italian stand of the war occured at Gondar in northern Ethiopia. Here the British victory was also secured with Patriot participation, The Italians there finally surrendered (November 27).


Ciano, Galeazzo. Hugh Gibson, ed. The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943 (Garden City Publishing: New York, 1947), 582p.

Playfair, I.S.O. The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Destruction of the Axis Forces in Africa Vol. IV (Naval & Military Press: London: HMSO, 2004).

Sellassie, Haile. The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie I: King of All Kings and Lord of All Lords.

Wavell, Archibald, "Operations in the Somaliland Protectorate, 1939-1940" (Appendix A - G. M. R. Reid and A.R. Godwin-Austen) published in "No. 37594". The London Gazette. 4 June 1946, pp. 2719–2727.


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