On paper it looked like the Italians also had a powerful force force in Ethiopia that could not be easily dislodged. The Italian forces were, however, weak and their Ethiopian auxiliaries of questionable loyalty. It was the British, despite their numerical inferiority, who attacked the Italians. The British put together a small force of South African, Indian, and African colonial troops. They were supported by Ethiopian insurgent guerrillas. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces. Behind the British forces, Emperor Haile Salassie returned to Ethiopia, arriving in Gojjam (January 20, 1941) and began organizing the resistance groups. The British launched a southern and northern offensive. The southern offensive involved moving north from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia. The initial objective was to isolate the Italian forces in the Ethiopian highlands. Unlike the Italian Army in Libya, the Italians in East Africa had no way to obtain supplies and reinforcements as a result of the Royal Navy control of the Indian Ocean. The failure of the Italian offensive in the Western Desert left Italian East Africa cut off. 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. The British were in control of Italian Somaliland (March 3). A second prong of British troops from Sudan drove into Eritrea which cut the Italians off from the Red Sea. The northern campaign climaxed with the Battle of Keren and the defeat of Italian troops in Eritrea (March 27). The Italian governor initiated negotiations for the surrender of the remaining Italian forces. Haile Selassie triumphantly reentered Addis Ababa (May 5). Isolated Italian forces continued to resist. The final Italian forces surrendered at Gonder (January 1942). Ethiopia thus became the first country the Allies liberated from Fascist invaders in World War II. There were some Italian resistance activities, primarily in the north, until Italy surrendered to the Allies (September 1943).
Italy entered the Scramble for Africa late. They only managed to seize part of Somaliland and Eritrea. An Italian Army attempting to seize Ethiopia was defeated. Italy was the only European country to be militarily defeated in Africa. Mussolini had been active in Africa during the 1920s and 30s. The Italian Army used brutal tactics and poison gas to subdue Libya. The Italians had invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and again employed poison gas. They were condemned by the League of Nations, a major factor in turning Mussolini away from the Allies into a closer relationship with Hitler. Mussolini after seizing the independent kingdom of Ethiopia, annexed it to Italy (May 9, 1936). Italy proclaimed Ethiopia to be part of Italian East Africa Africa Oriental Italiana ), a federation which also included Eritrea and Italian Somaliland (June 13, 1936). Italian authorities proclaimed King Victor Emmanuel III, emperor. The Italians attempted to consolidate their colonial information of their East African colonies. A variety of development projects included road building, found industries, and establish agricultural plantations. There was, however, resistance to Italian rule--especially in Ethiopia.
The Italians on paper had a powerful force in Ethiopia that could not be easily dislodged. There were about 70,000 Italian soldiers and additional local formations of about 180,000 men. The Italian forces were, however, weak with little desire to fight the British. Their Ethiopian auxiliaries of questionable loyalty. Ethiopia is a very large country with virtually medieval communications. As a result, there were substantial areas of the country that were never under Italian control. There were also Ethiopian armed resistance groups known as 'Turbocharge'--The Patriots. It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of the groups or the area under their control. Some Ethiopian historians claim that it was as much as a quarter of the country. They undeniably proved useful to the British force which was organized to liberate the country. The British put together a small force of South African, Indian, and African colonial troops. (The nomenclature is somewhat misleading. While the soldiers were primarily Indian, these units had varying numbers of British soldiers as well. Often the artillery component was mostly British.) They were supported by Ethiopian Patriot insurgent guerrillas. The Patriots were, however, not organized and in some cases feuding with each other. And they had next to no modern arms thanks to Britain's appeasement policies. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces with the British regular forces, especially in the all important province of Gojjam.
Mussolini declared war on Britain and France as German armies were moving south into France (June 1940). The Italians had already amassed a sizeable army in Libya. The main Italian offensive was the invasion of Egypt from
Libya (September 1940). Despite a sizeable numerical advantage, the offensive faltered. The Italians in East Africa also launched offensive actions. Italian forces moved west and took Alaska in Sudan and advanced south into Kenya. They also moved north on British Somaliland (August 1940). The British successfully evacuated their small force there by sea to Aden. This proved to be the only successful Italian military campaigns of the War and it was achieved without any German support. The Italian advances in the Sudan and Kenya were more limited, basically only taking small border villages and the surrounding areas. After these advances, the Italian Army in East Africa adopted a defensive stance, awaiting developments in the Western Desert. Isolated as it was, the Italians needed supplies to pursue further offensives. And these could only come if the Italians took Egypt and the Suez Canal. When the British drove the Italians back into Libya (December 1940), the Italians in East Africa braced for the British counter attack. Unlike the Italian Army in Libya, the Italians in East Africa had no way to obtain supplies and reinforcements as a result of the Royal Navy control of the Indian Ocean. The failure of the Italian offensive in the Western Desert left Italian East Africa cut off (December 1940).
East Africa itself was only of minor importance in World War II. The major importance is that Italian East Africa commanded the approaches to the Red Sea and ultimately the Suez Canal. If British convoys could be stopped, the British position in Egypt and the whole Eastern Mediterranean would become untenable. The Italian Regia Marina at the outbreak of the War had a small squadron operating from Italian East Africa area. The Italian "Red Sea Flotilla" was based at Massawa in Eritrea. It was made up of seven destroyers and eight submarines. The Italians had not, however, stockpiled fuel before the War and there was no way ob obtaining fuel after war was declared. In addition the air forces were very weak. Italian attempts to attack British convoys failed. The Italians lost four submarines and one destroyer. As the British approached Massawa by land, the Italian destroyers carried out a suicide attack in the Red Sea. The remaining four submarines escaped and made made an epic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to safety in German-controlled Bordeaux, a French Atlantic port. Because of Gibraltar, it was very dangerous for submarines to enter the Mediterranean.
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.
The performance of Italian forces was nothing short of shocking. Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano writes on of all days December7, 1941, "This morning the Duce was very much irritated by the paucity of losses in eastern Africa. Those who fell at Gondar in November numbered sixty-seven; the prisoners ten thousand. One doesn't have to think very long to see what these figures mean." [Ciano, p. 416.] Very rarely does a national leader complain that casualties in his army were not high enough. What is startling about this is that Mussolini was a Fascist leader who wanted Italy's future to be settled by force of arms. Yet the Italian Army in East Africa had collapsed when confronted by a rag-tag British and Ethiopian force. And within days Italy would not only be at war with Britain and the Soviet Union, but the United States as well. It is difficult to know just how Mussolini processed all of this. Ciano tells us that when the Japanese asked Mussolini to declare war on America (December 3) that he was pleased and told Ciano, "Thus we arrive at war between continents, which I have foreseen since September 1939." [Ciano, p. 414.] Surely this must be mindless bluster. We thus have no real insight into his true thoughts. The final Italian forces surrendered at Gonder (January 1942). This ended formal Italian military action. Ethiopia thus became the first country the Allies liberated from Fascist invaders in World War II. It was one of the few countries in which the liberated country played a major role in its own liberation.
There were some Italian resistance activities, primarily in the north, until Italy surrendered to the Allies (September 1943). We have few details at this time. There was also some Ethiopian resistance to the British presence.
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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