Second Italo-Ethiopian War: When Fascist Italy Invaded the East African Nation of Ethiopia

Second Italo-Ethiopian War

Ethiopian forces during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War

Second Italo-Ethiopian War: Fast Facts

Also known as: The Second Italo-Abyssinian War or the Italian Invasion or the Ethiopian War

Date: October 1935 – February 1937

Result of the war: Italian victory

Outcome: Italy occupies Ethiopia; Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is forces into exile;

Ethiopian commanders and leaders: Haile Selassie I, Kassa Haile Darge, Mulugeta Yeggaz, Ayaleuw Birru, Imru Haile Selassie

Italian leaders and commanders: Benito Mussolini, Emilio De Bono, Rodolfo Graziani, Pietro Badoglio, Italo Gariboldi, Ettore Bastico


Raging from October 1935 to February 1937, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War was fought between the armed forces of the Kingdom of Italy and the armed forces of the Ethiopian Empire (also known at the time as Abyssinia). The war resulted in the military occupation of Ethiopia by Italy, who at the time were under the leadership of fascist Benito Mussolini. Image: Italian artillery operated by Somali Ascari troops.

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War, also known as the Ethiopian War or the Abyssinian War, was a conflict that took place from 1935 to 1937. It was fought between the forces of Fascist Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, and the Ethiopian Empire, ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie.

Italy, under Mussolini’s fascist regime, sought to expand its colonial territories in Africa and saw Ethiopia as a prime target. Mussolini’s government had long harbored imperial ambitions and believed that an easy victory over Ethiopia would boost Italy’s prestige and consolidate its control over the Mediterranean region.

In October 1935, Italy launched a full-scale invasion of Ethiopia, employing modern military tactics, aircraft, and chemical weapons such as mustard gas. The Ethiopian forces, though initially putting up a fierce resistance, were outmatched by Italy’s superior firepower and technology.

Despite appeals to the League of Nations for help, Ethiopia received limited support from other nations.  The international community’s response to Italy’s war of aggression against the East African nation was largely ineffective. The League of Nations imposed economic sanctions on Italy, but these measures did little to deter Mussolini’s forces.

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War demonstrated the expansionist policy of Italy, one of the Axis powers of World War II. It also brought to fore just how ineffectual the League of Nations was as an international organization in nipping in the bud aggressive actions by a member state.

In May 1936, after months of fighting, Italian troops captured the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, effectively bringing an end to Ethiopian resistance. Emperor Haile Selassie was forced into exile, and Italy established Italian East Africa as a colonial possession.

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War is significant for several reasons. It highlighted the weaknesses of the League of Nations and its inability to prevent aggression by its member states. The conflict also exposed the brutal nature of Italy’s colonial ambitions and the use of chemical weapons, leading to international condemnation.

The war had long-lasting effects on Ethiopia, which remained under Italian control until 1941 when British and Ethiopian forces expelled the Italians during World War II. Emperor Haile Selassie returned to power, and Ethiopia regained its independence.

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War is considered a precursor to World War II, as Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia was an early example of fascist aggression and expansionism that would later characterize the actions of Nazi Germany and other Axis powers.

How did the Second Italo-Ethiopian War begin?

Perhaps still bitter from its defeat at the Battle of Adwa (March 1, 1896) during the First Italo-Ethiopian War, Italy decided in October the time was right to invade the Ethiopian Empire in 1935. Between 1890 and 1930, the Kingdom of Italy temporary put on hold its expansionist policy in East Africa, preferring to administer its Italian provinces Eritrea and Somaliland.

When fascists rose to power in Italy, there was a resumption of Italy’s drive to dominate East Africa. The Italian government entered into a secret deal with Britain granting the former unimpeded access to expand its influence and control in East Africa. Somehow the deal was leaked and both France and Ethiopia were enraged. The Ethiopians particularly saw the deal between Britain and the fascist government in Italy as a stab in the back, considering the fact that Ethiopia was a member of the League of Nations.

With Italy emboldened, the late 1920s and early 1930s saw Italian colonial officers in Somaliland and Eritrea begin to court the interest of some regions in the Ethiopian Empire. The goal was to expand Italy’s holding in East Africa into Ethiopia beginning with the Tigre people, an ethnic group indigenous to Eritrea.

By the late 1920s, Jubaland in southern Somalia had been occupied by Italian forces. This forced Italy and Ethiopia to sign the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1928, with the two sides declaring a 20-year friendship. The treaty was aimed at clarifying the border between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia by making the border 21 leagues parallel to the Benadir coast. The two nations also agreed to refer any future disagreements to the League of Nations.

What Mussolini and his advisors hoped for the treaty in 1928 was for it to grant Italy full access to Ethiopia. The Ethiopians, who were under the leadership of de facto ruler Ras Tafari (later Emperor Selassie I), were fully aware of Mussolini’s ambitions. As a result, Ethiopia hoped that the League of Nations would come to its aid if and when Italy tried to invade the country.

In 1930, Italy constructed a fort at the Welwel oasis in the Ogaden (in modern-day Somalia). This move completely violated the border agreement stated in the 1928 treaty as it went well beyond the 21-league limit. This meant Italy had violated the territorial integrity of Ethiopia.

Tensions continued to flare up between Italy and Ethiopia, especially around Italy’s fort at the Welwel oasis. Both nations had amassed troops in the hundreds in the area; and by the summer of 1934, the two sides had come very close to each other, almost to about 3 meters apart.

It was inevitable that the Ethiopian and Italian troops in the Welwel oasis were on a collision course, and that it was only a matter of time before the shots would be exchanged between the two nations.

The incident at the Welwel oasis triggers the Abyssinia Crisis

On December 5, 1934, shots were fired, triggering Italian troops in the region to deploy machine guns. By the end of the day, more than 100 Ethiopian casualties were sustained; while between 25 and 45 Italians and Somail dubats (irregular troops commanded by Italian officers) died.

Emperor Haile Selassie made a strong protest against what he termed as an obvious Italian aggression against his nation and people. The Ethiopian leader demanded Italy to halt its aggressive tactics and leave the Walwal region as it violated the treaty signed in 1930. The Italian government on the other hand blamed Ethiopia for its aggression, demanding that Ethiopia compensates Italy for the damages suffered due to the incident of 6-7 December.

Ethiopia made quite a number of requests for arbitration from the League of Nations as tensions rose in the region and Italy continued to ramp up its military build-up. Ultimately, Italy would yield to the League’s pressure to submit to arbitration. However, that did not stop Italian dictator Mussolini to continue to amass troops in the region.

Welwel is a town in eastern Ethiopia

Not much pressure came from France as it had early on France had struck the Franco-Italian Agreement (on January 7 1935). The French were hoping to use the deal with Italy to gain Italian support against the rising power of Nazi Germany.

Britain tried as hard as possible to resolve the Abyssinian Crisis in a diplomatic way. Their efforts included sending senior officials from the Foreign Affairs Ministry to meet Italian officials in hopes of dissuading the Italians from launching a full-scale invasion of Ethiopia. When that failed, Britain imposed an arms sales embargo on both Italy and Ethiopia. Britain was very cautious not to push too strong against Italy. This was evident in its decision to remove a number of warships from the Mediterranean Sea.

In August 1935, British and French officials tried to appease Italy by offering them significant concessions in Ethiopia. Those offers were quickly rejected by Mussolini. By this time, it had become apparently clear that the fascist Italian dictator was bent on carrying out a full-scale invasion of Ethiopia.

With Italy not bulging, the British Parliament threatens to unleash a flurry of sanctions against Italy if it does not back down on its aggressive stance towards Ethiopia.

October 3, 1935: Italian forces invade Ethiopia through Eritrea

Perhaps sensing that the Italians were not going to back down, Ethiopian emperor Selassie began mobilizing his troops. The Ethiopians were fully aware that they had starkly inferior military equipment to the Italians. However, this did not stop them from readying every military gear they found in their arsenal.

On October 3 1935, Mussolini ordered Italian troops to invade Ethiopia. The Italian dictator did not even make any declaration of war.

Italian troops made their way through Eritrea into Ethiopia. The were under the leadership of Italian Marshal Emilio De Bono.

The Italians distributed many leaflets that called on Ethiopians to rise up against Emperor Haile Selassie. The Italians also tried to fracture Ethiopia’s resistance by encouraging the people to support the Iyasu V, a designated emperor of Ethiopia who was deposed in 1916.

In the days that followed after October 3, Italian forces easily took many places in the Tigray Region, including Adwa and Axum. At a Axum, the Italians captured a number of cultural artifacts, including the Obelisk of Axum, a 24-meter tall phonolite stele that dates back to the 4th century AD.

Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini

The invasion thus marked the beginning of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War

Fulfilling on its mandate to intervene whenever there was an international crisis or conflict between two member nations, the League of Nations met and ruled against Italy. The League imposed a number of economic sanctions on Italy, describing the European nation as the aggressor. Interestingly, oil and steel, vital materials in any warfare, were not included in the League’s sanctions on Italy. Many nations, including the United States, who by the way was not a member of the League of Nations, did not comply with the sanctions on Italy. Instead, the U.S. increased its exports to Italy.

Similarly, Canada, the UK, and France did not roll out any significant sanctions against Italy. In short, the League had just demonstrated to the whole world that it was an ineffective international body whose sanctions did not have any biting force.

Britain, still not wanting to push Italy too much, did not block Italy’s access to the Suez Canal. Basically, the West in general remained very passive to the plight of Ethiopia as it was invaded by mightier miliary power. Meanwhile, a lot of public anger in Britain and France was growing, with many people accusing their leaders of betraying the Ethiopians. And Mussolini was very much confident that Britain would not go to war over Ethiopia.

Although Ethiopia had almost the same number of forces as the Italians, the quality and quantity of the military equipment between those two countries were miles apart. Italy’s superior military equipment gave them a huge advantage in the war. For example, Italy had not less than 280 field guns versus Ethiopia’s 18. Italy had more than 5,000 machine guns versus 400 possessed by Ethiopia. Italy had more than 160 airplanes, while Ethiopia had none for quite a long time. 6,000 killed and 12,000 wounded versus 800 casualties

Perhaps France was the most passive of nations when it came to complying with the League’s sanctions against Italy. A few months after Italy had invaded France, Adolf Hitler ordered his Nazi troops to march into the Rhineland, a place that was off limit to the German military per the Treaty of Versailles.

Perhaps Hitler had been emboldened by the world turning a blind eye to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Hence, the German dictator began to flex his muscle and act with impunity as he knew that League was very ineffectual and Europe at the time lacked the collective will to stop him.

Starring at a possible invasion from Germany, France decided to court the alliance of Italy so as to dissuade Germany from further advancing. Therefore, France remained passive and decided not to take any serious action with regard to the sanctions on Italy for its invasion of Abyssinia.

What this meant was that Mussolini had unhindered access to Ethiopia, an African nation that was at the time poorly equipped to defend itself against a mighty European nation as Italy.

Compulsory drafting by Ethiopia

With no significant support coming from any nation, the Ethiopian ruler was committed to mobilizing every able-bodied Ethiopian into the war. With the exception of women, children, the physically challenged, and the aged, every man and boy in Ethiopia was required to “carry a spear” and go to war. Disobeying the order was punishable by death.

The Ethiopian Christmas Offensive

Having been taken aback by the speed and intensity of the Italian attacks in the first few months of the war, Ethiopian generals devised a plan to split the enemy forces in the north. Termed the Christmas offensive, the plan was to wreck havoc on the Italian left with an Ethiopian offensive from the right. It was also decided that Ethiopian forces would invade Eritrea with the Ethiopian left. Ethiopian general Seyum Mangasha and his forces were ordered to head to Abiy Addi, a town in central Tigray. The Emperor and 40,000 men would head from Gojjam to Mai Timket and then arrive to the left of Ras Seyoum. Ras Kassa Haile Darge and about 40,000 men would move from Dessie to offer needed support to Ras Seyoum. Finally, Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu, then-Ethiopian Minister of War, and about 80,000 men would move from Dessie to Amba Aradam.

All in the Ethiopian Christmas offensive plan of 1935 deployed close to a quarter of a million men. Initially, the Ethiopian forces were able to halt the Italian advance for almost a month. However, the sheer superiority of the Italian forces and the battle equipment proved too much for the Ethiopian counteroffensive. Italy’s sustained use of aerial bombardment, coupled with chemical weapons (more of this below), devastated Ethiopian troops, many of who were only armed with swords and spears.

Italian air force unleashed a barrage of air raids on the population, destroying villages as they advanced to the capital, Addis Ababa. As if the mustard gas was not barbaric enough, it is said that at some point, Mussolini and his chief advisors even contemplated bacteriological warfare. Those Italian attacks significantly slowed the Ethiopian Christmas offensive, which in turn allowed the Italians to begin a second advance.

Haile Selassie

Emperor Haile Selassie

Major battles of the Italo-Ethiopian War

  • At the Battle of Amba Aradam (also known as Battle of Enderta) in February 1936, Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu’s army suffered a crushing defeat. The Ethiopian general’s forces, like many units of the entire Ethiopian forces, were ill-armed and lacked the coordination to deal with Italian forces. Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu and his son, Tadessa Mulugeta, were among the thousands of Ethiopian troops that perished at the battle.
  • Italy’s use of mustard gas, heavy artillery and tankettes again proved to be devastating at the Second Battle of Tembien (February 27 to 29, 1936), which saw the armies of Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum defeated.
  • The Battle of Shire took place between February 29 and March 2, 1936. Again, Italian troops proved too much for Ethiopian general Ras Imru and his men.
  • At the Battle of Maychew on March 31, 1936, Haile Selassie and his forces suffered a big defeat, sustaining more than 7600 casualties.

As those battle defeats began to mount, Ethiopian forces started using guerilla tactics. For example, anti-fascist movement the Arbegnoch tried to hurt the enemy by capturing war materials and cutting critical telephone lines. They also burned down a number of Italian colonial offices.

The Battle of Amba Aradam in February 1936

When did Addis Ababa fall?

Towards the end of April 1936, Italian generals began what was termed as “March of the Iron Will” from Dessie to Addis Ababa. The goal was to swiftly take the capital as there wasn’t any serious Ethiopian resistance aside from the one from Ethiopian forces under the command of Haile Mariam Mammo.

On April 30,1936, Ethiopian leaders made the decision to defend the city and only retreat to Gore, a town in south-western Ethiopia, as a last resort. The emperor’s advisors advised that emperor travel to Geneva to make another appeal to the League of Nations for assistance. Therefore, Haile Selassie left Addis Ababa on May 2 with the gold of the Ethiopian Central Bank. He went through Djibouti and Jerusalem before finally going into exile in the UK.

On May 5, the Italians forces under the command of Badoglio arrived in Addis Ababa. They proceeded to occupy many strategic areas of the city, marking the beginning of Italy’s occupation of Addis Ababa.

Italian troops enter Addis Ababa, 1936

Throughout the war, the Italians could not completely bring the entire city under their control as about 10% of the city remained unoccupied. Fighting continued for another three years, with Ethiopian forces marshalling a number of guerrilla attacks here and there. The resistance continued with commanders like Aberra Kassa and Balcha Safo while the Ethiopian government officials fell back to Gore in southern Ethiopia to regroup and continue the resistance.

In June 1936, the Italians promulgated a constitution for Italian East Africa – combining Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. From those administrative units, six provinces were created.

General Badoglio was appointed Viceroy and Governor-General of Italian East Africa only for him to be replaced with Marshal Graziani.

During the occupation of Addis Ababa, many members of the Ethiopian royal family were arrested and imprisoned. There some that were executed. For example, many leaders of the resistance, including Kassa, Aberra Kassa, and Asfawossen Kassa, were executed.

By October, Italian forces had made significant advances and occupied Gore. Ethiopian general Imru surrendered. He was flown to Italy and imprisoned on the Island of Ponza.

Italian colonies in East Africa – The six provinces of Italian East Africa.

Haile Selassie’s telegram to the League of Nations after fleeing his kingdom

While transiting through Jerusalem, Haile Selassie sent a telegram to the League, bemoaning the international organization’s decision to turning a blind eye to the suffering of Ethiopians at the hands of dictator Mussolini. In the telegram, he described the whole war as the “most unequal, most unjust, most barbarous war of our age”. There were some countries around the world that were moved by the emperor’s plight and decided to temporary put on hold the recognition of Mussolini’s east Africa conquest.

Haile Selassie passes through Jerusalem as he goes on exile in England.

The Addis Ababa massacre – aka Yekatit 12

on February 19, 1937, during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941), Italian armed forces carried out a brutal reprisal against Ethiopians in Addis Ababa, the capital city. The massacre was in response to a failed assassination attempt on Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, the Italian viceroy of Ethiopia, by a group of Ethiopian patriots. In the attempt, a grenade was thrown at Graziani’s motorcade, but he narrowly escaped the attack.

As a result of the failed assassination attempt, the Italian forces launched a ruthless crackdown on the Ethiopian population. They indiscriminately targeted Ethiopians, executing and imprisoning thousands of people. The reprisal was marked by mass killings, widespread arrests, and acts of brutality, especially against members of the aristocracy and the anti0fascist resistance group Black Lions.

It’s been estimated that up to 32,000 people were killed in the three days that followed after the assassination attempt on Graziani. Italian sources put the figure at a few hundreds of people. Some findings in the 21st century put the figure at more than 19,000 people. At that figure, it means Yekatit 12 claimed the lives of 20% of the inhabitants of Addis Ababa at the time.

The first day of the massacre, also known as Yekatit 12, became a symbol of Ethiopian resistance against foreign occupation and a day to remember the victims that suffered under Italy’s war of aggression. It is observed annually in Ethiopia as a national day of mourning and remembrance. Ceremonies, memorial services, and commemorative events are held throughout the country to honor those who lost their lives during the massacre.

Casualties in the Italo-Ethiopian War

Raging from 1935 to early 1937, the Italo-Ethiopian War resulted in significant casualties, especially on the side of the Ethiopians. However, it’s important to note that obtaining precise casualty figures for this conflict can be challenging due to varying sources and limited documentation. Accurate records were not kept partly because many field hospitals were bombed and the records kept there were destroyed.

The Ethiopian forces suffered heavy losses during the war. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers were killed in action or died as a result of combat-related injuries. Additionally, many civilians were also killed or injured during the Italian invasion and subsequent occupation. The Italians put the Ethiopian casualties at around 70,000. However, the Ethiopian government stated that close to 300,000 troops were killed during Italy’s war of aggression on its people. In total, some sources claim that more than half a million Ethiopians lost their lives as a result of the war, including close to 20,000 women and children who died as a result of Italy’s bombings and mustard gas attacks. Then there were the over 30,000 people who were killed in the massacre of February 1937, i.e. the Addis Ababa massacre (Yekatit 12).

The Italian casualties in the Italo-Ethiopian War were comparatively lower than the Ethiopian losses. The exact figures for Italian military casualties vary, but it is estimated that several thousand Italian soldiers died during the conflict. These casualties resulted from battles, disease, and the challenging conditions of the Ethiopian theater. The Eritreans operating in the Italian force suffered about 2,000 casualties. According to official Italian accounts, the Italian forces suffered about 3,000 casualties in total. But then again, the figure was most likely underestimated the fascist regime. The actual number could have been as high as 8,500 killed between 1936 and 1940.

Ethiopia’s pleas for help during the Italo-Ethiopian War

All pleas from the Ethiopian Emperor to foreign nations fell on deaf ears as those nations were preoccupied with one form of domestic or foreign issue or another. Haile Selassie made a very passionate speech on June 7, 1936 at the League of Nations in Geneva, describing the sanctions placed on Italy as “intentionally inadequate, intentionally badly applied”. The Ethiopian ruler believed that the international body and the international community had simply refused to stop Italy’s aggression against the Ethiopian people.

The use of mustard gas and other war crimes committed by the Italians

Mussolini’s decision to use mustard gas to heaviest of casualties upon the Ethiopian forces that were defending their nation from occupation was nothing short of a war crime. It has been estimated that Italian forces used between 350 and 500 tons of mustard gas indiscriminately, attacking both military and civilian targets across Ethiopia. Even for that time period, this action by the Italians was completely unacceptable as mustard gas had been banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

Mussolini is believed to have transferred WWI stockpiles of the chemical weapon to Italy’s East Africa colonies in the early 1930s.

Some historians have claimed that Italy’s use of banned chemical weapons proved to be a huge factor in the Italo-Ethiopian War. It’s also been estimated that mustard gas caused the deaths of about 30% of the casualties on the Ethiopian side.

The question that begs to be answered is: Why did Italy resort to using mustard gas against Ethiopia in the war?

The Italians defended their use of those barbaric chemical weapons because of the alleged torture and murder of Italian pilot Tito Minniti and his co-pilot Sergeant Lvio Zannoni at the hands of Ethiopian forces in 1935. Italy would respond in the harshest of ways by increasing the rate of bombings of Ethiopian troops and villages. Not even civilian installations, like the Red Cross camp-hospitals, were spared.

Some writers and historians have argued that the Italians took advantage of the death of Minniti in order to unleash unthinkable horrors upon the Ethiopians, who the Italian troops saw as “savages”. Therefore, the use of mustard gas was done to hasten Italy’s establishment of an empire. Some even say that it Minniti who first opened fire at the Ethiopians after his plane crash-landed within enemy lines. This view is shared by antifascist writer and journalist Giuseppe Antonio Borgese (1882-1952).

There is no doubt that Italy planned to use poisonous gas long before the execution of the aviator Minniti. In an order, which was issued about two months before Miniti’s death, Mussolini ordered his troops in East Africa to deploy mustard gas in order to “overwhelm enemy resistance”.

And after the death of Minniti, Italian commanders were given license by the regime in Rome to use chemical weapons on a large scale. Villages and rivers were sprayed from above with mustard gas.

The bombing of Red Cross-camped hospitals and ambulances was also one of the numerous war crimes perpetrated by the Italians during the Italo-Ethiopian War.

There is no doubt that the chemical weapons that fell from the sky during Italy’s invasion demoralized the fighting spirit of the Ethiopian troops. They significantly turned the war in favor of the European superpower.

Haile Selassie’s quote

“It is us today. It will be you tomorrow”

Before Haile Selassie approached the podium to deliver his speech on June 30 at the League of Nations, he was correctly introduced as “His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Ethiopia”. The very rowdy and jeering Italian journalists present at the speech were quickly escorted out of the hall. His final remark “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow” left the entire hall in a contemplative mood. In spite of that moving speech and his narration of the plight and suffering of his people, the resolution he put forward to the League was rejected by the members of the body. Haile Selassie wanted members of the League not give recognition to Italy’s latest conquest in east Africa. Also, the League denied his request for financial assistance to continue the fight against Italy’s occupation.

The following day, almost all the major newspapers in the world carried some excerpts of the speech of the Ethiopian Emperor.

Adding insult to injury, the League agreed to lift the sanctions it imposed on Italy at the start of the invasion.

Britain and France’s miscalculation

It so happened that France and Britain’s appeasement of Italy ended being a huge miscalculation as Italy ended up going into a strong alliance with Nazi Germany. In May 1939, Mussolini entered into an alliance with Germany in the form of the Pact of Steel. A month prior, Mussolini, feeling the winds in his sail and perhaps unstoppable, ordered Italian forces to invade Albania.

Then in September 1940, the fascist regime in Italy and the Nazi government in Germany signed the Tripartite Pact with the Empire of Japan. Underpinned by the core ideology of territorial expansion in their respect regions, the Axis Powers was thus complete and set to wage war against the Allies in World War II. The goal, as Italian fascist Bento Mussolini described, was to make all of Europe rotate on the Rome-Berlin axis.

On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France. In the days that followed, Italian troops invaded many British territories in Africa, including Sudan, Kenya and Egypt. By early September 1940, Italy had managed to complete the conquest of British Somaliland.

Tripartite Pact by Germany, Japan, and Italy

The signing of the Tripartite Pact by Germany, Japan, and Italy on 27 September 1940 in Berlin.

Selassie and British forces coordinate to end Italy’s occupation

Perhaps, it was at this moment that British politicians began aligning with exiled Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who was in the UK. The British allowed Selassie set up an office in neighboring Khartoum. There, his officials were given support and allowed to coordinate resistance efforts to end Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia. Exiled Ethiopian forces and generals along with British forces known as Gideon Force worked very hard in the East African Campaign of the Second Word War. Ultimately, those forces managed to end Italy’s occupation. On May 5, 1941, Selassie made a triumphant entry into Addis Ababa. The tables were turned, and the Italians had to resort to guerrilla warfare until the Armistice of Cassibile on September 1943. The armistice was between Italy, the US and UK.

Italy recognizes Ethiopian independence

When curtain drew in on WWII in 1945, Italy recognized the independence of Ethiopia under the Treaty of Peace with Italy (1947). It was also agreed that Ethiopia should pay $25 million in reparations to the Ethiopians. However, Ethiopia demanded Italy pay £184,746,023 for damages inflicted on its people during the course of the Italian occupation.


The Second Italo-Ethiopian War had significant repercussions. It exposed the weaknesses and ineffectiveness of the League of Nations in preventing aggression and protecting the sovereignty of its member states. The conflict also highlighted the atrocities committed by Italian forces, including the use of chemical weapons and the targeting of civilians.

The war had a lasting impact on Ethiopia. It led to the loss of countless lives, destruction of infrastructure, and the subjugation of the Ethiopian people under Italian colonial rule. However, Ethiopian resistance and resilience never waned, and the occupation fueled a sense of national pride and unity that ultimately contributed to the country’s liberation during World War II.

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War holds historical significance as an early example of fascist aggression, highlighting the expansionist aims of Mussolini’s Italy. It also foreshadowed the larger global conflicts that would erupt in the following years, particularly World War II, where the fascist alliance of Italy and Germany would play a prominent role.

Questions and Answers

Second Italo-Ethiopian War – history and major facts

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War was triggered by Italy’s desire to expand its colonial empire in Africa and its longstanding grievances from a previous conflict with Ethiopia in 1895-1896. Italy saw Ethiopia as a valuable addition to its East African possessions and aimed to establish Italian East Africa encompassing Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland.

Genocide or not?

Civilian casualties were heavily stacked against the Ethiopians. It’s been stated in many sources the Ethiopian civilian population endured the brunt of the Italian occupation, with several thousands of civilians killed or injured due to direct combat, indiscriminate bombings, and reprisals by the Italian forces. Some estimates put the total number of casualties suffered by Ethiopia at more than 700,000.

At those figures, although very much contested by some historians and Italian sources, the Italo-Ethiopian has been described by some as nothing short of a genocide.

Was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia popular with Italians?

Fascist dictator Mussolini deployed his propaganda machinery to sell the invasion of Ethiopia as further evidence of Italy’s growing greatness. Mussolini also used the war to show Italy’s complete defiance of the League of Nations. The dictator’s message at the time resonated with the Italian people, many of who then began to support the invasion of Ethiopia. The Italian people at the time were enraged by the sanctions placed on them by the League.

Therefore, any move by the Fascist regime that openly defied the League was welcomed. For example, Mussolini was said to have reached the highest point in terms of popularity in mid-1936 as the dictator proceeded to proclaim the greatness of the Italian empire.

Mussolini and his propaganda machine worked very hard to hog all the credit for the victory over the Ethiopian empire, a nation’s whose military forces fought with swords and spears. The dictator even sidelined many of the Italian commanders, including Badoglio, who fought in the war, refusing to honor them appropriately. Instead, the egomaniac Mussolini bestowed upon himself and King Victor Emmanuel III the military rank of First Marshal of the Italian Empire.

Why did Hitler’s Nazi Germany initially offer support to Ethiopia?

Initially, Nazi Germany lent some bit of support to Ethiopia in terms of military equipment. Adolf Hitler did not want Italy to secure a quick victory over the East African nation because he wanted the war to drag long enough for the ties between Italy and Britain to deteriorate.

Bear in mind, Italy had signed the Stresa Front, an alliance signed on April 14 1935 between Italy, France, and Great Britain against Nazi. Basically, the three countries had also pledged to safeguard the Treaty of Versailles, including preventing Germany from remilitarizing the Rhineland.

Nazi Germany supplied the Ethiopians about 16,000 rifles and 600 machine guns. Hitler hoped that by giving some form of military aid to Ethiopia he could prolong the Italo-Ethiopian War, which would in turn destroy the Stresa Front and make Fascist Italy an ally of Nazi Germany.

After Italy voiced its opposition to Germany’s annexation of Austria, Germany responded by sending a number of airplanes, almost 10 million rounds of ammunition, and over 9,000 rifles to Ethiopia. Image: Germany’s fuhrer Adolf Hitler (right) with Italy’s Duce Benito Mussolini

What was the size and strength of the Ethiopian forces?

Having drafted as many people as possible, the total strength of the Ethiopian forces was in the neighborhood of half a million. A significant number of those soldiers had no sort of military training of any kind. Making matters worse, many of them only carried bows and arrows. The few that were armed carried rifles that belonged in the previous century. Similarly, the few military tanks, anti-tank guns, machine-guns, and aircrafts possessed by the Ethiopian forces were no match to the ones under the command of Mussolini.

The only reasonably trained and well-equipped unit of the Ethiopian force was the emperor’s guard – i.e. the Kebur Zabagna. Surprisingly, they donned greenish-khaki uniform, which made them a visible target for the enemy on the field of battle.

For example, at the start of the war in 1935, Ethiopia had just 13 aircraft in its Air Force, with only four trained pilots. To plug that gaping shortfall, Ethiopia welcomed some mercenaries into their forces, including French, Belgian, Russian and Cuban pilots. There were some mercenaries that provided military and tactical advice to Ethiopian generals, many of whom were described as grossly ill-prepared to deal with the war.

Notable Ethiopian military commanders in the war were Ras Kassa Haile Darge, Ras Desta Damtew, and Imru Haile Selassie. The latter was the cousin of Emperor Haile Selassie.

In spite of Germany’s minimal support, Ethiopia’s defense against the invaders was inevitable to fail as it was coming against a far superior nation.

Ethiopian generals during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (L-R): Imru Haile Selassie, Ras Desta Damtew, Ras Kassa Haile Darge, Mulugeta Yeggazu

What was the size and strength of the Italian forces?

At the start of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the Italians had about 380,000 soldiers in Eritrea and close to 300,000 in Italian Somaliland.

Compared to the hundreds of machine guns in the arsenal of Ethiopia, Italy had more than 3,000 machine guns. With reinforcements from the Royal Italian Army and Royal Italian Navy, the number of machine guns shot up to more than 5500. And the total number of aircrafts and tanks were around 380 and 600, respectively. While the Ethiopians used horse-drawn carts, the Italians used motor vehicles.

The Italian forces also had considerable number of indigenous troops known as the Corps of Colonial Troops. They were mainly from the Italian colonies of Somalia, Libya and Eritrea.

The Eritrean native infantry (i.e. Ascari) were used to devastating effects on the Ethiopian forces. Those Ascari were well-trained and properly equipped, making them very effective on the field of battle. This is why they were predominantly deployed as advanced troops.

The Italians received some bit of support from some native tribes in the region, including the forces under the command of Somali Sultan Olol Dinle. The sultan joined Italy’s aggression because he hoped to retake lands that had been seized from him by Ethiopia.

The major Italian commanders during the invasion included General Emilio De Bono and General Rodolfo Graziani. The former was the commander-in-chief of Italian forces in East Africa.

Italian commanders during the Italo-Ethiopian War (L-R): Emilio De Bono, Pietro Badoglio, and Rodolfo Graziani

Where did Haile Selassie flee to during Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia?

By the end of April 1936, it had become apparently obvious that there was nothing that was going to the Italy’s advance on the capital, Addis Ababa. Therefore, on May 2, the Ethiopian Emperor left the capital with the gold of the Ethiopian Central Bank. Haile Selassie fled went through Djibouti before finally heading to the UK. It is said that the Italians had the chance to bomb the train that the emperor was travelling on; however, Mussolini refused to do so. It remains unclear as to why the fascist dictator was in that particular time lenient.

Before going into exile, Haile Selassie appointed Imru Haile Selassie Prince Regent. Imru was to serve in that role in the absence of the emperor. The emperor also ordered Imru and other generals of the Ethiopian forces and patriots to keep the resistance alive until every territory of Ethiopia was free of Italian troops.

Did Ethiopia commit any war crime?

Compared to the deadly rain that the Italians unleashed upon the Ethiopians, the atrocities committed by Ethiopia was not so huge and large scale. Ethiopian forces were accused of using the Expanding bullets (also known as dum-dum bullets). Known for expanding on impact, dum-dum bullets were banned per the Hague Convention of 1899. Some Ethiopian forces also treated prisoners of war very badly, including torturing and mutilating their body parts.

Which countries recognized Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia in the late 1930s?

In exchange for Italy’s recognition of Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, Imperial Japan recognized Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia. That same year, in 1938, Britain and France recognized Italy’s capture of Ethiopia. As stated above, Britain and France were deeply counting on the support of Italy to halt Hitler’s advance in Europe.

Many Western nations either remained silent or recognized Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia.

In 1937, there were some few countries that heavily rejected Italy’s aggression towards Ethiopia. One such country was Mexico. The other countries were China, New Zealand, the United States, Spain, and the Soviet Union.

As World War II raged, the number of countries that did not recognize Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia had reduced drastically. The only major power that recognized the sovereignty of Ethiopia was the Soviet Union.

What happened during Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia?

A few months after the capitulation of Addis Ababa, Italy appointed Amedeo, 3rd Duke of Aosta, as Viceroy and Governor-General of its East African colony. During Italy’s occupation, attempts were made to build the infrastructure of Ethiopia in order to fully maximize the economic potential of the region, obviously to the benefit of Rome. This included building paved roads, hospitals, post offices, telephone lines, schools, barracks for military personnel, among others.

The Italian colonial authorities banned miscegenation, perhaps in attempt to enforce its version of racial segregation. Efforts were also made to economically and socially suppress the dominant Amhara class as they were huge supporters of the exiled emperor. More rights were then given to the Somalis, Muslims and the Oromos, and any other group that did not support the emperor.

Did you know…?

During Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia, slavery was abolished.

At some point during the occupation, Italy had over a quarter of a million soldiers in order to maintain its grip on the East African nation.

Italy pulled out of the League of Nations on December 11, 1937. The withdrawal came after the League criticized Italy’s invasion.

Italian notice, signed by general Emilio De Bono, proclaiming the abolishment of slavery in Tigray in Italian and Amharic.

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