Conventional wisdom holds that the Spanish Civil War was the dress rehearsal for World War II, yet a far more important, earlier and lesser-known conflict (it had no Picasso to paint a Guernica) was the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935–36.
Benito Mussolini was itching to invade Haile Selassie’s empire, if only to avenge the 1896 Battle of Adwa, in which an Italian army suffered the worst defeat ever handed to Europeans by Africans. So in response to a manufactured border dispute, Italy, with a thoroughly modern army and one of the most potent air forces in the world, in October 1935 invaded a land of barefoot warriors armed with spears and blind courage.
Like a steamroller the Italians moved slowly, aware of their long and vulnerable supply line. It was a war in which their infantrymen spent more time with shovels in their hands than rifles, for the Italians steadily built a remarkable network of roads where there had been only goat trails, enabling their mechanized forces to move ahead.
Selassie moved slowly as well, allowing time for the world to see the Italians as the aggressors and for the League of Nations to come to his aid. Anti-Italian sentiment indeed swelled, but the league proved a toothless tiger. Its members finally voted for ineffective sanctions against Italy; did it matter that Italian shoemakers were cut off from Argentine leather when the country continued to have access to oil? It marked the end of the organization’s influence on world events.
Many European military pundits predicted the Italians might lose, beaten by Ethiopia’s foul seasonal weather, debilitating viruses and mountainous equatorial terrain—much of the war was fought at 6,000 to 11,000 feet, and the difference between midday heat and nighttime chill could easily be 70 degrees. But the contest was never close. Following the few engagements in which the Ethiopians managed to punish the Italians, their troops typically melted away rather than consolidating their gains.
In early May 1936, as the Italians prepared to enter the capital, Addis Ababa, Selassie fled into exile. In June he gave an impassioned speech before the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The league died, but Selassie’s words, condemning fascist aggression and calling upon the world to unite against it, lived on.
■ Respect your enemy. The Ethiopians were contemptuous of the Italians, having smashed them at Adwa. But that victory had hinged on the Ethiopians’ overwhelming numbers and the Italians’ strategic blunders.
■ Got a walkie, no talkie. Lacking sufficient radios, the Ethiopians used runners, who took days to reach a town to send a telegram, which the Italians immediately intercepted.
■ Airpower trumps all. The Ethiopians had a handful of French biplanes, only three of which were fit for combat. The Italians had 400 warplanes.
■ Caliber matters. Of the Ethiopians who had rifles, many carried rounds utterly unmatched to their arms.
■ There’s a reason they call it boots on the ground. Ethiopian warriors fought barefoot, so the Italians spread broken vino rosso bottles in front of their lines.
■ Disregard stereotypes I. Italian troops in Ethiopia weren’t the comic-opera clowns of popular lore; they were tough, brave and skilled soldiers.
■ Disregard stereotypes II. It wasn’t Germany’s Luftwaffe that invented close air support, strategic bombing, photoreconnaissance and large-scale aerial resupply of ground troops, it was Italy’s Regia Aeronautica in Ethiopia, following the precepts of visionary aerial strategist General Giulio Douhet.
■ Armor doesn’t always win. The Italians’ small Renault tanks proved virtually useless in Ethiopia’s mountainous terrain. Vulnerable, too; the Ethiopians stopped them by rolling boulders across the road and then levered the tracks off their drive wheels with iron bars.
■ Sheer firepower trumps bravery. The Ethiopians insisted on traditional frontal assaults with large, screaming mobs, spears and swords vs. machine guns. The result was, tragically, a foregone conclusion.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.