Badoglio's next move

The First Battle of Tembien lasted from 20 – 24 January and at its conclusion, found the Italian and Ethiopian forces largely intact. The Italians however, had managed to remove the immediate threat posed by Ras Kassa and his forces, which relieved the pressure on the Italian I and III Army Corps who faced them.

The Italian commander, Marshal Badoglio, now turned his attention to the next obstacle – the Ethiopian forces under Ras Mulugeta – who were imbedded in the imposing heights of Amba Aradam.

The destruction or removal of these forces would leave the route to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa open.

The Herringbone and the Hat

​The Ethiopian defences at Amba Aradam where spread across two key points: A rocky ridge known as ‘The Herringbone’ and a much flatter area at the mountain peak known as ‘The Priest’s Hat’. Additionally, the area around the base of the mountain was known as the ‘Enderta’. A confident Badoglio held a press conference on 9 February announcing his plans to take the mountain and was feeling confident enough to provide the Italian news correspondents present with access to a high-powered Zeiss telescope so they may watch the battle as it progressed.

Ethiopian soldiers during the conflict, armed with outdated equipment.

While the two opposing sides could muster roughly the same number of troops, the Italians held a distinct advantage in terms of equipment:

  • 5000 machine guns
  • 280 artillery pieces
  • 170 combat aircraft


In comparison, the Ethiopians were much less well-equipped:

  • 400 machine guns
  • 18 old field medium-sized artillery pieces
  • Several anti-aircraft guns

​Additionally, the Ethiopians had no aircraft available to assist in the defence of Amba Aradam. The only advantage they did hold was their occupation of the mountain itself – its steep slopes would prove a challenge for any attacking force to navigate – especially whilst under fire.

Italian soldiers during the Battle of Amba Aradam

The battle commences

​Badoglio commenced the Italian attack on 10 February, launching his forces at 8 am. The Royal Italian Army and Blackshirts led the advance with Colonial Askari troops acting as reserve. By nightfall, the Italian Forces had made good progress and reached the banks of the May Gabat River. 

Italian soldiers during the battle.

Fondo Bottai, Milan

As a former artilleryman, Badoglio knew the value of knowing where his targets were – to this end he had observation planes constantly circling and reporting the location of the dug in Ethiopian forces so that the Italian artillery could target them. However, the Ethiopian forces under Ras Mulugeta were well-trained, regular uniformed soldiers – well versed in using their own artillery and able to withstand the Italian artillery attacks. Badoglio realised that bombardment alone would be unlikely to dislodge them.

A map detailing the Italian attempts to trap the Ethiopian forces.

A flaw is exploited

Eventually, the Italians spotted a weakness is the Ethiopian defences and moved to exploit it. Sensing that an attack from the South should make more progress, Badoglio planned to build on this to eventually encircle the Ethiopians. On 11 February, the 4th CC.NN. Division ‘3 Gennaio’ and the 5th Alpine Division ‘Pusteria’ advanced westwards from May Gabat. Simultaneously, the Italian III Army Corps moved towards the East. Ras Mulugeta, realising what was happening, tried to extract his forces from the trap.

Italian soldiers during the battle.

Fondo Bottai, Milan

On the afternoon of the 12 February, Mulugeta flung his forces down the western slopes towards the 3rd CN.NN. Division ’21 Aprile’ in an attempt to break through. However, the continuous bombardment by the Italians had sapped the strength and vigour of the Ethiopians and they struggled to make headway.

Although delayed, the Italians were eventually able to continue and eventually, by the morning of 15 February, they had snapped shut the trap. The Ethiopians were surrounded.

As daylight arrived, the Ethiopian forces realised their predicament as they witnessed the newly positioned Italian troops and artillery readying itself for the final assault. With no other option open to them, the Ethiopians repeatedly attacked down the slopes of the mountain, desperately trying to break through the Italian positions. But Badoglio’s artillery and air support constantly harassed and disrupted the Ethiopian efforts.

Capture of the mountain

​The Italian forces then managed to capture ‘The Herringbone’ from the weakened Ethiopian defenders which also made defence of ‘The Priest’s Hat’ impossible.

It was the 1st CC.NN. Division ’23 Marzo’ who were given the honour of raising the Italian flag atop Amba Aradam.

Badoglio’s plan had worked.

February 1936. The flag of the Kingdom of Italy flies over the Amba Aradam.

Fondo Bottai, Milan.

Mulugeta’s retreat

For the vanquished Ethiopians, escape now came the priority and eventually they managed to force their way through the Italian positions at Addi Kolo. From here, Mulugeta’s forces made their escape, planning to regroup at Amba Alagi. However, Badoglio’s air force continued to harass and bomb the retreating Ethiopians. Dropping forty tons of Mustard Gas on them over the course of four days.

The Italians also bribed the Azebu Galla – an ethnic group distinct from the Ethiopians – to attack the retreating forces.  In the ensuing skirmishes, Mulugeta’s son, Tadessa was killed, and his body butchered. Upon hearing this, an enraged Mulugeta turned back but was killed by an Italian plane before he could avenge the death of his son. This proved to be the final straw, with Mulugeta’s forces dispersing as they fled and no longer functioning as a military formation.

The unfortunate Ras Mulugeta, commander of the Ethiopian forces.

With Amba Aradam now under Italian control, Badoglio turned his attention back towards Tembien in what would soon develop into the Second Battle of the Tembien.