Hide and seek

With the constant threat from The Italian Air Force and after the devastation at Korem Plain, the Swedish and British field hospitals had to remain hidden in order to function due to the direct attacks. Both decided to conceal the hospitals and the insignia using trees and flora because they believed—correctly or incorrectly—that the Italian Air Force would target them because of their red crosses rather than shield them.

The British field hospital relocated into a cave that Haile Selassie recommended. In addition, a cave shielded Ethiopian Red Cross Field Hospital No. 3 from a damaging air raid on 18th January 1936.

Ethiopian Red Cross Ambulance Planes in 1935. The Ethiopian Red Cross was established by a government decree issued on the 8th day of July 1935.

Despite assurances that the Italians would refrain from future deliberate attacks, few Red Cross or Red Crescent field hospitals made the decision to fly the Red Cross flag with confidence. Doubt has long since displaced confidence.

  • How were they to defend themselves in such a situation?
  • What should be done with a symbol that was meant to protect but really seems to draw danger?
  • Was the insignia actually invisible from the air, or were the Italian Air Force's attacks malicious?

These issues were still being discussed throughout the conflict, which occasionally resulted in intense arguments about whether to make the "flag of humanity" more obvious or to completely conceal it.

Aerial view of an Red Cross hospital. Even from 2000 - 2200 metres the Red Cross symbol - although appearing small from this height - can clearly be seen.

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The ICRC delegates first requested that the field hospitals continue to display the insignia - making sure that it is even more prominent out of fear that if it were abandoned in this conflict, it would set a precedent and result in it being abandoned in future wars.

They were only partially effective in this. Regarding Ethiopian Red Cross Field Hospital No. 2 and its head medical officer Dr. Dassios, Marcel Junod reported on 20th February 1936:

Clearly Dassios had little faith in reassurances and adopted a more pragmatic approach instead.

Testing the flags

Junod decided to check that the flags themselves were of sufficient size to ensure they could be identified from the air. Using the Ethiopian Red Cross Fokker, he conducted a series of tests. A 9-metre square flag was spread out on the ground, a 60 cm x 60 cm symbol painted on a lorry, and a 1 metre x 1-metre emblem attached to an aeroplane’s wing were all used in tests.

Three pictures were taken during these testing by the pilot, von Rosen, from between 2000 and 2200 metres in altitude and the findings were as follows:

  • Even from a height of 2200 metres, the-9 metre square flag was easily discernible.
  • At 200 metres, the 60 cm × 60 cm and 1 metre x 1-metre emblems vanished, respectively. 

Aerial view of a Red Cross field hospital (taken from 2000 m–2200 m).

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Destruction of the Fokker

Barely five days after submitting the results of these tests, Junod and von Rosen encountered the "camouflage/visibility" conundrum for themselves while on a mission to transport Dr. Van Schleven of the Dutch Red Cross back to Addis Ababa after he had been hurt in a bandit attack and to deliver medical supplies to field hospitals on the northern front.

On the morning of 17th March 1936, they opted to conceal their aircraft after landing on Korem Plain for the straightforward reason that, despite the insignia, it had been bombed twice in Dessie, according to Junod. The Italian Air Force was bombing Haile Selassie's aircraft, which was near to the Ethiopian Red Cross Fokker, as they were departing the area where they had landed.

The Italian Air Force was accused of repeatedly targeting Red Cross hospitals.

Armour force / Armored Force : Ethiopia 1935 Second Italo-Ethiopian War (maximietteita.blogspot.com)

The medical aircraft was in danger, so they returned as soon as they could to take off the camouflage in the hopes that the Italians would see the emblems and decide not to attack. They failed in their endeavours. Three attacks were made against the Fokker. One of the attacks was launched from a height of 30 metres, where, as mentioned above, the insignia was plainly visible.

The Fokker was completely destroyed. The plain was turned into an utter nightmare when mustard gas was dumped all over it. Numerous citizens and military died or were injured. Despite all their efforts, yet again the Red Cross found themselves in the firing line despite their efforts to display their insignia clearly.

Destruction to a Red Cross hospital after a raid by the Italian Air Force.

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Illusions shattered

Therefore, by March 1936, all illusions regarding the attitude and conduct of the Italians - particularly their air force - were gone. As shown in one of Junod's reports:

An Ethiopian Red Cross hospital during the conflict. The clearly visible Red Cross symbol was no guarantee of safety. 

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Sydney Brown, a lawyer working with the Red Cross, had sent pictures of the Fokker to his co-workers at headquarters, and he was furious. In order for Mussolini’s government to acknowledge the Fokker and recognise it as being protected by the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC had forwarded them to the Italian Red Cross, which in turn should have sent them to the Italian army and government. This appears to either not have happened or it did happen, and the photos were simply ignored.

Brown was clear in his own mind though. He believed that:


Two months after the end of the Second Italo-Ethiopian war, Max Huber, president of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) asked Marcel Junod to produce a report based on the documentation that the ICRC has been able to collect on the attacks on Red Cross hospitals or personnel.

The report concluded that:

The aftermath of an Italian attack on a British Red Cross hospital.

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Further reading