The Ethiopians counter-attack

In response to the Italian forced advance starting to slow down, the Ethiopians launched their own counteroffensive on 15 December 1935. It was planned to split the Italian forces, crushing part of them, and driving the rest away, allowing the Ethiopians to invade Italian Eritrea.

The combined Ethiopian forced numbered around 190,000 men, split between four commanders, all holding the Ethiopian royal title of ‘Ras’: Seyoum Mangasha, Imru Haile Selassie (The emperor’s cousin), Kassa Haile Darge and Mulugeta Yeggazu (the Minister for War). Facing them was around 125,000 well-armed Italians and Eritreans.

Ethiopian Commander, Ras Seyoum Mangasha.

Battle at Dembeguina Pass

The two forces clashed on 4 December 1935 at Dembeguina Pass, and despite elements of the Ethiopian army reacting badly to being bombed and retreating, most of Selassie’s army made progress, getting the better of minor skirmishes with Italian forces.

In response, Major Criniti, the commander of the Italian Gruppo Bande Altopiani and charged with the defence of Dembeguina Pass, requested air support upon seeing the advancing Ethiopians, fearing that his garrison of 1000 men and several L3 tankettes would not be enough to hold the position.

Skirmishes broke out as the Ethiopians started to press the Italian forces, they in return responding by deploying their tankettes at key positions. Initially, the Ethiopians fled when confronted by the tankettes, although one soldier held his ground:

Italian Carro Veloche CV 35 tankette, of the type used in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war.

Seeing his soldiers falter, Fitaurari Shifferaw, commanding the Ethiopians, tried to rally his men:

​With their commander wounded and now completely encircled, the Italians switched tactics. They released their pack mules, hoping the Ethiopians would be distracted by the opportunity to loot them. It highlights the low regard the Italians held the Ethiopians in, suggesting they felt their lack of discipline might lead them to become easily distracted from the key objectives.

​As it turns out, the Italians underestimated their foes, as the Ethiopians simply followed the animals back to the Italian camp and instead looted the supplies there, as well as ruthlessly dispatching any wounded Italian soldiers they found.

Map detailing Ethiopian advances during the offensive.

No prisoners

With most of their officers dead or incapacitated, the Italians attempted to surrender, raising their hands in the widely recognised gesture of surrender. However, perhaps highlighting again the difference in training and experience between the two forces, the Ethiopian soldiers did not recognise the gesture as an indication of surrender and simply killed the unarmed soldiers instead. A grisly indicator of the brutality of this conflict – the traditional ‘rules of engagement’ did not always apply and would be an early indicator as to how the two sides would conduct themselves throughout the conflict. 

Ethiopian soldiers advancing.

Realising that surrender was not an option, the remaining Italians attempted to escape and reach their previously abandoned tankettes. In the ensuing melee, Shifferaw was killed, but spurred on by his father who was also in attendance, the Ethiopians continued to attack. Charging down the hill, the pursuing Ethiopians caught up with the fleeing Italian troops, setting their lorries ablaze and overturning and destroying three tankettes, shooting the crews as they tried to escape (although one Italian crew was spared when their attempts to surrender were for once, successful). 

Ethiopian troops during the conflict.


Ethiopian reinforcements arrived and pushing on, a further two tankettes were captured, their crews once again killed. Fleeing Eritrean colonial troops were ruthlessly pursued as the Ethiopians continued their energetic and brutally effective assault, only pausing for rest when they reached the town of Enda Selassie, several miles away.

​​Buoyed by their success, the Ethiopian forces advanced again, intending to capture the Italian held town of Axum which was 30 miles away. However, an Italian Blackshirt column, which included trucks and tankettes, was already heading in their direction, hurriedly dispatched from Axum to try and halt the rampaging Ethiopians. Seeing the approaching armour and once again, displaying their knack for improvisation, the Ethiopians halted the advancing column by rolling boulders into the path of the tankettes. Now with the Blackshirts blocked from advancing further, the Ethiopians attacked, inflicting casualties, and disabling or immobilising five of the tankettes.

Once again, the Italian forces were forced to retreat. 

Ethiopian soldiers inspect captured Italian tankettes.

The Ethiopians then continued their advance and took up positions only 12 miles from Axum. At this point, the Ethiopian morale had rocketed. They had proved they could go toe-to-toe with the more technologically advanced and better equipped Italian army and come out on top.

Their forces had destroyed and captured tankettes and 50 Italian machine guns (the aquisition of the machine guns being especially important as some of the Ethiopian forces had none to begin with) and they believed they had inflicted around 500 casualties on the Italians. They also now also held a strategically important position around Enda Selassie, overlooking the Tekezé fords.

Along with these successes, the Ethiopian forces had also made strategic gain elsewhere, forcing the Italians back and closing in on the town of Abbi Addi and city of Makele. This marked a low point for Italian fortunes in the war, known as the ‘Black Period’.

An Ethiopian soldier fitting a gas mask.


However, the Ethiopians offensive eventually ground to a halt, with the Italians superior weapons and use of chemical warfare having a major impact. Despite Selassie’s protests to the increasingly impotent League of Nations over the Italian’s use of Mustard Gas (Mussolini responded by accusing the Ethiopians of using the also illegal ‘Dum Dum’ bullets) the use of these weapons continued. The Ethiopians had proven adept at fighting against a technologically superior foe but there was little they could do against the “terrible rain that burned and killed” - the effect of Mustard Gas.

Additionally, with the defeat of the Ethiopian forces on the Southern Front at the Battle of Ganale Doria, the initiative shifted back to the Italians, with Mussolini pushing for a speedy renewal of the Italian offensive.

Mockler, Anthony (2003). Haile Selassie's War
Barker, A. J. (1971). The Rape of Ethiopia 1936
Ordinary morality is only for ordinary people : photo (
Feodor Konovalov and the Italo-Ethiopian War – part II | THE ABYSSINIAN CRISIS (