The Southern Front

Towards the end of the Ethiopian Christmas Offensive – which was taking place in the north of the country (The ‘Northern Front’) a separate offensive was launched by the Ethiopians on the Southern Front, designed to push the Italians back and invade Italian controlled Somaliland.

The Italian commander in the area, Rodolfo Graziani, was expecting an Ethiopian attack but was lacking in troops, a potential problem when facing up to 80,000 hostile and motivated Ethiopian soldiers. Additionally, some of the best trained of the Ethiopian soldiers could be found amongst this number and were led by young officers, loyal to Selassie, the Ethiopian Emperor.

​As De Bono led the Italian forces further North, Graziani implemented his own ‘Milan plan’, designed to clear out any Ethiopian frontier posts in the vicinity and secure the immediate area. Despite relentless rain, the Italians progressed well and had captured the villages of Kelafo, Dagnerai, Gerlogubi and Garahai within three weeks.

Italian soldiers being transported in trucks during the conflict.


The capture of Garahai was particularly important as this old stronghold, built during a previous conflict, and had been the base of an Ethiopian warlord Mohammed Abdullah Hassan – colourfully known as the ‘Mad Mullah’.

It was now commanded by Afawarq Walda Samayat[, who had 3000 troops and a single 37mm Oerlikon Anti-aircraft gun at his disposal, and who had done his best at turning the old fort into an armed outpost by strengthening its defences, constructing deep trenches and surrounding the base with mines.

​The Ethiopians were able to stave off repeated Italian attacks, conflicting substantial casualties and its single Anti-aircraft gun – mounted in an old turret of the fort – had provided stout resistance when the Italians launched bombing raids on the camp. However, when Afawarq was wounded and later died of gangrene, the morale of his men collapsed, and they quickly abandoned the base to the Italians.

Ethiopian wounded during the conflict

Sensing an opportunity to further harass the Ethiopians, Graziani sent troops, - led by a Colonel Pietro Maletti - to pursue the retreating Ethiopians. However, the Ethiopians, strengthened by a relief force, held their ground against Maletti’s troops and in the ensuring battle, the Italians and Ethiopians suffered many casualties before both withdrawing.

Once again, as seen during the Christmas Offensive, the Italians – despite being better equipped with more modern equipment – were unable to get the better of the Ethiopians in a pitched battle. Their tankettes struggled with the harsh terrain and were vulnerable to Ethiopian solders, who having overcome their initial fear of these armoured vehicles, would sneak up on them and fire their rifles through the weapon slits. Bullets ricocheting around the armoured interior of the vehicle could cause immense damage to the crews.

Graziani’s bold move had seen the Italians advance 145 miles in just four days and brought them within range of Ethiopia’s only railway – its capture would be a significant blow to the Ethiopians. But Graziani, his forces having suffered a large amount of casualties, lacked the men to progress further and by November, the initiative had passed to the Ethiopians 

Italian soldiers posing for a photo during the conflict.

(8) ledjimmypage (u/ledjimmypage) - Reddit

The Army of the Sidamo

The Ethiopian forces facing Graziani – the ‘Army of the Sidamo’ - were led by Ras Desta and numbered 20,000 men. They were considered amongst the best equipped and trained in the Ethiopian military. Nesta planned to march his army over 200 miles to invade Italian Somaliland, which in turn would hopefully force Italian forces to be diverted away to respond to this threat.

Additionally, a secondary force of 4000 Ethiopian troops – the ‘Army of the Bale’ – and led by Dejazmarch Beine Merid, was to also advance along a separate route and also invade Italian Somaliland.
However, the plan was overly-ambitious and – due to lax security – became common knowledge amongst the Ethiopian populace, which inevitably led to the details of the plan finding it’s way to the Italians.

Ras Desta, commander of the Army of the Sidamo.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

Both Desta and Merid’s forces advanced, with the Army of the Bale making quicker progress due to more forgiving terrain and soon clashed with forces commanded by Olol Diinle – a Somali sultan loyal to the Italians. After intense fighting, both sides retreated, leaving Merid seriously wounded and The Army of the Bale damaged enough that it would withdraw from the campaign, leaving Desta’s Army of the Sidamo on its own.

In light of the Ethiopian advance, Graziani gathered what forces he could, mustering the 29th Infantry Division “Peloritana”, elements of the Libyan Colonial division and the 6th CC. NN Division “Tevere” (Irregular Blackshirt Militia) as his overall main force and positioning them at the border town of Dolo. He received additional reinforcements in November and by December, Graziano was keen to launch his own counterattack.

Ethiopian soldiers during the conflict, their faces displaying a range of emotions.

A 'limited' attack

Despite his commander, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, ordering Graziano to maintain a purely defensive stance (even sending him a telegram to remind him), Graziano secretly continued his preparations and privately badgered Mussolini to allow him to adopt a more aggressive stance. Il Duce’ eventually relented and granted Graziani permission to perform “a limited attack in the case of absolute necessity” which was ambiguous enough for Graziani to treat it as authorization to launch whatever offensive operations he felt necessary. 

Graziani organised his forces into three groups, each with their own objectives. These armed forces were motorised and were supported by a few tankettes. They were also supported by the 7th bomber wing of the Italian Air Force.  

In total, Graziani could deploy 14,000 men, 3,700 beasts of burden, 13,400 rifles, 784 machine guns and 26 artillery pieces

As the Ethiopians continued to advance, the Italians responded an on 12 January, they launched a series of air attacks designed to inflict maximum casualties and hamper the advance which lasted for three days.

Additionally, the Italians dropped Mustard Gas on the approaching Ethiopians, who were now tired having completed a long march through the desert and dealing with increasing outbreaks of malaria and dysentery within their ranks. The Ethiopians morale had plummeted, and when eventually attacked and out manoeuvred by Graziani’s ground forces on 15 January, they offered limited resistance before retreating. Harassed and attacked as they fled, the Ethiopian army soon disintegrated completely 

Italian Breda Ba.65 ground attack aircraft. The Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) proved to be a decisive factor in the Italo-Ethiopian war.


​By 20th January, the Italians had reached their objectives, with only mopping up operations required to deal with the remnants of Ras Desta’s army, with Desta himself being forced to flee on a mule to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The only blot on and otherwise successful campaign for Graziani, was the desertion of around 1000 Eritrean Colonial troops, who later fought on the Ethiopian side.
For the Italians, this was a well needed victory and confirmation of their military superiority over the technologically less-well advanced Ethiopians, as well as boosting Mussolini’s prestige back in Italy and helping to demonstrate Italy’s military might to the rest of Europe.