An embassy besieged

In May 1936, as the Second Italo-Ethiopian war drew to a close and the victorious Italian forces closed on the Ethiopian capital city, Addis Ababa, Shitas (an East African term for bandit or outlaw) attacked the American embassy in the city.

The Ethiopian government had fallen and the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, had left the capital city but Italian troops had yet to arrive to take control.

The attack compelled the British Army to temporarily leave the facility and evacuate its staff.

Contemporary Italian map of Ethiopia and surrounding regions.

1936: How Italians Conquered the Ethiopian Empire with Poison Gas |

After being evacuated, Italian forces and American diplomatic and consular officials returned to retake the embassy a few days later. Although the Franklin Roosevelt administration would face public criticism for not better ensuring its preservation, American minister Cornelius Van Hemert Engert was praised in the United States for his leadership in the defence of the embassy.

Public unrest

Haile Selassie had ordered government armouries unsealed before leaving Addis Abeba with the apparent intention that residents would seize the guns and spontaneously oppose the Italian entry into the capital. However, it instead provoked an increase of public unrest, with Selassies departure and the government collapsing, it sparking off a free-for-all for weapons.

Addis Ababa after the departure of Emperor Haile Selassie. It would not take long for unrest and violence to break out.

Italian Troops Enter Addis Ababa (1936) – Interwar Crisis (

By the afternoon of 2nd May, with the street violence getting worse, 37 Greek civilians and American journalists who had been in the city to cover the conflict had all taken sanctuary in the US embassy's chancery.

John H. Spencer – who had served as legal advisor to the now absent Selassie - also delivered the Ethiopian foreign ministry's records to the American chancery for storage, along with a personal stockpile of "food and guns" that he gave to the embassy.

Attack on the embassy

An organised group of shiftas attacked the chancery on Monday, 3rd May. The attempt was thwarted by embassy personnel and local contract security. Engert, realising that the British embassy was in a more fortified position and was better protected, decided to ask for help as the chancery was still coming under fire.

Due to the severity of the street fighting, a courier who tried to travel to the British enclave had to turn around. Instead, a radio message was sent to the British embassy; however, since the U.S. had no direct communication with the British, it first had to be transmitted to the Department of State of the United States; then it had to be sent to London; and finally, it had to be sent back to Addis Abeba, the entire process taking a day.

Some of the destruction in Addis Ababa after the departure of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Italian Troops Enter Addis Ababa (1936) – Interwar Crisis (

On 4th May at 8:30 am, three open-topped trucks from the UK embassy and a British Army escort arrived at the American compound. After that, the spouses and children of diplomatic staff, as well as civilians seeking refuge — including one reporter's pet cheetah — were transported to the British legation a short distance away.

Engert, his wife, four U.S. Navy radio operators, six diplomats, a number of Ethiopian domestic staff members, and one Ethiopian police officer who had found safety at the location remained to protect the American legation. They had a total of nine rifles, two shotguns, ten revolvers, and a submachine gun between them. Two of the local domestic staff members were shot and critically injured throughout the course of the day as gunfire erupted within the property.

A car left wrecked after the rioting. It is unknown what happened to the occupants.

The State Department gave Engert permission to leave the legation because his ammunition was running low, but the stretched British forces were unable to help immediately since they were involved in resisting an attack on the Belgian legation that was occurring at the same time. The 11th Sikh Regiment soldiers finally came early on 5th May and evacuated the last of the Americans to the British embassy.

Cordell Hull, the secretary of state for the United States, simultaneously requested in a telegram to the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, that the Royal Italian Army enter Addis Ababa as soon as possible to calm things down. German troops had to be sent by that country's embassy to rescue French journalists and Swiss surgeon Marcel Junod who were trapped in a collapsed building on the same day as the British evacuated the Americans.

The following evening, 25,000 Italian soldiers arrived in Addis Ababa. Four Americans returned the following morning to recapture the chancery, but they quickly came under sporadic fire once more. Italian forces were then sent to secure the legation and its surroundings at the United States' request. A later communication to Washington from an American vice-consul said that 53 Italian Army soldiers had arrived at the site to secure it.


In appreciation for his contributions during the attack, Engert received a one rank promotion in the U.S. Foreign Service. Secretary Hull gave Robert Worth Bingham instructions to thank the UK for its prompt and effective assistance" and to convey "sincere appreciation" to the country.

Some American media criticised the Roosevelt administration for not providing a better defence to the American legation and noted that the United States embassy had to seek to the United Kingdom for assistance.

Surveying the damage. Order was finally restored to Addis Ababa with the arrival of Italian troops.

Italian Troops Enter Addis Ababa (1936) – Interwar Crisis (

Later, John Spencer would claim that some of the Ethiopian government documents he had carried to the American legation for safekeeping had vanished when he went back to get them.

The United States would later close its mission in Addis Ababa in the spring of 1937.

Trading card depicting the attack on the US Embassy.

1938 Horrors Of War Attack On American Legation At Addis Ababa | PSA CardFacts®