Second Battle of Tembien

27 - 29 February 1936

Return to Tembien

After the inconclusive results of the First Battle of the Tembien, the Italians managed to inflict a major defeat on the Ethiopian Forces at Amba Aradam. The victorious Italian commander, Marshall Badoglio, now found himself with a numerical advantage over the remaining Ethiopian forces. He had three times the number of troops due to the losses his armies had inflicted on the enemy and the recent arrival of reinforcements.

He now planned to focus back on the Ethiopian forces at Tembien led by Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum. Additional roads had been laid by the Italians in the area to assist with their advance and they steadily stockpiled resources – 48,000 artillery shells and 7 million rounds of ammunition were available for the Italian forces.

Italian artillery at Tembien. The Italians made effective use of their artillery throughout the conflict.

​Badoglio planned to cut off the main route of withdrawal for the Ethiopian forces led by Ras Kassa, by cutting off the road towards Gaela. His Eritrean Corps would also advance south and together, if successful, these forces would be able to trap Kassa and Seyoum’s forces. There is evidence that Kassa suspected what the Italians were up to as he messaged his emperor, Selassie, to get permission to withdraw to a different position and link up with the survivors of Mulageta’s army – recently expelled from Amba Aradam. It was a suggestion which Selassie agreed with, given the condition of Mulugeta’s forces

The Eritrean and III Corps advance

The Second Battle of Tembien commenced with the advance of the Italian Eritrean forces and III Corps who progressed down from the mountains and into the Geba Valley. This terrain here was very different from the mountainous Amba Aradam, its forests and ravine favouring the Ethiopian defenders. Attempts by the Italians to deploy their artillery and armoured vehicles were hampered by the numerous rivers which ran through the area.

The Ethiopian defenders had dug in at Uork Amba (known as the ‘Mountain of Gold’), establishing a strongpoint their and blocking the road to Abbi Addi, which the Italians planned to advance along. In response, Badoglio sent 150 Alpini and Blackshirt commandos to capture at night, counting on the element of surprise to overwhelm the unprepared Ethiopian defenders. Using knives and grenades, the Italians overcame the Ethiopians and captured the stronghold. 

Italian soldiers equipped with wireless telegraphy station and radio RF1 during the Italo-Ethiopian war.

The Ethiopian Counter-attack

On the morning of the 27th of February, Ras Seyoum’s forces responded to the Italians attacks.

Emerging from the shelter of the woods and to the accompaniment of battle horns and war drums, the Ethiopians closed on the Italians forces out in the open.

For eight hours, the Ethiopians relentlessly launched wave after wave of attacks on the Italian forces, desperately attempting to break though the Alpini, Blackshirt and Eritrean lines.

It was here though the Italian superiority in equipment began to tell, as well sited Italian machine guns mowed down scores of Ethiopians attackers, armed with only clubs and swords. With the Ethiopian forces recoiling from the violent, Italian defence, Badoglio’s forces then counterattacked forcing the Ethiopians to retreat.

With his forces in increasing disarray and having suffered heavy casualties, Ras Seyoum ordered a retreat to preserve what was left of his army. He left more than one thousand Ethiopian dead on the battlefield.

Ethiopian troops advancing on the Northern front during the Italo-Ethiopian war. Although often brave and ferocious fighters, they generally lacked the training or equipment to have any realistic chance of defeating the technologically more advanced and better equipped Italian army.


As Seyoum’s forces attempted to flee back to the Tekezé fords, they were repeatedly bombed and strafed by the Italian Air Force. With their escape taking them through a narrow ravine, a bottleneck started to form, gifting the Italian bombers with an obvious target, which they quickly turned into a scene of slaughter.


​Kassa, now realising that Seyoum’s forces were effectively destroyed, decided to enact the withdrawal he had already agreed with his emperor, started to withdraw his army, suffering repeated bombing attacks by the Italians

​By 29 February, the Italian forces had linked up and closed the trap. However, a large portion of Kassa and Seyoum’s troops managed to escape, although they were a demoralised and beaten force, lacking much of their equipment after discarding it as they retreated.

​By the time Kassa and Seyoum reached Emperor Sellassie’s headquarters, they were accompanied by just a few loyal soldiers – effectively their personal bodyguards - the rest having dispersed and fled in the retreat.

Lacking their own armoured units, the Ethiopians instead often relied on cavalry units.

An international response

The watching world realised the significance of these events:

Italian Blackshirts transporting a wounded man on a stretcher.


It was a catastrophe for the Ethiopians. Ras Mulugeta now lay dead, and Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum had seen their armies effectively destroyed. A huge chunk of Ethiopia now lay under Italian control. Three of the four Ethiopian main armies had been decimated and a victorious Badoglio now focussed his attention on the Ethiopian forces at Shire.