Second Battle of Tembien

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Second Battle of Tembien
Part of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War
Date 27 February to 29 February 1936
Location Tembien Province, Ethiopia

Decisive Italian victory


 Kingdom of Italy

 Ethiopian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Italy Pietro Badoglio Ethiopian Empire Ras Kassa
Ethiopian Empire Ras Seyoum
Approximately 70,000, With Approx. 50,000 in reserve Approximately 40,000
Casualties and losses
Approx. 600 Approx. 8,000
Almost entire army ultimately neutralized as a fighting force

The Second Battle of Tembien was a battle fought on the northern front of what was known as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. This battle consisted of attacks by Italian forces under Marshal Pietro Badoglio on Ethiopian forces under Ras[nb 1] Kassa Haile Darge and Ras Seyoum Mangasha. This battle was primarily fought in the area around the Tembien Province.


On 3 October 1935, General Emilio De Bono advanced into Ethiopia from Eritrea without a declaration of War. De Bono had a force of approximately 100,000 Italian soldiers and 25,000 Eritrean soldiers to advance towards Addis Ababa. In December, after a brief period of inactivity and minor setbacks for the Italians, De Bono was replaced by Badoglio.citation needed

Haile Selassie launched the Christmas Offensive late in the year to test Badoglio. By mid-January 1936, Badoglio was ready to renew the Italian advance on the Ethiopian capital. Badoglio ultimately overwhelmed the armies of ill-armed and uncoordinated Ethiopian warriors with mustard gas, tanks, and heavy artillery.[1]


In early January 1936, the Ethiopian forces were in the hills everywhere overlooking the Italian positions and launching attacks against them on a regular basis. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was impatient for an Italian offensive to get under way and for the Ethiopians to be swept from the field.[2]

The Ethiopians facing the Italians were in three groupings. In the center, near Abbi Addi and along the Beles River in the Tembien, were Ras Kassa with approximately 40,000 men and Ras Seyoum with about 30,000 men. On the Ethiopian right was Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu and his army of approximately 80,000 men in positions atop Amba Aradam. Ras Imru Haile Selassie with approximately 40,000 men was on the Ethiopian left in the area around Seleclaca in the Shire Province.[3]

Badoglio had five army corps at his disposal. On his right, he had the Italian IV Corps and the Italian II Corps facing Ras Imru in the Shire. In the Italian center was the Eritrean Corps facing Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum in the Tembien. Facing Ras Mulugeta atop Amba Aradam was the Italian I Corps and the Italian III Corps.[3]

Initially, Badoglio saw the destruction of Ras Mulugeta's army as his first priority. Ras Mulugeta's force would have to be dislodged from its strong positions on Amba Aradam in order for the Italians to continue the advance towards Addis Ababa. But Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoumm were exerting such pressure from the Tembien that Badoglio decided that he would have to deal with them first. If the Ethiopian center was successful, the I Corps and III Corps facing Ras Mulugeta would be cut off from reinforcement and resupply.[2]

From 20 January to 24 January, the First Battle of Tembien was fought. The outcome of this battle was inconclusive, but the threat Ras Kassa posed to the I Corps and III Corps was neutralized.[2]

From 10 February to 19 February, Badoglio attacked the army of Ras Mulugeta dug in atop Amba Aradam during the Battle of Enderta. Ras Mulugeta was killed and his army destroyed. With this completed, Badoglio turned back to the center to complete what he had started with the First Battle of Tembien. He would leave the army of Ras Imru Haile Selassie for another day.[4]

Badoglio now had access to three times the men fielded by the three remaining Ethiopian armies. By this time, extra divisions had arrived in Eritrea and the network of roads he needed to guarantee resupply had been all but completed. Even so, Badoglio stockpiled 48,000 shells and 7 million rounds of ammunition in forward areas before he committed to attack Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum.[4]

Badoglio planned to send the III Corps towards Gaela to cut off the main line of withdrawal for Ras Kassa. After establishing itself across the roads running south from the Abbi Addi region, the Eritrean Corps would advance south from the Warieu and the Abaro Passes. These moves by the III Corps and the Eritrean Corps would place the armies of Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum in a great trap.[4]

It is possible that Ras Kassa sensed what Badoglio planned. He sent a wireless message to Emperor Haile Selassie requesting permission to withdraw from the Tembien. The request was superfluous. The Emperor had already indicated that Ras Kassa should fall back towards Amba Aradam and link up with the remnants of Ras Mulageta's army. But something changed Ras Kassa's mind.[4]


Per Badoglio's plan, the Eritrean Corps advanced from the mountain passes and the III Corps moved up from the Geba Valley. The Second Battle of the Tembien was fought on terrain which favored the defense. It was a region of forests, ravines, and torrents where the Italians were unable to deploy artillery properly or use armored vehicles. But the warriors of Ras Seyoum failed to take advantage of the terrain and so they were defeated.[4]

The right wing of the Ethiopian armies rested on Amba Work (the "mountain of gold"). The Ethiopians established a strong point there. Amba Work blocked the road to Abbi Addi on which the Eritrean Corps and the III Corp planned to converge. One-hundred-and-fifty Alpini and Blackshirt commandos were ordered to capture it under cover of darkness. Armed with grenades and knives, the commandos found the Ethiopians on the summit unprepared when they scaled the peak. The issue of who controlled Amba Work was settled quickly.[4] Once Amba Work was in Italian hands, two columns from the Eritrean Corps set off towards Zebandas and Worrega and the inevitable clash followed.

Early on the morning of 27 February, the army of Ras Seyoum was drawn up in battle array in front of Abbi Addi. Heralded by the wail of battle horns and the roll of the war drums (negarait), a seemingly uncoordinated mass of Ethiopians left the shelter of the woods covering Debra Ansa to attack the Italians in the open.[4]

From 8 am to 4 pm, wave after wave of Ethiopians tried to break through or get around the forward lines established by the Alpini and the Blackshirts of the Eritrean columns. Armed for the most part with swords and clubs, the waves were mowed down and turned back by concentrated machine gun fire time and time again.[5]

Finally, after sensing that the attacks were becoming less frequent, the Italian commander counterattacked. Pounded by artillery, hounded by bombers that dropped nearly two-hundred tons of high explosives, and threatened with encirclement, Ras Seyoum decided that his men could take no more. His army left more than one-thousand dead on the battlefield as it fled.[5]

With his right flank in the air, Ras Seyoum ordered his army to pull back to the Tekezé fords. But, as his men straggled back along the one road open to them, they were bombed repeatedly. The rocky ravine where they were to cross the river turned out to be a bottleneck. The Italian bombers focused on the concentrated solid mass of defeated Ethiopians and soon the area around the fords was turned into a charnel house.[5]

Meanwhile, Ras Kassa and his army on Debra Amba had not yet seen action. Ras Kassa now decided to do what the Emperor had indicated and started to withdraw his army towards Amba Aradam. But now it was the turn of his army to be bombed.[5]

On 29 February, the III Corps and the Eritrean Corps linked up about three miles west of Abbi Addi and the trap was completed. Even so, a large portion of both armies managed to escape Badoglio's dragnet. However, the men of the Ethiopian armies were demoralized and their fighting days were over. The Ethiopians wanted to get away from the region, the high explosive bombs, the rattle of machine gun fire, and the deadly mustard gas. By the time Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum reached Haile Sellassie's headquarters at Quorom two weeks later, they were accompanied by little more than the men of their personal bodyguards.[5] Both were present with the Emperor during the upcoming Battle of Maychew.


Writing as a correspondent at Italian Military Headquarters, Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times, cabled the following to his paper: "Ras Kassa's army in the Tembien region of Ethiopia, northwest of Makale, has been destroyed. He himself is fleeing for his life with a few followers. Now between the Italian forces and Addis Ababa all Northern Ethiopia lies open and almost defenseless. Only Emperor Haile Selassie's private army can offer resistance, and it is not expected to be serious."[6]

A United Press correspondent wrote: "Using his entire northern army of 300,000, Badoglio shattered the armies of Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum... The Victory saw Fascist legions occupy strategic Golden Mountain (Amba Work), giving Badoglio control of northern Ethiopia."[6]

Ras Mulugeta was dead. Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum were beaten. All three armies commanded by these three men were destroyed. Only one of the four main northern armies remained intact. Badoglio now turned his attention towards Ras Imru and his forces in the Shire.citation needed

See also


  1. ^ Roughly equivalent to Duke.
  1. ^ John Laffin. Brassey's Dictionary of Battles, pg. 28
  2. ^ a b c Barker, A. J., Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 59
  3. ^ a b Barker, A. J., Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 55
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Barker, A. J., Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 83
  5. ^ a b c d e Barker, A. J., Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 84
  6. ^ a b "The Ethiopians are licked", Time Magazine, 9 March 1936


  • Barker, A.J. (1971). Rape of Ethiopia, 1936. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 160 pages. ISBN 978-0-345-02462-6. 
  • Barker, A.J. (1968). The Civilizing Mission: A History of the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-1936. New York: Dial Press. pp. 383 pages. 
  • Laffin, John (1995). Brassey's Dictionary of Battles. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. pp. 501 pages. ISBN 0-7607-0767-7.