Christmas Offensive

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Christmas Offensive
Part of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War
Date15 December 1935 – 20 January 1936[1]
Northern Ethiopia

Ethiopian victory



 Ethiopian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Italy Pietro Badoglio Ethiopian Empire Ras Kassa
Ethiopian Empire Ras Seyoum
Ethiopian Empire Ras Imru
Ethiopian Empire Ras Mulugeta
Units involved
Kingdom of Italy I Corps
Kingdom of Italy III Corps
Ethiopian Empire Army of Gojjam
Ethiopian Empire Army of Tigre
Ethiopian Empire Army of Begemder
125,000 190,000
Casualties and losses
3,000 killed
2 tanks destroyed
18 tanks captured
33 field guns captured
175 machine guns captured

The Christmas Offensive took place during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. The Ethiopian offensive was more of a counteroffensive to an ever slowing Italian offensive which started the war.


On the 3 October 1935, Italian General Emilio De Bono invaded Abyssinia. De Bono's advance continued methodically, deliberately, and, to the consternation of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, somewhat slowly. On the 8 November, the I Corps and the Eritrean Corps captured Makale. This proved to be the limit of how far the Italian invaders would progress under the command of De Bono. Increasing pressure from the rest of the world on Mussolini caused him to need quick victories, and he was not prepared to hear of obstacles or delays from De Bono.[2]

On the 16 November, De Bono was promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy (Maresciallo d'Italia); however, in December he was replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio on the northern front because of the slow, cautious nature of De Bono's advance.[3]

The offensive[edit]

On the 30 November 1935, Nəgusä Nägäst[nb 1] Haile Selassie moved his field headquarters to Dessie.[1] From there, he decided to test this new Italian commander with an offensive of his own. Haile Selassie's test was launched on the 15 December and became known as the Ethiopian "Christmas Offensive."

Troup movements during the Christmas Offensive


The "Christmas Offensive" had as its objectives the splitting of the Italian forces in the north with the Ethiopian center, crushing the Italian left with the Ethiopian right, and invading Eritrea with the Ethiopian left. Ras[nb 2] Seyoum Mangasha held the area around Abbi Addi with about 30,000 men. On the 5 December, Abbi Addi had fallen to the Italians and, on 22 December, Ras Seyoum took it back.[1]

Ras Imru Haile Selassie with approximately 40,000 men advanced from Gojjam toward Mai Timket to the left of Ras Seyoum. In a push towards Warieu Pass, Ras Kassa Haile Darge with approximately 40,000 men advanced from Gondar to support Ras Seyoum in the center. Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu, the Minister of War, advanced from Dessie with approximately 80,000 men to take positions on and around Amba Aradam to the right of Ras Seyoum. Amba Aradam was a steep sided, flat topped mountain directly in the way of an Italian advance on Addis Ababa.[4]

The four commanders had approximately 190,000 men facing approximately 125,000 Italians and Eritreans. Ras Imru and his Army of Gojjam was on the Ethiopian left, Ras Seyoum and his Army of Tigre and Ras Kassa and his Army of Begemder in the center, and Ras Mulugeta and the Mahel Sefari[nb 3] on the right.[4]

The ambitious Ethiopian plan called for Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum to split the Italian army in two and isolate the Italian I Army Corps and the Italian III Army Corps in Makale. Ras Mulugeta would then descend from Amba Aradam and crush both corps. According to this plan, after Ras Imru retook Adwa, he was to invade Eritrea.

Battle at Dembeguina Pass[edit]

On the 4 December 1935, as Ras Imru advanced from Gojjam, his forces were bombed for the first time. Badly shaken by the bombing, about half his army abandoned him to return to Gojjam. Ras Imru then entered the territory of Fitawrari[nb 4] Ayalew Birru and Imru's force was joined by Ayalew and his forces.[5]

On the 15 December, Ras Imru's advance guard crossed the Tekezé River by the fords at Mai Timkat and Addi Atcheb. The advance guard was under the overall command of Fitawrari Ayalew Birru. As a column of 1,000 Ethiopians advanced towards Dembeguina Pass (Inda Aba Guna or Indabaguna pass), it was blocked by a force of 1,000 Eritreans at Mai Timkat under the command of Major Criniti. Criniti's command was a forward observation post and he determined to make a withdrawal upon the arrival of the Ethiopians. Under the cover of nine L3 tanks, Criniti and his Eritreans withdrew and made for Dembeguina Pass. The 1,000 advancing Ethiopian column was now behind Criniti and his 1,000 Eritreans. When Criniti and his force got to Dembeguina Pass, they found that it was already held by another group of 2,000 Ethiopians.[6][7]

Under a blazing sun, the battle at Dembeguina Pass began between Criniti's 1,000 Eritreans on the plateau and the 2,000 Ethiopians in front of them who were holding the high ground around the pass. The Ethiopians formed up in a horseshoe formation on the surrounding crests and Criniti, who lead on horseback, ordered his light tanks to smash a way through them with his infantry following close behind. The tanks lumbered towards the Ethiopians but the rough terrain soon made further forward progress impossible. Criniti was wounded in his initial attack and two of his officers were killed. The Ethiopians then counterattacked and the Eritreans rallied around the stranded light tanks.

The 1,000 Ethiopians behind Criniti joined the battle at this time and Criniti's command came under fire from all directions. The Ethiopians surged forward, slaughtered the Eritrean infantry, and engulfed the Italian tanks. Some Ethiopians were able to approach the tanks from the rear and were then able to disable the tracks and machine guns, and kill the two-man crews of each vehicle.[6][7]

Criniti's command radioed for more tanks. A relief column, including another ten tanks and two trucks,[8] was sent immediately. However, the relief column was ambushed before it could get to Criniti. The Ethiopians immobilised several of the Italian tanks by rolling boulders onto the road in front of them and behind them. Once again, the infantry was picked off followed by the stranded tanks. Other tanks attempted to bypass the roadblock only to slip down steep roadside embankments and overturn. The Ethiopians set two of the tanks afire.[7] According to the two-man crew of the last in line of the ten Italian tanks, when the Ethiopians pried open the hatches to their tank, they "Called out 'Friends' and we were not injured." They were among four prisoners delivered to Emperor Haile Selassie at Dessie.[8]

Criniti ultimately ordered his surrounded Eritreans to fix bayonets and charge the Ethiopians in front of them. The Eritreans created a breach and were able to escape; however, during the breakout, Criniti lost fully half of his force on the battlefield.

Ras Imru and Fitawrari Ayalew Birru then moved their forces in large numbers across the Tekezé River and into Tigre Province. Morale among the Ethiopians was very high, and Ras Imru was pleased to have captured fifty machine guns[nb 5] and the town of Enda Selassie.[nb 6] Ras Imru and Fitawrari Ayalew Birru moved to positions along Shire Ridge, about twelve miles from Axum. From here, Ras Imru contemplated an attack on the Axum-Adowa area.[5]

The Ethiopians scored a moral, if not a tactical, victory at Dembeguina Pass: Ras Imru had forced the Italians in and around the pass into a 12-mile retreat.[6][1]


In addition to Ras Imru's advance on the left, the other Ethiopian armies had made progress during the offensive as well. Ras Kassa advanced to Abbi Addi and joined up with Ras Seyoum in the center. On the right, Ras Mulugeta and the Mahel Sefari was advancing directly towards the Italian positions at Makale.[1] The Italians were forced to fall back from the Tekezé to Axum and from Amba Tzellene to the Warieu Pass.[9]

Generally bad news for Italy[edit]

The news from the "northern front" was generally bad for Italy. However, foreign correspondents in Addis Ababa publicly took up knitting to mock their lack of access to the front. There was no way for them to verify reports that 4,700 Italians had been captured. The correspondents were told by the Ethiopians that Italian tanks had been stranded and abandoned and that Italian native troops were mutinying.[10] Later, a report was issued that Ethiopian warriors had captured eighteen tanks, thirty-three field guns, 175 machine guns, and 2,605 rifles. In addition, this report indicated that the Ethiopians had wiped out an entire brigade of the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division and that the Italians had lost at least 3,000 men. Rome denied these figures.[11]

The news for the Italians from the "southern front" was no better. By the end of the year, it was general knowledge at every marketplace that Ras Desta Damtew was massing an army to invade Italian Somaliland.[12]

Black period of the war for Italy[edit]

The Christmas Offensive was a time that informed circles in Italy termed the "Black Period" of the war.[9] Badoglio's inability to get the Italians back on the offensive immediately caused Mussolini to fly into a rage, and he threatened to replace Badoglio with General Rodolfo Graziani.[6]

On 18 December, millions of Italians participated in what was known as the "Harvest of Gold." To raise money for the war and as a pledge of faith to the Fascist regime, they handed over their wedding rings. In exchange for bands made of gold, they were given rings made of steel, with even the Queen participating in the pledge.[4]

Chemical warfare[edit]

The Ethiopian offensive was ultimately stopped due to the Italian forces' superior modern weapons, such as machine guns and heavy artillery. More importantly, on 26 December, Badoglio asked for and was given permission to use chemical warfare agents such as mustard gas. The Italians delivered the poison gas by special artillery canisters and with bombers of the Italian Air Force. While the poorly equipped Ethiopians experienced some success against modern weaponry, they did not understand the "terrible rain that burned and killed."[6]

Formal complaint[edit]

On 30 December, Haile Selassie formally filed a complaint with the League of Nations. He claimed that Italy's use of poison gas was yet another addition to the long list of international agreements contravened by Italy. In response, the Italians denied that poison gas was being used and, instead, decried the use of "dum dum" bullets and the mis-use of the Red Cross by the Ethiopians.[13]


In early January 1936, the Ethiopian forces on the "northern front" were in the hills everywhere overlooking the Italian positions and launching attacks against them on a regular basis. Mussolini was impatient for an Italian offensive to get under way and for the Ethiopians to be swept from the field. In response to his frequent exhortations, Badoglio cabled Mussolini: "It has always been my rule to be meticulous in preparation so that I may be swift in action."[14]

Fortunately for the Italians on the "southern front," Ras Desta Damtew did little in 1935 and his invasion of Italian Somaliland did not get under way until early January 1936. By then his army had been reduced to approximately 15,000 men, less than one-quarter of its size when first raised in Sidamo Province.[15] Ultimately, Desta Damtew's offensive became known as the disastrous Battle of Genale Doria.

In addition to being granted permission to use poison gas, Badoglio received additional ground forces; elements of the Italian III and IV Corps arrived in Eritrea during early 1936. What followed was a series of battles starting with the First Battle of Tembien. On 20 January, the beginning of the inconclusive First Battle of Tembien marked the end of the Ethiopian "Christmas Offensive"[1] and also marked a shift of the offensive back to the Italians.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Usually translated as King of Kings or Emperor.
  2. ^ Roughly equivalent to Duke.
  3. ^ Equivalent to Central Army.
  4. ^ Equivalent to Commander of the Vanguard.
  5. ^ Of all the larger forces on the "northern front," his had started the conflict with no machine guns.
  6. ^ Enda Selassie was about thirty miles from Axum and controlled the fords over the Tekezé.[5]
  1. ^ a b c d e f Baer, Test Case, p. 176.
  2. ^ Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 36.
  3. ^ Nicolle, David, "The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-1936", p. 8.
  4. ^ a b c Barker, The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 45.
  5. ^ a b c Mockler, p. 80.
  6. ^ a b c d e Barker, The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 56.
  7. ^ a b c Walker. Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini's elite armoured divisions in North Africa, p. 36.
  8. ^ a b Time Magazine, January 20, 1936.
  9. ^ a b Barker, The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 47.
  10. ^ Time Magazine, December 2, 1935.
  11. ^ Time Magazine, February 10, 1936.
  12. ^ Barker, The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 71.
  13. ^ Barker, The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 57.
  14. ^ Barker, The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 59.
  15. ^ Baer, Test Case, p.181


  • Baer, George W. (1976). Test Case: Italy, Ethiopia, and the League of Nations. Stanford, California: Hoover Institute Press, Stanford University. ISBN 0-8179-6591-2.
  • Barker, A. J. (1971). The Rape of Ethiopia 1936. New York: Ballantine Books, 160 pages. ISBN 978-0-345-02462-6.
  • Mockler, Anthony (2002). Haile Selassie's War. New York: Olive Branch Press. ISBN 978-1-56656-473-1.
  • Nicolle, David (1997). The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-1936. Westminster, MD: Osprey, 48 pages. ISBN 978-1-85532-692-7.
  • Walker, Ian W. (2003). Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini's elite armoured divisions in North Africa. Marlborough: Crowood. ISBN 1-86126-646-4.

External links[edit]

  • "Needlework". Time Magazine. December 2, 1935. Retrieved September 8, 2009.
  • "First White Prisoners". Time Magazine. January 20, 1936. Retrieved January 3, 2010.
  • "The Front". Time Magazine. February 10, 1936. Retrieved September 8, 2009.