WAR: Hit & Run

6 minute read

The war finally came to Addis Ababa last week. Early one morning a telephone clerk near Dessye called excitedly to say that a huge flight of Italian planes had passed overhead, evidently headed for the Ethiopian capital. Twenty minutes later a sharp-eyed outlook fired a warning gun from the hilltop by the royal palace. Soon ten planes came over the eastern horizon. Traders and warriors in the town rushed into their compounds, blazed away at the sky with ancient muskets, double-barreled elephant guns, Belgian trade rifles, all with no apparent effect. For 15 minutes the Italian planes circled at an altitude of 6,000 feet. Then two broke away, dived at the airport with machine guns spitting alternate bursts of hard and incendiary bullets.

Two planes were squatting before the hangar, a French Potez, and an ancient Farman. The Potez escaped with three bullet holes, but the Farman was riddled and burned impressively. When the Italians flew away a dog and a servant in the British Legation had been wounded.

The ominous fact was that the raid had taken place at all. It meant that the Italian force had won a crucial victory over Haile Selassie’s own well-trained private guard, that Marshal Badoglio, hitherto scrupulously careful to avoid treading on French or British toes with an attack on Addis Ababa, was willing to risk everything again in a furious attempt to end the war before the Little Rains descended and bogged his armies in inaction.

Fortnight ago Italy’s military position was about what it had been for a month. On the southern front Italian columns had made a spectacular dash to Wadara, then withdrew to Noghelli while food and munitions were catching up with them. Harar, overlooking Ethiopia’s only railway and onetime headquarters of the Ethiopian forces opposing Italy’s southern armies, had been bombed to ruins. In the north, after the great battle of Enderta and its smashing sequel at Amba Alaji (TIME, Feb. 24 et seq.), all Italy expected to see the Fascist troops sweep bravely on down the main caravan trail to Dessye and Addis Ababa. They did not realize that there were some 280 back-breaking miles between Italy’s advance posts and Addis Ababa, that innumerable hordes of undefeated tribesmen still infested the route.

Marshal Badoglio. squinting at his staff maps, knew that no matter how it might pain the House of Lords (see col. 3), a forthright poison gas campaign was the quickest and cheapest way of breaking opposition in a country where every herdsman has a rifle. The gassing began.

Then the Italian commander sent a motorized column to fan out westward toward the British Sudan border and Lake Tana on his right. For them the going was fairly easy. No fool politically, Marshal Badoglio gave command of this column to the Farley of Fascismo, ebullient Achille Starace, secretary general of the Fascist

Party. Under him were 5,000 young Blackshirts in armored trucks. Along the Sudan border they rolled almost without opposition to the gates of Gondar, important caravan town near Lake Tana. Colonel Starace. who can do nothing without making a speech, saw to it last week that his speech on the eve of capturing Gondar reached every foreign correspondent.

“Soldiers,” cried Italy’s panther-man, “this is the most risky, most difficult and most important venture of the campaign. Don’t waste a shot. We are carrying all the ammunition we are going to have on this trip. This column must be like an electric live wire. Death to the touch! Truck drivers must learn to keep to the right of the road under pain of severe penalties. . . . ”Britain is a rich country, Italy is a poor country, but the people of poor countries have hard muscles. The only way to explain the action of the English is that they thought they had only to mass a war fleet in the Mediterranean and Premier Mussolini would take off his hat and bow in submission. “Instead he reared up like a thorough bred horse and sent his soldiers into Africa. Viva Il Duce!” Next morning Achille Starace’s men captured Gondar, and within three days the first Italian troops reached the shores of Lake Tana. In Rome the Rearing Horse was tractable enough to fill the Fas cist Press with soothing statements that Italy had had every intention of maintaining Britain’s rights to the waters of the lake. “After all,” announced a Foreign Office attache, “Britain’s interests in Ethiopia are hydraulic, ours are territorial!” Marshal Badoglio, smiling over the pins in his staff map, was now eager to tackle Haile Selassie himself. Pencil in hand, the Marshal explained: “The Emperor has three choices. To attack, and be defeated; to wait for our attack, and we will win anyway; or to retreat, which is disastrous for an army that lacks means of transport and proper organization for food and munitions.”

Haile Selassie and an Ethiopian Army of nearly 45,000 men were at Quoram, on the route south from Aduwa. Ethiopia’s Emperor stroked his silky black beard and picked Choice No. 1. Attacking with his European-trained bodyguard of 20,000 men, he headed straight for the Italian position on formidable Mai Cio.

Twelve hours later his men were beaten back with heavy losses. Next day was spent in wary shadow-boxing on both sides. Haile Selassie formed his Imperial Guard on Chessad Ezba, a mountain eight miles from Lake Ashangi, spread his support on surrounding peaks. Marshal Badoglio had assembled 200 bombing and pursuit planes. He had Alpini and Sabauda Divisions facing the Ethiopian Guard and was able, after an amazing forced march, to whip another division of leather-footed Eritrean native troops along Haile Selassie’s right flank.

There could be only one result. For hours the Ethiopian Guard fought off the Alpini advance, firing from rock to rock, sword against bayonet. When the Ethiopian position became completely untenable, Italian officers saw for the first time an orderly planned retreat. But Italy had heavy artillery and plenty of bombs and pounded Ethiopia’s second position just as hard. Finally the Imperial Guard broke and ran for its collective lives. Haile Selassie with only a fistful of followers streaked off toward Dessye, while the Roman Press burgeoned with reports that the Conquering Lion of Judah was about ready to sue for peace.

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