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The Battle of Maychew (also known as the Battle of Mai Ceu) was the last major battle fought on the northern front during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The battle consisted of a failed counterattack by the Ethiopian forces under Emperor Haile Selassie making frontal assaults against prepared Italian defensive positions under the command of Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The battle was fought near Maychewmarker (Mai Ceu), Ethiopiamarker, in the modern region of Tigraymarker.

Background

On 3 October 1935, General Emilio De Bono advanced into Ethiopia from Eritreamarker without a declaration of war, leading a force of approximately 100,000 Italian and 25,000 Eritrean soldiers towards the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababamarker. In December, after a brief period of inactivity and minor setbacks for the Italians, De Bono was replaced by Badoglio.

Under Badoglio, the advance on Addis Ababa was renewed. Badoglio overwhelmed the armies of ill-armed and uncoordinated Ethiopian warriors with mustard gas, tanks, and heavy artillery. He successfully defeated the Ethiopian armies at the Battle of Amba Aradam, the Second Battle of Tembien, and the Battle of Shire.

Maychew

On 1 March 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie arrived by foot at his new headquarters in Quorommarker, forty years to the day from the decisive Ethiopian victory at Adwamarker during the First Italo-Ethiopian War. Both Duke (Ras) Kassa Haile Darge and Ras Seyum Mangasha made their way to join the Emperor there.

On 23 March 1936, looking across a lush green valley towards the Italian positions at Maychewmarker, the Emperor decided to strike first. His army was the last intact Ethiopian army between Badoglio and Addis Ababa. He decided he would direct the attack personally in accordance with tradition and the expectation of his followers. Six battalions of the Imperial Guard (Kebur Zabangna) would be part of his force of approximately 31,000 fighters. Haile Selassie chose to attack against the advice of his foreign experts and against his own better judgement.

Compared to other Ethiopian forces, Haile Selasie's army was extremely well armed. He had an artillery regiment of twenty 75 mm field guns, some Oerlikon 37 mm guns, and even a few 81 mm Brandt mortars. However, compared to the resources available to Badoglio, Haile Selasie's army was hopelessly outmatched. To even things up, the Emperor handed out between ten to fifteen dollars and distriburted other gifts to the Azebu Galla. In exchange, they swore their allegiance to him and agreed to attack the Italian flanks.

Badoglio had the seven divisions of the Italian I Army Corps and the Eritrean Corps at Maychew. Before the battle, 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." Badoglio also enjoyed the intelligence edge of being able to intercept most of the Ethiopian radio communications.

Had Haile Selassie attacked on 24 March as he originally planned, things may have gone differently; many of the Italians had only recently arrived at Maychew after the fall of Amba Aradammarker. But, during a week frittered away by the Ethiopians in war councils, banquets, and prayers, the Italians had time to strengthen their defenses and time to bring up reserves.

Battle

At dawn on 31 March 1936, the attack was launched. It was St. George's Day. The attack began at 0545 hours and continued for thirteen hours with little or no let up.

The Italians had been "standing to" in the front line positions all night, alerted to the attack by an Ethiopian deserter. The mountain troops (Alpini) of the 5th "Pusteria" Mountain Division were dug in on the slopes of Amba Bokora for the Italian I Corps. The rest of the I Corps was in reserve, the 26th "Assietta" Infantry Division, the 30th "Sabauda" Infantry Division, and the 4th "3rd January" Blackshirt Division. The two Eritrean divisions of the Eritrean Corps held Mekan Pass, the 1st Eritrean Division and the 2nd Eritrean Division. The 1st "23rd March" Blackshirt Division was in reserve for the Eritrean Corps.

The Ethiopians advanced in three columns of 3,000 men each. In the first attacks, the Ethiopians hurled themselves at the Italian positions in waves. The fury of the attack and surprisingly accurate mortar fire carried the Ethiopians well into the defensive lines of the "Pusteria" Division. But the mountain troops struck back and soon the front lines were stabilized.

Switch to the left flank

The Ethiopians switched the focus of their attack and fifteen thousand men under Ras Kassa advanced against the Eritreans holding Mekan Pass on the Italian left flank. Haile Selassie hoped to face less resistance from the Eritreans. From 0700 to 0800 hours, the Ethiopians kept up a steady onslaught and, despite taking heavy casualties, were beginning to make gains. But at 0800 Badoglio unleashed the bombers of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) and the Ethiopians could hear the ominous engine roar as they closed in with poison gas.

Imperial Guard sent in

Haile Selassie now played his trump card. The Imperial Guard, under the command of Ras Getachew Abate, was sent in against the Eritreans. The training and discipline of this elite force was apparent in the methodical mode of their advance over the open ground. For three hours they struggled to roll up the Italian flank. The X Battalion of the 2nd Eritrean Division was virtually annihilated. In the end, the Italian commander of the unit called down concentrated artillery fire onto his own overrun positions and saved the day.

Last attack

By 1600 hours, it was apparent that the Imperial Guard was not going to be able to capture their objectives and Haile Selassie played his last card. He ordered an attack along the entire front. This last desperate action was again made by three columns, it was made under a heavily overcast sky, and it was made with little chance of success. The Ethiopians attacked everywhere and were driven back everywhere. It was at this point that the Azebu Galla, who had been on the sidelines, made their allegiance clear and attacked the withdrawing Ethiopians.

Haile Selassie's order to retreat was late in coming. He placed Ras Getachew Abate as Commander of the Rear Guard (Asmach). But the Ethiopians had lost many front line commanders, the soldiers had not eaten since before dawn, and discipline had understandably broken down. To make matters even worse, as the Ethiopian fled from the battlefield, they were mercilessly bombed from above by the Italian Royal Air Force and harassed on the ground by the Azebu Galla.

After the battle

On the evening of 31 March, Haile Selassie sent a message to his wife, Empress Menen Asfaw:
"From five in the morning until seven in the evening our troops attacked the enemy's strong positions, fighting without pause. We also took part in the action and by the grace of God remain unharmed. Our chief and trusted soldiers are dead or wounded. Although our losses are heavy, the enemy too has been injured. The Guard fought magnificently and deserve every praise. The Amhara troops also did their best. Our troops, even though they are not adaptapted for fighting of the European type, were able to bear comparison throughout the day with the Italian troops."


By 3 April, roughly 20,000 battle weary and thirsty survivors of the Emperor's army were struggling towards Lake Ashangi. Due to brutal attacks from the Azebu Galla and due to near continuous attacks from the air, thousands more would be lost. Worse, the water of Lake Ashangi had been sprayed with deadly chemicals by the Italian Royal Air Force and it was poison by the time the Emperor's army arrived.

On 4 April, Haile Selassie looked with despair upon the horrific sight of the dead bodies of his army ringing the poisoned lake.

On 26 April, when Badoglio launched his "March of the Iron Will" towards Addis Ababa, he faced no meaningful Ethiopian resistance.

Haile Selassie made his way to Addis Ababa through Fikkemarker in Salale. He arrived in the capital one month after the Battle of Maychew. With him were Ras Kassa and Ras Getachew. When the Emperor arrived, he found a city in a state of near panic.

See also



Notes

Footnotes
  1. Laffin, 28.
  2. Marcus, 145-6.
  3. Mockler, p. 116
  4. Time Magazine, 13 April 1936
  5. Mockler, p. 117
  6. Mockler, p. 117
  7. Mockler, p. 118
  8. Barker 1971, 98.
  9. Barker 1971, 109.
  10. Mockler, 133.


Citations
  1. Laffin, 28.
  2. Marcus, 145-6.
  3. Mockler, p. 116
  4. Time Magazine, 13 April 1936
  5. Mockler, p. 117
  6. Mockler, p. 117
  7. Mockler, p. 118
  8. Barker 1971, 98.
  9. Barker 1971, 109.
  10. Mockler, 133.


References



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