Italy used chemical weapons against Ethiopian forces during its invasion of Abysinia. In fact, it used such weapons in the Battle of Shire (February 29-March 2, 1936), the Battle of Maychew (March 31) and in attacks on the remnants of Ethiopian forces in the Lake Ashangi region in April. Its last reported use of chemical weapons was between April 4-7.

Marshal rodolfo Graziani reviews a Black shirt unit on the Ethiopian-somaliland front.Photos: The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia, 1935-36, by david NicolleMarshal rodolfo Graziani reviews a Black shirt unit on the Ethiopian-somaliland front.Photos: The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia, 1935-36, by david Nicolle

Italy’s use of chemical weapons had a strategic effect on the conduct of the war and, as operations progressed, Italian forces were able to deliver large quantities of sulphur mustard against target areas. Chemical weapons were used to protect the flanks of Italian supply routes and lines of attack and to increase disruption in the Ethiopian forces by hindering communication, demoralising troops and confusing troop movements.

Meanwhile in Malta, it was announced that the officer administering the government had received a report by the Air Raid Precautions Committee on the practice air raid held on March 11 by detachments of the Army and Royal Air Force to test the organisation of the Passive Defence.

The Passive Defence Reserve consisted of 200 men, divided between the decontamination centres at the Auberge de France and Cospicua Elementary School under the respective commands of Captain Bonello and Mr Said, while the reserve itself was under the general command of Major Sammut Tagliaferro. The forces at each decon­tamination centre were divided into personnel for decontamination duties and personel for first aid duties, working under various squad leaders.

By mid-March 1936 the north of Abyssinia was in Italian hands, the Ethiopian armies were disintegrating, dissidence and open revolt were spreading, and Italian army columns were spreading out over Abyssinia in all directions

In addition to the Passive Defence Reserve, the Police also took part in the practice in order to test their organisation in the event of an air attack. The practice showed that, in the limited area in which it was carried out, the general organisation for Passive Defence and of the Police was entirely satisfactory.

Following an appeal for recruits for the Passive Defence Reserve, 778 applications were re­ceived. Arrangements were made for applicants to enrol in the reserve, where they received a course of instruction. The course lasted three weeks and consisted of one-and-a-half hour lectures during the evenings from Monday to Saturday. After the recruits qualified at the end of the course they were enrolled for one year’s service and they received a gratuity of £1.

Emperor Haile Selassie passes through Jerusalem on his way to exile in Britain.Emperor Haile Selassie passes through Jerusalem on his way to exile in Britain.

Meanwhile, by mid-March 1936 the north of Abyssinia was in Italian hands, the Ethiopian armies were disintegrating, dissidence and open revolt were spreading, and Italian army columns were spreading out over Abyssinia in all directions.

On March 31, at the Battle of Maychew, the Italians defeated an Ethiopian counter-offensive by the main Ethiopian army commanded by Emperor Haile Selassie. During the day, the Abyssinians launched near non-stop attacks against the Italian and Eritrean defenders, until the exhausted Ethiopians withdrew, and were successfully counter-attacked. The Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) finished off what was left of Selassie’s army by attacking the survivors at Lake Ashangi with mustard gas.

During a practice air raid held in Valletta and the Tree Cities on March 11, 1936, gas bombs were thrown by the Police and the damage caused was recorded. Photo on the right shows decontamination and first aid squads with buckets and spades while a policeman lies on the ground awaiting treatment.During a practice air raid held in Valletta and the Tree Cities on March 11, 1936, gas bombs were thrown by the Police and the damage caused was recorded. Photo on the right shows decontamination and first aid squads with buckets and spades while a policeman lies on the ground awaiting treatment.

April 1936 was for the Abyssinians a month of almost unrelieved disaster and for the Italians one of almost uninterrupted success. It could hardly have been otherwise in the north. One after the other the Ethiopian armies had been defeated and the Imperial army itself was battered and withdrawing. The Ethiopians could count on only two assets: the person of the Emperor, miraculously unharmed, and the army of the south.

During this stage of the war, further Italian fascist propaganda was broadcast in English on Italian radio stations against British colonial rule in Malta. A report in a local newspaper published on April 27 reported the lady announcer as stating that at a meeting addressed by the “leader of the Maltese people” Dr Enrico Mizzi, a resolution was passed indicting the Imperial government for its sanctionist policy, its “oppression of the Maltese, its recent enactments concerning the Italian language in education and the revocation of the 1921 Constitution”. This was the first instance that the Maltese people knew of such a meeting.

If a strong government finds it can destroy a weak people, then the hour has struck for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment. It is us today. It will be you tomorrow- Ousted Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie

A day or so later, the Italian transmitter was reported to have broadcast the assertion that “the Maltese people are wholeheartedly with the Duce in the struggle for liberty” and that “the Maltese people agree that it would save further trouble in Africa where British mandates were handed to Italy”.

The British military authorities still considered Malta as an important and strategic naval base in the Mediterranean. In fact, their consensus was that although the return en masse of the UK Mediterranean Fleet to Malta could not be expected until there was a definite relaxation of tension, a continual stream of warships to Malta for refitting purposes could be confidently anticipated.

The editorial comment of the The Naval and Military Record of April 23, republished on the Daily Malta Chronicle of April 27, stated that the Mediterranean was the most important sea route of the British Empire. At that time, Italy commanded a dominating position in the central Mediterranean, such that it could make the route practically impassable. However, in order to do this, Italy had to take Malta as if the island remained a very active British base it would have been too much of a thorn in Italy’s side.

Map of the six provinces of the Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa).Map of the six provinces of the Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa).

In the meantime, on May 2, Selassie boarded a train from Addis Ababa to Djibouti on the Imperial Railway, with all the golden treasure of the Ethiopian Central Bank. Marshal Rodolfo Graziani requested Mussolini’s permission to bomb the train but Il Duce refused the request, allowing Selassie’s escape to Europe. From there he fled to England.

Marshal Pietro Badoglio’s force marched into Addis Ababa on May 5 and restored order. While there never was a formal surrender, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War was over, and on June 1, Italy officially merged Ethiopia with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, calling the new state Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa).

On June 30, Selassie made one last plea to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, warning the League that Italy was not going to stop with Ethiopia and had its eyes set on the world. His speech transformed him from a little-known leader of a little-known country to a symbol of resistance overnight.

He concluded his speech with the following words: “If a strong government finds it can destroy a weak people, then the hour has struck for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment. It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

In reaction, the League did nothing. Just two months after the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, another conflict was to erupt, this time in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, which was effectively a war of ideologies and a prelude to World War II.

(Concluded)

A group of machine-gunners of the Kings Own Malta Regiment at Għajn Tuffieħa. Photo: Times of MaltaA group of machine-gunners of the Kings Own Malta Regiment at Għajn Tuffieħa. Photo: Times of Malta

Note
The title of the first part of this article featured last Sunday should have read ‘Italy considers capturing Malta during invasion of Abyssinia’.

Charles Debono is curator of the National War Museum.

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