Battle of Ganale Doria

Battle of Genale Doria
Part of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War
Date12 to 20 January 1936
LocationValley of the Genale Doria River, Ethiopia

Decisive Italian victory

  • Destruction of Ras Desta's southern army

 Kingdom of Italy

 Ethiopian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Italy Rodolfo Graziani
Kingdom of Italy Pietro Maletti
Kingdom of Italy Olol Diinle
Ethiopian Empire Desta Damtu
Ethiopian Empire Afawarq Walda Samayat 
Ethiopian Empire Beine Merid
Approximately 20,000 Approximately 24,000
Casualties and losses
Light 9,000 killed or missing
Almost entire army ultimately neutralized as a fighting force

The Battle of Ganale Doria (also known as the Battle of Genale Dorya or as the Battle of Genale Wenz[1]) was a battle on the "southern front" fought during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The battle consisted almost entirely of air attacks by the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) against an advancing and then withdrawing Ethiopian army under Ras[nb 1] Desta Damtu. The battle was primarily "fought" in the area along the Genale Doria River valley between Dolo and Negele Boran.

Technically, Ras Desta Damtew launched an Ethiopian offensive against the Italian forces in Somaliland. However, General Rodolfo Graziani carried out his active defense so vigorously that it became an offensive.[2]


On 7 March 1935, General Rodolfo Graziani landed in Mogadishu. He was in a disagreeable mood. In his opinion, the decisive battles of the upcoming conflict would be fought in the north. Nearly the whole of the Italian expeditionary force was assembling in Eritrea. It appeared to him that he had been relegated to a secondary front in Italian Somaliland and his role would be purely defensive.[3]

Only one Italian division, the 29th "Peloritana" Infantry Division, had been allotted to the "southern front" while the "northern front" had ten. Moreover, Graziani's orders from General Emilio De Bono were to dig in and wait for the Ethiopians to attack.[3]

Graziani set out to convince De Bono's commander, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, that the plans for the campaign needed to be changed to allow him and his army on the "southern front" to play a more active role. Mussolini wanted action and was more than willing to listen. In the end, Graziani's plan for an offensive on the "southern front" had the tacit approval of Rome if not De Bono.[3]

Between April and December, Graziani opened up new roads, developed the port facilities at Mogadishu, solved a difficult water supply problem, stocked up provisions and munitions, and purchased hundreds of motor vehicles. He was most successful acquiring American-made trucks from British dealers in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam.[3]

On 3 October 1935, when De Bono launched his invasion on the "northern front," Graziani was logistically prepared for a march on Harar in the south. However, Graziani's forces were still relatively few in number and they faced an enemy numbering approximately 80,000 strong. In addition to numbers, the soldiers of the two principle Ethiopian armies on the "southern front" were said to be better trained and better equipped than the soldiers of the armies De Bono faced in the north. Worse for Graziani, the Ethiopian commanders in the south were young, progressive, and loyal individuals dedicated to Haile Selassie's cause.[4]

Institution of the Milan plan

When De Bono's forces crossed the Mareb River in the north, Graziani instituted what he called his "Milan Plan" in the south. The initial objectives of this plan were to eliminate Ethiopian frontier posts and to test the reaction to a series of probes. Despite the incessant rains, within three weeks the Italians had captured the villages of Kelafo, Dagnerai, Gerlogubi, and Gorahai.[nb 2][4]

Gorahai, the most important of the villages, was known as an old stronghold of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (called the "Mad Mullah" by the British). With approximately 3,000 fighters under his command, Grazmach[nb 3] and Balambaras[nb 4] Afawarq Walda Samayat[nb 5] had turned Gorahai into an armed camp. Capronis of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) regularly bombed Gorahai and Afawarq himself directed the fire of the lone anti-aircraft gun, a 37 mm Oerlikon. The gun was mounted in one of the old-style turrets of the Mad Mullah's antiquated fort.

During one of the regular bombings, Afawarq was seriously wounded. He refused to be taken to the hospital because he feared that the morale of his men would suffer in his absence. Within 48-hours the wound became gangrenous and Afawarq collapsed and died. He was posthumously promoted to Dejazmach[nb 6] by the Emperor.

Afawarq was correct about the morale of his men and, after his death, they abandoned their positions and fled from Gorahai. After taking Gorahai, Graziani sent a flying column under Colonel (Colonnello) Pietro Maletti to catch and destroy the fleeing Ethiopians. Maletti caught up with the Ethiopians only to have them turn back and attack.[4] At Anale, the Ethiopian force fleeing from Gorahai was joined by a relief force making its way to reinforce the garrison at Gorahai.[5] Battle was joined under a terribly hot sun and casualties were high among the Ethiopians and the Italians. After several hours, both sides withdrew and both sides claimed victory. While better equipped in all ways, the Italians were never able to get the upper hand. The small two-man, turretless "tankettes" sent against the Ethiopians quickly bogged down in the rough terrain and were put out of action by Ethiopians who crept up on them and fired through the weapon slits in the armor.[4]

The Italians on the "southern front" ended up advancing 145 miles in four days. This brought them almost within direct striking distance of Jijiga, Harar, and Ethiopia's only railway.[6] But the forces available to Graziani remained relatively few in number and, by November, the initiative on the "southern front" passed to the Ethiopians as it had in the north.[4]


Ras Desta descended from the Bale Plateau, assembling his army of the Sidamo at Negele Boran[nb 7]. His army was considered to be well armed by Ethiopia standards and numbered approximately 20,000 men. His goal was to advance down the Ganale Dorya River and to then continue his advance down the Juba River. From Negele Boran, Ras Desta planned to march approximately 200 miles south and capture the border town of Dolo, then invade Italian Somaliland itself. This plan was not only ill-conceived and overly ambitious, it was the subject of talk at every market place.[7]

Ras Desta's forces advanced in three columns. Two columns were led by his two Fitauris[nb 8] Ademe Anbassu and Tademme Zelleka. Kenyazmach[nb 9] Bezibeh Sileshi commanded a relatively modern Guards battalion.[8]

In addition to the army of the Sidamo advancing from Sidamo Province along the Ganale Dorya River towards Dolo, the 4,000 strong army of the Bale was to advance down the Shebelle River and invade the center of Somalia. This army, under Dejazmach Beine Merid, was able to move forward more quickly due to the better terrain in that area. In November, advancing elements of this force clashed with about 1,000 dubats of the pro-Italian Olol Diinle. Both sides withdrew from the battlefield in the end, but Beine Merid had been seriously wounded. Its commander stricken, the army of the Bale retired from battle. The army of the Sidamo was on its own.[8]

On 13 November, Graziani moved his headquarters to Baidoa. The 29th "Peloritana" Division was still the only full division available to him. By mid-November, limited elements of the Libyan Division and the 6th "Tevere" Blackshirt Division were in Somalia. As additional forces arrived later in November, Graziani formed them up at Dolo near the border.

By early December, Graziani's forces were in a state of readiness on the "southern front." All was prepared to launch a counterattack against Ras Desta's offensive and Graziani's new commander, Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio, noted this preparedness. Badoglio sent Graziani a telegram reminding him of his "strictly defensive" role. Graziani feigned compliance with Badoglio but communicated privately with Rome and urged that he be given authorization for an offensive. Mussolini gave Graziani permission for "a limited attack in the case of absolute necessity" and Graziani took this as the authorization he needed.[9]

Even as the Ethiopians advanced, Graziani continued his preparations. He organized his forces into three columns. On the Italian right was the first column which was to advance up the valley of the Genale Doria River. In the center was the second column which was to advance towards Filtu. On the left was the third column which was to advance up the valley of the Dawa River. All three columns had better than average access to motor transport and were equipped with a few tanks. They could realistically be thought of as "mechanized" by the standards of 1936. In addition to the three columns on the ground, Graziani was ready to unleash the 7th Bomber Wing of the Royal Air Force.[7]

On 12 January, the Royal Air Force started the Italian response to the Ethiopian advance by dropping two tons of mustard gas on the Ethiopians. For three days the advancing Ethiopians were attacked incessantly from the air. The Ethiopian force that ultimately reached the first Italian outposts already had the fire gone from its belly. The combination of air attacks, a long march through a desert, inadequate rations, as well as dysentery and malaria had shattered the morale of Ras Desta's army.[7]

On 15 January, when the three Italian columns advanced, there was little incentive left for Ras Desta's shattered forces to stand and fight. Even so, the Ethiopians did stand and they attempted to hold their ground in the area where the Ganale Dorya River and the Dawa River joined to become the Juba River. This area northwest of Dolo where the Ethiopians stood to fight caused the Italians to refer to this portion of the battle as the "Battle of the Three Rivers."[10]

The Italian mechanized columns responded with a series of out-flanking maneuvers which quickly compelled the Ethiopians to withdraw and leave the field of battle. Unfortunately the weary army could not withdraw fast enough as it was again assaulted from the air. The Ethiopians could find no relief and their withdrawal quickly became a disorganized retreat. In this unequal chase, the Ethiopians were on foot and the Italians were generally in motor vehicles. The Italians blocked the few wells that lay along the way and closely pursued the parched Ethiopians. Ras Desta's army soon disintegrated under these assaults.[11]


On 20 January, within five days of their start, all three of Graziani's columns on the ground had reached their objectives. As a testament to the thoroughness of the job that the Royal Air Force had done, no shots had to be fired when the Italians converged on and entered their ultimate objective, Negele Boran.[11] The rout of Ras Desta's army was complete. On 24 January, during the mopping up actions which followed, Graziani gave orders to the air commander: "Burn and destroy all that is inflammable and destructible ... bomb neighboring woods with gas and incendiaries." Mussolini said that there was to be no truce. Ras Desta fled by mule to Addis Ababa, barely escaping capture.[12]

One detail did detract from Graziani's enjoyment of his triumph. About halfway through the battle, over nine hundred of his Eritrean troops deserted. Graziani's response was to order the corpses of the Eritrean dead left to rot on the field where they fell. It is understood that over 1,000 Eritrean deserters were said to have fought on the Ethiopian side at the Battle of Maychew.[11]

Oddly enough, having taken the ground intended and having reached Wadera, Graziani now cautiously withdrew his forces approximately 60 miles to Negele Boran to allow food and munitions to catch up.[13] The "southern front" was the subordinate front and the war on the "northern front" was not yet going well for the Italians. The Christmas Offensive was not yet over and the First Battle of Tembien was only about to start.

See also


  1. Roughly equivalent to Duke and Commander of the Army.
  2. Also transliterated as Qorahy.
  3. Roughly equivalent to Commander of the Left Wing.
  4. Roughly equivalent to Commander of the Fortress.
  5. Afawarq Walda Samayat is simply identified as Afewerk by A. J. Barker and as Azaye Afework by Time Magazine.
  6. Roughly equivalent to Commander of the Gate.
  7. Also spelled Neghelli.
  8. Roughly equivalent to Commander of the Vanguard.
  9. Roughly equivalent to Commander of the Right Wing, also spelled Qegnazmach.
  1. Nicolle, The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-36, p. 10
  2. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia, p. 144
  3. 1 2 3 4 Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 79
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 70
  5. Baer, p.178
  6. Time magazine, Monday, 18 November 1935, Gugsa Makes Good
  7. 1 2 3 Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 71
  8. 1 2 Mockler, Anthony. Haile Sellassie's War, p. 90
  9. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 76
  10. Time magazine, Monday, 27 January 1936, Three Rivers
  11. 1 2 3 Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 77
  12. Baer, Test Case, p. 181
  13. Time magazine, Monday, 13 April 1936, "Hit & Run"


External links

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