A Great Italian Invention: Sheep with Parachutes!

The Italians and the ‘raining’ of sheep during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War.

The Italian’s love of fresh food is a common knowledge. However, we might never understand to what extreme extent they would go through just so they could enjoy a full fine dining experience.

Let us go back to the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The Italian forces had to go across a 120-mile brutal wasteland of salt dotted with volcano pockmarks and with extremely high temperatures – the Danakil Desert which was located in north-eastern Ethiopia and given the moniker The Cruelest Place on Earth. That was why for this crossing, it was vital for the army to carry as little load as possible so that they could move fast.

But in this desolate time, there was one tinge of hope — the flying supply column which was a novel idea at that time but would be used countless of times in future conflicts. There were twenty-five planes which carried water, food and ammunition for the whole Italian army as they advanced towards Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s army.

Purportedly, the Italian troops refused to eat the pre-packed processed foods usually eaten by soldiers when they were on missions. And because fresh meat would spoil quickly in Danakil’s baking hot temperatures, they came up with one solution, let sheep ‘rain’ from above — the Italian army’s supply planes dropped off live animals via parachutes which the troops would then butcher and cook.

According to accounts, a total number of seventy-two sheep and two bulls ‘rained’ – dropped off from the supply planes with parachutes strapped on their backs – throughout the whole Italian army’s trek through the Danakil Desert.

Nevertheless, the idea of of sheep or any other animals being subjected to flight was not new.

The Italian man-of-many-hats, Leonardo da Vinci, was the first one to sketch out the idea of parachutes way back in the 15th century. However, the development of the said contraption was a slow progression after that.

It wasn’t until 1617 that Fauste Veranzio picked up the idea of the parachute [very similar to the early drawings of da Vinci], made his invention and jumped off from Florence tower using it.

Then, it wasn’t until over a century and a half later – in 1783 – when the idea of parachutes was picked up again, that time, by famous balloonists Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier. They designed their own take on the parachute and to test it, they strapped sheep and other animals on to it and dropped them off from rooftops. Accordingly, the seven-foot frame parachute the brothers made worked as planned on one of the animals, but, history never related how many came before it.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE