Africa Orientale Italiana:
Advance from Sudan

Italy’s formal declaration of war against France and Britain, delivered on 10 June 1940, caught all of the Italian armed forces unprepared for war but none more so than the “Imperial” garrison of Italian East Africa.

Amadeo Duca d’Aosta had a large force on paper, but Italy had only conquered Ethiopia four years early. Much of the colonial army had to be deployed to suppress banditry and thereby prevent it from growing into an outright insurgency. And many of those colonial soldiers, known as askari (the Arabic word for “soldier”), had been enrolled in the army to keep them from joining the bandits or rebels. Their love for Italy was, at best, suspect. Stocks of fuel and ammunition had not been built up to war levels, and with the Suez Canal closed and a British naval task force steaming off the Somali coast, could not be replenished once used.

Not all was hopeless. The duke had brigades of tough Eritrean mercenaries who could be counted on to fight well, and as his ultimate reserve he had one of the Royal Italian Army’s best divisions, the 65th “Granatieri di Savoia” (the grenadier regiments were the Italian equivalent of guards formations in other armies).

On the Empire’s north-western frontier, the British in Sudan had a small locally-raised force but did have the sea and rail connections to bring in large-scale reinforcements. Should Germany and Italy fail to defeat the British elsewhere and force peace talks, eventually the Italians in East Africa would face overwhelming force. Until that happened the duke could take a few steps to improve his position.

Italian artillery fires on Kassala. July 1940.

Toward that end, in early July Italian colonial troops “invaded” Sudan, crossing the border to occupy British posts on the other side. Most of these operations went off without resistance, as the Italian mustered much greater numbers than the British. At Kassala a battalion-sized contingent of the Sudan Defence Force put up a fight against the Italian 12th Colonial Infantry Brigade and supporting tanks but was forced to retreat.

The annual rains then intervened, bringing operations to a halt. During that interim, the British brought the 5th Indian Division to Sudan, and in December the 4th Indian Division joined them there. Though the overall paper numbers still showed a massive Italian advantage, in terms of actual fighting power the British now had two first-rate divisions (with six brigades) against just one for the Italians (of two regiments).

British offensive operations began in November 1940, with an attack on the Italian-occupied fort at Gallabat on the Sudanese side of the border. The Italians held Gallabat with the Eritrean 4th Colonial Infantry Brigade, supplemented by border guards, irregulars and an anti-tank platoon of the Savoy Grenadier Division (a presence allowing one British writer to later proclaim that Gallabat was taken amidst hand-to-hand fighting against the Granatieri).

The British brought the 10th Indian Brigade with tank support, commanded by Brigadier William Slim. The Italians fought off the attack, and Slim’s British battalion broke and ran during an Italian counter-attack. Defeated, the British withdrew; the Italians abandoned Gallabat and their own fort on the other side of the frontier on 18 January 1941.

That withdrawal came as part of a policy directed by the Italian Comando Supremo in Rome, to fall back to the rugged mountain passes within Eritrea and Ethiopia. The retreat from Gallabat took place without incident, but the 12th Colonial Infantry Brigade’s pullback from Kassala pre-empted a planned British attack. Both Indian divisions followed, with Italian colonial cavalry undertaking rear-guard actions to slow their advance.

The Indian advance from Kassala.

Those rear-guard actions bought enough time for 4th Colonial Division to deploy for defense at the strategic road junction of Agordat, where the well-paved Via Imperiale from Kassala met the road coming south from the frontier, merging into the only road leading to Asmara, capital of Italian Eritrea. Col. Orlando Lorenzini of 2nd Colonial Infantry Brigade took command of the division, which had three colonial brigades of widely-varying quality and elements of a fourth plus reinforcements of tanks and artillery. Lorenzini also had the rather dubious assistance of the Deutsche Motorisierte Kompanie, 140 German merchant sailors stranded in East Africa who had been armed and “volunteered” to fight alongside the Italians. To the south of Agrodat, 2nd Colonial Division blocked a second road leading from Kassala to Agordat with two colonial brigades.

The twin battles of Agordat and Barentu opened on 21 January 1941, with 5th Indian Division attacking an Italian battle group in front of Barentu including a colonial battalion and a Blackshirt battalion, backed by armored cars. The Indians could not move the Italians with a frontal attack, and finally pushed them out of their position by working around their northern flank.

Fighting continued in front of Barentu, with Gen. Angelo Bergonzi’s division steadily falling back through three prepared defense lines but holding its position despite British superiority in numbers and especially artillery. While some sources credit 2nd Colonial Division with tank support, this does not appear to actually be true; what little armor was available had been stationed at Agordat with 4th Colonial Division. But Bergonzi did dispose of a battery of 105mm guns to supplement the usual 65mm pop-guns allotted to support the colonial brigades.

While 5th Indian Division flung itself fruitlessly at the Barentu position, its sister division tried to tackle the even more formidable natural fortress of Agordat. Five decades earlier, Mahdist armies had twice been broken here by the Italians, and Gen. Luigi Frusci, commander of the colonial forces in Eritrea, had long identified Agordat as a place to stand against a British invasion. The Duke of Aosta agreed, demanding “resistance to the end” at Agordat.

The Indian assault on Barentu and Agordat.

Lorenzini’s force did not resist until the end, but they did resist much longer than the British expected. Artillery preparation began on 26 January, and infantry assaults followed two days later. The Indians attempted to outflank the Italians from the north, but the Italians outflanks them in turn, forcing a precipitous retreat. Using his own crack outfit as the 4th Division’s “fire brigade,” Lorenzini successfully countered British advances with prompt counter-attacks.

Frustrated by Italian mountain tactics, the British shifted their attack to the lower ground alongside the Via Imperiale and this time spearheaded the attack with a squadron of Matilda II infantry attacks newly-arrived from Egypt. The Italians had nothing that could stop the slow-moving beasts, and they broke through the lines, attacked Italian artillery positions and engaged in a small tank battle with the Italian armored reserve’s company of M11/39 medium tanks, which did not fare well in the engagement (one British writer claimed that these tanks had been manned by Germans, a strange and nonsensical allegation that also surfaces in some British accounts of fighting in the Western Desert).

With the Agordat position compromised, Frusci ordered a general withdrawal from both Agordat and Barentu to Keren, considered an even stronger natural fortress. Determined to hold the line here, the Duke ordered his ultimate reserve, the elite Savoy Grenadiers, to move from the capital at Addis Ababa to Eritrea. The next battle would determine whether Italian East Africa could hold out until the Axis achieved victory elsewhere.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.