Africa Orientale Italiana:
Scenario Preview, Part One
Africa Orientale Italiana covers one of the less-famous campaigns of World War II, the Allied invasion of Italian East Africa. The fighting took place over terrain resembling Mars as much as Earth, waged almost exclusively by infantry forces.
As such, it makes for a great story to tell, and Panzer Grenadier is a great system with which to tell it in game form. Africa Orientale Italiana tells the story in five chapters, the first of them dealing with the initial fighting along the borders of Kenya and Italian East Africa. Here’s a look at the scenarios:
1 July 1940
Italy made the first aggressive move in the standoff with Britain in East Africa, with an attack on the British outpost at Moyale in northern Kenya. The broader strategy called for the Italians to occupy the salient of Kenyan territory wedged between Somaliland and Ethiopia to deny the British a forward position for offensives of their own. Lack of water sources or usable roads made any British offensive in the area likely only on maps spread across green-baize tables in Rome or London; even so, the Italians marched on.
The single company of KAR troops fought off the unsupported Italian attack in a day-long struggle, causing the colonials to retreat back to their own village of Moyale (both had the same name). But the battle had revealed the strength of the enemy garrison, and the Southern Sector command ordered reinforcements to start the long trek to Moyale.
We start off with a small, introductory scenario; it’s not likely that too many players will make this game their first Panzer Grenadier experience, but a few will, and experience shows that the scenario numbered “One” will be played more than any of the others. In this Scenario One, a small Italian infantry force marches across the board to attack a small group of Brits.
10 July 1940
Rebuffed in their first attack on Kenyan Moyale, the Italians gathered more force for a second, better-supported attempt. Meanwhile the British had run in reinforcements of their own; though Moyale represented a meaningless dot on the map, East African Command did not wish to explain how the Italians had come to conquer British territory.
With greater numbers, and some rather dubious artillery support, the Italians overran the British positions around Moyale and drove the KAR out of the town. Italian propaganda made much of the victory, but Moyale had little strategic value to either side beyond its status as a water source in a very dry region.
A replay of the first scenario, this time with many more troops on each side. The Italian Colonials are still willing to fight – they’ve invaded enemy territory so they must be winning. This won’t always be the case.
KAR Counter Attack
31 July 1941
Stung by Italian braggadocio following the capture of Moyale, East African Command became determined to take it back. Second East African Brigade sent additional battalions forward to reclaim the lost border post, but they ran into enemy resistance before they reached Moyale; finding the Italians awaiting them at Debele.
The British attack failed miserably, as the three entrenched companies of colonial infantry repelled repeated attacks with heavy losses. The King’s African Rifles and Nigerian Regiment troops broke into the Italian positions, but the Italians – mostly Ethiopians – drove them back out at bayonet point and captured the 6th KAR’s battle flag. The British official historian of the campaign, I.S.O. Playfair, makes no mention of this battle. Five days later, the British occupied Debele without a fight, as the Italians had already withdrawn.
This time the British are on the attack, and they have a serious edge in numbers but come to the fight with no artillery. It’s going to be strictly and rifle-and-grenade affair, and the Italians have some good ground on which to make their stand.
The El Wak Job
16 December 1940
With the arrival of a new commander and large-scale reinforcements, the British determined to open the campaign season with a series of raids on Italian-occupied border posts. The largest of these would take place at El Wak, a position consisting of five small border forts on either side of the frontier between Kenya and Italian Somaliland. Eager for a victory on the religious holiday of Dingaan’s Day, the 102nd anniversary of the Battle of Blood River, the 1st South African Division employed massive overkill in terms of force applied. The operation began with 1st South African Brigade commander Dan Pienaar hurling racist epithets at the West African troops involved in the operation while 24th Gold Coast Brigade commander C.E.M. Richards declared the white South African soldiers lazy and cowardly compared to his men.
Afrikaners celebrated Dingaan’s Day as proof that God had ordained the white race to rule over black Africans, but on this day the British African soldiers proved themselves superior as their brigadier had predicted. As a condition of receiving his command, Pienaar had promised to drink no alcohol during the course of the war. Yet his command stumbled around the bush as if eager to prove Richards’ assessment correct, finally arriving on the battlefield hours late. The Gold Coast troops took their objectives readily, and the South Africans eventually pushed the Italian Colonials out of Italian El Wak on the eastern side of the battlefield despite several sharp counter-attacks. Eager to dismiss any problems, the South African government quickly awarded Pienaar the Distinguished Service Order.
This is a large scenario, with the Allies sending three separate forces against the Italian defenders strung out over a long position. The South African/West African attackers have overwhelming force, but they also have a tough series of objectives to meet and the largest of their three attacking forces is indifferent about whether it should show up for the battle at all.
16 January 1941
The scarcity of water along the border between Kenya and Italian East Africa determined the course of operations. When the British struck again, they targeted the water holes at and near the frontier post of El Yibo. Brigadier F.L.M. Buchanan’s 2nd South African Infantry Brigade drew the assignment, and set out to attack the Italian-occupied post without precisely defining where the wells and fort, let alone the enemy, might be found.
The South Africans had conducted no reconnaissance of the objective, despite total air superiority, and sent no patrols forward to find El Yibo. The main force blundered forward while a separate flanking force gave up the search and withdrew. The troops skirmished with some Italian irregulars and staggered through the heat (the brigade’s report claimed a record-shattering 145 degrees Fahrenheit) without success. “The actual target was unclear and was presumed to have been occupied in the first skirmish,” Douglas Baker, a participant, wrote later. “This alone had tired out our forces through heat exhaustion. Then it was found that El Yibo hadn’t been attacked at all!”
This is one of the stranger scenarios in all of Panzer Grenadier: the Italians are hidden somewhere on a large playing surface. The South Africans must find them, attack them, and take their position. And they have no idea where that might be. In the age of radio, motor vehicles and powered flight this sort of thing never happened: intelligence might be spotty or even wrong, but almost never was it non-existent. A competent commander would never send his troops forward under such conditions. Buchanan and his division commander, George Brink, did exactly that.
The Wells of El Yibo
17 January 1941
By the time the South Africans stumbled across their objectives, the troops were in no condition to attack it. They rested through the afternoon, and Brigadier Buchanan rejected suggestions of a night attack, or a flanking maneuver. When morning came, the Springboks went at the objective head-on. The Italian Bande, mostly recruited from somewhat-reformed bandits, responded with an attack of their own which almost overran the Natal Mounted Rifles’ battalion headquarters.
The Italian spoiling attack did its job, disordering the South Africans and setting them on the defensive. By the time the Springboks mounted an assault on El Yibo, they came on in a simple Great War-style frontal attack that the Italian-led irregulars repulsed in a shower of small “Red Devil” grenades. South African logistic services did not get water to the front lines until mid-morning; the brigade staff called off the attack and the troops spent another night in the open. Once again Buchanan eschewed a night attack. “On the following morning,” Baker wrote, “El Yibo was occupied by the NMR (Natal Mounted Rifles). In fact ‘the birds had flown’ the night before.”
Once the South Africans have finally found the Italian posts and the wells they guard, they have to capture them. They’re dug into really rough terrain and the South Africans are dazed and confused, but the Allied side does receive what passes for air support in East Africa.
16 February 1941
Brigadier F.L.M. Buchanan had been ordered to march on the Italian fort at Mega without delay, and without detaching any of his force. Nevertheless, he left a single company behind on the Iavello-Mega road as a blocking force to deter any Italian reinforcements sent by 21st Colonial Division at Iavello. In the early morning hours, the Springboks heard the unfamiliar sounds of approaching enemy armor.
The Italians routed the South Africans, who fled with minimal losses, leaving behind ten prisoners. Brigadier Buchanan assembled a strong counter-attack force – this time including anti-tank guns – which failed to find the Italians, who had driven off to the north. Survivors told lurid tales of Italian tanks wiping out the entire company left to man the roadblock, and the brigade’s advance slowed to a crawl.
There aren’t many scenarios in Africa Orientale Italiana involving tank, but this is one of them. A company of L3 tankettes, supported by cavalry, comes thundering down on a company of South Africans, who scream “Heilige kak!” and run away. At least that’s what happened in the actual battle; maybe you can do better.
18 February 1941
With the spring rains approaching, the British East Africa Command hoped to penetrate at least a short distance into Italian territory before the deserts became impassable to motorized supply columns. First South African Division with its two remaining brigades would envelope the contested twin villages of Moyale from the north, first capturing the town of Mega to the north of Moyale. The initial attempt bogged down, and after spending two days in the rain staring at the Italian Colonials, the South Africans began their assault.
The powerful pincer movement failed to materialize, as 2nd South African Infantry Brigade arrived late and from the wrong direction, with only one battalion having any impact on the fighting. “Just give me a free hand and I’ll give you Mega,” Lt. Col. C.L. “Kom-Kom” Engelbrecht of the 2nd Field Force Battalion shouted angrily at Buchanan, who asked how he planned to accomplish this. “How do I know?” Engelbrecht shot back. “It’s dark. I’ll see where to attack when it’s light.” The brigadier stood by passively while the insubordinate colonel delivered on his boast.
This is a good-sized battle in tough terrain, it’s not quite a mega-battle but it is a battle for Mega. The Italians are well-fortified and they have artillery support, but the South Africans have brought along their own big guns. The tankette-cavalry force that routed the South Africans in the previous scenario also has a chance of showing up.
And those are the scenarios for Chapter One!
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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.