Africa Orientale Italiana:
Scenario Preview, Part Two
Africa Orientale Italiana is the second Panzer Grenadier game I’ve designed from the ground up under our story-arc format: placing the scenarios in chapters to tell the story of the larger battle or campaign. It’s probably harder to design that way, but it’s more creatively rewarding and makes for a much stronger product.
The game’s second chapter covers the British/South African assault on the Italian line along the River Juba in southern Somaliland. Let’s have a look:
5 February 1941
The British invasion of Italian Somaliland had first to cross a wide stretch of barren near-desert before reaching the River Juba, where the Italians were thought to be making their defensive stand. The invaders met little resistance at the first Italian post they encountered, but at the airfield and fort of Bulo Erillo the Somali troops in Italian service waited for a fight.
The Somalis put up fierce resistance; Second Gold Coast Regiment lost most of its white officers in the attack. The Gold Coast troops, long-service professionals mostly recruited in present-day Ghana, overwhelmed the defenders and took the airfield and fort along with 140 prisoners. The road to Jelib, the key position on the Juba line, stood open.
The British are on the attack against the battle-hungry Somalis, who have little love for Mussolini but a great attraction to a hard fight. The British have an edge in numbers and bring better artillery to the battle, but as an American general once told me, “Somalis are tough bastards.”
South African Armour
14 February 1941
At the mouth of the Juba River, the fortified village of Gobwen boasted one of the few bridges over the Juba and an airfield as well. Twelfth African Division ordered 1st South African Brigade to seize both objectives with a dawn attack, and allocated South Africa’s lone tank company to support them. Brigadier Dan Pienaar’s men left their encampments at about 0345, but reached their starting points late and the attack went off in full daylight.
The South African attack was slowed by ambushes laid by the tough Somali Dubat irregulars, but backed by tanks they finally stormed the town and captured the bridge. The Italian Colonials began to lose heart, and the town of Jumbo on the opposite bank eventually fell as well. The Juba line was collapsing, and Gobwen yielded many abandoned vehicles and a large stockpile of ammunition.
It’s a tank attack – not many of them, and they aren’t very good, but they’re tanks! The South Africans have a pretty tough time of it, having to fight their way to the river, get across it under fire, and seize some objectives on the other side. But they have tanks!
The Bridge at Yonte
17 February 1941
The Juba River, flowing through southeastern Somaliland, represented a formidable defensive barrier and the Italian command believed it had to hold the line to keep the Allied advance away from the key port of Mogadishu. The Italian-officered Somali battalions assigned to the river line had a generous allotment of artillery by East African standards, but their numbers were far too few to hold a static position against a motorized enemy.
The Italian defenders arrived just as the South Africans were crossing the river in inflatable boats, and opened up heavy machine-gun fire on them. Despite several spirited assaults — the Somali troops proved not only willing but eager to engage in close combat — they could not force them back across, and within a few hours the South Africans had expanded their bridgehead and begun work on a bridge to bring their vehicles across.
The Italians have a lot of river to cover in this scenario, and the South Africans can choose their crossing place given the mobility lent by their trucks. Most of the Italians come on as reinforcements, making this an unusual riverside meeting engagement.
War on the Equator
21 February 1941
With the Juba River line broken, the South Africans along with two African divisions began to roll up the Italian positions and advance toward Mogadishu. The Italian colonial troops still had a good deal of fight left in them, and two battalions of them dug in at the village of Margherita, around a Fascist monument marking the Equator. It was an imposing marble construction, though not as imposing as the South Africans would later claim, and the Italian officers did not want to yield it up without a struggle.
The 196th Colonial Battalion did not put up much of a fight, but the 49th more than made up for it and both sides inflicted serious casualties with their artillery fire. But the South African guns were bigger and more numerous, and by mid-afternoon South African officers were posing for photographs with Mussolini’s monument.
At some point, we’re going to need to issue an actual playing piece for Mussolini’s Monument.
22 February 1941
Having fought their way across the Juba, the next target for the British advance was the town of Jelin (Gelib to the Italians), home station of the 102nd Somali Division. Godwin-Austen of 12th African Division planned a two-pronged pincer attack with one of his African brigades and his attached South African brigade, trusting that the Springboks would turn in better performance now that they had some combat experience behind them.
The British attack went off as planned, though the Gold Coast Brigade struck first rather than in concert with the late-arriving South Africans who came under heavy fire from their own artillery on the opposite bank of the Juba. The gunners of 1st Medium Battery had laid down a Great War-style pre-planned barrage for their elderly 60-pounder pieces, and the battery commander apparently refused to take orders from the British officers demanding an end to the program, while the South African brigade staff insisted that the shelling had to be the fault of the Gold Coast brigade staff. And so the guns fired until the schedule called for them to stop.
These days, game rules that have your worst enemy using your own weapons against you have a certain resonance. This is a big scenario, with British and South African forces advancing from opposite directions against the Italians in the middle. The best Italian weapon is the South African artillery.
22 February 1941
While 24th Gold Coast Brigade marched south from Mabungo to attack the Italians at Jelib and 22nd East African Brigade set off toward Mogadishu, 23rd Nigerian Brigade crossed the river to take up defense of the bridgehead. Soon afterwards, fresh troops from the recently-mobilized 101st Somali Division attempted to drive them over the river and isolate the two other African brigades on the wrong side of the Juba.
The Nigerians were ready for the attack, and met the Italian Colonials with heavy fire. The Somalis went forward repeatedly but even with the aid of the gather darkness could not break into Mabungo or threaten the pontoon bridge over the Juba. Lacking the transport to bring up fresh supplies or reinforcements, the 101st Division could not renew the attack. Sector commander Carlo de Simone ordered the division to withdraw to the north and join in the defense of southern Abyssinia.
It’s a pretty small scenario, with much of the playing surface available to give the Italian player options on how he or she will approach the bridgehead. The Nigerians are only slightly happier to be here than the Somalis, so if the Italian can get them close to the objectives they have a chance to take them in assault combat.
Road to Mogadishu
23 February 1941
Gen. Carlo de Simone brought forward what reinforcements he could to join the shattered remnants of 102nd Somali Division at Modun on the coastal road to Mogadishu. The experienced general had no illusion that he could hold the important port city, but hoped to gain enough time to evacuate vitally-needed troops and supplies to the interior: the Italian colonial forces had no hope of re-supply from home, and lost fuel or ammunition could not be replaced. Adding to the general’s woes, the Royal Navy took a hand in the campaign for the first time.
Despite the growing disenchantment of even the tough Somali colonial regulars, De Simone’s men did somehow manage to halt 22nd East African Brigade for most of the day. But given the shattered state of the division’s remnants De Simone chose to withdraw and the relatively fresh 23rd Nigerian Brigade took over the advance and entered Mogadishu on the 25th.
The Kenyans are trying to fight their way forward against a weakened enemy (who wasn’t all that strong to begin with). It’s a delaying action for the Italians, and despite their lousy morale and lack of firepower the British have to achieve a great deal in order to win.
And those are the scenarios of Chapter Two!
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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.