Africa Orientale Italiana:
Scenario Preview, Part Three
(T)he publisher specialized in mediocre and derivative games . . .
Panzer Grenadier is certainly derivative: every game has the exact same rulebook. Learn to play it once, and then play hundreds of scenarios from dozens of games without having to start all over again.
That common rulebook is the key to Panzer Grenadier’s mission: to let you play in any theater of World War II (or the years just before and after) without learning a new game each time. That lets you step into unusual, little-covered areas without committing your precious, limited fun time to rules-reading.
Africa Orientale Italiana covers one of those topics: the British campaign in Italian East Africa. There are five chapters, each covering one segment of the campaign. Let’s look at the scenarios from the third chapter, the Italian conquest of British Somaliland.
On to Hargeisa
6 August 1940
Heading into British Somaliland, Gen. Carlo de Simone’s Center Column’s first objective would be the small city of Hargeisa, the colony’s largest inland town. De Simone addressed his troops (apparently Italian settlers conscripted into a Blackshirt battalion) with an inspirational speech, and sent them forward against a mixed British blocking force of African and Somali regulars and decidedly unenthusiastic local Somali irregulars.
The Northern Rhodesian regulars stood up to the Italians for several hours, claiming to knock out a number of Italian tanks (though the Italian still had all of their tanks a week later). Most of the Camel Corps and all of the irregulars – additional forces not mentioned in British sources – fled, but the Northern Rhodesians withdrew in good order. The Blackshirts sustained enough losses to relegate them to reserve status for the rest of the brief campaign.
The Blackshirts aren’t very good, but the Camel Corps is no better and the irregular Somali militia is even worse. The Italians have a little tank support, and they’ll need it to drive the British out of the pleasant valley of Hargeisa.
11 August 1940
Finding the British occupying a well-fortified position astride the road to Berbera, De Simone hoped to winkle them out of it by working around their flanks. To pin the defenders in place, the Italians would make a frontal assault aided by tanks. The British had reinforced their position with concrete bunkers and barbed wire, but lacked enough troops to adequately cover all of their frontage.
Despite the assistance of aircraft, artillery and tanks, the Italian frontal assault ground forward only slowly. A summer hailstorm disrupted both sides, but the linchpin of the British defense proved to be Lt. Eric Charles Twelves Wilson of the Somaliland Camle Corps’ Machine Gun Company. He kept his gunners in action as their weapons pits were wiped out one-by-one in furious close assaults, standing by his own Vickers gun with Somali gunner Omar Kujoog. Eventually the Italians overran his emplacement, destroying his weapon, wounding Wilson and killing Kujoog. Wilson received the Victoria Cross posthumously despite not having actually died; when released from Italian captivity he lobbied for Kujoog to be equally recognized but the British Army refused. In 2002 Eric Wilson, then 90 years old, introduced Omar Kujoog’s son Suleiman to Queen Elizabeth II who wished to personally thank the Kujoog family.
The Battle of Tug Argan begins! In this sector at least, the British have plenty of troops, fortifications and very rough terrain. The Italians have tanks, of a sort anyway, and a slight edge in numbers. They have some lightweight artillery support to help out, but this is going to be a tough one for the House of Savoy.
11 August 1940
On the left flank of the main British position astride the road to Berbera, the 2nd King’s African Rifles had dug in along the height known as Punjab Ridge (even though the Punjabis had been stationed on the opposite flank). De Simone launched an assault here as well, hoping to turn the British flank. The Italian staff had provided wildly inaccurate maps of the region, and De Simone had expected his troops to find a much easier route than they actually encountered.
Despite a series of spirited attacks, the Italian Colonials could not push their Kenyan opposite numbers off the ridge. The attack in this sector lacked the tanks assigned to the assault on Observation Hill – the tanks could not approach the British over the rough intervening terrain – and went forward without the same commitment of air and artillery support. Even so, British officers noted that the Italian colonial troops proved far more willing to attack than they had expected.
The Italians don’t have to achieve as much here to win as they do on Observation Hill, since this is a flanking attack. Even so, it’s going to be tough. The terrain’s even tougher, if that’s possible, but at least there are no fixed fortifications to anchor the British defense.
12 August 1940
The Italian 14th Colonial Infantry Brigade renewed its attack on the Northern Rhodesians, this time targeting their positions on the height known to the British as Mill Hill. The British would not have the benefit of prepared positions and would be hampered by the dubious assistance of the Somaliland Camel Corps, but the Italian brigade had been shaken by its heavy casualties on the battle’s first day. However, the Royal Air Force – driven from airfields in British Somaliland by aggressive Italian fighter pilots – would now attempt to influence the battle.
This time the Italians had good success, overrunning the British infantry fighting positions and their artillery. De Simone had embarked on a battle plan reminiscent of the Great War, as his best unit, the Eritrean 2nd Colonial Infantry Brigade, still wandered aimlessly to the north of the battlefield, following useless maps in a vain effort to turn the British flank. With the flanks holding, the Italians would have to go right up the middle.
The Brits are not nearly as strong here, as they thinned this sector to shore up their positions in the center. That should allow the Italians to work their way in between their strongpoints and target the Camel Corps positions for close assault – the British just don’t have enough troops to avoid using these dubious assets.
14 August 1940
With Italian attacks continuing to grind forward slowly, Godwin-Austen dispatched reinforcements for the Northern Rhodesians from his tiny reserve. The Italian 15th Colonial Brigade’s probes had found the flanks of the King’s African Rifles dug in on Punjabi Ridge, and troops slipped past the KAR and into the British rear areas, where they encountered the small column sent forward by Godwin-Austen.
The Italians caught the British complete by surprise, mauling the Black Watch and the supply column and destroying Godwin-Austen’s confidence in his position. He radioed his superiors for permission to abandon the colony and gave up on his plans to replace his shaky Northern Rhodesians with the Black Watch, but sacked the King’s African Rifles’ battalion commander – the KAR relief force wandered through the darkness and never arrived to aid the Black Watch and their supply column.
This is one of those odd scenarios we like to include in games; in this case, a small force of the high-morale Black Watch is trying to usher a convoy across a long, lonely nighttime road past Italian ambushes. The Italian Colonials have no fear of the dark – spirits, in East African culture, are a regular part of life and not nearly as scary as the angry wraiths of Scottish lore.
14 August 1940
To the east of the Tug Argan battlefield, Gen. Arturo Bertello had seen most of his right column melt away as his bande irregulars discovered that British Somaliland offered no water and even less loot. By the time he neared the area, he had only a handful of hard-core Somali fighters left and part of a battalion of less-than-inspired Blackshirts. But if he could punch his way up the Jerato Pass, he could sever the road between Berbera and the British battalions fighting at Tug Argan.
The Italians had a significant advantage in numbers (which was never as great during this campaign as British propaganda suggested), but could make little headway against the long-service sepoys defending the pass. More of Bertello’s force melted away, and the advance would have to be carried by De Simone’s central column.
This is a small scenario, with a motley force of Blackshirts and Bande – together, among the worst troops in the Panzer Grenadier series – try to toss a small force of tough Punjabis off a vital pass. It’s not a good look for Mussolini’s Boys.
15 August 1940
Carlo de Simone had conducted a very conservative, careful battle and while his plan had not produced a sweeping victory, neither had he been defeated. He shuffled his forces, replacing the battered 14th Colonial Infantry Brigade with the fresh 13th Brigade and renewed the assault up the road, while meanwhile Orlando Lorenzini’s 2nd Brigade finally found the British positions to the north and began to infiltrate through them.
The Italians waited to allow their artillery to work over the British, both the batteries emplaced behind their own lines and some mountain guns they had worked into forward positions. When the infantry finally went forward they overran the Rhodesians, many of whom dropped their weapons and stood with raised hands. The Italian Colonial troopers had not expected a surrender and waited for instructions. The Rhodesians and their British officers turned and ran madly into the nearby hills while their erstwhile captors watched them flee without chasing or firing at them.
The Italian artillery isn’t that impressive, so this is still going to be an infantry battle. The Italians bring greater numbers than any of the previous assaults, and the Brits have been worn down by days of relentless attacks. The Italians still have all of their tanks (despite some grandiose British claims, the Italians ended this little campaign with the same number of tanks with which they began) and they get air support, too. It’s still a tough assignment.
17 August 1940
Gen. Carlo de Simone waited a day to re-organize his troops and await the arrival of the fresh 70th Colonial Infantry Brigade, formerly part of Gen. Sisto Bertoldi’s western column. He placed these reinforcements in the vanguard and marched for Berbera, where the British were madly evacuating their troops and civilian employees. But as De Simone expected, Godwin-Austen had left behind a rear guard.
The recently-formed 70th Brigade performed surprisingly well, pressing its attacks against the Scots. The Italians fought their way into the Black Watch positions, but were ejected when the sound of bagpipes heralded a counter-attack, and one of the Black Watch companies rose out of their rifle pits to launch a crazed bayonet attack. The Somalis of 70th Brigade recoiled, and the Black Watch was able to withdraw at its own pace and evacuate from Berbera without further losses.
So far, we’ve seen battles – some of them fairly large – between forces of relatively low-quality morale and leadership. Now the Colonials have to face the Black Watch. They have numbers, while the Brits have the Black Watch and bagpipes.
And those are the scenarios of Chapter Three!
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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.