Africa Orientale Italiana:
Scenario Preview, Part Four
When you’re both the publisher and designer, you can have decidedly mixed feelings about the games you produce. I’ll probably regret publishing Africa Orientale Italiana: a game with 40 scenarios based on the tactical battles of the British conquest of Italian East Africa. There are no panzers. Players love panzers; the Royal Italian Army’s Eritrean brigades, not so much.
At the same time I’m really pleased at having designed this game; it does exactly what I always wanted the Panzer Grenadier system to do, showing the full breadth of the Second World War at a standard scale with a standard set of rules and telling a compelling story as play unfolds. Africa Orientale Italiana is a really good game.
So the game leaves me with both enormous satisfaction and an existential dread. Here’s a look at the fourth chapter’s scenarios:
Gateway to Nowhere
4 July 1940
Originally built as an Egyptian frontier fort, Kassala had become a railhead and crossroads for trade between Sudan and Ethiopia. Italian troops had defeated the Mahdists there in 1894, and they now returned to secure the railway station and prevent the British from easily assembling troops at Kassala for their own invasion of Italian-held Eritrea.
A series of air attacks preceded the Italian advance, doing slight damage to the defenders. The colonial cavalry reached Kassala first, skirmishing with the Sudanese machine-gunners and taking part of the town. The colonial infantry arrived and with artillery support drove out the Sudanese. Some dubious online sources only list one machine gun company for the defenders and credit the attackers with a second infantry brigade when only part of one was actually present for this battle.
This scenario takes place over a fairly large battlefield, as the Italians have to approach Kassala and the British have the option to delay them in all of that rough terrain leading up to the border fort. The Italian player gets to play with cavalry, which is fun, but the British player has motorized machine-gunners, which makes that part way less fun.
The First Offensive
6 November 1940
With the arrival of 5th Indian Division, the British commander in Sudan, Sir William Platt, wanted to recapture the border forts taken by the Italians during the summer. Brigadier William Slim’s 10th Infantry Brigade, supported by tanks, would take the fort at Gallabat on the Sudanese side of the dry riverbed marking the border and the fortified village of Metemma on the Ethiopian side. This would mark the first offensive action by British forces in the Second World War.
The Italian Colonials put up fierce resistance, well-supported by the Grenadiers and their anti-tank guns. The British lost half of their tanks but managed to eject the Italians from Gallabat Fort. Things fell apart when Slim’s British battalion panicked. Slim had to abandon his plan to work his way around the Italian left flank onto the hills behind Metemma and attack the Italian post from both sides. The Indians and British retreated; Britain’s first offensive had ended in defeat.
The British-Indians are on the attack, and they have tanks and artillery to force their will on the Italians, who have a pretty strong position to defend and plentiful troops to hold it (including two Blackshirt machine-gun companies). The Indians can try to work their way behind the Italian forts, but it’s slow going through the rough hill country and those irregular Bande can move through them faster than regular infantry.
11 November 1940
To interfere with Italian supply lines, Sir William Platt organized Gazelle Force, so-called because the troops supposedly subsisted on gazelle meat. Col. Frank Messervy of the 5th Indian Division staff had the divisional mechanized reconnaissance regiment, Skinner’s Horse, plus attached companies of the Sudan Defence Force. Tasked to attack an Italian force north of Temhayim Wells, on a feature the British officers called Big Hill, Messervy planned a double-envelopment with the help of three Indian infantry companies attached to his command for the operation.
Messervy held his mobile troops in place on the southern slopes of Big Hill, counting on the attached Indian infantry to press the supposedly low-morale Italians to him. Rather than a full battalion, 5th Indian Division had sent him three separate companies from two different brigades, and the attack went forward with poor coordination. The Indians pushed the Italian colonials off the smaller, northern rise but could not eject them from the southern part of the hill. After driving off their enemies, the Italians retreated on their own. Big Hill lay well inside Sudan, with no villages or roads within many miles. Although it dominated the only local source of water it had little strategic value unless the Italians somehow hoped to press on to Khartoum across the wilderness rather than taking the road from Kassala.
The Indians are trying to eject the Eritreans from a big hill, where the Italian colonials have dug themselves in. This fight is as tough as it is pointless; the Brits have some artillery and a pinning force of motorized machine-gunners but the hills in this game are neither rolling nor particularly green.
21 January 1941
With Indian troops following closely on their heels, the Italians deployed their irregular cavalry to slow them down. Lt. Amadeo Guillet led out a force of Amhara horsemen for a dawn attack on Gazelle Force’s attached artillery. The Italian colonials had no artillery support and apparently no mission but to delay the enemy advance.
Guillet survived this attack to write a book about his adventures, but apparently most of his command did not. Many aspects of his story seem suspect, though the Indian Official History of the campaign does note an attack by 60 enemy cavalrymen, not the hundreds of horsemen plus additional fighters on foot Guillet placed under his own command in his telling. Guillet also claimed the enemy included Matilda tanks, spinning a dramatic tale of his friend’s heroic death in charging one on horseback while tossing grenades, but the Matilda tanks deployed later at Agordat had not yet reached the front at this time. In both versions the attack failed to destroy the British guns, and though Guillet claimed that he had delayed the advance the attack on Cheru Pass went off the next day as scheduled.
“When the legend becomes fact,” reporter Maxwell Scott says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” Some version of this fight definitely happened, but likely not the way Lt. Guillet told it (hey, it’s on Wikipedia, so it must be true!) or this scenario re-tells it. We left out the more obviously fantastical parts of the narrative (Matilda tanks) but gave the lieutenant the large force of cavalry he claimed to have led.
22 January 1941
The Via Imperiale, one of Eritrea’s few well-paved roads, led from the Sudanese border at Kassala to the colony’s capital at Asmara. The road passed through the long and steep Cheru Pass by the small town of Cheru, home station of the Italian 41st Colonial Infantry Brigade and 4th Colonial Division. The division headquarters with most of its support elements – what few there were in the colonial divisions – pulled back to Agordat, while the brigade stayed behind to hold the pass as long as possible.
The Italian colonials, recruited and trained for internal security duties (and to keep the young men from turning to banditry and rebellion) resisted stoutly throughout the day, turning back repeated Indian and British advances. Infantry sent by Gazelle Force to outflank the position could not make its way through the rough terrain. But during the night a column from 5th Indian Division’s 10th Indian Brigade reached Bahar on the Via Imperiale behind the Cheru Pass position, and the 41st Colonial Infantry Brigade began a precipitous retreat.
This is one of the few scenarios to concentrate large forces on a small map. There’s not a lot of subtlety involved here: the Indians and British have to go right up the gut. The flanking force has only a small chance of arrival, and still has to march through the hill country to have much effect.
Flight from Cheru
22-23 January 1941
Though they had held Cheru Pass against much stronger opposition, the Italian 41st Colonial Infantry Brigade found itself in danger of encirclement when 10th Indian Infantry Brigade reached Bahar and cut off road communications with division headquarters in Agordat. The brigade set out to re-join its division with no semblance of road discipline and no plan for what would happen when they encountered the enemy.
The Italians suffered heavy casualties and lost over 700 prisoners of war including the brigade commander and his staff. But some of the troops did manage to fight their way past the Indian roadblock, to spread their panic to the troops gathering to defend Agordat to the east of Bahar. Many of the irregular Bande infiltrated their way past without detection by the Indian patrols.
This is an odd scenario, with waves of Italians trying to slip past a small but mobile Indian blocking force. There aren’t enough Indians to just set up on the road and wait for the Italians; they’re going to have to hunt them down. And the Bande are not very easy prey in their own backyard.
And that’s Chapter Four!
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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.