Africa Orientale Italiana:
Scenario Preview, Part Five
A long time ago, we published some Panzer Grenadier scenarios set in Italian East Africa: the old Desert Rats game had three of them, and the supplement South Africa’s War had three more.
None of those carried over to Africa Orientale Italiana, which uses a different map set (we did cover four of the same actions). I also had access to better sources for this game than I did way back then, so we have way more scenarios (over 40 of them) and they tell a complete story rather than scattered snapshots.
I’m pretty sure no one’s ever studied this campaign, in wargame terms, at anything near this depth. That makes Africa Orientale Italiana a unique project, particularly so as after this game’s release we’ll shift the focus of Panzer Grenadier from the obscure to the well-known.
So let’s take a look at the scenarios of Chapter Five.
Road to Barentu
21 January 1941
Advancing into Italian East Africa, 5th Indian Division soon encountered an Italian blocking force astride the road leading to the important junction of Barentu. They would have to be ejected before the advance could continue, since British/Indian supply columns could not operate across the rugged open country.
The mixed Italian force held off the initial Indian frontal assault, fighting with surprising determination. With their advance up the road stalled, the Indian brigade staff worked the 6th Battalion, 13th Frontier Force Rifles around the Italian right flank to unhinge the position. The Italians withdrew in good order, and the Indians resumed their advance with roadblocks and demolitions slowing their progress.
The Indians have an edge in numbers and a flanking maneuver to help them winkle the Italians out of their position. The Italians are hampered by the presence of Blackshirts in the defending force, who are less enthusiastic about fighting for Mussolini than the Eritreans, who are just eager to fight somebody.
22 January 1941
Fifth Indian Division sent a small force of motorized machine gunners from the Sudan Defence Force up the road from Aicota to Biscia, hoping to infiltrate behind the Italian positions at Cheru Pass to the north and Barentu to the south. The Italian commander at Agordat, Orlando Lorenzini, had posted troops to bar their path and the British-officered Sudanese attempted to push their way past them.
The Italian blocking force held off the Sudanese machine-gunners, who appear to have been reluctant to close with the Eritreans holding the small pass. Tenth Brigade sent an Indian infantry battalion forward to assist in the assault, and amid some hard fighting they finally drove the defenders away.
This is a small and unusual scenario. The British player begins with an understrength motorized machine-gun battalion trying to pry an Italian blocking force out of a mountain pass. The British player can make this task much easier by bringing on an Indian infantry battalion, but the bar for victory climbs higher in this case.
The Defense of Gogni
26 January 1941
The first line of defense in front of Barentu centered on a line of hills in front of Gogni, a roadside village. Gen. Angelo Bergonzi of 2nd Colonial Division placed the three battalions of 16th Colonial Infantry Brigade there, supported by one of the handful of modern medium artillery batteries in the colony. Apparently believing their own propaganda, the British officers of 5th Indian Division seem to have been surprised by the stout resistance offered.
The Indians made some gains in their dawn attack, but the Italians took them back with an unexpected counter-attack. The Indian brigade ground forward in heavy fighting, but not until three days later did they capture Gogni, following an uncontested Italian withdrawal in good order. The Eritreans had delayed the Allied advance exactly as expected.
The Eritreans remain full of fight, contesting yet another mountainous pass against the Indian invaders. This is a large scenario, with a full Indian brigade in action and almost as many defenders.
North of Barentu
29 January 1941
Fifth Indian Division slowly closed in on Barentu from two directions, facing determined Italian resistance and extensive demolitions. While 29th Brigade advanced from the west, 10th Indian Brigade came from the north and by 28 January they had reached the line of hills just north of Barentu. The Italian commander, Gen. Angelo Bergonzi, directed his troops to throw them back off.
The Italians made two serious efforts to push the Indians off the ridge line, but both attempts failed. The Indians now had positions overlooking Barentu and could call down artillery fire on the garrison town, but they lacked the strength to capture it without the other brigade. For their part, the Italians laid plans to throw their last reserves into one more counter attack.
This is a large scenario, with the Italians charged with driving the Indians off the highest peaks of a long ridge line. They get the help of cavalry, engineers and some good artillery (one of the very few scenarios in this game where the last is true). But the Indians have a great deal of force and this time they’re the ones holding the high ground.
Tanks at Barentu
31 January 1941
As 29th Indian Brigade steadily ground forward toward Barentu against tough Italian opposition, 2nd Colonial Division planned a counter-attack with all of its reserves. Amid heavy fighting the Indians finally captured the last ridge line west of Barentu late on 30 January. Giving the Indians little time to consolidate their gains, the Italians launched their attack the following morning.
It’s unclear whether the Italian attack actually had tank support or not – Italian sources do not appear to credit the Italian forces around Barentu with armor, placing all of the tanks at Agordat to the north-east. But the Indian Official History insists they were there, and they make for a more interesting scenario. The Italian garrison of East Africa included two companies of medium tanks and several more of light tanks, which were scattered about and moved frequently from sector to sector. In any case, the Indians fought off the Italian attack, but could not capture Barentu until 2nd Colonial Division’s rearguard withdrew in the early hours of 2 February in good order.
I still have doubts that the Italians fielded actual tanks here, rather than armored cars. Tanks are difficult to transport, and the Italians lacked the wheeled transporters to move them – they had to travel on their tracks, which meant they would not be casually re-deployed. Even so, I went with the Indian account since it made for a better wargame battle.
Rocks of Gibraltar
29-30 January 1941
The Via Imperiale, a modern paved road, curved through the mountain passes of Eritrea from the border post of Kassala to Agordat and on to the colony’s capital, Asmara. Barring the way to Agordat, a rocky ridge labelled “Gibraltar” by 4th Indian Division’s British staff officers provided the Italian defenders with a natural fortification. Efforts to outflank the position foundered amid rough terrain and determined opposition, and the division staff settled on a night assault against the well-entrenched position.
The night attack penetrated the Italian positions, where fierce hand-to-hand fighting erupted. The close-quarters struggle continued until dawn, when both sides settled down in their new front lines, only meters apart in some places. The Indians had failed to capture Gibraltar, but the Italians had not ejected them from the ridge, either. Both sides knew the Indians would try again.
The Italians are well-positions, with entrenchments to supplement their natural advantages, and they know exactly where the enemy must approach. That’s going to make it tough for the Indians despite their edges in numbers, artillery and morale. Plus the fighting takes place at night, which is going to limit the Indians more than the Italians.
Tanks on Gibraltar
31 January 1941
Both sides spent the 30th conducting small-scale attacks and bombardments against the enemy on Gibraltar, but neither deployed major reinforcements to settle the situation. That changed on the next day, when 4th Indian Division’s attached tank squadron finally arrived on the scene.
The Italian colonial troops did not panic at the sight of the British tanks, but neither did they have any effective means to combat them. Except for a determined band of machine-gunners positioned behind a rocky elevation that the tanks could not climb, the Italians were pushed off Gibraltar. They would eventually be ejected after hours of close assaults by Indian infantrymen.
The Indians return, and this time they’ve brought tanks with them. Tanks are less useful in the hills of Eritrea than in the Western Desert, but the Italian Colonial formations have no anti-tank component (only one division in East Africa did) and the Matildas can rampage through anything they can reach. Until the Eritreans climb aboard and wreak some havoc of their own.
Tank Battle at Agordat
31 January 1941
Faced with British tanks, the Italian 4th Colonial Division’s commander, Gen. Orlando Lorenzini, committed his own armored reserve to counter them. The loss of Gibraltar had unhinged the Italian defenses of Agordat and Lorenzini – who would be killed in action six weeks later – probably intended the attack to help his division break contact with the Indians and retreat to the next defensive position at Keren.
The Italian M11/39 medium tanks proved no match for the British Matildas; the Italian 37mm shots simply bounced off the British tanks’ thick hides. The Italians lost eleven tanks to the British and destroyed the rest of their vehicles when they could not bring them across the rough tracks leading to Keren. Lorenzini ordered a general retreat, and the Italians once again withdrew in good order.
It’s only a small tank battle, but it still counts! As in the Western Desert, the Italian machines don’t have the weapons to stop the Matildas, but the askaris aren’t afraid of the lumbering steel monsters so the Indian/British player can’t just run around the board stomping on the enemy. And despite the moronic tales you can find online, the Italian tanks at Agordat were not actually crewed by German merchant sailors.
And that’s Chapter Five!
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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.