Africa Orientale Italiana:
Scenario Preview, Part Six
Since I started work on designing Panzer Grenadier: Africa Orientale Italiana, we’ve re-directed our focus toward better-known campaigns – stuff our distribution partners can more easily sell. So while we’ll still do unusual topics on occasion, it’ll probably be some time before we return to something like the Allied conquest of Italian East Africa.
Africa Orientale Italiana wraps up its set of 43 scenarios (forty-three scenarios – that’s, like, four games from some other publishers) with the First Battle of Keren, an Italian victory (unlike the Second Battle). The Italians have pulled back to the natural fortress of Keren, a ring of steep mountain ridges reinforced with demolitions and entrenchments, and on one mountaintop a concrete fort. The British and Indians are going to try to throw them out with a series of frontal assaults.
I designed the Panzer Grenadier system with infantry foremost in my mind: that ancient tactical system had been all about the tanks and left infantry to fight and die in place, since they for sure couldn’t maneuver with that movement allowance of 1. Africa Orientale Italiana is an infantry game, and I like to think the Keren chapter highlights how the game can offer both fun game-play and historical insight without tanks (there are a couple of tanks in two of the scenarios, but that’s it).
Let’s take a look at the scenarios.
Roadblock in Dongolaas Gorge
2 February 1941
Advancing ahead of 5th Indian Division, Col. Frank Messervy’s Gazelle Force reached the mountains ringing Keren and moved up the road from Agordat into the Dongolaas Gorge. There the Italians had blocked the road and covered it with machine-gun positions on the slopes flanking the road on either side and infantry dug in behind the barrier. When initial attempts to break through failed, Messervy summoned reinforcements.
Repeated attacks failed to dent the Italian position, even when tanks arrived and joined the assault. The Eritreans and their Italian officers retained their will to fight, and the British staff of 5th Indian Division had to accept the prospect of a long and bloody campaign to capture Keren. If the gorge could not be captured by frontal assault, the steep hills flanking it would have to be taken.
A mixed force of Indians and Sudanese try to force the gateway to Keren right off the march. They’re backed by tanks, but the Italians have blocked the pass and are surprisingly determined to hold, while the Sudanese would rather have stayed home.
3 February 1941
Having been balked at driving straight up the road to Keren, the British command sent a brigade from the newly-arrived 4th Indian Division against the hills to the left of the highway. The Italians had prepared for such an effort, and steadily reinforced all of their hilltop positions. As new formations arrived, the survivors of Agordat and Barentu took heart: the Duke of Aosta’s army had suffered defeats, but remained willing to fight.
The Scots advanced under a hail of “Red Devil” hand grenades and heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. After hours of heavy fighting they reached the top put could not push the Italians off the ridge-line thanks to repeated counter-attacks by the lone company from the Savoia Grenadier Division’s Bersaglieri Battalion assigned to reinforce the defense of four colonial infantry companies from two different battalions. After 24 hours the Highlanders finally secured the peak, but more mountains lay between them and Keren.
It’s a brutal infantry frontal assault, with a battalion of British infantry charging up the slopes held by conscripted Ethiopian colonials, few of them willing to die for Mussolini. But they’re stiffened by a single company of Bersaglieri – not just any Bersaglieri, but Grenadier Bersaglieri, long-service professionals and all veterans of the 1935-36 war. This won’t be easy.
5 February 1941
On the night of the 4th-5th, an Indian battalion advanced from Cameron Ridge and occupied the hill known to the British as Brig’s Peak. On the following morning the British laid down a heavy artillery barrage on Monte Sanchil, the next ridge in front of them, and one of 1th Brigade’s Indian battalions started up the slopes. This time, the Italians were waiting for them.
British accounts claimed that the Italians responded to their advance with an intense artillery barrage, but the Italian record is pretty clear that only a single battery of 77mm guns intervened. The Punjabis made their way up the slopes of Monte Sanchil where they faced a furious counter-attack from the Savoy Grenadiers’ Bersaglieri Battalion. Soon most of the Indian battalion’s officers were dead or wounded and communications broke down. The brigade staff could neither coordinate artillery fire nor order a retreat, and instead committed another Indian battalion to rescue the Punjabis. It could make no headway against the Bersaglieri; by early afternoon the remnants of the Punjabi battalion finally escaped the battlefield.
The Indians have infiltrated their way onto one of the hills making up the Italian defensive line, something the Grenadiers won’t tolerate. The low-morale Ethiopians have been swapped out for more willing Eritreans, and this time the Italian player wields an entire battalion of Grenadier Bersaglieri – Panzer Grenadier has few infantry formations that equal their morale.
6 February 1941
Shifting to the south-eastern side of Dongolaas Gorge, the 5th Indian Brigade attacked what had been identified as a weak point in the Italian defenses. The gap between Mount Dologorodoc and the neighboring Mount Falestoh appeared lightly-held, and if the Indians could force their way through here then they could outflank Fort Dologorodoc and pressure the Italians to abandon their defense of the road block in front of Keren. Sir William Platt and his staff were mistaken.
The Indians avoided the fearsome Dologorodoc position and tried to push their way between the two mountains instead. They made some headway before the Italian defense stiffened. The Grenadiers soon counter-attacked, driving the Rajputs back to the plains, and despite plentiful artillery support the British attack came to a halt. They would have to try something different.
It’s a name, and a formidable position, right out of Tolkien. This time the Grenadiers start right on the front line, an unusual deployment during this battle – the Italian commander, Luigi Frusci, preferred to keep them close behind the front to conduct immediate counterattacks against any penetration, a tactic right out of the Great War.
6 February 1941
Col. Corso Corsi of the 11th Grenadier Regiment, placed in charge of the defenses on either side of the Dongolaas, had the Bersaglieri Battalion of his own regiment plus a pair of colonial battalions on Mount Sanchil. Though outnumbered by the British and Indians on Cameron Ridge, he led his men forward in a determined effort to throw them off the high ground.
The Italians surged across the gap between Monte Sanchil and Cameron Ridge, screaming their “Savoia!” battle cry and pressing the British and Indians hard in hand-to-hand combat. Corsi hoped to keep his enemies occupied long enough for the colonial cavalry to work its way around the Rajputs’ position and unravel their defenses, but the Indian lines held thanks to timely intervention by their own reinforcements.
This time the Italians are on the attack, spearheaded by a Grenadier battalion. The mission is pretty much what the conclusion says: keep the Indians tied up until the cavalry arrives. All this takes place over really rough ground, making for fierce close-quarters infantry fighting.
7-8 February 1941
To the east of Mount Dorogorodoc, a lowland known as Acqua Gap separated Mount Falestoh and Mount Zelale. Brig. Gen. Orlando Lorenzini held the area with two colonial battalions backed by a mortar company. One of his battalions had endured a number of desertions, leading the British staff of 4th Indian Division to assume that all of his troops suffered from low morale. But none of the Eritrean askaris from Lorenzini’s 2nd Colonial Infantry Brigade had as yet gone over to the enemy.
The initial Indian attacks made some progress, but Lorenzini, the “Lion of the Desert,” inspired his Eritreans to hold even as the Ethiopians conscripted into his other battalion melted away. Italian colonial cavalry cut off the Indian lead battalion and the Rajputs had to fight their way back to their lines. The Italian commander at Keren, Lt. Gen. Luigi Frusci, had dispatched two more battalions for a night-time counter-attack but the enemy had been driven out of their penetration by the time the fresh troops arrived.
We finish with a big scenario, in which waves of reinforcements pour onto the board for each side as they fight over the rocky hills in a bitter night fight. This is what wargaming is all about.
And that’s all!
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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.