Conquest of Ethiopia:
Scenario Preview, Part Three
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
While we’re trying to stick closer to more popular and better-known subjects for our games, I always intended the Panzer Grenadier series to cover a wide variety of conflicts, including those lesser-known affairs of arms. Now that we’ve ironed out at least some of the larger kinks in our low-quantity printing methods, games on more unusual topics like the Italian invasion of Ethiopia can once again join the lineup.
Conquest of Ethiopia, designed by Lorenzo Striuli and Ottavio Ricchi, is a very different sort of Panzer Grenadier game. Rather than a clash of armor, it’s a series of light infantry battles, some of them quite large, others very small. There are a few tanks involved in some battles, and a smattering of artillery, but for the most part you’re going to have to close with the enemy’s foot soldiers and fight him with your own straight legs.
This is an infantry war. Here’s a look at 10 more of the scenarios; you can see the others in Part One, Part Two and Part Four.
Endertà: Dawn Fighting at Adi Sembet
13 February 1936
On the second day of the Endertà offensive, Marshal Badoglio intended to regroup the units that had pushed forward during the previous day. However, before dawn a brave Ethiopian attack developed against the well-drilled infantrymen of the Sabaudia Division. A battalion of the 46th Regiment easily repulsed the enemy's initial rush, but in the second wave they faced a rude awakening.
The Ethiopians failed in this brief but bloody battle, and lost their brave and competent leader Bitouded Maconen Demissiè. During the fighting his death was kept secret to avoid a collapse of the Ethiopian morale. Later that day, reinforced by a few hundred cavalry, the Ethiopians sallied again only to be immediately checked by heavy Italian artillery support. Over the following two days the Italian advance proceeded without any serious obstacles as Ras Mulughietà's forces were pummeled by heavy artillery and aerial bombardments, including again the widespread use of gas. A favored Italian tactic was to saturate key river fords and waterholes with Yperite, thereby hitting enemy concentrations and poisoning water sources. Furthermore, Italian intelligence had induced Galla tribesmen, traditionally hostile to the Ethiopian people, to launch harassing attacks on the retreating enemy. Ras Mulughietà’s son died from aircraft strafing during the chaotic retreat. Mulughietà, Imperial Minister of War, later tried to recover his son's body personally, but the Galla captured and lynched him.
The Italians are dug in on the hills and awaiting the Ethiopian assault, which will likely come in two waves. There’s no artillery or sir support for either side, just hard close-quarters fighting by the poor bloody infantry.
Second Tembien: Uork Ambà
27 February 1936
On the morning Ras Mulughietà died seeking to recover his son's body, Marshal Badoglio launched a small but important attack to support his campaign in the Tembien region. To start, he launched a commando-like strike using a small group of Blackshirts, Alpini, and Eritreans to conquer the pivotal Uork Ambà. This setback did not deter the Ethiopians, who over the next couple days fought perhaps the toughest action of the entire campaign against Generale Pirzio Biroli's entire Eritrean Corps. The “commandos” on Uork Ambà faced this reality first when they raised the Italian tricolor after their own fine action.
Degiac Mesciescià Ilmà, a nephew of Emperor Haile Selassie, carried out repeated attacks. The bravery came to naught, however, as the resolute defenders held their ground. One Italian machine gun had been hauled up the Ambà escarpment with ropes, and laid down a withering fire. Although celebrated loudly by Fascist propaganda, this action actually held little relevance to the campaign and its outcome.
This is an unusual little scenario, with a handful of forces on each side. The Italians have superior morale, and while the Ethiopians will eventually have numbers they arrive in a slow drip of reinforcements, which will force the Ethiopian player to use infiltration tactics rather than gathering his troops for a mass human-wave assault.
Second Tembien: The Zebandas Clash
27 February 1936
Some of the most intense fighting of the entire campaign took place during the second battle of Tembien, on the lower flanks of the Uork Ambà near the town of Zebandas. The men following Degiac Bejenè may have claimed the title as the finest troops on the Ethiopian side in this war. Although not as thoroughly trained as the regular army, these men showed extreme motivation and an impressive ability to suffer hardship and still fight effectively. Console Ricciotti’s column on the northern slopes of the Ambà faced these giants among men.
The Blackshirts sustained at least ten furious counterattacks by of the forces of Meshashà Ilmà. All the Italian accounts of this clash report very heavy fighting in which the Ethiopians, even when out of ammunition or wounded, kept advancing armed with swords or even clubs. Only late in the afternoon did the exhausted Ethiopians, sensing that the Italians might surround and cut them off, begin withdrawing. Meshashà Ilmà, wounded in the battle, survived only by playing dead.
This is a big scenario, with a Blackshirt legion facing waves of very determined Ethiopian attackers. The Ethiopians have sky-high morale and fairly good numbers; the Blackshirts have average morale and a tiny dribble of off-board artillery (some very weak strengths here – but the Blackshirts are going to need them all the same).
Second Tembien: The Wadi
27 February 1936
The right-hand Italian column moved from Uarieu Pass on an outflanking maneuver aimed to cut off the advancing Ethiopian formations. However, they soon encountered a dry wadi used by Ethiopians as an infiltration route in their attempts get into the rear of the Italian attack.
With only one path open to them, the Ethiopians had no choice but to press forward and so they did with unstoppable courage. After heavy fighting the Italians completely smashed Degiach Bejenè's forces inside the wadi. Overwhelming Italian firepower killed most of the enemy combatants including Degiac Bejenè, his son, and many of his chieftains.
This is a big scenario, with lots of forces on both sides. The Ethiopians are trying to escape; the Italians are trying to stop them. The Ethiopians have better morale, while the Italians do have a little help from artillery.
Second Tembien: South of the Mountain of Gold
27 February 1936
While a group of Blackshirts were engaged in sweeping Uork Ambà (translated as the Mountain of Gold), south of that height an Alpini battalion failed to surprise the enemy. When they realized they were in danger of being surrounded they sent for aid. Console Diamanti's Blackshirt fire brigade was dispatched as reinforcements.
The Blackshirts managed to stop the outflanking attempt by the Ethiopians and, together with the Alpini, eventually pushed back and severely damaged the Ethiopian force defending the sector south of Uork Ambà. Over the next two days the second battle of Tembien became a scattered series of firefights most often decided by the preponderant Italian artillery or aerial bombardment. The Ethiopians performed less brilliantly than in the opening stage of the campaign, but the significant imbalance in forces (over 5:1 in the Italians’ favor) and massive edge in technology made this nearly a foregone conclusion. In his memoirs Marshal Badoglio wrote that the enemy had shown “the superb warrior ethos of the race” in this campaign. Resistance continued through the first week of March, requiring Badoglio to commit more troops to search and destroy duties.
It’s not enough for the Alpini and their Blackshirt friends to hold off the Ethiopians: they also have to push forward and take their objectives. That’s going to be tough even if the Blackshirt reinforcements arrive promptly.
29 February 1936
During this time period, General Pietro Maravigna had a reputation as a knowledgeable military historian and expert on doctrinal and strategic subjects. Marshal Badoglio entrusted Maravigna, appointed to command the Second Corps, with the task of enveloping Ras Imirrù's army in the Scirè region of Ethiopia. The Marshal intended for this action take place within the framework of a larger maneuver he planned to isolate and annihilate the enemy. Exploiting one of the rare existing motor roads, Maravigna deployed his advancing troops in more of a “procession” than as an advancing army, without relying on scouting or on reconnaissance at all. He dispensed with such precautions because aerial reconnaissance signaled that the avenue of advance lacked potential threats. Being a skilled commander and well-advised by local clergymen, Ras Imirrù saw the opportunity to bloody the Italians' noses. He ordered his most reliable forces to conceal themselves and await the advancing enemy.
Ras Imirrù's men ambushed the Gavinana Division’s vanguard, which quickly became disordered. Reinforcements from the division eventually drove off the Ethiopians after several hours of heavy fighting. Especially ironic, given Maravigna’s reliance on “modern” warfare, at one point the division was forced to form a 19th-century square with their artillery on the corners to cover all flanks against encirclement. As the battle surged the artillery often fired point blank into the mass of combatants, regardless of whether it contained friendly or enemy troops. The battle took Maravigna completely by surprise, who never realized Ras Imirrù planned this as a rearguard action to cover his withdrawal. In any case, he stopped his “fast” advance until the 2nd of March, drastically upsetting Badoglio and his plan. Thanks to the respite, Ras Imirrù, despite the heavy losses, escaped with a majority of his army. The rearguard launched further counterattacks which were checked by heavy artillery fire from the entire Second Corps. After the Second World War the two Italian generals, while writing their memories, accused each other of incompetence and poor leadership throughout the campaign. However, both agreed that Ras Imirrù possessed superior command qualities.
Ambush! An Italian column meanders peacefully across the board, with no flankers or scouts out to find any Ethiopians, and then all hell breaks loose.
31 March 1936
The combatants fought the last major battle on the northern front at Mai Ceu. Under the direct command of the Emperor the most modern Ethiopian forces ever assembled, assisted by groups led by other Rases, would engage the Italians in this apocalyptic struggle. This last attempt of the Ethiopians to inflict a clear defeat on the Italians aimed at duplicating their overwhelming victory at Adowa in 1896. All of the Ethiopian leaders present were descended from victors at Adowa, and felt themselves to be living symbols of their ancient Christian empire. The sires at Adowa included Ras Makonnen (father of the Emperor), Ras Mangasha (father of Ras Sejum), Ras Mangasha Atikim (father of Ras Chebeddè), and as for Ras Cassa, he himself fought there as a 15-year-old alongside his father. Great expectations preceded this battle, from the aging veterans of Adowa to the best-trained new combatants (British- and Belgian-trained officers, former King’s African Rifles, and St. Cyr’s graduates like Keniats Chifli, who during the battle directed the only modern battery on the Ethiopian side). A throng of Priests, Bishops and even determined female fighters rounded out the group. Meanwhile, the Italians and their Askari allies, well aware of the Ethiopian concentration, waited in their defensive works for the impending attack.
This final Ethiopian army fielded significant numbers of artillery, anti-aircraft guns and, above all, officers educated in modern warfare by foreign military assistance missions. The famous Imperial Guard, Kebur Zabagnà, fought valiantly here for the Emperor. On the other hand, the Italians were fighting in improved positions, with a plethora of modern equipment, and intelligence assets that allowed them to know the Emperor’s intent in advance. The fierce Ethiopian warrior tradition would not be enough. Ethiopian morale ran high with the Emperor on the field. However, after a good initial rush that carried the outer works in some areas, stubborn defense by the Alpini eventually led a stalemate with heavy losses for the frontally-assaulting attackers. By early afternoon, reinforcing Eritrean battalions allowed the Italians to push back the attacking forces. Late in the afternoon the Negus attempted several other costly attacks but the redoubtable Italians and their Askari allies again repulsed them. At the end of the day the Emperor ordered the withdrawal of his spent army, leaving a few small contingents to cover the retreat. From now until the conquest of Addis Ababa, Marshal Badoglio faced no more battles.
A big scenario with big forces deployed, including a full 32 (thirty-two!) platoons of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard. The Ethiopians have huge numbers, very high morale, superior initiative, some actual support weapons and more off-board artillery than the Italians bring to bear. This one is going to be hard on the defender, despite his own strong numbers.
Second Ogaden: Battle of Gianagobò
15 April 1936
Marshal Badoglio's successes on the northern front frustrated the vain and envious General Rodolfo Graziani in the south. Hampered by terrible rains and a lack of roads, Graziani delayed repeatedly as he built up his infrastructure and supplies. Mussolini, ignorant or just uncaring of the difficulties, repeatedly urged the general to resume the offensive in the southern sector. Against his better judgment, Graziani finally ordered several mobile columns to further penetrate into Ethiopian territory. The left column headed for the strategic Korrak Wadi near Gianagobò, but encountered a surprise.
Olal Dinle’s tough Somali Dubats met stiff resistance as they closed on the wadi. Gen. Guglielmo Nasi soon dispatched Libyan troops to reinforce their efforts and some of them, with the support of tanks, reached the wadi. However, due to recent heavy rain the wadi was in flood and posed a major obstacle. To make things worse the Ethiopians had skillfully exploited the caves and broken terrain on the opposite side of the wadi. Some Ethiopians attempted to infiltrate the Italian positions but were repelled with the aid of the tanks. The first day of the battle ended in a bloody stalemate. Only a small Italian detachment managed to cross the wadi (and that was in a marginal sector not portrayed in this scenario). However, Gen. Franco Navarra's forces reestablished contact with the left side of the Nasi's column. Nasi, one of the best officers of Regio Esercito during both the Ethiopian and Second World Wars, methodically prepared for the rest of the day and night for the following day's battle in which his troops outflanked the Ethiopians, who quickly gave ground.
The Ethiopians have numbers on their side, and they have caves. The Italians and Somalis are on the attack with lesser numbers and morale slightly inferior to that of the defenders – it’s going to be tough for Il Duce’s men to succeed.
Second Ogaden: Battle of Bircut
19 April 1936
After the Gianagobò battle the Nasi column limped to the water wells of Bircut. Nasi deployed the trucks of his fast column and two regiments of Libyan troops at the center of a large valley. At dawn, an Ethiopian caravan composed of thirsty troops that had withdrawn from Gianabobo tried to storm past the Italians to reach the wells. Their surprise assault, if successful, would refresh the Ethiopians and enable a disciplined retreat to continue.
Nasi's men fought well against the surprise attack by the thirst-crazed Ethiopians, but could not hold them off. The Ethiopians claimed the wells by mid-day and the Italians drew off to regroup. The following morning, with the help of concentrated artillery and airpower, Nasi's men drove off the battered Ethiopians for good. This was the last major battle of the war. On May 5th the Italians entered Addis Ababa; this officially ended the conflict but it was far from the end of the story.
Here we have another big scenario, with masses of Ethiopians trying to wipe out the Italian force that starts on the board before reinforcements can arrive to save the day. It’s yet another battle in which the heaviest weapons by far are the Italian 65mm mountain artillery batteries: infantry rule this battlefield.
Ras Destà Strikes Again
19 May 1936
Soon after the ceasefire, Marshal Badoglio turned over control of Ethiopia to General Graziani, the new Viceroy. Graziani’s first task was to pacify the newly-declared Italo-Ethiopian Empire that still simmered with discontent. Two small but well-armed armies, each counting 15,000 men, still held out in the hinterlands. To make matters worse, perhaps as many 20-30,000 soldiers from the Negus' defeated armies had returned to their native regions and formed bandit gangs. The regions of Galla, Borana and Bale were particularly turbulent. In those areas, Italian forces engaged in several minor but costly clashes before a major incident occurred. A large group of Ethiopians closed in on the town of Neghelli, where Graziani claimed his new heraldic title (Marquis of Neghelli). The Regia Aeronautica bombed the rebels for two days using large amounts of mustard and phosgene bombs in addition to conventional explosives. At that point the impetuous General Annibale Bergonzoli felt confident enough to attack the enemy.
The Italian force, composed of two battalions, advanced into a wooded area. The leading battalion was ambushed and suffered heavy losses. The other battalion could not provide help as it was blocked by Ethiopians as well. The first battalion fought hard to disentangle itself and eventually rejoined the second battalion. For the first time the Italians faced Ethiopia’s most successful guerrilla chief, Dejazmach Gabre Mariam, and Ras Destà had entrusted him with the command of the most disciplined troops available. Snatching up a rifle, Bergonzoli fought in the front rank and was seriously injured when an Ethiopian bullet struck his weapon’s breech. “You’ve destroyed the best rifle I ever had in my life!” the bleeding Bergonzoli shouted at the Ethiopians, but he confirmed his foes’ bravery in his memoirs. Evacuated over his strenuous objections, Bergonzoli would grow his famous “Electric Whiskers” while recovering from his wounds.
You simply can’t have enough scenarios featuring Electric Whiskers.
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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.