Conquest of Ethiopia:
Scenario Preview, Part Four
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When it’s discussed in Western historical literature (at least outside of Italy) the Second Italo-Ethiopian War is often portrayed as a parable of the modern crushing the traditional. Much is made of the Italian advantages in technology, with emphasis on aircraft, mechanized vehicles and advanced weaponry.
Like a lot of superficial assessments, that isn’t exactly true. The Italians had very definite technological advantages in what modern militaries call C3I: command, control, communications and intelligence. Their command of the air and well-developed system for gathering and interpreting aerial reconnaissance photos and reports gave Italian commanders a wealth of data about enemy troop movements that no army had ever known up to that point. With their radio network, they could instantly update orders to their subordinates where the Ethiopian leaders had to rely on messengers on foot and horseback.
The Italians also went to war with a far more efficient logistics infrastructure than that of the Ethiopians. Italian troops could be assured of having food, water and ammunition – sometimes even dropped by aircraft. The Ethiopians relied on herds of livestock driven behind their massive armies and subject to air attack. Had they managed to defeat the Italians in battle, keeping their troops in the field would have become very difficult had the war gone on much longer.
But on the tactical level, where Panzer Grenadier games are played, the gap is not nearly as great. The Ethiopian regulars, and many irregulars, carried modern rifles – many of them Austrian-made Mannlichers bought from Italy after the First World War. Ethiopian infantry firepower wasn’t far behind that of the Italians, though they had fewer machine guns. The Italians had much more artillery, but still very little by the standards of World War II.
It’s one thing to tell about the elements of a historical event, but when it’s done right, a historical game designer can show why an event unfolded as it did. With Conquest of Ethiopia, Lorenzo Striuli and Ottavio Ricchi did an excellent job showing the tactical reality of this relatively little-known war. The Italians usually deploy more leaders, as befits a more educated society, but the Ethiopians almost always have higher morale and often better initiative (both are key concepts in Panzer Grenadier – it’s not all about the numbers on the pieces).
It’s a fun game, but I also believe you can learn a lot about this conflict by playing the scenarios designed by Lorenzo and Ottavio. Here’s a look at the final set of ten; you can see the others in Part One, Part Two and Part Three:
Addis Ababa - Djibouti Railway I
5 July 1936
Immediately following his conquest of Addis Ababa, Marshal Badoglio resigned his post and returned to Italy. Mussolini awarded the Viceroy position to Graziani, and promoted him Marshal of Italy. The new Viceroy faced acute internal disorder within his area of responsibility. But expectations at home ran high that he would check the rebels, given his former success in crushing the Libyan guerrillas during the 1920s. One of his initial priorities involved securing the Addis Ababa – Djibouti railway which brought in significant supplies and trade goods, and suffered frequent guerrilla attacks allegedly supported from the French colony at Djibouti. A series of clashes along this line started with the derailing of a train beside the Zalalacà outpost. The new government made several attempts to free the besieged troops in the following two days.
Several hours after the fighting began, a small Italian relief force departed by train from the village of Lasabbas. However, the Ethiopians derailed the train very close to the besieged detachment, forcing the relief force to join the outpost’s defenders. The Ethiopians had no explosives or hand grenades, but piled debris on the tracks to force the derailment. During the night another small platoon tried to help the besieged by departing from Lasabbas on foot. Unfortunately for them, the Ethiopians intercepted and encircled them, forcing the Blackshirts to entrench inside a wadi. The Italians very much feared being taken prisoner by Ethiopian rebels and fought to the death. Only two Blackshirts managed to escape. The following day Console Galbiati, the commander of the 219th Legion, arrived with a motorized company to relieve the beleaguered garrison. Although injured in the skirmishing, Galbiati managed to repress the local rebellion but uncoordinated disturbances continued through the 17th.
Developer John Stafford loves this sort of weird scenario, with a couple of Italian trains tootling around (well, one’s tootled its last but the other can move) and the Ethiopians trying to hold up the train and wipe out the Blackshirts.
Addis Ababa - Djibouti Railway II
7 July 1936
The day following the first attack on the Zalalacà garrison, Console Galbiati, commander of the 219th Legion, led a motorized company into Las Addas station, but suffered a wound in the process. The Ethiopians contested the approach and almost encircled the village. Galbiati spent the remainder of the day fortifying the Italian positions and recalling an HMG section from a far hill position. His preparations paid dividends as the Las Addas garrison faced further attacks during the ensuing night. None of the attacks succeeded nor did those carried out against the isolated detachment in Zalalacà. The solution for the stalemate was, however, very close at hand.
Although driven off, Dejazmach Ficrè Mariam’s attack showed the increasing threat the guerrillas posed in the vicinity of Addis Ababa. The Italians shrugged off their losses and repaired the damaged railway. But Graziani, considered a leading expert in counterinsurgency at the time, knew how precarious the situation remained and ordered clearing operations along the railway.
Another train scenario, this time with a relieving force coming to save the Blackshirts but a very large group of Ethiopians ready to stop them.
Addis Ababa - Djibouti Railway III
8 July 1936
Despite losing his first engagement in the area, Dejazmach Ficrè Mariam did not feel himself beaten. After gathering new men and arms from the nearby villages he encircled the important Moggio Presidium, the base of Italian operations in the area. This time, however, he faced prepared men and defenses.
The Italians drove off Mariam's attack while the Ethiopians suffered heavy losses due to the Italian readiness and disciplined fire. The siege, however, continued with small actions until the evening of the following day when the entire 1st Eritrean Brigade commanded by General Vittorio Gallina arrived from Addis Ababa. Ficrè Mariam recalled his forces in the face of this overwhelming superiority, and the Eritrean brigade initiated brutal reprisals against the local population who had succored Ficrè Mariam with support and local levies.
Mussolini knew better than to declare the end of major combat operations before they were actually over: Ethiopia may have been defeated, but no one’s bothered to tell the Ethiopians. A large Ethiopian force is trying to overrun a Blackshirt fort, with no reinforcements in sight.
Addis Ababa - Djibouti Railway IV
8 July 1936
Despite the Italian occupation of all the Empire’s cities and defeat of her armies, Ethiopia never formally surrendered and those troops still in the field continued to fight. While the Italians dealt with the insurgency at Moggio, another train transporting troops from Dire Dawa to Moggio encountered more Ethiopian rebels not far from Adama, a large settlement 100 kilometers from Addis Ababa. Heavy fighting ensured.
Although the Italians were able to repulse the attack on their train, the Ethiopians forced them to head back to Adama. None of these harassments succeeded in interrupting the railway for long, but they highlighted that their victory over the Negus did not mean that Italians controlled the country.
Once again we’ve got a train loaded with Blackshirts, and this time they have a tank with them (also loaded on the train – it’s a very small tank). The Ethiopians have blocked the railroad at some unknown spot, and it’s up to the blackshirts to bop their way past.
Assault on Addis Ababa
28 July 1936
Several rebel groups launched uncoordinated attacks toward the outlying villages surrounding Addis Ababa. They hoped to raise the civilian population against the occupying Italian forces and their deeply-hated Eritrean Askaris. On the western side of the city one of the main rebel groups tried to move directly on Graziani's headquarters. The sheer size of the main body inhibited a successful infiltration among the Italian strongholds without being detected. But some of the force made it in.
The Ethiopian attempt failed badly. The huge battle group found itself stymied by the tiny Air Force Headquarters Garrison. Then, reinforcements arrived on their flanks changing an attack into a rout followed by mopping up actions by the colonial Banda. In the following days the Ethiopian resistance carried out additional unsuccessful attempts, with some being nearly annihilated. Eventually one of the main instigators fell into Italian hands, a very influential clergyman named Abuna Petrus. He received a pro forma trial and a summary execution shortly thereafter. At the firing squad he blessed both the judge and his executioners while vindicating his role in the patriotic resistance.
A truly massive force of low-morale Ethiopians attempts to overcome a small Italian Air Force garrison (with sky-high morale!) before reinforcements can come and save them. The Italians get to use not only the Air Force troops, but Carabinieri too.
Addis Ababa - Djibouti Railway V
12 October 1936
After the July Addis Ababa debacles the railway to Djibouti operated unmolested for a while. The Italians only controlled a narrow corridor along the railway line, and slowly the rebels regrouped elsewhere in the following months. The Regia Aeronautica bombed suspected rebel camps as they were discovered, often using chemical munitions. On the 10th of October Ficrè Mariam reappeared attacking three irregular bands serving under the Italian flag. Two days later a major strike was attempted by one of his subordinates. The rebels targeted a special train transporting the Minister of the Colonial Empire Alessandro Lessona. Italian aviation helped check this attack and others. Eventually Viceroy Graziani mounted a complex operation directly against Ficrè Mariam's sanctuary around Mount Boccan.
Ficrè Mariam and his most important subalterns died together at the end of this engagement. Counted among those followers was a businessman from Addis Ababa who had helped him by providing the tools used to sabotage the railway line. The Eritreans burned villages and killed livestock to punish and disrupt popular support for the guerrillas, complying with Graziani’s methodology which he'd refined against Libyan rebels in the 1920s. The suppression campaign disorganized the Ethiopian resistance in the areas surrounding the railway, though small engagements still occurred. By the end of that year resistance began to subside.
No trains this time, just a small Italian garrison beset by a far larger force of Ethiopian attackers, with waves of Italian reinforcements plus some more Ethiopians steadily arriving to make the battle larger and larger.
Focus on Ras Destà
20 October 1936
Ras Destà’s army was one of the few still active after the Negus’ escape. The force counted six thousand warriors equipped with machine guns, 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, and Rheinmetal anti-tank guns. To counter it, Graziani formed the “special division”, largely motorized and well equipped with artillery, armored cars and light tanks. However, its commander, General Carlo Geloso, faced a tough opponent on his own turf in the Sidamu region.
Dejazmach Gabre Mariam fought bravely, manning an anti-tank gun himself for hours. However, at the end of the day the accumulated heavy losses and constant Italian pressure force him to retreat. The Italians lost the entire armored company but captured their assigned ground. Additionally, the sudden retreat of the Ethiopians allowed them to capture enough German-made anti-tank guns to establish an anti-tank battery (later used against the British in 1941).
For once, the Ethiopians are well-armed, with enough anti-tank capable units (anti-tank and anti-aircraft batteries) to make things very hot for the Italian tankers. Their morale is not as great as in previous battles, but still enough to stand up to the Italians.
Addis Ababa - Djibouti Railway VI
26 October 1936
In the meantime, Addis Ababa and its environs bubbled with patriotic ferment as well. A small engagement occurred only 15 kilometers away from the city. A small detachment of Carabinieri and Zaptié (Colonial Carabinieri) who were searching for arms caches found themselves caught by surprise and encircled.
The Carabinieri fought for their lives until night fell, holding out long enough to be rescued by a column that arrived and dispersed the rebels. Several small engagements like this punctuated the attempted pacem romanum the Italians sought to instill in their empire.
The Royal Carabinieri – Italy’s militarized police – get their day in this small scenario, facing a powerful Ethiopian attack but having the advantages of a huge morale differential in their favor (something that rarely happens in Conquest of Ethiopia) and full motorization (another rare occurrence; this may be the only scenario where either of these are in effect).
Addis Ababa - Djibouti Railway VII
3 December 1936
One of the last major actions occurring near the railways began when, at the beginning of December, the Mariotti Brigade left the area to cover the lines of communication of the forces engaging Ras Destà’s army. A local rebel chief exploited this opportunity and attacked an irregular band left to garrison Uretà.
The Italian officer commanding the Banda fell wounded early in the fight, forcing the irregulars to fight with little direction. They held out through most of the day, finally being overwhelmed as night fell. A relief column did not arrive to relieve this unlucky detachment until four days later. They found only burned and mutilated corpses alongside their dead Italian officer. The following day the Italian Air Force spotted the Ethiopians who had carried out the attack (at least the pilots made this claim in their report) and bombed and strafed them to complete annihilation.
I really, really should have re-titled these scenarios during editing. While it takes place near the railroad, this is an assault by Ethiopian irregulars against Italian irregulars trying to hold an isolated outpost without hope of reinforcement.
The End of Ras Destà
31 January 1937
Graziani's men spent the fall and early winter pursuing a series of intelligence activities and methodically reducing enemy strong points. Graziani used overpowering artillery and air strikes, including a large amount of chemical munitions. He also manipulated the racial tension between the Galla and Tigrin tribes and Ras Destà. Together, the campaign slowly but inexorably eroded the fighting power of Ras Destà’s army. Although capable of mounting some daring raids or delaying actions, such episodes by Destà's men rarely led to a concrete gains. On the 3rd of January an Italian reconnaissance aircraft spotted groups of Ras Destà’s followers with their families and baggage in a concentration larger than previously seen. Graziani immediately formulated an attack.
The Ethiopians fought a desperate rearguard action but the Italians infiltrated and dispersed their column. That night the bulk of the Ethiopians managed to escape but then stumbled into other Italian detachments deployed nearby. In the next few days many of combatants and their families were massacred by strafing and close air strikes using both chemical and explosive munitions.
And we wind up the game with one of the more unusual map arrangements in Panzer Grenadier, five maps in sort of a cross formation. The Ethiopians are trying to escape from an Italian assault, and can only go in one direction – which they don’t have to reveal to the Italians until someone actually leaves the map.
And that concludes Conquest of Ethiopia’s scenarios. It’s a theater we’ll have to return to in the future – those maps are just too pretty to not play on some more.
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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.