Conquest of Ethiopia:
Eritrean Elephant Corps

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
April 2017

Among the many unusual fighting forces included in Panzer Grenadier: Conquest of Ethiopia is Italy's little-known Eritrean Elephant Corps, a formation of the Italian colonial army. The elephants are vital for pulling heavy loads, moving artillery and clearing paths through forests, and also serve as mounts for fighting men.

The Eritrean Elephant Corps, or Culo alla Elefante, was founded in 1930 by the accomplished hunter/soldier/explorer Maggiore Speroche Noncaghi. Noncaghi (left, with lion) had suffered severe blockage in his career path and sought to loosen up his chances for promotion. A decorated veteran of the Great War, he had served in many Italian colonial campaigns, repressing the Senussi, the Mnifa and the Zamboni.

Arriving in Eritrea, he recruited several dozen locals to train as mahouts, or elephant drivers, in India and led a number of expeditions to capture young elephants for training. Special dispensation from a panel of Islamic qadi allowed the Eritrean troopers to serve alongside the elephants, with a learned ruling that the elephant was in no way related to the pig and therefore not considered unclean.

Noncaghi’s project began to show some success, as more and more of his elephants passed through the training program and learned to pull heavy loads and tolerate the sounds and smells of battle. By the time of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Eritrean Elephant Corps boasted several dozen trained elephants who pulled artillery, rescued bogged-down tanks and trucks from roadside ditches, and finally broke the Ethiopian infantry’s will to resist in the climactic battle of Arr Billa in the autumn of 1936.

Eritrean elephants pulling heavy artillery into Ethiopia, October 1935.

The Ethiopians attempted to stop the Elephant Corps by releasing hundreds of field mice in their path, in hopes of panicking the pachyderms. But Noncaghi had foreseen such defensive measures, and prepared the Brigata Gatti to counter them: specially trained cats that rode atop the elephants and leaped off to defend them when needed. With their mice massacred, the Ethiopians had nothing to stop the elephants. Except guns.

Tragically, Noncaghi would not live to experience the triumph of his elephants. Recruiting enough dedicated elephant caretakers proved difficult, as no one wanted to deal with sick elephants and Noncaghi frequently found himself forced to care for the beasts himself. His dedication would prove his undoing, in one of the most horrific accidents ever recorded in Italian East Africa.

One afternoon in March 1935, Noncaghi attempted to heal his prized elephant, Stefano, who was suffering from severe constipation probably brought on by the Eritrean soldiers’ habit of sharing their Taleggio ration with the elephants. Noncaghi, deeply depressed at the thought of losing the beloved Stefano, fed the beast several gallons of castor oil – a torture favored by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, but Noncaghi apparently hoped for a more positive result. He was standing behind the elephant when the oil took hold, and the resulting blast apparently knocked him to the ground where he struck his head on a rock and was rendered unconscious. More than 200 pounds of elephant dung cascaded onto the unfortunate, insensate innovator, who suffocated before a watchman found him buried in the reeking discharge.

The incident became an international sensation; Benito Mussolini’s favorite news program covered it - proof of the story's veracity, as that program would never, ever engage in distributing fake news. In modified form the tragic death of Speroche Noncaghi (left) has become an urban legend, usually attributed to a mythical German zookeeper. But among the Italian invaders he became a noted hero, finally achieving his long-sought recognition.

Mussolini bestowed the Gold Medal of Valor on Noncaghi’s widow, Merdatroppo, but the award provided little comfort. The Eritrean Elephant Corps saw limited action during the 1941 British invasion of Italian East Africa and was afterwards disbanded, with the elephants taken as war reparations by the British and sold to several circus troupes and a soup company.

Conquest of Ethiopia includes special rules for elephant combat, including elephant charge. They are among the most useful units on the Italian side, second only to the tanks. They are very potent in assault combat, and can carry an infantry platoon into battle just like an armored personnel carrier using the new extended assault rules and squash enemy foot soldiers just like a tank conducting an overrun. Well, at least they can do all that if the enemy doesn’t have guns. Finding enemies without guns is sort of a problem in World War Two.

Don’t wait to put Conquest of Ethiopia on your game table! Join the Gold Club today or you'll end up like Speroche Noncaghi.

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.