By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I’ve never liked games that tried
to substitute one piece for another: “use
X to represent Y.” I know many aren’t
bothered by this; game designers turn them
in to us all the time. If the Waffen SS can
be lovingly presented in black with silver
trim, then Canadians can get their maple leaf
and South Africans their antelope head. And
for Africa Orientale Italiana, we have
some lovely antelope heads.
The South African Army did not pile up nearly
as impressive a combat record as those of
the other Dominions — Australia, New
Zealand, Canada or India. Two divisions and
many smaller units went to the front in North
Africa. One division suffered grievous losses
during Operation Crusader in November, 1941,
and seven months later all of the other would
be lost with the surrender of Tobruk.
Africa Orientale Italiana features 88 South African pieces; they feature in nine of the game’s 40 scenarios. Here’s a look at the South African pieces included.
South Africa’s forces were organized
on the British model, with four companies
per battalion (rather than the three companies
common in most other armies of World War Two).
Each company had three platoons, but the companies
were much smaller than those of their adversaries
(124 men in a British company against 190
in the German 1939 organization) with platoons
about 3/4 the size of those of other nations.
This has always frustrated Panzer Grenadier
players from Britain, Australia and other
such places, who wonder why their troops have
the same firepower as the scorned Italians
or Romanians. The Tommies and Diggers are
generating their 4 factors with about three
dozen guys against 45 or so of the Good Soldier
Not all armies deployed motorcycle troops
as a combat arm; we’ve portrayed German,
Italian and Romanian ones previously.
South Africa was one of the few Allied powers
to organize them, sending two companies to
East Africa with the intention of using them
in traditional cavalry roles in the broken
ground of southern Ethiopia.
Recruited exclusively from South African
traffic cops (who even brought their police
motorcycles to the front), the motorcycle
companies failed pretty miserably. Lacking
the long training needed by military scouts,
what information they did bring back proved
nearly useless, their machines broke down
constantly, and they showed a decided aversion
to combat. Fighting the tough Somali dubat
irregulars proved far different than ticketing
speeders back home.
The South Africans would have done far better
by sending traditional horsed cavalry to Ethiopia;
until early 1940, they’d maintained
a Mounted Commando Division. But that would
not be “modern,” and no South
African horsemen entered a combat zone.
South African troops carried standard British-issue
weapons: the 2-pounder anti-tank gun and 3-inch
mortar. The British mortar was decidedly inferior
to the French-designed Brandt 81mm mortar
wielded by just about every other army on
the planet; the 2-pounder just as useless
as the 37mm gun dragged along by the Germans
and much less useful than the Italian Army’s
Austrian-designed 47mm, which unlike the British
weapon could fire high-explosive shells. The
Swedish-designed 40mm gun anti-aircraft gun
was popular with South Africa’s generals,
and they attached more batteries to their
divisions than did other Commonwealth armies.
As in other armies of 1939 vintage, most
of South Africa’s generals came out
of the artillery branch thanks to extensive
experience during the Great War. It was not
by their choice that much of their army’s
artillery also dated from 1918. Where British
and other Empire artillery regiments
used the excellent 25-pounder as their medium piece and the very good 4.5-inch
howitzer as their heavier artillery, the South
Africans went to war in Kenya with many batteries still
equipped with the older 18-pounder medium
gun and the quite aged 60-pounder heavy piece.
By the time the South African divisions moved
to Egypt most but not all of the 18-pounders
had been replaced by 25-pounders, but the
Springboks retained their old pieces and re-assigned
them to anti-tank batteries where they could
do more damage to Axis tanks than could the
useless 2-pounder. Unfortunately they had
been designed for the immobile warfare of
1914-1918 and were difficult to move quickly.
As befitted a rapidly developing frontier
society, the South African Army was entranced
by tanks and other new devices and desperately
wanted them for its divisions. Even before
the war, a South African Armoured Corps had
been established, but in September 1939 it
still only possessed a handful of training
vehicles. When troops were dispatched to East
Africa in late 1940, the best of these were
gathered together to form the 1st South African
Light Tank Company. Equipped with Vickers
Mark II tanks, the company came close to combat
with an Italian tank company on several occasions
but the armored clash for Somaliland never
took place — probably a good thing for
the South Africans, as they had no armor-piercing
weapons on their tanks.
Soon after their troops began to arrive
in Egypt, the South African general staff
suggested converting both infantry divisions
into armored formations. Both government and
army lobbied hard for this move, which provided
one of the first major rifts between the South
Africans and the British command. The British
refused, and several staff officers made pointed
comments about “wasting” resources
on divisions that were not allowed by their
government to leave the African continent.
A number of South Africans transferred to
British Army tank units. Some sources claim
that some of the Valentine tanks that assisted
in the assault on Bardia were “South
African,” but this seems an exaggeration
— South African crews were present and
the overall command was South African, but
the tank units were on the British establishment.
We included a few pieces anyway, but South
African tank units would not appear in earnest
until 6th South African Armoured Division
entered combat in Italy.
Thwarted in their efforts to acquire tanks,
the South Africans turned to a vehicle they
could build themselves. Development of a domestic
armored car began in 1938, with most of the
automotive parts coming from Canada and the
United States, the weaponry from Great Britain,
and the armor plates from South African Iron
& Steel. Dorman Long assembled the vehicles,
but because key parts came from the American
firm Marmon-Herrington the “South African
Reconnaissance Car” was always called
the “Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car.”
South African armoured car regiments operated
both with the two South African divisions
and as independent formations; one of them
saw action with 7th Armoured Division during
Operation Crusader. They had an excellent
reputation, unlike the South African infantry.
British and Australian units also made use
of the South African-made armored cars.
During the Great War, the South African
Brigade compiled an outstanding record on
the Western Front and was called the finest
of all the Dominion forces. South African
forces did not do nearly so well a generation
later, and the fault seems to lie with their
leadership. South Africa had been a prosperous
primary producer, its economy built on its
incredible natural wealth. The Great Depression
hurt terribly — sectors in which the
Boer population had strong holdings were devastated
as wool prices, for example, dropped 75 percent.
Those in which English-speakers dominated,
like gold mining, held their own or expanded.
Seeking cheaper labor, mine owners and industrialists
recruited black labor for the first time on
a large scale, and Boer resentment flared.
By the 1940s, many in the Boer community
despised the English. While only a lunatic
fringe actively supported Adolf Hitler, a
sizable minority of Boers preferred to see
their country sit out the war in neutral status.
Within the officer corps, many English-speakers
showed themselves uncomfortable with Boer
racism while Afrikaans speakers displayed
open contempt for uitlanders. This social
tension spilled over to hamstring the effectiveness
of South African officers, who often seemed
more hostile to the British high command than
to the Axis.
In the game, South Africa’s
leaders include some very good ones, but overall
the quality is slightly less than that of
the British leaders
in Africa Orientale Italiana. A subtle and often unnoticed
aspect of Panzer Grenadier scenario
design is that we reflect the quality of unit
and unit leadership not only through the number
of leaders provided, but the mix of ranks.
A good-quality, cohesive unit has a "pyramid" spread of leaders by rank, to more easily
enable “chain” activations. One
with less cohesion might have the same number
of leaders, but they are clustered at the
low end of the scale: One colonel, one major,
one captain and three lieutenants are more
valuable than one colonel and five lieutenants.
The South Africans have a reasonable spread,
much better than an Italian colonial unit,
but not as good as the Indians or Savoy Grenadiers seen in the Eritrea scenarios.
Don’t wait to put Africa Orientale Italiana on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else!
Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.
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. Leopold has a very fine nose.