In this brief description of the interwar Italian army we give a thumbnail sketch of the troops available in the Ethiopian campaign. Perhaps not as lengthy as it could be there is a good deal of information available in books and online. Nevertheless, let’s start our look at all the armies involved in The Abyssinian Crisis with the forces of Italy.
The Italian Army that fought in Abyssinia reflected the colonial nature of the undertaking and was the largest European force ever to invade Africa before the Second World War. Mussolini, as both Dictator and War Minister, spared no expense nor held back any force, to ensure that the full military potential of Italy would be sent to ensure victory. He more than doubled the estimated force required by a recent Italian army survey on the proposed invasion of Abyssinia. In fact, it was noted that the abundance of force available was at times a liability, though the resilience of the Italian Fanti was equal to the task, tested as much by the country they invaded as by the enemy they met.
They say amateurs study tactics and professionals study logistics and never was this more so than in Ethiopia. The Italian force was often restricted by its ability to build and secure lines of communication to feed, water and supply their forces…and their forces were considerable. By October 1935 over 50,000 labourers formed part of the Italian force, with more on the way, who built roads and infrastructure that survive to this day.
The ‘teeth’ of the invasion forces were the troops sent into the (main front) Northern Theatre and (secondary) Southern Theatre. The northern forces, under the command of General De Bono, comprised four army corps and an Eritrean Native Corps. The Southern theatre, under the command of General Graziani, was formed into the Army of Somalia, being a mixed force of Italian Divisions and tribal support forces that gave it a very eclectic character.
The “fighting elements” of the northern corps were furnished by regular army and militia (Blackshirt) divisions along with organic and corps artillery formations. The division comprised initially: Headquarters and military police (Carabinieri) and motor detachments, Infantry Regiments, Light Artillery Regiment (3 bns), Motorized Ammunition Train, Engineer Company, Signal Company, Searchlight Detachment, Water Supply Detachment, Medical Detachment and Quartermaster Train (350 horses) and Quartermaster Battalion (250 motor vehicles)…the typical European style forces one would expect.
Strength: 550 officers, 17,000 men (8000 rifles), 450 MGs and 50 field pieces.
The Eritrean Native units were formed in permanent colonial brigades (125 officers, 200 white n.c.o’s., 6500 native men, with 4000 rifles, 160 MG’s and 12 guns), so formed into two Divisions as a Native Corps.
Graziani’s Army of Somalia had a variable composition. For example, the initial divisions had 9 infantry battalions, 1 machine-gun battalion and 9 batteries, while the later divisions were reduced to 6 infantry battalions, 1 machine-gun battalion and 6 batteries; the artillery ranged from 77mm – 120mm field guns to 149mm howitzers.
Supporting these forces were the Italian Air Force. It consisted initially of: 2 reconnaissance groups of 10 squadrons, 1 naval squadron, 2 fighter groups of 6 squadrons, 6 bomber groups of 12 squadrons; the squadron was reduced to 6 machines. Subsequently, in Eritrea an air brigade was formed with 3 squadrons and 8 reconnaissance squadrons. In Somalia, 1 bomber regiment and 1 reconnaissance regiment.
From the above it can be seen that this was a major undertaking with considerable forces deployed in theatre. After the commencement of operations further reinforcements arrived such that by the time of the Ethiopian Christmas Offensive in 1935 (the jump of point for The Abyssinian Crisis counterfactual) the Italians had over 220,000 troops in the northern and 51,000 in the Southern theatre of operations. These forces were fully mechanised along with animal transport often used to transport artillery due the mountainous conditions of Ethiopia.
For such a large number of troops it can be said that the call up attracted the full spread from Italian society. The Regular army formations were something separate to the politically motivated Blackshirt militias that swelled the ranks of Mussolini’s ‘Legions’. Initially swept up with war fever the realities off campaigning took their toll on the Italian conscript, particularly the Blackshirts. In time they would adapt and harden to the conditions and the fighting but like most politically motivated recruits the realities of campaigning against a brave and combative foe soon sorted them out.
The Regular army was much as it had been organised after the First World War. The modern Italian doctrine produced units of infantry and mobile (celere) motorised and armoured formations. Even though their enemy had no real armoured forces to speak of the use of mechanisation to aid in breakthrough and exploit operations enabled the Italians to conduct proto-blitzkreig offensives on occasion, notably under Graziani’s command. This was exploited to the full to keep the Abyssinians off balance, somewhat countering the slowness of the modern forces tied to their logistical tail.
The infantry of the Regular army, as always, did most of the ‘heavy work’. Along with Regular army fucilieri units there were units of elite Bersaglieri and Alpini which added a great deal to the Italian flexibility in the rough terrain of Ethiopia, particularly the Alpini tactical handing of their integral artillery elements. Bersaglieri, specialist light infantry, often found themselves attached to motorised columns thereby providing a significant ability for Italian field commanders to create ‘fire brigade’ raggruppamento motorised/mechanised flying columns…the full spectrum of Italian arms and armour were on display in Ethiopia.
The fighting elements of the mechanised forces sent to Abyssinia were comprised of armoured cars and the tiny CV33/35 Italian tankette. Originally designed to operate in the narrow confines of the Italian alps the CV proved surprisingly effective in the harsh terrain of Ethiopia. Against the massed attacks of the Ethiopian warriors their single or twin machine guns proved the correct weapon for the task, though at times when ‘cornered’ as at Dembeguina Pass, things could go wrong. The Italians also used small numbers of the flame thrower version of the CV in the Southern theatre operations, adding further torment to their enemy who had little that could counter them. The armoured cars, the FIAT 611 and IZM armoured car was of most value in the open areas of the Ogaden Desert, proving as useful, if not more so, on the hard desert sands.
The Camice Nere, the Italian Blackshirt troops, were a mixed bunch. Attracting recruits in their twenties and thirties, even up to their mid-fifties, these troops were generally considered second rate at the start of the war, both poorly led with soldiers of limited experience. A reorganisation helped improve the militias just before the war, culminating in the seven Divisions serving in the Ethiopian campaign, who ultimately played a significant role in its outcome. These militias taken as a whole were never the equal of their regular army counterparts but certain formations did perform well and on occasion accompanied the aforementioned raggruppamento to ensure they got their ‘share of the glory’.
Supporting the Italians were the Native Eritrean Corps and Somali forces (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali). Typical of colonial soldiers they were hardened to the land, able to endure where European troops often couldn’t and gave good service to their colonial masters. Inherently aggressive they often combined the organisational benefits of the European soldier with the natural aggressiveness of a native warrior, often with a sprinkling of motivational tribal feuding added to the mix.
The Italians valued the military virtues of the Eritreans a great deal, who for the most part were best when on the offensive, however they could be somewhat skittish when forced to defend in a static role. Of all the Eritrean force perhaps the mounted Penne di Falco (Hawk Feathers) epitomised the usefulness and fighting prowess of the Ertirean soldier the most, representing something of a ‘glamour’ colonial mounted formation.
The Somali forces gave equally good service with some elements being little more than allied troops out to settle old scores with their neighbours. The organised Dubats, the so called ‘Black Bersaglieri’, were very good soldiers and valued by their Italian commanders.
From the above it can be seen that the Italian army was a diverse force encompassing many different troops that varied a great deal in motivations and capabilities. The opportunity to field such a wide selection of forces provides the wargamer using an Italain force a large variety of troops to choose from that suit their style and method of play.
For a more detailed look at the Italian army I’d recommend getting the Osprey title the “Italian Invasion of Abyssinia‘ which covers in more detail the specifics of the forces of Italy…recommended.