In a policy which he claimed would make the Italian Regno Esercito (Royal Army) ‘more Prussian than the Prussians’ and stemming from the belief that ‘peace sprang from an army of eight million bayonets’, Mussolini had extended and expanded conscription in Italy. Besides increasing the size of the army itself, a number of units, ostensibly drawn from the ‘fascist voluntary militia’ – the MSVN (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale) were combined with the army. These Camicie Nere (CCNN) or ‘Black Shirt’ formations were territorially based and drew their members from the same population pool as the army drew its conscripts.
For all the Fascist propaganda that painted Italy as modern and progressive, the truth of the matter was that, like most armies in Europe, its army was only marginally different to that with which it had fought the Great War. The only new weapon of war to appear in the army’s inventory was the Carro Veloce modello 1933 (CV-33) and its upgraded version the CV-33/35, which were essentially tankettes based on a British design.
Where most of Europe had adopted ‘Spitzer’ style rounds for their infantry rifles and light machine guns, the Italians retained older round-nosed bullets for the standard infantry rifle, the Carcano modello 1891, as well as its Mitragliatrice Fiat Revelli Modello 1914 machine guns and the comparatively new light machine gun the Fucile Mitragliatore Breda modello 1930. As evidenced by its notable success in killing an American President in 1963, the round might have lacked power and became unstable when it hit bone or other ‘hard objects’, but it did not normally fragment and had the potential to pass through one body and into another; a useful facet when facing massed tribesmen.
At the time of the Abyssinian Invasion the Italians lacked both light and medium mortars, although this had been partially addressed by the purchase of 81mm Brandt M.1927 mortars for those formations that were being sent to Abyssinia. At closer distances most of the infantry relied on the somewhat complex Moschetto di Fanteria Mod. 91/28 con Tromboncino rifle grenade attachment for their rifles. In 1935 a new 45mm ‘assault mortar’, the Mortaio d’Assalto Brixia Modello 1935, was introduced, but few units had this weapon by the time the invasion commenced. Both Italian hand grenades and the new 45mm mortar round, had limited fragmentation and relied on blast more than fragmentation, so that troops might be upon the enemy sooner than they might be with more powerful types.
Italy possessed little in the way of anti-tank capability; although it was attempting to address this by the licenced production of the Austrian Böhler 47mm dual-purpose 47mm gun (Cannone da 47/32 M35). This weapon had also been introduced in 1935 and at the beginning of the invasion had not reached units. Primary anti-armour capability was therefore left to the 65mm infantry guns, which were very ill-purposed in such a role.
The newer carros veloces (CV-33/35) were equipped with twin 8mm Fiat Modello 1914/1935 machine guns, which besides using a more powerful standard round than the original 6.5mm type, also had armour piercing rounds mixed into their ammunition belts alongside the normal and tracer rounds. Conversion of existing infantry weapons was also begun with some army and CCNN machine gun units receiving them before the invasion.
Artillery was one area in which the Italians were fairly well-equipped, albeit that they were older types, some of which were Pre-Great War. A divisional Reggimento Artiglieria was composed of three gruppi, each of three batteries of four guns. The first two gruppi had 75mm guns, either the pack Cannone da 75/13 modello 1915 in the mountain divisions, or the horse or vehicle-drawn Cannone da 75/27 modello 1906 or 1911 in the infantry divisions. The third gruppo had heavier guns with the pack Obice da 100/14 modello 1916 for the mountain divisions and horse or vehicle-drawn Obice da 100/17 modello 1914, or Obice da 105/14 modello 1918 for the remainder. Some motorised units also had an anti-aircraft battery of eight new Cannone-mitraglierada 20/65 modello 1935.
The infantry divisions these would be part of were either divisioni alpina, divisioni di montagna or more commonly divisioni fanteria. Besides the artillery regiment, each divisione involved in the invasion had one engineer company, a supply company with 3,000 mules, a transport detachment with around 60 trucks, a six-company battaglione mitraglieri (MG battalion) a battalion of replacement personnel and two or three reggimenti de fanteria. Some divisions received a gun company of two platoons, each of two sections of two Cannone 47/32.
Each infantry regiment typically had a compagnia di morteio (three platoons of two 81mm mortars each), a batteria d’accomagnmento with two plotoni of two of two 65/17 guns and three battaglioni. The battalions each had three compagnie di fucilieri and a compagnia de mitraglieri, which consisted of two plotoni each of two squadre, each of three six-man machine gun teams. Those units which had received the 45mm light mortar, added the one or two platoons of these (each three squads of three mortar teams) to create a compagnia armi d’accompagnamento. Within the headquarters company of the battalion there was also a plotone di esploratore (scout platoon), which was organised in the same way as a rifle platoon. Each compagnia de fucilieri had three platoons.
The same organisation pattern was followed by the Alpini regiments, but the motorised infantry of the Bersaglieri and the motorised cavalry of the Lancieri di Aosta had a slightly different pattern of organisation. This pattern is hard to discern for 1935, but appears to have been two infantry battalions and a company of motociclisti, which was composed of two motorcycle platoons and two moto-mitragliatrice (machine gun) platoons. There was no scout platoon at the battalion headquarters, but the weapons company followed the same pattern. The Alpini, Bersaglieri and Lancieri, were considered elite formations and were first to receive the modified M.14/35 machine guns and the new 45mm ‘assault mortars’. The Bersaglieri also carried the cavalry carbine version of the Carcano rifle, while oddly the Lancieri seem to have been issued with the standard infantry version.
The CCNN formations of the MSVN used a variation of the infantry organisation too. ‘Roman’ titles also predominated for units, so a regiment became a legione, a battalion a coorte, companies were centurie and platoons manipoli. Despite this the more usual military terms are equally as commonly encountered. CCNN legioni contained two battalions, each of three companies of three platoons. Legione support came in the form of a single two platoon machine gun company and a single 65/17 pack artillery battery. The CCNN was a voluntary territorial-based force and on average its members were somewhat older than the conscripts of the army formations, albeit that some CCNN units were drawn from universities and from youths just below conscription age.
Besides the units of the army and the MSVN CCNN formations operating with it, Italy also possessed a number of colonial formations, collectively termed the Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali – The Royal Corps of Colonial Troops (RCTC). In essence these were very much the same type of forces which both France and Britain maintained in their own colonial possessions. With the exception of the Libyan Division, which was organised in the same manner as a regular division, the core of these forces were individual units, typically of battalion size for infantry, or squadron size for cavalry and the indigenous carabinieri or zaptìé.
These units were officered by Italians, collectively termed zabet by their men. The rank and file of these formations were recruited from the indigenous population. As was the case with the British and French, individual ‘ascari’ were signed up with few questions asked and it was not unusual to find that an individual might have served with the French, British, or might actually even be Ethiopian, Yemeni or Omani Arab in his origins. The desertion of an entire company of Ethiopian ascari early in the war, along with their pack animals and machine guns, is therefore perhaps unsurprising. By the same token disaffected Ethiopians did not hesitate to sign-up as ascari once the invasion began either.
The gruppo of Eritrean cavalry squadrons, known as the Penne di Falcos, because of the falcon feather worn in their headgear, were somewhat of an elite formation in comparison to the other ascari units. They were armed with Carcano carbines and had a weapons company, which could attach a machine gun platoon, or an armoured car section to the individual sabre squadrons of the gruppo as needed. While their function was to scout and skirmish with their carbines, the Penne di Falcos were trained in the use of sabres and carried them when operational. The indigenous carabinieri also carried swords and carbines, but lacked the support weapons of the Penne di Falcos.
The infantry battalions consisted of a machine gun company organised in the same way as the army’s and three rifle companies. Each of these was divided into two half-companies, each of three baluc (platoons). As a result a RCTC battalion was almost twice the size of an army battalion. While some battalions had either Carcano rifles, or others the war-reparation 8mm Mannlicher M.95 rifles; known as the ‘ta pum!’ by the Italians. Some of the new units raised before the invasion were armed with refurbished 6.5mm Vetterli-Vitali M.70/77/15 rifles, or in some cases even the black powder 10mm Vetterli-Vitali M.70 that predated all other types. Light machine guns were non-existent in many units and those few units which had them, usually only had one per platoon. The machine gun companies were either equipped with the Fiat-Revelli M.14, or 8mm Schwartzlose war-reparation weapons.
For some time the Italians had made use of local mercenaries, either the Dubats (white turbans) of Eritrea, or the Shifta (bandits) of Somaliland. In both cases such men were plentiful, experienced and cheap. The Italians grouped these into banda of around two hundred men and into gruppe of several bande. Banda would be most usually infantry, but horse and camel mounted banda and even wholly mounted gruppe squadroni existed too. Individual banda were probably divided into half units and baluc in the same way as the ascari.
The final element of the Italian invasion force, were the quasi-feudal retinues of individual Eritrean or Somali nobles and chieftains. These owed service to the King of Italy through treaties and agreements drawn up as Italy had expanded its hold on the region in previous years. Like some of their Ethiopian opponents, these were largely groups of spear and swordsmen, with some men possessing firearms of dubious origin and age. The core of these forces were the mounted nobles and tribal gentry, who were again armed with lance and sword, but who also usually possessed a firearm of some kind in addition.
Chain of Command: The Abyssinian War army list – Italian Regno Esercito and CCNN army lists.
Lastly, for those that missed the introduction by TFL El Supremo, Rich Clarke, here it is on the Two Fat Lardies blog.