Italian Field Artillery in the Ethiopian Campaign

(From a study prepared in the Military Intelligence Division, War Department General Staff; July-August 1937, US Army)

Terrain.

Northern Front (Eritrea).

Extending southward over 400 miles from the Mareb River, which marked, in part, the boundary between the Italian colony of Eritrea, and the then independent state of Ethiopia, to include the latter’s capital. Addis Ababa, lies the high plateau of Ethiopia. It was in this area that the Italian main force conducted its principal military operations during the period October, 1935—May, 1936. The troops employed were predominantly Italian (European), and far exceeded in numbers those operating in Somaliland in the south.

The terrain of the high plateau is about as uninviting for artillery maneuver as are the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. But the 4th Field Artillery (USA) (2.95 pack) made a 1000-mile march in Wyoming and Colorado prior to the World War—perhaps knowledge of this trip added a bit to the vast experience of the Italians with artillery in the Alps and Appenines. In any event, pack artillery constituted the bulk of the artillery increment of the forces sent to East Africa. The plateau is a series of mountain ranges, high peaks which at times reach over 10,000 feet in elevation, deep ravines and gulches, very rocky and rough, and almost devoid of vegetation except along the water courses and over occasional tracts of land where the soil is fertile. Roads were practically nonexistent, and caravan trails constituted the only routes of communication.

The climate is neither unpleasant nor unhealthful. There are generally two seasons—the dry and the wet. The rainy season begins usually in May and lasts through September. It rains very hard at times, streams fill and flood, but mud appears to have had little influence except in isolated instances on the movement of troops or materiel. But throughout the entire year the most important factors, from an artillery viewpoint, are the mists and fogs in the valleys and clouds around the peaks which obscure visibility. With a wealth of terrestrial OP’s, this periodic condition was the principal mar to an artilleryman’s paradise.

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Southern Front (Somaliland)

Italian Somaliland is a most inhospitable region. Extending hundreds of miles northwest from the Indian Ocean, it is flat, insufferably hot and arid, and covered with a growth of equatorial thorny, bushy, shrub, which seriously limits both terrestrial and aerial visibility. It is dusty and sandy in dry weather, but after a moderately heavy rain, either in the foothills to the northwest or local in a given area, the trails are either flooded or become quagmires, and both wheeled and animal transport soon comes to a virtual standstill. Two principal rivers, the Scebeli and the Giuba, flow southeast into the ocean, and offer avenues of invasion and communication.

Caravan trails offer the other alternative, although, in dry weather, it is only necessary to clear the shrub to provide a passable road for motors. Some 600 miles inland the terrain slopes upwards to a more inviting region of the high mountains which bar the way to the capita, Addis Ababa. It rains off and on throughout the year, with definite seasons called the ‘little’ rains and the ‘big’ rains. Fog and mist were not obstacles for the artillery the thick brush and difficulty in securing good terrestrial OPs were. The forces employed in Somaliland were much smaller than those used in the north and were preponderantly native.

Organization of the Field Artillery.

Normal in Italy.

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Position de Luxe

The division artillery of the regular Italian infantry divisions in the homeland includes a normal total of 48 guns and howitzers, excluding antitank and antiaircraft weapons, organized into a single regiment of four (4) battalions, as follows:

  • 2 Battalions (3 batteries each) 75/18-mm. howitzers, which can be either packed or hauled. (Weapons of 75-mm. caliber with tube 18 calibers in length.)
  • 1 Battalion (3 batteries) 75/28-mm. guns, usually horse-drawn.
  • 1 Battalion (3 batteries) 100/17-mm. howitzers, tractor-drawn.
  • 1 Battery, 47-mm. antitank, and 1 battery 20-mm. antiaircraft.

For East Africa.

(1) Eritrean Theater.

With the terrain of the planned theaters of operation and the character of the opposing forces in mind, this normal complement of artillery was reduced materially in the divisions dispatched to East Africa. A minimum amount of artillery for the task at hand was provided. The divisions were reorganized with a view of attaining a high degree of flexibility, lightness, and maneuverability, and to have a high proportion of automatic weapons.

The regular army divisions in the north, seven in number, each had a regiment of mule pack artillery, consisting of two battalions of three batteries each. The armament was the 75-mm. pack howitzer—4 pieces to a battery. Each battalion had a total of 435 mules, of which 120 were in the combat train. This number was probably somewhat in excess of the normal need, but casualties in animals and the necessity of packing the ammunition forward from roadheads were undoubtedly foreseen and extra mules provided therefor. A single battery in one division used the Sardinian type of horse for pack purposes. This battery performed equally as well as the mule pack batteries, and lost from various causes a slightly smaller percentage of animals. The Sardinian horse is of Arab and Barb blood, and is small, hardy, and a good weight-carrier. The medium artillery was eliminated from the divisional regiment.

Five divisions of “Black Shirts” (Fascist Militia), somewhat lighter and with more reduced services than the regular divisions, were part of the northern army. Each had a single battalion of pack artillery of three batteries, furnished from the regular forces.

The two native divisions employed had two battalions of artillery each. This, in connection with the infantry organization of two brigades, permitted splitting a division into two equal parts for detached service. These battalions were motorized, using 77/28-mm. guns. Pack artillery was attached to these divisions during the later stages of the campaign, replacing the old-type guns.

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Pieces en Masse

The corps artillery available consisted of:

  • 2 battalions 100/17-mm. howitzers
  • 2 battalions 105/28-mm. guns
  • 2 battalions 149/13-mm. howitzers

All batteries were motorized, some being drawn by Pavesi tractors (wheeled) and some by trucks. The battalions were allotted initially equally to the I and II Corps. The Native Corps was not given any of this artillery. When the III and IV Corps were organized in the winter of 1936, part of the above artillery was put at their disposition for active operations.

This gives then, with Marshal Badoglio’s army in the north, a total of 308 pieces of artillery, as the corps units and units with the native corps were two-battery battalions.

(2) Somaliland Theater.

The forces in Somaliland, under command of General Graziani, consisted of two European divisions, one Libyan division, two mechanized-motorized cavalry regiments, and some 25,000 natives organized into battalions or “bands.” In addition there were auxiliary troops and services. The native troops did the greater part of the fighting.

The single regular army division had a three-battalion regiment (9 batteries) of pack artillery, armed with 75/13 and 75/27-mm. pack howitzers. The one Black Shirt division had a single battalion of 75/13-mm. pack howitzers. The Libyan division from North Africa had a three-battery battalion of mixed 75-mm. mule and camel pack artillery. In addition, there were available:

  • 5 batteries, mountain artillery, camel pack
  • 1 battalion, light artillery, motor-drawn or portee
  • 1 battalion, 100/17-mm. howitzers, tractor-drawn
  • 1 battalion, 105/28-mm. guns, tractor-drawn
  • This gave a total of 27 batteries of field artillery, or 108 pieces, on the basis of 4 guns to the battery.

This artillery was generally employed where its need could be foreseen, and the prime movers used were varied and fitted to the occasion—from pack, through all means of hauling, to portee. There was no hesitation shown in detaching batteries or battalions from their organic major units and employing them several hundred miles away to furnish additional artillery support to assist in accomplishing a certain mission.

Ethiopian Artillery.

To oppose this mass of 416 modern artillery weapons, abundantly supplied with ammunition. Ethiopia possessed probably not in excess of 200 pieces of artillery, some 50 of which, at the most, were serviceable. These were principally old models of assorted types, but included a number of small modern guns of Belgian manufacture. These were the “Oerlikon” 20-mm. antiaircraft weapons and the 10 received and used did some fair work against Italian planes. There were some 120,000 rounds of ammunition in the country, mostly antiaircraft, and all for the smaller calibers. There were no facilities for the manufacture of ammunition or the upkeep of the artillery materiel, and the training of personnel to serve the pieces was a difficult matter. The Ethiopian artillery was neither efficient nor effective, except in isolated instances against aircraft.

Employment.

Positions.

With threats of hostile counterbattery fire and air attacks entirely eliminated, almost complete freedom of choice was given the Italian battalion and battery commanders in the selection of battery positions. Concealment and defilade were not only unnecessary but undesirable, particularly on the defensive, for positions were needed from which fire could be delivered at short ranges with direct laying in the event of possible Ethiopian breakthroughs. Other considerations in the selection of positions were: Near good observation, employment of the fire power in mass under central control, protection from swift rushes from the flanks and rear, and relative ease of ammunition supply.

The Italian field artillery, as is always the case, was most vulnerable when on the march, and, on at least one occasion, suffered severely from a sudden surprise attack by the highly mobile Ethiopian forces. A mule pack battery of the Gavinana (19th) Division, marching with a battalion of infantry constituting the advance guard support, was attacked suddenly in flank near Selaclaca on February 29th, at the time of the launching of Marshal Badoglio’s first big offensive to the south. The battery barely got into action and fired a few rounds before being overrun. It lost all of its officers, and the majority of its men were killed, and its guns were in the hands of the Ethiopians until retaken by counterattack the following day with heavy losses to the counterattacking infantry. It is possible that our system of advancing advance guard batteries by bounds from position to position would have obviated this loss—on the other hand, the terrain militated against such employment.

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Hard Going

Communication.

Radio played a predominant and very vital role with the Italian forces. It furnished the principal air-ground means of communication for airplanes conducting adjustments for the artillery on defiladed targets. It also was a principal method of communication between the higher echelons of command.

When practicable, and it usually was, batteries were congregated in restricted areas to facilitate control. Short wire lines sufficed for artillery command purposes and fire direction. Wire lines connected batteries or battalions to their OP’s. Visual signalling was used at times. The lack of wire communication between the artillery and the supported infantry, however, was marked, and the need for its use was felt severely in certain combats, notably that at Birgot in the south.

Mobility.

The question of mobility apparently had relatively little influence once active operations began. The types of artillery sent to East Africa were suited to the terrain. The pack artillery maneuvered without great trouble.

The motorized units of medium artillery followed the roads when completed. Prior to the larger offensives, preparations were invariably made with the greatest care, and plenty of time was available to enable the artillery comfortably to occupy its positions and assure its ammunition supply. Once the attack was launched and Ethiopian resistance was broken, it became a question of following up the disorganized Ethiopians, usually a great distance, to their next position. The artillery pursued with fire up to the limit of its ranges and then advanced, with infantry protection, and occupied positions for the next attack. The pack artillery easily kept pace with the infantry.

One incident in the north is worthy of comment as illustrating the possibilities of truck-drawn medium artillery under adverse conditions of terrain. Following the temporary Italian reverse near Selaclaca, additional artillery was rushed to support the II Corps in that locality. A truck-drawn battalion of 149/13-mm. howitzers left its position south of Macalle and marched a distance of 500 kilometers in three days to Selaclaca. Marshal Badoglio termed this “an admirably swift march”—it is certainly a noteworthy example of strategic mobility.

Fire Support.

(1) Counterbattery.

Counterbattery was never a major mission of the Italian artillery for the simple reason that battery targets rarely existed. Whenever the Ethiopians did get a few pieces into position within effective range, their batteries were located promptly and soon silenced, if their relative importance permitted, with intense concentrations of artillery fire.

Most of the Ethiopian artillery was with the Imperial Guard of the Negus, Haile Selassie. A small amount appeared with Ras Mulughieta’s forces during the battle of the Enderta, or Amba Aradam, in February, 1936. Two batteries, one of 4 pieces and one of 6, entered into the action in support of counterattacks, but were in time silenced by Italian counterbattery fire. With Italian airplanes dominating the battlefield. Ethiopian artillery could not remain long undiscovered and free from well-adjusted artillery fire.

In the battle of Lake Ascianghi, in which the Imperial Guard made its supreme effort, the Negus had a certain amount of artillery and mortars, the exact amount of which is unknown. On this day, 31 March, 1936, the Ethiopians made their final bid by attacking desperately the Italian position, held by three divisions, to the north of Lake Ascianghi, and there probably the fiercest fighting of the entire war took place. The attack was preceded by a 15-minute artillery preparation of a sort which fell on the “Val Pusteria” Division of Alpini, but the attack itself developed further to the east—another indication of the complete lack of coordination within the Ethiopian forces. But the Italian artillery was so occupied in the defense of the positions against repeated attacks continuing from early morning to midafternoon, that counterbattery could not be included among its immediate missions, particularly since the Ethiopian artillery fire was mostly ineffective.

(2) Defensive.

The Italian artillery was handled with skill on the defense and proved itself again to be a most important cog with ground forces under almost any conditions of combat. Following the temporary loss of the battery near Selaclaca and the spirited fighting in which the entire Gavinana Division became engaged during the rest of the day (February 29th), the II Corps brought its remaining two divisions up, one on each side of the Gavinana, emplaced its corps artillery, and awaited further attack, while organizing for defense. Fire from the remainder of the Gavinana’s division artillery prevented the Ethiopians from removing the four captured pieces during the night.

On March 2d the Ethiopians again attacked, this time frontally, and principally against the positions of the Gavinana across the level floor of the small valley in which the town of Selaclaca is located. A small hill was occupied as the right of the Gavinana’s line and from this hill excellent observation was to be had over all the terrain within the valley. By early afternoon all the corps artillery was in position close behind the front, and, under centralized control, was enabled to maneuver an overpowering mass of fire from point to point as desired.

The effect of this fire was such as completely to destroy, both physically and morally, the spirit and will to attack of the Ethiopian troops; the attack was easily repulsed, and the forces of Ras Imru soon began their retreat. During the withdrawal, the artillery exacted severe losses from the Ethiopians with concentrations of interdiction fire placed on the narrow passes in the surrounding mountains, through which the Ethiopians were forced to withdraw. The corps pressed the retreat with its artillery displacing rapidly forward and continuing interdiction fires upon the limited avenues of escape. The Ethiopians throughout the campaign showed a surprising indifference to the staggering losses caused by the Italian automatic weapons but, on the other hand, were profoundly in fear of artillery fire. The moral effect of the latter proved invaluable.

In this engagement Ras Imru’s army was completely defeated and it was never again effective as a cohesive force. The following Italian artillery took part:

2 battalions medium howitzers: 1 battalion medium guns; 9 battalions light guns and howitzers. Total, 12 battalions, 33 batteries, 132 pieces. The corps artillery expended some 8000 rounds of ammunition, or approximately 222 rounds per gun; the division artillery consumed some 4000 rounds per division on the average—a total of about 20,000 rounds of ammunition during a three-day combat.

Of course the absence of Ethiopian artillery and aviation gave the Italian artillery complete freedom of action, and excellent observation, timely secured, guaranteed the effectiveness of its fires. An altitude of about 6000 feet in this area, with the resultant decrease in density of air, permitted longer ranges, and the pursuit with very effective fire up to the limit of the respective range of each type of weapon. The artillery was extremely well handled in the course of this engagement.

The second major defensive battle fought by the Italian forces in the north was that of Lake Ascianghi on 31 March, 1936, referred to previously. While completing the logistical preparations, including the construction of roads, for a further advance to the south, the I and Native Corps occupied a defensive position with three divisions (two of which were native) in line and three divisions and additional units in reserve.

The position was a strong natural one, and its front was well covered with the fire of automatic weapons. The artillery was carefully emplaced with fine observation available and had time thoroughly to prepare its fires in advance.

The attack, which had been expected, was launched early in the morning. It was broken up by the fire of automatic weapons and artillery concentrations, and the Ethiopians, reassembling to the rear under cover, became targets for intense artillery concentrations. Repeated attacks against different portions of the position met usually the same fate, for the Ethiopian piecemeal tactics permitted the ideal employment in mass of the Italian artillery.

On at least three occasions, however, the Ethiopians penetrated the Italian position, thus preventing the artillery from giving close-in support. These penetrations were ejected by automatic-weapon fire and counterattack, and when the best troops of the Negus finally broke in the late afternoon, after having fought all day with terrible determination and having taken enormous losses, the Italian artillery pursued with its fire and put the finishing touches to the shattering of Ethiopian morale. Through persistent bombing and ground-strafing, the air force kept Ethiopian morale at this low ebb, caused additional losses, and prevented the Ethiopians from reorganizing and occupying a defensive position. The artillery did its work well during this strenuous day, but, on the other hand, conditions were extremely favorable to its effective employment.

(3) Offensive.

The employment of the Italian artillery in the offensive was characterized by careful reconnaissance, deliberate occupation of position, detailed preparation of data for concentrations and schedule fires, decisive employment in mass, generally under centralized control, and fullest use to exploit a success when victory had become assured.

The six-day operation known as the Battle of the Enderta, or Amba Aradam, well illustrates its effective employment on the offensive. This was Marshal Badoglio’s initial major operation after assuming command and was launched during the period February 10-15, 1936, after all preparations had been made with the greatest care. Seven divisions participated, supported by nine battalions of corps (or army) artillery. Ras Mulughieta, the Ethiopian Minister of War, occupied the prominent flat-topped mountain, Amba Aradam, and its supporting defenses, with a force estimated at 70,000 troops. The Italian force totaled well over 100,000. It is interesting to compare these numbers with those engaged in our battle of Gettysburg—approximately the same.

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Amba Alagi

The operations of the first two days, which included the approach march and development, met with little opposition, as the area was well covered by the emplaced Italian artillery. On the third day, with a low fog overhanging the valleys precluding artillery observation and making infantry contact difficult, the advancing columns, three in number, were each struck by Ethiopian counterattacks, which had initial successes, caused severe losses and held up the advance. The corps artillery displaced forward meanwhile and, after a delay of two days due to rain and continuation of the fog and mist, was ready to support the continuation of the attack with carefully prepared fires centrally controlled. The devastating effect of this fire on Amba Aradam was too much for Ethiopian morale.

The artillery fire throughout this action is reported to have been especially effective. Batteries were placed in positions just off the road and jammed close together to facilitate control. Six batteries were in an area not a great deal more than 150 yards square. Ammunition supply was a simple matter and the 276 pieces of artillery taking part never lacked sufficient ammunition to enable heavy concentrations to be put down wherever needed on call and to maneuver this mass of fire from point to point with the fine observation available after the fog lifted.

This offensive operation is typical of the several major attacks by the Italian forces in the north, in which the effectiveness of the artillery was always notable, and undoubtedly due in great part to its employment in mass under central control and under special circumstances as to terrain, climate, and enemy.

Conditions with General Graziani’s forces in Somaliland were greatly different. In what was probably the hardest-fought combat in that area, the Battle of Birgot, engaged in by General Frusci’s column, the field artillery was on the whole ineffective, due to several causes—the defensive tactics of the Ethiopians who occupied caves in the banks of ravines and similar places, where they could be neither located by the air forces nor neutralized by the artillery; the thickness of the brush and consequent difficulty of locating targets, and the almost impossibility of the artillery securing even fair observation. Two battalions of camel pack 65/17-mm. howitzers and one battalion (2 batteries) of tractor-drawn 100/13-mm. howitzers were engaged, but the automatic weapons and fighting ability of the Arabo-Somali soldiers, well led by Italian officers, accounted mainly for the success at Birgot.

Ammunition Supply.

The Italian “Artillery Service,” which corresponds closely to our Ordnance Department, handles and distributes all classes of ammunition. Prior to the big advances in the north, the principal depot at Asmara in Eritrea was stocked with a reserve of 10 days’ of fire of all classes of artillery ammunition, and was equipped with the necessary workshops for the repair of materiel, equipment, and fire-control instruments.

Advance depots were established well forward to serve the troops in each important area or for each separate major unit. Combat units drew the necessary ammunition from these advance depots directly with their own transportation. No known shortage of artillery ammunition existed under this plan of supply.

Conclusions.

The outstanding features of the organization and employment of the Italian artillery in Ethiopia are: The care with which it was organized, especially as to type and amount, for the job at hand; and its employment in mass on every possible occasion and up to the limits of its capabilities.

While aerial bombing was employed on occasions for preparing the way for the infantry attack or in supplementing an artillery preparation, the results obtained by the aviation show that it cannot replace artillery for the close support of the infantry either in attack or defense. It cannot equal artillery in accuracy nor in capacity to deliver continuous and concentrated fire when and where needed, and with numerous targets beyond the range of artillery always available, it appears that the mission of infantry close-support preferably should be left to the artillery, while air units devote their attention to more distant targets.

The importance of artillery in military operations in any theater of war and against any class of opponent is again emphasized even after discounting the special circumstances under which it was employed in Ethiopia.

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