Imperial Guard Armoured troops at attention next to their captured Italian L3-35 tankettes along with their European advisor.
As part of The Abyssinian Crisis counterfactual the arrival of additional armoured support elements is included for the Ethiopian Army. These vehicles will add a good deal of variety to the Abyssinian player’s regular army troops such as the Mehal Sefari and Imperial Guard troops, where such limited assets would typically be used as was standard practice. Historically the Abyssinians only had three FIAT 3000A vehicle and one FIAT 3000B vehicles. A single vehicle was used in one engagement, with the rest being captured in Addis Ababa by the Italians by war’s end. The Ethiopians did capture a number of vehicles throughout the war but due to a lack of training and spare parts they were never utilised.
As part of the modernisation of emperor Haile Selassie’s army, the Ethiopians began acquiring armored vehicles. Through his relationship with an Italian patron, he was able to secure Ethiopia’s first tank, a FIAT 3000A Mod. 21 tank in 1925 to begin this program. The prestige of this armoured vehicle afforded him a distinct advantage when his crown was threatened in the attempted coup d’état led by Dejazmatch Balcha Safo in 1928, no doubt influencing his decision to acquire further vehicles to secure the garrison in the capital, Addis Ababa.
With his premiership secure, the pressing realities of modernising his country were undertaken. Part of this was the security of his borders and the establishment of a modern military – a formidable task undertaken with some zeal and limited resources. As relations with Italy began to become strained, despite the ‘treaty of friendship and arbitration’ having being signed as recently as 1928 in the wake of his coronation ,the emperor acquired a further three FIAT 3000B Mod. 30. These four armoured vehicles formed the nucleus around which the knowledge, training and acquisition of skills could be used to develop a mechanised capability.
There is some conjecture as to the armament that these vehicles had. The first FIAT 3000A vehicle is generally accepted as being armed with two 6.5 mm machine guns with the remaining two of the three FIAT 3000B vehicles being equipped with a 37/40 light gun, the other being armed with twin 6.5mm machine guns like the FIAT 3000A model.
FIAT 3000A Mod. 21
Other vehicles that were used by the Ethiopians were more practical in that they were were wheeled vehicles, much more suited to the deployment and use in country. Sources vary as to the true composition of the number and type of vehicles available. it would appear that only 1 armoured car that would be recognised as such was used by the Ethiopians It is known that armed lorries were used by the single expedient of mounting a machine gun on the rear of the vehicle, a very early version of what we’d call today a ‘technical’.
Given the simplicity of this arrangement the actual numbers are probably hard to calculate as to the total number of such vehicles that were used, remembering that the Ethiopians had several hundreds of machine guns of various types that could easily be configured this way. We can confidently say that it wasn’t a widespread practice but actual numbers will probably never be known.
Lorry with mounted machine gun. 8 passengers and what looks like 3 men in the cab.
Some further sources describe variations around the number and type of armoured vehicles employed by the Ethiopian’s. In the readily available Osprey title, The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-36, reference on page 24 to “probably include around 7 armed (but unarmoured) Fiat assault cars, 7 or so Ford Type A and other lorries mounting machine guns, and perhaps 7 so-called armoured cars. The latter may have been confused with the armed truck or assault cars, since other reports maintained that that the Ethiopians only had one real armoured car. Some of these vehicles would be used in the Ogaden”.
This would appear to identify only the single armoured car as noted above. Along with their own vehicles the Ethiopians captured a number of L3-35 tankettes. No method was devised to attack the tankettes in a ‘conventional’ way but on a number of occasions the Ethiopians disabled the vehicle through the use of roadblocks, ‘sneak attacks’, rocks to disable running gear and even overturning the vehicles if they could be immobilised and overrun.
This happened on more than one occasion and was a legitimate tactic that had some success, though usually at the cost of lives. In the action at Dembeguina Pass tankettes were set alight with petrol – an unpleasant end for the crew. In total, 9 tankettes were captured by the Ethiopians in the Dembeguina Pass attacks. Unfortunately for them they lacked the expertise to use their war booty against the Italians due to a lack or training, resupplies and spares, thus captured tankettes and their often unfortunate crews were not utilised to any good effect. In all it is believed up to 18 tankettes were captured, though the final number will probably not be known, but evidence of the Italian vehicle loss is apparent by the numerous pictures of Ethiopians with these vehicles.
Ethiopian Imperial Guard troops inspect a captured L3-35 tankette.
Accounts of the use of vehicles by the Ethiopia’s are rare but one such occasion occurred in a kind of ambush at Hamanlei on November 11th 1935. A detachment of colonna Maletti was attacked while it was crossing a river, the Ethiopians 6 vehicles which are somewhere referred to as armored trucks and somewhere else as tanks, the Ethiopians were crushed but with very heavy casualties among the Italians, whose actions was frantic and uncoordinated.
From reality to what might have been…
The following details expand the story of the burgeoning elements of the Ethiopian mechanised force described above to the possibility of what might have been had they received the weapons they so desperately sought, or possibly could have been offered. We pick up the story with war clouds still looming and the creation of the so called ‘Abyssinian Arnoured Field Force’.
As hostilities with Italy seemed ever more apparent the decision was made to expand the armour capability of the Ethiopian army as quickly as possible.
As Haile Selassie’s army mobilised he pressed the Japanese, through his personal influence and a hastily dispatched delegation, to acquire their surplus armoured vehicles, which were already forming part of ongoing discussions up to that point. Responding to high levels of public support for the Ethiopian cause, the Japanese emperor personally intervened and authorized the sale of many of their ‘surplus’ vehicles. Given that the Japanese armaments industry was now in full swing producing their own more modern tanks, this was convenient timing for all concerned.
Through this arrangement a strange collection of armoured fighting vehicles was acquired by the Ethiopians, forming the core of the Abyssinian Armoured Field Force. These vehicles were delivered by train from Djibouti under the guise of ‘farm equipment’ to avoid inspectors and prying eyes in the French port. Not much in that town stays unknown for long and the Italians were very much aware that some armoured vehicles had been sent via rail and were most likely in the capital Addis Ababa.
It included Type 89A I-GO light tanks, Type 92 tankettes and the Japanese Renault FT variant designated FT-Ko, adding to the four Italian FIAT 3000 models they already had. Several modified Japanese NC-27 tanks, which was the expert version of the French Char D1 in its earlier development, along with six Whippet tanks of World War One vintage and a single British Mark IV (female) completed the armoured menagerie. The Japanese version of the Crossley Armoured Car, the M25 Kuroserei, which was upgunned with two turret-mounted machine guns, completed the purchase.
Japanese Type 89 I-Go tanks of the AAFF advance to the front alongside Imperial Guard soldiers.
In addition to the forces above, the British government furnished the Ethiopians with a small force of Vickers tanks to be shipped out and crewed by Ethiopians. This unique Anglo-Abyssinian detachment was made up of a single Vickers Independent heavy tank, two Vickers Mark III tanks and numerous Vickers twin turreted export Mark E ‘Type A’ Light tanks, commonly known as six-tonners.
How the armoured elements of the Abyssinian Field Force would be used is best illustrated by looking at a map of Ethiopia at that time. What becomes immediately apparent is the lack of any trafficable road network within the country to allow for the deployment of the vehicles with any degree of speed or minimisation of damage. Distances are considerable in Ethiopia and conditions are harsh on vehicles, particularly tracked ones.
These valuable assets needed to be deployed where they could make difference to the outcome of a battle, delaying the enemy or inflicting a reverse upon him such that his operations were disrupted. This largely dictated the areas that the vehicles would be used. The defence of the capital of course is important but cannot of itself be considered a suitable ‘forward line of defence’.
Important regional towns and their approaches, such as Gondar and Harrar, would be places where armoured elements could be utilised to good effect. Interdicting Franco-Italian operations to secure the rail line from Djibouti, particularly the township of Diradawa, would also be an obvious place to utilise such forces. The fact that the Ethiopians could use some of the rail line in areas under their control also allows some strategic redeployment of these vehicles for maximum effect. Further study of the road and rail network elicits other similar analysis, which we shall leave to the inquisitive reader.
In so far as their tactical deployment, all these forces were parceled out to formations typical of the doctrine of the day taking into account the capabilities of the vehicles themselves. Principally they were utilized as infantry support vehicles and little more – there are no panzer thrusts here. They fought in direct support of the infantry as and when they were needed, usually singly but on occasion in groups of two or three.
Interestingly, by Imperial decree, Haile Sellasie instructed that all vehicles in the Armoured Field Force remain in the colours and camouflage of the country from which they came. This was done so that the world press could see the international nature of support that the emperor enjoyed and also as a mark of respect to the ‘donating’ countries shown by his people. Though this rule was followed for the most part, some local variations in vehicle colouration may have occurred.
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The coveted badge of the Abyssinian Armoured Field Force.