The Italian Artillery in Ethiopia

(From notes compiled in the January-February edition of the US Army Artillery Journal on the use of Artillery in Ethiopia).

As time goes on the magnitude of the Italian effort in Ethiopia becomes more apparent. An idea of the difficulties encountered and of the efforts required to overcome them may be gained by a study of artillery employment on the Eritrea and Somalia fronts. These fronts will be considered in turn, for they present marked differences in terrain, forces involved, and tactics employed.

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ERITREA EXPEDITION

TERRAIN

The terrain confronting the northern Italian columns consisted of a high plateau extending parallel to the coast at a mean height of 2,000 meters and cut by deep and rugged valleys. The few roads and trails followed the main ridge along the center. They were wide enough for fairly easy going along the levels but became only mule or foot paths in the valleys. The principal one, the so-called imperial highway, was no more than a mediocre dirt road with no maintenance.

Nevertheless, in dry weather on the flats, travel was generally simple, even formotorvehicles,owingtotheeaseof moving across country and of improvising trails. In the valleys and on the slopes, however, movement was almost always difficult and required special measures or the construction of roads.

Both truck and tractor columns were able to move and maneuver closely in rear of the troops, particularly when furnished with the assistance of an escort of foot troops, as was normal. Pack artillery was always able to move where needed and even the truck units nearly always found some way to advance. Observation was excellent from the many high points and isolated hills overlooking the plain, air observation rarely being needed.
There was no lack of both surface and ground water. The latter is found at shallow depth, sometimes even constituting an obstacle to motor movement.

From an artillery standpoint, the generally favorable conditions of maneuver, the absence of natural limitations to fire, and the excellent possibilities for observation and signalling favored a large-scale employment of every type of field piece, except the heaviest calibers. Naturally, the exceptional conditions and the grave difficulties of supply required special measures in the organization of troops and trains and in manner of their employment

ORGANIZATION.

The artillery plans and preparations for the expedition were based on the foregoing considerations, the need for light, fast units, and the absence of enemy artillery. A reorganization of units included motorization to the greatest possible degree with a considerable reduction of battery personnel and materiel. The number of guns was cut down to conform to the possibilities of ammunition supply; the trains of pack batteries were motorized; truck-drawn batteries were reduced to three pieces; and the reserve artillery was given the fastest trucks available.

The peacetime artillery of three native batteries (65/17 guns*) and three companies of foot artillery for manning the frontier forts was finally augmented and so organized as to provide:

  • Four native pack mule battalions of three batteries (65/17 or 75/13), one for each native brigade.
  • Three native tractor and truck battalions of three batteries (77/28).
  • Two truck-drawn battalions of three batteries (105/28) manned by Italian nationals.
  • Four native fortress artillery groups of twenty-four batteries, together with a like number of national groups. These groups disposed of 400 pieces of various calibers (120, 105, 77, 75, 76) intended for the forts in being and those to be constructed.

From Italy were received the motorized battalions of the general reserve artillery and the organic artillery of the divisions constituting the expeditionary force, together with the necessary cadres to complete the colonial units.

In order to provide a solid defensive organization for the colony, three lines of fortified posts were constructed along 300 kilometers of front on the southwest frontier. These were capable of all-around defense, and were provided with fifteen to thirty days’ supply of ammunition, food, and water. They were manned chiefly by artillery (82 batteries of 320 pieces) and a truck transport pool was created to facilitate the movement and reinforcement of these units. This system of posts was pushed forward during the advance into Ethiopia to provide protection for the occupied areas—an extremely difficult and laborious task.

As an experiment, two especially mobile motorized battalions of 77/28 were organized for close-support missions in any terrain. The guns were knocked down into suitable loads and transported on light trucks, supplemented by small mountain tractors and trailers for supply and for movement in and around

the battery positions. The battalion combat and field trains were truck units. Owing to the impossibility of securing all the required motor equipment, the utility of these motor pack units could not be fully determined.

A groupment of battalions (100/17 and 149/13), motorized, arrived from Italy to constitute the general reserve artillery.

(*The usual Italian system of describing artillery. In general, the top figure represents the caliber in millimeters and the lower figure the length in calibers).

TRAINING.

By means of schools, tactical exercises, and firing practice, the whole expeditionary artillery was rapidly made familiar with the following principles of employment:

a. The necessity and possibility of pushing immediately in rear of the infantry ready for prompt action in order to utilize the artillery superiority to the utmost degree. Hence: Careful selection and reconnaissance of routes; provision of special means to overcome terrain difficulties; assignment of engineer and infantry detachments as escorts to facilitate artillery movement.

b. Fire action in close support of the infantry. Hence: Liaison detachments with each infantry battalion at least; observation well forward; sure means of target identification and preparation of fire (charts and maps); simple but sure communication (maximum use of visual signalling).

c. Decentralization of command and of firing units, but with the possibility of centralization by even the highest commander when necessary. Hence: Each battalion in direct support of a designated infantry unit with priority of fire missions in its zone of action, but in communication with the higher artillery commander for other missions: continuous forward reconnaissance by both battery and higher commanders, to insure prompt displacement behind the advancing infantry.

Owing to the special conditions of terrain and the enemy weakness in artillery and air forces, battery positions were selected further forward near their observation posts, and were closely grouped to simplify the organization of command, communication, and fire. In these forward areas each battalion and isolated battery had to provide strong all-around machine-gun defense of its positions.

Air observation was planned and provided but was not much employed in the actual operations. It was rarely needed, except for the indication of targets and a limited amount of surveillance.

The corps topographic sections and the army map section, together with a colonial topographic section organized prior to their arrival, were practiced in rapid preparation and distribution of charts and maps. The work of these sections, in conjunction with the airphoto sections, was particularly effective and valuable during the entire advance.

OPERATIONS

First phase.

The information of the enemy at the beginning of active conflict in October gave no indication for any particular apportionment of the reserve artillery. It was finally assigned to columns according to the roads available.

Hardly a round was fired during the initial advance, which was made in three columns:

  • The west column (2d Corps) to Adua (Adowa);
  • The center column (Eritrean Corps) to Enticcio;
  • The east column (1st Corps) to Adigrat.

The difficult marches, however, furnished a large-scale test of the maneuverability of the new artillery units, both pack and truck. The truck-drawn units were able to follow closely, except those of the center column, which were held up by

impassable mountain terrain about thirty kilometers north of Enticcio. Had infantry and engineer detachments been furnished during this period it is certain that no delay would have occurred in the artillery advance. The light trucks and the tractors, particularly, demonstrated exceptional maneuvering power over difficult ground.

As soon as the first objectives were attained, the fortress artillery was brought forward to man the second and third defensive lines of the newly occupied territory. Within a few days twenty batteries had arrived as a nucleus of this defense.

Second phase.

The long advance to the Macalle- Tembien-Tacazze line, over increasingly difficult and little-known country, gave additional evidence of the maneuverability of the truck-drawn artillery. The native battalions of 77/28 and 105/28 followed immediately behind the infantry and were soon joined by the battalions of 149/13.

As before, the defensive batteries were moved forward promptly, fifteen of them being used along the line of communications in the Macalle sector alone.

Third phase.

After the relief of General di Bono and the assumption of command by Marshal Badoglio, the operations took on a new character and a new tempo. The enemy had concentrated two strong forces, one under Ras Mulugueta south of Amba Aradam, the other under Ras Cassa south of Tembien.

In this situation, almost all of the truck-drawn artillery was concentrated in the vicinity of Macalle as a general reserve under the army commander. Two groupments, a total of eleven battalions and thirty-four batteries, were formed. Some of these were brought forward by forced marches of 500 kilometers in four or five days, over the few trails, or across country under extremely difficult conditions.

The artillery action in the ensuing battle of Enderta in February was intense, continuous, and often decisive. In the double envelopment of the strong and extensive Amba Aradam position, the gap betwen the two corps was particularly dangerous. Two or three battalions of the motorized reserve artillery were attached to each corps for protection of the outer flanks, the remaining five battalions being disposed centrally in front of Amba so as to cover the front of both corps and with neutralization and interdiction missions along the entire strong enemy front together with the particular mission of protecting the corps’ inner flanks.

Battalions were massed close to their observation posts and the infantry lines, prepared for close defense, and joined by a very complete communication net to infantry and higher artillery commanders. A gridded map, 1/50,000, was widely distributed to both infantry and artillery for location of targets and preparation of fire.

The fire throughout was prompt, sure, and effective. After a rapid but intense preparation by all the artillery, the infantry began its long advance, constantly supported and protected by the batteries, which were particularly active in breaking up counterattacks. Frequent displacements were required, many of them of six or seven kilometers. In the five days of this battle which routed the Ethiopian forces, the artillery fired 26,000 rounds, half being expended by the reserve artillery.

About half of the reserve artillery was now sent to Scire and Tembien for action against the remaining enemy forces. The movements were made by forced marches and with great rapidity. One battalion of 149/13 moved 550 kilometers in three days over practically trackless country.

Fourth phase.

In the latter part of March, the Ethiopians were reported concentrating their best troops around Ascianghi for a last stand. These forces were believed to possess artillery in considerable amounts which were later found to be much exaggerated. For this reason, every effort was bent toward providing for the advance of particularly mobile units of reserve artillery to supplement the organic division pack artillery whose effectiveness was now much reduced by the loss of a disturbingly large number of its animals.

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ITALIAN NATIVE TROOPS IN ETHIOPIA WITH 65-mm. ACCOMPANYING GUN

The zone of advance was more difficult than any yet encountered. On one stretch of 50 kilometers there were three mountain passes at least 3,000 meters high traversed only by mule or foot paths. All available troops, including the greater part of the artillery personnel, were set at work constructing a road. Fifteen days were allowed for its completion but the task was abandoned as too long after a week or so of labor.

The approach of the rainy season and the increasing enemy activity called for a speedy advance. A route was selected over which the artillery was to be dragged or carried. A groupment of reduced battalions of six to nine pieces, according to the number of light trucks available, was formed. Pieces were disassembled into transportable loads. The whole effort of this groupment was directed toward moving the guns of four battalions.

Another groupment was formed by the personnel of the other five battalions of the reserve artillery with the mission of assisting the movement of the guns and carrying out the necessary reconnaissance and preparations for their immediate employment in the new zone. In spite of the rains, by the end of March, a week ahead of the time expected, two battalions of 100/13 were in position, and rendered invaluable assistance in breaking up the enemy attack which began on April 1st. Similarly, in the subsequent advance on Addis Ababa, the artillery was present, ready to support the infantry on every occasion.

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The northern operations presented many features of special interest to the artilleryman. Particularly noteworthy were the maneuverability of truck-drawn units, the appearance of motorized pack artillery, the utilization of fortress artillery to protect the zone of communications, the determination to keep the guns in immediate touch with the infantry in all situations, and the insistence on having a highly mobile artillery mass of maneuver in hand under the immediate control of the commander-in-chief.

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SOMALIA EXPEDITION

TERRAIN.

The lower Somala plain extends from the coast for hundreds of miles into Ethiopia, wooded and flat, covered with thorny bush—a “spiny fog of green” during the wet season; parched, dusty, and yellow during the dry months. Traversed only by native trails and by a few sluggish streams, this vast territory offers a formidable obstacle to any advance.

In such a country, the impossibility of local supply, even of water, necessitated long lines of communications and strict subordination of operations to the maintenance of these lines. Tactically, the limited possibilities of orientation, communication, observation, and maneuver, together with the necessity for constant security measures on all sides, constituted a peculiarly difficult problem.

On the higher plateau, four or five hundred miles inland, the terrain becomes similar to that of the great central highland described in the account of the northern operations. Rather open in character, broken by rugged hills and deep valleys, with few roads or trails, it presented only the usual difficulties encountered in mountain country.

TRANSPORT.

The few dirt trails existing at the beginning of hostilities were soon churned up into clouds of dust in dry weather, and seas of mud in the wet season, by the constant stream of trucks floundering along them. Nevertheless, both troops and supplies were brought up, in spite of the fact that four or five hours were often required to move a single kilometer ahead. Naturally, the roads were improved as time went on, but it must be remembered that the distances were great and road material extremely limited. The distances from the port of Mogadiscio to the various advanced bases were from 300 to 1,000 kilometers.

Truck transport was used from the coast to the combat zone, camels and pack mules from there forward. Of these, the mule was considered superior.

TROOPS.

Prior to the border incident at Ual Ual in 1934 the troops in Somalia consisted of a few Arab-Somali battalions and camel pack batteries, one company of tanks with a section of armored cars, together with air, engineer, and service detachments. Prompt measures were taken to build up an effective establishment and by the end of March, 1935, the Somali Expeditionary Force, comprising both Italian and native contingents, under General Graziani, was formed and ready.

Of the native troops, the Arabs made the best soldiers, although the Somalis were excellent. The latter were particularly tireless and rapid marchers, moving regularly 20 to 25 miles a day without fatigue.

The native divisions were organized in the same manner as those of the metropolitan force (3 infantry regiments of 9 battalions, 1 artillery regiment of 3 or 4 battalions). The artillery (65/17 and 77/28) was packed by camels. Combat and field trains employed both camel and mules as pack animals.

ENEMY.

The enemy was known to have large forces, under the command of Wehib Pasha, a Turkish soldier of fortune in Ethiopian employ. The Abyssinians possessed good rifles, many machine guns, a few armored cars, and some artillery. The artillery comprised mostly pieces of small caliber (37-67 mm.) of various models, with many kinds of ammunition, good, bad, and mediocre. A considerable number of modern weapons like the Oerlikon gun were on hand, together with ancient types such as the model 1861 iron cannon (120-150 mm.) using black powder. There were eighty-nine of the latter, purchased as a great bargain from a European power in 1914.

In the wooded lower plain, the enemy employed small mobile bands, moving rapidly, striking quickly from any direction, and disappearing promptly into the jungle. These bands were sometimes detached from larger units organized for defense in holes, caves, and scattered trenches, with riflemen and machine guns well concealed under trees and bushes.

On the high ground, the enemy resistance became more compact and his defenses and troops more readily located by ground and air observation. The town of Gorrahei, for example, one of the main objectives was an organized locality, covered by a double system of trenches, and armed with machine guns, trench mortars, and artillery.

COMBAT.

From the start the advancing columns were compelled to move slowly with reduced distances, reconnaissance pushed far forward, and with strong security detachments on all sides. The long approach marches, with all elements ready for action in any direction, were characterizedbysuddencontact,followed by rapid and close combat against an aggressive and mobile enemy who might appear anywhere at any moment. Surprise was the dominating factor; carelessness was unpardonable.

Under such conditions, sudden and rapid fire action was required from the supporting artillery. With little or no time available for coordinated plans of fire, with the difficulty of identifying and designating targets, and with very limited means of communication, the infantry had to rely mainly on its own weapons. The employment of the 65/17 as accompanying artillery in the infantry front lines was indicated and attempted. However, as this was a camel pack weapon, it was hardly adapted to such a mission. Trucks were improvised to haul a few pieces; but, in general, it was considered better to keep the batteries together out of immediate contact with the infantry, particularly in the long approach marches.

Against the few organized positions, the usual missions of preparation, support, and protection were assigned to the artillery. Even here, however, a considerable portion had to be held ready to repulse flank and rear attacks from the enemy. The lack of positions giving good observation, the absence of well-defined reference points, the difficulty of range estimation, the impossibility of visual signalling, the reduced effect of fire in the thick vegetation—all combined greatly to limit the artillery possibilities in this close country.

The artillery had much more freedom of action on the upper plateau. Batteries could be posted with observation close at hand and the mass action of battalions could be utilized against enemy concentrations and for counterbattery. Such action was rare, however. The targets were usually fleeting, requiring rapid surprise fire from individual batteries.

Adjustments were as rapid and as simple as possible. Percussion bursts were very difficult to observe in the heavy vegetation, and time fire adjustments were preferred in the wooded regions. Large brackets were sought and fire for effect delivered promptly by rapid, searching volleys at irregular intervals. The safety limits for firing ahead of friendly troops had to be increased considerably over the regulation limits.

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The operations in Somalia began in October, 1935, and ended in the advance of General Graziani’s forces to Harrar and their junction with the northern army at Diredawa early in May, 1936. They are interesting mainly because of the significant and extensive use of native contingents and the tremendous natural obstacles overcome by widely separated forces completely dependent on long and precarious lines of communication. The enemy does not appear to have offered any serious resistance after the occupation of Gorrahei, in the first week of November.

The artillery seems to have followed the usual line of procedure for the movement and employment of pack batteries. It is interesting to find that the mule was considered “the sturdiest, most courageous, most dependable means of transport for artillery in colonial warfare.” Also of interest is the fact that the accompanying batteries which have recently been attached to each infantry regiment of the Italian army are armed with a 65/17 gun of the same model as that used in Somalia.

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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.

Para Sheep

Before getting onto the ‘serious business’ of the Chain of Command lists, I thought I’d share this rather odd pice of footage I found snooping about.

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The Italians were nothing if not inventive.  The Abyssinian theatre saw large scale air supply for the first time by a major European power.  None is more unusual than this airdrop by ‘para-sheep’.

No doubt scary for the beasts they nevertheless seem to survive relatively unscathed…only to end up on the plates of the troops later on…just when you thought you had seen it all!!