Theatre of Operations

This post aims to describe the many aspects of the theatre of operations of the war in Abyssinia. To our lasting benefit this had been done by contemporaries at the time. Using the following detailed analysis by US Army Captain Numa A. Watson, who admirably describes many of the details particular to the Abyssinian theatre of operations, we can get a quite thorough overview of Ethiopia. With a soldier’s eye he comprehensively covers many of the aspects relevant to any military operations in Abyssinia. This evaluation was undertaken as part of a study course he was attending in 1936-37. Obviously the recently completed war would be a topic of interest for such a study and thus reflects the information available.

The documents he used reference some hard to find sources not easily available to readers today. The paper is reproduced in this post as it gives a detailed  military perspective of the theatre of operations. A notable author that is missing here is Major Norman E Fiske who was a US military Observer at the time who wrote a detailed analysis of the war. Captain Watson referenced that source so I have not added any further detail beyond what he has done. I have included some additional supporting pictures, diagrams and maps to highlight aspects of the text that the author would not have had available to them at the time of writing. The essence of the document is unchanged and this post does not alter his views or opinions, which remain unchanged. The original document can be found here.




Physical Geography

General topography of Abyssinia

Rivers and water Supply

Climatic Conditions

Human Geography

Population and Social Conditions

Sanitation and Hygiene

Political Geography

Economic Geography

A Study of Critical Areas

Ports and Harbours

Railways and Road Net

Possible Objectives

Routes of Invasion

Historical Retrospect

Organisation of theatre of Operations and Lines of Communication





Physical Geography

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General Topography of Abyssinia

Abyssinia, officially known as “Ethiopia”, is an inland country in the northeastern part of Africa whose area is about 350,000 square miles or a little more than that of the states of Texas and Oklahoma combined. It is roughly triangular in shape. The northern portion is 250 miles wide and gradually broadens out to a maximum width of about 900 miles. It has no seaport, being separated from the Red Sea by the Italian possession of Eritrea and from the Gulf of Aden by French and British Somaliland. On the west and south Ethiopia is bounded by the Anglo~Egyptian Sudan, Kenya, and Italian Somaliland.

Between the Upper Nile and the 40th meridian is a jumbled mass of mountains and valleys with elevations rising to a height of about 15,000 feet in some places.

The general plateau level averages from seven to eight thousand feet, dropping off abruptly to the east onto the plains of the Danakil Desert in the north and, more gradually, into Abyssinian Somaliland on the south. Between these two regions a chain of smaller mountains run generally northeast and southwestknown as the Harrar Hills.

Characteristic of the mountain areas are the enormous gorges and fissures cut in the mountain sides by the erosive action of the numerous rivers and streams. Some of the valleys are quite wide while others are only a few hundred yards apart yet fall almost straight down thousands of feet. 

This has caused the formation of many small flattopped plateaus with perpendicular sides resembling a natural fort. The Danakil Depression is a hot barren desert in places as much as 300 feet below sea level. South of the Harrar Hills and east of the 40th meridian, lies Abyssinian Somaliland, a vast plateau region averaging about 3000 feet in elevation and covered with gray African brush and other scanty vegetation.


Rivers and Water Supply

MorrisMap2Most of the rivers drain to the northwest in the direction of the Nile. The most important are, in the north, the Takkaze; the Abbai or Blue Nile in the center; and the Sobat in the southwest. These rivers carry about fourfifths of the entire drainage of the country and supply ninetyfive per cent of the water which flows in the Nile below the mouth of the Atbara.

At the head of the Abbai lies Lake Tana with a drainage area of some 5400 square miles. an unhampered flow of water from this watershed is essential for the supply of the Nile and the life of Egypt. The rest of the drainage is carried off by the Awash to the east and north; by the Webbe Shibeli and the Giuba in the southeast and the Omo into Lake Rudolf on the south.

All these streams are perennial rivers and, in the mountains, often torrential in character. Away from the river systems and the Danakil Desert water can generally be found in existing wells or can be procured by digging at no great depths.


Climatic Conditions

Over such varied terrain it is natural to find similar variations in climate. In the uplands the climate is healthy and bracing in the summer time, the temperature ranging from 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Winters are quite cold. In the lowlands climate is hard on Europeans. The extreme heat and high humidity cause sunstroke and heat exhaustion. Malaria is prevalent. In Somaliland the climate is dry and healthy all over the plateau.

Temperatures vary from 60 degrees early in the day to about 100 in the afternoon. In Ethiopia winter lasts from October to February. It is followed by a hot dry period until the beginning of the rainy season in June.

This begins in the north, lasting until September, and gradually moves southward.

However, in many parts of the country, the rainy season does not materialise- rains may occur at any time and their effects be quite local. Military operations are not held up uniformly throughout the region. They may be interrupted or hampered for a few days at a time but are not necessarily halted everywhere at the same time.



Human Geography

Population and Social Conditions

The population of Ethiopia is estimated at about ten million consisting mainly of the Abyssinians or Amhars, the Galla and the Soma1i-all African races. Among the nonAfricans are numerous Armenians, Indians, Jews, and Greeks, and small colonies of British, French, Italians, and Russians. Most of the natives are distinctly negroid in appearance probably due to the number of negro women brought into the country in the old days. Due to differences in racial characteristics and religion, the Ethiopians are not a homogeneous people. The Abyssinians, or Amhars, who comprise about one-third the entire population are the ruling class. They have been able to dominate the other tribes to a point almost amounting to slavery.

The Abyssinians profess to a crude form of Christianity while the other races are strictly Mohammedans. This difference in religion, added to the mutual hatred existing between the ruling tribe and their subjects, make it difficult to estimate the fighting value of the Ethiopian army. There is nothing resembling a national military organisation as is commonly found in modern countries today.religions map

The numerous native tribes, fighting under the leadership of their individual chieftains, or Rases, usually combine against a common foe. However, because of class hatred, very little influence is necessary to break this unity. As an individual, the Ethiopian is a strong, fearless fighter, who can withstand the hardships of moving warfare without the necessity of an elaborate supply system.

His requirements are few and simple enabling him to live off the country. Although comparatively undisciplined he will, when properly led, dash to the assault in order to close with the enemy and kill him in handto-hand fighting. He is, on the other hand, quickly and easily discouraged on meeting with defeat. No defensive actions or orderly withdrawals are made; individuals simply scatter to the four winds when vigorously pursued. .


Sanitation and Hygiene

Ethiopian dwellings are of the most primitive type. Stone and mortar are used in building but the usual home is a circular hut thatched with grass and crudely made. Inner Walls are plastered with clay, cow dung, and chopped straw. There are no fireplaces nor chimneys so that interiors are black with soot from the open fires. There is no drainage nor are there sanitary arrangements of any kind. Many of the inhabitants live in caves. Conditions in the cities are not quite so crude.


Political Geography

Government is based on three factors-religion, feudalism, and slavery. The Emperor, or Negus Negusti (King of Kings), who claims to be the direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, attempts to rule the various tribes through their individual chieftains. These lesser kings possess armed bands of their own who are frequently at war with one another or with the Negus himself. In 1907 a cabinet was organised somewhat on European lines, however, its powers are probably no greater than those of similar organisations in a few European nations at the present time.


Economic Geography

The principal industries are agriculture and cattle raising but production barely exceeds home consumption so that very little is left for export. There are no manufacturing or industrial enterprises worth mentioning. The principal imports are salt, cotton fabrics and hardware. The total value of the foreign trade amounts to only about twelve and half million dollars annually.

With proper exploitation and modern methods of irrigation and farming, Ethiopia could produce many articles of a tropical agricultural type such as rubber, sissal, coffee, tea, cotton, and tobacco. Certain portions of the country will also produce wheat. The cattle industry which now produces only hides could be made profitable due to abundant grazing lands in some sections. Oil and ores of the following minerals have been found: gold, silver, platinum, iron, zinc, copper and coal-to what extent they can be made available future exploitation only will disclose.



A Study of Critical Areas

Ports and Harbours

The Italian possessions of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland will be considered in this discussion. Since Ethiopia has no coast line and, as long as France and Great Britain remained friendly with the Abyssinians, Italy was forced to use the ports and harbours provided by its own territories as bases for operations.

In Eritrea the best seaport is Massaua. It has a good natural harbour well protected by islands but limited docking facilities prior to the beginning of operations. The only other port of importance in Eritrea is that of Assab.

Due to the impassibility of the Danakil Desert intervening between it and the interior of Ethiopia, it would be of value mainly as an air base. In Italian Somaliland there are numerous ports but none suitable as a base for extensive

operations. The largest town and the one most favourably located with respect to the interior is Mogsdiscio. Shipping facilities are very crude- a small breakwater permits the movement of very small boats and lighters to shore but ocean going vessels must remain from one to two miles out to sea and discharge their cargos by lighters. This is a difficult operation during the monsoon period extending from May to September. The town is fairly large, modern and well built with a considerable Italian colony. The best natural port is at Dante but it is too far from the interior to be worth developing. Other ports are located at Brava, Merca, and Obbia but none of them offer satisfactory facilities.


Railways and Road Net

The principal railroad in this theatre is that running from Djibouti in French Somaliland to Addis Ababa. It is Ethiopia’s only access by rail to the sea. This railroad is controlled by France allowing her to handle about twothirds of Abyssinian foreign trade. In Eritrea a narrow gauge railroad runs from Massaua to Biscia by way of Asmara and Agordat. Prior to the beginning of operations only two or three trains made this run per week. In Italian Somaliland a narrow gauge railroad runs from Mogadiscio to Villaggio Duca Abruzzi. As far as known, these three are the only railroads in the entire war area.


In Ethiopia prior to its invasion by the Italians there were practically no roads as we know them except in the vicinity of Addis Ababa where they were of very little use to an invader. In Eritrea there were no roads capable of carrying sustained heavy motor traffic, however, from Asmara, three main roads ran generally south toward Ethiopia but ended in the vicinity of the frontier. In Italian Somaliland an improved road ran from Mogadiscio to Eelet Uen just north of the Ethiopian border.


Possible Objectives

In searching for a critical area as an objective for the Italian advance into Ethiopia, we find only the town of Addis Ababa with its railroad to Djibouti. There are no industrial centres, supply depots, munition plants, or similar establishments.whose capture or destruction would have any decisive effect in bringing hostilities to an end. However, capture of Addis Ababa, the capital of the country, would be a tremendous blow to Ethiopian morale in addition to cutting off her only rail outlet to the sea. Gondar and Harrar might be considered minor objectives; Gondar on account of its location with respect to caravan routes leading into the Blue Nile region; Harrar, not only being similarly located with respect to Berbera in British Somaliland, but also because it is the home town of the Emperor.


Routes of Invasion

In considering routes of invasion of Ethiopia with the seat of government at Addis Ababa as the ultimate territorial objective, it is necessary to first look at the possible bases for such an expedition. We have already found that the only port deemed feasible upon which to base a force of any size were at Massaua and Assab in Eritrea, and, in Italian Somaliland, Mogadiscio, Brave, Merca, and Obbia. The railroad from Massaua to Asmara and the existing roads from that point toward the Ethiopian border seem to have provided the Italians with a running start in that direction.


However, difficulties would soon be met once the frontier were crossed; the jumbled mass of mountains, ridges, ravines, and streams traversed only by mule track and defended by native tribes who knew every inch of the country would serve to make this route an extremely difficult one. In considering Assab as a base of operations we find it situated somewhat closer to the ultimate objective yet the scorching heat of the Danakil Desert and its great extent, without roads and without water, provide an almost unsurmountable barrier to an advance of any appreciable force from this direction.  

By the expenditure of considerable time, money and labor, the ports mentioned in Italian Somaliland might be made the base for an invasion of Ethiopia from this direction aimed at Addis Ababa and the railroad. The main difficulty here, aside from the poor shipping facilities, would be the extremely long line of communications to be maintained. These towns are about 200 miles from the border with from four to six hundred miles of barren arid country yet to cross. 


Historical Retrospect

On the 3rd of May 1889, Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia, signed a friendly treaty with Italy, known as the Uccialli treaty, definitely fixing the boundary between Abyssinia and Eritrea, Certain terms of this treaty provided that Menelik should conduct all his foreign affairs through the Italian Government thus resulting in what amounted to an Italian protectorate over the country. A dispute soon arose between Menelik and the Italians as to the interpretation of this clause; War followed. An Italian force of about 13,000 men under Colonel Baratieri took the field against Menelik’s army of 90,000. Due to misinterpreted orders and lack of knowledge of the country, the Italian force was practically annihilated at the battle of Aduwa, 1 march 1896. 


Organisation of Theatre of Operations and Lines of Communication

There were two main theatres of operation, the northern and the Somaliland. In the northern theatre the communication zone was divided into three parts: the centre one, known as the High Plateau, being the most important since the principal lines of communication passed.through this area. To the west of the High Plateau zone was the Western Lowland zone with headquarters at Barentu.

Until April 1956, the mission of the trosps in this area had been mainly a defensive one, which was the protection of the right flank and communications

of the troops making the main effort in and south of the High Plateau. Subsequent to this time, additional troops were brought in and an advance made to Gondar. To the east of the High Plateau was the Eastern Lowland zone of which the Danakil Desert comprised the major part. Headquarters was located at Azbi on the edge of the High Plateau. The troops in this area had a similar mission of protecting the left of the main advance. A detachment at Assab protected the air base at that point. 

The Somaliland theatre was subdivided as shown on Map No.2. The principal base port and location of GHQ was at Mogadiscio. The area was organised into two sectors, the Giuba sector and the Sh1be1iFaf0gaden sector. Troops in this zone were mainly on a defensive mission prior to April 1936. Headquarters of the Giuba sector was at Dolo. The mission of the troops here was to protect the upper Giuha, the supply base at Dolo, and the airdrome at LughFerrandi.

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An advanced base was established at Neghelli but no effort was made to maintain a line of communication to that point.

The sector to the east was divided into three subsectorg the Shibeli, the Far, and the Ogaden. The Shibeli subsector was of very little importance, its garrison being charged with the protection of the upper Shibeli and the left flank of the troops in the more important subsector to the east. The Faf subsector was the most important one on this front being the advanced base for the movement on Harrar in May 1936.

Still further to the east was the Ogaden subsector, important only for the group of wells located in the area. By occupying and defending the Gorrahei and Gherlogubi group of wells and the towns of Dagnerrei, Gheledi, and Dolo, it was felt that no Ethiopian advance could be made without a direct attack due to the lack of water.

In Eritrea shipping facilities at the base port of Massaua have been greatly improved. By April 1936, a dock 800 meters long which would accommodate from three to five transports had been built and traveling cranes and other machinery installed. Large storage depots for gasoline, oil, ammunition, subsistence and engineer supplies were constructed and stocked in this area. A cable carrier line was erected from Massaua to the High Plateau which handled about 600 tons daily. The railroad to Asmara was taken over by the Military Transport service on the opening of operations and soon ran seven trains per day of six or seven car: each, handling another 600 tons per day.

As troops advanced in the combat zone, seizing important tactical localities, they halted and dug in so that communications could be maintained. Supplies were then moved forward by bounds from base port to depots and thence to advance depots. The initial stage of road building was done by combat troops as they advanced and the work carried to completion by civilian contractors employing civilian laborers. These workers had to be protected against the attacks of raiding bands of Ethiopians. Combat troops were often specifically detailed for this purpose and lines of communication guarded by small forts along the routes prepared for all-around defense and wired in.

The complete road net as in effect at the end of the campaign in the northern theatre is shown on Sketch No. 1.Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 10.38.04 pm.pngRoads in the Somaliland theatre were somewhat easier to build-in dry weather it was only necessary to clear away the brush. By March 1936, roads had been constructed from Mogadiscio as far as Dolo to the northwest and Gorahei to the north. Another road had been completed from Obbia to Uardere and from Brave to Bur Acabe. Italian operations in this theatre were universally successful due to their advantage in mobility over the Ethiopians, whereas, in the north, the advantage was with the natives permitting them to hold up the advance of four modern army corps for several months. 

The military engineers were responsible for signal communications in East Africa except radio from Asmara, the headquarters of the S.O.S to Rome, which was handld by the Navy. Radio communication was maintained between GHQ and each corps, the lowland zone commands, outlying detachments and GHQ of the southern theatre; otherwise its operation was normal.

Sketch No. 2 shows a wire diagram of the telephone and telegraph set-up in the northern theatre as of February.

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Field wire was first installed on wooden poles but this was rapidly replaced with copper wire on steel poles set in concrete. Initially considerable trouble was encountered in some places due to ants destroying the wooden poles and also due to giraffes carrying away thefield wire which had been strung too low.


1. Italy considered Ethiopia’s large land area, with its great undeveloped resources, a necessary acquisition regardless of world opinion.

2. Italy’s selection of the route of invasion from Eritrea south to her territorial object, Addis Ababa, was the only practicable one available to her.

3. Ability to install and maintain lines of communication will govern the rate and extent of an advance of a modern army.


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.




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


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).


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.


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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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.


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.





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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.