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The Rise and Fall of Italian East Africa and the Battle of Keren

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“Keren is proving itself to be a tough nut to crack[…] The enemy is ferociously and repeatedly counterattacking us and, even if its losses have been exceedingly heavy, there’s no immediate sign of yielding”.
~ Message of Gen. Wavell to Churchill

The Opponents

Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta (1898-1942)
Son of Emanuele Filiberto and Helena of France, Duke Amedeo of Aosta had taken part to the First World War with the rank of captain. In 1922, he moved to Congo under an assumed name, and there he lived for one year, working as a laborer. He then joined a caravan and travelled as far as Nairobi, later returning to Italy and into the Army. From 1925 to 1931, he served in Libya. Where after taking the command of Sahara troops, he actively participated in the operations to take back the deserted inland which had fallen in the hands of the local rebels, the Senussi. In 1937, he entered the Air Force and in 1937, he was appointed Viceroy of the newly conquered Ethiopia, and later, Governor of the entire Italian Eastern Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana AOI). His action stood out for the intense commitment lavished in the administration of the colony and of the indigenous Army, and for the realization of large public, railroad, hospital and road works. He also was an outstanding military commander and a magnificent leader. Although opposed to the anti-British war, he acted with loyal determination, showing great military competence and well balanced daring.

Aware of the impossibility to receive significant aid from the homeland, he split the vast territory of the empire into five sectors, giving each local commander the order to defend to the bitter end, but also the necessary operational and decision-making independence. This way he managed to attract to that front, after all a secondary one, sound mechanized and aerial British forces that otherwise could have threatened Greece or Tripoli itself.

His country rewarded him with the highest military decoration, the Golden Medal. His foes paid him full military honors, the Italian settlers owed him the escape from the revenge of the Ethiopian resistance. In fact, to avoid any bloodshed, whenever Italian troops had to abandon cities or settlements, the Duke took care to inform British commands so that they could take over the vacant emplacements. Forced to leave Addis Ababa, he retreated onto the Amba Alagi plateau, where he capitulated on 21 May. He died in 1942 while in British captivity.

Lord Archibald Percival Wavell (1883-1950)
Viscount of Winchester and Cyrenaica, British Marshal, supreme head in the Middle East in 1939, he launched against Italians in Libya the offensive of the 1940-41 winter, seizing Tobruk and Benghazi. Together with O’Connor, Wavel was the main author of the Italian route in Egypt and Cyrenaica. That victory against Marshal Graziani earned him 150,000 prisoners and the assignment to conduct in full freedom, the operations in Italian East Africa, and later in Syria, Greece, at Crete. In 1941, he was appointed Commander in Chief of British and Commonwealth forces in India. From there, he and the Soviets faced the events occurring in Iran in August of that year. After the Japanese aggression, he was appointed inter-Allied commander in the Pacific. In 1942, he confronted the Japanese in Burma, and in early 1943, promoted Marshal, he became Viceroy of the Indies, maintaining the charge until 1947.

The great victories of this “old fashioned” soldier were achieved thanks to his experience in colonial wars and on deserted terrains acquired during his youth. As a matter of fact, he had taken part in the Boer War (1899-1902) and in the First World War in Palestine and Sinai. From 1919 to 1939, he served with the British Forces in the Middle East. Aware of the impossibility of maintaining huge masses of men on bare and unwelcome tropical terrains, Wavell consciously fielded forces “inferior” only in numbers, but actually very mobile and well armed. This way, by freeing up troops from otherwise insuperable catering problems, he acquired a clear manuever and fire superiority on motionless and burdened opponents, facing and defeating them in small groups. Worth mentioning among his main collaborators during the campaign in the Italian East Africa are Gen. Platt, who led the offensive against Erithrea in the Agordat and Keren battles, and Gen. Alan Gordon Cunningham (not to be confused with his more famous brother Andrew Brown Cunningham, Admiral and Commander of the Alexandria Fleet), that was in charge of the offensive, also victorious, against Somalia.

The Italian Colonies

In a speech dated 1887, Italian Prime Minister Crispi stated, regarding Somalia:

We do not want adventures, nor conquest wars that in fact we openly condemn. Our ambition is that Italy appears and expands where her children spontaneously go“.

Thus, in the declarations of politicians as well as in the beliefs of the public opinion, Italian colonialism did not have a military and imperialistic nature like the French and British one, but privileged national, popular and even humanitarian aspects, as a “safety valve” for exceeding manpower and acquisition of materials that the homeland desperately needed. This was, however, a rather idyllic view, faked to silence the opposition of the Church while in fact the colonies that Italy had been carving in the East Africa, and from 1936, would include Ethiopia, a notable military importance. Chance had favoured Italian enterprises (that otherwise would have met stiff opposition from the United Kingdom, as actually happened in 1935), in the mid 1880’s, and right in Eastern Africa, in which developed the anti-Egyptian and anti-English uprising of the Mahdi, that enormously worried the colonial authorities of the Empire. The farsighted British diplomacy, believing that Italians, with their colonies, might make for a valid ally southwards of Sudan against the common danger of Dervisci, did not oppose Mussolini’s expansionary designs.

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  1. At the end of page 1 “did not oppose Mussolini’s expansionary designs” not Mussolini’s, because this part is about the 1880’s.

  2. I’ve noticed that he part on Amedeo Guillet has a problem with tenses. I wonder if anybody can uniformate them into simple past. Thanks.