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

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The Strategic Importance of the Italian East Africa

Fifty years later, once the political situation and the relationship between Italy and Great Britain had changed, the exceptional importance of the Italian colonies as a war theatre could no longer be hidden. In 1940, the AOI was a very serious menace to the connecting courses and even to the military and economical unity of the British Empire itself, as Italians were in the position to cut the neuralgic longitudinal axis between Cairo and Capetown. If the Italians had managed to conquer Khartoum, they would also have laid concrete bases for a territorial link with Libya, thus encircling Egypt and the Suez Canal zone. With the bases of Assab and Massawa, the Air Force and the Navy could seriously threaten British courses between the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Suez Canal. Had these courses been totally interrupted, the war trend would have been heavily changed, as the English would have and not only the incipience of statesmen and Staff officers, as often is said, turned the situation upside down. The AOI was completely isolated as it was surrounded by British-held territories and could not be supplied through the Canal, occupied by the powerful Royal Navy. Italian actions could have been really dangerous only on two conditions: the completion of the self-sufficiency programs and the end of the war within a short period. Neither of the two occurred and the AOI fell into British hands 17 months after the war’s beginning.

The Six Acts of the Defeat

The operations in the AOI can be divided into three phases:

  1. July 1940: Italy conquers the Kassala junction in the British Sudan, together with some other resorts on the border.
  2. August 1940: Italian conquest of the British Somaliland and of the Berber capital city (defended by 11,000 men) thanks to an expeditionary force composed by 4,800 Italians and 30,000 colonial troops.
  3. September-December 1940: standstill of the Italian offensive for lack of supplies, due to the excessive extension of the catering lines.
  4. January 1941: preparation for the imminent British counterattack
  5. British attack against Eritrea and Somalia.
  6. British attack against Ethiopia and fall of the Italian East Africa.

The Military Situation

During the whole ill-fated African campaign, Italian troops fought resolutely and with extraordinary bravery, often giving rise to their foes’ admiration. At the beginning of the hostilities the Italian forces were composed of 91,000 Italian nationals (of which 7,000 were officers) belonging to the Army, Air Force and Revenue Guards. The colonial soldiers, the famous Ascari, numbered around 200,000. However, this huge mass of men were scattered on different and wide operation zones, from which was impossible to intervene if a sector was in trouble due to the lack of vehicles and links between the various units.

Italian troop were equipped with: 3,300 machine guns; 64 M tanks; 39 L tanks; 126 armored cars and trucks; 813 guns of different calibers but all WWI dated; 325 planes of which only 244 combat ready.

In comparison to Italian forces, the British ones were outnumbered, but better armed and more mobile as they were mechanized; not a negligible detail if you consider that the operational theater was six times wider than the Italian territory. British equipment was far better and was supported by an Air Force which at that time was not very modern, but at least had enough fuel and ammo to fly and fight!

This is, unfortunately, an Italian cliché that would repeat itself throughout every theater.

The Ascari

There was no colonial power that did not form local units with military and police duties. This habit was also adopted by Italy that, under some points of view excelled for the quality and quantity of such troops, numbering around 200/300,000 (Ascari, Carabinieri and irregular bands) at the outbreak of hostilities. The Ascari were the most widespread kind of troops. Organized in regular units, with assured income, disciplinary certainty, and small social privileges, they did their best when well commanded and organized. Their loyalty depended on the affection to the chief (usually an Italian officer) rather than to the Army. A bit like all “primitive” soldiers, the Ascari produced more on attack, expressing instinctive courage and speed, but were not tenacious when defending, especially under shelling or air raids.

At least until when the Empire clearly appeared to be doomed, the Ascari did their duty anyway. Later, stirred up by British propaganda, by the local resistance, by hunger and worry for their families far away, sometimes fallen into British hands, they started deserting or asking for discharge in larger and larger numbers. Just a few switched sides or went as far as drawing their weapons at their commanders. Some other widespread troops were the so-called “irregular bands”, a few hundred mounted soldiers, usually untrustworthy and fickle, who were used to taking along their families and goods (camels, cattle), thus thwarting the speed offered by their horses. However, even among these, some were faithful beyond any expectation. Some, led by “indomitable” Italian officers, kept fighting long after the fall of the Italian Eastern Africa.

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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.