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Ethiopia 1936 -- a comprehensive photographic essay with historical analysis






Ethiopia 1936 is a Memoir '44 scenario depicting the climactic battle of Mai Ceu (or Maychew) which led to the fall of Haile Selassie. As the Italian force approached the capital of Addis Ababa thousands of Ethiopians gathered in the Quorom highlands while the Emperor prepared a counterattack. Marshal Badoglio intercepted a radio message sent from the Emperor’s headquarters and gained time to assemble his divisions before the Ethiopians attacked. The offensive was delayed until March 31st so the battle could take place on St. George’s Day, considered to be a good omen by the Ethiopians. All three of the Italian army divisions in the front line were entrenched behind a thorn hedge barrier called a zeriba.

The map represents the Italian defensive positons around Mai Ceu and the rugged hills near the Emperor's field headquarters in the town of Aia. The landscape is not exactly to scale but each hex would represent approximately 600 to 800 yards. The terrain is based on this superb 1:50000 map created by Commando Superiore Africa Orientale during the occupation:

http://www.igmi.org/ancient/immagine.php?cod=13239

Excellent order of battle information is available on the internet for the Italian army and resources sufficient for a Commands & Colors scenario are also available for the Abyssinian formations. Badoglio's army included troops from Italy and Africa plus foreign volunteers serving with the "Blackshirt" Fascist militia. For convenience, these soldiers will be called the Italian force. The terms Ethiopian and Abyssinian will be used interchangeably to describe the Emperor's fighting men.






Marshal Badoglio is considered to be the Italian player and Haile Selassie is the Ethiopian player. While the Emperor often wore traditional Ethiopian costume on ceremonial occasions he was photographed in European dress near the front.

In an excellent history of the campaign Anthony Mockler wrote this dramatic passage:

"It was fitting that the great battle of the war should be fought not between subordinates but between the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian armies and the Emperor in person... Both the Emperor and the Marshal must have realized that the impending battle would decide the fate of an Empire, and neither of them, in his heart of hearts, could have wished it otherwise."






The majority of the Ethiopian fighting men were groups of feudal warriors under the leadership of a regional warlord known as a Ras. These men were frequently armed with a motley assortment of rifles but some of the warlords possessed machine guns and other modern weapons. The level of training (and loyalty to the Emperor) varied widely from faction to faction.






In this scenario such formations will be represented by a group of five miniatures. Each faction is color-coded to facilitate the use of special command rules. An individual figure might represent hundreds of men depending on the weapons carried by these soldiers.






In 1936 many Ethiopian warriors carried the traditional curved saber known as a shotel. Some of the extremely cool HaT 1:72 miniatures I purchased to depict Abyssinian warriors brandished an axe but that weapon was inappropriate. Snipping the curved swords from Esci Muslim figures and attaching these weapons to my HaT miniatures was a good solution.






Troops from the "regular army" of Ethiopia were known as the Mahel Safari or Army of the Center. The men wore uniforms and had decent weapons but they were not as well-equipped (or as well-disciplined) as the Imperial Guard. The men were barefoot because the Emperor thought shoes or boots would hinder the Abyssinian soldier's ability to march across rough terrain.






These formations from the Mahel Safari are attacking an entrenched Italian division. Units of the "regular army" roll an extra battle dice. Since the combination of rough terrain and fortifications provide a -2 defensive advantage it can be tough for the Abyssinians to penetrate the Italian line.






The elite Imperial Guard or Kebur Zabanga had been issued standardized equipment. The men were intensely loyal to the Emperor. Newsreels from the period often featured scenes of the Imperial Guard in action... or at least marching toward the front. The artillery was directly under the Emperor's control.






This famous photograph shows infantry from the Imperial Guard. Fully equipped and nicely uniformed... but no shoes. Much propaganda was generated about barefoot Africans facing European troops armed with tanks and planes.






These excellent 1:72 scale HaT WWI British Infantry figures provide a fine group of miniatures to represent the Kebur Zabanga. The five toy soldiers depicted in this elite formation represent a much smaller number of men than the total that would be represented in a regular army or feudal warrior unit. Imperial Guard formations roll an extra battle dice and may ignore one flag result to avoid a retreat.






The elite cavalry of the Imperial Guard rode large horses imported from Australia. Since the Ethiopian army was essentially an infantry force whatever Abyssinian cavalry units existed were mostly feudal horsemen. The scenario uses cavalry rules from the Memoir '44: Equipment Pack with a couple of extra bells and whistles.






Italian infantry units include Alpini, Bersaglieri, MVSN Fascist Militia, and Askari plus regular army formations. The legions of Mussolini were supported by artillery and machine guns. Trucks, armored cars, and obsolescent tanks formed the motorized elements of Badoglio’s army. There was an excellent reason for the limited number of mechanized foramtions in the northern Ethiopian campaign: there were few roads in Abyssinia and Italian engineers had to create adequate transportation routes as the army advanced.






The best Italian unit was the 5th Alpini Division and it held the right flank. This elite mountain infantry formation rolls an extra battle dice and can avoid one flag result. The flag tokens indicate that special status. A staff officer figure (with pistol) can be dispatched from headquarters to issue an order to any Italian formation.

There was a strong reserve force of two infantry divisions in position behind the mountain division to guard the Italian supply line. Badoglio was concerned that the Ethiopians would attempt to turn his flank and sever his connection to the advanced base established after the conquest of Tigre in northern Abyssinia.

The red lines represent the zeriba. This obstacle slows the Abyssinian advance while providing the previously mentioned defensive benefit. Ethiopian infantry only expend one movement point to enter any type of terrain (even hills) unless an obstacle is encountered.






Tough infantrymen from Eritrea formed the Askari divisions. These men were aggressive fighters but were not as well-equipped as the Italian infantry. Badoglio placed the Eritreans on his left flank between the villages of Mai Ceu (Maychew) and Corbetta.






Like the Alpini formations, each reinforced Askari division is represented by three groups of four figures. I used this technique to reflect the greater flexibility of these divisions. The inadequately trained Blackshirt division in a reserve position is represented by just two units. The artillery unit represents corps assets and these guns roll a 3-3-3-2-2-2 sequence on the battle dice.






This scenario uses my special deck with random event cards mixed together with the standard commands. One of the "fantasy" events is the arrival of the famous Colona Celere at Mai Ceu. This is an unlikely development but it adds a bit of extra flavor to the game.






The tank miniatures used in the scenario are similar to the Fiat 3000 vehicles actually deployed by the Italian army. However, in 1936 the tanks in this mechanized column were the light L3/33 tankettes. The armored cars used in 1936 were Lancia 1ZM vehicles, not the WWII era SdKfz 222 from my collection. The elite mechanized/motorized infantry formation represents the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment. This special unit moves like an armored formation but fights like elite infantry.






This illustration shows a successful Abyssinian assault. The special Ethiopian flag token is used to record a penetration of the Italian defenses. This is a crucial element in the army morale rules used to determine the outcome of the session.

While the Ethiopians were ferocious on the attack the defensive capability of the Emperor’s army was limited. The typical Abyssinian fighting man did not want to dig trenches (scornfully described as "fighting behind rocks" by the Ethiopians) and wait for an enemy assault. The medieval Ethiopian logistical system could not sustain large forces in the field indefinitely, so it was imperative for the Emperor to attack.





In 1936 the cavalry in the Italian army in Africa was largely composed of Eritrean horsemen. Their uniforms were magnificent, generating esprit de corps in these colonial troops.






This cavalry unit is screening the advance of an Italian infantry division. Both the 26th "Assietta" Division and the 30th "Sabauda" Division are represented by two regiments with five figures in each formation. These regular army divisions were deployed in reserve positions to protect the Italian line of communication.






Haile Selassie had paid tribute to the cavalry of the Azebo Galla tribe in hopes of winning their loyalty during the battle at Mai Ceu. These horsemen were interested in plunder and were eager to change sides... the Italians had also spread quite a bit of money among the tribe. As the fortunes of war turned against the Emperor the Azebo Galla struck the Ethiopian flank. In this scenario that treacherous action is determined by the overall progress of the battle, including the previously mentioned "victory" flag tokens awarded to the Ethiopian commander. This event is triggered by the appearance of the Behind Enemy Lines card.






Ethiopian infantry usually attacked in waves. The color-coded factions used in this scenario help to reflect this historical narrative with groups of figures moving forward in unison after being ordered into action by Haile Selassie.






This is a typical result. The Italians have suffered a small number of casualties while inflicting heavy losses on the attacking Ethiopians. This is historically accurate but perhaps not the most entertaining afternoon of rolling dice and maneuvering army men.

Some of the Ethiopian losses will be replaced during the "rally" event triggered by the Medics and Mechanics card. Italian units can also receive a few replacement figures.






Both sides used artillery effectively (the Ethiopians conducted particularly accurate mortar fire) but ammunition supplies were limited. Each battery is given two "free" barrage missions that require no order from headquarters. A cube is used to record each shot. All other artillery fire uses the standard rules.






No analysis of the Ethiopian campaign would be complete without a discussion of airpower. This propaganda drawing from the Ethiopian media showed a fanciful vision of Abyssinian paratroopers descending from the skies as Haile Selassie observes the action.






This ground attack mission by an Ethiopian biplane is the result of another "fantasy" event card. Ethiopia possessed a handful of planes and a limited supply of bombs. Many of the pilots were foreign volunteers. Ethiopian air operations were mostly limited to reconnaissance and transport missions. No bombing like this occurred at Mai Ceu in 1936.






Italian aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica roamed at will, limited only by the fire of a few modern Oerlikon AA guns. Airstrikes may be targeted against any Ethiopian infantry or cavalry unit that is not adjacent to an Italian formation. This photograph shows a biplane strafing an Ethiopian column.






Italian aircraft delivered chemical weapons against Ethiopian targets as the enemy retreated... but not during the main portion of the battle at Mai Ceu. In this scenario mustard gas is only available after the special Counterattack event card appears. Mustard Gas may never be used within five hexes of any Italian unit. Abyssinian infantrymen quickly learned to take cover during these attacks. However, mustard gas affected pastures and water supplies used by the Ethiopian army and the civilian population.



Victory conditions are crisp and clear. Badoglio must demoralize the Abyssinian army and open the road to the enemy capital while avenging the Italian humiliation at Adowa in 1896. Haile Selassie must break up this Italian concentration or at least score enough "glory" points to maintain control of the various factions gathered to defend Ethiopia.

I'm sorry to report that desperate attack scenarios with few opportunities for maneuver do not generate much excitement. The research and background reading was enjoyable. This campaign is a fascinating episode in military history; transitional periods of warfare often provide unique insight into the art of command.

Thanks for taking a few minutes to read this lengthy article.
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Joe Kundlak
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You are bonkers. In a good way (I hope ).
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Tod Andrew
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Just a note. Another game Soldiers of the Negus (actually an Advanced Squad Leader expansion pack) which covers the same conflict, allows the Ethiopians the ability to try to flip the Italian tankettes over.
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Pete Belli
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Thanks to everyone for the thumbs and GeekGold.

Here is an image of an Italian unit to show greater detail:



The tropical helmets and rifles with attached bayonets are a good match for the period. During the 1936 campaign enlisted men usually wore long trousers while shorts were usually worn by officers or NCOs. (That miniature with a pistol represents a staff officer.)

However, these HaT WWI Infantry figures were so carefully sculpted I decided to use them anyway... and the miniatures will be useful in future Session Reports.
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Roy Hasson
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Fascinating and very enjoyable. As usual.

Thanks a lot!
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Adam Deverell
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I was just reading about this conflict in a book on the History of Australia - specifically, the Italian community within Australia's support of Mussolini (or lack of it) that was sorely tested during the Abyssinian conflict. I thought to myself that I knew very, very little about this war.

Now I know a lot more - thanks!
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David Beatty
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Is this game actually out? If so where can I get the figures? Nice job by the way!
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Pete Belli
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Banzai Beagle wrote:
Is this game actually out? If so where can I get the figures? Nice job by the way!


This is a custom scenario.

The figures are mostly HaT 1:72 miniatures purchased on eBay or already in my extensive collection.
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David Beatty
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Very cool!

What figures did you use for the Ethiopian warriors? I am looking for some for Chain of Command: Abyssinian Crisis.
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Pete Belli
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Banzai Beagle wrote:
What figures did you use for the Ethiopian warriors? I am looking for some for Chain of Command: Abyssinian Crisis.


The tribal warriors are modified HaT 8269 Ruga-Ruga from the WWI era.
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David Beatty
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pete belli wrote:
Banzai Beagle wrote:
What figures did you use for the Ethiopian warriors? I am looking for some for Chain of Command: Abyssinian Crisis.


The tribal warriors are modified HaT 8269 Ruga-Ruga from the WWI era.


Brilliant, thanks!
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