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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sticks and Stones

Before we get on with today's article, I'd like to ask your opinion. Earlier in the week I mentioned I'm working on some books. My current plan is here. However what I'd like to know is which book should I do second?
You can vote here

Today's article is another request.

 In 1935 the Italian armed forces launched an invasion of Ethiopia. Whilst the Italians were a modern army with all the aspects we'd recognise today the Ethiopians had manpower and a few antiquated guns. While it appears some weapons were centrally sourced, most were acquired from arms dealers, and the price for even basic small arms in the opening days of the war in Addis Ababa reached astronomical levels. The Italians also had modern artillery, air forces and tanks. Ironically the Ethiopians had Italian tanks as well, but from a generation earlier. The Imperial bodyguard had four FIAT 3000's. One, a 3000A had been gifted to the Emperor in 1925. In 1930 three FIAT 3000B's were purchased.
Eritrean Elephants towing artillery during the invasion
The Ethiopians lost the war, and almost every battle. On occasion they were able to inflict large casualties. One large attack by the Ethiopians led to a sixteen hour slugging match in which their FIAT 3000's were deployed, to no effect.
But during one battle the Ethiopians did win, and push the Italians back, this battle happened at the start of the Christmas offensive, and despite the presence of Italian tanks the poorly armed Ethiopians were able to win. This is known as the battle of Dembeguina Pass.

15th of December 1935 was the middle of the dry season. The river Beghemder in the valley of Takazze was very low due to the lack of rain, a pair of fords crossed it separated by nine miles. At one ford, on the main mule track in the area stood a small stone fort manned by Italian troops.
In the early hours of the morning a large force of Ethiopians led by Fitaurari Shifferaw, and accompanied by his 80 year old father Fitaurari Negash, arrived at the ford after a long night march. The Ethiopians quickly overran the surprised defenders and wiped the fort out, then pushed on towards Dembeguina Pass.
Ethiopian Troops
The pass was held by a force of Italian and Eritrean infantry, who formed colonial regiments and a large part of the attacking Italian force. The Italians also had eight CV-35 tankettes nearby.
As the Ethiopians approached the unaware Italian forces, the Italians had the luck to send out a routine patrol. As soon as the Ethiopians spotted this patrol they fired on them from extreme range, the Italian patrol immediately turned and fled back to its larger force. The undisciplined Ethiopians started a headlong charge after their fleeing enemies.
Major Crinti, the Italian commander at the pass immediately radioed for help, and the eight CV-35 tankettes commanded by Capitano Ettore Crippa responded. When they arrived on the scene the Ethiopians hadn't arrived so one of the tankettes was sent forwards to find out what was happening. As it advanced it ran into the leading elements of the Ethiopian Army. The little tank began to chop up the charging Ethiopians with its twin machine guns. The Ethiopians lacked anything bigger than a rifle and so couldn't knock it out. All of their bullets and arrows were turned aside by its armour. In the face of this obstacle the Ethiopian vanguard began to retreat.
One Ethiopian soldier whom had been one of the lead element was armed with nothing more than a sword. His name was Tashemm. His rank was Balambaras, which has no real equivalent that we might recognise. It essentially means he was a trusted person. Tashemm crawled out of the tankettes line of fire and moved round behind it. Sneaking closer he concocted his plan. He climbed up on the rear of the tank and hammered on the hatch with his sword pommel yelling in Italian "Open! Open!". Immediately the crew of the CV-35 opened their hatches with fatal results.

You might ask why the Italians opened up their hatches. The answer is these simple machines lacked radio's and so had to communicate by word of mouth. At another battle later in the war a large number of tankette crews were killed and wounded simply because they had to open their hatches to communicate.
With the guarding CV-35 tankette knocked out the Ethiopian army swept forward. Maj Crinti then lead his forces forward to meet the attacking Ethiopians. The Italian's sharp and aggressive attack came very close to routing the Ethiopians, it was only the presence of Fitaurari Shifferaw, their chief that held the force together. As more pressure was brought on the Italians they realised they couldn't continue the attack and fell back to a hill. The Italians then tried to entrap the Ethiopians by sending forth their baggage train, hoping the ill disciplined Ethiopians would attack it and loot it. However the Ethiopians saw the danger and failed to take the bait, and a very intense firefight erupted.

Italian Colonial unit (Eritrean's)
This firefight ended when the Italians tried to surrender, as their position became more desperate. The Italians tried to surrender, by standing up from their positions behind the rocky cover with their hands up.
This gesture had no meaning to the Ethiopians, and not understanding what the Italians were trying to do, just saw it as an opportunity to kill more enemy.

After the attempted failure to surrender the Italians launched another assault, during which they killed Fitaurari Shifferaw. As the vicious battle waged around Fitaurari Negash, he was mourning the loss of his son and the Ethiopian troops again started to waver. Fitaurari Negash was approached by the forces Confessor, who told him
"I will take care of your son, but you will be damned if you don't avenge him!"
Ethiopian Leaders
Fitaurari Negash immediately began to rally his son's forces and close in on the Italians.
The Italian’s assault had been a breakthrough aiming to get from their position to a place where their trucks and the remaining tankettes were in order to retreat from the enemy. The rallied Ethiopians didn't give them the breathing space needed to mount the trucks and were on them instantly.
The lorries were easily burned by the Ethiopians but the tanks took more work. Using levers and weight of numbers the Ethiopians wrestled with the three ton CV-35’s. Three of them were turned on their side using nothing more than sturdy sticks. As they tipped the fuel tanks on the CV-35's began to leak, and a small pool of fuel surrounded each one. The Ethiopians happily set fire to this to destroy the tanks. Another CV-35 threw a track, and a final one had the crew killed.
The last two CV-35's were captured intact around 1600 when a second force of Ethiopians who had been sent to the other ford over the river arrived at the battle.
The Italian forces began to run back down the road on foot, towards Enda Selassie with the Ethiopians in pursuit. The Italians were unable to break free when they reached the town so they halted and a vicious close combat fight developed. The Italians had no hope and were defeated. However the days fighting and the long distances it covered meant that the Ethiopians were exhausted, so they halted for the night.

The following day the Italians deployed a Blackshirt unit in trucks supported by even more CV-35's. From the descriptions of what happened next it seems the column was driving along a road on the side of a ridge or rocky hill when the Ethiopians ambushed them. They started by rolling large boulders down the hill, which blocked the road and smashed into the leading CV-35's. The driver of the lead tankette was also killed.
Two CV-35's slipped (or were hit by the boulders) and fell off the road and became bogged down on the hillside. Two more had torches thrown under them which caused them to catch fire. With the road blocked and the column being destroyed the Italians retreated.
(Actually a picture from Greece in WWII I think)
This marked the high point of the Ethiopian attack. It also had much worse consequences. With the very real threat of an Ethiopian offensive keeping the momentum the Italians deployed chemical weapons from bombers. Against mustard gas the Ethiopians had no defence whatsoever. From then on in the war the Italians reigned dominant, although as I said earlier they occasionally took heavy casualties. That said the battle of Dembeguina pass wasn't that bloody, despite its close combat and the forces measuring in the thousands on both sides. Only 382 Ethiopians were killed with 256 wounded. The Italian casualties are harder to assess, due to the Italians trying to downplay their losses and the Italians blind spot for losses their colonial regiments took. So a best guess is about 250 killed on the Italian side.

Image credits:
ecadforum.com, amedeoguillet.files.wordpress.com, media-3.web.britannica.com, martinplaut.files.wordpress.com, wikimedia.org, tanks-encyclopedia.com and avalanchepress.com