Italian guerrilla war in Ethiopia
The Italian guerrilla war in Ethiopia was a conflict fought from the summer of 1941 to the autumn of 1943 by remnants of Italian troops in Ethiopia, in what had been the short-lived attempt to incorporate Ethiopia as part of Italian East Africa. The guerrilla campaign was fought following the Italian defeat during the East African Campaign of World War II, while the war was still on in Northern Africa and Europe.
By the time Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia, entered Addis Ababa triumphantly in May 1941, the military defeat of Mussolini's forces in Ethiopia, by the combined armies of Ethiopian partisans and British and Sudanese troops, was assured. When General Guglielmo Nasi surrendered with military honors the last troops of the Italian colonial army in East Africa at Gondar in November 1941, many of his personnel decided to start a guerrilla war in the mountains and deserts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Nearly 7,000 Italian soldiers (according to the historian Alberto Rosselli) participated in this fight against the British Army, in the hope that the German-Italian army of Rommel would win in Egypt (making the Mediterranean an Italian Mare Nostrum) and retake the recently liberated territories. An Imperial War Museum brief history refers to 'several thousand escaped to wage a guerrilla war until September 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies.'
There were originally two main Italian guerrilla organizations: the Fronte di Resistenza (Front of Resistance) and the Figli d'Italia (Sons of Italy). The Fronte di Resistenza was a military organization led by Colonel Lucchetti and centered in the main cities of the former Italian East Africa. Its main activities were military sabotage and collection of information about British troops to be sent to Italy in multiple ways. The Figli d'Italia organization was formed in September 1941 by Blackshirts of the "Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale" (a fascist organization of volunteer soldiers). They engaged in a guerrilla war against the British troops and harassed those Italian civilians and colonial soldiers that had been dubbed "traitors" (for being favorable to cooperation with the British and Ethiopian forces).
Other groups were the "Tigray" fighters of Lieutenant Amedeo Guillet in Eritrea and the guerrilla group of Major Gobbi based at Dessie. From the beginning of 1942 there was a resistance group in Eritrea, under the orders of Captain Aloisi, dedicated to help soldiers and civilians to escape from the British POW camps of Asmara and Decameré. In the first months of 1942 (because of the August 1940 Italian conquest of British Somaliland), there were also Italian guerrillas in British Somaliland.
While essentially on their own, the guerrillas occasionally received support and encouragement from mainland Italy. On 9 May 1942, the Regia Aeronautica staged a long-range twenty-eight-hour Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 flight over Asmara, dropping propaganda leaflets telling Italian colonists that Rome had not forgotten them and would return.
These guerrilla units (called Bande in Italian) were able to operate in a very extended area, from northern Eritrea to southern Somalia. Their armament was made up mainly of old "91" rifles, Beretta pistols, Fiat and Schwarzlose machine-guns, hand grenades, dynamite and even some small 65 mm cannons. But they always lacked large amounts of ammunition.
From January 1942, many of these "Bande" started to operate under the coordinated orders of General Muratori (commander of the fascist "Milizia"). He was able to encourage a revolt against the British troops by the Azebo Oromo tribe in northern Ethiopia, who had a history of rebellion. The revolt was put down by the British and Ethiopian forces only at the beginning of 1943.
In spring 1942, even Haile Selassie I (who stated in his autobiography that "the Italians have always been the bane of the Ethiopian people") started to open diplomatic channels of communication with the Italian insurgents, allegedly because he was impressed by the victory of Rommel in Tobruk (Libya). Major Lucchetti declared (after the guerrilla war) that the Emperor, if the Axis had reached Ethiopia, was ready to accept an Italian protectorate with these conditions:
- a total amnesty for all the Ethiopians sentenced by Italy
- the presence of Ethiopians in all levels of the administration
- the participation of Emperor Haile Selassie in the future government of the protectorate.
In the summer of 1942, the most successful units were those led by Colonel Calderari in Somalia, Colonel Di Marco in the Ogaden, Colonel Ruglio amongst the Danakil and "Blackshirt centurion" De Varda in Ethiopia. Their ambushes forced the British to dispatch troops, with airplanes and tanks, from Kenya and Sudan to the guerrilla-ridden territories of the former Italian East Africa.
In October 1942, the Italian guerrillas started to lose steam because of the Italian-German defeat at the Battle of El Alamein and the capture of Major Lucchetti (the head of the Fronte di Resistenza organization).
The guerrilla war continued until summer 1943, when the remaining Italian soldiers started to destroy their armaments and in some cases, escaped to Italy, like Lieutenant Amedeo Guillet, (nicknamed "the Devil Commander" by the British) who reached Taranto on September 3, 1943. He requested from the Italian War Ministry an "aircraft loaded with equipment to be used for guerrilla attacks in Eritrea", but the Italian armistice a few days later ended his plan.
One of the last Italian soldiers to surrender to the British forces was Corrado Turchetti, who wrote in his memoirs that some soldiers continued to ambush Allied troops until October 1943. The very last Italian officer who fought the guerrilla war was Colonel Nino Tramonti in Eritrea.
Noteworthy guerrilla actions
Of the many Italians who performed guerrilla actions between December 1941 and September 1943, two are worthy of note:
- Francesco De Martini, captain of the Military Information Service (Servizio Informazioni Militari, or SIM) who in January 1942 blew up an ammunition depot in Massaua, Eritrea and later organized a group of Eritrean sailors (with small boats called sambuco) in order to identify, and notify Rome with his radio, of the Royal Navy movements throughout the Red Sea. De Martini received the Italian gold medal of honor.
- Rosa Dainelli, a doctor who in August 1942 succeeded in entering the main ammunition depot of the British army in Addis Abeba, and blowing it up, miraculously surviving the huge explosion. Her sabotage destroyed the ammunition for the new British Sten sub machine gun, delaying the use of this "state of the art" armament for many months. Doctor Dainelli was proposed for the Italian iron medal of honor (croce di ferro). Some sources claim the date of attack was actually 15 september 1941.
List of the main Italian guerrilla officers
- Lieutenant Amedeo Guillet in Eritrea
- Captain Francesco De Martini in Eritrea
- Navy Commander Paolo Aloisi in Ethiopia
- Captain Leopoldo Rizzo in Ethiopia
- Colonel Di Marco in Ogaden
- Colonel Ruglio in Dankalia
- Blackshirt General Muratori in Ethiopia/Eritrea
- Blackshirt officer De Varda in Ethiopia
- Blackshirt officer Luigi Cristiani in Eritrea
- Major Lucchetti in Ethiopia
- Major Gobbi in Dessie
- Colonel Nino Tramonti in Eritrea
- Colonel Calderari in Somalia
- Ascari officer Hamid Idris Awate in Eritrea
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