The Abyssinian Air War

Ca.133 Unit: 14 Squadrilla, 4 Gruppo, 14 Stormo Serial: 1-14 Asmara, Ethiopia, 1936.

Caproni Ca.101D-2 Unit: 14 Squadriglia ‘Testa di Leone’, 4 Gruppo Serial: 14-6 (MM60517)

At the very end of the thirties this three-engined multipurpose transport and bombing ‘colonial’ Caproni Ca.101D-2 served with No. 14 Squadriglia ‘Testa di Leone’ of No.4 Gruppo in colored finish of the past time of peace. Wearing military Number MM60517 it was finished in light cream (Cachi Avorio Chiaro) with reddish-brown (Bruno Mimetico Marrone 2) applied to the nose, fuselage upper and lower surfaces and tail. A substantial part of wing upper surface was painted white with oblique red stripes intended to make the aeroplane recognition easier. There was a slogan saying ‘CREDERE IBBEDIRE CONBATTERE’ painted in front of the fuselage door, i.e. ‘To believe, to fulfill orders, to fight’

Background to War

In 1896, while trying to reassert its control over Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Italy suffered a disastrous defeat at Adowa, in which (in the words of Brigadiers Peter Young and Michael Calvert) “the dead were more fortunate than the prisoners.” For nearly four decades, memory of that humiliating and savage defeat lingered in Rome, and finally, for that and other more geopolitical reasons, Benito Mussolini, the Fascist II Duce of Italy, determined to reestablish the Italian protectorate over Ethiopia by a two-pronged assault from Eritrea (on the shore of the Red Sea) southward, and from Italian Somaliland (on Africa’s Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden coastlines) northwest into Ethiopian territory Mussolini reached his decision in the autumn of 1933, and communicated his wishes to Marshal Emilio De Bono, a vigorous near-septuagenarian with extensive colonial experience. From that moment on, the Abyssinian invasion plan nearly occupied De Bono’s full time and attention, particularly since Mussolini had directed that Ethiopia be subdued by the end of 1936. Despite his years, De Bono was no Hans Kundt, and he paid particular attention to the needs of the Italian air service, the Regia Aeronautica.

Italy had been one of the pioneering nations in military aviation, and was, of course, the nation of Douhet. Italian aviators had established a distinguished combat record in the First World War and in the years following the war. During the 1920s and 1930s, Italian aircraft technology generally kept pace with that of other leading nations. Italian air racing designs showed a profound appreciation for high-speed flight, and Italian long-range flying boats made pioneering flights across the Atlantic. Italian military aircraft technology equalled that of other nations, and the country established a reputation for quality high-performance and highly efficient military machines. In part, this was due to Mussolini himself who, like Josef Stalin, appreciated the public and psychological impact of advanced aeronautical technology in conveying the alleged progressivism of a totalitarian state,- both men, in fact, had sons who became military aviators.

Despite the more exaggerated pronouncements of Douhet, Italy’s military aviators showed a pragmatic appreciation of coupling air and land action. In 1931, Italy established its first attack aviation elements (as distinct from bomber and fighter aviation), the so-called gruppi d’assalto. In the mid- 1930s, influenced by the notions of General Amedeo Meccozzi, the Regia Aeronautica embarked on a development program to produce specialized multipurpose military aircraft suitable for combined fighter, light bomber, and assault missions. Unfortunately, Italy emphasized the bomber side of the equation, generating aircraft such as the Breda 64 and 65 family that tended to be slow and relatively unmaneuverable, and thus disappointments when general war broke out between Italy and the Allies in 1940. During the Spanish Civil War these aircraft served reasonably well; they were not available for service during Italy’s Abyssinian war in 1935^36. Instead, Italy made use of large numbers of older aircraft such as the Caproni Ca 101 trimotor bomber and its derivatives, the single-engine (and hence underpowered) Ca 111, and the trimotor Ca 133; the trimotor SavoiaMarchetti S. M. 8 1 Pipistrello ( “Bat”) bomber; a few Fiat C. R. 20 fighters,- and larger quantities of the Meridionali Ro 1 observation plane (a license-built version of the Fokker C V) and the Ro 37 two-seat reconnaissance biplane (which was extensively used for ground-attack duties both in Ethiopia and subsequently in Spain).

In contrast to Italy, which approached the Abyssinian war as a European power already committed to waging a mechanized war integrating the combat effort of air and land forces, Ethiopia was backward. The Ethiopians could count on only thirteen airplanes, none of Which was up to the latest standard in aircraft design, and its air force consisted of mercenary pilots dismissed by De Bono as “amateurs.” It is difficult to ascertain whether there was a brief “air superiority” war,- Italian memoirs by De Bono and Marshal Pietro Badoglio make no mention of such combat, and neither do the accumulated attaché reports of American observers; indeed, De Bono emphatically states that at no time did he even see an Ethiopian airplane. One popular (but suspect) account states that “one after another the [Ethiopian] aircraft were shot down by Italian pursuit planes/’ In any case, Italy clearly never had to worry about interference as its air force went about its business. The individual Ethiopian soldier was personally courageous, shrewd, and ferocious; often ineptly led and thrown away in foolishly planned attacks, he proved nevertheless to be a dangerous opponent and capable of operating modern infantry weapons with skill. The popular image of a modern European power rapaciously devastating submissive and ignorant tribesmen is thus not merely inaccurate,- it is likewise an insult to both the Ethiopians who furnished an intense level of defense and the Italians who coped surprisingly well with the strenuous demands placed upon their armed forces by this distant and complex campaign.

In his planning for war, De Bono recognized that the immense distances involved in the Ethiopian campaign made it highly desirable to use aircraft (because of their great mobility) as much as possible for reconnaissance and liaison tasks. At the same time he realized that the distances and the primitive nature of support facilities would tax air operations to their maximum. Thus he emphasized airfield construction and arranging for logistical support of the aircraft in place or soon to arrive. For the most part, aircraft arrived by ship via the Suez Canal; after being unloaded, six could be assembled by technicians every forty-eight hours. Above all, De Bono wished it to be clearly understood that the air elements would not operate independently, and he successfully lobbied to have the air commander placed under his overall command, reflecting testily in his memoirs that “Unity of command is indispensible. One man only must exercise command.”

The Air Campaign

On October 3, 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, triggering a bitter seven-month campaign culminating in the capture of Addis Ababa and the annexation of Ethiopia within the Mussolini empire. During the war, Italian air power was used extensively during attack and pursuit operations, and proved (in the words of American intelligence officers) “tremendously effective,” particularly when the Ethiopians employed mass attack tactics. In contrast to the general success of aircraft, tanks proved a serious disappointment in the intensely fluid conditions of Abyssinian warfare; they could not maneuver rapidly enough, were hampered by the rugged terrain, and were frequently overwhelmed by infantrymen (who, in one notable case, used heavy rocks to bend the tanks machine guns, and then killed the crews as they evacuated their damaged vehicles). But the air operations were not without some problems. Commanders quickly learned that the crevice- and cave-strewn terrain of Ethiopia meant that air strikes often failed to dislodge or kill defenders, and that difficult ground-clearing operations by infantry were still a necessity. Italy turned to chemical warfare-namely dropping mustard gas bombs and using flamethrowers-to compensate for this problem. Officially Italy denied gas bombings, aside from a few special cases. An American intelligence officer accompanying Ethiopian forces stated, however, that Italian use of mustard gas was “the most effective’ of all Italian weapons used in the campaign because it so thoroughly broke Ethiopian resistance. It is uncertain how widespread its use was ; Italian commanders denied virtually all use, though Ethiopians claimed it was quite common. The truth is likely in the middle. An American intelligence officer serving with the Italian forces stated that gas bomb use had not been widespread, and that its overall effectiveness was “very slight.” Perhaps his statement reflects unrealistic expectations on the part of the Italians who utilized it; certainly the Ethiopians themselves-and foreigners attached to Ethiopian units, including one of his fellow intelligence officers-felt differently. As in any air campaign, command and control problems appeared that had to be worked out.

Perhaps the most notable of these occurred in November 1935, when Italian forces under the command of General Luigi Frusci advanced on the town of Gorrahei. Though De Bono was pleased with the degree of control that he exercised over the air arm, subordinate commanders found that they could not adequately coordinate their needs with the air command when they asked for air support. Frusci had planned a combined infantry-air assault on Gorrahei with a view to utterly destroying the Ethiopian forces there. Instead, as a postwar American intelligence summary stated,

the air force carried out its bombing operations prematurely and prior to the arrival of the ground columns within striking distance. The severe air bombardment killed a dozen or so Ethiopians, wounded the commander, and caused an evacuation of the town and withdrawal, before the Italian ground forces could make their presence felt. This was hailed in some quarters as a decisive triumph for the air-the first battle won by an air force alone. Actually it destroyed the opportunity for a decisive victory and probable elimination of the Ethiopian forces involved. The Italian ground commander charged with the operation had no control over the air attack. It was to have been coordinated by G. H. Q. and is a rather outstanding instance of failure in cooperation.

As Slessor found out in Waziristan, and as the Marines had learned in Nicaragua, dispersed bodies of troops were not easily located even by aerial reconnaissance when they practiced camouflage and deception techniques and took advantage of available ground coverage. Repeatedly during the Ethiopian war, Italian ground commanders found that they could not always draw upon aerial reconnaissance information for precise intelligence on enemy locations and strengths. Additionally, the rapid pace of the Italian advance taxed the ability of the airmen to maintain support operations; they quickly found that they were operating at maximum range from the few available airfields, and had to rapidly arrange for appropriate logistical support to continue furnishing services to the ground forces. This situation would have been very serious had it not been for the steps that De Bono had taken in the months prior to the invasion to arrange for expansion and improvement of the airfields available to the Italians in East Africa. While airborne control and observation of artillery firing was helpful, the lack of detailed maps hampered precise targeting of enemy positions and batteries for artillery fire.

Still, over time, operations became smoother and working relationships solidified, and the quality of Italian air support to ground forces constantly improved. In one important area, troop resupply, air played a prominent role. During the Tembien offensive in February 1936, the Italian HI Corps received five tons of food, water, and munitions as it moved across the Asta Plain, an arid area devoid of roads and wells. Toward the end of the Abyssinian campaign, Italian airmen had perfected resupply methods, delivering 385 tons in one twenty-one-day period. Air-ground liaison generally functioned well, and Italian commanders relied heavily on radio communications, sometimes so much so that they saturated their network; insofar as reconnaissance and observation could assist the ground forces, ground columns were constantly kept aware of the latest tactical situation as observed from above. It was in aerial attack, of course, that Italian air power made its presence most forcefully felt.

Italian attacks against Ethiopian forces consisted of two basic missions: level bombing sorties from an altitude of 1000 to 3000 feet using the various trimotor bombers available, and low-level attack missions using other machines. While the former were conducted on a pre-briefed basis and generally along Douhet-like lines, the latter were usually much more tactically oriented, consisting of pre-briefed strikes in support of assaults, and then what might be considered “armed reconnaissance/’ target of opportunity, and emergency response actions. Italy carefully avoided bombing operations against targets of major cultural and political significance (such as Addis Ababa) that might have attracted even more unfavorable publicity than the invasion effort had already received. Nevertheless, between October 1935 and the end of the war in May 1936, Italian airmen flew 872 bombardment missions against towns, fortifications, caravans, and troop assembly points. When Mussolini relieved De Bono for disagreeing with certain policy actions (though the two men remained close, and II Duce even wrote the introduction to De Bono’s subsequent memoirs), it triggered a period of inactivity until De Bono’s replacement, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, could launch his own offensive that would finish the war. During this lull, bombing substituted for land warfare in keeping pressure on Ethiopian forces.

Very quickly, the Italians learned first-hand that Douhet’s notion of bombing a populace into submission did not work; though Ethiopians undoubtedly feared bombing, it did not materially break their will to resist. Bombing of troops, however, was a very different matter, and intelligence reports repeatedly emphasized its effectiveness, one such document stating that

the long-range bombardment of troops was very effective, and Italian aviation was invaluable to the ground forces in this respect. A very strong Ethiopian column of several thousand men was discovered by the air en route from Gondar north toward Dabat on December 4, 1935. It was repeatedly attacked on December 5 and 6 by the 4th and 27th Bombardment Groups with 30 planes. In spite of violent Ethiopian reaction during which all planes were hit by rifle or machine gun fire, the column was completely disorganized, men and animals killed and supplies destroyed. Many similar attacks took place in the rear areas with valuable results in furthering the Italian plan of operations.

Air strikes proved particularly significant when they preceded or accompanied ground assault. In these missions, Italian airmen employed larger aircraft (such as the Ca 101 or the S.M. 81) against fortifications, but generally made use of smaller single-and two-seaters, carrying light bombs and relying on strafing attacks. Air supplemented, but did not supplant, artillery in supporting infantry assault, not surprising given the small bomb tonnage dropped. For example, though Italian aviators dropped a total of 25,700 bombs in one six-day period during the battle of Enderta in February 1936, this only represented 192 total tons of bombs, as the majority were small 10- to 15-lb antipersonnel weapons preferred for attack-type missions. On a daily basis, it was roughly equivalent to the weight of fire from a single battery of 155mm howitzers. Repeatedly, however, air strikes added a vital impetus to attack, and they proved mercilessly effective in pursuit of shattered Ethiopian forces. During the initial assault into Ethiopia, close support aircraft attacked Ethiopian forces ahead of advancing Italian columns, notably at the Mareb River on October 3, 1935. Marshal Badoglio’s memoirs repeatedly refer to the devastating effect of air attack on fleeing Ethiopian troops, and copies of his operational orders included as appendices to this work reveal that he depended on air support extensively. The battle of Enderta seemed to him a particularly good example of the cooperation of air and land forces during an attack. He relied on attack aircraft to bomb and strafe ahead of advancing troops, and once the battle had been decided in Italy’s favor, he released the aircraft to attack the retreating Ethiopian forces; in one of these missions, a plane strafed the column of the Ethiopian commander, Ras Mulugeta, killing him. In all, Ethiopia lost approximately 6000 troops-and twice that number wounded-in the Enderta battle, against total Italian casualties of just over 800 Italian and native troops. Enderta was by no means an isolated example; during the climactic battle of Lake Ascianghi, attack aircraft struck from altitudes as low as thirty feet, inflicting thousands of casualties with high-explosive and gas bombs, and machine-gun fire. Reflecting on the Abyssinian experience, Badoglio wrote subsequently that

l’aviazione was present in all the phases of the war and functioned throughout each battle. In the absence of enemy aviation, it dominated the sky. It is the combat arm of the future and will be increasingly important in many [combat] areas. However great its role, it must act in coordination with the army. Neither can ever act again on its own to make war.

Despite this generally impressive performance, there were some significant indications of the growing vulnerability of aircraft to ground defenses. Again in contrast to their popular image as spear-carriers, the Ethiopian forces were equipped with rifles and automatic weapons (including Oerlikon cannon), though not in great quantity. A postwar American intelligence analysis estimated that Italy lost a total of fifty airplanes due to all causes during the war, many from the demanding environmental conditions (such as terrain, high-altitude operations, and weather), but sixteen from ground fire. These sixteen consisted of three Ca 101, two Ca 1 1 1, two Ca 133, and two S. M. 81 bombers; one C. R. 20 fighter,- five Ro 1 observation aircraft; and one Ro 37 recce/strike aircraft. Personnel losses amounted to 78 crewmen killed in action, and 148 wounded. The study concluded that

on certain missions of ground strafing all planes participating were reported struck by fire from the ground. 259 planes were reported hit by antiaircraft fire, which means small arms fire or the fire of the Oerlikon 20mm gun.

. . . During the ground strafing in the Mai Mescic valley following the battle of Amba Aradam [Enderta], all planes (S-81’s and Ca-101’s) participating were hit by fire from the ground, one of them 19 times. One plane was lost. During the battle of Lake Ascianghi 25 planes were hit and one plane brought down. During the battle of Birgot, 7 planes were struck, 2 pilots wounded and 2 Ro-37’s were forced down behind their own lines.

The Italian pilots operated with great daring at low altitudes, which they probably could not afford to do against a well-armed and well-trained opponent, and it seems that, almost invariably, the majority of the planes so operating were struck by small arms fire from the ground. This is particularly significant in view of the class of opposition: insufficiently equipped with effective types of weapons and untrained in proper methods of defense.

Overall, the Abyssinian war offered an indication of how modern military forces could work together on the battlefield in joint operations involving coordinated air and land action. Beyond this, it did give yet another example of the vulnerability of ground forces that could not call upon their own air elements to prevent an opponent from undertaking unrestricted air attacks against them. It also showed that even a relatively unsophisticated opponent could be expected to inflict casualties on low-flying attack aircraft, particularly if those aircraft were relatively large, unmaneuverable, and slow (less than 200 mph). From the perspective of 1940, an Army Air Corps officer tasked by the Army War College with evaluating the effectiveness of new weapons enthusiastically concluded that in the Abyssinian war, “the influence of air power could be classed as decisive.” In fact, even before the war began, the outcome pending no foreign intervention-was never in doubt. In reality, as was recognized by intelligence officers at the time, the Regia Aeronautical activities were not in and of themselves decisive,- as an element of combined air-land warfare, however, the Italian air force’s “aid was invaluable to an early and successful conclusion of the campaign [emphasis in original].”

1 thought on “The Abyssinian Air War

  1. Pingback: The Abyssinian Air War — Weapons and Warfare | Ups and Downs of Family History V2.0

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