Excess Italian stores in the port of Massawa are reloaded for transport back to Europe
Transition from Kingdom to Empire happened seemingly overnight. Newly-minted Abyssinian Campaign veterans, flush with well-deserved swagger following a tough if relatively-short campaign, trampled vigorously up the gangplanks to their ships almost as soon as the transport flotilla had docked in the port of Massawa on 14 March, 1936. Soon, the amenable Eritrean and Somali colonial contingents left behind would take over the primary occupation and garrison duties of the new Ethiopian colony (under Italian direction), freeing these front-line Italian divisions for duties elsewhere; for many of the infantry units, additional training and refitting in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica awaited, with a distinctive change in focus, from fighting loosely-organized frontier bandits to preparing for combat against a modern, mechanized enemy in the British. New weapons and tactics would be essential for future conflicts, and these troops could be refitted and rearmed much easier from bases in Libya than they could in the Horn of Africa.
Estimated Combatant Strength, early 1937
The departure of Badoglio and Grazioli’s Italian troops left approximately 8 under strength militia divisions with which to defend a very large border for the AOI. Realizing that his position would become increasingly vulnerable in a sustained conflict, the appointed viceroy of the AOI Amedeo di Savoia, the Duke of Aosta, positioned his forces with two primary motivating factors; most important, he had to maintain order the capital, as the loss of Addis Ababa would ferment increased rebellion and foster uprisings in the restless, disorderly colony. By keeping 2 divisions in the city to maintain a semblance of Imperial power, di Savoia also had at his command a strategic reserve to field in case of nearby insurrections or enemy incursions from British Somaliland or French Djibouti (though this was not expected, as intelligence reported that no sizable enemy formations existed in either of these areas).
Insurrectionists were widespread (particularly in remote regions to the west) in the immediate aftermath of the Italian victory in Abyssinia
The Viceroy also realized that, despite to the small number of maneuver regiments under his command, he would be able to deftly swap land for time in any future conflict. As a result, he position only a single division in the south of the country (more for regional policing than tactical positioning), which, in the event of conflict with the British or their allies would fall back towards the main defenses in Addis Ababa rather than engaging in prolonged combat. The bulk of his forces would be placed back in Eretria, along the Red Sea coast in close proximity to the main supply depots. Realizing that any combat with the British would inevitably mean that the Suez Canal would be closed to supply transport, all effort must be made to force a passage north as quickly as possible to meet up with Italian units charging east from Cyrenaica. Fortunately, di Savoia’s militia units had significantly reduced material requirements than standard infantry divisions, with only token artillery and fewer types of small arms, and as such would be more resilient to the inevitable difficulties of being out of supply. In the interest of reducing supply consumption as much as possible, all air and naval forces were re-stationed to European bases as well.
Staging Ground for the North African Front
Peace festered palpably for the remainder of 1936 and through the next year. By the end of 1937, Mussolini had 18 Infantry Divisions prepositioned in North Africa, with most units dispersed throughout the vast arid expanse between Ajedabia and the fortress of Tobruk; logistics and command-and-control administration were further enhanced by the two HQ units (5th and 10th Army HQ), which included signal intercept and enhanced supply units. Badoglio, now acting as theatre commander for the entire North African Front from his headquarters in Tripoli, purposefully kept the bulk of his forces far from the Egyptian frontier in order to deceive British intelligence and border reconnaissance aircraft. The 5th and 10th armies were formidable formations, and were prioritized over all other existing units for improved weaponry and specialist training. The Italian Order of Battle for North Africa consisted of:
North Africa Theater HQ – Gen. Badoglio @ Tripoli
61st Inf. Division “Sirte”
5th Army - Gen. Gariboldi @ Tobruk
40th Corps @ Fort Maddalena
25th Inf. Division "Bologna"
60th Inf. Division "Sabratha"
40th Inf. Division "Africa"
11th Corps @ Derna
17th Inf. Division "Pavia"
27th Inf. Division "Brescia"
61st Inf. Division "Sirte"
23rd “Blackshirt” Corps @ Mechili
1st CCNN Div. "XXIII Marzo"
2nd CCNN Div. "XXVIII Ottobre"
4th CCNN Div. “III Gennario”
Army Reserve @ Barca10th Army HQ- Gen. Graziani @ Ajedabia
2nd Libyan Division “Pescatori”
41st Corps @ Benghazi
62nd Inf. Division "Marmarica"
63rd Inf. Division "Cirene"
21st Grenadiers Division "Granatieri di Savoia"
43nd Corps @ Msus
64th Inf. Division "Catanzaro"
27th Inf. Division “Brescia”
55th Inf. Division “Savona”
Army Reserve @ AgedabiaIn addition, other scattered African Imperial outpost garrisons totaled the following:
1st Libyan Division “Sibelle”
Italian East Africa Command (AOI)- Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Aosta @ Addis Ababa
3rd Corps @ Addis Ababa
40th Mil. Division ”Cacciatori d’Africa”
48th Mil. Division “Taro”
Eritrean Corps @ Massaua
44th Mil. Division”Cremona”
30th Mil. Division “Sabauda”
15th Mil. Division “Bergamo”
14th Mil. Division “Isonzo”
32th Mil. Division “Marche”
4th Corps @ Moyale
58th Mil. Division “Legnano”
Italian Generals survey the landscape of the new AOI
By all accounts, Mussolini believed that he had a significant quantitative advantage over his British neighbors as 1938 opened; Italian Intelligence (in particular Servizio Informazioni Militare, or SIM) believed that the British fielded approximately 6 divisions in the Middle East, evenly divided between regular British formations and colonial levies drawn from India and Southern Africa, and in all likelihood they would be concentrated around the great naval base in Alexandria; battle thrawls such as Australia, South Africa, and Iraq were also expected to contribute some irregular forces to the North African front in the event of hostilities. At least one British armored division was expected, as were at least 3 squadrons of 2nd-line combat aircraft. As a result, Armaments Minister Guido Jung was tasked to somehow find a way to prioritize the production of several brigades of medium-caliber anit-tank and anti-aircraft canon to augment the infantry’s firepower and increase its survivability. Given that Italy’s precarious allocation of resources to the anticipated 4-ship battleship fleet (the first of which, Vittorio Veneto, was nearing completion), new squadrons of naval bombers, defensive fighter interceptors, and provincial manufacturing expansion, it would not be an easy task to introduce new material requisitions.
Vittorio Veneto prepares for shakedown sea trials, Jan 1938
Helping matters immeasurably for all concerned, however, Mussolini had decided unilaterally that at the current time, Italy could realistically expect to field a 50-60 division army (albeit binary divisions); given the 18 in North Africa, 8 more in East Africa, 16 in Savoy, 6 in the Veneto, and 7 more scattered throughout the peninsula (1 each in Sardinia, Palermo, Catania, Taranto, Naples, Genoa, and La Spezia), Mussolini had suspended production of new divisions indefinitely, preferring instead to concentrate those resources on re-fitting the existing army and keeping supply consumption to a minimum, not to mention keeping available manpower available for future, more advanced divisions (such as the planned armored and mechanized divisions that were still being researched). As a result, Jung was able to squeeze four brigades each of 75mm 75/46 M34 AA guns and 47mm 32 M35 Anti-Tank guns into the production queue with minimal disruptions to the economy.
Designed in 1934, shells from the 75mm 75/46 could reach appx. 25,000 feet
The dual-purpose 47/32 M35 could fire on both tanks and infantry
There was another problem, however, that needed to be addressed, that of the anticipated wartime stockpile of petroleum. Mercifully, (in a morbid sort of way), no units of the Regio Esercito were effectively motorized; granted that left a pronounced deficiency on the battlefield, but it did free up the Italian ground forces from the cumbersome gasoline leash that tethered many more modern armies. More so, the petroleum issue revolved around the other branches of service, the Regia Aeronautica and Regia Marina. Ever-increasing numbers of planes and ships were anathema to Mussolini’s plan to have at least a year’s reserve of petroleum for conducting a future war; given Italy’s dearth of domestic production, to say nothing of the vulnerability of the trade routes bringing in imports and the political instability of many of its sources, immediate and decisive action was needed to prevent the inevitably grounding of the Air Force and Navy. Worse still, stagnant or declining stocks of oil would result in curtailed training, which in turn would lead to deficiencies in joint operations, group coordination, nighttime maneuverings, and unit readiness. Count Ciano was immediately dispatched on an extended foreign expedition, traveling to Riyadh, Tehran, Sofia, Bucharest, Buenos Aires, and finally Madrid with orders to pay almost any price in order to keep the oil flowing in. Concurrent to and complementing Ciano’s trip, Guido Jung would travel to the ever-strengthening 3rd Reich in an attempt to alleviate Italy’s chronic lack of coal and other energy resources, to ensure that Italian industry would be able to keep up with Mussolini’s plan; even more important, Guido was personally instructed by Mussolini to probe the Fuhrer's cohorts to determine Germany's willingness to entertain the possibility of an strategic alliance.
Argentinean POL Supplies being offloaded in La Spezia