Operation Battle of Culqualber

The 'Battle of Culqualber' was fought by British empire and Italian forces near the Culqualber pass in Ethiopia and, together with the 'Battle of Gondar', marked the end of conventional warfare in the 'East Africa Campaign' (6 August/21 November 1941).

In 1941, after the Italian defeats in the 'Battle of Keren' and the 'Battle of Amba Alagi', military operations in Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa) moved toward the Amhara region, where Generale d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi, the vice governor general and commander-in-chief of the western military sector in Ethiopia, had organised his defence on the main stronghold of Gondar and a series of secondary strongholds around it. The surrounding terrain was characterised by irregular heights, with flat or conical summits (ambas), intersected by deep ravines that were hardly traversable even on foot. Here, the key point for the whole defence system was located in the Culqualber pass, through which passed a rough road that was the only route available for the British commonwealth forces as they approached Gondar with artillery and armoured units.

On 6 August, Nasi sent a mixed force to guard the Culqualber pass. The force included the 1o Gruppo mobilizzato Carabinieri with two companies of Italian veterans (200 men) and one company of Zaptiť (locally raised gendarmerie totalling 160 men) under the command of Colonnello Augusto Ugolini and Maggiore Alfredo Serranti; the 240o Battaglione 'Camicie Neri' (five 'Blackshirt companies) with 675 men under Seniore (major) Alberto Cassoli and the 67o Battaglione coloniale (four companies) with 620 Askari under Maggiore Carlo Garbieri. The garrison was completed by the 43a Batteria di artiglieri (three old 77-mm [3.03-in] 77/28 guns and 40 Italian gunners) and the 44a Batteria di artiglieria (two 70-mm [2.76-in] 70/15 howitzers and 34 Eritrean gunners), one platoon of engineers with 88 men (65 Italians and 23 Askari) and one field hospital with two medical personnel and one chaplain. The five pieces of artillery were obsolete weapons dating from World War I: the howitzers were war prizes from the Austro-Hungarian army. The garrison was also joined by a small number of Askari from Debra Tabor: when that garrison surrendered in July 1941, some Ascari had refused surrender and undertook the 66-mile (106-km) march to the Culqualber pass.

The Italian and colonial forces at the Culqualber pass thus numbered about 2,100 men. A secondary stronghold was located at the Fercaber pass, near Lake Tana, with the 14o Battaglione 'Camicie Neri' (five companies with 600 men,under Seniore Lasagni), the 1a Batteria di artiglieri (three 70-mm [2.76-in] 70/15 howitzers and about 30 Italian gunners), the machine guns of the 6a Compagnia coloniale di mitragliatrici (130 Askaris), one platoon of engineers, one medical officer and one chaplain. The garrison of Fercaber thus comprised some 800 men. Along with the soldiers at the Culqualber and Fercaber passes were about 200 African women and children, the wives and children of the Askari and who, following their custom, had followed their husbands.

After considering the situation, the Carabinieri command decided to entrench its troops on the 'Costone dei Roccioni', an overhanging ridge that dominated both the road to Gondar on the north and the Dessie/Debra Tabor side on the south with the 'Km. 39 Spur'). During the next weeks, the Italians fortified their positions (especially on the Costone, which lacked any kind of natural fortification) with the trunks of the trees in the ravines. Caves with several embrasures were dug in the rock of the ridge to allow to fire in all directions. Some tractor and other caterpillar vehicles were turned into improvised armoured fighting vehicles, armed with Schwarzlose and modello 35 machine guns.

From the later part of August, Ethiopian irregulars started a programme of ambushes aimed at cutting communications and supply lines between Gondar and Culqualber. Ugolini ordered some retaliatory sorties: on 4 September, some Askari and 'Blackshirt' companies made a nocturnal sortie and attacked the Ethiopian encampment, capturing a large quantity of weapons and ammunition. The British forces retaliated with a heavy bombardment of the Italian positions.

During September the British commonwealth forces, arriving from the south and readying for the attack, positioned themselves along the GuarnÚ river and on the DanguriŤ heights, directly threatening the 'Km. 39 Spur' positions. By then the Carabinieri defensive preparations had been completed, but the flow of commonwealth forces into the Gumera valley isolated the garrison of Culqualber from the rest of the Italian defence system, thus starting the siege. At first the British forces tested the Italian defensive perimeter with patrol actions, then, after ascertaining the reaction, advanced on the flanks, avoiding battle and encircling both Culqualber and Fercaber.

The encirclement of the Italians in the Culqualber pass was completed, and the Italian forces found their supply lines cut and soon had to ration their food: the only meal was often of bargutta, a gross flour obtained from corn, fodder and animal feed. The lack of drinking water posed a more serious problem: after the commonwealth forces had secured control over the GuarnÚ and Gumerŗ rivers, which had provided the Italians with water, the garrison’s only source was a small spring, whose flow rate was insufficient for their needs. Carabinieri attempted on several occasions to reach the rivers to retrieve some water, but these were easy targets for the British fire, which caused heavy losses. A method for obtaining small quantities of water consisted in spreading towels on the ground at night and retrieving them in the morning after they had been wetted by the high nocturnal humidity. The Italians were aware that, as time passed, they would grow ever weaker as their besiegers became ever stronger: from the middle of October the Italians therefore organised a series of sorties aimed both at lightening British pressure on their stronghold, and of capturing weapons and foodstuffs.

The first, and also the most important and bloodiest, Italian sortie took place on 18 October against a position on the Amba Mariam height, 9.3 miles (15 km) to the north of Culqualber, where the besiegers had sited encampments and logistic depots. The sortie succeeded, allowing the Carabinieri, ZaptiŤ and the 4a Compania of the 67o Battaglione coloniale to inflict heavy losses as they captured a considerable quantity of weapons, ammunition and food. Exploiting their initial success, the Carabinieri and colonial troops then carried out a bayonet charge and overran the British defenders, who pulled back from Amba Mariam. Ugolini then ordered Serranti to secure the newly captured positions of Amba Mariam with the men who had carried out the attack as Ugolini led ZaptiŤ in pursuit of the retreating British, driving them beyond the Gumera river.

The British forces soon launched a counterattack from the east. Serranti’s men held their positions until Ugolini’s return, then the Italian forces retreated from Amba Mariam and returned to their lines, bringing with them their wounded and their booty of weapons, ammunition and food. Some 36 Italian and colonial troops had been killed and 31 wounded in the fight for Amba Mariam, whereas the Allied casualties amounted to between 150 to 200 men. This operation temporarily lightened the British pressure on Culqualber and provided the Italians with food and supplies that allowed them to lighten the rationing and to prolong their resistance.

During the following days, the British commander, Brigadier C. F. Blackden, increased his forces in the area, brining in several armoured units, some thousands of British troops and several thousands of Ethiopian irregulars. The Italian positions were heavily bombarded by aircraft and artillery, and the Allies also began a psychological warfare effort, dropping leaflets with demands to surrender, sending Copt priests to persuade the defenders to surrender, and sending messengers who also asked for surrender, until Serranti threatened to fire on them.

The ground and air attacks were escalated from 21 October. The Allies enjoyed complete air superiority: only two Fiat CR.42 single-engined biplane fighters were left to face about 100 aircraft of the Royal Air Force and South African Air Force, which continuously bombed and strafed the Italian positions. One of the CR.42 fighters was engaged over Culqualber by two Gloster Gladiator single-engined biplane fighters and shot down by a pilot of the SAAF’s No. 3 Squadron on 24 October.

A heavy assault was attempted against the northern defences, held by the 3a Compania of the 240o Battaglione 'Camicie Neri' and the 2a Battaglione Carabinieri. The Italian line was breached in some places, but the situation was remedied by immediate Italian and colonial counterattacks.

A series of fresh Allied attacks was launched during November 1941. On 2 November, a bombing raid destroyed the Italian field hospital and also struck the cemetery. Three days later, a heavy commonwealth and Ethiopian attack on the southern side of the Italian position was halted by the 1a Compania Carabinieri supported by artillery. During the night of 12 November, a strong British assault began, this time after some heavy bombing, and a series of assaults was launched right through 13 November. The battle was often on a hand-to-hand basis, and the Italian defenders repelled the Uollo irregulars and the Kikuyu and Sudanese irregulars toward the ravines of 'Costone dei Roccioni'. The battle ended in the evening with the failure of the commonwealth attack. On 14 November there was a pause in the Allied attacks, which the Italians exploited to care for their wounded, bury their dead, and eat their first hot meal in days. Between 15 and 19 November the RAF and SAAF constantly bombed the Italian positions, and the ground forces renewed their attacks (on 18 November, the Italian anti-aircraft guns claimed nine aircraft shot down): the British forces managed to capture some positions, which were recaptured by Carabinieri and ZaptiŤ in hand-to-hand combat. Italian volunteers infiltrated the Allied positions in an effort to lower the pressure of the attacks.

From 18 November, the bombing of Culqualber and Fercaber was further intensified. On 20 November, the Italian positions were bombed by 57 aircraft, and an Allied force of about 22,500 men, supported by armoured units, was prepared for the final assault. The Allied forces attacking from the north were three battalions of the King’s African Rifles of Brigadier W. A. L. James’s 25th (East Africa) Brigade, several machine gun companies, six batteries of artillery, one Sudanese company and about 6,500 Ethiopian irregulars, for a total of 13,000 men under James’s command. The forces attacking from the south numbered about 9,500 men under Lieutenant Colonel Collins, consisting of two South African battalions, one Gold Coast artillery battery with six guns, one South African battery, several machine gun companies and about 3,500 Ethiopian irregulars. The Italian garrison, after the losses suffered in the previous months, now totalled something between 1,500 and 1,600 men still able to fight.

The attack started at 03.00 on 21 November. Allied forces attacked from three sides, with infantry supported by tanks (including Mk III light tanks of the South African Light Armoured Detachment), artillery fire and air strikes. Both on the 'Km. 39 Spur', defended by the 1a Compania Carabinieri, and on the less defensible 'Costone dei Roccioni', on which the fortifications were weaker and which was held by the 2a Compania Carabinieri, fierce hand-to-hand combat erupted between attackers and defenders. The Carabinieri fought with bayonets and hand grenades when they ran out of ammunition, and made many counterattacks to recapture lost positions, but ultimately both battalions were annihilated, as was the 'Blackshirt' battalion of Cassoli. The three Italian battalion commanders, Garbieri, Serranti and Cassoli, were all killed in the fighting.

The battle ended during the evening of 21 November with the capture of Culqualber by the Allied forces. Gondar fell less than a week later, thus ending the last organised resistance by Italian regular units in East Africa. Of the 2,900 men of the garrisons of Culqualber and Fercarber, 513 Italians and 490 Askaris were killed, and 404 Italians and 400 Askaris were wounded. About 100 of the 200 wives and children of the Askaris also lost their lives. All the survivors, including Ugolini, were taken prisoner. The commonwealth and Ethiopian losses are not known.