Operation Battle of Gondar

The 'Battle of Gondar' between British and Italian forces was the last stand of the Italian forces in Italian East Africa (13/27 November 1941).

Gondar was the main town of Amhara in the mountain area to the north of Lake Tana in Ethiopia and was garrisoned by 41,000 Italian and local troops under the command of Generale d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi.

After the Italian defeat in the Battle of Keren on 1 April 1941, many of the remaining Italian troops withdrew to the strongholds of Amba Alagi, Jimma and Gondar. Amba Alagi fell to the British in May and Jimma in July, leaving Gondar as the only major Ethiopian town left in Italian hands. Gondar is the capital of Amhara on the high ground north of Lake Tana at an altitude of about 7,000 ft (2135 m). In 1941 it was a road junction, but only the Amhara road had an all-weather surface. At Wolchefit, also held by the Italians, some 70 miles (110 km) toward Amhara, the road switchbacked up a 4,000-ft (1220-m) escarpment, with some of its length cut into a vertical cliff. From Wolchefit to Gondar the road traced the edge of the escarpment and at Dabat, 30 miles (48 km) short of Gondar and at Amba Giorgis were other small Italian garrisons. Only a minor road from Um Hagar to the north had a junction with the main road. To the west of the town, a fair-weather road, in poor condition, led to Gallabat and had an Italian garrison at Chilga. There were rough tracks to the west of Lake Tana which met at Gorgora and a better road ran to the east to Debra Tabor, which was also garrisoned, and Dessie. At Kulkaber, 30 miles (48 km) from Gondar, the road passed between Lake Tana and the hills, and between Debra Tabor and Dessie it was an earth road and impassable in rain.

Possession of the Wolchefit and Kulkaber mountain passes was necessary for any attack on Gondar. Wolchefit was defended by a garrison of about 4,000 men under Colonello Mario Gonella. The stronghold had been besieged by Ethiopian irregular forces, led by a British officer, Major Ringrose, since May 1941, and the besieging force was later augmented by the arrival of Indian units and part of Major General C. C. Fowkes’s 12th (East African) Division. There were several attacks and counterattacks between May and August 1941. On 28 September 1941, after losing 950 men and running out of food, the garrison of Gonella surrendered, 1,629 Italian and 1,450 colonial soldier being taken prisoner.

On 13 November, a mixed force of the 12th (East African) and Ethiopian irregular troops attacked the key defensive position of Kulkaber and were repelled. Kulkalber had been under siege since a time early in September and had already been subjected to several attacks and bombardments. A second British-led attack on 21 November from several directions was resisted until the afternoon, when Italian posts began to surrender. In the final attack there were 206 British and Ethiopian casualties, and 2,423 Italian and Ethiopian prisoners taken: Italian sources claim that the Italian casualties were 1,003 men killed, 804 wounded and 1,900 taken prisoner.

By this stage of the Ethiopian campaign the British had complete control of the skies: the Italians had just one Fiat CR.42 fighter flown by Sergente Giuseppe Mottet. On 22 November, in the Regia Aeronautica’s final sortie in East Africa, he made a strafing run on British artillery at Kulkaber and killed the Royal Artillery commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ormsby. Mottet then landed at Gondar, destroyed the CR.42 biplane and fought as an infantryman.

There are two mountain passes overlooking the town of Gondar, and these were controlled by the Italians. The passes were then invested by the two brigades of the 12th (East African) Division, which cut off the two Italian groups in the passes and forced them to surrender when their supplies ran out.

After taking the passes, the British-led forces gained control of the heights overlooking Gondar and reached the town on 23 November. The garrison of Gondar was seriously depleted as many of the Askari East African soldiers, who had received no pay from the Italians for some time, had deserted. The final assault on Gondar, where Nasi had his headquarters, started at 05.30 on 27 November. Azozo airfield was the initial objective and had been taken by 12.00 on 27 November. Shortly after this, British-led troops reached Fasilides' Castle. At 16.30, while the Kenya Armoured Car Regiment penetrated the outskirts of the town, Nasi sent his last message to Italy, explaining that his reserve brigade had been deployed on the southern front but had been unable to stop the attack, that British-led troops had penetrated the barbed-wire entanglements, and that armoured vehicles had entered the town. Nasi surrendered soon after this, but some Italian outposts continued to resist until 30 November, when the battle came to an end with their surrender.