“The tanks might have been animals. It was an incredible spectacle: men in flimsy cotton shammas [robes] attacking these steel monsters with their bare hands.”
– Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, describing the 1935 Battle of the Dembeguina Pass.
We ran this game under the banner of Newark Irregulars at several shows in 2011, including Salute, Partizan and Crisis, using the Triumph and Tragedy rules to break the battle down into smaller skirmish scenarios.
The Battle of the Dembeguina Pass came in December 1935, at the start of the ‘Black Period’ of the 1935-6 Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Following a rapid initial advance into Ethiopia from the north, the Italian invasion had stalled in the mountainous terrain of northern Abyssinia. But now Mussolini had grown impatient; and he ordered his forces to advance south and force a quick end to his war of colonial conquest.
However, the Ethiopians were ready to counter attack. The advance guard of perhaps 2,000 men crossed the fords of the River Takazze at dawn on December 15th and immediately wiped out a small fort manned by Italian troops. Wasting no time, the Ethiopians advanced towards the main Italian position at the Dembeguina Pass. There they were spotted by an enemy patrol, giving the Italian commander of the pass, Major Criniti, time to radio for reinforcements and air support.
The Ethiopian force was led by Fitaurari Shifferaw, accompanied by his eighty-year old father, Fitaurari Negash. As soon as they arrived at the pass, they encountered a CV35 Italian tank. The gunner fired, killing several warriors; and driving the others away in terror. However, one noble warrior reacted with almost foolhardy bravery. Balambaras Tashemma jumped onto the roof of the CV35. Drawing his sword, he banged on the hatches shouting, ‘Open, open!’ The commander duly (and fatally) opened the hatch and, like his driver, was quickly beheaded by the Balambaras.
This was the turning point: the horrified Italians watching from the pass ahead realized that they had to break out. Major Criniti led his Askari soldiers and remaining nine tanks at the Ethiopians in a bold attempt to break free, but were driven back and Criniti wounded. Now the Italians ingeniously drove out their baggage to distract the marauding Ethiopian warriors, but this plan failed after a fierce fight. Then the surviving CV35s were lost. Overwhelmed by raging warriors and the difficulties of the rocky ground, they had their hatches forced open, or shots fired through the slits at close range. Others had their tracks levered off or were simply overturned by force of numbers.
By the end of the day, the Italians had cut their way out, but with the loss of over 400 soldiers and ten tanks. The battle was not all one-sided, however. Many Ethiopians died, including Fitaurari Shifferaw himself. It was a tactical victory, but one that would be short-lived.