Military harbors, anti-ship and anti-aircraft coastal defenses

In 1936, after the conclusion of the victorious military operations against the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie, the Supreme Command of the Italian Navy, which during the 1935-1936 war had contributed to the success of Rome’s armies, faced the complex but inevitable problem of creating along the coastline of the new Italian Empire of East Africa a series of harbor structures and infrastructures capable of consolidating and protecting the vast new conquests.

According to the experts of the Regia Marina, Italy could guarantee a complete pacification and regular economic growth of this area only through the strengthening of the defenses of the main harbors in Eritrea and Somalia (Massaua, Assad, Dante, Mogadishu, and Chisimayu). Furthermore, it could also station two naval squadrons, including large surface ships, in both the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Already from the time of the Ethiopian War, the engineering branches of the Navy and the Army had, in part, restructured the old harbor of Massaua and Mogadishu, but this work, which included amongst many other things hospitals, barracks and shops, a submarine battery charging station, twenty fuel tanks (distributed between Massaua, Assab, Dante, Mogadishu, and Kismaayo), two coal depots, six ammunition depots, two torpedo depots, two goods and water depots, and the transfer to Massaua of two dry-docks (one for 7,500 t. ships, and the other, smaller, for 1,600 t. ones), resulted insufficiently due to the evolution of diplomatic relations between France and Great Britain (considered, from an Italian viewpoint, quite negative). As known, these countries did not welcome the expansion of Italian interests into the Indian Ocean.

Toward the end of 1936, an emergency program was started to provide for armed defenses for the most important harbors (Massaua, Assab, Mogadishu, Kimaayo), but unfortunately, the plan was never completed due to lack of full funding at the time. However, between the period 1936 and the beginning of the hostilities (June 10th, 1940) the Italian Command of Massaua was able to set up a relatively complex network of defenses linked to a system of anti-ship and anti-aircraft guns, which was better than other fortified harbors (lookout posts, signaling stations, radio stations, identification and airplane sighting stations). In this case, the small and medium guns (76/30 AA, 74/40 AA, 76/50, 102/35, 120/45 e 152/45) were installed in the harbor area and on some of the islands that make up the archipelago facing the harbor (Dahlak Islands).

The guns were paired with nine 120 cm and 150 cm photoelectric cells. Passive defenses relied on minefields of “Bollo” and old Austrian mines (the weapons were laid on the bottom of the Dahlak Archipelago by the minelayer Ostia and the Colonial sloop Eritrea). One of the three gun batteries in Assab (Ras Garibale, Ras Gombo, Om and Baker) was also based on an island, Fatma, while the harbor was defended by two minefields laid by the destroyer Pantera. To protect the harbor (during the war, due to its proximity to Aden, the port was the object of numerous attacks by the British air force) there were some 13.2 mm machine guns. In Assab, it appears that there also were three 120 cm photoelectric cells. In total, on June 9th 1940 the Italian harbors in Eritrea were defended by 30 gun batteries (11 of medium and 19 of small caliber).

At the same time In Kisimaayo there was a very small number of guns: two 120/45, four 76/40, a 120/25 army field gun, and about ten 13.2 mm Breda machine guns (a large number of the guns was positioned on the ‘Snake’ and ‘Shark’ islands). Soon after the beginning of the hostilities, the base commander, Captain Fucci, made a proposal to the Italian Command in Addis Ababa to reinforce the site with 152 mm guns, relocating the existing 120 mm ones to Dante and Burgao; none of this was ever completed.

At the beginning of the war, the base in Mogadishu, and also in Dante, were far less protected (Dante did not even have a single gun). Mogadishu, despite being the largest city in Somalia, was protected by a single 120/45 battery of four guns manned by personnel of the Milmart (backshirt), and half a dozen 13.2 mm machine guns, while the city’s land defenses did not have a single gun. Over all, the Italian naval bases in Eritrea and Somalia could rely on 4,500 officers, non-commissioned officers, and rating in grand part deployed in Massaua.

After the fall of the large defensive bastion of Cheren (where for a long period, between January 31st and March 27th the Italian Army of East Africa had been able to repulse the advance of the powerful British army of the Sudan at a price of very heavy losses), the British armed divisions spread, with the support of the air force, into the entire region occupying Asmara (March 31st) and threatening the harbor of Massaua. This base was protected by forces completely lacking anti-tank weapons.

Expecting these dramatic events since the middle of January 1941, the base commander had opted to hurry the construction of new defenses (anti-tank ditches, gun batteries, etc) facing both the ocean and land in an attempt to resist as much as possible and expecting the imminent and inevitable collapse of the front in Cheren. The Italian command, aware that no aid could come from other sectors or from the motherland (it should be remembered that Italian East Africa was practically isolated from Italy since the outbreak of the hostilities), sought, before all, to rescue all the materiel and the weapons which could be located around the site.

In Massaua, Vice-Admiral Mario Bonetti (the base commander) improvised, creating some gun batteries utilizing four of the seven 120/35 guns of the torpedo boat Acerbi which had been seriously damaged during a British aerial attack, and also the twin-mounted 120 mm guns of the destroyer Leone which had run aground on a sandbank off the Dahlak islands.

Some very old Skoda guns (dating back to the end of the 19th century) were also placed into service. These guns were discovered in a warehouse and, by sheer luck, were also located, in the holds of a German ship in port, twelve 75/22 Krupp guns originally destined for the Emir of Afghanistan. Meantime, the base commander in Kismaayo was able to have some 25 mm home-made small anti-tank guns constructed out of inserts usually employed for firing smaller caliber shells in larger guns.

For antiaircraft defenses, officer and rating alike made themselves very busy constructing small batteries in which they placed gun mountings built on site utilizing few means and much imagination and equipped with 7.7 and 12.7 mm Breda Safar machine guns removed from seriously damaged and unsalvageable airplanes. At the beginning of the British attack against Massaua (conducted with heavy Matilda tanks armed with 88 and 122 mm guns, and troops of the 7th Anglo-Indian Brigade, 10th British Brigade, and troops of Free France) the Italian and Eritrean forces under Vice-Admiral Bonetti, and Generals Tessitore, Bergonzi and Carmineo (the hero of Cheren) had in total 6,500 soldiers and sailors, 80 artillery guns, 100 machine guns (including some 40/39 from the torpedo boats Acerbi and Orsini), plus the guns of the ships still in the harbor.

On Land

Quota 21 (4 76/40) from the tanker Niobe
Moncullo (4 76/40)
Otumlo (4 76/30)
Amateri (4 76/40)
M.Nadi (4 76/40)

I.Sceik-Said (4 76/40) multipurpose
Ma.173 (4 76/40) multipurpose
Ma.370 (3 102/35)
Maffei di Baglio (4 120/50)

On the Islands

Capo Grabau (3 120/45)
Isolotto Assarca (2 76/30)
I. Shumma Quarto (4 120/45)
Dahlach Chebir (4 102/35)
Isolotto Dur Gaam (3 120/45) 2 from the destroyer Nullo
I.Dehel (3 152/45 + 4 120/45)
I. Sceik-al-Abù (2 76/50)
I.Hamil (4 120/45)

On April 8th, after an initial assault was repulsed by Italian grenadiers and guards of the Fiscal Police (Guardia di Finanza) and a large number of British tanks, supported by artillery, broke through the defensive ring of Mount Massaua entering the urban area. Meantime, British air forces based in Perim and Aden hammered the last resisting bastions. Despite all this, some Italian troops attempted a desperate defense, but eventually they were overwhelmed, in large part because some of the guns with which the base was equipped could not be used because specifically positioned for anti-ship use.

On April 7th and 8th, when the city was already in British hands, the torpedo boat Orsini, even though it did not have all of its guns, bombarded up to the last shell the British motorized columns near Embereni at about 20 kilometers north of Massaua. After the fall of the base, some contingents of sailors, gunners, and machine gunners went on resisting, moving to the islands thanks to a cache of foodstuff and water accumulated beforehand. At sunrise on April 8th, a few hours after the British breakthrough, Vice-Admiral Bonetti, after having given orders to sink all ships at the opening of the harbor to close it, let a small flotilla of tug boats and barges loaded with provisions move to the Dahlak Islands.

On April 16th, Commander Pierantoni , the commanding officer in charge of the last troops resisting on the islands, opted for surrender, but not after having had all guns and weapons destroyed, and then ordered the cease-fire. About 60 soldiers decided to keep on fighting and, rescued by a small flotilla of dhows sent from Assab, went on to that base where they served under Commander Bolla. For the record, Assab (still defended by five 76/40, 120 and 152 mm guns, and about a dozen 13.2 mm machine guns, in addition to a few 65 and 77 mm field guns) was the last Italian naval base to surrender. This would not happen until June 11th, 1941 when, after a series of violent British aerial bombardments, the garrison was forced to surrender, but not before having shot down with the last 13.2 mm Breda machine gun still serviceable, a British light bomber Bristol Blenheim: the twenty-seventh shot down during the span of a wretched war.

Translated from Italian by Cristiano D’Adamo
Edited by Laura K. Yost