The Fall of Massawa


Staff member
I was asked this question in a PM on another site. I decided to post the question here to see if others had any insight.


one question: do you know what was, roughly, the numerical strength of the Allied (British, Indian, Free French) forces that took Massawa in April 1941? How many men and, if possible, how many tanks?

I also have some doubts about the size of the Italian garrison. British sources say that 9,590 prisoners were taken, along with 127 guns. However, the Italian Navy official history ("Le operazioni in Africa Orientale"), while not providing an overall number, gives the following data: initial garrison in January 1941, ca. 3,000 men; then increased as follows: 1) one blackshirt battalion with 548 men; 2) one Guardia di Finanza mobilized group with 304 men; 3) one locally raised battalion of 722 men, plus another two companies with 350 men and later another two companies (number of men unspecified). Not very clear to me if these were part of the original 3,000 troops, however. 4) crew of the sunken destroyer Leone (ca. 200), 5) 2,300 troops coming from Keren and Ghinda, more precisely: 450 grenadiers of the 11th Regiment, 250 blackshirt of Seniore Belloni's battalion, 210 Alpini from the "Uork Amba" Battalion, 200 engineers, 50 bersaglieri, 40 artillerymen with a 65/17 group, 1,100 ascari of the Amhara battalions. The Amhara, however, were considered unreliable and thus disarmed and discharged before the final assault.

With this, the total seems to be around 7,500 men, including the Amhara (otherwise 6,400) and in the (possibly wrong) assumption that the 722+350+two other companies weren't already included in the original 3,000.

In addition to this, another battalion with civilian personnel from the workshops in the naval base was scheduled to be raised, but it is not very clear whether it was actually done or not. An article by Alberto Rosselli on claims that the garrison numbered 6,500.

Finally, it is mentioned that the artillery in Massawa amounted to some 70 guns, not 127. Do you know the actual size of the garrison and whether the 9,590 POWs and 127 guns does indeed refer to Massawa or it also includes troops and equipment rounded up during the advance from Asmara to Massawa?


Staff member
After reading this, I focused on the Italian side of the battle and forgot to check the UK side. I will see what I have for the UK tonight.

What I have for the Massawa garrison. This is from Le operazioni in Africa orientale (1988) vol 1, pp. 263-270. I also checked my copy of La guerra in Africa orientale (1952, pp. 158-164) but the test is nearly identical. Clearly the former use much of the material in the latter.

The original garrison in the area was:
-CXXXVI battaglione cc.nn.
-A gruppo of Guardia di Finanza dell’Eritrea
-3 batteries of 77/28 field guns
-1 battery of 120mm (type not given)

The XLII brigata coloniale (3 bns) was ordered to join the garrison on 21 February. However, between 25-29 March, this brigade was recalled and ordered to Ad Techesan.

After the fall of Cheren, some units retreated to Massawa. These joined the garrison:
-XI btg. di formazione granatieri (350 men)
-Btg. alpini «Uork Amba» (210 men)
-250 cc.nn. men (no unit given, I assume a mix of survivors).
-50 bersaglieri (no unit given).
-200 genieri (no unit given)
-40 artiglieri
-1.100 ascari di Amara (these were considered untrustworthy and disarmed)

The R.M. formed the following units:
-btg. di formazione di marina nazionali
-btg. di formazione di marina ascari
Many of the strongpoints were equipped with machine-guns taken from sunken/damage ships.

UK forces. The Italian officials give the 5th Indian Division with:
-4th Indian Brigade
-7th Indian Brigade
-Free French Brigade

I will check my UK sources tonight (unless someone jumps in first).

The Italian officials gives 11.000 men captured at Massawa. This is everything (R.E., R.M., e R.A.)

Le operazioni list the total losses for the national members (Europeans) on the Northern Front covering all the operations. it states on page 270 a total loss of 8.000 men broken down into: officers dead-120, wounded 260. Troops dead-3.000, wounded 4.500. No info is know for ascari losses.

it appears that much of your information matches mine and might be from the same source.
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Staff member
RE: UK tanks. It appears that B Sqd/4 RTR was the armored forced used to attack Massawa. It had 12 Infantry Tanks Mk II at that time. The squadron had 8, 9 and 10 Troops. It appears that 8 Troop was disbanded at some point to keep the other troops operational, only 9 and 10 troops are mentioned during Cheren, Asmara, ad Massawa.

See History 4th and 7th RTR