KV-8

KV-8 built on a KV-1 Model 1942 hull with the angular rear hull overhang, and mounting a 45mm gun and ATO-41 flame projector in an up-armored welded turret. KV-8 manufactured in the spring of summer of 1942. While few photographs exist of KV-8 vehicles in service, those that do show the Omsh pattern single-link track, or the early pattern split-link track with guide “bump” on every second link.

One of the final KV-8S vehicles completed in early 1943.  It includes the standard KV-1S hull with sloped rear engine deck and rounded rear overhang, and mounts the 45mm gun and ATO-42 flame projector in the standard KV-1S turret.

KV-8 (42) – A KV-1 fitted with the ATO-41 flame-thrower in the turret, beside a machine gun. In order to accommodate the new weapon, the 76.2mm gun was replaced with a smaller 45 mm Gun M1932, though it was disguised to look like the standard 76 mm. The uparmored welded turret with 90mm armor, introduced in July 1941, mounting the 45mm gun and ATO-41 flame projector.  Photographic evidence indicates that this combination of production features is correct for most of the 67 KV-8 vehicles produced.

This, together the OT-34 based on the T-34 medium tank, was organized in special separate flamethrower tank battalions (the Soviets called them “Chemical Tank Battalions”). Each battalion had two companies of KV-8 tanks. The KV-8 and KV-8S (based on the KV-1S tank) were used by Russians in all fronts of WWII.

There were flamethrower tank battalion with numbers from 510 to 519. In late 1943 – early 1944 a part was converted to flamethrower tank regiments (510, 511, 513, 516, 517). The only flamethrower tank brigade was the 235th Brigade on the Stalingrad Front in 1942

The 235th Tank Brigade was equipped with 36 KV-8, 18 OT-34, 5 T-34. The authorized strength of the separate flamethrower tank battalion was 10 KV-8 and 11 OT-34, but later KV-8s were excluded.

The hull sides feature integrally molded mounts for the suspension swing arms, return rollers and drive sprockets.  The swing arms themselves are separate moldings and feature the correct three retaining bolts for the torsion bar hub.

The tracks are of the narrow split-link type with no guide ‘bump’ on the split links.  This track pattern was the most common on the KV-1S chassis.

Two sets of road wheels are found on the KV-8S.  One full set of all-steel one-piece wheels with eight small lightening holes is included, and these wheels were the most common type on the KV-1S.  The other set feature eight larger lightening holes, as seen on some KV-1S and at least one vehicle in 1943.  The drive sprockets are the late pattern with eight bolts securing the hub cover.

The few surviving photographs of the KV-8S suggest that most vehicles did not carry applique armor on the hull front or the driver’s front plate.

Grab rails are provided for the top edges of the hull side plates, forward of the turret, alongside the engine compartment and the transmission compartment.

Approximately 102 KV-8 vehicles were produced. Twenty-five appeared as the KV-8S and based on the KV-1S production model (an upgraded version of the KV-1 with reworked turret, uprated transmission and better performance). These carried the ATO-42 series flamethrower as well which was an improved version of the earlier ATO-41. The KV-8M followed as a proposed, upgraded variant of the KV-8S model intended to carry two flamethrowers. Only two prototypes of this form were built and the design was not adopted for service.

The unique KV-1S cast turret.  The configuration of the weld seams is appropriate for an early or mid-production turret built prior to the spring of 1943, which matches the production dates for the final 10 KV-8S vehicles.

Variants: Series Model Variants

  • KV-8 – Base Series Designation; initial production form; 42 examples completed with ATO-41 flamethrowers.
  • KV-8S – Based on the improved KV-1S production models; 25 examples completed with ATO-42 flamethrower support.
  • KV-8M – Proposed, upgraded model to carry two flamethrower weapons; only two prototypes completed.

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AMERICAN ACE LOUIS CURDES

Of all the American pilots who flew and fought in World War II, only a handful managed to shoot down aircraft from all three axis countries.

And just one, Louis Curdes, scored an Axis trifecta plus an American plane to boot. Curdes’ unusual story has gone viral online, where it was embellished with distortions and half-truths. Here are the facts.

2Lt Louis Curdes was one of the most aggressive pilots in the 95th FS, with three confirmed and a damaged. Curdes, who had joined the 95th FS three weeks earlier, reported;

`After the bomb run, I was flying in a vic with Capt McArthur, and another flight of P-38s was right behind us. Capt McArthur suddenly called “Look out for the ‘109s!” and we banked sharply and pulled up in a steep turn to the right. A ‘109 came across my sights at a 45-degree angle, passing to the left. I kicked left rudder and followed it down. When within 300 yards and at about 30 degree deflection I let go a very long burst. I could see my tracers curving right into his nose. I broke off at 100 yards and passed in front of the ‘109, which nosed over and went straight in. There was a big splash and an oval of white foam.

`I straight-and-levelled and started to look for my wingman. A ‘109 came in from the right at a steep angle. I did a level turn tight to the right and the ‘109 went over me. I followed him down, shot several bursts and thought I saw pieces fall off. However, the ‘109 screamed off for home along the deck. I then turned around looking for company. Beneath me, I saw a P-38 100 ft above the deck on one engine. Three ‘109s were coming out from shore after him at heights of between 500 and 1000 ft and still one-and-a-half miles or so away. I started to head them off, climbing very slightly. They evidently didn’t see me, and I gave the right-hand plane a big burst. This ‘109 was lagging a bit behind the other two, which were in a very tight formation. My tracers went into him, puffs of black and white smoke came out and he did a wingover straight in.

`The other two ‘109s started to dive at the one-engined P-38. I made a 30-degree deflection shot at the leader, closing to 20 degrees and making about 350 mph. The ‘109 burst into flames, exploded and flopped into the water. I overshot both him and the P-38, lined up on the deck, and made a tight turnaround. The other ‘109 was pouring lead into the P-38. I came around on his tail, shot one burst, missed, and the ‘109 headed away for home. The other P-38 went into the sea.’

A few minutes later Curdes spotted some more Lightnings, one of which also ditched into the sea. Another, which was on a single engine, he led back to the coast. Shortly after crossing it they both were about to run out of fuel, so Lt Curdes landed wheels-down in a dry river bed whilst his companion belly-landed in a nearby field. The other pilot was picked up on 3 May and Curdes flew his aeroplane out on the 4th after gasoline and a few hundred feet of pierced steel planking (PSP) had been brought to the site.

The 95th FS flew another B-25 escort to Aranci Gulf on the 24th, during which Lou Curdes made the only claim, downing a C. 202 for his sixth victory. Four days later the 95th and 96th were assigned a similar mission to Sardinia, the target this time being Alghero airfield. The 95th scored a probable whilst the 96th’s pilots claimed two destroyed, one probable and two damaged (all C. 202s).

The 95th FS had become involved in a major battle over Benevento, in southwest Italy, on 27 August. On the morning of 27 August during another B-25 escort to Benevento by the 95th FS. Fifty enemy fighters met the USAAF formation over the coast near Naples and a swirling dogfight ensued, during which 2Lt Lou Curdes became separated from the rest of his flight whilst damaging a Bf 109. This did not deter him, however, and he continued to fight until he had shot down another Messerschmitt. Curdes then saw a P-38 in trouble, went to its aid and downed another Bf 109, thus increasing his score to eight destroyed and two damaged – the best the remaining 95th pilots could do was two damaged.

However, Curdes lost his squadron mate to enemy fighters and one of his engines took some serious hits before he finally headed for home. He seemed to have the situation under control as he reached the Italian coast, but his other engine was then damaged by a burst of flak. Curdes knew his Lightning (P-38G-10 42-13150/`AZ’) was done for, so he crash-landed it on a beach a few miles south of Salerno, set it on fire and awaited his inevitable capture.

Lt Curdes and some other PoWs escaped from their Italian jail on the morning of 4 September, but they were recaptured almost immediately and sent to a maximum security camp. Four days later the Italian government agreed to an armistice with the Allies, whereupon the PoWs were given rifles and blankets by their former guards and then allowed to walk away. Unfortunately, the ex-PoWs were far behind the German lines, and for the next eight months they lived as fugitives, aided by Italian partisans. Curdes finally crossed into Allied-controlled territory on 27 May 1944, exactly nine months after he had been reported missing in action.

After returning home he soon volunteered for another combat tour, this time in the Philippines, flying P-51s with the 3rd Air Commando Group. During this tour Curdes claimed a single Japanese aircraft destroyed. He then requested a return to combat duty, and was back in action with the 4th Air Command Squadron (ACS) of the 3rd ACG in the Pacific later in the year. The side of Curdes’ Mustang was adorned with a variety of victory markings – German, Italian and Japanese (he downed a `Dinah’ while flying a P-51D with the 4th ACS on 7 February 1945). There was also a single American flag, which recalled the C-47 that he had crippled in an attempt to stop it landing in error on a Japanese-held airstrip on Batan Island, in the Philippines.

On February 10 1945, Curdes, now a Lieutenant, formed a squadron of four aircraft that departed from Mangaldan Airfield in the Philippines. Their objective was to investigate if the Japanese were using a temporary air strip on the southern tip of Taiwan. No airfield could be found and Curdes returned to the Philippines. Flying over the island of Batan, the squadron split; Curdes and Lieutenant Schmidtke headed north, while Lieutenants Scalley and La Croix headed south.

Scalley and La Croix located a small Japanese airfield and attacked it and also called for reinforcements; Curdes and Schmidtke headed south to join them.

During the attack on the airfield, La Croix was shot down and made an emergency landing in the sea. As the squadron circled, Curdes could see that his companion had survived, and remained in the area to guide a rescue plane and protect the downed pilot. While covering La Croix, Curdes noticed a larger plane was preparing to land at the Batan airfield. He went to investigate and found the aircraft to be Douglas C-47 transport with US insignia. Curdes tried to make contact by radio, but was not successful. He manoeuvred his P-51 in front of the plane several times trying to get the C-47 to alter course, but the C-47 maintained its course.

Curdes lined up his P-51 directly behind the C-47 and fired his .50 caliber machine guns into one of the C-47s two engines, causing it to fail. The C-47 still maintained its course for the Batan’s airfield so Curdes then disabled the remaining engine forcing the pilot to ditch in the sea. The plane successfully ditched without breaking up, and the crew was able to evacuate into a lifeboat. La Croix approached and was brought on board the C-47’s life raft, where he was informed about the situation. The plane had apparently been lost in poor weather and its radio had stopped working. As it was also running out of fuel, the pilot headed directly to the island’s airstrip, unaware that it was under Japanese control.

At this point, the dusk and low level of fuel of the P-51 forced Curdes to return to base. The next morning, he accompanied the rescue PBY to pick up the downed C-47 pilot and 11 crew members, including two nurses, all of whom had survived the incident. To Curdes’s surprise, he discovered that one of the nurses, named Svetlana Valeria Shostakovich Brownell, was a woman with whom he had had a date the night before the incident. He married Svetlana in 1946. Contrary to subsequent reports, Curdes did not receive a Distinguished Flying Cross for that event, although he did receive credit for the “Kill” and displayed it on his aircraft.

Curdes returned to flying P-38s when he transferred to the 49th FG near the end of the war.

Austrian and Hungarian Warships on the Danube

The Habsburg Monarchy had never been a maritime power to be taken seriously – despite its Adriatic ports, its rule in the Southern Netherlands and two decades of control over Naples and Sicily. For centuries, the Venetians had successfully prevented any Austrian shipping in the Adriatic, and the Maritime Powers in their turn now made sure that the Austrian Netherlands would not endanger their supremacy at sea. Until the acquisition of Venice in 1797 Austria effectively remained a landlocked power, lacking a real navy or merchant fleet. During the Turkish wars the Habsburgs, however, adopted the Hungarian tradition of a respectable Danube flotilla made up of fast and lightly armed rowing boats with auxiliary sails called Nassaden (from the Hungarian word for ‘boat’) or Tschaiken (reflecting the Turkish term for ‘river’). As early as the fifteenth century Vienna had had a naval arsenal, but in 1529 the first Danube flotilla had to be scuttled when the Turks advanced to besiege the city for the first time.

During the 1680s plans were considered for a small Imperial fleet operating jointly with ships of other Christian states against the Turks in the Adriatic. Yet the Danube continued to be the most likely focus of Habsburg maritime activities. The early 1690s saw the creation of a superficially impressive flotilla containing even relatively large ‘battleships’. The initiative did not at first have a happy outcome. Officers and sailors were recruited in Holland, foreign adventurers took command … all at horrendous expense. It became even more painful when, in 1696, three ships had to be blown up near the confluence of the Danube and the Tisza to prevent them from falling into Turkish hands.

The battleships of the second generation built in the late 1690s were much smaller and had fewer guns. At the same time, the traditional Tschaiken continued to be used as well; much more easily manoeuvrable, they were now built slightly bigger and more strongly armed, which made them more expensive. In 1701, there were still 14 large ships, 2 frigates, 2 brigantines and 35 Tschaiken, but the fleet had been sorely neglected after the peace of Karlowitz, ships even being broken up to recover timber. For the Turkish War of 1716–18 both new battleships – whose sailors were this time recruited in north Germany – and Tschaiken had to be built and equipped anew. This took time, and only a few of them were actually used, chiefly to cover land operations such as the celebrated Danube crossing near Belgrade in 1717. After the peace treaty the warships were broken up … and sold as firewood.

The acquisition of Naples (1714) and Sicily (1720) eventually necessitated a permanent fleet to maintain communications with the new Mediterranean territories. Otherwise Vienna would constantly have to rely on the goodwill of the Maritime Powers, particularly the British. When the Spanish had abandoned Naples in 1707, they had taken their ships with them. It was high time for the creation of a small Habsburg-Neapolitan navy, a project well in keeping with Charles VI’s dream of a strong potenza marittima. In the late 1720s a winter harbour was set up in Baia while, on the Austrian Adriatic coast opposite, Trieste and particularly Porto Rè (Kraljevica) were turned into naval arsenals and shipyards. Yet this initiative was not sustained: after the loss of the south Italian possessions in 1734 interest and activities naturally petered out. In 1733–34 four ships of the line and four galleys were at Charles VI’s disposal. Supreme command was exercised by the Genoese aristocrat Count Gian Luca Pallavicini (1697–1773), later Austrian governor-general in Milan. When the Spanish fleet arrived off Naples in April 1734, the galleys managed to break through and escape to Trieste to join what was left of the Neapolitan navy, only to rot gradually or be sold off to Venice. At all events, the Neapolitan fleet had managed little more than convoying troop transports across the Adriatic. Now as before, it was impossible to defend southern Italy without the support of the Maritime Powers, while even Austria’s Adriatic coastline was attacked and bombarded during the Polish Succession conflict. Needless to say, among the nobilities of the Monarchy service in the navy had less tradition than even joining the army; the idea of bringing Austrian noblemen to serve as naval officers by having them trained in sea warfare by the Knights of Malta, as was common practice among French nobles, never got of the drawing board.

In 1736 the Neapolitan regiment of Marines was disbanded, the remaining personnel and material being used to establish a new Danube flotilla for the Turkish War with British and Dutch naval officers. Yet its fate was as disastrous as that of the Emperor’s land forces. In the first campaign two battleships had to be scuttled to avoid capture, while in August 1739, three further ships which the Turks had caught up with while advancing on Belgrade had to be blown up by their crews at the confluence of the Danube and the Temeş. After the Turkish War the remaining Neapolitan officers and sailors were dismissed, and only a small gunboat flotilla survived with bases at Raab, Komorn and Gran. It was to prove itself in the War of the Austrian Succession, particularly in the Bavarian theatre of operations.

Beginning in 1764 a contiguous zone along the Danube in the Banat was ‘militarized’. It was to be settled by Serbs who had moved there from the dissolved Tisza-Máros Border, but also by veteran soldiers unfit for regular service. Together with a unit of Rumanian settlers established in 1769, the Serbian colonists formed the Illyrian Banat Border Regiment (raised in 1775), which covered the eastern Banat (with headquarters at Weisskirchen); the German Banat Regiment, on the other hand, consisted of ‘German’ invalids and colonists and stood guard along the western Danube border with headquarters at Pancsova. The official strength of the Banat Border amounted to some 7,700 men.

Efforts to establish a military border in Transylvania in 1764–66 met with great difficulties. It was planned to include only two groups of the country’s population: the Széklers in the south-east and the predominantly Orthodox Rumanians in the south and north-east. After open rebellion in 1764, the Széklers, though originally a warrior nation, had to be forcibly included in the border organization. By contrast, the Rumanians hoped that ‘militarization’ would improve their critical situation and proved more cooperative. Unsurprisingly, a territorially compact border could not be artificially created in a comparatively densely populated area. Still the Transylvanian Border mustered a combined paper strength of more than 14,000 men. Small river naval units had been part of the old Hungarian national militia (pp. 87–8) dissolved in the 1740s. Traditionally based in the north-west of Hungary, they were fundamentally unsuitable for guarding the Turkish border, by then much further south. After several futile attempts a battalion of military boatmen (Tschaikistenbataillon) was finally set up in 1763–64 in the Danube-Tisza area with Titel as its headquarters. These boatmen, too, were military peasants, who received land instead of pay and used the traditional boats or Tschaiken as gunboats (hence the name). The batallion first went into action during the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–79), when it had to support the regular army’s pioneers and pontooneers in Moravia and Bohemia. For the Turkish War of 1788–90 the Danube flotilla was considerably reinforced by four larger sloops and an older frigate.

Italian Air Force Attacks Britain 1940

OPERATIONS FLOWN

LIST OF Operations flown by the Corpo Aereo Italiano:

24 October – night raid – Felixstowe and Harwich

27 October – night raid – Ramsgate

*29 October – daylight raid – Ramsgate

1 November – daylight fighter sweep over Kent

5 November – night raid – Felixstowe and Ipswich

8 November – daylight fighter sweep over Kent

10 November – night raid – Ramsgate

11 November – daylight raid – Harwich

17 November – night raid – Harwich

20 November – night raid – Norwich

23 November – daylight fighter sweep over Kent*

25 November – daylight fighter sweep over Kent

27 November – night raid – Ipswich

28 November – daylight fighter sweep over Kent

29 November – night raid – Ipswich and Harwich

5 December – night raid – Ipswich

13 December – night raid – Harwich

21 December – night raid – Harwich

22 December – night raid – Harwich

2 January 1941 – night raid – Harwich

*This was the only other raid intercepted in strength by Fighter Command. Twelve Spitfires of 603 Squadron attacked off Folkestone claimed seven CR.42s shot down and two probables. Two CR.42s were actually shot down and several others damaged. (Coincidentally, it was also the day that Belgium formally declared war on Italy.)

The Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) was instructed by Mussolini in 1940 to send a force to northern Europe to `assist’ the Luftwaffe in its campaign against Britain – unfortunately Göring and the Luftwaffe High Command were not so enthusiastic and reasoned that they could probably manage without them. Even so, a force named the Corpo Aereo Italiano was formed under the command of Generale sa Rino Corso- Fougier in September 1940.

The organisational structure of the Regia Aeronautica was broadly similar to the RAF, comprising `Stormo’ (Wings) which had a number of `Gruppo’ (Groups) which, in turn, consisted of several `Squadriglia’ (Squadrons). The formation had two `Stormo’ of Fiat BR. 20 twin- engined bombers; the 13 th and 43rd. There was also one `Stormo’ of fighters, the 56 th , which had two `Gruppo’. The 18 th `Gruppo’ was made up of three `Squadriglia’, equipped with Fiat CR. 42 bi-planes, and the 20 th `Gruppo’ with three `Squadriglia’ of Fiat G. 50 all-metal monoplanes. Finally, there was an assortment of transport, communications and reconnaissance machines; in total, a force of around 200 aircraft.

DESTINATION BELGIUM

In late September, under orders to commence operations against mainland Britain, the Corpo Aereo Italiano headed north to their assigned bases in Belgium. First to leave Italy were the Fiat G. 50 fighters. After heading off on 22 September they landed at their first stop-over at Treviso, where they remained until 6 October having been delayed by fog. Next stop was Bolzano, where they spent 11 more days waiting again for suitable weather, this time in order to attempt a crossing of the Alps, then on to Munich, Frankfurt and finally Ursel. The Fiat CR. 42 bi-planes made the journey with comparative ease.

A total of 77 Fiat BR. 20 bombers attempted the four-hour flight over the Alps and direct to Belgium on 27 September, but only 60 made it all the way. Two aircraft were completely destroyed and the remaining 15 were scattered along the route, having landed due to mechanical failures.

The men and machines were a strange sight to the Germans, the men having been issued with newly designed Luftwaffe-style uniforms to replace their First World-War style tunics and `breeches’. However, their machines retained the bright `camouflage’ which was rather better suited to the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean.

When news of Corpo Aereo Italiano’s arrival reached the Belgian Government, now exiled in London, they declared war on Italy. The Corpo Aereo Italiano came under the command of the Luftwaffe’s Fliegerkorps 2 and was allocated the area from Ramsgate to Harwich over which to operate. On the evening of 24 October 1940 the first attack was launched – a night raid by 18 BR. 20 bombers on Harwich and Felixstowe. Only minutes after take-off one of the BR. 20s crashed, killing its six crew. Ten crews reported that they had successfully bombed the target, but on their return two aircraft were wrecked and one badly damaged.

The first daylight raid was made on 29 October. This was an elaborate and large-scale raid on Ramsgate in Kent made by 15 BR. 20 bombers with a fighter escort of 39 CR. 42s, 34 G50s and a few Me109s from the Luftwaffe. The armada flew along the Channel and then swung in over the coast at 10,000 feet near Ramsgate – all in formation as if at an air show. On the ground the anti-aircraft gunners were at first baffled by the sight and the unusual `rattling’ noise that the engines made – quite unlike RAF or Luftwaffe aircraft – but after further deliberation began firing anyway. 75 bombs fell in the area and the Italian press could be truthfully told that their air force had indeed attacked England. Remarkably, and most fortuitously for the Italians, Fighter Command did not appear in the sky. Five bombers were hit by the gunners, but all returned to Belgium.

On November 11 at midday ten BR. 20s, each loaded with three 250kg bombs, took off from Chievres with the intention of attacking Harwich. They were to be escorted by a strong fighter force of 42 CR. 42s, 46 G. 50s and a few Me109s from the Luftwaffe, but almost immediately the G. 50s and Me109s turned back in the face of bad weather, leaving the ten bombers and 42 CR-42 bi-planes to carry on.

By the time the raid was nearing the English coast heavy cloud and poor visibility had scattered the aircraft into small groups spread over several miles, each unable to see the others.

In England the coastal Chain Home and Chain Home Low radar stations had spotted the incoming raid and 12 Group scrambled the Hurricanes of 17 and 257 Squadrons. Flights from two already airborne squadrons, 46 and 249, were also vectored towards the incoming raid.

257’s nine Hurricanes, Red, Blue and Green sections, were led by the Canadian Flight Lieutenant HP `Cowboy’ Blatchford, `Red 1′ who sighted the bombers flying on a north-north-west heading at 12,000 feet some 10 miles east of Harwich. 17 Squadron, with which they were to rendezvous, was spotted 7,000 feet below and took no part in the engagement. As Blatchford led his squadron to gain more height, two formations of fighters were seen some miles away, one above and one below the bombers. `Cowboy’ Blatchford later recalled his part in the battle for a BBC broadcast:

“When we were about 12,000 feet up, I saw nine planes of a type I had never seen before, coming along. Bombers, big and fat, like flying slugs. They were in a tight V formation. I didn’t like to rush in bald-headed until I knew what they were, so the squadron went up above them to have a good look. Then I realised that at any rate they were not British and they were armed and that was good enough for me. I led the boys in from the back, line abreast. We went into attack starting with the rear starboard bomber and crossing over to the port wing of the formation. It was then, when we got in close, that I saw the Italian markings.

“They kept their tight formation and were making for the thick cloud cover at 20,000 feet, their gunners firing all the way. But our tactics were to break them up before they could reach the clouds and we succeeded at the second pass. Two of them were badly shot up and when they dropped out the others started turning in all directions. I singled out one of the enemy and gave him a burst. Immediately he went he went straight up into a loop. I thought he was foxing me – trying to make me break off – as I had never seen a bomber do anything so violent before. He was right on his back. I thought to myself the crew must be rattling around inside there like peas – unless, of course, they were strapped into their seats. Anyhow, I followed him when he suddenly went into a vertical dive. I still followed, waiting for him to pull out. Then I saw a black dot move away from him and a puff like a white mushroom – someone baling out. The next second the bomber seemed to start crumpling like a wet newspaper and it suddenly burst into hundreds of small pieces. They fell down to the sea like a snowstorm.

“I think my burst must have killed the pilot. I think he fell back, pulling the stick with him – that’s what caused the loop. Then when the plane fell off the top of the loop, he probably slumped forward again, the weight of his body putting the plane into an uncontrollable dive. She kept on building up speed. What usually happens then is that the wing or tail falls off, and it was a surprising sight to see the plane just burst into small pieces.”

MERRY-GO-ROUND

The CR. 42 fighters had now caught up with the bombers and Blatchford began to engage one of them in a quarter-attack:

“We did tight turns, climbing turns and half-rolls ’till it seemed we would never stop. That Italian could certainly fly! Neither of us was getting anywhere until one of my bursts seemed to hit him amidships and for just a moment he looked to be `waffling’. Suddenly he did something like an `Immelmann’ turn and came in at me head-on. I went into a diving turn and we started all the merry-go-round business all over again. I got in two or three more bursts and this time knocked some fair sized chunks out of his wings and fuselage. Then my ammunition ran out. That put me in a bit of a fix and I didn’t know what to do next. I was afraid if I left his tail he would get on mine the moment I broke off. So we kept on this turning and twisting routine until suddenly – more by luck than judgement – I found myself bang on his tail only 30 yards ahead and a few feet higher.

“If I had even a dozen bullets I could have finished him off easily. It was enough to make anyone swear. In a flash I decided that if I could not shoot him down, I would try and knock him out of the sky with my aeroplane.

“I went kind of haywire. It seemed to me that the biplane was only made of boxwood and string and could not possibly damage a Hurricane. But just as I started to close with him, I had second thoughts and decided I would just try scaring the living daylights out of him. I aimed for the centre of his top main- plane, did a quick little dive and pulled up just before crashing into him. The idea was to pass very close over his head and maybe send him into a spin. I felt a very slight bump and a shudder and reckoned I must have misjudged. I climbed and circled, but I never saw him again. Somehow, I don’t think he got back.”

`Cowboy’ Blatchford knew his Hurricane was damaged for the engine and airframe were vibrating badly, so he set off back to Martlesham Heath. However, his day wasn’t over:

“As I was flying back, keeping a good look-out behind, I saw a Hurricane below me having the same kind of affair with a Fiat as I had just had and run out of ammunition. I went down and did a dummy head-on attack on the Italian. At around 200 yards he turned away and headed out to sea. Again I thought: `Good! I really can go home this time’ but just before I got to the coast, still keeping a good look-out behind, I saw another Hurricane with three Fiats close together and worrying him. So I went down again, feinting another head-on attack, and again when I was about 200 yards away the Italian broke off and headed for home.”

When 257 Squadron’s Intelligence Officer, Flt Lt Geoffrey Myers, compiled the squadron’s report of the action he added: `On landing, two blades of Flt. Lt Blatchford’s machine had 9 inches missing and the propeller was found splashed with blood’.

Blatchford’s actions that day, particularly in coming to the assistance of the two Hurricanes whilst being out of ammunition, led to the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

TUCK’S LUCK AND MACARONI BOMBERS

On hearing of 257 Squadron’s success a press photographer was sent to RAF Martlesham Heath in order to take a series of photos recording the historic engagement with the Italians. Prominent among the resulting images is Squadron Leader Robert Roland Stanford Tuck DFC, the enigmatic CO of 257 Squadron at the time.

However, Tuck took no part in the combat of 11 November whatsoever. On that day he was suffering from ear-ache, caused by problems with an ear-drum, and the squadron’s Medical Officer had grounded him. Tuck therefore set off to hunt a few rabbits nearby and saw `his’ Hurricanes fly over him as they were scrambled. Already, Tuck had developed a reputation for considerable good fortune and his various adventures and hair’s-breadth escapes had led to the sobriquet `Lucky Tuck’. Today, though, his `luck’ had deserted him and he was grounded and unable to join what he later called a `turkey shoot’.

The newspapers, though, were not necessarily specific that Bob Tuck had not taken part. Indeed, in The People journalist Arthur Helliwell reported on `Chianti Tuck’ and went on to make a racially disparaging remark about Italians before announcing that: `For weeks he and his men had been waiting for just such an opportunity. They descended upon the Macaroni airmen like avenging furies and played swift havoc among these ancient `planes from Rome. `They were easy’ he (Tuck) said `Just dead meat of the skies.’

Later, Tuck would profess to have been embarrassed by this embellishment of facts although it has to be said that he exhibited no shyness or reticence when it came to posing with his pilots and their trophies that had been `liberated’ from the downed Italian machines.

AERIAL PICNIC

As a BR. 20 had fallen close by, `Cowboy’ Blatchford, Bob Tuck and Karol Pnaik immediately set off in a car to have a look. It is widely reported that the crew were still at the crash site under guard of the local police and that the body of Armando Paolini, the wireless operator, was still in the wreck. This was certainly how things are recorded in Tuck’s biography by Larry Forrester `Fly For Your Life’:

`Just inside the door the top gunner was still in his harness, swinging gently, and full of bullets. The harness creaked faintly and the floor beneath him was slippery. They had to flatten themselves against the side of the fuselage to wriggle past. On the way Tuck looked up and saw a holster at the gunner’s waist. He reached up, extracted a Beretta automatic and stuck it in his pocket. Since ten years of age he’d been a keen collector of firearms, he still couldn’t resist a chance to augment his personal armoury.

`In the waist they found two hampers, large as laundry baskets. One was stuffed with a variety of foods – whole cheeses, salami, huge loaves, cake, sausages and several kinds of fruit. The other held still more food, and over a dozen straw- jacketed bottles – Chianti.’

Two steel helmets and a bayonet were added to the collection, and finally they cut four badges from the aircraft’s twin tails with the bayonet, the resulting holes clearly visible in `photos of the wreck. Meanwhile, the triumphant RAF pilots headed back to their airfield with this aerial picnic. The day’s events were surely going to be celebrated in style.

Whilst the British press made much of the Italian’s use of apparently `outdated’ bi-plane aircraft, and just a few hours after the Italian air force had ventured to attack the British port of Harwich, Britain launched its own attack on shipping in an Italian port, also using bi-planes. This, of course, was the port of Taranto, and the bi-plane torpedo bombers were Fairey Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm. Three Italian battleships were put out of action, and in one night the Italian fleet had lost half its complement of capital ships.

The tables had certainly been turned, and in a fashion so spectacular that it only served to highlight the miserable and embarrassing failure that had been the Italian raids over Britain’s east coast. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was later prompted to comment of the Corpo Aereo Italiano’s attempted interference in Britain’s domestic affairs by saying: “They might have found better employment defending their fleet at Taranto.”

Despite the fact that British newspapers of the period rather poked fun at this Italian escapade and intimated that the Italians had run for home at the first sight of opposition, this was certainly not the case. The intercepting RAF pilots noted that their opponents flew skilfully and with spirit and courage, particularly in the face of superior opposition. `With Valour To The Stars’ is the Italian Air Force’s motto. They had certainly flown with valour albeit they hadn’t reached Harwich, let alone the stars, that day.

COMBAT THE FINAL TALLY OF PILOT CLAIMS CAME TO:

BOMBERS: Seven BR. 20s destroyed

FIGHTERS: Five CR. 42 destroyed, Three probables, One damaged

Although referred to by some of the Hurricane pilots as a `turkey shoot’ they would have been amazed to know the true number of aircraft lost. According to Italian records, only three BR. 20s and three CR. 42s were actually brought down in the engagement, although `misclaiming’ of this nature was quite normal, for all sides, particularly in large-scale aerial engagements.

Of the BR. 20s, MM22267 of 242 Squadriglia flown by Sottotenente Enzio Squazzini and MM22620 of 243 Squadriglia flown by Sottotenente Ernesto Bianchi crashed into the sea. As parachutes had been reported the Aldeburgh lifeboat was launched, but found only one empty parachute.

MM22621 of 243 Squadriglia flown by Sottotenente Pietro Appiani made a crash landing near Woodbridge.

The CR. 42s were MM6978 of 83 Squadriglia flown by Sergente Enzo Panicchi, which went into the sea. MM6976 of 85 Squadriglia flown by Sergente Antonio Lazzari, which crash landed near Corton Railway Station, and MM5701of 95 Squadriglia flown by Sergente Pietro Salvadori which landed near Orfordness.

The worsening weather caused further losses on their return to Belgium. Four BR. 20s crash landed near the coast and 18 CR. 42s made emergency landings with varying degrees of damage. Sergente Mario Sandini wandered over Amsterdam, where he crashed into a town square and was killed.

Wickersham Land Torpedo (USA 1918)

The foundations then were laid for remote-controlled vehicles and weapons just as the First World War began. World War I proved to be an odd, tragic mix of outmoded generalship combined with deadly new technologies. From the machine gun and radio to the airplane and tank, transformational weapons were introduced in the war, but the generals could not figure out just how to use them. Instead, they clung to nineteenth-century strategies and tactics and the conflict was characterized by brave but senseless charges back and forth across a no-man’s-land of machine guns and trenches.

With war becoming less heroic and more deadly, unmanned weapons began to gain some appeal. On land, there was the “electric dog,” a three-wheeled cart (really just a converted tricycle) designed to carry supplies up to the trenches. A precursor to laser control, it followed the lights of a lantern. More deadly was the “land torpedo,” a remotely controlled armored tractor, loaded up with one thousand pounds of explosives, designed to drive up to enemy trenches and explode. It was patented in 1917 (appearing in Popular Science magazine) and a prototype was built by Caterpillar Tractors just before the war ended.

Suicide bombing, supply carrier

Operated by wire

Developer – Elmer E. Wickersham

Manufacturer – C. L. Best Tractor Company

Loading capacity – 50kg

Article translated from Russian [topwar.ru]

Keren (1941) Part I

‘Am concerned at check developing at Keren. Abyssinia might be left, but had hopes Eritrea would be cleaned up’ – read the telegram to Cairo of a worried Winston Churchill on 20 February 1941. The mountainous escarpment of Keren formed a natural fortress barrier shielding the coastal province of Eritrea from the interior of Africa. Italy had annexed Eritrea in 1890 and from there Mussolini’s armies had overrun Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in 1935-6. Now, five years later, they had made Keren the bastion of II Duce’s East African Empire against British invasion from the Sudan. Keren was to be a soldier’s battle in the grimmest imaginable conditions and terrain and here as nowhere else in the Second World War Italian soldiers of all types were to belie the belief that they were a pushover in battle.

As early as August 1939, General Sir Archibald Wavell, British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, concluded that there were four things he must do in the event of Italy going to war alongside Germany. These were to secure the Suez Canal base by acting boldly in the Western Desert; get control of the Eastern Mediterranean; clear the Red Sea; then develop operations in south-east Europe. After Mussolini’s entry into the Second World War in June 1940 Wavell wrestled to achieve these objectives. What he had not foreseen was that he would be required to do all four simultaneously with inadequate resources. Yet in spite of some nasty shocks he managed the first of these tasks and was wholly, startlingly, successful in the third. It is of this campaign, the clearing of East Africa and the Red Sea, that Keren formed a part.

Wavell’s strategic dilemma is admirably depicted and the one bright spot on an otherwise dark canvas is suitably illuminated by his cable to Winston Churchill in the last week of March 1941, after Keren had been captured. It was in reply to a message from the Prime Minister expressing alarm at Rommel’s advance to El Agheila, and it helps to set the battle in its proper context:

I have to admit taking considerable risks in Cyrenaica after capture of Benghazi in order to provide maximum support for Greece . . . Result is I am weak in Cyrenaica at present and no reinforcements of armoured troops, which are chief requirement, are at present available . . . Have just come back from Keren. Capture was very fine achievement by Indian divisions. Platt will push on towards Asmara as quickly as he can and I have authorised Cunningham to continue towards Addis Ababa from Harrar, which surrendered yesterday.

Wavell had four campaigns on his hands — Cyrenaica, Greece, Eritrea and Ethiopia. It was essential to get the East African battles over and done with. Ethiopia had to be dealt with quickly in order to send the much-needed troops back to the Western Desert where the dangers were so much greater – point which Rommel was shortly to rub home. But before this could be done, before troops and stores could be sent via the Red Sea port of Massawa to Egypt and so on to Libya and Greece, the Asmara-Addis Ababa road had to be captured. And in the way stood the fortress of Keren.

On 19 January 1941, Lieutenant-General William Platt advanced from the Sudan into Eritrea, while a few days later Lieutenant- General Sir Alan Cunningham set out on his march from Kenya with African and South African troops. Platt quickly reached Keren but the battle for it, the most severe of the whole East African campaign, lasted nearly two months. After its capture Platt soon took Asmara and Massawa, thus opening the vital route to the north. Cunningham’s successes were equally astonishing in speed and distance. By 25 February he had taken Mogadishu together with a huge petrol dump, and a month later, having advanced 1,000 miles, reached Harrar. By 5 April he had captured Addis Ababa and then the two forces, Platt from the north, Cunningham from the south, converged on Amba Alagi.

It was here that the Duke of Aosta, Italian Viceroy of Ethiopia, had concentrated what was left of his armies. By 16 May all was over. The extent and totality of the victory were summed up by Wavell in his despatch: The conquest of Italian East Africa had been accomplished in four months … in this period a force of 220,000 men had been practically destroyed with the whole of its equipment, and an area of nearly a million square miles had been occupied. It was that rare thing – a complete victory, a battle of annihilation since none of the enemy escaped. The fighting was unlike any other in the war. Great mountain barriers had been stormed. In Ethiopia the operations, among which Orde Wingate’s Gideon force ranks high, had been largely guerrilla, and had succeeded in tying down large numbers of Italian troops which were thus unable to concentrate against the advancing British columns. Yet these columns had been small and this was their strength, since supply problems, although formidable, had been surmountable. Mobility had been everything, while for the Italians the very size of the huge Empire they tried to protect had paralyzed them. How did the situation appear to the Italian Viceroy?

Despite the Italians’ early and relatively insignificant successes of July 1940 when they captured frontier posts in Kenya and Sudan and invaded British Somaliland, Aosta’s strategy was essentially defensive. By the beginning of December 1940 he was already expecting British offensives from the Sudan against Eritrea, particularly from Kassala towards Keren, and from Kenya against Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia. Because of fuel and vehicle shortages it was difficult to ensure that his centrally held reserves would be sufficiently agile to reinforce a threatened area rapidly. He therefore decided to send some of these reserves forward, especially in the north towards Eritrea where he rightly thought that the first blow would fall.

In Eritrea itself he ordered the local commanders to organize areas of resistance which were to be firmly held while mobile reserves, mainly colonial brigades, would be prepared to operate between these areas and attack an advancing enemy’s flanks. Eritrea contained three colonial divisions and three colonial brigades plus garrison troops. These native troops, Askaris , would be peculiarly susceptible to reverses and their loyalty would be unlikely to survive serious setbacks. In the north, where Generale di Corpo d’Armante Luigi Frusci commanded, the Viceroy foresaw grave difficulties in countering the British mechanized forces which would advance across flat country near the Sudan-Eritrea frontier, and on 11 January 1941 he therefore sought Mussolini’s agreement to the evacuation of Kassala, Tessenei and Gallabat-Metemma. II Duce agreed. On the other hand, Aosta decreed that there would be no withdrawal from Agordat and Barentu, both south-west of Keren, and that Keren itself would be strengthened by a regiment of the elite Savoia Grenadier Division. In this way they would help `to close the gap absolutely.’ Such was the situation shortly before Platt began his advance. He had two very famous Indian Divisions under his command – the 4th (which Wavell had sent from Libya in January thereby taking the sort of risk he pointed out in his telegram to Churchill) and the 5th stationed in the Sudan since September 1940. These divisions were made up largely of Indian troops, ideally suited to the mountain warfare which they were about to wage, but there were British battalions and other units too. Platt had also formed the 1,000-strong Gazelle Force partly from units in 5th Indian Division, notably the renowned Indian cavalry regiment, Skinner’s Horse, and from the Sudan Defence Force. The group included machine-gun, artillery and supporting units and was commanded by the dashing Colonel Frank W. Messervy. While Platt was still on the defensive, Gazelle Force had been used to harass and ambush Italian troops in and near Kassala. So successful were they that the Italians withdrew from Kassala by mid-January.

General Platt’s task was clear. He must advance from Kassala into Eritrea and take Massawa, a distance as the crow flies of about 230 miles. There were only two ways of getting there and both routes led through Agordat to Keren. The northern route, a poor and narrow dry-weather road, was via Sabderat and Keru; the southern one was a better road but less direct and went through Tessenei and Barentu to Agordat. A well-surfaced road ran from Agordat to Keren and then on to Asmara and Massawa. The whole country was in one sense ideal for war. Except for the few towns, roads, railways and bridges, there was, as in the desert, little made by man to be destroyed. Yet curiously enough the place was alive with game. For the soldiers themselves it was less hospitable – mountainous, arid and rough. `The plains and valleys’, wrote Lieutenant-General Sir Geoffrey Evans, `were a mixture of jungle or open spaces dotted with outcrops of rock, stunted trees, palms near water and scrub, the mountains, strewn with boulders of immense size, spear grass and thorn bushes, were extremely arduous to climb in the heat, particularly when the troops were loaded with a full pack, ammunition and often an extra supply of water since there was none on the slopes.’

Fifth Indian Division was to advance to Agordat by Tessenei and Barentu, while 4th Indian Division with two of its brigades made for the same objective via Keru. The third brigade of 4th Indian Division was to move to Keren from Port Sudan. The whole advance began with Gazelle Force in the lead on the northern route. There was a certain amount of excitement before they reached Agordat. On 21 January, as a divisional history has recorded,

while Messervy was engrossed with the situation at Keru, a nearby patch of scrub erupted. With shrill yells a squadron of Eritrean horsemen, 60 in number raced on the gun positions in front of Gazelle Force Headquarters. Kicking their shaggy ponies to a furious gallop, the cavalrymen rose in their stirrups to hurl small percussion grenades ahead of them. With great gallantry they surged on, but the gunners brought their pieces into action in time to blow back the horsemen from the muzzles of the guns.

There could have been few such bizarre actions during six years of war. The intrepid horsemen, led in by an Italian officer on a white horse, left 25 dead and 16 wounded on the field of battle.

More serious business confronted Gazelle Force. The battle for the heights to the south of Keru Gorge required the combined efforts of 4th Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, Skinner’s Horse and 2nd Cameron Highlanders against firm Italian resistance. Even then it was more the danger of being outflanked and cut off from the south by 10th Brigade of 5th Indian Division than direct frontal pressure which caused the Italians to abandon their positions. By 25 January 4th Indian Division had closed up on Agordat, had cut the Barentu road and faced their first real obstacle. Meanwhile 5th Indian Division was ordered to take Barentu. Italian resistance there was stubborn, and just as 10th Brigade’s advance had helped 4th Indian Division to capture the Keru Gorge heights, so 4th Indian Division’s subsequent success at Agordat allowed the 5th to overrun the Italians at Barentu on 2 February.

The battle for Agordat resolved itself into a struggle for Mount Cochen, described by those who saw it as `a steep and involved ridge system which sprang to a height of 1,500 ft, its rugged barrier extending into the east until it ended above a defile four miles long through which the road to Keren passed. The Agordat and Mount Cochen position was held by the Italian 4th Colonial Division, which was then attacked by two brigades, the 5th and 11th, of 4th Indian Division. The gallant actions of Indian and British infantry were greatly assisted by four T (Infantry) tanks whose job it was to knock out the Italian armor. Lightweight Bren-gun carriers were used to lure the Italian tanks out of their hides. The bait was taken with a vengeance. Eighteen Italian tanks burst from cover and raced to destroy the flimsy intruders. Then the T” tanks barged into the open, their guns playing on their Italian adversaries at point-blank range. Six medium and five light tanks went up in flames. The survivors scuttled frantically into cover.

On the crests of Mount Cochen itself the final action had been dramatic and bloody. The Italian commander then had dispatched a company of Eritrean infantry to contain Indian troops advancing on the peak itself so that he could withdraw his main body to new positions. But the Eritreans encountered a covering force of some 40 Rajputana Rifles and Pathan Sappers and Miners who Tell on the Eritreans like furies, plying the steel and leaving a wake of dead and wounded behind them. The survivors scattered in frantic flight. Over 100 bodies were counted along the slopes after. No further resistance was met as 11th Brigade advanced along the heights and made good the eastern end of the Cochen ridge system overlooking the Keren road.’ It seemed at this moment as if the road to Keren itself was open. The cost had not been high. Fewer than 150 casualties had been suffered by Major-General Sir Noel M. Beresford-Peirse’s two brigades while the Italian 4th Colonial Division had disintegrated, losing over a thousand prisoners.

Keren (1941) Part II

The view from an RAF bomber as the mountainous terrain outside the town of Keren is attacked.

Yet the road to Keren was not open. Demolition of the Ponte Mussolini, a great bridge 12 miles east of Agordat on the Via Imperiali autostrada, plus heavy mining of the deviation, bought the Italian rearguards precious time. The retreating enemy were able to pass through the Dongolaas Gorge, 40 miles farther east, and then to prepare another far more formidable demolition. On 2 February the vanguard of 4th Indian Division, advancing along the Ascidera valley, were within two miles of the Gorge’s entrance:

From the canyon came dull booms, clouds of smoke and dust curled upwards in the still, hot air. The last Italian rearguards had passed through, and on a stretch of several hundred yards demolition squads were blowing away the retaining walls which pinned the road to the cliffsides. Two tanks crossed the valley to reconnoitre and reported the ravine to be blocked by barricades of huge boulders covered by anti-tank and machine guns. The eastern gateway of the Eritrean fortress was bolted and barred.

The Keren position, to those who first saw it, looked almost impregnable. Fifty-three days were to elapse before the fortress itself was passed by British troops. Either side of the Dongolaas Gorge 11 great peaks rose steeply to a height of more than 2,000 ft above the valley. To the west were Sanchil, Cameron’s Ridge, Brig’s Peak, Saddle, Hog’s Back, Flat Top and Samanna; to the east Fort Dologorodoc, Falestoh, Zeban, Acqua Col and Zelale (the Sphinx), overlooking what was ironically named `Happy Valley’. Sanchil and Brig’s Peak afforded observation of Keren itself and were therefore particularly important. On this naturally powerful position the Italians deployed the best part of 30,000 men, some 40 infantry battalions, supported by 144 guns. Most of the troops were colonial, but the regular Italian battalions included some of their finest fighters – Savoia Grenadiers, Alpini and Bersaglieri.

The two Indian divisions – and because of transport shortages it was impossible to maintain both divisions complete in battle simultaneously – were faced with the disagreeable prospect of a frontal assault. There was simply no other way to open the road through the Dongolaas Gorge and thus achieve the objective of reaching Asmara and then Massawa. The battle can be divided into three phases. The first phase from 3 to 7 February was conducted by Brigadier Reginald A. Savory with his 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. He attempted to capture Brig’s Peak and Sanchil. His troops reached both summits, but lost them again to Savoia Grenadier counter-attacks, while hanging on to Cameron’s Ridge, won by the Scottish regiment of that name. The great difficulty facing the British and Indian infantry was that to reach their objectives at all demanded intensive physical effort. Artillery bombardment could normally reach only the forward slopes and had to be lifted before a final assault. On reaching their objective the exhausted infantry, already depleted in numbers by casualties and by having to use as much as a quarter of each battalion as supply porters, were terribly vulnerable to immediate counter-attack by the protected defenders who were supported by accurate mortar fire.

In the next phase Maj-Gen. Beresford-Peirse used both 5th and 11th Brigades, this time attacking farther east against the Acqua Col where desertions by colonial Italian troops were encouraging, with a view to outflanking the more formidable defenses to the west and pushing straight down the track to Keren. In spite of great efforts by the 4/6 Rajputana Rifles who gained the objective, a counter-attack pushed them off again. Severe fighting by isolated units was the pattern of the battle as this account shows:

The leading Rajputana Rifle company had reached the haunches of high ground which rose on both sides of the entrance to the gap when heavy mortar and machine-gun fire opened. The company commander fell wounded, but Subedar Richpal Ram sprang to the front and headed the rush which carried the leading platoons over the crest. … In the next four hours five counter-attacks were smashed by the bombs, bullets and bayonets of this dauntless handful. An hour before dawn, their last cartridges expended, the gallant Subedar with nine survivors fought back through an enemy block in the rear and rejoined the main body of the battalion, which had dug in under the shelter of a low crest afterwards known as Rajputana Ridge.

Beresford-Peirse abandoned his plan. Next he decided to renew the attack on 10 February in both areas. It was a further story of great gallantry and prizes won only to be lost again. Eleventh Brigade was to capture Brig’s Peak and 5th Brigade Acqua Col. Brig’s Peak was taken twice, as were Saddle and Hog’s Back. None were held. Acqua Col was almost reached – Subedar Richpal Ram of the Rajputana Rifles won a posthumous Victoria Cross in the battle – but his battalion suffered 123 casualties. Such losses could not be sustained. Platt and Beresford-Peirse, while still acknowledging that their main effort must be made at Keren, began to cast about for means of diverting some of the enemy to deal with threats elsewhere.

Thus 7th Indian Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Harold Briggs made its way south from Karora and was supported by the Free French Brigade d*Orient made up of the 14th Foreign Legion Battalion (containing Italians who fought against their own countrymen) and 3rd Battalion of the Chad Regiment. Brigg’s force fought a successful engagement against the enemy on 23 February at Cub Cub which was only 45 miles north-east of Keren and began to distract Italian reserves from the Keren front.

Meanwhile, preparations for the next main assault, the third and final phase, went on. They were enormously assisted by British aircraft. Heavy air attacks were made on Italian airfields between mid-February and mid-March and so successful were they that the Italian air force was virtually inactive. By 22 March the Regia Aeronautica could only muster 37 serviceable aircraft in the whole of East Africa. Additionally the Italian defenses themselves received repeated attention. By the beginning of March Platt had completed his planning even to the point of briefing his commanders on a sand-model. Fourth Indian Division was to attack to the west of the Dongolaas Gorge taking all the peaks from Sanchil to Samanna, while Major-General Lewis M. Heath’s 5th Indian Division, fresh from a mountain warfare refresher course at Tessenei farther east, would capture Fort Dologorodoc and exploit to Falestoh and Zeban. Yet it was still 19 battalions against 42 defending and the attackers were slogging uphill in a temperature of 100°F. Meanwhile Briggs’ force, now only about 15 miles distant from Keren to the north-east, would advance.

On 15 March, with maximum air support from some 50 bombers and an artillery bombardment by 96 guns, 4th Indian Division attacked. The 2/5 Mahratta Regiment seized and held Flat Top while 1/6 Rajputana Rifles took Hog’s Back for the loss of half their number. But by 1600, after eight hours fighting and climbing, the Cameron’s three rifle companies were down to 30 fit men in front of Brig’s Peak, having lost 288 men in the effort to capture it. During the night these meager gains were just retained against three Italian counter-attacks. The following night 10th Brigade was thrown in against the two untaken peaks. Its two battalions were so savagely mauled that they were withdrawn to `Happy Valley’. By the time the attack was called off on the evening of 17 March the division had sustained 1,100 casualties in three days.

On the other flank 5th Indian Division had better luck, taking Fort Dologorodoc on the first night, principally because, unlike the other Italian defenses, it was not overlooked by a high ridge behind. Its capture proved to be a turning point, for the fort dominated the town and plateau of Keren behind the mountains, thus providing a superb artillery observation post for the British guns. Nevertheless, exploitation of the success to Falestoh and Zeban ended as so often before with the troops pinned down on the forward slopes; this time they even had to be air-supplied before being withdrawn at night.

The two-division offensive had one other positive result – it enabled engineers to examine the original Italian roadblock in the Dongolaas Gorge. They found that the boulders and craters extended back 100 yards, but estimated that a 48-hour clearance would enable tracked vehicles to get through. Furthermore on the west side of the block the railway line to Keren ran under Cameron’s Ridge through a barricaded tunnel. Once cleared this offered a covered way approach for armor to get through the Gorge and advance to Keren. No wonder General Heath declared, on receiving this information, that `Keren is ours!’ His division’s second effort was fixed for 25 March, giving a week for preparations and the resting of units.

Meanwhile, between 18 and 22 March, the Italians made seven desperate attempts to recapture Fort Dologorodoc during which they suffered many casualties. Among the dead was General Lorenzini, a bold inspiring leader, nicknamed by his men, the Lion of the Sahara. His 4th Italian Division of regular troops had been the mainstay of the defense.

By 20 March Italian units had lost a third of their strength. On 25 March the 9th and 10th Brigades of 5th Indian Division attacked on both sides of the Gorge and seized it, taking some 500 prisoners including many Bersaglieri and two batteries of artillery. The following afternoon Sappers and Miners had blasted a way through the road block. This meant that before long the 14 infantry tanks and 50 Bren carriers of Fletcher Force would get behind the main Italian positions. On the night of 26 March the Italians skillfully withdrew leaving only light covering forces. Next morning white flags fluttered from Sanchil and Brig’s Peak. Fourth Indian Division advanced and tanks entered Keren by 0800 on 27 March. Asmara, capital of Eritrea, fell on 1 April and Massawa, the Red Sea port, a week later.

The battle was best summed up by General Platt, talking to his officers on 14 March before the final phase started: `Do not let anybody think this is going to be a walk-over. It is not. It is going to be a bloody battle: a bloody battle against both enemy and ground. It will be won by the side which lasts longest. I know you will last longer than they do. And I promise you I will last longer than my opposite number.’ That Platt was right about the bloodiness of the action needs but statistics and the memory of those present to endorse. The British lost 536 killed and 3,229 wounded. Three thousand Italians, according to their commander, General Frusci, were killed.

Without the determination, devotion to duty and sheer bravery of the regimental soldiers, the battle could not have been won. The magnificent efforts of the logistic planners and producers were also vital, for no troops, however courageous, can win without food, fuel, ammunition and water. The Italians on Mount Sanchii had a piped water-supply – their assailants had to carry two-gallon petrol tins up the heights. Major-General G. Surtees, then a Brigadier in charge of administration for the campaign, did much to win what he called the `Q* (Quartermaster’s) war. He recorded that speed, simplicity, common-sense, improvisation and imagination were the watchwords. But, Surtees continued, none of these would have been any good without the men who carried out the plans – driving the vehicles, humping the stores and evacuating the wounded. `British, Indian and Sudanese’, Surtees wrote, `grumbling, cursing and laughing, swept by sand storms, soaked in tropical rain, they sweated it out in the heat, they froze in the heights. Unexciting, if not uninteresting, was much of their back area toil, often imposing endurance and struggle against shortage of sleep. At any heroics on devoted service to the fighting men, they would have scoffed and sworn. Yet the urge was there.’

So too was the will to win in the higher commanders. Wavell, despite all his lack of resources and mounting commitments, had had the foresight and boldness to commit the right troops to the right place at the right time. After Keren, 4th Indian Division hastened back to the Western Desert. Eritrea gone, the Duke of Aosta concentrated his dwindling strength in one more great fortress at Amba Alagi. There he was stalked and harried and, eventually, forced to surrender by the converging columns of Platt and Cunningham. Mopping up, interrupted by the rainy season, finished in November 1941. Of all the East African battles Keren was the bloodiest and longest. It had been besieged for nearly eight weeks and was held by nearly four divisions of Italian troops. It was a battle partly won by the skill and perseverance of the British, Indian and French troops and partly lost by the Italians in their reckless but valiant attempts to retake Fort Dologorodoc. The Italians could rightly be proud of their record at Keren, even though, as Brigadier Savory said, `No enemy but the Italians would ever have allowed us to take the place. It was practically impregnable and even with Italian defenders we suffered heavily and at times began to wonder if we ever would succeed.’ For the great 4th and 5th Divisions of the British dominion of India, the battle remains a shining star in their histories.