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.

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