‘AN INDIAN JULIUS CAESAR’

Chandragupta had defeated the remaining Macedonian satrapies in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent by 317 BCE.

Chandragupta Maurya’s origins were probably undistinguished; they certainly remain so. Buddhist texts claim that he was related to the Buddha’s Sakya clan, others that he was related to the Nandas. Both may be taken as fairly transparent attempts to confer lustre and legitimacy on a new dynasty whose founder was of humble caste, possibly a vaisya. If not born in the Panjab, he seems to have spent some time there, as suggested by Plutarch and as confirmed by a legend, found in both Indian and Graeco-Roman sources, associating him with the lion. Tigers were widely distributed throughout India, but the Indian lion, now retaining a clawhold only in a corner of Gujarat, seems never to have roamed further east than Rajasthan and Delhi.

At some point in his youth the self-possessed Chandragupta was adopted as a promising candidate for future glory by Kautilya (otherwise known as Chanakya), a devious and disgruntled brahman who had been slighted at the Nanda court. Kautilya sought his revenge by exploiting the unpopularity of the Nandas; and, disqualified from kingship himself because of deformity (possibly only the loss of his teeth), he championed the ambitions of Chandragupta. An early attempt to overthrow Nanda power in Magadha itself was a failure. Perhaps Kautilya hoped to achieve his ends by a simple coup d’état but failed to win sufficient support. The pair resolved to try again, and took their cue from a small boy who was observed to tackle his chapati by first nibbling round its circumference. This time, instead of striking at the heart of Nanda power, they would work their way in from its crusty periphery, exploiting dissent and enlisting support amongst its dependent kingdoms before storming the centre.

A good starting place may have been the Panjab, where Alexander’s departure had left a potential power vacuum. Settlements founded by the Macedonian seem not to have prospered, and their garrisons to have trailed home or gravitated to older power centres like Taxila. While in western Asia Alexander’s successors disputed his inheritance, the Indian satrapies reverted to local control. Ambhi and Porus, designated governors for the region by Alexander, had no love for the Nandas and may, under the circumstances, have felt themselves entitled to endorse Mauryan ambitions. Troops from the gana-sangha republics, of which there were still many in the north-west, are also said to have joined Chandragupta, along with other local malcontents. So, more certainly, did a powerful hill chief with whom Kautilya negotiated an offensive alliance.

Overrunning the satellite states and outlying provinces of the Nanda kingdom, the allies eventually converged on Magadha. Pataliputra was probably besieged and, aided no doubt by defectors, the allies triumphed. The last Nanda was sent packing, quite literally: he is supposed to have been spared only his life, plus such of his legendary wealth as he could personally crate and carry away. The hill chief, with whom Kautilya seems previously to have agreed on a partition of the spoils, was then poisoned, probably at Kautilya’s instigation, and Chandragupta Maurya ascended the Magadhan throne in, as has been noted, c320 BC.

Of his reign very little is known for certain. There are hints that pockets of Nanda resistance had to be laboriously stamped out, and there is ample information in the Arthasastra that could be used, and usually is, to flesh out the policies and methods on which Mauryan dominion was founded. Firm evidence of the extent of this dominion comes mainly from later sources. But since few named conquests can definitely be credited to his successors, it seems likely that Chandragupta, adding the Nandas’ vast army to his own, found ample employment for it. He may reasonably be considered the creator as well as the founder of the Mauryan empire, indeed ‘an Indian Julius Caesar’ as nationalist historians call him (though chronologically speaking Caesar should, of course, be ‘a Roman Chandragupta’).

The suggestion has also been made that Chandragupta derived the very idea of an empire based on military supremacy from his observation of Alexander’s conceit. Yet unlike Alexander, whose campaigns progress from one victorious encounter to the next, he cannot certainly be credited with winning a single battle. The Mauryan empire was probably the most extensive ever forged by an Indian dynasty; even the Mughals rarely achieved a wider hegemony. Yet we have positive knowledge of only one campaign undertaken by a Mauryan ruler – and we know of that only because the man responsible chose publicly to express his remorse. All of which may say more about relative attitudes to the past and about the variable nature of the source materials than about Mauryan imperialism.

In assessing Chandragupta’s conquests it would be helpful to know the extent of the empire to which he succeeded when he overthrew the Nandas. We can only presume that, as well as Magadha and Anga, it included most of the erstwhile Gangetic states (Koshala, Vatsya, Licchavi, etc.) and reached south across the Vindhya hills to central India and the Narmada river; beyond that river the Deccan preserves only highly doubtful hints of any Nanda presence.

From a later inscription found in Kalinga, the modern Orissa, it is evident that that region had also formed part of the Nanda empire. It may have been retained by Chandragupta, but must subsequently have slipped from Mauryan control since it would have to be reconquered by his grandson. A thousand miles away, on the other side of India at Girnar in Junagadh (Gujarat), another inscription refers to the repair of a local dam which, it says, had originally been built under the direction of Chandragupta’s governor in the region. Nanda power may have reached as far west as Avanti (Malwa), but is unlikely to have reached Gujarat. It is therefore assumed that Chandragupta conducted a successful campaign in western India and probably also reached the Bombay region. The Mauryan empire thus became the first to stretch from sea to sea – from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. The object, however, may not have been ‘to unite India’, an unlikely ambition at a time when geographical, let alone national, horizons were still hazy. More probably its westward extension was intended to engross that lucrative maritime trade, pioneered by the Harappans, in timbers, textiles, spices, gems and precious metals between the ports of India’s west coast and those of the Persian Gulf.

In the Panjab and the north-west Chandragupta’s successes were no less extensive, as is coyly acknowledged by those Graeco-Roman sources. From these we know that, after a prolonged struggle, Seleucus Nikator, one of Alexander’s generals, succeeded to the eastern half of his empire. Much of it had to be reclaimed, and it was not until 305 BC that Seleucus turned his attention to India. There it seems that Chandragupta had already ‘liberated’ (as one Latin source has it) the Panjab. Seleucus, nevertheless, crossed the Indus, and possibly the Jhelum too, before he came to terms with Chandragupta and retired. It may be inferred that Seleucus, like Alexander, had to fight his way forward and that, like Alexander’s men, he soon thought better of the venture. Perhaps he was roundly defeated. The terms on which he withdrew certainly suggest so. Chandragupta presented him with five hundred war-elephants, which would prove decisive in further struggles with his main rivals in the west, although they can scarcely have dented Mauryan resources. In return Seleucus ceded to Chandragupta not only the Panjab but also Gandhara and all of what is now Afghanistan save Bactria (the northern region between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus). The treaty may have been sealed with a matrimonial alliance by which Chandragupta, or his son, received a daughter of Seleucus as a bride.

To cement their friendship further, Seleucus appointed an ambassador to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra. This was Megasthenes, whose account of ‘Sandrokottos’ and his empire, as viewed from its capital, survives only in fragments quoted or paraphrased by later authors. As a first-hand description of anywhere in fourth/third-century BC India east of the Panjab, these fragments are nevertheless valuable. Indeed Megasthenes, in his emphasis on the bureaucratic and absolute nature of Mauryan rule and on the structure of its standing army, goes some way towards vindicating the utility of the Arthasastra as a possible source material. Back home in Greece, his work was seen as vindicating those who dismissed all descriptions of India as a pack of lies. To the floppy-eared and umbrella-footed monstrosities already on record were added such palpable fantasies as reeds which yielded syrup and trees that grew wool. Rocking, no doubt, with Attic mirth, his readers confidently rubbished such early accounts of sugarcane and cotton production as more tall stories from the impossible East.

Although Chandragupta certainly left his successor an empire which reached from Bengal to Afghanistan and Gujarat, there is no clear indication of how far south it extended. Jain tradition insists that, when he abdicated in favour of his son, Chandragupta retired to a Jain establishment in Karnataka. At Sravana Belgola, a picturesque little town nestling in the cleavage between two steeply swelling hills west of Bangalore, the emperor is said to have passed his final days in austerity and devotions. The pinnacle of one of the hills comprises a massive nude sculpture of Gomateshwara, an important Jain teacher; mostly free-standing and nearly twenty metres high, it is one of the sights of south India – ‘nothing grander or more imposing exists anywhere out of Egypt and even there, no known statue surpasses it in height.’ But it is on the other hill, the less sensational Chandragiri, that Chandragupta is supposed to have resided. Inscriptions and reliefs dating back to the fifth century AD record his presence; and a low cave amidst the granite scarps is said to be where, in the ultimate act of Jain self-denial, the emperor finally starved himself to death.

Scholarly doubts, of course, remain, particularly since the imperial lifestyle as recorded by Megasthenes amidst the splendour and luxury of Pataliputra seems the very antithesis of Jain asceticism. But abnegation was not uncommon in Mauryan society and, in the light of subsequent evidence of Mauryan authority in the south, the story ‘may be accepted as proof of his acquisition of this part of the peninsula’.6

That it probably represented the frontier of his empire is evident from the prologue to the story. The emperor had chosen to abdicate (c297 BC) after receiving information about an imminent famine from the revered Bhadrabahu, who was reputedly the last Jain monk to have actually known the Jain founder Mahavira Nataputta. (Just such a famine is anticipated in two very early inscriptions, engraved on copper plates found in Bengal and UP, which have been dated to Chandragupta’s reign; and unless Bhadrabahu was extraordinarily long-lived, his connection with Mahavira, the Buddha’s contemporary, may be further evidence in favour of the Buddhist ‘short chronology’.) As a result of this prophecy not only Chandragupta but an entire Jain congregation is said to have migrated south. In what, judging by remarks in the Arthasastra, was a continuing pattern of settlement in lands newly conquered or on the margins of existing settlement, the Jains journeyed south till they reached Karnataka. There, where a stream slid between the twin hills of Sravana Belgola, they stopped and stayed, nourishing the legends beloved of generations of pilgrims and patrons whose donations would enable them to dig a fine tank, build a dozen neat temples, and whittle their granite surroundings into megalithic images of the starkest abstraction. The Jains have been there ever since; and to this day they tell much the same story of the emperor Chandragupta.

Such continuities are not uncommon in India. Sir William Jones had likened first meeting his brahman informants to discovering an isolated community of Greeks who, two thousand years on, still wore toga and sandals, worshipped Zeus, recited Homer, and stood guard over a written archive reaching back to the Stone Age. Even now historians of India continue to scrutinise their own surroundings and society for clues to the past. In one of the most compelling exercises in modern historical writing D.D. Kosambi, armed with his notebook and a stout stick (‘fitted with a chisel ferrule for prying artefacts out of the surface … it also serves to discourage the more ambitious village dogs’), conducts his reader on a short walk from his home on the outskirts of Pune (Poona). Chance finds, encounters with neighbouring social groups, careful scrutiny of domestic routines and patient enquiries about local images reveal a three-thousandyear panorama of settlement patterns, trade contacts, and Sanskritic acculturation. ‘There is no substitute for such work in the field for the restoration of pre-literate history,’ writes Kosambi.7 Most of India’s history prior to the arrival of Islam fits his definition of pre-literate; and no society retains a more rewarding consciousness of the past than India’s. Legend and oral tradition, when credible, may be quite as reliable as authentic contemporary documentation.

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Indian Navy

The Indian Navy Project 17 frigate Sahyadri operating with the Project 28 corvette Kamorta in May 2017. Both ships are amongst the newest of their types in the Indian Navy but new designs are in preparation.

The last year has continued to see the Indian Navy’s ambitious plans for enhancement and expansion held back by a number of familiar problems. These have included an inadequate – and declining – budget for naval modernisation; a strong emphasis on local shipbuilding in spite of a poor track record of executing programmes on time and to budget; an over-reliance on defective Russian-supplied equipment; and ongoing mishaps attributable to human error.

India’s 2017–18 defence budget estimate amounted to INR262,390 crore (US$41bn) excluding pensions, a year-on-year increase of 5.3 percent. This rate of growth is slower than in recent years. One consequence has been a rise in the proportion of the budget allocated to revenue expenditure to the obvious detriment of modernisation accounts. With much capital consumed by Indian Air Force requirements, the navy has been suffering. The 2017–18 naval modernisation account was INR18,750 crore (US$2.9bn), a twelve percent reduction on the previous year and totally inadequate to support expansion efforts.

A further problem relates to the wisdom with which money is being spent. With the exception of the strategic missile submarine Arihant, only one major warship has been commissioned into Indian Navy service in the last twelve months. This is largely a reflection of local industry’s inability to deliver new ships in accordance with the navy’s expectation. The extent of the problem was revealed in a ‘Performance Audit on Construction of Indigenous Aircraft Carrier’ published by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in July 2016. This revealed there was complete disagreement between the navy and builders’ Cochin Shipyard as to when the new carrier, Vikrant, was likely to be delivered. Whilst the Indian Navy is holding to a schedule requiring delivery of the ship by December 2018, the shipyard now believes that 2023 is a more likely estimate. The end result is likely to be India having to rely on just one operational aircraft carrier for an extended period in spite of a long-stated aim to have three in commission.

Whilst the performance of the Indian shipbuilding sector has been far from stellar, reliance on Russian industry has also proved problematic. The CAG report referred to above makes frequent references to delays in the receipt of Russian design documentation and equipment. It also highlighted a host of problems with respect to the Russian MiG-29K/KUB strike fighters acquired for both Vikrant and the existing Vikramaditya. These were riddled with defects relating to their airframe, engine and fly-by-wire system, resulting in serviceability as low as sixteen percent.

Meanwhile, on 5 December 2016, the navy suffered the latest in a series of mishaps to impact the fleet when the frigate Betwa fell over onto her side whilst the cruiser graving dock in Mumbai Dockyard was being flooded-up. Two sailors were killed in an incident that left the ship with significant damage. Betwa was subsequently righted in February 2017. Repairs are expected to take around twelve months to complete.

The table below suggests that there has been very little change in the overall structure of the Indian Navy year-on-year. The formal decommissioning of Viraat (the former HMS Hermes) on 6 March 2017 – she had already effectively been out of service for around a year – leaves Vikramaditya as the navy’s sole aircraft carrier. The surface fleet welcomed the final Project 15A Kolkata class destroyer, Chennai, which commissioned on 21 November 2016. Her arrival was balanced by the withdrawal from active service of the Project 16 Godavari class frigate Ganga, which undertook her last operational voyage on 27 May 2017. She will be formally decommissioned later in the year. Godavari ended her service life in December 2015 and Gomati, the third member of the class, is also expected to leave the fleet soon.

Construction of major surface combatants encompasses three programmes. The most advanced is that for four Project 15B Visakhapatnam class destroyers, which are based on the previous Project 15A design. Builders Mazagon Dock Ltd launched Mormugao, second of the class, on 17 September 2016. Deliveries are scheduled to take place every two years from 2018, although this seems ambitious on past performance. Mazagon will also undertake construction of four of the seven Project 17A stealth frigates derived from the Shivalik class. The joint programme shared with Kolkata’s Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) should enter the production stage in the next twelve months. A third programme involves the licence-built construction of Russian-designed Project 1135. Talwar class frigates. This project – which was initially reported to include transfer of some of the similar Russian Admiral Grigorovich class frigates currently laid up in a half-completed state at the Yantar yard due to nondelivery of their Ukrainian gas turbines – has seemingly been allocated to Goa Shipyard. It seems that the plan is to acquire four frigates, taking the complete class up to ten ships.

There has been little material change to the composition of the balance of the surface fleet. Two Project 28 Kamorta class corvettes remain under construction following a decision to redesign their superstructures around a carbon-fibre composite structure to mitigate top-weight issues found with the earlier pair. It was originally envisaged that more ships of the type would be built to a slightly improved Project 28A design. However, this plan appears to have been overtaken by the issue of a request for information in October for seven ‘Next Generation Corvettes’. The 120m ships will be larger and more heavily armed than the Kamorta class and have a more general-purpose orientation than the anti-submarine focused Project 28 design. There is also a requirement to replace the smaller corvette/fast attack type vessels of the Soviet-designed Veer and Abhay classes, which are starting to decommission. Discussions have been held with industry around next generation missile ships and smaller shallow water anti-submarine vessels but there has been no confirmation of any orders to date.

There is also an urgent requirement to recapitalise the mine-countermeasures fleet. This has now been reduced to just four vessels following the decommissioning of two of the remaining Pondicherry class minesweepers on 5 May 2017. The remaining ships – all around thirty years old – are also expected to retire shortly. They will be replaced by a new class of mine countermeasures vessels being licence-built by Goa Shipyard under a controversial deal with South Korea’s Kangnam Corporation. However, construction has yet to begin and there will therefore be a considerable gap before the new ships are delivered. Progress has also been slow with plans to order four new LPD-type amphibious transport docks under a programme estimated to amount to around US$3bn. Two shortlisted local private-sector yards – allied with DCNS and Navantia – have been asked to resubmit bids for the project after plans to involve state-owned Hindustan Shipyard in construction were reversed.

Developments with respect to the submarine force have been somewhat more positive. The unconfirmed entry of Arihant into service is a major step forward for the navy’s strategic ambitions whilst good progress with trials of the lead Project 75 ‘Scorpène’ type boat Kalvari has been followed by the maiden voyage of the second member of the class, Khanderi, on 1 June 2017. It has now been decided not to fit an indigenously-developed air-independent propulsion (AIP) system on the last two members of the class, potentially speeding their completion. Current plans envisage submarine production switching to a new Project 75I class boat when the six ‘Scorpènes’ have been completed. However, a builder has yet to be selected. The ‘Scorpène’s’ designer DCNS had hopes that the delay might result in an interim order for a further batch of boats but the leak of over 22,000 pages of technical information on the design to The Australian newspaper has considerably reduced this prospect. The Indian Navy hopes to transition to constructing a class of nuclear-powered attack submarines after the Project 75I boats but this is some distance in the future. In the interim, it appears that a second Russian ‘Akula II’ type boat will be acquired on lease once the current arrangement with respect to Chakra expires. The agreement could see Indian technical experts involved with completing the boat, therefore helping pave the way for its own programme.

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.

The Lieutenant’s Story

As a German shell bursts dangerously close by, steady veterans of the 4th Indian Division continue to move forward across a stark desert landscape.

General Alexander inspects the 3/2nd Punjab.

El Alamein, July–November 1942

Late that night, two lieutenants, escaping the fug of the VCOs’ circle, prowled the tented rows of Latifiya Camp and found a pipeline on which to sit, or perhaps lie down. They lay down. The stars hung chandelier-like, so infinitely various and bright that some seemed pinned up, high in the tent of night, and others dangled low, heavy with radiance. Bobby’s head spun slowly, and he could not shut his eyes, and the stars poured into them.

In the desert, Wright said, this was the only sight he had not tired of ten times over. On his first night at Ruweisat Ridge, he thought God had taken down the old night-roof and put in a new one. The sky had three dimensions here, which was a mercy, because the desert was so damned flat.

They were engineers, trained to work with inclines, gradients, cambers, but in the Western Desert, just about the only place where vertical relief mattered was up there. The stars suggested it, and men elaborated on the imaginary contours. The launch and drop of artillery shells traced thousands of hills in the sky; the long flight of Spitfires and Stukas drew an aerial steppe. Paratroopers jogged down gentle bluffs, swinging sideways from slope to opposing slope. Bursting anti-aircraft shells made pale vegetation, and even shots from rifles, fired in error or in desperation, added the thinnest pencil strokes to the mad conjured landscape. In night battle it was visible: Verey flares etched the luminous outlines, which glowed in his eyelids when he blinked.

Mainly there was no battle. Only the desert, so woefully flat. Wright arrived in Cairo to the news that his formation, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, had been destroyed at Gazala. He was instead to join 2nd Field Company, barely half a mile from the front line. On Ruweisat Ridge rain had parted the curtains of desert haze, and a long blue scratch of Mediterranean water had appeared to the north, beyond the pebbled flatness. The infantry roasted in their trenches, endlessly cleaning the sand out of their weapons and flies out of their ears. In the daytime, an inattentive nomad might walk right through the forward area, veined and scabbed as it was by trenches and sandbags, and barely notice. Brown heads and helmets only rose out of the earth like moles, travelled low along the ground and vanished again. Only the engineers worked all day, fixing desert tracks or blasting rock, or planting and clearing, planting and clearing, planting and clearing mines.

At dusk, as the sky’s fever abated and cool winds crossed the camp, life rose out of the blistered ground. Bright points of cigarettes glowed against the indigo sky and the grey earth, and the Muslim sappers bent in prayer, their bottoms to the foe. Cut-off petrol tins mouthed cowbell noises as tea was boiled. Infantry patrols slipped up to the wire, and rifles barked as snipers took aim at silhouettes, in the minutes before they were swallowed by darkness.

It was not until September that the dreary peace lifted, and a battle began that dazzled the eye. Replaying Gazala, the Panzers punched into the southern El Alamein front, then swerved back in behind the British lines, cutting an arc below Ruweisat Ridge. From up on top, Wright watched the fireworks.

If it had been scored by Wagner instead of the machines, it would have seemed a war of angels. To the south, above the main enemy thrust, Fairey Albacores dropped phosphorus flares that lit up the desert with electric brilliance, illuminating targets for Wellington bombers. Above their own sector, the Luftwaffe slit the full-moon sky with tracer fire. Planes dropped cases of butterfly bombs: delicate contraptions with hinged casings that sprang open, releasing a pair of wings that spun in the airflow, and drove a spindle into the bomblet to arm it. Landing, they flashed complex patterns on distant ground. Pulsing scarlet flares arced above the Allied lines, and searchlights swung across the spectacle, long flailing spider legs of light that grabbed at the descending figures. The stars burned on above it all.

‘An exhilarating performance,’ the major wrote in the unit diary.

The following morning they had orders to move east at once, and lay a minefield to stop the Panzer force from getting any further north. The company’s lorries stretched out into the desert, each a hundred yards behind the other, raising a great cliffside of dust and grit.

Wright, in charge of picking up stragglers, drove a jeep all the way at the rear. His windscreen wipers worked non-stop to scrape open a view of the road. Turning to look over his elbow, Wright noticed a stationary staff car just south of their line of march. It didn’t seem to belong to the company, but he pulled off the track toward it. He stopped a regulation distance away and hailed the men beside the vehicle, and hearing English voices, walked over.

The Humber had its bonnet up, and a helpless-looking sergeant underneath it, prodding at an engine that was belching steam. By the doors were two older officers, one carrying a fly-whisk and wearing the beret of the 11th Hussars, and the other wearing a flinty expression and a peaked cap with a red band.

‘Anything wrong, sir?’ Wright called out.

‘Of course there is,’ the first officer snapped. ‘You don’t think I want to stop here?’

Wright brought his jeep up to where the staff car was still sizzling. The fan belt was gone.

‘I’ll have to tow you, sir. Where do you need to go?’

‘Army HQ, of course,’ said the impatient Hussar. ‘At Burg el Arab.’

Wright nodded, and went to unspool the towing hook from his jeep. Perhaps he should ask who they were. Of course he should ask who they were: it was protocol for desert encounters, where anyone might be an enemy infiltrator. He turned and snapped out a salute. ‘Mind if I ask for your identity card, sir?’

The older officer’s hand drifted to his pocket, but the Hussar exploded. ‘Don’t be a fool, man! Don’t you know the Army Commander?’

Wright made sure his face stayed flat and solicitous. The Eighth Army Commander was General Auchinleck, but this didn’t look like him. Someone had neglected to tell him that ‘the Auk’ had been relieved of his command. The news would be disappointing to any Indian soldier, but especially for the 161st Brigade, which included the regiment the Auk had once personally commanded, the 1/1st Punjab.

‘Oh!’ said Wright, and saluted again.

He hooked up the Army Commander’s car and off they went. Wright’s eye drifted to his rear-view mirror for a glimpse of the pinched face of the man who would dictate the fate of the Eighth Army. He was General Bernard Montgomery, the second appointee to replace the Auk, after a German Stuka put a bullet in the chest of General Gott as he flew to Cairo. Montgomery had some antipathy for the Indian Army: perhaps because he hadn’t passed out from Sandhurst high enough to join it himself.

Wright was thinking that it would require snappy navigation to get the general to the Army HQ and still locate his convoy before dark. He decided to head straight across on the compass bearing, which meant getting off the main Army track. He quickly found a strategic track, less visible and used by L-of-C transport to evade aerial observation, and steered onto it. It was rough and covered in fine sand, but the coupled vehicles made good progress. Wright’s eye went to his mirror again. The tow-chain disappeared into a cloud of dust. He sighed. Eventually he deposited a beige-masked, sand-blasted Army Commander at Burg el Arab, and waited for thanks, ‘which were not forthcoming’.

Hours later, when he found the company, he also found a furious captain waiting, who refused to believe a word of it.

When Bobby’s duties had him in the HQ tent, he read through the onion-paper pages of the unit diary, as quick as he could. The story of the September battle was completed here. By the time the sappers’ work on the new minefield had begun, Rommel’s last thrust was already exhausted. Short of petrol again, his Panzers ground to a halt amidst the fighting. They were forced to withdraw, and the offensive chance now lay with the Eighth Army, which was flush with new troops, new American tanks, raised morale and plenty of fuel.

The 4th and 5th Indian Divisions traded places one final time. The weary 5th piled into lorries to join the enormous reserve lying up in Iraq; only the 161st Brigade, its battalions still fresh, stayed put on Ruweisat Ridge. In the unit diary Bobby found the letters that had come down to the company in October, announcing ‘D-Day’ at last. ‘Together we will hit the enemy for a “six”, right out of North Africa,’ Montgomery wrote. ‘Let every officer and man enter the battle with the determination to do his duty so long as he has breath in his body. AND LET NO MAN SURRENDER AS LONG AS HE IS UNWOUNDED AND CAN FIGHT.’ The 4th Division commander had added his own message: they were to fight to ‘the last man, the last round, the last bomb, the last bayonet’.

It never came to that – Wright resumed his story, while they checked a register of tools maintenance with the stores naik that evening – once the attack began, Rommel’s ranks were quickly broken. There was one terrible day when a Stuka bomber dropped a stick of bombs over their lines, nearly killing the officers in the mess truck, but saving its rage for the cook staff. They found the water carrier, Maqbool, screaming at a stump of flesh that had been his left hand. Mohammed Sharif the masalchi, only seventeen years old, was blown to pieces, ‘shattered from head to toe’; Budhu Masi, the cook, was disembowelled. He was twenty years old and healthy. He took three hours to die.

Still the battle moved west of them, and its blanket of noise was lifted, then blown off by the open roar of the wind. Wright’s platoon found themselves in a quiet sector by the Qattara track, clearing S-mines. Those were anti-personnel devices that popped into the air and exploded at chest level. It was while clearing a minefield that the sappers looked like the farm boys many of them had been. A serried line of men jabbed their bayonets into the ground and felt for the edge of metal on metal. If they felt nothing, they struck again and again, clearing crescents before them, and advanced this way, scything slowly under the sand. The strange agriculture of the desert. One side planted steel seeds, and the other side harvested them. Only some lived out their natural design, to rise suddenly as a plumed palm of shocked air and sand.

Wright sat on a rock, watching his men till the sand. One NCO, Naik Taj Mohammed, was moving fast – he had cleared about thirty already. But then: the sharp noise, the bomblet hanging in the air. Wright felt the blast, the instant of utter surrender, everything tilting over, followed by long, gaping seconds of realisation. He saw the naik sit upright, his belly hanging in his lap like a tongue. It was bad but he would survive; the Germans built the mines that way, since a wounded man was a heavier burden than a corpse. When the ambulance left, work resumed.

Afterward, a jeep rolled up to where Wright stood, and he was hailed by Colonel John Blundell, the divisional Chief of Royal Engineers. The lieutenant explained how things were going. ‘Right, well, hop in,’ said the colonel. ‘They can look after themselves.’ They drove west into a minor depression of soft sand, interrupted by great limestone boulders, outrageously sculpted by the grainy wind. Wright was chuffed to be so friendly with the colonel, the CRE, and they spoke idly about the news of the fighting. The Desert Fox was losing, for lack of the one thing he valued even over water: petrol. This time the Eighth Army could exploit its advantage all the way. Both men were offended that the 4th Indian Division, one of three Allied divisions in Egypt since the desert war began, was being held back on salvage duty. Wright was wondering aloud whether that had anything to do with him giving Montgomery a mouthful of sand, when he heard a snap and a whistle past his ear.

It took a moment to register that they were being shot at. His instinct was to duck behind the dashboard, but the colonel floored the accelerator, and the jeep lurched forward at one of the boulders. Sure enough, an Italian soldier emerged from behind it with his hands behind his head. ‘Know Italian?’ the colonel shouted, above the engine’s whine. Wright didn’t.

The jeep slammed to a halt in front of the Italian, and the colonel leapt out and bounded right at him. In a flash, he picked up the man’s rifle and tossed it as far as he could. Then he gripped the straggler by his shoulders, and in lieu of arresting him as a prisoner of war, the colonel turned him to face due east, stepped three paces back and gave him a running kick in the bottom. The Italian went sprawling in the sand. The colonel dragged him back to his feet, turned him east again and gave him a shove. The Italian took off running toward the Eighth Army reserve.

John Wright watched as the soldier pitched through the sand. His figure grew smaller and lost detail, but on the clear, flat ground he stayed visible for a long while, running east and east while his army ran west. Very soon, Wright suspected, he would be doing the same.

A Passion for Conquering Forts

Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre. Admiral of Maratha Navy 1698 – 1729.

A painted scroll showing Gurab, Galbat and other types of warships of the Maratha Navy. In the lower part of the scroll are shown the ships of the Maratha navy and some captured English ship.

The East India Company’s relationship with its neighbours at Arcot and Bengal was dominated by fractious, fortified peace during the first half of the eighteenth century, with only sporadic outbursts of fighting. Things were different on India’s western coast. There, the relationship between British and Indians was frequently ruptured. These tensions led to half a century of war with Maratha sea forces led by Kanhoji Angre, and smaller conflicts with independent rulers along the coast of western India further south. Historians today suggest that the ‘first Anglo-Maratha War’ began in 1775, but when Clement Downing published his Compendious History of the Indian Wars in 1739, it was conflict with the Maratha sea captain Kanhoji Angre that he was writing about. These forgotten wars sapped the Company’s resources, costing the treasury in Bombay 80,000 rupees a year (£1.3 million in 2016 prices) during their height, in addition to ships and soldiers being sent from Britain. Such wars did not go well for the British: the Company failed to inflict a single defeat on the Marathas on land or sea.

Throughout the conflict, the East India Company battled a Maratha state which built a compact regional regime tied into the reconfigured structures of Mughal power. After convincing Kanhoji Angre to back Shahu in the Maratha civil war, Balaji Vishwanath’s next success at the negotiating table was to persuade the Mughal emperor to put his relationship with the Marathas on a permanent footing. In May 1719, Balaji at last negotiated a stable relationship between the two powers. The Marathas would pay 100,000 rupees into the Mughal treasury and provide troops for the dominant faction at court in Delhi; in exchange, the Marathas would have absolute control over their heartland, and then have the right to collect 35 per cent of land revenue in a vast swathe of territory in the south of India beyond. The deal gave Shahu’s regime unchallengeable legitimacy in the eyes of Marathi nobles and merchants, and allowed his government to centralize power within the administrative offices which Balaji Vishwanath established at Pune.

Shahu’s regime consolidated power in the same way as other Mughal successor states in Bengal, Arcot and elsewhere, tightening control of land rights, deepening its relationship with regional trading networks and using military force more readily against rival centres of power. The difference was that the Marathas tried to assert dominion over the sea as well as the land; they, like the Portuguese before them, claimed to be lords of the sea. It was this claim that entangled Kanhoji’s maritime forces closely with the affairs of the East India Company.

The Marathas used techniques learnt from the Portuguese to assert power over the ocean, filling the vacuum left by the decline of the Estado da India. By 1710, Kanhoji’s sea force asserted its sovereignty from Goa to Surat by insisting every ship bought one of their passes in order to be allowed to sail and trade. The Maratha capacity to make this claim real was far greater than the Portuguese Estado da India’s had been even at its peak. But, still, the reality was that a single force was unable to dominate India’s western coast. The Marathas were willing to concede the export trade to foreigners, letting ships managed and owned by Europeans sail freely if they acknowledged their authority, insisting only Indian vessels pay customs duties. There was, in other words, plenty of scope for an accommodation with the East India Company. But English paranoia made peace difficult to sustain.

Five years of peace followed Katherine Chown’s capture and quick return, but fighting between the English and Kanhoji Angre broke out again in 1718. The cause this time was the Maratha admiral’s capture of four ships. Kanhoji claimed they belonged to Indian merchants who were using the Company’s flag to shield themselves from Maratha power, and had not paid customs. One, which the Company said belonged to a British merchant from Calcutta, had been sold to an Indian trading with Muscat. Another was the property of Trimbakji Maghi, a Marathi merchant travelling with goods belonging to traders from the Mughal port of Surat. Kanhoji claimed that Trimbakji was from Alibag on the Maratha mainland, so did not fall under the protection of the Company. The Company claimed he was a resident of Bombay and so was under their jurisdiction.

A succession of claims and counter-claims was made in a stream of letters between Kanhoji Angre and the British Governor of Bombay. They show how entangled British trade had become with the mercantile life of western India, and how difficult it was to map the flow of commodities on to national communities. In this fast-moving world of shifting identities, it was impossible to say what belonged to the Company and what did not. The exchange of goods between states could only be sustained if people were willing to talk, and give each other the benefit of the doubt. A big man with a reputation for talking plainly and simply, Kanhoji complained that the British did not treat him with respect or amity. Moments of tension were inevitable, Kanhoji said, but could be resolved if people were willing to trust one another. But the Company’s officers treated him as someone who could only be dealt with through threats and bribes, Kanhoji complained, and let ‘doubts and disputes’ corrode their relationship. After one dispute, Kanhoji forbade the Company’s ships from entering Maratha rivers and the British prepared for war.

Bombay’s council issued a proclamation blocking Kanhoji’s ships from British ports, sending troops with drums and trumpets to read it ‘in a thousand places’ throughout the island. The British then started raiding. They sent twenty small ships to seize vessels ‘and if possible plunder his country’. In two such expeditions in May 1718, they ‘destroyed some villages and cattle’. Panic inspired a wave of new fortification in Bombay, and the search for new sources of money to pay for it. To cover the extra costs, traders were charged additional duties, and an extra tax levied on the owners of houses within the fort. Eventually, on 1 November, a Company fleet of seven ships, two ‘bomb ketches’ and forty-eight rowing boats attacked Kanhoji’s fort at Khanderi. The raid was a disaster. The ships could not get close enough to bombard the fort with cannon, and the soldiers who landed got stuck in marshy ground. Eventually the Company’s force of 558 Indian troops refused to march into the relentless cannon and small arms fire coming out of Angre’s fort, and the English had no choice but to return, defeated, to Bombay.

In practice, the East India Company had neither the money, the men nor the strategy to defeat the powerful Maratha military at sea. The idea that Kanhoji could be subdued was yet another example of British hubris. But Company officers were driven by their mad rage against the ‘pyratical’ behaviour of Kanhoji Angre. Even when a peaceful settlement was possible, they were not willing to negotiate. After another humiliating defeat, their response was not to question the decision-making that led to the beginning of such a disastrous war, but to blame their failure on the supposedly treacherous action of Indian allies.

Bombay in the 1710s and 1720s was a fast-growing settlement with a tiny English population trying, and usually failing, to impose authority over between 10,000 and 20,000 Indian inhabitants. As well as merchants, Parsis, Muslims and Brahmins, the island was populated by weavers and landholders, shopkeepers and fishermen, toddy-tappers, ‘enemy’ sailors and ships’ captains. A tiny fraction of this population was engaged in the export trade to Europe, working as weavers, dyers, washers or beaters in the textile trade, for example. Most of Bombay’s residents had nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of the Company as the supplier of an export market, but were attracted instead to live in a fortified city that was becoming a central node in western India’s complicated networks of coastal trade. Beyond the tiny, half-mile-square enclave of Bombay fort, the Company did not establish anything like a rule of law. Robbery was a continual problem and the wealthy needed to employ their own guards. Taxes were collected through the same network of local intermediaries that the Portuguese had appointed. The East India Company did not even rule its own soldiers. Bombay’s militia had over a thousand men under arms. They relied primarily on Portuguese and Brahmin brokers to recruit Bhandari troops. This was the same community that provided most of Kanhoji Angre’s seafarers.

The Company blamed one of these military recruiters for defeat at Khanderi. Rama Kamath was a wealthy Indian merchant who had long been an ally and commercial partner of the English. Kamath was a Gaudi Saraswati Brahmin, a member of a Hindu community that once flourished in Goa but was driven out when religious dogmatism made it harder for non-Christians to live under Portuguese rule; the Catholic Inquisition had spread to Goa in the 1560s. By 1686, Rama Kamath was living most of the year in Bombay, using his connections throughout the Brahmin diaspora to build a formidable trading network based primarily on the cultivation of tobacco. An ‘old trusty servant of the Right Honourable Company’, he helped during the war with the Mughals ‘not only in procuring [troops] but encouraging them to fight the enemy’. Kamath was an important trading partner of John Harvey’s predecessor as chief at Karwar, William Mildmay. In 1709, Kamath borrowed 10,000 rupees at what, by contemporary standards, was the very low interest rate of 9 per cent, proving there was a degree of trust between the two men.

Kamath used the money he earned to invest in the social life of Bombay, paying particularly for the construction of Hindu places of worship. In 1715 he funded the reconstruction of Walkeshwar Temple, an old site of Hindu piety on Bombay’s Malabar Hill which had been demolished by the Portuguese. But Bombay’s public life involved a degree of religious plurality. Kamath paid for Parsi institutions as well, and helped support the construction of the city’s first British church, now St Thomas’s Cathedral, next to Horniman Circle Gardens, completed in 1718. The church was consecrated on Christmas Day of that year, and the Company paid another 1,175 rupees for a festival that started with the baptism of a child and ended with drunken revelry. Kamath celebrated this moment ‘with all his caste’. His entourage was ‘so well pleased by the decency and regularity of the way of worship, that they stood outside it for the whole service’.

Three months before those celebrations, it was Kamath who had recruited the soldiers sent into battle against Kanhoji’s fort at Khanderi. Kamath was blamed for the fact that they refused to walk into blistering Maratha gunfire. In the year after the defeat, Governor Boone and his colleagues on the Bombay council began to prosecute this once staunch ally of English power in Bombay for treason. Kamath wasn’t only accused of encouraging soldiers to mutiny, but also of informing Kanhoji Angre that the ‘Bengal ship’ sailing through Angre’s waters with a Company flag didn’t belong to a British merchant, and giving the Maratha admiral advance warning of English military actions.

Kamath had certainly broken with the East India Company’s orders not to trade with the enemy, buying wool and turmeric from Kanhoji Angre during the war; but dividing commerce along national lines was always an impossibility in the multi-national city of Bombay. The remainder of the charges were pure fiction. The letters upon which the case against Kamath relied were forgeries; witnesses had lied. But Governor Boone, who led the charge against Kamath and his servant Dalba Bhandari, wasn’t deliberately making things up. He was furious about being defeated and extremely keen to find the simplest cause of British vulnerability in Bombay and purge it. The trial demonstrated the scale of British paranoia. Deeply enmeshed in political and commercial relationships they had little control over, Bombay’s British residents saw plots and conspiracies everywhere when things did not go their way. ‘The Angre was always on our brain then,’ as one writer later commented.

Charged and convicted of treason, Rama Kamath was held in prison in Bombay fort until his death ten years later in 1728. The Company’s paranoia nearly caused a full-scale rebellion at the fort. Uncertain who would be next arrested, angry merchants gathered and protested against the Company’s government. Governor Boone quickly published ‘a proclamation for quieting the minds of the people’, and issued a full pardon for all but Rama Kamath and Dalba Bhanderi, also supposedly involved in the plot.

War between the Company and Kanhoji Angre continued. A British attack in October 1720 failed. In March 1721, the Company persuaded the Portuguese at Goa to collaborate with them, but their joint attack led to nothing more than the loss of a large ship. The Court of Directors in London sent reinforcements later that year. When a fleet of ships commanded by a Commodore Matthews arrived in September 1721, another combined attack with the Portuguese was rebuffed by Angre’s boats and forts with the death of thirty-three British soldiers. In December, Kanhoji’s navy was reinforced by an army of 6,000 Maratha troops sent by Shahu from the Deccan and the British were defeated again. Balaji Vishwanath had died in 1720, and his young son and successor as chief administrator of the Maratha empire tried to persuade the English to negotiate. The Marathas stuck to their argument, insisting on their sovereignty over the sea, and free trade for ships of all nationalities, a right which would have undermined the British offer of physical protection. Mindful of the humiliating war with the Mughals forty years earlier, London reminded the Company’s officers that ‘the Society whom you serve are a Company of Trading merchants and not Warriors’, but fighting nonetheless continued throughout the 1730s and 1740s. The first British victory in its fifty-year sea war against the Marathas occurred in 1755 but by then Kanhoji Angre had died, and his sons had fallen out of favour with the Peshwa, the chief administrator of the Maratha regime. The Company only defeated the Angres because, by then, they fought as allies of the Maratha regime.