The 33rd Waffen-Grenadier-Division of the SS Charlemagne (French No.1)

Henri Kreis. Former head of the PAK section of the Sturmbrigade in Galicia and Kriegkommandant of Radomyśl village, where he was seriously injured when fighting a T34 tank. Once recovered, he became an instructor at the SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Schule at Kienschlag. In March 1945 he commanded a reinforcement battalion at Wildflecken, as the division itself had already left for Pomerania. Attached to the 38th Nibelungen Division, he fought against the Americans in Bavaria with the rank of an Obersturmführer, although in this photograph he is still only an Unterscharführer. (DR)

Prisoners of the Charlemagne Division who were executed on 8 May 1945 at Karlstein by their fellow Frenchmen from the 2nd Armoured Division, commanded by General Leclerc, in American uniform and under orders from Paris. In the foreground from left to right are Waffen-Unterscharführer Jean Robert, then Waffen-Obersturmführer Serge Krotoff (of 2nd Bataillon, 57th Regiment), Paul Briffaut in army uniform and Waffen-Untersturmführer Raymond Daffas. The divisional archives had previously been piled onto trucks and destroyed in late April by the Bavarian peasant with whom they had been hidden, as a result of the American advance.

In the spring of 1944 a command was issued from the OKW to transfer all foreigners serving in the German Army to the Waffen SS. The attack against Hitler on 20 July accelerated this movement, particularly concerning the French. German high command decided to regroup the volunteers into a new SS French brigade, under the command of Colonel Edgard Puaud. The SS-Hauptamt [the administrative office of the SS] decided to bring the 638 French infantry regiment back from Russia. It was disbanded on 10 August 1944 and its members transferred to the Waffen SS. The LVF headquarters at Greifenberg now became the new brigade’s headquarters as well as the Französische SS-Grenadier Ausbildungs und Ersatz-Bataillon (French SS Grenadier training and reserve Battalion), commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinrich Hersche who had arrived from Sennheim. The Sturmbrigade, whose 1st Battalion had proved itself so valiantly in Galicia, arrived on 5 September and joined 2nd Battalion for training at the ‘West-Prussian’ SS-Trüppenbüngsplatz. Alongside them, 2,000-2,100 political soldiers were finishing their basic training there, under the command of SS-Oberstumbannführer Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. In addition there were also men from the SS-Französische Flakbaterrie, who had not joined the Sturmbrigade in the fighting in Poland, 1,000-1,200 sailors from the Kriegsmarine and Kriegsmarinewerftpolizei who had landed at Greifenberg in mid-September, and around 2,000 men who were involved in the Schutzcommando and Todt Organisation, the NSKK, the Speer Legion and the Technische Nothilfe, which was part of the German Police. There were also other general German paramilitary units, although some had remained at their original training grounds with the permission of their leaders.

Two regiments were formed, with two battalions each comprised of four companies. The 57th Regiment was predominantly composed of former members of the Sturmbrigade, on the orders of Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. The 58th Regiment was headed by Commander Eugéne Bridoux and contained the ex-Legionnaires. Either for religious reasons (the perceived paganism of the SS), years of combat fatigue, or because they felt the war was definitively lost, a few dozen men categorically refused to be transferred. Taking advantage of this opportunity to start on a clean slate, a purge took place removing 180 of these ‘undesirables’. In order to learn the fighting methods of the SS, a number of LVF officers and soldiers were sent on training courses. During their absence, the brigade left its quarters and headed for the SS-Truppenübungsplatz at Wildflecken. On 5 November, part of the French state militia had to withdraw from Germany and found itself also being incorporated into the brigade. During the winter of 1944-45, the Waffen-Grenadier (no longer the SS-Grenadier as those of the Sturmbrigade had been called) had to endure particularly harsh training as a result of the snow, the freezing temperatures, lack of equipment and clothes and poor diet. Desertions among the prestigious SS units, such as the Walloon or the Wiking divisions were very common, because their members wanted to join the fighting as soon as possible.

Given the title of ‘Division’, despite its reduced capacity (more than 7,300 men), the orders to depart for the East by train arrived on 16 February. Integrated with the 11th Army, the first men arrived on 22 February at Hammerstein in Pomerania and gathered in a nearby camp. Sent to the frontlines without any armoured support, heavy weaponry or radio equipment, and with all their assault rifles having been hijacked by another unit, the division’s casualties began to pile up. Different companies broke off to fight in isolated groups, with no communication with the rear lines as they were pushed backwards. The survivors retreated to Szczecinek and after this initial engagement, the division had lost around one third of its troops, most of whom were either wounded or evacuated. Five hundred were dead. After regrouping at Białogard, the units were merged together to form a frontline regiment with the freshest and most experienced soldiers, and a reserve regiment with a reduced combat role, due to the fatigue amongst the men. They were sent to protect the retreat of the German troops at the port of Kolberg. Once more the French faced fierce fighting trying to defend the city, forcing them to consider pulling back towards Białogard, which was still held by the Germans. Trapped on a plain south-west of the city, the 3,000 men of the reserve regiment were massacred by Soviet tanks. A few survivors were captured, while others took refuge in the nearby woods. Surrounded for days, the exhausted soldiers now had to finish their war as prisoners, having failed to cross the River Oder. Arriving in Międzyrzecz, in western Poland after a long and painful march, the men of 1st Battalion, who were the only ones left unscathed, managed to succeed in breaking the encirclement of Pomerania. The French regrouped on the outskirts of Anklam and waited for other survivors of the Division.

Stationed at Carpin, the combat units were once more reorganised and resumed their training. On 24 April SS-Brigadeführer Krukenberg, who was now in charge of the French, received a telegram from Hitler’s bunker announcing that he was to take up a new position in Berlin and must get there with a French assault battalion as quickly as possible. Having lost three vehicles en route, a French detachment arrived in Berlin, which by now was virtually surrounded by the Red Army. They were attached to the SS Nordland Division, commanded by Waffen-Haupsturmführer Henri Fenet. This division had distinguished itself in urban combat, repulsing many large-scale armoured vehicle attacks using the Panzerfaüst [German anti-tank weapon]. The very experienced French soldiers managed to officially take out sixty-two tanks as they gradually retreated to the ever-decreasing German-held zones. On the morning of 2 May, Fenet and his men finally reached Hitler’s bunker. They were hoping to find the last kernel of resistance, but instead realised that the battle was all but over. More fighting now commenced in order to avoid being taken prisoner, but one by one the men were arrested by the victorious Soviets, before resistance finally ceased at 3pm.

The remaining men who were still at the barracks at Greifenberg left and joined those at Wildflecken. Here they were divided into various units and separately retreated westwards, where some were subordinated into the 38th SS-Grenadier-Division Nibelungen. In the end, four members of the division were awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.


The Evolution of the Early Roman Army

The early Romans fought as hoplites, inspired by Etruscans and Greeks.

The transition of the Roman army from ‘tribal’ warriors to citizen militia was achieved in part due to the Roman society and its intrinsic representation (with voting rights) in the Roman assembly. To that end, the early Romans were almost entirely depended on their citizen militia for the protection and extension of the burgeoning faction’s borders. These militiamen were simply raised as levy or ‘legio’ – which in turn gives way to the term ‘legion’. In essence, the so-called legions of early Rome were ‘poor’ predecessors to the uniformly-equipped and disciplined soldiers of the later centuries.

Weapons figure in grave-goods in west-central Italy from c. 1000 bc on, and from the eighth century graves of high-status warriors in Etruscan and Latin cemeteries are marked by combinations of iron weapons and bronze armor, much of it evidently intended for display rather than use. Grave-goods virtually disappear from Latin sites by the early sixth century. However, already by this time Greek hoplite equipment had begun to be adopted in the region, including the characteristic double-grip round shield and distinctive helmets and body armor. Hoplite equipment had appeared in the Greek world from the late eighth century, and its widespread use in Etruscan cities is attested from c. 650 on by grave finds and artistic representations. The evidence is thinner for Rome and the other Latin communities, but it seems likely that hoplite equipment came into use there about the same time or soon after its introduction in Etruria.

It has usually been thought that the introduction of hoplite equipment led rapidly to a new style of fighting, with the hoplites (heavy-armed troops) massed in close formation (the phalanx), using a thrusting spear as their main offensive weapon and also carrying a short sword. Greek city-states’ defense, it is held, now depended on middle-class hoplites, serving alongside aristocrats in the phalanx line, and this had important social and political consequences. Difficulties have sometimes been found in applying this model to Etruria: it has been doubted whether an army of citizen hoplites is compatible with Etruscan social structure, commonly supposed to have been dominated in this period by aristocratic gentes, and it is notable that Greek equipment is often found in combination with Etruscan weaponry, as on the gravestele of Aule Feluske of Vetulonia, shown armed with a hoplite shield and helmet but an Etruscan double-axe.

Established views of hoplite warfare have, however, recently been subjected to radical critiques, notably by Van Wees. He argues that close-formation fighting was not essential for the effectiveness of the new equipment, and that down to the early fifth century Greek hoplites continued to fight in a quite open formation, interspersed with light-armed troops. He also maintains that there was considerable disparity between working-class and leisured hoplites, with only the latter wearing much body armor. These conclusions fit well with the Etruscan indications, and, if they are correct, the difference between developments in Greece and Etruria may not be as great as supposed, and the adoption of Greek armor in Etruria may not have involved radical changes in fighting methods, let alone social structures. The same will also apply to Rome and Latium: here too fighting may have continued to be fluid and flexible, based on an open formation incorporating both light and more heavily armed troops, and especially at first, only the really well-to-do may have aspired to the new Greek-style shields and armor.

The Romans ascribed to King Servius Tullius the division of the citizen body into centuries based on wealth, and there is no good reason to doubt the attribution. The centuriate system in due course underwent radical modification and was to have enduring political importance as a basis for assembly voting, but, when introduced in the later sixth century, its purpose must have been primarily military. It is often supposed that in its original form the system divided the citizens simply into the “class” (classis), who served as hoplites, and the rest who served, if at all, as light-armed. However, although we know that in the second century bc the first of the(then five) classes could be referred to simply as “the class” and the rest as “below the class” (infra classem) (so Cato, cited by A. Gellius, Noctes Atticae 6.13), it does not follow that this was a relic of a much earlier one-class system. Although the details on equipment given by Livy (1.44) and Dionysius (4.16-21) are of questionable value, the tradition may be right that from its inception the centuriate system divided the infantry into multiple classes. King Servius will then have aimed to maximize the state’s military resources by imposing an obligation of military service on all but the poorest citizens and regulating how they should arm themselves according to their means, with those who could afford it equipping themselves with some or all of the hoplite panoply, while the richest served as cavalry (perhaps true cavalry, rather than mounted infantry as in most archaic Greek states). The result will have been a heterogeneously equipped army with both hoplite and diverse other elements, which fits well with Van Wees’ open-formation model of archaic warfare.

The Roman army must have changed greatly between the sixth and fourth centuries, but, although numerous attempts have been made to reconstruct its evolution, this can only be speculation. Even the best attested change remains problematic, namely the introduction of military pay. A well-established tradition (e. g. Livy 4.59-60) records its introduction, funded by direct taxation, in c. 406 at around the time of the start of the siege of Veii. It is not a difficulty that Roman coinage did not begin for another century: the payments could have been made in weighed bronze. But most warfare then still consisted of short, local campaigns, and the extended Samnite Wars of the later fourth century are a more likely context for the introduction of regular pay, although some payments may have been made to those manning the Veii siege.

By the end of the fourth century the Roman army must have reached much the form in which it was described for us by Polybius (6.19-26), a century and a half later. In this system the citizen troops were brigaded in legions of at least 4,500 men, of which the heavy infantry comprised at least 3,000. The equipment of these heavy infantry included an oval shield (scutum), heavy javelin (pilum), and short sword, and they fought in a flexible formation, deployed in three lines, each divided into ten maniples. The essential features of the system, the weaponry and the maniple as tactical unit, are often held to have been introduced only during the Samnite Wars, a doctrine supported by ancient claims that they were borrowings from the Samnites. However, this evidence is questionable and contradicted by other sources, and it seems unlikely that the Romans embarked on the struggle with the Samnites simply with a hoplite army. More probably, the manipular army was the product of a longer evolutionary process, in which a more diversely equipped force gradually became more standardized and tightly organized. Some features like the scutum may have been present much earlier, and Livy and Dionysius may perhaps be right in representing some elements in the Servian army as equipped with shields of this type. One important element of continuity from the Servian to the manipular system is likely to have been the maximizing of Roman military resources by imposing the obligation to serve on all but the poorest citizens.

The Rhodesian Counterinsurgency Campaign 1962–80 III

Having received training in tactical tracking operations, survival techniques, and living in a mock terrorist training camp during the “Dark Phase” portion of their selection course, Scouts would then be paired up with captured terrorists. These “tamed” terrorists would be given an AK-47 to help build trust between them and the Scouts. Sometimes the firing pin would be secretly removed until they had established a strong working relationship, just in case they were feeling froggy.

Phase 4: 1977–79

In late 1977, in the midst of Operation Dingo and fulfilling his promise to Vorster and Kissinger, Smith announced that he would negotiate with he African nationalists and accept majority rule. The upshot of those discussions was the political settlement of March 1978 and the formation of the interim government of Smith, Muzorewa, Sithole (who had been ousted from ZANU by Mugabe), and Chief Jeremiah Chirau to devise the new fully democratic constitution and prepare for the general election.

ZANU and ZAPU responded by unifying as the Patriotic Front, but their forces fought each other whenever they met. ZANLA intensified the war at great cost, with Fire Force taking a fearful toll. ZANLA also had severe logistical problems and lacked the morale, the discipline, and the training for positional warfare. ZPRA had conventional forces, but lacked a bridgehead across the Zambezi River and air support.

The increased fighting, combined with the prospect of being ruled by an African prime minister, shook the Rhodesian whites. Casualties remained light, but whites began to emigrate at the rate of 2,000 a month. Despite an infinite supply of eager African recruits, budgetary constraints and the shortage of training staff meant that the security forces could not expand fast enough to match the growth of ZANLA and ZPRA, and were soon outnumbered except at times of total mobilization.

Even so, the Rhodesian war effort improved and, with the prospect of success in the political field finally in sight, in 1978 ComOps produced a strategy with coherent goals which broke the reactive mold. This involved:

1. Protecting “Vital Asset Ground” (mines, factories, key farming areas, bridges, railways, fuel dumps, and the like).

2. Denying the insurgents the “Ground of Tactical Importance” (the African rural areas) as a base from which to mount attacks on crucial assets by:

i. Inserting large numbers of armed auxiliaries (loyal to Muzorewa and Sithole) into these areas to assist in the reestablishment of the civil administration and to destroy the links between the insurgents and their supporters;

ii. Using Fire Force and high-density troop operations against insurgent infested areas.

3. Preventing incursions through border control.

4. Raiding neighboring countries to disrupt ZANLA’s and ZPRA’s command and control; to destroy base facilities, ammunition, and food supplies; to harass reinforcements; and to hamper movement by aerial bombardment, mining, and ambushing of routes.

An addendum to this plan was CIO’s decision to sponsor the anti-FRELIMO resistance movement, Resistencia National Moçambique (RNM), which began to weaken FRELIMO and allow the Rhodesians greater freedom of action against ZANLA in Mozambique.

Although many in the Rhodesian security establishment did not grasp the potential of the auxiliary forces, the 10,000 auxiliaries, deployed among the rural Africans, began to deny the insurgents the countryside. For the first time, there were forces to occupy the ground which Fire Force won. Information began to flow again from the people, and Fire Force became more deadly. The operational demands, however, were excessive. Fire Forces deployed two and three times a day. Many external air and ground attacks were mounted, even on the outskirts of Lusaka in Zambia, but economic targets remained inviolate.

MID became more effective in the analysis of intelligence, and the army was strengthened by the formation of the Rhodesia Defence Regiment to supplement the Guard Force in guarding vital points.

Phase 5: April 1979–March 1980

The election of Muzorewa in April 1979 offered the only chance for the counterinsurgency war to be won because, voting in a 62 percent poll of the newly enfranchised African population, the moderate Africans dealt ZANLA and ZPRA a stunning defeat by defying their orders to abstain. The Rhodesian security forces mobilized 60,000 men to neutralize the threat to the election. During the three days of the election, 230 insurgents were killed, and 650 overall during the month of April. The others went to ground or surrendered. The ZANLA commanders left the country for orders and for six weeks the war stood still. If Margaret Thatcher had adhered to her election promise to recognize this internationally monitored result, the insurgency could have been defeated. Instead, Thatcher reneged and the murders of Africans increased as the insurgents strove to reestablish themselves. The morale of the security forces and the public sank. At the same time, planning to rob ZANLA of victory at a decisive moment, ZPRA deployed a 3,000-strong vanguard into Rhodesia to prepare the way for its Soviettrained, motorized, conventional army. ZANLA responded with an offensive into Matabeleland, ZPRA’s heartland. Although ZANLA deployed 10,000 men into Rhodesia, including some FRELIMO volunteers, it was in dire straits due to constant Fire Force action, the external raids, the unease of the host country, and the denial of ground by the auxiliaries. The peace achieved at the Lancaster House Conference in London came none too soon for ZANLA.13 Its real accomplishment was political. Its long campaign of intimidation ensured that Mugabe won the 1980 election.

Muzorewa could have achieved a stronger bargaining position if he had adopted a total strategy. Instead, while his security forces strove to contain the situation in expectation of a political solution, his political and military aims were not tied in closely enough. He could have exerted economic pressure and threat of a conventional war on Zambia and Mozambique to cease aiding his enemies. He could have stalled to allow time for his auxiliaries and Fire Force to weaken the hold of the insurgents within the country, while his forces crippled the supply lines of ZANLA and ZPRA and the RNM kept FRELIMO at bay. The humiliation of this could have caused the fall of the FRELIMO leader, Samora Machel. The Russians might have offered some help, but Machel had seen what had happened to Angola and would have hesitated to take it. The Cubans could have intervened, but this was unlikely as they were already overextended in Angola, and South Africa would have immediately reacted. There were political dangers, but Rhodesia had demonstrated that she could withstand international pressure.

Muzorewa could have enjoyed a number of options. A separate deal with Nkomo’s ZAPU would have been possible. The Lancaster House peace talks could have been stalled until the pressure on Zambia and Mozambique began to tell. Limited Western recognition might have been forthcoming to prevent a regional war. Muzorewa could have dictated the peace terms and his apparent strength would have appealed to the electorate because, like Mugabe, he could threaten the resumption of the war.

Muzorewa’s external operations did contain the ZPRA threat from Zambia, by blowing bridges and leaving Zambia totally dependent on a single railway line through Rhodesia to South Africa. The raids steadily raised the odds in Mozambique to force FRELIMO to cease supporting ZANU and ZANLA. The Rhodesian forces attacked bridges in the Gaza Province to cut ZANLA’s supply lines. They planned to do likewise in the Manica, Sofala, and Tete Provinces had they not been stopped. Perhaps they were stopped because the British were bent on achieving a settlement embracing all players, including Mugabe, and the South Africans wanted to woo Machel to deny their ANC safe havens. Muzorewa also weakly allowed the British to divide his delegation, while Mugabe and Nkomo delayed signing anything to gain time to build their political support within Rhodesia and recoup their losses.

Enforcing the ceasefire, the Commonwealth Monitoring Force restrained the Rhodesian forces and ostensibly confined the ZANLA and ZPRA forces to a number of assembly point camps. The British, however, ignored the presence of mostly recruits in the camps and the absence of the hard core, who remained outside among the population and ensured that Mugabe won the election. The British, with too few troops to intervene, accepted the result despite the overwhelming evidence of intimidation.

The Rhodesian forces flirted with, but rejected, the idea of a coup because only Britain could confer sovereignty. Instead they concentrated on forcing the British to reschedule the election. Lord Carrington, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, aided and abetted by Ken Flower, the Head of CIO, and P. K. Allum, the Police Commissioner, ignored the evidence of widespread intimidation supplied not only by the Rhodesian forces but also by the British monitors.

In the end, the leaders of the intelligence establishment betrayed their own, perhaps for the sake of their pensions. Flower went on to serve Mugabe and his Marxist aspirations, and the CIO became a feared secret police organization rather than an intelligence agency. The war cost ZANLA and ZRPA 40,000 dead at a cost of 1,735 Rhodesian dead – a ratio of 23:1. A flawed election placed Mugabe in power and, bent on the retention of power, he has ruined a once thriving state. Where once food was exported and policemen went unarmed, famine and terror stalk the land. All the Rhodesian military gained out of the failure of the counterinsurgency campaign was an enviable reputation.

Special Brigades of the Russian Expeditionary Force

Russian troops parading in front of général Henri Gouraud and général Nikolaï Lokhvitski at camp de Mailly in October 1916.

General N. Lokhvitskiy inspecting positions accompanied by Russian and French Officers in the summer of 1916 in Champagne.

Travel of the Russian Expeditionary Force to the Western Front

Surprisingly, at this time of preparation for the great offensive of 1916 – and even more surprisingly in view of the millions of casualties already suffered and men taken prisoner – Russia was sending troops abroad. When Vasily Lodshina was being deafened by the guns in the forest, 1st Special Brigade of the Russian Expeditionary Force landed at Marseille to fight on the Western Front. Visiting Russia in December 1915 future French president Paul Doumer had asked for 300,000 men, which ridiculously high figure was based on the assumption that Russia had unlimited reserves of trained manpower. At Stavka, General Alekseyev was understandably against sending any men to France, in addition to those already destined for the Salonika front. The Tsar, however, overrode his objections in return for Doumer’s promise of armaments and eventually compromised on sending a brigade, providing it was to serve under Russian officers, be equipped by the French, and be transported by the French navy.

Comprising one regiment from each of Moscow and Samara, the brigade numbered 8,942 men, with factory workers predominating in 1st Regiment and peasants in 2nd Regiment. Contemporary photographs show French officers on the quayside at Marseille in April 1916, saluting the new arrivals after their ten-week journey from Moscow, via the Trans-Siberian railway and by sea from Dal’ny around China, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea and Suez Canal. On board one of the four French ships, some Russian officers return the salutes, while most of their men see Europe for the first time with no apparent emotion. They parade through the Old Town in front of curious, but not very large, crowds before being transported by rail to Mailly le-Camp in Champagne, preparative to being sent into the line. Killing time for a few days there, they eat, smoke and watch two burly NCOs doing energetic Cossack knees-bend dancing to music played on an accordion. In a safe trench on the French-held sector of the Champagne sector of the line, their commander, General Nikolai Lokhvitsky, poses for a photographer. For him and the other officers, with fluent French as their second language, liaison was not a problem. For their conscripts in the brigade, it was a different story. At that point, the photographic record ends, but the documentary record continues, to end in tragedy.

A few days after setting foot on French soil, 1st Special Brigade was transported to Châlons-sur-Marne and attached to General Henri Gouraud’s 4th Army, ‘going up’ to the line around Auberive at the end of June. Like their brothers-in-arms on the Russian fronts, the men of 1st Special Brigade fought and suffered in the trenches, being joined later by 3rd Special Brigade, shipped from Archangel to Brest in September, while 2nd and 4th Russian Special Brigades were in Macedonia, fighting the Bulgarians. In all, some 45,000 officers and men were sent to fight in France. There is a military cemetery at Mourmelon-le-Grand containing the graves of 1,000 Russian officers and men. Somewhat belatedly, the French nation erected a memorial equestrian statue on the bank of the Seine in Paris in 2011.

News of the Tsar’s abdication in March 1917 and of the mutinies on the Russian fronts divided the men’s loyalties, with many of the more politically active townsmen in 1st Brigade refusing to fight and demanding to be repatriated while the peasants of 3rd Brigade remained under the discipline of their officers, prepared to continue the war. The generals might have been able to fool themselves that the loss of millions of lives was justified in some unprovable way, but the men in the front lines had long ceased believing in anything, except the likelihood that they would soon be corpses. Because the French army was suffering mutinies with many men being summarily shot in front of their comrades pour encourager les autres, the mutinous Russians were moved to where they were less likely to spread dissent at the front. At the huge military camp of La Courtine in Central France, attempts were made by Russian and French officers to restore order in 1st Brigade. After 3rd Brigade was ordered to surround the mutineers’ camp, there ensued five days of scuffles and argument before a Russian-manned battery of French field guns shelled the mutineers, causing fifty casualties.

The surviving mutineers were despatched to concentration camps, some as far away as the Sahara desert, then policed by the French Foreign Legion, where conditions were horrific. Most officers and some men, however, volunteered to form the Légion Russe, which continued the fight until the Armistice in November 1918. By then, few of these legionnaires thought it was safe to return to Russia under the Bolsheviks. Since France had been a pays d’accueil for refugees from European monarchies ever since the Revolution, they opted to stay there on demobilisation. This produced the strange phenomenon between the wars, when it seemed that the majority of taxi-drivers in Paris were former Russian officers, as were many of the commissionaires outside posh hotels.

Coldstream Guards 1700-1763

David Morier (1705?-70) Grenadiers, 1st and 3rd Regiments of Foot Guards and Coldstream Guards, 1751 c. 1751-60

Coldstream Guards

“Lieutenant Thomas George Southwell, Coldstream Guards”, Charles Jervas, 1739; National Army Museum NAM. 1964-02-5

The Coldstream Guards on Parade at Horse Guards, by John Chapman, c. 1755.

The War of the Spanish Succession, 1702–13

The War of the Spanish Succession began in 1702 and saw the British Army under John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, win a series of brilliant successes. The Regiment was not involved for the first six years of the main campaign in Europe, but nevertheless won a third Battle Honour – at Gibraltar.

In September 1704 a Composite Battalion, composed of 200 First Guards and 600 Coldstreamers, was sent first to Lisbon and then to Gibraltar. The Rock had been captured from the Spanish in July by a detachment of Marines under Admiral Sir George Rooke, but it was then closely besieged and reinforcements were called for. The Composite Battalion landed on 20 January 1705 and was involved in repelling several attacks; it then remained as part of the garrison until the siege was lifted in April 1705.

Meanwhile, on the mainland Marlborough won his ‘famous victory’ at Blenheim on 13 August 1704; the Regiment did not take part, but was well represented by its Colonel, General ‘Salamander’ Cutts, who led the crucial attack with his usual bravery.

The Regiment only became involved in 1708 when six companies were sent to Flanders as part of a Composite Battalion with the First Guards and took part in the Battle of Oudenarde on 11 July 1708, which became the fourth Battle Honour.

In April 1709 a further Coldstream detachment was sent to join the war, whereupon a Guards Brigade was formed, consisting of a First Guards battalion and a Coldstream battalion. On 11 September 1709 both these battalions took part in the Battle of Malplaquet; it was an exceptionally bloody contest and the Regiment’s losses were among the heaviest of the twenty battalions involved. They undoubtedly distinguished themselves and it became a well-deserved Battle Honour.

Thereafter the war petered out and when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713 the Regiment returned home in March for a welcome period of twenty-seven years of peace and home service.

The War of the Austrian Succession, 1740–1748

The peace was broken by the outbreak in 1740 of the War of the Austrian Succession. The origins are complex and the campaign only concerns us because the expeditionary force sent to the Continent in 1742 included a Guards Brigade consisting of the 1st Battalions of all three regiments of Foot Guards.

In 1743 King George II not only joined the army in Flanders but also assumed command. On 27 June 1743 he fought the Battle of Dettingen, well known as the last occasion on which a King of England personally led his troops into action. He led them, in fact, into a dangerous trap, carefully prepared by the French, and the situation was only saved by several gallant charges made by the cavalry, including, for the first time, a Household Cavalry Brigade.

The Guards Brigade formed the rearguard and so was not involved in the battle until the later stages. The French finally suffered a severe defeat, losing 5,000 men, and Dettingen became the Regiment’s sixth Battle Honour.

In 1745 the King handed over command to his 25-year-old son, The Duke of Cumberland, whose first action as a commander was the Battle of Fontenoy on 11 May 1745. Things did not go well and the Allied army was forced to make a frontal assault against the enemy centre, which involved an advance of half a mile across flat, open country under intense fire from their front and also from French strongpoints on both flanks.

The Guards Brigade was on the right of the leading line, with the regiments in their customary positions, that is the First Guards on the right, the Coldstream on the left and the Third Guards in the centre. The brigade was commanded by Colonel George Churchill, Coldstream Guards. With shouldered arms the three battalions marched steadily forward, despite the fierce fire from three sides. Finally, as they topped a slight ridge, now seriously reduced in numbers, they found, thirty yards in front of them, four complete battalions of French Guards, as yet unscathed.

It was the first time that the British and French Guards had met in battle and it was a dramatic confrontation. The French fired first, but to little effect. Then the Guards replied and their first volley laid low nineteen French officers and 600 men. Steadily they reloaded, firing in disciplined sequence six platoons at a time, so that the volleys never ceased. Finally the French gave way and the Guards advanced. But they did not receive any support and found themselves isolated; for three hours they had to hold their positions against both infantry and cavalry attacks, but finally were forced to withdraw, having lost around half their strength. It had been a bloody and bitter defeat, and was not allowed to count as a Battle Honour, though it was perhaps deserved.

The ‘Forty-Five’, 1745

July 1745 saw a new threat, this time at home, as the Scots rebelled in support of Charles Stuart, grandson of King James II, who was claiming the English Crown. The Guards Brigade in Flanders was hurriedly recalled, while in London the grenadier companies of the Guards battalions stationed there were formed into a scratch force for the defence of the capital.

The threat faded, however, and The Duke of Cumberland pursued the Jacobite Army back into Scotland, where they were crushed at the Battle Culloden on 16 April 1746. With Scotland subdued, he then returned in 1747 to the campaign in Flanders, taking with him a new Guards Brigade, composed this time of the 2nd Battalions of each Regiment. They did not, however, see any major action and returned home in 1748 when the war was ended by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

The Seven Years War, 1756–1763

The peace that followed lasted only eight years and in 1756 another campaign began, again against the French. The Foot Guards were not involved initially, but in 1758 the 1st Battalions of each Regiment were formed into a Guards Brigade and took part in several rather abortive raids on the French coast.

In 1760 another Guards Brigade, composed of the 2nd Battalion of each Regiment, was sent to Germany under the command of a Coldstreamer with the unusual name of Major General Julius Caesar. A year later the grenadier companies of each Regiment were formed into a composite Grenadier Battalion, which became the fourth battalion of the brigade, a practice that would continue over the next fifty years.

In 1763 the 2nd Battalion returned home, landing at Yarmouth, which meant that the Regiment had spent twenty-four out of the last sixty years fighting somewhere on the Continent. Its next campaign would be on the other side of the Atlantic.

Coldstream Guards 1940

When war was declared on 3 September 1939 the 1st Coldstream was training at Pirbright, while the 2nd Battalion was at Albuhera Barracks, Aldershot. The 3rd Battalion was in Egypt, serving in the Canal Brigade, and based in Mustapha Barracks, Alexandria.

The outbreak of war was greeted (in 1st and 2nd Coldstream) by some with relief, even celebration; war, long anticipated, was now a reality and provided a degree of certainty. Some felt that it would be like the manoeuvres that the Battalions had done during the summer. A feeling of inevitability prevailed, however, among the many sons of those who had fought the Germans only twenty years before. Orders to mobilize had arrived on 1 September and, within hours, Reservists joined both Battalions.

Mechanization of the Army at home was completed in 1938 and battalions (twenty-three officers and 753 men in four Rifle Companies) had the .303” Bren light machine-gun, ten lightly armoured Bren Carriers, and a 3” Mortar Platoon. Anti-tank defence was provided by the Boys .55” anti-tank rifle, regarded as infamous for its savage kick. Battalions were expected to march (they lacked troop transport) and were equipped only to company level with radio. Tactics were based on the mobile warfare of 1918 with some emphasis on positional defence. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was partly organized for a war of manoeuvre, but it lacked armour and all arms training.


The 2nd Battalion was in 1st Guards Brigade (with 3rd Grenadiers and 2nd Hampshire Regiment, under Brigadier Merton Beckwith-Smith) in Major General the Hon Harold Alexander’s 1st ‘Strategic Reserve’ Division (I Corps). Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Bootle-Wilbraham, the Battalion moved to Southampton on 19 September and sailed for Cherbourg, continuing by rail (as in 1914) in ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8’ trucks to Sillé-le-Guillaume (near Le Mans) then marching on pavé (cobbles) to Conlie and later Arras.

The 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Cazenove in 7th Guards Brigade (with 1st and 2nd Grenadiers, under Brigadier Sir John Whitaker, a Coldstreamer) was in Major General Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Division (II Corps) and arrived in Cherbourg on 30 September. They followed the same route, arriving near Roubaix on 12 October.

In 1938 plans had been made to deploy the BEF to Northern France which was unprotected by the much-vaunted Maginot Line. A few pillboxes and an incomplete anti-tank ditch existed along the border with neutral Belgium, and so the BEF had to construct a twenty-mile defensive line from Halluin (near Menin) to Maulde, south of Tournai.

The battalions spent the winter of 1939–40 constructing trenches, pillboxes and wire entanglements. The single battledress issued was inadequate for the cold and Guardsmen were mostly quartered in unheated barns. Little training was done in the Regular divisions, except 3rd Division where General Montgomery anticipated that battles would be fought on each river line. Bachy station platform was used for Adjutant’s Drill Parades by 2nd Coldstream, and in December His Majesty the King visited the Battalion on one of the coldest days of the winter. Efforts were made to maintain morale and concerts by George Formby, Gracie Fields and others were popular. Morale was high and the Guardsmen, despite the most arduous conditions, complained little during this ‘Phoney War’.

Lord Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, attended the Paris conference in November at which it was decided that if Belgian neutrality was violated the Allies would move forward sixty miles from the River Escaut to the River Dyle, east of Brussels. This – Plan ‘D’ – would shorten the Allied line, preserve Brussels, deny the Channel ports to Germany and might bring the Belgian Army on to the Allied side. No reconnaissance of Belgium was allowed, however, and the wisdom of moving forward was much debated.

In February 1940 the 2nd Battalion served in the Maginot Line near Lorry-lès-Metz and the companies were, for the first time, in sight of the enemy. Useful battle lessons were learned, particularly about dominating no-man’s-land. Some Guardsmen acquired ‘On ne passe pas’ Maginot badges; after Dunkirk many Coldstreamers felt that, unlike the Maginot defences, no one had passed them!

1st Battalion

The German invasion of the Low Countries on 10 May was followed by the advance into Belgium. 1st Coldstream moved to Vilvorde outside Brussels, then to Louvain and Herent, on the Mechelen-Louvain canal, where Coldstreamers first engaged German troops (14 May). An assault crossing in the Battalion area was repulsed next day, but during the action Lord Frederick Cambridge, commanding No 2 Company, was killed. The loss of this popular figure, the first Coldstream officer killed in the campaign, was a shock. The Battalion counter-attacked to the canal, but on 16 May the Germans crossed in the Belgian sector. Worse news followed; German tanks had broken through over the River Meuse eighty miles further south, outflanking the Maginot Line and threatening the BEF’s flank.

The 1st Battalion withdrew that night to the Escaut (temporarily beside the 2nd Battalion) and later into reserve. Refugees hindered movement and everyone witnessed terrible sights where civilians had been dive-bombed. On 22 May the 1st Battalion moved again to Wattrelos, east of Roubaix. The discipline and bearing of the Guardsmen on the march made a strong impression on many observers.

2nd Battalion

The 2nd Coldstream received news of the attack on 10 May at Pont-à-Marcq, south of Lille. The Battalion marched twenty-one miles to Tournai next day before being lifted to Brussels, but had to march a further twelve miles to Duisburg village, and later Leefdaal, on the Brussels-Louvain road. Similar scenes of refugees choking the roads and rumours of ‘Fifth Columnists’ were encountered. No.3 Company’s cookhouse in Leefdaal was bombed and the CQMS and a cook were killed, the first casualties suffered by the Battalion.

On 15 May, following the German crossing of the Dyle, the Battalion prepared to move amid order and counter-order. That night it withdrew, marching seventeen miles back to Zuun on the Brussels-Charleroi canal; two days later it completed another twenty miles to the Dendre at Ninove. The Commanding Officer commented that the Guardsmen marched well and were cheerful despite little sleep in the past forty-eight hours. The boots stood the test, but many felt that they had ‘slept on the march’. On 19 May 2nd Coldstream had to withdraw in daylight in contact, under shellfire, from its positions forward of the Dendre.

The twenty-seven miles to Pecq on the Escaut were completed mostly on foot, fortunately without air attack, and the Battalion arrived late on 20 May. The Escaut was “as wide as the Basingstoke canal”, but shallow; it gave Lord Gort the chance to deploy the BEF in the defence of a major obstacle, although he had troops committed around Arras, thirty-five miles to the south-west. The BEF defences ran for thirty-two miles with 1st Guards Brigade in the centre.

The Guardsmen were tired – “over everybody there was a heavy air of fatigue and depression” one Company Commander wrote – but two platoons per company immediately began to dig in along an 1800 yard frontage, overlooked by the Mont St Aubert feature, 430 feet high, less than two miles away. No 3 Company guarded the bridge, demolished that night (20/21 May), while No 1 Company was behind the canal bank. During the dark night it was realized that there was a gap between the Coldstream and 3rd Grenadiers on the right, and a limited re-deployment took place. The Royal Artillery shelled movement on the far bank, but before dawn German mortaring started and heavy shellfire later hit both Battalions.

A determined river crossing by 31st Infantry Division against the Coldstream-Grenadier boundary followed. Despite heavy fire, several German companies crossed and advanced towards the Pecq-Tournai road, digging in on rising ground (‘Poplar Ridge’). Attempts by Coldstream Bren carriers to support No 1 Company, forced out of position, were only partially successful, several carriers being lost to assault guns. The attack towards Pecq was halted.

The situation was unclear; communications were difficult. Brigadier Beckwith-Smith, the Brigade Commander, ordered the Commanding Officers to restore the situation as best they could. No 3 Company of the Grenadiers counter-attacked, but, when this faltered, Lance Corporal Harry Nicholls of the Grenadiers (Imperial Forces Heavyweight Boxing Champion) charged the positions on Poplar Ridge firing his Bren, destroying the machine guns and causing numerous casualties, despite several wounds. This superb act of gallantry wrested the initiative from the Germans and Lance Corporal Nicholls was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Coldstream re-established their forward positions and by nightfall reported their front clear of enemy. The Battalion had suffered thirty casualties (fifteen killed) including several officers and seniors. In 1st Guards Brigade sector a Corps river crossing had been defeated and only one small penetration had been made down the whole Escaut Line.

In the south, tanks from Panzer Gruppe von Kleist, the German main effort, reached the Channel late on 20/21 May. The BEF’s resolute defence of the Escaut caused General von Bock to switch the effort of Army Group B (a subsidiary to the attack in the south) to the Courtrai-Ypres axis, the BEF boundary with the Belgians, in order to outflank the Escaut position. A salient began to develop around Lille.

Lord Gort saw the trap and decided, despite Allied pressure, to save the BEF. After several confused meetings in Ypres on 22 May Lord Gort ordered the BEF to withdraw to the ‘Gort Line’ constructed during the winter. This released divisions to attack south into Panzer Gruppe von Kleist (the offensive never materialized), to secure Dunkirk and to strengthen the northern flank with the Belgians.

The Dunkirk Perimeter. 1st and 2nd Battalions

The 2nd Battalion withdrew from Pecq on 22 May to ill-prepared positions near Leers (east of Roubaix) but it was well supplied from the Lille NAAFI. On the 27th the Commanding Officer announced that 1st Division was to move to the Dunkirk perimeter. The intention “to march 55 miles back to the coast” produced misgivings!

On 26 May 1st Coldstream received orders regarding evacuation from Dunkirk, but with Army Group B attacking the BEF flank near Menin, the Battalion moved to Roncq (south of Menin). The German VI Armee broke through 5th Division at Houthem (near Ypres) and the position was only restored by a determined attack by 3rd Grenadiers, whose defence prevented Army Group B encircling the BEF. The 1st Coldstream withdrew (28 May) over Messines Ridge to Reninge, on the Yser, twelve miles from Dunkirk, down roads clogged with French, British and Belgian troops. (Belgium surrendered on 28 May). The Yser was the last significant obstacle south of the Dunkirk perimeter. The Battalion moved to Furnes, destroying its transport and keeping only the fighting vehicles. Dunkirk lay under a pall of smoke.

During 30 May German pressure increased north of Furnes; their 56th Division attempted to cross the Bergues-Furnes canal. 1st Coldstream was ordered to relieve a battalion on the canal, but No.1 Company, reaching the position in the dark, found Germans on the near bank. An immediate counter-attack was mounted, but the situation remained confused. The Adjutant, Captain George Burns, took over No 1 Company and the Transport Officer No 3. At first light mortars and artillery opened fire and the crossing was defeated.

Pressure on 1st Coldstream increased on 31 May; the 3rd Division was ordered to embark that night and No 4 Company formed the Battalion rearguard. By 0300 hours the Guardsmen – and thousands of other troops – were on the beach at La Panne waiting for the tide. On 1 June 1st Coldstream, each man with his rifle and equipment, returned to England.

The 2nd Coldstream had also been moving on 27 May from Roubaix, past Ploegsteert and Kemmelberg, to Locre, between Ypres and Bailleul, where it rested after marching thirty-two miles, and a thunderstorm soaked everyone. The Battalion marched a further fifteen miles, passing chaos in Poperinghe, to the Bergues-Furnes canal (with only a few miles in transport) before setting about the defence of a wide frontage astride a main route into the Dunkirk Perimeter. By late on 29 May 2nd Coldstream was dug in, but its strength was only 200 men. A detachment, 120 strong, later rejoined the Battalion from Houthem (near Hondschoote).

Troops, including wounded, straggled across the bridges all day, only ambulances being allowed to drive across. Two platoons of the Welsh Guards “marched across in formation, looking like Guardsmen and remarkably … well turned out compared with the rabble which was shuffling along the roads. It did us good to see them,” wrote the Commanding Officer. On the 30th the Coldstream was ordered to form the rearguard for the BEF, fighting until receiving orders to evacuate. Rations were scanty and ammunition short.

Shelling increased, but it was not until 1 June that the position became precarious. German tanks crossed the canal, forcing No 1 Company back onto No 3, both Company Commanders being killed; but the Battalion held on, before withdrawing to the beaches that night. The Guardsmen spent 2 June hiding from Stukas in dunes near Dunkirk until evening before leaving in various craft. Colonel Bootle-Wilbraham (now commanding the Brigade) and Major W.S. (‘Bunty’) Stewart Brown, Acting Commanding Officer, were picked up by HMS Sabre. No Coldstreamer was allowed to board without his weapon; but once aboard, cocoa was served in galvanized buckets, and most Guardsmen slept until reaching Dover.

The achievements of the Royal Navy and the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk are well known. Dispersion to Reception Areas was another feat of improvisation; 545 trains were used to move the 338,226 men evacuated. Hundreds of volunteers produced tea and sandwiches. The 1st Battalion re-assembled at Aldershot, while the 2nd collected at Walton, near Wakefield. Reorganization and training against an invasion was the priority.

The recovery of the BEF was a major success, but it was not a victory. Almost all heavy equipment was lost: over 84,400 vehicles were abandoned, including 98% of the tanks. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister since 10 May, inspired the nation, but stated that “wars are not won by evacuations”. Britain had, however, recovered a third of a million trained Servicemen, and Dunkirk veterans went on to fight in every theatre of war. “Being evacuated,” wrote one, “was the start of the road back.”

The War Office Report later concluded that “without question the British soldier is at least as good as the German,” but it was clear how ill-equipped the BEF had been for the campaign. The BEF and RAF had gained valuable experience, but there was much to learn.

Months later the 1st Battalion Commanding Officer’s Bunting, battle-scarred and bloodied, arrived at Regimental Headquarters from HMS Winchelsea which had carried Colonel Cazenove back from the beaches. It now hangs in the 1st Battalion Sergeants’ Mess, a symbol of the Coldstreamers who maintained traditional standards and discipline under very difficult circumstances during the Dunkirk campaign.

4th Indian Division at Keren

The 4th Indian Division began disengaging from the Italians near Sidi Barrani on 12 December 1940. Sixteen days later, the division’s 7th Indian Infantry Brigade – the garrison force at Matruh – embarked on the short voyage to Port Sudan. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade followed on New Year’s Day 1941, while the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was moved overland by rail and by Nile steamer. The redeployment was nearly flawless – the only glitch being an Italian air attack on the train carrying the 3/14th Punjab battalion, which resulted in some losses. By the end of January 1941, the entire division was concentrated in the Sudan. The 7th Indian Brigade was deployed to defend Port Sudan and its lines of communication; the rest of the division headed for the Kassala sector, where it was joined by the Gazelle Force. The 5th Indian Division stayed put in the Gallabat sector and engaged in an elaborate deception to divert the Italians’ attention from the coming offensive on Kassala.

Yet again, however, it was the Italians who surprised their adversary. From early January there were indications that the Italian forces might be preparing to withdraw from Kassala. The British commanders hesitated to pre-empt this move, fearing that a hasty attack launched with inadequate forces might prove disastrous. The Italian intention to pull back became clearer by the day, so an operation was planned to prevent the Italian forces from getting away intact. The attack was to be launched by a mixed force of the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions on 19 January. The night before, the Italians gave them the slip. The Indian divisions were ordered immediately to commence a pursuit. The Italian withdrawal lifted the threat to the Sudan and pulled the Indian forces into Eritrea.

The Indian forces pursued the retreating Italians on two axes. In the north, the 4th Indian Division, led by the Gazelle Force, advanced from Kassala to Wachai and thence to Keru and Agordat. The 5th Indian Division took a southerly route from Kassala to Aicota and thence to Barentu and Agordat. The Italians staged a fighting retreat. They had prepared delaying positions on tactically important hills and mined the key approaches. In particular, they offered considerable resistance at Keru and Barentu. The terrain, too, was not suited to a rapid chase by the Indians. The country around Kassala was a desert plain with knee-high scrub and the odd hillock, but to the east of Kassala the hills rose high and the valleys were rocky. And these posed a formidable challenge to the passage of mechanical transport.

A few days after their withdrawal from Kassala, the Italians pulled out of Gallabat as well. The Italian retreat here was less hasty, for they had heavily mined the area. Bhagat’s sappers worked ahead of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade in clearing this route. ‘The last ten days have been a bit trying,’ he wrote on 10 February 1941, ‘especially as I have had three narrow escapes. Luckily the only damage done is that I have now got a deaf ear.’ Bhagat had been on the road for ninety-six hours, sweeping fifteen minefields over a 55-mile stretch, despite being blown off his vehicle twice and ambushed by the Italians – an astonishing display of courage under fire for which he had just been awarded the Victoria Cross. But he found little glorious about the pursuit of the Italians: ‘The last ten days have been quite a revelation to me of war. Dead bodies lying on the road, some mangled and no one taking any notice of them. To think the same body had life and enjoyed himself a few hours before is preposterous.’

Near Agordat the Italian forces put up a tenacious defence, counter-attacking positions taken by the Indians and bringing to bear accurate artillery fire on the Indian forward positions. Eventually, they broke contact with the Indian forces and retreated further. Agordat was the first town in Eritrea to be captured by the Indians, and its fall prodded Wavell into perceiving greater opportunities in Eritrea. He now favoured a major operation aimed at capturing Asmara itself. He realized that this would thwart his earlier plan of sending forces back to Egypt, but felt that the operations in the Western Desert were ‘going very well . . . there was no immediate need of additional troops in Egypt’. Wavell instructed General Platt to ‘continue his pursuit and press on towards Asmara’. But the road to Asmara ran through Keren.

The town of Keren stood on a plateau at a height of over 4,300 feet. The region around Keren, the British realized, was ‘a wild immensity of peaks, knife-edge ridges, precipices, gorges and narrow defiles’. The road from Agordat ran in a north-easterly direction up the narrow Ascidira Valley towards a range of imposing hills that stood guard around the Keren plateau. As the road hugged the lower reaches of these hills, it passed through a narrow cleft – nowhere wider than 300 yards – called the Dongolaas Gorge. Along the eastern wall of the gorge, the road wound its way up to Keren. On either side of the gorge stretched a series of tangled ridges and massifs. To the east lay mounts Dologorodoc and Zeban, Falestoh and Zelale. In the west were the even more formidable mounts Sanchil and Samanna. The Italians had long realized the strategic importance of Keren for the defence of Asmara and had deployed the bulk of their troops there in defensive positions that dominated the high ground and key approaches in the area.

The first assault on the defences of Keren was undertaken by the 4th Indian Division. In the afternoon of 3 February, the 2nd Cameron Highlanders of the 11th Indian Brigade attacked and captured a ridge just south of Sanchil. The feature was promptly dubbed Cameron Ridge. Thereafter, the going was tough. The 3/14th Punjab attacked a peak on Sanchil but were unable to hold it against Italian counter-attacks supported by artillery and machine-gun fire. The 1/6th Rajputana Rifles secured a position to the west of Cameron Ridge, but were eventually dislodged by successive waves of counter-attacks. By the night of 6 February, the Indians were left with only a tenuous toehold at Cameron Ridge. This too was under attack from the Italians. ‘In the ding-dong battle’, Babu Singh of the 3/1st Punjab was injured at around 6 p.m. on 10 February. ‘By then heavy casualties had taken place. Our Colonel . . . who was also injured, announced that there was no arrangement to evacuate the dead and injured, and called upon each man to fend for himself and retreat.’

General Platt now realized that the ‘storming of Keren position was no light task . . . Gaining surprise was unlikely. The forcing of Keren was bound to mean hard fighting and casualties which would be difficult to replace.’ Finding a way around the road and the main Italian defences was evidently desirable. Between Falestoh and Zelale lay a low-slung ridge called Acqua Gap, over which ran a secondary track to Keren. The 5th Indian Brigade of the 4th Division was tasked to capture this gap on the night of 7 February. The brigade was reinforced by a troop of four Matilda tanks. ‘The hope of gaining surprise was very strong and the low morale of the Italian forces was expected to be of considerable help.’ It did not work out like that. The 4/6th Rajputana Rifles came under intense fire and sustained heavy losses on the approach to Acqua Gap. Although the battalion managed to capture parts of the ridge, it position was precarious at daybreak. The entire area and all lines of approach were dominated by Italian positions. The brigade commander decided against deploying his reserves and ordered a withdrawal at dusk.

Beresford-Peirse thereafter decided on a co-ordinated divisional operation for the capture of Keren. In the first phase, the 11th Indian Brigade would capture a peak on Sanchil. In the next, the Gazelle Force with two battalions would take Acqua Gap. The 5th Indian Brigade would then break through to Keren. It was an unimaginative plan that unsurprisingly ended up reinforcing the earlier failures and totting up casualties. By the morning of 14 February, when the operation was finally called off, the Indians held nothing more than Cameron Ridge.

The inability of the 4th Indian Division to crack the Keren defences stemmed from several factors. To begin with, the division suffered from a combination of over-confidence and under-preparation. Flush with success in North Africa, the division believed that it was up against Italian soldiers of the same poor quality and morale as it had earlier encountered. At the same time, it had – even more than the 5th Indian Division – unlearnt its previous skills of operating in such terrain. What is more, not all its troops had been bloodied in the battles of North Africa. A British officer recalled his experience of being shelled by the Italians in Keren: ‘It was the first time I had been under fire and I was quite surprised at first – rather feeling that the enemy was cheating using live rounds on manoeuvres.’

Attacks tended to peter out as the troops neared the enemy positions above them and the artillery fire was lifted. The lack of training was also evident in the inability of troops to hold the features they captured. Most often the defences of these positions were not reoriented fast enough to stave off counter-attacks by the Italians, or indeed to protect against air and artillery strikes. Commanders tended to shy away from night attacks, too; these called for greater levels of training and preparation but also carried greater possibilities of surprise.

Further, all the battalions of the division were organized for mechanical transport, but the terrain rendered movement by vehicles impossible. In consequence, the battalions had to employ one company entirely for porterage. Supplies of water, rations and ammunition had to be dumped ahead of offensives. All arms and ammunition had to be carried by the soldiers up steep hills during attacks. Worse, this had to be done in hot weather – the approach marches tended to sap the strength out of the troops even before an assault commenced. A related problem was the futility of employing tanks in this terrain. Even the light tanks broke down whenever deployed. Hence, regiments like Skinner’s Horse were used as infantry, providing fire support during attacks – a role for which they had no training or experience.

As the 4th Indian Division pondered the lessons of the failed offensives, Wavell informed London of the lack of progress: ‘the enemy has been counter-attacking fiercely and repeatedly shows no immediate signs of cracking’. Ever eager for a victory, Churchill shot back: ‘I presume you have considered whether there are any reinforcements which can be sent to give you mastery at Keren.’ There were none. Wavell was also concerned about the possibility of a German offensive in Libya to bail out the Italians and was worried that the stalemate in Keren would obviate the possibility of moving troops out of East Africa.

After the failure of the 4th Indian Division’s attacks to the east and west of the Dongolaas Gorge, General Platt realized that ‘any further assault on the Keren position would be a major operation’. Both the 4th and 5th Divisions would have to be hurled against the resolute Italians. Logistically, however, it was impossible simultaneously to maintain both divisions in the Keren area and to prepare dumps of supplies for an attack by two divisions. Hence, the 5th Indian Division was pulled back to positions behind Agordat, where it could be supported from the railhead at Kassala.