Operation Battle of Agordat

The 'Battle of Agordat' was fought near Agordat in Eritrea between British-led and Italian forces in the 'East African Campaign' (26/31 January 1941).

In the fighting of this period, it should be noted, the British had the significant advantage of having broken the relevant Italian codes and ciphers before the offensive and this allowed the interpretation of large quantities of information from Italian sources on the order of battle and plans of the Regia Aeronautica and Regio Esercito.

After the garrison of Italian and colonial troops at Kassala in Sudan had been ordered to withdraw in the middle of January 1941, the British offensive into Eritrea, planned for February, was brought forward and launched instead in the middle of January. Lying on the road from Kassala to Keren, and thence to Massawa, Agordat was an excellent defensive position and the British advance was slowed by delaying actions and mined roads, but the attack began on 28 January on the left (northern) flank, which was repulsed. Determined fighting took place on the hills and plain below until 31 January, when the British attacked behind four Matilda infantry tanks and Bren Gun Carriers, which easily destroyed the Italian forces' Fiat M11/39 medium tanks and forced the Italian infantry to retreat.

To avoid being cut off, the Italians began a disorderly retreat to Keren, leaving behind 1,000 prisoners, several guns and 14 knocked-out tanks; another 1,000 men were taken prisoner during the British pursuit. The resulting 'Battle of Agordat' saw some of the most determined and effective defensive operations of the war by the Italian and local forces. The battle was the first significant victory in the British offensive against Italian East Africa, and was followed by the 'Battle of Keren' (5 February/1 April), which led to the fall of the Eritrea Governorate.

Amedeo, Duca d’Aosta was the viceroy and governor-general of Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa), commander-in-chief of the Comando Forze Armate dell’Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East African armed forces command) and Generale d’Armata Aerea commanding the Italian air forces, and it was he who had ordered the Italian attack on Kassala, just to the west of the Eritrean border with the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, to begin on 4 July 1940 after Italy had declared war on the UK and France on 10 June. Three columns of Italian and colonial forces, totalling some 6,500 men, launched the assault, supported by the Regia Aeronautica and some cavalry squadrons acting as vanguards.

Kassala was defended by fewer than 500 men of the Sudan Defence Force under the command of Major General W. Platt, the al-qa’id al-'amm (leader of the army) and local police, who remained under cover during a 12-hour bombardment by the Regia Aeronautica, then knocked out six Italian tanks and inflicted considerable casualties on the attackers. At 13.00, Italian cavalry entered Kassala and the defenders withdrew to the Butana bridge after losing one man killed, three wounded and 26 missing, some of whom later rejoined their units. The Italian casualties were 43 men killed and 114 wounded. At Kassala, Colonnello Ugo Tabelinni’s XII Brigata coloniale constructed anti-tank defences, machine gun positions and strongpoints.

During the Italian attack at Kassala, Generale d’Armata Pietro Gazzera, the governor of the Galla-Sidamo governorate, captured the Sudan fort of Gallabat farther to the south with one battalion of Italian colonial troops and bande (irregulars with Italian officers). Gallabat was placed under the command of Colonnello Castagnola and fortified. Karora was occupied unopposed and on 7 July, another colonial battalion and banda supported by artillery and aircraft, attacked Kurmuk and overcame 60 Sudanese police after a short engagement.

The Italian attacks had gained a valuable entry point to Sudan at Kassala and by capturing Gallabat made it harder for the British to support the indigenous Ethiopian resistance fighters, the Arbegnoch (patriots), in Gojjam. The loss of Kurmuk prompted some of the locals to resort to banditry. Even though local Sudanese opinion was impressed by the Italian successes, the population of Kassala continued to support the British and supplied valuable information during the occupation. The Sudan Defence Force continued to operate close to Kassala and on 5 July one company of the 2/Royal Warwickshire Regiment arrived at Gedaref, between Kassala and Gallabat. Here the British discovered that exaggerated rumours of their arrival had reached the Italians. Platt decided to bluff the Italians into believing that there were far greater forces on the Sudan border and an Italian map captured on 25 July showed that the Italians had come to believe that there were some 20,000 British and Sudanese troops in Kassala province.

After their success in the 'Invasion of British Somaliland', the Italians of Africa Orientale Italiana adopted a more defensive posture. Late in 1940, Italian forces had suffered defeats in the Mediterranean, the Western Desert, the Battle of Britain and in the Greco-Italian War. Generale d’Armata Ugo Cavallero, the new Italian chief of the general staff in Rome, adopted a revised strategy for East Africa. In December 1940, Cavallero ordered the Italian forces in East Africa to concentrate on the defence of Africa Orientale Italiana by withdrawing to better defensive positions. On 31 December, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Luigi Frusci, commander of the Italian forces in Eritrea, ordered a retirement from the area to the north of Kassala along the track east of Sabdaret with outposts at Serobatib and Adaret, with a mobile force at Sabdaret as a reserve.

Earlier in the month, Frusci had received orders from Rome to cancel plans to invade Sudan, withdraw from Kassala and Metemma in the lowlands along the Sudanese/Eritrean border and hold the more easily defended mountain passes on the roads linking Kassala and Agordat and that linking Metemma and Gondar. Frusci was reluctant to withdraw from the lowlands, because it would be a propaganda defeat after he had announced that the British were about to attack and would be defeated. Kassala was also an important railway junction: in Italian hands it prevented the British from using the railway to move supplies from Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast to the base at Gedaref.

In November 1940, Colonel F. W. Messervy’s extemporised Gazelle Force operated from the Gash river delta against Italian advanced posts around Kassala on the Ethiopian plateau, where hill ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 ft (610 to 915 m) high border wide valleys and the rainfall makes the area malarial from July to October. After a British reverse at Gallabat in November, General Sir Archibald Wavell, commander-in-chief of the British forces in Egypt and the Middle East, held a review of the situation in Cairo on 1/2 December. With the 'Compass' offensive imminent in north-western Egypt, the British forces in East Africa were to provide help to the Arbegnoch in Ethiopia and continue to pressure the Italians at Gallabat. Kassala was to be recaptured early in January 1941, to prevent an Italian advance deeper into Sudan and Major General N. M. de la P. Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division was to be transferred from Egypt to Sudan from the end of December. With the success of 'Compass', East Africa was made second in importance to Egypt, a strategy in which victory over the Italian forces in Ethiopia was to be achieved by April 1941.

The transfer of the Indian 4th Division took until early January 1941. Platt intended to begin the offensive on the northern front on 8 February, with a pincer attack on Kassala, by the Indian 4th Division and Major General L. M. Heath’s Indian 5th Division, each less one brigade. News of the Italian disaster in Egypt, the harassment by Gazelle Force and the activities of Mission 101 in Ethiopia, led the Italians to withdraw their northern flank to Keru and Wachai and then, on 18 January, to retreat hurriedly from Kassala, Tessenei and the triangle of Keru, Biscia and Aicota. Wavell ordered Platt to begin the March offensive early on 9 February and then on 19 January, when it seemed that Italian morale was crumbling. Decrypts of Italian radio signals greatly aided British preparations and the spurred decision to attack ahead of schedule. The Italian withdrawal led Wavell to order a pursuit and the troops arriving at Port Sudan (Brigadier H. R. Briggs’s Briggs Force of brigade group size with two battalions of his own Indian 7th Brigade, one Senegalese battalion officered by Free French officers and a French Foreign Legion battalion from Chad together with one battery of field artillery and one company of engineers) to attack at Karora and advance parallel with the coast to meet the forces coming from the west.

The Italians in Africa Orientale Italiana had replaced their cyphers by November 1940, but by the end of the month the Government Code and Cypher School in England and the Cipher Bureau Middle East in Egypt had broken the replacement codes of the Regio Esercito and Regia Aeronautica. Sufficient low-grade ciphers had also been broken to reveal the Italian order of battle and the supply situation by the time that the British offensive began on 19 January 1941. Italian dependence on wireless communication, using frequencies on which it was easy for the British to eavesdrop, led to a flood of information from the viceroy’s daily reports to Italy, to the operational plans of the Regia Aeronautica and Regio Esercito. On occasion, British commanders had messages before the recipients and it was reported later by the deputy director of military intelligence in Cairo that 'he could not believe that any army commander in the field had [ever] been better served by his intelligence'.

The military situation of late 1940 in East Africa rendered the Sudanese towns of Kassala and Gallabat untenable, leading to the Italian command’s decision to abandon them and withdraw its troops to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Generale di Brigata Orlando Lorenzini’s XII Brigata coloniale at Kassala retired on the night of 17/18 January 1941, which suggested to the British that the situation in Egypt was affecting Italian strategy in East Africa and that a bolder British policy was justified. The British offensive from Sudan, scheduled for 9 February, was therefore brought forward to 19 January, and Platt was ordered to mount a vigorous pursuit. While the garrison of Gallabat was ordered to fall back to Gondar, the XII Brigata coloniale retired methodically toward the triangle bounded by Keru, Biscia and Aicota in the foothills of the Eritrean highlands, while maintaining some resistance to Gazelle Force, the Indian 4th Division and the Indian 5th Division.

As Gazelle Force threatened to outflank and encircle the retreating Italian forces, Primo Tenente Amedeo Guillet’s Gruppo Bande Amhara (a 2,500-man locally recruited force of cavalry and camel troops, supported by Yemeni infantrymen) was ordered to slow the Allied advance for at least 24 hours on the plain between Aicota and Barentu in Eritrea. The group’s cavalry infiltrated past the Anglo-Indian forces and, at dawn on 21 January, began a surprise cavalry charge from their rear. The charge created much disorder in the Allied ranks , but as the cavalry prepared to charge for a second time, the Allied force reorganised and opened fire on the Amhara cavalry, while armoured units tried to encircle them. Guillet’s deputy, Tenente Renato Togni, charged a column of Matilda tanks with his platoon of 30 colonial soldiers, who were all killed, but this allowed the remainder of the cavalry to disengage. The charge cost the Amhara cavalry some 800 killed or wounded but slowed the British advance for long enough for the main Italian force to reach Agordat.

The ground at Agordat was a natural defensive position and largely blocked any advance from the south-west from Biscia and Barentu; the northern flank was barred by the bed of the Baraka river. Two roads from Kassala ran to Agordat: these were a track to the north through Keru and Biscia, where the road improved, and the Via Imperiale, a tarmac road through Tessenei, Aicota and Barentu. The roads met at Agordat and continued through Keren, the only route to Asmara. Agordat was a small town on the northern bank of the Baraka river, a dry bed except in the rainy season, with palm groves along the banks. To the south-west of Agordat was the Laquetat ridge, defended by a fort at each end, wire entanglements and a concrete wall. To the south-east, the Italians had built fortifications on four rocky outcrops and beyond was Mt Cochen, with a peak about 2,000 ft (610 m) above the plain. To the north and east the foothills were closer together and the Barentu road ran south between Laquetat and Mt Cochen.

The Indian 4th Division was sent 40 miles (64 km) along the road to Sabderat and Wachai, thence as far toward Keru as its supplies allowed, with the Matilda infantry tanks of B Squadron, 4th Royal Tank Regiment to join from Egypt. The Indian 5th Division was to capture Aicota, ready to move eastward to Barentu or north-eastward to Biscia. Apart from air attacks, the pursuit was not opposed until Keru gorge, which was held by a rearguard of Generale di Brigata Ugo Fongoli’s XLI Brigata coloniale. The brigade retreated on the night of 22/23 January, leaving Fongoli, his staff and 800 men as prisoners. By 25 January, the Allied forces had cut the line of communication between Agordat and Barentu. On the following day, the artillery of the Indian 4th Division (Brigadier W. L. Lloyd’s Indian 5th Brigade and Brigadier R. A. Savory’s Indian 11th Brigade) bombarded the Italian defences, while Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighters of the South African Air Force destroyed most of the 50 Italian aircraft in Asmara and Gura, achieving air supremacy for the rest of the campaign. By 27 January, most of the two Indian divisions were close to Agordat and a brigade turned south, to move across country toward Barentu.

On 28 January, The Indian 4th Division made an outflanking move north of Agordat toward Mt Itaberrč and Mt Caianac, and four Matilda I tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment arrived during the day. The 4/11th Sikh Regiment and 3/1st Punjab Regiment closed on Laquetat unopposed. The 3/14th Punjab Regiment made a cautious advance over the plain and reached the top of Mt Cochen just after dark. The 2/Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and 1 (Wellesley’s)/6th Rajputana Rifles followed across the plain and by dark had dug in on the Italian flank. The 4/11th Sikh Regiment and 3/1st Punjab Regiment attacked Laquetat ridge during the night of 28/29 January but were repulsed and were transferred back to the plain, Gazelle Force taking over. Two Italian battalions had been sent to reinforce Mt Cochen during the night and the fighting continued all through 29 January. The 1 (Wellesley’s)/6th Rajputana Rifles moved to the ridge, but on 30 January three more Italian battalions arrived and counterattacked, throwing back the Indian infantry. A company from each of the Indian battalions had been detached because of insufficient mules and carried ammunition, water and food forward by hand, assisted by the Bengal Sappers and Miners. During the supply effort the carriers had to drop their loads and fix bayonets to fill a gap in the line. The Italians also managed to get some pack artillery behind Mt Cochen, which forced the attackers to withdraw and reorganise the two Indian battalions which had become dispersed among the ridge and ravines. Three Indian battalions attacked again and forced the Italians back towards the Barentu road. On the plain, the 2/Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders eventually captured a spur known as Gibraltar and defeated several Italian counterattacks during the afternoon.

The attack on Mt Laquatat and the pass between Mt Laquatat and Mt Cochen, where the defenders were commanded by Colonello Luziani, was renewed by the 1/Royal Fusiliers behind the four Matilda tanks to break through the last obstacle before the Agordat plain. The final assault took place between 11.00 and 14.00, with the British and Indian infantry preceded by Matilda tanks which crushed the Italian defences within a few minutes, overwhelmed the Italian artillery and destroyed eleven M11/39 medium tanks and L3 tankettes, some of which were crewed by German volunteers from ships in the port of Massawa.

Several counterattacks by the Askari and the Amhara Cavalry in the open failed and the 3/1st Punjab Regiment passed through the 1/Royal Fusiliers to attack four fortified hills, known as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Sailor. Tinker and Tailor had been captured as night fell, and the Punjabis dug in to face Italian counterattacks which did not not occur. Apprehensive of being trapped if the Keren road was cut behind them, the defenders retreated in some confusion towards Keren, while the Indian and British infantry pursued toward Agordat. The British took 1,000 prisoners along with 14 damaged tanks, 43 pieces if artillery and all the heavy equipment. During the pursuit, another 1,000 prisoners were taken and Agordat was occupied on 1 February.

Lying to the south-west of Agordat, Barentu was a fortified town with an airfield on a plain ringed by steep hills, about 28 miles (45 km) from a gold mine at Guala. The town was garrisoned by Generale di Brigata Angelo Bergonzi’s 2a Divisione coloniale of nine infantry battalions (8,000 men), 36 tanks and armoured cars, and 32 mountain guns situated in three defensive lines. On 21 January, Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott’s Indian 29th Brigade advanced from Aicota (Haykota) against an Italian colonial brigade on the Barentu road, until the defenders were outflanked by the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles. On the evening of 25 January, another Italian rearguard was encountered. An Indian attack before dawn was repulsed after the 3/2nd Punjab Regiment had captured its objective but the 1/Worcestershire Regiment got lost in the dark, leaving the flank of the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles uncovered and the defenders counterattacked. Another effort on 26 January made some progress and the Italians retired during the night. On 28 January, the Indians attacked another blocking position and forced the Italians back to a position 6 miles (9.7 km) from Barentu, where the defenders resisted for three days.

Brigadier W. J. Slim’s Indian 10th Brigade, advancing to he south from Agordat, found that rock and huge boulders on the slopes above the road had been dynamited to block the road. The defenders fought another determined rearguard action as the Indian engineers cleared the obstructions. On 31 January, the 1/Worcestershire Regiment captured rises to the west despite stifling heat, thirst, crumbly soil and the need to move through thorn bushes which tore clothing and slashed skin. The Italians were forced out of two defensive lines but had prepared for this and surveyed their positions to bring down mortar and machine gun fire on their attackers, forcing back the 1/Worcestershire Regiment and nearby Indian troops. A Sudan Defence Force machine gun company found a track and was able to outflank the defenders and attack from the east. As news spread of the fall of Agordat, the garrison withdrew to the north along tracks toward Adi Ugri and along the road linking Adua and Asmara on the night of 1/2 February leaving behind the equivalent of about two battalions of men to be taken prisoner, along with their guns and several medium and light tanks. The first British and Indian troops into Barentu found hot food in the Italian field kitchens. The retreat of the remnants of the 2a Divisione coloniale was pursued by the 2nd Motor Machine Gun Group, and by 8 February the Italians had abandoned their vehicles and dispersed into the hills.[16]

In two weeks the British had advanced 130 miles (210 km), fought four actions, taken 6,000 prisoners, 80 pieces of artillery, 26 tanks and 400 trucks. A message from the Duca d’Aosta was found in which ordered Agordat and Barentu to be defended to the last man as the terrain would nullify British superiority in tanks and wheeled vehicles. Instead, the defenders had retreated, and the British realised that the rest of the Italian forces in Eritrea was still well-equipped when 300 rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and hand grenades were recovered. The Italian and colonial defenders of Agordat had fought a determined defence but Lorenzini had kept the XLII Brigata coloniale to the south of the Baraka (Barka) river and neglected the opportunity to send it to counterattack around the attackers' northern flank.

The British forces had been forced to stop their pursuit on the Barka river, where the only bridge had been blown and land mines laid in the river bed. The Italian retreats had been fairly well organised and though the British followed up as swiftly as possible, they lacked mobility; air support from the RAF was limited by the distance of their airfields from the front line. The airfields of the Regia Aeronautica at Sabderat and Tessenei were taken over as soon as possible and air attacks made on Italian marching columns, the railway and the remaining Italian airfields in Eritrea. From the middle of January to the middle of February, the Regia Aeronautica lost 61 aircraft, 50 of them in combat or on the ground. After the delaying action at Agordat, the 4a Divisione coloniale had time to retreat along a path to the north, sowing mines and demolitions as it went. On 3 February, Wavell ordered Platt to capture Keren and Asmara.

During the battle of and retirement from Agordat, 1,500 to 2,000 Italian and local troops were taken prisoner. From Agordat and Barentu and in the retreat to Keren, Italian and colonial forces suffered casualties of 179 officers, 130 non-commissioned officers, and 1,230 Italian and 14,686 Askari other ranks for a total of 15,916 soldiers. The Italians also lost 96 pieces of artillery, 231 machine guns, 329 automatic rifles, 4,331 draught animals, 387 vehicles, 36 M11/39 medium tanks and L3 tankettes.