Operation Battle of Keren

The 'Battle of Keren' was fought between British and Italian forces for Keren in Italian-controlled Eritrea in the closing stages of 'Excursion' (3 February/27 March 1941).

The battle took place in the later stages of the 'Campaign for East Africa' as British and Indian forces, with a leavening of Free French troops, sought to compete their extinction of the Italian forces in Ethiopia and other parts of the Italian empire in East Africa. Keren is the key to any overland advance on Asmara, the capital and port city of Eritrea, and was held by a force of Italian regular and colonial troops against the advance of the British forces mostly from India and Sudan. The town of Keren was thus of tactical importance to each side. The road and railway through Keren were the main routes to the colonial capital of Eritrea at Asmara and the Red Sea port of Massawa, which surrendered to the British after the battle.

Becoming an Italian colony in 1885, Eritrea was used as a staging area for the Italian invasions of the Ethiopian empire in the 1st and 2nd Italo-Abyssinian Wars. The second of these invasions began in 1935 and Ethiopia fell in 1936. Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland and Eritrea were then combined to form Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa) within the Italian empire. Following the Italian declaration of war on France and the UK on 10 June 1940, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered his troops to take British Somaliland and border towns in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and British Kenya.

Eritrea is characterised by climate zones. The coastal region is a sandy plain with low scrub and extends inland for some 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 km) in the east with elevations of up to 1,540 ft (500 m), hot and humid for most of the year, with June, September and October the hottest months. At Massawa the average temperature is 31° C (88° F) and in summer can reach 49° C (120° F) in the shade. Most rain falls in the summer monsoon, with occasional showers in the winter. In the escarpments and valleys, the climate is temperate with only summer monsoon rains, except close to the coast, where there is some winter rain.

Toward the high plateau, the elevation rises steeply to 6,000 ft (1830 m) with some peaks rising to 10,000 ft (3050 m) and the ground declining to the west. The region is cooler, with the monsoon from June to September and light rain in April and May. The temperature is highest during the dry season from November to April and above 8,500 ft (2590 m), but sub-alpine temperatures are found in some places. The high ground continues into northern Ethiopia, where the mountains and ravines make ideal defensive terrain.

The British responded to the Italian presence and ambitions in East Africa by building up a force of more than two divisions in Sudan and three in Kenya by a time early in February 1941. The Sudan-based forces, commanded by Lieutenant General W. Platt under the overall control of General Sir Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of the British Middle East Command, had invaded Eritrea through Kassala on 18 January and by 1 February had captured Agordat about 100 miles (160 km) farther to the east.

The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan shared a 1,000-mile (1600-km) border with Africa Orientale Italiana, and on 4 July 1940 had been invaded by an Italian force of about 6,500 men from Eritrea. This force advanced on the railway junction at Kassala and forced the 320-man British garrison of the Sudan Defence Force and some local police to retire, after inflicting casualties of 43 men killed and 114 wounded for 10 casualties. The Italians also drove a platoon of No. 3 Company, Eastern Arab Corps of the Sudan Defence Force from the small fort at Gallabat, just over the border from Metemma, about 200 miles (320 km) to the south of Kassala and took the villages of Qaysān, Kurmuk and Dumbode on the Blue Nile river. From there the Italians ventured no farther into Sudan for lack of fuel. They proceeded to fortify Kassala with anti-tank defences, machine gun positions and strongpoints, later establishing a brigade-strong garrison. The Italians were disappointed to find no strong anti-British sentiment among the local population.

Keren was not fortified but is surrounded on most sides by a jumble of steep granite mountains and sharp ridges which gave the Italian defending forces, who held the high ground, a major tactical advantage. Control of the mountains provided the Italian artillery with perfect observation of an attack. The narrow Dongolaas gorge, through which the road and railway from Agordat to Keren passed, was dominated on its south-eastern side by Mt Zeban and Mt Falestoh, on which stood the imposing defences of Fort Dologorodoc. The other side of the gorge was commanded by Mt Sanchil with a saddle of secondary summits, which came to be called Brig’s Peak, Hog’s Back and Flat Top, stretching to the north-west in the direction of Mt Sammana. In front of the Sanchil feature on its south-western side was a secondary ridge, feature 1616, which became known as Cameron Ridge, overlooking the Ascidera river valley and the railway line.

Major General L. M. Heath’s Indian 5th Division began to arrive in Sudan at a time early in September 1940, and its Indian 29th Brigade, under the command of Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott, was deployed on the Red Sea coast to protect Port Sudan, its Indian 9th Brigade, under the command of Brigadier A. S. O. M. Mayne, to the south-west of Kassala and its Indian 10th Brigade, under the command of Brigadier W. J. Slim, to Gedaref with the divisional headquarters, to block any Italian attempt to advance on Khartoum from Goz Regeb via Gallabat, on a front of 200 miles (320 km). Colonel F. W. Messervy’s 'Gazelle' Force was formed on 16 October as a mobile unit to raid Italian territory and delay any Italian advance. Late on 30 January, 'Gazelle' Force was ordered to make pursuit of the Italians retreating along the road to Keren.

As the British forces approached Keren, Generale di Brigata Nicolangelo Carnimeo, commander of the 2a Divisione Indigini and the 10o Comando di Difesa Territoriale, drew in Generale di Brigata Angelo Bergonzi’s 5a Brigata coloniale and the 44a Brigata coloniale from positions to the north. The 42a Brigata had reached Keren from Agordat almost intact, and the 2a Brigata, which had suffered heavy losses in earlier fighting, was re-forming. The 11o Reggimento and the Battaglione alpino 'Uork Amba' of the 10o Reggimento 'Granatieri di Savoia' had just arrived after a gruelling three-day truck journey from Addis Ababa, while Colonello Francesco Prina’s 11a Brigata coloniale was also in place, having previously been called from reserve in Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, the 6a Brigata coloniale relinquished its responsibilities at Metemma and was also making its way to Keren.

At 08.00 on 1 February, 'Gazelle' Force was checked as it attempted to cross the Baraka river about 37 miles (60 km) from Keren, where the Ponte Mussolini had been blown and the approaches to the river mined. By 12.00 on 2 February, 'Gazelle' Force was across the river and moving up the Ascidera river valley until brought to a halt at the Dongolaas gorge, about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Keren, where the Italians had blocked the road by blowing down the overhanging crags to fill the gorge with boulders and rocks.

The Indian 11th Brigade of the Indian 4th Division arrived on 3 February, reconnoitred the next day and attacked on the left of the gorge on 5 February. The 2/Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders fought their way to the top of the ridge called feature 1616, in front of Sanchil and on the night of 6/7 February, the 3/14th Punjab Regiment passed through and advanced onto Brig’s Peak. The Indians were counterattacked by elements of Generale di Divisione Amedeo Liberati’s 65a Divisione fanteria 'Granatieri di Savoia', which forced them back toward Cameron Ridge, where the British position was being consolidated by the 1/6th Rajputana Rifles. The ridge was overlooked in front by Sanchil, to the left by Mt Sammana and from behind by other mountains along the flanks of the Ascidera river valley. The Cameron Highlanders and Rajputana Rifles held, despite frequent attacks and having to carry food, water and ammunition uphill for some 1,600 ft (490 m) without any cover.

By 6 February, the Indian 5th Brigade of the Indian 4th Division had arrived and on the following day attacked the Dologorodoc feature on the east of the gorge, looping right through the Scescilembi valley, soon to be known as Happy Valley, and then attacking from the south-east toward the Acqua col joining Mt Zelele and Mt Falestoh. On the night of 7 February, a company of the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles took the col and held it to 04.30, it ran out of ammunition and was driven back to a lower feature. On 8 February, having spent most of the day under heavy artillery and mortar fire, the company withdrew to its start line.

On the afternoon of 10 February, the 3/1st Punjab Regiment attacked Brig’s Peak and by the morning of 11 February was on top of Sanchil. The need for men to handle and carry supplies, ammunition and wounded meant there were only two platoons to hold the feature. After enduring heavy artillery and mortar fire throughout the day, the pir of platoons was forced off Sanchil and Brig’s Peak with heavy casualties by a determined counterattack from the Granatieri di Savoia. Once again the attackers were thrown onto desperate defence on Cameron Ridge. Despite the failure by the Punjabis to hold the important observation posts on Sanchil, the renewed attack on the Acqua col, planned for 12 February, went ahead. The Inoan 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division was brought up from Barentu and put under Beresford-Peirse’s command and held in readiness to exploit a breakthrough. At 05.30, supported by an intensive artillery barrage, the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles once again led the way. The 4/11th Sikh Regiment were pushing up around the side of the Acqua col, but the attack could not be carried through as it lacked the extra impact that might have come from the 2/5th Mahratta Light Infantry, which had been diverted to reinforce the hard-pressed defences on Cameron Ridge.

At this point in the battle, Platt decided to pause, regroup and train before making any further attempt at Keren. To release road transport to bring forward the supplies required for a fresh attack, the Indian 5th Division returned to Kessala, where it could be maintained by the railhead for a period of intensive training until the necessary preparations had been completed and the division could be brought forward once again for the offensive. Skinners Horse and most of the Motor Machine Gun companies assembled in front of Arressa and Adi Ugri to pose a threat to the Italian line of reinforcement to Keren. From the north came, Brigadier H. R. Briggs’s 'Briggs' Force, comprising two battalions of Briggs’s own Indian 7th Brigade of the Indian 4th Indian and two Free French battalions if Colonel Ralph Monclar’s Brigade d’Orient. After crossing the border into Eritrea on the Red Sea coast, 'Briggs' Force had captured Karora and then moved to the south to take Kubkub. At a time late in February, the 3ème Bataillon de Marche des Tirailleurs Sénégalais captured Kubkub, becoming the first French unit to engage in combat against Axis forces since the Fall of France in June 1940. On 1 March, 'Briggs' Force had broken through the Mescelit pass some 15 miles (24 km) to the north-east of Keren, and now provided a third potential direction of attack against the defenders of Keren and constitute a threat to Massawa on the coast, pinning valuable reserves there.

The scene was set for a set-piece battle with Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division concentrated on the Sanchil side of the gorge and Heath’s Indian 5th Division brought forward from Kessala once again, on the Happy Valley side. The Keren defences had been reinforced by the arrival of 6a Brigata coloniale from Metemma and also the 11o Battaglione 'Camicie Nere' of the Granatieri di Savoia. The defenders now totalled 25,000 men facing an attacking force which had grown to more than 13,000 men. Beresford-Pierce would launch the Indian 11th Brigade, expanded to five battalions, against the peaks of the Sanchil massif and the Indian 5th Brigade against Mt Sammana on the left of his front. On the Indian 5th Division’s front, the Italian reinforcements on Dologorodoc meant Happy Valley was dominated by the defenders and the attackers' artillery had had to be withdrawn from their forward positions in the valley to safer locations.

Without significant artillery strength, the British no longer considered it feasible to continue the flanking attack through Acqua col to threaten the Dologorodoc lines of supply. Instead, Heath determined that Fort Dologorodoc would be the key objective for his Indian 5th Division. Taking the fort would not only give the attacking forces the artillery observation post to direct fire on both sides of the gorge but would also expose the reverse slopes of the Dologorodoc massif, which had been immune to his artillery fire and was thus a defenders' haven for supplies and reserves, to direct fire from the fort. The two parts of the attack were planned to take place one after the other on 15 March so that the force’s full artillery strength could be employed for the preliminary bombardment of each of the attacks.

At 07.00 on 15 March, the men of Indian 4th Division attacked from Cameron Ridge toward Sanchil, Brig’s Peak, Hog’s Back and the three peaks of Mt Sammana. That night, the battle ebbed and flowed with attack and counterattack resulting in very heavy casualties on each side. On the right, the Indian 5th Division launched its attack on the Dologorodoc feature at 10.30 on 15 March. The 2/Highland Light Infantry led the attack on the lower features ('Pimple' and 'Pinnacle') but made no progress in daylight as a result of fire from the overlooking Sanchil peak, where the Italian defenders had defeated the Indian 11th Brigade’s attack. The highlanders were pinned down, suffering casualties and without supply until darkness provided the opportunity to withdraw. By moonlight that evening, the attack on Dologorodoc was assumed by the Indian 9th Brigade, now commanded by the recently promoted Messervy. Heath and Messervy had planned a near two-battalion attack on 'Pimple' and 'Pinnacle', with a third battalion ready to pass through and attack the fort. The capture of 'Pinnacle' that night by the 3/5th Mahratta Light Infantry with the 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment less two companies under command to take 'Pimple', was 'one of the outstanding small actions of World War II, decisive in its results and formidable in its achievement…Next morning Messervy scrambled up Pinnacle to congratulate [Lieutenant Colonel D. W.] Reid and his Mahrattas and wondered how they had been able to scramble up with their equipment against fierce opposition, when he was finding it a pretty tough job without [either].'

In the early hours of 16 March, the defenders of Fort Dologorodoc counterattacked 'Pinnacle' and 'Pimple' for several hours. The defences at the fort were depleted and, during the counterattack, the 2/West Yorkshire Regiment made its way over a seemingly impossible knife-edge to surprise the remaining Italian defenders. By 06.3- the fort had been taken after a determined defence, and yielded 40 prisoners.

Finally, Platt’s forces had the artillery observation point they so greatly needed.

Throughout 16 March, the Italians counterattacked while the Indian 29th Brigade made an unsuccessful attack in the evening toward Falestoh and Zeban: the attack was abandoned after dark on 17 March after a day in which the attackers had been cruelly exposed to blistering heat, fierce fighting and no supply. For the next 10 days, the Indian 5th Division’s position at Fort Dologorodoc, which was exposed to the Italians on three sides, was subject to intense fighting as the Italians committed ever larger numbers of fresh units but failed to regain the position.

On the Sanchil feature, the Indian 4th Division, with the Indian 10th Brigade under command, continued to batter away to no avail. On the night of 17/18 March, after suffering many casualties, the division withdrew from the slopes of Sanchil and Brig’s Peak and the Indian 10th Brigade was restored to the Indian 5th Division to be re-formed. The Indian 4th Division continued to hold Hog’s Back and Flat Top. Over the next three days, the Italian forces continued to counterattack on both sides of the gorge and there was desperate, often hand-to-hand, fighting.

At this juncture, Platt decided to regroup and concentrate his forces before attacking again. He disbanded 'Gazelle' Force (Messervy taking over command of the Indian 9th Brigade) and brought the Indian 5th Division, which had been mopping up at Agordat, to the front. On 1 March his command was expanded by the arrival of 'Briggs' Force from the north. Although it lacked the artillery for a major set-piece attack, the arrival of 'Briggs' Force served to draw off a significant part of the Keren garrison. This aided Platt’s main offensive, which was being launched from the south-west. 'Briggs' Force also menaced Massawa to the east, obliging the Italians to maintain a reserve on the coast.

Platt and his subordinate commanders decided that the decisive attack should be made through the Dongolaas gorge: Heath was of the opinion that, because of its physical advantages for the defence, the Italians might have neglected the need for a manned defence. On the nights of 16/17 and 17/18 March, infantry-escorted engineers undertook a reconnaissance of the roadblock and attempted to make a start to clear it. This failed because of fire from the Italian lines. The information led Heath to decide that the key to the gorge was not Sanchil but two smaller features, the 'Railway Bumps'. which overlooked the roadblock and could be approached, with much less opposition, along the railway line from the tunnel below Cameron Ridge.

An attack on the defenders at the head of the gorge was planned as a means of providing the sappers and miners the 48 hours they needed, free of mortar and machine gun fire, to clear the road. Heath had to wait until the Indian 10th Brigade had refitted after its mauling on the Sanchil feature. The plan was for this brigade to advance into the gorge while the Indian 9th Brigade, which was holding the Fort Dologorodoc positions, moved down to take three smaller hills overlooking the far end of the gorge. The Indian 29th Brigade would then attack to take Mt Zeban and Mt Canabai, beyond it to the east, which looked down on Keren and guarded the road to Asmara. Brigadier T. W. Rees was appointed to command the Indian 10th Brigade and his temporary predecessor, Lieutenant Colonel B. C. Fletcher, was thereby released to form 'Fletcher' Force, a mobile unit comprising the Central India Horse and six Matilda II infantry tanks, which would be used to exploit the breakthrough in the gorge and move rapidly into the defenders' rear position to attack their reserves.

On 24 March, diversionary attacks were made on Sanchil, and just before 00.00 the West Yorkshires and the 3/5th Mahrattas in Fort Dologorodoc moved down to take the lower hills overlooking the gorge. The West Yorkshires were able to take their hill unopposed but the Mahrattas met dug-in Italian opposition. By 07.30 the three hills had been taken and the defences on the south-eastern side of the gorge silenced.

At 03.00 on 25 March, the 2/Highland Light Infantry on the left and the 4/10th Baluch Regiment on the right advanced from the shelter of the railway tunnel, previously cleared by the sappers and miners, up the gorge. A bombardment by some 100 pieces of artillery was deluging down on the ridge on Sanchil above to suppress any defensive fire from this dominating height, and the attack in the gorge achieved surprise as the Italian defenders were concentrating on Sanchil. The 3/2nd Punjab Regiment then advanced between the Baluchis and the West Yorkshires to clear the gorge. By 05.30, the railway bumps and most of the objectives had been taken, and the defenders no longer held positions from which to direct fire into the gorge below.

The sappers and miners worked on the road while the battles on the Sanchil and Dologorodoc features continued and, by 12.00 on 26 March, had repaired the road through the gorge. In the early hours of 27 March, the British artillery turned onto Zeban and Falstoh. The Indian 29th Brigade passed through the Indian 9th Brigade to attack at 04.30 but found the defenders had withdrawn and the brigade was therefore able to occupy the Falestoh ridge and the two Zeban summits unopposed. The Italian position was now untenable, and by first light the Royal Air Force was reporting that the Italians were withdrawing along the road from Keren to Asmara. The defenders on the Sanchil ridge were less fortunate and the Granatieri di Savoia and Bersaglieri were cut off and left with no option but surrender. 'Fletcher' Force had entered Keren by 10.30 and was then sent in pursuit along the road to Asmara.

From 27 March the route to Asmara and Massawa was open, and Wavell was able to order the Indian 4th Division move to Port Sudan for transport back to Egypt. On 11 April, the US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, rescinded the status of the Red Sea as a combat zone under the Neutrality Acts, freeing US merchant ships to use the route to carry supplies to the Middle East.

There is some dispute about casualty figures, but the British-led forces suffered somewhere in the region of 536 men killed and 3,229 men wounded, while the Italians lost approximately 3,000 men killed and 4,500 wounded or taken ill, together with about 9,000 Askari local troops killed and nearly 20,000 more wounded giving totals of 12,147 men killed and 21,700 wounded.

Contrammiraglio Mario Bonetti, commander of Italian flotilla in the Red Sea, and the garrison at Massawa had 10,000 troops and about 100 tanks with which to defend the port. During the evening of 31 March, three of the last six destroyers at Massawa put to sea, to raid the Gulf of Suez and then scuttle themselves, but Leone ran aground and sank the next morning and the sortie was cancelled. On 2 April the last five destroyers left to attack Port Sudan and then sink themselves. Heath telephoned Bonetti with an ultimatum to surrender and not block the harbour by scuttling ships. If this was refused, Heath warned, the British would leave Italian citizens in Eritrea and Ethiopia to fend for themselves. Briggs’s Indian 7th Brigade Group sent small forces toward Adowa and Adigrat and the rest advanced down the Massawa road, which declined by some 7,000 ft (2135 m) in 50 miles (80 km) and the Indian troops had linked with 'Briggs' Force, which had cut across country, at Massawa by 5 April.

As 'Atmosphere' got under way, Bonetti was called upon to surrender but refused again and on 8 April, an attack by the Indian 7th Brigade Group was repulsed. A simultaneous attack by the Indian 10th Brigade and the tanks of B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment broke through the defences on their western side. The Free French overran the defences in the south-west, taking Montecullo and Fort Umberto on April 7 as RAF bombers attacked the Italian artillery positions. Monclar of the 13ème Demi-Brigade de Légion Étrangère captured the Italian naval headquarters and accepted Bonetti’s surrender, taking 9,590 prisoners and 127 pieces of artillery. The harbour was found to have been blocked by the scuttling of two large floating dry docks, 16 large ships and a floating crane in the mouths of the northern naval harbour, the central commercial harbour and the main southern harbour. The Italians had also dumped into the sea as much of their equipment as they could manage. The British reopened the railway linking Massawa and Asmara on 27 April, and by 1 May the port had been brought back into service to supply the Indian 5th Division. The Italian surrender ended organised resistance in Eritrea and fulfilled the strategic objective of ending the threat to shipping in the Red Sea.