Operation Excursion

'Excursion' was the British offensive into Italian Eritrea from Kassala on the eastern frontier of Sudan (19 January/1 April 1941).

After Italy’s entry into the war on 10 June 1940, Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, had ordered the Italian forces in East Africa to take the offensive, which resulted in the Italian capture of British Somaliland to the north-east and border towns in Sudan and Kenya to the west and south.

By the end of December 1940, the Italian dispositions in the vital areas of East Africa were spread wide. In Eritrea was Generale di Corpo d’Armata Luigi Frusci’s Armata di Eritrea with three colonial divisions, three colonial brigades, and garrison and other troops. At Gallabat and Metemma were three colonial brigades, and in and to the north of Gondar five 'Camicie Nere' battalions as well as numerous bande of local troops. In Gojjam, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi had four colonial brigades (23 battalions) and several bande. In Shoa, around Addis Ababa, were Generale di Divisione Giovanni Varda’s 40a Divisione 'Cacciatori d’Africa' and Generale di Brigata Amedeo Liberati’s 65a Divisione 'Granatieri di Savoia' which, with other units, totalled 12 Italian and 'Camicie Nere' battalions as well as 12 colonial battalions. Two more colonial brigades were in reserve at Harar. The 10 colonial brigades, and 'Blackshirts' and bande in the southern and Juba sectors, were regarded as a necessary minimum and for that reason could not be redeployed.

As the British developed their plans and capabilities for the conquest of Eritrea, there was a not inconsiderable quantity of naval activity, especially with regard to the activities of Ammiraglio di Squadra Carlo Balsamo di Specchia Normandia’s Italian Flotta del Mar Rosso (Red Sea Fleet) 1. This had its primary base at Massawa in Eritrea, with other bases at Assab also in Eritrea and Kismayu in the south of Italian Somaliland, and was active against the Royal Navy, in the form of Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton’s Eastern Fleet, from the time of Italy’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940 and the fall of Massawa on 8 April 1941.

The squadron’s location meant that it was wholly isolated from the main Italian bases in the Mediterranean by distance and also the British presence in Egypt, and especially its control of the Suez Canal. This meant that men and supplies had either to be flown into the theatre from Libya, or make the long passage to the western end of the Mediterranean, which the British controlled, and then right round the south of the African continent.

The Flotta del Mar Rosso was generally not used aggressively by the Italians, but the British nonetheless saw it as a potential threat to Allied convoys making passage in the area of the Red Sea and Horn of Africa between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. This was a critical resupply route for the British forces in Egypt, and the Flotta del Mar Rosso was in theory ideally positioned for attacks on convoys headed between the Gulf of Aden via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, forcing Allied ships to take a much longer passage around the Cape of Good Hope.

Several Italian attempts were made from Massawa after Italy’s entry into the war to take offensive action against the British warships and Allied convoys. Some of the earliest failed when submarines' air-conditioning systems, intended to reduce temperatures in the warm waters of the Red Sea, revealed themselves to be dangerous under wartime operating conditions. The problem was leakage of refrigerants, which led to poisoning of the central nervous system as contaminated air was recirculated during submerged operations, and about 12 men died aboard Archimede.

Galileo Ferraris, Galileo Galilei, Macallè and Luigi Galvani moved out to attack British shipping on 15 June, the first toward Djibouti, the second toward Aden, the third toward Port Sudan, and the fourth toward the Gulf of Oman. On 14 June Evangelista Torricelli relieved Galileo Ferraris, which was suffering from mechanical problems. Macallè ran onto a shoal on 15 June and was lost. Galileo Galilei sank the 8,215-ton Norwegian freighter James Stove off Djibouti on 16 June before the arrival of British vessels forced the submarine to depart the area, but was forced to surrender on 19 June after becoming engaged in a gun battle with the British anti-submarine trawler Moonstone, and was taken to Aden.

Evangelista Torricelli was spotted on 23 June while approaching Massawa and there followed an intensive search involving four warships (the destroyers Kandahar, Khartoum and Kingston, and the sloop Shoreham) and aircraft from Aden. After fierce resistance in a surface action, during which Khartoum was damaged beyond repair by a magazine explosion and the sloop Shoreham was also damaged, Evangelista Torricelli was sunk off Perim.

Luigi Galvani sank the Indian patrol vessel Pathan at the same time that her sisters were fighting and was herself sunk on off the Persian Gulf on 23 June by Falmouth, which had been positioned for this task on the basis of documents captured in Galileo Galilei.

Archimede, Perla and Guglielmotti sortied between 19 and 21 June, the last running aground on 26 June but being salvaged despite the severity of the damage suffered.

On 13 August Galileo Ferraris tried to intercept the British battleship Royal Sovereign in the Red Sea as she steamed south from Suez, but the battleship escaped the Italian ambush and reached Aden safely.

During the night of 5/6 September the destroyers Cesare Battisti, Nazario Sauro and Daniele Manin sortied from Massawa, followed on the next night by the destroyers Tigre and Leone, to intercept a convoy bound from Aden to Suez and reported by Italian air reconnaissance. The surface ships failed to find the convoy and returned to Massawa. Deployed farther to the north, the submarines Guglielmotti and Galileo Ferraris also fail to locate the convoy, but on 6 September Guglielmotti torpedoed and sank the 4,008-ton Greek tanker Atlas, in the area to the south of the Farasan islands.

On 19/21 September the destroyers Leone, Pantera, Cesare Battisti and Daniele Manin, supported by the submarines Archimede and Guglielmotti, sortied to intercept a convoy of 23 ships reported by air reconnaissance, but failed to find it. However, the 5,280-ton British Bhima was attacked by Italian aircraft and, damaged by near misses, had to be run aground.

On 20/21 October there was an unsuccessful attempt by the destroyers Pantera, Leone, Nazario Sauro and Francesco Nullo to intercept and attack the British BN.7 convoy of 32 merchant ships, escorted by the light cruiser Leander, destroyer Kimberley, sloops Auckland, Indus and Yarra, and minesweepers Derby and Huntley) in the Red Sea. The destroyers were driven off by the escort, and, following the engagement, Francesco Nullo had to be beached near Massawa. On the other side, Kimberley was hit by Italian the fire of Italian coastal batteries and had to be towed to Port Sudan. The beached Francesco Nullo was destroyed on 21 October by three Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers of No. 45 Squadron. The submarines Galileo Ferraris and Guglielmotti, which were stationed farther to the north, failed to assist.

As the Italian fuel supplies in Massawa dwindled, so did the offensive capability of the Flotta del Mar Rosso. Ultimately, the flotilla’s remaining vessels could leave port only rarely.

There were nonetheless several other attempts by Italian destroyers and submarines to locate and attack British convoys, but none of these managed to locate possible prey or, if they did, to get among the merchant ships in the face of their escorting British warships.

With the fall of Eritrea now imminent, on 23 March the 8,516-ton German merchant ship Oder and 6,366-ton Italian India departed Massawa. The former was located by the British sloop Shoreham in the Strait of Perim and scuttled by her crew, and the latter then put in to Assab. In another attempt, the 4,188-ton German Bertram Rickmers departed Massawa on 29 March but had to be scuttled on 1 April after being intercepted by the destroyer Kandahar. Other ships tried to escape, these including Piave, which set out on 30 March and also reached Assab, and Lichtenfels, which put to sea on 1 April but had to turn back.

Late in March 1941, the three large destroyers Leone, Pantera and Tigre were to attempt a night attack on Suez, but Leone ran aground off Massawa and had to be sunk by gunfire on 1 April. The delay caused the operation’s cancellation.

The two remaining ships joined three smaller destroyers (Cesare Battisti, Daniele Manin and Nazario Sauro), on a final raid against Port Sudan early in April. However, engine problems kept Cesare Battisti in port, where the ship was subsequently scuttled to prevent capture by the British. The other Italian ships were spotted from the air and came under attack from land-based and carrierborne aircraft. Pantera and Tigre were both scuttled on the Arabian coast during 3 April, and Daniele Manin and Nazario Sauro were sunk by Fairey Swordfish single-engined biplane torpedo-bombers on the same day.

The 3,667-ton armed merchant cruisers Ramb I and Ramb II and the colonial sloop Eritrea were ordered to escape and reach Japan. Ramb II and Eritrea reached Kobe, but Ramb I was intercepted and sunk by Leander. The four Italian submarines which had survived were now ordered to join the Italian submarine flotilla at Bordeaux in the south-western part of German-occupied France, a task on which they all succeeded despite British attempts to intercept them: the boats reached Bordeaux between 6 and 20 May.

All the motor torpedo boats were lost as a result of mechanical problems, but before this MAS-213 had made a successful torpedo attack on the light cruiser Capetown, causing severe damage. This boat was later scuttled.

On 8 April 1941, Massawa fell to the British and the Flotta del Mar Rosso ceased to exist for all practical purposes. Few of its vessels survived the East African campaign, but one which did was the hospital ship Aquileia, which was taken into British service.

Lieutenant General W. Platt’s attack from Sudan to take Eritrea could begin only after reinforcements had arrived from Egypt, but until this could happen Platt committed his forces to small-scale harrying raids on the Italian positions. The arrival of an Australian division in Egypt allowed General Sir Archibald Wavell, heading the Middle East Command, to release Major General N. de la P. Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division from 'Compass' in the Western Desert. The arrival of this formation, together with intelligence concerning the Italian plans, greatly aided the development of the plan for the offensive of the British and commonwealth forces.

The main British attack on Eritrea, originally scheduled to start on 8 February with an attack on the railway junction at Kassala, was brought forward to 18 January, but the aggressive skirmishing in the previous month had prompted the Italians to withdraw from Kassala and Tessenei on 17 January, and to concentrate their forces in the triangle bounded by Keru, Biscia and Aicota, where the mountains begin. On 19 January the Indian 4th Division and Major General L. M. Heath’s Indian 5th Division entered Kassala and headed for the heavily fortified town of Agordat to the east. On that first day, as the British and commonwealth troops passed through Kassala, the Italians were already dug in among the jagged foothills of the Eritrean plateau on the approaches to Agordat, although the Indian 4th Division cut off Generale di Brigata Ugo Fongoli’s 41a Brigata coloniale while the Italians were still on the lowlands; the brigade lost 700 men and its commander was taken prisoner before they reached the brigade’s defensive position in the rugged foothill.

As the Indian divisions crossed the Eritrean border in the west, Brigadier H. R. Briggs’s 'Briggs' Force, which was operating independently from the main force and under Platt’s direct command, advanced to the east from Sudan and entered Eritrea from the north through the border town of Karora. 'Briggs' Force comprised two battalions from Briggs’s own Indian 7th Brigade of the Indian 4th Division, and two battalions of Colonel Charles Raoul Magrin-Vernerey’s (otherwise Monclar’s) Free French Brigade d’Orient (single French and Senegalese battalions). After taking the Italian positions near Karora, 'Briggs' Force fought its way to the northern defences of Keren and linked with the main force in March.

Moving to the east from Kassala toward Agordat, the Indian 4th Division took the northern road via Keru and the Indian 5th Division the southern road via Barentu. Within nine days, the forces of Beresford-Peirse and Heath had advanced 100 miles (160 km) and broken through the Italian positions in the foothills to capture Agordat on 1 February. On 21 January, during the advance of the Indian 5th Division, Brigadier W. J. Slim was wounded by aerial strafing, and temporarily replaced in command of the division’s Indian 10th Brigade by Lieutenant Colonel B. C. Fletcher until March, when Brigadier T. W. Rees took over.

On 31 January, the Italian garrison at Metemma in northern Ethiopia, having been under increasing pressure for three weeks and realising that Platt’s main thrust would not be coming from the Gallabat direction, withdrew toward Gondar. This allowed Brigadier M. Mayne’s Indian 9th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division to occupy Metemma. Mayne despatched units along the road in the direction of Wahni to harry the retreating Italian forces fighting lively engagements 20 miles (32 km) and 45 miles (72 km) east of Metemma. Progress on the road was difficult because of the thickly laid minefields.

By 31 January Maresciallo dell’Aria Amedeo, Duca d’Aosta, the viceroy and governor general of Italian East Africa, had reported that the Italian military forces in East Africa were down to 67 operational aircraft with only the most limited supplies of fuel.

The decisive confrontation on the northern front of the East African campaign then took place at Keren, some 60 miles (100 km) to the east of Agordat in Eritrea. While Frusci was in overall command of the Italian forces in Eritrea, the Italians at Keren were led by Generale di Divisione Nicolangelo Carnimeo, commander of the 2a Divisione coloniale 2.

By a time early in February 1941 the British response had built up a force of something more than two divisions based on Sudan and three on Kenya. On 12 January the Duca d’Aosta sent elements of the 65a Divisione from northern Abyssinia to organise the defence of Keren, the key terrain position between Kassala and Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, where Frusci, who was also the governor, had three colonial divisions, three colonial brigades and a miscellany of other forces including garrison and service troops. Platt’s British forces in Sudan, under the overall command of Wavell’s Middle East Command, launched an offensive into Eritrea through Kassala on 18 January, and by 1 February had advanced via Keru to take Agordat, some 100 miles (160 km) to the east of the point at which they had entered Eritrea.

Late on 30 January 'Gazelle' Force, a mobile reconnaissance and fighting force of the Indian 4th Division under the command of Colonel F. W. Messervy, was ordered to pursue the Italian forces retreating toward Keren. Though bereft of man-made defensive features, Keren is surrounded on most sides by a jumble of steep granite mountains and sharp ridges, and this gave the Italian defence on the high ground a distinct tactical advantage, including excellent artillery observation positions. The road and railway line linking Agordat and Keren passed through the narrow Dongolaas Gorge, dominated on its south-eastern side by the massif of 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 (soon known as Brig’s Peak, Hog’s Back and Flat Top) extending 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 valley and the railway line.

As the British forces approached Keren, Generale di Brigata Alfredo Baccari, commanding of the 1a Divisione coloniale, drew in his 5a Brigata coloniale and 44a Brigata coloniale from positions to the north. The 42a Brigata coloniale had reached Keren from Agordat almost intact and the 2a Brigata coloniale, which had suffered more heavily at Agordat, was re-forming. The 11a Reggimento of the 65a Divisione and the Alpini battalion of the 10a Reggimento had just arrived after a three-day truck journey from Addis Ababa while the 11a Brigata coloniale was also present after being called from reserve in Addis Ababa. Meanwhile the 6a Brigata coloniale had relinquished its responsibilities at Metemma and was also making its way to Keren.

At 08.00 on 1 February, 'Gazelle' Force was checked on the Baraka river some 40 miles (65 km) from Keren where the Ponte Mussolini had been blown and the approaches to the river heavily mined. By 12.00 on 2 February, however, 'Gazelle' Force had crossed the river and moved up the Ascidera valley until brought to a halt at the Dongolaas gorge, some 4 miles (6.5 km) from Keren, where the retreating Italians had blocked the road by blowing the overhanging crags to fill the gorge with boulders and rocks.

Brigadier A. Anderson’s Indian 11th Brigade of the Indian 4th Division arrived on 3 February and, after a reconnaissance on 4 February, attacked to the left of the gorge on 5 February. The 2/Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders fought their way to the top of the ridge, Feature 1616, in front of Sanchil and during the following night the 3/14th Punjab Regiment passed through the highlanders and advanced onto Brig’s Peak, but was then counterattacked by elements of the 65a Divisione, which drove it back from its newly taken positions back toward Cameron Ridge, currently being reinforced by the 1/6th Rajput Rifles. The ridge became a focus of fighting for the next 10 days. The ridge was overlooked in front by Sanchil, to the left by Mt Sammana and even from behind by other mountains along the Ascidera valley. The Cameron Highlanders and Rajputs just managed to hold their positions despite being under near constant attack and having to carry all food, water and ammunition up 1,500 ft (460 m) across exposed terrain.

By 6 February Brigadier W. L. Lloyd’s Indian 5th Brigade of the Indian 4th Division had arrived and, on the night of 7 February, attacked the Dologorodoc feature to the east of the gorge, looping right through the Scescilembi valley ('Happy Valley') and then thrusting from the south-east toward the ridge ('Acqua Col') connecting Mts Zelele and Falestoh. On this night a company of the 4/6th Rajput took the col and held it until 04.30, when its had exhausted its ammunition and was then driven back to the rest of the battalion on a lower feature. In turn, later on 8 February and having spent most of the day under heavy artillery and mortar fire, the Indian forces had to withdraw back to their starting positions. During the afternoon of 10 February the 3/1st Punjab attacked Brig’s Peak, and by the morning of 11 February had reached the top of Sanchil. However, the requirement for men to handle and carry supplies, ammunition and the wounded meant there were only two platoons available to hold this feature. After a torrid artillery and mortar bombardment throughout the day, the Punjabis were forced off Sanchil and Brig’s Peak with heavy casualties by a determined counterattack by elements of the 65a Divisione. Once again the attackers were thrown onto desperate defence on Cameron Ridge.

Despite the Punjabis' failure to hold the important observation posts on Sanchil, the renewed attack on Acqua Col, planned for 12 February, went ahead. Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott’s Indian 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division had been brought up from Barentu, to the south-west, and put under command of the Indian 4th Division in readiness for the exploitation of an anticipated breakthrough.

At 05.30, supported by an artillery barrage, the 4/6th Rajputs once again led the way, while the 4/11th Sikh Regiment was pushing up around the side of Acqua Col. But the attack failed for lack of sufficient strength, the 2/5th Mahratta Light Infantry having been diverted to reinforce the hard-pressed defences on Cameron Ridge.

At this stage Platt decided to pause, regroup and train before making any further attempt at Keren. In order to free road transport to bring forward the the supplies needed for the next attack, the Indian 5th Division returned to Kessala, where it could be maintained by the railhead for a period of intensive training until the preparations had been completed and the division could be brought forward once again. Skinner’s 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. 'Briggs' Force had arrived from the north.

After crossing the border into Eritrea on the Red Sea coast in north-western Eritrea, 'Briggs' Force had captured Karora and then moved to the south to take Kubkub. On 1 March the force had broken through the Mescelit pass some 15 miles (24 km) to the north-east of Keren. 'Briggs' Force now provided not only a third potential direction of attack to occupy the Italian defenders of Keren, but also created a threat to the port city of Massawa and thus pinned valuable Italian reserves there. Thus was set the scene 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 with the arrival of the 6a Brigata coloniale from Metemma and also the 11o Battaglione 'Camicie Nere' of the 65a Divisione. The defenders now totalled 25,000 men facing an attacking force which had grown to more than 13,000 men.

Beresford-Pierce planned to commit the Indian 11th Brigade, expanded to five battalions, against the peaks of the Sanchil mass and Indian 5th Brigade against Mt Sammana on the left of his front. On the 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 its forward positions in the valley to safer locations. Without the artillery it was no longer considered practical to continue the flanking attack through Acqua Col to threaten the Dologorodoc lines of supply.

Heath instead decided that Fort Dologorodoc would be the key objective for his Indian 5th Division. Gaining the fort would not only give the attacking forces the artillery observation post to direct fire on both sides of the gorge, but would expose the reverse slopes of the Dologorodoc mass, which had been immune to his artillery fire and thus been used by the defence for supplies and reserves, to direct fire from the fort. The two halves of the attack were to take place one after the other on 15 March so that the full force’s artillery could be employed for the preliminary bombardment.

At 07.00 on 15 March the Indian 4th Division attacked from Cameron Ridge in the direction of Sanchil, Brig’s Peak, Hog’s Back and the three peaks of Mt Sammana. Through the night of 15 March the battle ebbed and flowed, attack and counterattack resulting in heavy losses on each side.

Meanwhile, 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 was able to make no progress during the day because of fire from the overlooking Sanchil peak, where the Italian defenders had driven back the attack of the Indian 11th Brigade. The attackers were pinned down, taking casualties and without supply until darkness provided the opportunity to withdraw. By the light of that evening’s moon, the attack on Dologorodoc was assumed by the Indian 9th Brigade, now commanded by the recently promoted Brigadier Messervy. Heath and Messervy planned an attack with almost two battalions on Pimple and Pinnacle, with the third battalion ready to pass through and strike for the fort.

The capture of Pinnacle during that night by the 3/5th Mahratta, 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'.

In the early hours of 16 February the defenders of Fort Dologorodoc made a fierce counterattack on the Pinnacle and Pimple, and this lasted for several hours. Crucially, however, this left the defences at the fort weakened and while the Italian counterattack was taking place, the 2/West Yorkshire Regiment had made its way over a seemingly impossible knife-edge to surprise the fort’s defenders and capture the fort by 06.30 after a savage fight in which 400 Italian prisoners were take. Platt at last had the artillery observation point so greatly needed.

Throughout 16 March the Italians repeatedly counterattacked, while the Indian 29th Brigade made an unsuccessful attack in the evening to Falestoh and Zeban, which was abandoned after dark on 17 March after a day exposed to blistering heat, fierce fighting and no supply. For the next 10 days the Indian 5th Division’s position at Fort Dologorodoc, exposed to the Italians on three sides, was subject to intense fighting as the Italians threw in more new units in ultimately unsuccessful attempts to regain this key position.

Meanwhile on the Sanchil feature the Indian 4th Division, with the Indian 10th Brigade under command, continued to batter at the Italian positions without success. On the night of 17 March, having sustained heavy losses, the division withdrew from the slopes of Sanchil and Brig’s Peak and the damaged Indian 10th Brigade returned to the Indian 5th Division to re-form. The Indian 4th Division continued to hold Hog’s Back and Flat Top.

Over the next three days the Italian forces continued to make fierce counterattacks on both sides of the gorge in desperate, often hand-to-hand, combat. Platt and his subordinate commanders decided that the supreme attack should be made through the Dongolaas Gorge. Heath felt that because of its physical advantages for the defenders, the Italians might have been tempted to neglect their defences. During the nights of 16 and 17 March, sappers undertook a reconnaissance of the roadblock and attempted to make a start on its clearance. This failed because of fire from the Italian lines. However, the information gathered in this undertaking made it clear to Heath that the key to the gorge was not Sanchil but two smaller features (informally named 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 the means of giving the sappers the two interference-free days they needed to clear the road.

For this Heath would need his full division and had therefore to wait until the Indian 10th Brigade had refitted after its mauling on the Sanchil feature.

The plan was for the Indian 10th Brigade to advance into the gorge while the Indian 9th Brigade, currently holding the Fort Dologorodoc positions, moved down to take three smaller hills overlooking the far end of the gorge and the Indian 29th Brigade then attacked and took Mt Zeban and beyond it to the east Mt Canabai, which looked down on Keren and guarded the road to Asmara. It was at this stage that command of Indian 10th Brigade was assumed by Rees, one of Heath’s divisional staff officers, while his predecessor, Lieutenant Colonel B. C. Fletcher, was released to form 'Fletcher' Force, a mobile force comprising the Central India Horse and 12 Matilda II infantry tanks, which would be used to exploit the planned breakthrough in the gorge and move rapidly into the defenders' rear position and attack their reserves.

On 24 March diversionary attacks were made on Sanchil, and just before 24.00 the West York and the 3/5th Mahratta in Fort Dologorodoc moved down to take the lower hills overlooking the gorge. The West Yorks were able to take its hill unopposed, but the Mahrattas met heavy resistance from well dug-in defenders. However, by 07.30 all three hills had been taken and the defences of the gorge silenced on its south-eastern side.

At 03.00 on 25 March the 2nd Highland Light Infantry on the left and 4/10th Baluch Regiment on the right advanced up the gorge from the shelter of the railway tunnel, which had earlier been cleared by the sappers, up the gorge. Some 100 pieces of artillery were pouring a deluge of shells onto the ridge on Sanchil above it to suppress any defensive fire from this dominating height, and the attack in the gorge achieved complete surprise as the defence’s attention was focused on Sanchil. The 3/2nd Punjabis then advanced between the Baluchis and the West Yorks to clear the gorge. By 05.30 the railway bumps and most of the objectives had been captured and the defenders no longer held positions from which to direct fire into the gorge below.

The sappers laboured on the road while the battles on the Sanchil and Dologorodoc features continued, and by 12.00 on 26 March they had completed their task of remaking the road through the gorge.

In the early hours of 27 March the British artillery was redirected onto Zeban and Falstoh. The Indian 29th Brigade passed through the Indian 9th Brigade’s positions to launch its attack at 04.30, but found that the defenders had withdrawn and was therefore able to occupy Falestoh Ridge and the two Zeban summits without opposition.

The Italian position was now untenable, and by first light British aircraft were reporting the Italian retreat along the road from Keren to Asmara. The defenders on the Sanchil ridge were less fortunate and, now effectively cut off, the men of the 65a Divisione had to surrender.

'Fletcher' Force was in Keren by 10.30 and was then sent in pursuit along the Asmara road.

The several phases of the 'Battle of Keren' had cost the British-led forces 536 men killed and 3,229 wounded, while the Italians had lost about 3,000 men killed and 3,500 wounded, missing and captured.

Determined Italian troops retreated to Adi Tekelezan, but this position was considerably less tenable than Keren, and the Italian forces finally surrendered to the British forces on 1 April 1941.

Within a week of the Italian surrender at Adi Tekelezan, both Asmara and Massawa were surrendered despite orders from Mussolini to continue to fight.

The 'Battle of Keren' had been as hard a 'soldiers battle' as had ever been fought, and while the performance of all the Italian forces, including the colonial troops until the very last stages of the battle when they broke, was excellent, that of the 65a Divisione can be characterised only as superb. The battle was decisive in terms of the strategic objectives of the British and commonwealth forces, and while hard fighting lay ahead before the campaign’s end, the fall of Keren broke the resistance of the Italian forces and led to the almost immediate capture of Massawa on the coast. This made it possible for the British to use the Red Sea for ships bringing munitions and supplies to the North African theatre.

After the fall of Keren, the Indian 5th Division set off to the east in pursuit of the retreating Italians and toward the Eritrean capital of Asmara, some 50 miles (80 km) distant. This left the Indian 4th Division to mop up in Keren. After this, the Indian 4th Division returned to Egypt, leaving behind for a little time longer the units it had detached to 'Briggs' Force.

The retreating Italians fought minor skirmishes but attempted no major stand. On 1 April the Italians declared Asmara an open town. Three days later, after being resupplied along the lengthening road to the Kassala railway junction on the Sudanese border, the Indian 10th Brigade set off east again toward Massawa, some 50 miles (80 km) away, 7,000 feet (2135 m) lower, and on the coast. On the Indian 10th Brigade’s left flank was 'Briggs' Force, which had advanced cross-country from Keren and was approaching Massawa from the north along the coast.

back to text
The Flotta del Mar Rosso's main offensive capability was vested in the seven destroyers of the 3a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere (Francesco Nullo, Nazario Sauro, Cesare Battisti and Daniele Manin) and 5a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere (Pantera, Tigre and Leone), the torpedo boats Giovanni Acerbi and Vincenzo Giordano Orsini, the five motor torpedo boats of the 21a Flottiglia MAS, and the eight submarines of the 8o Gruppo Sommergibili (Guglielmotti, Galileo Ferraris, Galileo Galilei, Luigi Galvani, Perla, Macallè, Archimede and Evangelista Torricelli). Other vessels included the colonial sloop Eritrea, gunboats G. Biglieri and Porto Corsini, minelayer Ostia, auxiliary cruisers Ramb I and Ramb II, and hospital ship Aquileia (ex-Ramb IV).
back to text
Carnimeo initially had under his command the 11th Reggimento granatieri (including the Battaglione bersaglieri 'Africa') of the elite 65a Divisione, 11a Brigata coloniale, 3o and 15o Battaglioni di cavalleria coloniale, 104o and 106o Battaglioni d’artiglieria, and 2o and 5o Battaglioni d’artiglieria coloniale. Between 7 and 13 February this limited strength was augmented by the Battaglione alpini 'Uork Amba', 2a, 5a and 44a Brigate coloniali, 2o Battaglione di cavalleria coloniale, 1/60o Reggimento d’artiglieria, 46o and 102o Battaglioni d’artiglieria, 6o, 11o and 12o Battaglioni d’artiglieria coloniale, and one anti-tank battery. Further Italian reinforcements, which arrived between 14 February and 14 March, comprised the 11a Legione 'Camicie Nere' , 44o Battaglione 'Camicie Nere', 6a and 12a Brigate coloniali, 4o and 103o Battaglioni d’artiglieria, 22o Battaglione d’artiglieria anti-aerea, and one machine gun battalion. The final reinforcements, arriving between 15 and 27 March, were the 150o and 170o Battaglioni 'Camicie Nere', and the 16a, 41a and 66a Brigate coloniali.