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The Battle of Keren (or Cheren, the old Italian spelling) was fought as part of the East African Campaign during the Second World War. The battle was fought from 5 February to 1 April 1941 between a mixed Italian army of regular and colonial troops and the attacking British (Sudanese and Indian troops under the British flag) and Free French forces. The town of Keren, in the colony of Italian Eritrea, was of strategic importance to both the Italian and the British forces in 1941. The road and railway through Keren were the main routes to Asmara (the colonial capital) and the Red Sea port of Massawa, both of which surrendered to the British after the battle.
Colonised by the Italians in 1885, Eritrea was used as a staging ground for Italian invasions of Ethiopia in the First and Second Italo-Abyssinian Wars. The second invasion began in 1935 and Ethiopia fell in 1936. Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland and Eritrea were combined to form Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) part of the Italian Empire. Following the Italian declaration of war on 10 June 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered his troops to capture the British Somaliland and border towns in the Sudan and Kenya. Eritrea has three climate zones, a coastal region, with a sandy plain and low scrub running inland for 10–20 mi (16–32 km) in the east with elevations of up to 1,650 ft (500 m), which is hot and humid for most of the year, with June, September and October the hottest months.
At Massawa the average temperature is 88 °F (31 °C) and in summer can reach 120 °F (49 °C) 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; May is the hottest month. Towards the high plateau, the elevation rises steeply to 6,000 ft (1,800 m), with some peaks 10,000 ft (3,000 m) high and the ground declines to the west. It 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 (2,600 m), sub-alpine temperatures are found. The high ground continues into Northern Ethiopia, where the mountains and ravines make ideal defensive terrain.
The British responded by building up a force of more than two divisions in Sudan and three in Kenya by early February 1941. The Sudan-based forces—commanded by Lieutenant-General William Platt and under the command of General Archibald Wavell (Commander-in-Chief British Middle East Command)—had launched an attack into Eritrea through Kassala on 18 January and by 1 February had captured Agordat some 100 mi (160 km) east of Kassala.
Anglo-Egyptian Sudan shared a 1,000 mi (1,600 km) border with the AOI, and on 4 July 1940, was invaded by an Italian force of about 6,500 men from Eritrea, which advanced on a railway junction at Kassala and forced the British garrison of 320 men of the SDF and some local police to retire, after inflicting casualties of 43 killed and 114 wounded for ten casualties. The Italians also drove a platoon of No 3 Company, Eastern Arab Corps (EAC) of the SDF, from the small fort at Gallabat, just over the border from Metemma, about 200 mi (320 km) south of Kassala and took the villages of Qaysān, Kurmuk, and Dumbode on the Blue Nile. From there the Italians ventured no further into Sudan, owing to lack of fuel. They proceeded to fortify Kassala with anti-tank defences, machine-gun posts and strong-points, later establishing a brigade-strong garrison. The Italians were disappointed to find no strong anti-British sentiment among the native population.
Keren had no built-in fortifications or defensive structures but it is surrounded on most sides by a jumble of steep granite mountains and sharp ridges which gave the defending forces on the high ground a distinct advantage whilst providing their artillery with perfect observation of any attacking formations. The narrow Dongolaas Gorge at through which both the road and railway from Agordat to Keren passed was dominated on the south eastern side by the massif of Mount Zeban and Mount Falestoh on which stood the imposing defences of Fort Dologorodoc at . The other side of the gorge was commanded by the mass of Mount Sanchil with a saddle of secondary summits, Brig's Peak, Hog's Back and Flat Top stretching north westwards toward Mount 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.
The 5th Indian Division began to arrive in Sudan in early September 1940 and the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was placed on the Red Sea coast to protect Port Sudan, the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade south-west of Kassala and the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade (William Slim) were sent to Gedaref with the divisional headquarters, to block an Italian attack on Khartoum from Goz Regeb to Gallabat, on a front of 200 mi (320 km). Gazelle Force (Colonel Frank Messervy) was formed on 16 October, as a mobile unit to raid Italian territory and delay an Italian advance. Late on 30 January, Gazelle Force was ordered to make pursuit of the enemy retreating down the road to Keren.
As the British forces approached Keren, Brigadier-General Nicolangelo Carnimeo, commander of the 2nd Eritrean Division and the X Territorial Defence Command, drew in his 5th and 44th Colonial Brigades from positions to the north. 42nd Brigade had reached Keren from Agordat almost intact, and the 2nd Brigade—which had suffered greater casualties there—was reforming. The 11th Regiment of the Savoia Grenadiers and the Alpini battalion of the 10th Savoia Grenadiers had just arrived after a three-day non-stop truck journey from Addis Ababa while the 11th Colonial Brigade was also in place, having previously been called from reserve in Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, the 6th Brigade—having relinquished its responsibilities at Metemma—was also making its way to Keren.
At 08:00 on 1 February 1941, Gazelle Force was held up in crossing the Baraka River about 40 mi (64 km) from Keren, where the Ponte Mussolini had been blown and the approaches to the river mined. By noon on 2 February, they were across the river and winding up the Ascidera Valley, until brought to a halt at the Dongolaas Gorge, about 4 mi (6.4 km) from Keren, where the road had been blocked by the Italians, who blew down the overhanging crags, to fill the gorge with boulders and rocks.
The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, (4th Indian Division) arrived on 3 February, reconnoitred the next day and attacked on the left of the gorge on 5 February. The 2nd 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 counter-attacked by elements of the 65th Infantry Division Granatieri di Savoia (Grenadiers of Savoy) who forced them back towards Cameron Ridge, which was being consolidated by (Wellesley's) the 1st Battalion/6th Rajputana Rifles. The ridge was overlooked in front by Sanchil, to the left by Mount Sammana and from behind by other mountains along the Ascidera Valley. The Cameron Highlanders and Rajputana Rifles clung on, despite frequent attacks and having to carry food, water and ammunition up hill for 1,500 ft (460 m), across exposed terrain.
By 6 February, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade (4th Indian Division) had arrived and next day, attacked the Dologorodoc feature east of the gorge, looping right through the Scescilembi Valley (known as Happy Valley) and then attacking from the south-east toward Acqua Col joining Mount Zelele and Mount Falestoh. On the night of 7 February, a company of (Outram's) the 4th Battalion/6th Rajputana Rifles took the col until 4:30 a.m., when they ran out of ammunition and were driven back to a lower feature. On 8 February, having spent most of the day under heavy artillery and mortar fire, they withdrew to their jumping-off positions.
On the afternoon of 10 February, 3/1st Punjab Regiment attacked Brig's Peak and by the morning of 11 February were on top of Sanchil. However, the requirement for men to handle and carry supplies, ammunition and wounded meant there were only two platoons to hold the feature. Having endured heavy shelling and mortar fire throughout the day, they were forced off Sanchil and Brig's Peak with heavy casualties by a determined counter-attack from the Savoia Grenadiers. 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 Acqua Col—planned for 12 February—went ahead. 5th Indian Infantry Division's 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was brought up from Barentu and put under command of 4th Division's Major-General Beresford-Peirse and held in readiness to exploit the hoped-for break-through. At 05:30, supported by an intensive artillery barrage, 4/6th Rajputana Rifles once again led the way. This time, Richhpal Ram was less fortunate and having gained the crest, had a foot blown off and shortly thereafter was mortally wounded. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his exploits on the Col. Meanwhile, the 4/11th Sikh Regiment were pushing up around the side of Acqua Col but the overall attack could not be carried through, lacking 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.
Platt decided to pause, regroup and train before making a further attempt at Keren. To free up road transport to bring forward the necessary stockpiles for a new attack, 5th Indian Division returned to Kessala where it could be maintained by the railhead for a period of intensive training until such time as preparations were complete and the division could be brought forward 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, Briggsforce—consisting of two battalions from 4th Indian Division's 7th Indian Infantry Brigade and two Free French battalions—had arrived under Brigadier Briggs, the 7th Indian Brigade commander. After crossing the border into Eritrea on the Red Sea coast, Briggsforce had captured Karora and then moved south to take Kubkub. On 1 March, the force had broken through the Mescelit pass some 15 mi (24 km) north-east of Keren. Briggsforce provided not only a third potential direction of attack to occupy the Keren defenders but also created a threat to Massawa on the coast and pinning valuable reserves there.
The scene was set for a set-piece battle with Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse's 4th Indian Infantry Division concentrated on the Sanchil side of the gorge and Lewis Heath's 5th Indian Infantry Division, brought forward from Kessala once again, on the Happy Valley side. The Keren defences had been reinforced with the arrival of 6th Colonial Brigade from Metemma and also the 11th Blackshirt Battalion of the Savoia Grenadiers. The defenders now totalled 25,000 strong facing an attacking force which had grown to more than 13,000. Beresford-Pierce would launch 11th Brigade, expanded to five battalions under command, against the peaks of the Sanchil mass and 5th Brigade against Mount Sammana on the left of his front.
On the 5th Division 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 the artillery, it was no longer considered practical to continue the flanking attack through Acqua Col to threaten the Dologorodoc lines of supply. Instead, Major-General Lewis Heath determined that Fort Dologorodoc would be the key objective for his Indian 5th Infantry 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 so a haven to the defenders for supplies and reserves) to direct fire from the fort.
The two offensives were planned to take place one after the other on 15 March so that the full force's artillery could be employed for the preliminary bombardment of them both. At the final meeting on 14 March with his commanders Platt said:
Do not let anybody think this is going to be a walkover. It is not. It is going to be a bloody battle: a bloody battle against both enemy and ground. It will be won by the side which lasts longest. I know you will last longer than they do. And I promise you I will last longer than my opposite number.
At 07:00 on 15 March, the British and Commonwealth troops of 4th Indian Infantry Division attacked from Cameron Ridge making for Sanchil, Brig's Peak, Hog's Back and the three peaks of Mount Sammana. That night, the battle ebbed and flowed with attack and counter-attack inflicting very heavy casualties on both sides.
Meanwhile, on the right, 5th Indian Infantry Division launched its attack on the Dologorodoc feature at 10:30 on 15 March. 2nd Highland Light Infantry led the attack on the lower features ("Pimple" and "Pinnacle") but made no progress in the daylight because of fire from the overlooking Sanchil peak where the Italian defenders had resolutely beaten off the 11th Brigade assault. They were pinned down, taking casualties and without supply until darkness provided the opportunity to withdraw. By moonlight that evening, the attack on Dologorodoc was taken up by 9th Brigade, now commanded by the recently promoted Brigadier Messervy. Heath and Messervy planned a near two battalion attack on Pimple and Pinnacle with a third battalion ready to pass through and strike for the fort. The capture of Pinnacle that night by the 3/5th Mahratta Light Infantry led by Lieutenant-Colonel Denys Reid (with 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment less two companies under command to take Pimple) is described by Compton Mackenzie in Eastern Epic, his official history of the British Indian Army during the war, as
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 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]... At the top, when he saw the victors, he was overcome by the splendor of their feat and his combative amber eyes filled with tears.
In the early hours of 16 March, the defenders of Fort Dologorodoc made a fierce counter-attack on Pinnacle and Pimple for several hours. Crucially, this left the defences at the fort weakened and whilst the counterattack was taking place, the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment had made their way over a seemingly impossible knife-edge to surprise the fort's defenders and after a savage fight the fort was captured by 06:30 with 40 prisoners taken. Finally, Platt had the artillery observation point so greatly needed.
Through 16 March, the Italians repeatedly counter-attacked whilst 29 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 5th Indian Division position at Fort Dologorodoc—exposed to the enemy 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 4th Division, having been given 10th Indian Infantry Brigade under command, continued to batter away to no avail. On the night of 17 March, having sustained heavy losses, they withdrew from the slopes of Sanchil and Brig's Peak and the damaged 10th Brigade returned to 5th Division to reform. 4th Indian Division continued to hold Hog's Back and Flat Top. Over the next three days, the Italian forces continued to make fierce counter-attacks on both sides of the gorge involving desperate, often hand to hand, fighting.
Platt decided to regroup and concentrate his forces before attacking again. Planning for a set-piece battle, he disbanded Gazelle Force (with Messervy taking over 9th Indian Brigade) and brought 5th Indian Infantry 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 offensive, Briggs Force drew 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 posed a threat to Massawa to the east, thereby obliging the Italians to maintain a reserve on the coast.
Platt and his commanders decided that the supreme attack should be made through the Dongolaas Gorge. Heath felt that, because of its physical defensive advantages, the Italians might have neglected their defences. On the nights of 16/17 and 17/18 March, escorted engineers reconnoitred the road block and attempted to make a start to clear it. This failed because of interfering fire from the Italian lines. However, the information gathered made clear to Heath 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 to give the sappers and miners the 48 hours they needed free of interference from mortar and machine gun fire required to clear the road. For this Heath would need his full division and had to wait until 10th Brigade had refitted after its mauling on the Sanchil feature. The plan was for 10th Brigade to advance into the gorge whilst 9th Brigade (which was holding the Fort Dologorodoc positions) would move down to take three smaller hills overlooking the far end of the gorge and 29th Brigade would then attack to take Mount Zeban and beyond it to the east Mount Canabai, which looked down on Keren and guarded the road to Asmara. Command of 10th Brigade was taken over by one of Heath's divisional staff officers, Thomas "Pete" Rees while his predecessor, Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Fletcher was released to form Fletcher Force, a mobile force comprising Central India Horse and 6 Matilda II tanks, which would be used to exploit the planned break-through in the gorge and move rapidly into the defenders' rear position and attack their reserves.
On 24 March, diversionary attacks were made on Sanchil while just before midnight 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 heavy opposition which was well dug-in. However, by 07:30 all three hills were taken and the gorge's defences on its south eastern side silenced.
At 03:00 on 25 March, the 2nd Highland Light Infantry and the 4/10th Baluch Regiment on their right advanced from the shelter of the railway tunnel, previously cleared by the sappers and miners, up the gorge. A 100-gun artillery bombardment was raining down on the ridge on Sanchil above (to suppress any defensive fire from this dominating height) and the attack in the gorge achieved complete surprise, with the defenders' attention focused 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 were captured and the defenders no longer held positions from which to direct fire into the gorge below.
The sappers and miners laboured on the road while the battles on the Sanchil and Dologorodoc features continued. By midday on 26 March, they had completed remaking the road through the gorge. In the early hours of 27 March, the British artillery turned onto Zeban and Falstoh. 29th Brigade passed through 9th Brigade's positions to launch their attack at 04:30, but when they made their assault they found the defenders had withdrawn and were able to occupy Falestoh Ridge and the two Zeban summits unopposed. The Italian position was now untenable and by first light the Royal Air Force (RAF) was reporting their withdrawal along the road from Keren to Asmara. The defenders on the Sanchil ridge were less fortunate and now effectively cut off the Savoia Grenadiers and Bersaglieri were left with no option but surrender. Fletcher Force was in Keren by 10:30 and was then sent in pursuit along the Asmara road.
From 27 March 1941, the route to Asmara and Massawa was open and Wavell was able to order the 4th Indian 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.
In the 4th Division history of 1948, Stevens gave 3,273 casualties, of whom about ten percent were killed. In 1951, Mackenzie wrote that in the final stages of the battle, the Italians had 5,000 casualties, of whom 1,135 men were killed. In 1954, I. S. O. Playfair, the British official historian, recorded that Italian troops and Eritrean Ascari had 3,000 casualties. In 1993, Raugh wrote that 3,000 Italian troops were killed and that British casualties were 536 men killed and 3,229 wounded as did Dear and Foot in 2005. An informal review of Bruttini and Puglisi (1957) found that about 3,000 Italian soldiers were killed, 4,500 wounded and sick, 9,000 Askari killed and nearly 20,000 wounded giving totals of 12,147 killed and 21,700 men wounded.
Rear-Admiral Mario Bonetti, commander of Italian Red Sea Flotilla and the garrison at Massawa, had 10,000 troops and about 100 tanks 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, the British would leave Italian citizens in Eritrea and Ethiopia to fend for themselves. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade Group sent small forces towards Adowa and Adigrat and the rest advanced down the Massawa road, which declined by 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in 50 mi (80 km) and the Indians rendezvoused with Briggs Force, which had cut across country, at Massawa by 5 April.
Bonetti was called upon to surrender but refused again and on 8 April, an attack by the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade Group was repulsed. A simultaneous attack by the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade and the tanks of B Squadron 4th RTR broke through the defences on the west side. The Free French overran the defences in the south-west, taking Montecullo and Fort Umberto April 7 as the RAF bombed Italian artillery positions. Colonel Monclar of the 13th French Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade captured the Italian Admiralty building and accepted Bonetti's surrender, taking 9,590 prisoners and 127 guns. 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 north Naval Harbour, the central Commercial Harbour and the main South Harbour. The Italians had also dumped as much of their equipment as possible in the water. The British re-opened the Massawa–Asmara railway on 27 April and by 1 May, the port came into use to supply the 5th Indian Division.[a] The Italian surrender ended organised resistance in Eritrea and fulfilled the strategic objective of ending the threat to shipping in the Red Sea.
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