Antony Brett-James

BALL OF FIRE
The Fifth Indian Division
in the Second World War

 

CHAPTER IV

KEREN
FEBRUARY-MARCH 1941

Keren

THE battle for Agordat had ended. At once Colonel Messervy, with Skinner's Horse, a squadron of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, the 390th Field Battery of 144 Field Regiment (under Major E. C. Mansergh, M.C., a future C.R.A. and commander of the Fifth Indian Division), led his Gazelle Force in pursuit of the enemy towards Keren. Some twelve miles out, at the Baraka river, the damaged Ponte Mussolini, whose approaches were heavily mined, held up our advance for a few hours, but by the evening of February 2 Gazelle Force and Savory's Eleven Brigade of the Fourth Indian Division had reached a point only five miles from Keren. It was hoped that by advancing rapidly our troops might reach Keren before Italian reinforcements could arrive. At the beginning of the month it was known that the garrison comprised one Colonial brigade, but within a few days the enemy had reinforced it by another brigade and by part of the Grenadier Division that had been brought up from Addis Ababa.

To approach the town of Keren, which lies 4,300 feet above sea-level, from any direction but the east means an arduous passage through mountainous country. A formidable barrier of hills guards the town as you drive towards it up the road from Agordat. Only one gap exists through this barrier, the narrow and climbing Dongolaas Gorge that takes both road and railway up to the Keren plateau. On the left of this gorge rise the hills of Cameron Ridge, Sanchil, Brigs Peak, Samanna, and Mount Amba; while on the other side are features that became equally famous and bloodstained in the battles that were to follow---Dologorodoc, Falestoh, Zeban. And below Fort Dologorodoc and to the east is the wide Happy Valley, from the north-east corner of which rises the very steep Acqua Col.

The whole mass of mountains, like a bleak and jagged screen, looms up into the sky some 2,500 feet above the green valley of approach. It is steep, high, immense, forbidding. No picture can do justice to the physical effort of climbing past enormous granite domes and through a prickly bush more effective than any barbed wire. The soil crumbles beneath your feet, which can find no foothold; and the rocks, for all the cover they might give to climbing infantry, are easily dislodged if used as a lever to pull yourself up. At every step spear-grass stabs through the toughest clothing, and the skin is torn by the prickly thorn-trees. One of the major problems of the Keren battle was to get our infantry to grips with the enemy in a fit state to fight. The exertion of men laden with equipment, rifles, ammunition, shovels was wearing on even the stoutest, and it is no wonder that those soldiers who did reach the almost unclimbable crests were momentarily too exhausted to make further effort. It was this moment of breathless exhaustion and strain that the Italians were so often to choose for delivering a counter-attack from their points of physical and moral vantage.

The strategic possibilities of this natural position before Keren had been for many years appreciated by the Italians as a defence of Asmara and the highlands of Eritrea. On the Keren escarpment General Luigi Frusci, the sixty-two-year-old commander in the field, who had served in the Spanish Civil War, decided to make his main stand, and to concentrate the bulk of his forces. These included three Italian and ten Colonial battalions that were fresh or had been but slightly involved in the previous fighting, and the remnants of a further four Colonial battalions.

A two hundred yards long block, where the road turns a corner and enters the narrowest part of the Dongolaas Gorge, now held up Gazelle Force. A cliff had been blown down on to the road, and this obstacle was covered by fire. The enemy, moreover, had a very great advantage of remarkable observation posts from which our every movement could be seen, and fire directed accordingly. The tanks of the 4th R. T. R. failed to get past, but on February 3 the 2nd Cameron Highlanders advanced up the hill to the left and secured the ridge that became known by the name of this battalion. A reconnaissance around to the right up Happy Valley failed to find a way of outflanking the enemy, though there was one gap over Acqua Col which seemed a possible line of advance.

So Brigadier Savory decided to push the 3/14th Punjab (Major C. C. Furney) through the Camerons to seize the heights overlooking Keren. During the night of February 4/5 the 3/14th Punjab advanced beyond Cameron Ridge and soon after half-past three occupied Brigs Peak---a series of three little peaks that could be held by no more than four platoons. The battalion was driven off the following day, after suffering more than a hundred casualties. The enemy, daily being reinforced, counter-attacked our troops with great determination.

Brigadier W. L. Lloyd's Five Brigade came up on the 6th, but its night attack two days later against Acqua Col, seeking out a southern approach that would avoid the Gorge, failed because the position was too strongly held. On April 8 Brigs Peak was again captured by Eleven Brigade, but in trying to exploit further on to part of Mount Sanchil we incurred heavy casualties. It was decided, accordingly, to make a second attempt to force a way over Acqua Col. For this purpose Marriott's 29th Brigade was brought from Barentu and placed under command of General Beresford-Peirse; the Brigade was not to be used to force Acqua Col, but only to exploit towards Keren if Five Brigade were successful.

The commanders had decided to press the attack through Acqua Col because, if it did succeed, the enemy's lines of communication would be cut and thereby a large part of his forces in and around Keren encircled and captured. On the other hand, to maintain two brigades in Happy Valley presented formidable administrative difficulties.

On March 11 our troops were again forced off Brigs Peak and retired to Cameron Ridge. Despite great gallantry our second attack next day on the Acqua Gap failed to reach its objective, and Beresford-Peirse decided to end the operation. Accordingly, 29 Brigade was sent back to Barentu and the rest of the Fourth Indian Division was also withdrawn successfully from Happy Valley. Messervy's Gazelle Force was disbanded after four months; there was no room for further manoeuvre and no route over which its armoured vehicles could be used. Its harrying role was over. And on the 15th Colonel Messervy left to take command of Nine Brigade.

* * * * * * *

Good progress had attended the efforts of the Divisional Sappers to open the road to Aressa, but Orr's mobile troops lacked the punch to overcome the commanding positions that covered Aressa. And the track which had been built to within a few miles of the town was inadequate to bear the movement of a large force. It was therefore decided to use Orr's troops as a continuing force, ready to advance through Aressa on Adi Ugri, and to employ the Fifth Indian Division to reinforce the Fourth to smash a way through the Keren defences.

The most attractive plan that then appeared to offer success was a renewed attempt, employing the Fifth Indian Division, to advance and capture Acqua Col. This was considered feasible, provided that the attack had the support of artillery from both divisions, and air bombardment of the reverse slopes astride Acqua Col.

It was important that General Heath should have three infantry brigades for this projected assault. Accordingly, Nine Brigade, less detachments to hold our positions on the Gondar road, was ordered to concentrate at Tessenei. And as transport was quite insufficient to supply both divisions in the Keren area and simultaneously to build up reserves adequate for such a large-scale assault, the Fifth Indian Division also moved to Tessenei, there to undergo a period of hard training in mountain warfare on the stiffest hills within reach.

When, on March 1, General Heath set up his advanced headquarters alongside that of Beresford-Peirse, plans had to be entirely changed. Heath found that much had altered in the interval since he last saw the Keren front. The Italians now dominated Happy Valley. The bulk of the Fourth Indian Division's artillery had been forced to withdraw from forward positions below the Keren heights. These guns would no longer be able to give an adequate measure of support in the direction of Acqua Col.

Fresh reconnaissance from every angle possible led to the belief that the best plan that now offered was to attempt to capture Fort Dologorodoc, and from there to exploit success towards Falestoh and Zeban. The initial attack would start on the lee of Cameron Ridge, for the Italian artillery had the main road accurately covered, and all movement was fired on. By night the road was harassed.

This plan was ambitious and, as will be seen, had to be varied as the action developed. It should be remembered that General Heath was at this stage working on the assumption of the Fourth Indian Division's Sappers that the demolition blocking the Dongolaas Gorge would require ten days' work to make the road fit to carry wheeled traffic.

The new plan for the two divisions was as follows. The Fourth Indian Division would gain the hills on the left of the road, thus keeping the enemy preoccupied on Sanchil. It fell to General Heath's men to attack along the south of the Dongolaas Gorge, aiming to capture Fort Dologorodoc and to exploit towards Falestoh and Zeban.

This line of attack had certain obvious disadvantages, the most noteworthy of which was that Dologorodoc was exposed to the dominating features of Sanchil, Falestoh and Zeban.

Measures to reduce vulnerability from these hills were to obtain the maximum possible support from the Royal Air Force. Such support was unstintingly arranged throughout the battle by Air Commodore Leonard Slatter. It speaks much for his wholehearted co-operation that every pilot was required to trace his orders on the sand model of the area that had been prepared in order to acquaint the ground troops with their objectives.

As regards Fort Dologorodoc, the factor which made the plan attractive was that the Italians would be robbed of the advantage which had so contributed to their success in all the previous abortive attacks by the Fourth Indian Division against objectives lying along knife-edge ridges. In fact, it was the spinal conformation of the ground with the almost precipitous reverse slopes which rendered the Italian supports and reserves---and even their forward troops thinly scattered among boulders---immune from our heaviest artillery fire.

It was only when our concentrations had to lift, owing to the proximity of our attacking troops, that the Italians' real strength was exposed to view. And then they were able to rain automatic fire and grenades upon our toiling infantry, who were unable to reply effectively. As will be seen, it was this important difference in the configuration of the ground, lying behind Dologorodoc, as compared with the rest of the Keren front, that was to present us not only with the Fort, but was ultimately to give us victory at Keren.

In order that each division should have the largest possible number of guns in support, our two attacks were to be consecutive rather than simultaneous. The day fixed was March 15. Secrecy was to be gained by bringing the Fifth Indian Division into the Keren back area at the last possible moment, and to bring the attacking troops forward and deploy them for the fray under cover of darkness. They would move by an easy approach route which was not the target of enemy predicted fire.

The line of approach brought our troops right up to a starting line under the slopes of Cameron Ridge below the Tunnel. A factor which had not been reckoned with was the volume and intensity of fire which the Italians were able to deliver against our men after they crossed the starting line and as they crossed the Dongolaas Gorge and mounted the slopes beyond.

At a final meeting on the 14th, to 'button up' small details of timing and co-operation, General Platt told the officers gathered round a model of the Keren features:

"Do not let anybody think this is going to be a walk-over. 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."

Beresford-Peirse's plan was as follows: Eleven Brigade, strengthened to five battalions, would assault Sanchil, Brigs Peak, Saddle, Hogs Back, and Flat Top Hill, all on the left side of the gorge. Five Brigade, by capturing Mount Samanna, would secure the left flank and thus protect Eleven Brigade's attack from Italian opposition on Mount Amba.

It fell to Messervy's Nine Brigade, with the 2nd Highland Light Infantry under command, to capture Fort Dologorodoc; 29 Brigade prepared to go through and attack Mount Zeban. The H.L.I. were not to go forward until the Fourth Indian Division had occupied Sanchil and Brigs Peak, because in the event of Sanchil's not being taken, enemy shelling from there would seriously impede Nine Brigade's advance.

The Fourth Indian Division's attack started at seven o'clock on March 15, half an hour after sunrise. And although, three hours later, Sanchil and Brigs Peak had not been captured, some progress had been made, especially on the outer flank. General Heath now recommended---and obtained the permission of General Platt--the launching of the Fifth Indian Division's attack. It was fully realized that the task would be much more difficult than if, as originally planned, Beresford-Peirse's troops had first obtained a lodgment on or, better still, a grip on Sanchil.

The Fifth Indian Division, was all set for its assault. And had this not been now sanctioned, it would have been difficult to visualize how a better alternative could have been created.

* * * * * * *

Just after 10.30 the Highland Light Infantry, now under Lieutenant-Colonel E. L. Percival. who had arrived in Tessenei, went forward to attack the first bump up Dologorodoc, named Pinnacle. The leading company, commanded by Major P. H. T. Hoare, crossed the starting line---a large sandy khor. At once Hoare's men came under heavy fire from both sides of the road and from well-concealed automatics in culverts along the railway line that ran across the lower slopes of Sanchil. Despite casualties, the company reached the far side of this khor and the sandy hillocks just below the main road. Then, while encouraging his men, Percy Hoare was badly hit. But he was safely carried back across the khor by one of the stretcher-bearers, Private Sinclair.

Meanwhile the other two attacking companies, led by McKeig Jones and P. St. G. Maxwell, were also held up below the road by accurate sniping and intense fire from Italian mortars and machineguns. When McKeig Jones was wounded in the leg, Maxwell took command of both companies. By noon the H.L.l. found themselves pinned to the ground at the foot of Pinnacle.

Throughout that day the men lay out in the great heat, taking cover among the bare rocks and hillocks. The day was close and thundery, with not a breath of air. Thirst and heat exhaustion assailed the companies as they waited in the open, exposed almost without shade to the full glare of the. sun. They were also exposed to the full attentions of the enemy, who had by now beaten back the attack of the Fourth Indian Division. From their commanding positions the Italians could observe our every movement. The least stir by one of the H.L.I. provoked a hail of machine-gun fire. Particularly troublesome were the enemy mortars; and snipers took their toll.

This reverse might have been averted had the enemy been alarmed by the seizure of Sanchil. But no provision had been made to engage the scattered and concealed flanking posts from which the Italians brought such devastating fire to bear on the H.L.I.

It became apparent that no further advance during daylight was possible along this route, and equally that the Scottish battalion would be unable to move back until dusk brought some measure of protection. To recross the open ground to the original assembly area behind Cameron Ridge was out of the question. The men had to stay out for a further six hours, without supplies, and suffering casualties throughout the afternoon. At length, towards seven o'clock when the sun went down and darkness fell, the Highland Light Infantry withdrew to safety.

But in the meantime General Heath, accompanied by Messervy, had crept forward to the end of Cameron Spur, overlooking the Dongolaas Gorge, and had made a fresh plan. At three o'clock they decided to surprise the enemy and launch a new attack, this time in darkness and from a fresh direction, the west, up the steepest slopes of Pinnacle. The plan aimed at slipping the attacking battalion, the 3/5th Mahratta Light Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant- Colonel Denys W. Reid, across the valley which had been under such heavy fire as to hold up the H.L.L The Mahrattas would cross a good deal lower down, and when the light was failing. After a timed artillery concentration upon Pinnacle, that towered a thousand feet above the level of the valley, and upon Dologorodoc, Reid's Mahrattas would capture Pinnacle and Pimple, the next bump up towards the summit. For this attack Reid was given Dean's 3/12th, less two companies, under command. One company from each battalion was being used for porterage up the hills. Finally, Rodwell's West Yorkshires, preceded by further support from our Gunners, would advance to seize Fort Dologorodoc.

The passage through the welter of boulders was much hampered by thorn scrub. And the enemy emerged from these boulders in far greater numbers than had been anticipated. Twice, artillery concentrations had to be repeated in order to help forward our attack on Pimple, and for the final assault up to Fort Dologorodoc.

These Mahrattas always wore green hosetops, and when not in actual battle under the protection of a steel helmet, wore a green and red hackle in their caps. At first sight an unimpressive fellow, quiet in his bearing and demeanour, and not looking his best in uniform, the Mahratta displays a superb physique when stripped. These men from the Deccan are splendid wrestlers, and their suppleness and wiry activity are remarkable. Slow to rouse, they are when roused like terriers with a little red glow, in their eyes. When that happens there is trouble. Physically adaptable, they stand up to extremes of cold and heat almost better than any other Indian troops.

At last light the Mahrattas set out with the utmost determination and vigour. Even in daylight, and without the burden of arms and equipment, hands and feet must be used to climb Pinnacle. Yet these sturdy men, fully accoutred for battle as they were, scrambled eagerly up the boulder-strewn slopes towards the summit and the enemy. 'B' Company, under Subadar Shirang Lawand, led the way. Behind toiled 'C' and 'D' Companies, led by J. d'Issa Boomgardt and Seymour. The Italians resisted stoutly, relying on hundreds of their little red bombs that they threw down on the Mahrattas. The combat raged. Amid the crash of bombs and shells and the crackling of machine-guns, the war-cry of the Mahrattas---'Shivaji ki jai!'---came, floating across the moonlit valley to where General Heath and Brigadier Messervy waited in the Battle Headquarters that had been established among rocks at the foot of Cameron Ridge.

Major George Munn, of 144 Field Regiment and attached to the Mahrattas, has recorded how he sat with Colonel Reid and watched this attack. They could hear the fighting in the dusk but could see little beyond the flashes on the hillside. Three times the troops were driven back. A fourth attempt was made. Every now and then the Mahrattas would give a cheer, and Reid would mutter, "Good little chaps," "Stout little chaps." When the success signal did go up about eight o'clock, after more than an hour of bitter hand-to-hand fighting, he could hardly contain himself for elation and pride.

Reid, Dean and Munn followed the companies up, and on Pinnacle Reid said, "My chaps seem to have shot their bolt. It's up to you now, Dean." And so, just after midnight, Major A. J. W. McLeod's Pathan company of the Frontier Force Regiment, with Maurice Curtis' Dogra company, were put into the battle because all the Mahratta reserves had been expended; and casualties had been heavy. The Italians fired wildly in the dark, but Dean's men stormed their way up the terrible slope, taking nearly an hour to reach the summit. On the last few yards shouts and screams mingled with the bomb explosions and the shots. The Frontier Force had captured Pimple.

The 2nd West Yorkshires, who had been brought forward ready to take advantage of any success gained by the 3/12th on Pimple, were quickly on the scene. Colonel Rodwell gathered his company and platoon officers and issued final orders. He drew attention to the spirited manner in which the Mahrattas had fought that night, undoubtedly urged on to white-heat passion by the utterance of their strange slogan, and he said, "We must have a war-cry. Can anyone suggest a suitable one?" A pause followed. At last a ranker platoon commander hesitantly murmured, "What about 'Fook, Fook,' sir?"

Supported by the guns of both 28th and 144th Field Regiments, fortified by their newly found battle-cry, and led by Captain Michael Osborn's company, the West Yorkshires climbed along the knife-edge ridge towards Dologorodoc. The slopes were precipitous, the thorn scrub tenacious, the going severe. But the enemy seemed dazed by the bombardments, and surprised by an attack from this side. And after hard fighting across extremely difficult ground, the West Yorkshires captured the Fort and fired their success signal. The time was now half-past six in the morning.

The Italians, on their side, had not been idle. At four o'clock they counter-attacked Pinnacle. Our troops here were still disorganized and busy consolidating on the newly won hill. After stern night-fighting the enemy were driven off, even though at one time they came to within fifty yards of the summit. As dawn lit up the hills, the Mahrattas caught many of these Italians as they toiled back to the Fort. Colonel Reid had to knock one of his men off the machine-gun he was firing, for the eager young Mahratta was loosing off belt after belt of ammunition at corpses thrice over. The scattered remnants of the Italian attack climbed back up the hill, only to discover to their dismay that the West Yorkshires were already in possession. In this way the Italian garrison of Fort Dologorodoc had been depleted by a vain counter-attack, which had, in itself, materially eased the task of Rodwell's battalion.

The Fort was merely a concrete trench running round the hilltop that was perhaps an acre in extent. Dugouts were few in number, and their entrances now faced the wrong way. The summit was of rock and nothing could be buried. For some days Dologorodoc was a perilous place, with a bomb, a shell, a burst of machine-gun bullets arriving every few minutes. Yet our casualties were comparatively few, because within a short time the men built large sandbag traverses and walls over the reverse slope of the hill. And the Fort itself was held with the minimum number of soldiers.

Colonel E. G. Woods, Brigade Major to Messervy at Keren, has furnished us with a picture of the scene.

"I myself and 95 per cent. of the Brigade could never have imagined what the noise of that battle was going to be like. For twenty-four hours it was deafening. We were stuck in a horseshoe of rock-covered hills. All the enemy guns were firing at us, all our own guns were firing three hundred yards ahead of us. General Heath was with us at Brigade Headquarters. He slept behind a rock which was also my cover. The Italians brought up some big guns; the first shell landed very close to us. 1 jumped. General Heath turned and said:

"'What is the matter, Lakri?'

"I replied: 'Rather a big one and rather close, sir.'

"General Heath turned over and went to sleep, murmuring 'Squibs!' "

Supply and maintenance of the forward troops on the summits and slopes was a military feat. Unrelaxed vigilance by the enemy on Sanchil, coupled with his effective shelling, made regular use of the road to the foot of Pinnacle out of the question, though occasional vehicles were able to run the gauntlet. A limited number of ambulances, and trucks carrying commanders and liaison officers, passed that way. But the main supply line went by Hell Fire Corner---aptly named, for it was under constant fire---and thence to a large supply dump under the lee of Tunnel Spur. Carriers transported ammunition and. supplies forward from this point to the base of Pinnacle.

It was the transport onward that presented the real difficulty. The climb to below Pinnacle's summit was stiff enough, but beyond this the narrow col and knife-like ridge were barraged at uncertain intervals by Italian guns. And for those caught in these barrages there was no means of taking cover. When the battle started, either a platoon from each company or a company from each battalion had to act as carriers, and a number of fighting soldiers continued as such throughout the operation. The result was an inevitable reduction in the men available to hold the ground so stubbornly gained. And with more troops back in harbours bringing up ammunition and rations in trucks, a sorting party at railhead, casualties, and escorts to prisoners, it was not long before a battalion commander who had three hundred men in his defensive area was considered well off. The entire Division was combed for porters. Among units there was conflicting opinion as to whether ammunition or water should take priority of place in this porterage.

It was several days before a mule track was built up to the top, and until then everything had to be man-handled to the forward troops. Imagine carrying a two-gallon petrol tin or a box of ammunition up a thousand feet, under fire and in over 100 degrees of heat. There was a continuous stream of men going up and down the path.

A few days later, when the Cypriot Mule Company arrived from the Middle East and took over part of the carrying duties, the man-power situation did ease, but the mules were an ever-present threat to stretchers being carried down from the firing line. More than one wounded man had the misfortune to be knocked off his stretcher by a mule or, worse still, by a string of three which had been startled by a shell and were bolting. Though stretchers of a special pattern were used, the ground was so difficult that six men were often needed to carry one patient. Often in the momentary chaos on this narrow winding track mules laden with panniers or leather yakdans would go rolling over and over down the mountain side, carrying to perdition precious water or new batteries for wireless sets. At the best the mule path was four feet wide, and many days passed before an up-and-down track was constructed by the Sappers and Miners of the Division. The labour involved was tremendous, for the hillside was very steep, and covered with huge boulders and stunted scrub. Casualties from enemy artillery amongst muleteers, mules, and carrying parties were numerous, but the trying work was carried on from day to day without a murmur of complaint.

Many problems peculiar to mountain warfare faced our Gunners. The maps available were very inferior. Meteorological information was usually late and inaccurate, and the local winds in the mountains and valleys tricky. Predicted shooting was difficult. So too were concentrations on account of the many different types of guns in use: 5.7 inch, 4.5 inch and 6 inch Howitzers, 18- and 25-pounders. And gunpits down in the valley, being dug in sand, were constantly falling in.

Communications were at this period largely by line, and very long lines they were. Relay stations had to be established, and here two, signallers would live by themselves and patrol the lines. The quantities of cable used were prodigious. Laying wire behind infantry battalions and Forward Observation Officers was an immense problem, and the teams carrying the heavy drums of cable were difficult to control and easily became scattered during an attack. For example, during the assault by the Highland Light Infantry and Mahrattas, Major Munn had seventeen men toiling uphill with seventeen miles of cable on drums, a No. 11 wireless set, telephones, and signalling lamps.

All through that Sunday morning, March 16; the enemy sent his troops in determined counter-attacks against Fort Dologorodoc. All these attacks were beaten off by Messervy's Nine Brigade. The capture of the place had put us in a very strong position, for though it lay exposed to Italian observation and fire from both Sanchil and Falestoh, this vital hill of Dologorodoc was a key to the enemy's whole defence. That he was determined to get it back was shown by the very fierceness of his efforts to this end, in which he suffered many casualties from our shell fire, machine-guns and bombs. It was this reiterated failure to recapture the Fort with his crack troops that spread despondency in the enemy's ranks, and this in turn paved the way for our ultimate success.

* * * * * * *

We must now turn to watch the progress of the Fourth Indian Division.

On the morning of March 16 the Kaid rang up General Heath and informed him that Savory's Eleven Brigade had reported the existence of a gap in the enemy front near Brigs Peak. The Kaid understood that through this gap there was an opportunity of passing a brigade to exploit towards Keren. As all Savory's battalions had been committed, it was suggested that Ten Brigade be used for this passage. Heath had no reason to doubt the truth of this report, and as exploitation through such a gap was likely to crumble the Italian resistance on the Fourth Indian Division's front, he readily assented to the Kaid's placing his Ten Brigade at General Beresford-Peirse's disposal.

But no such gap existed. Information was lacking. For proper reconnaissance there was no opportunity. And this fruitless attempt against the enemy's strongest defensive position on the left of the Dongolaas Gorge was perhaps our one great error of the Keren battle.

At first it was proposed that a thrust be made over the col between Sanchil and Brigs Peak. But at a conference this plan was vetoed as suicidal, for the Italians were in great strength and held all the commanding ground. Instead, the 3/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles were to assault Sanchil, while the 4/10th Baluch would attack up Brigs Peak, at ten o'clock that night.

The Baluch suffered fifty-three casualties when two mortar bombs landed among the waiting Pathan company while Colonel Sundius-Smith was giving out his orders. This company was detailed to carry supplies, and the Dogra company led the attack instead.. The battalion moved off up Brigs Peak. A shell landed and Sundius-Smith thought his men had been spotted. But nothing followed. The rock of Sanchil is almost unclimbable, so steep are the slopes on every side. Below the rocky summit was a score of yards of loose shale, guarded by barbed wire that ran round to the saddle between Brigs Peak and Sanchil. It was to the right of the rock that the Dogra company climbed. Suddenly the Italians came to life; mortars were fired rapidly and little red bombs hurled down in profusion. To climb such a hill in shirts and shorts, in peaceful conditions, was a tremendous effort. How much greater was the strain of clambering up the mountain side, heavily laden and under intense fire from above! It was too much.

Sundius-Smith tried his Punjabi Mussulman company farther to the left, and these men reached the barbed wire, only to be forced back down the slope. They were almost on the summit, but to remain there was beyond human possibility. At dawn Colonel Fletcher, temporarily commanding Ten Brigade, arrived up, discussed the situation, and decided that to send the H.L.I. through the alleged gap would be hopeless. Nor could the Baluch stay where they were on the slopes of Sanchil.

And the Garhwalis were no more successful. They were, in fact, severely mauled. Two hundred yards from the top the attacking companies encountered unusually fierce opposition. For more than half an hour the entire face of Sanchil appeared to be one sheet of flame. The commanding officer, Lieutenant- Colonel S. E. Tayler, D.S.O., was killed. Every British officer on the slopes was wounded. At one period the battalion was commanded by a subaltern who had climbed up with a party of porters; then he, too, was wounded, and eventually the second-in-command, Major S. K. Murray, arrived to take over.

It was decided that these two battalions could not be maintained where they were. Their casualties continued to be heavy, and no reserves were available to press the attack. Accordingly the maimed Ten Brigade was withdrawn from both hills to re-form in Happy Valley.

So the day passed. At two-thirty on the following night, March 16-17, 29 Brigade passed through the 2nd West Yorkshires to attack Falestoh and Zeban. The Worcestershires were to take. the first hill, the 3/2nd Punjab (Lieutenant-Colonel F. A. M. B. Jenkins) the second. This attack had originally been timed for eleven o'clock, but was then postponed for three hours; Brigadier Marriott had found the climb so ghastly that he realized that his battalions would not arrive in time. No daylight reconnaissance had been possible, though the commanders did study air photographs and a large-scale sand model. The only examination of the actual ground was made just prior to the attack in moonlight. Time was needed for commanding officers to point out the objectives to their company commanders, and for these to make their own limited reconnaissance and issue their orders accordingly. Moreover, owing to the stiffness of the climb, to an inadequate supply of guides, and to the enforced use of a, single narrow track, which was infested with hastily-laid telephone cables and men who had fallen asleep, the last of the attacking battalions did not reach the area of Fort Dologorodoc until one o'clock in the morning.

This climb has been described by Captain Brian Gomm, one of Marriott's two Signals officers.

"We moved up the narrow track towards the heights, a long line of heavily laden men---a whole brigade. The moonlight was shining on the Fort, which seemed a very long way above us. Soon the ground below was out of sight, and the only sounds were the scraping of boots on the mule track and the mortar shells whizzing over us to crash lower down. We were glad to leave that area, for the slope of the mountain protected us.

"Slowly the line of men snaked upwards towards Dologorodoc, accompanied by mortar fire and desultory shelling from our own field guns. The last hundred yards were quite the worst of all. There was no track---it was just a mass of powdered stone and dust which slipped away as we scrambled up. 1 remember making a last effort, and by a great heave reached the low wall of the Fort. I looked over this wall and leaned against it. Infantry stood in the small trench behind the wall, but there was no Fort at all, only a rocky plateau about one hundred yards in diameter, with a small building to one side."

The Brigadier had been right to postpone the zero hour until half-past two for the 1st Worcestershires and a quarter of an hour later for the 3/2nd Punjab. The 6/13th would exploit through the Indian battalion to the cross-roads west of Keren.

Bucknall's Worcestershires, after a late start, made good progress. but met heavy enemy resistance soon after four o'clock. Despite this they had, by 7.30, established themselves on a pimple one hundred yards south of Point 1552 on the Falestoh ridge.

Meanwhile, from behind our infantry the enemy had counterattacked eastwards against Fort Dologorodoc, and had reached to within fifty yards before they were beaten back. For two hours that morning Italian artillery heavily bombarded the Fort---particularly the concrete blockhouse on the north side in which Brigadier Marriott had established his battle headquarters. This was later moved, because of the vicious strafing, into one of the trenches of the Fort, although these were already overcrowded. Marriott noted in his diary that evening: "My battle H.Q. was shelled so heavily that we were literally shut in."

For Marriott, the situation remained obscure for several hours, because the liaison officer of the 3/2nd Punjab had been wounded and the Worcestershires' wireless set damaged beyond local repair. The maintenance of telephone cables to the forward companies was an acute problem. All the lines had been cut by shelling, and heliograph was used. But eventually news did come through that, although progress was slow, the enemy had been severely hit. Two very determined attacks by Bucknall's men had failed to gain Falestoh; one company now held positions on the lower slopes and the rest of the battalion were astride the Fort road some five hundred yards short of Zeban Minor.

It was then learned that on the left Jenkins' 3/2nd Punjab, after a splendid attack during which they captured four enemy guns, were again held up by Italian fire from the direction of Sanchil. The battalion was now within half a mile of Zeban Minor. Then, at 7.30, 'A' Company of the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles, under Captain Anant Singh Pathania, put in an attack on the left flank of the 3/2nd Punjab to protect it from counter-attacks. With great gallantry this company rushed over ground that was swept by Italian guns from Railway Bumps and Sanchil, and captured forty prisoners. And our forward infantry held on to the very exposed ground they had gained, in the face of heavy artillery shelling and sniping. The remainder of the 6/13th acted as porters, carrying water, rations, grenades, Very lights, small-arms and mortar ammunition up to the other two battalions of 29 Brigade.

At half-past ten Colonel Bucknall walked back to Brigade Headquarters. To Marriott he explained the impossibility of hanging on indefinitely to the positions already gained on the slopes of Falestoh, or of making further progress. His forward companies, now virtually isolated, were suffering casualties from enemy guns on Zeban and Falestoh. On being informed of this situation, General Heath at once telephoned back for supplies to be dropped. Urgency demanded that the stores be packed on the spot; there were no proper containers. No airmen there had been trained in Army co-operation. But this supply-dropping flight was arranged with great speed by Air Commodore Slatter, who was with the Kaid at his forward headquarters near by.

Soon after one o'clock that afternoon a Vincent and a Wellesley aircraft flew as low as they dared in the mountains, and dropped hard-scale rations and small-arms ammunition for both forward battalions. A flight-sergeant lay on the floor of the Vincent and pushed the stores out through a trap-door in the floor. Accuracy of dropping in the difficult conditions was hardly to be expected, particularly in view of the fact that the Worcestershires had been unable to demarcate their dropping zone with the conspicuous white 'X' asked for by the Royal Air Force. Some of the ammunition was bent; many of the supplies fell so far from the battalion areas that they could not be retrieved. The ammunition, jettisoned in bandoliers, fell over an area of the hill three-quarters of a mile long. In addition, enemy shelling caused casualties to the parties of men who were gathering in the supplies. Finally, to add to these difficulties, our aircraft drew a large volume of enemy ground-fire from Sanchil and Falestoh.

Later in the afternoon, because of the problematic maintenance with ammunition and water, and having regard for the exhaustion of the Worcestershires, General Heath ordered Marriott to withdraw his forward troops to the tip of the depression half a mile in front of Fort Dologorodoc. At nightfall, and not before, was this move possible. Bucknall brought his men back to the Big Rocks area, on the reverse side of the Fort. A party of the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles helped them to carry in the wounded and dead, who now numbered fifty-five and twenty-three. At six o'clock Marriott also brought his battle headquarters away from its uncomfortable position---the target of snipers on Sanchil and of airbursts--and established himself between two huge rocks, also on the reverse slope. And the 3/2nd Punjab held on to their positions eight hundred yards in front of Fort Dologorodoc.

* * * * * * *

Brigadier John Marriott, then forty-five, had won the D.S.O., M.C., and Croix de Guerre while serving with the Northamptonshire Regiment in the First World War. After a year on the staff of our Military Attaché in Washington, he had transferred to the Scots Guards. By 1938 he was commanding the 2nd Battalion, and sailed with them to Egypt in December of that year.

His spare figure stepping precisely round his brigade parish, wearing Scots Guards hosetops and long puttees immaculately rolled, was familiar and stimulating. At all times he demanded the highest standard, his discipline was rigid, and he kept his troops constantly on their toes. Though he was never over-friendly with anyone, and allowed no liberties to be taken, he was greatly liked and respected, for his sense of humour was dry, his mess comfortable, his hospitality generous. Whether his mess was between two rocks high up on Keren, or in an Italian house, or, again, in a dark cave, Marriott was a gourmet, eager when someone shot a guineafowl or a gazelle, and particular about his sherry.

One of the best jokes his staff ever enjoyed was the episode of the Brigadier's cake. This gorgeous iced cake had been sent down from Cairo by his wife, and when 29 Brigade left Port Sudan, the two-thirds that remained were packed in a round cake-tin by the Brigadier's batman, Guardsman Sharpe. Great reference was made by Marriott during the next two months of campaigning, as to how this cake was to be eaten. And after the battle of Ad Teclesan the cake was sent for. The tin was brought in by the Indian cook, Suzi, and opened for Marriott's inspection. There was no cake. In its place, lying snugly in the tin and fitting as if this had been specially made for it, was---Guardsman Sharpe's hat!

Brigadier Marriott astonished many by the way in which he took quickly to Indian Army manners and methods. These must have been strange to him, for he had not been to India, and had always served with British troops. He was asked one day how he managed to get on so well with the Indian soldiers, seeing that he spoke no Urdu. The audience was intrigued by Marriott's reply.

"Oh, I just go round and smile at them and say 'Tigeri, tigeri' and they seem to like it."

On further inquiry it was discovered that John Marriott's 'Tigeri, tigeri' was a phonetical attempt at "Tagra hai?" which means "Are you on top of your form?"

He was invariably turned out impeccably, even in battle; his manner was urbane, polished, unruffled. Very rarely was he anything but his smooth and dapper self, sociable, definite, punctilious---a Guardsman commanding an Indian Infantry Brigade with marked success. Of the sepoys he was extremely fond, and his admiration for them mounted as the weeks passed. He could climb the steep hills with the best of them.

It was a help, perhaps, that General Alexander, himself an Irish Guardsman, was Colonel of the 3/2nd Punjab, and so, as Marriott expressed it: "I suppose they felt that to have a Guardsman as Brigadier was not too unsatisfactory." A characteristically British understatement!

* * * * * * *

At seven o'clock that night, while the Worcestershires were being evacuated, 'B' Company of the 6/13th out on the left flank was heavily counter-attacked by a battalion of Savoy Grenadiers. Captain Anant Singh Pathania displayed magnificent courage and leadership in this action. Although wounded in the face and in both legs, he collected his company headquarters and any other men he could muster, and pushed the enemy out with the bayonet. Only then, and under orders, did he hand over the company to his second-in-command, but the latter, too, was wounded by bomb splinters.

Major Munn, who was now Forward Observation Officer with the 3/2nd Punjab and commanded 389 Battery of Sussex Yeomanry, happened to be passing by when this engagement began. He walked up to the company commander and asked if he could help. Munn was himself wounded by bomb splinters, but gallantly rushed back to Fort Dologorodoc, and had two sections of Rodwell's West Yorkshires sent forward with all haste to assist the Frontier Force men, who had by now suffered 35 per cent. casualties. They held their ground notwithstanding, and again drove the enemy back at the point of the bayonet.

So ended the first phase of the offensive as it was originally planned. General Heath decided to hold on firmly to the vital gain of Dologorodoc and the ground beyond, such as it was, while he thought out a plan for the next move. The fact that 29 Brigade had failed to gain the high ground and to exploit further made our hold upon the Fort seem precarious, and for a number of days entailed constant efforts by the Royal Air Force and the Gunner regiments of the Division to subdue the enemy along the ridges.

There followed a week of holding on to what had been gained, while the Italians, day after day, counter-attacked with the utmost determination in their efforts to recapture the vital Fort Dologorodoc. During this week no fewer than eight such onslaughts were launched. The defenders of the Fort drove back every one.

On March 19 Major W. H. Langran, M.C., assumed command of the 2nd West Yorkshires in place of Lieutenant-Colonel R. L. Rodwell, A.F.C., who went to Division to act as Corps Liaison Officer.

29 Brigade, being relieved in their position by Nine Brigade, moved to the reverse side of Pinnacle and were heavily shelled during the take-over. They were now responsible for pinnacle and Pimple.

On the 20th the troops were all able to spend a quiet day, and batches of men were sent out to Kilo 116 to wash. During the following three days the West Yorkshires, for example, 'rested' behind Fort Dologorodoc. But the heat was intense, and from the east blew a hot, dust-laden wind that freshened at night. Small parties were sent back for a bath and, a rest, but shelling continued day and night, and the battalion had most of its casualties during four days of otherwise comparative inactivity. Three shells burst in the same place in as many minutes and caused casualties among the stretcher bearers. One shell burst beside the signal exchange, wounding the signal sergeant. Another landed in battalion headquarters.

Reports from the Fourth Indian Division, from interrogation of prisoners. and from the active patrolling carried out during this period of preparation indicated an imminent enemy withdrawal towards the Zeban front. The enemy seemed to be drawing in his battalions from the right flank preparatory to a general retirement, using Zeban and Falestoh as a screen. Many deserters, mostly from the Colonial battalions, had been crawling under the wire on Acqua Col---the seats of some trousers verified this---in spite of the risk of being shot by their own officers.

 

CHAPTER V

THE FALL OF KEREN
MARCH 1941

THE Division, after hard fighting, had not gained Falestoh and Zeban; nor had the Fourth Indian Division yet captured Sanchil and Brigs Peak. General Heath had no reserves. The only brigade he had not used was the Tenth, which had already suffered severely on the slopes of Sanchil. But he determined to maintain pressure against the enemy, and to feel his front for points of weakness. With this in mind he investigated the chances of repairing the breach in the main road up the Dongolaas Gorge, for it had occurred to him that the Italians might be neglecting their defences there. During the original reconnaissance a distant view of the road-block had been obtained from Cameron Ridge, and a preliminary estimate made of the time and labour required to clear it. But it was not until after the capture of Fort Dologorodoc that a close reconnaissance was possible.

On the night of March 16 a Sapper officer from 2 Field Company went out to examine the breach. He did this without interference from the Italians , and came back with the information that the block consisted of two craters about twenty yards long, with a debris of large boulders at each end and between the craters. The total length of the obstacle was over a hundred yards. The officer estimated that the road could be made passable to tracked vehicles with some forty-eight hours' work.

The next night a further reconnaissance enabled the C.R.E., Lieutenant- Colonel Arthur Napier, to look at the road-block himself. A patrol of the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles--the only troops available to give protection to the Sappers---was sent along the railway line towards Railway Bumps. They met no enemy in advance of their fixed defences overlooking the block, but an Italian sentry at the Keren end of the breach was disturbed.

It had been Napier's intention on this occasion to start clearing the debris of boulders, using gun-cotton charges where necessary. To drown the noise, a programme of artillery and small-arms fire had been arranged. But the enemy, being on the alert, opened fire. After a brief engagement, Napier realized that he could not carry out his task and withdrew the little force. Thus a plan for a stealthy demolition of some of the larger rocks on the block, which was attempted on the night of the 18th, failed.

General Heath decided that a second attempt should be made on the following night, with a covering party strong enough to deal with enemy opposition on both sides of the Dongolaas Gorge. Once again the Frontier Force Rifles---a company of them this time---met two enemy picquets and sustained casualties from bombs showered down on the leading platoon. Twenty of our men were wounded, and the operation had to be abandoned.

But despite failure, the information gained was so valuable that on sifting it General Heath exclaimed, "Keren is ours!" He had had an inspiration after realizing that Sanchil, hitherto regarded as the key to the whole position, could be ignored, and that the real key was Railway Bumps. These closely overlooked the road-block and could be approached with considerably less opposition by the railway line from the tunnel below Cameron Ridge.

For the third attempt Heath had to wait until the heavily mauled Ten Brigade had been reconditioned. Nothing less than a full-dress attack would succeed. A major operation would have to be staged before the Sappers could start their job, and for this operation the Division would need its third brigade. But Ten Brigade would not be ready for a further severe effort until March 23 at the earliest.

The Fourth Indian Division reported on the 20th that they would be able to clear the tunnel on Cameron Ridge spur within two days. It was through this tunnel and along the railway line that Ten Brigade was to advance, under cover of darkness, for its attack. The G.S.O. 1 of Beresford-Peirse's Headquarters, Colonel T. W. Rees--a stocky little Welshman known as "Pete," a teetotaller and nonsmoker who, four years later, was to capture Mandalay---came across to take command of Ten Brigade. This had been led by Fletcher of the H.L.I. ever since January 21, when Brigadier Slim had been wounded. Now Bernard Fletcher formed a mobile column, known as Fletcher Force, composed of the Central Indian Horse, together with thirty-six brigaded carriers and the remaining fourteen Infantry tanks. The column stood ready to advance through the Gorge to Keren to mop up Italian reserves so soon as the road-block should have been cleared.

While the Fourth Indian Division would hold the enemy on the left flank and divert his attention, Messervy's Nine Brigade on the right had instructions to push forward and capture three small features that lay between Fort Dologorodoc and Mount Zebanthey were known as Hillocks 'A' and 'B,' and Red Hill. After this had been accomplished, Brigadier Marriott was to send his troops through to take Zeban and, further to the east, Mount Canabai, which looks down on Keren and guards the road to Asmara.

It is General Heath's opinion that this exploitation to Zeban and Canabai would not of itself have caused the Italians to give up. They would still have had sufficient troops in hand to defeat the small force that we might have established on these two objectives. Administrative problems would have precluded us from strengthening the force. What the Italians were not prepared to face was a thrust through their central defences by our much-feared Infantry tanks, for which they believed they had no adequate antidote.

The main attack was fixed to start early on March 25. It had been postponed by a day. Just before midnight on the 24th patrols from Captain Timbrell's company of the 2nd West Yorkshires, after hearing enemy talking on the reverse slope of Hillock 'A,' occupied this small feature. And by half-past four two companies had been established there by Colonel Langran. At the same time Reid's Mahrattas took Hillock 'B' against heavy opposition. Their attack was due to start at half-past four. It was later discovered that an Italian counter-attack had been planned for the same time, but was postponed because the supporting tanks did not arrive. So Reid's men found themselves outnumbered and fighting against an enemy well dug in. By seven o'clock on March 25 the Indian troops had surprised the enemy on Red Hill. Our casualties were heavy when the Italians retaliated from Falestoh with mortar fire, but the defences of the road-block to the south had now been cleared.

Meanwhile, Ten Brigade's assault on Railway Bumps had started that morning, the 25th. Brigadier Rees and Sundius-Smith had made several perilous reconnaissances, during which mountain guns had fired at them at point-blank range.

The Highland Light Infantry and Baluch spent the night in the tunnel. The scene was like some Rembrandt painting, as the men waited in the darkness that was pierced by an occasional light and by the glow of cigarette ends. From time to time tea and rum were served out. The Indians remained silent by contrast with the 'Jocks," who chattered away and suddenly burst into the strains of Annie Laurie. Brigadier Rees walked to the end of the tunnel to see whether the sounds could be heard, but all was well.

The troops were ordered to scatter to left and right of the railway track if firing broke out. Who knew but that the Italians had fixed-line machine guns trained on the exit from the tunnel? When our men debouched they might encounter some Italian patrol, and such a meeting would start an inferno of shooting and grenades. At 3 a.m. the troops tiptoed forward. Brigadier Rees waited anxiously, watching the seconds tick by on his watch. As each minute passed he knew that the men had reached a certain distance without being discovered. What troops the enemy held on Railway Bumps was unknown. The moment was tense, and in no man's mind was there any sense of an easy attack, still less of a walk-over.

Each battalion had two companies to fight, and one to carry stores, ammunition, rations, water. The leading Scottish company then left the track and started to scramble up the hillside, only to meet a shower of Italian red bombs. The other two attacking companies, led by Major Maxwell, went farther along the line. Both parties made good progress. The enemy, now thoroughly awake and in some state of panic, hurled down bombs and grenades, but put up little effective resistance. The Italians had been taken by surprise, and our concentrated artillery barrage on the ridge had thrown them into confusion. Several Dogra fighting patrols were sent up the slopes of Sanchil and had hectic little engagements against odds. When a number of Italian soldiers walked down from above with their hands raised, Major Doyle sent out a patrol. The sepoys were greeted with a further storm of red bombs---a favourite Italian trick.

By half past five most of the objectives had been gained. Some five hundred prisoners were taken. Several admitted that they had never seriously considered that anyone would risk an attack along the railway track. The colonel of the Bersaglieri battalion holding Railway Bumps surrendered with his headquarters in their dugout to the H.L.I.'s Intelligence sergeant. He was brought back to Brigadier Rees. He was almost speechless with rage at having been surprised. So long had the tunnel been quiescent, that his eyes had been on Sanchil. A battery of pack guns and another of anti-tank guns that had been defending the road-block were captured.

Our attack had been successful. Now it was a question of holding on until the Sappers had repaired the road through the Gorge. The Italians still held the upper slopes of Sanchil, but here the mountain side rose so abruptly that the enemy could scarcely bring down accurate fire on the positions held by Ten Brigade.

At half past six that morning 2 Field Company started work on clearing the block. The Sappers had asked for two nights and one day in which to clear the road for the passage of tanks; they were given two days and one night. After the first day Napier's three Field Companies, aided by another loaned by the Fourth Indian Division, relieved each other every five hours. The task was accomplished to time, in spite of frequent shelling of the block and its approaches.

Throughout the period of work on repairing the demolition, the Royal Air Force continued to bomb the enemy on Falestoh and Zeban. The Italians made several cut-and-run raids with their speedy Savoia bombers directed on our forward guns in the road bend below Pinnacle. These howitzers of the Kashmir Mountain Battery were positioned there to keep quiet the enemy troops on the lower slopes of Sanchil. Other guns to engage Railway Bumps were placed at the mouth of Happy Valley, the control of which had by this time been regained from the Italians.

During March 26 the Fourth Indian Division reported signs of .enemy artillery moving away from their front. Ten Brigade reported movement eastwards across the plain of Keren. Nine Brigade, too, noticed a decrease in shelling and anti-aircraft fire from the Italian side. Indeed, the 2nd West Yorkshires noted that this was the quietest day they had spent since the battle for Keren began.

On the same day the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, visited the battle area with the Kaid. After viewing the situation on the Fifth Indian Division's front from Dologorodoc, General Wavell expressed a wish to visit Brigadier Marriott at 29 Brigade. Heath strongly advised the Commander-in-Chief not to do so, because the enemy artillery seldom failed to engage movement observed on the road forward of Divisional Headquarters, and Savoia bombers came at intervals bent on strafing the mountain battery just short of Marriott's headquarters.

But General Wavell was stubborn, and was already edging down the spur towards the roadway when five Savoias flew overhead and dropped bombs, as anticipated, on the battery position. The bombs straddled the road. Those officers and men in and around Divisional Headquarters who stood within splinter range of this attack threw themselves down in the cover of rocks.

Wavell smiled, and only then was persuaded to give up his intention of going forward to visit Marriott. Instead, he sent a message of good wishes for 29 Brigade's attack next morning.

The work of repairing the demolition of the roadway through the Dongolaas Gorge and making the road fit for the passage of tracked and wheeled. vehicles being now within an ace of completion, the time was near for Marriott's Brigade to round off the operation by securing the upper part of the Dongolaas Valley.

Accordingly, that night (March 26-27) 29 Brigade launched its attack at half past four through Nine Brigade's positions. The night was very dark, the troops burdened, and the approach march difficult in consequence. But within an hour the Worcestershires had raced to the top of Zeban Minor. Falestoh Ridge was occupied without opposition. And by half past seven two companies of the 6/13th had seized Zeban Major.

The enemy had had enough. He had worn himself out with reiterated and vain counter-assaults. He had lost heart for the fight. His resistance was now poor. At six o'clock the 3/2nd Punjab spotted white flags flying from the summit of Sanchil, and during that morning similar white flags appeared on Brigs Peak, Mount Amba and Samanna.

The Italians had managed to withdraw over half their guns from Keren and all their troops from the east side of the road into Keren. On the Sanchil side, on and around the commanding heights which the Fourth Indian Division had been so valiantly attacking for more than seven weeks, over 3,000 Italians were left marooned. The battle of Keren was at an end.

We must now return to the road-block in the Dongolaas Gorge.

At the end of the second day, March 26, when the road had been cleared to a width of twelve feet, it was decided to defer the passage of Fletcher's mobile column until the following morning. A further night of intensive work was necessary to prepare for the tracked vehicles, but the shelling had now died down, and by dawn all was ready. The column passed through, not without incident. The 'I' tanks went first, driven by their incomparable crews; then the carriers, and finally the wheeled vehicles. The leading carrier stuck on the incline of the former block, and delayed matters. One officer's staff car became wedged and had to be thrown over the precipice to allow the remainder to pass .

Beneath the rebuilt road lie the bodies of brave men of the Sappers and Miners who gave their lives in clearing the block; and of the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles who died in winning the information which brought success.

By ten o'clock Fletcher Force had entered Keren. When the Air Force had reported, three hours earlier, that the Italians were evacuating the town the role of this column, which had originally been to destroy all Italian communications, reserves, headquarters and guns in the Keren neighbourhood, was changed to that of pursuing the enemy. The 4/10th Baluch and Highland Light Infantry were placed across the valley to stop fugitives. Marriott established 29 Brigade in the area south of the road by Keren. That afternoon Nine Brigade also moved forward from Fort Dologorodoc and down to the water point below Zeban. The stern battle had been won.

* * * * * * *

In a letter to his wife, Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Dean, of the 3/12th, wrote:

"We have been very short of sleep---only two nights did we have a blanket, and latterly we've been climbing, and the nights have been cold. Only one change of clothes in the eleven days of the battle, and no water all that time for anything but drinking. I had a long, almost white beard when it was over, and my face and hands were incredibly grimy. The result of that was that every graze went septic at once, and we are all a mass of bandages. No hot meals---all cooking was below, so we had no hot meals except for an occasional cup of tea; and no washing up of plates. We just forked and spooned things out of communal tins, or ate curry puffs, sausage rolls, etc., sent up from behind. One curious thing was that, after ten days, one felt no more dirty than after three, and far less sensitive to the hordes of flies---another inevitable result of the conditions of unburied bodies and no sanitation."

The compiler of the narrative for the Official History of this campaign has summed up the battle in these words:

"So Keren fell after fifty-three days of siege. It is estimated that the Italians employed in the battle a peak total of thirty-nine battalions and thirty-six batteries, and that during the total period of operations they disposed in all of something over 30,000 infantry, supported by 144 guns. Many of these were fresh troops, and although the British forces never succeeded in driving their opponents from the main peaks on either side of the Gorge, and suffered over 4,000 casualties in their attempts to do so, it is true to say that the enemy brought defeat on himself and finally wore himself out in his eight fierce but fruitless attempts to retake Dologorodoc Fort. It was here that his best and freshest units were driven back with crippling losses. In General Frusci's own situation reports, which were captured, he reveals that 3,000 dead were left at Keren, including General Lorenzini and five senior officers. . . . Practically all had been staked on holding this great natural fortress, with the result that, at the end, there were but three battalions and a few batteries uncommitted between Keren and Asmara."

And Lieutenant-General Sir Reginald Savory, who commanded Eleven Brigade during this fighting, affirms, as have others, that "no enemy but the Italians would ever have allowed us to take the place. It was practically 'impregnable,' and even with Italian defenders we suffered heavily and at times began to wonder if we ever would succeed."

The Italians, particularly the regular troops such as Savoia Grenadiers, Alpini, and Bersaglieri, were proud of their resistance at Keren. it was one of the few occasions on which they really fought with tenacity and fervour.

It is probable that without the specialized training at Tessenei, and experience gained by nearly all the Indian, and some of the British, battalions in operations and columns on the North-West Frontier of India, our troops would not have proved so sharp a thorn in the Italian side. For the battle had been one of endurance and holding on. The Fourth Indian Division had been sent straight into the fight without the priceless opportunity of training for the battle ahead.

Co-operation between the two Indian divisions was at once intimate and generous, as General Heath has put on record. The Fourth set the Fifth a very high standard in fighting against the enemy and physical difficulties. Beresford-Peirse's men bore the brunt of the battle for six weeks before the advent of the Fifth Indian Division. And it was natural that the Fourth should have wanted to win through. Indeed, it would merely have been justice had they done so. But in the end, when the final and successful solution to the Keren barrier had been found as the result of trial and error, it was the Fifth who were able to exploit the weakness in these defences. The hitherto impregnable Sanchil, scene of many a valiant and vain assault, grave of many scores of gallant fighters, was taken in reverse by men of the Fifth. None were more pleased at this success than their comrades of the Fourth.


Chapter Six

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