Antony Brett-James

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

 

CHAPTER VI

THE ROAD TO ASMARA
APRIL 1941

MEANWHILE, Fletcher Force was pursuing the enemy. After searching Keren for an hour, the tanks set off along the Asmara road. They halted at noon to await the arrival of the carriers and armoured cars which were more fitted for pursuit. Soon our column met some two thousand disorganized Italian stragglers. These readily obeyed Fletcher's instructions to stack their arms by the roadside, and then trailed back towards Keren.

The first opposition to our progress was encountered at K.59. From this point forward for several miles the road twists along the side of a valley, while below the road the ground slopes steeply away into a gorge. The Italians had realized the defensive qualities of this stretch and had improved upon the natural strength of the position for delaying action by demolitions covered by cunningly emplaced guns.

At five o'clock that evening, March 27, General Heath arrived forward to find that Fletcher's leading armoured car had been knocked out by an unlocated gun. Reconnaissance made it clear to the Divisional Commander that something stronger than Fletcher Force would be needed to deal with the opposition ahead. Besides, the tanks being restricted to the road, infantry were required to deploy to the flank. Accordingly he summoned Marriott's 29 Brigade, while Fletcher's men picketed the neighbouring heights. A further bad road-block had been discovered three kilometres on towards Asmara.

Brigadier Marriott reached Fletcher Force early next morning, the 28th, and took over the position, Fletcher himself returning to command the Highland Light Infantry back in Keren. That afternoon the 3/2nd Punjab and 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles cleared the first block. The country here was hilly, more thickly vegetated and less rocky than Keren, and the road was carved out of the hillside. This made things very difficult for our Gunners of 28 Field Regiment. The guns supporting the Brigade were in action just off the road, and were a long way back so as to be able to clear the crests. Consequently the range was greater than could be efficient. Moreover, the enemy had succeeded in withdrawing more than half his artillery from the positions defending Keren, and had he not worn himself out in the recent battles, the Division's task of breaking through the block would have been even more difficult and costly.

29 Brigade, with its Headquarters and Signal Office in a large cave, was now faced with an obstacle reinforced with a landslide demolition. This was K.56. Before 20 Field Company could start to clear the block, the Italians had to be driven off the flanking hills. By noon on March 29 the Sappers had worked so well at the obstructions that a column consisting of one light tank, some armoured cars, one squadron of the Central India Horse, and three 'I' tanks was soon through. By four o'clock this force had advanced five kilometres. Then it came under heavy fire and was obliged to withdraw. One of our armoured cars had been set ablaze. Several burning Italian lorries were blocking the road.

At the same time an attempt was made by the Divisional Commander to outflank the enemy by moving Ten Brigade down the railway line with a detachment of Skinner's Horse and one M. M.G. company of the Sudan Defence Force. But this effort was foiled by serious demolitions, although the number of guns and amount of Italian equipment later found there did indicate that this flanking move had served the general operation by causing the enemy to divert troops from the main battle.

Early on March 30 Brigadier Marriott reported that he hoped to push along the road at first light next day with 'I' tanks. Colonel Russell, the G.S.O.1, visited him to say that the enemy seemed to be on his last legs. Everything possible must be done to complete his destruction.

Later that morning General Heath made a reconnaissance and decided that Messervy's Nine Brigade should pass through and continue the advance. After lunch the Italians started to range their guns on the stretch of road between K.55 and K.51, and soon afterwards regular harassing fire was opened upon a certain bend in the road. Here salvoes of four rounds descended with accuracy every sixty seconds. Brigadier Messervy and the West Yorkshire reconnaissance parties ran the gauntlet and came through without harm. But later, when General Heath and Dudley Russell tried to get through to the rear, they found that the road had been completely blocked by trucks and corpses.

General Heath has told the story.

"The firing continued well into the afternoon, and the time came for our departure. So we started off and waited down the road, waiting for the regular salvo. It did not arrive on time, so we drove on, round the bend, and found the road blocked by smashed vehicles. A couple of hundred yards away a few trucks untouched by fire had been left. I alighted and said, 'We will take one of those.' I had gone a few yards when 'crump,' 'crump,' and my Bombay bowler (sun helmet) was sent spinning by a shell splinter. I quickened my pace and walked round the next bend. Only then did I look back. There was no sign of Russell. I waited a few minutes and then started to retrace my steps, and there came Russell, coolly driving the staff car. He had, with the aid of a signaller on line-repair duty, pushed a couple of vehicles clear, and had then driven his car through the gap . It was a cool appreciation that the Italian gunners, from their observation post high up in the hills to the north of the road, would not be able to release another salvo from their old-fashioned pieces for fifty seconds or so."

Next morning, March 31, a little before five, the 2nd West Yorkshires attacked. Within an hour their first objective had been taken, and 460 prisoners, including nineteen officers, captured. Heavy shelling prevented a second company from exploiting along the ridge on the other side of the road. But that evening the 3/12th Frontier Force Rifles attacked what was known as White Rock Ridge covering the road-block at K.45, and the feature was gained.

Meanwhile, the 1st Worcestershires, assisted by part of the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles under Major Vidya Dhar Jayal, had taken two more hills against stern resistance. A hundred more prisoners had fallen into their grip.

Thus ended the enemy's final resistance before Asmara. During the past two days prisoners and deserters had been numerous. The Italians had, in a last effort to hold our advance, moved fresh troops into the line, but when one particular Colonial battalion reached the fighting many of its native soldiers at once deserted.

On that last evening of March, at eight o'clock, the 2nd Field Company set to work on the road-block. Though it was a hundred yards in length, the Sappers had cleared a route through the block by two o'clock in the morning. The day was now April 1. While the 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment took possession of Ad Teclesan village, a mile forward, Rees' Ten Brigade, with a squadron of the Central India Horse and a few 'I' tanks under command, passed through to the front. Their task was to pursue the enemy along the remaining twenty-five miles into Asmara.

An hour later a black car with a white flag flying from the windscreen was seen approaching from the direction of Asmara. The car contained two police officers who bore a request that the capital of Eritrea should be treated as an open town. They were sent back to Brigade Headquarters and met by Brigadier Messervy, who was at that moment riding into Ad Teclesan in a tank. While Ten Brigade continued its advance, the two Italian envoys were sent back to meet General Heath. The Divisional Commander agreed to the enemy's request on condition that dumps, vehicles and military stores were handed over, that civil plants and public services in Asmara were not damaged, and that roads and airfields were cleared of mines and booby traps. With these terms the two police officers returned to Asmara, having been instructed to meet Brigadier Rees outside the town with their accredited leaders.

Three miles short of the capital, Rees was received by the Bishop of Asmara and by the heads of the Government and Police. After a conference held inside an Italian motor-bus, Rees went forward into the town. The time was now half past ten. He was accompanied by the Italian delegates and escorted by the Central India Horse and tanks.

Brigadier Rees arranged that his three battalions and the leading battery of Welchman's 28th Field Regiment should march through the city, the four colonels and himself driving in state to the Governor's palace. The five trucks moved in a stately and dignified procession. Much to the astonishment of the British officers, there were plaudits of welcome from the inhabitants, and Welchman's faithful bearer, Abdullah, sat up very erect in the back of the vehicle and acknowledged the cheers on behalf of his Sahib.

The arrival of British forces was welcomed by the inhabitants, because the evening before one of the Colonial battalions had mutinied and rioted, and the Italian civilians were anxious to have law and order restored without delay. But in the meantime most of the people shut themselves up in their houses and stayed there until our troops entered the town.

Asmara was formally surrendered. A slight drizzle rather spoilt the ceremonial in front of General Frusci's palace, where an unusually scruffy guard presented arms execrably. Then, at the General Post Office, loudspeakers announced that Asmara would be treated as an open city. All traffic would drive on the left of the road.

General Heath arrived at eleven o'clock. By midday the Highland Light Infantry had reached the outskirts of Asmara, where a halt was called. They had come up the road past a continuous stream of thousands of prisoners. These all seemed to be cheerful, notwithstanding the surrender. As they trudged back, they mingled with large parties of Eritreans who came in from the hills to meet the British column with shrill songs of greeting. But bands of them also roamed about the bare plateau and edged towards the booty stacked near the road. The Italians had to hurl stones to keep off these would-be looters. The road, too, was strewn with the debris of the retreating Italian army: litter of all sorts, and such trophies as revolvers, binoculars and compasses.

At one o'clock the H.L.I were ordered to dismount from their lorries. Led by Pipe-Major McLean, the battalion marched into Asmara, the first infantry unit to enter the town. The streets were now lined with large crowds of Italians and Eritreans. Many hung out of the windows to wave and clap. The people's first comment, on seeing the Scottish pipers, was that the British Army must be hard pressed if it could not afford to give its soldiers a proper band!

* * * * * * *

On the evening of the day our troops entered Asmara, General Heath sent for Colonel Fletcher and ordered him to lead a column south along the Via Imperiale that linked Asmara and Adigrat, a distance of a hundred miles. He was to pursue those Italians who were reported to have retreated in this direction. The column, called "Flitforce" after the nickname of its commander, comprised the Central India Horse and two M.M.G. companies of the Sudan Defence Force.

Bernard Fletcher, commissioned into the Highland Light Infantry in 1916 at the age of eighteen, had won the Military Cross and been gassed with mustard gas in France during the last two years of the Great War. Thereafter he had served for a few months in North Russia, before going with his battalion to Egypt and Palestine. For nearly a year in 1923 the H.L.I. had occupied Turkish territory in Asia Minor, at Chanak, and was then sent to India. Fletcher, now speaking both Arabic and Hindustani, passed into the Staff College in 1929, served in India again during the thirties, and in 1938 was appointed to command the 2nd Highland Light Infantry in Palestine.

It was clear that if any Italian prisoners were to be captured, they must be cut off. Accordingly, Fletcher sent the C.I.H. to make a direct pursuit down the road through Decamere to Adigrat while the two M.M.G. companies took the western road that passed via Adi Ugri to Aduwa. Then they would turn east and cut across to Adigrat.

Adi Ugri was reached without incident. Here a stop was made to release from the Italian camp a number of our prisoners of war, taken when Italy invaded Somaliland. The former prisoners had the pleasant duty of escorting their Italian guards back to Asmara. Then the pursuit was renewed. Some forty miles farther south the S.D.F. came upon a large barrack-like block of buildings, which turned out to be an Italian detention barracks. To have captured the staff would have obliged Fletcher to look after the prisoners, so the Italian staff were left in charge and placed upon their best behaviour not to interfere with any traffic on the road that "Flitforce" was leaving behind it. As Fletcher rightly commented, "Such a course would not have been possible with any enemy other than Italians."

Aduwa was reached at nine o'clock next morning. Here a cousin of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Abyssinia, named Ras Seyoum, presented himself, but could give no information about the retreating Italians, for none had passed that way. Leaving one S.D.F. company in Aduwa, Fletcher turned east with the other and headed for Adigrat. As the road climbed up to cross the Alequa Pass, so the column gradually spun out until the S.D.F. company was stretched over five miles. Hopes that our advance was a secret were dashed when the top of the pass was reached. For there, nearly ten thousand feet above sea-level, among the clouds that drifted over the neighbouring crags, waited an assembly of women and priests---a reception committee. While the women ululated their welcome to Fletcher's men, the priests advanced with crosses and chains of beaten silver, which they held out towards our officers. These latter did not quite know what to do, but they touched the crosses.

Then the column descended into Adigrat. A subaltern of the S.D.F. found a complete Colonial battalion, with lorries drawn up facing south, about to set off down the road to Amba Alagi. With armoured cars he drove up to the officers who were seated beside the road taking their commander's orders, and induced them to surrender. The men were marched past an open space where they laid down their arms prior to filing into an enclosed camp, while the officers were taken to huts in another part of Adigrat. This easy capture was marred by anxiety at the non-arrival of the C.I.H., who were no longer in communication by wireless. Accordingly, Fletcher sent for the second S.D.F. company that had been left in Aduwa; this force arrived next morning. The number of prisoners had meanwhile been swelled by the arrival of further parties from the north, and they now outnumbered Fletcher's columns by more than ten to one. Nor was there sufficient diesel oil to send these prisoners back to Asmara via Aduwa. Only the officers were .driven away.

Fletcher sent out a patrol to search for the C.I.H. Within ten miles they were found driving calmly down the road. They had been held up on the way by a fair-sized Italian force. The enemy commander had telephoned to Adigrat. He had been told by the Italian District Commissioner, in whose house Fletcher had slept the night, that it was useless to continue resistance, for the British were already in Adigrat. "Not many of them, but they are here," he added. At once the force opposing the C.I.H. surrendered and were dispatched to Asmara.

The ten-ton lorries belonging to the Colonial battalion were packed to capacity with prisoners and sent off in relays to the Eritrean capital. One S.D.F. company returned to Aduwa, the second remained to send off the rest of the two thousand prisoners, and the C.I.H. moved still farther south towards Amba Alagi. At Quiha, a small Italian cantonment, the enemy could have arrested our advance with a few determined men. He did no such thing. When Fletcher arrived with the commander of the C.I.H., the officer of the advance guard came up excitedly and said, 'I've got them to surrender all right, but the Italian colonel wants you to have lunch with him."

"Oh, nonsense!" retorted Fletcher. "There's far too much to do without worrying about lunch parties."

And there was, as Fletcher has described. Quiha was a depot, a hospital and an aerodrome. Everything was in confusion: deserters and natives were looting the hospital, the ground staff of the aerodrome were wandering about carrying luggage, and the ten-ton lorries which had been prepared to take the garrison to Amba Alagi were effectually blocking the main road.

"But you must have lunch with him," insisted the advance guard commander. "It was one of the terms of surrender."

"Ih, all right," Fletcher agreed. "Tell the Italian commander that I will lunch with him on condition that these lorries are turned round facing north, and loaded complete with his garrison by two o'clock." And so it was agreed. Fletcher lunched in the Italian depot mess, and the column of prisoners left on time, the lorries overcrowded with 300 Italians and 700 native troops, not to mention a few women. One hitch occurred before the lorries drove away.

"Who is going to escort us to Asmara ?" queried the Italian commander.

"A troop of the Central India Horse."

"But I am a Colonel, and you have two Lieutenant- Colonels here. One of you at least should escort us."

"The officer commanding your escort belongs to a distinguished English family," said Fletcher, neglecting to add that he was also the junior subaltern!

At the market town of Macalle the local Ras, another cousin of the Emperor Haile Selassie, was commissioned to maintain law and order in the district until such time as the officials of our military government could take over.

This brought the operations of "Flitforce" to an end. The Central India Horse rejoined the Fourth Indian Division bound for the Western Desert, and were replaced by Skinner's Horse (Lieutenant-Colonel I. F. Hossack). They reconnoitred as far as Amba Alagi. At no cost to ourselves "Flitforce" had, in Fletcher's own words, S "collected, rather than captured, 3,500 prisoners."

* * * * * * *

Asmara lies on a plateau, 7,000 feet above sea-level, in stony surroundings. The town, whose climate was cool after the heat and dust of Barentu and Agordat, and open by comparison with the sheer cliffs and narrow gorges of Keren, is built on rolling downland, bare of all but a few trees. This capital is a mixture of modern Italian and more primitive Eritrean; the native population dwells in settlements of mud-brick houses, clear of the European quarters. It is a modern city, with a wide main street---the Viale Mussolini, as it then was---and many shopping streets that lead off on either side. The Italian residential area is composed of small, well-built villas in pleasant gardens.

There is an imposing red-brick cathedral, a market-place, modern cinemas, tennis courts and cafés, excellent hotels and garages, an airstrip, and a radio station. On the hill stands Fort Baldissera, strangely out of keeping with the rest of Asmara that it overlooks. Its ramparts and barbed-wire defences harmonize ill with the general view of white houses and tree-lined avenues. It was in this fort that all Italian troops were collected into custody, while native soldiers were kept in another fort. Over the white prisoners guard was kept by the 4/10th Baluch.

The Highland Light Infantry were billeted that first night in the Colonial Police barracks, which were in a state of hideous filth, and which housed, besides the battalion, twice as many Italian soldiers and officers, who wandered aimlessly about while waiting to be evacuated as prisoners of war. Asmara contained a far greater number of armed enemy troops than British and Indian. Not that they made trouble. Indeed, they seemed more afraid of the natives than of anyone else. Platoons of Indian soldiers picketed Asmara to quell the sporadic disturbances that broke out among the local population, trying to loot food and clothing stores. All Italian officers were placed on parole and instructed to return to their homes and to report again within a week.

Hasty plans had to be made for the evacuation of these prisoners to the Sudan. During April some 25,000 were sent back from Asmara alone. It was fortunate, indeed, that the city was well stocked with food, enough to last for nearly two months, for the Italian authorities were able to supply rations to all their own soldiers. The withdrawal of the Fourth Indian Division to Egypt, on Wavell's orders, meant that for nearly two weeks all available transport and railway stock was needed for their move. Three trains a day had been taking prisoners from Keren to Agordat, but these soon had to be stopped, and the number of prisoners in Asmara rose to the alarming total of over twelve thousand. The number mounted as more and more were rounded up in outlying areas, but on the whole they behaved well and gave no trouble to our minute escorts.

The inhabitants of Asmara were most affable to the troops of the Division, and in typical Italian manner appeared to bear not the least malice towards their conquerors. Rather did they treat our troops as peaceful tourists with money to spend. And in the surprisingly well-stocked modern shops, goods were by British standards cheap, owing to the fictitious rate of exchange fixed by the authorities on April 7. The shopkeepers did an excellent trade in cameras, watches, clothing and stationery, even though they could not provide spirits or beer, tinned food or soap.

On the night of our entry into the city, Divisional Headquarters were quartered at the Albergo Ciano, and the Mess President ordered a special dinner to be prepared. judge the surprise of General Heath and his staff when they sat down to dinner and saw menu cards headed:

"5TH INDIAN DIVISION. CELEBRATION DINNER."

It was indeed a celebration dinner, but the officers had scarcely expected the Italian manager of the hotel to enter so thoroughly into the spirit of the occasion,. even though he had spent five years as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel in London, and a further two at the Piccadilly Hotel.

* * * * * * *

The occupation of the capital of Eritrea, with its large number of Italian civilians, presented many problems to the staff officers of the Division. All restaurants, cafés and food shops were placed out of bounds---except for liquid refreshments---because if our troops fed there, there would be a shortage of food for the local population, and particularly for the children. Already many children of Asmara were suffering from the shortage of milk. Troops of the 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment suggested that they might be allowed to surrender one-fifth of their milk ration on behalf of these youngsters. But fresh milk in churns was flown up each day from Khartoum.

House-to-house searches for arms were made in the native quarters. The Baluch threw a cordon round the area and a number of rifles, pistols and bombs were found. Patrols in trucks were sent out on the roads towards Adi Ugri and Decamere to catch any people trying to escape from Asmara. The Baluch also placed ambushes on the road between Keren and Massawa, to catch odd bands of Eritreans still roaming in the hills.

Enemy ordnance equipment, such as saddles and capes, which were repaired by the local tailors, and tents and hurricane lamps, were issued to the Division. Wooden bungs had to be made for two-gallon petrol tins before these could be dispatched forward. Supplies had to be held for prisoners of war, who could now only be evacuated at the rate of six hundred a day; and medical attention had to be available, if necessary, before this evacuation. The local Italian police and. municipal workers continued to function. So did the hospitals. The Italians dealt with their own food supplies. Rates of pay for officers and men billeted in hotels and requisitioned buildings had to be fixed. An organization known as O.E.T.A., and consisting of Brigadier Kennedy-Cooke, Colonel Cumming, and a handful of officers and clerks, was set up to deal with the varied and numerous civil problems.

At one period during the month nearly every available officer and man was on duty at traffic control posts, which were established throughout Asmara, to check the passes of individuals and motor vehicles. No fewer than five hundred motor-cars alone were impounded and placed in a vehicle park because they were without passes. The town major, the billeting officer, the requisitioning officer, salvage officer, officer in charge of the prisoners-of-war and the deputy assistant provost marshal were all overworked.

Salvage, too, presented a major problem. Thousands and thousands of tons of military equipment were located in many places within the Divisional area. Although as. many of these dumps as possible were guarded, once they had been located, some looting of supplies, petrol and oil, and vehicles went on. The amount of transport needed to collect and backload the tens of thousands of rifles and the vast quantities of ammunition and other weapons was enormous.

Ten Brigade, after its operation to capture Massawa, remained throughout the latter part of April and May on guard and internal security duties in Asmara. The battalion patrols intervened in fighting between Italians and natives in villages outside the capital. One day they went off in search of five armed Italians and an officer who were reported living in a tent. They found nothing. In response to Italian complaints that Eritreans were coming by night armed with bombs and rifles and taking away building material from shafts in the mines area, intensive searches for arms were made in outlying villages. But most searches had no result. On one occasion several 40-gallon barrels were stolen by natives from our petrol supply depot; the thieves held up the attendants at the point of the pistol. A farm outside Asmara was wrecked by natives with hand-grenades.

Early one morning a report was received that two Italian ladies had gone shopping in the market. The Eritreans had refused to supply them and had eventually kicked one lady in the stomach. The lady called to three Italian policemen, who were standing near by, to arrest the man. But the police were set upon by the crowd, who chased them to the police station. From time to time the Italian police lost control of the Eritreans, various shootings and looting incidents would occur, and every day platoons of the Baluch, West Yorkshires and H.L.I. had to stand by in trucks, in case of trouble.

 

CHAPTER VII

MASSAWA BY THE SEA
APRIL 1941

THE Fifth Indian Division had beaten the enemy in the Keren stronghold, broken through his resistance at Ad Teclesan, and entered Asmara. The next task was to capture Massawa, the principal port of Eritrea on the Red Sea. Seven Indian Brigade, led by Brigadier H. R. Briggs, which had blocked the northern flank of Keren and thus assisted directly in the eventual capture of the town, was already concentrated thirty-five miles north of Massawa, and a mobile column had been pushed forward down the coast to reconnoitre the place.

In the original plan Seven Brigade was to have captured Massawa alone. But when the Italians evacuated Asmara, this plan was changed. Briggs was in the process of establishing Monclar's Free French Brigade (Brigade d'Orient) from Chad, less one battalion astride the Asmara-Massawa road near the point where it enters the plains. This operation materially assisted in the opening of the mountain portion of the road down from Asmara.

General Heath suggested that the operation for the capture of Massawa would be greatly simplified if he sent his 'I' tanks down the, main road with such troops of Rees' Ten Brigade as could be hurried there. This suggestion was approved by the Kaid, who instructed Heath to take command of the whole operation.

During the night of April 1/2 General Heath was directed to convey to the Italian commander there, Admiral Bonetti, the following message:

"Now that the British forces have entered Asmara and are advancing on Massawa, I am to inform you that if any of the ships in Massawa harbour, of which I believe there are twenty-five, are scuttled, the British forces will consider themselves relieved of all responsibilities either of feeding the Italian population in Eritrea or Abyssinia, or of removing them from those countries. This message is being conveyed separately to the Duke of Aosta, Viceroy of Italian East Africa."

A rare event in war then occurred. The ordinary telephone lines between Asmara and Massawa were, of course, out of action. But a direct private line from the electric light supply in the port that generated electricity and transmitted it up to the capital was discovered by Divisional Signals to be intact.

Brigadier Rees, utilizing Lieutenant Bellwood, Italian interpreter at Divisional Headquarters, was able to speak direct by telephone with the Italian Headquarters. Bellwood talked to Admiral Bonetti's senior staff officer, Capitano di Frigata Berretta. The Kaid's ultimatum was translated, and Rees directed that the Italian commander should give an immediate promise that the terms would be fulfilled. This was at five o'clock on the afternoon of April 2. An hour and a half later Berretta telephoned to say that a reply would be given next morning. But no assurance would be given that the port facilities would not be destroyed in the interim. When morning came it was learned from Berretta that the Duke of Aosta had ordered Admiral Bonetti to refer the matter to Mussolini in Rome, as he was not prepared to handle this personally. From Rome came orders to resist our entry into Massawa and to give no guarantee about shipping and harbour works.

Early on April 4 Ten Brigade moved out from Asmara. Rees' force had already been preceded by one battalion and some Sappers, who had by now cleared the main demolitions in the Nefasit Gorge. Massawa lies sixty miles distant, and seven thousand feet lower than the Eritrean capital. The climate of the uplands had been marked by cool breezes and thunderstorms. In the Massawa coastal belt day-time temperatures rose thirty degrees above those of Asmara; the heat was intense, the humidity weakening, the stickiness odious.

Though the winding road was still blocked in several places, notably at Nefasit, the clearing of these further obstacles presented no great difficulties to the Sappers. In fact, one block was cleared by the Italian demolition party who had just made the block. They were captured by the Free French, and set to work feverishly under the eye of a French soldier armed with a stick, which he brandished vigorously. He described the efforts of the working party as "Merveilleux ! Magnifique!" The road was not mined, though on the outskirts of Massawa a great variety of improvised mines were discovered, made of canisters filled with explosive, shells and even sea mines buried in the earth.

That same day Ten Brigade was joined by the French Brigade d'Orient. Colonel Monclar was a fire-eater, who bore the scars of many wounds and who had the habit of placing all his officers under arrest. The leader of what Welchman termed the 'arrest ladder' had been under arrest for one hundred and ten days. He seemed to thrive on it.

The afternoon of the 4th was devoted to taking up preliminary dispositions. The French Foreign Legion battalion was on the right of the road, and Ten Brigade was on the left. The guns of Welchman's 28th Field Regiment and two 3.7-inch howitzer batteries of the Sudan Defence Force were trained on the town, but with orders not to fire. There was no wish to damage the town. Nor was it then known whether women and children were still present there. Patrols were sent out to make reconnaissance.

At half past one next day, the 5th, an Italian lorry bearing a white flag approached. This was fired upon in error by the Sudan Defence Force. Later a British flag party, consisting of Bimbashi Sims of the S.D.F., Bellwood the interpreter, and Young, a subaltern from the 3/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles, went ahead and was met at the wire by the Italians. Admiral Bonetti asked for our terms. These were transmitted to him that evening, after consultations by telephone with General Heath and the Kaid. The Admiral, having read the terms, announced that he must consult Rome. It was agreed that neither side would shoot until a reply had been received. Bonetti was ordered by Rome to defend the port to the last man, so hostilities were resumed at one o'clock on the 6th.

That afternoon a conference was held at Ten Brigade Headquarters with Rees, Briggs and the Divisional Commander. A concentric attack on Massawa by the two Indian brigades and by the French was to be launched on April 8. The plan for the attack was simplified by the discovery, in the map room of the Italian War Office at Asmara, of a drawing of the Massawa defences. This map showed, in particular, the position of enemy guns, and as a result our own artillery and aircraft were enabled to provide most effective counter-battery assistance to the infantry. The map also showed that anti-tank obstacles had been constructed across the wide khor traversed by the main road into Massawa. In planning the attack these defences were given a wide berth, and it was as well, for a most formidable cement dragon's teeth, interspersed with sea mines, had been built over a frontage of thousands of yards.

The garrison numbered some ten thousand men, a mixed collection belonging to many different units---remnants of the formations defeated at Keren and Ad Teclesan, a naval battalion, coast defence and customs units. But before the attack our estimate of the enemy strength was half this total.

Ten Brigade's objectives were a series of hillocks---leading to Signal Hill---that ran parallel to the road on the left-hand side. The Garhwalis would capture the first of these features. The Highland Light Infantry were then to pass through and take the remainder. Monclar's Brigade d'Orient were to wrest from the enemy a number of fortified hills covering the port---Moncullo, Fort Moncullo and Fort Vittorio Emmanuele. The forts each mounted heavy naval guns sited so as to fire either seawards or landwards. Briggs' Seven Brigade would attack from the north.

On the evening of the assault Brigadier Rees, when reconnoitring forward, could find no sign of the enemy on the first objectives. Accordingly he changed the plans and sent the Garhwal Rifles on at once to establish contact with the Italians, but not to involve themselves if serious opposition were met. Before eleven that night the Garhwalis had occupied two hillocks: they could hear voices on the next ridge ahead, and could see enemy fires from the prominent Signal Hill. So far not a shot had been fired. It was after 3 a.m. on the 8th when the Highland Light Infantry went through the Indian battalion to take Signal Hill, but again only if slight opposition were encountered. Otherwise the original plan of advance beneath an artillery barrage would be adhered to.

Led by Captain R. Wallace's company, the H.L.I. reached a white road cut in the side of the plateau. This was a landmark noticed earlier in the day and chosen as the starting line for the original attack. The leading section then announced the sound of talking and the movement of enemy transport ahead of them. As the remainder of the battalion moved to cover below the road, Very lights and star shells started rising into the darkness. The Italians switched on a searchlight. Yet they failed to discover our troops who were tucked in below the hill, even though it seemed certain that the men must be visible whenever a parachute flare went up. For half an hour they lay crowded by the road embankment, hearing quite distinctly the voices of the enemy just above on the high ground.

It was now four o'clock in the morning. Word was passed to the two leading companies under Wallace and Maxwell to advance up on to the plateau above the road. They breached the barbed wire, took the Italians completely by surprise and occupied the feature without shooting. Then 'C' Company, commanded by Captain P. T. Telfer-Smollett, rushed up to Signal Hill and took it after a sharp fight. Resistance was soon overcome by the use of grenades and tommy-guns, which the Adjutant had previously 'confiscated' from the Asmara Police Barracks. The company was unable to deal with the crowds of prisoners who were wandering about in confusion. But at this point 'D' Company came up and organized their evacuation. Most of the prisoners were sullen, in particular a Naval Captain, who had only arrived the evening before to command this sector of the defences.

With the dawn came Breda and mortar fire on the hill, but few casualties were suffered, for our men took shelter in the trenches which the Italians themselves had dug on the crest. A short delay then occurred while the Free French, who were delayed on account of losing their way in the dark---they were not alone in this---came up to attack Moncullo. They were due to assault this as soon as Signal Hill was ours, so as to guard the H.L.I.'s right flank. But the French were ready on this flank before eight o'clock, and set out for their attack against the three forts on the ridge that ran southwards from the road south of the Swedish Mission---itself the final objective of Brigadier Rees' troops.

About the same time the squadron of 'I' tanks from the 4th Royal Tank Regiment roared forward, with the 4/10th Baluch in the wake, to drive the enemy from the hillocks on the left flank of the Highland Light Infantry-Black Bumps and Ridge 86. The tanks helped to smother the machine-guns that fired persistently on the Baluchis, and by 9.15 both hills were in our hands, to say nothing of many more Italian prisoners. It was the appearance of the tanks that above all else unnerved the enemy.

The Swedish Mission was taken without incident. Before half past eleven the French soldiers had entered Fort Vittorio Emmanuele. The battle was all but ended. White flags appeared all along the front of attack of the Free French and Ten Brigade. But in the north Seven Brigade had met stronger resistance, and for two hours, once the day had lightened, Briggs' attacking battalions, the 1st Royal Sussex and 4/16th Punjab, were pinned to the ground by a prolonged and heavy barrage of land and naval guns. Briggs was without his third battalion. There was no alternative but to await the result of the attack from the west by Ten Brigade and the French. No sooner was this finished than tanks were dispatched to help Seven Brigade, and the opposition was speedily dealt with.

The town is built on low coral reefs linked with the mainland by a long causeway, the seaward end of which forms one side of the harbour. Massawa shimmered in the heat of the early afternoon. Clouds of smoke billowed up from the town and harbour, black and smelly from the oil and petrol tanks that had been shelled during the morning by a British destroyer. Dumps of ammunition and war material still smouldered on the north-western outskirts Obviously, the Italians had been busy destroying prior to surrender.

And at 2.20 p.m. General Heath, accompanied by Brigadier Rees and escorted by a column of 'I' tanks, by armoured cars of the Sudan Defence Force, and forty men each from the 3/18th Garhwal Rifles and 4/10th Baluch, set out from the Swedish Mission. They had been preceded, strictly against orders, by the Free French Commander, unable to restrain his impatience, at the head of a platoon, promptly followed by an ardent posse of war correspondents. Now Heath's party made its formal entry, into the town and drove through the streets and along the causeway to Admiral Bonetti's headquarters. Here the Admiral, with four generals and his staff, formally surrendered; their bearing was at once subdued and dignified. It was one of these generals, as we have already noted, who complimented Heath upon "the gallantry of your Highlanders (Highland Light Infantry) at Barentu." Two hours later the Italian commanders were on their way to Asmara with General Heath.

The damage done to Massawa harbour had been great; masts and funnels emerging from the water presented a sorry sight.

THE MULE TRACK AND SANCHIL

THE HIGHLAND LIGHT INFANTRY ENTER ASMARA

MAJOR GRAHAM, COLONEL RUSSELL, BRIGADIER REES, MAJOR-GENERAL HEATH AT ASMARA

A score of ships had been scuttled, some across the dock entrance, some alongside the quays, some in the outer harbour. A floating dock had been sunk. Guns and tanks had been pushed into the sea. The crews of barges had thrown their cargoes over the side. The foreshore was stiff with black oil from sunken ships. Go-downs filled with supplies were captured; more than a hundred Italian .guns, and much rolling stock fell into our hands. All night the light standards on the quayside were kept burning---there was no fear of aerial bombardment, and the illumination added some attraction to an otherwise desolate harbour.

Brigadier Briggs was left in command of the vanquished port. It being late afternoon, he kept most of his troops outside the town except for certain guards, one of whose tasks was to prevent the enthusiastic Free French from looting. Briggs ordered the Italians, who were still armed, to report to the aerodrome by ten o'clock next morning. It was a memorable and ludicrous sight to watch eleven thousand Italians and another thousand Colonial troops walking to this aerodrome, followed by local porters with barrows laden with one suitcase per head. Briggs placed a guard of only one company of the Chad Regiment over these prisoners. One strand of wire encircled the hangars that became their prison.

Fourteen Italians, whose wives were living in Asmara, decided to make a bid to escape and rejoin them. But they were caught by the Chads and, bareheaded, hung up by their thumbs in the open air. The Chad colonel found the unhappy prisoners in this state, and said that this was all very well, but 'le Général,' meaning Briggs, was British and would be very angry. A compromise was therefore reached. The Chads pitched tents over the fourteen captives. There were no more desertions.

* * * * * * *

With the taking of Massawa, eleven weeks after the opening of the campaign, more than forty thousand prisoners were in our hands, and 250 guns. Many Colonial troops had dispersed to their homes, and had been encouraged by their officers to do so. Our own casualties at Massawa were small, while the enemy lost twelve thousand men into captivity.

It now appeared as though the Italians who had got away to the south to re-establish the northern front in Abyssinia were defending two main areas: Amba Alagi, that covered the road to Dessie and Addis Ababa, and Gondar, above Lake Tana farther to the west.

Meanwhile, certain important changes took place. Ten Brigade moved back to Asmara to rejoin Nine Brigade. Marriott's troops were still busy out at Ad Teclesan, rounding up deserters . At Wavell's insistence, the Fourth Indian Division set off back to the Western Desert, where the two divisions were to meet once again a year later. The Kaid was making certain that the Asmara district was a sure base for further operations to the south. For our railhead was still back at Tessenei, and Massawa would not be usable for some time to come.

Then, suddenly, General Heath was promoted to command a corps in Malaya. After touring all units of the Division to take his leave, he was seen off by a guard of honour from Asmara on April 12. He was succeeded by the former commander of Nine Brigade, Brigadier A. G. O. M. Mayne. Heath and his wife were taken prisoner in Singapore within a year, and spent the remainder of the war in Japanese hands.


Chapter Eight

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