Chapter 4: Italians on the Retreat
Anticipating a British advance on Kassala the Italian force had withdrawn from it before the arrival of the British troops who took up the pursuit of the former. It was found that Kassala had suffered very little damage. Water tanks at the railway station had been destroyed and some rails removed from the sidings and trucks had been made into air-raid shelters. The Italians had left no stores but signal cable lines were still there without being damaged. The repair of the railway line was started immediately and Kassala started functioning as railhead on 25 January.
The country round Kassala was a desert plain with occasional rocky hills and knee-high scrub which was found almost everywhere. To the west of Kassala the hills were few and far between but eastwards they increased in size and numbers. North and south of Kassala lay hills of considerable tactical importance. Mechanical transport of all types could be used in the desert plain. Concentration of large forces in this area was rendered difficult by the non-availability of adequate cover for them and by the deficiency of water. In the north of Kassala the Gash Delta was thickly covered with bush and contained ample water. It afforded some cover for the concealment of forces.
To the east of Kassala lay Sabderat, a small post at the eastern end of a valley between high hills. There was a small dry riverbed at the bottom of the valley and the hills rose steeply from near the banks of the river. The valley was rocky and covered with scrub. It was not suitable for mechanical transport. The hills running from Sabderat and ending at Haurab were steep, rugged and bare. They were quite impassable by mechanical transport. To the north of Haurab were a number of hills and outcrops of rock. In between were Khors and in many cases mechanical transport could pass through the gaps. To the east of Serobatib the country was thickly covered with scrub and had many Khors. It was passable by mechanical transport though only with the greatest difficulty. South and east of Kaukawab the scrub was thinner. Between Pt. 649 and Wakai the scrub was thick on the west side and thin on the east bank of the Khor,
Throughout all this area the scrub was thickest on the banks of the Khors. There was ample cover but mechanical transport had to pick its way with care. The country between Sabderat and Keru varied considerably. It consisted of the following stretches:
i. Sabderat–Enkiabellit. It was undulating with thin scrub which was thicker at the Khors.
Enkiabellit–Tegawa. It was open and mechanical transport was possible on a wide front.
ii. Tegawa–Dugurba. Thick scrub was found here and mechanical transport was possible off the road only with difficulty.
iii. Dugurba–Amien. The road passed through a gorge below Dugurba and then came out in the open country.
iv. Amien–Keru. Movement off the road was not possible and at Keru the road passed only through a narrow defile.
Capture of Keru
The Italians were found to have evacuated Kassala when troops of the 4th Indian Division advanced on the morning of 19 January. It appeared at the time that they had intended to withdraw from Sabderat and Wakai also. The 4th Indian Division, in the north, was directed along the dry-weather track to Sabderat and Wakai and was later to exploit towards Keru up to the limit of administration. The 5th Indian Division was directed to Tessenei and thence along the motor road to Aicota. It was to be ready to exploit towards Barentu or Biscia afterwards.1
In the north, Gazelle Force led the advance followed by the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade and Divisional Headquarters. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was still moving towards Kassala and did not get there until 20 January when it reverted to the command of the 4th Indian Division. First contact was made by Gazelle Force with an Italian battalion holding Wakai at 1350 hours on 19 January. The troops closed up in the afternoon with the intention of attacking the next morning, but at 0830 hours on 20 January the Italians were reported to be evacuating their positions and by 0930 hours they had abandoned Wakai. The pursuit was resumed at 0945 hours. Although contact was made on one or two occasions with the retreating troops, no real resistance was met until 0430 hours on 21 January at Keru, forty miles east of Kassala.
In the south, the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was leading the 5th Indian Division. Tessenei was found evacuated and was occupied at 1250 hours on 19 January. Work was required on the Gash crossing and the brigade did not start moving across until 1415 hours on 20 January. The 5th Indian Division found Aicota clear at 1030 hours on 21 January. At 1500 hours that day, a mechanised column from the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade consisting of 2 Motor Machine Gun Group, less one company, was sent along the Aicota–Biscia road in order to get behind the Italian positions at Keru. This column met with some opposition in the area of Pt. 1892, twenty-five miles from Aicota, which held up its advance until it was reinforced by an infantry battalion on 22 January. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade continued the advance along the Aicota–Barentu road. Thus while the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade made a thrust towards Barentu, the 4th Indian Division and the mechanised column of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade pushed on Keru.
At Keru the road crossed a long narrow ridge through a deep gorge with steep rocky hills rising to a height of one thousand five hundred feet on either side. It was only a dry-weather road not suitable for mechanical transport. The Italians had laid mines on the way and carried out some very effective demolitions. The position of Keru was naturally strong. Its defence had also been well-organised by the Italians. It had been fortified with thorn fences, stone walls and trenches and small posts in the hills. The position appeared impregnable except by a turning movement over the hills on either side. It was held by the 41st Colonial Brigade consisting of five battalions.
Gazelle Force made its first contact with the Italians in this position at 0430 hours on 21 January. At 0700 hours an Italian party of sixty cavalry men charged Headquarters and guns of Gazelle Force. This attack was pushed home and was only stopped, twenty-five yards from the gun positions, by British guns firing at point-blank range. Some 40 persons on the Italian side were either killed or wounded. At 0800 hours, a hostile party of two hundred men attacked from the direction of Keru, and were easily repulsed. The Italian air force remained active throughout the day but did not cause much damage.
At 0400 hours on 22 January, 4 Sikh attacked a hill to the south of the gorge. They captured the feature and at 0545 hours attacked the main Italian position but found it strongly held by a brigade. Hard fighting continued throughout the day and the Indian troops held their ground under heavy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. Meanwhile, troops of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade
started arriving in the afternoon and at 1630 hours a company of 2 Camerons reinforced the Sikhs on the hill. Efforts were also made without success during the day to get round the flank.
By the evening of 22 January the mechanised column from the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade, advancing from Aicota, had cut off the Italian communications at Bahar, to the east of Keru. The Italians, therefore, abandoned their position that night. On 23 and 24 January, the Italian garrison while withdrawing from Keru, ran into the troops of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Italian troops. Over seven hundred prisoners were taken, including the Commander 41st Colonial Brigade and his staff.
Demolitions and mines held up the advance of the Indian troops. Though Keru was occupied by 1430 hours on 23 January, Gazelle Force did not get through the gorge until 0530 hours on 24 January. 1 Rajputana Rifles relieved 4 Sikh as the motorised battalion with Gazelle Force. 4 Sikh reverted to the command of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. The advance was continued and on 25 January forward elements of Gazelle Force were in contact with the Italians outside Agordat at 1010 hours, and the Barentu–Agordat road was cut at 1415 hours.
Capture of Agordat
On 26 January, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, less one battalion (4 Rajputana Rifles) and all its carriers, were concentrated at Sabderat. B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment, which had been placed under the command of the 4th Indian Division, continued to move forward and, by the evening of 26 January, was at Biscia. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, which had been joined by 4 Sikh, relieved Gazelle Force in its positions to the west of Agordat. 1 Rajputana Rifles reverted to the command of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. On 26 and 27 January, Gazelle Force made reconnaissances with a view to get round Agordat in the south and in the north, but no routes worthy of taking mechanical transport were found owing to the difficult nature of the country. Units of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade also made reconnaissances to the south-west of Agordat and towards Laquatat.
Agordat was the first town of any size to be captured in Eritrea. It commanded a strong defensive position. To the north and west of it was the Baraka Valley, and to the south a feature known as Laquatat, an isolated rocky feature, with concrete trenches, emplacements and observation posts. East of the Laquatat feature and
extending for about two miles was an open plain, intersected by dry stream beds. It was defended by a series of field defences and antitank pits. This plain was bounded on the east by Mt. Cochen, a massive hill feature rising some two thousand feet above the plain with a crest nearly two miles long. It was very steep with a certain amount of scrub on it. At the foot of Mt. Cochen towards Laquatat was a low under-feature, a mere pile of rocks hundred feet high, forming a natural flank to the line of artificial defences across the plain. This feature was named “Gibraltar” by the 4th Indian Division. The motor road from Barentu approached Agordat from a direction slightly west of south, and on entering the town turned sharply east and ran through a narrow gorge, north of Mt. Cochen.
It was difficult at this time to know the strength of the Italian garrison at Agordat with accuracy. It was estimated to consist of the 2nd, the 12th and the 42nd Colonial Brigades, three Blackshirt Battalions, two Field Artillery Groups, two Medium Artillery Batteries, one Company Medium tanks, one Company Light tanks, three Groups Bande troops, and also one German Company. Although the Indian troops had been in contact with the Italians opposite Agordat since 25 January, very little information about their dispositions was available. In the afternoon of 27 January, 4 Sikh was ordered to move forward towards Laquatat and make contact with the Italians. They started at 1600 hours and advanced to within two thousand yards of the feature.
On 28 January, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade moved up into the front line, when the following dispositions were adopted. On the right was the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade and on the left the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, with Agordat–Barentu road dividing them. On the left of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was Gazelle Force protecting the north flank. 4 Sikh came under the command of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. On the evening of
28 January, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade moved up and at 1810 hours occupied the top of Mt. Cochen without opposition. At 0315 hours on 29 January, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade probed further into Italian positions at Laquatat to ascertain their exact strength and locations and to take them, if possible. They were, however, found to be too strong to be captured and so the Indian troops withdrew to their original positions at first light. Later, on
29 January, a further regrouping was carried out and the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade moved east of the Barentu road to a position behind the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. 2 Camerons and one troop “I” tanks came under the command of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. Gazelle Force took over all the area to the north-west of Barentu
road and 4 Sikh, remaining in the area of Laquatat, came under the command of Gazelle Force. During the night of 29/30 January efforts were made to capture “Gibraltar” and were successful to the extent that the Indian troops were established on the feature though unable to drive the Italians from it.
During 29 January, the Italians had not reacted in any way to the occupation of the top of Mt. Cochen by the Indian troops. Thereupon, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to advance and to try to cut the Agordat–Keren road. It started at 0530 hours on 30 January and made some progress. It was found that the country around Mt. Cochen was larger than had been anticipated. Strong Italian opposition was met here. As everything had to be manhandled on Mt. Cochen only one company per battalion could be used for porterage. The weather also was hot and trying. In view of these difficulties and also of a threat to the security of forces on the top of Mt. Cochen, which developed later in the day, it was decided to abandon the attempt to cut the road and to consolidate British position on the top of Mt. Cochen and features just forward of it. The Italians continued pressing British forces on Mt. Cochen and hard fighting went on throughout the day. In the afternoon Italian pressure increased as they had managed to get some pack-guns into positions overlooking some of the Indian forward troops. This made those positions untenable and a reorganisation became necessary. As the Indian forces had grown tired on account of continuous fighting in the steep hills it was decided to hold only the top of Mt. Cochen and to withdraw troops forward of it under cover of darkness and let them rest for a little time. After a short rest these troops were to go up and reinforce positions on the top by dawn, and also hold the ground necessary for covering the approaches. This was carried out during the night of 30/31 January. Both 1 Rajputana Rifles and 3/14 Punjab were withdrawn, and the covering positions were held during the night by 4 Field Company and A Company 1 Rajputana Rifles, all under the control of the Commander 4 Field Company.
On 30 January, fighting on “Gibraltar” continued. Indian troops were shelled and sniped during the day. At 0520 hours on 31 January, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade with “I” tanks in support carried out an attack on “Gibraltar” and the Italian positions on the plain between Cochen and Laquatat. The positions on the plain were captured except those on the left, where machine gun fire from Laquatat direction held up the advance of the Indian troops and those positions could not be occupied until 1200 hours.
By this time reports were received that the Italian forces were moving eastwards along the Keren road. A column of three tanks and seven carriers was sent in to exploit on the road. In moving towards the road this force met hostile tanks which were probably concentrated for a counter-attack. However, they were engaged by “I” tanks and eleven of them were destroyed. The exploitation towards the road was carried out with great success.
After the capture of positions on the plain between Cochen and Laquatat, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade advanced at 1245 hours and cut the Keren road to the east of Agordat. The Italian resistance was now crumbling and by 1630 hours another battalion had been put across the road. At 1630 hours the Italian forces hurriedly started evacuating the Laquatat position and retired through Agordat along the northern track following the railway line. On Mt. Cochen practically no Italian opposition was encountered on 31 January.
On 1 February at 0530 hours, Gazelle Force, which had been kept in readiness, took up the advance east of Agordat along the Keren road. Agordat was occupied without opposition at 0700 hours.
Aicota to Barentu
In the south, the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, moving from Aicota towards Barentu, advanced against some opposition until, at 1200 hours on 24 January, it came up against the Italians in strong defensive positions in the area of Gogni, twenty-five miles east of Aicota. This position was held by three battalions (16th Colonial Brigade). On 26 January at 0510 hours the 29th Indian Infantry â€¢ Brigade organised an attack on it, but with partial success only. The ground gained was, however, lost when the Italians counter-attacked at 0830 hours. Hard fighting continued during the day but, by the evening, Indian troops had captured most of their objectives. The hills overlooking Gogni from the west were occupied by 1030 hours on 27 January but fighting continued in the hills to the east. These were not occupied until 0800 hours on 29 January after the Italians had withdrawn during the night. The advance then continued, with some delays caused by demolitions and mines. Further contact was not made until 1130 hours the next day on the last ridge west of Barentu.
Capture of Barentu
Having been relieved on the north road in the area east of Keru by the 4th Indian Division troops, the 10th Indian Infantry
Brigade advanced south on Barentu. By midday, on 27 January it had pushed the Italians to within seven miles of Barentu. Continuing the advance on 28 January it captured the hills overlooking Barentu from the north, on the west of the road. The Italians had carried out very effective demolitions on the road in the gorge immediately to the north of Barentu by blowing hundreds of tons of rock, and this held up the advance. Features to the east of the Agordat road were still strongly held by the Italians. Efforts were therefore, made to get round the eastern flank but the track was poor and mechanical transport could move with difficulty. In the evening of 29 January 2 Motor Machine Gun Group, after having managed to get through round the east flank, met with strong opposition from the Italians west of Barentu and had to withdraw northeast into the hills. On 29 January, the Italians counter-attacked the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade troops on the hills overlooking Barentu from the north on two occasions. Both attacks were however repulsed.
By the evening of 29 January the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was advancing from the west towards the last ridges before Barentu. On 30 January at 1130 hours, Indian troops made contact with the Italians holding the last ridge west of Barentu, but the advance was held up for a time and the ridge was not occupied until the afternoon. At 1030 hours on 31 January, the Italians counterattacked with tanks and infantry. Severe casualties were inflicted on their infantry and the tanks withdrew. By 1830 hours Indian troops had got astride Om Ager–Barentu road and also occupied the ridge running north-west from the road junction.
On 1 February, although the Italians appeared to be withdrawing along the Barentu–Tole–Arresa track, their rearguard in Barentu continued to fight stubbornly and all efforts to overcome them were unsuccessful. They finally evacuated Barentu on the night of 1/2 February and the 10th and the 29th Indian Infantry Brigades occupied the town early on the morning of 2 February. 2 Motor Machine Gun Group assisted by the Royal Air Force took up the pursuit of the Italians, and inflicted casualties on them all along the route.
Capture of Om Ager
British Intelligence had reported as early as 13 January that the Italians were thinning out in the area of Om Ager. Mobile columns to carry out the pursuit were formed and aggressive patrolling was carried out but the Italians held on until 25 January. On the night of 25/26 January the Italians broke contact and got away
towards Biagundi. On 26 January Indian troops advanced and occupied Om Ager, but no contact was established with the Italian troops. After a few days 2 Mahratta moved to Tessenei from this sector, and was thence ordered to Aicota. It came under the command of the 4th Indian Division on 6 February.
Capture of Gallabat
At the frontier post of Gallabat the Italian forces were contained by the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade. In Eritrea the pursuit of the Italians had been so successful that it had been decided to make this the main thrust and to do no more than watch the Gedaref–Gallabat–Gondar route with a minimum force. Orders were, therefore, issued cancelling the work already done on the extension of the Sudan railway from Gedaref towards Gallabat. The railway from Kassala, on the other hand, was to be extended as quickly as possible as far as Tessenei. This work was given priority over all other railway work in the Sudan.
First indications that the Italians intended to withdraw from Gallabat came from British Intelligence sources early in January and it appeared that this withdrawal would be co-ordinated with the withdrawal from Om Ager and the Kassala–Sabderat–Tessenei triangle. The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade continued to patrol actively. It was not until 30 January that the Italian withdrawal from Gallabat became imminent. The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was instructed to pursue them with a mechanised column. The main body of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to remain in the Metemma area so that they might be switched to the main front. On the night of 31 January/1 February the Italian troops successfully broke contact and got away without any molestation from the Indian forces. The pursuit was taken up by the mechanised column consisting of the carriers of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade and a Motorised Company of 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment, preceded by a detachment of 21 Field Company, Sappers and Miners. The Italian withdrawal on this front was much less hurried than on the 4th and the 5th Indian Divisional lines of advance as the Italians had made lavish use of mines on the road, and movement off the road was impossible owing to Khors and thick bushes. It was in clearing these mines that Second-Lieutenant P. Singh Bhagat of 21 Field Company, Sappers and Miners, earned his Victoria Cross for his courage and gallantry2. Contact was made with an Italian
force at Wahni, forty-eight miles east of Gallabat, on 6 February, but it withdrew towards Chelga. The advance was now merely a matter of clearing mines. By 10 February contact was made with the Ethiopian Patriots in Wahni. The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, less one battalion (3/12 Frontier Force Regiment) and one section Field Company, concentrated at Gedaref on 11 February and then moved to Sabderat concentrating there in the first week of March.
Thus Keru, Agordat, Barentu, Om Ager and Gallabat were occupied by Indian troops. In a short time the Indian divisions had wrested the initiative from the Italians who were now retreating towards Keren and Gondar. This encouraged the Middle East command to assume an aggressive attitude. From a defensive role the British now turned to an offensive one. General Wavell who had at first thought of going no further than Kassala and occupying a small part of Eritrea now reviewed British strategy in a broader perspective. He favoured a large-scale operation into Eritrea with the object of capturing Asmara. This, he knew, would prevent him from sending reinforcements from the Sudan to Egypt. But operations were going on well in the Western Desert (Egypt) and he anticipated no immediate need of additional forces in Egypt. He therefore instructed General Platt “to continue his pursuit’ and to press on towards Asmara”. He also approved of General Platt’s proposal to use some Free French troops who were then arriving at Port Sudan together with the British and the Indian troops already there to advance along the Red Sea coast and into the hills towards Asmara.3 So on to Keren and Asmara the Indian forces went.