Chapter 5: The First Assault on Keren
Agordat was occupied without opposition by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade at 0700 hours on 1 February. All Italian troops had been withdrawn from the town and about 50 lorries were captured intact. About 300 prisoners were taken during the day and more were coming in. The day was spent mostly in reorganisation. Advanced Brigade Headquarters moved up to the main Agordat–Keren road, approximately 3 miles from the town, during the morning. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade moved into Agordat and cleared up the area north and north-east of the town. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade reorganised in the area of “Gibraltar”, a prominent sub-feature of Cochen.
Immediately after the battle of Agordat, Gazelle Force was directed to follow up the Italians retreating towards Keren. But owing to the demolition of Ponte Mussolini, it was held up until 1700 hours. The main girders of the bridge at Ponte Mussolini had been blown and it was impossible to get mechanical transport over it. The Baraka at this point was 150 yards wide, and at that time was merely a strip of soft deep sand over which vehicles could not pass without some form of temporary track. But construction of such a track was made difficult by the large number of mines which the Italians had laid around all the approaches to the bridge, and along the only alternative route. The Italians had also covered this demolition and minefield by a pack-gun and a few machine guns. However accurate shooting by a section of field artillery succeeded in knocking these out quickly, and by the evening of 2 February, Gazelle Force with “I” tanks and the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade were only five miles from Keren. Here their advance was held up by a strong Italian position with a road block in the gorge.
The town of Keren stood over 4,300 feet above the sea level and all approaches to it from the north, west and south lay through the surrounding mountainous country. The road from Agordat which was being used by the Indian’ forces for the pursuit, gradually rose in north-easterly direction up the narrow Ascidira valley towards a formidable range of hills which guarded the plateau on which
the town of Keren was situated. This range extended in an arc to the south-east and north-west. As the main road reached the lower features, it swung to the east into the more open Bogu valley and for six kilometres ran across the front of the range. The road then turned north and entered a narrow cleft known as the Dongolaas Gorge, which was nowhere more than 300 yards wide. Along the east wall of this gorge the road climbed up to the Keren plateau. The railway left the road soon after passing the Agat station, swung north-east up the Aroba valley, then turned south-east and followed the 1,200 metre contour of the main range before entering the Dongolaas Gorge, along the west wall of which it went up to the Keren plateau.
To the east of the gorge rose Mt. Dologorodoc with its fort, 800 yards from the bottom, at the summit. The road clung to the lower slopes of this hill, and it was here that it had been blocked by blowing the hill on to it for over two hundred yards. Beyond Dologorodoc rose the two massifs of Falestoh and Zeban, 2,000 yards to the east and north-east. Further to the east was the sharp peak of Zelale, another 3,000 yards from Falestoh, known as Sphinx. Between Falestoh and Sphinx was a low neck of ground by which a subsidiary track crossed the hills to reach Keren via Catholic Mission. This lower feature, known as Acqua Gap, was to be the scene of considerable fighting. It was approached by a series of jumbled ridges, and the final ascent, though not long, was exceedingly steep. Beyond Zelale, to the east, the Bogu valley closed again and disappeared into the impassable mountainous country.
To the west of the gorge the country was even more formidable. Rising from the gorge, 930 feet higher than Fort Dologorodoc to the east, was the vast bulk of Mt. Sanchil with Pt. 1616 (Cameron Ridge) as its offshoot to the south. From Sanchil the range extended north-west to Mt. Samanna and thence to Beit Gabru. Mt. Amba covering the Mogareh valley lay north-east of the main range. Although Mt. Samanna lay on the line of the main range, it actually formed an entirely separate feature completely cut off from the other hills round it by deep ravines. Between Sanchil and Samanna along the ridge was a series of features which were all to receive local names: Brig’s Peak, Saddle, Hog’s Back, Flat Top, Mole Hill. Most famous was Brig’s Peak, for whose capture a number of attempts had to be made.
The strategic importance of the Keren position for the defence of Asmara and the Eritrean highlands had been appreciated by
the Italians for many years, and it was here that General Frusci1 had decided to make his main stand and to concentrate the bulk of his forces, which at this time were as follows:–
The 11th Colonial Brigade consisting of the 5th, 52nd, 56th and 63rd Colonial Battalions fresh from Addis Ababa, had reached Keren on foot towards the end of January together with some artillery, believed to be chiefly 65-mm and 77-mm with a few 105-mm guns.
The whole of the 11th Grenadier Regiment of the Savoy Division consisting of the 1st and 2nd Grenadier Battalions and the Bersaglieri Battalion, actually arrived in Keren on 1 February having been rushed up in three days in mechanical transport from Addis Ababa and one other battalion was believed to have accompanied it. The regiment was, according to a captured officer, complete except for the anti-tank section which was still at Metemma.
Of the Italian formations which had been present at Agordat, most of the 42nd Colonial Brigade (the 35th, 101st, 111th Colonial Battalions), which had been north of the Baraka and had not been involved in the fighting, got through to Keren intact. Remnants of the 2nd Colonial Brigade (the 4th, 5th, 9th, 10th and 151st Colonial Battalions), much depleted in strength except for the 4lh Colonial Battalion, also got through. The 12th Colonial Brigade (the 36th, 43rd and 100th Colonial Battalion) moved back to Asmara to refit.
In addition to the above forces, General Frusci had arranged for the 1st Colonial Division from the Red Sea Coastal Sector to be concentrated south of Nacfa. The 5th Colonial Brigade consisting of the 97th, 106th and Tipo Battalions was also now converging on Keren. This made a total of three Italian and four Colonial battalions which were entirely fresh, six Colonial battalions which had only been slightly involved in the previous fighting, and the remnants of four other Colonial battalions.
Capture of Cameron Ridge
On 2 February, Gazelle Force, advancing in pursuit of the Italian forces, had been held up by the road block south-west of Keren, and all its attempts to break through this block with tanks and antitank artillery had failed. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade moved up from Agordat behind Gazelle Force and, at 1000 hours on 2 February, Advanced Brigade Headquarters arrived in the Agat station area. 2 Camerons moving in mechanical transport also reached the Agat village at about 1200 hours followed by the 31st
Field Regiment, which arrived at 1800 hours, and the 4 Field Company shortly after. The mechanical transport used by 2 Camerons was sent back to lift 1 Rajputana Rifles which arrived later in the evening. 3/14 Punjab marched up from Agordat, spent the night on the way and reached the area west of Keren the next day, relieving 1 Horse in the plain. Thus was the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade concentrated in the Agat station area by 3 February.
After reconnaissance the Commander of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade made a plan for an attack on Cameron Ridge.2 Camerons was to attack at 1400 hours on 3 February and capture the tunnel shoulder—a spur running from the railway tunnel near Pt. 1262 towards Pt. 1616. 1 Rajputana Rifles was to secure the gap south of Mt. Scialaco and reconnoitre with a view to finding a route round the southern flank of the Italian position. The 31 Field Regiment with a detachment of 4 Field Company RIE was placed under its command and the battalion was told to continue the operations the next day. Two “I” tanks from B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment were ordered to try a break-through the road block.
Starting their attack at 1400 hours on 3 February, supported by 233 Medium Battery (6-inch howitzers), 390 Field Battery (25-pounders) and A Troop Sudan Regiment (3.7-inch howitzers), 2 Camerons reached the railway without opposition by 1500 hours. The ground was very bad and progress was slow but by 1650 hours the top of the shoulder had been captured.
1 Rajputana Rifles reported at midday on 4 February that the track round the south of Mt. Scialaco had been found impassable. The battalion was accordingly ordered to withdraw. It concentrated in the area of the road at kilometres 109-110 in the evening.
In view of the failure of the attempt to outflank the Italian positions from the south the Commander of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade decided to capture Brig’s Peak and Mt. Sanchil, the hills above the features held by 2 Camerons (Cameron Ridge) and overlooking Keren. 3/14 Punjab was detailed for this, and reconnaissances for the attack were made at 1200 hours on 4 February. 2 Camerons continued extending and consolidating its position and by 1430 hours on 4 February had captured Pt. 1616, the top of the Cameron Ridge.
Failure of the Attack on Brig’s Peak
The attack by 3/14 Punjab on Brig’s Peak and Sanchil was to be supported by the 31 Field Regiment. As the battalion, like all the other troops, was organised on a mechanical transport basis and the attack had to go up steep hills, one company of the battalion was employed entirely for porterage. The attack was to be carried out by B Company on Brig’s Peak and, later by D Company on Sanchil. C Company was detailed for porterage and A Company, in reserve, was to move up as far as the railway line.
Cameron Ridge was completely dominated by Brig’s Peak and 2 Camerons had asked permission to occupy the latter. At 1530 hours on 4 February, some Colonial troops were seen debussing near the road beyond the gorge. One platoon 2 Camerons was therefore sent forward at once to occupy Brig’s Peak. No resistance was met until the platoon got to within 300 yards of the top, when the Colonial troops were seen to arrive on the far side. It was now getting dark. A scuffle ensued and the platoon, faced by superior numbers, was forced to withdraw to its starting point.
3/14 Punjab started moving at 1930 hours on 4 February and by 2115 hours had reached the forward positions of 2 Camerons. From there B Company began the advance on Brig’s Peak at 2300 hours and the hill was secured by 0345 hours on 5 February. One platoon from A Company was sent forward to reinforce B Company on Brig’s Peak. Advanced Battalion Headquarters and D Company also moved forward to the area of Brig’s Peak, where they arrived at 0515 hours.
Brig’s Peak consisted of three peaks. The right-hand peak was a pinnacle of rock on which it was possible to find room for one section only. The central peak, divided from the right peak by a col about 30 yards wide, was about 100 yards long and 50 yards wide. The third peak was almost the same, dropping down steeply at its northern end. There was room for only four platoons on the whole feature. The position appeared very strong and the commander of B Company was confident of being able to hold it against any Italian counter-attack.
The distance from Cameron Ridge to Brig’s Peak was about a thousand yards as the crow flies. Brigade Signals and the artillery Forward Observation Officer did not have enough cable to establish line communication forward of Cameron Ridge. In any case the Forward Observation Officer, on Cameron Ridge, was not through to the guns. In the early hours of the morning 3/14 Punjab passed their messages by visual signal to the Forward Observation Officer
on Cameron Ridge. He then passed his fire orders over the brigade lines to the guns.
After the reconnaissance in daylight, the attack from Brig’s Peak on Mt. Sanchil by D Company was planned and artillery support arranged. The attack, excellently supported by the artillery, started at 0700 hours on 5 February. By 0830 hours a part of Mt. Sanchil was secured but the Indian troops could not clear the feature completely. The Officer Commanding 3/14 Punjab ordered A Company (less one platoon) to move from Cameron Ridge to Mt. Sanchil at once. By this time, the Italians had started shelling and mortaring the forward troops on Brig’s Peak, Sanchil and Cameron Ridge. Their machine guns fired accurately on these features as well as on the ground between Cameron Ridge and Brig’s Peak and Sanchil. A Company therefore could not get across from Cameron Ridge to reinforce Sanchil. At 0845 hours, the Forward Observation Officer and his party were either killed or wounded in the shelling on Cameron Ridge. No artillery support for 3/14 Punjab was therefore forthcoming. The Brigade Signal Officer and 3/14 Punjab Signal Officer were both wounded and communications broke down completely.
By 1030 hours, D Company on Sanchil had suffered heavy casualties and was running short of ammunition. Battalion Headquarters was no longer in communication with Cameron Ridge. No movement forward of Cameron Ridge was possible. Efforts to get in touch by a runner and liaison officer were unsuccessful. Thus cut off, the Officer Commanding 3/14 Punjab collected what small arms and ammunition he could, to be sent up to D Company. However, D Company had, in the meantime, been forced off Sanchil. Only one platoon from D Company had managed to join B Company on Brig’s Peak. The other two platoons, being prevented by machine-gun fire from moving towards Brig’s Peak, had been forced down another nullah and moved to the bottom of the hill.
At 1000 hours 1 Rajputana Rifles was ordered to move up the hill in support of 3/14 Punjab. 2 Camerons was also told to give such support to 3/14 Punjab as it could.
At 1045 hours, the Brigade Headquarters received a message from 2 Camerons to the effect that 3/14 Punjab had been seen withdrawing from Brig’s Peak. At 1100 hours, some men of 3/14 Punjab were reported to be already at the bottom of the hill. 1 Rajputana Rifles also reported that two platoons of 3/14 Punjab had reached the plain already. The orders for 1 Rajputana Rifles were therefore changed. It was told to hold the high ground on the
left of 2 Camerons. At that time the Brigade Headquarters was not in communication with 3/14 Punjab.
At 1100 hours, on 5 February, Brig’s Peak was still being held by the four platoons of 3/14 Punjab, who had suffered heavy casualties during the morning. Communications with Cameron Ridge had been cut off and the Brig’s Peak garrison was isolated. In spite of these difficulties, the Commander felt that there was no need to abandon the position before the arrival of relief. At about 1230 hours, the Italians attacked Brig’s Peak supported by accurate mortar and machine-gun fire. At 1345 hours, they actually reached the top of the hill and had to be driven off by a bayonet charge. As there was little hope of relief, 3/14 Punjab withdrew from Brig’s Peak at 1400 hours. It had suffered heavy casualties and was disorganised. It was ordered to collect and reorganise at the bottom of the hill where it had once again assembled by the evening. Its total casualties were 116—11 killed, 96 wounded and 9 missing.3
By 1500 hours, 1 Rajputana Rifles was in position to the west of the Camerons. The Commander of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade had asked for another battalion to be placed under command. 3/1 Punjab was accordingly moved from Agordat and arrived in the area of kilometres 109-110 by 1715 hours. The situation at nightfall on 5 February was that 2 Camerons and 1 Rajputana Rifles were in position on Cameron Ridge, 3/14 Punjab was collected at the bottom of the hill and 3/1 Punjab was concentrated in the area of kilometres 109-110.
6 February was a day of counter-attacks by the Italians. They carried out no less than five separate counter-attacks on the two forward battalions. The first of these took place between 0900 hours and 1000 hours on both 2 Camerons and 1 Rajputana Rifles. It was easily repulsed. There were reports of the Colonial troops trying to outflank 1 Rajputana Rifles from the west. Gazelle Force was, therefore, ordered to occupy Mt. Tafala and Mt. Jepio.
At 1200 hours the Italians counter-attacked 1 Rajputana Rifles again. This attack was repulsed, heavy casualties being inflicted. The Italians kept up continuous artillery and machine-gun fire, and C Company 1 Rajputana Rifles, which was in an exposed position to the west of Cameron Ridge, suffered many casualties; the strength of the Company falling to almost half by the evening.
3/1 Punjab was therefore moved forward to the railway line below 1 Rajputana Rifles, reaching there at 1300 hours.
The next counter-attack started at 1530 hours, again on 1 Rajputana Rifles. It was repulsed and was over by 1730 hours. At 1630 hours 3/1 Punjab moved up in support of 1 Rajputana Rifles for repulsing the attack. D Company moved into line while the other companies were in reserve. At 1930 hours the Italians counterattacked C Company 1 Rajputana Rifles again. Although the company’s strength had been greatly reduced it beat off the attack with great gallantry. It was in this engagement that Lance Naik Bhaira Ram of the Rajputana Rifles distinguished himself. He was in command of a platoon reduced in strength to seven men. When the Italians launched a fierce counter-attack its brunt was borne by his two small platoon posts. A platoon of D Company 3/1 Punjab located in his immediate vicinity was forced to withdraw. Not daunted by this, Bhaira Ram continued to defend his post with the utmost vigour, knowing full well that if the Italians penetrated his position, the safety of the entire battalion would be endangered. Not only did he repulse this attack, but with his remaining two men he also chased the retiring Italians with the bayonet. When all was over 11 Italian soldiers lay dead just outside his post and many more on the hillside.
The last Italian counter-attack came at 2330 hours and was mainly directed against D Company 3/1 Punjab. C Company 3/1 Punjab had to be sent up in support of D Company before it was finally repelled.
Thus the Italians had opposed the advance of the Indian forces stoutly. Indian troops had reached Sanchil and Brig’s Peak but lost them. They still held Cameron Ridge and some other features. Keren, however, stood defiant and impregnable, presenting a challenge to British strength and strategy.
The Decision to Fight at Keren
The storming of the Keren position was no light task. Its natural strength, the difficulties of maintenance and climatic conditions were powerful deterrents. Every day the temperature was rising. The Italians were numerically superior and had chosen Keren for a trial of strength. The battle here could well be a decisive one. They had every advantage of observation and possessed a strong and active air force. There was little chance of gaining a surprise here. The forcing of Keren was bound to mean hard fighting and losses were difficult to replace. Under these circumstances the desirability of finding a way round was obvious. From almost
the day of the first contact at Keren continuous and wide reconnaissances were.made to the north-west, south and south-east, to find alternative routes through the escarpment wall. Central India Horse searched south for sixty miles until it made contact with 2 Motor Machine Gun Group which was facing Arresa. At Arresa there was a possible gap, but the route had proved so difficult that the retreating Italians from Barentu had been forced to abandon all their vehicles. No road, capable of maintaining a force strong enough to fight its way through, existed east of Barentu. The time it would have taken to build one would have allowed the Italians to make the Arresa position as formidable as the one at Keren. Rain would have brought mechanical transport, moving between Barentu and Arresa, to a standstill. No way was found to the north either. Therefore, it was clear that Keren was the only practicable approach to the higher levels of the escarpment for a force of any size.
The Regrouping of Forces
The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, less 4 Sikh, moved from Agordat on 6 February and was concentrated in the area of kilometres 109-110. Plans had been made by the Commander of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade for another attack to capture Brig’s Peak during the day but it was felt that it would be necessary to use 3/1 Punjab also for this operation. Divisional orders had been that 3/1 Punjab was only to be used defensively and only in the event of an emergency. Permission to use 3/1 Punjab in the attack was asked for by the Commander of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade but was refused. At 1745 hours the Divisional Commander with the Commander of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived at the headquarters of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, and it was decided to place 3/14 Punjab under the command of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. The question of 3/1 Punjab being taken out and being reverted to the command of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was also considered. In view of the strong Italian pressure the Officer Commanding 1 Rajputana Rifles could not guarantee to hold his position without the help of 3/1 Punjab. The latter was therefore left under the command of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. Later, the same evening, it was decided to move 3/14 Punjab to Agordat in view of the losses it had suffered and to replace it by 4 Sikh, which was moved up during the night of 6/7 February and arrived at 0800 hours on 7 February, when it came under the command of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade.
The First Attack on Acqua Gap
All efforts to break through the Italian lines or even to capture
the heights overlooking Keren north of the road had failed so far.
Efforts to discover possible routes of advance round the flanks had also been unsuccessful. The main road was very effectively blocked. There was still a possibility of getting into Keren without having to break through the main Italian defences. Between Mounts Falestoh and Zelale was a col named Acqua Gap, over which a secondary track ran from the south-east to Keren. The approaches to Acqua Gap were over very rocky and broken ground. Mounts Falestoh and Zelale overlooked the whole area on both sides. In fact, it was a very strong defensive position. But, as far as was known at the time, Italian forces holding Acqua Gap consisted of two Colonial battalions, whose morale was considered to be very low on account of many desertions from them. It was therefore planned to secure Acqua Gap by a surprise attack and then break through and capture Keren. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was detailed for this task.
The plan of the 4th Indian Division was to capture the Acqua Gap on the night of 7/8 February. The decision whether to advance on Keren or to cut the Keren–Asmara road after the Acqua Gap had been taken, was left to the discretion of the Commander of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. In the event of Acqua Gap not being captured on the night of 7/8 February, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, was ordered to withdraw on the night of 8/9 February to divisional reserve and not to persist in the attack. The hope of gaining a surprise was very strong and the low morale of the Italian forces was expected to be of considerable help. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to aid the operation of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. On the night of 7/8 February it was asked to harass the Italians with artillery fire. At 0530 hours on the morning of 8 February it was to demonstrate on its own front in order to distract Italian attention from the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade attack. It was also to take advantage of any success gained by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. If the Italians withdrew from its front it was to exploit vigorously towards Keren without getting heavily engaged and incurring casualties. It was to be prepared to maintain one battalion there (Keren) and concentrate the rest of its strength as ordered by the 4th Indian Division.
The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade had under its command for this operation 4 Sikh (in place of 3/1 Punjab), one troop B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment, one battery 3·7-inch Howitzers Sudan Regiment, one troop anti-aircraft battery and the 12 Field
Company RIE. The operation was to be carried out in three phases:–4
In the first phase, the Brigade Group was to start concentrating in the area of Pt. 1260 at 1200 hours on 7 February. In the second phase, 4 Rajputana Rifles was to capture the Acqua Gap. Other units were to move up behind 4 Rajputana Rifles and keep clear of the battle. In the third phase, after the Acqua Gap had been taken, 12 Field Company was to build a road from the foot of the Acqua Gap to over and beyond it. 4 Sikh was to secure the next bound—the high ground about Pt. 1560. After the completion of the third phase, 1st Royal Fusiliers was to advance on the orders of Brigade Headquarters.
A porter corps of one company per battalion was formed. It was to carry forward one day’s hard ration and 80 water containers per battalion and dump them in an area about one mile southwest of Acqua Gap. It was also to carry wireless sets and other equipment for the use of forces and was to protect the rear areas.
1 Field Regiment R. A., and one battery 3·7-inch Howitzers Sudan Regiment were to be prepared to support the advance from first light. One Forward Observation Officer was detailed with each infantry battalion. A medium battery was also available if required.
Great care was taken to conceal the move forward. The first phase was completed by 1700 hours on 7 February. No transport had been allowed. All arms, ammunition and equipment had to be manhandled. The weather was hot and the march very exhausting. 4 Rajputana Rifles which was to lead the attack was to capture the Acqua Gap from excluding Mt. Zcmale, i.e., Pt. 1704 (Sphinx) on the right to excluding Mt. Falestoh (Pt. 1760) on the left. Pt. 1565 (Sangar), about 800 yards from Mt. Falestoh, was the highest point of the objective. The plan was for D Company, leading the attack, to capture an intermediate objective—a ridge south of, and below, Sangar and north of, and above, the southernmost feature (Rajputana Ridge). The line of advance was via Rajputana Ridge. D Company was to be followed by C Company which was to secure Sangar and the outlying features—the line of advance stretching from the mouth of the gorge to Sangar. B Company was to follow initially the advance of C Company and on the
capture of that Company’s objective was to exploit eastwards along the Acqua Gap to the right. Battalion Headquarters was to move in the rear of B Company and to open near the track just below B Company’s Headquarters, which was to open on the Acqua Gap itself. A Company following the Battalion Headquarters was to be in reserve.
The advance from the area of Pt. 1260 started at 1800 hours on 7 February. The order of march was according to the successive objectives to be captured, D Company, C Company, B Company, Battalion Headquarters, A Company, followed by 12 Field Company, Sappers and Miners, whose task was to prepare a track over the Acqua Gap as soon as it was captured. By 1930 hours, 4 Rajputana Rifles was at its forming-up place at the foot of the gorge. D Company went straight on to its objective and captured it without opposition. At 2000 hours, C Company advanced towards Pt. 1565 followed by B Company and the rest of the battalion. As these companies were moving from the bottom of the gorge the Italians opened heavy mortar, grenade and machine-gun fire. This caused considerable confusion. Battalion Headquarters opened on a ledge about 400 yards to the right of D Company at about 2200 hours but even then by 0030 hours (8 February) only 3 officers and 16 other ranks of A Company had been rallied, the rest having been dispersed by the heavy mortar, grenade and machine gun fire. The position was not reassuring particularly as D Company was under very heavy machine-gun and mortar fire in an exposed position. The Commanding Officer of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles therefore ordered D Company to move to Battalion Headquarters, whence they could support the forward companies by first light. D Company got split into two parts en route and therefore did not complete its move until approximately 0530 hours.
Meanwhile C and B Companies too encountered stiff opposition. C Company came under heavy fire when it was about half way to its objective. Subedar Richpal Ram showed exemplary courage in leading the attack. With two platoons he pushed on through heavy mortar, grenade and machine-gun fire and captured Pt. 1565 about midnight at the point of the bayonet. B Company captured its objective at 0430 hours in the teeth of stiff opposition. Both the companies on Acqua Gap and Pt. 1565 had suffered very heavy losses in the fighting. Finally, after stoutly resisting Italian counter-attacks and running short of ammunition, C Company on Pt. 1565, fought its way out of the Italian encirclement. B Company was also driven off the Acqua Gap. The situation at daybreak was that A and D Companies were holding Rajputana Ridge with
Battalion Headquarters in the centre. The remnants of B and C Companies were collected by 1300 hours and placed in reserve.5
In conjunction with the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade had planned an attack by one company 3/1 Punjab on Brig’s Peak at 0600 hours on 8 February. Its object was to prevent the Italians from withdrawing troops from that front in order to reinforce those opposite the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. At 0445 hours on 8 February, Headquarters 4th Indian Division informed the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade of the failure of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade attack to secure Acqua Gap and said that the Divisional Commander did not wish to risk heavy casualties or involve the reserve. In view of this, the Commander of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was asked to consider if the attack by the company of 3/1 Punjab on Brig’s Peak should be proceeded with. The Brigade Commander, thereupon, decided to cancel the attack.
On the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade front 4 Rajputana Rifles was ordered to hold the positions on Rajputana Ridge and the rest of the brigade was told to defend its areas in the bottom of the valley. Artillery maintained a steady fire throughout the day to neutralise any Italian activity. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade found itself in a very precarious position in the valley. The whole area and the lines of communication were commanded by Italian positions all around. Although the Italians could not get vehicles through on account of their own road block, if they had shown a little enterprise, even a slight threat to the Indian lines of communication would have proved very embarrassing indeed. Actually, apart from artillery fire and air action, no threat materialised at all.
The surprise attack on Acqua Gap had failed. The Commander of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was of the opinion that a frontal attack with the resources available was not feasible. One battalion had already lost heavily. A frontal attack would have involved heavy losses to another battalion. There would not therefore, be two battalions left to exploit. He also thought that it was too late in the day to stage a deliberate attack with any chance of successful exploitation. Therefore he recommended a night withdrawal to the original positions on 8 February. Accordingly the Commander of the 4th Indian Division ordered Gazelle Force to relieve the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade in the Acqua Gap area by 2000 hours on 9 February. The relief was completed within
two hours and the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade moved into the rest area behind Gazelle Force.
The Divisional Plan to break through the Acqua Gap
The Commander of the 4th Indian Division then planned a coordinated divisional operation for the capture of Keren. It was to take place in four phases:–
Phase I—It consisted of the capture of Brig’s Peak. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was to carry out this operation, starting at 1500 hours on 10 February.
Phase II—This was aimed at the capture of the Acqua Gap. Gazelle Force with 4/6 Rajputana Rifles and 4 Sikh under command was to accomplish this object on 11 February. The following artillery was to support Gazelle Force:–
1 Field Regiment,
One Battery 25 Field Regiment,
One Troop Medium Artillery (eight 6-inch howitzers),
One Troop Sudan Regiment (four 3·7-inch howitzers).
Phase III—In this phase the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was to exploit towards Keren. 4 Sikh and 4 Rajputana Rifles were to be released after the capture of the Acqua Gap in Phase II. They were to revert to the command of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade for exploitation towards Keren.
2 Mahratta6 was ordered to come under the command of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade as divisional reserve. It was only to be used for exploitation.
Phase IV—In this phase all available forces were to be used in pursuit to cut roads leading eastwards from Keren.
In the earlier operations the Italian Colonial troops were known to have suffered very severely, and three battalions had been withdrawn owing to heavy casualties and desertions. By 9 February some
700 deserters7 had already come in (mainly from the 11th Colonial Brigade), and on that day several Eritrean deserters surrendered for the first time. This was considered to be a good sign, as the Eritreans had always been considered as the best of the Italian Colonial troops.
At the time of the attack on Brig’s Peak by 3/1 Punjab (11th Indian Infantry Brigade) the Italian dispositions were as follows:–
West of the Gorge
i. Sanchil and slopes.
The 11th Colonial Brigade held this area with the 51st Battalion and remnants of the 56th and 63rd Battalions. The 52nd Battalion, which was much disorganised and had suffered many desertions, had been withdrawn.
ii. Brig’s Peak—Flat Top
The 5th Colonial Brigade held this area with the 97th and 106th Battalions. Tipo Battalion had been withdrawn due to heavy losses in the attack on 4 February. Two companies Bersaglieri strengthened this brigade.
iii. Amba–Samanna Area
The 2nd Colonial Brigade held this area with the 151st and 10th Battalions. The third battalion was to the south of Amba. If 11th Grenadier Regiment and one company Bersaglieri were in reserve.
East of the Gorge
i. Sphinx–Acqua Gap Area—Two battalions of the 2nd Colonial Brigade (9th and 4th Battalions), with 44 Pack Group Artillery and one company 81-mm mortar held this area. (The 9th Battalion had resisted the attack of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles during the night of 7/8 February).
ii. Falestoh– 2/11th Grenadier Regiment held this area.
This area held by the remnants of the 3rd Battalion (11th Colonial Brigade), 2nd and 3rd Groups Cavalry Squadrons and 2nd Pack Group Artillery. The 44th Colonial Brigade (105th, 107th and 112th Battalions) was on its way to
Keren from the north. The 105th Battalion arrived on 9 February and moved up to the Sanchil–Amba area during the night of 10/11 February.
A defensive position was being constructed across the plain just west of Keren, covering the rail and road approaches. It was well dug and manned by the 35th and 101st Battalions of the 42nd Colonial Brigade, which had been at Agordat, together with eight pack-guns. The road was heavily mined. The 111th Battalion, the remaining battalion, was further east on Mt. Canabai.
The Attack on Brig’s Peak
According to the divisional plan the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was to launch an attack on Brig’s Peak at 1500 hours on 10 February 1941. The 31 Field Regiment, 25 Field Regiment and 233 Medium Battery were to support the attack with a concentration on the Italian positions from zero to zero plus 10 minutes, and thereafter by observation. 3/1 Punjab advanced from Cameron Ridge on a four company front—B Company to Hog’s Back, A Company to Saddle, C Company to the centre of Brig’s Peak and D Company to the right feature of Brig’s Peak. The Punjabis captured the ridge from Brig’s Peak to Hog’s Back by 1615 hours in spite of strong opposition and heavy shelling by the Italian pack artillery. Consolidation was immediately taken in hand. Help was asked for. B Company 1/6 Rajputana Rifles was ordered forward and started moving at 1710 hours to occupy Hog’s Back and thus enable B Company 3/1 Punjab to be concentrated at the left feature of Brig’s Peak where the Battalion Headquarters had been opened. Four signal lines were carried forward during the attack but only one reached the objective. Even this was cut by shell fire and communications were broken for an hour from 1630 to 1730 hours.
At 1715 hours on 10 February, the Italians launched a counterattack on the right feature of Brig’s Peak. D Company offered resistance but ran out of ammunition and was forced to retire to the centre of Brig’s Peak. Some of the Colonial troops who pursued D Company were scattered by mortar fire. At the close of the day the situation was that, with the exception of the right feature of Brig’s Peak, the Punjabis had been able to consolidate their position on the ridge from the centre of Brig’s Peak to Hog’s Back.
At 0530 hours on 11 February, B Company 3/1 Punjab reinforced by a platoon launched a counter-attack and recaptured the right feature of Brig’s Peak without much opposition. Two officers
and twenty other ranks (including Bersaglieri) were captured. 3/1 Punjab and B Company 1/6 Rajputana Rifles held their positions under almost continuous shell and mortar fire throughout the day. Direct hits were scored on the Battalion Headquarters which knocked out one gunner observation post and wounded a British officer. B Company 1/6 Rajputana Rifles was counter-attacked at 0100 and 0530 hours on 11 February and frequently during the day. Defensive fire was brought down and all attacks were successfully repulsed. Although the counter-attacks were repulsed the position was not satisfactory for there was a gap of a thousand yards between the left of 3/1 Punjab (i.e., A Company on Saddle) and the right flank of B Company 1/6 Rajputana Rifles on Hog’s Back. Arrangements were therefore made to reinforce 3/1 Punjab and the following were ordered up:–
Carrier platoon 2 Camerons (in infantry role),
One platoon 2 Camerons,
Brigade Anti-tank Company (in infantry role).
The Officer Commanding 1/6 Rajputana Rifles also used his own carrier platoon for this purpose. The 4 Field Company was kept in the area as a reserve, only to be used in an emergency. 3/1 Punjab had by this time been reduced to less than two hundred men.8
At 2300 hours on 11 February the Italians launched a heavy counter-attack through the gap between the positions, mentioned above, towards Saddle. All communications to the rear had broken down, including the wireless set which had been hit by Italian shells. Artillery support was, therefore, not possible. By 0200 hours on 12 February, A Company 3/1 Punjab was forced to withdraw to Battalion Headquarters. About 400 Italians infiltrated right into the Battalion Headquarters area. They continued to press the attack and by 0230 hours, 3/1 Punjab was driven off Brig’s Peak. B Company 1/6 Rajputana Rifles, still on Hog’s Back, was ordered to hold on. 1/6 Rajputana Rifles was told to be prepared to counter-attack. The casualties of 3/1 Punjab were 11 killed and 40 wounded.
This situation was reported at 0300 hours on 12 February to the Commander of the 4th Indian Division who cancelled the counter-attack. He issued orders for the original line to be held at all costs and for B Company 1/6 Rajputana Rifles to be withdrawn
from Hog’s Back. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade had great difficulty in passing these orders to 1/6 Rajputana Rifles as communications had, in the meantime, broken down. However, a patrol was sent to B Company 1/6 Rajputana Rifles with orders for it to withdraw at first light. It was told to pass the message to the 4 Field Company and detachment 2 Camerons which was reported to be in touch with B Company 1/6 Rajputana Rifles. This patrol got through and all were back in 1/6 Rajputana Rifles area by 0625 hours on 12 February. The Officer Commanding 1/6 Rajputana Rifles was ordered to take command of the position. All personnel of 2 Camerons and 3/1 Punjab came under his command. The defensive position was organised and strengthened by 0645 hours on 12 February.
Plan for the Second Attack on Acqua Gap
South and east of the road, Gazelle Force had planned an attack for the capture of Acqua Gap on 11 February. The operation was to take place in two phases. In the first phase, 4/6 Rajputana Rifles was to advance from Rajputana Ridge at 0530 hours and attack Pt. 1565. In the second phase, 4 Sikh was to advance at 0700 hours from the foot of Rajputana Ridge by the track and capture Acqua Gap.9 At 2200 hours on 10 January, the Commander of the 4th Indian Division informed Gazelle Force and the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade of the partial success of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade’s attack on Brig’s Peak and of the further attacks being planned to complete its capture. He added that, until the situation north of the road was cleared up, 2 Mahratta could not be released for operations in the Acqua Gap area. In view of this the attack on Acqua Gap was postponed to 12 February. At 1230 hours on 11 February a conference was held at Headquarters 4th Indian Division where the Commander of the 5th Indian Division and Brigadier General Staff Headquarters and the Troops Sudan were also present. The following changes were made in the plan:–
The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was to take command of operations for the capture of Acqua Gap and to secure up to the general line Pt. 1422–Pt. 1501 on 12 February.
The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade (5th Indian Division) was to move to the Acqua Gap area on 12 February into the rear positions evacuated by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. After capture of the objectives by the 5th
Indian Infantry Brigade, the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was to pass through and capture Keren.
The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade made slight alterations in Gazelle Force plans for the capture of Acqua Gap. 4/6 Rajputana Rifles was still to open the attack from Rajputana Ridge at 0530 hours and capture Pt. 1565, but 4 Sikh was now to be concentrated at the foot of Rajputana Ridge by 0645 hours and to attack Acqua Gap and the lower slopes of Mount Zemale on the receipt of orders from Brigade Headquarters. The attack by 4 Sikh was to be launched irrespective of the success or failure of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles. Both the battalions consisted of three companies each.
During the night of 11/12 February the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was counter-attacked on Brig’s Peak and forced to withdraw to its original line. The Commander of the 4th Indian Division informed the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade of the situation and ordered the attack on Acqua Gap to proceed according to plan. It was told that 2 Mahratta would not be available to it as it was being kept in the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade area as divisional reserve.
Attack on Sangar
The Commander of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles planned to secure the ridge from including Tree Hill on the right and including Pimple on the left. A Company on the right was to secure objective from including Tree Hill to excluding Sangar. In the centre B/C Company less one platoon was to secure Sangar (Pt. 1565). On the left, D Company was to secure objective from excluding Sangar to including Pimple. The attack was to be supported by 1 Field Regiment (sixteen 25-pounders), 25 Field Regiment (sixteen 25-pounders), 390 Battery (twelve 25-pounders), 7 Medium Battery (eight 6-inch howitzers) and one Troop (four 3·7-inch howitzers). Skinner’s Horse was to support the attack by fire from Rajputana Ridge. One platoon B/C Company in reserve was to move forward with the Advanced Battalion Headquarters in the rear of B/C Company, to be ready to exploit success in any direction.
The battalion marched to its forming-up place on Rajputana Ridge at 0300 hours on 12 February and was in position ready to advance by 0515 hours. At 0530 hours the artillery bombardment began, and the forward companies crossed the start line followed by the Advanced Battalion Headquarters and the reserve platoon. The artillery barrage was greeted by a hail of machine-gun bullets and mortar bombs all along the front. The battalion fought gallantly, pushing home the attack with great determination, but
it suffered heavy casualties and was only partially successful. On the right, A Company secured about two-thirds of its objective and beat off several counter-attacks. Naik Maula Baksh played a notable part in this attack. He was in command of a section. He advanced with a light machine-gun and took two Italian posts in the enfilade. He then attacked a third post and when the Colonial troops retired to dead ground he stood up and continued to fire on them until he was killed. Meanwhile B/C Companies were held up by terrific mortar fire just below Sangar. They had put out the T Panel and this area became a target for every Italian mortar within range. It was here that Subedar Richpal Ram (of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles) fought gallantly, leading the forward platoon through intense fire with determination and complete disregard for personal safety until his right foot was blown off by a mortar bomb. He was mortally wounded before he could be evacuated. For his conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on this occasion and during the night attack on 7/8 February he was awarded Victoria Cross posthumously. At 0730 hours B/C Companies asked for artillery support for a final assault on Sangar. Not much progress was however made and at 0815 hours B/C Companies reported that they were being heavily bombed.
Meanwhile D Company had also encountered stiff opposition. It came under heavy machine-gun and mortar fire from the exposed left flank as soon as its men crossed the start line. They pushed on with determination despite heavy casualties. Havildar Sheodan Singh, Second-in-Command No. 16 Platoon, distinguished himself for his conspicuous courage. He continued to advance although he was wounded on two separate occasions. He along with five men reached the objective—Flat Hill. Supporting himself on the Boab Tree he hurled grenades at the Italians just over the crest, until he was hit again for the third time and fell down the hill. The small party was pushed back by heavy Italian counter-attacks. Finally the Company held on to a position just below the Boab Tree.
At 0845 hours, the Commanding Officer 4/6 Rajputana Rifles asked for a fresh battalion or at least a company to push home the attack to the full. This could not be provided. It was, however, arranged for all the artillery to fire concentrations on 4/6 Rajputana Rifles’ objectives from 0920 to 0930 hours. The reserve platoon reinforced D Company for an attack at 0930 hours and B/C Companies were also ordered to attack at the same time. Only a few rounds fell on the target. The attack failed. The single artillery line from the observation post on Rajputana Ridge was cut at 0910 hours and was not repaired until 1010 hours. Efforts were made
to communicate with the guns over the brigade lines and through headquarters Royal Artillery but without success. This was a critical period. The Italians were seen massing for counter-attack behind Pt. 1565. But no more than some mortar fire could be put down upon them.
To the right, the attack of 4/11 Sikh was to start at 0645 hours on the orders of Brigade Headquarters. The brigade signal to 4/11 Sikh to advance at 0645 hours was sent by two different means, but failed to get through. However, when the Officer Commanding 4/11 Sikh saw the artillery barrage open at 0645 hours, he advanced on his own initiative. The attack was made by C Company on the right and A Company on the left. Strong resistance was met in hand-to-hand fighting. The Italians had emplacements, trenches and wire on the crest and machine guns in defiladed positions. The advance was conducted with great determination and part of C Company managed to reach the crest, but was soon driven back by hand grenade, machine-gun and mortar fire. A Company got to within fifty yards of the objective but could not advance any further. At 1000 hours the battalion was forced to withdraw some distance.
Failure of the Attack
4/11 Sikh was ordered by Brigade Headquarters to consider the possibility of another attack with all available artillery support. The battalion was confident of the success of such an operation. It suggested 1400 hours as the starting time to enable all its men to be collected and organised. But in view of the attack having not been successful so far, the Commander of the 4th Indian Division decided, at 1120 hours, to cancel the operation. 4/11 Sikh was therefore ordered to hold its position till dark and then withdraw. Both 4/6 Rajputana Rifles and 4/11 Sikh withdrew from their forward positions at 1815 hours and Rajputana Ridge was taken over by 1 Horse with one company 1 Rajputana Rifles under command. The casualties suffered by 4/11 Sikh were 9 killed, 84 wounded and 9 missing. The casualties of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles were 37 killed, 176 wounded and 4 missing.
The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade had moved to the Acqua Gap area for the purpose of exploiting towards Keren. It suffered some losses from heavy artillery fire while moving along the main road. It moved back to the area of kilometre 110 after dark on 12 February, spent the night there and early on the morning of 13 February left in mechanical transport for Barentu,
It was decided to withdraw Gazelle Force and the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade during the night of 13/14 February from the Acqua Gap area. 13 February was a quiet day. At 1900 hours the Italians opened heavy artillery fire and it was thought that they were probably going to launch a counter-attack. But no counter-attack materialised and the fire died down an hour later. The withdrawal of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade and Gazelle Force was completed by 0100 hours on 14 February without any loss. Both concentrated in the area of kilometre 110.
All efforts to break through to Keren had thus been unsuccessful. The Italians had fought stubbornly and aided by the natural strength of their positions, had held out. The British still held Cameron Ridge though they had lost Brig’s Peak and other features to Italian counter-attacks. After the failure of these efforts it was clear that any further assault on Keren would be a major operation. So preparations for the next attack were planned and undertaken.
While these preparations were afoot the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade group had been advancing towards Keren down the Red Sea coast. As early as 21 January, the Commander of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade had reported that the Italians were withdrawing from the Karora area and asked permission to start a minor operation against the Italian garrison there. This permission was given. The idea of a thrust down the Red Sea coast had been previously considered and at first it had been used to divert attention from Kassala. After consultation with the Royal Navy, it was considered feasible to direct a force of approximately one brigade group from Port Sudan via Suakin–Karora–Nacfa–Cub Cub and on to Keren from the north. We shall narrate the story of this advance in the next chapter.