Chapter 6: The Advance down the Red Sea Coast
The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade (4th Indian Division) arrived at Port Sudan from the Western Desert on 1 January 19411. From there it proceeded to concentrate in the Gebeit area. The Brigade Headquarters was situated in the unoccupied railway quarters and the brigade signal section took over communication. The Brigade had as its role the line of communication duties and the defence of Port Sudan and the Red Sea Coast while the main British forces operated in the Kassala area early in February. The order of battle of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade Group was as follows:–
Brigade Signal Section
1st Royal Sussex
Brigade Anti-tank Company
Brigade Section of Divisional Mechanical Transport
At that time the Italian forces on the northern frontier of Eritrea were holding El Ghena, Karora, Khor Falkat, Nacfa and Cub Cub. Tipo Battalion and Headquarters 5th Colonial Brigade were at El Ghena, the 97th Colonial Battalion at Karora, the 106th Colonial Battalion at Khor Falkat (between El Ghena and Mersa Taclai), the 105th Colonial Battalion, the 112th Colonial Battalion and the 6th Cavalry Group at Nacfa and one Colonial battalion at Cub Cub.
On 4 January, the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to stimulate activity and display force to distract Italian attention from the Kassala area, where offensive action was being planned. Towards the end of January, as time for the attack on Kassala drew near, it was to intensify its activity. Accordingly, dummy dumps
were made, camps erected, dummy airfields built, piers at Aqiq4 improved, road and dhow convoys organised, and intensive patrolling started in the Karora area. 1st Royal Sussex (less one company) was moved up and by 22 January was widely dispersed between Aqiq and Karora. All this activity successfully misled the Italians, who reported the presence of nine thousand troops on the Red Sea littoral. Their air force carried out almost daily bombing attacks on the Indian and British forward troops and convoys.
The line of communication was now beginning to get extended. The distance between Port Sudan and Karora was one hundred and eighty miles, and the road was so bad that vehicles could seldom exceed a speed of 8 miles per hour. The going across the country was also poor and petrol consumption very high. During the subsequent operations, the petrol requirements of mobile columns were constantly underestimated. This led to serious delays in operations at a later date. Dumps had to be established before troops could be brought up. Petrol formed the most bulky load and the leakage from unprotected tins was considerable.
Reports from forward troops of the Italians thinning out on the frontier were confirmed by statements made by agents and air reconnaissance. On 22 January, Brigadier Briggs, the Commander of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade, asked permission to surround Karora, which was granted. At that time only one Coast-Guard battalion was guarding Karora and Mersa Taclai. An operation to surround Karora was carried out by the 1st Royal Sussex with Meadowforce under command on 23/24 January. As the area beyond the frontier had not been reconnoitred before, and in that portion the going was found to be very bad, the vehicles of the battalion could not get nearer than ten miles from the objective by 1700 hours. This influenced the Commander of 1st Royal Sussex to cancel the attack. The Carrier Platoon which had made good progress was recalled. But the orders were issued late and the platoon was caught the next morning by the Italian aircraft in an exposed position. Meadowforce which had not received the order cancelling the operation, continued the advance and was nearly surrounded by the Italians. However, it extricated itself with difficulty on 24 January after hard fighting. The failure of this operation was unfortunate as the clement of surprise was lost. The Italian garrison
was reinforced and occupied prepared positions in the more difficult hilly country.5
Planning for an Advance down the Coast
The idea of a thrust down the Red Sea Coast had been previously considered although operations so far had only been intended to divert attention from Kassala. After consultation with the Navy, it was considered feasible to direct a force of approximately one brigade from Port Sudan via Suakin, Karora, Nacfa, Cub Cub and on to Keren from the north. On 5 February the following orders were issued:–
i. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade Group was to assist the 4th Indian Division by an advance on Keren along the coast as soon as possible.
ii. After the capture of Karora, El Ghena, and Mersa Taclai, a new base was to be established at the last place where a small harbour was available. The capture of Mersa Taclai was considered necessary as it was intended to be developed and used as a base for supply and other administrative requirements.
iii. Sea transport was to be organised to avoid the long road line of communication between Port Sudan and El Ghena.
The following were placed under command of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade:–
One Battery 25 Field Regiment
12 Field Company RIE
170 Light Field Ambulance
14 Battalion Foreign Legion
3rd Battalion Chad Regiment (Free French Forces)
4 Motor Machine Gun Group Sudan Defence Force
32 Construction Company (for repairing telephone lines Mersa Taclai–Keren)
55 Supply Depot Section
One Anti-aircraft Troop (for defence of Mersa Taclai).
In these operations sea transport was to be used to the full, to overcome administrative difficulties of an advance down the coast. The plan was to use barges, dhows, and small ships to move both troops and stores by sea first to Aqiq and later when open to Mersa
Taclai. If later it was decided to threaten Massawa, Mersa Cuba, thirty-five miles to the north, was to be opened.
The Brigade Plan
The Italian garrison of Karora was believed at this time to be about four hundred and fifty men with sixteen light machine guns and no artillery. Mersa Taclai was reported to be unoccupied except for a few coast guards. At El Ghena it was considered possible that there were two companies of the 47th Colonial Battalion. All information indicated that these troops were nervous and their morale was low.
The Commander of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade gave orders on 6 February 1941 for the capture of Karora and Mersa Taclai. It was to be followed by a rapid advance on El Ghena and exploitation towards Nacfa after the occupation of El Ghena. The force detailed consisted of 1st Royal Sussex, with the 7th Brigade Anti-tank Company and Meadowforce under command. The Commander of 1st Royal Sussex was ordered to send a column of one company (embussed), carrier platoon less one section and one platoon Anti-tank Company to capture Mersa Taclai on 9 February and then to advance towards El Ghena with the object of capturing that place and exploiting towards Nacfa. The remainder of the force was to capture Karora and press towards El Ghena. Bold action was stressed to force the Italians from their positions.6
Capture of Karora, Mersa Taclai and El Ghena
At this time the 4th Indian Division was heavily engaged with superior Italian forces in the Keren area and speedy operations by the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade for bringing pressure from the north against Italian forces in the Keren area were considered necessary to assist the 4th Indian Division.
On 9 February 1941, Karora was captured with very little opposition by a Royal Sussex column. The other column detailed for the capture of Mersa Taclai moved off on 8 February and advanced to within two miles of that place. Here the Commander decided to proceed to Skenat with the main portion of the column, so as to be in a better position to capture the wells at Kerai two miles to the south-west. These were believed to be strongly held by the Italians. A force of one platoon was detached to occupy Mersa
Taclai which was believed to be unoccupied. This platoon met with opposition on the outskirts of Mersa Taclai and the rest of the force from Skenat had to be called in. Mersa Taclai was finally captured at 0915 hours on 10 February and a sea base was now sought to be improvised there as it held possibilities for supply by dhows and coasters. It proved to be a valuable acquisition because of the large amount of petrol required by forces operating over soft sands.
At 1800 hours on 10 February, 1st Royal Sussex occupied El Ghena without opposition. The column from Mersa Taclai was immobilised owing to shortage of petrol, and could not move to Nacfa. On 14 January, a detachment, sent down the coast, found Mersa Dersa unoccupied. The main road (El Ghena–Nacfa) was unsuitable for mechanical transport. The lower road ran through Asmat Awi Pass and was suitable for mechanical transport. There were numerous tank pits covered with brush wood along this route. There appeared to be no through way into the hills at Nacfa on this road. The road from Cam Ceua to Cub Cub was suitable for mechanical transport.
In the meantime the Brigade Headquarters was busy tackling the administrative problems in Port Sudan. On 11 February naval and engineer officers were sent by air to Mersa Taclai. They found the jetty broken and the harbour very shallow. One tug, a barge and a dhow were despatched immediately with engineer stores and patrol to make the jetty serviceable. Later a lighter was sunk to form an extra pier.
Every dhow in the neighbourhood of Port Sudan was commandeered and loaded with petrol and the services of HMIS Ralnagiri were secured for transporting troops. The first convoy to reach Mersa Taclai brought the 3rd Battalion Chad Regiment on board the HMIS Ratnagiri, and twenty-one days’ ration in dhows. It arrived on 16 February. Uncertainty as to the direction of the wind delayed the dhow convoys considerably.
Mersa Taclai itself had no water, and a water point had to be developed at Rehib, ten miles away on the El Ghena road. The first twenty-five miles of the El Ghena road were almost impassable. All available men were put on to improving this road and developing the water point. On 25 February a grader and one section 12 Field Company became available for this area. By this time Mersa Taclai had started functioning as a base, though mainly by improvisation. It was also being used as a forward landing ground by the Royal Air Force.
Capture of Cub Cub
On 12 February, one company with two sections carrier platoon 1st Royal Sussex and one platoon Brigade Anti-tank Company were despatched to Nacfa. This force was all lorried and was later called Cubcol. As reports indicated that Nacfa was unoccupied, the force was redirected to Cam Ceua. Meadowforce was ordered up the Nacfa road, on camels. At 1500 hours on 14 February Cubcol made contact with the Italians two miles north of Cam Ceua. The road was heavily mined and Cubcol was held up. It was relieved on 17 February by the 3rd Battalion Chad Regiment, and moved back to a distance of about fifteen miles. On the same day a message was received from the 4th Indian Division to the effect that early pressure on Keren from the north was essential. On 20 February in a preliminary operation, the 3rd Chad Battalion captured the ridge covering the entrance into the Cub Cub valley.
The Commander of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade reconnoitred the Italian positions, which contained the 112th Colonial Battalion with four guns. The Italians appeared to be holding the lower hills in the valley only and it seemed possible to surround them on the hill tops, which the Italians were known to dislike. Having no artillery, he decided to manoeuvre the Italians from their positions. He ordered Cubcol to move via Wadi Athara to the south of the Cub Cub positions and cut their lines of communication. Two companies from Chad Battalion were to get behind the Italians’ right flank. The remainder of that battalion was to attack frontally; all objectives were to be reached by 1000 hours on 21 February. The attack of the Chad Battalion was fiercely pressed home, but the Italian resistance proved too strong. Cubcol lost its way, going too far east and south, and then ran out of petrol.
On 22 February the Commander of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade was able to put into battle the battery from the 25 Field Regiment and the carriers and Anti-tank Platoon of 4/16 Punjab which had unexpectedly reached El Ghena the previous night. These were rushed up. The determined attack of the Chad Battalion, thus reinforced, and finally the belated arrival of Cubcol at Cub Cub from the south-west on 22 February, broke the Italian resistance and Cub Cub was captured on 23 February with four hundred and thirty-six prisoners, four guns and a large dump of stores.
Cubcol was immediately ordered to advance southwards, as fast as possible. During the night of 23/24 February, Chelamet (twenty-five miles south of Cub Cub) was reached before the Italians had time to destroy the Pass. A small column moving from Cub
Cub occupied Nacfa without opposition, although Meadowforce, which had reached Madruiet on 17 February was still held up by the Italians at Debelai Pass.
4 Motor Machine Gun Company (Sudan Defence Force), which had arrived from Khartoum on 22 February, with one platoon of the Brigade Anti-tank Company under command, was ordered to pass through Cubcol and take up the pursuit as far as the main Italian positions covering Keren on the north-east. Cubcol was to move in the rear and in support of the 4 Motor Machine Gun Company until relieved by 4/16 Punjab. In addition to the above, 4 Motor Machine Gun Company was to reconnoitre possible routes leading from the Chelamet–Keren road, which could be used for attacks on Keren from the north, north-east, east, or south-east. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade was to concentrate in the Cub Cub area as soon as transport resources permitted.
On 24 February, 4 Motor Machine Gun Company passed through Cubcol. Armoured car patrols moved ahead of the column and reported a road block at the entrance to the Mescelit Pass. The column continued the advance on 25 February until the leading elements came under pack artillery fire when approaching the pass. On 25 February 1941, the advanced Battalion Headquarters and two companies 4/16 Punjab reached the area behind the Motor Machine Gun Company in the evening. C Company 1st Royal Sussex (Cubcol) moved back for the defence of Chelamet. The remaining two companies of 4/16 Punjab were still at Mersa Taclai and on the line of communication. One section was detailed for work on the road and pier at Mersa Taclai. The last unit to arrive was the 14th Battalion Foreign Legion, which disembarked at Mersa Taclai on 27 February. This completed the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade Group which now consisted of:–
Brigade Signal Section
7th Brigade Anti-tank Company
1st Royal Sussex
3rd Chad Battalion
14th Battalion Foreign Legion
12/25 Field Battery RA
12 Field Company RIE
4 Motor Machine Gun Company, Sudan Defence Force
170 Field Ambulance
1st Service Company Sudan Defence Force
55th Supply Depot Section
The Italians appeared to be holding Mescelit Pass in some strength and efforts were made to discover the exact strength and extent of their positions. Fighting patrols were sent out on 26 and 27 February, as a result of which the position was believed to be held by one company 107th Colonial Battalion with six mortars, four to eight machine guns and possibly some guns. An operation to outflank the Italian position was planned. 4/16 Punjab less two companies, with two companies 1st Royal Sussex under command and A Troop 12/25th Field Battery in support, was detailed to carry out the operation. On the evening of 28 February one company made a frontal demonstration while the other moved off round the left flank, spent the night of 28 February/1 March in a deep nullah and by 0600 hours was established on the left of the Italian positions. By 0830 hours, the pass was captured without loss, the negligible opposition having been neutralised by the guns.
The administrative situation had again become difficult. Mersa Taclai was already one hundred and fifty miles behind. Before troops could be brought up, a forward dump of supplies had to be formed. Cub Cub was selected for this purpose. It entailed a three day round trip for the mechanical transport, without allowing time for maintenance. The round trip by dhow from Suakin took at least a week, while the tug and barges took four days. HMIS Ratnagiri was being used for bringing up troops and taking back casualties. The supply problem was complicated by the fact that separate scales and types of rations were required for the British, Indian, French, French Colonial and Sudanese troops. The varying speeds of the shipping used made the question of priority of arrival at Mersa Taclai very difficult. Shortage of transport, forward of Mersa Taclai, further complicated the question of priorities between the various types of rations and the other necessaries like ammunition and petrol. Communications were only possible by wireless and each message had to be ciphered and deciphered. The wireless sets available thus became overloaded. Also the sets were transmitting over distances well beyond their normal capacity and the reception varied considerably. To these was added the difficulty of finding adequate supplies of water. Except at Cub Cub, water was difficult to find anywhere. Issues, therefore, varied from one gallon to half a gallon per man throughout these operations.
Extensive demolitions on the road had been carried out in the pass and it was estimated that it would take two days to get vehicles through. 1st Royal Sussex took over the pass from 4/16 Punjab on
2 March. Patrols were then sent forward to discover Italian dispositions and movements. Brigade d’ Orient was concentrated in Chelamet area.
Contact with the Italian Forces at Keren
On 3 March, 1st Royal Sussex moved forward of the Mescelit Pass and advanced as far as the Anseba road crossing. Patrols further moved beyond the cross roads and reached the northern outskirts of Mendad the next day without opposition.
4 Motor Machine Gun Company and one platoon Brigade Anti-tank Company, were sent to Obellet, on the coast route to Massawa to protect the left flank of the line of communication. A company of the Italians in the area was driven back by this force in the direction of Massawa.
On 4 March, Headquarters 7th Indian Infantry Brigade moved forward to the Cogai Pass area. Reconnaissance of the area south of Mescelit Pass was started. Keren was only a few miles to the south and the sound of the guns could be heard, but between the two positions lay a range of formidable hills covering the pass south of Mendad. The main Italian position extended from the upper slopes of Mt. Ab Aaures on the east through Mt. Cubub, across the Anseba to Mt. Bab Harmas and Mt. Laal Amba. In the beginning of March, six battalions, with possibly a seventh, had been identified in front of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade. It appeared that the Italians were nervous of the infiltration of the Indian forces through the mountain passes of the Ab Aaures range and had made their dispositions accordingly. Artillery had been located near the Anseba and the valley was heavily mined. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade was thus containing considerable Italian forces which would, otherwise, have been employed to the south of Keren. It had by this time, since its arrival at Port Sudan, advanced some two hundred miles in Italian territory against a series of Italian defences. In addition to men on the front, the administrative services had done their work commendably in this phase of the operations. On them fell the heavy task of ensuring supplies, of transporting men, equipment and provisions, and maintaining communications, which they executed in spite of difficulties which were courageously faced and overcome. But for their good work the rapid advance of the Allied forces on this front would have been delayed. This would have prevented the accomplishment of the desired object, namely, bringing pressure from the north upon the Italian forces in the Keren area.