Chapter 7: Plan for the Final Attack on Keren
After the second unsuccessful attack on the Acqua Gap on 12 February, General Platt decided that in view of the natural strength of the position and strength and determination of the Italians, the assault on Keren would have to be undertaken by both the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions.
The relief of the 4th Indian Division in the forward areas by 5th Indian Division was considered very desirable. But before an operation involving the use of both the divisions could be undertaken, dumps of ammunition, petrol and rations had to be built up forward. Shortage of transport did not allow of carrying out the relief of 4th Indian Division and the continuation of the dumping programme simultaneously. Therefore, it was decided to have the 4th Indian Division to hold the heights already secured opposite Keren.
In order to avoid the strain on transport required to maintain troops on the road line of communication, it was decided to have the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade in Barentu and to withdraw the rest of the 5th Indian Division to the area Sabderat and Tessenei, where it could maintain itself with its own first line transport from the railhead at Kassala. This plan was modified later and Headquarters 5th Indian Division and one battalion (6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles) only were left at Barentu. While in the area of Sabderat and Tessenei, the 5th Indian Division carried out intensive training in mountain warfare.
Disbandment of Gazelle Force
It had been decided early in February to disband Gazelle Force. Created originally for the task of harassing the Italians north of Kassala and at the same time acting as a flank guard to the east of river Atbara, it had, in January 1941, changed its role and acted as an advanced guard mobile troops to the 4th Indian Division in its rapid advance from Kassala to Agordat, and then further up to the gates of Keren. Now there was no room for further manoeuvre and no routes over which its armoured vehicles could be employed; the units could only be employed as infantry as was recently shown by the
employment of 1 Horse on Rajputana Ridge.1 It was decided to form a new force by name of Kestrel in place of Gazelle Force with effect from 27 February. This was to be commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel P. S. Myburgh DSO, MC, 25 Field Regiment and was to consist of Headquarters 25 Field Regiment, (Central India Horse) 1st (Independent) Anti-tank Troop R. A., A Troop Sudan Regiment and 1 Motor Machine Gun Group less two companies.
The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade relieved the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade in the forward line during 15/16 February. 3/1 Punjab,4 Sikh and 2 Mahratta were under command the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. 4/6 Rajputana Rifles remained in the rest area coming under the command of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. Italian movements at this period were aimed at infiltration round the north flank. 2nd and 3rd Groups Cavalry Squadrons based in the Mogareh area, were sending out patrols as far north as Izel and to the west in the hills to the east of Mt. Beit Gabru. One patrol was reported as far west as Mt. Siuma on 17 February. As there appeared to be genuine threat to the left flank of the Indian forces it was decided, on 23 February, that 4/6 Rajputana Rifles would occupy a position to the west of 1/6 Rajputana Rifles on the general line (Pt. 1572–Pt. 1710–Pt. 1702) to provide flank protection. During the night of 24/25 February, two companies of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles took over this position without opposition. At about 1830 hours on 25 February, there were sounds of very heavy firing in the area of Pt. 1710, and defensive fire was called for. It was reported that the Italians had gained a footing on the northerly slopes of Pt. 1710 under cover of very heavy mortar fire. The eight men comprising the post had all been wounded. At 1945 hours, 4/6 Rajputana Rifles was ordered to move up the remainder of the battalion, actually due to move later, and arrived during the night of 25/26 February. By this time, however, the situation had improved and the Italians had withdrawn.
The 51 Commando, of the strength of three hundred men and six vehicles, moved up to Keren on 23 February and came under command of the 4th Indian Division. On 25 February, this force was sent to Mansciua area to deal with any Italian cavalry it might find in the area, and also to see how far it could get round the north-west flank. Between 25/27 February, the 5th Indian Brigade was relieved by the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. It was then decided to strengthen 4/6 Rajputana Rifles on the left by relieving it of the responsibility of holding Pt. 1572, and arrangements were made for one squadron Central Indian Horse, reinforced by a detachment of Sudan Defence Force, to take over this point. Central India Horse was no longer responsible for Mt. Tafala.
On 2/3 March, two Italian observation posts were located on Pt. 1968 (Mt. Beit Gabru) and Pt. 1451. They had the whole of the British and Indian gun area under observation. A carrier from the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade patrolled the railway line south of Pt. 1451 during daylight on 3 March. During the night of 3/4 March, 2 Mahratta patrolled the area. An attack was put in on the morning of 4 March by a troop from 51 Commando and both the observation posts were dislodged.
During the night of 4/5 March, another troop of 51 Commando fought a very successful engagement while patrolling to the northwest of Pt. 1702 and Pt. 1710. It ran into an Italian post, protected by a single apron barbed wire fence, charged it in the face of heavy fire and captured it without loss. One Italian Officer and five other ranks were killed. The patrol, forty-four strong, held the post until morning, when it was counter-attacked by a force of one hundred and thirty men with heavy mortar and machine-gun fire support. As it was running out of ammunition, the patrol withdrew, after inflicting about forty casualties on the Italians. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade remained in the line for about ten days. Between 5 and 8 March, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade relieved the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade in preparation for the final assault on Keren on 15 March 1941.
The Italian forces were also being reorganised to meet the attack by the British and Indian forces. On 12 March they were reported to be thus deployed for the defence of Keren:–
East of the Gorge
The 11th Colonial Brigade was holding the Acqua Gap sector with the 63rd Colonial Battalion at Sphinx, the 52nd Colonial Battalion
at Acqua Gap, the 56th Colonial Battalion at Pt. 1565 and the 5th Colonial Battalion in the area of Pt. 1643. The Bersaglieri Battalion of the Grenadier Division was in the Fort Hill area. One Blackshirt Battalion was at Mt. Falestoh.
West of the Gorge
Part of the Grenadier Division, the 5th Colonial Brigade and the 2nd Colonial Brigade were deployed in the sector west of the Dongolaas Gorge. Area Sanchil–Brig’s Peak–Flat Top was held by the 97th Colonial Battalion (5th Colonial Brigade), Carabinieri and possibly one battalion 10th Grenadier Regiment (Grenadier Division). Mt. Amba and Bloody Hill were held by the 4th Colonial Battalion (2nd Colonial Brigade), one battalion of the 10th Grenadier Regiment and one battalion of the 11th Grenadier Regiment (Grenadier Division). Samanna was held by the Alpini Battalion less two companies (Grenadier Division). Pts. 1691, 1680 and 1789 were held by the two companies of Alpini Battalion (Grenadier Division) and the 106th Colonial Battalion (5th Colonial Brigade). The Dongolaas Gorge was held by the 24th Colonial Battalion (6th Colonial Brigade).
The 36th Colonial Battalion (12th Colonial Brigade) was in Aful area; the 5th Colonial Battalion (2nd Colonial Brigade) at Mt. Tetri; the 3rd Battalion (11th CCNN Legion) and 15th Group Cavalry Squadrons in area Pt. 1767–Mt. Modacca–Mt. Dobac–Mt. Rocciosa; and the 103th Colonial Battalion (12th Colonial Brigade) in the Laal Amba area.
Nacfa Road Front
The following units were supposed to be deployed in this sector:–
2nd Battalion (11th CCNN Legion)
9th Colonial Battalion
10th Colonial Battalion (2nd Colonial Brigade)
105th Colonial Battalion (44th Colonial Brigade)
107th Colonial Battalion (44th Colonial Brigade)
112th Colonial Battalion
151st Colonial Battalion (2nd Colonial Brigade)2
The number of guns on all the Keren fronts amounted to 126. Of these 30 were Medium, 42 Field, 48 Pack and 6 Anti-Aircraft.
The Italians appeared to have planned the defence on a semicircle starting from the south-west of Keren, passing through Laal Amba and settled on both sides of the Keren–Nacfa road. They were aware of the importance of retaining their hold on Keren and had brought up their best available troops there. Both native and white troops, Bersaglieri, Alpini and Blackshirts had been assembled. Italian deserters warned the British authorities of the danger of indiscriminate entering of any defended localities or villages by mechanical transport as the Italians had dug a number of long deep holes covered with brush, hessian and sand, so as to be invisible to the moving transport.
The Italians thus had troops facing all the three possible approaches to Keren. They had also constructed a strong lay-back position in the Habi Mantel area. The extension of their positions to the north-west was designed to cover their observation posts and new gun positions from where they could shell the British gun areas and the line of communication. It was not considered likely that the Italians would start an offensive, although their Cavalry Group Squadrons (the 15th Group had relieved the 2nd and 3rd Groups) had begun to be active in patrolling, going as far north as Al Al. The strength of the Italian forces in the Keren area at the beginning of March was approximately 350 Cavalry, 14,350 Infantry and 2,200 artillery—about 17,000—which with engineer and administrative services gave a total strength of approximately 30,000. It was clear by about 9 March that the Italians had mostly white troops in the front line between Sanchil and Samanna, and there was wire over most of the front, possibly to discourage desertions.
Attempts to outflank Keren
While preparations were made for a large-scale frontal attack on the Keren positions, attempts to outflank the Italian positions were not abandoned. Beginning with, the first attempt by 1/6 Rajputana Rifles to find a way round Mt. Scialaco on 3 and 4 February, in all seven separate attempts were made. Of these, four were directed at getting round the south and south-east on to the Keren–Asmara road and three round the north and north-west.
The very day 1/6 Rajputana Rifles returned from its first attempt on 4 February, a patrol from Gazelle Force went along the River Baraka in an effort to get through to Asmara. It reached Mai Aghif, twenty-five miles north-west of Asmara, where the track became unsuitable for mechanical transport. Another patrol striking further south reached Pt. 900 near Mai Beicui on 8 February, after which
it could not make further progress. On 15 February, two patrols were sent out from Central India Horse. The one to the north had orders to reconnoitre a route to Keren round the north flank via Mamud. On 16 February, it came to a halt at Mansciua, unable to go any further. The second going to the south reached Mai Aghif on 17 February, but like the Gazelle Force patrol it could not get any further. On 22 February, an Intelligence Officer went on a four-day reconnaissance of the Amer and Haris areas in an endeavour to locate Italian positions and to find a possible route to the Keren - Asmara railway. He could not proceed beyond Pt. 2182. The farthest point in the south was reached on 24 February when the Central Indian Horse patrol in Mai Beicui area reached Mai Aragghez, another five miles south-east of Mai Beicui. The patrol was recalled the next day as it could not make further progress.
On 5 March, another patrol consisting of an officer from the Headquarters 4th Indian Division and Sapper and Royal Tank Regiment representatives went on a reconnaissance to the north-east of Mt. Beit Gabru to find a possible route for mechanical transport and tanks round the north flank. But it could not find any practicable route. Again on 8 March, a patrol from the 51 Commando was sent to the Mansciua area with similar orders but without success.
Outline Plan for the Attack
On 1 March 1941, an outline plan for a fresh attack on Keren was formulated. Both the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions were to carry it out together. The 4th Indian Division was to operate on the north and west of the road and its objectives included Mt. Sanchil, Brig’s Peak, Hog’s Back, Saddle, Flat Top Hill, Mole Hill and Samanna. After the left flank had thus been secured, the 5th Indian Division was to attack east of the road. The exact objectives for this division were not defined at this stage. In the north, the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to launch an attack towards Keren from near the Anseba and Mescelit Junction. It was also directed to exert pressure by operating towards Keren–Habi Mantel road. The date for the attack was fixed as 15 March.
In order to obtain the maximum artillery support, the attack of the 5th Indian Division was planned to take place after that of the 4th Indian Division. Sufficient time was allowed between the two attacks to enable defensive fire on the 4th Indian Division
front and concentrations in support of the 5th Indian Division to be arranged.3
After further reconnaissance, the 5th Indian Division was directed to capture Mt. Dologorodoc and Mt. Zeban. This objective, though very formidable, had certain advantages. The reverse slopes of the hills were comparatively gentle and it was possible for the artillery to hit targets on the other side of the crest. This fact was expected to be of great value in breaking up counter-attacks. Being near the 4th Indian Division, close co-operation between the two divisions might be ensured and each could help the other effectively. The problem of the artillery switching from the support of the 4th Indian Division to the support of the 5th Indian Division was comparatively simple. The objectives were within range of almost all the guns of both the divisions, and it was not necessary to move the guns. The time lag between the two attacks was thus reduced to a minimum. This automatically relieved the strain on the 4th Indian Division, which was bound to be counter-attacked strongly, soon after reaching its objective.
The alternative course was once again to force Acqua Gap. Success in this area offered the chance of cutting off the greater part of the garrison of Keren. Its disadvantages were that the two divisions could not effectively support each other, the 5th Indian Division not having the benefit of all the 4th Indian Division guns. Against numerically superior Italian forces, there was a danger of both the attacks failing for want of weight. The maintenance of the 5th Indian Division through the bottleneck between Fort Dologorodoc and the bridge would be liable to interference by the Italians. Also, there was no chance of getting the tanks and carriers up Acqua Gap. Thus, although a drive through the Dongolaas Gorge would not succeed in cutting off so many Italian forces, it offered a better chance of opening the road to Asmara.
The 5th Indian Division was not to move forward until the last possible moment. This was both to keep the Italians in the dark about the date of the intended attack and to allow the forward dumping programme to continue unhindered.4
The 4th Indian Division Plan
In the battle of Keren the role of the 4th Indian Division was threefold:–
i. to secure the general line Sanchil–Brig’s Peak–Hog’s Back–Flat Top–Samanna,
ii. to co-operate with the 5th Indian Division by giving it artillery support, and
iii. to be prepared to exploit forward to Mt. Amba and Mogareh.
The Commander of the 4th Indian Division planned the attack on a two brigade front. The objectives of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade were Mt. Sanchil, Brig’s Peak, Hog’s Back and Flat Top. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade on the left was detailed to capture Mt. Samanna. The 51 Commando was to operate under Divisional orders from the area of Cle Aful to the south-east towards Mogareh. The zero hour for the attack to start was fixed at 0700 hours on 15 March 1941.5
At the time of this operation the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade consisted of 2 Camerons, 1 Rajputana Rifles and 2 Mahratta and had under command the 1st Royal Fusiliers, 4 Rajputana Rifles and the 4 Field Company Sappers and Miners. The objectives allotted to the battalions were as follows:–6
2 Camerons—Mt. Sanchil and Brig’s Peak.
1 Rajputana—From Brig’s Peak exclusive to Hog’s Back Rifles inclusive.
2 Mahratta—From exclusive Hog’s Back to inclusive Flat Top.
The 1st Royal Fusiliers and 4/6 Rajputana Rifles were in brigade reserve, and their role was to hold the original forward line and form a mobile reserve to support the attack with small arms fire by observation and assist in capturing any part of the objective which the attacking troops failed to capture. It was also to counter-attack if the Italians penetrated any part of the objective after its capture and exploit success in the direction of the Mogareh plain or Mt. Amba.
The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade consisted of 3/1 Punjab and 4 Sikh with the following under command:–
A and B Squadrons Central India Horse
Mortar Troops Central India Horse
Detachment 1 MMG Group SDF (eight guns)
The brigade was to attack Mt. Samanna with 4 Sikh and to capture its objectives—Left, Centre and Right Bumps—successively.7 The brigade reserve was to consist of 3/1 Punjab with the following under command:–
A and B Squadrons Central India Horse
Mortar Troops Central India Horse
Detachment 1 MMG Group SDF (eight guns)
Two 3-inch mortars 4 Sikh
The role allotted to the reserve was to secure the positions already held on the line Mt. Jepio–Pt. 1572–Pt. 1710–Pt. 1702 and to give fire support to the attack by 4 Sikh.
The 5th Indian Division Plan
The 5th Indian Division was to capture and hold Mts. Dolo-gorodoc and Zeban, and then exploit eastwards with the object of completing the elimination of all Italian forces in the Keren area.8The commander of the division had planned the operation in four phases. The first phase was the capture of Mt. Dologorodoc and the second, the capture of the line Falestoh Ridge (spur running north-west from Mt. Falestoh) Pt. 1552–Pt. 1717. The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was to carry out both these attacks. The third phase was the capture by 29th Indian Infantry Brigade of Mt. Zeban and cross roads. In the last phase, exploitation was to be carried out by the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade which was to be in reserve in the first three phases.
The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was composed of 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment, 3 Mahratta and 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment less one company, at the time of this operation, and 2nd Highland Light Infantry from the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was put under its command. The objectives allotted to the brigade were Mts. Dologorodoc, Falestoh and Zeban. It was to exploit on the northern slopes of Mt. Zeban. The Brigade plan was to attack with the 2nd Highland Light Infantry with brigade mortar platoons under command and capture Pinnacle, White Rock Hill and Dologorodoc Fort. The attack was to start at 1030 hours from the west bank of the water course south of the bend but it was not to be launched until the capture of Mt. Sanchil by the 4th
Indian Division. After the capture of the Fort by the 2nd Highland Light Infantry, 3 Mahratta was to attack from the line of the main road west of the Fort, pass through the 2nd Highland Light Infantry and capture Mt. Falestoh and the ridge running to the north-west. This unit was to commence movement from the starting line at zero hour plus 90 minutes. Lastly, the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment was to start from the road west of the Fort at zero hour plus 120 minutes and capture Mt. Zeban.9
The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade operating from the north under the orders of Headquarters Troops Sudan was to cut the line of Italian communications east of Keren on the Keren–Asmara road.
From the information then available it appeared that 9th Colonial Battalion and 105/106th Colonial Battalion (amalgamated) were on Mt. Ab Aures ridge from the Anseba to the northern slopes of Ab Aures (Pt. 1620). General Lorenzini was reported to have his Headquarters on a jebel in the above area. He feared the infiltration of British troops through the mountain paths of the Ab Aures range and had placed his troops accordingly. It appeared that the Anseba would be defended by artillery. These were probably secondary positions for troops established on heights commanding the Keren–Asmara road.
The air situation had improved steadily since the start of the advance and, by 10 March, the Royal Air Force had established its superiority over Keren. Commencing four days before the day fixed for the attack, the air force was asked to increase steadily its bombing programme over Keren with the task of dealing with any Italian artillery which might be seen firing. By 14 March, the day before the attack, it was to have bombers over the area continuously from 0500 to 1800 hours. In addition, fighter and bomber air support was arranged for each divisional attack.
A Difficult Task Ahead
The British and Indian troops were deployed for the attack on Keren on 15 March 1941. A difficult task lay ahead of them for the Italians were not only numerically superior but they had also the advantage of terrain. They had, at Keren, thirty-three battalions (possibly thirty-four) including the Savoy Grenadier Division, the best troops in the whole of Italian East Africa, over one hundred
and twenty guns and a larger number of mortars and machine guns. During the course of the battle they were to bring up another nine battalions. Against this the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions disposed between them nineteen battalions and about one hundred and twenty guns. In addition there was one squadron of “I” tanks (Matildas), but it could not be used until the road block was cleared. Though the Royal Air Force had gained local air superiority it was feared that the Italians would concentrate all their air strength to break it.
As regards position on the ground the advantage lay with the Italians. On the Allied side the hills rose high and steeply from the Ascidira valley. Mt. Sanchil was an almost sheer rise of 2,412 feet, while Mt. Dologorodoc, the lowest hill in front of the troops, was 1,475 feet, above the valley. Mts. Beit Gabru and Amba were even higher. The climbs were steep on the craggy slopes, with great boulders and outcrops of cliff-like rock. The Italians had prepared a very strong defensive position on this natural barrier. They had erected a continuous wire fence from Acqua Gap to Mt. Beit Gabru. It varied in thickness from a single fence to ten parallel belts in the areas likely to be- attacked.
The Italians had some other advantages as well. The Keren valley was 1,500 feet higher than the Ascidira valley. Motorable roads ran up to Fort Dologorodoc and the foot of Mt. Amba. They held all the high features in the area and had constructed mule tracks to the top of these features. A pipeline for water had also been laid up to Mt. Sanchil. Yet, in spite of all these drawbacks, the British and Indian troops were to win a splendid victory at Keren. Their attack was planned upon a large scale with artillery and air support and carefully devised administrative arrangements. The capture of Keren was as vital to the British as its defence was to the Italians. A decisive British success here presaged far-reaching consequences. It pointed to the early fall of Asmara and the rapid collapse of Italian East Africa. The Italians were known to be staking a great deal on holding Keren. They had concentrated a high proportion of their best troops there and were expected to put up a determined resistance and fight hard before giving in. Previous encounters with the Italians, however, had shown that if they were subjected to relentless pressure they were liable to crack and in the withdrawal they became disorganised. The attack on Keren was therefore to be pressed home with full vigour and the Italians were to be hit hard to prevent them from carrying out an orderly withdrawal.