Chapter 9: The Advance Continues
The Italians had managed to withdraw considerable artillery and some of the infantry from Keren. They were now to be pursued . by the British and Indian troops and the advantage gained over the Italians at Keren pressed home. After Keren the Italians made little serious effort to defend Eritrea and within a fortnight of the capture of that fort both Asmara and Massawa fell. This removed Italian threat to the Allied shipping through the Red Sea and secured the strategic object of the campaign in Italian East Africa, namely, to make the Red Sea supply route safe and immune from an Italian attack.
The 4th Indian Division
After the fall of Keren the 5th Indian Division took up the pursuit of the retreating forces. The 4th Indian Division was detailed to clear the area of the battle, bury the dead and salvage British and Italian stores and equipment. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to go to a rest area. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was detailed to carry out the above job. On 29 March the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to move at six hours’ notice by mechanical transport. It moved next day to Agordat on way to Kassala. On 30 March, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was concentrated in a rest area and only small working parties were left to finish the clearing work. 25 Field Regiment less one battery and 1 Anti-tank Troop Royal Horse Artillery left the 4th Indian Division and came under the command of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade.
The 4th Indian Division remained in the Keren area doing garrison and cleaning up jobs until 17 April when it moved to Port Sudan en route for Egypt and the desert again. The liberation of the 4th Indian Division except its 7th Indian infantry Brigade from further fighting in the Eritrean campaign showed the decisive character of the battle of Keren. It also showed British confidence in their ability to beat the Italians in East Africa with a smaller force.
Pursuit by the 5th Indian Division
On 27 March, once it was over the road block, Fletcher Force went straight through Keren and on, pursuing the retreating Italians. By 1050 hours, it was eight kilometres beyond Keren and by 1320 hours it had covered another twelve kilometres. At 1830
hours the same evening, orders were received from General Platt putting the 5th Indian Division in charge of the pursuit operations. It was ordered to advance on Ad Teclesan and Asmara. The following units were placed under its command for this operation:–
68 Medium Regiment
41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery
A Troop Light Artillery Battery
1 Motor Machine Gun Group (Sudan Defence Force).
The town of Asmara lay in the centre of a plateau about 7,000 feet high. The road from Asmara to Keren fell steeply from Ad Teclesan down to the level of Keren, a drop over 2,000 feet. Between kilometre 56 and Ad Teclesan the country consisted of big rounded hills, less rocky than those at Keren. Ad Teclesan was naturally strong, even stronger than Keren, for the approach wound through an even narrower valley and there was no room for the deployment of artillery which had played an important part in the battle of Keren. The railway took a different route south of the road but even along the railway there were very few places where wheeled vehicles might be deployed off the railway track itself. Had the Italians not been beaten so effectively at Keren the advance of the British and Indian troops would have been very difficult.
At 2100 hours on 27 March, General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division issued orders for the formation of a mobile force under Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott. It consisted of the following units:–
Headquarters 29th Indian Infantry Brigade
Central India Horse (less one squadron)
B Squadron 4th .Royal Tank Regiment (less one troop)
2 M. I. Company Sudan Defence Force
Other S. D. F. units on arrival
28 Field Regiment
3/2 Punjab in lorries
6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles in lorries
20 Field Company (less one section).
This force was to pursue the Italians along the Keren–Asmara road with the utmost vigour.1 Fletcher Force was disbanded and taken over by the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade on the morning of
28 March. On the same day, 3/2 Punjab and 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles concentrated forward and after reconnaissance launched an attack at 1445 hours. Except for one or two rounds from a pack battery and some machine gun and rifle fire on 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles, no opposition was encountered and by 1630 hours both the battalions had captured their objectives, high hills overlooking the road block on both sides of the road. British light machine guns engaged Italian gunners trying to load up their guns. Eventually the Italians had to abandon these guns (seven) and withdraw; and so also did the Italian troops in the area south of kilometre 56.
The road block was cleared and the advance resumed at 0530 hours on 29 March with “I” tanks leading. Another road block was met at kilometre 55 (705718). Sappers were immediately employed and they cleared it for tracked vehicles by 1500 hours. In the meantime, 3/2 Punjab had also been advancing on both sides of the road. It met only slight opposition from the Italians and by 1500 hours had reached positions level with kilometre 55. This movement had also provided cover to the Sappers on the road block.
On 29 March at 1500 hours a mobile force consisting of one squadron from Central India Horse with three “I” tanks, seven armoured cars and two Bren vans of Sudan Defence Force under command, passed through the road block. It got as far as kilometre 52 (714701) where it was halted by heavy fire from Italian pack guns covering yet another road block. The Italians also attacked the armoured cars with bombs from high ground. One of the armoured cars and an Italian lorry which had been placed so as to block the road, were set on fire. By 1600 hours, 3/2 Punjab had also started advancing with the object of capturing the ridge from Pt. 2160 (7269) to Pt. 2129 (7270). Heavy fire was met from the Italians holding positions astride the road at kilometre 50. Pt. 2129 was captured and an attack on Pt. 2160 ordered in conjunction with the advance of the tanks. But, as the tanks were soon held up, this operation could not be completed. By this time it was getting dark. The mobile force which had come under the command of 3/2 Punjab was, therefore, withdrawn to the area between 54 and 55 kilometres for the night. One company 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles was placed under the command of 3/2 Punjab and moved forward to strengthen the battalion’s position. 3/2 Punjab had thus made good progress during the day. It had covered considerable ground against Italian opposition in a country well suited for defence. It had suffered only two casualties, one killed and one wounded, but captured about sixty prisoners, all from a fresh battalion of the Savoy Grenadiers which had been sent up hastily from Addis Ababa. Considering
the natural strength of Italian positions they had not put up strong resistance and were driven back with comparative ease.
During the night of 29/30 March, the Italians put in only one counter-attack on Pt. 2160. It was easily repulsed. The night otherwise was quiet except for some shelling by the Italians.
The 10th Indian Infantry Brigade had been ordered forward of Keren on 29 March. It had moved up as far as the area of kilometre 71 the same day. The next day it moved up to kilometre 64, and the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade proceeded to kilometre 71. Air reconnaissance on the morning of 30 March revealed another serious demolition in the area of kilometre 45. From the heavy anti-aircraft and artillery fire it was apparent that this was the main Italian position.
At 0900 hours on 30 March another reconnaissance of the forward area was carried out by the General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division along with the Commander of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade. It was followed by a conference and orders were thereafter issued for the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade to attack the ridge astride the road at 726694 at 1630 hours. The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, however, could not assemble in time. The attack was therefore postponed to 0445 hours on 31 March.
Advance along the Railway
On 29 March, when the advance along the road was being constantly interrupted, the Commander of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade suggested an advance along the railway to outflank Italian positions on the road. With a mechanised column of one company 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles he moved along the line of the railway from the area of kilometre 71 (6279) on the road. At 1530 hours, this force reached a point about 22 miles from Asmara. Strong Italian opposition was met here and a defensive position was taken up at dusk. Reports by patrols indicated that Italian strength in this area was about a battalion and that a block had been erected on the railway by blowing it up at 690620 where it crossed a steep face of the hill.
On the next morning, 30 March, this detachment of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was reinforced with one company Highland Light Infantry, one squadron Central India Horse, and one Motor Machine Gun Company (Sudan Defence Force). But the Italian positions and the road block in front had effectively cut the line of advance. On 30 and 31 March efforts were made to find alternative routes around the flanks but they were unsuccessful. These efforts
were still being continued on 1 April when news was received that Asmara had been taken.
Operations along the Road
On 31 March, 2nd Yorkshire Regiment of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade made an attack on the ridge at 726694. It started at 0445 hours. The first objective was captured by 0603 hours and the second by 0715 hours. Four hundred and sixty Italian prisoners including 19 officers were captured. Most of them belonged to 1J10 Grenadier Regiment. Further fighting continued during the day in which 1 Worcesters advanced a little after heavy fighting. At 1800 hours, 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment attacked and captured Italian positions covering the area of the demolition on the road against slight opposition. At 0530 hours on 1 April Italian envoys with a white flag arrived from Asmara. They were from the civil authorities and stated that the military forces had evacuated Asmara and that the civil authorities wished to hand over the city. They said that there had been rioting during the night of 31 March/ 1 April by 50 and 51 Colonial Battalions and that they needed British help to restore order.
The 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to move to Asmara by mechanical transport and entered the town at 1040 hours. The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to move to Ad Teclesan. Headquarters 5th Indian Division also moved to Asmara the same evening.
After the occupation of Asmara, the civil administration of the city was reorganised. It was no mean task. The people were mostly armed and the occupation forces had no surplus police or troops for running the administration. The supply situation had also to be improved before a further advance could be undertaken. The task was well performed. There were no major disorders or serious attempts at sabotage.
Advance to Massawa
After the fall of Asmara the next British objective was the capture of Massawa with its harbour and shipping intact. It was the main port of Eritrea on the Red Sea and its possession was necessary to make the Red Sea a safe supply route. Along with the advance to Massawa a pursuit of the Italians along the ,two main roads leading south from Asmara was also organised. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to send a mobile force to reconnoitre the Zahafalam–Zagher–Massawa road. The force
was commanded by Major G. P. Coldstream and consisted of two companies 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles, two sections medium machine guns and one section carriers. It moved off at 1400 hours on 1 April. By the evening it had advanced fifteen kilometres from Zahafalam when it came up against a road block and halted for the night. The next morning it discovered that there were three big road blocks in the area of 15-17 kilometres. This was reported to the 5th Indian Division Headquarters and they ordered the force to withdraw. The force rejoined the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade at Ad Teclesan on 3 April.
On 2 April, a message was sent to the Italian commander of Massawa informing him of the British occupation of Asmara and of the impending advance on Massawa. He was called upon not to scuttle any ship in the harbour and was warned that, if he did so the British would not be responsible either for feeding the Italian population in Eritrea and Ethiopia or for its removal from those countries.2 The Italian commander could not give any assurance on British demands and the negotiations therefore were broken.
Attack from the North
The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade (which after the fall of Keren had been ordered to concentrate in the area of Chelamet) was ordered to move eastwards. Preparations were also made to open a port at Mersa Cuba for maintaining supplies to this force when it reached the sea coast. On the capture of Asmara the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade received orders to send a mobile column, in addition to Free French, to Massawa to prevent sabotage there. This column consisted of 1st Royal Sussex, one battery 28 Field Regiment, one Anti-tank troop and one platoon 7th Brigade Anti-tank company. It was to advance through Mersa Cuba. Although tactically this route was not the best it was chosen in order to avoid coming into conflict with the advance of the Free French Column3 . The British column moved on the night of 1/2 April and reached Mersa Cuba by 0930 hours. Its further advance was held up as vehicles got stuck into the sand. An advance guard, however, pushed forward for another fifteen miles. Then it came to a bridge which had
been burnt by the Italians. A diversion was found but the guns could not get across the bridge and the column had to halt for the night for the bridge to be rebuilt.
The advance was continued the next morning. The advanced guard passed through Embremi, six miles north of Massawa. Mine clearing work was started and went on unhampered for some time. From here Italian wire outside Massawa could be seen and it appeared from the lack of opposition met so far that the Italians did not intend to make a stand at Massawa either. But, suddenly, some thirty guns opened fire simultaneously. But as the Italians had been completely surprised their fire was uncoordinated. They had evacuated the outpost positions and still seemed to be under the impression that British advance was taking place along the Obellet road and not along the coast track from Mersa Cuba.
1st Royal Sussex was detailed to hold defensive positions covering the points where observation posts had been established and cover the positions where British guns had come into action.
On 4 April, the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade, which had been placed under the command of the 5th Indian Division was ordered to remain in the Embremi area to reconnoitre Italian defences and gauge Italian strength. The Chad battalion was sent to the Canti-bai area to reinforce the Foreign Legion which was already there. The remaining units of the brigade group were ordered up and the whole force was concentrated in the area of Embremi.
The 5th Indian Division
The Asmara–Massawa road had been blocked at kilometre 18 from Asmara. By the midnight of 3/4 April the block was cleared. Orders were issued the same night for the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade to take over station duties in Asmara and for the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade to move to Massawa on 4 April. At 0530 hours on 4 April, the Free French Brigade reached the Asmara–Massawa road and found a road block about four miles east of Ghinda. The Free French Brigade had been warned of the advance of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade which had left Asmara at 0615 hours but was held up for two hours at a road block at kilometre 30. In the evening Brigade Headquarters and 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles reached the road block at kilometre 55, four miles east of Ghinda. This road block was cleared by the evening of 4 April. On 5 April the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade moved to Dogali and found another road block at kilometre 10. By the evening a diversion had been made for the cars to pass.
After the breakdown of negotiations with the Italian Admiral commanding Massawa on 2 April, as stated above, further parleys took place on 5 April. At 1300 hours a lorry with a white flag was seen in Asmara. An observation post, Sudan Defence Force Battery, which did not notice the white flag engaged the lorry with artillery fire. This was, however, stopped quickly and a party sent out to ascertain whether the Italians meant to surrender. The party was taken blindfold to the Admiral in command of Massawa. He asked for terms of surrender, which he said, he would signal to the Italian High Command. Same terms as before were sent to him. He passed them on to Rome but they were refused and hostilities were resumed at 1300 hours on 6 April.
Plan of Attack on Massawa
A plan for attacking Massawa was formulated on 7 April. The 5th Indian Division was put in command of the following forces for this operation:–
7th Indian Infantry Brigade
Brigade d’Orient Free French Forces
B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment
233 Battery 68 Medium Regiment
2 Motor Machine Gun Group Sudan Defence Force
4 Motor Machine Gun Company Sudan Defence Force
A and B Troops Light Artillery Battery Sudan Defence Force.
The attack was planned to take place on 8 April. The 10th Indian Infantry Brigade with 21 Field Company under command and B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment (less one section) in support was to capture in succession:–
Signal Hill 142071
Hill 36 143071
Swedish Mission 144071
The attack was to start from the line 140 north and south grid of square 140072 at 0400 hours.
The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade was to start from the east and west grid line 077 at the same time and capture the line Fort Otumlo–Fort (149071)–Abdel–Kader Peninsula (151071). It was to have 25 Field Regiment in support and, in addition, it was to make direct arrangements with the Royal Navy for support.
The Brigade d’ Orient was to advance on the orders of the General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division and capture Moncullo–Fort Moncullo–Fort Vittorio Emanuele. It was
intended to launch this operation when the effect of the attack by the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was felt by the Italians in or south of the squares 140070, 140071, 141070 and 141071.
B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment (less one section) was to support the attack of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade by moving along Wadi Boo–Tombe to the north of Signal Hill feature. After the general line of 145 north and south grid had been secured B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment (less one section) was to pass on and attack Italian Headquarters and reserve positions and to advance on Massawa via the causeway. One section B Squadron 4th Royal Tank Regiment was to remain in divisional reserve and was to assist the Brigade d’ Orient if it experienced difficulty in reaching its objectives.
Massawa was attacked from the north and the west. The 10th Indian Infantry Brigade moved forward during the night of 7/8 April and occupied part of the ridge running west and slightly north of Signal Hill without opposition. At first light the attack started with artillery support. The Italians were strong in artillery and made some show of defence but their troops had little heart. Although the Italian defences were elaborate a large number of them surrendered and became prisoners. The 10th Indian Infantry Brigade pushed on steadily and took Signal Hill and Pts. 66 and 51. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade had some difficulty in the beginning as it encountered heavy artillery fire. However, it managed to get on along the sea coast and its carriers were the first to enter Massawa. The attack of the Brigade d’ Orient was launched at 0630 hours and by 1120 hours Fort Vittorio Emanuele was captured. Massawa surrendered soon after and at 1400 hours the Admiral commanding Massawa made submission to the General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division. All the ships in the harbour were found scuttled and harbour installations badly damaged. Guns and tanks had been run into the sea. Nine barges were seen by the air throwing their goods overboard. The scuttling, however, had been bungled and the ships were later recovered. On the Italian side, 10,000 men were taken prisoners. They included Admiral Bonetti commanding Italian Forces in Massawa. There were also a large number of deserters.
By the reduction of Massawa and the Italian fleet, the Red Sea ceased to be dangerous to British shipping. “All organized Opposition in Eritrea was now over; all the Italian warships had
been accounted for, and the handful of aircraft remaining in Ethiopia presented no danger. The strategic object of the East Africa campaign, which was to remove the threat to shipping through the Red Sea had thus been attained”.4 On 11 April President Roosevelt declared that the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden had ceased to be combat zones. This meant that American ships could now travel with war material to the Middle East and thus ease the strain on British shipping. “The reinforcement of British forces in Egypt thus received an incalculable impetus at the hour when the triple test in Crete, in Syria and in the Western Desert was drawing near”. Another result of these victories was that a threat to the British main route of aerial reinforcement to Egypt, which now came from West Africa through the Nile valley, was removed. “The Mohawks and Tomahawks, the Glenn Martins and Liberators could roar to Cairo through aerodromes unaffected by war”.5 In short, the disintegration of the Italian forces in East Africa was growing apace after the capture of Keren, and Asmara and Massawa were easily taken. The Italians were being beaten and pushed back from the north and the south. In the south, the East Africa Force had reached Addis Ababa6 and the patriotic forces and the advance of the Emperor had forced the Italians to evacuate Debra Markos. The Italians were now concentrating on holding Amba Alagi in the east and Gondar in the west.
After the fall of Keren the Italians had still held many strong defensive positions. If they had fought hard the British and Indian troops would have been hard put to capture them. But the Italians made feeble resistance and were driven back with comparative ease. This showed the crumbling of their morale which also accounted for large-scale desertions and the way in which large number of persons were captured and transported. Whole units were ordered to move to Asmara without escorts in their own transport and in some cases bearing their arms. It seemed they did not resent going into captivity and no trouble was reported from the use of such unorthodox methods.7