Chapter 10: The Capture of Amba Alagi
After the capture of Massawa, the two main Italian centres of resistance left in Northern Ethiopia were Amba Alagi and Gondar. The remnants of Italian armies from Eritrea had retreated along the two main roads from Asmara to these areas, and for some time previously the Italians had also been preparing a defensive position to hold Toselli Pass. Gondar had always been a big military station, the centre of the Italian military organization in the country north and west of Lake Tana. On the other side, at this time commitments elsewhere had made it imperative for General Wavell to withdraw as many forces as possible from Eritrea. The policy laid down by him was that no major operations should be undertaken in Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia which would interfere with the withdrawal of troops to the Middle East. Nevertheless, though the Italian forces which had withdrawn southwards were no longer a menace to the Sudan and though they had little chance of staging a counter-offensive to recapture Eritrea, their continued presence in the country was a source of possible future trouble. It was desirable therefore that they should be eliminated.
Pursuit South of Asmara
On 2 April, after the fall of Asmara a Flit Force was formed for pursuing the Italians south of Asmara. It consisted of the following troops:–
Central India Horse
1 Motor Machine Gun Group Sudan Defence Force
A Troop Light Artillery Battery (SDF)
Det Sappers (Sufficient for three mine-clearing parties).
This force was to pursue the Italians and prevent them from moving on Addis Ababa and to determine their strength and locations on the Asmara–Addis Ababa and Asmara–Gondar roads.1
The Commander Flit Force left Asmara at 1200 hours on 2 April with 1 Motor Machine Gun Group with the object of reaching Adowa the same evening. Another column of Flit Force consisting of Central India Horse was directed along the Decamere–Saganeiti–Adi Caieh road. 1 Motor Machine Gun Group, in
advancing towards Adowa made contact with the British force operating in the Arresa area, which had also followed up the Italians on their withdrawal. At Adi Ugri an Italian camp for prisoners of war was found and 187 prisoners were released. The Italians at Adi Ugri were apprehensive of rioting and asked for British help and protection.
Central India Horse advanced against slight opposition. On 3 April it was ambushed at a place eighteen kilometres north of Adi Caieh. It was not found to be a serious obstacle. 47 men and 2 heavy machine guns were captured. Although some road blocks were met on the way, Central India Horse continued to advance. It reached Adi Caieh at 1225 hours. By evening it had passed Senafe and spent the night three miles south of that place. Also, Headquarters Flit Force with 1 Motor Machine Gun Group continued to advance on the Adowa road and Adowa was reached the same day. From there Headquarters Flit Force with one company of Motor Machine Gun Group moved to Adigrat which was reached at 1700 hours. The rest of the Motor Machine Gun Group was left at Adowa. When Indian troops entered Adigrat, 140 Colonial Battalion was on the point of leaving in lorries and the whole of it was captured.
Addis Ababa Road
Central India Horse reached Adigrat on 4 April at 0755 hours and made contact with Headquarters Flit Force. Flit Force continued its operations and its locations during the night of 4/5 April were as follows:–
Headquarters Flit Force
Central India Horse (less one squadron)—Adigrat
1 Motor Machine Gun Group (less one company)—Adigrat
One company 1 Motor Machine Gun Group—Adowa
One squadron Central India Horse—Ten miles north of Quiha.
On 5 April Central India Horse Squadron entered Quiha without opposition. The remainder of the regiment also arrived there at 1040 hours. Here reports were received that the Italians were preparing for a final stand at Amba Alagi. Next day one squadron Central India Horse moved south but it could not get very far being held up by artillery fire and a road block three miles south of Mai Mescic and thirty miles south of Quiha.
On 6 April orders were received for the relief of Central India Horse by 1 Horse. Central India Horse was ordered to revert to
the command of the 4th Indian Division. This relief was completed by 0900 hours on 8 April. Central India Horse moved back the same day to rejoin the 4th Indian Division.
On 9 April, 1 Motor Machine Gun Group which haunopposed along the Gondar road reported a series of undefended road blocks. The advance went on slowly and by 13 April the forward troops reached Adi Arcai. At this stage 2 Motor Machine Gun Group was ordered to join 1 Motor Machine Gun Group. On 14 April, the leading elements were ambushed in the area of Debivar.
The Italians were holding Wolchefit Pass2 about three miles to the south of Debivar in some strength. It was difficult to estimate their numbers at this stage. But some indication was available from their having engaged British and Indian troops with rifle and machine gun fire and also with artillery of several calibres. They had also used Breda anti-aircraft guns against British aircraft flying over the area. The ground in the area of the pass was very difficult, vehicles not being able to get off the road at all.
Situation on 15 April
5th Indian Division
The forward troops were in contact with the main Italian positions at Wolchefit Pass on the Gondar road and Toselli Pass, near Amba Alagi, on the Addis Ababa road. The Italians were holding both these naturally strong positions in considerable strength, and it was realized by General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division that the forcing of them would be a major operation, outside the scope of the light pursuit forces in contact with the Italians at both these places. These forces were therefore ordered to consolidate the ground gained and to keep contact with the Italians. In the meantime, plans for further operations to reduce these last Italian fortresses were considered and reconnaissances were made to gauge the exact Italian strength.
East Africa Force
Advancing from the south the East Africa Force had captured Harar on 25 March, Dire Dawa on 29 March and Addis Ababa on 6 April. After this event it had sent the 1st South African Brigade northwards. On 15 April, this brigade was in contact with an Italian
force holding Combolcia Pass, to the south of Dessie. The pass was captured on 22 April and Dessie on 26 April.
Patriot Forces of Emperor Haille Selassie
The emperor of Ethiopia had forced the Italians out of Debra Markos, which was occupied on 6 April. After that little remained to be done by his forces. Addis Ababa had fallen on the same day and the Italian forces were either deserting in large numbers or were on the move towards Dessie and Amba Alagi. All the local chiefs, those who had helped the Patriot Forces as well as those who had sided with the Italians, were hurrying to pay respects to the Emperor. Such little mopping up, as was necessary, was in hand.
By 15 April the Italian air force had been forced away from nearly all its bases and airfields. Combolcia, the last base, was to fall a few days later. There was then little left of the Italian air force.
The forces available for operations against Amba Alagi and Gondar and for internal security duties in the whole of Eritrea were:–
5th Indian Division
1 Motor Machine Gun Group (SDF)
2 Motor Machine Gun Group (SDF)
One battery 68 Medium Regiment (RA)
Two Companies Mounted Infantry (SDF).
These forces were not sufficient for simultaneous operations against both Gondar and Amba Alagi.3 One of them had to be taken first. Amba Alagi was chosen as success there would open the road to Addis Ababa and allow the transfer of the forces to the Middle East through Massawa. The task of attacking Amba Alagi was entrusted to the 5th Indian Division.
Amba Alagi has an altitude of about 11,282 feet above sea level. The road from Eritrea into Ethiopia crossed a spur of this mountain at Toselli Pass (also called Alagi Pass) which was defended by a fort. The approach from the north was steep and winding and for some miles the road worked its way through a narrow valley, overlooked on both sides by commanding heights. The general run of the high ground, which culminated at Amba Alagi was north-west
to south-east. North-west of Amba Alagi itself is a long range with a number of peaks on it. These were named as Little Alagi, Middle Hill, Elephant, Pyramid and Sandy Ridge. All these peaks were prominent features of tactical importance. South-west from Amba Alagi ran a narrow ridge culminating in a hill. These were called Castle Ridge and Castle Hill respectively. Almost due north of Amba Alagi and Little Alagi was Bald Hill, a high flat-topped feature with precipitous sides. South-east of Amba Alagi and on the other side of the pass, two prominent hills, Triangle and Gumsa, intervened between Toselli and Falaga Passes.
The road over Toselli Pass was a good all-weather, graded main road. The road to Falaga Pass took off from the east of the main road about thirty kilometres north of Amba Alagi. This road was in a bad condition, just good enough for one-way motor traffic for some distance beyond Debub. This was the route the Italians had used themselves in the final stages of the Ethiopian war in 1936. Just opposite of where the Falaga road left the main track another track led to the south-west through the hills as far as Socota. This was practicable for mechanical transport with difficulty, but there was no road or track from Socota eastwards, to rejoin the main road.
Deserters reported that the Italian garrison at Amba Alagi was composed of four Italian and two Colonial battalions. Their total strength was given as 4,000 Italians and 1,000 Colonials. Although Italian propaganda had suggested a total figure of 30,000 the highest suggested by British informers was 7,000. Of the Colonial units 25th Colonial Battalion was believed to be one of them.
On 21 April, 4 Motor Machine Gun Company (SDF) went out on a three-day patrol to ascertain whether Falaga pass could be used for an operation against Italians’ right flank and rear. It was also to report on the possibility of outflanking the Amba Alagi position still further to the east, by a force on wheels, possibly moving via Debub on to Corbetta and Mai Ceu. The report made at the end of the reconnaissance stated that without a great deal of improvement the route was not suitable for a force of any size on wheels.
On 24 April, General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division Major-General A. G. O. M. Mayne in an appreciation of the situation stated that, in view of the requirements of internal security and the length and vulnerability of the Allied line of communication, it was not possible to maintain a powerful striking force in the
forward area. He intended the following force to be concentrated forward:–
Advanced Headquarters 5th Indian Division
29th Indian Infantry Brigade
3 Royal Garhwal Rifles
28 Field Regiment
144 Field Regiment
233 Medium Battery
41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery (less one troop)
1 Motor Machine Gun Group
A Troop Light Artillery Battery SR (Sudan Defence Force)
2 Field Company
20 Field Company.
In the air, 237 Squadron was to be moved forward with seventeen aircraft, including three bombers. But as there were no all-weather advanced landing grounds, the value of this force was to depend on the weather to a considerable extent. Transport also was short and it was necessary to dump both for the battle and maintenance. General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division did not consider it possible for the above-mentioned force to be concentrated before 30 April. After that reconnaissance and detailed planning would take some time so that no major operation could be launched before 3 May. He feared that contingencies of weather, numerous road blocks and other unforeseen hindrances might delay the operation even further. On the prospects of exploitation he found that if the Italians broke up and started withdrawing, the lack of transport on the British side would be a serious handicap and would make a pursuit of the Italian force in any strength quite impossible.4
In the meantime, steps were taken to improve the position. On 26 April 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles occupied Sandy Ridge without opposition. The same evening orders were issued for forming a column consisting of 1 Horse, 51 Commando, A Troop Light Artillery Battery SR, and one section Field Company.5 This force was to develop a strong feint against Falaga Pass and, if possible, to outflank the Italian positions at Amba Alagi and still further round the east.
1 Horse advanced along the road towards Falaga Pass on 27 April but was held up by a second road block. Pickets were placed to the south-west of the ridge in the face of Italian artillery fire, and work to clear the road block commenced. On 29 April a track for one way traffic was cleared and a reconnaissance patrol was sent through towards Debub. Debub was reached and found unoccupied on 30 April.
On 28 April General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division reviewed the situation again and formulated a plan of attack on the Italian positions. In the south, Dessie had been captured by East Africa Force on 26 April and Sudan Defence Force and Patriot Forces had occupied Socota on the same day. He estimated Italian forces at Amba Alagi at 5,000 men, with thirty guns in post. Having lost Dessie and being marooned between that place and Amba Alagi, their stock of food and war material was expected to be limited. The Patriot Forces having obtained a notable success at Socota were expected henceforth to harass the Italians on all sides. General Mayne thought that the Italians might be impressed by the comparative strength of British and Indian troops concentrated on their front and decide to surrender. On the other hand, he also considered the possibility of the Italians deciding to fight. The Axis successes in the Balkans and Libya and the exaggerated accounts put out by the Axis propaganda machine were expected to encourage the Italians in their resistance in Ethiopia and tone up their morale. Taking both these possibilities into account, General Mayne was inclined to believe that the Italians might not surrender at once. But once they were convinced of the overwhelming strength of British and Indian troops they might decide to do so. There was always a possibility of their holding on till the opening of the main attack. But, at any rate, he did not expect the Italians to fight with the same determination as at Keren.
The Italian positions extended from the west of Pyramid (To-gora 663437) to the Falaga Pass road. They were thus extended over a front of ten to twelve miles, a wide frontage for some five thousand men to hold. No information was available about any artificial defences that they might have constructed, but their natural position was very strong. General Mayne assessed its value for defence as twice that of Keren. Assault on any point in the Italian line would have had to go up the precipitous hills, over long distances from truck-head and under Italian observation. It would certainly
have been arduous. But it was also certain that the Italians were not strong at all points along their very extended line, and Mayne hoped, by deception and feints, to find a fairly soft spot for the major ‘ assault to go in. The Italians were presumed to hold the forward posts lightly, as had been their practice, and to trust to counterattacks by their reserves in the event of a breakthrough by the Indian troops. It was also expected that they would be anxious about the centre of their position and also about their right flank, Falaga Pass. On the whole, Mayne had hoped to gain a measure of surprise for his attack by keeping the Italians in a state of uncertainty over a front of more than ten miles. His plan of attack was to start a demonstration against Falaga Pass at once which was to be developed into a fully convincing feint on D minus 1 day. This operation was to be undertaken by Fletcher Force6 consisting of
One Troop Field Artillery (25 pdrs)
A Troop Light Artillery Battery SR
One Company 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment
One Section Sappers
One Troop medium artillery in support for a limited period.
Secondly he wanted a feint attack under strong artillery support astride the main road and in the direction of Amba Alagi. It was to be staged in the afternoon of D’ minus 1 Day. The main attack on the Italian left was to be launched at dawn with maximum artillery support by the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, except one troop field artillery and A Troop Light Artillery Battery remaining under command of Fletcher Force. The movement of battalions to battle positions (in Sandy Ridge Area) was
to start on 30 April. Attack was to go in at first light on 3 May.
This plan was discussed with General Platt who approved of it and consequently orders were issued to implement it. The only change from the outline plan was that another battalion from the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was not used for the feint against Toselli Pass. 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles was detailed to carry out this task.
D Day for the main attack had originally been planned for 3 May but owing to transport and maintenance difficulties it was finally fixed for 4 May at 0415 hours.
Falaga Pass Sector
On 1 May, 51 Commando with one company less one platoon 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment attacked and captured Commando Hill after a long and difficult night march. Throughout the day hostile artillery, mortars and machine guns fired on British and Indian troops on the feature.
Wireless Hill, a feature to the east of Commando Hill, was captured on the morning of 2 May. The situation on this front appeared to be very promising. Further advance was made on 3 May and, by the evening, the leading elements had reached a position astride the track one mile north of Falaga Pass. The same day 4 Motor Machine Gun Company carried out a successful raid round the east flank of the Italian position and shot up a party of about 30 Italians who appeared to be in conference.
On the night of 3/4 May an attack on Falaga Pass was put in. The feature named Tongue on the west of the pass was captured, but the attack on the pass itself was held up about two hundred yards from the objective. Heavy fighting went on for three hours after which Indian troops withdrew. In the early hours “of the morning on 4 May the Italians counter-attacked Indian positions but were repulsed. Thus the operation in the Falaga Pass sector had been successful. It had not only contained the troops on the east of the main road but also succeeded in drawing some Italian troops from the west.
Toselli Pass Sector
The objective allotted to 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles was the line of the village Enda Medani Alem. The attack started at 1648 hours on 3 May and the battalion was able to secure its objective. The right forward company then advanced up the spur leading up
to Bald Hill. This was found to be very strongly held. The company, therefore, withdrew to the line of the original objective.
The Main Attack .
The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was to capture the line—Pyramid–Whale Back–Elephant—on 4 May and then to exploit towards Amba Alagi. The brigade was to attack with 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles leading, directed on Pyramid. 3/2 Punjab was to pass through 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles and capture Whale Back and Elephant.
The attack opened with artillery fire at 0415 hours. The leading battalion followed up close to the barrage. Advancing at great speed it completely surprised the Italians and Pyramid was taken by 0545 hours. Passing through the leading battalion, 3/2 Panjab made for Whale Back and Elephant. The whole of the Whale Back feature was captured by 0635 hours, by which time the advance on Elephant was well on its way. The top of the feature was reached at 0720 hours and the ridge came into the hands of the Indian troops by 0735 hours. Reconnaissance at this stage revealed that only a narrow undulating ridge, completely devoid of cover and commanded by Bald Hill and Amba Alagi, joined Elephant and Middle Hill features. It was therefore decided to postpone further attacks until the early hours of the morning on 5 May. Throughout the rest of the day the Italian positions were engaged by British aircraft and artillery. Ten Italian officers and fifty-eight other ranks and seventy Colonial other ranks were captured. They included the Italian commander of the western sector and his staff who had in their possession orders and plans for the defence of Togora Pass. Indian casualties during the day in the main attack amounted to one Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer and one Indian other rank killed and nineteen Indian other ranks wounded.
On 5 May, the forces carrying out the feint attacks in Falaga Pass and the main road sectors continued to exert pressure on their respective fronts. In the sector of the main attack 3/2 Punjab attacked Middle Hill at 0415 hours, and, after a fight with bomb and bayonet, the feature was taken by 0445 hours. 1 Worcesters then passed through and attacked Little Alagi. Wire was met and the battalion came under intense machine gun fire from Little Alagi and Bald Hill. It asked for artillery support but its further attempts to get forward were not successful.
At 0930 hours General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division ordered the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade to hold Middle Hill and to withdraw 1 Worcesters to Elephant. The route for
the withdrawal of 1 Worcesters lay along the narrow bare ridge which was completely overlooked by Italian positions on Little Alagi and Bald Hill. The forward troops therefore had to hold the ground they had gained until dark. They withdrew at 1800 hours. The battalion suffered a few casualties during the day, 8 being killed and 28 wounded. One company 3/2 Punjab which had captured Middle Hill continued to hold it.
The General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division had ordered the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade to hold Middle Hill on 6 May, to enable him to consider plans for further operations. The alternative courses open to him were to continue pressing with the attack on the west flank or to try to break through in the Falaga Pass area.
In the Falaga Pass sector Fletcher Force had reported on 5 May that although the Italians were building sangars and showing general activity they appeared to be withdrawing some troops from that sector to the other flank. The Commander of Fletcher Force was confident of success in breaking through on that flank. General Mayne, however, thought that a force strong enough for a decisive break-through on this front was not available. He also considered it difficult to get the guns forward in a long advance on this front.
On the western flank the Italians were holding strong positions. Their machine gun and mortar posts were sited in dug-outs, cut deep down or into the face of the rock which in most cases had proved impossible to be knocked out by artillery fire. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade had already occupied Pyramid, Whale Back, Elephant and Middle Hill. Movement by daylight on the last named feature or between it and Elephant would immediately draw accurate machine gun fire from Bald Hill, Little Alagi and Amba Alagi. The only approach from Elephant to Middle Hill was along the cart track on the east side of the saddle of low ground separating the two features and was in full view of and within close range from Bald Hill. The approach forward of Middle Hill towards Little Alagi was along a narrow ledge with precipitous drops on both sides. Just to the west of Little Alagi there was a drop in the ledge. Little Alagi itself, though a big feature, was completely dominated by Amba Alagi. Thus the problem of capturing Little Alagi and Bald Hill was a very formidable one. It was not possible to force a way into the position merely on the strength of superior numbers, because there was not room enough on the ledge leading to it for the employment of large numbers. Nor was there any scope for manoeuvre
because in moving along a route other than the ledge the attacking troops would lose height and would then have an almost unscaleable position to assault. On the other hand, the evidence gathered from captured Italian prisoners showed that Italians were badly shaken on account of continuous artillery bombardments and air action. The rank and file had no heart in the battle, and General Mayne rightly believed that the fall of Dessie and the advance of the East Africa Force and the Ethiopian Patriots from the south would further weaken their morale. He also thought it possible that if the Indian troops broke into Italian defences the Italians might give up without a fight. On these considerations he evolved the following plan of operations.
The Main Attack
Little Alagi was to be attacked and Bald Hill to be. mopped up on the night of 7/8 May. It was to be a silent attack with no artillery support unless called for by pre-arranged signal. There was to be, if possible, a simultaneous attack by a small body of picked troops against Italian positions south of Alagi. The Royal Air Force was to bomb and machine gun targets immediately south of Amba Alagi and suspected Italian gun positions east of it. Subsidiary operations were to be launched by Fletcher Force and 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles. Fletcher Force was to carry out enveloping movements in the Falaga Pass sector. On the night of 6/7 May, one company 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles was to move round the Italians on the east flank and, on the morning of 7 May, 51 Commando was to make a wider movement round the same flank. This was to be followed the same day or during the night of 7/8 May by an outflanking move by 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment (less one company) to gain ground affording observation of the Italian areas. Further operations to exploit the above were to be planned after these operations had been completed.
3 Royal Garhwal Rifles was to engage Bald Hill and the Alagi ridge on the night of 7/8 May from the east.
On 5 May, Battalion Headquarters and one company 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment joined the force in the Falaga area, followed by another company on 6 May. On 6 May, 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment took over Wireless Hill. from 1 Horse and one squadron of
the latter relieved a detachment of the former on Commando Hill. After dark, the same day, 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment sent out a platoon to get on to Dead Tree Hill from the east.7 This was to be accomplished without the Italians coming to know of it. About the same time a mortar was moved up to a position just under the east bank on Wireless Hill and laid to fire on Round Hill at 1600 hours. However the Italians opened machine-gun fire at about 1545 hours on Furze Hill. Thereupon Indian troops on Dead Tree Hill opened fire in return. Red and Round Hills were finally attacked and captured on 8 May. On the capture of these features the country beyond was found to be very complicated. An operation had been planned for 51 Commando to raid Italian guns in the area of the Falaga Pass. After a reconnaissance of the area this plan was amended. In the meantime, harassing fire on Italian positions on Rump and Step was kept up, which was so effective that these features surrendered at 1500 hours.
At this stage it appeared that the Italians had withdrawn from the Falaga Pass. This was reported to Headquarters 5th Indian Division who ordered the infantry of Fletcher Force to make for Mt. Gumsa and the motorised part of the force to try to get through to the Atzala Valley and so behind the Italian positions. There were, however, some immediate tasks for Fletcher Force to complete. 51 Commando was ordered to advance direct on the Pack Battery Col (a gun position in the Falaga Pass) during the night of 8/9 May. It was to be followed by 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment which was asked to send one company on to Tongue at dawn on 9 May.
The night of 8/9 May was bitterly cold and in moving from Step towards Pack Battery Col 51 Commando lost direction in the clouds. By the time it and 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment reached Pack Battery Col the Italians had abandoned the position and withdrawn. In the morning one company of 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment went to Tongue which it had mopped up by 0900 hours.
3 Royal Garhwal Rifles
During the night of 7/8 May 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles demonstrated against the centre of the Italian position and the Italians were compelled to open fire in defence.
The Main Attack
The attack was put in according to plan.8 Centre Hill was captured at 0515 hours and Khaki Hill at 0545 hours on 8 May. A Company attacking Castle Hill reached the southern end of the objective at 0530 hours after a very difficult climb. The Italians on the top of the hill displayed a white flag. When however Indian troops had almost reached the top to take it over and make the garrison prisoners, the Italians met them with a shower of bombs which caused a number of casualties. An attack was put in after this and the south end of Castle Hill was captured by 0600 hours. The Italians counter-attacked immediately, but were thrown back with heavy losses. They followed up with another counterattack with stronger forces and supported by intense and accurate mortar and machine gun fire. Indian troops held the ground resolutely. However, the company had to withdraw in the end after it had run out of ammunition. It moved back to Centre Hill.
Khaki Hill was a long way from British positions and its maintenance proved very difficult. There was also a danger of its being isolated in the event of a counter-attack. Therefore at 0855 hours the Commander 29th Indian Infantry Brigade ordered the troops on it to be withdrawn.
Centre Hill was completely dominated by the Italian positions on Castle Hill. But in view of the expected advance of the East Africa Force the Commander 29th Indian Infantry Brigade decided to hold the ground gained.9
Throughout the rest of the day and the night of 8/9 May the Italian machine guns on Castle South were active as a result of which 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles sustained some casualties. On the night of 9/10 May, 1 Worcesters relieved 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles on Centre Hill. A certain amount of confusion was caused by an Italian counter-attack in the midst of the relief. However, defensive fire was called for and the attack was repulsed. 6 Royal Frontier Force Rifles moved back in the area of Fin Col to the northwest of Whale Back.
East Africa Force
Having captured Dessie on 26 April, East Africa Force had sent the 1st South African Brigade, with some Patriot Forces under command, in pursuit towards the north. The brigade had to cover 175 miles to reach Toselli Pass. By 7 May, Alomata, seventy-seven miles from Toselli Pass, had been captured and the advance from the south was held up at a road block ten miles to the north of that place. The same evening Mai Ceu, twenty-eight miles from Toselli Pass, was reached. The next day, the leading elements were moving towards E Atzala Cheros which was only eight miles south of Toselli Pass. The brigade came under the command of the 5th Indian Division at 1430 hours on 9 May.
On the night of 8/9, 51 Commando had occupied Pack Battery Col, which the Italians had abandoned before British and Indian troops could get there. 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment had secured the feature called Tongue overlooking Falaga Pass by 0900 hours on 9 May. British and Indian troops on this feature had been fired upon by Italian machine guns during the day on 9 May from a feature called Four Bumps. That evening, 3 Royal Frontier Force Regiment was ordered to capture this feature during the morning of 10 May.
On the capture of Falaga Pass, it was found that the road through it was not complete and that it ended abruptly on reaching the top of the pass. It was therefore not possible to send motorised units through to the Atzala Valley. 1 Horse was ordered to the main road and its place was taken by 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles on 9 May.
The Investment of Amba Alagi on all Sides
On 10 May the leading battalion of 1st South African Brigade reached Mai Ceu and the next day the whole brigade less one battalion arrived there. On the morning of 11 May, 1st Royal Natal Carbineers reached the top of the Pass Di Aiba, from which a clear view of Amba Alagi, some eight miles away, was obtained. An armoured car patrol was sent forward to contact the Patriots operating in the Sasat area in the hills to the south of Toselli Pass.
On 11 May, the General Officer Commanding 5th Indian Division flew over the Italian positions to Alomata, to explain the situation to the Commander 1st South African Brigade. In the afternoon they went to the top of the Pass Di Aiba, and carried out a reconnaissance. On the east, the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was operating towards Twin Pyramids, over extremely difficult knife-edge crests, and with a line of communication dependent on
pack-transport forward of Falaga Pass. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was holding Middle and Centre Hills. British artillery had direct observation on Toselli Fort and was pounding the Italians unmercifully.
1st South African Brigade was ordered to occupy Triangle and Khaki Hill and gain touch with the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade on the west and the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade on the east. It was thus to complete the investment of Amba Alagi. The Patriots were to be withdrawn from the road up Toselli Pass and were to operate on the right flank of the 1st South African Brigade.
On the night of 11/12 May, 1st Royal Natal Carbineers occupied Khaki Hill. The artillery of the South African Brigade was deployed in the area of Khaki Hill and Pass Di Aiba on 12 May. This put the Italian artillery in a most difficult position, because the guns deployed on the southern slopes of Amba Alagi, against the 5th Indian Division, were exposed to the view of the artillery observation posts of the South African Brigade.
On 12 May, patrols from 1st Royal Natal Carbineers gained touch with 1 Worcesters occupying Centre Hill. The same day the telephone line from the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade to 1 Worcesters was extended to Headquarters 1st South African Brigade.
The position of the Italians on Triangle (Mt. Corarsi) was very strong. Their men were well concealed in caves and trenches on ground overlooking the approaches. ‘No Man’s Land’ was a fairly open slope ending in a cliff at the top, rising thirty feet with the Italians entrenched above it. There was no actual position on the summit of Triangle but an anti-aircraft gun was dug in there.
1 Transvaal Scottish was detailed to hold itself in readiness to move on the night of 12/13 May against Triangle.
12 May was spent in reconnaissance and planning. The Commander Fletcher Force flew over to Mai Ceu and visited the Commander 1st South African Brigade. They agreed that the South Africans should move up the south-east spur of Triangle. The Commander Fletcher Force on his part undertook to support this advance as best as he could, either by an advance on his own front or by fire.
While these matters were being discussed the Patriots entirely without warning to Indian forces first stormed Pyramid East and
then Pyramid West. Their line of approach was up the precipitous southern slopes of the two Pyramids. The Italians put up a stout resistance on Pyramid West, but were overwhelmed. The Patriots then attempted to pass over to Triangle. The ridge from Pyramid West to Triangle was barred by two double apron fences of barbed wire and by a mass of fascines, all covered by machine gun posts, of which the nearest, White Rock, was not more than fifty yards away. British artillery did its best to knock them out, but they were too well dug in to be seriously affected. The Patriots failed in their very gallant effort to cross this heavily defended defile. They were forced to withdraw to Pyramid West where those on the north side were engaged by pack guns from Amba Alagi and those on the south by machine guns on Triangle. They had therefore to fall further back and took shelter on the lower slopes between the two Pyramids.
In order to make certain that the Italians did not reoccupy them, one company 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles occupied Twin Pyramids, without opposition, on the night of 12/13 May.
On 13 May, 1st South African Brigade occupied its first objective, Wade’s Post, a feature on the lower slopes of south-east spur of Triangle. The same day the Patriots made another attempt to get to the top of Triangle, this time up the steep sides of the feature and not along the defile from the direction of the Pyramids. Their attempt failed, but it helped the South Africans in getting on to their objective. After the capture of Wade’s Post, 1st South African Brigade continued its advance up the hill at about 1600 hours on 13 May. The second objective was a ridge further up the slope. Heavy rain, however, checked the advance and the objective was not reached.
On 14 May the rain had stopped before the morning and the advance was resumed at first light. A deep gully about two thousand yards from the top was successfully crossed and the advance continued. Artillery fire made many Italians leave cover and they were caught by the machine guns in the open. By midday 1 Transvaal Scottish was nearing the summit. The Italians put in a counterattack at this juncture and African troops were forced back to the foot of the cliff. Further artillery support was arranged and, after heavy fighting, the leading troops were checked to the south and south-east of the Triangle.
3 Royal Garhwal Rifles on Twin Pyramids had been joined by large numbers of Patriots. 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles supported the attack of the South Africans on Triangle with machine gun fire. The Patriots once again tried to assault Triangle over the narrow
ridge leading from Pyramid West. However, they were held up by the wire and machine guns on the north-east corner of Triangle. The machine guns were finally silenced by British artillery in the evening and it was planned to blow a gap in the wire with Bangalore torpedoes (a type of explosive charge) during the night.
On the night of 14/15 May the wire on the ridge between Pyramid West and Triangle was blown successfully. The Italians abandoned Triangle during the night and withdrew to Amba Alagi.
A patrol from 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles found Triangle abandoned at dawn on 15 May. Patrols from 1st South African Brigade were also up soon after. The feature was occupied by 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles and the South Africans immediately took up operations to secure the ridge leading to the main road. Heavy fire was encountered from Amba Alagi and Toselli Fort and the advance was postponed until the night of 15/16 May.
Amba Alagi was now invested on all sides, on the north and east by the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, on the south by the South Africans, and on the west by the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade.
1 Horse patrols moving up from the north in the area of the main road occupied Cannefat to the north of Twin Pyramids on the evening of 15 May and made contact with 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles.
The Final Assault
After the fall of Triangle the Italians were holding only Amba Alagi, Toselli Pass, Castle Ridge, Little Alagi and Bald Hill. An operation was planned in which the 1st South African Brigade was to attack Toselli Fort with a feint preceding the main attack, by the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade. The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was to support the 1st South African Brigade and protect its right flank. Owing to the necessity of securing the ridge running down to the main road from Triangle and the difficulties of administration it was not possible to stage this attack before 17 May which was fixed as a provisional D Day.
At 0730 hours on 16 May the first Italian envoys arrived to ask if the General Officer Commanding was prepared to receive an envoy from the Duke of Aosta, the Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief of the Italian forces in East Africa to discuss terms of surrender. This was agreed to and after discussions the Italians agreed to surrender. They laid down their arms at 1200 hours on 19 May. They were granted the honours of war. A guard of honour consisting of representative sub-units from all units presented arms
as the defeated Italians filed down the road to lay down their arms and pass into captivity. The next day, the Duke of Aosta personally surrendered with his staff to General Mayne.
Thus the battle of Amba Alagi in the heart of Ethiopia was won. Amba Alagi was a strong natural position and was considered by the Italians to be impregnable. It had been chosen by the Duke of Aosta a.s the stronghold on which to make a final stand. The Italian forces were surrounded on all sides and their power broken by a large pincer movement the northern arm of which consisted of forces based on the Sudan and the southern arm of forces based on Kenya under General Cunningham. The Indian troops coming from the north after the victory of Keren arrived on the scene first. The South African troops coming from the south had much further to travel and had to subdue the fortress of Dessie on the way. So the battle was first joined by the Indian troops alone. After a week’s heavy fighting in mountainous country they had destroyed the Italian forward troops and forced their way, on the north, the east, and the west, to within striking distance of Italian innermost fortress defences. It was at this stage that the South African forces reached the battle-field. It fell to them to storm their way up precipitous heights against stiff opposition and to close the ring on the south. After the circle was closed the only question was how long it would take to overcome Italian opposition. As the net was tightened and the bombardment by air and artillery became more concentrated, the morale of Italian forces deteriorated rapidly and their surrender came soon after.
After the fall of Amba Alagi the remaining centres of Italian resistance were in the Galla–Sidama area in the south-west and in the Gondar area in the north-west. Some brilliant operations by the African divisions, assisted by a Belgian force from the Sudan resulted in the complete liquidation of all Italian resistance in the south-west of Ethiopia while the Italian outposts in the Gondar area were also cleared. The Gondar area itself was allowed to remain for the time being in Italian hands as it was considered to have no further influence on the operations and as General Wavell was anxious to transfer troops back to the main theatre in Egypt as rapidly as possible. The 4th Indian Division had been withdrawn to Egypt immediately after the fall of Keren. The 5th Indian Division followed after the fall of Amba Alagi.
During the operations by regular troops in the south and in the north, the west centre of Ethiopia was being cleared by some daring operations of Colonel Wingate’s small regular force of Sudanese troops and bands of Ethiopian Patriots assisted by British officers.
The Emperor with Brigadier Sandford followed the operations of these troops and made a formal entry into his capital of Addis Ababa on 5 May.
Though Italian forces remained in Ethiopia even after the fall of Amba Alagi and kept two African divisions occupied all through the summer, Ethiopia had been freed of Italian domination. Indian troops which had played such an important part in the offensive in this area were now withdrawn in bulk to the more important theatres of war in the north. The British attention was now directed towards their north-western frontier and to the possibility of an advance by German and Italian troops from Libya against any of their communications along the Nile or west from Khartoum.