World

The Battle Of Keren: When Indian Soldiers Fought Against Mussolini’s Forces In East Africa — An Eightieth Year Tribute

Cheren, as Keren was called in Italian
Snapshot
  • The Second World War began in Europe on 10 May 1940, when Germany invaded France and the Low Countries. It swiftly spread to Asia and Africa, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on the allies a month later.

    This one’s a story of how the Indian Army took on the Italians, despite limited resources, in the battle of Keren.

    The Eritrean town was finally taken on 27 March, and four days later, the proud pennants of our divisions — the Red Eagles and the Ball of Fire — flew over Asmara.

Commentators on the Second World War have often been unfair and unkind to the Italians, by allowing an image of general military incompetency to be perpetuated around the forces of Rome.

While it is true that they were routinely defeated fairly badly by the Allies, in North Africa (from where this image grew), the Italians actually acquitted themselves quite well in Eastern Africa.

Indeed, contrary to that image, they proved themselves to be very hard nuts to crack – during a relatively brief East African campaign, and in its climactic, strategically decisive battle of Keren.

Equally unfair and unkind has been the historical tendency to treat this East African campaign as a mere sideshow, unworthy of little more than a passing mention or two. In actual fact, it was a vitally important enterprise, involving hundreds of thousands of troops, with far-reaching geopolitical dimensions.

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It was predominantly an Indian Army affair, executed under gruelling circumstances, across impossible terrain, against huge odds, with shortages of all sorts abounding. It is also thus, an Indian story, filled with courage and sacrifice, deserving to be retold in some detail.

The Second World War began in Europe on 10 May 1940, when Germany invaded France and the Low Countries. It swiftly spread to Asia and Africa, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on the allies a month later.

His aim was to capture British possessions and bring a vast area stretching from Libya to Somalia under Italy’s fief. It was to be called ‘the Green Line’. For this, he placed a quarter of a million men under the Duke of Aosta in Eritrea, bordering the vital Red Sea, with a large air force, armour, and a sizeable Naval fleet at Massawa (see map). This was of course in addition to a much larger force under Marshal Graziani in Libya.

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Map 1: The East African Theatre 1940-41 Map 1: The East African Theatre 1940-41

As commander of the Allied forces in the Middle East and North Africa, and based in Cairo, General Archibald Wavell was now faced with an unenviable task.

He had precious few military resources on hand, a two-front threat to counter, and a strategically vital region to defend. His woes were enough to make a grown man cry.

The immediate threat was naturally Libya, for which he cobbled together a Western Desert Force through the long summer of 1940.

It consisted of the 7th Armored Division (The Desert Rats), and the 4th Indian Infantry Division (The Red Eagles). But that still left him with the threat from the south to contend with.

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The situation was tense. If the Red Sea fell into Italian hands, they would then block all Allied shipping through the Suez Canal. Next to fall would be the oilfields of Arabia, and without oil, the war would soon be lost.

Knowing this, the Italians had eight submarines and as many destroyers in the Red Sea, based at Massawa Port. These vessels had a hundred islets and inlets to lurk behind, from where they could strike Allied ships at will. So Massawa had to be taken, at any cost.

The only problem was that there was but a single road leading from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea coast, which meandered for hundreds of miles through narrow gorges, and across the near-impassable Ethiopian Highlands.

The Italians were no fools, so as soon as war was declared, they occupied two key outposts which defended the approaches to the mountain road – Kassala and Gallabat (see map 1).

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The road to Massawa was now firmly closed, and this theatre of war settled into a brief lull. From this point on, any Allied force foolish enough to attack, would have to undertake a long and exhausting military campaign across inhospitable terrain, riddled with grave risks.

Map 2: The road to Massawa Map 2: The road to Massawa

On the Allied side, Wavell handed over command of the East African campaign to General Platt. This was to remain largely a paper order until September 1940, when a ‘ball of fire’ providentially disembarked at Port Sudan.

The 5th Indian Infantry Division was here at last! Recognised by their emblem, a red circle on a black background, 5 Div was raised in Secunderabad. Its men were bred for war – two hardy brigades of Jats, Marathas, Garwahlis, Punjabis, Dogras, Gurkhas, Bengalis, Tamilians, Malayalees, and, at that point, a still-unknown Brigadier named William Slim.

You name it, they had it – grit, panache, and training; and in time, the Fireballs of 5 Div would go on to carve a glorious, golden niche for themselves in military history.

But that fame would not come without bloody effort, and not until the road to Massawa was reopened.

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Almost immediately, 5 Div realised the odds they were up against: Africa was huge, the distances were vast, and while the Italians commanded scores of fighter planes, their own air force was, to put it mildly, somewhat smaller.

This is not a joke: 5 Div’s anti-aircraft units actually had standing instructions to ‘fire at anything more than one’. Why? That is because their own inventory of six aged Vincent biplanes, of 1920s vintage, had only a single serviceable carburetor to share between them!

Such appalling shortages notwithstanding, 5 Div swiftly absorbed three British battalions to come up to full strength, and were prepared for war by the end of 1940.

Yet in one of those quaint battlefield ironies, it was in fact Gazelle Force under Frank Messervy, who beat 5 Div to get first dibs; on 17 January 1941, this tough, mobile force consisting of mixed Sudanese, Indian and British units, successfully hit and took both Italian forward posts at Gallabat and Kassala.

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Battered and bruised, the Italians retreated hastily up the mountain road, eastwards to Keren, with Gazelle Force snapping angrily at their heels.

Meanwhile, a second insult hit 5 Div: lead elements of 4 Div appeared out of nowhere, to cut the queue, take up the northern advance on the Keren road, and leave 5 Div behind once again. What on earth, infuriated officers of the ‘Ball of Fire’ wondered, were the Red Eagles doing in Eritrea?

A good question, because until just a few weeks earlier, the Red Eagles had been busy knocking the stuffing out of the Italians at Sidi Barrani, on the Egyptian-Libyan border. Yet, by dint of superb ‘supply-side management’, and iron fiat of General Wavell, 4 Div shifted lock, stock and barrel over two thousand kilometers in record time, to now knock on the Duke of Aosta’s Eritrean doors.

People who swoon over General Norman Schwarzkopf’s ‘Hail Mary’ switch during the first Gulf War of 1990-91, would do well to study this move of 1940-41, before reaching for the smelling salts; it was that brilliant.

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The chasers caught up with the chased at the Keru Gorge – a narrow opening in a long mountain wall. The Italians had no option but to block the Allied advance, and for this, they deployed five of their best battalions to hold the pass.

From the terrain, and limited angles of attack available, it looked like they would be able to hold out for ever. If they did, the Italians would gain precious time to shore up defenses around Keren, and even gather their sinews for a fierce counter-punch.

That was not to be because it was here at the narrow Keru defile that 5 Div, positively champing at the bit, finally managed to join the party. They made their entrance in style!

While Gazelle Force launched a frontal assault upon this mountain hold, a ball of fire swooped around, and incredibly, took Keru from the rear. Indian Army planners who had anticipated a long drawn out, siege-like affair, watched in awe as our men swiftly delivered an unexpected victory.

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The effect on the Italians was so debilitating, that they fell back pell-mell on the road to Massawa Port. They tried to hold the advance at Agordat, but failed, and were eventually forced to concentrate their defences about Keren.

Nothing is easy in life though, and nothing comes for free; during this arduous advance, 2nd Lt. Bhagat of 21 Sappers had his Bren Carrier (a tracked armoured personnel vehicle) blown up twice, and many of his men killed.

But this young man bravely went on, in front, clearing fifteen minefields and opening 55 miles of road, before finally collapsing from sheer exhaustion. For this, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. It is because of such efforts that 4 and 5 Div finally made their way up the Ascidira Valley to reach the savagely-peaked Keren Plateau.

The plateau’s topography made it a natural, impregnable fortress. The only access road for hundreds of miles to north or south ran through a narrow gap into Keren Town. It was called the Dongolaas Gorge.

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Steep rocky sentinels rose on either side of the gap for a thousand dizzying feet. Similar features ringed the town, allowing easy defense, and making attacks suicidal. So, the gap had to be taken at all costs.

Map 3: The battle of Keren Map 3: The battle of Keren

Sadly, lead elements of the Indian Army had reached to within a mile of the Dongolaas Gorge when a huge explosion went up.

They groaned at the sound because they knew what it meant – the Italians had just blown up the Ponto Mussolini Bridge, and blocked the gap. Now, Keren would have to be taken the hard way.

The battle for Keren took 53 excruciating days. Vicious attacks and counter-attacks, with water supplies severely limited, were the order of these days. Between 18 and 22 March 1941, a vital point named Dologorodoc was attacked seven times by 5 Div, before it was taken.

Some geological features were fought over by the same formations so often that they underwent a namakarana: ‘Cameron Ridge’ and ‘Rajputana Ridge’ are famous examples.

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It is on the latter that Naik Maula Baksh of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles won the Victoria Cross. Carrying a light machine gun, he charged and took an Italian post, then charged and took one more, and was in the process of taking a third when he was killed by the retreating enemy.

Perhaps, the Naik was inspired by his brother-warrior of the very same outfit, Subedar Richpal Ram, who led an earlier breakthrough under murderous gunfire, with no regard for his own safety, and continued leading the charge until a mortar blew his foot off.

For this, Subedar Ram too was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. These are the gallant men of 4 and 5 Div, who crafted a victory at Keren.

The town was finally taken on 27 March, and four days later, the proud pennants of our divisions – the Red Eagles and the Ball of Fire, flew over Asmara.

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Sensing impending defeat, the Italian Navy decided to scarper, but not before comically running one of their own ships aground by mistake, and sinking it!

Massawa Port fell on 8 April 1941, and by the end of the month, Allied ships were actually unloading supplies for 5 Div there.

A grave Italian threat to shipping in the Red Sea had been averted, by an excruciating land campaign prosecuted over hundreds of miles of rugged mountain country. And remember, that this campaign was won with hardly any air support.

The East African campaign of 1940-41 was, therefore, no sideshow; it was in fact a vital, strategic ingredient in the recipe for our subsequent victories.

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Of course, the Indian Army knows this better than others, which is why, even today, you will find sections of cantonments bearing names like ‘Asmara Lines’ or ‘Keren Lines’.

Eight decades on, now that you know this story too, pause for a moment the next time you come across such signboards in a cantonment. Make a silent remembrance for those glorious sons of India, who gave so much for victory in that war. They deserve no less.

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