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The Rise and Fall of Italian East Africa and the Battle of Keren

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The Defense of Eritrea

The British High Command had already decided to attack Ethiopia in November 1940, immediately after that, Graziani’s advance into Egypt had been stopped and crushed by Wavell’s troops at Sidi El Barrani. The success gave rise in Churchill’s mind to the hope to move some units from the Northern theater to Sudan, and from there, unroot the defenses of Eritrea, reaching Massawa in a few days. The attack was to be launched against the southern and Eastern part of the Italian defenses in the Eastern Africa, departing from four directions:

  • North-South, in parallel with the coast, from Karora towards Keren
  • West-East, conduced from Kassala towards Agordat by the 4th Anglo-Indian Division
  • Once more West-East, towards Gondar, by the 1st Anglo-Sudanese division
  • Lastly, more South, from the neighborhood of Metemma towards Gondar. […] All the original plan was turned upside down, and had negative repercussions on the British forces in North Africa, that were depleted in the most critical moment of the Italian-German counteroffensive in Cyrenaica, determined by the arrival of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

The total of the British forces commanded by Gen. Platt, was formed by four divisions and 65,000 men, opposed to 3 divisions (1st, 2nd, 4th) further than some brigades, colonial cavalry and non- classified units.

Things went differently from what Churchill and Wavell had hoped. The quick breakout of the Italian front made by the 4th Anglo-Indian Division led by Gen. Beresford-Pierce seemed to have brought havoc among the Italian troops and cleared the road to Asmara and Massawa. But the unexpected resistance encountered at Keren, which lasted 56 days, obliged the British to move from Egypt, Aden and Eastern Mediterranean to Ethiopia a big part of their forces. All the original plan was turned upside down, and the British forces in North Africa were depleted in the most critical moment of the Italian- German counteroffensive in Cyrenaica, determined by the arrival of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.


Agordat is a vital junction of Eritrea: here pass the roads to Keren, Asmara, and the sea. The strategic importance of this town is confirmed by the two important battles which took place here in that dry and inaccessible zone in 1890 and 1893. The Italians had established a 22-kilometer-long defense line held by units of Gen. Beccari’s 4th Division and led by Colonel Lorenzini. The offensive launched by the British on 26th January, supported by huge numbers of aircraft and by the extremely efficient Gazelle Force (a special corps formed by 5,000 men, tanks, armoured cars and artillery) broke into the Italian lines between Laquatat and Cochen.

The sacrifice of two Italian armoured battalions composed by M and L tanks was useless against the much more powerful Matilda and Cruiser tanks, against which even the rounds fired by our 77/28 guns bounced off. On Jan. 31st the Italians withdrew in order, scattering to escape air attacks and carrying the fight on. Losses were heavy: 1,260 Italian nationals and 14,000 colonials, 96 guns, 24 tanks and 20 aircraft. But the enemy had not achieved an easy victory, since they had to collect all available units from Port Sudan to substitute the fatigued ones. Fortunately for Italians, the men of the Gazelle Force had a eight-hour-long stop to clear a bridge from mines, whereas they could easily bypass it. This delay allowed the defenders of Keren to withdraw in the natural “fortresses” present in the territory, and to detonate part of the hillside to obstruct the entrance of the Dongolaas ravine just as the first British tanks were coming in. A minimum delay – just a few hours – that however cost the soldiers of both sides two months of epic struggle and suffering. A British survivor of the battle said:

“Who fought on other fronts knows that nothing, nothing was worse than Keren!”

The Keren Upland

At Keren, the small capital of the Senait, located on the uplands with terraces sloping towards Sudan, there were no fortified emplacements or defensive buildings, but only Italians determined not to give in. The built up area was located


inside an amphitheater of mountains, interrupted at South-West by the Dongolaas ravine through which run the road and the Agordat-Asmara railway, and at North by the Anseba ravine, with the track bound to Cubub.

The Dongolaas ravine was the most important strategic point and also the easiest to defend: at South-West there is the Dologorodoc mountain and at North- West the Sanchil mountain, linked to the natural rampart at Monte Forcuto by a saddle called Height 1616. All these places saw ferocious battles. Therefore a great emplacement, as the attackers should have gone through these passes. But until the Agordat battle, not even the mountain hinterland was guarded, and only under the danger of breakdown, troops were gathered for the defense of Keren. Moreover the garrison couldn’t even build bunkers or trenches, as the soil was totally rocky. The first unit to be ordered to leave was the 11th Savoy Grenadiers Regiment, with two Grenadier battalions (1st and 2nd) 3rd Bersaglieri Battalion and one Mortar company. Leaving from Addis Ababa, where it had garrison duties, they arrived in Keren on 1st February, after a voyage continuously harassed by the R.A.F. The 2nd Battalion went to guard the Dongolaas ravine, while the Bersaglieri blocked the track to Cubub. At the same date were present at Keren:

  • The XI brigade and the III group of colonial cavalry squadrons
  • The IV colonial cavalry group, in defence of the airfield
  • The CIV motorized artillery group with 77/28 guns
  • The V Brigade and the V artillery group of the 1st colonial division, in which responsibility of the stronghold waa placed under Commander Gen. Carnimeo
  • One Engineer company
  • The surviving personnel of the 4th colonial Div. withdrawn from Agordat
  • The small emplacements outside the stronghold, generally formed by an officer, some NCOs and a colonial band

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  1. At the end of page 1 “did not oppose Mussolini’s expansionary designs” not Mussolini’s, because this part is about the 1880’s.

  2. I’ve noticed that he part on Amedeo Guillet has a problem with tenses. I wonder if anybody can uniformate them into simple past. Thanks.