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

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Against these forces, hastily collected and sent to guard the various point of the stronghold, would be launched the assault of the 4th Anglo-Indian Div. which had won at Agordat, formed by two Indian brigades (V and VII), a Scottish battalion (Black Watch), some motorized units and the Gazelle Force. Reinforcements from the 5th Division, the Sudan defense force and other Sudanese battalions would later be added thus reaching a total of 51,000 men.

The Battle

Victory and attrition of the defenders (2nd-14th February)
The first phase of the Keren battle is characterized by the stubborn and brilliant Italian resistance on the Dongolaas ravine, and on the surrounding peaks and valleys. Already on Feb. 2nd, enemy armored units tried to penetrate the ravine but were stopped by obstructions created by the Italians, who had set off a mine in order to block the passage. The next day, the enemy attempted to conquer the peaks all around the ravine to free it with more ease. The Cameron Highlanders moved in to attack and wrung Height 1616 from a Company of the 2nd Granatieri (Grenadier) battalion. The counterattack that was meant to retake the Sanchil peak and massif could not be carried out because it was anticipated by the advance of the Punjab and Rajputana regiments, which members are renowned for being tough and brave soldiers. The attackers had almost conquered the last emplacements held by the decimated Savoy Grenadiers, when the arrival of two companies of the III Bersaglieri and of the XCVII Colonial battalion, who just arrived in Keren, pushed them back into the ravines. The struggle that took place in that terrible day among precipices and stingy acacias that tore flesh and clothes from the men, was actually a bloody close quarter combat and an immense slaughter that showed the unshakable will of the Italians not to yield. On February 10th, it was clear that the Anglo-Indians were preparing a new and massive infantry assault, followed by a motorized one, far more dangerous as the exhausted 4th Division had been joined by the reinforcements of the 5th.

The command of the Keren stronghold concentrated all the available men around Dongolaas, including the newly arrived Alpini Work Amba battalion and on 12th February at dawn, when the tremendous British offensive started, everything was ready to push it back. The battle raged for two days and saw the dreaded Indian battalion of the Maharatta and the ferocious Sikhs joining the fray, but in the afternoon of the 14th, the Italians could see the tanks, that had waited for the infantry breakthrough, withdrawing westwards. The Italian flag kept flying on the bloodstained heights of Keren: Grenadiers, Alpini, Blackshirts and Ascari had obtained, with a high tribute of blood, a marvelous victory.

Operative standstill and adjustment of the front
From 15th February to 4th March, excluding the action on the Cubub emplacement (North of Ambesa), the South-west front became stabilized due to the exhaustion of both sides. The Italians received more reinforcements from Gondar and Addis Ababa (10th Regiment Savoy Grenadiers) but the personnel of the many battalions of Keren were often down to 150-200 men each, more or less like a company. Even though that month there was no infantry slaughter, the guns didn’t keep silent, because Keren was subjected to an intense artillery fire and attacks from the R.A.F. that, after destroying the small “Air force” of the stronghold, became the absolute dominator of the sky. As an official British report states, only between 15th and 22nd March, the British artillery fired the astonishing number of 110,000 rounds against the Italian defenders.

The tragic epilogue (15th-27th March)
The last offensive strike of the British was accurately planned and arranged to assault Keren on two directions:

  • From North, with troops coming from Karora and re-enforced by the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion (the same that would see action at Dien Bien Phu thirteen years later)
  • From South-West, with the 4th and 5th Indian division

The 4th Div. was to take the Sanchil and Monte Forcuto, that the British had to abandon due to the tenacious Italian counterattack on the 12th February; the 5th was to force through the Dongolaas ravine, while the troops coming from Karora were to engage on their front part of the Italian forces. The attack was preceded, as custom of all the “rich” armies that have no problems with ammo or catering, by an intense shelling and bombing.

The Italian emplacements on the Samanna, Dologorodoc, Amba, Forcuto, Sanchil and Dongolaas mountains literally disappeared under an immense cloud of smoke and dust; meanwhile, in front of them, massed the first British assault waves: the 2nd Highland Light Infantry, the IX and XXIX Indian Brigade.

At 8 am of 15th March, the general offensive began. At first it didn’t go absolutely well for the attackers. The British infantry was pushed back everywhere by thick throws of hand grenades, while the British tanks that tried to force the Dongolaas road were stopped by the fire of Italian batteries and mortars, and by predisposed incendiary devices.

At North too, astride the Anseba pass, the II and VI Italian brigade brilliantly repulsed an outflanking attempt performed by the Foreign Legion.

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  1. At the end of page 1 “did not oppose Mussolini‚Äôs 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.