Africa Orientale Italiana:
First Assault on Keren

Italian Colonial troops fought surprisingly well during the first weeks of the British invasion of Eritrea. They had been recruited for security duties, for the most part, or to keep young men out of bandit gangs. The colonial brigades had certainly not been expected to fight a modern enemy on an even basis.

Despite their stout resistance, they had been steadily turned out of strong positions by the opposing Indian battalions of 4th and 5th Indian Divisions (the divisions’ British battalions, particularly those of the pre-war Sudan garrison, proved less impressive). Strong natural fortresses at Agordat and Barentu fell to the Indian brigades, throwing the Italians back on their last stronghold, the hills around the town of Keren.

The Italian commander-in-chief in East Africa, Amadeo duca d’Aosta, understood that Keren represented the last, strongest position blocking the road to Asmara, capital of Eritrea, and on to Massawa, the colony’s lone major port and naval base. His superiors in Rome encouraged him to hold out as long as possible: they expected to take Egypt and the Suez Canal by the autumn of 1941, a task that would be easier with an Italian army still resisting in East Africa. With Egypt in Axis hands, relief for East Africa would quickly follow.

And so the duke decided to play the only strong card in a very weak hand and deploy part of the elite 65th “Granatieri di Savoia” Infantry Division at Keren. Hedging his bet, he held back three of the division’s battalions in Addis Ababa and later sent one more to the front.

The Royal Italian Army had two divisions of Grenadiers, the equivalent of Guards formations in other armies: the Sardinia Grenadiers in Rome and the Savoy Grenadiers in Addis Ababa, the capital of Italy’s East African empire. The two regiments of the Savor Grenadiers had two infantry battalions each; one regiment had a Bersaglieri battalion in place of its third infantry battalion and the other one of Alpini.

Obsolete Royal Air Force Wellesley bombers opened the British effort, dropping thousands of leaflets on the Italian positions urging the Eritrean askaris to desert. Apparently unknown to the British, Italian policy forbade teaching Africans to read and write. Few among the intended audience could understand the message.

Gazelle Force, formed from 5th Indian Division’s reconnaissance battalion (Skinner’s Horse) and some motorized machine-gunners of the Sudan Defence Force, made first contact with Keren’s defenders. Italian engineers had blown down huge quantities of rock from nearby mountainsides, and colonial infantry took up positions to cover the blockage. They stood stoutly, even against tanks. Following the first attack’s failure, the commander of the British Northern Front, Sir William Platt, chose to make series of frontal assaults against the Italian line on either side of the Dongolaas Gorge while trying – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – to probe for their flanks.

On 3 February, 11th Indian Brigade sent its British battalion, the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, up the rocky slopes of the small mountain they soon labelled “Cameron Ridge.” The Italians held the ridge line, but could not drive them back down the hill. Fighting along the ridge continued for the next 24 hours, with the Camerons finally securing the pinnacle. They in turn could not drive the Italians off the opposite slope.

The next effort temporarily captured parts of the neighboring Mount Sanchil, until counter-attacks spearheaded by a battalion of Savoy Grenadiers threw the Indians off the heights and drove back reinforcements as well. The Indians and British barely managed to hold Cameron Ridge against the Grenadiers.

On the 6th, Platt shifted his emphasis to the other side of Dongolaas Gorge, attacking the flank of Mount Dologorodoc with 5th Indian Brigade. Dologorodoc dominated the lowlands to its south, known as “Happy Valley,” and had a modern concrete fort at its crest. The Eritrean “Tipo” Colonial Battalion held the mountain, with a battalion of Savoy Grenadiers to its left. Avoiding the fort, one Indian battalion tried to skirt the mountain’s edge to push up a seemingly undefended valley, only to find its way blocked by the grenadiers.

The mountains of Keren.

As 5th Brigade’s attacks crumbled, Italian Col. Corso Corsi of the 11th Grenadier Regiment personally led his Bersaglieri and a pair of colonial battalions in a screaming bayonet charge against Cameron Ridge. Corsi’s madness showed a method once his men were locked in close-quarters combat with the Rajputs and Scots holding the ridge, as a battalion-sized group of colonial cavalry tried to work its way around the British left flank while the defenders were pinned in place. Furious British artillery fire finally drove back the attackers.

Fifth Brigade tried again on the night of 7-8 February, hoping to break through a gap in the mountain chain defended by colonial battalions thought to be of low morale. Brig. Gen. Orlando Lorenzini, the “Lion of the Desert,” held the area with two colonial battalions and a company of 81mm mortars. Outnumbered and outgunned, Lorenzini held out against a surprise night attack that penetrated his positions, but a colonial cavalry group rode to his aid and helped encircle the attackers. By dawn the Indians had fought their way clear, but the attack had been an utter failure.

Balked at the attempted surprise attack, Platt decided to launch a well-prepared set-piece assault using all of his available brigades and leaning on his marked superiority in artillery. Both Monte Sanchil on the left and the so-called Acqua Gap on the right, where Lorenzini had turned back the previous assault, would be attacked by infantry after heavy barrages. The attacks would be launched sequentially, rather than simultaneously, so that all available artillery could be devoted to support each attack. Anti-tank crews would leave their weapons behind and bolster the infantry battalions.

Eleventh Indian Infantry Brigade began the assault on the left on the afternoon of 10 February, initially making progress and capturing the peak of Monte Sanchil. As had been their practice, the Italians responded with prompt counter-attacks spearheaded by the Grenadiers, and shoved the British and Indians back down the slopes. In the early hours of the 12th the British command called off the offensive, with their badly-depleted battalions barely holding on to their original positions.

Fifth Indian Infantry Brigade fared little better in its renewed assault against Acqua Gap. Notable acts of individual bravery – Subedar Richpal Ram would be awarded the Victoria Cross – could not overcome the Italian defenses, and by the early morning of 14 February the brigade had broken contact.

The First Battle of Keren had ended in abject failure for the British. The Italians had resolutely held their lines despite a lack of artillery support and the deployment of only three battalions of reliable troops. Sir William Platt now paused the advance for several weeks to bring up additional troops and supplies, and renew the attack in March. The Duke of Aosta for his part fed in more colonial battalions and additional Grenadiers, but had no armor or artillery to add to the defenses.

Platt still held enormous advantages; while he depended on a long supply line at least he had one. The Duke received the occasional SM.82 transport plane flying to East Africa via the Kufra oasis, but for the most part the Italian supply stockpile as it stood on 10 June 1940 would have to suffice for the entire campaign. So far, the defenders had avoided capitulation. The first elements of the German Afrika Korps arrived in Libya on 10 February and Erwin Rommel received command of the force on the next day. The Italian garrison of East Africa would have to hold until these reinforcements could secure the Suez Canal.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.