Battle of Keren

Battle of Keren

conflict=Battle of Keren
partof=East African Campaign, World War II

caption=Battle of Keren Battlefield
date= 3 February, 1941 - 1 April, 1941
result=Allied Victory
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
flagicon|India|British India
flagicon|France|free Free France
combatant2=flagicon|Italy|1861 Italy
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom William Platt
commander2=flagicon|Italy|1861-state Nicolangelo Carnimeo
Indian 4th Infantry Division
Indian 5th Infantry Division
2 battalions Free French
casualties1=536 KilledDear & Foot (2005), p. 247]
3,229 Wounded
casualties2=3,000 Killed
3,500 Wounded, Missing or Captured.

The Battle of Keren ("Cheren") was fought as part of the East African Campaign during World War II. The Battle of Keren was fought from 3 February 1941 to 1 April 1941 between the colonial Italian army defending Eritrea and the invading British and Commonwealth forces. In 1941, Keren was a town located in the Italian colony of Eritrea. Keren was of strategic importance to both the Italian and the British forces. The road and railway routes through Keren were the key to access the city of Asmara (colonial capital of Eritrea) and the Red Sea port of Massawa.


Originally colonised by the Italians in 1885, Eritrea was used as a staging ground for two Italian invasions of Ethiopia (or "Abyssinia"): the First Italo-Abyssinian War and the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The second invasion was launched in 1935, four years before the outbreak of Word War II in 1939. The Italians conquered Ethiopia in 1936 and incorporated it into the Italian East African Empire.

Following the Italian declaration of War on 10 June 1940, the Italian dictator, Mussolini had ordered his troops to take aggressive action which had resulted in the capture of British Somaliland and border towns in the Sudan and Kenya. In response, the British had by early February 1941 built up a force of more than two divisions in Sudan and three in Kenya. The Sudan-based forces, commanded by Lieutenant-General William Platt and under the overall command of General Archibald Wavell (Commander-in-Chief British Middle East Command), had launched an attack into Eritrea through Kassala on 18 January and by 1 February had captured Agordat some 100 miles east of Kassala. Late on 30 January "Gazelle Force", Indian 4th Infantry Division's mobile reconnaissance and fighting force commanded by Colonel Frank Messervy, was ordered to make pursuit of the enemy retreating down the road to Keren.

Keren had no built-in fortifications or defensive structures but it is surrounded on most sides by a jumble of steep granite mountains and sharp ridges which gave the defending forces on the high ground a distinct advantage whilst providing their artillery with perfect observation of any attacking formations. The narrow Dongolaas Gorge at coord|15|45|34|N|38|25|16.8|E|name=Dongolaas Gorge|type:landmark through which both the road and railway from Agordat to Keren passed was dominated on the south eastern side by the massif of Mount Zeban and Mount Falestoh on which stood the imposing defenses of Fort Dologorodoc at coord|15|45|14.9|N|38|25|30.6|E|name=Fort Dologorodoc|type:landmark. The other side of the gorge was commanded by the mass of Mount Sanchil with a saddle of secondary summits, Brig's Peak, Hog's Back and Flat Top stretching north westwards towards Mount Sammana. In front of the Sanchil feature on its south western side was a secondary ridge, feature 1616, which became known as Cameron Ridge, overlooking the Ascidera Valley and the railway line. [Mackenzie (1951), p. 53]


First battle: 5 February - 8 February

At 8 a.m. on 1 February 1941, "Gazelle Force" was held up in crossing the River Baraka some 40 miles from Keren where the "Ponte Mussolini" had been blown and the approaches to the river heavily mined. [Mackenzie (1951), p. 52] By noon on 2 February however, they were across the river and winding up the Ascidera Valley until brought to a halt at the Dongolaas Gorge, some 4 miles from Keren, where the road had been blocked by the retreating Italians who had blown the overhanging crags to fill the gorge with boulders and rocks.

4th Indian Division's 11th Brigade arrived on 3 February, and having made reconnaissance the next day, launched their offensive to the left of the gorge on 5 February. The 2nd Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders fought their way to the top of the ridge, feature 1616, in front of Sanchil and the next night, 6 February, the 3rd/14th Punjab Regiment passed through them and advanced onto Brig's Peak but were counter attacked by the Savoy Grenadiers who forced them from their newly taken positions back towards Cameron Ridge which was being reinforced by 1st (Wellesley's) 6th Rajputana Rifles. The ridge became a focus of fighting for the next ten days. The ridge was overlooked in front by Sanchil, to the left by Mount Sammana and even from behind by other mountains along the Ascidera Valley. The Cameron Highlanders and Rajputana Rifles narrowly hung on to their positions despite being under near constant attack and having to carry all food, water and ammunition up 1,500 feet across the exposed terrain. [Mackenzie (1951), pp. 53-54]

By 6 February 4th Indian Division's 5th Brigade had arrived. On 7 February they attacked the Dologorodoc feature east of the gorge, looping right through the Scescilembi Valley (sarcastically renamed the Happy Valley by the attacking troops) and then thrusting from the south east towrds the ridge joining Mount Zelele and Mount Falestoh, known as Acqua Col. On the night of 7 February a company of the 4th (Outram's) 6th Rajputana Rifles led by Subadar Richhpal Ram (who had assumed command when the company commander had been wounded) took the col and held it until 04.30 when they ran out of ammunition and were driven back to the rest of the battalion on a lower feature. In turn, later on 8 February and having spent most of the day under heavy artillery and mortar fire, they were obliged to withdraw back to their starting positions. [Mackenzie (1951), pp. 54-55]

econd battle: 10 February - 13 February

On 10 February afternoon 3rd/1st Punjab Regiment attacked Brig's Peak and by the morning of 11 February were on top of Sanchil. However, the requirement for men to handle and carry supplies, ammunition and wounded meant there were only two platoons to hold the feature.Mackenzie (1951), p. 55] Having endured heavy shelling and mortar fire throughout the day, they were forced off Sanchil and Brig's Peak with heavy casualties by a determined counter attack from the Savoia Grenadiers. Once again the attackers were thrown onto desperate defence on Cameron Ridge.

Despite the failure by the Punjabis to hold the important observation posts on Sanchil, the renewed attack on Acqua Col, planned for 12 February went ahead. 5th Division's 29th Brigade was brought up from Barentu and put under command of 4th Division's Major-General Beresford-Peirse and held in readiness to exploit the hoped-for break-through. At 05.30, supported by an intensive artillery barrage, 4th/6th Rajputana Rifles once again led the way. This time Richhpal Ram was less fortunate and having gained the crest, had a foot blown off and shortly thereafter was mortally wounded. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his exploits on the Col. Meanwhile, the 4th/11th Sikhs were pushing up around the side of Acqua Col but the overall attack could not be carried through, lacking the extra impact that might have come from the 2nd/5th Mahrattas which had been diverted to reinforce the hard-pressed defences on Cameron Ridge.

Third battle: 15 March - 27 March

Platt decided to pause, regroup and train before making a further attempt at Keren. Indian 5th Division's 10th Brigade had completed the mopping up around Agordat and were brought forward and its 9th Brigade, was able to be brought from Gallabat because the Italian forces at Metemma, realising the main British thrust was to the north, had withdrawn to Gondar and were no longer a threat to Gedaref. From the north, "Briggs Force", comprising of two battalions from 4th Indian Division's 7th Brigade and two Free French battalions had arrived and provided not only a third potential direction of attack to occupy the Keren defenders but also created a threat to Massawa on the coast and pinning valuable reserves there.Mackenzie (1951), p. 56]

Plan of attack

The scene was set for a set-piece battle with Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse's 4th Infantry Division concentrated on the Sanchil side of the gorge and Lewis Heath's 5th Infantry Division on the Happy Valley side. The Keren defences had been reinforced and amounted to 25,000 strong facing an attacking force which had grown to more than 13,000. Beresford-Pierce would launch 11th Brigade, expanded to five battalions under command, against the peaks of the Sanchil mass and 5th Brigade against Mount Sammana on the left of his front.

On the 5th Division front the Italian reinforcements on Dologorodoc meant Happy Valley was dominated by the defenders and the attackers' artillery had had to be withdrawn from their forward positions in the valley to safer locations. Without the artillery it was no longer considered practical to continue the flanking attack through Acqua Col to threaten the Dologorodoc lines of supply. Instead, Major-General Lewis Heath, determined that Fort Dologorodoc would be the key odjective for his Indian 5th Infantry Division. Gaining the fort would not only give the attacking forces the artillery observation post to direct fire on both sides of the gorge but would expose the reverse slopes of the Dologorodoc mass (which had been immune to his artillery fire and so a haven to the defenders for supplies and reserves) to direct fire from the fort.Brett-James (1951), [ Chapter IV] ]

The two offensives were planned to take place one after the other on 15 March so that the full force's artillery could be employed for the preliminary bombardment of them both. At the final meeting on 14 March with his commanders Platt saidquotation|Do not let anybody think this is going to be a walkover. It is not. It is going to be a bloody battle: a bloody battle against both enemy and ground. It will be won by the side which lasts longest. I know you will last longer than they do. And I promise you I will last longer than my opposite number.

Platt attacks

At 07.00 on 15 March the British and Commonwealth troops of Indian 4th Infantry Division attacked from Cameron Ridge making for Sanchil, Brig's Peak, Hog's Back and the three peaks of Mount Sammana. Through the night of 15 March the battle ebbed and flowed with attack and counter-attack inflicting very heavy casualties on both sides. [Mackenzie (1951), p. 57]

Meanwhile, on the right, Indian 5th Infantry Division launched its attack on the Dologorodoc feature at 10.30 on 15 March. 2nd Highland Light Infantry led the attack on the lower features ("Pimple" and "Pinnacle") but made no progress in the daylight because of fire from the overlooking Sanchil peak where the Italian defenders had resolutely beaten off the 11th Brigade assault. They were pinned down, taking casualties and without supply until darkness provided the opportunity to withdraw.

By moonlight that evening the attack on Dologorodoc was taken up by 9th Brigade, now commanded by the recently promoted Brigadier Messervy. Heath and Messervy planned a near two battalion attack on "Pimple" and "Pinnacle" with a third battalion ready to pass through and strike for the fort.

The capture of Pinnacle that night by the 3rd/5th Mahratta Light Infantry led by Lieutenant-Colonel Denys Reid (with 3rd/12th Frontier Force Regiment less two companies under command to take "Pimple") is described by Compton Mackenzie in "Eastern Epic", his official history of the British Indian Army during the war, as quotation|one of the outstanding small actions of World War II, decisive in its results and formidable in its achievement... Next morning Messervy scrambled up "Pinnacle" to congratulate Reid and his Mahrattas and wondered how they had been able to scramble up with their equipment against fierce opposition, when he was finding it a pretty tough job without [either] ... At the top, when he saw the victors, he was overcome by the splendor of their feat and his combative amber eyes filled with tears. [Mackenzie (1951), p. 58]

In the early hours of 16 February the defenders of Fort Dologorodoc made a fierce counterattack on "Pinnacle" and "Pimple" which went on for several hours. Crucially this left the defences at the fort weakened and whilst the counterattack was taking place, the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment had made their way over a seemingly impossible knife-edge to surprise the fort's defenders and after a savage fight the fort was captured by 06.30.Mackenzie (1951), p.59] Finally, Platt had the artillery observation point so greatly needed.

Through 16 March the Italians repeatedly counterattacked whilst 29 Brigade made an unsuccessful attack in the evening to Falestoh and Zeban which was abandoned after dark on 17 March after a day exposed to blistering heat, fierce fighting and no supply.

Meanwhile on the Sanchil feature 4th Division, having been given 10th Brigade under command, continued to batter away to no avail. On the night of 17 March, having sustained heavy losses, they withdrew from the slopes of Sanchil and Brig's Peak and the damaged 10th Brigade returned to 5th Division to reform. 4th Indian Division continued to hold Hog's Back and Flat Top. Over the next three days the Italian forces continued to make fierce counter-attacks on both sides of the gorge involving desperate, often hand to hand, fighting.Mackenzie (1951), p. 60]

Final assault

Platt and his commanders decided that the supreme attack should be made through the Dongolaas Gorge. Heath felt that because of its physical defensive advantages, the Italians may have neglected their defences. During the nights of 16 March and 17 March escorted engineers reconnoitered the road block and attempted to make a start to clear it. This failed because of interfering fire from the Italian lines. However, the information gathered made clear to Heath that the key to the gorge was not Sanchil but two smaller features (informally named the "Railway Bumps") which overlooked the roadblock and could be approached with much less opposition along the railway line from the tunnel below Cameron Ridge.Brett-James (1951), [ Chapter V] ]

An attack on the defenders at the head of the gorge was planned to give the sappers and miners the 48 hours they needed free of interference from mortar and machine gun fire required to clear the road. For this Heath would need his full division and had to wait until 10th Brigade had refitted after its mauling on the Sanchil feature. The plan was for 10th Brigade to advance into the gorge whilst 9th Brigade (which was holding the Fort Dologorodoc positions) would move down to take three smaller hills overlooking the far end of the gorge and 29th Brigade would then attack to take Mount Zeban and beyond it to the east Mount Canabai, which looked down on Keren and guarded the road to Asmara. Command of 10th Brigade was taken over by one of Heath's divisional staff officers, Thomas "Pete" Rees whilst his predecessor, Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Fletcher was released to form "Fletcher Force", a mobile force comprising Central India Horse and twelve Matilda II tanks, which would be used to exploit the planned break-through in the gorge and move rapidly into the defenders' rear position and attack their reserves.

On 24 March diversionary attacks were made on Sanchil whilst just before midnight the West Yorkshires and the 3rd/5th Mahrattas in Fort Dologorodoc moved down to take the lower hills overlooking the gorge. The West Yorkshires were able to take their hill unopposed but the Mahrattas met heavy opposition which was well dug-in. However, by 07.30 all three hills were taken and the gorge's defenses on its south eastern side silenced.

At 03.00 on 25 March the 2nd Highland Light Infantry and the 4th/10th Baluch Regiment on their right advanced from the shelter of the railway tunnel, prviously cleared by the sappers and miners, up the gorge. A 100-gun artillery bombardment was raining down on the ridge on Sanchil above and the attack in the gorge achieved complete surprise, with the defenders' attention focused on Sanchil. The 3rd/2nd Punjab Regiment then advanced between the Baluchis and the West Yorkshires to finally clear the gorge. By 05.30 the railway bumps and most of the objectives were captured and the defenders no longer held positions from which to direct fire into the gorge below.Mackenzie (1951), p. 61] ,

The sappers and miners laboured on the road while the battles on the Sanchil and Dologorodoc features continued. By midday 26 March they had completed remaking the road through the gorge.

In the early hours of 27 March the British artillery turned onto Zeban and Falstoh. 29th Brigade passed through 9th Brigade's positions to launch their attack at 04.30 but when they made their assault, found the defenders had withdrawn and were able to occupy Falestoh Ridge and the two Zeban summits unopposed.

The Italian position was now untenable and by first light the Royal Air Force was reporting their withdrawal along the road from Keren to Asmara. The defenders on the Sanchil ridge were less fortunate and now effectively cut off the Savoia Grenadiers and Bersaglieri were left with no option but surrender. "Fletcher Force" was in Keren by 10.30 and was then sent in pusuit along the Asmara road.


Determined Italian troops retreated to Adi Tekelezan. Their new position, however, was considerably less tenable than Keren had been, and Italian forces finally surrendered to British forces on 1 April 1941. Within a week of the Italian surrender at Adi Tekelezan, both Asmara and Massawa were surrendered despite orders from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to continue to fight.

Massawa, fallen due to the loss of Keren, was subsequently used as a staging port for both British and American naval forces.

The battle is still today considered a positive episode in Italian military history, despite its outcome, thanks to the bravery of the Italian and colonial troops and the skilled leadership shown by the defeated commander, General Carnimeo. In the account of the battle written in "Eastern Epic", Compton Mackenzie wrote:quotation|Keren was as hard a soldiers' battle as was ever fought, and let it be said that nowhere in the war did the Germans fight more stubbornly than those [Italian] Savoia battalions, Alpini, Bersaglieri and Grenadiers. In the [first] five days' fight the Italians suffered nearly 5,000 casualties - 1,135 of them killed. Lorenzini, the gallant young Italian general, had his head blown off by one of the British guns. He had been a great leader of Eritrean troops.

The unfortunate licence of wartime propaganda allowed the British Press to represent the Italians almost as comic warriors; but except for the German parachute division in Italy and the Japanese in Burma no enemy with whom the British and Indian troops were matched put up a finer fight than those Savoia battalions at Keren. Moreover, the Colonial troops, until they cracked at the very end, fought with valour and resolution, and their staunchness was a testimony to the excellence of the Italian administration and military training in Eritrea. [Mackenzie (1951), p. 64]

ee also

*Order of Battle, East African Campaign (World War II)


*"The Brits Enter, the Italians Exit", "The Eritrean Newsletter", Vol. 1, No. 34. (1979)


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