Red Eagles, A Ball of Fire & A Battle in Eritrea

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The early years of World War II had not gone well at all for the Allies. By early 1941, Poland, France and a few other European countries had already fallen to Nazi Germany, while large swathes of North and East Africa were under Italian occupation, under the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

Italian East Africa | Wikimedia Commons
Italian East Africa | Wikimedia Commons

Mussolini wanted to capture as many British possessions in Africa as possible and bring a vast area stretching from Libya in the north to Somalia in the East under Italy’s control. If he succeeded, the Red Sea would fall to the Italians, who could then block all Allied shipping through the Suez Canal. If that was not devastating enough, he would then set his sights on oil fields in Arabia, without which the war would soon be lost.

To foil these plans, Allied troops would have to liberate Italian-occupied Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, all on the Red Sea coast and the Gulf of Aden. They would have to push through the rugged Eritrean highlands, on a single road from Egypt to the Red Sea coast, to the Eritrean port of Massawa. It was a tall order, for the road meandered for hundreds of miles through narrow gorges and across near-impassable mountains. But there was no other way.

Road to Massawa | Wikimedia Commons
Road to Massawa | Wikimedia Commons

After making quick gains into western Eritrea, the Allied advance funnelled through narrow passes to reach the town of Keren in central Eritrea. The town, now the second-largest city in the East African nation, was vital because it was just 100 km from the country’s capital Asmara. The main road and rail links in the region passed through Keren, and capturing the town would also open up the road to Massawa for the Allies and neutralise the Italian threat to Allied shipping in the Red Sea.

A Daunting Prospect for the Allies

But capturing Keren was a daunting task, even for seasoned soldiers. The town was surrounded by steep granite mountains and sharp ridges, which gave the defending Italian forces a distinct advantage. The Italians had stationed their best troops on these heights, forming a perfect field of fire upon approaching Allied forces.

On the west side of the road lay Mt Sanchil, flanked by lower peaks and ridges that dominated the entire area. The east side of the road was overlooked by the heavily defended Fort Dologorodoc, and in the middle lay the narrow Dongolaas Gorge. The bridge across the Baraka River, which flowed through the gorge, had been blown up by the Italians and the surrounding area was heavily mined.

Battle of Keren Map | Wikimedia Commons
Battle of Keren Map | Wikimedia Commons

The Red Eagles and the Ball of Fire

Apart from the treacherous terrain, logistical nightmares and stiff Italian resistance, the British Army in Eritrea lacked sufficient manpower. So the British, then the colonial rulers of India, filled this void with the 4th and 5th Indian Infantry Divisions, also called 'The Red Eagles' and 'The Ball of Fire', due to their respective Division Insignias. These Indian troops were stationed at the lower reaches of the heights that flanked the town of Keren.

Insignia of the 5th Indian Infantry Division | Wikimedia Commons
Insignia of the 5th Indian Infantry Division | Wikimedia Commons

By February-March 1941, both Indian Infantry Divisions came into their own. The 4th Indian Division attacked on the west of the Dongolaas Gorge before advancing up to the lower ridges of Mt Sanchil. But they were held back by fierce Italian counter-attacks. Troops from the same division also attacked the Dologorodoc feature east of the gorge, but were also pushed back.

Insignia of the 4th Indian Infantry Division | Wikimedia Commons
Insignia of the 4th Indian Infantry Division | Wikimedia Commons

Throughout February, Indian troops kept attacking the steep ridges and lower peaks facing Mt Sanchil, gaining ground slowly. There was fierce fighting on Cameron Ridge, where the Italians kept counter-attacking the advancing Allied troops and kept pushing them back downhill. Both sides suffered horrific casualties and many units from both Indian divisions had to be pulled out of the front to replace their losses.

On the east side of the Dongolaas Gorge, Subedar Richhpal Ram of the 6th Rajputana Rifles led a near suicidal charge and captured one of the lower crests but got his foot blown off. He was mortally wounded later on. For his bravery and leadership, he posthumously received the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour of the British Empire.

Richhpal Ram, Victoria Cross awardee | Wikimedia Commons
Richhpal Ram, Victoria Cross awardee | Wikimedia Commons

A Bloody Stalemate

By now, the Allies had established themselves on the lower reaches of the heights on both sides of the Dongolaas Gorge, but the fighting headed into a stalemate due to the fierce Italian defence and repeated counter-attacks. This gave the Italians time to call in reinforcements, taking their numbers to 25,000 troops. In contrast, the Allied force numbered around 13,000, giving the Italians a two-one advantage.

The next phase of the battle was even more crucial. The Allied push to the heights started on 15th March. At 7 am that day, the 4th Indian Infantry attacked from Cameron Ridge making for Mt Sanchil and the surrounding peaks but was soon bogged down by heavy casualties. On the right, the 5th Indian Infantry Division launched an attack on Fort Dologorodoc at 10.30 am. It took them the entire day and night to capture the key position of ‘Pinnacle’, just south-west of the Fort.

The Ball of Fire Lives Up To Its Name

Although the Fort itself was captured early on 16th March, it had to be defended against fierce and determined Italian counter-attacks. But the 5th Indian Infantry Division held its ground. For the next ten days, exposed to the enemy on three sides, troops from this division were subjected to intense fighting, as the Italians added units. But they failed to regain their position.

Indian troops overlooking Mt. Sanchil | Wikimedia Commons
Indian troops overlooking Mt. Sanchil | Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the 4th Indian Infantry Division’s attack on Mt Sanchil and the surrounding peaks was going nowhere and they were suffering heavy casualties. The Allied command decided that since Italian defences had been strong on both sides of the gorge, the gorge itself should be lightly defended. The attack could now be supported by artillery from the recently captured Fort Dologorodoc.

Indian field gun at Keren | Wikimedia Commons
Indian field gun at Keren | Wikimedia Commons

The Final Push

This tactic was successful as it took the Italians completely by surprise. They were completely focused on the attacks at Mt Sanchil, where the 4th Indian Division had them pinned down. At 3 am on 25th March, supported by a hundred-gun artillery bombardment, the gorge was cleared by the 4th Indian Division. By 5.30 am, most of the objectives were captured and the defenders no longer held positions from which to direct fire into the gorge below.

This led the Italians to largely abandon their positions on the heights, as they could now be outflanked by the Allied forces passing through the gorge. However, the Italian defenders on the Sanchil ridge were less fortunate. They were cut off and had no option but to surrender. On 27th March, the Allies marched into Keren and the road to Asmara and Massawa now lay open.

Indian Troops in Keren, in front of a sign board that spells the town as 'Cheren' | Wikimedia Commons
Indian Troops in Keren, in front of a sign board that spells the town as 'Cheren' | Wikimedia Commons

Historian Bisheshwari Prasad writes in his book Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War (1964), that the capture of Fort Dologorodoc by the 5th Indian Infantry Division on the east side of the Gorge sealed the fate for the Italians. At the same time, the surprise attack through the gorge wouldn’t have succeeded if the 4th Indian Infantry Division hadn’t kept them busy on the west side of the gorge at Mt Sanchil and the surrounding heights. The grit, determination and sheer endurance of the Indian troops made victory at Keren possible.

The Eritrean campaign in East Africa, especially the Battle of Keren, sealed the reputation of the 4th and 5th Indian Infantry Divisions as a reliable, highly trained and professional fighting force. They would see more action in various theatres of the war until its very bitter end in August 1945.

Battlefield of Keren today, with Mt Sanchil in the distance | Wikimedia Commons
Battlefield of Keren today, with Mt Sanchil in the distance | Wikimedia Commons

Why does the Battle of Keren matter?

Soon after their defeat, the Italian Navy abandoned their positions on the Red Sea. By 8th April 1941, Massawa Port had fallen, and by the end of the month, Allied ships began unloading supplies there. The grave threat to Allied shipping in the Red Sea had been averted.

Sadly, the East-African Campaign during World War II is regarded as a side show compared to the ‘more strategically important’ campaigns fought by the Allies against the Axis powers. This, even though victory at Keren had not only secured Allied shipping routes in the Red Sea, it also gave the Allies a desperately needed boost in morale as they had been utterly humiliated by the Axis forces until then.

The battle was executed predominantly by Indian troops, under gruelling circumstances. It showed what Indian soldiers are capable of, even when pushed to the limit, against all odds and a determined enemy.

The contributions of the 4th and 5th Indian Infantry Divisions have been immortalised by the Indian Army, as even today one can find sections of cantonments bearing names like ‘Asmara Lines’ or ‘Keren Lines’.

While the 5th Indian Infantry Division was disbanded after India’s independence, the 4th Indian Infantry Division continues to serve in the Indian Army. Proudly.

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