(Jan. 29, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, Commonwealth forces began assaulting Italian defenses at Keren, in Eritrea.
Although today, Keren, with a population of about 90,000, is the second largest city in the country, and the capital of Anseba Province, then it was a small town located 4,300 feet above sea level. Eritrea was then a part of Italian East Africa.
In addition to Eritrea, Italian East Africa included the Italian colonies of Italian Somaliland, acquired by the Kingdom of Italy in the late 19th century. To that had been added Ethiopia, which had been acquired when it was conquered in 1936, and the latest addition of British Somaliland, which was conquered in 1940.
The entire colony comprised 666,000 square miles and was inhabited by 12 million people. The governor-general was Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of Aosta and a cousin of the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel III. He was highly regarded, by friend and foe alike, as a gentleman and a man of honor.
The total number of troops at the outbreak of war was 255,950, of which at least 182,000 were “colonials.” The capital of Africa Orientale Italiana, with the conquest of Ethiopia, was now Adis Ababa.
Having been a colony the longest, Eritrea had the highest concentration of Italians — nearly 100,000. So many lived in the Eritrean capital of Asmara — more than half its population of 100,000 — that it was nicknamed Piccola Roma, “Little Rome!”
By the time war came, one-third of the 90,000 residents of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, were Italian. They constituted about half of the Italian population of Somalia.
The problems for the Italians in East Africa were that the colony was surrounded by British territories and isolated from the homeland by the Royal Navy.
Italian Forces from Eritrea crossed the border with Sudan in July, and captured the railway junction of Kassala, which is the capital of the Sudanese state of the same name. Currently there is no railroad, but it has a population in excess of 400,000.
This was the second time the Italians had captured the city, having captured it in 1894. The British fort at Gallabat and the Villages of Ghezzan, Kurmuk and Dumbode, on the Blue Nile, were also captured.
The next month, Italian Forces invaded British Somaliland and forced the Commonwealth Forces to evacuate. They would have invaded French Somaliland, now known as Djibouti, as well, had not France executed an armistice on June 24, 1940 with the Italian Kingdom.
The assault on the Italian stronghold of Keren in Eritrea, began on Feb. 1, 1941. Keren was the key to the Eritrean capital of Asmara and its biggest and best Red Sea port, Massawa.
In Massawa the Italians had created the largest and safest port on the east coast of Africa, which was home to the Regia Marina’s Red Sea Flotilla, that included six destroyers and seven submarines.
The loss of either Asmara or Massawa would cause the fall of AOI. If the Italians could hold Keren, the Allies might be prevented from going further.
The Commonwealth forces, commanded by Lt. Gen.William Platt, included the 4th (which included a highly decorated Sikh regiment) and 5th Indian Divisions, commanded by, respectively, Maj. Gens. Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse and Lewis Heath.
Later, the 13th French Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade, commanded by Col. Ralph Monclar was added.
Lt. Gen. Nicolangelo Carnimeo’s defenders included the remnants of the 2nd and 4th Eritrian Divisions, two regiments of Savoia Grenadiers, an Alpini battalion, and three battalions of the elite Bersaglieri, all totaling 8,500 soldiers, half of whom were Italians.
Middle East Commander, Gen. Archibald Wavell told Prime Minister Churchill that, “Keren is proving itself a tough nut to crack.
The enemy is ferociously and repeatedly counterattacking us, and even if its losses have been exceedingly heavy, there’s no immediate sign of yielding.” Not until March 27, was it finally captured.
The Commonwealth Forces sustained 4,000 casualties, of which 536 were killed, while the Italians sustained more than 3,000 dead. The survivors of Keren retreated to Adi Tekelezan, which today has a population of 4,000. It was surrendered on April 1, 1941.
In his book, “Eastern Epic,” Scottish author Compton Mackenzie observed that,
“Keren was as hard a soldier’s battle as was ever fought, and let it be said that nowhere in the war did the Germans fight more stubbornly than those Savoia Battalions, Alpini, Bersaglieri and Grenadiers.
“In [the first] five days fight, the Italians suffered nearly five thousand casualties —1,135 of them killed. [Orlando 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 license 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 valor and resolution, and their staunchness was a testimony to the excellence of the Italian Administration and military training in Eritrea.”
The big difference, in this battle, and for all of East Africa, was air power. The Italians had none, although they had some at one time.
Because of the Royal Navy’s command of the sea, they were unable to import spare parts and replacements.
Asmara was captured by Commonwealth forces led by Gen. Platt on April 1.
With the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden cleared of Axis forces, President Roosevelt was able to declare them no longer combat zones, allowing American merchant ships to sail in those areas, and therefor provide much relief to the British merchant fleet and speed the flow of arms and materiel through the Red Sea and Suez Canal to Commonwealth forces in North Africa.
Although, ultimately an Italian defeat, the defenders of Keren are celebrated as heroes, because they held for so long.
Next week: Beda Fomm
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.