1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - Sudan and Eritrea (1939 - 1941)
History and Background
Eritrea was part of the first Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum until its decline in the 8th century. In the 16th century it was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and later that of the Egyptians. In 1885 the Italians captured the coastal areas of Eritrea, and the Treaty of Uccialli on the 2nd May 1889, gave Italy sovereignty over part of Eritrea. The Italians named their colony after the Roman name for the Red Sea, Mare Erythraeum, and ruled it up until the early part of World War II. The British captured Eritrea in 1941 and later administered it as a United Nations Trust Territory until it became federated with Ethiopia on the 15th September 1952.
On the 14th November 1962 it was made an Ethiopian province. However, rebel groups opposed the union and wanted independence for Eritrea as a result a civil war broke out against the Ethiopian government, the fighting continued for the next 32 years.
In 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front deposed the country's hard-line Communist dictator Mengistu. Without Mengistu's troops to battle, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front was able to gain control of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, and form a provisional government. In 1993, a referendum on Eritrean independence was held, supported by the UN and the new Ethiopian government. Eritrean voters almost unanimously opted for an independent republic. Ethiopia recognized Eritrea's sovereignty on the 3rd May 1993, and sought a new era of cooperation between the two countries.
The cooperation did not last long. Following Eritrea's independence, Eritrea and Ethiopia disagreed about the exact demarcation of their borders, and in May 1998 border clashes broke out. Both impoverished countries spent millions of dollars on warplanes and weapons, about 80,000 people were killed, and refugees were legion. The war essentially ended in a stalemate, and a formal peace agreement was signed in December 2000. In December 2005, an international Court of Arbitration ruled that Eritrea had violated international law when it attacked Ethiopia in 1998.
1st BATTALION THE WORCESTERSHIRE REGIMENT IN ERITREA
The 1st Battalion was in the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, of the 5th Indian Division. The Division fought various small actions, usually of a battalion at a time, which culminated in the battle of Keren. After this it took part in the battle at Ad-Teclesan which preceded the fall of Asmara. The 29th Brigade, with additional supporting arms, constituted the main formation to which was entrusted the final operations against the Italians at Amba Alagi, culminating, after contact had been made with the 1st South African Brigade in the South, in the surrender of the garrison under command of the Duke of Aosta, Viceroy of Italian East Africa. The battalion furnished the Guard of Honour to the Duke when he finally surrendered.
The following accounts of the battles of Keren and Amba Alagi were written by members of the battalion.
The Battalion had been here before, over a month ago after the Battle of Barentu; when the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade (consisting of the 6/13th Royal Frontier Force Rifles and the 3/2nd Punjab Regiment and ourselves) was rushed up in support of the first attack on Keren by the 4th Division. This had been unsuccessful. Consequenty we had been withdrawn to Tessenoi on the Sudan Frontier for intensive training in mountain warfare. Now, for the second time in view of the formidable mountain fortress which the Italians were holding with twice our numbers, we waited; listening the while to the rumbling of the guns in the mountains ahead, where the 4th Division still clung to the lower ridges overlooked by the enemy.
Day One approached. The 4th Division were to capture Mount Sanchil on the left of the pass into Keren, whereupon the 5th Division would assault Fort Dologorodoc and the heights on the right clearing the way into the town.
On the evening of the 14th March we prepared to move forward night silent columns passed, heading for the mountain pass; occasionally an open truck might loom in the dark nosing its way forward along the crater scarred road. In the hills the enemy seemed to have a vague premonition of the impending attack. His guns maintaining sporadic fire throughout the night, contrasting to the unusual silence of our own—until suddenly the crash of our shells flashed on the hilltops, in the first faint light of morning, and the inferno of sound only to cease ten days later had started.
1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment Officers at Barentu, Eritrea (2nd Feb. 1941)
Standing L to R: T. J. Bowen, P.O.C. Ray, R. B. Firth, P. H. Graves-Morris, A. H. James, R. L. Dray
Seated L to R: H. W. Sargeant, J. W. B. Stuart, P. W. Ward-Jackson, E. L. G. Lawrence,
D. B. Haslehust, B. L. Jacomb.
We waited all day, moving forward at intervals—was Sanchil ours? ; news reached us contradictory and vague—the Camerons had taken Brig's Peak, but Sanchil still held ! Notwithstanding this, it was decided to launch the attack on the right of the pass.
Time and again during the afternoon the Highland Light Infantry were driven back by the cross fire from the left; finally, in a desperate effort the 4/5th Mahrattas and the 2nd West Yorks advanced by night and succeeded in scaling the hills and rushing the fort.
Day Two dawned as the Brigade still waited its turn, the assault on the heights overlooking the fort across an open col onto the main ridge of Mounts Falestoh and Zeban behind. At last orders arrived there followed rapid conferences and hurried reconnaissances—dinners interrupted by a shell which landed among the cooks; wounding, among others, Dolly Cooper, the "Q" bloke, were quickly .served before we left the valley. Then followed the long climb as the Battalion slowly wound its way to the Fort, arriving in time for a short sleep in the cold midnight wind that swept the hilltops. I remember the chip as we listened to the C.O. issuing his orders from the battered parapet wall, pointing to the towering dark outline of Falestoh. That was to be our objective, while the 3/2 Punjab Battalion attacked Mount Zeban on its left.
At about 2.0 o'clock in the morning the Battalion commenced the descent into "Happy Valley," so as to scale Falestoh from the right by surprise. Day was just breaking as "B" and "C" Companies closely followed by Headquarters and "A" Company started the long climb up again. The Artillery barrage, erratically lighting the dark outline of the peaks above, was already in full progress and it appeared likely that we would be too late to derive real benefit from it. Worse still, light was fast approaching and threatened to expose us to the enemy without a semblance of cover on the bare mountain side. This was not now long delayed and took the form of concentrated mortar fire in the midst of the Battalion. The forward Companies were held up. There was no time to lose Bobby Frith, realizing the position, wheeled left and led "A" Company, followed by Headquarters, now organized (or, more correctly, disorganized) in fighting platoons, by short bayonet rushes to the top of the col connecting the Fort and Falestoh; and contacted at the top the Indian Battalion which, until identity had been established, was successfully engaged and driven back. "Fatty" Collett, notwithstanding his, appearance, displayed startling qualities as a hillman. The R.A.P. had had to be left in the valley and did not rejoin us for two days.
The situation, though eased, was not good. "D" Company had come up. but both "B" and "C" Companies were lost and our objective was as far off as ever; especially now when any advance would have to be made in broad daylight. Added to this we were exposed to fire in the rear. Then, anxiously watching the valley for the advance companies, we suddenly spotted the little orange screens slowly climbing the rock face of Falestoh (a percentage of troops Wearing orange squares on their backs for identification).
"B" and "C" Companies, with Philip Ray and "Dusty appearing, a mere handful, were still advancing on their objectives As they reached the crest on the left of Falestoh, a long fierce bomb-fight ensued. The struggle for the ridge was in full swing when the remainder of the Battalion, forsaking all caution, advanced across the open col in support. Unfortunately, although "A" and "D" Companies arrived in time to stem the counter-attack by an "Alpini" Battalion, "C" Company, isolated on the extreme right, were forced down, and again lost. The Company, twelve strong by then, eventually made their way back to the Fort.
The Battalion had actually achieved its objective, but in so doing had precariously established itself on the right slopes of Falestoh surrounded by enemy positions. The Indian Battalion had not been able to seize Mount Zehen, which completed the circle round us. Moreover, though we were well out of small arms range from Mount Sanchil, all our positions could be observed and artillery fire brought to bear. The unpleasantness of the situation increased as the enemy, realizing our weakness, concentrated all his fire on the salient, where the Battalion huddled together among the rocks was just able to hold the crest won. The day .slowly wore on; the heat was intense, and" the small supply of water sent up hopelessly insufficient. Thirst' that day was perhaps our worst enemy. We could afford no one to send back for more water.
During the afternoon, in which enemy shelling was continuous, our ammunition ran short. Low-flying planes swooped over the position dropping a supply, but, not knowing our exact location, it landed in open ground on the right and could not be collected. Finally, as Brigade H.Q. had been out of touch with us throughout the day owing to the fire that any signals from the Fort attracted, the C.O. decided to go back himself to explain the situation. We watched him along the road that entered the Fort about two miles back. When he returned, it was with orders to retire casualties had been heavy and in our present condition there could be no hope of maintaining the footing won, unless support could be brought up success and Keren were so near—yet there
was not a fresh unit in the whole force! 'The 29th Brigade had been the last throw.
With what relief, though disappointed, we watched the approach of night. Notwithstanding the constant threat 'of a counter-attack, the withdrawal could not be accomplished before past eleven o'clock because of the wounded to be evacuated and the shortage of stretchers. At about nine o'clock, as we waited, the enemy launched an attack on the fort from the pass far behind on our left. Fortunately this attack was beaten off at the Fort walls, for we would otherwise have been cut off. Anxiously, and now very cold, we watched the display of S.O.S. signals and flares that accompany any night show, until the 'time came to move. At last the low parapet walls, lined by tired Yorkshiremen, were reached. Still very thirsty and cold, we found our last night's brief resting place, water and, then exhausted, fell asleep.
After this, the Battalion was withdrawn to hold a line of hilltops' behind the fort, from which we were able to watch the final forcing of the pass a week later by the two other Brigades in the Division Their advance so surprised the Italians that, when our turn came to capture Zeban on the third day of the attack, they had withdrawn, allowing us a clear run over the hills and into the town.
Long before we reached rear harbour under its foothills, Amba Alagi and the range of which it is the centre piece stood up like a wall beyond a wide plain of grass and scrub cut by the new Italian road ; great humped shoulders rising to sheer cliffs surmounted by a conical peak marked the stronghold itself. The troops put the situation in a nutshell—"More — khud climbing." M.T. exchanged their trucks for a bunch of half-wild native mules, which were to provide the only means of carrying supplies up the twisting precipitous paths. Having to move mostly in darkness complicated matters; the drivers 'and mules had at least one thing in common—a cordial dislike for the whole business! Loading up was the first difficulty the mules having strong ideas on the subject, but it was just as bad trying to keep the loads on, and it says a lot for the patience of our amateur muleteers that anything ever reached the top at all. Not every load did. Those containing special comforts being the most persistently fated. This, in fact, became so marked that one man, entrusted with cherry brandy for the mess, was looked on with the gravest suspicion until he indignantly displayed the evidence of reeking clothes to support his tale of an accident to the bottle while dodging a shell.
The rain was really the chief source of discomfort. Groundsheet bivouacs did their best, but failed miserably to cope with the steady trickle down the slope of the hill, which ran under the edges and soaked into everyone's bedding, making us thankful at least for the comforting glow of hot tea and rum. After a day or two, the Mess were lucky enough to find a dry cave, high up under a crag, where, after negotiating a nasty-looking cliff path, we could sit in comparative warmth, wrapped in blankets, round a fire, with thick white mist filling the entrance.
For the second stage of the battle, we lived more pleasantly in a wooded valley, by a small stream, in which we could enjoy good bath, often under the curious eyes of monkeys like old wizened men, white-whiskered, with black skull caps, which crept and skipped about to get a better view, till a sudden burst of fire from a machine gun post nearby, or an odd Italian pack shell over the trees, would send them off in chattering panic.
The R.A.P. had made its home here in a church, like those found in nearly every Abyssinian village, a circular hut with a high peaked roof of thatch, and a square inner sanctuary occupied by a crudely carved wooden arc, after the style of the Jewish Temple, the space left all around being the body of the church where the people stand for the service, leaning on tall flat-topped sticks. Music is provided in these churches by drums and rattles shaped like a catapult, with a row of metal discs slung loosely on wire between the two arms. Outside the church a series of flat stones, hung from a wooden frame, form the " bells," which give a surprisingly pleasant sound when struck with an iron bar. A slight stir was caused one day by the arrival of the local priest, raising objection to the use of Holy straw for bedding. It was never quite discovered why the straw from the little rick by the church was Holy, but it continued to provide an excellent bed, at least for the M.O. and his satellites, who appeared to be immune from its not inconsiderable population of fleas. "Nerts," attracted by the thought of a roof to sleep under, hastily changed his mind after a single night, and withdrew, scratching violently, to other quarters. Peter was one of the first patients here, laid out by a rock dislodged, we hope inadvertently, by the Adjutant who was clambering ahead of him up to Battalion Headquarters.
A memory inseparable from the days spent in "Salvage" work under Amba Alagi, after its fall (apart. from the lingering odour of very dead mules), is of rum punch brewed over a brazier made from an old tar barrel, and concocted of rum and lemon and treacle, with ginger, raisins, and once a. tin of peaches. "Nerts" usually presided over this witch's cauldron, with an. appropriate solemnity (and snake dance) ladling out spoonfuls for the ceremony of tasting. There was, of course, only one verdict after each tentative sip, and an unanimous cry of "A little more rum, I think "—and in would go another bottle—or two.
"The Glorious First of June" was celebrated here with an improvised rifle meeting for the Brigade, held in pouring rain, which however, quite failed to spoil the fun. The best moment was when the R.S.M. carried off his prize of a small but vociferous pig, which he thoughtfully tended till it was big enough to share with the Serjeants and Officers' Messes. The camp fire sing-song, planned to close the day, had to be postponed, but went off well the following evening, when effigies of the two Dictators, produced by the Pioneers, were satisfactorily burnt, and hot rum helped to make everything go with a sway.
In the screes above the camp, some form of hill partridge kept attracting our attention, but though we went out after them two or three times, we never got any. They resisted all attempts of an adopted Italian dog to make them get up properly, and, in any case, it wasn't easy to shoot standing precariously on a steep slope, with loose stones underfoot, which always rolled away at the crucial moment and left one waving wildly to recover balance. We were, am afraid, a bitter disappointment to Gus (our Italian prisoner cook), but all the same it was good to be climbing those green hills, in. peace time, with flowering shrubs and the scent of wild roses everywhere.
That scent, in fact, with the odour of dead mule, about represent the memories, pleasant and unpleasant, of Amba Alagi, from which these odd jottings are taken.
It was with a feeling of regret that we turned our backs on the pleasant little Eritrean town of Decamere and continued our successful pursuit of the Italian Army, or, I should correctly say, what now remained of it.
We had traversed some 200 miles of country over Mussolini's famous motor road before any contact was gained with the now elusive enemy, finally running him to earth in the stronghold of Amba Alagi, this being by far the largest and most precipitous peak in a range of mountains forming at the same time a natural barrier and entrance to the Abyssinian plateau.
A situation was chosen for the Battalion Harbour, so, as it was nearly dark, we rolled into our blankets, mostly with the same outspoken thought, that it was going to be-a real tough job that lay ahead of us. The night was chilly and sleep did not come easily, as our supporting artillery were giving the heights a battering, and this in itself was not the best of sleep inducers.
The following day broke with a cloudy sky and a promise of rain to come.. Parties were busy by this time collecting all local mules while the M.T. section, who were formed into a mule leading party, made their way a few kilos up the main, road to apot chosen for advanced loading harbour.
Abler and better pens than mine have written up the tale of how this stronghold fell and with it the capture of the Duke of Aosta, Army Commander in Italian East Africa, It cannot be said of Military History that anything other than bare facts are written up ; it is in unprofessional reviews such as this that the sidelights are found by those seeking further information on the subject of past campaigns.
The Muleteers, I suppose, had the most arduous task of any men in that action. Refractory mules are not amusing at any time, and the selection we had were about the most stubborn it has been any man's lot to see. To these men go the credit of having kept the forward troops fully supplied with the necessities of life and a few luxuries besides. Such items as rum arrived intact, which was a big surprise. The same, however, cannot be said of a few cases of condensed milk and sacks of sugar, the whereabouts of which is a mystery to this day. No stout enough heart could be found to descend to the apparently bottomless ravine, where mules and rations were said to have disappeared. It was an outstanding fact, however, ' that certain individuals had real Serjeant-Majors' tea for many moons afterwards.
After some two or three days of inclement weather and spasmodic fighting, the ridges and hills around the main objective were captured and the final assault began. The "Gunners" redoubled their efforts, but several attacks on our part proved that the obstacle was insurmountable and we prepared to sit down and starve the enemy out. This, fortunately, did not become necessary as terms of surrender were asked for, and being found satisfactory to us, the garrison were allowed to march out under arms through our lines, there to be disarmed, and despatched back to various prisoner of war camps.
Then began the long climb to the top of the pass, the road which is built round the sheer side of the mountain can only be described as terrific. Nothing much in the way of booty was found this side, but on reaching the pass in which stands Fort Tosselli, the scene of destruction was colossal. ' Lorries containing every conceivable type of stores were strewn about on either side of the road, in some places making it almost impassable. Many bore silent witness to the markmanship of our Gunners and aircraft and, to add to the confusion and to our drivers' already frayed tempers, patriot troops roamed over the slopes, amusing themselves by throwing hand grenades, many of which landed on the road itself.
Amba Alagi is probably the finest natural example of a pyramid anywhere in the world, and a small church can be seen built on the very top. No doubt the builder had in mind the same idea that existed in past ages that the higher he went the nearer he was to his Maker.
Descending the other side was a nightmare; our troops were already busy with petrol and any inflammable material that, could be obtained, endeavouring to burn up the dead cattle that lay around. The stench was by no means pleasant, reminding one of mass burnings in England when Foot-and-Mouth disease is rampant.
Various places were selected at intervals for our Companies to bivouac, and we of Headquarters selected a fairly pleasant spot three parts of the way down, where we pitched camp and got to work.
The Battalion's chief job was salvage. I might add that the job was too big for so small a number of men to do satisfactorily, but in spite of this some thousands of pounds worth of material was recovered. The road was cleared and repaired by the Sappers and Miners, who had been with us all the way through. Their's was by no means an easy task, as the road was badly blown up in many places and traffic was heavy.
This turned out to be quite a pleasant stay, made better as almost everyone was the proud possessor of a car until the powers-that-be decreed otherwise. The First of June was celebrated with a rifle meeting followed by a camp fire and a sing-song. Beer was fairly plentiful and lashings of rum were contributed from various sources to help it along.
The surrounding 'countryside had by this time been brought back to its more or less natural state, and it was not without a feeling of regret that we received our orders to move back. Our subsequent operations and activities belong to other and perhaps more able authors.
Guard of Honour by the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment at Amba Alagi (20th May 1941)
for the Duke of Aosta when he surrendered to the allied forces
with 20,000 Italion troops
* * * * * *
ACTION OF "D" COMPANY, 1st BATTALION THE WORCESTERSHIRE REGIMENT AT GOGNI, ERITREA, 17th JAN 1941
The Italians were delaying the Southerly advance of the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade to Barentu by a series of rearguard actions. Near the small village of Gogni a low range of hills running at right angles to the road provided an admirable rearguard position for the Italians, as the British approach had to be made over thorn-scrub country which provided little cover from view or fire. These features (A, B and C on the sketch map below) were held in some strength by a force composed of well-trained Eritrean and Abyssinian troops officered by Italians.
Sketch Map (not to scale)
On account of the difficult approach it was decided that the attack should be made at first light, with the approach march being carried out under cover of darkness. First light was at 0500 hrs. and at that hour a troop of guns of the Sudan Defence Force was to fire a concentration on the objective in support of the final assault.
The objectives were allotted: A to 3/2 Punjabs, B to "D" Coy., and C to "C" Coy.
On the evening of 16th January, "D" Coy. Commander, together with his Platoon Commanders, went forward to the gunner O.P. (Observation Post) at point F., whence a good view of the objective could be obtained. Major "Willie" Newall, of the Shendi Horse, was in command of the troop detailed to give supporting fire for "D" Company's assault on objective B, and carried out ranging while the Company Order group was at his O.P., and so the Company Commander was able to decide exactly where he wanted the artillery fire to fall and, at the same time, from the burst of the shells point out objectives to the Platoon Commanders.
The approach march started at 0200 hrs. and "D" Company worked up the left-hand side of the road until nearly level with the feature D., where it deployed into "Y" formation ready to deal with any Italian outposts which were suspected of being in this area. In the darkness and the thick thorny scrub, touch between platoons became increasingly difficult, and due to a slight track which led off the main road the guiding platoon was deflected left-handed. The Company Commander was still unable to contact the leading platoons when zero hour for the attack arrived; he therefore ordered the rear platoon under Sergeant Kelly to go forward round the right flank, but even so it was too late to get any advantage from the artillery concentration and became pinned down, with certain elements establishing themselves on the small knoll G.
As it became light it was discovered that the two leading platoons were crossing the spur E and becoming involved with the attack of the 3/2 Punjabs. This movement was spotted by the Italians, who started vigorously shelling the spur. The task now was to collect the scattered platoons and re-launch the attack on to the correct objective, the open country in front of which was now being swept by heavy machine gun, light automatic and rifle fire. P.S.M. (Platoon Sergeant Major) Knox collected some 15 men and by inspiring leadership managed to get within 200 yards of the objective, but here the scrub gave out and there was no available cover by which to cross the final bound. Meanwhile more men were collected at the hillock G and were able to give some covering fire.
Corporal Phipps was knocked out in this area and it was thought he was killed, but the bullet hit the Bren magazine in his pouch, merely winding him, and he cheerfully joined the attack later.
It was by this time obvious that the final assault could not succeed without some support from mortar or artillery fire. The enemy were well dug in and safe against rifle and light automatic fire in their stone sangars. The miracle then happened. Major Newall had kept his troops in position and himself in observation and decided to put over a few more shells on to the objective in the hope that it would ease the situation. So sustained was the enemy fire that it appeared they had plenty of ammunition and were determined to fire it all off at the unfortunate attackers in the plain.
The shells gave the respite that was required and some twenty Worcestershires raced across to the lower slopes of the objective. They were, however, not out of trouble yet. The attack on feature A by the 3/2 Punjabs, after being initially successful, was repulsed with heavy casualties by a counter-attack, and so this feature on the left flank of the Company was still in the hands of the enemy. "C" Company, by an error in distance in the night, had at 0500 hrs. occupied feature "D" without opposition, under the impression that they were on their objective C.
The small party of "D" Company were thus exposed to fire from both sides and further movement became very restricted, but continuous pressure on enemy positions was maintained. The men lay spread-eagled on the bare slopes, trapped by an incessant cross fire from both sides, but replying whenever they spotted movement as the Italian rearguard started to withdraw. Private Sheldon did excellent work with his Bren gun by working round and availing himself of the targets offered by the retreating enemy; he showed great personal courage and initiative in this action and was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery.
As the fire from feature C slackened, movement became possible and a final assault was made on the objective, which resulted in the capture of some twenty prisoners.
Whilst the depleted Company was attempting to consolidate forward of the position, the leading section reported that a large party of about sixty enemy were coming in to surrender. However, before this could be confirmed the Italians started to shell the objective and caused some casualties amongst the Company. This appeared to embolden the Italians, who then started an unorganised counter-attack, which was easily held off. Sergeant Kelly, who had fought with fine spirit throughout this engagement, was unfortunately wounded whilst organizing an attack to drive away this counter thrust. The enemy artillery fire successfully prevented the Company from getting forward to take a full toll of the retreating Italians, but the objective was now firmly in the hands of some twenty men of "D" Company, who had killed over thirty of the enemy and taken over twenty prisoners, and the success of whose action had caused the evacuation of the whole rearguard position.