Antony Brett-James

BALL OF FIRE
The Fifth Indian Division
in the Second World War

 

CHAPTER II

GALLABAT
NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 1940.

DURING this initial period, when the Division concentrated its units, adapted itself to the new theatre of operations, learned something of the enemy's strength and methods, and laid the foundations of spirit, teamwork and tradition, the main offensive gesture was made by Slim's Ten Brigade. And it was a gesture with a twofold purpose. The activity and confidence of the Abyssinian patriots between Gallabat and Gondar were to be stimulated. Local guerrilla pinpricks against the Italians would receive encouragement from the news of an attack against Gallabat by our land and air forces. But apart from the need of impressing the Abyssinians, General Heath was keen that as many troops in the Division as possible should gain experience of conditions of modern warfare.

Ten Brigade, supported by the 28th Field Regiment, R.A. (Lieutenant-Colonel G. de V. Welchman), bivouacked for several days in Gedaref, a dirty, smelly little town, and then set off towards the south-east. The journey of some ninety miles lay across country which was in turn open and heavily wooded---tall and thickish jungle covered by drying yellow elephant grass as high as a standing man.

Brigadier Slim, accompanied by certain members of his staff and by his Gunner commander, Welchman, made the first main reconnaissance on October 28. They were riding ponies loaned by the Sudan Defence Force, and had just reached one khor (watercourse) on their way to an excellent observation point named Signal Hill when an Italian plane came over at low altitude to have a look. its progress was leisurely, its silver paint attractive. But the aircraft might have been menacing, so Slim's party all dismounted and took cover underneath their ponies. The Italian observer failed to see them, or perhaps mistook their ponies for giraffe, and nothing more happened to disturb the, peace of the reconnaissance.

Many glimpsed Gallabat for the first time from the Baluch positions on Signal Hill. The forward edge of Gallabat fort was plainly to be seen in a clearing amid a wide panorama of jungle. Behind and to the left rose the jungle-clad slopes of Jebel Mariam Waha. On the lower slopes of this hill lay Metemma, less than two miles from Gallabat. Between these two places ran the steep Boundary khor that marked the frontier between the Sudan and Abyssinia. In the background, far distant, ran the line of the main Abyssinian mountains.

Those who had field glasses on Signal Hill or on other hillocks---more sparsely covered with forest trees than the rest of the country, and used by the supporting Gunners for observation posts---could pick out the native huts of Metemma, the white walls of the Italian barracks, and two long white storage sheds, the more readily against the darker surroundings. Half a mile to the south stretched the landing ground. Gallabat fort, too, stood out prominently in the landscape, surrounded by an outer thorn hedge, by belts of barbed wire, and by low defence emplacements. Here, too, were native tukls and a pair of tin huts. The country between the forward positions on the line of hillocks and Gallabat itself was undulating and wooded. But to the north-west and north-east were two open brown clearings, known by the troops as the Right and Left Golf Courses.

Small Italian working parties could be seen marching in and out of Gallabat, and this first glimpse of the enemy in the flesh was no small excitement to our troops.

The surface of the road to Gallabat was marked as suitable for all weathers, and composed of the heavy black cotton soil characteristic of these parts. But the road had become heavily corrugated; the bumps and ridges, being as much as three inches high, rendered travel by any means of motor transport most painful. Accordingly, the Sappers and Miners were constantly at work with their graders to level off the surface.

* * * * * * *

Slim chose November 6 for his first attack on Gallabat and Metemma. It was the first offensive action to be taken in Africa or on any other front by our land forces since the outbreak of war with Italy five months earlier.

Night fell on Guy Fawkes' Day with everyone in the Brigade wondering how much the Italians knew about our impending assault. During the previous three days units had taken up their battle positions, ammunition had been brought up for Welchman's guns. Whatever the Italians might be doing or thinking, our men had little sleep, and were keyed up for this, the Division's first attack.

A little before midnight the 3/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles (Lieutenant-Colonel S. E. Tayler) and the 1st Essex moved forward. The Brigade firm base was held by the 4/10th Baluch (Lieutenant-Colonel B. L. Sundius-Smith) on Signal Hill and on either side of the Gedaref road. The darkness was black as the proverbial pitch. Rain was falling. The slimy surface of the ground made progress slow and awkward. Later, when the cover of the hills was behind the infantry and, in front, the more level ground that led away towards Gallabat fort, visibility and movement were much reduced by the tall elephant grass. The battalions then waited for the dawn.

Slim's plan provided for our bombardment to open with the bombing of Gallabat and Metemma by the Royal Air Force. The planes were late. The minutes ticked past. The infantry and gunners waited, the excitement within them contrasted sharply with the peace of the morning landscape. It was later discovered that the night's fall of rain had been heavy elsewhere and had turned our advanced landing ground into a muddy expanse. And the bombers had been unable to take off from the treacherous black cotton soil until it had dried a little.

Then at last our expectant troops, and the Italians, heard the drone of our approaching aircraft. Over flew eight Wellesleys and Vincents, to bomb Metemma and Gallabat forts, and to attack the two enemy Colonial battalions in positions outside the wire at Metemma. Welchman's 28th Field Regiment, who had registered their targets during the air bombardments for reasons of secrecy, fired a series of concentrations at the crest of Gallabat hill and at the wireless station and command post in Metemma. Bombs crumped, aircraft engines throbbed overhead, shells whined towards their several targets. Gallabat became overhung by a pall of smoke. Soon after first light the fighters on both sides came into action.

Our ten Gladiators were opposed by about an equal number of Fiat C.R.42's. Within half an hour five of our machines had been destroyed at little or no cost to the Italians, and other Gladiators had been damaged. In this brief period we lost control of the air above our attacking troops.

The descent in flames of British aircraft and the gentle drifting of parachutes from which dangled the tiny silhouetted figures of our pilots was witnessed from Ten Brigade Headquarters with astonishment and dismay. It was known that the C.R. 42 was a faster aircraft, but the Gladiator was more manoeuvrable, and in previous encounters over the Sudan aerodromes the more skilfully handled British machines had proved at least a match for the Italian fighters.

After the battle it was learned that the enemy machines, which were armed with cannons, had recently received a new type of incendiary bullet which proved. much more effective than their old type of ammunition, and infinitely more so than our own.

Once our Gladiators had been destroyed, the Italian commander at Gallabat summoned bombers to come to his assistance, and from about seven o'clock onwards these flew backwards and forwards, quite unhindered, and in ever-increasing strength, over the battlefield.

But let us return to the action of the ground troops. While dog fights still persisted overhead and the smoke thinned away from Gallabat, Tayler's Garhwalis, with a squadron of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, advanced across the last few hundred yards of rocky ground. They approached the fort. The fort fell to the Indian battalion. Soon the first of over two hundred Italian prisoners, mostly native Eritrean troops with a handful of white officers, began to trickle back. This success was gained against hard opposition from the Italian Colonial battalions and fierce hand-to-hand fighting that surged in and around the fort for three-quarters of an hour. The Garhwalis had reached their objective at half-past six.

If the air support had failed to. come up to expectations, so too had the tanks. They were a mixed squadron that had been sent down the Nile from the Western Desert. The tank drivers had no experience of driving in such country. They had switched from open sand to rock, bush and hills. Mechanical breakdowns, broken tracks, rough boulders that could not be seen in the long grass, and mines caused severe losses of twelve cruiser and light tanks, three were out of action from mines, and six more from damaged track pins. Three that broke down inside Gallabat fort still continued to fire their guns in support of the Garhwalis. In assessing the efficiency of these tanks, it should be realized that the squadron, the only one that could be spared from Middle East, was long overdue for repair and refitting.

The bombardment of our artillery lifted from Gallabat to Metemma, and the infantry attack began. The Pathan company of the Baluch (Major Sherwood) had, by six o'clock, captured Jebel Um Zareba, a little hillock two miles north-west of the fort.

Soon after half-past seven, when the green success signal flared into the air, Brigadier Slim decided that the moment had come for himself, Welchman, and his Intelligence Officer, Captain Mark Ash, to drive up to Gallabat. Welchman had a Bren carrier standing by for this very purpose, so they set off up the road that had not been used since the outbreak of war with Italy. When obstructions and difficult stretches of going were met, the Brigadier and his two companions had to climb out and guide the driver through. At last the carrier reached the fort without mishap. Here a number of Italian officer prisoners were being checked over. One of these fresh captives, excessively polite despite his agitation, kept on saluting and introducing himself to Slim and Welchman as "Capitano Italiano, Capitano Italiano." Unfortunately, this introduction was accompanied by a frequent double knees-bend, for machine-gun bullets from an Italian counter-attack were swishing overhead all the time. The Brigade Commander thought it wiser to close the interview and hasten forward into the fort. But Slim's party were still not out of trouble, for no sooner had they walked on a short distance than they found themselves involved between a Garhwali company and a fresh enemy counter-attack. Excited riflemen were shouting at the Brigadier to get out of the way. It was as well that this attack was beaten off without delay.

In the centre of the fort sat the redoubtable "Snap" Tayler---commander of the Garhwalis---sitting, as Welchman described it, "placidly on a rock like Mr. Pickwick with a moustache, getting his wind, and a little pleased at having captured an Italian officer by himself." On every side lay dead men and mules. Already flies buzzed avidly upon the corpses. Very soon Italian bombers, with fighter protection above, delivered the first of a succession of attacks on Gallabat. Having shot down or crippled our fighters, the Italians were free to mobilize, from every airfield held in Eritrea and Abyssinia, all the bombers they could make available. Gallabat, lying conspicuously as it did, presented almost the ideal target. Four air raids had come by half-past three, each more intense than its predecessor.

Meanwhile, Slim and Welchman had looked across to Metemma. its stone walls and barbed-wire defences, covered by guns, looked formidable. There was also the deep Boundary khor to be contended with. The Royal Garhwal Rifles had had a gruelling morning, the Baluch were in reserve, and the 1st Essex were in readiness to advance up to the fort, which they actually entered at eleven o'clock. Overhead the enemy had domination. Without tanks---which alone could break the wire---an attack against Metemma would be at once uncertain and costly. Reinforcements were no nearer than at three days' call.

For Brigadier Slim this was a testing experience. He had planned and executed a successful attack on Gallabat. The fort had been recaptured. And now within his grasp was the chance of commanding the first attack of the war on to Italian soil. But Slim realized the grave difficulties. Success was in the balance. With imperturbable confidence he took the decision to call off any further attack beyond the khor. Instead, Ten Brigade was to consolidate its positions round Gallabat.

But our casualties were mounting. Their evacuation was slow and difficult. By nine o'clock it was evident that if the Italian Air Force continued to hold supremacy, Gallabat would become untenable. Our tanks were still not repaired: an L.A.D. lorry had been bombed, three fitters wounded, and most of the spare parts and tools lost. For the infantry alone, with neither tank nor air support, to attack the double-apron wire that encircled Metemma was out of the question. Further, the battalions had suffered too severely from the bombings to make the difficult flank attack against the enemy outside the wire on the hill-slopes.

At half-past three that afternoon some elements of the 1st Essex withdrew in some disorder from their positions in and about Gallabat fort. So hard and rocky was the ground that even the defence-minded Italians had failed to dig trenches. And when the Italian bombers delivered their most concentrated attack of the day, the troops were still not properly consolidated, and were unsheltered and defenceless against aerial attack. In the midst of this unnerving ordeal an ammunition lorry was set on fire by burning grass, and the noise was thought to be an enemy counter-attack from the rear. One platoon deliberately advanced with bayonets fixed towards the he sound of popping bullets to deal with the situation. Other troops mistook this move for a general retirement, and some confusion ensued.

General Heath, who was forward with Russell, his G.S.O.1, informed Brigadier Slim that he was there if wanted. Slim came up and frankly described what was happening. General Heath said very quietly:

"I think we ought to write an appreciation."

The three officers then sat down and on the backs of message pads, without collaboration, wrote appreciations. They went through these, each commenting on the others, and a plan for the future was evolved. But, more important still, this simple action served, in a subtle way, to bring an atmosphere of unruffled control over the whole operation.

It was decided, reluctantly enough, to retire to positions within artillery range of Metemma, and to render that base untenable to the Italians.

* * * * * * *

Ten Brigade withdrew from Gallabat that evening. Sappers from 21 Field Company remained behind to destroy all usable buildings and stores in the fort. Our Gunners bombarded it and Metemma. This bombardment was spectacular: direct hits set off most of the Italian ammunition dumps, and these contained large stocks of fireworks and rockets.

Slim's policy was not to reoccupy Gallabat but to patrol vigorously and deny the fort to the enemy. On November 9 two companies of the Baluch attacked, and held the fort throughout the day, retiring in the evening. That night a strong enemy counter-attack was repulsed by our defensive fire. Next morning our infantry reoccupied the fort, without opposition. Ambushes were laid with great effect. Though we did not hold Gallabat, we prevented the heavily reinforced Italians from occupying the place again and we kept our grip on the flanking hills despite daily bombing.

What had been the results of this fighting? True it is that the enemy forces in the area had not been destroyed, though one Colonial battalion had been virtually annihilated, and two others mauled. But we had shown that we were prepared to take the offensive with artillery and tanks, that we were superior to the Italians in fighting capacity. And this did much to hearten the morale of the Abyssinian Patriots. Prior to the action at Gallabat the efforts of their leaders had been faint-hearted. Besides, the Italians assisted the change of heart by withdrawing a considerable number of troops from north-west Abyssinia to reinforce the garrison in Metemma. From this time dates not merely the real aid we received from the Patriots, but also the desertion of many Abyssinian soldiers serving in the enemy's Colonial battalions. This defection was a direct result of our local success at Gallabat, and as the campaign progressed these Abyssinians proved themselves most ready to give away details about enemy troop movements and dispositions. This source of information concerning the enemy order of battle gave our commanders a picture of what was happening on the other side seldom surpassed in any other theatre of war.

Ten Brigade had been introduced to the noise, strain and horror of modern war. To quote Brigadier Slim's notes on training issued after the battle: "The majority of the troops who assaulted Gallabat had hardly seen an aeroplane or tank, let alone co-operated with or been attacked by them; they had never seen or heard an artillery bombardment or had a shell pass over their heads. The noise alone of these, heard for the first time, is distressing and bewildering."

Brigadier W. J. Slim had joined the 6th Gurkha Rifles after serving in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. When, one day in 1946, he confided to a staff officer that he did not really want to serve on and that had no war come he would have been happy to retire and write books, he little knew the path that lay before him between command of Ten Brigade and that of the Fourteenth Army and, later, the post of. Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Not only was he confident in himself, but the confidence that he showed in his troops aroused their confidence in him as their commander. It is not certain that his companions foresaw the brilliant future in these early days in the Sudan, but there is no doubt that Brigadier Slim was imperturbable in the worst of circumstances, and a high level tactician. To have won his first engagement of the campaign---at Gallabat---and then to have lost it would have rattled many another commander. But Slim stabilized the situation that had turned against his brigade through no fault of his own.

For all the thrust and stubbornness of his chin, which was not deceptive, he was most approachable, and a ready listener to the ideas of his officers.. If he was prepared to shoulder blame with equanimity, he was also quick to pass on credit to his subordinates rather than accept it for himself.

The celebrated tale is told of Slim's first visit to the Highland Light Infantry, who joined Ten Brigade after Gallabat. At the end of the Brigadier's talk to the officers and N.C.O.s. of the battalion, a Jock jumped to his feet and cried: "Don't you worry, sir! We'll follow you anywhere." Like a flash came the retort from Slim: "Don't you be so bloody sure about that. I'm going to follow you!"

* * * * * * *

For two and a half months our troops stayed there before a general advance was made. By vigorous patrolling they maintained complete ascendancy over the enemy on the ground, though the Italians in that area outnumbered us by three to one. Patrolling in the tall elephant grass was a nervy procedure, and small patrols might well come unexpectedly face to face with an Italian party. Then the men in front would shoot it out while their companions behind tried to outflank the opposite side. Already the vultures were feasting in Gallabat, or what remained of it after the fighting and bombardments. Care was essential when approaching the fort, because the sudden rising of a flock of these sinister birds could reveal our presence to a watchful foe. False alarms were many, and often caused by the baboons which abounded in the district.

The tinder-like elephant grass was also a problem to the Gunners. Several fires started in the gun-pits when fragments of burning cordite set the grass alight. Buckets of water had constantly to be kept at hand, and smoking was strictly forbidden. Because of the visits of hostile aircraft day after day, these gun-pits were elaborate with their camouflage nets draped on poles. The Gunners went to the length of cutting sods with the grass attached and of 'planting' these on top of the camouflage nets to simulate the normal jungle grass growing on every side. As these covers had to be taken down every time the guns were fired, and then replaced immediately afterwards, the trouble involved was great, but amply repaid. Never once were the Gunners spotted by Italian pilots.

The local superiority enjoyed by the enemy in the air was a salutary training in care and concealment to our men. Track discipline was rigorously enforced. Trucks of all kinds were parked under trees and liberally draped with foliage. The troops lived in huts constructed of boughs and named tukls. These had to be dug in, for protection against the 'egg-basket' type of Italian bomb, a series of anti-personnel grenades that were virtually shovelled out of the enemy bombers. Along the banks of the local khors the trees were particularly heavy and green. At this season the streams were mostly dry, with an occasional pool, and away from their proximity the bush was scorched by heat and drought, the leaves burnt off, and the landscape consequently more open than a few months earlier when the vegetation had been dense and tall.

Soon after the withdrawal from Gallabat, Colonel Welchman was presented with a hunting spear, which became one of his most treasured possessions. He converted it into a sort of khud stick, and found it an invaluable aid on the climb, which he did several times a day, up the steep paths of Signal Hill---his Observation Post. Though Welchman was soon practised enough to avoid poking the point of the spear through one of his own feet, he also noticed that those who accompanied him were careful to keep at a respectful distance. When there was no need for silent movement, the metal point made a friendly tinkling sound on the rocks, and often Welchman would hear, as he approached his O.P., the telephone operator on duty saying to the batteries of the 28th Field Regiment: "Ere 'e comes. Get the smoke shell ready." The Colonel also recalls with satisfaction that when his spear went tinkling down the path once again, he would hear a message such as: "E's on the way down now. An M.G. emplacement blowed up and ten ---- tukls burning grand."

Colonel Sundius-Smith has recorded that Welchman often tarried at the Baluch officers' mess hut for lunch on his way to or from Signal Hill. On one occasion, when Sundius-Smith reminded him of something he was to have done but had forgotten, Welchman's comment was: "Oh, yes, I must tie a knot in my spear."

Welchman was soon given the title of "Abu harleyah, " meaning "Father of all spears," by the Sudan Defence Force, and "Ballum sahib" by the sepoys. He instituted his own system of numbering purely personal messages, and this started with the quite illegal number of O.B.W.S. ("Old Blighter with Spear") 72, or whatever the reference was.

* * * * * * *

During the second week of December Ten Brigade was relieved in the Gallabat-Metemma district by Mayne's Nine Brigade. In came the 2nd West Yorkshires (Lieutenant- Colonel R. M. Rodwell), the 3/5th Mahratta Light Infantry (now commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Denys Reid), and the 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. Blood).

Brigadier Mosley Mayne, affectionately known far and wide as "Mo," had passed his fiftieth year. After a year with the East Lancashire Regiment in India, he joined the 13th Duke of Connaught's Lancers, and spent the next five years on the North-West Frontier. All through the 1914-18 war he served as adjutant, and in 1917 was wounded in Mesopotamia. Thirty years later he was still in receipt of a disability pension for his leg that was damaged in that fighting. Within two years Mayne sustained a permanent injury to his back as the result of an air crash while making a battle reconnaissance in Kurdistan. Then, in 1924, when Chief Instructor at the Cavalry School in India, he had a serious polo accident, lay unconscious for several days, spent three and a half months in a dark room, and was forced to take eighteen months' sick leave. No sooner had he rejoined his regiment, now the 6th Lancers, than Mayne was again injured in a practice polo game. This cost him a further six months in bed, and he came home to England.

Both at the War Office and, in 1933, at the Imperial Defence College he forged many friendships with men who were destined to rise to fame in the Second World War. Three years later saw him back once more in India, this time as Director of Military Operations, during a period when it was clear that war was impending. He worked in close touch with Auchinleck on strategic planning, with particular reference to the employment of the "Army in India" on overseas service.

To the Fifth Indian Division Brigadier Mayne brought a cavalry outlook, tempered by a realization and experience of the wider issues of war, sharpened by the keen brain of a tried senior staff officer, who learned all he could about the handling of infantry in the field by inquisitive and searching questions to his battalion commanders.

Always he seemed delighted to see you; no officer or man was too junior to receive from him a few cheerful words and an engaging smile that lit up his lined face. He was keenly interested in their welfare and success, and when visiting a unit would invariably inquire whether there was anyone to whom he ought to speak: one who had lost his mother, an officer whose son had been killed in the Royal Air Force, an Indian Christian clerk who had recently married.

Beneath his charm of manner, with his monocle, cigarette holder, quivering salute, and jerky mannerisms, lay a quick mind, a human approach to his troops, a meticulous attention to detail, an understanding of both staff and common problems, an unusual aptitude for paper-work, and great determination.

* * * * * * *

The Brigade's task was to prevent the enemy entering Gallabat, to disorganize his defensive arrangements, and to demoralize his troops. Later, in conjunction with other arrangements for the advance into Eritrea, it was to simulate a full division and lead the Italians to believe that our harassing operations on the Kassala front were mere bluff, and that our main offensive was to be staged along the Gallabat-Metemma-Wahni-Gondar line. A programme of deception was drawn up. Dummy landing grounds, dumps, and medical posts were established on our lines of communication. Concentrations were fired by guns of various calibres. At dawn each day Welchman sent his guns forward to their outpost positions, in order to use to the best advantage the comparatively short range of the 4.5-inch howitzers. At dusk these guns were withdrawn.

And the fact that all this movement to and fro was possible without the enemy being aware of it indicates at once the skill with which it was effected, the thickness of the bush, and the dense interlacing of the branches above the dusty tracks.

These were busy weeks of raids and fighting patrols, and the dive-bombing of Italian positions from time to time by our Hardys. When the enemy's obsolete biplanes came trundling over at intervals, their slow speed and loud noise gave good warning of their approach, and our anti-aircraft defence, comprising twelve Bredas---part of a consignment of forty from an Italian vessel captured in the Red Sea---went into action.

Then, early in the new year, 1941, 28 Field Regiment was ordered back to Gedaref. In its place came the 25-pounders of 144 Field Regiment (Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry).

144 Field Regiment had the reputation among other units for being clannish and something of a 'private army.' The story is told that when all commanding officers were urged to ensure that the men made provision for their dependents, a certain battery commander in this regiment, noting that one of his men was making no allotment to his mother, requested him to do so. The man replied that, before leaving for active service, he had made over to his mother ten thousand pounds. If the battery commander thought this inadequate, he would consider raising it. This, a true story, is some indication of the texture of the Territorial Army units at that period.

And Major George Munn, himself a battery commander with the regiment, records the evident amazement of General Heath when he inspected his battery, and asked the officers what they did in civilian life. The replies were: stockbroker, barrister, printer, master of foxhounds, Lloyd's broker, racehorse trainer, and architect.

* * * * * * *

During our initial advance into Eritrea, Brigadier Mayne, who was neither able nor allowed to stage a full stage brigade attack, was constantly trying to discover if and when the enemy would withdraw from the Gallabat front, and a mobile column was made ready for the pursuit when it came. It is convenient here to forestall the narrative of earlier events on the main front of the Fifth Indian Division by recounting the sequence of events which occurred much later on the Gallabat front.

MAJOR-GENERAL L. M. HEATH

MAJOR-GENERAL A. G. O. M. MAYNE

BRIGADIER W. J. SLIM

BRIGADIER J. C. O. MARRIOTT

BRIGADIER F. W. MESSERVY

BRIGADIER T. W. REES

Early on the morning of February 1 routine patrols from the 2nd West Yorkshires, having instructions always to draw fire in order to establish the enemy's continued presence, found that there was no more fire to be drawn. The Italians had slipped away, after several days of increased activity with shelling, aggressive patrols, night demonstrations against our forward lines, and air attacks. And so the chase began.

The mobile column, under the command of Major Hugh Stewart, comprised twelve carriers from the West Yorkshires and 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment, one company of the West Yorkshires, an O.P. party from Munn's battery, with a troop of guns, and a detachment of Philbrick's 21 Field Company, led by Second-Lieutenant Bhagat.

The pursuit progressed well, but was frequently delayed by extensive minefields. Bhagat, the Sapper, led the column in a carrier, in which he stood next to the driver. He kept his eyes on the road, watching for any disturbance of the surface which might indicate a buried mine. All wadi beds---and they crossed many---were automatically suspect and examined minutely, since it was possible to bury mines under the uneven surface without leaving a trace. The outstanding performance of the detachment of Sappers during this advance was responsible for the award of the Victoria Cross to Second-Lieutenant Premindra Singh Bhagat. It was the first V.C. to be won by the Indian Army in the Second World War, the first to be earned by an Indian Commissioned Officer. From the citation we may quote this passage:

"For a period of four days and over a distance of 55 miles this officer in the leading carrier led the column. He detected and supervised the clearing of fifteen minefields. Speed being essential, he worked at high pressure from dawn to dusk each day. On two occasions when his carrier was blown up with casualties to others, and on a third occasion when ambushed and under close enemy fire, he himself carried straight on with his task. He refused relief when worn out with strain and fatigue and with one eardrum punctured by an explosion, on the grounds that he was now better qualified to continue his task to the end.

"His coolness, persistence over a period of 96 hours, and gallantry not only in battle but throughout the long period when the safety of the column and the speed at which it could advance were dependent on his personal efforts, are deserving of the highest recognition."

And that recognition was forthcoming.

* * * * * * *

Soon after leaving Metemma the column caught up two stragglers ---ragged Eritreans they were, with a mule that carried medical equipment. Camps were passed, previously occupied by the retreating enemy and now littered with refuse, food, dead mules and lumps of raw meat, and alive with flies. The Gandwa river, that was reached on February 3, proved a real obstacle, coveted as it was by the fire of an Italian rearguard and by well-placed minefields. Neither carriers nor trucks could be manoeuvred in the dense bush or across the river and its tributaries. To disperse the rearguard and clear the mines took two hours.

The next twenty miles to Wahni were rapidly covered, despite an ambush and two attacks on our advanced camp by native troops. Early on the 7th Wahni was occupied, the enemy having withdrawn during the night; we had shelled the place for two hours the previous afternoon. A number of prisoners and stragglers had been left for us to collect.

We are indebted to General Mayne for the story of an incident during this pursuit of General Martini's forces to Wahni and beyond. Mayne had established his tactical headquarters some miles short of Gandwa, and wanted signal communications with the mobile column very urgently. His Signals Officer, Captain T. H. Jessop, went forward with a small line party to lay the cable. And this, according to the General, was the only occasion on which he ever saw Jessop defeated, for the latter had guaranteed proper line communication with Wahni.

"Having set off into the bush as the sun was setting, he rang me up from Gandwa six hours later, received my thanks and congratulations, and then started back to my headquarters again. I was delighted, and after a comforting talk with my O.C. Mobile Column, I closed down for the night and went to sleep, telling the Signals to snatch some rest too.

"At dawn I went round to the Signal Office to find out how the Wahni column had fared during the night, and to give them the latest news from my end. I found Jessop there asleep, but with one ear open, for he jumped to his feet the moment after I arrived and seized the phone to put me through to Gandwa. Failure! Not a buzz! Jessop looked the picture of astonishment, and misery; I expect I, too, looked worried. Then came the explanation in the form, or rather in the person, of a beaming corporal of British infantry. He had been out on salvage duty---there was a mass of valuable Italian salvage to collect---and, with commendable enthusiasm but regrettable lack of judgment, had stayed out all night and had salvaged almost every scrap of line that poor Jessop had so laboriously and skilfully laid! Jessop was habitually a man of few words, but on this occasion he broke custom."

All idea of a further advance towards Gondar was for the time being abandoned by the Kaid, on January 26. He had kept this front open in case serious opposition round Kassala persuaded him to switch his main thrust towards Gondar. But Kassala had, as will be seen, been evacuated by the enemy. Our progress there was good, and General Platt could not supply both fronts. He rightly chose to reinforce success. Moreover, administrative difficulties were becoming insuperable. The pursuit, except for small motorized patrols, had almost come to a standstill, for Nine Brigade Group, having advanced sixty miles from Metemma over an outrageous road, still had to maintain itself all the way from Gedaref, yet another ninety miles to the north, on unit first-line transport alone.

Early in February Mayne was promoted Major-General, handed over Nine Brigade to Colonel Messervy of Gazelle Force, and went to G.H.Q., Middle East, to wait for an appointment in his new rank. Then, on February 10, Messervy withdrew his troops to Gedaref, leaving behind two companies of the 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment to keep watch at Wahni and by the Gandwa crossing. After hunting a side line very hard and not without success for a period of nearly three months, Nine Brigade prepared to rejoin the main Divisional pack on the Kassala front, where the limelight was shining.

 

CHAPTER III

FROM KASSALA TO BARENTU
JANUARY-FEBRUARY 1941

A the beginning of December 1940 the Commander-in- Chief in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, had laid down as his general policy that the troops under Platt's command were to prepare for the recapture of Kassala in the New Year, provided that the necessary reinforcements could be made available from Egypt. Pressure was to be maintained in the Metemma area.' The fomentation of the Patriots in Abyssinia offered an excellent prospect of rendering intolerable the enemy's position and of aiding our eventual recapture of the country. With the victory of Sidi Barrani in North Africa behind him, Wavell was enabled to release the Fourth Indian Division, led by Major-General Sir Noel de la P. Beresford-Peirse. But although Eleven Brigade (Brigadier R. A. Savory) arrived in the Sudan before the end of the year, the Division as a whole could not be concentrated and ready for action for a further six weeks.

The piecemeal arrival of the new division during this period should not be forgotten, for troops were brought forward ahead of programme according to the means of transport available, and they went into battle and pursuit of the enemy as soon as they reached their destination. When Briggs' Seven Brigade relieved 29 Brigade on the Lines of Communication between Fort Sudan and Atbara, there were left free for the offensive against Kassala only Gazelle Force, Eleven Brigade of the Fourth Indian Division, and Heath's Ten and 29 Brigades, with Nos. 3 and 5 M.M. G. Companies of the Sudan Defence Force.

The Kaid decided on a plan for the capture of the triangle formed by Kassala, Sabderat and Tessenei, to start on February 9; this was later brought forward to January 19, because of suspicions that the Italians intended to withdraw. And Wavell desired earlier action. Both the efforts of Messervy's Gazelle Force and reports from deserters had shown that the enemy was gradually reducing his forces in the Kassala neighbourhood, prior to an evacuation.

Heath's men would drive through Tessenei and along the road to Barentu by way of Aicota. The newly arrived Fourth Indian Division would head along the shorter northern route to Sabderat, Keru and Agordat.

Early in the new year the 2nd Highland Light Infantry (Lieutenant- Colonel B. C. Fletcher, M.C.) were ordered to move by night. This battalion had joined Ten Brigade at Christmas time, after four months in Port Said, to replace the 1st Essex, who were transferred to Palestine after Gallabat. They were to push the enemy from the isolated and volcanic Abu Carnal feature; having two separate peaks, this mountain, whose name means 'father of all camels,' towers with Jebel Kassala some three thousand feet above the surrounding plain. On January 11 the battalion captured the wells from which the Italians drew their water; it covered the track to Tessenei, so preventing the enemy maintenance lorries from bringing in supplies to the garrison; and then dug itself in round Abu Carnal, prepared to besiege the enemy and force his surrender. But the operation was called off. No offensive action was to precede our full-scale invasion of Eritrea. Accordingly, Fletcher withdrew his companies, and left the S.D.F. armoured cars to watch the enemy and to reconnoitre the jebel in detail.

Then, on the night of January 15/16, the Italians were reported to have evacuated Abu Carnal. Next morning it was occupied by the H.L.I. without trouble. And on the night of the 17th the enemy slipped out of Kassala, despite a swashbuckling proclamation from General Frusci to, the effect that the absurd English would attack Kassala only to he scattered like chaff.

Kassala, a town of some 25,000 inhabitants, consisted largely of mud buildings, with a red-brick market-place in one corner, the old fort, and certain Government buildings and gardens. One of our Intelligence teams entered the place on the heels of the retreating Italian rearguards. Evidence of the enemy's hurried departure was found in two piles of 'In' and 'Out' signals that had not been destroyed. Among the 'Out' messages was one which had given a very black picture of the situation. 'Its wording ran something like this: "To Brigade. A 17. Am surrounded. Enemy armoured units most active. Will fight to the last for the honour of our Duce and Empire." Looking through the pile of 'In' signals, the Intelligence Officer found the following. "In reply to your A 17. Don't be theatrical. State hour of withdrawal."

The enemy had indeed withdrawn. The Highland Light Infantry, now temporarily under Marriott's command with 29 Brigade, hurried east from Abu Gamal, on the 18th crossed the yielding river bed of Gash on a causeway of palm fronds laid by the Sappers, and headed down the road to Tessenei, knowing that they could no longer cut off the enemy's retreat, but prepared to encounter rearguard ambushes. No Italians were seen. The main body of 29 Brigade, led by the 3/2nd Punjab, occupied Tessenei on the afternoon of January 18.

While this was happening, Slim's Ten Brigade Group, with the 28th Field Regiment, left Khashm-el-Girba and made a complicated night march to Malawiya Pools on January 16-17. In the evening of the 17th news came that the Italians were evacuating Kassala, so off went Ten Brigade on a night march to cross the River Gash at Angaleit. It was hoped that they would be in time to cut off any Italians still holding the Tessenei gap. They reached the river after great difficulties in forcing a route through the undergrowth. The approach to the Gash was marked by dense trees and vegetation; both banks were thick with dom palms, acacias, and long green grass. But there was no water, only five hundred yards of soft sand that could not be crossed by our armoured cars until the Sappers had laid down Army track. There was no resistance from the opposite bank, where the palms and undergrowth were even denser and enlivened by many beautifully coloured birds. Here news was received, late on January 18, that Marriott's 29 Brigade had already entered Tessenei. Ten Brigade was now too late to intercept the retreating enemy, who had withdrawn with the utmost speed to rearguard positions cast of Aicota, intending to hold up our advance on Barentu. So it was henceforth a chase to make contact again before the enemy had time to reorganize.

Ten Brigade left the bush and drove along the first main road since leaving Khartoum. The bridges were as impressive as the drainage. But the Italians had sought to delay our advance by strewing the autostrada with thousands of four-pronged nails. These caused so many punctures in our vehicles that supplies of repair outfits were soon exhausted and had to be replenished by air from South Africa. Enemy equipment was found abandoned by the roadside. Eritrean natives gave news of the retreating foe. Slim's two battalions found Aicota empty, and the Italians still out of reach.

The Fourth Indian Division had, meanwhile, advanced swiftly through the tangle of hills by Sabderat, and had, early on January 21, come up against strong opposition in the mile-long and heavily mined Keru Gorge. How best to co-operate with Beresford-Peirse's leading troops had been thought out by General Heath weeks ahead, as the result of a terse comment by General Wavell during a conference.

Wavell listened in silence while the Kaid and his two divisional commanders discussed their plans for the capture of the Kassala-Tessenei-Sabderat triangle. Then he said, "And what if the Italians have managed to creep away?"

The maps had been studied afresh, and General Heath had kept in view the possible advantage of using a diagonal route that was shown on Italian maps as linking Aicota and Biscia. The serious resistance met by the Fourth Indian Division at Keru made it clear that if this route were at all feasible, then a move by one of Heath's brigades towards Biscia might force the Italians to relinquish their grip upon Keru. Accordingly, Slim's Ten Brigade was ordered to advance north-east along this route. And 29 Brigade was directed to fight its way straight ahead to Barentu.

Although the indifferent maps showed the existence of a second-class road between Aicota and Biscia, the route was not defined until the hilly ground was reached. At one time the route had been surveyed for a railway line; a number of embankments had been built, though no bridges, and survey marks in the form of stones could be seen at regular intervals. Fletcher's Highland Light infantry acted as advance guard to Ten Brigade Group, which they had rejoined. Their progress, slow as it was on account of difficulties in finding the track, was further slowed up by frequent sandy khors. These could only be crossed when palm branches had been laid to prevent the vehicles from becoming stuck. Colonel Fletcher went ahead with a small group to reconnoitre a hill some twelve miles out from Aicota. The Brigade Commander and Colonel Welchman decided to do the same thing.

They set off in a truck, Slim driving, Welchman sitting beside him, and the Brigadier's orderly in the back. A small escort of the Highland Light Infantry accompanied them in carriers. Soon they passed the main body of the Scottish battalion and caught up Fletcher and his reconnaissance party. just then they heard the zip-zip of machine-gun fire. The ground all round was spattered with bullets. Looking up, Slim and Welchman caught sight of two Italian C.R. 42 fighters which had swooped down out of the sun, their engines off. The first attack caused so many casualties among the escort that all our anti-aircraft Bren guns were out of action. And so, when the enemy planes started to circle for a second swoop, there seemed no alternative but to jump out as quickly as possible from the truck and take cover. But there was almost no cover. In, trying to leave the driving seat with speed, Slim got caught up in the spare wheel. Welchman found that his right forearm, pierced by a machine-gun bullet, was bleeding. And the Brigadier's orderly had been wounded in the shoulder. Yet somehow the three of them did get out and lay on their faces in a small ditch that ran at right angles to the track.

The two Italian fighters circled round and round, firing their guns. Welchman saw Slim wince as though he had been hit by a bullet. None of the three expected to survive these attacks from above, but the planes soon flew away. The Brigadier now discovered that he had been wounded in the behind while lying on the ground; and one of the escort had been severely hit in the stomach as he tried to fire his Bren gun from one of the carriers. Slim was hurriedly bandaged up, the wounded, Scottish private given a shot of morphia, and all the wounded placed in the Brigade Commander's truck. Welchman, his arm wrapped in a field dressing, drove the truck at fifty miles an hour along the track through Aicota to the dressing station at Brigade Headquarters. Slim was able only to recline rather than sit on the car seat.

The doctors dressed the various wounds with all speed, and Slim was told that he would have to be evacuated to the casualty clearing station at Malawiya Pools, and thence almost certainly to Khartoum. The Brigadier cursed and said, "Well, then, that fellow Welcher will have to come along too."

Next morning early, having heard Ten Brigade Group moving off, and bemoaning their ill fortune at thus missing the coming advance, Slim and Welchman set off in a motor ambulance, Welchman seated in front beside the driver, Slim and his orderly--- bitterly apologetic for having failed to protect his Sahib from the hawai jahaz (aeroplane)---lying on the stretchers inside and tended by two bearers.

Beyond Tessenei, where General Heath came to commiserate with his two wounded commanders and to wish them luck, the journey was extremely bumpy. Welchman found that he could be of most use by shout back to Slim, "Another bad bump coming, sir!" whereupon the Brigadier would raise himself by the straps hanging from the ambulance roof. At Malawiya Pools the wounds were dressed afresh, and late that evening the ambulance brought the two senior officers in great pain to Gedaref Hospital, where an Indian doctor operated on Slim without delay. When the Brigadier came round from the anaesthetic, in the small ward in which he and Welchman had been placed, he asked the ward orderly, an Indian Christian named Martin, 'Is Colonel Welchman anywhere about?"

"Yes, " replied Martin, "he's just over there. Did you want him, sir?"

"Yes, please," said Slim.

So Welchman walked over to the bedside.

"Welcher," said Slim, "the H.L.I. aren't in the right place. They ought to be at so-and-so. Could you possibly see about it?"

Welchman, seeing that Slim, though delirious, was definitely worried about the matter, promptly answered, "Yes of course I can. I'll tell Ripley (Major G. S. R. Webb, M.C., the Brigade Major) at once."

The Brigadier said, "Thanks awfully, that's grand." Then, having given a few clear and matter-of-fact orders about the dispositions of the Brigade Group, he lapsed into unconsciousness.

Next day Welchman managed to send off a telegram to Slim's wife.. It said, "Slightly wounded and in hospital. Shall not sit down again for some time." It was later discovered that this telegram had never been dispatched. It had been stopped by the censor because it was not in plain language. Welchman thought that nothing could have been plainer.

One day Welchman, who had been released from hospital and was visiting Slim, found him chuckling over the fact that one of his opposite numbers, an Italian Brigadier, had recently been brought in from the Keru battle, having been hit in the same part of the body as himself. They were able to compare notes, and Slim was very satisfied at the prompt manner in which he had been avenged.

Command of Ten Brigade now devolved upon Colonel B. C. Fletcher; and his second-in-command, Major Charles Harvey, took over the battalion. Welchman returned within a few weeks, but two and a half years will pass before we meet Brigadier Slim again in this narrative, in the role of Lieutenant- General and Corps Commander in India.

* * * * * * *

We must turn north to watch the Fourth Indian Division at Keru. All through January 22 fighting on the hills took place, with the 4/11th Sikhs bearing the brunt. So stubborn was the Italian resistance at Keru that the Fourth Indian Division might have been held up indefinitely, had the enemy commander, General Fongoli, made adequate provision to protect his left rear. As it was, his troops---the 41st Colonial Brigade---withdrew during the night. They had been disconcerted to find that Ten Brigade, with the H.L.I. in the lead, were threatening their rear. As the Italian commander had never expected our vehicles to negotiate the long disused track between Aicota and Biscia, the defile where the Lowlanders met opposition was held by a mere two hundred Carabinieri---not placed there until Fongoli knew that Ten Brigade was threatening his left rear, and then hastily flung out to stem this threat. To do this would have required two full battalions. The enemy was to pay dearly for underestimating the capabilities of our Sappers and truck drivers.

The H.L.I. cut due north into the hills, and on Jebel Shiba behind Keru came upon the position chosen by General Fongoli for covering the withdrawal of his brigade. As the presence of the Italians here was unexpected, our leading company (Captain P. Hamilton) suffered casualties. But within a short time the Italians surrendered, Fongoli and his staff among them. It was a debacle. Over six hundred prisoners were taken in the engagement, and during the hours that followed groups of thirst-stricken stragglers from the Keru Gorge gave themselves up. A few of the more hardy slipped through our cordon, and some of the native .troops reached their homes. This thorough mangling of the 41st Colonial Brigade exercised a permanently crumbling effect upon Italian morale, both among commanders and lower ranks. And it resulted in panicky reorientation of the enemy's forces.

Ten Brigade now moved into Biscia, through which the Fourth Indian Division had already passed on its way to Agordat, which was not captured until February 1, the day before Barentu fell. After a day of reorganization, the Brigade set off across country once more in the direction of Barentu, this time bent on slipping into the town by the back door. The move was seriously delayed by the many khors that crossed the route. And the Sappers were hard pressed to cut approaches for vehicles down the banks of these khors and to put down steel-mesh tracks across the sandy bottoms. At this time Marriott's Brigade was still twenty miles from the town. Ten Brigade cut the Agordat-Barentu road on January 26, but a disappointment followed. The Baluch and Garhwal Rifles found the road that winds up one side of the gorge to a crest before dropping down into the cup of Barentu to have been blown. So the infantry battalions climbed up the hills that barred the way into the northern outskirts of the town, now three miles distant. The Italian garrison, some eight thousand men strong, held these heights.

On the 27th the Baluch and Garhwalis drove the Italians from the first line of hills. They now overlooked the Italians, who were installed in heavily fortified rock sangars, with slit trenches behind for protection against shelling and bombs. Fletcher ordered two companies of the Highland Light Infantry to attack on the 28th. 'A' Company under Captain Hare went forward and gained the ridge that faced our positions. But those of his men who reached the enemy's rock sangars were caught in severe enfilade fire and forced back to their starting point. The casualties suffered were numerous. and Hare himself was wounded.

Meanwhile 'D' Company, led by the dashing Mark Hollis, made across very broken country towards its objective, Conical Hill, the highest feature in that district. The three platoons soon lost touch with one another, and the moment came when Hollis found himself with but a dozen men---P.S.M. Macmillan's platoon. They were still half a mile from the summit, which could only be reached after a stiff climb of some five hundred feet. With great courage Hollis decided to press on with the handful of Scotsmen.

At the foot of the hill Hollis had turned to Macmillan and said, "Well, Sergeant-Major, if it is the last thing I do, I am bloody well going to get to the top of this hill."

And get to the top they did, despite fierce resistance from the Italians, who hurled down grenades. The enemy was driven from the summit, but there was small space, even for the few men that Hollis still had with him. At once the Italians counter-attacked, firing their mortars and crawling up to lob grenades at our men. Hollis was badly wounded in the body and head, and half his little band were killed or wounded. Hollis, realizing that he would not live, ordered Macmillan to withdraw the remnants; but he refused to endanger this move by being carried down the slope himself. Though almost unconscious, he wrote on one of his visiting cards: 'I order P.S.M. Macmillan to withdraw---I strongly recommend him." And on the other side of the card he wrote a message to the girl he loved. Then he was left alone to die on his objective.

Three days later, when the hill was recaptured, the battalion found several graves of the men of 'D' Company. One grave had been made with great care. At its head stood a large natural stone. The Italians had honoured the gallantry of this little party, and paid special tribute to its leader.

Ten weeks after this happening, at the capture of Massawa on the Red Sea, the Italian Admiral in command there asked General Heath to speak to the General who had commanded the Italian Division holding Barentu. Their conversation was interpreted by the Admiral. The Italian General wished to offer his congratulations upon the extreme gallantry displayed by the Highland Light Infantry before Barentu.

P.S.M: Macmillan was decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and Mark Hollis was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross. Had there been more witnesses, it is likely that a good case for the award could have been submitted.

On that black day the Highland Light Infantry lost two Company Commanders, ninety-seven men wounded and killed, and three prisoners, the only ones throughout the campaign. All day stragglers and wounded picked their way across the innumerable ravines, among the huge boulders and thorn bushes that studded the hillside, and came back into their own lines. When night fell patrols went out to bring in more of those who had been wounded in the two engagements. It was. a night of misery; for the men were without blankets, and the bitter cold of the hills contrasted rudely with the heat of the plains they had left.

During the next two days the 4/10th Baluch, under its commander, Sundius-Smith, were subjected to heavy counter-attacks by two fresh Blackshirt battalions, and although our weak forward posts were overrun and some ground on two features known as Five Tebeldi Hill and White Rocks was yielded for a time, the Italian assaults were beaten back with bayonet, charges, fierce yells, and bullets. But our casualties had been serious---over ninety---and only two British officers were not wounded.

* * * * * * *

Marriott's 29 Brigade, supported throughout by the guns of the 4th Field Regiment, had been fighting along the road towards Barentu. The advance had been arduous and hard fought, with constant delays both from Italian resistance and mines laid on the road. But on the 30th the last ridge west of Barentu was occupied by the 1st Worcestershires, and the one good landmark of the whole district was now clearly visible---a white house by the road junction south of the town.

As soon as Ten Brigade's outflanking move was rendered abortive by the demolition in the gorge north of Barentu, General Heath had moved his Divisional H.Q. from near Biscia down to the Barentu road, and directed operations from near to Marriott's own Headquarters. This transfer presented a problem of intercommunication, for the liaison officers had a drive of more than sixty miles from Ten Brigade Headquarters to that of 29 Brigade. This could only be short-circuited by wireless conversations between General Heath and an officer at Ten Brigade H.Q. in Pushtu, a language considered sufficiently obscure to the enemy.

Next day, January 31; the 6/13th Frontier Force Rifles took a ridge that led up towards Conical Hill, and the Worcestershires, having beaten off an attack by fourteen enemy tanks, advanced a short way. February 1 dawned, but progress was still slow, and resistance stubborn. In his diary Brigadier Marriott observed: "Enemy sticking it well." When the 3/2nd Punjab made an attack, they were in their turn forced back by Italian light tanks.

The garrison of Barentu had been losing ground steadily, and during the night of February 1/2 the Italians evacuated the town. Barentu was not imposing. It had an airfield, a group of scattered administrative buildings, a few shops. And on the hill, commanding the approaches from both north and east, stood the fort. This merged so well with the landscape that 29 Brigade had been unable to see it until the final day, by which time Marriott's troops were really close.

The Italians had withdrawn most of their troops and had left little equipment. Some prisoners were taken, when our battalions entered, and in the hospitals a number of wounded men had been left to face captivity . Field kitchens in which meals were ready prepared bore witness to the. suddenness of the enemy's retreat.

It was the action of the Infantry tanks, giving to the Fourth Indian Division the sweeping victory at Agordat, that was finally responsible for the Italians' helter-skelter withdrawal from Barentu . If the Fifth Indian Division had enabled the Fourth to renew its advance from Keru towards Agordat, so now it was the Fourth's success which allowed General Heath's forward troops to overrun Barentu without opposition on February 2.

Throughout these operations the co-operation between the two divisions was admirable, and owed not a little to the fact that Generals Heath and Beresford-Peirse had been together in the same dormitory at Wellington.

* * * * * * *

Just where the Agordat road begins to wind down through the Barentu Gorge, the Italians had, as already noted, made an effective block. More than a hundred yards of the hillside had been blown down on to the roadway. Great lumps of rock, some of them as large as a three-ton lorry, were piled one on top of the other. It took the 2nd Field Company five days to clear a way through the block. This demolition had originally been designed to prevent us from continuing our advance through Barentu to Agordat. But the cross-country move of Ten Brigade had so startled the Italian commander that the demolition had been blown there and then, thus stopping all chances of his 2nd Colonial Division joining up with the main Italian forces. Now the only line of retreat open to him lay across country through Arressa.

It took some time before we could establish for certain that the metalled road marked on some Italian maps as having been built from Barentu to link up with the Abyssinian network of metalled stradas did not exist east of Barentu. A fair road had been cut for wheeled traffic, though across the plains to the east the road was undemarcated. Did a hewn route exist through the hills beyond the plain? To settle this point finally, after conflicting reports had come from our reconnaissance aircraft, General Heath asked Air Commodore Slatter, the Air Officer Commanding, for a plane to be placed at his disposal.

The two Wellesleys sent to escort Heath's faster Blenheim were both shot down over Adi Ugri, and Heath never saw them at all. But he did find out that a route for wheels did not connect with the main road at Arressa that wound its metalled way to Adi Ugri.

The Sudan Defence mobile columns, now reinforced, and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel A. D. G. Orr, pursued the exhausted Italians relentlessly. Soon they came upon the vehicles, tanks, ten-ton Diesel lorries, and wheeled guns jettisoned by the 2nd Colonial Division. Hundreds of prisoners fell into our hands. Reports from deserters who came into our lines showed that the Italians had suffered crippling losses in the defence of Barentu. The Italian division had been worsted and put out of action as a fighting formation.

And the capture of Barentu opened up direct communication, along a metalled road, with the Fourth Indian Division, already heading east from Agordat towards Keren. Beresford-Peirse's L. of C. could now be switched from the very cut-up Keru-Biscia track to the excellent autostrada that linked our railhead at Kassala with Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

BRITISH TROOPS ATTACKING

CAMERON RIDGE, BRIGS PEAK, SANCHIL

FORT DOLOGORODOC

MADRASSI LINEMEN WITH MULE


Chapter Four

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