Pages Menu
TwitterRssFacebookYouTube

Image Map
Categories Menu

Posted on Oct 28, 2005 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Battlefield visit – Keren, Eritrea

By Marco Fera

BATTLEFIELD VISIT – KEREN, ERITREA

Banner1.jpg

"Keren is proving itself to be a tough nut to crack. The enemy is ferociously and repeatedly counterattacking us and, even if its losses have been exceedingly heavy, there’s no immediate sign of yielding".

Gen. Wavell to Churchill

Eritrea, a small country in East Africa, was colonised by Italy in 1885 and was subsequently used by the Italians to invade Abyssinia in October 1935, four years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. From this point on, the colony became a part of Italian East Africa until the fateful year of 1941 which saw the Italians defeated by British and Commonwealth forces as part of the East African campaign.

Subscribe Today

One of our readers, Marco Fera, recently took a trip to the Middle East and Eritrea.

Marco takes up the story:

This summer I had a long vacation and I had the chance to visit the middle east and Eritrea. In Eritrea I visited the battlefield of Keren, where in 1941 a tough battle took place between the English and the Italians.

But first a couple of thoughts about the middle east: I’ve travelled from Turkey to Egypt passing through Syria, Jordan and Israel. I suggest to everybody to visit these places, not only they are beautiful (and cheap) countries but the people are probably the most welcoming and kind I’ve ever met. The Syrians and the Jordans especially have been wonderful, I’ll always remember the way they helped us when we needed (special thanks to Abdullah of Riad Hotel in Hama, Syria), or the way they greeted us just to have a chat: they were really happy to see visitors and if I’ll come back to Syria or Jordan it will be most of all for the folk.

Then I moved to Eritrea to attend an internship period for my university. There I’ve found a sad situation: the country is in the hands of a dictator, the international organizations as the NGOs are in great difficulty, for a recent law makes their job almost impossible. The prices (especially for fuel and basic food) are very high, many suffer from starvation, everybody lives a hard life. This dictatorship is a hidden one: you cannot see policemen in the streets (in spite of this the cities, and Asmara in particular, are very clean and ordered indeed), but you can be sure that everywhere you go there’s a spy listening, and the telephone conversations are all controlled. To talk about politics in public places is a taboo for the people, and only in private homes you can hear complaints: I’ve personally met a man who was imprisoned because his son deserted, but he wasn’t alone, for this is a common practice to discourage the youth from deserting. Still, the figure of president Isaias is respected (the media are all in the hands of the government), and one can see a sort of personal attachment to him, something that leads many people into believing that he is a good man aided by inept idiots. The Eritreans are pleasant people, and when you’re somebody’s guest you can expect to be treated like a king. This extreme mildness is a national disposition responsible for both the good and the evil of the present situation: you can feel safe at every corner at anytime of the day or the night, and given the honesty of the folk you can be sure you can trust almost anybody. But this nature, gentle yet made hard by thirty years of wars, makes unlikely that the people will revolt against their unjust rule: I could say that the best warranty of survival for the present or the future governments lies in this excessive spirit of endurance of the common people.

I had the chance to visit Keren and the surrounding area. At the time of the battle the Italians initially outnumbered the English but, like in all other theaters of ww2, they weren’t as geared as their adversaries. They resisted for 56 days…

* * *

Click on the thumbnails below for larger pictures.

The battle at Keren was marked for the dogged defence and stiff resistance of the occupying Italian Army who were determined not to surrender. With no fortified defences or buildings, the battlefield was contained within a natural amphitheatre of mountains with a large ravine to the south-west through which ran the road and the Agordat-Asmara railway.

Keren-Battlefield-[001].jpg Keren-Battlefield-[021].jpg

The battle began on the 3rd of February 1941 with both sides exchanging artillery fire from their dug-in positions. Over 90,000 men in total were engaged in the battle, and it proved to be a long-drawn out affair. The Italians, knowing the loss of Keren would mean the loss of their East African empire were determined to hold their positions, and managed to defend the area for two months of fierce fighting.

Keren-Battlefield-[018].jpg Keren-Battlefield-[020].jpg

The battle finally ended on the 27th of March 1941 after the British assaulted and took Mount Sankil, home to an Italian fortress. The brave Italian troops retreated to make a last stand in nearby Adi Tekelezan, but with the loss of Keren, they knew their position in Eritrea had become untenable and so they finally surrendered on April Fool’s Day 1941.

Keren-Battlefield-[023].jpg Keren-Battlefield-[015].jpg

Today, the battle is marked by the graves of the brave men who fought on both sides.

Keren-Battlefield-[004].jpg

Keren-Battlefield-[003].jpg Keren-Battlefield-[008].jpg

The following links provide more information on the battle of Keren:

The Brits Enter, the Italians Exit

Italy at War

Banner2.jpg

Discuss this battle in our Forums here.

A J Summersgill

andrew@armchairgeneral.com

24 Comments

  1. Last month, while working in Eritrea, I visited the Keren War Graves. As a native of Inverness, Scotland I was saddened to see so many Cameron Highlanders. My grand-father and uncle had both served in other battalions of that County Regiment. Hopefully I’m not being a petty chauvinist when I observe that the Battle of Keren was more than just one between the Italians and the ‘English’. Scots obviously fought and died there. The term ‘BRITISH’ is perhaps more appropriate?
    Regards,
    John (Jack) Lisman, P.Eng.
    Victoria, CANADA

    • Lena – I was interested to read about your visit to the war graves in Keran. My Uncle Albert (Marshall) was a piper in the Cameron Highlanders and is buried there. I had wondered about the possibility of making a visit there. I’d be very interested to hear how you arranged your visit. Cheers, Jon

  2. Look the gravestonst saying “Ascaro ignoto”. In her book on Eritrea Michela Wrong says some 3000 Italians and 9000 ascari (local soldiers) died in Italian side. Al graves of ascaris say “ascaro ignoto – unknown soldier”. Italians did not bother to know names of men who died for them.

  3. The East African campaign in general and the Battle of Keren in particular prove that Italian troops in the Second World War, given adequate equipment
    and supplies and above all able commanders, could fight as bravely, effectively and tenaciously as the best, including the Germans. This point, also
    driven home by the stellar performance of such units as the Ariete and Folgore Divisions, should be enough to dismiss the simplistic, malicious cliché
    that Italian troops during the Second World War were invariably “ineffective” and/or “cowardly” in their battlefield performance.

  4. I am looking for more pictures of this cemetry , My Grandfather is one of the Cameron Highlanders Buried there …

    Thank you , Ian Rome – Toronto Canada

    • I oftern pass and visit the cemetery to remeber the British, it seems so sad they are left but to be fair, the cemetery is kept very well.

      If you need I photo I can stop and take one, it can be tough getting to Eritrea and even tougher getting out of Asmara. You would need a permit from the government

      • Chris, I have come across your posting on the web by accident in searching for grave photos in the CWGC cemetery Keren. I would dearly love to have a photo of the headstone for my uncle W.O.II Alfred Francis Edwards killed in action 16 March 1941 his grave is plot 5B3

        Don’t know if there is any possibility you could obtain one for me?

      • I am replying to myself hoping that Alfred gets the message.

        I am travelling to Keren tomorrow and will take the photo but need an address to mail it.

        My email is chris_attwood@btinternet.com

        Regards,

        Chris

      • Chris,

        I worked in the US Embassy from 2002 to 2006 and passed through Keren many times while I was there and stopped several times at the cemetery. It is rugged landscape and defending would have been so much easier than attacking on that battlefield. I would love to go back sometime and see it all again.

      • Hi
        I was wondering if you were still in Eritrea as I was looking for a photo of my UncleS grave in Keren his name and details are as follows
        SAVAGE, KENNETH HOWARD Flight Lieutenant his grave reference is 3. C. 16 and it is in Keren war cemetery
        I know this is a long shot but if at all possible I would be most grateful

        Chris

      • Chris. Would it be possible to get a picture of my uncle’s grave: RM Gorrian Cameron Highlanders reference 4.C.16? I’d also like to visit the cemerery one day – any information would be useful.
        Thank You

      • Dear Chris,

        If you are passing by Keren Cemetery again I would be so grateful if you could take a photo of my great uncle’s grave. His name is Laurence Stephen John Doyle, the reference given is 3. B. 13.

        My email address is amandaager@yahoo.co.uk

        Many thanks,

        Amanda

  5. I am the founder of two pipe bands: The Charlotte Scottish (1970-73) and the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders 1974 to present. In Charlotte one of the 6-8 tunes we played was “with Wellesley’s rifles at Keren……composed by Cpl Kearney of the Queens own Cameron Highlanders. It is a neat marching tune and easy to play. I am curious about the composer what happened to him, etc etc. Any info you can give me is very much appreciated……….Harvey Ritch PO Box 398 Linville, NC 28646……or e-mail above.

  6. Despite thousands of books on World War II the battle of Keren is almost unknown in the United States. Yet as one commentator said it proved that with leadership and equipment the Italian soldier was as brave and tenacious as any. There is a new book in English coming out about the Alpini troops at Stalingrad. This is an amazing story of courage against overwhelming odds and physical hardship. I believe the name will be “Survival on the Steppes” Hopefully the Battle of Keren will also find a competent Historian to recount the horror and endurance for both sides.

  7. Honour to people from every Country, of Axis or Allied, that lived and died with respect, courage, loyalty.
    Nowadays, these values are unfortunatelly difficult to be found.

    My grandfather fought in Keren in 44th Black Shirt Battailon “Pasubio” and survived to this battle.
    Then he was captured during the defense of Massaua and brougth first to Egypt and than to South Africa. He came back home in May 1946.

    Any informations or comments about will be appreciated, but not from who giudicate and make differences looking to the skin and not to the hearth.

    Many Thanks

    Stefano from Schio – North Italy

    • Stefano,
      My father (Thomas Murphy) fought and was wounded at the battle of Keren. He and 5 others were caught in a
      crossfire of Italian machine guns – 2 killed and 4 wounded.
      The wounded lay where they fell throughout the night,
      a night that was moonlit which still gave the Italian
      gunners clear sight to finish them off, but they didn’t.
      Their humanity in the brutality of war is the reason
      I am here today to compose these comments.
      My father always maintained that the Italian defenders
      fought ferociously and courageously. My father served
      with the Scottish regiment, The Cameron Highlanders.
      My best wishes to you.

  8. There is a new book out about the Alpini at Stalingrad, an amazing story for those who don’t know it. I believe the name is Survival on the Steppes, and the author is Hope Hamilton. If you get it I’d like to know what you think.

  9. I visited these graveyards in Keren two months ago, so if anyone is interested in seeing pictures from some of the graves and the surroundings, let me know. I don’t think I can publish the photos straight onto this website.

    • Lena,

      My great uncle is buried in the British Cemetery at Keren and I would have liked to have visited his grave earlier this year on the 60th anniversary of his death. I hope that I will manage to visit the cemetery next year.

      Please would you let me know how you arranged your visit to Keren. Was it quite safe and did you require any consular assistance?

      I would be interested in seeing your pictures.

    • Lena,

      I have picked up an old post from you in 2012 and wonder if you still live near the Keren Cemetery or know someone who does.

      In my retirement I have been researching and writing ‘family stories’ for both my wife Linda’s family and my own.

      Linda’s uncle, George Houston, gave his life at the Battle of Keren and is buried in Plot 5A2. He was only 20 years old and a private in the Highland Light Infantry City of Glasgow Regiment.

      We are retired now and will not be able to afford a visit to Keren any time soon. I wonder if you still know anyone who could send us a photo of George ( he was called Doddie by his siblings ) grave stone.

      Best regards,

  10. Hi.
    My Uncle Kenneth Kisby was killed in Eritrea, I have just won the battle after all these years to have his name placed on a memorial in his home city, I would love to be able to visit his grave. I am moving to Saudi Arabia later this year and would be very interested in knowing how to visit Eritrea and whether it is safe etc.
    Please get in touch if you can help.
    Many thanks,
    Michelle.

  11. Hi Chris (Hughes)

    I am still in Eritrea but based in Asmara. However, you are lucky, I am going through Karen on the 29th so I should get the chance to take some photos.

    If you email me to my private email list in a previous comment I will send the photos to you.

    Chris

  12. I too had the occasion to visit this war cemetery at Keren in 2001 as Chief of Staff of UNMEE which was headquartered at Asmara. It was amazing to see how well preserved the cemetery is. Whosoever is in charge needs to be complemented for this effort.

    Most of the commentators above have not given heed to the number of British Indian Army soldiers who lie martyred there. These soldeirs were instrumental in the eventual Allied victory in the Keren battle. I salute the fighting spirit of these soldiers who fought and died for a distant sovereign upholding the values of soldiery and loyalty inherited from centuries of traditions.

    My SALUTE to these great ancestors.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>