Battlefield visit – Keren, Eritrea
BATTLEFIELD VISIT – KEREN, ERITREA
"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.
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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…
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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.
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.
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.
Today, the battle is marked by the graves of the brave men who fought on both sides.
The following links provide more information on the battle of Keren:
Discuss this battle in our Forums here.
A J Summersgill