AOI: Keren and Air Superiority


Fiat CR42 downing a Gloster Gladiator

Immediately after the battle of Agordat on 1 February 1941, Gazelle Force was instructed to pursue the Italians towards Keren. The British were held up at the Barak river, where the Ponte Mussolini bridge had been partially destroyed. The main girders had been severely damaged and it was impossible to get motor transport over it. At this point the Barak was around 150 yards wide and consisted of a strip of very soft, deep sand that, without a temporary track, vehicles had no hope of crossing.

The Italians were not about to make even this difficult task easy for the British, as they had laid a large number of mines around the approaches to the bridge and were covering the minefield with machine-gun posts and an artillery piece. This small rearguard was quickly overwhelmed by field artillery, which allowed the British to lay their track, and by the evening of 2 February Gazelle Force, along with six light tanks and the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, was just five miles from Keren.

In the skies on 1 February, 1 SAAF Squadron’s fighters had broken up an attack by five S.79s near Agordat. By this stage the Italian Air Force was in a parlous state. Since the middle of January it had lost seventeen aircraft due to enemy action, three more had been destroyed in accidents and twenty-four more were out of commission until at least March, due to the severity of the damage. This now meant that the Italian Air Force in East Africa could muster just thirty-seven Ca 133s, fifteen CR.42s, fourteen CR.32s, seven S.79s, six S.81s, two Ro.37bis and one S.82. The Italians by this stage also knew that it was suicidal to launch Ca 133s against any Allied target unless they were protected by fighters. It was the view of the Italian command that if air activities continued at its present level of intensity for another fortnight the Italian Air Force would virtually cease to exist.

There was another Italian casualty on 2 February when a patrol of 3 SAAF Squadron Hurricanes flew a sortie to Afmadu. The pilots, Capt J.E. Frost and Lt Hewitson, saw nothing on their first sortie, but on their second they spotted a Ca 133 on the ground. Frost strafed it and set it on fire. By now 3 SAAF was based at Aligabe and was very much at the forefront of the push.

Meanwhile, on the ground, as Gazelle Force pressed on from Ponte Mussolini they encountered a good road heading north-east over rolling terrain. Ahead of them was an escarpment, literally the entrance into Eritrea. The escarpment seemed to stretch for miles, and indeed for the last few miles before Keren the road ran through a narrow valley, with the escarpment on the left and an enormous spur on the right. It would be in this valley and the surrounding heights that the battle of Keren would be fought. There were Italian observation posts all above the valley, some as high as 2,000 ft. During daylight hours nothing could move without being seen. The valley was bare; a handful of trees and some scrub and no other cover. The valley was wide; between half a mile and a mile and a half. The road itself ran along the south side of the valley as far as Mount Dologorodoc, where it turned sharply to the north over a bridge and then uphill to enter the Dongolaas Gorge, which was no more than 330 yards wide. Above was Fort Dologorodoc, and here was a wide part, known as the Happy Valley. The only entrance for real traffic was over the bridge.

In the north wall of the valley was the Acqua Gap, flanked to the east by Mount Zelale, known as the Sphinx due to its shape. Fort Dologorodoc, guarding the entrance to the gorge, was overlooked to the east by Mount Falestoh, to the north-east by Mount Zeban and to the north-west by Mount Sanchil. Fire could be brought down on the fort from any of these summits.

To the north-west of Mount Sanchil were a series of features that would play an important role in the battle – Brig’s Peak, Sugar Loaf, Saddle, Near Feature, Hog’s Back, Flat Top Hill, Mole Hill, Mount Samanna and Mount Amba. All of the mountains were steep, covered in boulders and scrub, there were no paths and some took as much as an hour and a half to climb.

The railway running from Agordat to Keren ran along the north side of the valley. When it reached Dongolaas Gorge it had climbed a third of the way up the lower slopes of Mount Sanchil. The railway would be of enormous use, particularly to the 4th Indian Division.

When Agordat fell, Keren was believed to have been held by just a single colonial brigade. The British believed that if they moved quickly they could overrun Keren before the Italians poured reinforcements into it. Unfortunately, intelligence revealed that by 2 February the Italians had in fact already reinforced Keren. A colonial brigade and part of a Grenadier division had been brought up from Addis Ababa.

By now the British were at the first major Italian roadblock in the Dongolaas Gorge. The Italians had sited units to cover the position. Any British that drew close to it came under immediate fire. A reconnaissance was sent out, and although the British tried to rush the roadblock on 3 February, they were unable to get past. The 2nd Camerons worked their way towards Brig’s Peak and secured Cameron Ridge. Meanwhile Skinner’s Horse was sent around the right flank, and units probed into the Happy Valley to try and find a way around the block.

Storming the Italian positions at Keren was not a task that the British could take lightly. Added to the natural strength of the Italian positions, the temperature was also rising daily. Both the British and the Italians knew that the engagement at Keren would be decisive. A surprise attack by the British was unlikely, as the Italians had good observation posts and the air force was still active. The British knew that this would not be an easy assault. Keren was indeed a tough nut to crack. Any casualties now would be incredibly difficult to replace.

The British hunted for a way past the block; in fact the 3rd Central Indian Horse hunted for a way through some sixty miles to the south, and reached Arresa, which No. 2 Motor Machine-gun Group of the Sudan Defence Force had reached. They found that Arresa was a possibility, but they could see how difficult the route was, as the Italians had abandoned nearly all their vehicles along here in their retreat from Barentu. It would take time to build a road through here, and every wasted hour would give the Italians an opportunity to move troops down and make Arresa as difficult as Keren.

The expected rains would also make the route impossible. The British hunted to the north and found nothing, and they came to the gradual realisation that only at Keren was there any real option.

On 3 February Hurricanes of 3 SAAF Squadron scrambled over the Dif area. Later Lt Marsh escorted Hartebeests of 41 SAAF Squadron on an attack on Afmadu. Marsh engaged one of five CR.42s that came up to intercept, but it evaded him in the clouds. Capt Frost, based at Aligabe, on his third sortie of the day, saw three Ca 133s bombing a British camp at Dif. He dived to attack, making a frontal attack on the third Ca 133. He was then bounced by two CR.42s. Frost evaded them and swung around to try and catch the Ca 133s again. As he came in for another attack the CR.42s tried to intercept him. He fired a burst of machine-gun fire into one of them. The CR.42 pulled up and then spun down, crash-landing in a ball of flames. Frost then turned to attack the bombers again. The Ca 133s broke formation, and as Frost closed with one of them the pilot baled out and the controls were taken over by the co-pilot, who managed to crash-land the bomber. Frost now tackled the second bomber, which burst into flames and crashed. He now moved on the third one, shooting at it in two passes and then seeing it crash-land. British ground troops took eleven Italian air crew prisoner.

Over Eritrea, six Gladiators of 1 SAAF Squadron landed at the new airstrip, codenamed Pretoria. They took off again at 1145 to attack Italian positions around Gondar. They spotted an Italian landing-ground near Azozo, and on it were five Ca 133s. The Gladiators came down and began strafing the Ca 133s, which were being refuelled and loaded with bombs. The Gladiator pilots claimed that they hit and blew up all five, but the Italians later only admitted to one.

Peeling away from the Italian airfield, the Gladiator pilots saw another airfield, with CR.42s taxiing to take off. Also on the ground were a number of S.81s. The Gladiators got in one strafing attack before the CR.42s engaged them. In the ensuing dogfight Capt Le Mesurier and Capt Boyle each claimed to have shot down a CR.42. In the fight Lt Smith’s aircraft was badly damaged and he had to make a forced landing at Azozo.

One of the CR.42 victims that day was Sergente Maggiore Enzo Omiccioli. Omiccioli was originally of 410 Squadriglia, but had been recently flying with 412 Squadriglia. He was shot down during the attack on Gondar, and was posthumously awarded the Medaglia D’Oro for his actions while flying a CR.32 on attachment to 411 Squadriglia, when he shot down Lt Rankin of 40 SAAF Squadron in a Hartebeest. He had also shot down two Blenheims when he was with 410 Squadriglia, and four when he was with 412 Squadriglia.

On 4 February, 1 SAAF Squadron launched three Gladiators and three Hurricanes for an attack on the airfield at Bahar Dar. As they approached the airfield they saw three Ca 133s on the ground. Capt Driver shot one up, and Lt White and Lt Coetzer claimed another one each.

Meanwhile, four more Hurricanes of 1 SAAF Squadron were on escort duty with Wellesleys to attack the area around Gura. They encountered three Blenheim IVs of 14 Squadron. Immediately the South African pilots took the Blenheims to be enemy aircraft and launched an attack, damaging one so badly that it had to crash-land at Port Sudan. The Hurricanes then peeled off to attack four CR.42s. Maj Wilmot attacked one at low level over Asmara, believing that he saw it crash among some buildings.

A pair of Blenheim IVFs launched an attack on Makale airfield from Aden. The pilots, Sqn Ldr J.M.N. Pike and Flt Lt Gethin of 203 Squadron, shot up three S.79s, and may well have badly damaged three others that were undergoing repairs. The Blenheims were then set upon by a pair of CR.32s of 410 Squadriglia, flown by Verones and Folcherio. The Italians hit both of the Blenheims, and one of them was forced to crash-land back at Aden.

There was considerable activity over Eritrea on 5 February. There were engagements between Hurricanes and Gladiators of 1 SAAF Squadron against as many as six CR.42s. In one of the engagements Capt Driver attacked a CR.42 and saw it crash-land close to Asmara. Meanwhile Lt Coetzer shot down another CR.42, while Capt Le Mesurier claimed a third.

Italian aircraft attacked the 5th Indian Brigade outside Keren on 6 February. From now on, 1 SAAF Squadron was assigned to provide cover for the ground troops over the area.

British bombers struck Keren and Assab, and on 7 February a CR.42 of 412 Squadriglia attacked and shot down a Hardy of 237 Squadron over Keren. The crew-members of the Hardy, Flg Off Taylor and Sgt Stowe, were both killed. The British lost a pair of Wellesleys flown by Flg Off Helsby and Sgt E.E. Blofield over Adi Ugri. The Wellesleys were attacked by CR.42s of 412 Squadriglia, and one of the kills was claimed by Maresciallo Soffritti. Pike and Gethin were active again on 6 February, and this time they attacked Alomata. They saw nine Ca 133s on the ground and shot up eight of them.

On the ground, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, less one battalion, was moved from Agordat to Keren. It was hoped that it could attack around the right flank of the Italian positions, through the Happy Valley and into the Acqua Gap. During the previous night the 3rd Battalion of the 14th Punjabis occupied Brig’s Peak, but was driven off on the afternoon of 6 February. The 1st Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles occupied part of Cameron Ridge and held off vicious counter-attacks.

It was clear that the Italians were reinforcing the area. During the night of 7/8 February the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade moved into position in the Happy Valley, and in the early morning of 8 February the 4th Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles launched an attack on Acqua Gap. It was wired and strongly held, and the battalion was only able to consolidate on a ridge just below it. It was a perfect target for the Italian Air Force.

Elsewhere, another attempt was made to secure Brig’s Peak, this time by the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Punjabis. It was to take it until 1500 on 10 February to succeed.

No. 14 Squadron launched four Blenheim IVs on 8 February to attack Asmara. One Blenheim was hit by anti-aircraft fire and shot down. Later in the day four Hurricanes of 1 SAAF Squadron launched a patrol over Asmara and were attacked by five CR.42s. Capt Driver managed to shoot one down and Lt Van Der Merwe damaged a second one.

There was disaster on Sunday 9 February when Agordat and the surrounding airfields were attacked by 412 Squadriglia. Five CR.42s were involved in the strafing and bombing runs. The Italians would claim five Hurricanes, five Hawker biplanes, two Wellesleys, two Gladiators and two other aircraft. In actual fact just two Wellesleys, two Hardies and two Lysanders were destroyed.

Throughout the period 10–12 February the Italians made numerous counter-attacks against Brig’s Peak and Cameron Ridge. The 3rd Battalion of the 1st Punjabis were driven off Brig’s Peak once again in the early hours. Meanwhile a second attack on the Acqua Gap was being launched. The 4th Battalion of the 11th Sikhs aimed to take Mount Zalale (the Sphinx) while the 4th Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles attacked Hill 1565. Neither battalion was able to reach its objectives; in fact the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was then pulled out. The second unsuccessful attack on the Acqua Gap made it clear to the British that shortage of transport, ammunition, rations and petrol was becoming a problem. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was pulled back to Barentu, and the rest of the 5th Indian Division was moved back to Subderat and Tessenei, where it could be more easily resupplied.

No. 1 SAAF Squadron was launching offensive patrols over Asmara on 10 February. Six Hurricanes got into a dangerous dogfight with five CR.42s in the cloudy skies. Capt Boyle managed to shoot down a CR.42, and Capt Driver, having chased a pair of CR.42s and then lost them in the clouds, shot at a third one and saw it burst into flames. Driver then received a number of hits and two CR.42s chased him, but he managed to evade and land safely at Agordat. In all probability, the Hurricane pilots had actually only shot down one Italian aircraft – a CR.32, almost certainly flown by Sergente Marlotti (412 Squadriglia). His body was found near the wreckage of his aircraft. His parachute had not opened.

No. 1 SAAF was determined to sweep Italian fighters from the skies over Keren, and on 11 February it launched no fewer than eleven fighters. On one of the patrols two Hurricanes were attacked by CR.42s. The CR.42s tried to slip away and were chased by Lt S. de K Viljoen. The South African pilot ran out of fuel and had to land near a village. He was lucky that the village was already in British hands; he managed to obtain some fuel, and took off the following morning, but promptly crashed. He returned to base on foot, and later his aircraft was recovered and repaired.

In all likelihood, the three CR.42s that had been encountered by the Hurricanes were being led by Capitano Mario Visintini. He was leading two young pilots. It was a disastrous sortie. Visintini was blown off course and was killed when he crashed into Mount Nefasit. The two young pilots had to make forced landings. Visintini was another desperate loss for the Italian Air Force. He had flown in the Spanish Civil War and had probably shot down a number of Wellesleys and Blenheims. In total he may have claimed fifteen to seventeen kills. Visintini was posthumously awarded the Medaglia D’Oro.

More aggressive combat patrols were launched once again on 13 February. Five Hurricanes engaged five CR.42s, and as one of the CR.42s tried to evade an onrushing Hurricane it began to belch smoke. It was attacked by Capt Boyle and set on fire. The pilot managed to bale out. Meanwhile Lt Duncan saw another CR.42 in trouble, and as he attacked it the pilot also baled out. In fact just one of the two losses was a CR.42 flown by Luigi De Pol (who was badly wounded and later died in hospital). The other aircraft was the last CR.32 in Eritrea, which was flown by Tenente Bossi. It was later claimed that Bossi had been machine-gunned while he was dangling from his parachute. In hospital he had to have an arm and a leg amputated, but he died as a result of his injuries.

An S.82 transporter was destroyed when the British raided Zula, and welcome reinforcements arrived with K Flight’s return from Egypt. The Gladiator flight was commanded by Flt Lt J.E. Scoular DFC. It would now be based at Mersa Taclai.

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