Amba Alagi--Surrender in Eritrea
The Dessie area was still being cleared by 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group, and the Engineers of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. were still removing road-blocks when the Natal Carbineers, with two batteries of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A., two sections of 1st Field Company, and one platoon of No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company on 30 April 1941 moved out and headed northward on the main road for Asmara and the Red Sea port of Massawa, with Amba Alagi some 142 miles along the twisting route ahead of them. Now 2nd Reserve Motor Transport Company had to split two ways, to cope with the needs of elements of 1st S.A. Brigade Group in Dessie itself, and on the road to Amba Alagi. Coming 235 miles down from Asmara, such troops of Major-General A. G. O.M. Mayne's 5th Indian Division as could be spared from garrison duties in Eritrea were already putting strong pressure on the Amba Alagi redoubt, and the British Divisional Commander had fixed 4 May as the date for an assault entrusted to 29th Infantry Brigade.
The Viceroy, with the fall of Keren, had realized that collapse of Italian resistance in Eritrea could not long be delayed. Amba Alagi, hallowed by the memory of Pietro Toselli's heroic stand there in 1895, was one of the three redoubts selected for concentration of whatever forces could still be mustered to tie down British troops sorely needed by General Wavell in North Africa, as he was pressed to help in Iraq, to stem trouble in Syria and to face airborne invasion of Crete while trying to hold back the Afrika Korps at the Egyptian Frontier and retain his grip on beleaguered Tobruk.
On the heights of Amba Alagi and Mount Corarsi, in positions by nature even more formidable than Keren, the remnants of General Frusci's Eritrean Army had been joined by all that was left to the Duke of Aosta of his own central reserves. While they blocked the road from Addis Ababa to the Red Sea, General Gazzera was to continue resistance in Galla-Sidamo and General Nasi was to hold out to the last at Gondar, the northern approaches to which made both Keren and Amba Alagi look comparatively simple.
Only General Wavell's urgent need for clearing the road north of Addis Ababa had influenced General Piatt to turn Sudan Force towards Amba Alagi before tackling the more direct threat to the Sudan represented by the forces still at Gondar.1 To dislodge the Duke of Aosta would be an extremely difficult undertaking for any force approaching
from the north as 5th Indian Division had to do.
South of Amba Alagi, on 1 May the Natal Carbineers occupied Woldia and took 200 prisoners,2 but after travelling some miles through mountains covered with mimosa and euphorbia trees they were held up by considerable demolitions including two breaks in the road, two blown bridges and extensive damage to a tunnel near the entrance to which there appeared a notice announcing ominously in English, 'You will not pass here!' By reconstructing an old Abyssinian track below the modern road, the men of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. skirted the cliffs to by-pass the tunnel, but nevertheless the column was delayed for three days and could not proceed till 5 May. On that day they reached the intended limit of the Natal Carbineers' preliminary advance at Alomata.
Finding that the position was at the foot of sheer cliffs and quite untenable, the South Africans pushed on and, after rounding up some prisoners, including two enemy Brigade Commanders, they climbed steeply up the serpentine 'Pass of the Dead', which in a few miles carried them 3,000 feet up from its base.
Eight miles up the road, as it clung to the face of a lofty mountain, extensive demolitions again held up the advance. The South African Engineers were soon repairing the road and work was in progress when the column was unfortunately attacked by Gladiator aircraft in error. Private W. F. Phillpott of the Natal Carbineers was killed and three others were wounded.
By 8 May the demolitions on the southern approaches had been made good and the Natal Carbineers column moved forward to Quoram, a village among green hills some miles south of Mai Chew where, in 1936, the Italians had roundly defeated an attack by Haile Selassie's forces led by Leul-Ras Seyoum, Leul-Ras Kassa and Ras Getachew, three of the feudal seigneurs of the Empire who had already proved their ineptitude.3 The little hamlet had recently been the Duke of Aosta's headquarters, but was now being approached by a Patriot force under the same Leul-Ras Seyoum who in March 1936 had slipped away from the field of battle to his fief in Tigre while the Emperor despaired over the jealousies and sedition displayed by fighting men whom one of his own secretaries called 'swine in tatters'--an epithet soon to be echoed by some who had to deal with a new generation of these unpredictable warriors.
At Quoram the Natal Carbineers liberated 161 Greeks and an Aden-born Englishwoman, Mrs. Violet Mazzarini, who had been imprisoned on a diet of lentils and beans for eleven months. By the time the South Africans reached the prison camp, the inmates had as companions some fifty Italian officers, seeking refuge from Leul-Ras Seyoum's advancing hordes.4
Pressing on to Mai Chew through indescribably beautiful country above the pearl of Lake Ashangi, set like a jewel among the magnificent mountains, the Natal Carbineers took still more prisoners, including the Italian officer who had commanded the garrison at El Wak during the raid of 16 December 1940.
Leaving the Dukes and some armoured cars to garrison Dessie, where No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. maintained a rear signals
AMBA ALAGI FROM KHAKI HILL.
Based on Panoramic Sketch compiled by T Section 1st Transvaal Scottish and British Official Photographs.
office and a staging point for a 400-mile dispatch rider service to and from Addis Ababa, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group now also moved forward and passed under command Sudan Force. On 10 May the head of the 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade column joined up with the Natal Carbineers at Mai Chew, from which point the Carbineers pushed forward reconnaissance patrols which encountered still more road-blocks for 1st Field Company to cope with. Work continued in heavy rain throughout the night.
With permission from 11th African Division to bring forward the Dukes less one company from Dessie, 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group began a general move forward towards Amba Alagi early on 11 May. Reaching the top of the Aiba Pass above Enda Checros, they sent an armoured car patrol across the valley to contact Campbell's Scouts in the hills through which the road climbed on its way up towards the Toselli Pass in the shadow of Amba Alagi's towering peak. Another patrol went forward to reconnoitre the bridge near Atzala Chercos, where a stream ran down between Aiba's 9,500-foot peak of Amba Boola and the even loftier Alagi. They would also stop any enemy attempt at recrossing or destroying the bridge.
Major-General Mayne, commanding 5th Indian Division, flew from his headquarters in a light aircraft to Alomata and then drove up to confer with Brigadier Pienaar. That afternoon they drove to the summit of Aiba Pass with Lieutenant-Colonels le Roux, Hartshorn and M. D. McKenzie to carry out a reconnaissance, during which General Mayne took the opportunity of pointing out on the ground the various features named by 5th Indian Division and those they had already captured.
The view before the reconnaissance party of senior officers was one of impressive grandeur. Holding the centre of the picture, about 5 miles due north of their position at the top of Aiba Pass, there towered the conical peak of 11,186-foot Amba Alagi,5 rising from the valley floor like Devil's Peak from sea-level at Cape Town. Honeycombed with galleries, gun positions and machine-gun posts hewn out of the living rock, it looked every inch of what one would expect of a stronghold held by men dedicated to an epic defence. With its pointed summit shrouded in mist, Amba Alagi dominated the surrounding crags and spurs like an aloof and frowning giant.
In front of Alagi and a little to its right, atop a high ridge stood Fort Toselli, named in memory of the hero, Major Pietro Toselli, who in 1895 had led the advance guard of Arimondi's Brigade at Amba Alagi as the Abyssinian army approached. Toselli and virtually all his faithful askaris had been killed in action, arousing the admiration of Ras Makonnen to such an extent that he had the Major's body specially recovered for decent burial.
Winding through the valley to the east of the Fort ran the road which crossed the massif over a 'nek' which, like the fort itself, was in turn dominated from the east by the pinnacle of Mount Corarsi, which the Indians had renamed Triangle. Turning still further to the right, one's eyes fell on two adjacent peaks christened the Twin Pyramids, and then on the great flat top or 'amba' of 11,485-foot Gumsa, the highest point of a massive ridge overlooking another road, the Falaga Pass, which
wound its rough way over a saddle about 5 miles to the east of the main Toselli Pass between the heights of Gumsa and Falaga Peak further east.
To the left of Amba Alagi a prominent broken dorsal ridge of the Alagi massif, running roughly westward, rose and fell unevenly with its high points, from east to west, at Little Alagi, Middle Hill, Elephant (Mount Astembiel), Whaleback--overlooking a rough track known to the Italians as Togora Pass--and the Pyramid (Mount Ambamelacce). Almost at right angles to this chain there ran the lesser Castle Ridge, pointing down towards the left of Aiba Pass. In a straight line between its southermost extremity and the South Africans' viewpoint stood Centre Hill and the nearer Khaki Hill on the left-hand side of the road from the foot of Aiba Pass, as it began to climb out of the valley up towards Fort Toselli.
No attack on the Amba Alagi positions from the north had been possible before the beginning of May, by which time the enemy had organized the redoubt under General Valetti-Borgnini in three sectors--Falaga, Toselli and Togora--in all of which they were well supplied with food, water and ammunition.6 The Falaga sector on the east was entrusted to Lieutenant-Colonel Postiglione, with the 43rd Colonial Brigade, who had pulled back all the way from Um Hagar on the Sudanese border, through Arresa, and were now in positions on the Falaga Pass and its northern continuation which the Italians called Togo Pass, and on the spurs dominating the road itself.
In the Toselli Sector the defences were organized on Mount Corarsi (Triangle), the Toselli Pass and Amba Alagi itself, where the Duke of Aosta had his headquarters, with General Valetti-Borgnini actually in command. Italian troops available in the sector included two battalions of 211th Infantry Regiment of the Africa Division, a battalion of Carabinieri, an air force battalion, a naval detachment from Assab, the 2nd and 3rd Groups of 60th Artillery Regiment, a 75 mm Anti-Aircraft Artillery Group, a machine-gun battalion of the regular Savoy Grenadiers less one company, three platoons of anti-tank riflemen, some Colonial 65 mm guns and men from odd transport units, whose vehicles littered the tracks and valleys for miles around. To the north the defences extended to a sub-sector encompassing the Mai Mescic Gorge, where the road ran through the narrow defile defended by troops under Colonel Delitala, who had commanded the original garrison at Barentu. In the south, the forward defended localities down to Mount Woghelem (Khaki Hill) were under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Tramonti.
The Togora Sector on the west was under command of Colonel Largajolli and was manned by a group of the Italian Africa Police reinforced by one machine-gun company of the Savoy Grenadiers.7 From the north there appeared to be three possible lines of attack, by way of Falaga Pass, frontally straight at Amba Alagi, or from the west along the ridge leading to Alagi from the so-called Togora Pass.8 Knife-edged ridges and precipitous slopes discouraged attack from any one of these three points, but one weakness was clear--with only about 7,000 men available altogether, General Valetti-Borgnini's troops were thin on the ground,9 even though he was estimated to have 54 guns and some 250 machine-guns available.
Creating a diversion at the Falaga Pass, which Marshal Badoglio
himself had appreciated as the most favourable line of attack,10 General Mayne had most ably exploited the Italians' sensitivity about this flank in spite of stubborn resistance. Almost simultaneously he had threatened an assault up the main road and then actually launched his main attack along the ridge leading to Amba Alagi from Pyramid and Elephant Hill--in other words, from the Togora Pass.
By the time General Mayne had the opportunity of pointing out the various localities to Brigadier Pienaar on 11 May, units of a composite formation known as 'Fletcher Force'* were already holding Gumsa, with direct observation on Fort Toselli,11 and they were working westwards towards the Twin Pyramids along extremely difficult knife-edged ridges with a long and arduous line on communication by pack transport back to their rear on Falaga Pass. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade on the other side of Amba Alagi, having occupied Elephant and Middle Hill, had tried unsuccessfully to seize Little Alagi and though they now held Centre Hill, south-east of Castle Ridge, they had failed to make good a hold on Castle Ridge itself. They had been dislodged by the treacherous use of the white flag followed by a counterattack organized under cover of mist.12
The Indian Division had held Khaki Hill, too, but had withdrawn from it as it served no useful purpose for them and only extended their line unduly. Italian resistance everywhere was spirited and their troops, unencumbered with groups of unreliable Banda and dubious Dubat, were fighting well. However, 5th Indian Division had by now obtained good observation and were making things extremely unpleasant for the garrison of Amba Alagi, who were hemmed in on three sides, with 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group moving up to complete their encirclement. A terrific bombardment blasted the Alagi and Toselli defences, blowing stone sangars to pieces, with splintering rocks adding to the already heavy Italian casualties.
General Mayne had decided it was essential to occupy Mount Corarsi and also Khaki Hill, and the South Africans were allotted the task of taking the two features and establishing intercommunication with 9th Indian Infantry Brigade (as 'Fletcher Force' had now become, with the addition of 3/18 Garhwal Rifles as reinforcements) on the right on Gumsa, and with 29th Indian Infantry Brigade on Centre Hill to the left. Intercommunication with both General Mayne's Divisional Headquarters and with the two Indian Brigade Headquarters was to be by wireless, line and/or runner as well as by visual signalling if possible.
Brigadier Pienaar was strongly opposed to any suggestion of a night attack on Mount Corarsi and guaranteed that he would take Triangle by 15 May--in daylight. He considered that every foot put wrong or stone dislodged in the darkness would betray the exact position of the men at night before they could close for the attack. Daylight offered the advantage of his being able to use support weapons to the full.
Patriots under Major Rankin of the Sudan Defence Force, and Campbell's Scouts were to be taken off their existing line of operations along the road to Toselli Pass so that they could co-operate on the
* Skinner's Horse, 51 Commando, one company of 3/12 Frontier Force Regiment, one medium machine-gun company of the Sudan Defence Force, a troop of 25-pounders, a troop of 6-inch howitzers, a troop of 3-7-inch howitzers and a section of a field company, Indian Sappers and Miners (Wavell's Despatch, p. 3546).
right flank of the South Africans--an operation which did not materialize.
The Natal Carbineers began a move to Khaki Hill almost immediately, while 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. sent forward reconnaissance parties and prepared to dig in and bring its guns into action as soon as possible. 1st Transvaal Scottish prepared to move forward the following night for the hazardous advance on Mount Corarsi, whose challenging summit stood out above sheer rock faces way off to the north beyond the series of features laconically labelled 1st, 2nd and 3rd Objective, the latter being also known as Wade's Post.
Battle of Amba Alagi, 20 April-15 May 1941
Plans had barely been finalized when the reconnaissance party, armoured cars and some captured vehicles carrying Campbell's Scouts who were returning from Atzala Chercos, were shelled on Aiba Pass
by heavy anti-aircraft guns firing from Amba Alagi.
At this stage, a secret landing ground previously suspected but not discovered, was found at Mai Chew in a dip between the Passes of Dubbar and Aiba, off the main road, which was littered with Italian tankers and other abandoned vehicles. Beyond Mai Chew the road climbed steadily as it headed north and for the first 5 miles or so it wound steeply up to approach the Pass of Debra a Taft, with only occasional enemy vehicles obstructing the roadway. From the fifth to sixth mile north of Mai Chew, however, the number of abandoned vehicles increased noticeably, and the South African columns struck two considerable demolitions about 400 yards apart.
Beyond these demolitions were several Italian lorries in perfect running order and the mountainside was dotted with prepared positions, at one of which a large dump of howitzer shells was found--apparently for the only four 149 mm howitzers available to the Italians in East Africa.13 The road wound down from the demolitions to the newly discovered landing ground, with enemy vehicles in all stages of efficiency lining the route. In the vicinity of the landing ground itself hundreds of vehicles of all kinds were dispersed and all along the track beyond it trucks of all sizes were parked nose-to-tail right up to the summit of Aiba Pass, thus noticeably complicating movement by 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group and dispersal of its own vehicles. There was considerable congestion and from Aiba summit an amazing spectacle met the eyes of the new arrivals. As far as one could see along the twisting road to Amba Alagi, for some 8 miles, there stretched an unbroken line of stationary vehicles deserted by the Italians, as they had moved on foot to occupy their 'last-ditch' redoubt positions.
In the deep valley between the Aiba and Toselli Passes still more transport cluttered the track to the east which led to Corbetta and the Falaga Pass. Every hollow was a parking bay for lorries, each level stretch of ground was a dispersal area for more vehicles and in every fold transport was hidden or simply concentrated in tight-packed clusters with no attempt at concealment. Abyssinian Patriots from Ras Seyoum's band of 20,000 followers were selecting vehicles for themselves and lorry-loads of deserters from Italian Colonial battalions were constantly coming in and adding to the incredible array of transport.
In the midst of all this mechanical chaos and awe-inspiring natural splendour, units of Brigadier Pienaar's Brigade Group on 11 May began moving to their assembly areas for the beginning of a major attack on the inland Rock of Gibraltar which formed the Duke of Aosta's mountain redoubt. The Natal Carbineers, less a platoon guarding prisoners at Quoram, were near the summit of Debra a Taft Pass with Forward Observation Officers of 10th and 12th Field Batteries, S.A.A., and one platoon of No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company. Moving forward to occupy Khaki Hill and Atzala Chercos during the night, they sent out patrols to gain contact with the 1st Worcesters of 5th Indian Division on Centre Hill. Major Jack Storey's 4-5-inch howitzers and Major John Gordon-Gray's 18-pounders moved into gun positions behind the crest of Aiba Pass and in the valley below.
Leaving one platoon with prisoners at Mai Chew, 1st Transvaal
Scottish were disposed between Mai Chew and Debra a Taft Pass, together with the rest of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A., a composite Medium Battery, S.A.H.A. of one section of 6-inch howitzers and one of 60-pounders, sections of 5th and 6th Anti-Aircraft Batteries, S.A.A., and elements of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. and No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company.
Brigadier Pienaar's Advanced Headquarters was at the time at Mai Chew with 10th Field Ambulance, S.A.M.C., less one company, the petrol and ammunition sections of 1 Brigade 'OJ Services Company and 1st Mobile General Workshops, T S.C. less some small detachments. Still back at Dessie at this stage were 'Pincol' Rear Headquarters with the Rear Signals Office, the Dukes, one platoon of 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. (with sections at Woldia and Quoram), a platoon of No. 3 S.A. Armoured Car Company, 2nd Reserve Motor Transport Company less the sections with the infantry battalions, 3rd Reserve Motor Transport Company and 'A' and 'B' Composite Companies, 2nd S.A. Division Motor Transport.
By the morning of 12 May the Natal Carbineers were in possession of Khaki Hill and a lower feature to the east of it overlooking an Italian hospital. Though the Natal men had been embarrassed by a powerful searchlight shining on them from Amba Alagi the previous night, the hill they now occupied afforded some cover to guns, troops and general movement to the south of their position, the approach to which down the mountainside from Aiba Pass was unfortunately in full view of the enemy. Movement during daylight had therefore to be reduced to a minimum. Patrols were sweeping and clearing the northern slopes of Khaki Hill and the valley between it and the Worcesters on Centre Hill to the north-west.
The Brigade Major, Major Gerrard, moved forward with the Brigade Signals Officer and selected a site for a Battle Headquarters near the river-crossing north of Enda Chercos in the valley below the Aiba Pass. The South African Signallers immediately began running a telephone line to the Battle Headquarters position and another to link up with a line being brought from 29th Indian Infantry Brigade Headquarters through the Centre Hill position to Khaki Hill. This link, brought through by Major Graham of 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, who took it round south of Khaki Hill and remained in close touch with 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters, gave direct speech between Brigadier Pienaar's Battle Headquarters and 1st Worcester Regiment, 29th Indian Infantry Brigade and 5th Indian Division. It was to prove of immense value. Of 5th Indian Division, the South African Signals Company recorded that never before had they met with such excellent working.
Brigadier Pienaar, after General Mayne had left, spent the rest of the day in a thorough reconnaissance in his Battle Headquarters area and in formulating final plans, while 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. withdrew its observation posts from Khaki Hill in favour of better control and observation offered by positions on the same hill as the Brigade Commander's Battle Headquarters.
Using the newly discovered landing ground, Brigadier Fletcher, former Commanding Officer of the Highland Light Infantry and
now in command of 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, visited Brigadier Pienaar's Battle Headquarters during the day and there also the South African Brigade Commander issued orders to Lieutenant-Colonels Senescall, Hartshorn, Le Roux and McKenzie, as the Dukes moved up to Mai Chew.
Fortunately the day was quiet in the area occupied by the South Africans, except for spasmodic shelling of the road leading up the Aiba Pass. The only other enemy activity from the southern face of Amba Alagi was directed at Patriot movements--as distinct from mere aimless Shifta activity--on the line of the main road, and there was heavy firing at Royal Air Force planes machine-gunning and bombing the Italian positions. With dusk, heavy cloud and mist blanketed the mountains and rain began to fall, making movement down the Aiba--or Hell Fire Pass as it was soon rechristened--both slow and dangerous, but at the same time nullifying the effect of the enemy searchlights. Driving rain and howling winds made it quite impossible for the 1st Transvaal Scottish to descend the pass during the night, and the men snatched what sleep they could in the shelter of their troop-carriers till morning broke wet and chill.
The South African Battle Headquarters had some difficulty in getting its vehicles up to its new site in the rain, but eventually they managed to offload the trucks and filter them back over the pass. A good number were well away before the mists cleared in the morning and the heavy anti-aircraft guns on Amba Alagi began shelling. The Transvaal Scottish troop-carriers ran the gauntlet down the pass to drop their loads of men in the valley, incongruously dressed in bush-shirts and summer slacks while chilling mists swirled about the crags ahead of them.
Enemy shelling called forth a rapid reply from the South African 6-inch and 4-5-inch howitzers sited under the lee of Battle Headquarters hill, and also from the 60-pounder section and both 18-pounder batteries of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A., now placed behind the crest of Aiba Pass for lack of any suitable position further forward. This added artillery support for the forces investing the redoubt considerably increased the strain on the morale of the defenders, who were beginning to feel the effects of bombardment which had gone on with regularity for ten days. Increasing Patriot activity and a steady growth in the crowd of armed peasants and Shifta gathering for the kill played on the Italians' nerves, and shelling made the recovery of the wounded impossible.14
Leul-Ras* Seyoum spent part of 13 May 1941 with Brigadier Pienaar and was at the South African Battle Headquarters when the Italians launched a counter-attack on the Patriots, who repulsed them with the aid of fire from Major Storey's 4-5-inch howitzer battery. A large fire was caused in the course of the action, when a shell from the South African howitzers burst on top of two oil-tankers15 parked among the myriad vehicles jamming the approaches to Toselli Pass. Some 500 or more of Ras Seyoum's motley band engaged the enemy with great gallantry and skill, but as Brigadier Pienaar recorded, of the remainder
* 'Ras' is a title conferred usually on heads of important houses, provincial governors, ministers, etc., and 'leul' indicates that the bearer of the title is of a princely family.
South African infantry make use of a cactus hedge for cover during the final phase of the Battle of Combolcia.
A battery of South African 4.5-inch howitzers of 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. comes into action at Amba Alagi.
Some of the hundreds of Italian vehicles abandoned on the road to Amba Alagi.
of his force of many thousands the majority were neither keen on hard fighting nor on hard work. Amenable in the presence of their benign overlord, with his cunning but twinkling eyes and gay humour, the Patriots became virtually impossible to handle once they were out of sight of Leul-Ras Seyoum's Ethiopian general's cape, which he wore over his khaki tunic and riding breeches. In fact, it was extremely difficult to make out who really was a Patriot and who was just a visitor come from a local mountain village to join in the fun of noisy shooting with any size of ammunition which would slide into the breech of a captured rifle.
While these mercurial allies flitted about the hills in a spirit of almost wanton abandon, the Transvaal Scottish, with 'C' Company in the lead, began their advance towards the first of three preliminary objectives, leading from one high point to another along narrow paths clinging to precipitous slopes on which the placing of a foot wrong could mean death by hurtling hundreds of feet down the side of a mountain which Nature had conceived on epic scale. Above and ahead of the Scottish, Gumsa, Mount Corarsi and Amba Alagi outdid even the pinnacles of the Natal National Park and towered to an altitude challenging the loftiest point of Champagne Castle in the Drakensberg.
Initially the South Africans did all their own carrying of support weapons, ammunition, water and food, moving steadily to the second objective, which was the crest of an intermediate feature abutting on to the main Mount Corarsi heights, from which it was separated by yet another high point which was marked as objective No. 3, also called Wade's Post. During the day arrangements were made through Major Rankin and Captain Campbell for the Patriots and Scouts to provide carrying parties so as to enable the Transvaal Scottish to assemble their whole battalion in strength and to allow the Dukes to move forward behind them next day.16
Though handled only with the greatest difficulty, and often impatient to press on regardless of ammunition loads or the support weapons without which there was no possibility of dislodging the enemy, the carriers who did stick to their job were of great assistance. However, the Patriots directly controlled by Major Rankin and Captain Campbell, now under command of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade, could not be withdrawn from their positions along the main road, where they were most unwilling to move back and were left to engage enemy attention and harass him exceedingly.
The rest of the Patriots were to assemble under the direction of Leul-Ras Seyoum in the Atzala Chercos area below Aiba Pass and to be held available for operations on the South Africans' right flank or for carrying. It was also arranged that the maximum possible number of pack animals would be made available by the Abyssinians to carry forward supplies, but no great number of animals ever appeared. Nevertheless, at about 4 p.m. No. 11 Platoon of 'C' Company of the 1st Transvaal Scottish was sent forward to Wade's Post with the rest of the company in position to give supporting fire. Heavy fire from the Savoy Grenadier machine-gun battalion and other units fell on the South Africans as they worked along the exposed slopes; but by nightfall they had secured the peak and consolidated on dead ground in
front of Mount Corarsi, whose grim krantzes and rock faces glowered at them from across an open valley ahead. During the bitterly cold, wet night of 13/14 May the Transvaal Scottish brought up a detachment of mortars to Wade's Post17 and continued to reinforce, with a steady flow of ammunition moving up to their forward elements.
Under cover of darkness the Dukes also began their forward move, but travelling down the Aiba Pass in the rain and sleet was so difficult and hazardous without the use of telltale lights that only one company went right down before daybreak. During the early morning of 14 May the rest of the battalion vehicles tackled the descent, widely dispersed at irregular intervals, but nevertheless attracting considerable attention from the Italian artillery which also fired on carrying parties moving laboriously towards Mount Corarsi with pack animals. Two casualties were caused.
Brigadier Pienaar, with Captain S. E. V. Quin and the Brigade Intelligence Officer, transferred their Battle Headquarters during the morning to a position closer to 1st Transvaal Scottish battalion headquarters on a feature near Mount Corarsi. Here the artillery commander of 5th Indian Division, Brigadier A. B. van Strubenzee, visited the South African headquarters to arrange a co-ordinated fire plan for a final assault on Amba Alagi after the capture of the keypoint of Mount Corarsi.
Meanwhile the Transvaal Scottish had fought their way across the ravine separating them from Wade's Post, from which they could now cover the inner defences around Mount Corarsi. The Garhwalis of 9th Indian Infantry Brigade had occupied the Twin Pyramids on the other side of Mount Corarsi during the previous night,18 and by midday on 14 May the Transvaal Scottish were firmly established on the lower slopes beyond Wade's Post and facing the main position of the Triangle strongpoint on the summit of Mount Corarsi, which had been subjected to two heavy concentrations by 4th Field Brigade, S.A.A. during the night, with a final bombardment on 14 May which pounded the 50 to 60-foot sheer cliffs and krantzes below its uppermost slopes.
Unfortunate delays were caused by one of many breaks in the telephone line to Battle Headquarters, in spite of constant picketing of the lines by overworked South African signal linesmen, who had to cope not only with the natural hazards of sharp rock ledges but also with wandering Abyssinians stealing long lengths of telephone wire and pack animals causing numerous breaks. Including permanent lines pressed into use, and the link with 5th Indian Division, some 80 miles of cable had to be maintained in addition to that within the infantry battalions, which also used line on a large scale.
With the line repaired, the artillery was able to bring down heavy observed fire to support the effect of the Transvaal Scottish mortars, Vickers and Bren guns trying to blast out the Italians from their machine-gun posts dug into the rocks and cliffs of Mount Corarsi. A platoon of'B' Company sent forward by Major H. A. Olsen--who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for this operation--was driven back from the sheer krantzes below the crest by a shower of grenades, but at about 4 p.m. Captain A. B. Inglis's 'B' Company again advanced on the almost perpendicular cliff, clambering up the
rock chimneys and forcing the enemy from dugouts and caves as the South African Vickers gunners raked each succeeding buttress ahead of the riflemen.19
With Radio Roma broadcasting that '30,000 brave Italian troops, under the heroic leadership of the Duke of Aosta, are holding at bay 300,000 enemy troops, representing the best fighting forces of the British Empire',20 prospects could not have looked bright for the sorely tried defenders. Now, Abyssinian Patriots and Shifta, unable to restrain themselves any longer, surged forward in their flowing white robes, shooting down Italians in all directions, flinging them screaming over cliffs and grabbing loot wherever it could be seen.21 By nightfall on 14 May, having lost eight wounded, and with the summit only some 200 yards ahead of them,22 the Transvaal Scottish were consolidating on top of the highest krantzes of 11,000-foot Mount Corarsi, clearing the forward slopes and preparing to meet a counter-attack of which warning had been received from 5th Indian Division, whose artillery proceeded to pound the Italians before they could get off their start line.
Only some 150 survivors in the Mount Corarsi dugouts still clung to their positions, and during the night of 14/15 May they planned to retire with their guns and what automatic weapons they could save.23 Once the summit was evacuated, Amba Alagi could be subjected to constant fire from all sides. The inner defences of General Valetti-Borgnini's last remaining positions would be exposed.
The Italian covering positions had been taken on a definite plan, with artillery concentrating on their machine-gun posts for each successive South African assault, and with surviving positions then kept inactive by heavy machine-gun fire until the Transvaal Scottish riflemen got within striking distance. Now the South African artillery switched to support 9th Indian Infantry Brigade and bombarded enemy dumps and stores unmercifully. The sound of heavy explosions on Amba Alagi reverberated across the gorges and deep valleys as ammunition went up and stores dumps burst into flame.
Plans were laid for mopping up the topmost point of Mount Corarsi next morning, but when the Transvaal Scottish climbed to the green summit early on 15 May they found men of the Garhwal Rifles already there.24 The defenders had vanished, leaving almost nothing but a single deeply dug-in anti-aircraft gun. Close encirclement of Amba Alagi was complete. As the Transvaal Scottish consolidated, preparations were made for a final, all-out assault on the Italian's last redoubt in Eritrea.
The Dukes, who had stood ready to take the summit of Corarsi, passed through and began to move across the intervening valley to the west, towards the strongly fortified, steep opposite slopes below Fort Toselli. To their right, it was planned, the Garhwalis would be under command and would push along the ridges from Gumsa and the Twin Pyramids to support them. On the night of 15/16 May the Worcesters and the 51st (Jewish/Arab) Commando supported by South African field and medium batteries, would occupy Castle Ridge in preparation for a final co-ordinated assault.
Launching of a direct attack on Fort Toselli was a frightening prospect, and heavy casualties would undoubtedly result.25
Nevertheless, 9th Indian Infantry Brigade worked its way round on the right flank with strong support from the South African guns. Enemy opposition was determined and the Indians ran into heavy mortar and artillery fire.
The Signallers of No. 10 Brigade Signals Company, S.A.C.S. had carried forward a telephone line to the Headquarters of 1st Transvaal Scottish during the previous night and this had now been extended as the troops crossed the ravine, so that direct communication was established right to the upper slopes of Mount Corarsi. With remarkable continuity the S.A. Corps of Signals maintained about 30 miles of telephone lines--apart from permanent lines--criss-crossing spectacular mountains and gorges, in spite of the constant possibility of breakages from shellfire, theft by Shifta or destruction by pack animals, as well as personal danger from enemy artillery and small-arms.
Neither mules, donkeys nor Natives paid the slightest regard to telephone lines, radio aerials or other signalling equipment. Visual signalling was established but found to be too slow for the infantry and artillery tasks involved, especially for the formidable undertaking ahead of the Dukes' two companies charged with the final assault.
Throughout 15 May the Dukes carried up stores as high as enemy fire allowed, in continuation of an exhausting task which they and the Natal Carbineers, with help from the men of 2nd Reserve Motor Transport Company and even from 10th Field Ambulance bearer parties, had been doing for days. They climbed thousands of feet up the almost precipitous mountain sides in appallingly wet conditions, while laden with ammunition, mortar bombs, rations and water. Drenching rain and biting winds added to the sheer physical strain but nevertheless--with an excellent observation post simplifying the planning of their attack on Fort Toselli--the Dukes pushed out patrols and hurried on with their preparations.
Constant hammering of the Italian positions on Amba Alagi was by now making any movement by the enemy in daylight almost impossible, and they could not even afford to break cover to collect their wounded,26 whose pitiful groaning played havoc with the already taut nerves of men dreading the possibility of themselves being overrun and mutilated by bloodthirsty Shifta.
Selected Patriots of a stamp superior to the unruly mob of local rapscallions supposedly co-operating with but often embarrassing the troops, continued to press and harass the enemy on the line of the road and, under the direction of Dejazmatch* Abai they even penetrated some points of the Italians' outer defences. Though not strong enough to be decisive in themselves, these penetrations, it was realized, were serving a valuable purpose in keeping the Italians in a constant state of acute anxiety. Small parties of Campbell's Scouts also worked round into position between 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade and 29th Indian Infantry Brigade. They were even trying to infiltrate to the north of the Amba Alagi position, but the bulk of the Abyssinians concentrated in the Atzala Chercos area and merely operated with mixed success as porters, in which capacity they proved as big a nuisance to Brigadier
* Dejazmatch, signifying 'Marshal of Provincial Headquarters', is the equivalent of a feudal count.
Pienaar's troops as they were to the enemy.
Aimlessly shooting and throwing grenades like irresponsible children at a Guy Fawke's Day fireworks party, the undisciplined armed peasantry were a constant irritation to men trying to get on with the real fighting. While the Shifta continued their performance, at dusk on 15 May Lieutenant A. H. E. M. Shaw of the Dukes took his No. 6 Platoon on to an underfeature of Mount Corarsi known as Mule Plateau, where the ground was suitable for assembling machine-guns and mortars to support the final attack, which had been postponed till 18 May as a result of the extreme difficulties experienced by 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group in the porterage of ammunition and supplies, and because of the nature of the ground to be covered. Throughout the night of 15/16 May the Dukes continued to carry forward weapons and ammunition to Lieutenant Shaw's platoon, which was now digging in well in advance of anyone else pressing in on the Duke of Aosta's last stronghold.27
Spotting the Dukes' advanced platoon, the Italians subjected them next morning to a murderous bombardment, perhaps the heaviest shelling borne by South Africans in East Africa. Realizing the threat to his last defences, the enemy smothered the whole area between Mount Corarsi and Fort Toselli with shells. 'Gowdy' Shaw, with a display of the same imperturbability as he had evinced during forty-eight hours of great strain while covering the parties trying to clear the road to Combolcia, now set a fine example to the men of his sorely tried platoon, who clung tenaciously to their position on Mule Plateau and prevented its reoccupation by the enemy. The Platoon Commander's persistent courage earned him the award of the Military Cross.28
Meanwhile, in the early hours of 16 May, two Italian envoys had crossed to the British lines with a request to General Mayne to take over their casualties for attention and to provide them with water--a petrol dump hit by artillery fire had apparently contaminated the Duke of Aosta's main reserve of drinking water--though in fact ample stocks of water, food and ammunition were still hidden away in the underground stores of the fortress.29 The Commander of 5th Indian Division was unable to stretch the rules of twentieth century war so far as to cover quite so magnanimous an act, but agreed to discuss surrender terms with a senior Italian officer. At about 9 a.m., 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Headquarters was informed that an armistice had been arranged from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. and that no action was to be taken between those times and dispositions were not to be disclosed.
An hour or so later, whilst Amba Alagi still shook under bombardment from all sides, 5th Indian Division sent another signal to Brigadier Pienaar to the effect that it was essential that the Patriots be restrained from violating the armistice. Any regrettable incident would be a slur on the British Empire.
A few moments before 1 p.m. the South African and Indian artillery ceased fire and a strange silence fell over the mountain fastness, penetrated only by the ring of rifle shots let off by unruly Abyssinians. That afternoon, General Volpini, a close personal friend of the Duke of Aosta, set out from Amba Alagi with Major Bruno and two Carabinieri
escorts, to negotiate with General Mayne. Intercepted by local brigands long before they could reach the British lines, they were all murdered30 and communication with the redoubt broke down as the Italians fought off renewed attempts by undisciplined Shifta and armed peasantry to enter the stronghold in search of loot regardless of any armistice or other niceties of European-style warfare.
In the evening a message reached 5th Indian Division asking for an extension of the armistice and requesting that as their own envoys could not get past the Abyssinians, General Mayne should send a representative through to the Duke of Aosta.31 By nightfall, most of the Patriots in the South African sector had withdrawn and all but about fifty of Leul-Ras Seyoum's force, Dejazmatch Abai's detachment and Campbell's Scouts were under good control, whilst efforts were being made to contact the remainder. With the armistice extended till midnight and then again till noon on 17 May, the Italians continued to hold off sorties by bandit gangs.
Brigadier Pienaar sent an armoured car forward from his own headquarters to try to reach Amba Alagi along the Toselli Pass. The attempt was foiled by a road-block, but on 17 May Major Graham managed to reach Fort Toselli, unfortunately without General Mayne's armistice terms. Colonel Dudley Russell, G.S.O. 1 of 5th Indian Division, did eventually get through and was taken to the Duke of Aosta's Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Claudio Trezzani, with whom he spent some three hours in negotiation for a 'surrender with honour'.32
Though not anticipated by General Mayne, 'honour' could be seen to have some very definite advantages on both sides, for whilst it would save the Italians from shame and further casualties, it would also mean that they would be bound to hand over a battlefield free of mines, booby traps and any further demolitions.33
At 3 p.m. on 17 May the Duke of Aosta radioed to Rome, informing them that Amba Alagi was completely covered by fire of rebel formations organized by the British and by Native non-commissioned officer deserters from the Italian forces, and that the fortress was being violently bombarded day and night by numerous guns. It was the general conviction that it would be useless to continue the struggle. The impossibility of recovering the wounded was aggravating moral depression. Any attack by the rebels preceded by a heavy bombardment and regular support would demand a great price in blood, and could only protract resistance for some days if not only for hours. Having obtained agreement to the honours of war and with the troops at the ultimate limit of their resistance, he therefore was accepting conditions of surrender. Gondar and Galla-Sidamo would continue the struggle as long as possible.34
On a note of despair, the message ended: T meet my destiny comforted in the knowledge of having fulfilled my duty. Amedeo di Savoia.'
When the terms were referred to General Piatt, the Kaid of the Sudan, he agreed, and at about 4 p.m. on 18 May,35 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade was informed that Amba Alagi had surrendered. All fighting round the redoubt would officially cease at midday on 19 May,36 one year from the date of the mobilization of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade.
The Natal Carbineers moved forward to patrol the road up to Amba
Alagi and 1st Field Company, S.A.E.C. immediately began removing the road-block and clearing vehicles off Toselli Pass, while 1st Transvaal Scottish and the Dukes moved down from the heights of Mount Corarsi to bivouac in the valley north of Aiba Pass.
Next morning, at Enda Medani Alem a few miles north of Amba Alagi and almost in the shadow of its lofty peak, representative platoons from 1st Worcester Regiment, the Indian Army, the Royal Natal Carbineers, the Duke of Edinburgh's Own Rifles and 1st Transvaal Scottish, turned out as immaculately as if on a parade ground and formed a composite Guard of Honour with fixed bayonets, beside the road to Asmara. In unending, straggling lines, like streams after rain, the Italians came down from the mountains. Now one line coalesced with another till there was a single human river of untidy, dejected men, marching three and six abreast down the winding road from Amba Alagi towards the spot where the representatives of the victors awaited them.
With their generals and high-ranking staff officers in the lead, the Italians marched past. Major-General Mayne took the salute and the Guard of Honour presented arms as the column of about 5,000 men began their journey into captivity, with their feet struggling to keep step to unaccustomed strains played by the pipers of the Transvaal Scottish.37
The Duke of Aosta, no longer Viceroy, was allowed to remain at his headquarters until next day. Then, after a last visit to the little cemetery where many a new grave marked the burial place of one of his comrades, he left the fortress accompanied by Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott of 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, whom he had known before the war. The Duke walked solemnly down the road to make his personal surrender to General Mayne, who received him at the summit of Toselli Pass with a steel-helmeted Guard of Honour of the Worcesters and then drove him down the Pass to Divisional Headquarters,38 where he lunched with the Kaid, who had directed the conquest of Eritrea. Ten months later, on 3 March 1942,39 having lived to see the total eclipse of Italy's East African Empire, the Duke died as a prisoner of war in Kenya.
It would be dramatically appropriate to agree with regimental historians who like to feel that the surrender of the tall, 43-year-old nephew of the King of Italy, exactly one year after the mobilization of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade, marked the end of the campaign in East Africa, as indeed it did for Brigadier Pienaar's Brigade Group. But it was not so. Into captivity with the Duke of Aosta went General Valctti-Borgnini, commander of the forces in the Amba Alagi redoubt, General Luigi Frusci, commander of the Northern Sector which comprised Eritrea, General Claudio Trezzani the Viceroy's Chief of Staff, General Pietro Pinna, commander of the Italian Air Force in East Africa and Colonel Alberto Cordero di Montezemolo, the Viceroy's Chief of Operations; but they were not the only, nor were they the ablest Italian commanders in the field.
Still tying down thousands of men of both 11th and 12th African Divisions was Lieutenant-General Pietro Gazzera, in command of Galla-Sidamo and now nominated by Rome as Commander-in-Chief
and Regent for the Governor-General of Italian East Africa; and in the Eastern Sector, where he was to hold out for months to come, was Lieutenant-General Guiglielmo Nasi, with his headquarters at Gondar shielded on the north by the spectacular Wolchent Pass, a natural obstacle far more formidable than either Keren or Amba Alagi.40
On 22 May, Brigadier Pienaar's Rear Brigade Headquarters and service units began to move forward, and by 25 May the last elements of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade Group had left Amba Alagi, scene of the final exploit in that series of successes which had carried them triumphantly from Kenya, across the Juba River, through Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia to Eritrea in 100 days. The brigade had travelled some 2,500 miles without suffering a single reverse from El Wak to Amba Alagi; it had moved through bush, across desert and over mountains, and after a brief rest in the unaccustomed luxury of the city of Asmara, on 12 June 1941, the main body of 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade sailed from Massawa for the Middle East, where 5th S.A. Infantry Brigade had already been at Mersa Matruh since 23 May, the day on which General Smuts was promoted Field-Marshal in the British Army.
Having sailed from Berbera on 3 June, 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade had already reported to 1st S.A. Division Headquarters at Amariya outside Alexandria, where Brigadier Buchanan on 11 June handed over command to Brigadier W. H. E. Poole and himself headed for Helwan to organize a South African Base and Training Wing for the Middle East.
Defence Headquarters, Pretoria, had decided that with the fall of Amba Alagi, the South African Forces should be withdrawn from the East African theatre of operations, but this was to prove far simpler in word than in deed, for the administrative, technical and medical services under the authority of East Africa Force Headquarters had become so completely dependent on South Africa that the immediate withdrawal of all her forces would result in near chaos.
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation