Uncle's Diary The War Years- March and April 1941
Posted by Mac Cummings on May 16, 2018, 9:17 am
March 14th Rumours of an impending battle had been floating around for some time, and there was plenty of evidence to support them. The proceedings were now under the supervision of General Platt, under General Wavell. Zero hour was fixed for 07-00hrs, the 15th of March 1941. The night before the battle was one of deadly calm…the calm before the storm. |
On this night at about 22-30 hrs Sgt. Marshall, Fletcher, and myself set out to trace the source of an abandoned “line” found near HQ and tagged “2f\FFI.” It truly was a magnificent night with a full moon and it was of course the eve of the attack. Death Valley (aptly named) was as quiet as the proverbial church yard. No activity with the gunners asleep at their posts, except those on guard. We followed the line for almost 4 miles and almost up to the enemy lines (still quiet.) Our infantry were quietly moving up to their start positions. The line ended on a disused gun Pit 144th Field. Back to HQ at 02-30hrs of the 15th.
So far our sound ranging had not met with great success, owing to the natural features of the country which were not condusive to picking up sound waves. Actually they hit the microphones at an angle of about thirty degrees. The only locations we could give were area ones, and these proved useful in the battle, when the artillery were laying down their barrage.
March 15th We were sitting down to breakfast at seven the next morning, when about 200 guns opened up a stupendous barrage (200 guns in those days was a great event.) The first barrage was laid down upon the Italian Positions around Keren, and soon the heights of Brigs Peak and Fortress Hill were lost to view in clouds of shell bursts, some 60,000 in four hours. Not till 08-00hrs did the Italian artillery reply, and then very half heartily.
Under cover of a further barrage our infantry advanced up those seemingly impossible heights. By 13-00hrs we had taken Brigs Peak, Sanchell and Fortress Hill against very heavy opposition, and under mortar and machine gun fire. The attack by late noon was 75% successful.
March 16th During the night of the 15th the Italians made determined counter attacks, and the heights were a continuous line of flame for about six miles long, as mortars machine guns and very lights joined in the the general melee. Several fires were burning on the Mountain sides, owing to the dry thorn woods catching fire from the shell bursts. A pall of smoke and cordite fumes hung over the whole scene, and soaring in the skies were the ever watching and waiting Vultures. We still held Sanchell and Fortress but Brigs Peak has become a no mans land as it were.
March 17th Further counter attacks have now left miles and miles of burning thorn bushes and trees, and the pall of smoke has thickened. We hold our previously held positions, and take Flat Top or Camerons Ridge (named after the famous Regiment who took this height). The Italian counter attacks are liquidated by the Indian Troops. Our base is having a bad time of it, and the lines are being blown to hell. We find some of them high in the branches of trees, others with hundreds of yards missing. The lines parties have a very hectic time, and there are some very narrow squeaks from enemy shelling.
March 18th The counter attacks are now less violent as the Italians fall back onto their rear positions covering the town itself. The RAF (what we have of it) are very active, including a Biplane of 1924 vintage, affectionately known as the “Sewing Machine” ……this machine and its pilot led a charmed life, and with a favourable wind could stagger across to the Italian lines and drop its one bomb… a very small one at that. The Italian artillery is still very active, and is still making our life a misery…however there are fewer guns, and they are firing from back areas.
March 19th We are now manning flash-spotting posts, in an endeavour to locate these long range guns. Posts are set up on Mount Pinnacle and Fuimit. Wireless and lines are used for intercom. Successful and useful locations are obtained…the CRA and CBO are well pleased.
March 20th Our base is still suffering from enemy shell fire. The lines which run through Death Valley are being often torn up by shell fire. The line to the AP is duplicated to make the action of the base continuous.
March 24th Our positions on the heights are now consolidated. The barrage of the 15th destroyed many Italian artillery batteries, so our sound ranging was useful after all. The infantry taking part are the Worcesters, the Camerons, the H.L.I. the Sussex. The Punjabis and Sihks belonging to the Indian Divisions and others. All the RE’s are Indian troops, the RA (including ourselves) are British troops…25 and 31 Field Regt’s RA 64 and 68 Mediums, 144 field and the 1st Field. Also Y troop 4th survey RA.
March 25th The final attack is made on Keren at 04-30 hrs, precede by a violent artillery barrage from guns in forward positions. This lasted until 07-30 hrs, by which time we had obtained new positions on the heights of Mount Ambor. The Royal Engineers are busy with the last road block to pave the way for our FOUR I TANKS.
March 26th The tanks tried to break through at dawn but failed…we are to attempt it again at dawn tomorrow. We commence to lay a new base under the slopes of Sanchell and Brigs Peak. The sound of small arms is plainly heard.
March 27th Good news at last. This morning the tanks broke through, and entered Keren to find that the Wops had flown. The Italian forces had fled South along the road towards Asmara. The garrison still holding out on Mount Sanchell came down after hoisting White flags. So fell Keren, key post of Eritrea, after a seven week battle. The 5th Division continue the pursuit into Abysinnia, we take in the base.
March 28th We await further orders in case a static front develops. British and Imperial troops pursue the fleeing Italians towards Asmara, which is declared an open town. Asmara falls into our hands without bloodshed. Other forces converge on the port of Massua, and the Italians decide to make a fight of it.
March 29th British forces are now 40 Kms past Asmara and the Wops are leaving much equipment behind. In Asmara the civil authorities and the population carry on as before. This weekend brings the end of the Eritrean campaign within sight.
March 30th We are now the only troops left in Happy Valley, and at night we light huge bonfires of thorn wood. A few nights earlier the lighting of a cigarette was a major crime. The heights of Keren are now left to the dead and nature. The Italians at Massua continue to fight.
March 31st Battle opens up at Massua and is going well.
April 2nd Pay a visit to Agordat about 40Kms away with Paddy Beausang who gets quite drunk on Gin. Am feeling quite groggy, a touch of gippo tummy.
April 3rd Moved a few Kms along the road to Km 118 along with the 68th Medium to whom we are now attached. This camp is much more pleasant with plenty of shade. The heat is now terrific but we are getting used to it. Temperature today is 130 degrees. Massua is now in our hands.
April 4th Pass the weary days in reading, as sleep is impossible because of the heat. Rig up a shelter, which provides a little shade. The news of the set backs in the desert, and the presence of German Divisions at Benghasi does not appear too rosy. We are now awaiting orders to move back to Egypt from whence we came…a 1500 mile trip.
April 6th Rumours of a move and I report sick with Dysentery.
April 7th We move tomorrow on our way back to the railhead at Kassala
April 8th Reveille at 04-30 hrs, and for once we are glad to get up, and get out of this wretched country. We eat at 05-15 and leave the camp at 07-30 hrs, as we are at the tail of a convoy ten miles long, consisting of the 64 and 68th Mediums, RAOC, RASC, and Y troop. Have a last glance back at Brigs Peak set in the rising sun some ten miles away. Arrive at Agordat at 10-30 hrs, Barentu at 13-00 hrs, and halt at Kilo 50 at 15-00 hrs for the night…a run of 140 Kms. To bed early and I don’t feel too bright.
A few words about the Italian road which runs from Kassala to Asmara. The stretch between Keren and Asmara is a fine piece of road engineering and has a very good surface. In some places the road has been cut out of the sheer cliff face. It is very well banked which is something missing from the roads in this country of ours. Across the Wadis (river valleys) dry in the “dry” season and raging torrents in the “wet”, are many excellent bridges built in reinforced concrete, and the road in general is well provided with drainage culverts. Across the largest of the valleys (the Atbara) is a fine steel bridge named Pont Mussulini. This was bombed during the retreat and later repaired by Indian Engineers. The ashphalte surface on the road only exists as far as Km 138 after which the road becomes more or less a track. The road surface was being improved by local labour as we came back. A railway, (gauge 3ft 2inches) runs from Agordat to Asmara and crosses the mountains at Keren by means of tunnels and viaducts.
April 9th Reveille at 04-30 hrs. We left at 07-15 hrs being a little further up in the convoy. A very hot day, and a very bumpy road. Arrived at Aicota at 13-00 hrs and Tesseni about 14-00 hrs. Great changes have taken place here… the railhead has been extended from Kassala and many new buildings erected. Arrive at the railhead at 16-30 hrs, feel groggy and bed down.
April 10th Report sick to the MO of the 68th Medium and receive a liberal dose of castor oil (I hate the stuff) a medical inspection is held at 14-00 hrs. I still feel off the mark. The boys make whoopy in Kassala. This is the hottest place in the Sudan.
April 11th Good Friday brings back memories of home…hot cross buns…services at the chapel, here another day of roasting, with the temperature around the 130 mark. We are mustered at 14-00 hrs and by 15-30 hrs our transport is loaded onto the train. We do not move until dawn of the 12th. I buy lemon water, tomatoes, and eggs, and eat despite the protests of my stomach.
A dust storm blew up at half past six in the evening, and descended upon Kassala like a thick wall, a most terrifying and inspiring spectacle. We were forced to wear our respirators until the storm blew itself out, but afterwards the perfume of lilac trees filled the air. Slept aboard the train in great discomfort.
April 13th Still bowling along towards Port Sudan at a speed of some 30 mph. Passed through Haiya Junction Halts and Barimaya where we saw some wild Camels. Then through Summit (5008 feet above mean sea level) Sinkatt (2887 feet above sea level) and at 09-30 hrs Gebeit with its military camps and hills covered with Regimental crests done in stones (2600 feet above mean sea level.) Erba (2223 feet above sea level) and then Ka-meb. The country is now more interesting as we approach the coast. At Obo (1035 feet above sea level) we caught sight of the Red sea, and at Astroteriba (211 feet above sea level) we were going fast downhill, fastest train journey so far, and at half past five we pulled into the main train station of Port Sudan. The thing we welcomed most was the cool sea breeze.
April 14th Easter Monday Last evening I attended the Easter Service in the Church of England Church in Port Sudan, a most beautiful building not yet finished, and a very delightful service. Today we do the spots of Port Sudan which is not a very interesting place, but is still a veritable paradise after places like Keren.
We feasted ourselves on ices and cool drinks, and had a haircut in luxurious comfort. Port Sudan, since the outbreak of war has become very important, and is well equipped with docking facilities. Crossing the harbour in a foy boat is a most interesting experience the blue waters are so clear even in the shipping area, that you can see swarms of different fishes at play, or hunting their victims…all colours and all shapes. We marched to the docks at two in the afternoon and embarked upon the SS Ethiopia, a foul looking ship about 60 years old and of some 10,000 Tons. We sailed at half past Eight in the evening, sea smooth.
April 15th Reveille at the ungodly hour of five thirty. We are now well out at sea, sea smooth but a slight swell is present…cool breeze blowing. Boat drill at half past Ten in the morning, and lots of people are feeling sea sick including myself. Passed a lone tramp steamer heading South at 11am. Feeling rough again.
April 16th The ship is now pitching and tossing and groaning in every timber. Patrol boat passed us sailing North. We should be near Suez tomorrow.
April 17th Sailing through the Gulf of Suez and the Arabian Shore is plainly visible to the East and that of Egypt to the West. We have been this way before. I am feeling ill. Arrive at Port Suez at 20-00 hrs and moor at 22-00 hrs then the usual waiting. A free supper at the NAFFI and then another weary journey to Cairo. Arrive at Heliopolis…a rich suburb of Cairo (means city of the Sun) time 22-00 hrs.
April 18th We are now in the Royal Artillery base at Almaza near Heliopolis. Report sick and more Castor Oil but feel no better. The rest of the Regiment have come through the debacle of Greece and Crete and have had a rough time with several casualties.
April 19th Report sick again and yet more Castor Oil. “Du Lieber Gott” Our transport arrives from the Suez but is immediately sent to the 8th Field in action at Sollum. We are still being pushed back by the Afrika Corps. Many of us go into Dock with various complaints. Watched a mock air raid over Cairo. Still no mail from home.
April 20th Again I see the M.O. and this time I win. I go to hospital at 14-00 hrs. I heard the death of Cyril Woods of S Troop killed by a bomb on his way back from Greece. Arrived at the 9th General hospital Heliopolis at 15-00 hrs. Issued with Blues and report to room 526 Section E and fall into bed between clean sheets…Heaven.
April 21st I am diagnosed with a mild dose of Dysentry and am not feeling so good. My only companion is Edward Chivers of the RAOC who is down with Rheumatic Fever. Spend my time reading and drinking fluids and enjoying the rest. A new arrival is Jack Shearn of the 9th Rifle Brigade and he hails from Wapping in London.
April 22nd Today is the annual Egyptian Holiday called Sham El Nissan or “Breath of Spring” The days are cloudy but are getting very warm. Summer is coming in. No food yet and I have a foul headache. I spent some 3 weeks in this hospital and was soon feeling fit again. During my stay I learnt about the sad death of Sgt. Peter Aynsley whom we left behind at Khartoum in the Sudan. He died of Dysentry. (He was, when in England, engaged “more or less” to a nurse training at the R.V.I. in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. When she was in the Q.A. as a nursing Sister she was told of the death of Peter. This she mentioned in her book on her war experiences as a Nursing Sister. Her name was Brenda McBryde and she was born in Whitley Bay.)