View Full Version : Cavarly charge against armoured forces

07-16-2012, 12:25 PM
With Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia its earlier possessions in East Africa being Italian Somaliland and Eritrea were expanded to Africa Orientale Italiana.

The Italian military presence in East Africa was expanded from the regular colonial regiments after the conquest of Abyssinia by new irregular native levy officered by Italians and called "gruppi bande".

With Italy’s imminent entry into World War II General Frusci, Governor of Eritrea, decided to create one more gruppo bande, a rather special gruppo bande for deep reconnaissance on the instructions of the Viceroy and Amedeo Guillet was directed to form such a unit. This gruppo bande was to be autonomous, not to be responsible to divisional headquarters but to Frusci himself. By then Amedeo Guillet though merely a Lieutenant was a well decorated one with war service in Spain and Abyssinia under his belt.

The force was to be called the Gruppo Bande Amhara a Cavallo (the Amhara Cavalry Group) since it was formed at Gondar, in the Amhara region. Nevertheless eventually there were in the Group Muslims, Copts, Eritreans, Tigreans, Amhara, Yemenis, and even some Arab smugglers from the Sheikh Rasciaid tribe. There would be 100 Eritrean ascari NCOs and for officers half a dozen Italian Lieutenants in their early to mid-twenties. Amedeo’s second-in-command was Lieutenant Renato Togni, the son of his Commanding Officer at the Military Academy at Modena.

Eventually, the Gruppo had 800 horsemen, 400 Yemeni infantrymen and a Camel Corps of 200 animals.

At the beginning of 1941, Italians, far and isolated from Homeland, were going every day weaker and the British stronger.
So the British command decided to attack Eritrea. The British Forces had as their vanguard the Gazelle Force so called because the Force’s main supply of fresh meat came from shooting gazelle. Celebrated names from the Indian Army were amongst the officers, the Force’s Commander was Colonel Frank Messervy, later General Sir Frank Messervy, a cavalryman from the elite Hudson’s Horse. The Force was composed of the 11th Sikhs, Rajputana Rifles, Skinner’s Horse (by then an armoured regiment), British gunners of the 25th Field Regiment, the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry, and a handful of armoured cars from the Sudan Defence Force.

On the 20th January, 1941 General Ugo Fongoli commanding the Italian Forces in the area summoned Amedeo from his encampment to the fort of Keru, 3 Kms away. Keru was in the Eritrean lowlands which give way to the sands of the desert of the Sudan further north. On his arrival Amedeo was immediately received by Fongoli.
The British had headed straight for the oasis of Kassala in the Sudan which had been taken the early year by a force of 12,000 Italian troops.
The enemy was advancing fast with motorized infantry and armour, and their vanguard had the formidable Mathilda ‘I’ tanks. Fongoli indicated that 10,000 Italian troops who had been at Kassala were now on the frontier falling back towards Keru, and they were to be sent further back to Agordat where a new front would be formed. What the General wanted was to get the troops from the frontier on the way to Agordat and then to abandon the fort and get his own men underway.
Having no tanks, no armour of any kind, and just a few trucks, the only mobile troops available were the Gruppo Bande Amhara a Cavallo. The General asked Amedeo, hesitantly, whether he could delay the British advance for just one day. Amedeo with the elan of the cavalryman unhesitatingly said yes.

That night saw the Gazelle Force mustered before Keru, its 25-pounders pointing at the fort, the armoured cars of Skinner’s Horse placed in a protective screen around the guns and Gazelle Force HQ, with the Sikhs and the Rajputana Rifles for the present to the rear.

Came the predawn of the 21st January, 1941 when Amedeo’s cavalry now in extended line quietly slipped through the sparse trees and out of them jumped into full gallop for their objective, the infantry bivouac a scant 100 yards away beyond which were the Skinner’s, the Gazelle Force HQ, and the 25-pounders pointing towards Keru. The wave of horse lobbing grenades, firing carbines, and slashing with scimitars went through the Sikhs and Rajputana Rifles with very little resistance and was suddenly gone, then skirting the Skinner’s the horsemen galloped for the gun batteries reaching the gunlines of two troops of 390 Battery of the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry. Cries of ‘Tank alert!’ ‘Tank alert!’ rent the air. Gunners flung themselves on to their 25-pounders and started turning them 180 degrees. They thought tanks were charging them and loading with armour-piercing shells fired over open sights at the line of horse in front. No one had imagined that they were facing a horse cavalry charge until it was almost on top of them. Shells flew over the ground at a height of 2-3 feet. The furious cannonade was passing through the enemy horsemen in extended line and falling on the British lines to the rear. In an earlier era it was accepted that cannon balls were not much more effective than musket balls at cavalry charging in extended line. For dealing with such grapeshot was indicated. In the present circumstances armour-piercing shell was not of much use. Shrapnel was indicated. Flat in a shallow trench 600 yards away Captain Douglas Gray at first thought the falling shells were of an Italian barrage. Had the shells been filled with high explosives rather being armour-piercing ones Gazelle Force would have suffered more severely from its own guns. Incidentally, Captain Gray was the Regiment’s champion pig-sticker who had also ridden in the 1938 Grand National. Captain Philip Tower of the 25th Field Regiment RA was more worried by the shells fired by his own gunners than he was worried by the horsemen – “I fancy they did not do much damage to the enemy but it was a splendid noise and very frightening for a short time.”

All was over in a few minutes and the Gruppo wheeling to the left reached the safety of the dry riverbed of the Washamoia.

Amedeo’s and Togni’s squadrons regrouped in the wadi before the other squadrons. The two men wryly smiled. Togni was presently going to sacrifice his life. Amedeo ordered Togni to get the Yemeni infantry in position and start firing, while he was to defend the Gruppo Bande’s right with his squadron. About that time Leutnant Battizzocco in full view of the Gazelle Force was manoeuvring his camels on a hillside. More shots and grenades exploding accompanied the arrival of the squadrons of Cara and Lucarelli. Gazelle Force was forced to postpone the attack on Keru. The Gruppo Bande’s objective to delay the attack on Keru by one day had succeeded.

Gazelle Force sent three Mathilda ‘I’ tanks forward. Togni was the first to notice the tanks working their way round far to the right of the Gruppo Bande who were now two or three kilometres away from their first charge. Once the British realized the flimsiness of the Italian attack their fast British armoured cars would follow. The tanks had to be at least delayed. Togni separated 30 of his horsemen and ordered the rest of them and the Yemenis on foot to fall back and rejoin the Comandante. He sent a note through Dr. Call, the Veterinary Surgeon, to Amedeo that he would charge with 30 of “my marshals” to hold up the Mathildas and give time for the Gruppo Bande to withdraw and re-form.
When the tanks reached the wadi and tipped over the edge their guns pointed down, Togni charged. British officers through fieldglasses saw the amazing sight of horsemen attacking their huge Mathilda ‘I’s, hurling grenades on to the armour which deafened and confused the crews. Clearing the wadi the tank machine-guns came into play and of the gallant 31 who charged but two returned to the Italian lines. Togni galloping high above a tank along the wadi bank and launching handgrenades was brought down with his horse by a burst of machine-gun fire, the lifeless bodies of man and horse rolling off the bank on to the roof of a Mathilda ‘I’. The memory of Togni was awarded with a gold medal.

Fantastic as it may be, the British kept close to their guns. Around midday the infantry and light armoured cars with great caution went forward in a strung out 600 to 700 mtrs frontline across the plain. The armoured cars of Skinner’s Horse were on the right, on the left were other armoured vehicles of the Sudanese Force, while in the middle were the 4/11th Sikhs.

Amedeo got his squadron ready, then up and out of the wadi he bounded, behind him an ascaro carrying his horsetail banner with the tricolour and Cross of Savoy and his squadron in line doing likewise and as he shouted “Savoia” they were racing straight at the enemy infantry. The Sikhs fired a few shots, broke and ran to the cover of the armoured cars. The armour on either side could not fire due to their own men being mixed up with the charging horsemen. Once through the infantry the Gruppo Bande with Amedeo at its head, twenty riderless horses amongst them, galloped on. Above the pounding of the horses’ hooves could be heard the roar of the pursuing armour and the rat-tat-tat of the machine-guns. Suddenly the muzzles of some Indian artillery were facing them. They wheeled and the guns fired harmlessly. Then Amadeo and his men entered the woods in front and found safety.

That day the Gruppo Bande Ahmara suffered 176 casualties, and 100 horses dead, plus 260 WIAs safetly turned home.

07-16-2012, 12:25 PM
Horse cavalry versus armour, artillery, and machine-guns had succeeded in doing what the Gruppo Bande had set out to do – delay the British advance on Keru just one day.

The Gruppo Bande native levies had without a thought given their lives, and were decimated. How come that a sort of venture troops should behave so ? The answer is the honour of the fighting man. But such men must have their pride activated by the creation of an Esprit de Corps by their officers who themselves must have this pride.
Keru has been described as a folie de guerre. Perhaps it would be better assessed as due to that passion of the horseman.

Snippets and facets

An ascaro just behind Togni was heavily wounded. Shamming death, he saw the British move the bodies of mount and man off the roof of that Mathilda ‘I’ tank. Gently they laid out Togni on the ground and standing to attention, saluted.

After this engagement Captain Douglas Gray of Skinner’s Horse went round mercifully shooting such dying horses as there might have been. A few horses were captured unhurt. Sawar Richhpal Singh of the Skinner’s, an excellent polo pony trainer, mounting one of these animals did figures of eight at a trot and canter.

Prior to mechanisation

During the first charge Lieutenant Lucarelli of the Gruppo Bande on a grey horse came straight for Major Ian Hossack of the Skinner’s at full gallop with his sword. Hossack grabbed a rifle and fired but Lucarelli's horse was which took the bullet. The animal was able to continue.
During the first charge Amedeo saw a horse hit in the chest by a shell that ricochetted off the ground; its body was tossed high in the air. There was no sign of its rider.

Lance-Naik Mohinder Singh of the 4/11th Sikh Regiment was among the first to be involved in that first charge. By a quirk of fate he came to be Baron Amedeo Guillet’s chauffeur when he was Italian Ambassador to India in the early ‘70s.

The 10,000 infantry retreating from Kassala duly reached Keru and were sent on by Fongoli to Agordat.

07-17-2012, 06:01 AM
From the Indian Army's official History of the Second World War - East Africa Campaign 1940-41

The action against Gazelle Force is condensed to just three lines.

Capture of Keru

The Italians were found to have evacuated Kassala when troops of the 4th Indian Division advanced on the morning of 19 January. It appeared at the time that they had intended to withdraw from Sabderat and Wakai also. The 4th Indian Division, in the north, was directed along the dry-weather track to Sabderat and Wakai and was later to exploit towards Keru up to the limit of administration. The 5th Indian Division was directed to Tessenei and thence along the motor road to Aicota. It was to be ready to exploit towards Barentu or Biscia afterwards.1

In the north, Gazelle Force led the advance followed by the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade and Divisional Headquarters. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was still moving towards Kassala and did not get there until 20 January when it reverted to the command of the 4th Indian Division. First contact was made by Gazelle Force with an Italian battalion holding Wakai at 1350 hours on 19 January. The troops closed up in the afternoon with the intention of attacking the next morning, but at 0830 hours on 20 January the Italians were reported to be evacuating their positions and by 0930 hours they had abandoned Wakai. The pursuit was resumed at 0945 hours. Although contact was made on one or two occasions with the retreating troops, no real resistance was met until 0430 hours on 21 January at Keru, forty miles east of Kassala.


In the south, the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was leading the 5th Indian Division. Tessenei was found evacuated and was occupied at 1250 hours on 19 January. Work was required on the Gash crossing and the brigade did not start moving across until 1415 hours on 20 January. The 5th Indian Division found Aicota clear at 1030 hours on 21 January. At 1500 hours that day, a mechanised column from the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade consisting of 2 Motor Machine Gun Group, less one company, was sent along the Aicota-Biscia road in order to get behind the Italian positions at Keru. This column met with some opposition in the area of Pt. 1892, twenty-five miles from Aicota, which held up its advance until it was reinforced by an infantry battalion on 22 January. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade continued the advance along the Aicota-Barentu road. Thus while the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade made a thrust towards Barentu, the 4th Indian Division and the mechanised column of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade pushed on Keru.

At Keru the road crossed a long narrow ridge through a deep gorge with steep rocky hills rising to a height of one thousand five hundred feet on either side. It was only a dry-weather road not suitable for mechanical transport. The Italians had laid mines on the way and carried out some very effective demolitions. The position of Keru was naturally strong. Its defence had also been well-organised by the Italians. It had been fortified with thorn fences, stone walls and trenches and small posts in the hills. The position appeared impregnable except by a turning movement over the hills on either side. It was held by the 41st Colonial Brigade consisting of five battalions.

Gazelle Force made its first contact with the Italians in this position at 0430 hours on 21 January. At 0700 hours an Italian party of sixty cavalry men charged Headquarters and guns of Gazelle Force. This attack was pushed home and was only stopped, twenty-five yards from the gun positions, by British guns firing at point-blank range. Some 40 persons on the Italian side were either killed or wounded. At 0800 hours, a hostile party of two hundred men attacked from the direction of Keru, and were easily repulsed. The Italian air force remained active throughout the day but did not cause much damage.

At 0400 hours on 22 January, 4 Sikh attacked a hill to the south of the gorge. They captured the feature and at 0545 hours attacked the main Italian position but found it strongly held by a brigade. Hard fighting continued throughout the day and the Indian troops held their ground under heavy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. Meanwhile, troops of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade


started arriving in the afternoon and at 1630 hours a company of 2 Camerons reinforced the Sikhs on the hill. Efforts were also made without success during the day to get round the flank.

By the evening of 22 January the mechanised column from the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade, advancing from Aicota, had cut off the Italian communications at Bahar, to the east of Keru. The Italians, therefore, abandoned their position that night. On 23 and 24 January, the Italian garrison while withdrawing from Keru, ran into the troops of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Italian troops. Over seven hundred prisoners were taken, including the Commander 41st Colonial Brigade and his staff.

Demolitions and mines held up the advance of the Indian troops. Though Keru was occupied by 1430 hours on 23 January, Gazelle Force did not get through the gorge until 0530 hours on 24 January. 1 Rajputana Rifles relieved 4 Sikh as the motorised battalion with Gazelle Force. 4 Sikh reverted to the command of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. The advance was continued and on 25 January forward elements of Gazelle Force were in contact with the Italians outside Agordat at 1010 hours, and the Barentu-Agordat road was cut at 1415 hours.

07-17-2012, 06:25 AM
From the Indian Army's official History of the Second World War - East Africa Campaign 1940-41

The action against Gazelle Force is condensed to just three lines.

It's strange that the Italians report 3 cavalry charges and the British 2, and that in the British summary the Italian casualties are valued less than in the Italian one and the Italian attacking forces in a number that in the Italian report just correspond about to all the Italian casualties of the day (that's impossible).
I think that being just a summary, the British report understimes the forces involved in the clash.

07-17-2012, 10:58 AM
It just may be that the Italians recorded it more fully than the Indians as to the Italians it was a major battle but to the Indian army it was a minor skirmish.

Gazelle Forces OOB, no mention of them having tanks let alone Matilda II, only 16 were sent with 4RTR and by the time of Keru only about 6 were still operational (some reports give up to 12 were movable over the period, they were not deemed serviceable but due to lack of anything else if they could move they were used, some were stripped for spares), no spares having been provided and the tanks had no transporters so had to drive everywhere under their own power. The first battle 4 RTR mention they were part of was Agordat on the 30th January.

In October 1940 B Squadron (Major I T Clement) was ordered to move at short notice to Eritrea. Sixteen Matilda Mk 2 were shipped to Port Sudan. On arrival it was discovered that the sixteen tons of spares were for Light Tanks Mk VI and were thus useless. The Squadron was moved South to Kassala on rail flats and then set off Eastwards by road.

8 Tp B Sqn 4 RTR (2/Lt J G McGeoch) led the road march, some 130 miles, to Agordat which they reached on 30 January 1941. Immediately they knocked out thirteen Italian tanks. Tpr Baker,One of the gunners, said "I saw one shot go right through three Italian tanks. Their armour was like tin."

The mechanical problems were immense. Capt Cunnington (the OME), got permission to cannibalise one of the Matildas to provide parts for the others. The main problem was the big brake-bands for the Rackham steering gear. These were replaced in some cases by goatskins and transmission belts looted from an Italian factory.

They were used for every conceivable task for which they were not intended. They were sent up and down the valleys, halfway up mountains, they were used for carrying dynamite and artillery ammunition; they were even used to make the Italian gunners disclose their positions. The mileage covered during the many weeks before the Keren battle was quite amazing and without doubt the heroes were the fitters, the LAD and echelon vehicles and the drivers."

Gazelle Force, Colonel Frank Messervy

1st Duke of York's Own Skinner's Horse (detached from 5th Indian Infantry Division) (I have only found them equipped with India Pattern Carriers until 1946 when they got Stuarts, so not sure what they had in Eritrea)
4th Battalion 11th Sikh Regiment (detached from 7 Brigade)
3 motor machine-gun companies of the Sudan Defence Force
390th Field Battery of 144 (Surrey & Sussex Yeo) Field Regiment RA(TA) (detached from Indian 5th Division)

Interesting what equipment 390 Fd Bty had when it was back in North Africa in Sept 1941, 390 Bty - D Tp, 18 pdrs (A/Tk role), E Tp, 105mm Italian guns (1914), F Tp, 4x60 pdrs (WW1)

Edited 17:11 17/07/12

I misread Matilda II being part of Gazelle force when you said they were in the vanguard (although they did not reach the front until after the action you have written about so not really leading the advance).