THIS DATE IN ERITREAN HISTORY
Fool’s Day of 1941 in Asmara:
The Brits Enter, the Italians Exit
(It was on Fool’s Day, exactly 63 years ago today, that the British forces pushed out the Italians and entered Asmara thus completing the occupation of Eritrea on behalf of the Allied Forces of World War II. Nharnet.com is pleased to present to readers an account of that important day and period in the annals of our modern history. The article was published in issue No. 34 of The Eritrean Newsletter of April 1979. The battle for Keren meant the battle for the conquest of Italy in Eritrea in WW II. It is exhaustively recounted in this article. Good reading.)
On 1 April 1941, the early hours of the day were quite normal except for the light spring showers over Asmara and its environs. Few suspected that the political atmosphere was [unusually] charged. The 70,000 [Asmara] residents however soon realized that the normalcy of the early hours was only deceptive… The sound of loudspeakers was later to tell the whole tale: victory parades underway in the streets of the city. Taking part [in the parades] were Gurkas (Afghans), Indians, Sudanese, Australians, Canadians, Britons, Senegalese and Free French soldiers together with their tanks, military trucks, and a variety of armoury. Only the Cypriot donkeys which earlier played a key role in the rugged mountain areas were left in the outskirts of the city. Was this a display of a motley of human species from five continents? Definitely not. These were King George’s dogs of war in the days when the sun never used to set in the British Empire.
It was a parade of victors celebrating a war booty – Eritrea, another piece of land put under the British Administration of Occupied Enemy Territories. The Eritrean people were officially notified of the change of colonizers during the day and the first order of the new occupation forces was the change of traffic regulations – change of driving from left to right. This new order, however, was not of interest to the Eritreans who were not anyway in a position to own vehicles. In the evening, the victors as well as the vanquished Italians feasted together in a great banquet at Albergo Ciao… As for the Eritreans, it was a mere change of a master in a long stretched [alien] rule which started with the Ommayads in the 7th century.
The fate of the victors and the vanquished was not, however, decided with the occupation of Asmara but with the fall of Keren on March 27, 1941 and at a very high cost to both sides. Thousands of Eritreans who were forcefully conscripted into the Italian colonial army also lost their lives in the fateful battle. The Italians who strongly defended Keren between February 3 to March 27 knew that their defeat in Keren would mean their loss of Eritrea. But however hard they might have tried, they couldn’t cope with the stronger allied forces; and they finally gave up on the 57th day.
The Eritrean people who were not a party to this colonial conflict were to suffer the heaviest losses in human and material terms. As the East African saying of the Chaga tribe goes: ‘when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers most.’ [In this war], the Eritreans became the victims of the imperialist quarrels and bore the heaviest burden of it. [Fathers] were snatched away from their families who were left without bread winners, sons became cannon fodder in the battlefront; their homesteads were destroyed by artillery fire, and their livestock looted. What is more, the urban people were forced to work at below subsistence level wages to get moving the industries of the Italian war machinery. The Italian black-shirt factors managers, drunk as they were with their fascistic “superiority”, looked down at their employees who were treated like beasts of burden and forced to work eighteen hours a day, with no single day-off. Thus, the Eritreans were destined to suffer such inhuman treatment which has been going on for the previous 400 years, and with increased intensity in the final days of the Italian colonialism. Many Eritreans hoped that, with the defeat of the Italians, things would turn to the better but were soon disillusioned when things went otherwise and the British turned to be another colonial force no better than their predecessors. The same disillusions were to be repeated 10 years later when the United Nations ‘federated’ Eritrea with Ethiopia.
At this juncture, let us concentrate on the battle of Keren that ha\d great significance in the course of the Second World War and later in the fate our people.
Major P. Searight of the British Royal Fusiliers, who participated in the Battle of Keren, describes the battle in these terms: “In the confrontations of the Second World War the battle for Keren was really a hell especially from the physical point of view. In the nine months I served in western Europe as the commander of my company I assure you that I have never encountered such unendurable and exhausting days like those of Keren”. This recollection reveals the strategic importance of the town both for the control and defense of the highland areas of Eritrea. Its position in the tip of the highland plateau makes it an ideal place to contain any intruder who might come from the western lowlands or the northern valleys. But that was that the British forces actually did. They launched a two pronged attack, one from Kassala and the other from Tokar.
General William Platt, who was commanding the British military operations from the western direction, launched the attach in early January and on the 19th took Kassala which was at that time under the Italians. On 22 January 1941, the British forces easily took over Keru which was to be followed with the fall of Agordat and Barentu on the first and second days of February respectively. In the early days of their offensive, the British met little resistance and were quickly advancing towards Keren which they knew was to be the culmination of their military campaign in Eritrea.
The battle for Keren started in earnest on February 3 with both sides entrenched in their defense lines exchanging artillery fire. With over 90,000 men engaged in the fighting on both sides, the human and material loss was bound to be enormous. The Italians, being aware that the loss of Keren would mean the disintegration of their East African colonies, were not ready to give in easily and as such defended their positions in the surrounding hills of the town for two months. They were helped by the position of the town which was surrounded by a series of hills condoning it from the vast western lowlands. The British generals, who were commanding the offensive, quickly found out that they were not only being confronted by a strong enemy but also by the impregnable position of the town. The war dragged on with little progress on either side. The slow developments so irritated Sir Winston Churchill that he sent a telegram to his foreign minister Anthony Eden on February 20 who was in Cairo at that time. Winston Churchill wrote: “The past developments in Keren have been of concern to me. We have been able to secure Abyssinia but we are hoping for the quick conquest of Eritrea…” However, the battle for Keren went on until 27 March when the British stormed Mount Sankil, of the Italian fortresses, and entered the town. General Nicolanelo Carnimeo, the commander of the Italian forces, retreated with his remaining forces and made a last stand in Adi Tekelezan. But he knew that all efforts his forces might employ to check the British advance were in vain, for the fall of Keren meant the conquest of Eritrea. Thus, he retreated with his remaining forces to Asmara where the treaty of surrender was signed on Fool’s Day - 1 April 1941.
[The battle for Eritrea was for sure lost on 27 March with the fall of Keren and the sealed off with the feasting and signing ceremonies done in Asmara on 1 April. However, parts of Eritrea were still to put under the victors.] The ports of Massawa and Assab as well as the southern parts of the country were still under the hands of the Italians. On 2 April, General Heath who victoriously entered Asmara the previous day, telephoned the Italian Naval Commander in Massawa, Admiral Bonetti, to surrender his men and ships. The Admiral relayed the message to Mussolini whose reply was, “Continue to fight and destroy the port”. The British, after hearing the reply of the Duce, launched their attack on Massawa on 7 April and took its control; the mopping up operation for the remaining pockets of Italian resistance was easily accomplished. This, Mussolini’s ‘Africa Orientale’ ceased to exist and the Eritreans found themselves under the hands of another colonizer.
For Eritreans, it was in reality the closing of faceless colonial chapter and the opening of an uglier new one. They were victims not only of the oppressive measures of their conquerors but also of the cross-fire of the colonial powers vying for the control of this strategically located land. Those cross-fires which they never desired were costing them great human and material losses. Foreign historians who wrote about the great power conflicts in the country never mention the anguish and suffering of our people but preoccupied themselves with the military accounts of the victors and the vanquished.
The Italians who colonized Eritrea for 60 years until the advent of the British laid down [basic] infrastructure and opened small industries… Thus, when the British occupied the country they found a relatively well established industrial base, modern towns, good quality communication and transportation systems and skilled workforce. But they were not to enjoy the fruits of their war booty for long because their allies in the Second WW did not yet decide on what could be done about the occupied former enemy colonies. Seeing their limited stay in the country, they later neglected the industries (which increased in number between 1941-45 to supply their war needs) and other work projects hence living the economy in disarray. Moreover, they hastily started to dismantle complete factories and dry docks and shipped them to their other colonies in the Indian sub-continent. Syliva Pakhurst vividly recounts in her book, Eritrea in the Eve, about how her countrymen systematically dismantled everything of value including corrugated iron sheets and nails and deprived thousands of the Eritrean workforce of their meager livelihood.
The British were not only busy plundering the country but also invited another imperialist force, the US, to user the naval bases on the Eritrean ports. Thus, the first American war ships entered on 11 April 1941 in what was to be a prelude to their further penetration into the hinterland and the subsequent collusion with Emperor Haile Selassie in handing over the country to the Ethiopian empire in return for their military presence there and their neo-colonization of Ethiopia.
Upon their entry, the British occupation forces started to take control of the administrative apparatus from the Italians and began issuing a series of petty regulations. However, the Italian system was left intact. In the beginning, Eritreans were somewhat puzzled about the British behaviour because of their propaganda pamphlets describing themselves as “liberators”. Nevertheless, their acts betrayed their [real intensions]. Thus it did not take long for Eritreans to realize that 1 April 1941 was a real Fool’s Day.
Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org