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5 KAR in Abyssinia, 3rd April 1941

Though the forcing of the Awash was not a major engagement, it turned out to be one of the most successful little operations in the whole campaign, reflecting great credit upon 5 KAR and particularly on ‘D’ Company, commanded by Captain T.C.C. Lewin (King’s African Rifles Reserve of Officers).

(From page 519 of the Regimental History)




The Awash Gorge

On 2nd April 1941 as 22nd (East Africa) Brigade approached the Awash (the vernacular spelling of Auasc or Ausc is used in the gallantry citations) River, Italian troops withdrew before the British advance, and in the evening 5 KAR, the leading battalion, heard the sound of a demolition as enemy engineers dropped the road bridge 30 metres down into the river that itself was 30 metres wide; luckily this was the low-water season and the river was fordable.  The adjacent rail bridge had been dropped some time before.

Major R.A.F. Hurt commanded 5 KAR plus the following attachments:

Ø  One platoon ‘C’ Company 3 KAR (Medium Machine Guns).
Ø  One section of an Anti-Tank Battery.
Ø  One section of 22nd Mountain Battery, Indian Army.
Ø  One section of 54 Field Company, Royal Engineers.
Ø  One squadron (less one troop) East African Armoured Car Regiment.

At first light Major Hurt went forward on a reconnaissance with two platoons and a troop of armoured cars.  This drew medium machine gun fire from the enemy’s left flank but Italian positions on the right flank, although observed, remained silent.  The left flank positions were accurately registered by the mountain gunners.  The ground favoured the British medium and heavy weapons as it had forced the Italian infantrymen to site themselves well forward in order to bring fire down into the gorge.  The enemy field artillery was in Awash village to the rear, and out of sight.

The crossing operation

5 KAR patrols were sent out on a wide front to look for a crossing point, especially south of the dropped bridge where an old ford was believed to exist.  Enemy positions opened fire on the patrols but the mountain and medium machine guns hit back, causing Italian attrition.

‘D’ Company was tasked with crossing at the site of the dropped bridge whilst ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies made attempts further upstream.  In the ‘D’ Company area 2nd Lieutenant R. A. Langridge’s platoon went down into the gorge where the road bridge had been whilst Lieutenant Valentine’s platoon moved towards the railway bridge; 2nd Lieutenant G.H. Howard and his Askari covered the forward platoons.  Lieutenant Ridley’s platoon was out on patrol.

Valentine was soon pinned down in the open by heavy enemy fire but the Askari returned fire well, No. 1963 Private Boiyo Arapmurgor winning a Military Medal with the citation:

For marked gallantry in Action.  At AUSC on 3rd April 1941, Private BOIYO, under heavy fire, pressed forward alone with a Bren Gun and effectively returned enemy fire.  His gallantry and initiative enabled his platoon to continue its advance.

Down in the gorge Ronald Albert Langridge, to the surprise of all, achieved his mission and the citation for his Military Cross tells how:

For conspicuous gallantry in action.  This 2nd Lieutenant at AUASC on 3 April 1941, on being ordered to cross the river and gain the heights above which were held by the enemy, he first waded the river up to his chest in water, and was swept downstream. On gaining the far side he found a safe passage for his men, got them across, and led them up the heights.

On reaching the heights the Platoon came under medium machine gun fire from both flanks. 2nd Lieutenant Langridge proceeded to deal with one part after another until he had cleared up the whole position. During this action he and his platoon were under constant medium machine gun fire, until the final post was captured.

This Officer’s fine example and coolness under fire was an inspiration to his men, and was responsible for the capture of a very strongly fortified position.

During the fighting on the west bank No. 1679 Lance Corporal Farah Isak, one of Langridge’s section commanders, was awarded a Military Medal:


For marked gallantry in action.  At AUSC on 3rd April Lance Corporal Farah set a fine example when his Section came under heavy fire on both flanks, pressed on to a good fire position, silenced an enemy gun and captured the crew.


No. N/1674 Private Chemetai Arap Kandiye also became a ‘D’ Company hero and received a Military Medal:

For marked gallantry in action.  This rank at AUSC on 3 April 1941 was No. 1 of a light machine gun section, forded the river AUSC with 2nd Lieutenant LANGRIDGE although he was in considerable danger of being swept away.  Subsequently when the platoon came under heavy medium machine gun fire, he displayed gallantry and devotion to duty by advancing against the enemy machine gun posts firing his light machine gun from the hip.  Due chiefly to this Private’s courageous action, the advance was not held up, and the opposition was quickly overcome.

As directed by ‘D’ Company Commander, Captain T.C.C. Lewin, Girth Hillsides Howard took his platoon across the river after Langridge and came under heavy enemy machine gun fire as he climbed up the west bank but he immediately reacted, winning a Military Cross:

For conspicuous gallantry in action at AUASC on April 3rd 1941.  Under heavy machine gun fire 2nd Lieutenant HOWARD rallied the Platoon, scaled the cliffs and finally rushed a machine gun post singlehanded, killing two and capturing the remainder of the crew.

Lieutenant Ridley then appeared and took his platoon across the river followed by Valentine; concurrently the anti-tank, armoured car and medium machine gunners engaged every enemy target that they could see.


Actions to the south
Whilst ‘D’ Company was forcing a crossing by the road bridge David Horace Abercrombie Kemble moved beyond the old ford and took his ‘C’ Company across the river and up on to the west bank.  After fighting in three other actions he was soon to be awarded a Military Cross whose citation included:

AUASC GORGE 3 APRIL 1941 and FIKE 1 May 1941. During the actions at AUASC GORGE and FIKE, Captain Kemble commanded his Company with skill, courage and determination, and his fine example has been an inspiration to his subordinate commanders and men.


Left: Awash Gorge - the new British road bridge


‘B’ Company under Captain Buxton located the old ford and also successfully crossed the river to consolidate 5 KAR’s hold on the west bank; the company then cleared Awash village finding that the enemy field artillery had withdrawn.  Mainly because of incompetence these guns had not fired except to clear their barrels before leaving, as the gun position was not aware of what was happening in the gorge.  ‘B’ Company, supported by a platoon of ‘C’ Company 3 KAR, took around 70 officers and 500 other ranks prisoner in and around the village and seized four anti-tank guns and a light tank.

It was vital to maintain the momentum of the advance and Askari man-handled six armoured cars across the ford; along with two platoons of ‘B’ Company under Captain Buxton the armoured cars moved westwards .  Meanwhile sappers constructed a new bridge that was in use by midnight on 4th/5th April.  The “race to Addis Ababa” continued.



On the night of 3rd April enemy Vehicles approached 5 KAR’s positions and a patrol went out to deal with them, which it did taking five prisoners.  But No. LF 421 Warrant Officer II, Company Sergeant Major Stanley Leonard Jarrett, Kenya Regiment attached to 5 KAR, was mortally wounded; he is buried in Addis Ababa cemetery.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists an Askari buried in the same cemetery who died on 3rd April 1941, he was No. PS/7293 Private Usingro Sierompre.  Neither the battalion nor the regimental histories give casualty figures for 3rd April 1941 but several other men must have been wounded.

Above: Addis Ababa War Cemetery

SOURCES:

W.D. Draffin & T.C.C. Lewin. A War Journal of The Fifth (Kenya) Battalion, The King’s African Rifles.

Lieutenant Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett. The King’s African Rifles.

Major General I.S.O. Playfair. British Official History. The Mediterranean and Middle East. Volume I. The early successes against Italy (to May 1941).

All the above are available From Naval & Military Press as softback reprints.

Citations are available from the National Archives.

 
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