Surviving shellfire in the Battle for Keren

The view from an RAF bomber as the mountainous terrain outside the town of Keren is attacked.

James Barthorpe was a driver with an artillery unit during the war to retake Eritrea and Abyssinia from the Italians. It was a remote and often forgotten war, but the Battle for Keren involved some very fierce fighting in harsh terrain. On this occasion the terrain worked to his advantage:

We were deployed in a very sandy area which in a way was to our advantage, as despite the frequent shelling we underwent by enemy artillery, the shrapnel was smothered by the sandy soil which saved casualties and on one occasion saved my life. We ate and slept within 10 metres of the gun, which was essential in action, and on this occasion we were awakened at first light with a request for defensive fire on a pre – selected target. We started firing at the usual rate of 1 round per minute. This was very soon increased to 2 per minute and then almost immediatly to the emergency call of gunfire (as fast as you can).

This applied to all our 4 guns in the troop. After about 2 hrs firing No 3 gun on our left (we were No 2) ceased firing, and as there had been no order and we had been shelled during this operation, our No 1 enquired the reason. It appeared the recoil system on the gun had leaked oil, rendering the gun unserviceable. As we were running low on ammunition the Sgt. on No 2 gun suggested that we send over some men to fetch some of his.

I was sent with 3 other me to fetch some. ( I must mention here that although I was a driver, when we were in action in a static position, I assisted on the guns.) We did several trips to No 2 and back, carrying either a box of 4 shells or one of 8 cartridge cases. As I started back on my last trip carrying a box of 8 cartridge cases, the enemy started shelling our position. I was about half way back so to turn back was as dangerous and going on, so I just kept going.

I was walking through a particular sandy patch over a low dune when a shell landed literally no more than 2 metres from my feet but at the foot of the dune. This probably saved my life as I was covered in sand and bits of grass and swearing at the enemy gunners, but unhurt by shrapnel. I was told afterwards that when my friends saw me disappear into a cloud of sand they called me to see if I was alright, but once they heard me swearing they knew I was untouched – thanks to the sand !

The exact date for this action is not recorded, see the Memoirs of Alec James Barthorpe.

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