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Remembering the Battle of Keren 75 years on

29 March 2016

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Keren during a special ceremony on April 1 at Keren War Cemetery.

In March 1941, Keren became the scene of the most decisive battle of the Second World War in East Africa, fought between Italian-led forces and British, Commonwealth, and Free French troops.  

Keren was the last Italian stronghold in Eritrea. Guarding the entrance from the western plains to the Eritrean plateau, it formed a perfect defensive position. The only road passed through a deep gorge with precipitous and well-fortified mountains on either side.

On these heights the Italians concentrated some 23,000 riflemen, together with a large number of artillery guns and mortars. A preliminary assault by British and Indian troops was repulsed after a week of bitter fighting, although they gained and held a valuable position on Cameron's Ridge.

In late March, after ten days of gruelling combat, Commonwealth soldiers succeeded in forcing their way through the seemingly impregnable defences on the ridge, and finally through the 200m long road block which the Italians had blasted at the narrowest point in the pass.

Keren was taken on 27 March and the defeated Italian force retreated to Asmara, which fell to Commonwealth forces on April 1, 1941.

Keren War Cemetery contains the graves of some 440 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War, 35 of whom remain unidentified. Within the cemetery stands the Keren Cremation Memorial, which commemorates more than 280 Sikh and Hindu soldiers.

To remember the end of the battle, the CWGC looks at VC winning soldier, Subadar Richhpal Ram, from the Indian Army, who died during the early stages of the battle and is commemorated on the Keren Cremation Memorial.

More information about our sites can be found here on the CWGC Keren Cremation Memorial and Keren Cemetery.

The ceremony on 01 April was organized by the CWGCs Central African Regional Manager Mr Rod Carkett and His Excellency Mr David Ward, UK Ambassador to Eritrea - other International representatives from UK, Italy, Sudan, SA, India, USA, Russia, China, Egypt, Switzerland, The UN Development Programme, The Red Cross and Bisha Mining also attended.

Subadar Richhpal Ram came from Barda in Haryana, and served in the 6th Rajputana Rifles. He was awarded a posthumous VC for the following outstanding acts of courage at Keren:

On the night of February 7th-8th, 1941 Subadar Richhpal Ram was second inRichpal -ram -vccommand of a leading company attacking enemy positions in front of Keren Eritrea. With great dash and gallantry he led the forward platoon to the first objective, and when his company commander was wounded assumed command of the company. He then led the remaining two platoons in an attack which captured the final objective in the face of heavy fire. The party, completely isolated, under the inspiring leadership of Subadar Richhpal Ram beat back six enemy counter-attacks between midnight and 0430 hours, when ammunition ran out. This officer then extricated his command fighting his way back to the battalion. On February 12th, leading another attack, he pressed on fearlessly under heavy and accurate fire, inspiring his company by his example, until his right foot was blown off. He suffered further wounds from which he died. The heroism, determination, and devotion to duty shown by this officer were beyond praise, and an inspiration to all who saw him.

(the London Gazette of July 1st, 1941)