The struggle between the British and the Italians for control of East Africa and the Red Sea supply route leading to the Suez Canal intensified when in July 1940 around 6,500 Italian troops crossed into Sudan. To push them back into Eritrea, the 5th Indian Infantry Division began to arrive in Sudan from India in early September 1940. Along with the 4th Indian Infantry Division which had been rushed from Egypt it then advanced astride the axis that led through Keren and onto Asmara on the coast.
The battle of Keren was the culmination of the East African Campaign. The town is located on a plateau at 4,300 feet and astride the only approach that led to Asmara. A formidable barrier of bleak and jagged peaks guards the route through the narrow Dongolaas Gorge which takes the road and railway up to the plateau. The initial attacks in February and early March by the two Indian divisions on the mass of mountains – which rose some 2,500 feet on either side of the gorge – met very limited success. The Italians were too well entrenched and from their excellent observation posts they could detect and engage every movement in the Happy Valley below. Moreover, the physical effort of climbing through prickly bush, spear grass and rocks with no foothold, so exhausted the attackers burdened with equipment, weapons, ammunition etc. that on reaching the crests they were too exhausted to resist the Italian’s counterattack.
Ultimately the British commanders decided to force a passage by narrowing the frontage of the attack to 3,000 meters astride the gorge. A renewed effort by the 4th Indian Division on the left to capture Brig’s Peak and Sanchil again failed. However, a brigade of 5th Indian Division commanded by Frank Messervy (who would be the first C-in-C of the Pakistan Army), managed to ascend a spur on the right and after some bitter fighting captured Fort Dologorodoc. That night the next brigade with 6/13th RFFR in reserve, passed through to assault Zeban and Falestoh. The attack stalled halfway and early next morning, the flank of the left forward battalion – 3/2nd Punjab, was counter-attacked.
The Pathan company of 6/13th RFFR commanded by Captain Anant was sent to assist. The ground over which it passed was swept by machine gun fire from across the gorge but the company made a rush and captured 40 Italians. Throughout the morning in temperatures touching 40°C and amidst heavy shelling, the rest of 6/13th carried water, rations and ammunition up to the forward battalions. Its HQ was heavily shelled but with coolness and diligence, the adjutant, Major Sher Khan kept is operating efficiently. In spite of the best efforts of 6/13th RFFR and an air supply mission, the Worcestershire Battalion on the right was critically short of ammunition and in the evening withdrew to a depression ahead of Fort Dologorodoc.
As it was withdrawing, Anant’s company out on the left flank was heavily counterattacked by the better part of a battalion of Savoy Grenadiers. They were amongst the finest Italian troops but in spite of losing a third of its strength the company gallantly held its ground. The history of the division records that the company commander ‘displayed magnificent courage and leadership in this action’. When the Italians succeeded in penetrating the centre of his sector, he led his company HQ and a few men whom he had collected to the counter-attack and at the point of the bayonet pushed the Italians out from his company’s position.
Though wounded in the face and both legs, Anant was not prepared to be evacuated and only did so five hours later under orders. The command passed to his company officer, Lt Sadiqullah. The Savoy Grenadiers rallied and launched another attack but the officer handled the situation very well. In the nick of time the company was reinforced by two platoons and Sadiqullah led a charge and again drove the Italians back at the point of the bayonet. For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty, Anant Singh was awarded a Military Cross. Young Lt. Sadiqulla was also awarded a MC in a subsequent battle but that is another story to be told.
Anant Singh returned to India to recover from his injuries. While in hospital at Abbottabad, he was visited by Major General Inskip who had commanded 6/13th RFFR in Waziristan from 1932-34 and was now commanding the Rawalpindi District. Inskip had been awarded an MC in The First World War and he pinned a miniature of the medal on Anant’s shirt. Anant confided to the general that he was still in possession of an Italian Lugar that he was grasping when evacuated from the frontline and the general advised him to keep his mouth shut and retain it as a memento, which he did.
His leg injury was very serious and the doctors were considering amputation but a Sikh doctor volunteered to operate and saved the limb. However, there was a rumour that his leg had been amputated and his fiancés mother wanted to call off the wedding. Anant was on his way to Jammu on medical leave and Colonel Katoch was sent to the Pathankot Railway Station to meet Anant Singh to determine if the groom-to-be was whole and intact. That night two very drunk soldiers arrived at the residence of Colonel Katoch. The father-in law-to-be had pulled out a bottle of Scotch to celebrate and together they ‘killed’ it.
After a sojourn, in 1944 Anant Singh was detailed to attend the Staff Course where my father was an instructor. He did well and returned to the front, this time to Burma where he was the first Indian officer to hold the key appointment of a brigade major of an infantry brigade. When the war ended, he finally got married much to the relief of his anxious in-laws. At Independence, he opted to be transferred to the 1/5th Gurkha because it traced its ancestry to the Punjab Frontier Force, and then commanded it in the First Kashmir War. In November 1948, when the advance of the Indian Army through the Zojila Pass towards Drass and Kargil was held up, 1/5th Gurkha was tasked to clear the heights of Kumar and Anant on a ridge overlooking the Pindras Gorge. It was a hard fought battle and Anant Singh’s citation for MVC states that, ‘The success of this operation was due entirely to Lieutenant Colonel Pathania’s personal recce of enemy defence. Throughout the recce stage and during the attack, this officer personally led his men.’
In 1949 Anant was promoted brigadier and for the next ten years he held various command and staff appointments till he was promoted to major general in 1959. In 1962 he had been recently appointed as the Director General of the National Cadet Corps when he was rushed to command the 4th Mountain Division in NEFA. The debacle of the Indo-China War muddied the career and reputation of many officers of the Indian Army including Anant Singh who had so far a fine record of service. However, the general continued to serve till early 1965 and then spent his retirement years at ‘Tiger’s Den, Exchange Road, Jammu Tawi.’
The officers of ‘Garbar Unath’ formed a bond of friendship that stood the test of time and was unaffected by military conflicts between nations. When General Musa was appointed Governor of Balochistan in 1985, Anant saw him on television. Displayed on the wall behind the governor was a ‘Datri’, a Pathan weapon that Anant had previously seen in Musa’s room in Razmak. Musa was the senior subaltern and the young officers used to gather in his room every evening. Anant saw the Datri on his fireplace and asked for one. Musa promised to get one when he went on leave but it was a promise that got buried under big events – the Waziristan Campaign, the Second World War, Independence, etc. In a congratulatory letter Anant reminded the governor on his promise 45 year earlier and in 2000, when Anant’s son Vasu visited Lahore, Major General Ghaziuddin Rana the son of Bakhtiar Rana presented him the weapon on behalf of General Musa. Anant finally got his Dattri after waiting 64 years. After he passed away, his wife presented it along with the Luger to the museum of 1/5th Gurkha.
The warrior breathed his last in Dharamsala on 19 December, 2007 at the age of 95 years.
Author’s Note: I am immensely grateful to Vasu Pathania for having shared with me information, anecdotes and pictures related to his late father. My deepest thanks to Sushil Kumar for providing me the bio data as well as citations of the general as well as his relatives mentioned in this article. The major details of the Battle of Keren (including maps and images) have been extracted from Ball of Fire, the Second World War history of the 5th Indian Division.