British Somaliland and indications of the Italian assault August 1940. Source: Stewart


Map of the invasion. Source: Mockler

Introduction and background to AOI

Following the Italian declaration of war against Great Britain and France on the 10th June 1940, the British perceptions of the Italians in Africa changed. The British had misunderstood the unique position Italy held and, although it had previously been unhappy with the Italian invasion and occupation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), they had not carried out any action to stop them. Following the declaration of war, however, the gloves were off and the British and French possessions in the region, as well as access through the vital Suez canal, were potentially threatened. The Italian high command had expected a short war which would give them territorial gains while Italian East Africa (AOI: Africa Orientale Italiana), surrounded and cut off, merely had to hold out until Great Britain sued for peace.

First Strike

Unlike the large sedentary Italian force languishing in North Africa, the force in AOI under the command of the Duke of Aosta (Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta) took the initiative. Rather than sit and wait to be attacked by the British and to try and get some breathing space to ensure the survival of the colony, the Duke quickly launched attacks on British border posts in Kenya and Sudan. Small towns inside the Sudan border, such as Kassala and Gallabat, were taken before he turned his attention North to the territories of British and French Somaliland. He also launched raids over the borders attacking Berbera, Hargeisa, and Zeila but did not formally invade the French and British territories until sufficient forces had been gathered together. The Aubarre area was the formation point and, by the end of June 1940, the Italians had occupied Borama four miles over the border into British Somaliland in preparation for either an invasion or as a vanguard against a British counterattack.

In general, the strength of British and French forces in the North was massively overestimated, with an estimate of as many as 11,000 British and native forces when, in reality, it was less than half that number. However, the presence of two easily resupplied ports so close to Ethiopia was a major strategic concern for the protection of AOI. Therefore, the ports in Djibouti (French Somaliland) and Berbera (British Somaliland) had to be eliminated for the AOI to stand any chance of holding out.

As of the 1st June 1940, the Italian forces in the whole of AOI (encompassing modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and most of Somalia together forming an area larger than France),, numbered just over a quarter of a million men comprising a mix of regulars (Regio Esercito – Royal Army of Italy), MVSN (Italian: Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale – Voluntary Militia for National Security) commonly known as the ‘Blackshirts’, and colonial forces.


Italian forces in AOI by region, 1st June 1940. Source: Orpen


Renault FT’s in French Somaliland, 1938. Source: Public Domain

The first target of the Italian assault was the French colony and port of Djibouti. French forces defending the territory were commanded by Major General Paul Legentilhomme. The garrison there had been quadrupled since September 1939. At his disposal, he had a substantial infantry force consisting of seven battalions of Senegalese and Somali infantry, four companies of militia troops and two platoons of camel-mounted troops, and an assortment of aircraft. General Legentilhomme also possessed a small stock of 3 batteries of field guns, 4 batteries of anti-aircraft guns, and at least 4 Renault FT light tanks armed with the short 37mm gun, constituting one light tank company. This constituted a significant force of men and tanks, intended to not just dissuade the Italian forces from attacking but, according to Allied plans, it was to be the strike force against Addis Ababa. The much weaker British forces in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Kenya, and British Somaliland were supposed to remain defensive and let the French attack up the rail line to Addis. Whether the Italians knew that this was the plan or not, the peril was obvious.

Regardless, General Nasi, commanding Italian forces, attacked French Somaliland on 18th June 1940 with 9,000 men starting with the forts of Ali-Sabieh (~90 km south of the capital) and Dadd’to in the south and north respectively and skirmishes around Lakes Abbe and Ally in the South West. Despite the enormous advantages of the French forces, the Italians managed to occupy a series of border fortifications on the AOI/French Somaliland border by the end of June but got no further. Italian planes bombed Djibouti harbour, and on the 24th June, the Franco-Italian Armistice came into effect, requiring the demilitarisation of French Somaliland for the period of war between Italy and Great Britain, ceding effective control to the Italians.

The armistice also required all arms and ammunition, which would have included those tanks and guns, to be surrendered to Italy but General Legentilhomme stubbornly refused to cooperate insisting he would fight on, refusing to comply with orders to surrender until 28th July when President Petain replaced him with General Germain. General Germain though, refused to demilitarise, instead adopting a non-belligerent posture, fully cooperating with the Vichy Government but taking no offensive action and thus denying the stock of tanks and equipment to the Italians. The battalion of French troops blocking the Jirreh pass (considered a ‘back door’ into British Somaliland) was withdrawn per the armistice agreement but was replaced with a detachment of the Somaliland Camel Corps instead to guard the 45-mile border.

The armistice had effectively neutralized French Somaliland and permitted the Italians to make use of the port of Djibouti and the railway line unhindered by the French forces, although British control of the sea meant that the harbour received no useful supplies to help AOI. With the conclusion of operations in French Somaliland by the end of the July, the attention was turned to eliminate the British next door. The British later seized the French colony from Vichy hands in October 1941 following a naval blockade.


Italian troops march in columns during the invasion of British Somaliland.

The assault on British Somaliland

With French Somaliland neutralized, the threat from the British had to be eliminated as well and, although the French had not surrendered their tanks and guns, the Italians had sufficient men to do the job. General Guglielmo Nasi, commanding the Italian forces, over-estimated British strength in the colony, assessing that, on top of more men, they also had 24 guns and 8 anti-tank guns as well as 50 anti-aircraft guns which would complicate his invasion plans. Italian forces did occupy the station at Buramo on the 24th June. This lead to the despatch of a camel troop by the British to scout and raid them, which (in company with some local Somali tribesmen) they did on the night of the 29th/30th June. A further raid against Italian forces by this Camel troop was carried out at Dumuk but, these raids did little to deter the General and may only have served to reinforce the need to remove this British presence. The invasion started on the 3rd August 1940, with Italian troops crossing the border.


A column of Italian M.11/39 Medium tanks advancing into British Somaliland, August 1940.

Defences

The defence of British Somaliland was commanded by Brigadier Arthur Chater when on the 15th May 1940, the official defence shifted from ambivalence to ‘scuttle’ with actual soldiers started to be used rather than irregular light troops and the Somaliland Camel Corps. After this, some active defence was being considered, but it was too little too late. Forces did start arriving so that, by the time of the invasion, Brigadier Chater had at his disposal about 5,000 men consisting of:

  • Somaliland Camel Corps (SCC) (~630 men including reservists) comprising a total of one motorised machine gun company, one camel-mounted rifle company, one pony-mounted rifle company, and one company of dismounted rifles. 400 Askaris with 14 British Officers with reinforcements from the Southern Rhodesia Regiment of 17 Officers and 20 Other Ranks which formed a second dismounted company.
  • 2nd Battalion Black Watch standing by at Aden
  • 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesia Regiment (1st NRR)
  • 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion King’s African Rifles (KAR) (about 875 men of whom just 9 of the 40 officers were regulars) arrived 12th July 1940
  • 1st East African Light Battery (4 x 3.7″ howitzers) (from Kenya) arrived 12th July 1940
  • 1st Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment (1st/2nd Punjab Reg.) arrived 1st July 1940
  • 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment (3rd/15th Punjab Reg.) arrived 1st July 1940
  • some Police units
  • Six Italian 20mm cannons stripped from an interned Italian ship


Troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps

Brigadier Chater chose the best defensive line open to him, about 50 miles inland from Berbera on the high ground. Back in 1939, GB£900 had been spent on the construction of concrete machine-gun nests at Tug Argan and Sheikh Pass to constitute the entirety of the defences for the protectorate. This position at Tug Argan would block the only road route to Berbera, leaving the invading Italians with three options. Either attack the Jirreh pass to the north and advance down a poor track to Berbera; attacking down the main road from Hargeisa to the pass at Tug Argan where the British forces were; or going around the south via Burao and over the Sheikh pass.

This was the first time any real practical consideration had been given to defending the protectorate at all. As Millman (British Somaliland: An administrative history) puts it “there had been no time to put the defence of the Protectorate on any sort of satisfactory footing before the Italian invasion began. Only in the process of attempting to defend the place did it become clear that it was indefensible” (p.118). But held, it had to be. The British Prime Minister had decreed it, against the objections of Brigadier Chater, who was more in favour of simply abandoning the province. As a defence of the entire 700 or so miles of the border (not including the 45 miles bordering French Somaliland) was not possible, the only other option was to seize access routes and high ground.

Brigadier Chater deployed his forces, with the 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment held in reserve at Berbera, some of the Camel Corps with some Punjabi troops guarding the northern pass at Jirreh, the 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment guarding the Sheikh Pass, and the Northern Rhodesians and KAR at Tug Argan. The remainder of the Camel Corps, Police and irregular units were used to provide scouts and screening of enemy movements at border crossings.

With his forces deployed like this, regardless of which way the Italian forces would attack, they would have to cross one of the three passes, and only one had a decent road, the route through Tug Argan.

British Dispositions 1st August 1940

AreaTroops
Dobo1 x Company SCC less one troop
Hargeisa1 x Motor company SCC less one troop
1 x Troop SCC
1 x Company NRR, KAR
Burao1 x Company and one Troop SCC
Zeila to Berbera Road1 x Officer’s Patrol with wireless
Forward (Border) areasIllalos (native irregulars)
Tug ArganMain PositionNRR less one Company
Machine-Gun Company
B Company SCC
1st East African Light Battery
Tug ArganLeft Flank2nd KAR with HQ at Mandera*
Tug ArganLaferug
(Force Reserve)
3rd/15th Punjab Regiment (until the 7th August when replaced by 2nd Black Watch)
Tug ArganSawr Hills3rd/15th Punjab Regiment (after 7th August)
Sheikh PassElements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Shell Gap (road from Zeilah)Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Bihendi Gap (East of Berbera)Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Berbera (base)Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment

*Haile Selassie’s War by Anthony Mockler puts the HQ location at Barkasan Hill rather than at Madera although it likely moved during the defence.

The Italians are coming

Invading British Somaliland was the substantial force under General Nasi consisting of about 25,000 men of whom just 4800 were Italian, with the bulk being native Ascari troops. As well as this infantry force, General Nasi also had half a company of M.11/39 medium tanks and a squadron of CV.3 light tanks, as well as some armored cars.

Dividing his force, General Nasi sent the main portion, including the tanks, Eastwards along the Jigga to Hargeisa road. Commanding this column was General Carlo De Simeone leading the XIII Colonial Brigade under General Nam, the XIV Colonial Brigade under General Tosti, and the XV Colonial Brigade under Colonel Graziosi. A total of 11 infantry battalions with 14 batteries of artillery, the half company of the M.11/39 medium tanks, the squadron of the CV.3 light tanks, and some armored cars. Following, and acting as a reserve, was the II Colonial Brigade commanded by Colonel Lorenzini consisting of 4 battalions of infantry and two battalions of artillery.


Italian troops carried in trucks during the invasion of British Somaliland. Source: waridaad.blogspot.com

The second, lighter force was heading northwards to the sea at Zeila, sealing off any escape or support from French Somaliland. Commanded by General Bertoldi who had at his disposal 8 infantry battalions including 2 CCNN Blackshirts of which one was the machine gun battalion of the Granatieri di Savoia (the Savoia Grenadiers); an elite unit of the regular Italian army, as opposed to the mainly colonial forces. General Bertoldi was supported by four batteries of artillery split between LXX Colonial brigade and XVII colonial brigade. Alongside this northern column was an ‘exploitation’ unit led by General Passerone with just two battalions of infantry and a battery of artillery with the plan being, then upon the fall of Zeila, this small unit could attack Berbera from along the coast.

The third and final column consisting of a single infantry battalion, two groups of irregular troops and a single battery of artillery was led by General Bertello. They were to circle around the right flank. This force was sent to attack Sheikh Pass and then onto Berbera. If all three columns were successful, General Nasi would not only seal off any possible escape or reinforcements by land but also converge on Berbera from three directions.

The attack began on the 3rd August 1940, with the border crossed by the north and south columns with the main column moving toward Hargeisa. Here, on the 4th August, it met lead elements of the Camel Corps and Rhodesians and the Italians deployed their 12 light tanks (CV.3) abreast in a line of attack. The Camel Corps troops and Rhodesians reported knocking out or disabling three of these light tanks with anti-tank rifles before retreating as these tanks assaulted their position and overran it allowing the Italian column to resume its advance. Noteworthy here is that the official London Gazette report on the campaign states that Italian losses were a single armored car set on fire and two others damaged by rifle fire and not any tanks. Although the column advanced once more, it was harassed by British planes as it moved along the road but having taken Hargeisa allowed the Italians to move their air support up to assist in the attack on Berbera. This is presumably why the attack halted at Hargeisa on the 6th and 7th, to consolidate the advance.

The north column under General Bertoldi with the Savoia Grenadiers set the pace though, crossing the border and reaching their objective ahead of expectations, capturing Zeila. General Passerone’s exploitation force was then free to march on Berbera from the north unopposed.

On the 6th, the southern column under General Bertello reached Odweina and found the Sheikh Pass blocked by a battalion of the 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment. General Bertello chose to engage these troops only lightly with irregular troops while sending the main force he had north to attack the flank of the British at Tug Argan instead.

The main column resumed its advance on 8th August and, at 12:30 hours 9th August, ran into a delaying force comprising one company of the NRR with a machine-gun section of the SCC. The delaying tactic was a failure, however, as the first Italian tanks (M.11’s) were led around the hastily placed minefield ambush and overan the machine-guns. Unable to stop these tanks with anti-tank rifles or machine guns, the British, again, withdrew. With no weapons available to penetrate the Italian armor, a request for a gun capable of knocking them out was sent. The call was answered by the Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Hobart which sent a 3-pounder Naval gun along with 3 crew to Tog Argan where it was deployed on Observation Hill. Although not ideal, the gun could adequately deal with any of the Italian tanks although as a result of the mounting which had to be fabricated for it, the contraption had to be partially dismantled for reloading each time, with a resulting rate of fire of just 1 round every 5 minutes.

The British Home Command was aware that an invasion had begun and on the 10th was sending reinforcements and a change of command. Brigadier Chater was replaced with Major-General A.R. Godwin-Austen because the size of the forces coming would need a higher ranking commander. These reinforcements were another battalion of infantry, an artillery battery, a field artillery regiment, two 2-pounder anti-tank guns, a unit of Indian sappers, and the mechanized cavalry regiment taken from the 4th Indian Division. However, they never arrived, leaving General Godwin-Austen to command the original and much smaller force. The only reinforcements he had at his disposal were two 3″ anti-aircraft guns from the 23rd battery Hong Kong and Singapore brigade of the Royal Artillery.


Deployment of British forces at Tug Argan, 10th/11th August 1940. Source: Moyse-Bartlett


Map of the action at Tug Argan. August 1940. Source: unknown

The Italians reached Tug Argan on the 10th but did not attack until the 11th as they deployed ready for attack. The column had been led by the M.11/39 Medium tanks followed by CV.3 Light tanks and then the troops carried by a lorry. The British position was arranged with three companies of the 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment dispersed over the hilltops covering the right flank (north) at the Sawr Hills. The left flank (south) was a 5 mile long position covered by the Rhodesians and Camel Corps on a series of hills (Black Hill, Knobbly Hill, Mill Hill, Castle Hill, and Observation Hill) with the four 3.7” guns divided into pairs of two on the hills (Knobbly and Mill). With them, in this spread-out line of defended hilltops with the Indians troops on ‘Punjab Ridge’ followed by half of the 2nd KAR on Block Hill, covering the Mirgo Pass. This over-extended defensive line was weakened by a gap of 5 miles before another defended position covering the Jerato Pass, held by the other half of the 2nd KAR. Behind all of this was the newly arrived 2nd Black Watch held in reserve at Laferug. This was a poor arrangement with troops unable to cover each other with supporting fire due to the distances between positions and enough room for the Italian forces to manoeuvre between them or pick them off one at a time.

French colonial Renault FT-31 in 1940.
French colonial Renault FT-31 in 1940.


M11/39 in Eastern Africa, British Somaliland invasion, September 1940.

cv35 Ariete div. Libya 1941

Italian Carro Veloce CV-35 serie II, Ariete division, serving in Africa, but on the Lybian front. The same vehicle formed the stapple of Italian armored forces in East Africa.

A Universal Carrier Mk.II heavily modified for desert combat with the VIIIth army, El Alamein, June 1942
A Universal Carrier in British used in North Africa. This trustworthy vehicle was present on all fronts the British Army operated, including East Africa.

The Italians attack

The attack from the road required De Simone’s force to cross very rugged terrain made more complex by the inaccurate maps they were using (copied from inaccurate British maps from 1926) but was preceded by a bombardment from the Italian guns falling on Mill Hill, which was defended by two platoons of the Camel Corps along with two howitzers. The bombardment then shifted to other forward positions and was then followed up by air attacks from Italian bombers and ground attacks by fighters. Mill Hill, in particular, was heavily damaged by this shelling and bombardment. In the history of the King’s African Rifles, Lt.Col. Moyse-Bartlett reports that 8 Italian tanks which had been moving along the Tug towards Observation Hill were fired upon by the 3.7” howitzers on the hill which appears to have caused them to leave.

The XIV brigade took the centre and attacked the Rhodesians over the dry stream bed for which Tug Argan is named (a ‘Tug’ is a dry stream bed). To their left was Lorenzini with II Brigade working its way around the British positions making excellent use of cover through the dry stream. On the right flank was XV Brigade facing Punjab Ridge with the armored vehicles held back in reserve. The right flank attacked by XV brigade was supported by the arriving troops from Bertello’s column heading north. Thus, the British positions were too spread out and were attacked in force from more than one direction.

The initial Italian attacks from the centre and north were repulsed, but the gaps between the positions were exploited by XV Brigade splitting the KAR from the Rhodesians along Mirgo Pass. The Italians ambushed a supply column and the Black Watch, having penetrated past the British lines.

XV Brigade though had suffered casualties during the main attacks and was replaced with XIII Brigade from the reserve for a fresh attack. Italian aircraft bombed the British positions, particularly Castle Hill which had been well defended by the Rhodesians against XV Brigade. The initial attacks had failed as the stalwart defenders were not for budging and the two flanking columns had not progressed well either. Despite no enemy forces blocking his troops, Passerone’s column towards Berbera had been stalled by a combination of terrible roads, constant British air attacks, and shelling from British warships. The southern column had engaged the Punjabi’s at Sheikh Pass but had made no real attempt to shift them, preferring instead to hold the troops there to prevent them being used at Tug Argan.

Mill Hill was abandoned by the afternoon of the 12th due to heavy losses caused by Italian attacks, with the defenders leaving behind the two howitzers, spiked and abandoned. The other two guns, based on Knobbly Hill were overrun by the Italians meaning that the British were effectively without artillery support.

Black Hill fared no better. Defended by just the machine gun company of the Camel Corps supported by the Rhodesians they quickly became isolated and cut off as the Italians infiltrated through their lines. So cut-off they were that, with the loss of communications, the British commander believed the hill had fallen to enemy attacks on the 13th and sent a patrol from the 3rd/15th Punjabi’s to check, finding the beleaguered defenders short of water and ammunition. In the peak of the dry season in that part of the world with temperatures of 48 C (120 F) commonplace, a lack of water was as much of a danger as enemy fire. No additional troops arrived at Tug Argan to support the British but with enemy tanks moving around more guns had been found in the form of a pair of Bofors cannons on the 13th.

On the 14th August, Observation Hill came under fierce bombardment. The naval 3-pounder which had been placed there was causing great disruption in the hands of the skilled naval gunners who, along with the Camel Corps machine gun detachment, were a serious hindrance to Italian movement. As a result, the Italians moved guns through the British lines and started a bombardment of the hill from behind in a very confused engagement. During the night of 13th/14th August, the Black Watch brought up two Bren Carriers laden with water supplies to the defenders on Castle and Knobbly Hills as well as additional ammunition. The Italians ambushed this supply convoy causing the loss of one carrier which fell into a ravine and was abandoned. Three trucks were also abandoned by their Somali drivers but, by daylight on the 14th, a lot of confidence in the viability of the defences had been lost.

Daybreak on the 14th also brought a renewed and intense barrage on Castle and Observation Hills with over 500 shells landing on Castle Hill alone smashing several areas of defence but the Italian attack at 16:00 hours was still fought off. With much of the defence works smashed and the Italians growing more confident the outcome was in no doubt.

A new attack on Tug Argan was ordered on the 15th August by General De Simone, and General Godwin-Austen already believed his position to be untenable. The ambush of the Black Watch by XV Brigade getting through the gaps in his defences convinced him he was going to be surrounded and destroyed and he began his plans to withdraw to Berbera.

When the Italians attacked on the 15th, they quickly got artillery behind Black Hill but were dispersed by British fire. The hill was heavily shelled though but the main attack was on Observation Hill where, after a two hours intense bombardment, they forced the Rhodesians off it scattering them by 17:00 hours. The Naval 3-pounder and its gallant naval crew, Petty Officer Hugh Jones, and Able Seamen Sweeny and Hurren were lost defending the position believed killed although they were later reported to have been captured (all three of them were released as POW’s in April 1941, and Petty Officer Hugh Jones returned to Australia in June 1941). Captain Wilson (East Surrey Regiment) commanding elements of the Somaliland Camel Corps received a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions on Observation Hill.

The Italians then set to work on the Punjabi positions. Lorenzini’s flanking force penetrated into the Punjabi’s positions as they were withdrawing causing chaos and the 3rd/15th Punjabi Regiment withdrew in disorder. The entire defensive system of positions was abandoned with forces pulling back to Berbera with the retreat covered by the Black Watch and KAR. Black Hill too was abandoned on the 15th and the remaining Camel Corps and Rhodesians retreated.

Suspecting a feint withdrawal, De Simeone did not capitalise on the enemy rout with his forces still in position for further attacks and to defend what they had won. II Brigade was moving towards the positions formerly held by the Black Watch at Laferung with XIII moving along the road to support them. XV Brigade was still on the high ground they had won, LXX Brigade was still coming back to the main force to, and XIV was still in reserve with no progress made in pursuit until the 17th.

Finally, at 10:50 hours on the 17th, realising the British were retreating, De Simeone ordered the attack on the covering position at Laferug held by the Black Watch and the two companies of the 2nd KAR who were covering the British withdrawal and found them to be a most stubborn opponent. Despite attacking with a brigade strength (LXX Brigade) force supported by artillery and tanks, the attack was poorly organised and it did not go well for the Italians.

The attack on the left flank was repelled and then there was a battalion strength attack by “hordes of Italian troops, many of them black and being driven forward by shambock (a type of whip) wielding white officers” on the British centre defended by a single company which was being subjected to heavy casualties but was progressively creeping over the advanced British positions.

We opened fire and they all ran into each other and the troops scattering for cover and more trucks came up behind. Now everyone was firing….[some members of the Battalion started to withdraw]… this was absolutely not allowed with express orders. I got very angry and jumped out of my trench, waving my pistol I shouted to them to turn around and get back to their trenches, fix their bayonets and then come with me
Account of Captain D. Rose (Black Watch)

Captain Rose brought up three Bren carriers and the company forced the Italian battalion back about 500 metres at the point of the bayonet, restoring the position to British control. During this time, Captain Rose was shot in the shoulder bowling him “arse-over-tip like a shot-rabbit” before he got back to his trench.

[The Italian attack]… was pushed forward on the left with great spirit until fifty Highlanders upped and charged wildly yelling, bayonets out, for six hundred yards, a terrifying sight that sent ‘the enemy rising and running like hares in their hundreds
Haile Selassie’s War. p.248

The next attack by the Italians sought to regain this ground, attacking along the left and centre with infantry supported by eight to ten light and medium tanks working together where they ran into the fire of the two Bofors gun which had been brought up. The destruction of one medium (M.11) and two light (CV.3) tanks by these guns under the command of Sergeant Major Sandy (Black Watch) fought off this renewed attack. Of note here is that in ‘Haile Selassie’s War’, Anthony Mockler states this was, in fact, just a single Bofors gun and one captured Italian Breda cannon with 5 rounds and ‘The Black Watch’ by Victoria Schofield confirms just a single Bofors gun with just a dozen shells.

The stubbornness of the Black Watch and the audacity of the bayonet attack had stunned the Italian forces, but the defence was not without a price. Captain Rose had been wounded, the Battalion piper Henry MacDonald had been shot as he started piping for the charge and a further 7 of the Black Watch had been killed during the campaign with 6 of them during this action.* Italian losses are not known but it was the Italians who had the upper hand.

*The Roll of Honour for 2nd Battalion Black Watch records just 6 names with 5 recorded as being killed on the 17th and a sixth dying on the 19th at Hargeisa, suggesting he died of his wounds in captivity.

Unable to go through the British, the Italians instead moved around to their right flank with about 20 tanks circling the British positions. Unable to protect themselves from that direction, and with a front-line about two miles long straddling the main road, the British were very thinly spread and vulnerable to being flanked. To avoid being cut-off, and having achieved their delaying mission, the British withdrew back towards Berbera. Nursing his bloodied nose at Laferug, De Simeone had failed to capitalise on the confused retreat and breakthrough of the British defences two days day before-hand.


Abandoned British trucks, British Somaliland 1940. Source:coconuttimes.com

The British delaying action had been a success but with risk. The troops were nearly overwhelmed and destroyed and could just as easily have been cut off. As a result a plan for a second delaying action at Nasiye was abandoned. The first action had been so successful it was not needed anyway. Enough time had been bought for the evacuation of troops and all of the bridges along the road had been blown up to slow down the Italian advance. Ships including HMAS Hobart at Berbera were loaded up with troops and some civilians and evacuated to Aden.

Unfortunately, the Black Watch, which had been assumed lost to enemy action was cut off by the blowing up of the bridges, meaning they had to abandon most of their vehicles. Additional lorries then had to be brought back from Berbera to evacuate the men. Even so, two men were left behind and missed the trucks having to swim to the evacuation boat wearing only their rifles.

Regardless of the rather chaotic retreat, it had been carried out in mostly good order and overnight on the 17th/18th August the entire force, save for a couple of hundred strong rearguards at the outskirts of Berbera made up mainly of the SCC, was evacuated. The locally recruited SCC then disbanded to the local population.


Two triumphant Italian soldiers are holding an upside Union Flag taken as a trophy in British Somaliland.

De Simeone got to Berbera on the 19th, finding that the last British troops had gone. All the Italians got for this victory was a bombing raid by RAF Blenheims instead. There were spoils though. The Somaliland Camel Corps was effectively disbanded (reformed 1941, and disbanded again in 1943) and the Italians captured a large quantity of material, including 30 ‘anti-tank machine-guns’ (sometimes incorrectly described as 2-pounder guns), 5 mortars, 5 pieces of artillery, 3 Bren gun carriers, large quantities of machine guns, small arms, and ammunition, as well as over 100 much needed trucks to add to the Italian inventory.

The invasion had taken the territory and pushed the British out, but was not the decisive victory needed. The British withdrawal had been orderly, and the cost for Italy had been high.

British reported losses for the entire invasion of British Somaliland were 38 killed, 102 wounded, and 120 captured or missing, although it is not known if this includes the irregular Somali forces estimated to have lost around 1000 men. Italian reported losses for the conquest of British Somaliland were 465 killed, 1530 wounded and 34 missing, out of which 161 of the killed or wounded were Italian, the rest being native troops. An estimated 2000 Somali tribesmen fighting against the British may have died. Other figures quote 260 British and 2,052 Italian casualties showing just how complicated such figures are to determine especially with irregular troops.


The captured Governor’s residence in Berbera with the Italian flag flying over it in triumph.

Nonetheless, this was seen and portrayed as a great victory in Italy and, for the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, another bitter early loss. The loss was not a severe military one but a loss of face, a political victory. The port had been so poorly developed by the British it was barely usable for delivering supplies anyway and was just a berth. It was the damage to British prestige which stung Churchill more than anything. A report published in 1946 concluded that the loss of British Somaliland was attributable to 4 causes:

  1. The insistence on defending colonies on the cheap
  2. Inadequate preparations for War against Italy by the War Office.
  3. The collapse of the French resistance in French Somaliland
  4. The unsuitability of Berbera as a port slowing down the delivery of supplies and reinforcements.

Despite this early success though, the Duke of Aosta made a critical mistake. He stopped further advances out of AOI and instead tried to consolidate his position. In doing so, he yielded the initiative to the British and was never to regain it. De Simeone and General Godwin-Austen would meet again in Africa, with the invasion of Italian Somaliland, and General Godwin-Austen was not going to repeat the earlier mistakes and excess caution he had shown in defending British Somaliland. Had the defence of the Protectorate been considered and planned earlier or the forces better organised at Tug Argun, it is conceivable that the entire Italian invasion could have been halted, giving Italy an early taste of defeat rather than the misleading belief that the campaign in East Africa was a meeting of equals.

Sources

The invasion of British Somaliland. (1998). Bill Stone
Haile Selassie’s War. (2002). Anthony Mockler, Interlink Pub. Group Inc.
Italy through the looking glass: Aspects of British policy and intelligence concerning Italy 1939-1941. (1997). Dawn Miller, PhD Thesis, University of Toronto
South African Force: East African and Abyssinian Campaigns. (1968). Commandant Neil Orpen
Somaliland Camel Corps, http://www.kaiserscross.com/188001/492443.html
How Italy was defeated in East Africa in 1941, Ian Carter, IWM
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British Somaliland: An administrative history, 1920-1960. (2014). Brock Milman, Routledge Press
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The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign. (2016). Andrew Stewart, Yale University Press
Operations in the Somaliland Protectorate 1939-1940, Supplement to the London Gazette, 5th June 1946, 2719-2727
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The Mercury, 5th December 1940. Evacuation of Berbera: Gallant Australians
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Sunday Times. 13th October 1940. Serving his gun to a Heroic Death.

Esigenza C3 - The Italian Invasion of Malta
Effectiveness of Tactical Air Strikes in World War II - “Tank busting”
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3 Responses to Campaigns and Battles in East Africa – The North, British and French Somaliland

  1. Tim Smith says:

    Splendid article! Was looking in Google for details of Italian tank operations in East Africa, and this article was far more than I had hoped for! Thanks very much for posting it.

    Was interested to learn that British anti-tank rifles (Boys AT Rifle?), while proving excellent against the CV35 tankette, was insufficient to stop the Italian M11/39 medium tank, which is not noted in British publications for the qualities of its armour. Also was surprised that British forces in British Somaliland apparently had no QF 2-pounder AT guns at all.

  2. LL says:

    Very nice. Is it possible to increase the size of some images, they are almost impossible to read. Best Regards.

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