The Italian conquest of British Somaliland was a military campaign in East Africa, which took place in August 1940 between forces of Italy and those of several British and Commonwealth countries. The Italian expedition was part of the East African Campaign.
On 9 May 1936, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini proclaimed his Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI, Italian East African Empire), formed from the newly occupied Ethiopia and the colonies of Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. During the First Italo-Abyssinian War (1895–1896), Italy was thwarted in its colonial ambitions, when the forces of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia defeated the Regio Esercito (Royal Army) at the Battle of Adowa. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in October 1935, the Italians again invaded Ethiopia, this time from Italian Somaliland and Eritrea. While the Kingdom of Egypt remained neutral during World War II, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 allowed the military forces of the United Kingdom to occupy Egypt in defence of the Suez Canal. At this time, the Kingdom of Egypt included the Sudan as a condominium between Egypt and the United Kingdom known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
On 10 June 1940, when Mussolini led Italy into World War II against the British and the French, Italian forces in Africa became a potential threat to British supply routes along the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. While Egypt and the Suez Canal were obvious targets, an Italian invasion of French Somaliland or British Somaliland was also feasible. Mussolini initially looked past both of these small, isolated colonies and instead looked forward to propaganda triumphs in the Sudan and British East Africa (Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda). The Italian General Staff (Comando Supremo) was planning for a war starting after 1942. In the summer of 1940, they were not prepared for a long war or to occupy large areas of Africa.
The British had based forces in Egypt since 1882 but these were greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The small British and Commonwealth force garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route. The canal was vital to Britain's communications with its Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories. In mid-1939, Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the new Middle East Command, over the Mediterranean and Middle East theatres. Until the Franco-Axis armistice, the French divisions in Tunisia faced the Italian 5th Army on the western Libyan border. In Libya, the Royal Army had about 215,000 men and in Egypt, the British had about 36,000 troops, with another 27,500 men training in Palestine.
Wavell had about 86,000 troops at his disposal for Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran and East Africa. Faced with frontiers guarded by about eight men to the mile, Wavell resolved to fight the Italians with delaying actions at the main posts and hope for the best. The Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden convened a conference in Khartoum at the end of October 1940. In attendance were Emperor Selassie, the South African General Jan Smuts (who held an advisory brief for the region with Winston Churchill), Wavell and the senior military commanders in East Africa, including Lieutenant-General Platt and Lieutenant-General Cunningham. A general plan of attack on Ethiopia, including the use of Ethiopian irregular forces, was agreed upon at the conference. In November 1940, the British and Commonwealth forces gained an intelligence advantage when the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park broke the high grade cypher of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) in East Africa. Later that month, the replacement cypher for the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) was broken by the Combined Bureau, Middle East (CBME).
The British had fought the Somaliland Campaign, a twenty-year long campaign from 1900–1920, against Mohammed Abdullah Hassan and the Dervish state to gain control over the territory. In 1910 the British garrison had been forced to retreat to the coast until the end of the First World War, only ending the insurgency in 1920, after four campaigns by attacking with local troops, a KAR battalion and aircraft. After three weeks of operations the Dervishes were defeated. The colony had an area of about 68,000 sq mi (180,000 km2) with a plain inland from the coast up to 60 mi (97 km) deep, ending at a mountain range an average of 4,000 ft (1,200 m) high. Agriculture was sparse and the 320,000 inhabitants lived off livestock. Berbera, the biggest town and port, was ringed by desert and scrubland; in the cold season it had a population of about 30,000, falling to around 15,000 in the summer months. Berbera was a first class anchorage and was the principal entrepot of the colony, despite having no port installations and ships having to load and unload by boat. From July to August the Kharif a strong and hot wind blew, making it impossible to work. According to the Hornby Report of 1936, the War Office intended to offer no resistance to an invasion but this was revoked on 19 December 1939, in favour of a defence of the country and of the port of Berbera as a last resort. In 1940, British Somaliland was garrisoned by 631 members of the Somaliland Camel Corps (SCC) in five locations and a small party of police at Berbera. The SCC had only rifles, machine-guns and anti-tank rifles, the infantry rifles being old Belgian .475 in (12.1 mm) calibre single-shot models, with 1.4 million rounds of dubious quality; the SCC had a transport pool of 29 motor vehicles 122 horses and 244 camels.
In February the British government planned to send 1,100 reinforcements by mid-May but financial wrangling between the War Office and the Colonial Office delayed the arrival of an infantry battalion until 15 May and a second battalion until 12 July. The French in Djibouti were asked to block the Jirreh and Dobo passes but the British strategy was to hope that the effort of invading British Somaliland would act as a deterrent and that Djibouti would be a more tempting target. When the French in French Somaliland rallied to Vichy after the French armistice of 22 June 1940 with Germany, The Officer Commanding, Troops in British Somaliland, Brigadier Arthur Reginald Chater RM, was ordered to make a contingency plan for an evacuation if the colony became untenable. By August, the garrison consisted of the 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesia Regiment (1st NRR), the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion KAR, the 1st East African Light Battery (4 × 3.7-inch howitzers) from Kenya, the 1st Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment and the 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment from the Colony of Aden and the lightly armed Somaliland Camel Corps (SCC) including 37 officer and NCO reinforcements from the Southern Rhodesia Regiment. On 8 August the 2nd Battalion Black Watch arrived. The garrison was a motley group with no proper base or headquarters and was short of artillery, transport and signalling equipment. Aircraft had to fly from Aden while also busy with convoy patrols and air defence. Two anti-aircraft guns were sent over from Aden but that was the most that could be spared.
On 3 August 1940, approximately 25,000 Italian troops under the command of General Guglielmo Nasi invaded British Somaliland. The Italian force included five colonial brigades, three Blackshirt battalions and five bands (banda) of irregular troops, half a company of M11/39 medium tanks and a squadron of L3/35 tankettes, several armoured cars, 21 howitzer batteries, pack artillery and air support. Because the hills rose to over 4,500 ft (1,400 m), parallel to the coast some 50 mi (80 km) inland, there were three approaches to Berbera, the capital and only port of consequence, for wheeled and tracked vehicles. The most direct route with the widest pass was via Hargeisa and the Italian plan was for the western column to seal off French Somaliland and then send light forces eastwards.[d]
The central column would establish a base at Hargeisa and then carry the main weight of the attack through the Mirgo Pass towards Berbera. The eastern column would move to Odweina to cover the central column's flank and be prepared to link up with it if necessary. The Italians advanced in three columns, with the western column advancing towards Zeila near the border with French Somaliland, the central column towards Hargeisa and Adadlek, the eastern column towards Odweina and Burao in the south. Lieutenant-General Carlo De Simone commanded the main central column. The SCC skirmished with the Italians as the other British and Commonwealth forces slowly retired. On 5 August, the towns of Zeila and Hargeisa were captured, the occupation of Zeila cutting off British from French Somaliland. Odweina fell the following day and the Italian central and eastern columns combined, to launch attacks against the main British positions at Tug Argan. On 11 August, Major-General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen, reached Berbera to take over command.
Aerial operations began on the opening day, with the British committing aircraft from 15 squadrons: 39 (Bristol Blenheim), 112 (Gloster Gladiator), 94 (Gladiator), 223 (Vickers Wellesley), 47 (Wellesley, Vickers Vincent, Gloster Gauntlet), 14 (Wellesley), 203, 84, 45, 11 and 8 Squadrons (Blenheim). 102 sent one Martin Maryland and 216 sent one Bristol Bombay. The South African Air Force contributed 1 Squadron, 40 Squadron and 12 Squadron equipped with Hawker Furys (12 Squadron SAAF also operated German Junkers Ju 86 aircraft, purchased from the Luftwaffe in 1937, as the Germans considered them obsolete as medium bombers. The Regia Aeronautica attacked with 27 bombers, 23 fighters and 7 reconnaissance aircraft on 5 August, in the 4°, 28° and 44° Gruppo. At least six Squadriglia, 410a and 413a (Fiat CR.42), 8a, 9a and 52a (Caproni Ca.133), 15a (Savoia-Marchetti SM.81) operated in the theatre, with Savoia-Marchetti SM.79, SM.81s and SM.79s were operated by 10a Squadriglia. IMAM Ro.37 and IMAM Ro.43 aircraft were also encountered by the British, probably from 11a Squadriglia.
On 5 August, the port of Zeila was occupied by the Italian western column (Lieutenant-General Bertoldi). Any possibility of help from French Somaliland for the British was eliminated. Small forces then proceeded south-east along the coast and occupied the village of Bulhar. The Italian central column, commanded by De Simone, faced more difficulties because of the mountainous terrain through which it advanced. The column was held up at Hargeisa by the Camel Corps, assisted by a company of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment but De Simone brought up some light tanks and by 5 August the opposing troops had fallen back. De Simone took two days to reorganise at Hargeisa and then resumed his advance through the Karrim Pass toward the Tug Argan, a river bed in the Assa Hills.[e] The eastern column (Brigadier General Bertello) comprising mainly irregular troops, reached Odweina on 6 August and then headed north west toward Adadle, a village on the Tug Argan. Chater used the SCC, supplemented by small patrols of the Illalos (a small force of local levies normally employed on police duties) to conduct a delaying action as the other British and Commonwealth forces pulled back towards Tug Argan.
By 10 August, De Simone had closed up on the British positions behind the Tug Argan and made his preparations to attack. From 7–8 August, the British had received reinforcements of the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment and the 2nd Battalion Black Watch. General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command in Cairo, had also ordered a further battalion of infantry and more artillery to Berbera but these reinforcements did not arrive in time. He also considered it appropriate to appoint a major-general to command this expanding force and on 11 August, a new commander, Godwin-Austen, reached Berbera.
The British defensive positions were on six hills overlooking the only road toward Berbera. On 11 August, an Italian brigade attacked the hill held by a company of the 3rd Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment and captured it in a costly success. Two British counter-attacks failed but attacks on two other hills were repulsed. The next day, all the British positions were attacked and by evening, Mill Hill had been taken from the Northern Rhodesian Regiment after a determined defence. Two of the East African Light Battery howitzers were lost and the Italians established themselves in the Assa Hills, dominating the southern side of the gap through which the road to Berbera ran.
From 13–14 August, no further positions were lost but the Italians infiltrated past the defended localities. By 14 August, the Italians were almost in a position to cut the road, which was the only British line of supply and retreat. On 14 August, Godwin-Austen informed Middle East Command of the situation, concluding that further resistance at Tug Argan would be futile and likely to result in the loss of the force and that a withdrawal would result in 70 percent of the force being saved. On 15 August, he received orders to withdraw from British Somaliland. Late on 15 August, the Italians took Observation Hill and after dark, the defenders of Tug Argan commenced their withdrawal. The Black Watch, two companies of the 2nd KAR and elements of 1/2nd Punjab Regiment formed a rearguard at Barkasan on the Berbera road, about 10 mi (16 km) behind Tug Argan.
While the British made their retreat to Berbera, the Royal Navy had constructed an all-tide jetty and had commenced evacuating civilian and administrative officials. On 16 August, the British started to embark troops onto the waiting ships. Italian aerial assaults were made on British vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Berbera, beginning on 8 August to little effect. HMAS Hobart was slightly damaged in two of these attacks, and the auxiliary vessel Chakdina was hit by splinters in one. On 17 August, an Italian column was reported at Bulhar, some 40 mi (64 km) west of Berbera. The light cruiser HMS Ceres—patrolling off the coast—engaged the column and halted it. De Simone's forces advancing from Tug Argan were very cautious and did not attack the Barkasan rearguard until late morning on 17 August when they were held by determined resistance including a fierce bayonet charge by the Black Watch.
After dark, the rearguard was withdrawn to Berbera with minimal losses and loading of the ships was completed in the early hours of 18 August, although the Australian light cruiser HMAS Hobart, with the force headquarters aboard, remained to collect stragglers and continue the destruction of buildings, vehicles, fuel and stores until the morning of 19 August, before sailing for Aden. Three sailors from Hobart, PO H. Jones, AB Hugh Sweeney and AB W. J. Hurren, took a QF 3-pounder Hotchkiss saluting gun on an improvised mounting to reinforce the defenders at Tug Argan. The sailors went missing and were feared dead but became the first Australian prisoners of war.[f] In the evacuation, 7,140 people were embarked, of whom 5,690 were front-line troops, 1,266 were civilians and 184 were sick. The local Somalis of the SCC had been given the choice of evacuation or disbandment, most chose to remain and were allowed to retain their arms. The tug Queen was the only British ship lost in the operation.
The British defenders suffered little interference during the evacuation, perhaps because on 15 August, the Duke of Aosta had ordered Nasi to allow the British to evacuate without too much fighting, in the hope of a peace agreement being mediated through the Vatican. On 19 August, the Italians took control of Berbera and then moved down the coast to complete their conquest of British Somaliland and the colony was annexed by Mussolini to the Italian Empire as a part of Italian East Africa. The British air contingent tried to ease the evacuation; Blenheims from 11 Squadron left Aden at 5:35 p.m. on 18 August and carried out a high-level bombing attack on Italian vehicles near Laferug but lost a bomber to CR.42s from 410a Squadriglia, one crewman surviving. While the Italian fighter unit was distracted, Wellesley bombers from 223 Squadron took off from Perim Island to attack the airfield at Addis Ababa and destroyed the Duke of Aosta's personal aircraft. One SM.79, one Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 and three Ca.133 aircraft were destroyed according to Italian records and a SM.79 and SM.81 were badly damaged.
The Italians had shown an ability to co-ordinate columns separated by many miles of desert and the British forces had kept their discipline during the retreat and preserved most of their forces. Mussolini boasted that Italy had conquered a territory (British Somaliland, the Sudan area around the border outposts of Karora, Gallabat, Kurmak and Kassala and the area in Kenya around Moyale and Buna) the size of England in the Horn of Africa. News of the evacuation came as a shock to British public opinion but Wavell backed Godwen-Austen, saying that he had judged the situation correctly. British Somaliland was annexed to Italian East Africa. De Simone wrote that the Italians captured five guns, five mortars, more than a hundred trucks, three Bren gun carriers, 30 anti-tank guns, 71 machine-guns, many small-arms and much ammunition. Winston Churchill criticised Wavell for the loss of British Somaliland; because of the few casualties, Churchill thought that the colony had not been adequately defended and proposed a court of enquiry. Wavell refused to hold an inquiry, called it a textbook withdrawal in the face of superior numbers by Godwin-Austen and Wilson, sending a telegram to Churchill including the passage "...a big butcher’s bill was not necessarily evidence of good tactics". Churchill was said by General John Dill to have been moved by the telegram to "greater anger than he had ever seen him in before" and that the incident was the beginning of the end for Wavell.
In 1954, I. S. O. Playfair, the British official historian, wrote of 260 British casualties and estimated Italian losses of 2,052 men. In 1993, Raugh wrote that 38 of the British casualties had been killed and 222 wounded. In 2007, Molinari recorded 1,995 Italian casualties. Most Italian losses were suffered by the Royal Corps of Colonial Troops and only 161 casualties were Italian. De Simone estimated that about 1,000 Somali irregulars fighting with the British became casualties. Lieutenant-General Luigi Frusci, commander of the Italian East Africa Northern Sector, also referred to these casualties in his writings and believed that the Somalis fighting as "armed Bands" on the Italian side suffered 2,000 casualties. (The most popular local notable, Afchar, greeted the Italians after the conquest of Zeila and offered his men against the British.)
On 16 March 1941, the British executed Operation Appearance from Aden; the two Sikh battalions of the Indian Army, that had been part of the defence force in August 1940 and a Somali commando detachment were landed on either side of Berbera, from transports escorted by HMS Glasgow, HMS Caledon, HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston. The Sikhs made the first successful Allied landing on an enemy-held beach of the war and few men of the Italian 70th Colonial Brigade offered resistance. Repairs began on the port and supplies for the 11th African Division were passing through within a week, reducing the road transport distance by 500 mi (800 km). The British re-captured the whole of British Somaliland and on 8 April, Chater was appointed Military Governor.