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Destroyed British convoy near Berbera

The Italian conquest of British Somaliland was a campaign in the Horn of Africa which took place in the summer of 1940 between forces of Italymarker and those of Great Britainmarker and its Commonwealth. It formed part of the East African Campaign.


When Italy declared war on 10 June 1940, the Italian troops were not prepared for a prolonged war in North Africa or East Africa. As a consequence, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered only some limited aggressive actions to capture territory along the borders of Egyptmarker, Kenyamarker, and Sudanmarker.

Later in June, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, the Governor-General and Viceroy of Italian East Africa, convinced the Italian Supreme Command (Comando Supremo) to plan a campaign to conquer British Somaliland. Victor Emmanuel III, the King of Italy, and Mussolini agreed with the Duke of Aosta and by the beginning of August the campaign was ready to commence.

Order of Battle

The Italian force attacking British Somaliland in August 1940 was commanded by Lieutenant General Guglielmo Nasi, General Officer Commanding Eastern Sector. The force included twenty-three colonial battalions in five brigades, three Blackshirt battalions, and three bands (bande) of native troops. The Italians also had armoured vehicles (a small number of both light and medium tanks), artillery, and, most important, superior air support. The Italians numbered about 24,000.

On Italy's declaration of war in June 1940, the British forces in Somaliland had been placed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Reginald Chater, the commander of the Somaliland Camel Corps. At the start of August the newly-promoted Brigadier Chater commanded a contingent of about 4,000 soldiers comprising the lightly-armed Somaliland Camel Corps, the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion King's African Rifles (KAR), the 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesianmarker Regiment (KAR), the 3/15th Punjab Regiment and 1st East African Light Battery (four 3.7inch howitzers). They were joined from Aden on 7 August by the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment and 8th August by 2nd Battalion Black Watch. Chaters' force was not only critically short of artillery but it had no tanks or armoured cars nor did it have any anti-tank weapons to oppose the Italian medium and light tanks.

Initial Offensive

In the early hours of 3 August 1940, the Italian army crossed the border between Italian East Africa (called by the Italians Africa Orientale Italiana, AOI) and British Somaliland.

Because of the rugged hills (rising to over ) which run parallel to the coast some inland there were three approaches to Berberamarker, the capital of British Somaliland and the only port of consequence, which would support the passage of wheeled and tracked vehicles. The most direct route with the widest pass was via Hargeisamarker.

As a consequence, the Italians advanced with three columns in these three directions. The column to the west advanced toward the small port of Zeilamarker near the border with French Somalilandmarker, the column to the center toward Hargeisa and Adadlek and the column to the east toward Odweina and Burao.

The Italian plan was for the western column to seal off French Somaliland and then send light forces eastwards. 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 if necessary.

On 5 August, the port of Zeila was occupied by the Italian western column commanded by Lieutenant-General Bertoldi. Any possibility of help from French Somaliland for the British was cut. As planned small forces then proceeded south east along the coast and occupied the village of Bulhar.

The Italian central column, commanded by Lieutenant-General Carlo 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 Simone brought up some light tanks and by 5 August the opposing troops had fallen back. Simone took two days to reorganise his supply position at Hargeisa and then resumed his advance through the Karrim Pass towards the Tug Argan, a dry sandy river bed, in the Assa Hills.

The eastern column, under Brigadier General Bertello and comprising mainly irregular troops, reached Odweina on 6 August and then headed north west towards Adadle a village on the Tug Argan.

Brigadier Chater used his Camel Corps supplemented by small patrols of the Illalos (a small force of tribal levies normally employed on police duties) to skirmish with and screen against the advancing Italians as the other British and Commonwealth forces pulled back towards Tug Argan.

Battle of Tug Argan

By 10 August Simone had closed up on the British positions behind the Tug Argan and made his preparations to attack.
On 7 and 8 August the British and Commonwealth forces in British Somaliland had received reinforcements with the arrival of the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment and the 2nd battalion Black Watch. General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command in Cairomarker, 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, Major-General Reade Godwin-Austen, reached Berbera.

The defensive positions of the British army were centered around six hills overlooking the only road toward Berbera.On 11 August, one of De Simone's brigades attacked the hill defended by a company of the 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment and captured it with heavy casualties. The British launched two unsuccessful counterattacks but fought off Italian attacks on two further hills. The next day all the British positions were attacked. By evening Mill Hill had been taken from the Northern Rhodesian Regiment after severe fighting. More critically, two of the scarce East African Light Battery howitzers were lost and Italian forces had established themselves in the Assa Hills, dominating the southern side of the gap through which the road to Berbera ran.

During 13 and 14 August no further positions were taken despite heavy fighting but the Italians continued to improve their position through infiltration. By 14 August, the defenders' situation started to look critical: the Italians were almost in a position to cut the road and thus the defenders' only 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 whole force. He believed that a withdrawal would result in 70% of the force being saved. On 15 August he received orders to withdraw his forces 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 together with two companies of the 2nd KAR and elements of 1/2nd Punjab Regiment formed a rearguard position at Barkasan on the Berbera road some behind the Tug Argan position.

British evacuation from Berbera

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.

On 17 August an Italian column was reported at Bulhar, some west of Berbera. 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. The entire British and Commonwealth contingent withdrew to Berbera with minimal losses and loading of the ships was completed in the early hours of 18 August although HMAS Hobart, with the force headquarters aboard, remained at Berbera to collect stragglers and continue the destruction of vehicles, fuel and stores until the morning of 19 August before sailing for Aden. In total 7,000 people, including civilians, were evacuated. The local Somalis of the Somaliland Camel Corps had been given the choice of evacuation or disbandment and the large majority chose to remain and were allowed to retain their arms.

The British defenders had little interference in this operation. It is possible that this was because on 15 August, the Duke of Aosta had ordered General Nasi to allow the British to evacuate without too much fighting. He did this in the hope of a possible future peace agreement, that was being promoted through the Vaticanmarker mediation, between Italy and Great Britain.

On 19 August, the Italians took control of Berbera and then moved down the coast to complete their conquest of British Somaliland. The British colony was annexed by Mussolini to the Italian Empire in Italian East Africa.
Italian offensives in Africa during 1940, between June and August


According to Italian historians, during the campaign to conquer British Somaliland the casualties were 250 for the British army and 205 for the Italian. However, according to the British Official History of events total British casualties were 260 and Italian losses were estimated at 2,052

Unofficially, De Simone estimated that nearly one thousand irregular Somalis fighting against the Italian invasion were casualties during the campaign. These armed men operated as local "Bande", with only minimal control from British officers (like Brigadier Chater). Lieutenant-General Luigi Frusci, commander of the Italian East Africa Northern Sector, also referred to these thousand casualties in his writings, and believed that the Somalis fighting as "armed Bands" on the Italian side suffered two thousand casualties (the most popular local tribal chief - named Afchar - greeted the Italians after the conquest of Zeila and offered his men against the British).

The Somali irregulars fighting against the British were the descendants of the Dervish fighters of Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (called Sayyid Mohammed Hassan by Somalis and the "Mad Mullah" by the British), a prominent Somali rebel against the British colonial occupation of Somaliland in the nineteenth century. Indeed, at the beginning of 1920, the British struck the Dervish settlements with a well-coordinated land, sea and air attack and gave them a decisive defeat. The forts of Sayyid Mohammed were damaged and his army suffered great losses. They hastily fled to Ogaden. Here, he tried to rebuild his army and create a coalition of Ogadeen clans which would make him a power in Somaliland once again. Sayyid died in 1921, however, and the British maintained the Somaliland albeit with frequent local rebellions. On the other side, there were many irregulars (Ethiopians and Somalis) fighting a guerrilla war in Ogaden (and even in deserted eastern Somaliland) against the Italians after their conquest of Ethiopia in 1936.


The port of Berbera was used by the Italian submarines of the Red Sea Flotilla as a small base in the last months of 1940.

The British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, criticized General Wavell concerning the loss of British Somaliland. It was Wavell's Middle East Command which was responsible for the loss of the colony. Because of the low casualty rate, Churchill fretted that the British had abandoned the colony without enough of a fight.

In response to this criticism, Wavell claimed that Somaliland was a textbook withdrawal in the face of superior numbers. He pointed out to Churchill that “A bloody butcher’s bill is not the sign of a good tactician.” According to Churchill's staff, Wavell's retort moved Churchill to greater fury than they had ever seen before.

British Somaliland remained part of the Italian East Africa until March 1941 when the 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment and the 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment returned from Adenmarker to re-occupy the territory during the East African Campaign.


The conquest of the British Somaliland was the only campaign victory Italymarker achieved — without the support of German troops — during World War II against the Allies.

The campaign in Somaliland was like all the others of the Axis: it initially started with a victory, then after a period of time (like the campaigns in the Balkans, in the Philippinesmarker or in Russiamarker), finished with a complete defeat. But in the specific case of the Italian conquest of British Somaliland, the defeat (that happened in spring 1941) was followed by nearly two years of Italian guerrilla warfare.

Other main insights from this campaign are the following:

  • The invasion of British Somaliland showed that Italian forces could co-ordinate columns separated by many miles of desert.
  • British forces showed good discipline in the retreat and were able to salvage most of their forces.
  • The invasion of British Somaliland was the first campaign the Italians won in World War II.
  • British Somaliland was the first British colony to fall to enemy forces in World War II.
  • After the first months of the war were over, Mussolini boasted that Italy had conquered a territory (made of British Somaliland, the Sudanmarker area around the border outposts of Karora, Gallabat, Kurmak and Kassalamarker, and the area in Kenyamarker around Moyalemarker and Buna) the size of Englandmarker in the Horn of Africa.
  • The campaign of British Somaliland in August 1940 was the only in which the British army could not get strong support from the R.A.F., showing the importance of the air forces in the Allies victories.

See also



  1. Playfair (1954), p. 174
  2. Mackenzie (1951), p. 23
  3. Playfair (1954), p. 172
  4. Playfair (1954), p. 173
  5. Mockler (1984), pp. 243-45.
  6. Mackenzie (1951), p. 22
  7. Del Boca (1986), p. 74
  8. Playfair (1954), p. 175
  9. Playfair (1954), p. 176
  10. Playfair (1954), p. 177
  11. The Abyssinian Campaigns, p. 19.
  12. Wavell, p. 2724.
  13. Playfair (1954), p. 178
  14. Rovighi (1952), p. 138
  15. Mockler (1984), pp. 245–49.
  16. Rovighi (1952), p. 49
  17. Playfair (1954), pp. 178–179
  18. Rovighi (1952), p. 188
  19. The photo of this tribal chief can be seen by following this link. His picture is in the third row from the bottom next to the photo of General Frusci.
  20. Mockler (1984), p. 251.
  21. Antonicelli (1961),
  22. Antonicelli (1961),


  • Abdisalam, Mohamed Issa-Salwe (1996). The Collapse of the Somali State: The Impact of the Colonial Legacy. London: Haan Associates Publishers.
  • Antonicelli, Franco (1961). Trent'anni di storia italiana 1915 - 1945 (in Italian). Torino: Mondadori ed.
  • Del Boca, Angelo (1986). Italiani in Africa Orientale: La caduta dell'Impero (in Italian). Roma-Bari: Laterza. ISBN 884202810X
  • Maravigna, General Pietro (1949). Come abbiamo perduto la guerra in Africa. Le nostre prime colonie in Africa. Il conflitto mondiale e le operazioni in Africa Orientale e in Libia. Testimonianze e ricordi (in Italian). Roma: Tipografia L’Airone.
  • Mockler, Anthony (1984). Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-54222-3
  • Rovighi, Alberto (1952). Le Operazioni in Africa Orientale (in Italian). Roma: Stato Maggiore Esercito,Ufficio storico.
  • Wavell, Archibald (1940), Operations in the Somaliland Protectorate, 1939-1940 published in the

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