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The Invasion of British Somaliland
Following the German invasion of France in May 1940, the Royal Navy, in anticipation of Italian entry into the war, dispatched the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle, three sloops, and a division of destroyers from Egypt to the Red Sea and closed that waterway to Allied shipping until a system of convoys could be organized.
On 10 June Mussolini declared war, opening a new theater of operations in Italian East Africa -- Eritrea, Italian-occupied Abyssinia (also known as Ethiopia), and Italian Somaliland -- and the adjacent waters of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean. In this colonial empire the Italians fielded approximately 280,000 troops with a further 50,000 added upon mobilization. Despite the impressive manpower, Italian forces were comprised overwhelmingly of native troops with uneven equipment, training, and morale. Likewise, the quantity of the aged airplanes of the Regia Aeronautica in Italian East Africa (approximately 350 machines) was more impressive than their quality, and Italian warships based on the Red Sea (included eight submarines, seven fleet destroyers, two escort destroyers, and five motor torpedo boats), although numerically strong, suffered fuel shortages and numerous mechanical ailments. Nevertheless, on paper this air-ground-naval strength posed a serious threat to the meager Allied resources in Sudan, French Somaliland, British Somaliland, Kenya, and the vital shipping route to Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean.
The Italian generals, however, greatly overestimated the strength of their French and British opponents. From the perspective of Addis Ababa, capital of Italian East Africa, Il Duce's forces were surrounded and isolated from reinforcement and resupply. In particular, it appeared that the ports of Djibouti in French Somaliland and Berbera in neighboring British Somaliland offered excellent prospects for supporting Allied expeditions against Addis Ababa by the easiest and most direct route. The Italians therefore allotted significant proportions of their best units and limited supplies to undertake offensive operations against those ports, clear the coastal enclaves, and -- almost incidentally -- seize the shores along the Allied convoy routes.
In September 1939, forces in British Somaliland amounted to a company of Nyasaland infantry, the Somaliland Camel Corps -- partly mechanized -- of some 500 mostly native troops (later reinforced by 17 officers and 20 NCOs from Southern Rhodesia) under Colonel A. R. Chater, and a small police force. The 1st Battalion, Northern Rhodesia Regiment sailed from Mombasa on 11 May 1940 aboard the transport Karanja and arrived at Berbera on 15 May so that upon Mussolini's declaration of 10 June the defenders amounted to approximately 1500 men. These were supported by the following aircraft, based across the Gulf in Aden under command of Air Vice-Marshal G.R.M. Reid:
The RAF's 39 Squadron with Blenheim Is arrived shortly thereafter from India.
At the beginning of 1939 France had quadrupled its garrison in French Somaliland. By the time Italy entered the war this amounted to, under General Le Gentilhomme, some 7000 men in seven battalions of Senegalese and Somali infantry, three batteries of field guns, four batteries of AA guns, a company of light tanks, four companies of militia and irregulars, two platoons of camel corps, and an assortment of aircraft:
On the day after Italian East Africa became a theater of war, air operations commenced there. The first Italian raid against Aden comprised three bombers, one of which aborted after taking off and one of which crashed when returning. Another air raid was launched against Aden on 12 June and the British returned the favor with a mission against the Italian port of Assab on the same day. Berbera was first attacked on 14 June and sporadic raids continued to hit that port throughout June and July. The next day the first Blenheim Is of 11 Squadron began reinforcing Aden from Singapore via India.
At the same time, Italian ground forces began to concentrate for the invasion of French Somaliland.
According to Allied war plans, the weak British forces in Sudan, Kenya, and British Somaliland would remain on the defensive while the relatively strong French forces at Djibouti launched an attack up the rail line toward Addis Ababa, just as the Italians feared. In addition, a French battalion deployed across the border in British Somaliland to cover Jirreh pass which offered a "backdoor" to both Djibouti and Berbera.
On 18 June the Italians struck before the French offensive could begin, but in two days of fighting the attackers were repulsed. On 21 and 22 June the Italians launched relatively large air raids against Djibouti, killing twenty civilians and three soldiers at the cost of three bombers.
At Sedan in France on 22 June an armistice was signed between France and Germany. Two days later a similar armistice was signed between France and Italy. Among provisions of the settlement was free Italian use of the railroad from Addis Ababa to French Somaliland and free access to the port of Djibouti.
An uneasy truce reigned on the border of French Somaliland from the end of June through the middle of July. General Le Gentilhomme, who supported General De Gaulle's nascent Free French movement, refused to permit Italian entry into the colony and his French battalion continued to hold Jirreh Pass in British Somaliland. On 23 July a replacement commander, General Germain, arrived from Vichy France and Le Gentilhomme, unable to rally Djibouti, escaped to British Somaliland and went on to join De Gaulle. Also escaping from French to British territory were several hundred anti-Italian Abyssinian refugees armed and trained by the French; after crossing the border they were disarmed and their rifles destroyed by British authorities. Five days after Le Gentilhomme's escape, the French battalion withdrew from Jirreh and was replaced by a small detachment of the Somaliland Camel Corps.
French Somaliland had been effectively neutralized, thanks to events in Europe, but Italian naval forces were less successful in controlling the Red Sea. Warships of the Royal Navy -- based at Aden and controlled by Admiral R. Leatham, Commander-in-Chief East Indies -- succeeded in bottling up their opponents almost immediately, in part due to signals intelligence. Four of the eight Italian submarines were lost in June and, although a merchantman and a sloop went to the bottom, for the most part Allied convoys sailed unmolested through the Red Sea to Egypt. Similarly, only a single vessel arrived in Italian Somaliland with supplies during the East African campaign-- a Japanese cargo ship with tires (all of which proved to be the wrong size) and fuel (which could not be transported inland and later had to be burned to prevent its capture). British domination of the seas also permitted a buildup of ground forces in East Africa and played a significant role in the campaign in British Somaliland.
On 27 July, the Italian High Command set 3 August as the date for invading British Somaliland.
The Plans and Preparations
The 3rd Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment, sailed from Aden to Berbera on 1 July 1940 and on the same date the 2nd Battalion, the Black Watch, began moving from Egypt to Aden. The 1st East African Light Battery of four 3.7" howitzers, formed in Kenya at the outbreak of war, arrived in Berbera 10 July 1940. By the beginning of August, Chater, promoted to Brigadier and given command of all the colony's defenses, also deployed 2nd Battalion, Kings African Rifles and 1st Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment.
With but four battalions, the Camel Corps, and four howitzers, the lengthy border with Italian East Africa was impossible to defend. The port of Berbera being of most importance, but with no suitable terrain for a close perimeter, Chater chose his defensive positions accordingly. His "line" would take advantage of the rugged hills of Somaliland: impassible to wheeled traffic, parallel to the coast, and about fifty miles inland. Enemy columns advancing toward Berbera would have three options:
The 3/15 Punjab was initially placed in reserve at Berbera. In the north, a detachment of the Camel Corps and a small number of Punjabis screened Jirreh Pass and the route to Zeila on the coast. In the south, 1/2 Punjab held Sheikh Pass on the track from Burao to Berbera. In the center, Chater deployed the Northern Rhodesians and Kings African Rifles at the Tug Argan position on the main road to Berbera with a company of Rhodesians and a company of the Camel Corps holding a forward blocking position at Hargeisa. The remainder of the Camel Corps, the police, and various irregulars screened the border crossings.
General Nasi, General Officer Commanding the Eastern Sector of Italian East Africa, although disposing considerably larger resources than his opponent, simultaneously overlooked at least one of Chater's battalions while over-estimating the total number of troops available to the British. He also inflated their armament as some twenty-four artillery pieces, eight antitank guns, and almost fifty anti-aircraft guns and automatic weapons. In response to the terrain and his assessment of enemy forces, Nasi divided his units into three main columns and a reserve.
The attacking forces included 26 battalions and 21 batteries, totalling some 30,000 native troops and 4800 Italians.
To support the offensive, the Regia Aeronautica concentrated its airpower at strips near Diredawa for ground support missions, interdicting the main road to Berbera and the town's port, and knocking out the RAF's advanced landing grounds at Berbera and at Laferug behind Tug Argan.
On 3 August 1940 the Italians crossed the border into British Somaliland.
The Italian Advance
The ground offensive was accompanied by increased air activity. On the same day the invasion began, three S 81s attacked Berbera; one was damaged by a scrambling Gladiator of 94 Squadron. The next day two of the four RAF Gladiators at Berbera moved forward to the strip at Laferug while a pair of S 79s of 44th Gruppo moved to Diredawa.
On 5 August Blenheims of 8 Squadron harassed Italian movement on the road west of Hargeisa; one was shot down by a CR 32 of 410th Squadriglia. Meanwhile, also on the 5th, the Italians transferred two S 79s and three Ca 133s to Diredawa and raided Berbera, Aden, Burao, and Zeila on the Red Sea. The latter town was entered without resistance later on the same day by Bertoldi's "left" column, setting by far the fastest pace of the three invading columns and sealing the border between French and British Somaliland. With Zeila captured, the coastal track was open for the two battalions of Passerone's "exploitation" column to motor down the undefended route to Berbera.
On 6 August Bertello's "right" column reached Odweina. Although Sheikh Pass in the south was defended by a single British battalion (1/2 Punjab), only a small group of irregulars was dispatched toward the Burao-Berbera track and the Indian position. The bulk of Bertello's column converged toward the center of the Italian advance to threaten the flank of the British defense at Tug Argan. At the same time, De Simone's "center" column met the detachment of Rhodesians and Camel Corps companies covering Hargeisa. The defenders managed to knock out a number of Italian vehicles before withdrawing back to Tug Argan. Having advanced some fifty miles from the border against negligible opposition, De Simone paused in Hargeisa to regroup before pushing on toward the main enemy position.
De Simone continued to regroup the next day while General Passerone at Zeila received orders to commence his advance down the coastal track to Berbera; due to the Royal Navy's control of the waters off Somaliland, there could be no possibility of sealifting Passerone's battalions to capture the British port. Italian prospects in the air were better. With Hargeisa safely in De Simone's hands, two CR 32s and two CR 42s moved forward to base at the airstrip there; from this forward field they were able to fly standing patrols over the battle zone and dominate the airspace between Hargeisa and Berbera.
The following day, 8 August, two of the CR 32s and one of the CR 42s raided Berbera where they managed to catch two Gladiators on the ground and destroy both before they could get into the air. When this news reached the pair of Gladiators on the forward field at Laferug, they were both withdrawn to Aden. From this point, all supporting British aircraft were required to fly from the far side of the Gulf of Aden, adding some 400 miles to each sortie. The increased distance to the front made it difficult for the RAF to interfere with the S 79s, S 81s, and Ca 133s which actively raided Berbera and British defenses throughout the day. While the aircraft buzzed about on their missions, De Simone's "center" column -- urged on repeatedly by higher headquarters -- completed its regrouping in Hargeisa and began slowly moving toward Tug Argan.
Italian ground forces continued to make slow progress on 9 August. In the air, three fighters from Hargeisa strafed Berbera but one was damaged by AA fire from HMAS Hobart. More Italian planes transferred to Diredawa and more fighters transferred from there to the captured field at Hargeisa. Both sides conducted air raids in the vicinity of Tug Argan; one Blenheim was damaged by a CR 42 and two other Blenheims were destroyed after colliding in mid-air.
On 10 August, Major General A.R. Godwin-Austen arrived at Berbera to assume command of British forces. His arrival had been set in motion by General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, who, just prior to his departure for England on 4 August for consultations with Prime Minister Churchill and the chiefs of staff, ordered reinforcements rushed to British Somaliland: a battalion of infantry, an artillery battery, and sappers from India; a field artillery regiment and two 2-pounder antitank guns from the Middle East; and the mechanized cavalry regiment from 4th Indian Division, also from the Middle East. Given the size of these additional forces, Somaliland would require a higher-ranking commander, and Godwin-Austen, en route to Kenya, fit the bill. As it turned out, he was the only element of those reinforcements actually to arrive in British Somaliland. Other reinforcements dispatched by Wavell included two 3" anti-aircraft guns of the 23rd Battery, Hong Kong and Singapore Brigade, Royal Artillery (for defense of Berbera) and 2nd Black Watch, all from Aden. These did arrive. The latter began ferrying to Berbera on 6 August but took three days to complete the move, then finally reached a reserve position behind Tug Argan on the same day Godwin-Austen disembarked at Berbera. Relieved by the Black Watch, 3/15 Punjab moved from reserve into the line at Tug Argan. Godwin-Austen's arrival also coincided with the first Italian contact at Tug Argan.
The following day, 11 August, De Simone's "center" column finally began to test the main British position.
Geographically known as the "Tug Argan Gap" after the "tug" (a watercourse almost always dry and sandy) that ran in front of the opening between the Assa range and jumbled hills farther north, this was the locality selected by the British to make a stand. Here the road northward from Hargeisa turned east, crossed the tug, and then ran through the huts and airstrip of Laferug some twenty miles away and onward another thirty miles north to Berbera through relatively flat, indefensible countryside.
The British right flank was defended by three companies of 3/15 Punjab -- newly released from reserve by arrival of the Black Watch -- scattered on a series of north-south strongpoints facing west along rugged, trackless wastes several miles north of the point where the main road crossed the tug.
To the left (south) existed a gap between the Punjabis and the Rhodesians, the latter occupying the main front at Tug Argan. Along with some supporting machine gunners of the Camel Corps, the battalion thinly manned a line approximately five miles long following the curve of the Tug Argan, facing west and then south. The Rhodesian strongpoints were placed on a series of hills: Black Hill in the north, then Knobbly (sometimes "Knobby") Hill, Mill Hill, and Observation Hill in the south with Castle Hill echeloned behind and between Mill and Observation. The road to Laferug and Berbera crossed this part of the front over the tug and Observation Hill. All four guns of the 1st East African Light Battery were deployed with the Rhodesians, two on Knobbly Hill and two on Mill Hill.
To the left (east), beyond the Rhodesians and their supporting machine gunners and artillerymen was another gap, then a detachment of Indians on Punjab Ridge facing south, then another gap, and then half of 2nd KAR on Block Hill, also facing south, covering the trackless Mirgo Pass with the Berbera road running right across their rear.
Still farther to the British left (east) was yet another gap -- this one more than five miles wide -- between the KAR troops on Block Hill and their comrades, the other half of the battalion, holding the outlying position on the far left (eastern) flank at Jerato Pass.
Behind this curving defensive line was headquarters of the newly arrived Godwin-Austen with 2nd Black Watch in reserve near the abandoned airstrip close to Laferug.
The British position at Tug Argan, although making best use of the hills, rough terrain, and the course of the dry waterway, was much too long for the number of troops available, without depth, and vulnerable to infiltration. Similarly, only the Gap itself was covered and there was no way to prevent the more numerous Italian forces from sending units around both flanks to envelop the entire defense. But at no other position in British Somaliland could the outnumbered defenders hope to halt the Italian advance.
The Italians, however, suffered from a disadvantage they did not immediately recognize. Their maps had been prepared based on inaccurate British charts originally compiled in 1926; these failed to accurately show the path of the main road and the lay of the land around the defensive position. This cartographic error would make it more difficult for De Simone to control his battle.
His brigades began arriving at the British position on 10 August strung out along a single road, gradually untangled themselves, and eventually deployed. From the main road XIV Brigade faced the Rhodesians, ensconced on their hills, beyond the tug. Lorenzini's II Brigade, brought up from reserve, took the Italian left flank and began moving north to feel its way around the enemy positions. XV Brigade deployed to the right (east) of the road, facing north toward Punjab Ridge, while XIII Brigade and the armored vehicles remained in reserve. Farther to the east, the converging body of Bertello's "right" column approached the outlying KAR position at Jerato Pass.
On the morning of 11 August from 7:30 until 8:00, S 81 bombers attacked Punjab Ridge (known to the Italians as Mount Dameir) and Laferug airstrip. One S 81 was shot down by ground fire. When the air bombardment ended, the artillery preparation began, lasting from 8:00 until noon. By 12:30 XV Brigade was pushing against Punjab Ridge and XIV Brigade was attacking the Rhodesian positions on Observation Hill and Knobbly Hill. Incongruously, the Rhodesians reported they also were pelted by a summer hailstorm. Both attacks were repulsed while Lorenzini's II Brigade slowly moved northward.
Lorenzini's brigade continued on the twelfth to grope its way through rugged terrain while XIV Brigade resumed its attack on the Northern Rhodesia battalion, this time against Black Hill, Knobbly Hill, and Mill Hill. RAF Blenheims attempted to support the defenders but suffered damaged and lost aircraft with several crewmen killed and wounded. By 4:00 PM British positions on Mill Hill were being overrun; both howitzers on the hill were spiked by their crews and the defenders abandoned Mill Hill after dark. The remaining two guns of the East African battery were down to seven rounds of ammunition.
On 13 August, while the RAF was reinforced with eleven Wellesleys of 223 Squadron at Aden, the Italian attacks on Black Hill and Knobbly Hill were renewed and XV Brigade began to infiltrate beyond Punjab Ridge and along Mirgo Pass toward the Berbera road between the Rhodesians and KAR. In the night they ambushed a company of the Black Watch escorting a supply column moving up the road, dispersing the trucks and threatening to cut off the Rhodesian position. The Kings African Rifles were unable to restore the situation and their commander was sacked.
Lorenzini's II Brigade, however, continued to make little progress in its cross-country march toward the north and XV Brigade failed to press its advantage with aggressive infiltration on 14 August. XIV Brigade, having suffered considerable casualties in three days of attacking the Rhodesian strongpoints, was pulled back into reserve and replaced with the fresh XIII Brigade. After twelve hours of artillery preparation, the brigade attacked Observation Hill at dusk without success. At the outlying Jerato Pass position the Italians made little impression. Italian aircraft continued to bomb and strafe the British at Tug Argan -- notably Castle Hill -- and their vehicles on the Berbera road.
Meanwhile, the tiny band of Italians -- all that remained of the original "right" column -- produced no results in their desultory movement toward Sheikh pass and its Punjabi defenders in the south. Passerone's "exploitation" column on the coastal track likewise failed to make its presence felt; although the coastal route to Berbera was virtually unguarded, the track proved to be nearly impassable to Passerone's vehicles and he was further hampered by attacking aircraft of the RAF and bombarding warships of the Royal Navy (including HMS Kimberley, Auckland, Carlisle, Ceres, and HMAS Hobart). Bertoldi's "left" column in the meantime was bombed at Zeila by the RAF and detached LXX Brigade to reinforce De Simone at Tug Argan.
Still convinced it would be necessary to push straight up the Berbera road through the Tug Argan position rather than enveloping it, De Simone ordered a renewed attack against Observation Hill for 15 August. At the same time, the High Command issued instructions that, should the assault fail, all offensive operations were to be halted until the "center" column could be reinforced and reorganized.
Although later in the East African campaign British signals intelligence would be breaking Italian communications with such regularity and rapidity that most enemy orders would be in the hands of British officers before they reached their Italian recipients, such was not the case at Tug Argan. Shaken by the ambush of his column on the Berbera road by infiltrating troops of XV Brigade and convinced that it was only a matter of hours before Tug Argan was completely encircled, Godwin-Austen requested approval to begin his withdrawal. Otherwise, he signalled on 14 August, it would mean a fight to the finish and the destruction of his entire command. In Egypt, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland "Jumbo" Wilson, deputizing for the absent Wavell, consented to evacuation.
In the late afternoon of 15 August De Simone launched his final assault against the Rhodesians on Observation Hill. By 7:00 PM the hill was in Italian hands, its defenders attempting to surrender, then escaping in disorder. Lorenzini's II Brigade, still unable to find a track or get around the British right flank, finally found itself in a position to infiltrate the scattered Punjab positions. By this time, however, it no longer mattered. Godwin-Austen ordered the withdrawal to begin after dark and his 3/15 Punjab Regiment, 1st Northern Rhodesia, and most of 2nd Kings African Rifles disengaged and headed for Berbera. Their retreat was covered by 2nd Black Watch and a detachment of the KAR.
On 16 August, instead of dashing forward to exploit his hard-won victory, De Simone displayed his customary cautiousness. His brigades were arrayed as follows:
On the 17th, the Italian air force continued to press its attacks without appreciable success while five Blenheims raided the Italian field at Hargeisa. De Simone at last began his pursuit, leading with the fresh LXX Brigade, reinforced with armored vehicles. Pushing up the Berbera road toward Laferug, they ran into the Black Watch rearguard position and were, according to the Italian history, promptly "halted by intense fire of machine guns, AT guns, bombing, and artillery." The Black Watch actually relied on its own rifles, counter-attacking with bayonets fixed and driving back the leading Italian formation. In Berbera, the Royal Navy was rapidly loading British troops and evacuating them to safety. With darkness, and under no pressure from the Italians, the last of the British rearguard slipped away, raced into Berbera, and embarked on the morning of 18 August.
That day Blenheims bombed the Italian units at Laferug, with one of the attackers intercepted and shot down. Five Wellesleys from Aden undertook a long, hazardous mission all the way to Addis Ababa where they destroyed five Italian aircraft on the ground and damaged two others. S 79s escorted by CR 42s attacked Berbera twice during the day, but there were no more military targets.
Not until the next day, 19 August, did the Italian spearhead push into the empty port, and there they were welcomed by strafing Blenheims.
Il Duce had successfully added another barren colony to his empire of deserts.
The troopers of the Somaliland Camel Corps remained behind and were relieved of their weapons by the departing British and dispersed to their homes. The Indian battalions, the Black Watch, the Northern Rhodesians, the Kings African Rifles, the remainder of the 1st East Africa Battery, and the pair of AA guns in Berbera all escaped. The evacuation was conducted by HMAS Hobart, cruisers Caledon, Carlisle, and Ceres, sloops Shoreham, Parramatta, and Auckland, auxiliary cruisers Chakdina, Chantala, and Laomedon, destroyers Kandahar and Kimberley, transport Akbar, and hospital ship Vita. In all, between 5300 and 5700 combat troops and over 1000 civilians were transported safely to Aden.
British ground losses were 38 killed, 102 wounded, and 120 missing. (Of the missing, most were POWs and released by the end of the campaign in East Africa.) Between 5 August and 19 August the RAF flew 184 sorties and dropped sixty tons of bombs, suffering seven aircraft destroyed and ten others badly damaged along with twelve aircrew killed and three wounded.
Italian casualties amounted to 465 killed, 1530 wounded, and 34 missing, of whom 161 were Europeans. General De Simone claimed the capture of five artillery pieces, five mortars, thirty "antitank machine guns", seventy-one assorted machine guns, three armored carriers, over one hundred trucks, and considerable quantities of rifles and ammunition.
Both sides dispersed their air and ground forces. General De Simone went on to command -- disastrously -- Italian Somaliland against the British invasion from Kenya. In that invasion General Godwin-Austen commanded a group of British forces. In September the Northern Rhodesians sailed to Mombasa and the Kings African Rifles likewise returned to Kenya for the new campaign. By October, 2nd Black Watch had returned to 14th Infantry Brigade in North Africa.
The Indian battalions, however, remained in Aden. On 16 March 1941, they -- along with Force D: the cruisers Glasgow and Caledon, destroyers Kandahar and Kipling, auxiliary cruisers Chakdina and Chantala, Indian trawlers Netravati and Parvati, two transports, and ML109 -- conducted Operation Appearance, the amphibious landing at Berbera. There they found the remnants of the Italian garrison, a colonel and sixty men of LXX Colonial Brigade, lined up to surrender. While 1/2 Punjab returned to Aden after two weeks, 3/15 remained in British Somaliland until June.
By 18 April 1941, 80 percent of the troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps had returned to duty and by the beginning of May they were patrolling the liberated colony and dealing with bandits and Italian deserters. Later in the war it was planned to reorganize the Camel Corps for service in Burma, but the unit was disbanded in 1943 after a series of mutinous disturbances.
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
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