On 3 August 1940, approximately 25,000 Italian troops invaded British Somaliland. The Italians were commanded by General Guglielmo Nasi [Guglielmo Nasi (1879-1971) wikipedia].
The Italian force attacking British Somaliland in August included five colonial brigades, three Blackshirt battalions, and three bands (banda [Bands (Italian Army Irregulars) wikipedia]) of native troops. The Italians had armoured vehicles (a small number of both light and medium tanks), artillery, and, for the moment, superior air support.
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Italian Collapse in Somaliland
On paper, the British East African territories were seriously threatened when Italy went to war; yet, as in the Western Desert, the gaudy show of the Italian forces was found eventually to be a sham. Here is the story of the initial loss of British Somaliland as a result of the delay in organising a reasonable state of defence, and the prompt remedy provided by the British invasion and conquest of Italian Somaliland: another paralysing conquest over Mussolini’s army, a conquest with its origins in a defensive strategy.
The ceaseless struggle against both terrain and the elements was as much a feature of the 17-month East African campaign – from June 1940 to November 1941 – as the fighting, and sometimes more so. Throughout the campaign the very nature of the terrain demanded originality, improvisation, and extraordinary endurance, while at the same time, imposing severe tactical limitations.
In the centre of the vast terrain lay Ethiopia, a mountain fastness and the most inaccessible territory in the whole of Africa, spread over nearly 500,000 square miles. At that time still a medieval, incoherent feudal state, closer to the Old Testament than the 20th Century, it was slowly discouraging the Italians who had been trying to govern it since their conquest four years earlier. [Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936) wikipedia]
Theoretically an easy country to defend against an invader, the near impossibility of movement except on the very few primitive roads, and the almost total lack of modern communications combined with the great distances involved nevertheless imposed severe restrictions on the defenders as well as on an invading army. To the north of Ethiopia lay the Italian colony of Eritrea, 47,000 square miles of mountains and desert wasteland. The Eritrean desert had no value; the military effort of both sides would therefore inevitably be concentrated on the steep escarpments in the south which provided the only northern gateway into Ethiopia. And to the east lay Somaliland, part British, part Italian, and part French, comprising the most primitive, undeveloped 300,000 square miles in Africa, almost totally devoid of resources.
To the nature of the terrain must be added the mutual unpreparedness for war in this theatre. Britain had no forces in East Africa capable of a sustained campaign when Italy entered the war on June 10, 1940. The scratch formations which it had been possible to throw together or to recruit locally could at first afford to think only in terms of possibly defending Kenya, British Somaliland, and the Sudan against an Italian invasion – and then only if the invasion was half-hearted.
On paper the Italians had an overwhelming superiority in numbers but this was partly offset by several serious handicaps. The British strength varied considerably at different stages of the campaign. As the Italians received no reinforcements, however, their strength at the beginning of the campaign is relevant. According to the Italian records it was: white troops, 91,203; native Ethiopians, 199,273; total, 290,476. During the course of the campaign additional Ethiopian troops were, however, recruited and trained. The Italians were cut off from their homeland, with no possibility of receiving reinforcements or replacements of any kind, and Ethiopia had neither the economy nor resources to meet their needs in a prolonged campaign.
The country was in a constant state of unrest, large areas having been disturbed throughout the four years of Italian occupation. Whole tribes sometimes went on the rampage, as often for fun (which was traditional) as – sometimes only ostensibly – for political reasons. The Italian forces were therefore, of necessity, organised for internal security and scattered in remote districts, and were on the whole equipped only for garrison duty among primitive tribesmen.
However, the British, whose intelligence was inadequate and inaccurate, did not know how badly off the Italians really were. They therefore had to reckon with a possible invasion of British-held territory. If it came, British Somaliland was certain to be a victim, but, more important, an invasion of the Sudan could threaten the Middle East, and an invasion of Kenya could have serious repercussions throughout East Africa.
The Italians did invade British Somaliland. But in the Sudan, they confined their activities to seizing Kassala, an important centre 12 miles from the Eritrean border; and in Kenya, to capturing Moyale, a small border town. In both cases the purpose was merely to deprive British forces of these two possible bases and entry points for an invasion of Italian East Africa.
Yet, invasion or no invasion, Italy’s presence in East Africa was serious. The horn of Africa dominated the entrance into the Red Sea, the vital life-line to the Middle East since the closure of the Mediterranean. Italian land-based aircraft were a threat to British shipping supplying the Middle East, and at Massawa there was an Italian naval base. Moreover, because of the Italian presence, the Red Sea was officially a war zone, which meant that American ships could not enter it. This added considerably to the Middle East supply problem.
Another serious consideration was that the Italians were thought to be rapidly building up their locally recruited Ethiopian forces. The unreliability of the Ethiopian tribesmen as battle allies was not realised by the British until they too – much later – placed faith in ‘patriot’ irregulars. There was therefore no complacency in British Military HQ, and as long as Italian East Africa remained a potential threat, troops badly needed elsewhere – notably in the Middle East – would have to be diverted to Kenya and the Sudan in case of an Italian advance in either direction. In any event, something had to be done about the threat to Red Sea shipping.
In view of the subsequent course of the campaign, it is important to remember that no British assessment at the time foresaw the possibility of forcing an Italian surrender in East Africa. All the assessments concluded that a campaign for that purpose would be too costly and would require forces which could not be made available. What was in time to become the East African campaign was not, therefore, a campaign in the normal sense. It was a series of separate and, in the early stages, almost unconnected operations, each with a limited objective.
There was not even – until the very end – a single East African command. Parts of the operations were directed by Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham [Alan Cunningham (1887-1983) wikipedia] from Kenya and others by Major-General William Platt [William Platt (1885-1975) wikipedia] from the Sudan (both under the overall command of General Wavell [Archibald Wavell 1st Earl Wavell (1883-1950) wikipedia] in Cairo).
The East African campaign began with the Italian Invasion of British Somaliland. The Duke of Aosta, Prince of Savoy and Viceroy of Ethiopia, had been ordered by Mussolini to remain on the defensive. The Viceroy, however, feared that French Somaliland, with its important harbour, Djibouti, could well provide an easy gateway into Ethiopia for a British Invasion; and although French Somaliland had passed to Vichy with the collapse of France, the Duke of Aosta did not trust the French garrison in Djibouti. His best precaution, he informed Mussolini, would be to capture British Somaliland.
Both British and Italian Somaliland (since 1960 united into the independent Somali Republic) are desolate regions. There are almost no resources, it almost never rains, virtually nothing grows, and lava and barren hills cover much of the country. About 50 miles inland, towards the Ethiopian border and parallel to the coast, there is a high range of lava-covered mountains, rising to 6,000 feet, which an invader from Ethiopia would have to cross. He would therefore have to be stopped there, or else he could not be held at all. There were no other defensive positions.
The first British assessment was that it would not be possible to defend British Somaliland at all; this would, in fact, have meant handing to the Italians the coast along the Gulf of Aden.
General Wavell therefore visited British Somaliland on the eve of Italy’s declaration of of war and decided that an effort must, after all, be made to hold it. He estimated that a minimum of five battalions would be needed, but by the time the Italian invasion began – on August 3, 1940 – the local commander Brigadier A.R. Chater [Arthur Reginald Chater (1896-1948) wikipedia], had only 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesian Regiment, 2nd Battalion King’s African Rifles [King’s African Rifles wikipedia], 1/2nd and 3/15th the Punjab Regiments [Punjab Regiment wikipedia] (from Aden), the small but mobile Somaliland Camel Corps [Somaliland Camel Corps wikipedia], and one battery with four 3.7-inch howitzers. Second Battalion the Black Watch [Black Watch wikipedia] was on its way, still in Aden.
Against these forces, Lieutenant-General Nasi, the Italian commander in south-east Ethiopia, had 26 battalions (each with its own artillery), five Italian-led Ethiopian bande, four field batteries, light and medium tanks, and armoured cars. Equally important, his was a coherent force – which the hastily assembled British force was decidedly not.
Moreover, the British force had not had time to construct proper defences to guard the few passes through the mountain range. The most important of these, through which ran the only reasonable road to Berbera, lay in a wide gap in the range, and was known as Tug Argan (because of a small stream of that name).
After crossing the wide-open frontier on August 3, the Italian force split. One column made for the border of French Somaliland. Nothing could be done to stop it, and within two days it had achieved its objective, which was to seal off the French garrison in case it felt disposed to come to the assistance of the British.
The rest of the force, under Major-General de Simone [Carlo De Simone (1885-?) wikipedia], immediately received the attentions of the small but very active Somaliland Camel Corps. Although forced to fall back constantly, the Camel Corps used every possible form of harassment, seriously slowing the progress of the overwhelmingly superior enemy.
As a result General de Simone took two days to reach Hargeisa, the first small, undefended town inside Somaliland. Having developed an excessive respect for the Camel Corps, he now, instead of pushing straight on towards Tug Argan (60 miles to the north-east), spent three days converting Hargeisa into a base for the heavy fighting which he expected.
General de Simone resumed his march on August 8, reaching the Tug Argan positions on the 11th, but the delay at Hargeisa had been of great value to the British defenders. It had allowed time for the Black Watch battalion to arrive. It had also given General Wavell time to appoint a divisional general to command the defending forces: Major-General A.R. Godwin-Austen [Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen (1889-1963) wikipedia] arrived just as the invaders reached Tug Argan.
Here the winding road was overlooked by six hills, 1 to 11/2 miles apart, thinly held by the British forces. The Italians began at once with a heavy artillery barrage and then hurled themselves in brigade strength against a hill occupied by a company of the 3/15th Punjab Regiment. They took the hill and held it against two determined Punjabi counterattacks. Two more hills were stormed, but the hopelessly out-numbered defenders held out and inflicted heavy losses on the Italians, who made no more progress that day.
The following day all the defensive positions were attacked, but all except one held off the enemy during heavy fighting from dawn to dusk. Yet the British forces were fully committed, while the Italians had ample reserves with which they gradually infiltrated high ground to the right and began working their way round to the east of the defended hills.
On August 13 the fighting again continued all day without any of the defenders giving ground, the four 3.7-inch howitzers doing the best they could against the enemy’s far superior artillery. But the British forces were now uncomfortably aware that they were being outflanked and were in danger of being cut off from their only line of retreat, an attempt to drive the Italian infiltrators off the high ground on their right having failed.
On the fourth day of the battle – August 14 – the defenders still held out despite heavy shelling, bombing, and repeated ground attacks, but the threat of being cut off at any moment was now greater than before.
General Godwin-Austen therefore signalled Cairo that in the absence of any other feasible defensive position, the only means of saving his force was to evacuate Somaliland. Cairo agreed.
Godwin-Austen held out another day against continuous attack, but on the night of August 15 the withdrawal began, through a prepared position some miles back where the Black Watch battalion, supported by a company, each of the Northern Rhodesia and 1/2nd Punjab Regiments, was to fight a rear-guard action. In fact, the Black Watch battalion twice counterattacked so vigorously that the pursuing Italians were brought to a full stop, which gave General Godwin-Austen time to embark his force on to a waiting warship at Berbera. The Italians reached Berbera on August 19.
The defence of British Somaliland had cost 250 British casualties. The Italian casualties were 2,052. The conquest had therefore been costly for the Italians, who realised as well that it would have been considerably more costly had the British forces had sufficient artillery support. This realisation was to have a profound effect on their future actions in East Africa.
Most of the force evacuated from Berbera joined the build-up gradually taking place in Kenya, and Somaliland was left unmolested for seven months, apart from occasional air attacks and, in December, a raid from Kenya by General Godwin-Austen on a defended frontier post, El Wak.
taken from History of the Second World War
[Phoebus Publishing Ltd in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum]