Invasion of British Somaliland
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseWhen Italy declared war on the Allies on 10 Jun 1940, the Governor General and Viceroy of Italian East Africa, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, began planning an invasion of British colonial holdings in East Africa known as British Somaliland. In late Jun 1940, King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy and the Italian Supreme Command approved the plan for such an invasion. The invasion was to be launched in early Aug 1940, and it was to be led by Lieutenant General Guglielmo Nasi. The invasion was to be conducted by 23 colonial battalions organized into 5 brigades, 3 Blackshirt battalions, and 3 bands of native troops; the force was total about 24,000.
ww2dbaseOn the British side, recently promoted Brigadier Arthur Reginald Chater led British forces in British Somaliland. He commanded a 4,000-strong force consisted of the Somaliland Camel Corps, the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion King's African Rifles, the 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesian Regiment, the 3/15th Punjab Regiment, and 1st East African Light Battery. Compared to the Italians, his force critically lacked heavy vehicles and aircraft.
ww2dbaseThe invasion began on 3 Aug 1940. The Italians advanced in three columns, each marching toward the port of Zeila, Hargeisa-Adadlek region, and Odweina-Burao region. Zeila was taken by Italian Lieutenant General Bertoldi's troops on 5 Aug; this prevented any reinforcements from coming in from French Somaliland to the west. In the center, Italian Lieutenant General Carlo De Simone passed through the rough mountain terrain to Hargeisa; although initially held up by the British Camel Corps and Northern Rhodesia Regiment troops, light tanks pushed back the defense line by 5 Aug, allowing the Italians to advance again on 7 Aug. The eastern Italian column headed by Brigadier General Bertello reached Odweina on 6 Aug, and then turned northwest toward the village of Adadle.
ww2dbaseOn 7 Aug, the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment arrived from Aden to reinforce the defense. On the following day, troops of the 2nd Battalion Black Watch arrived as well. Meanwhile, Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command in Cairo, Egypt General Archibald Wavell ordered a battalion of infantry plus artillery pieces to march toward Berbera, the capital of British Somaliland, but they would not arrive in time.
ww2dbaseBy 10 Aug, most of the British defenders were pushed back behind the Tug Argan pass. On 11 Aug, Major General Reade Godwin-Austen arrived in Berbera and took over the command from Brigadier Chater. On the same day that Godwin-Austen arrived, an Italian brigade attacked one of the six defended hills overlooking the only road to Berbera and captured it, incurring heavy casualties as they fought off a company of the 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment that defended the hill. Two counterattacks were launched in an attempt for the British to re-capture the hill, but both of them failed. Meanwhile, Italians attempted to take two more hills, but they were thwarted as well. On 12 Aug, Italian troops attacked all five hills held by British and Commonwealth troops, taking key positions and destroying two of the very few artillery pieces that the British had.
ww2dbaseOn 13 Aug, heavy fighting continued as the Italians continued to assert pressure on the British positions, but no strategically important positions changed hands.
ww2dbaseOn 14 Aug, Godwin-Austen recommended Cairo that the forces under his command should be given the order to withdraw from the Tug Argan pass region and fall back into the city of Berbera. The recommendation was accepted and the withdraw order was given on 15 Aug. Late on 15 Aug, the Italians took Observation Hill. After nightfall, the British withdraw from the Tug Argan pass region began, with units of the Black Watch, 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion King's African Rifles, and 1/2nd Punjab Regiment forming the rearguard at Barkasan.
ww2dbaseEven as the fighting was going on at Tug Argan, the British Royal Navy had already been evacuating civilians from Berbera. As the Italian troops marched closer to the city, the evacuation of military personnel began on 16 Aug. In general, the Italians chose not to interfere with the evacuation operations as a political measure; Italy had only joined the war against Britain and the government in Rome was unsure whether or not a peace would be reached in the near future.
ww2dbaseItalian troops reached Bulhar by 17 Aug, about 64 kilometers west of Berbera, but were held up by naval bombardment from HMS Ceres. On the same day, the rearguard position set up at Barkasan was attacked in late morning, which resisted the attackers until after dark when they fell back into Berbera. Most of the British troops were aboard ships for evacuation by 18 Aug, while HMAS Hobart and a number of other smaller vessels remained behind to collect stragglers and those remained behind to destroy vehicles, fuel stores, and other things that could be of use to the Italians if captured. On 19 Aug, all British ships and personnel departed from Berbera. About 7,000 people were evacuated from Berbera. The Camel Corps was disbanded, a decision made by the troops of the unit with British approval; its members disappeared into the population with their weapons. Berbera was captured by Italian troops on 19 Aug.
ww2dbaseDuring the invasion, the British and Commonwealth forces suffered 250 to 260 casualties (38 killed), and Italian casualty figures were reported to be somewhere between 200 and 1,000. Additionally, about 2,000 Somali irregular troops, fighting under both banners (though more famously under the Italian banner), were killed or wounded.
ww2dbaseBerbera later became a submarine base of the Italian Red Sea Flotilla.
ww2dbaseBritish Prime Minister Winston Churchill, citing the low casualty figures, criticized that the defenders had abandoned Berbera prematurely without putting in enough effort to defend it, leading to the first British possession to be captured by enemy forces. Wavell, defending his decision, noted that his forces at British Somaliland were facing overwhelming Italian forces, and the orderly withdraw in such circumstances with minimal casualty figures was a something of a feat.
Invasion of British Somaliland Timeline
|3 Aug 1940||Italian General Guglielmo Nasi led an invasion force of 25,000 troops into British Somaliland from Abyssinia.|
|4 Aug 1940||Italian troops marched in three columns toward Berbera, British Somaliland. The main column marched along the main road through Hargeisa, while two smaller columns flanked to the east and west.|
|5 Aug 1940||Lieutenant General Bertoldi's Italian troops captured Zeila, British Somaliland, preventing forces in French Somaliland from reinforcing the British forces from the west.|
|6 Aug 1940||Italian troops under Brigadier General Bertello captured Odweina, British Somaliland.|
|7 Aug 1940||The 1st Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment arrived in British Somaliland to reinforce against the Italian invasion.|
|8 Aug 1940||Troops of the 2nd Battalion, UK (Scottish) Black Watch arrived in British Somaliland to reinforce against the Italian invasion.|
|11 Aug 1940||British Major General Reade Godwin-Austen arrived in Berbera, British Somaliland to take over the defense. The British had maintained prepared defenses at Tug Argan on 6 hills overlooking the Hargeisa-Berbera road, knowing that this was the most likely invasion route. Italian troops attacked 3 of the hills and captured the one defended by the 3rd Battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment.|
|12 Aug 1940||Italian troops renewed the attack at Tug Argan, British Somaliland, capturing the hill defended by the Northern Rhodesian Regiment as well as two of the four 3.7-inch howitzers.|
|13 Aug 1940||The British Royal Navy cruiser HMS Carlisle shot down an Italian aircraft attacking Berbera, British Somaliland. On the same day, destroyer HMS Kimberley and sloop HMS Auckland shelled the port of El Sheikha, which had recently been captured by Italian forces. On the ground, Italian troops attacked British defenses at Tug Argan, but the defense held.|
|14 Aug 1940||British and Commonwealth troops engaged in heavy fighting with Italian forces near Berbera, British Somaliland; British commander in area Major General Godwin-Austen requested permission to fall back into Berbera and to prepare for evacuation.|
|15 Aug 1940||Italian troops continued the attack at Tug Argan, British Somaliland, taking another one of the six hills overlooking the main road. Overnight, British forces withdrew towards Berbera, with African troops, Indian troops, and troops of the Scottish regiment Black Watch forming a rearguard at Barkasan.|
|16 Aug 1940||British and Commonwealth troops began evacuating Berbera, British Somaliland, while Italian troops marched closer to the capital, though very cautiously and did not attack the British rearguard at Barkasan. Italian aircraft, for the most part, allowed the evacuation operation to take place in order to maintain good relations with Britain.|
|18 Aug 1940||The British evaucation of Berbera, British Somaliland was completed after troopships Chakdina, Chantala, Laomedon, and Akbar and hospital ship Vita departed the port, destined for Aden. Australian cruiser HMAS Hobart was left behind to collect stragglers and destroy vehicles, fuel, and stores. Colonial troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps chose to remain in their homeland; their British officers respected their decision and allowed them to keep their weapons.|
|19 Aug 1940||Italian troops captured Berbera, British Somaliland. The 17 day conflict has cost the British 250 casualties but the Italians more than 2,000.|
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George Patton, 31 May 1944