Italian conquest of British Somaliland

Italian conquest of British Somaliland

conflict=Italian conquest of British Somaliland
partof=East African Campaign, World War II

caption=The Italian invasion of British Somaliland in August 1940
date=3 August 1940- 17 August 1940
place=British Somaliland
result=Italian victory, fall of British Somaliland
combatant1=flag|United Kingdom
*flagicon|India|British British India
*flagicon|United Kingdom British Somaliland
*flag|Northern Rhodesia|1939
*flagicon|United Kingdom British East Africa
* Italian East Africa
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom Reade Godwin-Austen
flagicon|United Kingdom Arthur Chater
commander2=flagicon|Italy|1861-state Guglielmo Nasi
flagicon|Italy|1861-state Carlo De Simone
flagicon|Italy|1861-state Luigi Frusci
casualties1=38 Killed
102 woundedcite web| url=|title=The Invasion of British Somaliland. The Aftermath| last=Stone| first=Bill| publisher=Stone & Stone Second World War Books| accessdate=2008-06-08| date=1998]
120~ Captured
casualties2=465 Killed
1530 WoundedUp to 2,000 unaffiliated local tribesmen killed or wounded fighting against British rule. [Maravigna (1949), p. 453. General Luigi Frusci wrote in his memories that the Somalis fighting as "armed Bands" on the Italian side suffered two thousand casualties. He stated that the most popular local tribal chief of British Somaliland greeted the Italians after the conquest of Zeila and offered him his men against the British.]

The Italian conquest of British Somaliland was a campaign in the Horn of Africa which took place in the summer of 1940 and was 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 Egypt, Kenya, and Sudan.

Later in June, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, the Governor-General of Italian East Africa, convinced the Italian Supreme Command ("Commando 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 start.

Order of Battle

The Italian force attacking British Somaliland in August 1940 was commanded by General Guglielmo Nasi. The force included five colonial brigades, three Blackshirt battalions, and three bands ("bande") of native troops.Mackenzie, Compton. "Eastern Epic", p. 23] 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.

The Italians were opposed by a British contingent of about 4,000 soldiers consisting of the Somaliland Camel Corps (commanded by Colonel Arthur Reginald Chater), elements of the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion King's African Rifles (KAR) and the 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesian Regiment, the 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion Black Watch. [ Mockler, Anthony. "Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941", pp. 243-45.] Mackenzie, Compton. "Eastern Epic", p. 22]

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.

The Italians advanced with three columns attacking in three directions. The column to the north attacked toward the port of Zeila. The column to the center attacked toward Adadlek. And the column to the south attacked toward Odweina. [Del Boca, Angelo. "Italiani in Africa Orientale: La caduta dell'Impero". pg.74]

On 5 August, the port of Zeila was occupied after heavy fighting by the Italian northern column. Any possibility of help from French Somaliland for the retreating British was cut. The northern column then proceeded south 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 stopped by the British at the Karrin Pass, before Hargeisa.

Colonel Chater, used his camel corps 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

On 6 August, within three days of the invasion, the towns of Zeila and Hargeisa were taken by the Italians. Odweina fell the following day and the Italian central and southern columns combined to launch attacks against the main British and Commonwealth positions at Tug Argan. On 7 August, the British and Commonwealth forces in British Somaliland received reinforcements with the arrival of the 1st Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment. On 11 August, a new commander, Major-General Reade Godwin-Austen, reached Tug Argan.

The defensive positions of the British army were centered around six hills overlooking the only road toward Berbera. On 11 August, an Italian brigade commanded by De Simone attacked the hill defended by the 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment and captured it with heavy casualties. The British launched two unsuccessful counterattacks, but the next day were forced to abandon two other nearby hills.

On 14 August, the Italians began to encircle the British defenders from their eastern positions, and the defenders' situation started to look critical.

After three days of battle, early on 15 August, Godwin-Austen (fearing an imminent encirclement) concluded that further resistance at Tug Argan would be futile. He contacted the British Middle East Command headquarters in Cairo, Egypt and requested and received permission to withdraw his forces from British Somaliland.

The determined effort of the Black Watch battalion, which covered the retreat, allowed the entire British and Commonwealth contingent to withdraw to Berbera with minimal losses.

British evacuation from Berbera

Whilst the British made their fighting retreat to Berbera, the Royal Navy had constructed an all-tide jetty and had commenced evacuating civilian and administrative officials. The two main Italian columns (the central and the southern) were united at the village of La Farruk, approximately 30 kilometers south of Berbera.

From Bulhar, the Italian northern column of General Luigi Frusci reached the area of Berbera on 14 August. But the British defenders were able to hold them off. On 16 August, the British started to embark troops onto the waiting ships. The British had completed the evacuation by the afternoon of the following day. The ships departed for Aden.

On 15 August, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta personally ordered General Guglielmo 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 Vatican mediation, between Italy and Great Britain. [Rovighi, Alberto. "Le operazioni in Africa orientale". Stato Maggiore Esercito,Ufficio storico. p. 138]

The British defenders had little interference in this operation even after a fierce bayonet charge against the Italians by the Black Watch at Barkasan. The Somaliland Camel Corps, rather than evacuate, was disbanded and dispersed.

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. [ Mockler, Anthony. "Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941", pp. 245-49.]


According to Italian historians, [Rovighi, Alberto. "Le operazioni in Africa orientale" Stato Maggiore Esercito,Ufficio storico. p. 49] during the campaign to conquer British Somaliland the casualties were 250 for the British army and 205 for the Italian.

But according to the British account of events total British casualties were 158 and Italian losses were estimated at between ten and twenty times higher. [Mackenzie, Compton. "Eastern Epic". pp. 23-24]

Unofficially, an Italian officer Carlo 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 Colonel Chater) [Rovighi, Alberto. "Le operazioni in Africa orientale" Stato Maggiore Esercito,Ufficio storico. p. 188] . General Luigi Frusci 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 photo of this tribal chief can be seen at the bottom of [] , next to the photo of General Frusci.] ).

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 conquered 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 Archibald 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. [ Mockler, Anthony. "Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941", p. 251.]

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 Aden to re-occupy the territory.


The conquest of the British Somaliland was the only campaign victory Italy achieved — without the support of German troops — during World War II against the Allies.Fact|date=July 2008

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 Philippines or in Russia), 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. [Antonicelli, Franco. "Trent'anni di storia italiana 1915 - 1945"page number|date=June 2008] 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 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.
*The campaign of British Somaliand 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. [Antonicelli, Franco. "Trent'anni di storia italiana 1915 - 1945"page number|date=June 2008]

See also

* East African Campaign (World War II)
* Italian Empire


* 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.



* [ Photos of the italian conquest of Somaliland]
* [ Maps and articles on the war in Italian East Africa (in Italian)]
* [ WWII in the italian colonies (in Italian)]

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