This was a British pair of landings, to the east and west of Berbera, on the coast of Italian-occupied British Somaliland and paving the way to the recapture of the colony (16 March 1941).
The origins of the East African campaign, fought between the Italian forces on the one hand and the British and commonwealth forces on the other, lay in the Italian conquest of Abyssinia in 1935/56. This allowed the Italians to create an East African component of their empire, named Africa Orientale Italiana, by combining Abyssinia with their existing colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland under the eventual governorship of Maresciallo d’Italia Principe Amedeo Duca di Aosta.
The Italian troops in East Africa, which extended from a northern border with Sudan and a southern border with Kenya and including the Horn of Africa with the exception of British Somaliland and French Somaliland, totalled some 250,000 or more men, about 70% of them locally recruited.
When Benito Mussolini led Italy into World War II on 10 June 1940, the British were already aware of the vulnerability into which their essential maritime lines of communication (linking the UK with India, the Far East and Australasia) had been placed by the threat of Italian aggression. The shortest of these lines of communication extended through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and were therefore vulnerable to interdiction by Italian naval and air forces operating from East Africa. The British were also aware that British Somaliland and Kenya were vulnerable to Italian land invasions, and that the Italians could also advance west into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, in all probability in conjunction with an Italian invasion of Egypt from Libya, where Maresciallo d’Italia Italo Balbo had a 200,000-man army under the immediate command of Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani.
The Italian land strength in North Africa and East Africa amounted to some 310,000 men, whereas the British had only some 36,000 men in Egypt and another 18,500 ready for service in East Africa. This latter total comprised 9,000 men in Sudan, 5,500 in Kenya, 1,500 in British Somaliland, and 2,500 in Aden.
At sea the British were wholly superior, but in tanks and aircraft the Italians had the advantage, the latter to the extent of 323 to 100.
On 10 June 1940 the Italian forces in East Africa were organised in four commands: Generale di Corpo d’Armata Luigi Frusca’s Settore Nord in the area near Asmara in Eritrea, Generale d’Armata Pietro Gazzera’s Settore Meridionale in the area round Jimma in Ethiopia, Generale d’Armata Gugliemo Nasi’s Settore Orientale in the area near the border with French Somaliland and British Somaliland, and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Carlo de Simone’s Settore di Giuba in the area of southern Somalia near Kismayo in Italian Somaliland.
The Settore Nord's forces comprised Colonnello Saverio Maraventano’s 3a Brigata coloniale (four colonial battalions), Colonnello Livio Boneli’s 4a Brigata coloniale (four colonial battalions), Generale di Brigata Angelo Bergonzi’s 5a Brigata coloniale (three colonial battalions), Tenente Colonnello Agostino Magrini’s 6a Brigata coloniale (four colonial battalions), Colonnello Antonio Rizzo’s 8a Brigata coloniale (two battalions), Colonnello Ugo Tabellini’s 12a Brigata coloniale (three battalions), Colonnello Manlio Manetti’s 16a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), Colonnello Enrico Durante’s 19a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), Colonnello Ignazio Angelini' 21a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), Colonnello Adriano Torelli’s 22a Brigata coloniale (five battalions), Generale di Brigata Ugo Fongoli’s 41a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), the 42a and 43a Brigate coloniali (both forming), the 116o, 141o, 151o, 164o, 240o, 731o and 745o Battaglioni 'Camicie Nere', six colonial infantry battalions, two colonial cavalry battalions, two irregular colonial cavalry battalions, two garrison commands, and three batteries of 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzers.
The Settore Meridionale's forces comprised Colonnello Guido Pialorsi’s 1a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), Colonnello Flaminio Orrigo’s 9a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), Colonnello Giuseppe Cloza’s 10a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), Colonnello Bartolomeo Minola’s 18a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), 23a Brigata coloniale (three battalions), Tenente Colonnello Giorgio Rolandi’s 25a Brigata coloniale (three battalions), 85a and 86a Brigate coloniali (both forming), one colonial infantry battalion, four irregular colonial cavalry battalions (forming), one colonial cavalry company, and seven irregular colonial cavalry companies (forming).
The Settore Orientale''s forces comprised Generale di Divisione B. Giovanbattista Varda’s 40a Division 'Cacciatori d’Africa' (210o and 211o Reggimenti, 40o Reggimento artigliera, 40o Battaglione mortai, 18o Battaglione misto genio d’Africa, 40a Compagnia artigliera anticarro, 40a Sezione sanità, and 40a Sezione sussistenza), Generale di Divisione Amedeo Liberati’s 65a Divisione 'Granatieri di Savoia' (10o Reggimento granatieri [two grenadier battalions and the Battaglione alpini 'Uork Amba' of mountain infantry, 11o Reggimento granatieri [two grenadier battalions and one Bersaglieri battalion], 11o Reggimento 'Camicie Nere d’Africa' [three battalions], 60o Reggimento artiglieri, 65o Battaglione mortai, Battaglione mitraglieri pesanti, Gruppo Squadroni 'Cavalieri di Neghelli', 65o Battaglione genio d’Africa, 65a Compagnia artigliera anticarro, 65a Sezione sanità and 65a Sezione sussistenza), Colonnello Orlando Lorenzini’s 2a Brigata coloniale (four battalions), Colonnello Tiburzio Rean’s 7a Brigata coloniale (three battalions), Colonnello Francesco Prina’s 11a Brigata coloniale (three battalions), Generale di Brigata Cesare Nam’s 13a Brigata coloniale (three battalions), 14a, 15a and 17a Brigate coloniali, 70a Brigata coloniale (forming), 1a and 2a Compagnie leggeri artigliera anticarro (each with about 12 L3/35 tankettes), 321a and 322a Compagnie medio carro (each with about 12 M11/39 medium tanks), Compagnia autoblina (Fiat modello 611 armoured cars), four colonial infantry battalions, seven colonial cavalry battalions, 18 irregular colonial cavalry battalions (forming), two batteries of 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzers, four batteries of 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers, and one battery of 149-mm (5.87-in) howitzers.
The Settore di Giuba's forces comprised the 20a Brigata coloniale, 91a and 92a Brigate coloniali (forming), seven colonial infantry battalions (forming) and two irregular colonial cavalry battalions (forming).
Immediately after declaring war on France and the UK on 10 June, the Italians moved to expand their East African empire, initially by the seizure of Gallabat, Karora, Kassala and Kurmak on the Sudanese side of the Abyssinian/Sudanese border, and also Moyale on the Kenyan side of the Abyssinian/Kenyan frontier.
In July 1940 the British recognised the Emperor Haile Selassie, who had been ousted by the Italian conquest of Abyssinia (1935/36), and offered to aid him in recovering his throne. Buoyed by the fact that after France’s defeat by Germany in June 1940 French Somaliland had declared its adherence to the new Vichy French regime and thereby removed much of the support on which the defence of British Somaliland was dependent, Italy on 3 August 1940 committed some 25,000 of their 175,000 men, under the immediate command of Nasi, to an invasion along three axes. The main thrust was directed in the centre from Harar and Jijiga in Abyssinia toward Hargeisa and thence Berbera, the capital of British Somaliland, while the flanking axes were those in the north-west from Diredawa to Zeila, and in the south-east from Gorrahei to Odweina and Burao and thence Berbera.
The defending force about 4,000 men was based initially on just four infantry battalions. Within two days both Zeila and Hargeisa had been captured, the Italian seizure of Zeila effectively dividing British Somaliland from neighbouring French Somaliland. Odweina fell on the following day and the Italian forces' central and eastern columns then combined to launch an attack against the main British position at the Tug Argan pass. The British forces (Somaliland Camel Corps and two infantry battalions) had received reinforcement (three infantry battalions) and a new commander, Major General A. R. Godwin-Austen, in place of Chater, but it was not enough.
By 10 August, de Simone’s forces had reached the British positions behind the Tug Argan pass and made their preparations to attack. On 7/8 August, the British forces in had been reinforced by the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment and 2/Black Watch. General Sir Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of the UK’s Middle Eastern command with headquarters in Cairo, had also ordered another infantry battalion and more artillery to Berbera, but these did not arrive in time to make any impact on the situation. Wavell had also decided to appoint a more senior officer to command the forces in Somaliland, and Godwin-Austen arrived in Berbera on 11 August.
The British defensive positions were centred on six hills overlooking the only road toward Berbera. On 11 August, an Italian brigade attacked and took the hill held by a company of the 3/15th Punjab, but took heavy losses in the process. The British launched two unsuccessful counterattacks but fought off Italian attacks on two other hills. The Italians attacked all the British position s on the following day, and by the evening had taken Mill Hill from the Northern Rhodesian Regiment after severe fighting. More critically, the British had lost two of the East African Light Battery’s light howitzers and the Italian forces had established themselves in the Assa Hills, dominating the southern side of the gap through which the road to Berbera ran.On 13/14 August the Italians managed to take no more of the British positions despite heavy fighting, but the Italians continued to improve their overall situation by infiltration. By 14 August the British position was clearly parlous, for the Italians were almost in a position to cut the road and thus the defenders' only line of supply and retreat. On this day Godwin-Austen informed Middle East Command of the situation, ending with his opinion that further resistance at Tug Argan would be futile and probably result in the loss of the whole force, whereas a retirement would probably mean the salvation of 70% of his strength. On 15 August Godwin-Austen was instructed to withdraw his forces from British Somaliland. Late on 15 August the Italians took Observation Hill, and after the fall of night the British began to fall back with the Black Watch, two companies of the 2/King’s African Rifles and elements of 1/2nd Punjab holding a rearguard position at Barkasan on the Berbera road some 10 miles (16 km) behind the Tug Argan position.
As the British land forces were retreating toward Berbera, the Royal Navy had managed to complete an all-tide jetty and started to evacuate civilians and administrative elements. On 16 August, the British started to embark troops onto the waiting ships. On 17 August an Italian column was reported at Bulhar, some 40 miles (64 km) to the west of Berbera. The light cruiser Ceres, which was patrolling off the coast, engaged and halted the column with her 6-in (152-mm) guns. The Italian forces pushing forward from Tug Argan moved only slowly, and did not attack the rearguard position at Barkasan until a time late in the morning of 17 August, and were then held by determined resistance including a fierce bayonet charge by the Black Watch. After dark, the rearguard was withdrawn to Berbera.
The whole British-led force pulled back to Berbera with minimal losses and loading of the ships was completed in the early hours of 18 August, although the Australian light cruiser Hobart, with the force headquarters embarked, remained at Berbera until the morning of 19 August to collect stragglers and continue the destruction of vehicles, fuel and stores before steaming to Aden. Some 5,690 troops, 184 wounded soldiers and 1,226 civilians were evacuated in one hospital ship, three armed merchant cruisers, the light cruisers Caledon, Ceres and Australian Hobart, light anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle, destroyers Kandahar and Kimberley, and sloops Shoreham and Australian Auckland and Parramatta.
The British and commonwealth losses in the short campaign are estimated at 260 (38 killed, 102 wounded and 120 missing), while those of the Italians were estimated by the British at about 2,050 (465 killed, 1,530 wounded and 34 missing). The locally enlisted 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.
Italian sources claimed that each side had suffered 250 casualties during this little campaign, but unofficially, de Simone estimated that nearly 1,000 Somali irregulars fighting against the Italians became casualties during the campaign, in which they operated as local bande with only minimal British control. The commander of the Italian northern sector, Frusci also mentioned these 1,000 casualties, and also suggested that the Somalis fighting in Italian-led bande suffered 2,000 casualties.
The British endured almost no Italian interference in the evacuation, possibly because on 15 August, the Duke of Aosta had ordered Nasi to allow the British to evacuate without being subjected to major pressure in the hope that this might prove an advantage in a possible peace agreement between the UK and Italy currently being brokered by the Vatican. Thus on 19 August the Italians occupied Berbera and then moved down the coast to complete their conquest of British Somaliland. The British colony was annexed by Benito Mussolini as part of Italian East Africa.
The Italians then used the port facilities of Berbera as an advanced base for the submarines of their Flottiglia del Mar Rosso in the last months of 1940. After their success, the Italians soon began a series of minor raids and seizures of territory, but as their offensives petered out they adopted an altogether passive posture as they awaited the inevitable British counter-offensive. Attention then shifted to the naval sphere. At Asmara in Eritrea, the Italians had a small squadron numbering a few destroyers and submarines. While this squadron was not used aggressively, it nonetheless remained a standing threat to the Allied convoys moving between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. As the Italians' fuel stocks decreased, however, so too did the Italian opportunity for effective action. The squadron made only one major attempt to attack a British convoy, but was driven off. Following that attack, most of the squadron’s surface ships were sunk, while the submarines made an epic escape round the Cape of Good Hope and through the Strait of Gibraltar to return to Italy.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill blamed the loss of British Somaliland, which was the Italian forces' only significant land victory of World War II without German support, on Wavell, largely as a result of the British forces' low losses. This suggested to Churchill that the colony had been abandoned without enough of a fight: Wavell responded that the Somaliland campaign was a textbook example of how to avoid defeat by use of a withdrawal in the face of superior numbers.
The British overall plan for an East African campaign was developed during a conference at Khartoum toward the end of October 1940. The principal attendees were Anthony Eden (British war secretary), General Jan Christiaan Smuts (prime minister of South Africa), Haile Selassie and Wavell, who agreed that Major General W. Platt, commanding in the Sudan, would use Major General L. M. Heath’s Indian 5th Division to retake Gallabat in November 1940 and Kassala in January 1941, while Lieutenant General A. G. Cunningham, commanding in Kenya, would plan an attack on Kismayu in the southern part of Italian Somaliland during January 1941 using Major General G. L. Brink’s South African 1st Division as well as Major General H. E. de R. Wetherall’s 11th African Division and Godwin-Austen’s 12th African Division, the latter two comprising Nigerian and Gold Coast troops commanded by British officers. It was also agreed that the local resistance effort in Abyssinia would be aided by the despatch of a military mission and other support.
The push to take Abyssinia began after the British forces in Sudan had been reinforced from Egypt. The arrival of an Australian infantry division in Egypt had released Platt’s Indian 4th Division from 'Compass' in the Western Desert for movement to Sudan, and on 9 January 1941 the Indian 4th and 5th Divisions advanced into Abyssinia north and south of Lake Tana toward Asmara in the north, Gondar in the centre and Addis Ababa in the south. Within nine days, Platt’s forces had advanced 100 miles (160 km) and captured the heavily fortified town of Agordat on the Asmara axis. Another front was opened on 24 January as Cunningham’s Southern Force, advanced from northern Kenya into Italian Somaliland, which they had largely captured by 25 February. During March a combined Indian and Free French force was sent by sea from Sudan to northern Eritrea.
Following this, in April, the 'Appearance' amphibious assaults were also made on British Somaliland from Aden. The landings began on 16 March with the arrival off Berbera of Captain H. Hickling’s Force 'D' (cruisers Caledon and Glasgow, destroyers Kandahar and Kipling, armed boarding vessels Chakdina and Chantala serving as transports, Indian armed trawlers Netrvati and Parvati, and motor launch ML-109) together with the two transport vessels carrying the 2/3rd Punjab and 3/15th Punjab, one Somali commando detachment and supporting units from the garrison of Aden. After a short naval bombardment the landing was accomplished with little opposition (60 malaria-stricken men waiting to surrender), the rest of the 70th Brigata coloniale having melted away. On 20 March Hargeisa was captured, and the British and commonwealth forces spent the next months in clearing British Somaliland of the last remnants of the Italian forces. The Somaliland Camel Corps was re-established in mid-April and, in addition to looking for Italians, re-acquired its job of rounding up local bandits. Some Italians, under Colonnello di Marco, started a guerrilla war in the Ogaden region, and this is reported to have lasted until the summer of 1942.
Meanwhile, the primitive port of Berbera was brought quickly back into working condition in the face of many difficulties (shortage of lighters, total lack of cranes and electric light, extreme heat, and frequent interruptions by the Kharif wind which scattered the sand and stirred up the surf). Yet within seven days the 11th African Division was being partly maintained through Berbera, at a saving of 500 miles (805 km) of overland transport. On 23 March Brigadier F. L. A. Buchanan’s South African 2nd Brigade, less one battalion, arrived by sea from Mombasa in Kenya, and the third battalion, with all the transport, arrived a fortnight later, having come all the way by road. On 8 April Brigadier A. R. Chater was appointed military governor of British Somaliland and under his direction the country was rapidly brought back to order.