Operation Battle of Tug Argan

The 'Battle of Tug Argan' was fought between Italian and British-led forces within the context of the 'Invasion of British Somaliland' (11/15 August 1940).

The battle determined the result of the Italian conquest of British Somaliland after the Italian invasion and the larger 'Campaign for East Africa'.

The scene for the 'Battle of Tug Argan' was set by the advance to the north of the Italian invasion force’s central column along the south-west/north-east road toward the colonial capital of Berbera through the Tug Argan gap (named after the tug [dry river bed] running across it) in the Assa hills, when they encountered British units occupying fortified positions on a number of widely distributed hills across its breadth. After an intense four-day battle, the Italian infantry overran the undermanned British positions and were able to seize the gap, compelling the defenders to withdraw to Berbera.

The Italian victory rendered untenable the position of British forces in Somaliland, and paved the way to the British seaborne evacuation to Aden. Italy was then able to secure the territory quickly, an achievement whose propaganda value to a bellicose Fascist regime would ultimately outweigh its decidedly limited strategic significance.

As Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940, during the later stages of the 'Battle of France', the dictator Benito Mussolini looked to Africa for easy conquests to justify his entrance into the conflict and to glorify Italy’s role. The remote colony of British Somaliland, a tract of modern Somalia poor in both resources and defenders, appeared vulnerable. Though Italy lacked the logistical infrastructure to support a long war in the region, an expedition to Somaliland was authorised for implementation late in 1940. Italian forces in East Africa were relatively strong in numbers, if not in quality, with 29 colonial brigades, each comprising several infantry battalions and some light artillery, concentrated around Addis Ababa, the capital of recently conquered Ethiopia. The Italians also possessed at least 60 light and medium tanks as well as 183 fighters, light bombers and medium bombers.

The British were outnumbered and their limited colonial forces were dispersed throughout North and East Africa. With north-western Egypt and the Sudan under threat just as much as Somaliland, only token units were available to control what was considered a relatively unimportant possession, devoid of infrastructure, productive capacity or natural resources. Until December 1939 British policy had been to abandon Somaliland should it be invaded. General Sir Archibald Wavell, newly appointed to command the British forces in Africa and the Middle East, persuaded the British chiefs-of-staff that Somaliland should be defended, for much the same motives as Italy expressed for the attempt to seize it. A multi-racial grouping of five battalions, the minimum force adjudged capable of defending the region, had been assembled by the beginning of August 1940. The defence force included two Sikh battalions and the 2/King’s African Rifles, which arrived by sea from Aden. The Indian units, contrary to expectations, comprised well-equipped and professional soldiers, a much-needed complement to the inexperienced Rhodesian troops already present.

Berbera, the capital of British Somaliland and its only major city and port, was the obvious destination of any invasion. As plans took shape for the blocking of Italian passage to the city, it became apparent that the border with Ethiopia was too long and open to be defended with the limited resources available to the British. The rugged Somali countryside was impassable by vehicles, meaning that the British could defend bottlenecks on the two roads to Berbera, which wound through the desert via the towns of Hargeisa and Burao, respectively. The Hargeisa road, the most direct route to the capital, was most easily blocked at the Tug Argan gap in the Assa hills. The pass was flat and open: a small force could not hold this for long against superior numbers but, despite this topographical disadvantage, three of the five battalions originally allocated and one battery of light artillery were committed to the defence of Tug Argan; another battalion was held in reserve.

The overall strategic position of the British was undermined by the 'Battle of France' and the French surrender on 22 June. In north-eastern Africa, British planners had anticipated fighting with the French, who controlled the western quarter of the Somali coast, and had relinquished military control of the border regions adjoining the two protectorates. France had a larger garrison than the British in Somaliland, and could obtain reinforcements from Madagascar. Though the armistice had been signed at Compiègne, Général de Brigade Paul Louis Victor Marie Legentilhomme, commanding the French East African forces, announced that he would not join Vichy France in its pro-German neutrality, proposing instead to continue the struggle from Djibouti. Legentilhomme was relieved of command on 22 July and fled to Allied territory, and his successor soon achieved détente with the Italians, leaving British Somaliland isolated.

On 3 August, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi led 35,000 Italian troops, the vast majority of them African conscripts, across the border from their staging point at Harar into British Somaliland. The invaders were organised into three columns: on the left, one would advance north to the coast at Zeila, a route recently vacated by the Vichy French, before turning to the east in the direction of Berbera; on the right, one would make the opposite motion on the Burao road; in the centre the main central column, led by Generale di Divisione Carlo de Simone, containing the bulk of his forces. de Simone was to capture the British position at Tug Argan and make straight for Berbera, ending the campaign with a decisive battle. The Italians captured Hargeisa on 6 August, forcing the locally raised but very small Somaliland Camel Corps into a complete withdrawal. A few days of Italian rest and rearmament followed before the march was resumed on 8 August. The delay was extended by administrative inertia, as Italian officers complained of heavy rains and impassable roads. Following two days of probing, de Simone and his contingent reached the head of the Tug Argan gap and an initial assault was scheduled for 11 August. Major General A. R. Godwin-Austen arrived to take command of the British garrison from Brigadier A. R. Chater, the Royal Marine officer who would remain in local control of the Tug Argan front.

Having realised that holding Tug Argan was the key to halting any invasion, the British command poured all available resources, though diminished by French duplicity, into its defence. An element of the 2/Black Watch was rushed by truck to the village of Laferug, to the rear of the gap, late on 10 August, and a brigade headquarters was established at nearby Barkasan. Meanwhile, those battalions already present entrenched themselves across the broad arc of the gap. On the British right were positioned three companies of the 3/15th Punjab Regiment, holding a group of strongpoints facing to the south-west and overlooking the rough wilderness beside the road. The British left was covered by another group of Indian troops, facing directly southward from atop the aptly named 'Punjab Ridge'. The gap itself was manned by the more numerous 1/Northern Rhodesia Regiment, whose infantrymen occupied a line of rocky knolls, named from north to south Black, Knobbly, Mill, Observation and Castle Hills, positioned in a ragged diagonal echelon with gaps of 2,000 to 2,500 yards (1830 to 2285 m) between them across the mouth of the gap. Each of the strongpoints was a miniature fortress, housing machine gun positions surrounded by concentric rings of barbed wire. These strongpoints were the keystones of the British defensive arch: if any of them fell, the line would crumble. Given that the front was far too wide for the troops available and the gaps between the hills too large, maintaining this balance in the face of Italian numbers was a difficult task. Worse, the linear arrangement of the mounds meant that the British position lacked meaningful depth, thereby increasing its vulnerability to individual Italian breakthroughs.

Late on 10 August, the defenders of Tug Argan perceived the first signs of Italian preparations: throughout the day, the headlights of advancing Italian supply convoys became clearly visible, and Somali refugees, fleeing ahead of de Simone’s column, swarmed across the Mirgo pass on the British left. A patrol of the King’s African Rifles skirmished briefly with four Italian armoured cars, but the exchange of gunfire terrified the British camels and forced their riders to flee. After receiving word from other scouts that the Italian tanks and infantry were easily avoiding the crude minefields laid before the creek, all the Allied forces still holding the forward trenches were withdrawn to the prepared battle line. As this manoeuvre was nearing completion, Italian artillery and aircraft initiated a preliminary bombardment of the hills, and parties of second-rate Ethiopian and 'Blackshirt' troops made a series of futile sallies throughout the early evening. de Simone meanwhile deployed his main strength opposite the British positions in a move which seemed to presage a traditional set battle. On the Italian left, the 2a Brigata prepared to advance through the wilderness towards the Punjab troops in the north. In the centre, the 14a Brigata faced the Rhodesian infantrymen’s hilltop positions within the pass, and on the right the 15a Brigata looked north toward Punjab Ridge. Behind these elements were the 13a Brigata and the armoured vehicles.

The Italian assault on the gap began at 07.30 on 11 August as a flight of Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 three-engined medium bombers attacked the British defenders on Punjab Ridge. This 30-minute air assault was followed by an artillery bombardment lasting until 12.00. Some 30 minutes later, the infantry attack began. The 2a Brigata began moving slowly toward the Indians through the trackless wilderness to the north of the road, the 14a Brigata attacked Mill, Knobbly and Observation Hills, and the 15a Brigata clambered up Punjab Ridge to engage its defenders. The attacks of the 14a Brigata against the Rhodesians failed, but the 15a Brigata managed to drive the Indian defenders off Punjab Ridge. Counterattacks were mounted against the Italians, but these were unsuccessful. The Italian attack on the hills was renewed on the following day: Black, Knobbly and Mill Hills endured repeated assaults by the 14a Brigata, and the defence of the weakest position, Mill Hill, began to falter under the sustained pressure. By 16.00, the British defences were being overrun, and after the fall of night the British retreated from the hill, spiking their guns as they left.

There was little change in the overall situation on 13 August. The 14a Brigata's attacks on the Rhodesian hilltop positions failed yet again after some intense fighting, while the 2a Brigata continued its progress through the wilderness toward the northern hills. The 15a Brigata started to infiltrate behind British lines and located a supply convoy, which was attacked and dispersed. On 14 August, the embattled 14a Brigata was relieved of its task in the battle after suffering heavy casualties in continuous attacks, and was replaced by the 13a Brigata. The fresh troops attacked Observation Hill but failed once again, even after continuous artillery bombardment throughout the day. The 2a Brigata, meanwhile, had still failed to engage the Indians, and the 15a Brigata made little progress before fending off a counterattack by two companies of the 2/King’s African Rifles.

By 14 August, Godwin-Austen had fully realised the precarious nature of his situation. The 15a Brigata was encircling his forces from the rear, his troops were exhausted, and his artillery units, of which some had already been abandoned to the advancing Italians, were running short of ammunition. Godwin-Austen informed Lieutenant General Henry Maitland Wilson, the commander of the British forces in Egypt and in overall command at Cairo while Wavell was absent in England, that retreat from Tug Argan and evacuation from British Somaliland was now a necessity. Godwin-Austen believed that if his forces could be evacuated, perhaps 70% of them might be saved, but otherwise he would be compelled either to fight to the death or to surrender his men and munitions. Wilson agreed to Godwin-Austen’s request on the next day, and preparations were made to retire from Tug Argan after the fall of night on 15 August. During that day, Observation Hill was attacked for the final time by the forces of de Simone, who had decided to continue the attack in the gap rather than complete the flanking manoeuvre, and this final push proved successful. By 19.00, the 13a Brigata had seized Observation Hill, from which the British retreated in disarray. After sundown, the defenders of the remaining hills were withdrawn, along with the Punjab troops, who departed just as the 2a Brigata was able to make inroads through their deserted positions. British resistance had collapsed, and as Godwin-Austen and his forces fell back toward Berbera, the Italians seized control of the Tug Argan gap.

Following the British withdrawal, the Italians quickly completed their investment of Berbera. To permit the main body of the colonial garrison to reach the coast, elements of the 2/Black Watch, 2/King’s African Rifles and the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment formed a small rearguard at Barakasan, which fought into the night of 17 August. Ships of the Royal Navy had already begun to evacuate military personnel from Berbera on 16 August, operations that few Italian aircraft attacked, possibly as a result of uncertainty about whether or not a peace treaty might be signed. By 19 August, all remaining British military forces, including the rearguard, of which the last had embarked late the previous day, had been evacuated by sea, and an estimated 5,300 to 5,700 troops reached Aden. The Italian forces, which had been delayed by a bombardment from the light cruiser Ceres on 17 August, entered a deserted Berbera on 19 August. This final advance marked the inevitable fall of the rest of British Somaliland.

Despite the prudent conduct of the local commanders, the retreat from Somaliland infuriated Winston Churchill, the British prime minister. Irritated by Mussolini’s boasting, Churchill excoriated Wavell via cable, labelling the low casualty numbers on the British side a mark of blatant cowardice and demanding that Godwin-Austen be subjected to a board of inquiry. Wavell replied that 'a big butcher’s bill is not necessarily evidence of good tactics', which further enraged Churchill, under whose influence the general’s career stuttered. Despite the emotional attachments professed by Allied and Axis leaders to the rule of Somaliland, few spoils changed hands as a result of Italian victory. Defeat was a blow to British prestige and pride but the territory had little significance to imperial strategy. In fact, the UK gained financially after being relieved of the burden of providing a garrison. The impact could have been far greater if the Italians had managed to move more rapidly in the aftermath of the battle. Heavy rains and difficulties supplying the troops damaged these efforts, removing any chance of a strategic victory.

The British suffered men killed, 102 wounded and 120 missing, and abandoned 20 pieces of artillery. The Italian casualties were 465 men killed, 1,530 wounded and 34 missing.