Operation Campaign for French Somaliland

The 'Campaign for French Somaliland' between Vichy French and Free French forces was characterised mainly by skirmishing (June 1940/December 1942).

After the surrender of France to Germany as signalled by an armistice that came into effect on 25 June 1940, the colony of French Somaliland, on the southern side of the mouth of the Red Sea opposite Aden on its northern side, was briefly in limbo until a governor loyal to the new Vichy French government headed by Maréchal de France Philippe Pétain was installed on 25 July. French Somaliland was the last French possession in Africa to remain loyal to the Vichy French régime, and surrendered to Free French forces only on 26 December 1942. Pierre Nouailhetas governed the territory through most of the Vichy French period and, after British bombing, instituted a reign of terror against Europeans and locals. Nouailhetas was eventually recalled and forced to retire. From September 1940, the colony was under an Allied blockade, and many of its inhabitants fled to neighbouring British Somaliland.

In 1934/35, tensions between Italy, which had colonies at Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, and Ethiopia, which bordered on both the Italian colonies, were affecting the entire Horn of Africa region while in Europe the increasing level of German rearmament weighed heavily on France. Seeking Italian support against Germany in the event of war, France ceded several territories, including a small part of northern Somaliland, to Italian Eritrea by the Mussolini-Laval Accord of 7 January 1935. This treaty was not ratified by Italy and although preparations were made to transfer the territory, it was not actually transferred before the outbreak of war between France and Italy in June 1940.

In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia and the French government had no option but to pay increased attention to the defence of French Somaliland. In January 1938 an Italian force moved down onto the plain of Hanlé in French territory and encamped there. Italy claimed that this territory lay on the Ethiopian side of the border, as fixed by the Franco-Ethiopian treaty of 1897. The French colonial minister, Georges Mandel, and Colonel Paul Legentilhomme, the local military commander in Djibouti, French Somaliland’s main city, started to strengthen the colony’s defences: 15,000 troops were stationed in the colony, and outposts were created at Afambo, Moussa Ali and even on the other side of the Italians. The landward fortifications were built largely of concrete.

In October 1938, in the aftermath of the Munich agreement whereby German gained control of the German-speaking Sudetenland border regions of Czechoslovakia, Italy demanded concessions from France, among them a free port at Djibouti and control of the railway linking Djibouti with Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The French refused the demands, believing that this was merely the first part of Italy’s true ambition, which was the outright acquisition of French Somaliland. On 30 November, after anti-French protests in Rome, the Italian foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, demanded that France cede French Somaliland to Italy. Speaking in the chamber of deputies on the 'natural aspirations of the Italian people', Ciano inspired shouts of 'Nice! Corsica! Savoy! Tunisia! Djibouti! Malta!'

On 18 December 1938, there was a counter-demonstration in Djibouti in the course of which a huge crowd gathered in the centre of town waving the French flag and shouting pro-French slogans. Meanwhile, the Italians were constructing a line of small posts at places such as Abba, Dagguirou and Gouma inside the western border of French Somaliland, late in 1930 claiming that the territory had always been part of Ethiopia. In April 1940, the Italians claimed that the French had built a post at Afambo in undisputedly Italian territory, although there is no record that there had been a post there before the Italians built one in October 1940.

In January 1940, the Italian viceroy and commander-in-chief in East Africa, Principe Amedeo, Duca of Aosta, submitted a proposal to Rome for a 'surprise' invasion of French Somaliland by a force comprising 16 motorised battalions and a force of 6,000 Azebo Galla and 6,000 Danakil tribesmen already close to the frontier. The plan was soon leaked, and in response Generale di Corpo d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi was replaced as governor of Harar by a civilian, Enrico Cerulli. Even so, the 'Danakil horde' continued to monitor the frontier.

On the eve of World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Fauque de Jonquières, a French battalion commander, headed the French local intelligence department, and after the completion of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia provided money, arms, advisers, propaganda and refuge to the Ethiopian resistance forces: a French officer, P. R. Monnier, was killed on a secret mission in Ethiopia during November 1939. Despite the fact that British Somaliland bordered the French territory and both were surrounded by Italian East Africa, no Anglo-French joint military planning took place before a meeting at Aden in June 1939. In 8/13 January 1940, at Djibouti, a second conference led to the decision to create an 'Ethiopian Legion' in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, but not to use it before any Italian declaration of war. The British commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, also agreed that in the event of war with Italy Legentilhomme would command the military forces in both British Somaliland and French Somaliland.

Italy’s declaration of war on France and the UK came on 10 June 1940, and on the following day Legentilhomme was designated as overall commander of all Allied forces in the so-called Somaliland theatre. In French Somaliland he had a garrison of seven battalions of Senegalese and Somali infantry, three batteries of field guns, four batteries of anti-aircraft guns, one company of light tanks, four companies of militia and irregulars, two platoons of the camel corps and a small miscellany of aircraft.

As the Allies were radically outnumbered (some 40,000 Italians and 9,000 Allied troops along the Somaliland frontier, no offensive actions were planned, although Legentilhomme did receive an order on 11 June to resist 'to the end'. His intention was therefore to pin the Italians while seeking to foment an Ethiopian revolt. The Italians undertook limited offensive action from 18 June. From the governorate of Harrar, just to the south of French Somaliland, troops under Nasi attacked the fort of Ali-Sabieh in the south and Dadda’to in the north. There were also skirmishes in the area of Dagguirou and around the lakes Abbe and Ally. Near Ali-Sabieh, there was limited skirmishing over the railway linking Djibouti and Addis Ababa. In the first week of war, the Italian navy despatched the submarines Torricelli and Perla to patrol French territorial waters in the Gulf of Tadjoura in front of the ports of Djibouti, Tadjoura and Obock. By the end of June the Italians had also occupied the border fortifications of Magdoul, Daimoli, Balambolta, Birt Eyla, Asmailo, Tewo, Abba, Alailou, Madda and Rahale.

On 17 June a few Meridionali Ro.37bis aircraft of the Italian air force undertook a reconnaissance of Djibouti, noting five or six warships in the port and about 20 aircraft on a nearby airfield. On that same day, the French evacuated the outlying station of Dadda’to and Douméra on the border, although whether this had come under Italian attack is a matter of dispute, and the French soon re-occupied it. On 21 June 11 Caproni Ca.133 aircraft bombed Djibouti in the largest raid of the colony’s brief war: the French anti-aircraft fire was intense and two Italian aircraft failed to return, but there were fires and explosions in Djibouti. During the night which followed, several waves of Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers attacked the port facilities. On 22 June the Italians suspected the British might try to establish a forward base at Djibouti, and five Ro.37bis, four Fiat CR.42 fighters and one Fiat CR.32 fighter based at Dire Dawa strafed the French airfield. Some French Potez 25TOE reconnaissance bomber aircraft attacked Italian installations at Dewele in retaliation.

Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle’s appeal of 18 June for French troops to ignore the impending Franco-Italian armistice was ignored by most officers in French Somaliland, where only Legentilhomme himself was in favour of siding with de Gaulle and the Free French movement. On 25 June the Armistice of Villa Incisa came into effect, ending the war between Italy and France. This demanded the demilitarisation of French Somaliland 'for the duration of hostilities between Italy and the British Empire', and granted Italy 'full and constant right to use the port of Djibouti with all its equipment, together with the French section of the railway, for all kinds of transport'. The location for the surrender of 'all movable arms and ammunition, together with those to be given up to the troops effecting the evacuation of the territory… within 15 days', the procedures for the demobilisation and disarmament of French forces and the conditions for radio communication between France and the colonies were to be decided by an Italian armistice control commission. Legentilhomme delated as long as possible in carrying out the armistice terms as he had lost contact with the French government, and on 28 June, when the Italians demanded that he fulfil certain clauses, he denied any knowledge of such clauses.

Between 1 and 10 July there were several clashes with the Italians on the plain of Hanlé, at Ali-Sabieh and along the railway. The western border area of French Somaliland was occupied by Italian troops. Under increasing British pressure, they withdrew from Hanlé from October 1940 and from Dagguirou by April 1941, when the French had returned. When the government on 10 July learned that the armistice had not yet been put into effect in French Somaliland, Pétain sent Général de Division Gaëtan Germain as his personal representative to correct the situation. Germain arrived at Asmara on 14 July, and five days later the local conseil d’administration (administrative council) voted almost unanimously (Legentilhomme was the exception) to remain loyal to Pétain’s Vichy French government. Germain then negotiated the resignation of Legentilhomme and convinced the armistice commission, which was then being established, that it was inadvisable and impractical to demilitarise French Somaliland, in which approximately 8,000 soldiers, together with tanks and aircraft, remained on guard. French troops were withdrawn from British Somaliland. On 23 July Germain succeeded Legentilhomme as commander of the French forces, and on the same day, Hubert Deschamps was dismissed as governor for his refusal to expel the British consul, with whom he had reached an agreement for the supply of food to the colony. Germain succeeded Deschamps as well, thus becoming the supreme civil and military authority in the colony, and entered Djibouti on 25 July.

On 2 August, Legentilhomme and two of his officers, Capitaines Appert and des Essarts, refused the offer of repatriation on an Italian aeroplane and defected to the British. The three French officers arrived in Aden on 5 August. The Italian chief-of-staff, Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, had ordered that Legentilhomme was to be shot should he fall into Italian hands. Negotiations at Dewele on the local implementation of the armistice were finally completed only on 8 August.

During the period of uncertainty in Djibouti, the Duca d’Aosta had urged an attack on British Somaliland in order to cut off the French colony from all possibility of British support. Mussolini approved the campaign on 19 July, but the situation in Djibouti changed rapidly in Italy’s favour after that. The 17a Brigata coloniale under the command of Colonnello Agosti occupied the French fort at Loyada on the border with British Somaliland early in August. When the Italian invasion of British Somaliland began on 3 August, the forces at Loyada moved on Zeila, which they had taken by 5 August. French Somaliland was thus completely surrounded on land by Italian possessions. Vichy France managed to continue supplying it by submarine from Madagascar, and maintained direct contact by air through flights from France via Greece.

On 18 September, the British established a naval blockade of French Somaliland with warships based at Aden. Pétain replaced Germain as governor with Pierre Nouailhetas, a naval officer, in that same month. On 25 September the British bombed Djibouti, prompting Nouailhetas to institute a reign of terror. Europeans suspected of contact with the Allies were interned at Obock, while 45 others were condemned to death or forced labour, mostly of them in absentia. In May 1941 six Africans were shot without trial to set an example to potential deserters. The rule of Nouailhetas was too brutal for even the authoritarian leaders of Vichy France, and in September 1942 he was recalled and forced to retire without a pension.

During the last week of November 1940, de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, met in London to discuss a proposed operation to retake French Somaliland. Under the command of Legentilhomme, three Free French battalions, including Foreign Legionnaires, were to establish themselves near the French Somali border and begin disseminating Free French propaganda, seeking to justify the British 'Catapult' action at Mers el Kébir, the 'Menace' attack on Dakar, and the 'Exporter' war in Syria. This propagandas effort was known 'Marie'. British warships were to ferry Free French troops to East Africa. The French plan was approved by Churchill, but it was not implemented until the requisite naval strength had become available in February 1941. Nonetheless, in November a certain Major Hamilton went to Aden to begin preparing a mobile force to destroy the railway from Djibouti to Dire Dawa: this plan was later cancelled as it was not considered politic to upset the Vichy French at that moment.

On 24 March, in an attempt to prevent an Italian withdrawal from occupied British Somaliland, the British bombed a section of the railway linking Djibouti and Addis Ababa, and met heavy Vichy French anti-aircraft fire. By that time, the Allied offensive against the Italians had tightened the blockade of French Somaliland and a famine was imminent. Diseases associated with malnutrition took many lives, 70% of them women and children.

In March, with Free French forces facing the Vichy French garrison in French Somaliland, the British changed their policy to 'rally French Somaliland to the Allied cause without bloodshed'. The Free French were now to seek an arrangement of voluntary 'rallying' through the use of propaganda while the British were to blockade the colony. Wavell considered that if British pressure was applied, any 'rallying' would appear to have been coerced, and he therefore preferred to let the propaganda continue and provide a small quantities of supplies under strict control. As part of this propaganda war, there were even competing newspapers: the Free French published Djibouti Libre' (Free Djibouti) and smuggled it into the colony, while the Vichy French published the official Djibouti Français (French Djibouti).

In April, after the fall of Addis Ababa, the British tried to negotiate with Nouailhetas for the transport of Italian prisoners of war along the railway linking Addis Ababa and Djibouti for evacuation through Djibouti’s port. On 1 May Nouailhetas telegraphed Aden to inform the British that he had received permission from Vichy France to negotiate. On 8 May Lieutenant General A. G. Cunningham, the British and allies forces in East Africa, responded with his own proposals but no commitments.

When the policy of fomenting a 'rally' to the Allies had no immediate effect, Wavell suggested negotiations with Nouailhetas to obtain use of the port and railway. The suggestion was accepted by the British government but, because of the concessions granted to the Vichy French regime in Syria and Lebanon, proposals were made for an alternative in the form of an invasion of the colony. On 8 June, Nouailhetas received an ultimatum. Wavell promised to lift the blockade and provide one month’s worth of provisions if the colony declared for Free France, or the blockade would be tightened. Leaflets were dropped to inform the civilians of French Somaliland of the UK’s terms. Nouailhetas wrote to Aden on 15 June about the high rate of infant mortality resulting from malnutrition, but nonetheless rejected the British terms. The British considered but ultimately rejected the notion of an invasion of French Somaliland as they could not spare the troops and did not wish to offend the local French, whom they hoped would join Free France. The 2 (Tanganyika)/King’s African Rifles, was at this time deployed along the routes between Zeila and Loyada, and between Ayesha and Dewele.

After the war, de Gaulle alleged that the UK intended to bring French Somaliland into its sphere of influence, and that this explained the UK’s reluctance to use force to liberate a territory that would of necessity been surrendered to their forces at the end of the war. When negotiations with Nouailhetas were resumed later in the summer, the British offered to evacuate the garrison and European civilians to another French colony upon surrender, and the Vichy French governor informed the British that he would have to destroy the colony’s railways and port facilities before surrendering. As late as November flights from Italy were still landing in Djibouti, and on 11 December a Curtiss Mohawk fighter of the Royal Air Force and a Potez 631 of the Vichy French air forces exchanged shots over the British airfield at Ayesha.

After the negotiations had failed and the final defeat of the Italian forces (with the exception of Nasi’s forces at Gondar) in July 1941. the Vichy French colony was totally surrounded and isolated by British forces. All of the colony’s horses, donkeys and camels were eaten, together with all fresh fruits and vegetables. Beriberi and scurvy was spreading and many people left towns for the desert, leaving their children in the care of Catholic missions. The head doctor at the hospital committed suicide in despair. Only a few Arab dhows managed to run the blockade from Djibouti to Obock, and only two Vichy French ships from Madagascar managed evade the blockade and reach the colony. The Japanese declaration of war on 7 December 1941 gave the colony some respite as the British were forced to withdraw for service in the Far East all but two ships from the blockade.

For the six months between June 1941 and January 1942, Nouailhetas remained willing to grant concessions with regard to the port and railway, but would not tolerate Free French interference. In October the blockade was reviewed but no changes were implemented before the beginning of the war with Japan. On 2 January 1942, the Vichy French government offered the use of the port and railway if the blockade was lifted, but the British refused. At the same time, the increased ease of the dhow trade persuaded the British to lift the land blockade on 15 January 1942, and ended it unilaterally during March.

There had been a few defections from French Somaliland in 1941. Some air force pilots escaped to Aden to join the Escadrille française d’Aden, and Capitaine Edmond Magendie began training some non-commissioned officers who would become the backbone of the Bataillon de tirailleurs somalis, which later fought in Europe. Some Free French sloops also took part in the blockade. The Lieutenant W. Platt, who had succeeded Cunningham as the British commander-in-chief in East Africa, codenamed the negotiations for the surrender of French Somaliland 'Pentagon' to reflect the fact that there were five sides: himself, the Vichy French governor, the Free French, the British minister at Addis Ababa and the USA. The US consul at Aden even bluffed the acting British governor into authorising Air Vice Marshal F. D. G. Hards, the air officer commanding in Aden, to fly him to Djibouti to interview Nouailhetas before his dismissal. the USA later apologised for this interference.

It was only after 'Streamline Jane', the British seizure of Madagascar between September and November 1942, and the Allied 'Torch' landing in French North-WEst Africa in November 1942 that one-third of French Somaliland’s garrison, in the form of Colonel Sylvain Eugène Raynal’s 1/Tirailleurs Sénégalais cross the border into British Somaliland and defect. This prompted the new governor, Christian Raimond Dupont, to offer the British an economic agreement without surrender, but this offer was rejected. Dupont was informed that if the colony surrendered without firing a shot, the French right to it would be respected in the post-war order. On hearing this, Dupont surrendered and Raynal’s troops recrossed into French Somaliland on 26 December, thereby completing the colony’s liberation.

The first governor appointed under the Free French was André Bayardelle, who was transferred from New Caledonia in December 1942. Under Bayardelle, the Bataillon de tirailleurs somalis was recruited for service in Europe. Late in 1943 Bayardelle was transferred to become governor general of French Equatorial Africa. His replacement was Raphaël Saller, who took office on 13 January 1944. Shortly after this, a commission was created to examine those civil servants and other collaborators who had remained loyal to Vichy France. In general, only their political allegiance during 1940/42 mattered, and Vichy French officials were permanently disbarred from public service. Saller was also moved at a later date to colonial service in French West Africa, and the next governor, Jean Chalvet, was replaced within a few weeks by Jean Beyries as acting governor. Djibouti began to return to normal in mid-1945 when a sufficient number of the native population who had fled to neighbouring countries had returned so that the port could operate again. Provisions were now arriving from Ethiopia, Madagascar and French North Africa, and the local infrastructure was was slowly revitalised.