Operation Invasion of British Somililand

The 'Invasion of British Somaliland' was part of the East African campaign of 1940/41) in which Italian, Eritrean and Somali forces of Italy entered British Somaliland and defeated its combined garrison of British, commonwealth and colonial forces supported by Somali irregulars (3/19 August 1940).

The Italian victory was based on mobility and speed but was hampered by the terrain, rainy weather and British resistance. In the 'Battle of Tug Argan' on 11/15 August, Italian attacks had the advantage of artillery and the outnumbered defenders were gradually worn down and slowly outflanked, until the remaining fortified hilltops were vulnerable to capture on a piecemeal basis. After the failure of a counterattack towards the Mirgo pass, the local commander, Major General A. R. Godwin-Austen, lacked the strength to retrieve the situation and to keep open an escape route at the same time, and was given permission to retreat toward Berbera, the main city. The British fought a rearguard action at Barkasan on 17 August and retreated after dark, but the evacuation which had been improvised proceeded better than had been expected and the second blocking position at Nasiyeh was not needed. The rainy weather continued to slow the Italian advance and when the airstrip near Berbera was found still to be garrisoned, a prospective Italian [e[coup-de-main assault was made impractical. The British defeat was controversial and the beginning of a deterioration in relations between General Sir Archibald Wavell, the theatre commander, his subordinates and Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, and led to Wavell’s supersession by General Sir Claude Auchinleck in July 1941.

On 9 May 1936 Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, proclaimed the establishment of Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa out of the colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, and Ethiopia, which the Italians had taken in the 2nd Italo-Ethiopian War of 3 October 1935 to 5 May 1936. On 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on France and the UK, thereby making the Italian forces in Africa a threat to British supply routes along the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Egypt and the Suez Canal were obvious targets, and an Italian invasion of French Somaliland (Djibouti) or British Somaliland was also feasible. Mussolini also looked forward to propaganda triumphs in Sudan and British East Africa (Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda). The Italian general staff had based its strategic calculations on an assumption that there would be no war until 1942, however, and the Regio Esercito and Regia Aeronautica were unprepared for a long war or the occupation of large parts of Africa.

The Kingdom of Egypt included Sudan as a condominium between Egypt and the UK. The British had based military forces in Egypt since 1882, but these had been greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which allowed British military forces to occupy Egypt only in defence of the Suez Canal. The small British and commonwealth forces in the theatre garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route, which was vital to the UK’s communications with its Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories as well as Australasia. In the middle of 1939, Wavell was appointed to head the new Middle East Command with responsibility for the Mediterranean and Middle East. Until the Franco-Italian Armistice of Villa Incisa, the Italian 5a Armata in Tripolitania (western Libya) faced the French army in Tunisia and the Italian 10a Armata in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) confronted the British in Egypt.

The Italian army had about 215,000 men in Libya, and in Egypt the British had about 36,000 troops, with another 27,500 training in Palestine. Wavell had about 86,000 troops at his disposal for Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran and East Africa, and faced with frontiers guarded by only some eight men to the mile, concluded that a defensive strategy was the only feasible military policy available to him. Wavell therefore intended to mount delaying actions at the main posts and hope for the best. The British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, convened a conference in Khartoum at the end of October 1940 with Emperor Haile Selassie, the South African General Jan Smuts (Churchill’s adviser for the region), Wavell and the senior military commanders in East Africa, including Major General W. Platt and Major General A. G. Cunningham. An offensive strategy was decided for Ethiopia, including the use of Arbegnoch (patriot) resistance forces, by the conference. In November, the British and commonwealth forces gained an intelligence advantage, when the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park broke the high-grade cypher of the Italian army in East Africa. Later that month, the replacement cypher for the Regia Aeronautica was broken by the Combined Bureau, Middle East.

The British had fought the Somaliland Campaign (1900/1920) against Diiriye Guure and his Dervish state, to gain control over the territory. In 1910 the British garrison had been forced to retreat to the coast until the end of World War I, and it was only after four campaigns that Somali resistance came to an end in 1920 after three weeks of attacks by local troops, one battalion of the King’s African Rifles and the Royal Air Force. The colony had an area of about 68,000 sq miles (176120 km²), with a plain stretching inland as far as 60 miles (100 km) and bounded on its southern side by a mountain range possessing an average height of 4,000 ft (1220 m). There was little scope for agriculture and most of the 320,000 inhabitants lived off livestock herding. Berbera, the biggest town and port, was ringed by desert and scrubland: in the cold season it had a population of about 30,000, falling to some 15,000 in the summer months. The port was a first-class anchorage and was the principal entrepôt of the colony, despite having no port installations and making it unsuitable for an expeditionary force, since ships had to be unloaded by lighter, a method that required 10 days for the emptying of a 3,000-ton ship. Loading and unloading was impossible during the period from July to August, when the Kharif, a strong and hot wind, blows.

Général de Brigade Paul Louis Victor Marie Legentilhomme, in command of the British as well as the French forces in Somaliland since the outbreak of war, obstructed the enforcement of the Armistice of Villa Incisa and continued to co-operate with the British. On 27 July, the terms of the armistice relating to French Somaliland were discovered by the British to be the demilitarisation of the colony and free Italian access to the port od Djibouti and the French part of the Addis Ababa railway. When the governor, Hubert Deschamps, said that he would obey the instructions of the new Vichy French régime, Legentilhomme threatened to use force to prevent him. When the local Italian armistice commission tried to make contact, Legentilhomme assured Cairo that he would play for time but anticipated that the Italians would attack.

The 2/Black Watch was sent to Aden from Egypt by cruiser, ready to reinforce the French, as Legentilhomme feigned ignorance of the armistice terms. Legentilhomme also denied entry to the new Vichy French governor, General Gaëtan Germaine (25 July to 7 August). On 19 July, Legentilhomme was opposed in the governor’s council by the local air and navy commanders and, in order to avoid bloodshed, decided that those opposed to Vichy France should depart. Legentilhomme had run out of time and left for Aden on 5 August, leaving Germaine to sever relations with the British. Despite this, Italian apprehension about the possibility of the British using the colony as a bridgehead continued. Germaine was superseded by Pierre Nouailhetas as governor from 7 August: the new governor arrived from France on 2 September.

The Somaliland border was 750 miles (1205 km) long, and after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia all but the 45-mile (72.5-km) border with French Somaliland was contiguous with the new Italian colony. According to the Hornby Report of 1936, the War Office intended to offer no resistance to an invasion, and in the course of 1938 the governor, Arthur Lawrence, deplored such a defeatist policy and suggested that the colony could be demilitarised, or that the British could leave, or that the colony could be defended. According to the British military commander, Brigadier A. R. Chater of the Royal Marines, a small reinforcement would give the local garrison the means to resist an invasion of the colony for the 12 days in which a relief force could arrive from India, but the idea was rejected. In August 1939, the evacuation policy was revised in two forms: if the French succeeded in defending Djibouti, the British would withdraw toward them, and if the French were defeated, the British would retreat into the hills and wait on events. All of the defence arrangements were based on co-operation with Legentilhomme, who would command both forces in time of war.

During the period of the 'Phoney War', Wavell became reluctant for British forces to operate under French command unless the plan for withdrawal to Djibouti was implemented, which gave Chater more discretion, provided that he still co-operated with the French. Chater wished to garrison Hargeisa and Burao as locations in which delaying actions could be fought, and then retire toward the hill country. The main road into Somaliland from Djibouti was commanded by hills with six passes good enough for the passage of wheeled vehicles, and the British and the French agreed that they must be garrisoned to deny them to the Italians and to provide a base for debouching when an Allied counter-offensive began. In December 1939, the British had another change of mind, ordering that an invasion must be resisted and that Berbera must be held for as long as possible as a matter of imperial prestige. The commitments entered into with the French had led to them to go to the trouble and expense of fortifying their colony, but as a result of dissension between Legentilhomme and Paris and also within the British and French alliance, the passes at Jirreh and Dobo, parallel to the border, were left unfortified, despite the fact that the French had permission to base defences in the British colony.

In 1940, the 631 men of the Somaliland Camel Corps were based in five places in the colony, and a small police team was located in Berbera. The Somaliland Camel Corps had 29 motor vehicles, 122 horses and 244 camels, but possessed no heavy weapons. The corps' standard small arm was an obsolete Belgian 0.475-in (12.1-mm) calibre single-shot rifle, for which there were 1.4 million rounds of dubious quality, and it also possessed a few machine guns and anti-tank rifles. In February, the British government planned to send a 1,100-man reinforcement by the middle of May, but financial wrangling between the War Office and the Colonial Office delayed the arrival of the first infantry battalion until 15 May and the second until 12 July. The garrison of French Somaliland was asked to block the Jirreh and Dobo passes but the British strategy was to hope that French Somaliland was the more tempting target.

After the Armistice of Villa Incisa, the end of pro-British prevarication by Legentilhomme led to Chater’s receipt of orders to plan an evacuation if the colony became untenable. By August, the British garrison comprised the 1/Northern Rhodesia Regiment, the 2/King’s African Rifles from Nyasaland, the 1st East African Light Battery of four 3.7-in 94-mm) mountain guns from Kenya, the Sikhs of the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment and the 3/15th Punjab Regiment from the Colony of Aden, and the Somaliland Camel Corps, including 37 officer and non-commissioned officer reinforcements from the Southern Rhodesia Regiment. On 8 August, the 2/Black Watch arrived. These troops were a typically British motley of units with different customs and culinary arrangements, no proper base or headquarters, and short of artillery, transport and signalling equipment. Aircraft had to fly from Aden, while also busy with convoy patrols and air defence, Only two 3-in (76.2-mm) anti-aircraft guns of the 23rd Battery of the Royal Artillery’s Hong Kong and Singapore Brigade could be spared from Aden.

The British expected that Berbera would be the objective of any Italian invasion. The frontier with Ethiopia was too long to guard and there was no position from which to contest the approaches to the port through Zeila near French Somaliland, thence east along the coast road or through Hargeisa or via Burao. The inland mountains were passable by wheeled and tracked vehicles only on the Hargeisa and Burao roads, Hargeisa being the more direct route through a gap at Tug Argan and the Burao road through a defile known as the Sheikh pass. Once north of the hills, the coastal plain had no feature where a small force could prevent the advance of a larger force.

Chater held Tug Argan with two battalions and the mountain artillery, one battalion to guard the other two approaches and the other in reserve. When the 2/Black Watch arrived, it went into reserve and the 3/15th Punjab Regiment reinforced Tug Argan. The Somaliland Camel Corps formed a screen ahead of the main defences with the objects of observing and delay an invader, with patrols of the Somali Police Force (Illalo, an armed constabulary), which was commonly used as a frontier police force. In Aden, the RAF had No. 8 Squadron with Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers plus two Free French Martin Maryland twin-engined bombers), Nos 11, 39 and 45 Squadrons also with the Blenheim, No. 203 Squadron with Blenheim Mk IVF twin-engined long-range fighters, No. 94 Squadron with Gloster Gladiator single-engined biplane fighters, and No. 223 Squadron with Vickers Wellesley single-engined bombers. One Bristol Bombay twin-engined bomber/transport of No. 216 Squadron participated, and No. 84 Squadron ferried six Blenheim Mk IF fighters to Aden to replace losses on 15 August.

On the other side of the borders, the Italians remained suspicious of French intentions and, after Legentilhomme had been replaced by Germaine, became concerned about the possibility of a British invasion through Djibouti. Despite orders from Rome to be cautious, Prince Amedeo Duca d’Aosta, the governor general of Italian East Africa and the local commander-in-chief, wished to occupy Djibouti to forestall the British, with a simultaneous advance on Berbera to counter any British intervention. Aosta submitted the plan to Mussolini on 18 June and in August received authorisation to proceed with the invasion. While waiting, Aosta and his deputy, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi, completed an appreciation of the likely opposition and the Italian campaign objectives, and on 14 July predicted that the main battle would be fought in the Karim and Jerato passes where, should the defenders stand their ground, the Italians would be able to envelop their flanks. The Italian invasion force included five colonial brigades, three 'Blackshirt' battalions and five bande (units of local irregulars), one half-company of M11/39 medium tanks and one squadron of L3/35 tankettes, several armoured cars, 21 batteries of howitzers and pack artillery, and air support.

Generale di Corpo d’Armata Carlo de Simone, the commander of the Italian forces charged with the undertaking, issued instructions on 25 July, as commander of the main force, the Divisione di Harrar with 11 African infantry battalions in three brigades, the three 'Blackshirt' battalions' and the tanks and armoured cars. According to these instructions, the French and British were to be prevented from uniting and receiving reinforcements for an attack on the Harrar governorate bordering Djibouti, by defeating the garrison and occupying British Somaliland.As the Assa hills rose to an altitude of more than 4,500 ft (1370 m), parallel with the coast about 50 miles (80 km) inland, the Italians could consider three approaches to Berbera by tracked and wheeled and tracked vehicles. The direct route with the widest pass was via Hargeisa, and the Italian plan was for Generale di Corpo d’Armata Sisto Bertoldi’s western column to seal off French Somaliland with an advance to Zeila and then send light forces to the east along the coast road toward Berbera. Generale di Brigata Arthuro Bertello’s eastern column would move to Odweina and Burao in the south, cover the flank of the central column, and be prepared to link up with it if necessary. de Simone’s central column would establish bases at Hargeisa and Adalek, then carry the main weight of the attack through the Mirgo pass toward Berbera.

On 31 July, the 18o Squadriglie arrived at the Scelene airstrip near Dire Dawa with six Caproni Ca 133 three-engined bomber/transport aircraft. On 1 August, the Comando Tattico dell Settore Aeronautica Ovest (Western Air Sector Tactical Command) was created for the invasion of British Somaliland under the command of Generale di Brigata Renato Collalti, and ihitally had under its command 27 bombers, 23 fighters and seven reconnaissance aircraft. During the afternoon of 1 August, flights of three Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 three-engined bombers attacked shipping off Zeila as two waves of six Blenheim Mk I bombers of Nos 8 and 39 squadrons, escorted by two of No. 203 Squadron’s Blenheim Mk IVF fighters, bombed the Italian airfield at Chinele, which had been discovered that morning. The Blenheim bombers descended to 10,000 ft (3050 m) through anti-aircraft fire as Fiat CR.42 single-engined biplane fighters of the 410a Squadriglia scrambled from Dire Dawa, some 8 miles (13 km) away, and attacked the Blenheim Mk IVF warplanes. As the second wave of six Blenheim aircraft arrived, Capitano Corrado Ricci, commander of the 410a Squadriglia, took off in his Fiat CR.32 single-engined biplane and shot down one of the British aircraft. As the Blenheim machines flew over Zeila on their way back toward their base, the crews spotted a flight of SM.81 bombers attacking the port. Three of the Blenheim machines broke formation and shot down one of the Italian bombers. On the morning of 2 August, No. 39 Squadron raided Chinele airfield again and were intercepted by CR.42 fighters of the 413a Squadriglia, and the CR.42 of the Italian squadron’s commanding officer, Capitano Corrado Santoro, was hit in the engine and force landed.

On 3 August 1940, British aerial reconnaissance discovered that about 400 Italians had crossed the frontier at Biyad. Nasi communicated with de Simone by radio and liaison aircraft. The central column crossed the frontier and made for Hargeisa and Tug Argan in the Assa hills as the western column advanced on Zeila and the eastern column struck to the east toward Odweina, to deceive the defenders and exploit opportunities. Early on 4 August the central column advanced toward Hargeisa, observed by the Somaliland Camel Corps, which skirmished with the column in an effort to delay it. During the afternoon, three SM.81 bombers attacked Berbera and a Gladiator fighter of No. 94 Squadron attacked one of the 15a Squadriglia's aircraft which reached Jijiga with one member of its crew dead and two wounded. On 4 August, two Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 three-engined bombers of the 44o Gruppo arrived at Dire Dawa and two of No. 94 Squadron’s Gladiator fighters at Berbera were transferred to Laferug farther to the south and closer to Tug Argan: both airstrips were defended only by small arms. There were two 3-in (76.2-mm) anti-aircraft guns at Berbera, but these were reserved for the defence of the port. During the night, No. 216 Squadron one Bombay from Aden to bomb Dire Dawa, but a lightning storm forced the crew to divert to Zula.

On 5 August as the Italian invasion force occupied Hargeisa, covered by IMAM Ro 37bis single-engine biplane reconnaissance and close support aircraft of the 110a Squadriglia and attacks by SM.79 bombers on Zeila, Berbera and Aden after the arrival of two more SM.79 warplanes from Addis Ababa and three Ca 133 warplanes from Doghabur. Flights of three Blenheim aircraft of No. 8 Squadron made three attacks on Italian motor columns to the west of Hargeisa, one Blenheim being shot down by a CR.32 of the 410a Squadriglia. The Italian eastern column, comprising mainly bande, reached Odweina on 6 August and then headed to the north-west in the direction of Adadle, a village on the Tug Argan, instead of toward Burao. The Somaliland Camel Corps and small patrols of Illalo, a small force of local levies normally employed on police duties, undertook a delaying action as the other British-led forces retreated toward Tug Argan. At 01.00, 12 light tanks advanced in line: three were hit and knocked out by Boys anti-tank rifle fire from the Somaliland Camel Corps and the company of the 1/Northern Rhodesia Regiment defending the hill station. On 6 August Blenheim bombers of Nos 8 and 39 squadrons continued to fly reconnaissance sorties and to attack the Italian columns. A Blenheim of No. 8 Squadron was damaged in 12 attacks by CR.42 fighters; the Italian pilots claimed one bomber shot down and oner probable. With Hargeisa captured, two CR.32 and two CR.42 fighters arrived from Dire Dawa on 7 August and began to fly patrols. To the south, Ca 133 bombers flew sorties over the front.

The Italians paused at Hargeisa for two days to reorganise and then resumed their advance through the Karim pass toward the Tug Argan in the Assa hills. Aosta urged haste but Nasi refused to rush because the road was deteriorating under the impact heavy traffic and rain. The Italian advance resumed on 8 August and for two days closed up to the British defences as the Italians made preparations to attack. The defenders reported the presence of Italian medium tanks and the captain of the Australian cruiser Hobart donated the ship’s 3-pdr Hotchkiss saluting gun, a three-man crew and 30 rounds of ammunition. The two Gladiator fighters at Berbera were caught on the ground at 06.00 by three Italian fighters, one being burned out and the other damaged. When the news reached Laferug, the other two Gladiator fighters were ordered back to Aden. Blenheim Mk IVF fighters of No. 203 Squadron from Aden patrolled Berbera as a substitute, but two SM.79 warplanes bombed the port. At about 12.00, one Blenheim attacked three more SM.79 machines as they bombed Berbera, damaging one and killing one of its crew. Three SM.81 aircraft had attacked the Godojere pass in the morning and three Ca 133 aircraft bombed the Kerim pass. The Ro.37bis continued to fly reconnaissance sorties, and the fighter patrols were maintained. One CR.32 and one CR.42 were damaged in landing accidents at Hargeisa.

In the north, Bertoldi’s column captured Zeila, about 150 miles (240 km) to the north-west of Berbera, cutting communications with French Somaliland and then began a slow advance to the south-east along the coast road under intermittent air attack from Aden and bombardment from the sea: the destroyer Kimberley, sloop Auckland and the light cruisers Carlisle, Ceres and Australian Hobart were involved in the shore bombardments. Hobart was attacked by three Italian fighters and sent its Supermarine Walrus single-engined biplane flying boat to attack an Italian headquarters at Zeila, the Walrus’s crew strafing Italian vehicles and dropping two 112-lb (51-kg) bombs. The Italian advance had driven back the Somaliland Camel Corps' rearguards as far as the village of Bulhar by 17 August. Just before he departed Cairo for talks in London, reports of the size of the invasion force led Wavell to order the redeployment of most of a field artillery regiment and two anti-tank guns of Major General N. M. de la P. Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division from Egypt to Somaliland by special convoy. The Indian Army was asked to organise the first echelon of Major General A. G. O. M. Mayne’s Indian 5th Division for one infantry battalion, one field battery and one field company to be disembarked at Berbera. The order was also given for the movement of the anti-aircraft guns at Port Said to Somaliland, but this decision was quietly countermanded two days later. Godwin-Austen was appointed to command the enlarged force, with orders to defend the Tug Argan gap, defeat the Italian invasion and plan secretly to evacuate the defenders should this become necessary. Godwin-Austen reached Berbera on 11 July and assumed command that evening, but the reinforcements were too late and were diverted to Sudan.

On 7/8 August, the defence had been rein forced by the arrival of the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment and the 2/Black Watch. By 10 August, de Simone’s column had closed on the British positions behind the Tug Argan gap and readied the Italian attack. The road from Hargeisa turns north through the Kerim pass to Tug Argan and then to the east between the Assa hills to the south, hills and dry river beds to the north. The pass is a flat and stony expanse with occasional thorn bushes, tugs (dry river begs) and a few rocky hills about 2,000 to 2,500 yards (1830 to 2285 m) apart, named Black, Knobbly, Mill and Observation hills by the defenders, with Castle Hill 2 miles (3.2 km) to the east of Mill Hill. The positions had been fortified with machine gun posts and a modest quantity of barbed wire. Impossible to bypass, the defences provide good fields of observation, but with so little artillery, this notional advantage was dubious. The defenders were too few in number to cover the gap and the hills were far enough apart for an attacker to pass between them: only Castle Hill lay behind the other fortified hill tops, providing little scope for defence in depth. There were several camel tracks through the Mirgo pass 8 miles (13 km) from Black Hill and the Jerato pass in the Assa Hills, which gave the Italian forces further opportunity for the exploitation of their numerical superiority.

During the morning of 9 August, three Italian fighters strafed the airfield at Berbera but found only a damaged Blenheim. The Italian aircraft were engaged by the fire of the base’s personnel, and Hobart in the harbour joined in with her pom-pom guns. The Gladiator damaged the day before was dismantled and taken to Aden. On 10 August the Italian northern column reached Zeila despite naval bombardments and bombing from aircraft operating from Aden, and the column was eventually stopped by damage to its vehicles' tyres caused by the rough ground.

The small Australian party from Hobart, with its Hotchkiss gun, arrived at dawn on 10 August, but the gun had to be dismantled to load, which reduced its rate of fire to one round every five minutes, and its ammunition totalled only 32 high explosive and 32 solid shot rounds. The battle for Tug Argan began, and another two CR.32 and one CR.42 fighters were sent from Dire Dawa to Hargeisa along with a Ca 133 of thre 53a Squadriglia, and five SM.79 bombers were transferred from Addis Ababa Dire Dawa. Early in the morning, No. 8 Squadron despatched three Blenheim bombers to attack Italian troops at Tug Argan, one of the British aircraft being damaged by a CR.42 fighter. In the afternoon another three Blenheim bombers attacked the village of Dubato: two of the Blenheim aircraft collided on the return journey and crashed in flames. On 11 August a morning attack was made by six Ca 133 and three SM.81 bombers on the Godojere pass, one SM.81 being shot down by ground fire. Three CR.42 fighters strafed Laferug and one SM.79 bombed the airstrip after this. One Blenheim was claimed shot down by Italian troops, but no loss appeared in British records.

On 11 August, the Italians shelled and then attacked the western end of the Assa hills at Punjab Ridge with a brigade of infantry, drove back the defending company of the 3/15th Punjab Regiment, then repulsed a counterattack. Italian attacks on Mill and Knobbly Hills failed. At dawn two Blenheim bombers of Nos 11 and 39 Squadrons from Aden attacked the Italian artillery around Darboruk in the face of anti-aircraft fire, then the aeroplane of No. 11 Squadron was bounced by a CR.42 and damaged while the crew were trying to drop a message for the British troops. The aeroplane of No. 39 Squadron was also attacked and made an emergency landing at Berbera. About two hours later three Blenheim bombers of No. 39 Squadron arrived to repeat the attack, and the formation leader was attacked by a CR.32 of the [e[410a Squadriglia: the pilot of the third Blenheim saw the attack, jettisoned his bombs and attacked the Italian fighter, which made a head-on attack, wounding the Blenheim pilot and killed the observer. The pilot managed to reach Berbera and crash land; the Italian pilot was also wounded. During the attack, a Blenheim Mk IVF of No. 203 Squadron patrolled Berbera and tried to intercept three SM.79 bombers but broke off the pursuit when a hit in the cockpit wounded the pilot and navigator. Italian aircraft provided ground support all day, six Ca 133 aircraft bombing Mandera and Laferug.

On 12 August, all the British positions were attacked simultaneously and by the evening Mill Hill, the least fortified of the positions, had been captured after a determined resistance by troops of the 1/Northern Rhodesian Regiment. Two of the 1st East African Light Battery’s howitzers were lost and the Italians had established themselves in the Assa hills, dominating the southern side of the gap. On 13 August, the defenders of Knobbly Hill defeated another attack but the Italians infiltrated Mirgo pass past the defended localities and ambushed a water and ammunition convoy, which managed to fight its way through to Castle Hill. On 13 August the aircraft of the Comando Tattico dell Settore Aeronautica Ovest concentrated on the area to the east of Adadleh: the Jerato pass was bombed by Ca 133 aircraft and the crashed Blenheim machines at Berbera were strafed twice by CR.32 fighters, one on the second attack being hit by small arms fire and landing inside British-held territory. Another three SM.81 bombers were transferred to Dire Dawa from Shashamane, to the south of Addis Ababa. Italian outflanking moves at Tug Argan led the British to begin a withdrawal to Berbera. Eleven of No. 223 Squadron’s Wellesley warplanes were sent to reinforce the RAF at Aden.

On 14 August, Castle Hill and Observation Hill were bombed and bombarded by artillery, but an attack on Observation Hill failed. Mussolini signalled to Aosta 'Pour all available reserves into Somaliland to stimulate the operation. Order the entire Imperial air force to co-operate.'

Italian troops of the western column reported air attacks at Zeila and on a column advancing along the coast road toward Berbera, one bomber being claimed shot down and no losses appearing in RAF records. SM.79 bombers attacked shipping off Bulhar, three SM.81 and three Ca 133 bombers attacked a fort near the Godojere pass and retreating troops on the nearly road to Berbera, and three CR.32 fighters attacked road transport at Laferug, Mandera and the tracks to Berbera.

At Tug Argan a counterattack toward the Mirgo pass by two companies of the 2/King’s African Rifles had some success before it was forced back by Italian attacks. The Italians were close to positions from which they could isolate the defenders from their sole line of supply. The Italian advantage in artillery meant that the defended localities could be picked off piecemeal. After four days, the defenders were tiring and there was no better position to which to retreat. An attempt to hold Berbera alone would be pointless. Godwin-Austen informed Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, commander of the British Troops in Egypt, of the situation and concluded that further resistance at Tug Argan would be futile and likely to result in the loss of the entire force. Wavell had been called to London and arrived on 7 August but Wilson kept him informed of events, signalling to London his decision to order the evacuation of the colony with a few minutes. Wavell told Churchill, who said that it could not be helped, then Wavell left to return to Cairo. Withdrawal would result in an estimated 70% of the force being saved, but if necessary the defenders would fight on. When it was clear that the attack toward the Mirgo pass had failed, sufficient troops were left either to retrieve the situation or to cover a withdrawal. Early on 15 August, Godwin-Austen signalled his conclusions to Wilson, who ordered a withdrawal from Somaliland. Godwin-Austin planned a slow retirement to Barkasan, about 33 miles (53 km) from Berbera, then to Nasiyeh, 17 miles (27 km) from the port. Over three nights, civilians then troops would be embarked, the time taken being determined by the monsoon, which usually made it difficult to reach ships by boat at night and before 12.00.

On 15 August, bombers of the Comando Tattico dell Settore Aeronautica Ovest continued to fly sorties in support of the army. Three Ca 133 aircraft bombed the area round Laferug and three SM.79 aircraft bombed troops around Berbera. Six Blenheim Mk I bombers flew from Iraq to reinforce the RAF at Aden, and on passing Kamaran island an SM.81 flew underneath the formation, from which the Blenheim aircraft dived on the bomber and three achieved firing positions, shooting it down. On landing the crews handed over their aircraft and returned to Iraq in Bombay transports on the next day. After a long bombardment, the Italians overran Observation Hill and during the night the 1/Northern Rhodesia Regiment retreated from Black, Knobbly and Castle Hills. The 2/Black Watch, two companies of the 2/King’s African Rifles and elements of the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment formed a rearguard at Barkasan on the Berbera road, about 10 miles (16 km) behind Tug Argan, and other troops moved back to Nasiyeh.

The Comando Tattico dell Settore Aeronautica Ovest concentrated its operations against the port, and in a dawn attack two SM.81 bombers attacked ships in the harbour and were damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Two SM.79 aircraft bombed at 12.00, and one was also damaged by anti-aircraft fire. The third Italian raid, by three SM.79 bombers, met two Maryland aircraft of the Free French flight in No. 8 Squadron, which were patrolling Berbera, and one Maryland pilot claimed one SM.79 shot down; this was not confirmed but soon crashed in flames. The Comando Tattico dell Settore Aeronautica Ovest at Dire Dawa was reinforced by two SM.79 bombers of the 44o Gruppo and three CR.32 fighters of the 411a Squadriglia at Addis Ababa, and three SM.81 bombers from Shashamanna.

The British retirement was followed cautiously by the Italians, who attacked the defenders at Barkasan on 17 August. The 2/Black Watch made several counterattacks and repulsed the Italian forces, but it was only a matter of time before the defences were outflanked. The evacuation at Berbera went more smoothly than expected, and Godwin-Austen was able to withdraw the rearguard at Nasiyeh and, once night had fallen, extract the rearguard from Barkasan. Five Blenheim aircraft bombed the captured landing ground at Hargeisa, and five Ca 133 bombers escorted by two CR.32 fighters bombed the British residency at Sheikh. A Blenheim of No. 39 Squadron on a reconnaissance sortie was hit by ground fire and came down in the sea, the crew being rescued by the light cruiser Ceres. As the Italian invasion neared completion, three SM.81 bombers of the 4o Gruppo returned to Shashamanna, two of the SM.79 bombers of the 44o Gruppo went back to Addis Ababa, and three more SM.79 aircraft of the 10a Squadriglia of the 28o Gruppo arrived from Gura in Eritrea after the 10a Squadriglia had exchanged it SM.81 aircraft from reinforcements of SM.79 aircraft flown from Libya. In Aden No. 39 Squadron gave up two Blenheim aircraft to No. 11 Squadron so that each had five operational bombers.

Men of the Royal Navy had built an all-tide jetty and had begun the evacuation of civilian and administrative officials. On 16 August, the British started to embark troops. Attacks by Italian aircraft on the British vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Berbera had begun on 8 August to little effect: Hobart was slightly damaged in two attacks and the auxiliary boarding vessel Chakdina suffered splinter damage. On 17 August, the Italian western column at Bulhar, about 40 miles (65 km) to the west of Berbera, was engaged by the light cruiser Ceres and halted by her gunfire. After dark, the rearguard was withdrawn to Berbera with minimal losses, and loading had been completed by the early hours of 18 August. At 05.35 on 18 August, three Blenheim bombers of No. 11 Squadron attacked Italian vehicles near Laferug and were intercepted by two CR.32 fighters of the 410a Squadriglia, which shot down one Blenheim in flames: the crew took to their parachutes, but two of the men died in hospital of burns. Soon after the Blenheim bombers had taken off, five Wellesley bombers of No. 223 Squadron flew from Perim island and bombed Addis Ababa airfield in bad weather. One CR.42 managed to damage four of the Wellesley aircraft, whose crews claimed two hangars destroyed and two others damaged, four SM.79 aircraft destroyed and two damaged, and Aosta’s runabout destroyed. Italian records show one SM.79, one Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 three-engined transport and three Ca 133 aircraft destroyed, and one SM.79 and one SM.81 damaged. Two attacks on Berbera were made by SM.79 bombers during the morning and three SM.79 bombers, escorted by two CR.42 fighters, attacked soon after 12.00, the fighters driving off a Blenheim fighter. Italian troops overcame the second British defensive position before Berbera.

Before departing for Aden early on 19 August, Hobart, with the British force headquarters aboard, remained to collect stragglers and complete the destruction of buildings, vehicles, fuel and stores. The tug Queen was the only British ship lost in the operation, scuttled by her crew on 18 August: the Italians recovered the vessel and renamed her Stella d’Italia, this armed tug becoming the only Italian naval vessel to the south of Bab el Mandeb. The Royal Navy embarked 7,140 persons (5,690 of them front-line troops), 1,266 civilians and 184 sick. Most of the Somalis of the Somaliland Camel Corps were sent home to await the British return, earlier plans for them to fight a guerrilla war having been scrapped. The men of the Somaliland Cam el Corps were evacuated became an armoured car unit under the same title. There was little Italian interference with the evacuation, perhaps because on 15 August Aosta had ordered Nasi to allow the British to evacuate without too much fighting, in the hope of a peace agreement being mediated through the Vatican. The last Comando Tattico dell Settore Aeronautica Ovest raid was flown against Berbera by three SM.79 bombers, and soon after this British aircraft from Aden attacked Italian troops as they occupied the town that evening. Much of Berbera was on fire and the wreckage of four British aircraft were found on the airfield. Mussolini then annexed the colony to Africa Orientale Italiana.

In their campaign, the Italian forces had shown the ability to co-ordinate columns separated by many miles of desert, and the forces under British command had kept their discipline during the retreat and preserved most of their men. British Somaliland was annexed to Italian East Africa and Mussolini boasted that Italy had conquered a territory the size of England in the form of British Somaliland, the border outposts of Karora, Gallabat, Kurmak and Kassala in Sudan, and Moyale and Buna in Kenya. News of the evacuation came as a shock to British public opinion but Wavell backed Godwin-Austen, saying that he had judged the situation correctly. The British had to immobilise and abandon 350 vehicles and most of their stores as these could not be readily transferred by barge and lighter to ships offshore.

Between 5 and 19 August the RAF forces based at Aden flew 184 sorties and dropped 60 tons of bombs. Between 16 and 19 August, the RAF flew 12 reconnaissance sorties, 19 bomber-reconnaissance sorties, 72 bomber sorties against Italian troops and transport, and 36 fighter sorties over Berbera. The British learned that inadequately defended airstrips could quickly be rendered untenable, leaving bombers flying from Aden unprotected against air attack. Despite the land campaign, a convoy sailed the Red Sea early in August and another convoy began the voyage on 19 August escorted by Wellesley aircraft of No. 14 Squadron as the Blenheim Mk IVF fighters were busy over Berbera. After the British evacuation, both sides dispersed aircraft sent to reinforce the local units, and the Comando Tattico dell Settore Aeronautica Ovest was disbanded on 26 August.

Churchill criticised Wavell for the loss of British Somaliland: as there had been few casualties, Churchill thought that the colony had not been defended vigorously, and proposed a court of enquiry. Wavell refused to co-operate and said that Godwin-Austen and Wilson had conducted a textbook withdrawal in the face of superior numbers. Wavell sent a telegram to Churchill which included the passage 'a big butcher’s bill was not necessarily evidence of good tactics'. Churchill was said by General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to have been moved to 'greater anger than he had ever seen him in before', and the incident was the beginning of the end for Wavell, who was superseded by Auchinleck in July 1941.

Given the paucity of the British forces in the colony, it had rightly been claimed that the defenders had done well to resist for as long as they had. The defence of British Somaliland took place during the 'Battle of Britain' and the defeat could not be portrayed in heroic terms. Churchill was wrong to condemn Wavell and his subordinates but as the minister of defence as well as prime minister, he could dictate consequences to defeated generals. Adolf Hitler called the evacuation of the colony a 'hard blow' but 'all the British had lost was the privilege of maintaining an expensive garrison in their least valuable colony'.

The capture of British Somaliland was the greatest Italian success of the East African campaign, but the Italians had not been able to exploit the opportunities that they had created. Delays caused by the terrain, weather and the cancellation of a coup-de-main by 300 Italian infantrymen on the port had enabled the British to get away, despite the improvised nature of the embarkation.

The British official historian wrote in 1956 that the British suffered 260 casualties and estimated Italian losses of 2,052 men. Seven British aircraft had been shot down and 10 badly damaged in the 14 days of the campaign. The Italian official historian wrote in 1988 that the Italians suffered the loss of 465 men killed, 1,530 wounded and 34 missing, a total of 2,029 men, of whom 161 were Italian and 1,868 were in local Eritrean and Somali Ascari units of the Regio Corpo di Truppe Coloniali. Somali irregulars supporting the British suffered about another 2,000 casualties during the invasion and occupation, and about 1,000 Somali irregulars became casualties fighting on the Italian side.

On 16 March 1941, the British executed their 'Appearance' operation from Aden: the two Sikh battalions which had been part of the defence force in August 1940 and a Somali commando detachment landed to each side of Berbera from transports escorted by Glasgow, Caledon, Kandahar and Kingston. The landing by the Sikhs was the first successful Allied amphibious assault on an occupied beach in World War II. Few men of the Italian 70a Brigata coloniale offered resistance. Repairs began on the port and supplies for Major General H. E. de R. Wetherall’s 11th (African) Division were passing through within a week, reducing the road transport distance by 500 miles (805 km). The British re-captured the whole of British Somaliland and on 8 April, Chater was appointed the colony’s military governor.