Operation Marie

This was a British and Free French unrealised plan for the seizure of French Somaliland (1941).

More formally known as the Côte Française des Somalis and administered from Djibouti, French Somaliland lay between Italian Eritrea and British Somaliland opposite Aden, and in World War II was the scene of only minor skirmishing, principally in June and July 1940. After the fall of France on 25 June 1940, the colony was briefly in limbo until a governor loyal to the Vichy French government was installed on 25 July. This was Gaëtan Louis Élie Germain, who was succeeded on 7 August of the same year by Pierre Marie Élie Louis Nouailhetas. French Somaliland was the last French possession in Africa to remain loyal to Vichy France, surrendering to Free French forces only on 26 December 1942.

Nouailhetas governed the territory through most of the Vichy period and, in response to aerial bombardment by the British, instituted a brutal reign of terror against both the European and local populations, and was eventually recalled and forced to retire, being succeeded on 21 October 1942 by Auguste Charles Jules Truffert. From September 1940, the colony was blockaded by the British, and many of its inhabitants fled to neighbouring British Somaliland.

After the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and responding to Italian irredentism over the French possessions of Corsica and Nice and the colony of Tunisia, the French government increased the defence of French Somaliland. In January 1938 an Italian force moved down onto the plain of Hanlé in French territory and encamped there, claiming that this territory lay on the Abyssinian side of the border as defined in the Franco-Abyssinian treaty of 1897. The French minister for the colonies, Georges Mandel, and the commander-in-chief at Djibouti, Général de Brigade Paul Louis Victor Marie Legentilhomme, responded by strengthening the colony’s defences to a troop strength of 15,000 men and establishing posts at Afambo, Moussa Ali and even on the other side of the Italians. The landward fortifications were upgraded extensively into concrete positions. On 30 November, after anti-French protests in Rome, the Italian foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, demanded the cession of French Somaliland to Italy, and on 18 December there was a counter-protest in Djibouti, in which the majority of the adult male population was involved.

As the start of World War II approached, Fauque de Jonquières, a battalion commander, was in charge of the local intelligence element of the Section d'Études Militaires, and after the Italian conquest of Abyssinia provided money, weapons and advisers to the Abyssinian resistance as well as organising propaganda and providing a safe refuge to Abyssinian resistance personnel; a French reserve officer, P. R. Monnier, was killed on a secret mission in Abyssinia during November 1939.

Despite the fact that French Somaliland and British Somaliland had a common frontier, and both were surrounded by Italian East Africa, no Anglo-French joint military planning took place until a meeting in Aden during June 1939, followed in January 1940 by a second conference, this time in Djibouti. There it was resolved to form an Abyssinian Legion in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, but not to use it without an Italian declaration of war.

The Italian declaration of war on France and the UK took place on 10 June 1940, and on the following day Legentilhomme was named commander of the Allied forces in the so-called Somaliland theatre. As they were outnumbered by about 40,000 to 9,000 along the Somaliland frontier, the Allies planned no offensive actions, but intended to pin down the Italians while the Abyssinians undertook a revolt.

There was some skirmishing with the Italians over the railway at Ali Sabieh, and on 17 June a number of Italian Meridionali Ro.37bis warplanes undertook a reconnaissance of Djibouti, noting five or six warships in the port and about 20 aircraft on a nearby airfield. On 21 June 11 Caproni Ca.133 bombers attacked Djibouti in the largest raid yet: the French anti-aircraft fire was intense and two Italian aircraft failed to return, but the Italian attack started fires and caused 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 CR.42 and one CR.32 aircraft strafed the airfield there. Some French Potez 25TOE reconnaissance aircraft bombed Italian installations at Dewele in retaliation.

Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle’s appeal of 18 June for French officers and soldiers to ignore the impending Franco-Italian armistice was itself ignored by most officers in French Somaliland, only Legentilhomme declaring himself in favour of siding with de Gaulle and the 'Fighting France' movement. On 25 June the armistice of Villa Incisa came into effect, ending the war between Italy and France. Although it ordained the complete demilitarisation of Somaliland, Legentilhomme procrastinated in implementing the terms of the armistice on the grounds that he had lost contact with the government in France and on 28 June, when the Italians demanded that he fulfil certain clauses, denied all knowledge of any 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. When, on 10 July, the new Vichy French government learned that the armistice was not yet put into effect in French Somaliland, President Philippe Pétain sent General Gaëtan Germain as his personal representative to rectify the situation, and he reached Asmara on 14 July. On 19 July all but Legentilhomme of the administrative council voted to remain loyal to the Vichy French government. Germain then negotiated the resignation of Legentilhomme and convinced the Italian armistice control commission which was currently being establish that it was both inadvisable and impractical to demilitarise French Somaliland, in which some 8,000 soldiers with modest numbers of light tanks and warplanes thus remained. The French troops in British Somaliland were withdrawn.

On 23 July Germain succeeded Legentilhomme as commander of the local French forces and, on the same day, also took over as governor from Hubert Jules Deschamps as the latter had refused to expel the British consul, with whom he had reached an agreement to supply the colony with food. Germain entered Djibouti on 25 July. On 2 August Legentilhomme and two officers refused the offer of repatriation by Italian aeroplane and defected to the British, and the Italian chief-of-staff, Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio ordered him to be shot should he fell into Italian hands, in accordance with paragraph 14 of the armistice convention which defined those leaving French territory to fight against Italy as illegal combatants.

During the period of uncertainty in Djibouti, the Italian viceroy of East Africa, Principe Amedeo, Duca d’Aosta, urged an attack on British Somaliland in order to cut off the French colony from British support. Benito Mussolini approved the campaign on 19 July, but the situation in Djibouti changed rapidly in Italy’s favour after that. Nonetheless, in August Italy conquered British Somaliland in a swift assault. The French colony was now wholly surrounded on land by Italian possessions. Vichy France managed to continue supplying the colony by submarine from Madagascar, and maintained direct contact by air through flights from France via Greece.

In September 1940, the Royal Navy established a blockade of French Somaliland with ships based at Aden. Pétain replaced Germain as governor with Nouailhetas, a naval officer, in the same month. On 25 September the British bombed Djibouti, prompting Nouailhetas to institute a brutal reign of terror: Europeans suspected of contact with the British were interned at Obock, while 45 others were condemned to death or forced labour, mostly 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 at Vichy France, however, and in September 1942 Nouailhetas was recalled and forced to retire without a pension, being replaced on 21 October by Auguste Charles Jules Truffert, himself succeeded on 4 December by Christian Raimond Dupont.

de Gaulle and Legentilhomme were convinced that the colony and its administration had by this time turned against the Vichy French regime and proposed an invasion. This ‘Marie’ was vigorously opposed by General Sir Archibald Wavell and Général d’Armée Georges Albert Julien Catroux, the British and French commanders-in-chief in the Middle East, who averred that there could be strong opposition leading to a prolonged campaign in what was currently not a trouble spot; it was then decided to attempt a propaganda campaign in the colony with a view to persuading it to join the Allied cause, and when this in turn proved unsuccessful the British and Free French sent an ultimatum to surrender or starve.

The Free French, under Legentilhomme, had meanwhile established themselves near the French Somali border and began disseminating pro-Gaullist propaganda, seeking to justify the British 'Catapult' naval attack on Mers el Kébir, the 'Menace' attack on Dakar and the seizure of Syria and Lebanon. There were even competing newspapers: the Free French published Djibouti Libre (Free Djibouti) and smuggled it into the colony, while the Vichy authorities published the official Djibouti Français (French Djibouti).

On 24 March 1941, in an attempt to prevent an Italian withdrawal from occupied British Somaliland, the British bombed a section of the railway line linking Djibouti and Addis Ababa, and met heavy French anti-aircraft fire. In April 1941, after the Italian loss of Addis Ababa, the British tried to negotiate with Nouailhetas for permission to transport Italian prisoners of war along the railway line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, and them their evacuation through Djibouti’s port. On 1 May Nouailhetas telegraphed Aden to inform the British that he had received permission from Vichy to negotiate. On 8 May Lieutenant General A. G. Cunningham, the British commander of the East Africa Force, responded with his own proposals but no commitments. On 8 June Wavell promised the lifting of the blockade and one month of provisions if the colony declared for de Gaulle, and added that, should Nouailhetas refuse, the blockade would be tightened. Leaflets were dropped from the air to inform the inhabitants of French Somaliland of the British terms. Nouailhetas wrote to Aden on 15 June about the high rate of infant mortality as a result of malnutrition, but nonetheless rejected the British terms.

The British continued to consider but reject an invasion of French Somaliland because they could not spare the troops and did not wish to offend the local French, whom they hoped would join Free France. The 2nd Tanganyika Battalion of the King’s African Rifles was currently deployed along the routes from Zeila to Loyada and from Ayesha to Dewele.

After the end of the war, de Gaulle alleged that the UK had intended to bring French Somaliland into its sphere of influence, and that this explains the British reluctance to use force to liberate a territory that would of necessity been surrendered to their forces at the end of the war. There is no evidence to support this allegation.

When negotiations resumed later in the summer, the British offered to evacuate the garrison and European civilians to another French colony upon French Somaliland’s surrender. Nouailhetas told 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 at Djibouti, and on 11 December a British Curtoss Mohawk fighter and a French Potez 631 exchanged shots over the British airfield at Ayesha.

After the failure of negotiations and the defeat of the Italian forces in the field in May (with the exception of Generale d’Armata Guglielmo Nasi’s forces at Gondar), the Vichy French colony was totally surrounded by British forces. Such was the efficiency of the blockade that all horses, donkeys and camels were eaten, as well as all fresh fruits and vegetables. Beri-beri and scurvy spread, and many people left towns for the desert, leaving their children to be cared for by the Catholic missions.

Only a few Arab dhows managed to run the blockade from Djibouti to Obock, and just two French ships from Madagascar managed to run it. The Japanese entry to the war in December 1941 gave the colony some respite as the British were forced to draw ships from the blockade for service in the Far East.

By land British troops ringed the colony, and at sea British warships stopped food ships: the result was a slow starvation and disease for the colony’s 45,000 natives, 3,000 soldiers, and 150 white women and children. The blockade was then abandoned in March 1942 as being morally wrong. Even so, Nouailhetas refused to admit Free French doctors waiting just across the Abyssinian border with food, medicine and wine, and also an offer to evacuate Djibouti’s civilian population. At the same time, the dhow trade increased, and the British eased the land blockade.

There were a few defections from French Somaliland during 1941. Some 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 British commander in East Africa, Lieutenant General W. Platt, gave the codename 'Pentagon' to the negotiations for the surrender of French Somaliland as five parties were involved: he himself, the Vichy French governor, the Free French, the British minister at Addis Ababa (Robert Howe), and the USA.

Only after the 'Streamline' and 'Jane' operations which led to the final defeat of the Vichy French forces in Madagascar, and the 'Torch' operation in which US and British forces landed in French North-West Africa, did one-third of the Somali garrison, the 1/Tirailleurs Sénégalais under Colonel Sylvain Eugène Raynal, defect across the border into British Somaliland. This prompted the new governor, Dupont, to offer the British an economic agreement without surrender, but this 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, and learning of the German ‘Attila’ occupation of Vichy France, Dupont surrendered and Raynal’s troops crossed back into French Somaliland on 26 December 1942, completing its liberation: the official handover took place at 22.00 on 28 December.

The first governor appointed under the Free French was Ange Marie André Bayardelle, 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 of French Equatorial Africa, and was replaced on 13 January 1944 by Michel Raphaël Antoine Saller. Soon after Saller assumed office, a commission was created to examine the civil servants and other collaborators who had remained loyal to Vichy France. In general, only the political allegiance of these men in the period from 1940 to 1942 was considered, and the Vichy French adherents were dismissed from public service in perpetuity.

On 1 May Saller started on a long colonial service posting to French West Africa and followed in French Somaliland by Jean Victor Louis Joseph Chalvet, who was replaced within a few weeks by Jean Beyries, who became the acting governor on 14 May 1944.

A measure of normality began to return to Djibouti in mid-1945, when sufficient numbers of the local population had returned from neighbouring countries to allow the port to be reopened.