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The Fall of British Somaliland

Italian forces invading British Somaliland

When on June 1940 Mussolini declared war on Britain and France, another theater was quickly added to the war between the Allies and Axis powers: Africa.  Although the main interest in Africa and the main battles were focused in the nortl1, on the coast of East Africa, at the other end of Red Sea, just across the sea from Aden another crisis arose as Italian troops in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland began their assault on British Somaliland.

Italian troops quickly occupied Kassala and Galabat  on the Egyptian-Sudan border on the 4th July and on the same day occupying Moyale on the Kenyan border.  The Italian commander-in-chief Ethiopia, the Duke of Aosta, found himself presented with a small British territory surrounded on three sides by Italian and French possession and after the events of Mers-El-Kebir (Operation catapult), all were hostile to the British territory.  The Italian forces should have had little trouble in expelling the British presence.

In Ethiopia, the Italian force, commanded by General Nasi, had 26 Italian and colonial battalions, 2l batteries of artillery, several squadrons of tanks and armoured cars, and 5 groups of irregulars who might or might not fight, depending on their opportunities for looting.

On 3rd August 1940, the Italian forces crossed the border in a trident formation, the left-hand column angled for Zeila, the central column for Hargeisa and the right-hand column for Odweina. All the forces’ objectives were reached with little opposition, but the main and right hands columns had now to pass through a pass between them and Berbera, the only port.  The pass was called Tug Argan, and here the British commander had posted his only forces; 5 infantry battalions four 3.7-inch howitzers and a 3-pounder saluting gun from HMAS Hobart.  The ship itself was standing by to aid with the evacuation.

Battle was joined on the afternoon of 1lth August, Major General A .R. Godwin-Austen who had hastily been sent down to take command, found all his forces engaged before he arrived.  They held the Italian columns back for four days, but their positions were slowly outflanked, the ammunition for the artillery began to run out and the wounded were suffering in the searing heat.  On l5th August, Godwin-Austen ordered the withdrawal, the troops pulling back through a screen of the Black Watch, then down into Berbera and onto the waiting ships, the British civilians having already been evacuated.

British and Australian ships moved in to use their guns in the final perimeter battle, the last survivors were picked up at 1400 hours on 18th August and the ships moved away, apart from the HMAS Hobart which remained to pick up any last survivors and to greet the invading Italians with a final salvo as they entered the port.

The defense of British Somaliland had cost the British 260 casualties, Mussolini triumphant news with which he claimed that his forces now exercised a total blockade of all British possessions in the Mediterranean and in Africa, all of which he said was owed to 2,052 dead or wounded.

Article courtesy: James Paul of British-Forces.