Operations during the defence of British Somaliland in 1940
Whilst the defensive
infantry battle at Tug Argan Gap is the focal point for many people interested
in the brief 1940 campaign in British Somaliland,
there are other interesting aspects of British operations that can be deduced
from gallantry award citations and military histories. The only local unit involved, The Somaliland
Camel Corps (SCC), was involved in several operations elsewhere in the British
Protectorate as well as in providing machine gun and rifle platoon support for
the infantry battalions fighting at Tug Argan.
The Somaliland Camel Corps in 1939
On the outbreak of war with Germany
the SCC was recruited from local Somalis and from Yao
tribesmen from Nyasaland (now Malawi) (1).
The unit was organised into;
-one motorised machine gun company (‘B’
Company - Yao)
-one camel-mounted rifle company (Somali)
-one pony-mounted rifle company (Somali)
· -one dismounted rifle company of mobilised
reservists (150 Somalis)
The unit strength, minus the reservists, was 400 Askari
and 14 British officers. However as part
of British pre-war defence planning measures Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had a pool of reservist officers and
non-commissioned officers available for posting to other British African units,
and 17 officers and 20 other ranks were posted to the SCC from Southern Rhodesia (2). The Rhodesians arrived in late 1939 and this
allowed a second SCC dismounted rifle company to be formed.
Lieutenant Colonel A.R. Chater DSO OBE, (Royal Marines),
commanded the SCC in 1939 and when he was appointed to be Officer Commanding
Troops in Somaliland command of the SCC passed to Lieutenant Colonel R.R.
Michell, (Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry).
On 10th June 1940 Italy
declared war on Britain and France and allied itself with Germany; British Somaliland was immediately
threatened by Italian troops occupying Abyssinia to the south and from Italian Somaliland to the east. After wavering for six weeks the adjacent
French colony of Djibouti
declared for the collaborationist French Vichy regime and accepted an Italian
Armistice Commission. This act
immediately invalidated British defence planning in Somaliland
as there was now no regional ally and the British right flank was
unprotected. Nevertheless a decision was
made to defend British Somaliland,
reinforcements were allocated and a confidential evacuation plan was prepared
in case the defence failed. The SCC was
also allowed to recruit 50 more soldiers and approval was given to mechanise
two of the SCC rifle companies (3).
Somaliland Camel Corps offensive operations
Prior to the Italian invasion and whilst reinforcements
were arriving in the Protectorate the SCC, accompanied by Illalo irregulars and
Askari from the 1st Battalion the Northern Rhodesia Regiment
patrolled the Abyssinian border area south of Hargeisa and Burao. Deep cross-border raiding was not authorised
but offensive action against Italian border posts was permitted. A very successful raid was carried out by
troops commanded by SCC company commander Lieutenant Gerald Keogh(Rhodesia Regiment). Gerald’s citation for the award of his
Military Cross reads:
On the 24th June 1940, BURAMO station was occupied by an
Italian Force which included regular troops, armoured fighting vehicles and
machine-guns. On 26th June
Lieutenant KEOGH was despatched with one camel troop with orders to obtain
information regarding the situation at BURAMO and if the circumstances were
favourable to carry out a destructive raid. On 27th June the troop arrived in
the vicinity of BURAMO and was joined by 40 Illalos (Somali tribesmen). For
two days the troop remained in concealment and sent back valuable information. On the night 29/30th June a raid on
the station was carried out. The approach of the party was detected by the
defenders and heavy fire was opened. Nevertheless
the attack was pressed until the buildings occupied by the Europeans were
reached. These buildings were attacked
with grenades, resulting as has subsequently been ascertained in the death of
two and possibly three Europeans. Withdrawal
was then carried out in an orderly manner.
Keogh has subsequently carried out another successful night raid against an
Italian post at DUMUK. I consider that
in organising and leading these raids Lieutenant Keogh has shown marked
courage, resource and determination deserving of special recognition. I recommend him for the award of the MILITARY
Above: Italian military convoy on the move
displaying equal courage, resource, and initiative when engaged on a similar
operation No. S.3025Sergeant David
Fleischman (Rhodesia Regiment) was awarded the Military Medal:
For outstanding and conspicuous gallantry during raids at WALID HOR and
DAMERABOB when commanding his
section covering the withdrawal under
heavy fire and carrying to safety for 200 yards a man of his section who had
been severely wounded.
During these early days it appears that a force of 500
Abyssinian nationalists from across the southern border was recruited, trained
and armed and administered as an attachment to the SCC. Although none of the military histories
mention these men a later citation to a Rhodesian non-commissioned officer
proves the existence of this force.
Meanwhile much administrative and logistical preparation was being
carried out within the SCC as this citation for the award of a British Empire
Medal to No. 3403/7713 Sergeant John Laird Corrans, Somaliland Force HQ Signal Section (Rhodesia Regiment), shows:
For continuously meritorious service. That communication with outlying
detachments was maintained was due largely to the work of this N.C.O., during the months of January to May, when he overhauled and put in
order all the obsolete wireless equipment of the Somaliland
Camel Corps. Later during the operations he maintained communications at
Headquarters under the most adverse conditions.
Left: Cigarette-card depiction of Somaliland Camel Corps senior rank.
Somaliland Camel Corps mobile operations during the
On 3rd August 1940 an Italian army under Lieutenant General Guglielmo Nasi invaded the British Protectorate from Abyssinia;
Nasi deployed over 20,000 men in three columns.
As the SCC fell back from its border patrol positions it harassed each
enemy column, assisted by Illalo irregular troops. The westernmost Italian column headed for
Zeila on the British Somaliland coast, but did
not reach that small port without opposition.
A SCC company named NORTHCOL and commanded by Captain Adrian Andrew
Brodie Harris-Rivett(35736) (The
Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment) confronted the Italians. Adrian Harris-Rivett’s citation for his
Distinguished Service Order tells the story of what his column achieved:
For conspicuous gallant services from
10th June to 15th August 1940 in commanding under most
difficult conditions, a column on the right flank of the Force. He, with his company, was situated some 70
miles from the nearest troops and, on his own initiative persistently worried
the enemy and reported their strength and movements, until forced to withdraw
by the advance of the main columns. When
ordered to withdraw, he had to make his way by forced marches, nearly 80 miles
to BERBERA. He courageously won his way
through to the coast with a small party of Europeans and local Somalis.
Lieutenant H. Addiecott (Rhodesia Regiment) with his No. 1
Troop SCC made a successful raid on the Italian position at Buramo on the
border before falling back with NORTHCOL.
Eventually Harris-Rivett, acting on orders, disbanded his ‘A’ Company
SCC before he and the other Europeans marched to the coast.
By capturing Zeila the Italians had cut-off British
Somaliland from Djibouti,
and an eastwards advance towards the strategic port of Berbera
was now possible. But again sub-units of
the SCC were watching and harassing their enemy, as can be seen in this
citation for the Distinguished Conduct Medal awarded to No 1096 Sergeant Adan
Dualeh, Somaliland Camel Corps.
Somaliland 11th August – 18th August 1940. For highly meritorious service. This Somali NCO showed great devotion to duty
throughout the period of operations.
During the latter stages he was in charge of the wireless set working
with the Somaliland Camel Corps patrol
watching the coast road from ZEILA. When
the enemy approached he was instructed to move independently from the
patrol. He handled his set with skill
and courage, and was thereby successful in maintaining contact with both his
patrol and Force Headquarters.
Shells from Royal Navy vessels offshore slowed down the
enemy advance from Zeila and the Italians were at Bulhar when the British
evacuation was completed.
On the British eastern flank Lieutenant (Temporary
Captain) Robert Edward Walker Sale (56649), Welsh Guards attached to Somaliland
Camel Corps, had been successfully hitting the enemy hard with his SOUTHCOL, as
the citation for his Military Cross shows:
For continuous gallantry when in
command of a motor company in planning and leading raids over a period of four
months. In personally with great bravery
and determination leading raids at DAMERABOB on the 15th July 1940
and WALID HOR on 21st July 1940 and on the 13th August leading two
troops at night on to the enemy line of communications at DUBATO through most
difficult country held by the enemy.
Robert Sale used SOUTHCOL to fight a withdrawal action
around Gibileh before withdrawing first through Hargeisa where ‘D’ Company 1st
Battalion The Northern Rhodesia Regiment (1 NRR) held an outpost, and then as
Italian tanks attacked Hargeisa, back to Tug Argan with the Northern
In the east ‘C’ Company SCC under Captain O.G. Brooke,
Welch Regiment, patrolled from Burao against the Italian right column but the
enemy avoided Burao and moved on Adadleh to be nearer the main advance through
Hargeisa and Tug Argan. ‘C’ Company
withdrew to the Sheikh
Pass which was held by
the sepoys of ‘B’ Coy 1st Battalion the 2nd Punjab
Regiment. When the Punjabis demolished
sections of the road through the pass Brooke received sealed orders to disband
‘C’ Company and send the men back to their homes.
Above: British Somaliland map. Tug Argan Gap is located between the B and R of BRITISH.
Somaliland Camel Corps defensive actions during the
fighting around Tug Argan Gap
Two sub-units of the SCC fought from defensive positions
during the fighting around Tug Argan Gap, they were ‘B’ Company (Yao) and the Machine Gun
Company. All the SCC troops were on
hills defended by the Northern Rhodesians –
Black Hill, Mill Hill and Observation Hill; these three hills overlooked the
Hargeisa – Berbera road that was the Italian Centre Column axis of
advance. The dry watercourse of the Tug
Argan and its tributary stream beds meandered just before the defended hills
and the Italians made full use of this natural cover.
The flanks of 1 NRR were extended on the right by 3/15th
Punjabis and on the left by 2nd Battalion The King’s African Rifles
(2 KAR) from Nyasaland and a detached company
of 3/15th Punjabis. 2 BLACK
WATCH held a reserve position down the Berbera road at Laferug. The British occupied a reasonable defensive
position but it lacked extensive wiring, minefields and depth; also the ground
on the left flank was very suitable for enemy infiltration. British artillery firepower was limited to
the four 3.7-inch howitzers of 1st (East African) Light Battery,
plus a naval 3-pounder gun with a crew of three men supplied by HMAS Hobart(4). There was no armoured support and logistic
requirements were supplied by convoys composed of rear details from Berbera, 50
Early on 11th August Italian artillery
bombardments hit the 1 NRR hills first, and then all of the British forward
positions. Enemy bombers and ground-attack aircraft then added their
support. Mill Hill, where two platoons
of ‘B’ Company SCC were dug in, attracted particular enemy attention because
two British howitzers were deployed there.
By the afternoon of 12th August Mill Hill had become
untenable as the defenders had suffered many casualties from artillery fire and
infantry attacks. The British howitzers were spiked and abandoned. Withdrawal
was organised that night. Two soldiers
of the SCC received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the gallantry that they
displayed on Mill Hill.
No 7124 Warrant Officer Class II (Company Sergeant Major)
Chikoya, Somaliland Camel Corps:
For continuous gallantry in the face
of the enemy from the 11th to 13th August, 1940, during
the attack on MILL HILL and the subsequent withdrawal. By his bravery he set an example to the NCOs
and men of his company and regardless of danger assisted the British Officers
and NCOs in distributing ammunition under heavy fire.
No 11321 Lance Corporal Assan, Somaliland
For continuous gallantry at MILL HILL
in the TUG ARGAN position from the 11th to 13th August
1940. By his bravery and disregard for
danger he set an example to his men and at one time when under heavy fire
stripped down and cleaned a Bren gun which had stopped firing.
Black Hill, where a detachment of the SCC Machine Gun
Company was dug in and supporting the 1 NRR Askari, became isolated during the
battle and radio communications were unworkable for a period. This led to the belief that the hill had
fallen to the enemy during the night of 13th August. However a patrol from 3/15th
Punjabis found the defenders alert and prepared but short
of grenades, cartridges for Verey flare pistols, and ammunition. These the
patrol was able to supply, as well as a few fresh limes for the parched throats
of men who had been carefully conserving the small supply of water on the hill. The Black Hill defenders hung on against
strong attacks for a further 48 hours before being withdrawn. Lieutenant R.J.D. Desfountaine,Rhodesia Regiment attached to
Somaliland Camel Corps,earned
another Military Cross for the SCC:
For meritorious services at BLACK HILL during the battle of TUG ARGAN
from the 11th to 15th August, 1940. By his gallant
defence of the forward defended location and his personal example of bravery
and determination, his post held on till ordered to withdraw. By his skilful
handling of his command during withdrawal, 3 medium Machine Guns were brought
through the enemy posts to safety. This small post, the most isolated of all,
was game to the last.
Right: SCC European NCOs taken prisoner by the Italians
Hill attracted heavy enemy artillery fire because of the SCC machine gun
detachment and the naval 3-pounder sited on the hill. Both weapons were killing and wounding
substantial numbers of Italian troops and disabling armoured fighting
vehicles. By 14th August
Observation Hill was being shelled from behind as Italian mountain gunners had
infiltrated through to the rear of the position. Despite this problem all enemy infantry
attacks were successfully driven back until the defence was overcome on the
afternoon of 15th August.
Captain Eric Charles Twelves Wilson (The East Surrey Regiment attached Somaliland Camel Corps), was
awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross:
For most conspicuous gallantry on
active service in Somaliland. Captain Wilson
was in command of machine-gun posts manned by Somali soldiers in the key
position of Observation Hill, a defended post in the defensive organisation of
the Tug Argan Gap in British Somaliland. The
enemy attacked Observation Hill on August 11th, 1940. Captain Wilson and Somali
gunners under his command beat off the attack and opened fire on the enemy
troops attacking Mill Hill, another post within his range. He inflicted such
heavy casualties that the enemy, determined to put his guns out of action,
brought up a pack battery to within seven hundred yards, and scored two direct
hits through the loopholes of his defences, which, bursting within the post,
wounded Captain Wilson severely in the right shoulder and in the left eye,
several of his team being also wounded. His guns were blown off their stands
but he repaired and replaced them and, regardless of his wounds, carried on,
whilst his Somali sergeant was killed beside him. On August I2th and I4th the
enemy again concentrated field artillery fire on Captain Wilson's guns, but he
continued, with his wounds untended, to man them.
On August 15th two of his machine-gun posts were
blown to pieces, yet Captain Wilson, now suffering from malaria in addition to
wounds, still kept his own post in action. The enemy finally over-ran the post
at 5 p.m. on the 15th August when Captain Wilson, fighting to the last, was
Above: Map of Italian invasion of British Somaliland
The surviving defenders on Observation Hill attempted to
capitulate to the enemy infantry who were now on the crest of the feature, but
as the Italians displayed little interest the order was issued to
withdraw. A total of 119 men from ‘A’
Company 1 NRR and the SCC got back to the coast from Observation Hill.
The other two howitzers, now almost out of ammunition, had
been lost on Knobbly Hill and a Force withdrawal was ordered to Berbera from
where evacuation to Aden
was being organized by the Royal and Royal Australian Navies. For gallantry displayed during this withdrawal
No. CR. 3008 Serjeant Rosslyn Ernest Oliphant,
Regiment attached Somaliland Camel Corps, received a Distinguished Conduct
Sergeant Rosslyn Ernest Oliphant. For conspicuous bravery on the 15th
August 1940 after the fall of OBSERVATION HILL at the battle of TUG ARGAN. On
finding Sergeant Swimmington of the 1st N.R.R. wounded, he placed him
under cover and waited with him till dark. He then assisted Sgt Swimmington out of the
position, guided him through the enemy position under heavy machine gun and mortar
fire, and brought him back safely regardless of the danger to himself by
waiting behind in the captured position, a distance of about 5 miles.
British units now withdrew, sometimes on foot and crossing enemy lines of
communication, back through 2 BLACK WATCH who stoutly resisted an Italian
follow-up attack and successfully mounted a company bayonet charge (6). Many of the withdrawing infantrymen had not
eaten cooked food for four days. At
Berbera the remaining Somali members of the SCC were given the option to be
locally discharged with their weapons, and most of the rank and file, but not
all, opted to stay in the Protectorate; a few senior ranks were evacuated to Aden (7). The Nyasaland
members were amalgamated into 2 KAR. The
Illalos melted away back to their tribal pastures.
from Berbera proceeded smoothly until the staff remembered the unit of 500
Abyssinian fighters that was stranded 40 kilometres away from Berbera. These men were in immediate danger of being
killed by the advancing Italian troops as a civil officer who should have known
better had ordered that their weapons be removed and destroyed. An escort party from 1/2nd
Punjabis hastened to the Abyssinians and brought them to Berbera.
his part in this episode NO. CR 276 Company Quartermaster Sergeant
Hilton Victor Friend,Rhodesia
Regiment attached Somaliland Camel Corps, received a British Empire Medal:
For conspicuously meritorious service C.Q.M.S. Hilton Victor FRIEND was
alone in charge of 500 combatant Abyssinians who, on the evacuation of British Somaliland, were situated at BIHENDULA, 25 miles
from BERBERA. Through an error of judgement by the civil authorities these men were
disarmed and had their arms, their only means of self-defence, broken up under
their eyes. Such was the influence of C.Q.M.S. FRIEND over them that he averted
any trouble and brought them in perfect order to BERBERA, thence embarked them
for ADEN and accompanied them to KENYA. By his
determination and coolness he has in almost insufferable circumstances redeemed
the pledged word of the BRITISH GOVERNMENT (8).
British casualties during the defence of British
Somaliland numbered 260 whilst Italian casualties numbered 2,052.
The sad and ignominious
demise of the Somaliland Camel Corps
Six months after evacuating their Protectorate the British
returned, and as the Italian East African Empire crumbled the two Punjabi
battalions plus Somali and Adeni troops landed at Berbera from Aden
to meet up with British forces advancing from Kenya. The SCC was quickly re-formed as an
all-Somali unit and employed on its traditional gendarmerie-style duties, both
in the Protectorate and in other areas of the former Italian East African
Empire that were under British Military Administration (9).
As British operations against the Axis powers developed it
was decided to convert the SCC into an armoured car regiment with the intention
of training the unit in Southern Rhodesia
before deployment to a War Theatre. At this time Lieutenant Colonel A.A.B. Harris-Rivett
DSO was the Commanding Officer (10). The intention to serve outside the Protectorate
caused unrest not just because of fears that Somali identity and Islamic
religious customs would be jeopardized through submersion into a much larger
King’s African Rifles regiment, but also because Somali soldiers had
traditionally argued that they should serve on terms and conditions equal to
Indian Army Sepoys rather than on those that applied to African Askari (11).
culminated in a mutiny at Burao in early June 1944 which led to the final
disbandment on 30th September 1944, after 30 years’ of very useful
service to the British Government, of the Somaliland Camel Corps (12).
SOURCES: (the most economical publishings are shown)
Playfair, I.S.O., Major General: History of the Second World War. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume 1. (Naval & Military Press).
Operations in the
Somaliland Protectorate, 1939-40. London
Gazette Number 37594, Page 2719, Wednesday 5th June 1946.
recognition of distinguished service in the field in Somaliland,
London Gazette Number 35701, Page 811, Tuesday 11th
February 1941; and Indian Army Awards,
London Gazette Number 35120, Page 1875, 1st April 1941.
Chater, A.R. Major General: Papers in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College
Lunt, James: Imperial
Sunset. Frontier Soldiering in the 20th Century, Chapter 11 – Somaliland Camel Corps and Somaliland Scouts (Macdonald, London 1981).
 Other such postings from Southern Rhodesia
were 6 officers and 10 other ranks to the East Africa Army Service Corps, and
151 officers and 237 other ranks to the Royal West African Frontier Force.
 These decisions took 6 and 4 months respectively to be approved
from London after
requests had been submitted.
 A detachment from 1st
Independent Anti-Tank Troop, 'P' Battery, 3rd Royal Horse Artillery,
(2 x 37-milimetre Bofors Guns) arrived at the front on 13th August
1940 whilst a Section from 23rd
Hong Kong and Singapore Battery, Royal
Artillery (2 x 3-inch Anti-Aircraft guns) was deployed at Berbera defending the
 Eric Wilson VC was later found alive in a prisoner of war camp when
British forces captured Italian East Africa, and after overcoming serious
wounds he soldiered on to fight in Burma.
 For leading this charge Captain D. MacN.C. Rose, Black Watch, was
awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
 Lord Ismay, a former officer in the SCC during World War I, was to
write: This unhappy episode attracted little attention; but to me, with my
long association with Somaliland and my
affection for her soldiers, it was very painful. The picture of the British officers of my old
regiment saying good-bye on Berbera beach to the men whom they had so recently
led in battle, and leaving them to fend for themselves, was not a pretty
one. Within eight months the Italians
were thrown out of the country, and we resumed our responsibilities there. But I wonder whether our prestige in the Horn
of Africa has recovered to this day. (The Memoirs of General The Lord Ismay KG,
PC, GCB, CH, DSO, Heinemann 1960).
volunteer Punjabi escort commander, No. 7990 Naik (Corporal) Umansab Khan,
received an Indian Distinguished Service Medal and also no doubt the sincere
thanks of CQMS Hilton Friend.
 Gerald Hanley’s excellent book Warriors and Strangers (Hamish
Hamilton paperback, 1987) gives an graphic account of military life in Somaliland after the Italian collapse.
 Regrettably Major A.A.B. Harris-Rivett DSO was to be court
martialled and cashiered from the British Army in 1955 (London Gazette 9th December 1955
 There was some justification for the Somali point of view, as
Somali soldiers had always associated closely with Indian Army units that garrisoned
the Protectorate (King’s African Rifles units tended to enter the Protectorate
for specific operations and then return to their home territories). Also during World War 1 the Arab Rifles
(known as ‘Wavell’s Arabs’), raised from Yemenis working on the East African
coast, was nominally a King’s African Rifles unit but its soldiers came under
the Indian Army Act and not the King’s African Rifles Ordinance. Service under the Indian Army Act allowed for
superior scales of pay, equipment and rations.
One newly-raised war-time Somali infantry battalion, 71st Battalion
(Somali) King’s African Rifles, did serve in Burma. However the sister 72nd Battalion
(Somali) King’s African Rifles, a training and drafting unit, was for a time
disarmed and then disbanded in 1945 after serious desertions whilst stationed
in Tanganyika Territory
and Kenya. A totally new unit, The Somaliland Scouts,
was formed on 1st July 1943 from Guard Units that had been raised
after the British return to the Protectorate.
The Somaliland Scouts served very satisfactorily as an infantry unit
until the independence of Somalia