1/2nd & 3/15th Punjabis in Somaliland,
July 1940 – March 1941
The Italian Invasion and British Re-occupation of British
The British Somaliland Protectorate
in World War II
The first shots fired in World War II by sepoys of the
Indian Army occurred during the Italian invasion of British
Somaliland. Two Punjabi
battalions were present, the 1/2nd and the 3/15th. The British Official History hardly mentions
these units and the Indian Official History only mentions them in a footnote,
whilst Compton Mackenzie’s unofficial history Eastern Epic, Volume I devotes two pages to their exploits as does
the Government of India’s The Tiger
Strikes. The 2nd
Punjabis’ history The Golden Galley
provides a good description of the role of its 1/2nd Battalion but
regrettably a history does not appear to exist that describes the activities of
the 3/15th Battalion.
However the battle picture can be painted satisfactorily
by also using other histories and gallantry award citations. Heavy defensive fighting lasted for a week
during which time two lieutenant colonels were relieved of command and a
captain was successfully recommended for the award of a Victoria Cross. Then
Italian superiority in strength and equipment, particularly tanks and
aeroplanes, forced a pre-planned British evacuation across the mouth of the Red
Sea to Aden. A few months later the British re-occupied
their Protectorate, and both Punjabi battalions took part in this operation.
Above: Map of Italian invasion of British Somaliland.
The Defence Plan
The enemy was the massive Italian army in Italian East
Africa, and an ally was the French force in Djibouti. The British Defence Plan relied on the French
standing firm and securing the British right flank. However when the Djibouti
garrison defected to Vichy the British
Somaliland garrison was left with an unworkable plan. Nevertheless Britain
decided to fight a delaying action in order to cause enemy attrition before
implementing a withdrawal operation to Aden.
The peace-time garrison in British Somaliland consisted of
the battalion-strength Somaliland Camel Corps (Lieutenant Colonel R.R. Michell,
Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry) containing Askari recruited in Somaliland
Acting Brigadier A.R. Chater, Royal Marines, was appointed Commander of
SOMALIFORCE; he was the former commander of the Somaliland Camel Corps. Additional troops sent to SOMALIFORCE, in
order of arrival, were:
- 1st Battalion The Northern Rhodesia Regiment (1NRR) (Lieutenant Colonel
B.G. Lynn-Allen, Welch Regiment). - 3/15th Punjab
Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel A.H. Pollock MC). - 1/2nd Punjab
Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel B.H. Chappel). - 1st (East African) Light Battery (4 x
3.7-inch howitzers) (Major W.W. Mackinlay). - 2nd (Nyasaland)
Battalion The King’s African Rifles (2KAR) (Lieutenant Colonel L.T.
Payne-Galloway, 7th Hussars). - 2nd Battalion The Black Watch
(Lieutenant Colonel A.K. Hamilton). - Detachment from 1st Independent Anti-Tank Troop, 'P' Battery,
3rd Royal Horse Artillery, (2 x 37-milimetre Bofors Guns). - Section 23rd Hong
Kong and Singapore Battery, Royal Artillery (2 x 3-inch
Anti-Aircraft guns) deployed at Berbera. - One 3-pounder gun and crew of 3 naval
ranks from HMAS Hobart deployed at
British deployments and Italian advances
Brigadier Chater had failed to secure definite pre-war
British support for the defence of the Protectorate, the War Office having
remarked to him that British Somaliland was
‘an embarassing commitment in a theatre of minor strategic importance’, and was
considered to be indefensible. Chater
disagreed that that the southern entrance to the Red Sea
should be so described, and he sited defences on the three approaches to the
strategically located Berbera port.
Right: Italian military convoy on the move.
On 8th August 1/2nd Punjabis was deployed on
the close defence of Berbera, holding the Sheikh Pass (‘B’ Company) that led
inland, the Shell Gap defile (‘C’ Company, Captain C.J. Veevers) on the coast
to the west of the port and the Bihendi Gap to the east. 1NRR, 2KAR and the 1st Light
Battery and the Australian naval gun were holding hills immediately east and
west of the wide Tug Argan Gap where the main road ran from Hargeisa to
Berbera. The road distance from Tug
Argan to Berbera was just over 50 kilometres.
3/15th Punjabis, minus one company, extended the right flank
at Tug Argan by occupying the range of low hills running eastwards; the
detached ‘D’ company (2nd Lieutenant A.J. Block) held the important
and long Punjab Ridge between 1NRR and 2KAR.
1st Black Watch was Force Reserve at Laferug, a position to
the rear of Tug Argan.
From 4th August Italian troops consisting of:
- 20 Colonial battalions (African troops)
- 4 Blackshirt battalions (European fascist
· - 4 Groups of Pack Artillery
- 2 Groups of Medium Artillery
- Around 30 tanks
- 2 sections of armoured cars
- 11 Groups of Banda (native irregulars)
had been advancing into British
Somaliland in three columns, supported by aeroplanes operating in
the bombing and ground attack roles.
British air support came from Aden
and involved reconnaissance, tactical bombing and standing fighter patrols
above Berbera (during the invasion the RAF lost seven aircraft and had ten
A forward screen of British troops, mainly Somaliland
Camel Corps but including one company 1NRR and detachments of Illalo
irregulars, had been harassing the Italians since the enemy advance
started. The ground around Tug Argan and
indeed in most of the Protectorate was inhospitably dry and dusty, undulating,
and intersected by dry watercourses; thorn bushes grew on the flatter ground
whilst the hills tended to be barer. Infiltration on the lower ground was not
difficult to achieve. The sun was fierce and water discipline was important.
On 7th August West Brigade had been formed at
Tug Argan and Colonel Chappel, 1/2nd Punjabis, had been appointed to
command this formation and to put together an improvised Brigade Headquarters;
he later received a Distinguished Service Order for the manner in which he
commanded the brigade. The British position at Tug Argan was good but the
defence lacked field and anti-tank artillery, armour and dedicated air
support. The two Bofors anti-tank guns
did not arrive at the front until 13th August. Logistical services were improvised from rear
details at Berbera.
The Italian attack at Tug Argan
General Carlo de Simone, commanding the Italian ‘Centre
Column’, commenced his attack on Tug Argan on the morning of 11th
August. At 0730 hours an intensive
low-level bombing and machine-gunning air attack hit 2nd Black Watch, but the
Jocks brought down one bomber with Bren gun anti-aircraft fire. At 0840 hours an intensive artillery
bombardment hit the 1NRR positions on Mill and Knobbly Hills. Infantry and tanks then deployed to attack
but the East African howitzers broke up all attacks, each gun firing 160
rounds. But in the British centre five
enemy battalions attacked ‘D’ Company 3/15th Punjabis and after a
lengthy and fierce fight the two right-hand Punjabi platoons gave ground, being
nearly out of ammunition. For his
conduct during the defence of Punjabi Ridge 2nd Lieutenant A.J.
Block later received a Military Cross.
That evening at 2000 hours Major General A.R. Godwin-Austen arrived from
command SOMALIFORCE. This was no
reflection on the abilities of Brigadier Chater who continued to serve under
By seizing Punjabi Ridge and infiltrating forward the
Italians had driven a wedge into the British position at a vulnerable
point. A 2KAR patrol replenished Block’s
Punjabis with ammunition during the night, and a counter-attack was planned for
the next day. This attack was to be led
by Lieutenant Colonel Payne-Galloway who was allocated:
Above: Observation Hill, Tug Argan Gap.
‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies 2KAR
· - ‘D’ Company 3/15th Punjabis
‘D’ Company 1/2nd Punjabis (2nd
Lieutenant F.W. Mason) carrying 100 rounds per rifle, 6 Vickers-Berthier
machine guns with 900 rounds per gun, 1 anti-tank rifle and 2 boxes of hand
- The Sikh and Dogra sections of 1/2nd
Punjabis machine gun platoon.
Unfortunately Payne-Galloway committed his troops
piecemeal, his counter attacks failed and next day he was replaced in command
by Major G.A. Rusk MC, Black Watch.
However during the ‘D’ Company 1/2nd Punjabis’ attack
Havildar Balak Ram and his No. 17 Platoon captured an enemy position and held
it for six hours; Balak Ram was later awarded an Indian Distinguished Service
Elsewhere that day two of the British howitzers were
over-run and captured by the Italians, but the guns only had seven rounds left
and both were spiked before capture.
Within 2nd Black Watch Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton had been evacuated suffering from
physical and mental stress, and his replacement was Major A. Gilroy, Black
From 13th to 15th August each
British defended feature became isolated by Italian attacks. ‘D’ Company 1/2nd Punjabis held a
hill to the south of 2KAR with a 3/15th Punjabis company holding the
flanking feature much further south.
After first displaying apprehension when under air attack the sepoys
quickly learned how protective trenches can be, and all the Italian infantry
attacks were repulsed. But the remaining
two British howitzers and the Australian 3-pounder were lost and Tug Argan was
In the rear at Laferug 2nd Black Watch routed
an enemy infiltration with a rousing bayonet charge, and the air defence at
Berbera brought down another two Italian planes. After last light 15th August
3/15th Punjabis and ‘D’ Company 1/2nd Punjabis were redeployed onto the three
Block Hill features and a ‘last man – last round’ order was issued to cover a British
withdrawal operation. During this
redeployment two platoons from 3/15th Punjabis became isolated but
continued marching towards Berbera.
Left: Italian troops advancing into British Somaliland.
However General de Simone’s troops had suffered many
casualties in impetuous attacks, and he did not follow up aggressively. On 17th August both Punjabi
battalions were withdrawn to Berbera and immediately embarked for Aden. Bakshish Singh, a 3/15th Punjabis
sepoy attached to Colonel Chappel’s West Brigade Headquarters, performed an act
of gallantry in delivering a message during the withdrawal that resulted in an
award of the Indian Distinguished Service Medal. The two missing 3/15th Punjabis
platoons arrived at the 2nd Black Watch rearguard position and
impressed the Jocks by handing-in the empty cases of the rounds that they had
fired – peace-time training procedures had not yet been replaced!
By 18th August the Somali Camel Corps had been
temporarily disbanded apart from its Nyasaland Askari who joined 2KAR; the
Somalis mostly elected to stay in the Protectorate and they were allowed to
retain their rifles. During this
temporary disbandment it was realised that a group of Camel Corps askari was
cut-off 50 kilometres away inland. Naik Umansab Khan of 1/2nd
Punjabis volunteered to lead the escort of a rescue party that successfully
retrieved the askari; for gallantry displayed whilst on this mission Umansab
Ram was later awarded an Indian Distinguished Service Medal.
The 1/2nd Punjabis’ companies securing the
access routes to Berbera had not come into contact with the other invading
Italian columns, although ‘C’ Company witnessed the halting by British naval
gunfire of an enemy attempt to approach Shell Gap. ‘B’ Company secured Sheikh Pass
until 17th August when the route through the pass was demolished.
Installations in Berbera were destroyed and all non-Somali British troops
sailed to Aden;
the Italian airforce did not interfere.
Godwin-Austen had lost 5% of his force in casualties and the totals
- Officers: 8 killed; 4
wounded; 4 missing. - British Other Ranks: 8 killed; 18
wounded; 17 missing. - Indian and African troops: 22
killed; 80 wounded; 99 missing.
1/2nd Punjabis lost 2 men killed and 3/15th
Punjabis lost 8 men killed. 1NRR had
borne the brunt of the enemy attacks and taken the most casualties. Most of those missing were believed to be
dead, although the recipient of a posthumous Victoria Cross, Captain E.C.T.
Wilson, The East Surrey Regiment attached to the Somaliland Camel Corps, was
later found alive in an Italian prisoner of war camp. The British Official History records that the
Italians suffered 2,052 casualties during their invasion of British
The British re-occupation of Berbera
By early 1941 the Italian presence in East Africa was
under threat as Allied troops advanced from Kenya
and Sudan into Italian
Somaliland and Abyssinia. On 5th March the Aden Striking
Force was formed to reoccupy Berbera and both 1/2nd Punjabis and
3/15th Punjabis were needed for the operation. At 0430 hours on 16 March a Royal Navy convoy
landed 3/15th Punjabis eight kilometres west of Berbera to form a
bridgehead of about 1.5 kilometres radius; HMS
Glasgow and HMS Caledonian
provided covering fire. The main body
of 1/2nd Punjabis under Major C.J. Veevers landed in the bridgehead
and advanced on the residential area of Berbera which was seized without
serious opposition. Further to the east
of Berbera a British force of Somali and Arab units landed and easily seized
the bazaar area.
The Italian defenders of the Zeila area and Berbera, the
17th and 70th Colonial Brigades, had been ordered by
General de Simone to withdraw to north of Jijigga to block the advance of
Allied troops moving overland from Kenya towards the Djibouti-Addis Ababa
railway. The Italian units that stayed
in the British Somaliland coastal area, a local battalion, one 120-mm gun
battery and another 20mm Breda
battery, plus an irregular detachment, did not seriously contest the British
Right: The Italian flag flying over Government House, Berbera.
Major Veevers hoisted the 1/2nd Punjabis’
battalion flag over Government house at 0930 hours, having by that time
captured around 50 Italian officers and men and considerably more colonial
askari. The remainder of the Italian 70th
Colonial Brigade, the defenders of Berbera, dispersed into the interior. At the
town waterworks, 13 kilometres into the desert, Royal Engineers despatched by
Major Veevers surprised an Italian demolition party fusing charges on the
storage tanks. The Italians were
captured and a 1/2nd Punjabis’ company secured the waterworks. Brigadier Chater was appointed Military
Governor of British Somaliland on 8th April, and the two Punjabi
battalions returned to Aden
as South African troops took over in the Protectorate.
The role of the 1/2nd and 3/15th
Punjabis in both the defence and re-occupation of British Somaliland was not
widely publicised, but both battalions had acquitted themselves well and
undergone the necessary battle inoculation to ready them for the serious
challenges that lay ahead.
Awards to Indian
Army personnel for operations in British Somaliland: The Distinguished Service Order:
Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Herbert Chappel, 2nd Punjab Regiment.
August 1940 For conspicuous gallantry, devotion
to duty and highly meritorious services.
Lieutenant Colonel Chappel, throughout the operations commanded the
“West Brigade”, comprising all troops in the main area of operations. His personal example of high courage,
dauntlessness, cheerfulness and refusal to give ground was an inspiration to
all and his ability in command was quite outstanding.
When, after an exhausting week of
continuous fighting, the posts in the forward area were withdrawn, Lieutenant
Colonel Chappel was placed in command of the troops holding the BARKHASAN
post. There, again, with grim determination
and by sheer forcefulness of command he denied the enemy the way to Berbera
until evacuation of all troops was rendered possible by the firmness of his
stand. The Military Cross:
2nd Lieutenant Adam John Block, 15th Punjab
This young officer showed conspicuous
continuous gallantry in handling his Company throughout the operations in the
vicinity road HARGEISHA - BERBERA during the period 8th August 1940
– 17th August 1940. On the 9th
August 1940 he held a position on the left of the Northern Rhodesian Regiment
covering a front of about 4 miles. At
1030 hours, 11th August 1940 he was attacked by large forces of the
enemy and after inflicting very heavy casualties on the enemy at 1320 hours two
platoons were forced to retire owing to lack of ammunition and being overrun by
His remaining platoon held on in an
isolated position until 1800 hours when it moved back and rejoined the
remainder of the company covering the right flank of the King’s African Rifles.
At 0630 hours on 12th
August the enemy again attacked and throughout the day this officer showed
considerable skill and bravery in keeping his Company under his control and
dealing with the enemy. The Indian Distinguished Service Medal
No. 7907 Havildar Balak Ram, 2nd Punjab
From 11th August 1940 to
16th August 1940. For
conspicuous gallantry in SOMALIFORCE in that he on 11th August 1940
counter-attacked a position on the CATS HILLS from which he drove the enemy and
on which he remained for 6 hours, despite heavy shelling and mortar fire until
all his ammunition was expended. For the
remainder of the time that the company was actively engaged he displayed
resource and leadership of a high order and was a splendid example to his
No. 7990 Naik Umansab Khan, 2nd
After the main evacuation from
BERBERA this NCO led a party of volunteers, as escort to a rescue party, 30
miles inland in virtually enemy country.
He displayed great gallantry throughout this operation and is
recommended for the award of the Indian D.S.M.
No. 10002 Sepoy Bakhshish Singh, 15th Punjab Regiment,
(attached HQ West Brigade).
Somaliland. For conspicuous
gallantry and devotion to duty on August 17th 1940. The enemy were shelling the road to the left
sector and the situation as regards the Black Watch withdrawal on the right
sector was obscure. Sepoy Bakshish Singh
volunteered to take, on his motor cycle and safely deliver, an essential
message to the left sector regarding their withdrawal. This involved passing through the rear of the
right sector and his own subsequent withdrawal on foot, with an injured leg,
over 8 miles of country.
15th Punjab Regiment Lieutenant Colonel A. H. Pollock, M.C. (9957). Major R. C. Nicholas. No. 9853 Company Havildar Major Muhammad Iqbal Khan. No. 10975 Naik Nur Muhammad. No. 11721 Sepoy Fateh Khan. Staff or otherwise employed officers Major J. L. Kingdon, 8th Punjab
Regiment. Major T. A. Hubert (159247), 16th Punjab
Regiment. Major M. H. Wace, Indian Medical Service.
during the defence of British Somaliland who are commemorated on the Hargeisa
Memorial, Somalia. 2nd Punjab Regiment 9874 Naik Sant Ram; 10718 Sepoy Jaswant Singh. 15th Punjab Regiment 7975 Lance Naik Tara Singh; 11724 Sepoy Bahawal Khan;
10721 Sepoy Dilawar Khan; 11956 Sepoy Fateh Muhammad; 12374 Sepoy Ghulam
Makhmad; 12229 Sepoy Mansabdar; 11800 Sepoy Muhammed Sher; 11916 Sepoy Nur
SOURCES: (most economical publishings shown)
- Playfair, I.S.O., Major General: History of the Second World War. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume 1. (Naval & Military Press). - Betham & Geary: The
Golden Galley. The Story of the Second Punjab Regiment 1761-1947. (Oxford University Press 1956). - Operations in the
Somaliland Protectorate, 1939-40. London
Gazette Number 37594, Page 2719, Wednesday 5th June 1946. - Awards in
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
London. - Mackenzie, Compton:
Eastern Epic, Volume I, September 1939 – March 1943, Defence (Chatto &
Windus, London 1951). - Government of India: The Tiger Strikes (Tracker Spinx, Calcutta 1942). - Moyse-Bartlett, H. Lieutenant Colonel: The King’s African Rifles (Naval &
Military Press). - Fergusson, Bernard: The
Black Watch and the King’s Enemies (Collins, London 1950). - Farndale, Martin, General Sir: History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The Years of Defeat 1939-41
(Brassey’s, London 1996). - Orpen, Neil: East
African and Abyssinian Campaigns (South African Forces World War II, Volume I)
(Purnell 1968) http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/UN/SouthAfrica/EAfrica/index.html#contents - Chhina, Rana: The
Indian Distinguished Service Medal (InvictaIndia 2001). - British National Archives and Commonwealth War Graves
Commission records. - Film: The British Evacuation of Berbera http://ww2today.com/19th-august-1940-royal-navy-evauates-british-somaliland
version of this article appeared in a recent edition of DURBAR, the journal of
the Indian Military Historical Society: http://imhs.org.uk/ )