The Abyssinia Campaign: The Battle of Tug Argan and the Fall of Somaliland

When Mussolini declared war on France and Great Britain in June of 1940, he had grandiose dreams of a New Roman Empire, particularly in Africa centered on his two colonies, Libya and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The Italians in Africa had an enormous material and troop advantage over the Allies, 415,000 to 36,000, and Mussolini planned to use it to seize Egypt, Sudan, Somaliland, Kenya, and the rest of East Africa. The entrance of Italy into the Second World War shifted the entire center of gravity for Great Britain and the Commonwealth. The Middle East was Great Britain’s Achilles’s Heel, because all of its oil and shipping passed through the Red Sea and Suez Canal or down the African coast. And despite the furious air battles fought over southern England and the spectre of invasion, Churchill sent all available troops from India and the Commonwealth, not to the British Isles, but to East Africa and the Middle East. But before the British could build up, the Duke of Aosta, Mussolini’s competent and level headed Viceroy of Ethiopia, struck first.

The Allied plan in East Africa always depended on the British massing in Egypt while holding in the Sudan, Kenya, and Somaliland. The plan relied on the French in Djibouti, the lion’s share of the Allied strength in the theatre, to counterattack any Italian advance. But the fall of France in mid-July made the French a non-factor when a pro-German Vichy French commander took over in Djibouti. In early August 1940, Italian units in Ethiopia attacked into Sudan, Kenya, and Somaliland. In the Sudan and Kenya, the Italians stalled because they overestimated the enormous logistic difficulties of operating in the wildernesses that existed on Ethiopia’s borders: the open desert of Sudan, and the 400 miles of scrub desert separating the habitable areas of Kenya and Ethiopia.

British Somaliland was a different story. The terrain was hilly, rugged, and rough, but passable, and the British had too few troops to defend it. The initial surge of Churchill’s reinforcements went to General Wavell in the Egypt where he had to deal with pro-German governments of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and Italians massing in Libya. But Churchill wanted to avoid an Italian victory in the news (not to mention an Italian/German naval base next to the Red Sea) so he ordered some units to Somaliland once it became obvious Aosta was going to invade. It was too little too late.

The eclectic British led force in Somaliland consisted of Punjabis, Rhodesians, Free French, British regulars of the Black Watch, West Africans, East Africans, Singaporeans, part of the Hong Kong garrison, and native Somalis of the Camel Corps. Their defense was planned, supplied, and coordinated on the fly along a series of ridges south of the port of Berbera. The defenses focused on the “tugs” or wadis (dry streambeds) along the hills through which vehicles could travel. However, the Italians grossly overestimated the British forces due a simple deception plan (driving around to stir up dust to give impression of more movement) and a lack of reconnaissance due to bad maps, bad aircraft maintenance, good British camouflage discipline, and the counter reconnaissance efforts of the Somali Camel Corps.

Nevertheless, imagined troops are still in the end, imagined. Italians were just too many. Additionally, many units of the Italian Royal Corps of Colonial Troops were tough and experienced after years of fighting Ethiopian guerillas, and the best struck at the Tug Argan. Tough Eritrean and Somali askaris (native soldiers), backed by motorized regular Italian troops, Fascist Blackshirt battalions, and medium and light tanks and armored cars. The defenders of Tug Argan made a fight of it but the lack of anti-tank guns, long defense line, and the piecemeal deployment of the defenders (their deployment was determined by when they offloaded the ships) made the battle a foregone conclusion. However, they were saved from complete encirclement and destruction by a desperate fighting withdrawal by the Somali Camel Corps. The British re-embarked the ships they just disembarked a week before, the Camel Corps disbanded and melted back into the population (we shall hear of them again later), and the British departed Berbera which fell to the Italians on 21 August 1940.

While the Duke of Aosta focused on the coast, Mussolini toasted his new empire, and the world assumed the war was being won by the Axis, three very different men, with three very different views on warfare, arrived in the Sudan: the unpretentious but supremely competent Brigadier William Slim, the brilliant but eccentric Major Orde Wingate, and a certain “Mr. Strong”, who departed London in a flying boat a week before the fall of Berbera. “Mr. Strong” was the Lion of Judah, the Ras Tafari, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, come to liberate his people.

The Fall of British Somaliland meant that Red Sea was considered a “war zone” and neutral American ships carrying vital supplies purchased by the British could not enter. Supplies for Wavell’s forces in Egypt had to come via the Persian Gulf and Basra Iraq, and then trucked to Cairo and Alexandria, an unsatisfactory situation to say the least. The loss at Tug Argan unleashed a flurry of activity to plan, prepare and execute the mind numbingly complex and perilously ad hoc liberation of the Horn of Africa from the Italians before the fall of the Suez Canal and the oil rich Middle East to Germans, Italians, and Soviets.

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