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The EK1

1/2nd & 3/15th Punjabis in Somaliland, July 1940 – March 1941

The Italian Invasion and British Re-occupation of British Somaliland

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.

For further maps please click HERE

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 and Nyasaland.  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 Tug Argan.

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 para-military troops) ·      
- 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 severely damaged).

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 Palestine to command SOMALIFORCE.  This was no reflection on the abilities of Brigadier Chater who continued to serve under Godwin-Austin.

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 grenades. ·       
- 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 Medal. 

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 Watch. 

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 becoming untenable.

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 were:

- 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 Somaliland.

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 landings.  

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.

SOMALILAND 11th-18th 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 Regiment.

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 the enemy. 

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 Regiment.

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 men.  

No. 7990 Naik Umansab Khan, 2nd Punjab Regiment.

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.   

Mentioned in Despatches

2nd Punjab Regiment
Major T.G. L’E. Grant.
Lieutenant F.W. Mason.
Jemadar Khushi Ram.
No. 10166 Havildar Nagar Singh.
No. 11616 Naik Munshi Ram.
No. 13003 Lance Naik Sher Dil.
No. 13950 Sepoy Attar Singh.

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.  

Punjabis Killed 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 Illahi.

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)
- Chhina, Rana: The Indian Distinguished Service Medal (InvictaIndia 2001).
- British National Archives and Commonwealth War Graves Commission records.
- Film: The British Evacuation of Berbera

  (An edited version of this article appeared in a recent edition of DURBAR, the journal of the Indian Military Historical Society: )

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