Italy Invades British Somaliland

After a search for battle sites that they would be able to conquer, Italian forces struck British Somaliland. Although the Italians achieved their basic objective—to complicate British access to Ethiopia—their victory in the area was temporary.

Summary of Event

Of all the Italian campaigns during World War II, the invasion and occupation of British Somaliland was counted as the sole Italian success in an independent operation. The purpose of the invasion was to deny the British access to French Somaliland and its port city of Djibouti, which would cut off access to Ethiopia. On August 3, 1940, Amadeo, a field marshal, and General Guglielmo Nasi led the invasion forces into British Somaliland. The invading force of approximately 175,000 troops consisted of nearly 70 percent native African troops who had been enlisted as members of the Italian army and were gathered mostly from the Italian colony of Italian Somaliland. [kw]Italy Invades British Somaliland (Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941)
[kw]Invades British Somaliland, Italy (Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941)
[kw]British Somaliland, Italy Invades (Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941)
[kw]Somaliland, Italy Invades British (Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941)
Italy;invasion of British Somaliland
British Somaliland;invasion by Italy
Abyssinian Campaign (1940-1941)
East African Campaign (1940-1941)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Abyssinian Campaign
[g]Africa;Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941: Italy Invades British Somaliland[10270]
[g]Djibouti;Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941: Italy Invades British Somaliland[10270]
[g]Italy;Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941: Italy Invades British Somaliland[10270]
[g]Somalia;Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941: Italy Invades British Somaliland[10270]
[c]Military history;Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941: Italy Invades British Somaliland[10270]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941: Italy Invades British Somaliland[10270]
[c]World War II;Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941: Italy Invades British Somaliland[10270]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 3, 1940-Mar., 1941: Italy Invades British Somaliland[10270]
Mussolini, Benito
[p]Mussolini, Benito;Abyssinian Campaign
Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;Abyssinian Campaign
Nasi, Guglielmo
Godwin-Austen, Alfred
Wavell, Archibald

On June 10, 1940, after witnessing Nazi Germany’s massive territorial gains during its early victories and after the fall of France, Benito Mussolini, the Fascist Italian dictator, decided to join World War II on the side of the Axis forces, which had previously consisted of Germany and Japan. On June 10, 1940, Italy formally declared war on Great Britain, but it was slow to initiate any action against its new enemy. After surveying the strength of various Allied forces around the world, Mussolini decided to launch his first offensive action in Africa, since a campaign there was likely to end in an Italian victory.

The British army had approximately thirty-six thousand troops in Africa. On the other hand, the Italians had nearly one million troops in the same area. Britain’s success as a colonial power was largely dependent on its impressive navy, and the Italians realized that they could defeat the British on land if not at sea. When Italy’s army confronted the British in Africa in 1940, the vast Italian forces quickly overwhelmed the few battalions of British defenders stationed in British Somaliland.

Both the Axis and Allied Powers were extremely interested in the control of the Suez Canal and in the Middle East’s vast oil supplies. Throughout World War II, the Allies maintained the upper hand in the Middle East. The Axis forces had several victories, although many of these were short-lived, including the Italian invasion and occupation of British Somaliland. In this campaign, the four battalions of British defenders were vastly outnumbered by the attacking Italians, who formed three separate columns to take the western cites of Zeila, Hargeisa, and Odweina. Zeila and Hargeisa both fell to the Italians on the second day of the invasion, and Odweina fell on the third day.

The British defending forces fell east to Tug Argan, where their main positions were located. Two of the three Italian columns joined forces for the attack on Tug Argan and moved into position, while the third column moved on toward the capital city Berbera. The British, realizing their desperate straits, received a few reinforcements and a new commander, General Alfred Godwin-Austen, but they were still only able to hold Tug Argan for a few days. The British defenders then retreated to the north coast city of Berbera, the capital of British Somaliland. On August 19, 1940, the British troops were successfully evacuated across the Gulf of Aden to the city of Aden in southern Yemen, leaving British Somaliland to the victorious Italians.

Defense of British Somaliland cost the British 38 deaths, 111 wounded, and 111 missing soldiers. The Italians fared significantly worse: Their losses included approximately 465 deaths, 1,530 wounded, and 34 missing. When the total size of the initial invading and defending forces are considered, a careful analysis of these numbers shows that the British were able to conduct an extremely skillful and orderly withdrawal while inflicting maximum casualties on the Italians. At first Winston Churchill criticized General Archibald Wavell, head of the Middle East command, for practically giving away British Somaliland without a fight, but later, after analyzing the numbers carefully, Churchill withdrew any criticisms of Wavell’s tactics; Churchill realized that the alternative could have cost Britain its entire defensive force.

The Italians had little interest in gaining natural resources or territory in British Somaliland. Instead, Italian interests were based entirely on denying access to Ethiopia via British Somaliland. While British Somaliland had no direct access to Ethiopia, it could access the area through French Somaliland and its port of Djibouti. However, by preventing Great Britain from contact with the border between British Somaliland and French Somaliland, the Italians were able to keep the British away from Ethiopia.


The Italian invasion of British Somaliland was successful largely due to the fact that the invading Italian troops overwhelmingly outnumbered the defending British troops. The main objective of the invasion—to deny Great Britain access to Ethiopia through the French Somaliland port of Djibouti—was also met. This victory, however, came at significant human cost to the Italians, particularly in light of the imbalance in numbers of troops. The British inflicted more than 2,000 casualties and lost only 260 of their own troops. Also, in the face of huge numbers of Italian troops, the British successfully evacuated most of their assets. In other words, the British defeat was not a total defeat, and it was not long before they regained their strength.

The Italian occupation of British Somaliland was very short-lived. In March of 1941, Great Britain launched a successful military expedition from Aden to retake British Somaliland from the Italians. This expedition was just a part of a multipronged and successful Allied offensive military operation into North Africa, known as the North African Campaign. The Italians’ success was at least partly based on use of modern technology. Italian forces did an excellent job of coordinating by radio as they split into three separate columns in the western cities of Zeila, Hargeisa, and Odweina. In addition, the Italians were able to force the British troops out of British Somaliland with remarkable speed: In a little more than two weeks, the Italians controlled the British Somaliland capital city of Berbera and had driven all the defending British troops off the continent and into the British protectorate of Aden. Italy;invasion of British Somaliland
British Somaliland;invasion by Italy
Abyssinian Campaign (1940-1941)
East African Campaign (1940-1941)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Abyssinian Campaign

Further Reading

  • French, David. Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War Against Germany, 1919-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This work contains a detailed accounting of the military tactics and equipment utilized by Great Britain’s troops during World War II.
  • Gilbert, Adrian. Germany’s Lightning War: The Campaigns of World War II. Newton Abbot, England: David and Charles, 2000. This book conveys a great deal of information concerning the tactics of ground war utilized by the Axis countries.
  • Goda, Norman J. W. Tomorrow the World: Hitler, Northwest Africa, and the Path Toward America. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1998. This work contains detailed information on Axis tactics utilized during the African campaign.
  • Townshend, Charles, ed. Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This work contains a great deal of text and photographs that fully cover the African campaign of World War II as well as many other conflicts.

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