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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Italy Invades British Somaliland

August 1940

Theatre: East Africa
Location: British Somaliland
Players: Allies: British garrison (5 battalions including 2nd Battalion, The Black Watch). Italy: 102nd and 104th Colonial Infantry Divisions; Italian Army (26 Battalions) under the Duke of Aosta, the Viceroy of Ethiopia.
Outcome: Massively superior Italian forces eventually took control of British Somaliland, but sustained heavy casualties.

Italian leader Benito Mussolini, shown in full Fascist uniform
Italian leader Benito Mussolini, shown in full Fascist uniform©
When Italy's dictator, Mussolini, declared war on the Allies in June 1940, his forces in East Africa vastly outnumbered those of the British. The Italians had around 91,000 troops, with another 200,000 native forces; the British had just 9,000 troops in the Sudan and another 8,500 in Kenya.

Despite this, the Italians were slow to get going. In July 1940 they pushed tentatively into Sudan, but then stopped. Only in August did they begin a serious offensive and only then against the easiest possible target - British Somaliland, on the African shore of the Gulf of Aden. The operation was intended to prevent any possible use by the British of the port of Djibouti, in French Somaliland, to gain access to Ethiopia.

The Italians had 26 battalions, backed by artillery and tanks, against a British garrison of only four Indian and African battalions, with the 2nd Battalion, The Black Watch, on its way.

Even so, the Italians found the offensive difficult. After being delayed by the small Somaliland Camel Corps, they eventually reached the Tug Argan Pass, on the approaches to the seaport capital of Berbera. There they met fierce resistance and were held at bay for four days.

In the absence of any further reinforcements or a properly defended position, the British force was forced to evacuate. They had inflicted over 2,000 casualties at a cost of around 250 men. Furthermore, the impression that their defence had left on the Italians would greatly influence future actions.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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