The **Italian conquest of British Somaliland was part of the East African Campaign (1940–1941), which took place in August 1940 between the metropolitan Italian, Eritrean and Somali forces of [Fascist]) [Italy] and British, [Commonwealth and Somali irregulars. The Italian expedition was intended to exploit mobility and speed but was hampered by the Somali terrain, rainy weather and the British rear guard defence of the colony while they evacuated their forces intact.
At the [Battle of Tug Argan] (11–15 August) Italian attacks had the advantage of artillery and the outnumbered British, Commonwealth and Imperial forces were gradually worn down and slowly outflanked until the remaining fortified hilltops were made vulnerable to being captured piecemeal. After the failure of a counter-attack towards the Mirgo Pass, the local commander, Major-General Reade Godwin-Austen had too few men to retrieve the situation and to keep open an escape route and was given permission to retreat towards Berbera.
The British fought a rearguard action at Barkasan on 17 August and then retreated after dark but the improvised evacuation went better than expected and the second blocking position at Nasiyeh was also abandoned. The Italian advance was slowed by roads being swamped by the rains and the airstrip near Berbera being found to be garrisoned, making a coup de main impractical.
The [Royal Navy] had built an all-tide jetty and had commenced evacuating civilian and administrative officials and on 16 August, the British started to embark troops. Attacks by the Regia Aeronautica on the British vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Berbera had begun on 8 August to little effect; HMAS *Hobart was slightly damaged in two attacks and the auxiliary vessel Chakdina suffered splinter damage. On 17 August, the Italian western column at Bulhar, about 40 mi (64 km) west of Berbera, was engaged by the light cruiser HMS *Ceres and halted by gunfire. After dark, the rearguard was withdrawn to Berbera with minimal losses and loading was complete by the early hours of 18 August. Before sailing for Aden early on 19 August, Hobart , with the force headquarters aboard, stayed behind to collect stragglers and complete the destruction of buildings, vehicles, fuel and stores. The tug Queen was the only British ship lost in the operation. The Navy embarked 7,140 people, 5,690 ofthem being front-line troops, 1,266 civilians and 184 sick; Most of the Somalis of the SCC were sent home to wait for the British to return, earlier plans for them to fight a guerrilla war being scrapped. SCC members who were embarked, became an armoured car unit under the same title. There was little Italian interference with the evacuation. Italian troops entered Berbera during the evening of 19 August and Mussolini annexed the colony to the AOI, as part of the Italian Empire.
News of the evacuation came as a shock to British public opinion but Wavell backed Godwen-Austen, saying that he had judged the situation correctly. Winston Churchill criticised Wavell for the loss of British Somaliland; because of the few casualties, Churchill thought that the colony had not been vigorously defended and proposed a [court of enquiry. Wavell refused to co-operate and said that Godwin-Austen and Wilson had conducted a textbook withdrawal in the face of superior numbers. Wavell sent a telegram to Churchill which included the passage
…a big butcher’s bill was not necessarily evidence of good tactics.
…all the British had lost was the privilege of maintaining an expensive garrison in their least valuable colony.
— Cowie War for Britain (1941)
The capture of the colony was the greatest success of the Italians in the East African campaign but they had not been able to exploit the opportunities that they had created and delays caused by the terrain, weather and the cancellation of a coup de main by 300 infantry on the port, enabled the British to get away despite the improvised nature of the embarkation