Somaliland Camel Corps: Centuries of British Partnership

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Somaliland Camel Corps/fileThe Somaliland Camel Corps was a unit of the British Army based in British Somaliland. It lasted from the early 20th century until 1944.

In 1888, after signing successive treaties with the then ruling Somali Sultans, the British established a protectorate in northern present-day Somalia referred to as British Somaliland. The British immediately recognized the affinity between the Somali people and their camel charges.

The “Somaliland Camel Constabulary” was an early attempt to harness this natural affinity militarily.

By 1899, the religious and nationalist leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan’s (“Mad Mullah”) Dervish resistance had begun. The period was to last until 1920.

Somaliland Campaign

On 9 August 1913, the “Somaliland Camel Constabulary” suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Dul Madoba at the hands of the “Mad Mullah.” Hassan roamed British Somaliland and had already evaded several attempts to capture him. At Dul Madoba, 57 members of the 110-man unit were killed or wounded. The dead included the British commander, Colonel Richard Corfield.

On 12 March 1914, the British set out to create what was to become the “Somaliland Camel Corps” the better to maintain order in the protectorate, much of which was coextensive with the Warsangali Sultanate’s and Dervish State’s respective domains. The corps served against the “Mad Mullah”, but after a total of four major expeditions to capture him, Hassan remained on the loose. During the same period, the corps set an impressive standard by covering one-hundred-and-fifty miles in seventy-two hours. The camel corps grew to include some 700 mounted riders.

In November 1919, the British launched the fifth and final expedition. In 1920, a combined land and air offensive — which included the Somaliland Camel Corps, the Royal Air Force’s Z Force, Somaliland Police, elements from the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion and 6th (British Somaliland) Battalion of the King’s African Rifles (KAR), and an Indian battalion — finally defeated Hassan’s Dervish army.

During the period between World War I and World War II, the Somaliland Camel Corps was re-configured the better to defend the protectorate in the event of a future war. In 1930, Colonel Arthur Reginald Chater of the Royal Marines was placed in command of a slightly smaller corps of five-hundred troopers. Like many other colonial units the Somaliland Camel Corps had British officers. In the late 1930s, the corps was given 900 British pounds to build pillboxes and reserve water tanks. After the financial crisis of 1931, the Somaliland Camel Corps numbered 14 British officers, 400 African Askaris, and 150 African Reservists.

World War II

In September 1939, the Somaliland Camel Corps had a total strength of fourteen British officers, one British non-commissioned officer, and 554 non-European other ranks. Initially, the corps was placed under the garrison commander of French Somaliland. The Somaliland Camel Corps’ four companies were split among five different locations in the colony. Only “A” Company retained its camels, while the other companies had become infantry units.

Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command, was appalled by the under-equipped force that was supposed to defend an entire colony. In 1940, as a result of his concern, the unit was partially mechanised and further defences were built. However, before the upgrades could be completed, the funds dried up.

At the beginning of the East African Campaign, the Somaliland Camel Corps only had a total of one thousand, four hundred and seventy-five men to defend British Somaliland. This number included a battalion of the Northern Rhodesian Regiment. Reinforcements were eventually sent in a vain hope to stop the Italian invasion.

During the Italian invasion of British Somaliland, the Somaliland Camel Corps skirmished and screened the attacking force along the border before pulling back to more defensible positions. At Observation Hill, the corps made a formidable stand. One of its officers, Captain Eric Charles Twelves Wilson of the East Surreys, received a Victoria Cross (VC) for his use of a machine gun during the defence. Despite wounds, malaria, and having several guns destroyed from under him, he stayed at his post. Wilson was the only VC recipient during the Italian invasion of British Somaliland; only six other VCs were awarded for operations in East Africa. Wilson was later found alive in an Italian prisoner of war camp.

However, despite a spirited defence, the British were over-matched and withdrew from Berbera on 17 August 1940. With the final withdrawal, most of the Somali troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps were disbanded.

On 16 March 1941, less than one year from the date of withdrawal, the British returned to the colony. Soon afterwards the Somaliland Camel Corps was re-founded. By 18 April, the unit was at about 80% of its former strength. The Camel Corps spent the following months rounding up stray Italians and policing against local bandits.

In 1942, the Somaliland Camel Corps became a mechanized regiment.

On 30 April 1944, six bombers of 621 Squadron, Royal Air Force, attacked and damaged the German submarine U-852, which was under the command of Lieutenant-Captain (Kapitänleutnant) Heinz-Wilhelm Eck. He and 52 members of the crew came ashore, where members of the corps captured them on 13 March and interned them.

For some time there were plans to send the corps to Burma. However, the British disbanded the Somaliland Camel Corps in 1944 after several mutinies had taken place.

Organization

In 1939, on the brink of war, the Somaliland Camel Corps was organized as follows:

Headquarters and Headquarters Company, The Somaliland Camel Corps:

‘A’ (Camel) Company: Hargeisa

‘B’ (Nyasa Infantry) Company: Tug Argen

‘C’ Company: Burao

‘D’ Company: Tug Argen (less 2 Platoons at Sheekh)

Uniform

The troopers of the Somaliland Camel Corps had a distinctive dress which was based on the standard British Army khaki drill, but included a knitted woollen pullover and drill patches on the shoulders. Shorts were worn with woollen socks on puttees and “chaplis”, boots or bare feet. Equipment consisted of a leather ammunition bandolier and a leather waist belt. The officers wore pith helmets and khaki drill uniforms. Other ranks wore a “kullah” with “puggree” which ended in a long tail which hung down the back. A “chaplis” is typically a colourful sandal. A “kullah” is a type of cap. A “puggree” is typically a strip of cloth wound around the upper portion of a hat or helmet, particularly a pith helmet, and falling down behind to act as a shade for the back of the neck.

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