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The Anglo-Somali War 1901-1920 or »How to Get Rid of a Rebel«


Major A. B. Aller, Hærens Materielkommando, der i et år har arbejdet for Folkekirkens Nødhjælp i Somalia, har sendt tidsskriftet denne beretning om nedkæmpelse af et oprør.

During the last years (after the defeat of French and US forces in Indochina) there has been much interest shown to earlier fights between well equipped armies and resistance movements, 5th columns, rebels, etc. Although the British annihilation of the Somali leader, Mohamed Abdullah Hassan - in England normally known as »the mad Mullah« - took twenty years and was finally made utilizing an independent airforce unit, this war is not well known to the public. And yet this is the story of one of the first examples of the utilization of modem arms against a powerful people’s army, who had the nearly total control of an immense area with strongpoints which could not be overrun without extremely severe losses, and with utilization of the sanctuary on the other side of international borders. The parallel with Vietnam is obvious. Mohamed Abdullah Hassan was bom in the 1860’s in Kirrit in the Ogaden Desert. As a young man he went to sea, and sailed to Egypt where he leamed from the Mahadi (religious leader) - known for his victory over Gordon in Kartoum in 1885 - made the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca and joined the very fanatical Islamic sect »Mohamed Salih«. In 1889 he retumed to his mother’s tribe, Nigal, and gathered followers from this tribe. He started to discipline his followers. The discipline was hard - cruel by modem standards - (one British source claimed that 300 women were excecuted, because the Mullah dreamed that they would not pray). The British considered him a religious, fanatic rebel, although an opposition member of the Parliament in London described him as »a brave man, striving to be free«. In a raid on Burao, he plundered the wealthy tribe there, pressed part of the men to join his force and left the area with a force of 3.000 men.

The fightings went on in the following years on a rather large scale. In one battle Sheikh Mohamed Abdullah lost 1.400 men and 25.000 camels. The British force (excluding friendly Somali tribesmen) was increased from 2.000 men of the Kings African Rifles plus 1.000 British and 300 Indian troops; a total of 8.000 men. It has been ar gued as to whether Sheikh Mohamed was a tribalist or a nationalist. It might be a rather theoretical question in this environment, but the national pride can be seen in a letter he wrote to the English people in 1903: »If the country was cultivated, or contained houses or property it would be worth your while to fight. The country is all jungle and that is no use to you. If you want wood or stone you can get them in plenty. There are also many ant heaps. The sun is very hot. All you can get from me is war, nothing else«. In 1907 Mohamed Abdullah was forced to withdraw to the Italian side of the border, but two years later he was back and the British had to withdraw to Berbera and two other coastal towns and leave the tribes in the hinterland to their own. In order to have some control, the British supplied rifles and ammunition to »friendly« tribes. The British garrison was reduced to a »Somali constabulary« of 150 camel men with English officers until 1913 when half of them were killed in a skirmish, and the garrison was increased to 500 man strong camel corps and 400 Indian troops. During the First World War, Sheik Mohamed Abdullah got.help from the new Turkish oriented Ethiopian Emperor, Lij Yasu, who provided him with weapons, ammunition and a Turkish fortress architect, who assisted in the construction of about 30 stone forts in Northern Somalia and the O gaden. In the main fort, Taleh, he had a German mechanic, Enil Kirsch, producing ammunition, Kirsch had fled from Djibouti to Ethiopia in 1917 and was sent by Lij Yasu to Sheik Mohamed as a »present« on a 5 month contract. The Dervishes wanted him to produce rifles without supplying tools and raw materials and to repair Maxim machine-guns without any spare parts. He succeeded in a »rope-escape« with his Nyasa servant from the 10 meter high tower, but died of thirst after six days without food and water. After the First World War it was decided that the British should go into the offensive to annihilate the Mullah and his regime. As previous operations had been costly and had given no permanent results, it was decided to try an air expedition. The advantages of such an operation would be:

- it could be carried out at a relatively low cost;

- only a force of 250 men would be needed, compared to a long term army campaign with at least 5.000 troops;

- an aerial expedition could be prepared and transferred rapidly;

- if a failure, the losses would be bearable.

It was decided to dispatch a self contained RAF unit »Force Z« to Berbera under the command of Group Captain Gordon in the last half of 1919. The group had 12 »DH9« aeroplanes out of which one was an ambulance plane, 36 officers (incl. 4 medical officers) and 189 other ranks (incl. 25 medical personnel) and had rations, fuel, spare parts, ammunition etc. to operate independently for 6 months. In November 1919 Gordon arrived at Berbera together with his aerodrome engineer and his supply-officer as an advance party. In order to keep the plans secret, they wore no RAF insignia, but came as the advance party for an oil-exploring company. They started up with preparing an aerodrome (»site for drilling equipment«) at Berbera. Next an aerodrome was made near Burao, 140 km. from Berbera and 150 km. from Eli Dur Elan fort, where the Mullah was suspected to be. During December more than 20 tons of supplies as well as 2.000 camels were moved to the aerodrome at Burao - a 6 days’s ride. On 30th December, the main force, with the aeroplanes, arrived by Royal Navy to Berbera. The same day the Govemor, F. G. Archer, sent a flysheet to »the Dervishes of the Mullah Mohamed Ben Abdullah Hassan of Ogaden« carried by British Officer »who like the birds in the air flies fast and far« granting safe conduct for the followers of the Mullah if they surrendered and offering a reward for the capture of the Mullah: 5.000 piasters, 1.100 to 500 for his brothers and 500 to 250 piasters for his sons and some of his leaders. On the 19th of January, the »Force Z« was ready in Burao and to days later it was ready for the first phase: to locate and bomb the Fort of Medish and Jid Ali. The first bomb hit next to Mohamed Abdullah, and his sister and the man standing next to him were killed. After 4 days of bombing and strafing where a great part of the camels and cattle were killed, it was decided to go on to the second phase, a combined operation with the camel corps. On the 27th, the camel corps was at Jid Ali Fort and after bombing by RAF the fortress fell with no losses on the British side. The Mullah had fled towards the east, presumably to Taleh. On the 29th the RAF found Taleh;

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no sign of troop movemente, but the aerial photographs taken on the lst of February revealed a huge fort complex. The main fort was 100x200 yards and had 12 turrets more than 10 meters high, with grain silos for each turret and accommodations for more than 5.000 soldiers with camels. It was decided to make a new aerodrome at Gaolo. This would take approximately 3 weeks but after a bombing of Taleh on the 3rd where the forts were bombed with 112 20 and 2 Ibs. bombs, the village was bombed with incendiary bombs and the cattle and camels strafed with machine guns. On the 5-6 February a British Captain led a »friendly« tribeunit from Gaolo in a attack on a supply caravan of the Mullah and captured more than 1.400 camels. At the same time the Camel Corps had moved towards Taleh, which they reached on the 9th. The Mullah seemed at that time to have lost his fighting spirit. He fled with 70 persons, pursued by the Camel Corps. As the Camel Corps came nearer, he broke off with two or three men. The Camel Corps encircled the rest of the caravan and all were captured or killed. 6 of his sons were killed here; 6 sons, 4 wives, 4 daughters and two sisters were captured. Seen from a military point of view, the success was complete. The operation took 23 days, the British lost 2 other ranks and 4 wounded and the Mullah fled without possessions or followers and never regained political power. But . .. he survived as a freedom symbol. He is still remembered in Somalia as the freedom fighter who fought the British and the Italians. It is forgo tten that, in 1919, he claimed that he was a brother-son of Ras Mikhail, the Abyssinian Emperor. He was a gifted poet, a natural leader of men, a religious leader and up to the end believed to have supernatural powers. According to tradition he had a protective amulet, donated by a devil on the request of a lady lizard, whose life he once spared!

Axel Aller Mogadiscio, December 1981.


Navel Review 1921 pg. 627

Wing commander W. Turrell papers. Imperial War Museum London

Royal Air Force & Civil Aviation Record 9-1920 Personal visits to Taleh and NW Somalia.