French Somaliland in World War II

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Map of French Somaliland, modern-day Djibouti. The British blockade prevented direct sea communications between Djibouti, the capital, and Obock

French Somaliland (officially the Côte française des Somalis, "French Somali Coast"), with its capital at Djibouti, was the scene of only minor skirmishing during World War II, principally between June and July 1940. After the fall of France (25 June 1940) the colony was briefly in limbo until a governor loyal to the Vichy government was installed on 25 July. It was the last French possession in Africa to remain loyal to Vichy, surrendering to Free French forces only on 26 December 1942. Pierre Nouailhetas governed the territory through most of the Vichy period. In response to aerial bombardment by the British, he instituted a brutal reign of terror against both Europeans and locals, and was eventually recalled and forced to retire. From September 1940, the colony was under an Allied blockade, and many of its inhabitants fled to neighbouring British Somaliland. After the territory's liberation, it cycled through governors rapidly and recovery from the deprivation of 1940–42 was only beginning when the war ended in 1945.


Landing of French troops in Djibouti in 1935
Italian supply convoy in Djibouti, c. 1936–38

After the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and in response to Italian irredentism over the French possessions of Corsica and Nice and the colony of Tunisia, the French government paid increased attention to the defence of French Somaliland. In January 1938 an Italian force moved down onto the plain of Hanlé[a] in French territory and encamped there. Italy claimed that this territory lay on the Ethiopian side of the border, as per the Franco-Ethiopian treaty of 1897.[1] The French colonial minister, Georges Mandel, and the commander-in-chief at Djibouti, Paul Legentilhomme, responded by strengthening the colony's defences to unprecedented levels: 15,000 troops were stationed there and posts were established at Afambo, Moussa Ali and even on the other side of the Italians. The landward fortifications were augmented extensively with concrete.[2]

In October 1938, in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement, Italy demanded concessions from France, among them a free port at Djibouti and control of the Djibouti–Addis Ababa railway. The French refused the demands, believing the true Italian intention was outright acquisition of the colony.[3] On 30 November, after anti-French protests in Rome, the Italian foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, demanded the cession of French Somaliland to Italy. Speaking in the Chamber of Deputies on the "natural aspirations of the Italian people", he inspired shouts of "Nice! Corsica! Savoy! Tunisia! Djibouti! Malta!"[4]

On 18 December there was a counter-protest in Djibout, in which the majority of the adult male population gathered in the centre of town waving the tricolore and shouting, "Djibouti, terre française, droit rester française!" ("Djibouti, French land, must remain French!").[5] The Italians, however, created a group of small fortifications (Abba, Dagguirou, Gouma, etc.) inside the western border of French Somalia, claiming at the end of 1939 that the territory was inside their colonial area.[6]

On the even of the world war, Fauque de Jonquières, a battalion commander, was in charge of the local intelligence outfit, an arm of the Section d'Études Militaires (SEM). After the Italian conquest of Ethiopia he gave money, arms, advisors, propaganda and refuge to the Ethiopian resistance.[5] One French reserve officer, P. R. Monnier, was killed on a secret mission in Ethiopia in November 1939.[7] Despite the fact that British Somaliland bordered the French territory and both were surrounded by Italian East Africa, no Anglo-French joint military planning took place prior to a meeting at Aden in June 1939. In January 1940 a second conference was held at Djibouti. There it was resolved to form an "Ethiopian Legion" in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, but not to use it without an Italian declaration of war.[7]

War with Italy and armistice[edit]

General Le Gentilhomme reviewing troops

Italy's declaration of war on France and Great Britain came on 10 June 1940 and the next day (11 June) the French commander-in-chief at Djibouti, Paul Legentilhomme, was named supreme commander of all Allied forces in the so-called Somaliland theatre.[7] Since the Allies were outnumbered by about 40,000 to 9,000 along the Somaliland frontier, no offensive actions were planned. The intention was to pin down the Italians while the Ethiopians staged a revolt. There was some skirmishing between the French and Italians over the railroad at Ali-Sabieh.[7]

General Charles de Gaulle's appeal of 18 June for French officers and soldiers to ignore the impending Franco-Italian armistice was itself ignored by most officers in Somaliland, only Legentilhomme himself was in favour of siding with De Gaulle and "Fighting France".[7] On 25 June the Armistice of Villa Incisa came into effect, ending the war between Italy and France. It called for the demilitarisation of Somaliland "for the duration of hostilities between Italy and the British Empire," and granted Italy "full and constant right to use the port of Djibouti with all its equipment, together with the French section of the Djibouti–Addis Ababa railway, for all kinds of transport" (article 3). The location for the surrender of "all movable arms and ammunition, together with those to be given up to the troops effecting the evacuation of the territory ... within 15 days" (article 5), the procedures for demobilisation and disarmament of French forces (article 9) and the conditions of wireless communication between France and the colonies (article 19) were left to an Italian Armistice Control Commission.[8] Legentilhomme procrastinated in carrying out the armistice terms, since he had lost contact with the government in France. On 28 June, when the Italians demanded that he fulfill certain clauses, he denied all knowledge of any such clauses.[9]

French military post at Ali-Sabieh

Between 1 and 10 July several clashes with the Italians took place on the plain of Hanlé, at Ali-Sabieh and along the railroad.[10] The border area of western French Somalia was occupied by Italian troops, who only withdrew from Hanlé in October 1940 and only in March 1941 from Dagguirou.[11] When, on 10 July, the government learned that the armistice was not yet put into effect in Somaliland, President Philippe Pétain sent General Gaëtan Germain as his personal representative to rectify the situation. Germain arrived at Asmara on 14 July.[12] On 19 July the local conseil d'administration (administrative council) voted unanimously (with the exception of Legentilhomme) to remain loyal to Pétain's collaborationist government at Vichy.[10] Germain then negotiated the resignation of Legentilhomme and convinced the armistice commission then being set up that it was inadvisable and impractical to demilitarise French Somaliland, in which approximately 8,000 soldiers (with tanks and airplanes) thus remained on guard.[10] French troops in British Somaliland were withdrawn.[12] On 23 July he succeeded Legentilhomme as commander-in-chief of French forces. On the same day, Governor Hubert Jules Deschamps was dismissed because he refused to expel the British consul, with whom he had reached an agreement to supply the colony with food. Germain succeeded him as well, thus becoming the supreme civil and military authority in the colony.[10] He entered Djibouti on 25 July.[12] On 2 August Legentilhomme and two officers refused the offer of repatriation on an Italian airplane and defected to the British.[10] The Italian chief of staff, Pietro Badoglio, had "with casual vindictiveness" ordered him shot if he fell into Italian hands, in accordance with paragraph 14 of the armistice convention which defined those leaving French territory to fight against Italy as "illegal combattants".[12]

During the period of uncertainty in Djibouti, the Italian viceroy of East Africa, Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, urged an attack on British Somaliland in order to cut off the French colony from British support. Benito Mussolini approved the campaign on 19 July, but the situation in Djibouti changed rapidly in Italy's favour after that. Nonetheless, in August Italy conquered British Somaliland in a swift assault.[12] The French territory was completely surrounded on land by Italian possessions. Vichy managed to continue supplying it by submarine from Madagascar, and maintained direct contact by air through flights from France via Greece (usually terminating in Madagascar).[13]

Rule of Nouailhetas[edit]

The Vichy Minister of Colonies with Nouailhetas

On 18 September 1940, the Royal Navy established a blockade of French Somaliland (and dividing the colony) with ships based out of Aden.[14] Pétain replaced Germain as governor with Pierre Nouailhetas, a naval officer, that same month. On 25 September the British bombed Djibouti from the air, prompting Nouailhetas to institute a brutal reign of terror.[10] Europeans suspected of contact with the enemy were interned at Obock, while 45 others were condemned to death or forced labour, mostly in absentia. In May 1941 six Africans were shot without trial to set an example to potential deserters.[15] The rule of Nouailhetas was too brutal for even the authoritarian leaders at Vichy to stand: in September 1942 he was recalled and forced to retire without a pension.[15]

The Free French, under Legentilhomme, established themselves near the French Somali border and began disseminating pro-Gaullist propaganda, seeking to justify the British action at Mers-el-Kébir, the attack on Dakar and the war in Syria. There were even competing newspapers: the Free French published Djibouti Libre ("Free Djibouti") and smuggled it into the colony, while the Vichy authorities published the official Djibouti Français ("French Djibouti").[16]

Photos showing episodes of the British blockade.

On 24 March 1941, in an attempt to prevent an Italian withdrawal from occupied British Somaliland, the British bombed a section of the Djibouti–Addis Ababa railway and met with heavy French anti-aircraft fire.[17] By that time, the British offensive against the Italians had tightened the blockade of French Somaliland and a famine was setting in. Malnutrition-related diseases took many lives, 70% of them women and children.[14] The locals named the blockade the carmii, a word for a type of sorghum usually reserved for cattle, but used as human food at the height of the famine.[18]

In April 1941, after the fall of Addis Ababa, the British tried to negotiate with Nouailhetas for transporting Italian prisoners-of-war along the Djibouti–Addis Ababa railway and evacuating them through Djibouti's port. On 1 May Nouailhetas telegraphed Aden to inform the British that he had received permission from Vichy to negotiate. On 8 May General Alan Cunningham responded with his proposals, but no commitments. On 8 June General Archibald Wavell promised the lifting of the blockade and one month of provisions if the colony declared for De Gaulle; otherwise the blockade would be tightened. Leaflets were dropped from the air to inform the inhabitants of French Somaliland of Britain's terms. Nouailhetas wrote to Aden on 15 June about the high rate of infant mortality owing to malnutrition in the territory, but he rejected the British terms.[16] The British considered but rejected an invasion of French Somaliland because they could not spare the troops and did not wish to offend the local French, whom they hoped would join Free France.[16] The 2nd Tanganyika Battalion of the King's African Rifles (KAR), composed of troops from the Tanganyika Territory, were at this time deployed along the Zeila–Loyada and Ayesha–Dewele routes.[19]

After the war, De Gaulle alleged that Britain intended to bring French Somaliland into its sphere of influence, and that this explains Britain's reluctance to use force to liberate a territory that would of necessity been surrendered to their forces at the end of the war.[20] When negotiations resumed with Nouailhetas later in the summer, the British offered to evacuate the garrison and European civilians to another French colony upon surrender. The French governor informed them that he would have to destroy the colony's railroads and port facilities prior to surrendering.[21] As late as November flights from Italy were still landing in Djibouti,[22] and on 11 December a British Mohawk fighter and a French Potez 631 exchanged shots over the British aerodrome at Ayesha.[23]

Following the failure of negotiations and the final defeat of the Italian forces in the field in May—with the exception of General Guglielmo Nasi at Gondar—the French colony was totally surrounded and cut off by hostile British forces. All horses, donkeys and camels were consumed, as well as all fresh fruits and vegetables. Beriberi and scurvy spread and many townsfolk left for the desert, leaving their children to be cared for by the Catholic missions. The head doctor at the hospital committed suicide in despair.[21] Only a few Arab dhows (boutres) managed to run the blockade from Djibouti to Obock; and only two French ships from Madagascar managed to run it. The Japanese declaration of war (7 December 1941) gave the colony some respite, since the British were forced to draw ships from the blockade for use in the East.[21][24] At the same time, on account of the increased ease of the dhow trade, even the land blockade of the colony was lifted on 15 January 1941.[13][14]

Rallying and liberation[edit]

A Djibouti street in the 1940s

A few defections from French Somaliland did take place in 1941. Some air force pilots escaped to Aden to join the Escadrille française d'Aden under Jacques Dodelier, and Captain Edmond Magendie began training some non-commissioned officers who would become the backbone of the Bataillon de tirailleurs somalis, which later fought in Europe. Some Free French sloops also took part in the bockade.[21] The Commander-in-Chief, East Africa, William Platt, codenamed the negotiations for the surrender of French Somaliland "Pentagon", because there were five sides: himself, the Vichy governor, the Free French, the British minister at Addis Ababa (Robert Howe), and the United States.[25] The American consul at Aden, Clare Timberlake, even bluffed the acting British governor, John Hall, into getting Frederick Hards, AOC Aden, to fly him to Djibouti to interview Nouailhetas before his dismissal. In the end the Americans apologised for this interference.[25]

Only following Operation STREAMLINE JANE—the Allied conquest of Madagascar (September–November 1942)—and Operation TORCH—the Allied landing in French Morocco and Algeria in November 1942—did one third of the Somali garrison, the first battalion of Senegalese Tirailleurs under Colonel Sylvain Eugène Raynal, cross the border into British Somaliland and defect. This prompted the new governor, Christian Raimond Dupont, to offer the British an economic agreement without surrender, but it was rejected. He was informed that if the colony surrendered without firing a shot, the French right to it would be respected in the post-war order. On hearing this, Dupont surrendered and Colonel Raynal's troops crossed back into French Somaliland on 26 December 1942, completing its liberation.[20] The official handover took place at 10:00 p.m. on 28 December.[25]

The first governor appointed under the Free French was André Bayardelle, transferred from New Caledonia in December 1942. Under Bayardelle, the Bataillon de tirailleurs somalis was recruited for service in Europe.[20] Late in 1943 he was transferred to become Governor-General of French Equatorial Africa. His replacement, Raphaël Saller, took office on 13 January 1944. Shortly after he took office, a commission was created to examine those civil servants and other collaborators who had remained loyal to Vichy. In general, only their political allegiance during 1940–42 mattered, and Vichyites were dismissed from public service permanently.[20] He too was shuffled along, and began a long career in the colonial service in French West Africa. The next governor, Jean Chalvet, was replaced within a few weeks by Jean Beyries as acting governor. Normality began to return to Djibouti in mid-1945, when a sufficient number of natives who had fled to neighbouring countries had returned so that the port could operate again.[26] Provisions were coming in from Ethiopia, Madagascar and French North Africa. The power plant was in poor condition and electricity functioned only intermittently, while the rail infrastructure was in disrepair and awaiting deliveries on orders placed in the United States when the war ended.[26]

List of governors during the war[edit]

Vichy France stamp issued in 1941, with an image of Pétain


  1. ^ Hanlé is a wadi (French oued) in the south of the Danakil Desert, in northern Djibouti.
  1. ^ Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 14.
  2. ^ Ebsworth 1953, p. 564.
  3. ^ Burgwyn 1997, pp. 182–83.
  4. ^ Clark 2005, p. 243.
  5. ^ a b Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 15.
  6. ^ Imbert-Vier 2008, p. 171: map titled "Postes français et italiens fin 1939".
  7. ^ a b c d e Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 16.
  8. ^ Franco-Italian Armistice 25 June 1940.
  9. ^ Shores 1996, p. 30.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 17.
  11. ^ Imbert-Vier 2008.
  12. ^ a b c d e Knox 1982, p. 152.
  13. ^ a b Ebsworth 1953, p. 565.
  14. ^ a b c Alwan & Mibrathu 2000, p. 24.
  15. ^ a b Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 18.
  16. ^ a b c Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 19.
  17. ^ Shores 1996, p. 131.
  18. ^ Alwan & Mibrathu 2000, p. 26.
  19. ^ Moyse-Bartlett 2012, pp. 452 and 569.
  20. ^ a b c d Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 21.
  21. ^ a b c d Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 20.
  22. ^ Shores 1996, pp. 158, 161.
  23. ^ Shores 1996, p. 162.
  24. ^ Alwan & Mibrathu 2000, p. 25.
  25. ^ a b c Ebsworth 1953, p. 568.
  26. ^ a b Thompson & Adloff 1968, p. 22.


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