British Operations Against The mad mullah

A wargamer's Guide 


1919 - 1920 – The Fifth Expedition

The return of the Warrior Mullah to major raiding gained Westminster government’s attention and in October 1919 they authorised a further campaign.  Current intelligence indicated that he was at Medishe and Jidali (not to be confused with Jidbali) in the north west of British Somaliland.  The plan called for an innovative approach that with its relative cheapness attracted Treasury approval.  An important feature of the projected campaign was the operational security (secrecy) that was attached to the arrival of the air component at Berbera.  The story was put out that the long awaited oil boring operations were about to begin.  So it was that the arrival of the RAF personnel and equipment was associated with these fictitious operations without raising any suspicions.

 The plan called for a carefully co-ordinated attack involving land, sea and air components.  The land component’s Force A (the Camel Corps and a wing of the 101 Grenadiers) was to be deployed at Eil Dur Elan  in the north, with Force B (King’s African Rifles) at Las Koreh and was to cut the Dervishes off from their escape to Italian Somaliland and capture the Dervish fort at Baran.   The sea component provided by HMS Clio and HMS Odin was to capture the fort at Galliabur which would deprive the Mullah of his last access to the Gulf of Aden.  Three thousand tribal levies were in the south to prevent the Mullah’s escape in that direction.  The Air component, Force Z with its light bombers based at Eil Dur Elan.  The overall plan was to drive the Mullah north into Force A or west into hostile Abyssinian territory.  The logistic effort was not neglected and supplies were acquired locally as before.  In addition remounts and other equipment including Stokes mortars, ammunition, additional water tanks and other equipment was purchased from Egypt, Aden, India and elsewhere.  The forward supply dump was established at Las Dureh where enough supplies to last the entire force 3 months were stockpiled. 

Major H Rayne MC was appointed chief supply and transport officer.  He set about forming new companies of the Somali Camel Corps and 42 supply companies each of 120 camels.  This was no mean task as the region had been depleted of 10,000 baggage camels in 1917 and 1918 to supply the needs of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.  Particular attention was paid to the medical provision for the Levy and the locally recruited drivers and followers.  Once the logistic preparations were well advanced a signal was sent for the aircraft to be sent up from Alexandria on HMS Ark Royal.  The concentration of Force Z was completed on 17 January 1920. 

On 20 January 1920 a lone DH9A carried out a leaflet dropping raid on the Mullah’s Haroun at Medishe.  The leaflets warned him that the “arm of the government is long” and advising that he and his followers should surrender.  The Somali response was clear, they fired at the aeroplane. 

The campaign opened the next day when six DH9As took off in the early morning to bomb Jidali and Medishe.  They became separated and only one found Medishe.  Four of the others reached Jidali and bombed the fort there.  The issued maps were of no help with all their errors. The single DH9A that reached Medishe dropped eight 20lb bombs, strafed the fleeing Dervishes and photographed the results.  The first bomb scored a direct hit on a group of Dervishes under a white canopy.  The Mullah’s sister, his uncle Amir Hassan and an escort of 10 riflemen were all killed.  Only the Mullah escaped unwounded.  The blast had scorched his white robes and green turban.  Over the next few days the DH9As dropped 112lb bombs and 50lb incendiaries as well as the smaller 20lb bombs forcing the Mullah to retreat from their caves to the fort at Taleh.  The Haroun was set on fire and the livestock scattered.  Subsequent raids with bombing from 800 feet and machine gunning from 300 feet completed the dispersal.  The aircraft in these raids had been spotted and were “identified” as Ottoman Turkish machines bringing the Sultan’s greetings.  Apparently, the Somalis did not know that the Great War had ended. 

These air raids were quickly followed up on the ground.  The Camel Corps (with the camel-pack wireless telegraphy set and a section of the field hospital) under Colonel Summers moved forward and occupied Eil Afeweina early on 21 January.  Here he constructed a fortified position and emergency landing strip.  The Illalo scouts pushed further out as a screen and the mounted men stood to awaiting the call to move immediately as the infantry and baggage column moved up.  The base was established and, leaving a garrison of 1½ Companies of the 101st Grenadiers (130 rifles) and a reserve of 1,700 baggage camels, Force A advanced.  Thus a vital supply line to the south that proved of immense value in later operations was opened.  At the same time a supply column of 1800 camels carrying 3-weeks rations, reserve Stokes and rifle ammunition, hand grenades and explosives escorted by a company of 101st Grenadiers and a dismounted company of the Camel Corps followed close behind.  By the 25th no contact had been made with any large bodies of Dervishes.  The communication by wireless telegraphy and air dropped messages were both significant because they provided the column commander with up to date information allowing him an unprecedented operational advantage over previous commanders and the Mullah. 

Arrangements were made by radio for the RAF to bomb the fort at Jidali at 1000 on 27 January.  Most of the Dervish defenders fled into the bush.  The few that remained held their positions and the Camel Corps was ordered forward at 1100.  As they advanced the Dervishes fired from the top of the fort but were suppressed by machine gun fire.  The Stokes mortars were brought forward to 250 yards and then to 180 yards dropping about 20 mortar bombs onto the roof.  Some of these failed to detonate but 4 breached the roof and detonated inside. The garrison suffered fewer casualties than might have been expected because of the thick walls and small rooms on the ground floor.  The Dervishes still held out firing and singing and the Camel Corps fell back to await the reserve ammunition and grenades and for the infantry to launch a dismounted attack.  The next morning the defenders had fled leaving 2 dead and 76 rifles behind. 

Force B, meanwhile, sent out a column led by Lt Col JS Wilkinson of 667 rifles of the KAR and 63 Illalos from Musha Aled on 20 January.  The column was preceded by an Illalo patrol and a detachment of 1 platoon of KAR sent to guard a waterhole he intended for use later.  They arrived at Baran after a hard march at 0830 on 23 January.  The fort itself was a square building about 40 feet high with towers at each corner linked by a 12 foot high wall and was held by about 100 warriors. 

Lt Col Wilkinson’s Column

British Officers – 24

British OR - 7

Illalo Scouts (Tribal Police) – 60

6/KAR – 700

800 camels

? x Vickers MMG

? x Lewis LMG

2 x Stokes Mortars

Captain Hewett’s Landing Party

Sailors – 99

Somali Levy – 149

2 x Tripod Maxim MMG

3 x Lewis LMG

1 x 12 pdr 4 cwt Naval field gun

Force Z - Gp Capt R Gordon

At Eil Dur Elan

6 x Airco DH9A bombers

2 x Airco DH9A ambulances

6 x spare Airco DH9A bombers

Force A – Col GH Summers At Eil Dur Elan

Somali Camel Corps – 700

(3 x Camel and 2 x pony Coys with 2 x Stokes Mortars, 8 x Vickers MMG and 2 x Lewis guns)

101st Bombay Grenadiers – 400

(2 Stokes mortars and 8 Lewis guns)

Ilalos – 300

Field Ambulance – tent section and bearer section

Royal Signals – ½ Kilowatt portable camel-pack wireless set

Force B – Lt Col JS Wilkinson

At Las Koreh

770 men from:

1/KAR (HQ & No2 Coy)

6/KAR (Nos 1, 2 & 3 Coys)

Naval Detachment from gunboats Clio & Odin

Illalo Scouts – 300

Tribal Levy – 3,000

The assault formed up in a line of platoons and advanced to 1,200 yards distance from the fort.  The main attack went in with one company moving around the eastern flank of the fort to cut off any Dervish retreat.  When these troops were within 600 yards of the Dervishes they opened an enfilade fire but they were quickly suppressed by machine gun fire.  This allowed the Stokes mortars to be brought up to 500 yards to support the attack as it moved up to 300 yards.  The Stokes mortar fire appeared to be ineffective although many direct hits were scored on the roofs of the towers.  At 1630 two courses of action were open to the column; a costly frontal assault on the fort, or continue the fire fight until evening and then withdraw to resume the following day. Colonel Wilkinson decided upon the second course of action.  The troops withdrew 4 miles south of Baran for the night. 

The action opened the next day at 1430 and during the advance the Dervishes kept up a brisk fire.  The Stokes mortars were brought up to 270 yards and 12 direct hits were scored on the roofs of the towers behind the parapets.  Despite the heavy rifle, machine gun and mortar fire the Dervishes held out and it was decided to assault the fort after dark, breaching it with 100 pounds of guncotton.  Charges were prepared and ay 1945, Lietenant Godfrey and Quartermaster-Sergeant Wood and 4 KAR Askaris moved forward under cover of supporting machine gun fire.  They set the charges and tamped them against a corner tower.  There was a terrific explosion that virtually demolished the tower and it was decided to wait until dawn to make the final assault.  The Dervishes spent the night awaiting the attack.  In the early morning a strong patrol led by Lieutenant Minnery caught the Dervishes attempting to withdraw and after a quick assault through the ruined tower he opened the gate and captured 2 more corner towers in short hand-to-hand fights.  The fourth was held by a resolute sniper who resisted gunfire and grenades until Lieutenant Minnery climbed up inside it and shot him with his revolver.  Only 10 or 12 of the Dervishes escaped.  The capture of the fort at Baran closed off the Mullah’s route to the east. 

Once the fighting was over the attackers could see the effect that the mortars and breaching charge had had.  The fort contained 60 bodies and many animals lay dead within the walls.  The attackers had suffered 4 men and a mule wounded.  For their gallantry Minnery was awarded the MC and Wood the DCM.

Despite these successes at Baran, Jidali and Medishe the whereabouts of the Mullah and his main force was still very obscure.  Intelligence suggested that he and his scattered forces had withdrawn into the hills to the north.  His actual location was unknown as no prisoners or deserters had yet been brought in.  Air reconnaissance missions were flown every day and daily updates were communicated by wireless to the columns.  Illalo mobile and standing patrols were established to report any Dervish movement south from the Surud and Dalau Range.  The RAF operated an unrestricted campaign bombing and strafing anything that moved while the Illalos sent out patrols to gather intelligence about the Mullah and the location of his forces.  One of these patrols discovered a large force of riflemen at a waterhole.  However, the outnumbered Camel Corps troopers were forced to retire but not before they saw a group of men hustle a stout gentleman off on a mule.  They did not know it at the time but they had spotted the Mullah.  Pending some substantial information, Colonel Summers held his mounted troops rested.  He decided not to advance on Medishe, the last known site of the Haroun. 

Then on 30 January a deserter came in with news that the Mullah had broken out and was heading to the Nogal Valley.  Furthermore he had been in the Mullah’s force at 1530 the previous day and could show the tracks of the Mullah’s Dervish horsemen.  Orders were sent immediately for Force B in its entirety to move to Jidali and continue operations in the Medishe-Surud area.  The mounted troops of Force A prepared to move out in pursuit.  The deserter also reported, and his story was confirmed later, that the Mullah had been taken completely by surprise by the advance and after the first aerial attack he had hidden in a cave at Hamas.  He then moved 15 miles north east of Medishe again hiding in caves.  Here he left his 2 machine guns, arms, ammunition and treasure.  He hid there until he heard of the occupation of Jidali and the capture of Baran.  This compelled him to flee southwards.  It was now clear that the entire Dervish force was streaming to the Nogal in an evacuation of everyone and all the livestock supervised by Ibrahim Boghol, one of the best known Dervish leaders.  The deserter estimated the fighting strength at 700 rifle armed Dervishes and many more followers of negligible fighting value.   

The camel Corps took up the pursuit at 1800 on 30 January.  That night they crossed the Mullah’s tracks and a mounted patrol was sent to follow them while the remainder attempted to move on and get between him and the Nogal.  The next day small parties of Dervishes driving their herds and flocks could be seen in all directions.  With the expenditure of a few shots the camels, goats, sheep and cattle as well as some ponies were rounded up.  To prevent he captured stock delaying the pursuit Colonel Summers handed them over to the Illalos and after a short rest the pursuit continued.  The expectation was that once the camel corps got ahead of the Mullah and cut him off all of his and the Dervish property would fall into the hands of the friendly tribes. 

Aircraft found a party of horsemen escorting the Mullah’s personal baggage and fast moving livestock.  These they bombed and strafed from 100 feet.  The Camel Corps rode 70 miles in 30 hours to Eil Afweina where they replenished supplies and moved out the next morning.  Colonel Summers, himself, remained in Eil Afweina to organise a light supply column to follow up his main body.  Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Ismay continued the pursuit covering 150 miles in 72 hours.  Now they needed a rest.

 At the same time the Naval forces had been providing an invaluable service by reporting movements by radio to the land forces and rescuing aircrew who had made forced landings on the coast.  Naval Brigade from HMS Clio and HMS Odin under Captain Hewett came ashore at Sanak and advanced on the fort some 10 miles distant.  In a decisive action they attacked Galiabur Fort on 3 February.  Early the next morning the field gun and machine guns opened a bombardment in which the gun, from a range of 525 yards and then 400 yards, fired 47 rounds to create a breach in a wall.  Captain Hewett decided to wait until the next day because the rubble and debris was not high enough and scaling ladders would be necessary.   He withdrew to his zeriba for the night and to replenish his ammunition.  The bombardment resumed at 0815 the next morning and by 0900 the breach seemed practicable for an assault.  A storming party of 10 marines, selected from both ships, the Clio’s Lewis gun team and led by Lieutenant Philip H Calderon RN (HMS Clio) assaulted the breach at 0920 with Mills bombs supported by the fire of a Lewis gun.  At the same time the whole firing line advanced by sections and closed in on an arc around the western wall of the fort.  Within 4 minutes the storming party were on the walls and firing into the defenders with Lewis, rifle, pistol and Mills bombs.  Working around the walls they threw Mills bombs and fired into loopholes in the covered shelters in the courtyard.  During the fighting some fodder was set on fire and the Dervish reserve ammunition detonated.  At 1035 the commander of the garrison tried to break out and was shot and killed before he got 50 yards.  Inside the fort, the rest of the garrison fought on refusing the offer of surrender.  The Illalos carried out the final assault at 1040 and the defenders fought on to the end. After some fierce fighting the fort fell and some 200 Dervishes were killed and 24 taken prisoner. The fort was then demolished.  The loss of the fort cut the Mullah off from escape by sea.    

Meanwhile in the south and south west the Somali tribal levy occupied the wells that lay along the routes that the Mullah might use to escape to Abyssinia.  The Mullah’s options were fast being reduced.

With the news that the Mullah was moving southwards Group Captain Gordon commissioned Eil Afweina as an advanced base for air operations.  On 1 February, an aerial reconnaissance was flown to Taleh which was found and bombed.  The aircraft also took valuable photographs that showed Taleh was a formidable and strongly fortified position with a walled enclosure in which there were 13 forts with three more 200 yards outside.  These latter were very strong and high.  Once Taleh was captured the forts were found to be of very strongly built stone-work.  The walls were 12-14 feet thick at the base and 6 feet wide at the top.  The outer three forts were not less than 50-60 feet tall.  Inside the walled enclosure (the “silsillat” or “the chain”) were wells and room for several hundred animals.  Numerous stone granaries well filled with jowari (sorghum) were set into the walls.  The fortifications had taken some 12 years and a huge amount of labour for his Dervish followers to construct.  They were designed and the labour was supervised by Arab masons from the Yemen. 

By means of the daily reconnaissance aircraft letters in Arabic from the Governor of British Somaliland, GF Archer, were delivered on 1 February to the Somali leaders warning them that the Mullah was fleeing towards Taleh and asking them to keep a close watch for him.  On 2 February the aircraft delivered orders to Captain Alan Gibb, at the Somali Levy Headquarters instructing him to make contact with the Somali Camel Corps and proceed to Taleh.   Now that the tribal friendlies were out hunting down the Dervishes the RAF were ordered to cease bombing operations because it was impossible to distinguish between friend and foe.  On 4 February the RAF sent out 3 bombers to raid Taleh.  This raid scored 3 direct hits with 112 pounders and four with 20 pound bombs on the main position and a 20 pounder was dropped on the Mullah’s own fort but without doing it any significant damage.  The aircraft the carried out a strafing attack and dropping incendiaries set fire to the huts inside and around the fortifications.  They also destroyed part of the Haroun.  Unfortunately the radio set with the Camel Corps broke down and the RAF delivered the messages from then on. 

On 4 February a few tribal horsemen reported to Captain Gibb that the Mullah was in Taleh.  He had been followed by some 60 horsemen.  By now Captain Gibb had made contact with the Camel Corps and he went to join them with every available tribal rifleman.  Further information confused the situation and cast doubt as to whether the Mullah was in Taleh.  Akil tribesmen reported that more Dervishes were arriving at Taleh while others reported that the tribal leaders were convinced that the Mullah was in the fort and the whole Dervish force was moving to Taleh.  On 5 February, the Tribal Levy fought with a large force of Dervishes escorting the Mullah’s main caravan.  Amongst the Dervishes killed were Haji Sudi (an ex-naval interpreter), Ibrahim Boghol and other leaders and the captures included 1,400 camels, 450 cows, 50 ponies, 51 rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammunition and 300 camel loads of supplies.  Amongst the personal belongings of the Mullah that were captured were his correspondence, clothing and silver jewellery.  Only a few escaped to the fort.

TalehTaleh from the air












Then on 8 February it was discovered from informers that the Mullah was indeed at Taleh where he was besieged by 200 levies and also that he intended to break out that very night.  On the next morning the Mullah’s second son, Abdul Rahman Jahid, and his uncle Haji Osman were brought in to the Camel Corps zeriba.  They said that the Mullah had intended to leave the previous night but the presence of the 200 Levies had deterred him but that he was going to leave that night.  Immediately after a conference with Ismay, and without waiting for the Camel Corps, Gibb set off at a cracking pace with his 800 men.  The Camel Corps had only 2 days rations left and a supply column had to be organised to follow them.  Gibb arrived the next afternoon just too late to prevent the escape of the Mullah.  As he arrived at 1730 he heard heavy firing and as he came in sight of the fortifications he could see the Dervishes running back inside while a party of mounted men rode north.  The Mullah had launched a sortie with the garrison to drive back the Levy screen allowing him to break out with an escort of 80 mounted men.  Word was sent to the mounted column, the dust of which was already visible.  Gibb had no mounted men and could not pursue on foot and so he approached the forts and found them lightly held.  He attacked at once and a general panic ensued with men women and children rushing out of the forts.  The remaining 150 or so Dervishes in Taleh put up little resistance and in an hour the Levies captured 40 Dervishes, 4 Arab stonemasons, 600 rifles, 450 camels, 40 ponies and the Mullah’s Turkish advisor, Mohammed Ali as well as hundreds of Dervish women and children.  A few Dervish riflemen fought on alone or in little groups and were either killed or escaped during the night.  One party held on in the immensely strong Taleh fort throwing back two assaults in the night.  In the morning they were granted terms and they opened the door and surrendered.

Captain (acting Lieutenant Colonel) HL Ismay and the Camel Corps caught up with Gibb at Taleh just after dark that same evening.  Right away he sent out a strong patrol to try to find the Mullah’s trail.  However, they failed to do so in the dark and on the hard ground.  Nevertheless he pressed on at dawn on 10 February.  The trail split and rejoined several times.  Well before dawn on 11 February he sent back all but the fittest animals reducing his force to 150 rifles, 3 machine guns and 2 Stokes mortars.  At 1545 he captured a Dervish picket who gave out the information that the Mullah and his escorting horsemen were now only a mile ahead watering at Bihen Nullah.  They caught up with them and in a short action killed 44 including some of the Mullah’s relatives and taking 5 of the Mullah’s wives and 9 of his children.  The following morning, near Gerrowei, Ismay caught up with a party of Dervishes. Leaving 20 men to guard the prisoners, Ismay gave chase and caught them in the broken ground northwest of the Gerrowei stream.  C Company (pony mounted) galloped straight through the Dervish foot warriors holding a narrow neck and joining up with another patrol at Gerrowei continuing in pursuit of the Dervish horsemen.  The horsemen were soon run down and only a few escaped on foot while the footmen at the neck were overrun and most were killed. 

Reports on the exact location of the Mullah were conflicting and when a trail of horse, foot and camels was found to the south heading into the Haud, Ismay gave chase in the hope that it was the Mullah.  This time he took only 20 men on ponies and a camel troop.  These were the only ponies that could raise a speed better than a walk!  The Dervishes turned out to be a group under the Abyssinian Fitaurari (Commander of the Vanguard – a military title) Bayenna who had been a Dervish supporter for some years.  A short action took place and 8 Dervishes were killed and 2 captured.   What Ismay did not know was how close he was to the Mullah who was watching from a nearby hill.  With their mounts spent, Ismay’s troops regrouped at Gerrowei.    Again the Mullah had narrowly escaped his pursuers but at some personal cost.  Some 60 of his personal following had been killed including seven of his sons and seven other close relatives; also four of his kasoosi (immediate advisers and leaders).  Six more of his sons, his five remaining wives, four daughters and two sisters had been captured and only his eldest son, Mahdi, a brother and three or four well known Dervishes had escaped.  His entire party was now reduced to a group of ten hunted men.  The Mullah avoided waterholes, sending the ponies in to be watered under escort and changing location while they were away in case the escort was captured and gave away his position.  In this way he escaped across the Haud into Abyssinian territory.   

The campaign came to a close with a few delaying and rearguard actions by the Dervishes trying to hold back the pursuers.  By the Middle of April the Dervishes were dispersed and though the Mullah was still at large the British were able to call the Fifth Expedition a success for the cost of 4 men killed, 11 wounded and 13 died of sickness.

Even so there was one last battle in late July in the Ogaden west of Shinileh.  Here 3,000 tribesmem loyal to the British cause led by Haji Waraba found and attacked 800 Dervishes remaining with the Mullah.  However, the Mullah once more escaped and led his 400 surviving followers deeper into Abyssinian territory.  Once there, he set about constructing a perimeter of 13 forts and offered peace negotiations with the Abyssinians.  The negotiations dragged on and the Mullah fell ill, apparently from influenza.  After six days sickness he died on 23 November 1920 a victim of the world wide pandemic.  When he died he was far from his tribal homeland.  In the end the fanaticism of his followers had evaporated in the face of modern weaponry and tactics and his tribal forces with their guerrilla tactics no longer matched the pace of modern joint warfare in three dimensions.

An outstanding feature of this expedition was the sustained and determined pursuit by the Camel Corps, who were often on half or no rations, over a great stretch of inhospitable terrain regardless of privation or fatigue.  The pursuit was pressed to the utmost limits of man and beast to bring success.  A second feature was the performance of the largely untrained levy.  This reflected the 6 years of effort given by the local administration to the building up of the power of the local leaders. 

Fifth Expedition - Composition



Force Z:  This was the crucial force within the plan to subdue the Mullah.  It arrived from Britain on HMS Ark Royal under the command of Group-Captain R Gordon.  It comprised an air striking force of Airco DH9A light bombers and two more fitted out as air ambulances.  The landing ground selected was at Eil Dur Elan where 36 RAF officers and 189 Other Ranks, including medical, servicing, stores and ammunition sections was assembled to maintain the air operation.  The DH9As were able to carry a maximum bomb load of  660lbs made up of high explosive bombs of 20lb and 112lb or  incendiaries up to 50lb capacity as well as their fitted armament of a forward firing Vickers machine gun and one or two Lewis guns in the rear cockpit.

Force A:  The main regular force was commanded by Colonel GH Summers ably assisted by Captain (acting Lieutenant Colonel) GF Ismay.  It provided the main ground striking force and the majority of the security for bases and the line of communication.  The wireless telegraph set with its speed in two-way communications proved to be a vital asset.  When it eventually broke down the RAF was able to make up for its loss by instituting a daily message and despatch service.

Force B:  The main body of the Somali tribal levy was commanded by Captain Alan Gibb with Rissaldar Major Musa Farah as his second in command.  The levy was to work in close support of the Camel Corps and the three companies of 6/KAR.  These companies had been recruited in Tanganyika at the end of WW1 from unemployed German Schutztruppe askaris.  The illalos (tribal police) were very valuable as scouts and intelligence gatherers.  They were organised in patrols of 10-25 men.  These patrols transmitted information on the Dervish movements by radio to the nearest garrison. 


Mad Mullah Introduction


First Expedition

Second Expedition

Third Expedition

Fourth Expedition

First World War

Fifth Expedition

Air Operations 

The Mad Mullah's Dervish Army

The British Empire Army 

Inch High Page 

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