During the Great War internal security still had to be maintained throughout the vast British Empire. One continuous problem facing the British was the ongoing insurgency in the Somaliland Protectorate inspired by the Dervish leader Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, the so-called ‘Mad Mullah’. This insurgency had been running sporadically since 1901 and adjacent Italian territory had often been used for refuge by the insurgents when British operations in Somaliland appeared to be succeeding. But by 1919 the situation was changing in that the Mullah was hiring Yemeni stonemasons to build sturdy forts within parts of the Protectorate that he controlled, and his followers were settling around these forts and grazing the herds that they seized, often violently, from tribes that supported the British administration. As the Mullah grew older younger adherents arose to leadership roles within the insurgency and there seemed to be little likelihood of dervishism fading away.
During and immediately after The Great War the Indian Army provided the bulk of the British troops needed to garrison Somaliland, and in February 1919 a wing of the 101st Grenadiers was stationed in the Protectorate. However a local unit, the Somaliland Camel Corps, was raised and was a regiment within the King’s African Rifles. The Somaliland Camel Corps consisted of one company of volunteer Indian Army Sepoys mounted on camels, two companies (‘A’ and ‘B’) of Somalis mounted on camels and one company (‘C’) of Somalis mounted on ponies. ‘C’ Company was commanded by 44-year old Captain Richard Frederick Simons (12th Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment). His company second-in-command was Lieutenant Walter Robert Haymes (Indian Army Reserve of Officers). Whilst all three camel companies each carried two heavy machine guns, ‘C’ Company only carried one Lewis light machine gun.
On 25th February 1919 information was received of a large group of insurgents planning to raid livestock on the Saral Plain. Major Charles Alfred Lowrey Howard (32nd Lancers, Indian Army but originally a subaltern in The South Lancashire Regiment) left Burao with the Indian Company and ‘A’ Company plus a group of irregular scouts called Illalos. Early next morning he rendezvoused at Negegr Spur with ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies who had ridden from Ber. A Royal Naval Surgeon and a Royal Army Veterinary Corps officer accompanied Major Howard. The following day the force arrived at Ok where there was abundant water and from where Saral Plain could be commanded. Replenishment was needed and on the 28th February Major Howard took all three camel companies to the nearby ration dump at El Dur Elan.
Captain Simons was tasked with providing a firm base at Ok, protecting the water, and with securing the head of the Ok Pass. His men, strengthened by a few details from the camel companies, built a thick thorn bush fence called a zareba to surround their camp. The Lewis Gun was cleaned, oiled and positioned on the east corner of the zareba. Meanwhile around 500 insurgents with looted stock, led by the notorious Nur Hashi, entered the area and apparently were deceived by a local elderly lady who informed them that the zareba contained herds of animals. The insurgents were unaware that the three camel companies were replenishing nearby.
At about 0615 hours on 1st March three different determined insurgent attacks were mounted on ‘C’ Company’s zareba. These took the form of repeated fanatical rushes on the west and east corners and the south face. The Askari and Sepoy riflemen within the zareba did not flinch and the well-sited Lewis Gun mowed down many attackers. Having been repulsed the Dervishes then attempted to occupy some adjacent high ground but Captain Simon’s men drove them off it with concentrated rifle and Lewis Gun fire. By 0715 hours it appeared that the assault had died down but a scout reported that Dervishes were concentrated in the bush near the southwest corner of the zareba. Captain Simons ordered rapid fire into the bush and this broke up the enemy group. Dervishes were seen withdrawing rapidly without their wounded.
Lieutenant Haymes then took two troops out on patrol whilst Captain Simons occupied the nearby high ground. Interrogation of wounded enemy revealed that the Dervish force consisted of 400 riflemen on foot, 50 pony men and 100 spearmen whose task was to secure and remove livestock (these were the men concentrated in the bush near the zareba’s southwest corner). Captain Simons had lost 2 men killed, 3 men wounded, 3 camels and 2 ponies killed and 2 ponies wounded. The Dervishes had lost 64 men killed, 3 prisoners (two of them wounded), 6 ponies killed and 24 rifles and 12 bandoliers captured. Many other wounded Dervishes had crawled or staggered away from the battlefield.
‘C’ Company re-grouped and a Situation Report was sent to Major Howard who replied giving Captain Simons discretion to act as he saw fit. ‘C’ Company then followed the withdrawing Dervishes threatening the enemy flank and rear. The main Dervish preoccupation was to preserve the stock that they had looted on their expedition and this threw up an enormous dust cloud. Around mid-morning on 2nd March Captain Simons withdrew his company in order to water the ponies and the men, leaving the enemy to believe that the British were dropping the pursuit.
Meanwhile Major Howard correctly predicted the enemy withdrawal route and positioned his three companies on the reverse slope of a commanding hill. At around 1300 hours on 3rd March the Dervish main body entered Major Howard’s killing ground and he sprang his ambush by the Indian Company opening fire with machine guns and rifles. The Dervishes suffered heavy losses but withdrew in good order until ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies trotted forward on their camels and attacked. The enemy then broke and fled, abandoning looted stock, often throwing away weapons (an unprecedented action in Dervish history) and in some cases discarding personal clothing. Dervish losses were estimated at over 200 dead and many wounded. Few wounded survived as irregular scouts and carnivorous animals moved in to patrol the Dervish escape routes.
This British action was the most successful encounter in Somaliland since 1904. However the insurgency was not over and a major operation supported by the Royal Air Force was needed in 1920 before the Mullah’s strength was finally broken.
The following awards were made for the action around Ok Pass:
The Distinguished Service Order to Major C.A.L. Howard.
The Military Cross to Captain R.F. Simons.
The Indian Distinguished Service Medal to 4030 Naik Najib Khan, 129th Baluchis attached Somaliland Camel Corps.
The African Distinguished Conduct Medal to:
186 Lance Corporal Dualeh Mohammed
151 Lance Corporal Mohammed Rageh
Three men were Mentioned in Despatches:
126 Sergeant Hurreh Deria
91 Sergeant Awaleh Hersi
106 Lance Corporal Ibrahim Elmi
Whilst proceeding on his next UK leave Captain Richard Frederick Simons MC died on 9th January 1920. He is buried in the Port Said War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt.
The King’s African Rifles by Lt Col H. Moyse-Bartlett.
The History of The Somaliland Camel Corps (Public Records Office).
The Mad Mullah of Somaliland by Douglas Jardine OBE
Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s internet records.
The African DCM by John Arnold.
Honours and Awards Indian Army 1914-1921.
The VC & DSO Book Volume III.
The London Gazette.