Defeating the Senussi (December 1915-March 1916): The appliance of science?

by Ewan Lawson

The campaigns in the Western Desert in the Second World War are well known with locations like Sollum and Bir El Hakim having secured their place in history. What is less well known is that this area had previously been fought over some 25 years before during the Great War. Part of the effort by Germany and Turkey to raise Islamic communities against the Entente powers, it was ultimately unsuccessful and demonstrated the sort of imaginative approach coupled with the importance of logistics that were to become features of the later campaign.

From the signing of its secret treaty with the Sublime Porte, the German government had encouraged the Ottomans to, in the words of the Kaiser, ‘inflame the whole Mohammedan world’. At the heart of this so called Jihad strategy announced in November 1914 was a desire to distract France and Britain with uprisings in their colonial territories which could also have the effect of decreasing the number of troops available to fight on the Western front. In Egypt, there was also a belief that it could lead to the cutting of the Suez Canal, critical to Britain’s support from its Asian and Australasian territories. However, many of those Islamic communities approached by missions from Istanbul, initially at least attempted to play a long game and to see where the war was heading before they committed. The Senussi of Cyrenaica were no different in this.

The Senussi were a religious order dating from the beginning of the 19th century formed to reform and purify the faith. Under their leader the Grand Senussi Sayed Ahmed they had been fighting the Italians since 1911 as they had attempted to occupy Cyrenaica. The Senussi had assumed the leadership of the tribes in the region in this campaign and whilst Sayed was an effective leader, his forces were poorly equipped and he himself was in an insecure position as he was only a nephew of his predecessor.

After a failed attempt to influence Sayed Ahmed by a German delegation in 1914, the Ottomans dispatched Nuri Bey, the half-brother of Enver Pasha, to encourage the Senussi to attack British Egypt. Through the summer of 1915, training and augmentation by the Ottomans increased the confidence of the Senussi at the same time as reverses at Gallipoli began to undermine their perceptions of British strength. However, even as late as September of that year despite a series of incidents in the vicinity of Sollum, the senior British officer who was engaged with the Senussi, a Lt Col Snow of the Egyptian Coastguard, was confident that hostilities could be avoided. Actions by German submarines off of the coast were to change that.

In November 1915, German U-boats sank two British merchant ships and handed over their crews to the Senussi who could not be persuaded even with an offer of money to return them. U-boats then attacked Egyptian Coastguard vessels in Sollum Bay, sinking one and damaging another after which the Senussi began to attack and occupy outposts around Sollum and barracks in the town itself. Particularly disturbing for the British was that a number of Egyptian troops switched sides and defected to the Senussi.

The British command recognised the danger of Senussi success for internal security in Egypt but also that Sollum was in an exposed position and there was a need to avoid an early reverse. Thus the decision was made to withdraw to Mersa Matruh some 120 miles to the East in order to concentrate forces and build up the logistic stocks needed for a campaign. The terrain along the coast was semi-desert with reasonable access to water. Inland, the terrain was harder going desert but with a number of oases, some of considerable size and supporting significant populations. On the 20 November 1915, the order was issued to establish the Western Frontier Force (WFF) under Major General Wallace at Mersa Matruh comprising of composite infantry and yeomanry brigades, as well as Australian, Indian and New Zealand troops and detachments of the Bikanir Camel Corps. By early December, this force had grown to 1400 strong and now included artillery as well as aircraft of the RFC. Wallace decided that he needed to inflict an early defeat on the Senussi in order to undermine their confidence and prestige, and so, on 11 December, sent a small expedition along the coast towards a Senussi concentration at Wadi Senab. A series of engagements followed over the next couple of days with infantry and cavalry supported by armoured cars and aircraft inflicting tactical defeats on the Senussi before the force returned to Matruh.

Having cleared a force of some 5000 Senussi with artillery and machine-guns occupying a ridge 6 miles south-west of Matruh with a dawn attack supported by naval gunfire from HMS Clematis, Wallace determined on a plan to retake Sollum. A seaborne assault on the port simultaneous with an advance on Sidi Barrani was considered unfeasible due to the easily defended position at Sollum and so it was determined instead to drive through Barrani first. The WFF had been reinforced with troops returning from Gallipoli and a large number of camels although HQ in Cairo had deliberately spread disinformation about a British withdrawal in order to fix the Senussi. At the end of February 1916, the force advanced towards Barrani attacking an entrenched enemy force to the south east of the town. Infantry advanced supported by cavalry and armoured cars and after a fierce battle the Sennusi broke and fled. Ottoman General Jaffar Pasha was captured and as in part he had been a steadying influence on the Senussi, they never again stood and awaited a British attack. Sollum was then recaptured in mid March with the Duke of Westminster and force of armoured cars pursuing the retreating enemy and eventually recovering the sailors who had been captured by German U-boats the previous year. This marked the end of the campaign on the coastal plain.

The Senussi had for some time also had a presence in the large oases of the Western desert and Siwa in particular had long been a centre of their influence. From Siwa it was possible to threaten the Nile valley through two routes; a northern through Bahariya and a southern through Dhakla and Kharga. Initially, the British adopted a defensive strategy with a combination of forts and observation from the air. However, once the campaign on the coast had been completed successfully the Senussi seemed to lose any aggression and indeed evacuated Kharga in April 1916. The British-led forces had by then established the Imperial Camel Corps from elements of the Australian divisions and the Light Horse, along with New Zealanders and British Yeomanry and Territorial infantry. The Corps, supported by armoured car patrols and air power were now responsible for securing Egypt from threats from the west as the British moved to entirely remove the Senussi challenge. A railway that had previously run to Kharga was pushed further towards Dhakla and in October 1916, near simultaneous attacks were made on both Dhakla and Bahariya using a combination of the Corps and armoured car patrols to maximise speed and mobility. Both fell with few casualties and although the bulk of the Senussi forces along with Sayed Ahmed fled to Siwa oasis, a number were captured and permanent garrisons were established.

The series of defeats suffered by the Senussi had fatally undermined confidence in Sayed Ahmed and the British began negotiations with his nephew Sayed Idris who was his rival for the leadership and who had consistently spoken against the conflict. The British, supported latterly by the Italians, attempted to capture Sayed Ahmed at Siwa oasis in January 1917. Sayed Ahmed withdrew and despite a rapid mobile operation by a mixed force of armoured cars and the Camel Corps, he managed to escape with a small number of troops to Jaghub. With British prestige in the Western Desert at an all-time high, Sayed Idris took the opportunity to accept their conditions for a peace agreement having been recognised as Grand Sheikh and Emir of Cyrenaica and Tripoli. He also reached an understanding with the Italians which lasted until 1923. Sayed Ahmed was finally smuggled out of North Africa by an Austrian submarine to Constantinople where he became a propaganda figure in the Turkish governments’ pan-Islamic movement.

This relatively unknown campaign against a relatively well-equipped and, initially at least, motivated enemy, demonstrated how technology in the form of armoured cars and aircraft, could bring a decisive edge. This lesson was to be well learned not least by Churchill who was to make it the basis for imperial policing in the Middle East in the inter-war years. It is also highlighted how it is essential to understand the nature of the logistics challenge and to be prepared where possible to give ground to allow time to build up forces to ensure later success, lessons that would characterise successes in the region in the next war.

About the author: Ewan Lawson is the Senior Research Fellow for Military Influence at the Royal United Services Institute and a former RAF officer. During his career, he worked closely with the Defence Studies Department on his research interests. He is now a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies where he is researching the development of international regimes to deal with sexual violence in conflict. (

Image: Western Desert Theatre of Operations Against the Senussi with thanks to

Hot Potatoes for 2015


This month marks the conclusion of my first decade teaching at Staff College. In that time, I can think of two years that stand-out as containing fundamentally unexpected events, that have caused quite drastic adjustments to what I talk about when I teach. Those years were 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring – and 2014 – the year of the rise of ‘Islamic State’ and the Russo-Ukraine conflict.

I’m no fan of making predictions at the arbitrary moment most humans have decided is the beginning of a new 365-day long period of time. And I’m not going to do that here. Rather, I am going to highlight important issues that I think will dominate global affairs for the year ahead.

The Oil Price

Like most, I’m delighted to be able to fill my car with petrol for less than £50, but I find it simultaneously odd that I able to do so when there are so many international crises ongoing. Traditionally, unrest in the Middle East and/or Russia have elevated oil prices, yet, at the time of writing, the oil price is $52.69 per barrel, which is nearly half what it was a year ago.

Whilst this will make the average person feel much richer in the short-term, it will surely continue to have a terrible impact on oil-dependent economies. Of those, the most worrisome remains. The Ruble has recovered somewhat from its December low, but it still remains very weak ($1 will buy R58.51 at time of writing).

The Russian economy now looks as though it will enter a prolonged recession – if not a depression – as GDP is expected to contract in 2015 by 0.8%. This is at least in part the result of Western sanctions over Russian military activity in Eastern Ukraine, but prolonged economic malaise is likely to drive President Vladimir Putin to take drastic action to shore up his own popularity in Russia. So, a continued low oil price will likely have significant implications for Russian military aggression in 2015.

Moreover, Russia is not alone in suffering as a result of the low oil price. Should oil continue to fall, then the gas price will surely follow suit, and eventually, the cost of ‘fracking’ will outweigh the benefits of the controversial technique for extracting shale gas. A low oil price might well have implications for Iran, as the new regime seeks to improve relations with the West.

Afghanistan: Confluence, not Graveyard, of Empires

The end of 2014 saw the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, although a significant Western presence remains in the country. Having said that, the notion of an Indo-Pakistani proxy war commencing in Afghanistan has long been mooted amongst experts and armchair strategists. It seems entirely possible in 2015 that such a proxy war might well emerge. Pakistan remains deeply troubled by the prospect of India gaining economic and political precedence in Afghanistan.

In such light, the strategic significance of Afghanistan can be more easily witnessed. Inaccurately portrayed as the ‘graveyard of empires’, the country has long been the confluence of several major empires and this remains the case today. Afghanistan is not just in Pakistan and India’s ‘backyard’, but shares a border with Iran and China, and is also a strategic concern for Russia.

Although Afghanistan might recede in importance for the West, its stability – or lack thereof – will likely remain a critical concerns for a number of global powers in 2015. In this sense, Afghanistan will re-capture the geopolitical importance it possessed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This should mean that economic investment comes to the fore, but if competing powers vie for dominance in the region then the sort of proxy war envisaged for the last decade might take hold.

Islamic State

This time last year, only regional experts had heard of what was then known as ISIS, and few would have appreciated its potential to wrest control of large areas of Iraq and Syria. Military intervention by an alliance of Western and Arab states have arrested the expansion of IS, but the prospect remains for similar ideological expansion in 2015 as occurred in the second half of 2014.

The infamous Nigerian Islamists Boko Haram recently declared their own caliphate, and there are increasing concerns that the separatist Uighurs in Xinjiang province of China might follow a similar route.

Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq and Syria will remain a cause for concern. It is difficult to see how Iraq can continue as a stable political entity, and many experts perceive the break-up of the state in the near future, with an independent Kurdistan likely to emerge as a result. How Turkey will react to such a situation is also troubling.


On a different note, 2014 was an important year for the historical commemoration of past conflicts. 2015 sees just as many significant anniversaries. The 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo will be commemorated with a re-enactment of the writing and delivery of the famous Waterloo Dispatch, along with a special service of commemoration in St. Paul’s Cathedral on 18 June. On the battlefield itself, the biggest ever re-enactment of the battle will take place, to which an estimated 60,000 spectators are expected to attend.

The ongoing remembrance of the First World War will see commemorations of the Battle of Loos and Gallipoli, among others. After the initial hope that the war would be over by Christmas 1914, this was the year that saw the settling in to bloody trench warfare. Having said that, considerable innovation and adaptation was to take place on both sides of no-man’s land. For British forces, in particular, the idea of a ‘land-ship’ began to germinate.

Although the hundredth anniversary of the First World War will undoubtedly dominate thoughts, it is also important to remember that 2015 marks the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and with it, the emergence of the world into the Nuclear Age.

These are just some of the hot potatoes that Defence-in-Depth will be tackling in the year ahead, as part of the Defence Studies Department’s efforts to bring you cutting-edge research and expert analysis, both historical and contemporary, on the issues behind and influencing Defence.

Of Sea Lanes, Strategy, and Logistics: Africa’s Ports and Islands during the Second World War


The African continent’s strategic significance during the Second World War and the military activity that occurred on African soil revolved around ports. Some of them were located on islands, but the majority was on the mainland. Between 1939 and 1945 African islands and ports gained military and strategic prominence, particularly because of their proximity to key sea lines of communication. Africa was strategically important because of its resources, which needed to be utilized by belligerents while at the same time denied to enemies, continuing the colonial practice of resource extraction; it was also strategically important because some of the major belligerents possessed African colonies that were a source of military competition – Italy attacking British colonies, for example, which eventually sucked in American and German forces, and the British attacking French and Italian colonies. Africa was also strategically important because of the valuable ports and sea routes that enveloped its coastline, many of which were vital for belligerents transporting military personnel and equipment from one part of the world to another, and vital for the maintenance of the global trading activity of the Allied powers. Furthermore, these sea routes gave access via African ports to overland (i.e. road and rail) routes and air routes that were logistically essential for the movement of military goods and for delivering military effect to the battlefield.

These strategic factors meant that Africa was subject to significant military action. Heavy fighting took place in North Africa and East Africa, and smaller military operations occurred in West Africa, Madagascar, and islands such as Fernando Pó and Réunion. There were also extensive military operations in Africa’s coastal waters. Its ports, and islands such as the Comoros, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, were used as military bases and for a range of other war-related tasks such as intelligence gathering, surveillance, cable and wireless communication, and radar direction finding. African ports were the must-have military shunting yards of the imperial and Allied war effort. The enormous range of wartime military activity in and around Africa requires more thorough integration into our understanding of the Second World War, and Africa’s pivotal role in it.

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Image: Freetown, Sierra Leone

Africa’s eastern seaboard and its offshore islands were part of an extensive network of sea lanes and security provision stretching across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, the Bay of Bengal, and the East Indies. Durban and Mombasa were prized assets, but so too was Port Sudan and the port of Massawa seized from the Italians and expanded and operated by American and British forces. The Cape and the Red Sea were key waterways, upon which the British and Allied war effort in the Middle East and beyond depended. West Africa, meanwhile, was a crucial variable in the security matrix of the Atlantic and the all-important battle to secure the convoys sailing between Britain and the Americas. West African bases were also important in channeling shipping between the western and eastern hemispheres. Control of the waters of the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Guinea, the Mozambique Channel, Cape Agulhas, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Red Sea was ultimately indispensable.

Denoting the continent’s often overlooked strategic importance, Africa was home to major British and Allied military command structures, often headquartered in port cities. Middle East Command was headquartered in Cairo and Allied Force Headquarters North Africa was established in Algiers. West Africa Command was established in 1940 in Accra. East Africa Command covered East Africa, the Horn of Africa, and British Central Africa. It was created in September 1941 to relieve pressure on the overstretched Middle East Command, with headquarters in Nairobi. Its subsidiary, designated Islands Area Command with headquarters in Diego Suarez in Madagascar, was responsible for Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion, Rodrigues and the Seychelles.

After the Japanese raids on Ceylon in April 1942, the headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet, responsible for guarding the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and the eastern shores of Africa, was transferred to Kilindini Island in the port of Mombasa in Kenya. The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was based on Alexandria. The navy’s South Atlantic Command was based on Freetown in Sierra Leone. Extensive use was also made of South African bases such as Simon’s Town, Cape Town, and Durban by both the Royal Navy and the South African Naval Force. RAF Coastal Command maintained a presence in West Africa for Atlantic operations, making extensive use of bases in the Gambia, the Gold Coast, and Sierra Leone, and squadrons of Catalina flying-boats were stationed in South Africa to extend the range of searches for enemy vessels. East Africa was home to an RAF Group dedicated to Indian Ocean patrols and searches in conjunction with the ships of the Eastern Fleet. The RAF’s 246 Wing comprised three Catalina flying-boat squadrons (209, 259, and 265) which patrolled the Indian Ocean from March 1942 until the end of the war. There was a major base at Kipevu in Mombasa and detached bases in Aden, Diego Suarez, Dar-es-Salaam’s Kurasini Creek, Masirah, Mauritius, Oman, the Seychelles, and Tuléar in southern Madagascar. These flying-boats also used bases in South Africa at Congella in Durban harbour, Langebaan in the Western Cape, Lake St Lucia in Natal, and Lake Umsingazi at Richards Bay, also in Natal. Not only Africa’s ports, islands, and coastal waters were important during the war, but also its lakes and lagoons.

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Image: The approaches to Port Sudan, showing the placement of 12-pounders and the range arc of electric lights and defensive fires.

Some ports became significant strategic prizes or assets, to be utilized or at least denied to the enemy: in September 1940 the British raided Dakar in a failed attempt to secure the important colony of Senegal for the Free French and Allied cause, and to secure a better located and better equipped port than Freetown for the tasks of Atlantic convoy protection. Cape Town and the naval base at Simon’s Town were both used as staging posts for warships, troopships, and merchantmen travelling between east and west, and Simon’s Town also acted as a base for submarines and warships operating in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and Southern Ocean as Axis raiders and submarines were hunted and convoys protected. The Allied war effort depended upon the movement by sea of large numbers of service personnel and military equipment, and the Cape route attained a status not known since the opening of the Suez Canal, because for long periods of the war the Mediterranean was shut to shipping and the canal itself threatened by Axis bombs and sea mines. The entire British and Allied military position depended upon this sea route, and it was heavily used; for example, the fifty-two separate ‘Winston Special’ convoys between Britain and the east that sailed via the Cape included 458 troopships carrying 1,173,010 British and Allied military personnel.

On North African shores, Alexandria was the major naval base for the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. It was the scene of a costly Italian attack in December 1941 when three human torpedoes and a submarine managed to seriously damage two British battleships, a destroyer, and a tanker, swinging the naval balance in the Mediterranean in favour of the Axis. The port of Mers El Kébir in Algeria was the site of a grisly episode in which the Royal Navy attacked a heavy concentration of the French fleet in order to prevent it from falling into German hands and to demonstrate Britain’s resolve to the Americans, killing over 1200 French sailors in the process. Tobruk in Libya was a pivotal port in the fighting between British and Axis forces that extended back and forth from Egypt to Tunisia, because it allowed armies to be supplied as they fought along the coastal strip. The Anglo-American invasion of Algeria and Morocco in November 1942 witnessed the landing of over 100,000 Allied troops at Algiers, Casablanca, Oran, and Safi. This invasion initiated the final phase of the fighting in Africa, Axis forces eventually being overwhelmed. They surrendered in May 1943 following the capture of the port cities of Bizerte and Tunis. In the Horn of Africa, the British blockaded and from late 1942 occupied the French port of Djibouti, from where Vichy sympathizers had been providing information on Allied convoys transiting the Red Sea.

African ports and islands were important during the Second World War for three key reasons: because powerful nations required the export of Africa’s resources for their economic benefit and war-related utility, and needed to deny the same to enemy states; because sea routes around the continent and leading off from the continent needed to be defended using its ports and island bases; and because fighting took place on air, land, and sea in and around Africa, and ports and islands were therefore contested for military and strategic reasons. The unexpurgated book chapter on which this post is based features several case studies, viz. Bathurst (Gambia), Pamanzi (Comoros), Tuléar (Madagascar), Massawa (Eritrea), Fernando Pó (Gulf of Guinea), and Port Sudan (Sudan), as well as reviewing the wartime roles of Freetown (Sierra Leone), Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles.

A version of the paper was presented at the African islands conference at the University of Texas at Austin in October 2014 via Skype and Google Hangout On Air.

Featured image: Kilindini (Mombasa) showing Royal Navy and related installations