Chasing the Mad Mullah

The Dupuy Institute’s work on insurgencies was all based upon post-WWII cases. This was a marketing decision, because it is hard to sell history to some people, and the older the history, the less relevant it appears to them. But, some of the comments to my previous postings caused me to look back at the early British air operations after World War I. I ran across this 1983 article in the Air University Review:

The article states:

“The first indication that the British Air Force could deal effectively with a colonial disturbance was the successful operation of “Z” unit in British Somaliland in 1920. This was a campaign against Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, the Mad Mullah, who had been pillaging the eastern tip of Africa since 1899; and who had been evading punitive operations by regular British army units and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudanese Army for more than 15 years. The inability of ground forces to stop the Mullah and his dervishes from overrunning the country led to a cabinet decision to use air power against the brigand and his large following.”

“A self-contained RAF expedition, code-named Unit Z, was organized and equipped for a six-month-long campaign. The unit had 12 de Havilland 9a aircraft, ten Ford trucks, two Ford ambulances, six trailers, two motorcycles, two Crosley light trucks, 36 officers and 183 men. By New Year’s Day of 1920, Z Force had built a temporary airdrome at Berbera and were assembling their aircraft, which had been delivered by ship. By 19 January all aircraft had been assembled and flight tested. The RAF’s plan was simple: bomb the Mullah’s forts and pursue his bands wherever they could be found, driving them toward the resident ground forces stationed in the area.”

“The first raid, carried out by six aircraft, almost ended the war. A bomb blast nearly killed the Mullah, but he was saved by a fortuitously placed camel. Further raids, resulting in heavy casualties, took place over the next two days and caused the dervishes to retreat. Somaliland Field Forces were positioned to block the retreat while the Royal Air Force switched to a supporting role of maintaining communications between the various ground force detachments, providing air cover, and evacuating the wounded. The aircraft proved eminently successful in dislodging the Mullah and his followers from their forts and driving them toward the ground forces which were able to neutralize the Mullah and his band of men The campaign against the Mullah lasted only three weeks and cost about 77,000 pounds, a considerable saving over the campaign proposed by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He had estimated that it would take 12 months and two divisions to do the job plus an additional expenditure running into millions of pounds to build the railways, roads, and garrison bases necessary to maintain the peace.”

So was this a case where a dozen aircraft were able to end an insurgency that thousands of troops had not been able to? This air contingent (called the “Z Force”) was led by Royal Air Force (RAF) “Group Captain” Gordon (equivalent to an O-5 or Colonel). The commander of the campaign was the civilian governor general of Somaliland. The ground element included: the battalion-sized Somaliland Camel Corps (700 rifles), a composite battalion of the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion and the 6th (British Somalia) Battalion of the King’s African Rifles (700 rifles), a half battalion of an Indian grenadier battalion (400 rifles), and irregular Somali tribal levee (1,500 rifles), 300 “Illaloes,” and naval landing forces from the Royal Navy. So a brigade size force (at least 3,600) with air support.

Now, the Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan has been fighting the British, the Italians and the Ethiopians since 1899 when he declared his first “jihad” (or holy war) against the colonial powers. This was already a 20-year old contest. This was the addition of airpower to what had been a very extended and extensive campaign. It was the British who gave him the nick-name the “Mad Mullah.” He is considered to be the national hero of Somalia. He does have a facebook page.

His hey-day had been around 1900-1904 when he had thousands of “Darvish” (or Dervishes) under his command and British sent four major expeditions against his Islamic Dervish state. By 1905, he was forced into a truce, where his followers constructed a theocratic state in the Italian protectorate. In 1908, he again initiated his holy war, and 1913 Hassan was able to bloodily defeat the British 110-man Somali Camel Constabulary at Dul Madoba. But, his territory remained limited to a collection of forts in the Ogaden and his fortified capital which he had occupied since 1907. Over time, his strength had declined from 6,000 fighting men in 1913 to less than a thousand in 1919.

The British began a new campaign in January 1920 supported by air forces operating from Berbera. On 21 January and subsequent days the RAF repeatedly bombed Hassan’s camp and followers, almost killing him. Meanwhile the ground forces advanced against the various Dervish forts, with the air planes conducting aerial bombardment for some of those attacks. The ground forces took the capital Taleh on 9 February. Hassan and some of his followers retreated into the Ogaden desert. Hassan later died of the flu, on 21 December 1920, at the age of 64. This was the end of the revolt.

This was a twenty year effort that only included air power at the last year, and it included significant ground forces in an offensive role (contrary to the Air University Review article). Still the British were able to defeat this Islamic state in a 21-day campaign. It was a clear demonstration of the value of air support, but it was essentially a conventional campaign against an already weakened opponent that had a clear objective in taking his forts and his fortified capital. It is not a good example of defeating an insurgency by air.

It is clear that this was primarily a ground campaign, supported by air. For a detailed description of the military operations see pages 262-284 (it can be converted to a PDF file):

It states on page 278 that: “It is unfortunate that no very definite conclusions can probably be drawn from the results achieved, and that consequently the most extravagant claims in regard to the efficacy of aircraft under such conditions have been preferred.” This is followed by a detailed discussion of the value of air in this campaign. It is an account worth reading, especially when compared to some accounts that seem to over-value the air contribution to this campaign.


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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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