This is an unusually well executed plan, depicting the Mandera Evacuation Camp, a British facility established during World War II in British Somaliland (today’s north-western Somalia) that housed Italian prisoners (both military and civilian) captured during Britain’s invasion of Italian East Africa. The map, which shows Mandera at the height of its operational capacity in the latter part of 1942, is perhaps the finest surviving cartographic record of the facility and is also the most meticulously rendered map of any internment camp we have ever seen. Moreover, original manuscript maps from the East African theatre of World War II are especially rare, and the surviving examples represent unique artefacts capturing greatly underappreciated aspects of the broader conflict.
The map has a roughly eastward orientation, and shows the camp to have a rectangular, almost square, shape. It was drafted by an anonymous hand, signed with the initial “MD”, who was likely a professional military engineer, as suggested by the high and formal quality of the plan’s execution and the sophistication of the symbols and colour coding employed. About two-thirds of the camp is taken up by living quarters for the internees and related amenities, while the lower-right quadrant hosts the British Administration and the hospital sector. Mandera is shown here to be a well-developed and highly organized camp with a vast array of specialized facilities to guard and care for the internees.
The ‘Legenda’, on the left side, details the signs and colour conventions used to denote numerous features, including: brick houses (shaded pink); accommodation & shelter buildings (shaded orange); tents (orange crossed squares); water tanks (blue circles and squares); latrines (marked with the letter ‘W’); showers (‘B’); laundry (‘L’); kitchens (‘K’); mess houses (‘M’); Church (simply labelled as such); stores (‘S’); offices (‘O’); vegetable gardens (shaded light green, bordered with intermittent lines); gardens (shaded dark green, bordered with intermittent lines); canteens (‘C’); roads (yellow, black-bordered lines); barbed wire fences (black lines); sentry houses (‘G’) and playing grounds (shaded yellow, marked ‘P’).
Various key features are specifically labelled beyond the ‘Legenda’, including the road to Berbera (the main British base and seaport in the region); ‘Luna-Park’ (the ‘town square’ so the speak); hairdressers; shoemakers; the cinema; and ‘Pippo-Park’, near the river which features a ‘sun bath’ and a ‘Childrens Swimming-pool’. More ominously, in the lower-left is the ‘Reception Pen’; ‘Isolation Pen’ and ‘Punishment Cage’.
Historical Context: Britain Conquers Italian East Africa during World War II
In 1936, Fascist Italy established Italian East Africa, Africa Orientale Italiana(AOI), a vast realm which included newly conquered Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea and Italian Somaliland (the south and western two-thirds of modern Somalia), which had both been Italian colonies since 1890. The embraced all the Horn of Africa, save for the enclaves of British Somaliland (modern north-western Somalia) and French Somaliland (modern Djibouti). By 1939, around 165,000 Italian subjects lived in the AOI (including around 90,000 civilian colonists), against an indigenous population of 12.1 million.
On June 10, 1940, Benito Mussolini made the fateful decision to join the Axis Powers in World War II, declaring war upon both Britain and France. By August 1940, Italian forces had easily overwhelming the local opposition, conquering both British and French Somaliland, annexing them to the AOI.
However, while France folded, Britain was determined to not only regain its lost territories, but to drive Italy out of East Africa altogether. While the East Africa Theatre in WWII does not garner much attention today, overshadowed by the larger conflicts elsewhere, it was nevertheless of great geopolitical importance, as control of the Horn of Africa was crucial to maintaining vital shipping routes through the Suez Canal and to the Persian Gulf, India and beyond.
Italian rule over the AOI was far from secure, as significant British Commonwealth forces, variously based in Cairo, Nairobi and Aden were primed for the offensive. Archival documents reveal that the Comando Supremo(Italian General Staff) greatly underestimated Britain’s determination and abilities in the region, and they did not expect a British counteroffensive to occur until sometime in 1942. Italian forces in the East Africa were poorly prepared for the events which were to unfold.
In the early months of 1941, a series of coordinated British operations attacked the AOI from all directions. British expeditions mounted from Kenya and Sudan surged into Ethiopia, taking Addis Ababa, the AOI capital, on April 6, 1941.
Meanwhile, of relevance to the present map, in March 1941, an expedition named Operation Appearancesaw British forces from Aden descend upon what was British Somaliland, quickly taking the capital, Berbera, and the important inland town of Hargeisa. The capture of Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, the inland gateway towards British Somaliland, at the end of March, secured the region for Britain. The following months consisted of ‘mop-up’ operations, as the British hunted down isolated Italian forces across the region. The Italians were dealt a decisive blow at the Battle of Gondar (November 1941), and their regional command formally surrendered in January 1942 (low-grade Italian guerrilla operations subsequently occurred, but to limited effect). The AOI was no more, as Britain had undisputed mastery over the Horn of Africa. Importantly, however, the larger war still ranged in Europe and North Africa, keeping the British forces in East Africa on their guard.
The Mandera Evacuation Camp and the British Plans for Captured Italians
Through much of the year 1941, as Britain gained the upper hand across the AOI, it also assumed an onerous burden. The British captured tens of thousands of Italian soldiers and gained responsibility for a vast number of Italian civilian colonists. The Geneva Convention made clear that the Italian soldiers were to be well-treated as POWs. Beyond that, the British considered the Italian civilian colonists in East Africa to be a security threat, as it was feared that they could aid guerrilla activities against Allied forces. Moreover, their presence was deeply resented by the Ethiopian and Somali people, whose support the British required. It was decided that the colonists had to be rounded up and detained in the same manner as the military POWs. However, a complicating factor was that the Horn of Africa was generally a barren land, lacking good transport and communications networks. The British forces, who had themselves ‘travelled light’, initially had nowhere near the adequate level of supplies, facilities or manpower to guard and care for tens of thousands of Italians.
In the late spring and summer of 1941, the local British command decided to make do with the meagre resources at their disposal, housing the Italians under their charge though improvised means. The British decided to congregate most of the Italian prisoners within hastily constructed ‘evacuation’ camps along the Dire Dawa-Hargeisa-Berbera Road, one of the region’s few decent transport arteries, and one which led to the region’s main port and Allied military base (Berbera). The most important of these camps were Amaresa, La Faruk and Mandera.
The Mandera Evacuation Camp was located about 72 km southwest of Berbera, almost midway along the route to Hargeisa. Although the location was relatively well-watered and near the main road, Mandera was already infamous as a place of misfortune. During World War I, British forces marched 600 German POWs on a brutal trek from Dar es Salaam towards Berbera. However, owing to a lack of provisions, the British abandoned the Germans at Mandera, then an utterly desolate location. While the Germans showed impressive initiative and self-reliance, digging wells and making mud-brick hits, most died from disease. Only a few Germans survived to return to Europe where they told stories of the ‘Hell that is Mandera’.
Fast forward to the summer of 1941, when the British housed Italian military and civilian internees at Mandera under eerily reminiscent conditions. Hundreds, and later thousands, of Italians were guarded from escaping by a small number of armed British troops, who supplied the Italians with basic tents, a small number of tools and meagre, low quality, food rations. Congregated around the old German wells, the camp was a miserable place; conditions were described as horrendous, even by the standards of internment camps in Africa.
Eventually, the Italian prisoners were able to lodge a formal complaint with the Red Cross, which caused great embarrassment at Whitehall. Evidently, the ‘Fear of God’ was placed upon the local British military command, for late 1941 saw dramatic improvements in the conditions at Madera and the other camps. The quality and quantity of the of the food radically improved; and proper kitchens, showers, latrines and a clinic were constructed. Gradually, many of the tents were replaced by large brick sheds and huts, and the camp population was divided into male and female sections. In December 1941, professional British civilian administrators arrived, replacing the disinterested military wardens, spearheading even more improvements to the camp.
Throughout the early months of 1942, the British poured significant resources into the Mandera, building the elaborate array of buildings and amenities seen on the present map. The presence of a permanent Red Cross unit led by Italian (Anti-Fascist) doctors and nurses led to a high degree of care, ensuring that the British adhered to Geneva Convention standards. Despite the improvements, in March 1942, Mandera was struck (along with the other camps along the Dire Dawa-Berbera Road) with an epidemic of measles which carried away dozens of children. That being noted, day-to-day life in the camp in mid-1942 was a vast improvement over the situation that prevailed during the Mandera’s early days.
The British found maintaining such large camps in rural areas of Ethiopia and Somaliland onerous and in mid-1942 began deporting large numbers of the internees to camps in well-established British domains, such as Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and India. POWs and able-bodied men were intentionally separated from their families, acting as ‘security’ for their good behaviour going forward. This caused much emotional stress, as well as some degree of unrest, amongst the internees; however, the policy was executed with great efficiency. It was not until 1947 that many of the separated families were reunited.
Fascist Italy capitulated in September 1943, and while the war still raged in Central and Northern Italy, the southern regions of the country had been liberated by the Allies. It was decided that non-combatant Italians in East Africa could be repatriated, and in late 1943 hundreds of eligible internees left Mandera for Berbera, where they boarded ships for Naples. It was hoped that as Italy was progressively liberated, all the civilians could return to their original home towns. For the rest of the war, Mandera was gradually wound down, leaving only hardcore Italian military types and criminals in the camp upon the WWII’s end in May 1945. Mandera was closed shortly thereafter once the last internees were processed out and repatriated.
References:N/A – Map unrecorded. Cf. Enzo Centofanti, Out of Africa and into America: The Odyssey of Italians in East Africa (2012), pp. 52 - 62.