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Undated photo of inspection of SDF honour guard by Chief of the Imperial General Staff

The Sudan Defence Force (SDF) was a British Army unit formed in 1925, as its name indicates, to maintain the borders of the Sudan under the British administration. During the Second World War, it also served beyond the Sudan in the East African Campaign and in the Western Desert Campaign.


The Sudan Defence Force consisted of a number of battalions, misleadingly styled 'Corps', which had a set area of operations:

  • the Shendi Horse
  • the Sudan Camel Corps ('the Hajana')
  • the Western Arab Corps
  • the Eastern Arab Corps
  • the Equatoria Corps

In peacetime, the SDF comprised approximately 4,500 regular Sudanese soldiers.[1] During the Second World War, the SDF expanded greatly to counter the threat from the four neighbouring Italian territories: to the north-west, Libya, and to the east, Eritrea and the newly conquered Abyssinia (Ethiopia). To accommodate the extra numbers, a new war-service battalion was formed, the Sudanese Frontier Force. In wartime, the SDF grew to as many as 20,000 men.

There were also two regiments of irregular special forces:


The British did not garrison the Empire exclusively with British troops; almost every territory had a local militia or an indigenous regiment. Prior to 1925, the garrison of the Sudan comprised a British battalion around the capital, and battalions of the Egyptian Army, both Egyptian and Sudanese, in the regional capitals.

British Military involvement in the Sudan goes back to the days of General Herbert Kitchener and General Gordon who were sent by London to defend British interests in the country. In 1895 Kitchener led the march to Khartoum in charge of the Anglo-Egyptian Expeditionary Force. A force composed of British, Egyptian and Sudanese troops. As a young Army officer Winston Churchill saw military service in the Sudan.

The Sudan had been a territory loosely administered by Egypt, but in the 1880s it had fallen to the forces of the Mahdi. From 1885 to 1898 it was ruled, de facto, by the Mahdi and his successor the Khalifa (literally 'Successor'). Following the defeat of the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman, the Sudan was reorganised as an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. The Head of the Egyptian Army was the Governor-General and there was still a large garrison, as the territory was huge and the remoter parts, such as Darfur, were not pacified until 1916.

In 1925, the Governor-General Sir Lee Stack was assassinated, by an Egyptian nationalist, on a visit to Cairo. Sudanese soldiers in Khartoum mutinied,[3] the Egyptian Army garrison of the Sudan was therefore deemed unreliable and the Egyptian battalions were sent home. The Sudanese battalions disbanded, 140 British officers were transferred from the Egyptian army and a Sudanese force was formed under the first Kaid Lewa Huddleston who had previously been acting Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief) of the Egyptian army.[3] The structure of the new force of about 6,000 troops was slightly different: a little looser and more territorial, to give a better esprit de corps and sense of responsibility in each 'Corps' for its own territory. Unlike the old battalions, with anonymous numbers, the names of the four main corps were Camel Corps, Eastern Arab Corps, Western Arab Corps and Equatorial Corps. These were intended to give a distinct, and regional, identity, like English county regiments. Recruitment in each Corps reflected the local ethnicities. These corps were supported by artillery, engineer, armoured car and machine-gun units, medical, signals and transport services.[3]

However, some continuity was maintained. The Egypt ruler, the Khedive, or Viceroy, had been, nominally, a subject of the Ottoman Sultan and so the SDF continued Egyptian titles, which in turn continued Ottoman titles. The result was that British officers in the Sudan were called Bimbashi not Major, or an Arabic equivalent, and Kaimakam. Turkish expressions extended beyond the rank structure, too.

Inter-war years

The main duties of the SDF were internal security: assisting the police in the event of unrest or natural disaster. In such a vast country, companies could be detached on garrison duties far from the actual Corps headquarters.

In the mid to late 1930s, the SDF was used to counter the aggressive actions of Italian military forces under Marshal Italo Balbo based in Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana, or ASI) Libya. In December 1933, the Italians probed various positions in the Jebel Uweinat area along the poorly defined border between the Kingdom of Egypt, the Sudan, and ASI. Responding to the Italian probes in the area, the SDF was ordered to occupy the Merga oasis and then the area around the Karkur Marr spring.[4] The Italian conquest of Ethiopia led to a reorganisation and an increase in scope of the force. By June 1940 the SDF comprised twenty-one companies — including five (later six) Motor Machine Gun Companies — totalling 4,500 men.[5]

Second World War

As part of the Anglo-Egyptian "Condominium," the Sudan was at war with the Axis from the time Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. Initially the war was limited to Europe and so the Sudan Defence Force had little to do other than preparation work should the land war reach Africa.

From 10 June 1940, when Fascist Italy declared war on Britain and France, the SDF was involved in the East African Campaign. At first, the SDF went on the defensive against attacks into the Sudan by forces of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) and the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) based in Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI). The Italians occupied the railway junction at Kassala, the small fort at Gallabat, and the villages of Ghezzan, Kurmuk, and Dumbode on the Blue Nile. In the first days of August, an Italian force of irregular Eritreans raided as far north as Port Sudan.[6]

The Sudan Defence Force fought on the "Northern Front" during the East African Campaign under the overall command of Lieutenant-General William Platt. In October 1940, three motor machine-gun companies from the SDF were part of Gazelle Force, a mobile reconnaissance and fighting force commanded by Colonel Frank Messervy.[7] The Frontier battalion from the SDF was part of Gideon Force commanded by Major Orde Wingate. In January 1941, during the British and Commonwealth offensive into the AOI, the SDF took part in the successful invasion of Eritrea. During this invasion, the SDF contributed machine gun companies, howitzer batteries, and other forces (including some homemade armoured cars).

The SDF also played an active role during the Western Desert Campaign along the Sudanese border with ASI in North Africa. The SDF was used to supply the Free French and then the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) garrisons of the former Italian Fort Taj at the Kufra oasis in southeastern Libya. In March 1941, French and LRDG forces had wrested control of the fort from the Italians during the Battle of Kufra.[8]

SDF convoys of 3-ton trucks had to make a round trip of about 1,300 miles to keep the garrisons at Kufra supplied with petrol, food, and other vital supplies. The overall scarcity of petrol meant that LRDG patrols could do little more than guard Kufra against attacks from the north. They were unable to raid northwards from Kufra. In February 1941, the situation was somewhat improved when twenty 10-ton trucks were added to the convoys. Ultimately the SDF took over the garrison duties at the oasis from the LRDG.[8]

The SDF provided the garrison for Jalo Oasis. British Military Intelligence in Cairo worked very closely with the SDF and used them in numerous operations during the North African campaign in WWII. In 1942 on instructions from London, British Military Intelligence, Cairo and elements of the Sudan Defence Force were involved with countering Operation Salaam, the infiltration of German Brandenburger commandos into Egypt.[2] Together with British intelligence agents, members of the SDF were ordered to intercept and capture the German intelligence (Abwehr) commandos and their Hungarian guide, desert explorer László Almásy.[9]

Even after the Tunisian Campaign had ended in Allied victory, SDF patrols were busy thwarting German efforts to land agents behind the lines. The Germans continued attempts to make contact with Arab rebels. On 15 May 1943, a four-engine aircraft with German markings attempted to land at El Mukaram only to be engaged and shot up by a SDF patrol. The aircraft was able to take off and make good its escape, but it did so with casualties and flying on two engines.[10]

By the end of the war, the SDF was an experienced military force with about 70 Sudanese officers. Gradually Sudanese officers were appointed to replace British officers in the years that preceded independence.[11]


In March 1954 British Troops in the Sudan consisted of one battalion stationed in Khartoum, reporting ultimately to the Governor-General.[12] The Governor-General's military commander was the Major-General Commanding British Troops in the Sudan, who was also Commandant of the Sudan Defence Force. In this post from 1950 onward was Major General Reginald 'Cully' Scoons.[13] The last British troops, 1st Battalion Royal Leicestershire Regiment, left the country on 16 August 1955.[14] Ibrahim Aboud was Commander of the SDF in 1949 and Assistant Commander in Chief in 1954. He was appointed Commander in Chief of the Sudanese armed forces at independence. Aboud later served as Prime Minister of Sudan from 1958-1964 and as President in 1964.[15]

One source wrote that Sudan was "the one African Country south of the Sahara to emerge from the colonial period with a military establishment possessing the attributes of an independent national army."[16]

British officers

Most of the officers of the SDF were British Army officers on secondment for a few years. The attraction was independence of command, sporting (game-hunting) opportunities in leisure hours and local promotion (1 rank). On the outbreak of war, many young men of the Sudan Political Service, the administrative service for the Condominium, were allowed to join up. These men included:

  • Wilfred Thesiger, desert explorer
  • Hilary Hook
  • Maurice Stanley Lush, chief political officer

See also


  1. Keegan 2005, p. 852.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "citation pending". 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 (2012) The Sudan Defence Force The Melik Society, Retrieved 20 April 2013
  4. Kelly 2002, p. 106.
  5. Playfair 2004, p. 169.
  6. Cernuschi, Enrico. La resistenza sconosciuta in Africa Orientale
  7. Mackenzie 1951, p. 32.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Kelly 2002, p. 156.
  9. Kelly 2002, p. 193.
  10. Kelly 2002, p. 247.
  11. Abdel-Rahim, Muddathir "Imperialism & Nationalism in the Sudan: A Study in Constitutional & Political Development, 1899-1956" Ithaca (1987), ISBN 978-0863720758
  12. British Parliament House of Lords Debate, 10 March 1954
  13. Sir Reginald-Cully-Scoones
  14. British Troops in the Sudan
  15. Ibrahim Aboud Rediff, Retrieved 20 April 2013
  16. Coleman, James and Bruce, Belmont Jr. "The Military in Sub-Saharan Africa" in Johnson, John, J. (ed): "The Role of the Military in Underdeveloped Countries", Rand Corporation Study, Princeton University Press, 1962 p. 336. Toronto, Saunders, ISBN 978 069108515


  • Keegan, John (2005). Dear, I.C.B.; Foot, M.R.D. eds. Oxford Companion to World War II. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280670-3. 
  • Kelly, Saul (2002). The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura. Westview Press. ISBN 0-7195-6162-0. 
  • Mackenzie, Compton (1951). Eastern Epic. London: Chatto & Windus. OCLC 1412578. 
  • Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Stitt, Commander G.M.S., Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO:1954]. Butler, J.R.M. ed. Mediterranean and Middle East Volume I: The Early Successes Against Italy (to May 1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Uckfield, East Sussex: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-065-3. 

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