WW1 – Campaign in German East Africa.


German East Africa, campaign in (1914-18). In 1914 Germany possessed four colonies in sub-Saharan Africa: Togoland, Cameroons, South-West Africa (now Namibia), and East Africa (now Tanzania). The fight for the fourth of these has most captured the public imagination. The last German troops did not surrender until two weeks after the Armistice in Europe, on 25 November 1918. Their commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, became a German hero, the symbol of an army that deemed itself undefeated in the field. By the 1960s he had acquired another reputation, that of guerrilla leader. Neither interpretation can be fully sustained.

The German colonial troops, the Schutztruppen, were equipped and trained only for internal policing duties, but Lettow-Vorbeck, appointed through the influence of the German general staff, aimed to contribute to the main struggle in the event of war in Europe by drawing British forces away from their principal theatres and sought battle rather than shunned it. However, his isolation from Germany meant that neither trained European soldiers nor stocks of munitions were easily replaced. After the battle of Mahiwa, which Lettow-Vorbeck began on 15 October 1917, the Germans had exhausted all their smokeless cartridges and had to abandon German territory for Portuguese in the search for ammunition.

British strategy in Africa was much more limited. On 5 August 1914 a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence decided that the principal objectives were to eliminate Germany’s wireless stations and to deprive its navy of bases. Heinrich Schnee, the governor of German East Africa, anxious to protect the fruits of German colonialism, effectively co-operated in the achievement of both these objectives. The principal German cruiser in the region, SMS Konigsberg, was unable to enter Dar es Salaam, and took refuge in the delta of the Rufiji river, where she was eventually located and sunk on 11 July 1915. The British colonial office lacked the troops to do much more, and it therefore called on the Indian army. Indian Expeditionary Force B, principally made up of second-line units, landed at German East Africa’s second major port, Tanga, on 2 November 1914. Lettow-Vorbeck had concentrated his forces to the north, with a view to launching an attack into British East Africa, but was still able to redeploy and inflict a humiliating defeat on the British. The latter, hamstrung by overlapping administrative authorities and now deprived of any faith in the available Indian troops, did nothing in 1915. The Germans raided the Uganda railway.

The campaign was reactivated in March 1916 with the arrival of South African reinforcements under J. C. Smuts. Like the Indians, the South Africans were not easily deployable to the western front, and to that extent Lettow-Vorbeck’s strategy was not working. However, Smuts’s aims were much more extensive than those of London. He wished to conquer the entire German colony and then to trade territory with Portugal, so as to extend South Africa’s frontier into Mozambique at least as far as the Zambezi. He therefore invaded German East Africa from the north, cutting across the axes of the two principal railway lines and neglecting the harbours on the coast. He had earned his military reputation as the leader of a Boer commando and conducted his campaign as though his mounted rifles could move as fast through regions infested with tsetse fly as across the veld. He accorded little recognition to the difference between rainy seasons and dry. His advance, although rapid, failed ever to grip and defeat the German forces. His troops entered Dar es Salaam on 3 September 1916, and were astride the Central railway, running from there to Tabora and Lake Tanganyika. Smuts should have paused but he did not, plunging on to the Rufiji river, and claiming that the campaign was all but over when in reality it had stalled.

Gunnery Team
Gunnery Team

Worrying for Smuts were Belgian territorial ambitions in the west. Debouching from the Congo into Ruanda and Urundi, the Belgians had reached Tabora in August 1916. Smuts’s sub-imperialism was challenged even more fundamentally by the contribution of blacks to the campaign. The Schutztruppen, although officered by Europeans, were predominantly native Africans, and yet they had proved formidable opponents for the whites. On the British side the South Africans were particularly susceptible to malaria, and by early 1917 they were being replaced in the British order of battle by the black units of the West African Frontier Force and the King’s African Rifles. Moreover, the collapse of animal transport meant that supply was largely dependent on human resources; the British ended up recruiting over a million labourers for the campaign. The long-term impact for Africa?in the development of the cash economy, in the penetration of colonial rule into areas hitherto unmapped, and in the erosion of chiefly or tribal authority?was immense.

Smuts was recalled to London in January 1917, and handed over his command to A. R. Hoskins. Hoskins set about remedying the worst of the health, transport, and supply problems, but in doing so aroused impatience in the War Cabinet in London which could not understand why a campaign which Smuts had said was over was still continuing to drain Allied shipping. (This was one area in which Lettow-Vorbeck most nearly fulfilled his overall strategy.) In April Hoskins was replaced by J. L. van Deventer, another Afrikaaner, who implemented Hoskins’s plan but still failed to prevent the rump of the Germans from escaping into Portuguese East Africa in November. For the next year, Lettow-Vorbeck’s columns marched through Portuguese territory, fighting largely to secure supplies and munitions. The Allies still had a ration strength of 111, 371 in the theatre at the war’s end.

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