Tanga, 1914

When the term “Sideshow” comes up in the context of World War One, most think of the amphibious disaster at Gallipoli, the desert raids of T.E. Lawrence, or perhaps the bitter mountain warfare between Italy and Austria. However, the often overlooked sideshow in German East Africa deserves more attention than it gets.

Often divided by internal squabbles through much of the mid 1800’s, Imperial Germany was quite a late-comer to Imperialism on the continent of Africa. Other nations such as Great Britain, Portugal, Belgium, and Italy had already long since “civilized” large portions of Africa into their own colonies. Using uncertain methods including bribes and coercion, crates of guns and large amounts of alcohol, a German nationalist named Karl Peters “secured” from local chieftains the Imperial German colonies of West Africa (Nambia), the Cameroons, and East Africa, modern day Tanzania. Of the colonies, German East Africa was the largest and most important. Parts of it were soon under cultivation for sisal, which produced hemp for rope-making, coffee, rubber and cotton. The Germans developed the ports of Dar-Es-Salaam and Tanga, and modern railroads were built through the bush from the former to Lake Tanganyika and from the latter to Moshi, near the famous peak of Kilimanjaro. Faced with unbearably heavy taxes and often used as veritable slave labor, the natives revolted on more than one occasion, but these rebellions were brutally and bloodily put down by force, to include the killing of some women and children. By the time World War One was declared, the Germans were fortunate indeed to have appointed, in January of 1914, one Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck to head the small security forces in East Africa.

The 44-year-old officer was from a military family, the son of a general, and one of the most experienced combat leaders in the Imperial German Army, having seen action in the Peking Boxer Rebellion in China as well as in the Hero and Hottentot Rebellions in German Southwest Africa, where he was blinded in one eye. He had also observed the Boers in their action against the British in South Africa, and was good friends with Jan Smuts.

Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck plunged immediately into his duties as leader of the Schutztruppe, the tiny “army” that served as a defense force in East Africa. The German Schutztruppe was the smallest of the Imperial European defense forces in Africa, with even Portugal fielding more soldiers. Approximately 2,500 men were divided into independent

companies consisting, usually, of sixteen German officers and NonCommissioned Officers and 160 native Askari troops. German troops serving in East Africa were the cream of the crop, carefully screened and selected. They drilled the Askaris in Prussian discipline and marksmanship with modern small arms. In turn, under von Lettow-Vorbeck, who had almost obsessively studied Africa, the black troops taught the Europeans their native tactics, camouflage and how to survive in the bush. Many Askari went on to become senior NCO’s, and even hade some whites serving under their command, which was unheard in the day and age. The Schutztruppe’s armament was a major headache for all concerned. The vast majority of the Askaris were equipped with the obsolete black powder 11mm Mauser Jagerbuchse M/71 rifle. Other troops also had the Model 1888 “Commission Rifle”, which fired the 7.9x57mm Patrone 88 cartridge, while others had the brand-new Model 1989 Mausers. The latter fired the more powerful high-velocity 7.92mm Patrone S cartridge, which could not be used in the Commission Rifle due to much higher chamber pressures.

The smoke from the black powder Jagerbuchse M/71 rifles soon obscured the battlefield, as in the American Civil War.

Impressively, each company also fielded two Maxim machine guns. This was at a time when the regular army forces of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium had only 2 machine guns per battalion! For mobility, each company also brought along from 250 to 500 bearers or porters to carry supplies. This seemingly archaic method worked quite well and gave the Schutztruppe much greater mobility than their

British opponents. The porters were immune to most of the African diseases which affected the Europeans. The British had some motorized supply units, but roads were few and very poor, and the trucks could not keep up. Likewise, when they used pack animals such as horses and mules, the African tsetse fly quickly laid waste to the stock through disease. Like Stonewall Jackson before him, and Erwin Rommel after, von Lettow-Vorbeck was passionate about seeing the ground on which he would fight in person. He conducted extensive personal reconnaissance of the area immediately upon arrival and throughout the campaign. With horses being scarce, he often rode a bicycle on his recon trips. Although his small forces could not meet the enemy in open battle and he planned an extensive guerilla campaign, when the British threatened the vital port city of Tanga, von Lettow-Vorbeck was forced to give battle. As with many generals throughout history, von Lettow-Vorbeck had to fight his own politicians as well as the enemy. The official governor of German East Africa, Dr. Schnee, who was regarded with distaste by the British as well as the German military, had a two-fold plan. First was to insist that the colony was neutral and, if that failed, to surrender outright. Even though von Lettow had solid intelligence that a British invasion fleet was en route, and even after British warships shelled Dar-Es-Salaam, Dr.

Schnee insisted they were still neutral. The good colonel thought otherwise and prepared accordingly. Then a British Astrea-class cruiser, the HMS Fox, steamed into Tanga harbor and a British emissary sought out the town commissioner, Herr Aurarcher. He told Aurarcher that London would not honor Dr. Schnee’s “neutrality” and that the city must be surrendered immediately or face destruction. Aurarcher played for time, saying he must consult with his superiors, and during the conversation planted in the British emissary’s mind that the harbor had been sown with anti-ship mines. After that, Aurarcher didn’t bother to contact Dr. Schnee but instead promptly notified von Lettow-Vorbeck of the impending invasion. As a reserve officer in the Schutztruppe, Aurarcher then gathered his 15-man rifle-armed Askari police force and headed out to join the lone Schutztruppe company then defending the city. Granted 24 hours advance notice of the invasion by the emissary’s visit, von Lettow-Vorbeck rushed what reserves from Kilimanjro down the railroad to Tanga. He once again personally reconnoitered the area and deployed his companies. Only about 250 additional Askaris arrived in time for the beginning of the battle, and von Lettow-Vorbeck’s eventual total forces came to a maximum of around a thousand men, armed with rifles and

machine guns and devoid of artillery. Facing the Germans was a Britishcommanded landing force of some 8,000 men, supported by the big guns of the Royal Navy.

The handful of available Schutztruppe reinforcements was rushed in to do battle with the British landing force.

Fortunately for the Germans, the British Expeditionary Force was led by General Arthur Aitken, an individual reminiscent of the fictional “Colonel Blimp”. He pompously turned down local information and assistance from the King’s Own Rifles of British East Africa as well as the

Royal Navy’s offers of fire support from the big guns of the HMS Goliath. No reconnaissance at all of the landing areas or German defenses, personal or otherwise, was conducted. Aitken bragged that von Lettow’s “lot of niggers” would be no match for his force. In his first order of the day, Aitken was more concerned with spit-and-polish than fighting. “I will not tolerate the appalling sloppiness of dress allowed during the late war with the Boers.” Fearing Aurarcher’s fictitious harbor mines, the BEF landed some three miles from Tanga, again without any reconnaissance. The troops slogging ashore found themselves in a palmetto and mangrove swamp teeming with mosquitoes, leaches and snakes. Once they forded the swamp, they found themselves facing fifty-foot rock cliffs. This fiasco delayed the intended attack by another full 24 hours, allowing more German askaris to rush to the scene. Many of the British-led troops were Indians, and Aitkin had great faith in them. However, these were not the justly famous Gurkha and Sikh warriors who were trained to the standards of the Old Contemptibles. These were mostly peasant conscripts yanked from their homes, given rudimentary training, and shoved onto troopships like sardines. For the past three weeks they had been crammed in the holds of the ships, inactive and seasick. Some

of them were totally unfamiliar with the new Lee-Enfield rifles they had been issued, while others had fired only 5-10 rounds through their new weapons.

Schutztruppe Askari riflemen were often better trained than the British and Indian soldiers they faced. Despite the atrocious landing area, the troops were ashore by the night of November 3, 1914. Aitken told them to get a good rest before attacking on the morning of the 4th. That day, the British and Indians plowed headlong into von Lettow-Vorbeck’s defenses, again without any intelligence or reconnaissance. Besides the forbidding terrain they had landed in and had to cross, the city of Tanga itself, with its solid brick and stone houses and dense hedgerows, was an ideal defensive position for the Schutztruppe.

The Schutztruppe’s finest company, consisting of the best-trained marksmen with the most modern rifles, had been placed on the flank of the British advance. The lines of the British battalions were taken under vicious and accurate full enfilade fire right off the bat. Other Schutztruppe defenders to the front poured rifle and machine gun fire into the advancing ranks. When the Imperial Service Brigade attempted to advance through the concealment of a ripe cornfield, Askari marksmen perched in trees inflicted dreadful casualties via head shots among the tassels. To top it all off, the battlefield area was heavily used by local beekeepers to raise honey. The hives were tended in hollow logs suspended from trees in the area. The African honey bee is the most vicious and aggressive of the bee species. Disturbed and enraged by the noise as well as stray bullets and shrapnel striking the hives, the bees swarmed over the advancing Indian infantry and some men received literally hundreds of stings. This led the British to nickname Tanga “The Battle of the Bees”.

As the day wore on, the fight degenerated into wicked close-range jungle fighting. The British and Indian troops ran out of drinking water by noon. Still they fought on in the heat and the bullets and the bees. All units suffered heavy casualties. Some Indian units began to break under the pressure. In late afternoon, von Lettow-Vorbeck’s reinforcements, consisting only of two companies, arrived via rail and were immediately thrown into a counter-attack against the British flank and rear. The Entendre units began fall apart, and then to break and run. By nightfall, the BEF had been forced back into the landing boats and was retreating to the troopships. Despite eight-to-one odds, the short battle had cost the British and Indians 360 dead, 400 wounded and 1,800 men missing or captured. Colonel

von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces reported losses of 15 Germans and 54 Askaris. In addition, the German forces captured a vast array of British supplies, including 500 rifles, 16 machine guns, over a half a million rounds of ammunition, telephones, wire, tents, medical supplies, and other military gear. The booty enabled von Lettow-Vorbeck to raise and equip another three companies of men for his tiny army. The defeated British Expeditionary Force went limping back Mombassa in British East Africa (BEA). To add insult to injury, the local port authorities would not let the task force dock and unload until they paid the 5% port tax. They were dissuaded at gunpoint. Soon, a satirical anonymous poem about the battle began to circulate through British East Africa.

Steaming Down to Tanga Steaming down to Tanga Over the briny main, See our major general And his brilliant train. Three brigade commanders Colonels, staff galore. Majors count for little, Captains they ignore. Armoured trains and sleepers, Guns of different bores, Telephones and mess plates, Hospitals and stores. Medicos in thousands Anxious to avoid Work outside the units Where they are employed. Earnestly they study Each Little Book Which, compiled in Simla, Tells them where to look. Local knowledge needed; Native scouts of use. For so quaint a notion There is small excuse. See them shortly landing At the chosen spot. Find the local climate Just a trifle hot. Foes unsympathetic Maxims on them train; Careful first to signal Range to ascertain. Ping, ping go the bullets; Crash, explode the shells. Major General's worried Thinks it just as well Not to move too rashly While he's in the dark. What's the strength opposing Orders to reembark? Back to old Mombassa Steams Force B again, Are the generals ruffled? Not the slightest grain. Martial regulations Inform us day by day They may have foozled Tanga But they've taken BEA.

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