East African Campaign (World War I)
The East African Campaign was a series of battles and guerilla actions which started in German East Africa and spread to portions of Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, British East Africa, Uganda and the Belgian Congo. The campaign was effectively ended in November 1917. The Germans entered Portuguese East Africa and continued the campaign living off Portuguese supplies.
The strategy of the German colonial forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel (later Generalmajor) Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, was to divert forces from the Western Front to Africa. His strategy achieved only mixed results after 1916, when he was driven out of German East Africa and Allied forces became composed almost entirely of South African, Indian, and other colonial troops. South African troops were not considered for European service as a matter of policy while all Indian units had been withdrawn from the Western Front by the end of 1915; the campaign in Africa consumed considerable amounts of money and war material that could have gone to other fronts. The Germans fought for the whole of World War I, receiving word of the armistice on 14 November 1918 at 7:30 a.m. Both sides waited for confirmation and the Germans formally surrendered on 25 November. German East Africa became two League of Nations Class B Mandates, Tanganyika Territory of the United Kingdom and Ruanda-Urundi of Belgium, while the Kionga Triangle became a mandate of Portugal.
German East Africa (comprising Burundi, Rwanda, and the mainland part of modern-day Tanzania) was a large territory with complex geography, including parts of the extensive East African Rift, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. It varied from the mountainous, well-watered and fertile north-west, to the drier and sandy or rocky centre, with grasslands full of wild-life in the north-east and vast areas of uninhabited forest in the south-east. The coast was inhabited by the Swahili people and Arab traders, who dominated trade with Central Africa, in conjunction with British-controlled Zanzibar and the coasts of modern Kenya and Mozambique.
On 2 August 1914 the Colonial Office in Berlin instructed Heinrich Schnee the Governor of German East Africa to play down fears of war and he ordered that no hostile action was to be taken. To the north, Governor Sir Henry Conway Belfield of British East Africa stated that he and "this colony had no interest in the present war." The colonial governors, who often met in pre-war years, had discussed these matters and wished to adhere to the Congo Act of 1885, which called for overseas possessions to remain neutral in the event of a European war.
The British and Germans only maintained small forces to deal with local risings and border raids. It was considered dangerous to have Africans fight white troops, even where both sides were predominantly composed of Africans with European officers. On the outbreak of war there were 2,760 Schutztruppen in fourteen field companies. The King's African Rifles ("KAR") had 2,319 men but most were operating on the northern frontier of British East Africa.
In East Africa, the Congo Act was first broken by the British. On 5 August 1914, troops from the Uganda protectorate assaulted German river outposts near Lake Victoria, and on 8 August a direct naval attack commenced when the Royal Navy warships HMS Astraea and Pegasus bombarded Dar es Salaam from several miles offshore. In response, the commander of the German forces in East Africa, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, bypassed Governor Schnee, nominally his superior, and began to organize his troops for battle. At the time, the German Schutztruppe in East Africa consisted of 260 Germans of all ranks and 2,472 Askari and was approximately numerically equal with the two battalions of the King's African Rifles (KAR) based in the British East African colonies.
On 15 August, German Askari forces stationed in the Neu Moshi region engaged in their first offensive of the campaign. Taveta on the British side of Kilimanjaro fell to 300 askaris of two field companies with the British firing a token volley and retiring in good order. In September, the Germans began to stage raids deeper into British East Africa and Uganda. German naval power on Lake Victoria was limited to Hedwig von Wissmann and Kingani a tugboat armed with one "pom-pom" gun, causing minor damage but a great deal of news. The British then armed the Uganda Railway lake steamers SS William Mackinnon, SS Kavirondo, Winifred and Sybil as improvised gunboats. Two of these[which?] trapped the tug, which the Germans scuttled. The Germans later raised her, dismounted her gun for use elsewhere and continued to use the tug as an unarmed transport; with the tug disarmed "teeth removed, British command of Lake Victoria was no longer in dispute."
In an effort to solve the raiding nuisance and to capture the entire northern, white settler region of the German colony, the British command devised a two-pronged plan. The British Indian Expeditionary Force "B" of 8,000 troops in two brigades would carry out an amphibious landing at Tanga on 2 November 1914 to capture the city and thereby control the Indian Ocean terminus of the Usambara Railway (see Battle of Tanga). In the Kilimanjaro area, the Force "C" of 4,000 men in one brigade would advance from British East Africa on Neu-Moshi on 3 November 1914 to the western terminus of the railroad (see Battle of Kilimanjaro). After capturing Tanga, Force "B" would rapidly move north-west, join Force "C" and mop up what remained of the broken German forces. Although outnumbered 8:1 at Tanga and 4:1 at Longido, the Schutztruppe under Lettow-Vorbeck prevailed. In Military Operations East Africa: August 1914 – September 1916, C. Hordern the British Official Historian, described the events as one of "the most notable failures in British military history."
A light cruiser SMS Königsberg of the Imperial German Navy was in the Indian Ocean when war was declared. Königsberg sank the cruiser HMS Pegasus in Zanzibar harbour and then retired into the Rufiji River delta. After being cornered by warships of the British Cape Squadron, including an old battleship, two shallow-draught monitors with 6 in (150 mm) guns were brought from England and demolished the cruiser on 11 July 1915. The British salvaged and used six 4 in (100 mm) from the sunken Pegasus, which became known as the Peggy guns; the crew of Königsberg and the 4.1 in (100 mm) main battery guns were taken over by the Schutztruppe.
Lake Tanganyika expedition
The Germans had controlled the lake since the outbreak of the war, with three armed steamers and two unarmed motor boats. In 1915, two British motorboats, HMS Mimi and Toutou each armed with a 3-pounder and a Maxim gun, were transported 3,000 miles (4,800 km) by land to the British shore of Lake Tanganyika. They captured the German ship Kingani on 26 December, renaming it HMS Fifi and with two Belgian ships under the command of Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, attacked and sank the German ship Hedwig von Wissmann. The Graf von Götzen and the Wami an unarmed motor boat, were the only German ships left on the lake. In February 1916 the Wami was intercepted and run ashore by the crew and burned. Lettow-Vorbeck then had its Königsberg gun removed and sent by rail to the main fighting front. The ship was scuttled in mid-July after a seaplane bombing attack by the Belgians on Kigoma and before advancing Belgian colonial troops could capture it. It was later refloated and used by the British. [Note 1]
British Empire reinforcements, 1916
General Horace Smith-Dorrien was assigned with orders to find and fight the Schutztruppe, but he contracted pneumonia during the voyage to South Africa which prevented him from taking command. In 1916, General J.C. Smuts was given the task of defeating Lettow-Vorbeck. Smuts had a large army (for the area), some 13,000 South Africans including Boers, British, and Rhodesians and 7,000 Indian and African troops in a ration strength of 73,300 men. There was a Belgian force and a larger but ineffective group of Portuguese military units based in Mozambique. A large Carrier Corps of African porters under British command carried supplies for Smuts' army into the interior. Despite all these troops from different allies, it was essentially a South African operation of the British Empire under Smuts' control. During the previous year, Lettow-Vorbeck had also gained personnel and his army was now 13,800 strong.
Smuts attacked from several directions: the main attack was from the north out of British East Africa, while substantial forces from the Belgian Congo advanced from the west in two columns, over Lake Victoria on the British troop ships SS Rusinga and SS Usoga and into the Rift Valley. Another contingent advanced over Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) from the south-east. All these forces failed to capture Lettow-Vorbeck and they all suffered from disease along the march. One unit, 9th South African Infantry, started with 1,135 men in February, and by October its strength was reduced to 116 fit troops, without doing much fighting at all. However, the Germans nearly always retreated from the larger British troop concentrations and by September 1916, the German Central Railway from the coast at Dar es Salaam to Ujiji was fully under British control.
With Lettow-Vorbeck's forces now confined to the southern part of German East Africa, Smuts began to withdraw his South African, Rhodesian and Indian troops and replaced them with askaris of the King's African Rifles, which by November 1918 had 35,424 men. By the start of 1917, more than half the British Army in the theatre was already composed of Africans and by the end of the war, it was nearly all African troops. Smuts himself left the area in January 1917 to join the Imperial War Cabinet at London.
Belgian operations, 1916
The British conscripted 120,000 carriers to move Belgian supplies and equipment to Kivu from late 1915 to early 1916. The lines of communication in Belgian Congo required c. 260,000 carriers, which were barred by the Belgian government from crossing into German East Africa and Belgian troops were expected to live off the land. To avoid the plundering of civilians, loss of food stocks and risk of famine, with many farmers already conscripted and moved away from their land, the British set up the Congo Carrier Section of the East India Transport Corps ("CARBEL") with 7,238 carriers, conscripted from Ugandan civilians and assembled at Mbarara in April 1916. The Force Publique, started its campaign on 18 April 1916 under the command of General Charles Tombeur, Colonel Molitor and Colonel Olsen and captured Kigali on 6 May. The German Askaris in Burundi were forced to retreat by the numerical superiority of Force Publique and by 6 June, Burundi and Rwanda were occupied. The Force Publique and the British Lake Force then started a thrust to capture Tabora, an administrative centre of central German East Africa. They marched into German territory in three columns and took Biharamuro, Mwanza, Karema, Kigoma and Ujiji. After several days of battle, they secured Tabora. During the march, CARBEL lost 1,191 carriers died or missing presumed dead, a rate of 1:7, which occurred despite the presence of two doctors and adequate medical supplies. To forestall Belgian claims on the German colony, Smuts ordered their forces back to Congo, leaving them as occupiers only in Rwanda and Burundi. The British were obliged to recall Belgian troops in 1917 and the two allies coordinated campaign plans.
Major-General Reginald Hoskins (KAR) took over command of the campaign and was then replaced by Major-General J.L. van Deventer of South Africa. Van Deventer began an offensive in July 1917, which by early autumn had pushed the Germans 100 mi (160 km) to the south. From 15–19 October 1917, Lettow-Vorbeck fought a mutually costly battle at Mahiwa, with 519 German casualties and 2,700 British casualties in the Nigerian brigade. After the news of the battle reached Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to Generalmajor.[Note 2] British units forced the Schutztruppe south and on 23 November, Lettow-Vorbeck crossed into Portuguese Mozambique to plunder supplies from Portuguese garrisons. The Germans marched through Mozambique in caravans of troops, carriers, wives and children for nine months but were unable to gain much strength. Lettow-Vorbeck divided the force into three groups on the march. One detachment of 1,000 men under Hauptmann Theodor Tafel, was forced to surrender, after running out of food and ammunition ; Lettow and Tafel were unaware they were only one day’s march apart. The Germans returned to German East Africa and crossed into Northern Rhodesia in August 1918. On 13 November two days after the Armistice was signed in France, the German Army took Kasama, which had been evacuated by the British. The next day at the Chambezi River, Lettow-Vorbeck was handed a telegram announcing the signing of the armistice and he agreed to a cease-fire: [Note 3] Lettow-Vorbeck marched his army to Abercorn and formally surrendered on 23 November 1918.
In one capacity or another, nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers, sailors, merchant marine crews, builders, bureaucrats, and support personnel participated in the East Africa campaign. They were assisted in the field by an additional 600,000 African bearers. The Allies employed nearly one million people in their fruitless pursuit of Lettow-Vorbeck and his handful of warriors. Lettow-Vorbeck was cut off and could entertain no hope of a decisive victory. His aim was purely to keep as many British forces diverted to his pursuit for as long as possible and to make the British expend the largest possible resources in men, shipping, and supplies to his pursuit. Although succeeding in diverting in excess of 200,000 Indian and South African troops to pursue his forces and garrison German East Africa in his wake, he failed to divert additional Allied manpower from the European Theatre after 1916. While some shipping was diverted to the African theater, it was not enough to inflict significant difficulties on the Allied fleets.
In 2001 Strachan recorded British losses in the East African campaign as 3,443 killed in action, 6,558 died of disease and c. 90,000 deaths among African porters.  In 2007 Paice recorded c. 22,000 British casualties in the East African campaign, of whom 11,189 died, 9% of the 126,972 troops in the campaign. By 1917 the conscription of c. 1,000,000 Africans as carriers, had depopulated many districts and c. 95,000 porters had died, among them 20% of the British Carrier Corps in East Africa. A Colonial Office official wrote that the East African campaign had not become a scandal only ".... because the people who suffered most were the carriers - and after all, who cares about native carriers?"
In the German colonies, no records of the number of people conscripted or casualties were kept but in the German Official History, Ludwig Boell (1951) wrote ".... of the loss of levies, carriers and boys [sic] [we could] make no overall count due to the absence of detailed sickness records." Paice noted a 1989 estimate of 350,000 casualties and a death rate of 1:7 people. Carriers impressed by the Germans were rarely paid and food and cattle were stolen from civilians; a famine caused by the consequent food shortage and poor rains in 1917, led to another 300,000 civilian deaths in Ruanda, Urundi and German East Africa. The impressment of farm labour in British East Africa, the failure of the rains at the end of 1917 and early 1918 led to famine and in September Spanish flu reached sub-Saharan Africa. In British East Africa 160,000–200,000 people died, in South Africa there were 250,000–350,000 deaths and in German East Africa 10–20 % of the population died of famine and disease; in sub-Saharan Africa, 1,500,000–2,000,000 people died in the epidemic.
- The ship is still in service as the Liemba, plying the lake under the Tanzanian flag.
- In early November 1917, the German naval dirigible L.59 travelled over 4,200 mi (6,800 km) in 95 hours but the airship was recalled by the German admiralty.
- The Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial marks the spot in Zambia.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to East African Campaign (World War I).|
- The Evacuation of Kasama in 1918
- The German East Africa Campaign 1914–1918
- The War with Germany in East Africa