Battle of Sandfontein
The Battle of Sandfontein was fought between the Union of South Africa on behalf of the British Imperial Government and the German Empire (modern day Namibia) on 26 September 1914 at Sandfontein, during the first stage of the South West Africa Campaign of World War I, and ended in a German victory.
The outbreak of World War I led to the transfer of the British Imperial garrison from South Africa to France. Expecting the war to finish quickly, a large number of South Africans also departed for Europe, aiming to take part in the combat. The Union Defence Force took the responsibility of independently protecting South Africa from a possible German offensive. In the meantime, prime minister Louis Botha found himself in the middle of a confrontation between British loyalists supporting full involvement in the war and Afrikaner nationalists advocating neutrality.
German colonial troops in South West Africa numbered 140 officers, 2,000 regulars and 2,500 reservists organised into eight mounted companies, a single camel corp, four field batteries and an air wing. 1,500 policemen and 200 Boer rebels could also be potentially mobilized. The majority of the army consisted of non Askaris, being resented by the aboriginal population due to their conduct during the Herero Wars. Despite their unpopularity the German Schutztruppen were well organised and disciplined. The UDF had the ability to mobilize as many as 100,000 troops, yet it had a heterogeneous structure and lacked experienced staff officers.
A large portion of the South African-German borderline consisted of a ragged open desert characterised by the absence of water. The difficult terrain enabled the German army to create a defensive frontier along the line of Windhuk and Keetmanshoop, and troops were also stationed adjacent to the two regional railroads. Having a limited number of troops in his possession, the German commander, Joachim von Heydebreck, ordered his troops to assume defensive positions and observe predefined routes. The area of Sandfontein held a high strategic importance due to the presence of the only high quality water wells in a 75-kilometer radius, thus being a crucial supply point for any large scale operation. The South African military was well aware of the complicated geographic conditions, possessing a variety of prewar journals and reports concerning German South West Africa's topology.
On 7 August 1914, Britain requested Botha to capture the German communication stations of Windhoek, Swakopmund and Lüderitzbucht. On 10 August, following intense negotiations the Botha government reluctantly agreed to the creation of a volunteer expeditionary force, only after the approval of the parliament. Mobilization and troop maneuvers ensued even prior to the parliament's decision, as the government enforced censorship on the press to suppress the spread of rumors. On 21 August 1914, the expeditionary force took its final form. A column consisting of 1,200 soldiers and six artillery pieces known as Force C was to strike Lüderitzbucht. A column consisting of 1,800 soldiers and eight guns known as Force A would land at Port Nolloth, in support of Force C. Finally the 1,000 man Force B would invade from the eastern direction, attacking Upington. The plans regarding the invasion were revealed during a 9 September parliament session, gaining approval. On 14 September 1914 South Africa officially entered the war, however the situation was soon complicated by the outbreak of the Maritz Rebellion the following day. The revolt led to the resignation of several high ranking commanders involved in the expeditionary force, who now rose in an open rebellion against their former colleagues and had to be hastily replaced.
On 12 September 1914, Force A under Brigadier-General Tim Lukin arrived to the border post axis of Raman's Drift, Houms Drift and Gudous. A week later, the 4th and 5th South Africa Mounted Riflemen regiments penetrated the border capturing Sandfontein. Force A proceeded to disperse, occupying Steinkopf and Raman's Drift, as German troops began concentrating on the eastern border. Sandfontein remained isolated and vulnerable to attack as the area was surrounded by hillocks and narrow sand ridges that could be used during an encirclement maneuver. The German command made full use of its superior intelligence, having previously detained a South African scout and holding the allegiance of the rebellious Force B commander Manie Maritz.
Sandfontein's garrison of 120 men was hurriedly reinforced by two squadrons of mounted riflemen, two machine guns, an ambulance and two 13 pound artillery pieces on the early morning of 26 September. A force of 1,700 men, ten artillery batteries and four machine guns gathered at Warmbad, encompassing Sandfontein on the dawn of 26 September. The German column immediately launched a simultaneous attack from the direction of Houms Drift and Warmbad, surprising the defenders.
The defenders began engaging the German cavalry that emerged from the north east, when another body of troops suddenly appeared from the south western direction. At approximately 8 o'clock fighting intensified, with the beginning of an artillery duel. Enjoying numerical superiority the German troops struck the unprotected flank and rear of the British, who had lost the capacity of breaking through the encirclement. A British machine gun section foiled an infantry rush coming from northeast, which intended to capture the battlefield's tallest hillock. At the same time a German machine gunner approached from the south, killing a large pack of horses and scattering the remains, later destroying an enemy machine gun position. On 8.30 a second German battery made its appearance, suppressing the British artillery and slaughtering a second pack of horses stationed nearby.
At 10.00, German infantry attempted a second charge from the eastern direction, retreating after suffering heavy casualties. At 11.00 transferred their artillery and machine guns to the southwest, concealing among the stony outcrops, an hour later the distance separating the two combatants numbered approximately 550 meters. Around the same time British commander colonel R.C. Grant was wounded by machine gun fire and was substituted by captain E.J. Welby, before again assuming command. Between 13.00 – 14.00, the main body of German troops ceased hostilities in order to have a meal while continuing to bombard the exhausted British troops, the majority of whom spent the previous night marching. By 17.00 German troops managed to half the distance separating them from the British positions, now employing high explosive shells. At around 18.00, the British troops raised the white flag. German casualties amounted to 14 dead and 46 wounded, while the South Africans lost 16 men dead and 51 wounded.
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- Historicus Africanus, "Der 1. Weltkrieg in Deutsch-Südwestafrika 1914/15", Volume 3, "Kämpfe im Süden", Windhoek/Namibia 2014, ISBN 978-99916-872-8-5
- Historicus Africanus, "Der 1. Weltkrieg in Deutsch-Südwestafrika 1914/15", Volume 4, "Der Süden ist verloren", Windhoek/Namibia 2016, ISBN 978-99916-909-2-6
- Historicus Africanus, "Der 1. Weltkrieg in Deutsch-Südwestafrika 1914/15", Volume 5, "Aufgabe der Küste", Windhoek/Namibia 2016, ISBN 978-99916-909-4-0
- Historicus Africanus, "Der 1. Weltkrieg in Deutsch-Südwestafrika 1914/15", Volume 6, "Aufgabe der Zentralregionen", Windhoek/Namibia 2017, ISBN 978-99916-909-5-7
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- Historicus Africanus, "der 1. Weltkrieg in Deutsch-Südwestafrika 1914/15", Volume 8, "Das Ende bei Khorab", Windhoek/Namibia 2018, ISBN 978-99916-909-9-5
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