A German Guerrilla Chief In Africa

A German Guerrilla Chief In Africa – Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

David Rooney

David Rooney describes the extraordinary exploits of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German soldier who kept the Allies tied down in Africa throughout the Great War.

THE ASSASSINATION OF ARCHDUKE Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, which led directly to the outbreak of war in Europe, had dire consequences in Africa as well — not least for the German and Austrian settlers in German East Africa, modern Tanzania.

Germany had annexed this territory as recently as 1885, after the German nationalist Karl Peters had travelled through the country, which was nominally under British suzerainty. By offering crates of guns or gin — those powerful agents of colonial expansion — Peters had obtained the thumbprints of many chiefs on bogus documents which purported to hand over their land to Germany. For political reasons in 1884 Bismarck decided to accept these dubious deals. At the same time, he consolidated his hold on German South West Africa, (Namibia), and the Cameroons in West Africa. After only thirty years of German occupation and development, as soon as war was declared in August 1914, all these territories were vulnerable to British attack.

While Britain had begun to develop Kenya, building the railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, Germany had developed the port of Dar es Salaam, and had built a railway from there to Tabora, and onwards to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. Germany also built another line, from the port of Tanga along the mountain range which led up to Taveta and Moshi close to Mount Kilimanjaro. Here, where the majority of German settlers lived, the most significant initial fighting was to take place.

In January 1914 Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck arrived in Dar es Salaam to take over the defence forces of German East Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck was probably the most experienced colonial officer in the German army. A veteran of the 1900 Boxer rising in China, and of the bloody war against the Hereros and Hottentots in South West Africa, the 44-year-old Colonel had still given little inkling of the skills that were to make him one of the most legendary guerrilla leaders of the century. Upon arrival at his new posting, with characteristic energy and vigour, he immediately set out to reconnoitre the whole country and to work out a strategy.

At once he went to Tanga and up the railway to Kilimanjaro, where he visited many prosperous German settlements. He realised that with much larger British colonies in East and South Africa, and with the Royal Navy controlling the sea, he had no chance of defeating the British. Instead he decided that his greatest service to his country would be to tie down as many enemy troops as possible in order to prevent them being used against Germany in other war theatres. To ensure this he had to make certain that he never suffered a decisive defeat.

In this single-minded aim he was brilliantly successful, and in spite of losing territory and being cut off from home supplies, tie was still operating with an effective fighting force when the armistice came in 1918. In the intervening four years he had fought a brilliant campaign with a handful of Europeans and a scarcely larger number of native troops, using the classic guerrilla tactics of flexibility, improvisation, living off the land and turning the enemy’s weight of numbers against himself.

By the middle of 1914 Lettow — Vorbeck had reconnoitred the whole territory, and had laid his plans for war. He organised his 200 Europeans and 2,000 local soldiers — known as askaris — into small well-disciplined independent companies. Each company had 200 carriers, in contrast to he British who, unwisely, relied on motor transport anti horses. He also made detailed plans for supplies, anticipating the shortages he would face.

In August 1914, Britain made a pre-emptive bombardment of Dar es Salaam, hoping that the whole colony would surrender, but Lettow-Vorbeck overruled the port’s civilian governor, who wanted to negotiate a truce, and continued the fight. He hurried north and led his forces in initial clashes along the Kenyan border, where his disciplined companies inflicted heavy casualties against attacks by amateurish groups of young British settlers.

After a brief lull, in November 1914 a major British force of warships and transports approached Tanga, the port and terminus of the Kilimanjaro railway. A poorly trained Indian brigade landed, but Lettow-Vorbeck, personally commanding his troops in the battle, although heavily outnumbered, inflicted a decisive defeat. The British attackers withdrew to their ships. The British Captain Richard Meinertzhagen — later himself an irregular guerrilla leader involved with T.E Lawrence-arranged a truce and the removal of his wounded. The victory gave Lettow-Vorbeck a vast supply of weapons, ammunition and equipment.

After his triumph at Tanga, Lettow-Vorbeck prepared for a long campaign. He took on 8,000 carriers and set up camps at the distance of a day’s march. He encouraged the production of local materials. Women wove local cotton, tyres were made from local rubber, boots and shoes were manufactured from hides, and even motor fuel was produced from palm nuts. The German plantations increased their production of food, and an ersatz quinine was produced–nicknamed `Lettow schnapps’ — to treat the endemic malaria. During these early months he sent fighting patrols to attack the Nairobi railway, destroy bridges, capture equipment, and occupy as many enemy troops as possible.

During 1915, another battle took place at Jassin, just north of Tanga, in which both sides sustained heavy casualties. Alter this Lettow-Vorbeck decided that he must thenceforth avoid setpiece actions and rely on guerrilla tactics. As the British built tip their forces, with South African and Rhodesian troops, Lettow-Vorbeck anticipated that the main attack would come in the area of Kilimanjaro. He therefore arranged for the bulk of his supplies to be transferred further south — even organising the construction of a light railway tot the purpose.

While the Royal Navy dominated the Indian Ocean, the Germans had little hope of supplies from home. but in July 1916 a German cruiser. the Konigsberg, slipped through the British blockade. It took refuge in the lagoons around the month of the Rufiji river — an incident on which C.S.Forester loosely based his famous novel The African Queen. The Konigsberg’s captain scuttled the vessel, but not before Lettow-Vorbeck had ordered his forces to strip the ship of all its light guns and ammunition and co-opted its crew into his own tiny army. The guns formed a significant part of his armaments for the next three years.

The British now decided to set a thief to catch a thief — matching their wily German opponent with another guerrilla leader of genius. the famous Boer War commando. Jan Smuts. Since the outbreak of war in 1914 Smuts, who had evolved from an enemy of Britain into a staunch and trusted friend, had had his hands full in crushing a pro-German uprising among his fellow Boers and then organising and leading the campaign to capture German South West Africa. This was completed by the end of 1915, and he was given command of the British forces in East Africa.

In February 1916, Smuts, with two divisions under his command, launched a major attack on the German positions around Kilimanjaro. Alter inflicting grievous casualties on the attackers, Lettow-Vorbeck withdrew his forces, and started his long campaign of delaying tactics and ambushes. His attrition, along with the effects of marching and fighting in the vicious African scrub, with its malaria-bearing mosquitos and the tsetse fly which attacked all the animals, was movingly described by the author Francis Brett-Young, in his book Marching on Tanga.

After the fighting around Kilimanjaro and along the railway to Tanga, the British forces advanced slowly and painfully southwards in two columns, the eastern one commanded by Smuts. They made for the Morogoro Mountains and the main German railway. At this stage, Smuts’ columns were reinforced by the arrival of the experienced and well-disciplined units of the Gold Coast Regiment. These West Africans had already fought a tough campaign in the Cameroons where they had distinguished themselves in the defeat of the Germans. While these were a valuable addition to Smuts’ fighting force, there were many who doubted the wisdom of black troops fighting white. Fewer people queried the ethics of taking young Africans from their homes in the Gold Coast (Ghana), and Nigeria, and transporting them thousands of miles to fight imperialist wars.

Lettow-Vorbeck now faced a difficult strategic problem. As the two main British columns advanced southwards towards the railway, Rhodesians were moving eastwards from the northern end of Lake Nyasa, and Belgian forces from the Congo were also driving eastwards down the line of the railway from Kigoma. Lettow-Vorbeck could not afford to be trapped in these pincers. Therefore, even though it meant the abandonment of the main railway as well as the capital Dar es Salaam, he took the difficult decision to move his forces, supplies and cattle further south to the valley of the Rufiji river.

At the end of 1916, Smuts was recalled to South Africa. He left as a hero, claiming that his troops had driven the Germans out of most of their territory, and had captured the two main railways and the capital Dar es Salaam. In fact he had completely failed to defeat Lettow-Vorbeck, who was still in the field with a force stronger than when he started. The majority of South African troops left with Smuts. The men were exhausted, sick and fever-ridden, and the cavalry units were useless, having lost most of their horses to the tsetse fly. One unit had lost forty horses a day, and had to leave the carcasses to the lions and the vultures.

As the South Africans pulled out, the Gold Coast Regiment, reinforced by a Nigerian brigade, played an increasingly important role. The tough and uncomplaining West African soldiers coped more easily than Europeans with the appalling conditions during the rainy season of 1917, when nearly everything was in desperately short supply, except, as one officer sardonically remarked `water, which was present in odious superfluity’.

Lettow-Vorbeck personally commanded the withdrawal from the Morogoro Mountains to Kissaki, where there was a large German settlement and a substantial supply of food and equipment. The local Africans realised the Germans were pulling out, and it was difficult for him to obtain carriers, but he did manage to drive a herd of over 1,000 cattle down to a tsetse-free area in the Rufiji valley. Even now he looked for every opportunity to harass and delay the enemy advance. From Kissaki, because he had made a personal reconnaisance over the ground, he anticipated a British move, and was able to ambush and defeat a large mixed force of cavalry with British, West African and Indian infantry. The Germans captured many horses and took thirty European prisoners. Some of these took an oath not to fight again, and were returned to the British commander, but he did not reciprocate the gesture.

After the severe fighting around Kissaki, the German forces continued their move southwards to the Rufiji valley. Here Lettow-Vorbeck faced another problem. The British had anticipated his move and had deployed the Gold Coast Regiment to the southern port of Kilwa, where for several months they sent out fighting patrols from that base. There were occasional costly skirmishes, but during the course of 1917 Lettow-Vorbeck gradually managed to disengage. His main preoccupation was food and supplies. He had to reduce the cereal ration, but he encouraged all units to supplement their diet from the plentiful game, which included buffalo, antelope and elephant. He also issued instructions on how to shoot a hippopotamus, and obtain the maximum meat and fat.

From his position along the Rufiji valley, Lettow-Vorbeck planned to move even further south to Massassi. Showing remarkable forethought, he had crops sown around Massassi, hoping for the harvest when his troops arrived. While his troops assembled at Massassi, he went on a detailed reconnaisance from the port of Lindi up to the shores of Lake Nyasa. Still worried about the provision of food and supplies for his men, he experimented with making bread without wheat flour, and he taught himself, and then instructed others, on how to make boots from antelope hide and from captured saddles. A severe shortage of salt was overcome by boiling sea water down at the coast, and sugar was replaced by the plentiful supplies of wild honey. There were a few German mission hospitals in the southern area, and they gladly adapted to become field hospitals, even though they had to make bandages from bark.

Although he was constantly retreating before vastly superior numbers, Lettow-Vorbeck was always searching for the chance to inflict a decisive blow on the enemy. In October 1917, using valuable intelligence about the general commanding the Nigerian Brigade, he set up a powerful defensive position, knowing that his opponent usually persisted with frontal assaults. His hunch paid off. For four days wave after wave of attacks were broken on the German defences. The Nigerian and Gold Coast units in the battle lost nearly 2,000 men out of a total of 5,000. The Germans also captured many guns, including machine guns, and other supplies. Lettow-Vorbeck had won an important battle, but had lost a number of experienced officers, and once again he withdrew.

By the end of 1917, in spite of his victory, he realised that because of continued shortages of food, supplies and ammunition, he could no longer maintain a large force in the field. He estimated that his ersatz quinine would only last another month, and after that he would soon lose his Europeans to malaria. There was a fairly large hospital near his H.Q., and in order to cut down his numbers, before he moved off, he left behind 1,000 of his wounded and weaker European and African soldiers. Some of these were eager to fight on, but Lettow-Vorbeck admitted that `Even among the Europeans there were those who were not unwilling to lay down their arms’. In the fighting at this time, the Gold Coast Regiment captured a number of prisoners, documents and letters, and this evidence showed that the situation among the Germans was far from happy. Evidence from captured prisoners is always suspect, but there were clear statements suggesting that Lettow-Vorbeck was admired by his African troops, but was feared and disliked by some of his officers. There were references to `the disgusting greediness, gross selfishness, and predatory character of Lettow-Vorbeck’, and statements such as `European officers are sick to death of the futile resistance’. This jaundiced view is not supported by other documents showing a kindly, considerate and humane man, who won the admiration and respect of his own officers and of the enemy.

At the end of 1917, undaunted, Lettow-Vorbeck set off with a core force of 300 Europeans, 1,700 askaris and 3,000 carriers to march up the Rovuma valley — the border between German East Africa and Portuguese territory Mozambique). There were fairly frequent clashes with enemy detachments. In one incident thirty horses were captured from a Rhodesian cavalry unit — useful both as mounts and as food. Food supplies were again eked out by shooting the abundant game. On November 25th, 1917, Lettow-Vorbeck had a stroke of luck. His columns were just crossing the Rovuma river, when they sighted a large Portuguese garrison. Lettow-Vorbeck had to make a swift decision, because his whole force, crossing the river, might be in grave peril. He decided to attack at once. He sent several companies to approach from the flank and the rear, while he prepared the assault.

The garrison was full of raw and untrained recruits, completely unprepared for an attack. Assaulted on all sides, they quickly capitulated. The Germans counted over 200 dead, and took 150 prisoners. The garrison was generously stocked with supplies, and when the attacking troops moved in there was a melee of looting which Lettow-Vorbeck himself had difficulty in stopping. His booty included modern machine guns and rifles, horses and a million rounds of ammunition. He commented `With one blow we had freed ourselves from a great part of our difficulties’. The luxury of the captured supplies galvanised the whole German force, and during weeks of vigorous marching, several more Portuguese garrisons were easily captured and each provided food and supplies to last for a considerable time. This relatively relaxed progress continued into the beginning of 1918, and sometimes they took a Portuguese settlement where they were able to stay in relative comfort for several weeks.

Early in 1918, the Germans began to come under more pressure when a large British force, including two battalions of the King’s African Rifles, and a battalion of Cape Coloured soldiers, moved eastwards from the area of Lake Nyasa. At the same time, a unit of the Gold Coast Regiment was shipped down to Port Amelia on the coast of Portuguese East Africa, and made probing attacks from there. Aware of these threats, Lettow-Vorbeck marched and counter-marched over large tracts of Portuguese territory, reaching down nearly to Quilimane near the Zambesi. He continued to taunt and delay his pursuers. Many of his marches were dictated by the need for food, but as he moved further south the land was more fertile and supply problems diminished.

The local people considered the Portuguese as unjust oppressors, and were helpful to the Germans. In July 1918, the Germans attacked and defeated a mixed force of British and Portuguese troops at a railway junction, and the capture of this solved their supply problems for-some time. But by September 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck had to make another serious strategic decision. If he continued southwards he would be trapped by the great Zambesi river, which he could not cross, and he therefore changed direction completely and headed north as quickly as possible, hoping to put his pursuers off the scent. At this time he had some relief when he heard that the Gold Coast Regiment, which had taken part in months of heavy fighting, had been shipped home. Members of the Regiment had won over forty Distinguished Conduct Medals and Military Medals.

As the Germans hurried north, still fighting fairly frequent engagements, their tiny force was hit by the worldwide `Spanish influenza’ epidemic, and during September twenty men died. This left Lettow-Vorbeck with only 170 Europeans and 1,400 askaris. Despite their prolonged suffering over so many months, Lettow-Vorbeck described this last phase of the campaign in an almost light-hearted way. He noted how on the march, when they stopped for the lunch break, Europeans and Africans alike pulled out a piece of bread and hippopotamus fat and sat down to eat — `a very jolly gathering’.

During October 1918 he became aware of an increasing build-up of British forces, and he therefore once again deliberately switched direction in order to elude their pursuit. Using intelligence reports of enemy movements, and with his own detailed scouting on the ground, he made a swift march around the northern end of Lake Nyasa, and crossed into Rhodesia.

He reached the small settlement of Fife on October 30th, but continued marching against light opposition through fertile and well-developed areas. His leading troops captured Kasama on November 11th. The next day he was hurrying off by bicycle on yet another of his habitual reconnaisance trips when one of his officers caught up with him, with an urgent message from the British Commander-in-Chief, General Deventer, saying an armistice had been agreed.

He received the message with mixed feelings. Having been cut off from outside news for so long, he could hardly believe that the Kaiser had abdicated, and that there had been a revolution in Germany. He felt he could have continued the fight for another year. Bowing to political rather than military realities, however, he obeyed orders to release all British prisoners and to march to Abercorn to surrender. The next day Lettow-Vorbeck was invited for coffee in the Mess by the Colonel of the King’s African Rifles. At Abercorn, General Edwards, the local British commander treated him courteously and hospitably. The Germans handed over forty machine guns and 1,000 rifles — nearly all British or Portuguese. He and his troops were treated as honoured guests by their British and Belgian captors. They were taken along Lake Tanganyika by boat, and thence by train to Dar es Salaam, where they arrived on December 8th, 1918. General Deventer entertained his legendary opponent to lunch, and he was treated with respect and admiration. He was amazed at the thousands of troops and hundreds of motor vehicles in Dar es Salaam. Here influenza struck again, and he lost a tenth of his officers who had survived the rigours of the campaign. He left for home in January 1919 — five years exactly since he had arrived in the colony.

Back in Germany he was warmly welcomed as an undefeated hero. He was pleased to hear that during the four-year campaign, over 300,000 troops had fought against him, commanded at different times by 137 generals. Lettow-Vorbeck had brilliantly achieved his aim of keeping his force in being in order to occupy as many British troops as possible, and prevent them being used elsewhere. Lettow-Vorbeck’s strategy succeeded admirably, and in addition he proved himself to be an outstanding guerrilla commander, with personal leadership and tactical acumen of the highest order. At the end he felt that he and his troops had upheld Germany’s soldierly traditions. After his return he raised a Freikorps and helped put down a left-wing uprising in Hamburg. Forced to quit the army after supporting the failed right-wing Kapp putsch in March 1920, he served for ten years as a member of the Reichstag in the Weimar Republic.

A fervent nationalist, but never a Nazi, Lettow-Vorbeck refused Hitler’s invitation to become ambassador to London, but kept its touch with his former foes, including Smuts, who supplied him with food parcels in the months of privation that followed the Second World War. He lost both his sons in that war, but survived to the great age of 94, looked after by his daughter. It is pleasant to record that the old warrior, shortly before his death in 1964, made a sentimental journey back to East Africa where he was rapturously received by his surviving askaris. As a mark of respect, when he died, the German government despatched a banker to Dar es Salaam to pay long-overdue pensions to the askaris who had helped Lettow-Vorbeck to his place in the pantheon of great guerrilla chiefs.


Francis Brett-Young, Marching on Tanga, (London, 1917); Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (London, 1937); William Boyd, An Ice Cream War; (London, 1982); Hugh Clifford, The Gold Coast Regiment, (London, 1920); Byron Farwell, The Great War in Africa (London, 1987); C.Fendall, East African Force, I(London, 1921); Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, My Reminiscences of East Africa (1920).

David Rooney’s latest book, Military Mavericks, is published by Cassell.

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