South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 11 October 2012 as Dr Anne Samson, an independent historian and coordinator of the Great War in East Africa Association, and the author of "World War One in Africa - the Forgotten Conflict of the Empire", which is to be published shortly.

Dr Samson introduced her lecture by asking what aspects of the campaign were of most interest to the audience, concluding that, for most of us, the military aspects were what attracted our attention most. Instead of looking at these, our speaker chose to examine some of the "behind the scenes actions" of the campaign which explain why or how the military campaign developed in the way it did and also to look briefly at the two best-known commanders in German East Africa - Gen Jan Christiaan Smuts and Gen Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck.

Dr Samson argued that none of the countries involved in the campaign had actually wanted to fight in East Africa. The only person who had an explicit intention to wage war in the area was von Lettow-Vorbeck, whose strategy was to attract as many forces away from the main battle front in Europe as he possibly could. The German Governor Heinrich von Schnee was prepared to fight only if the territory was threatened. Britain unwittingly provided that opportunity when a signaller dutifully carried out the instructions set out in the Naval Blue Book. The Royal Navy bombarded the wireless stations at Dar es Salaam on 8 August 1914, before a shot had been fired in Europe - the British Expeditionary force had not yet arrived at the front! The governor chose not to retaliate but to carry out the Kolonialamt orders to evacuate the coastal areas and destroy the wireless stations.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck saw the British action as an act of war and ordered pre-emptive attacks. He had arrived in East Africa in 1914 and had toured the territory to ascertain what he needed to do to defend the colony should a war break out in Europe.

In London, things were in a state of disarray. The Prime Minister, Asquith, was trying to get Britain on a war footing and planning to protect the British Isles and send the forces promised to France and Belgium. East Africa had been discussed by the cabinet on 5 August 1914, the day before Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War. It was decided to send a force from India to help protect British East Africa and another Indian force to invade German East Africa at Tanga. This was done with the intention of protecting sea routes rather than for territorial acquisition. This decision resulted in the fiasco at Tanga where 1 100 German troops routed 8 000 Indian invaders.

This result was not surprising! After deciding to send troops on 5 August 1914, their departure was then delayed until a departure date was decided upon. The War Office, India Office, Colonial Office and Admiralty were all involved although the India Office was ultimately responsible. General Aitken believed that the landing would be a walk-over as his Indian troops would be fighting black troops - not a correct assumption! His troops spent six weeks afloat and many of the men had never seen the sea, let alone travelled in a ship. Many fell ill and no disembarkation training had been carried out. The equipment had not been packed to enable easy off-loading.

Capt Caulfield, the naval officer in charge, refused to allow the transports into Tanga Bay as he was worried about mines. Also a local truce had been declared by Admiral King-Hall. This truce was rejected by the Admiralty and Caulfield advised the Germans of this, so warning them of the impending attack. He then had the bay swept for mines. The time spent on all of this gave Von Lettow-Vorbeck 24 hours to move his troops to Tanga to deal with the landing. The land attack at Longido had taken place a day earlier so he could concentrate his efforts on one attack at a time.

The British East African territories were all raising forces and preparing for war against the German colony. On Lake Nyasa HMS Gwendolen put the German Hedwig von Wissmann out of action and the battles of Kasoa and Karonga were fought. The German administrator, Steir, inquired of his British counterpart in Nyasaland if there was a war on as German troops were massing at Mbeya and he had not been informed! When this was confirmed the local German commander, Steinkeller, wrote to the British administrator warning him to remove women and children from the town before he attacked.

Northern Rhodesia occupied Schuckmannsburg in the Caprivi Strip. Naval actions took place on Lake Tanganyika to prevent the Belgians from getting involved and the situation remained static until Cdr Spicer-Simpson arrived with his flotilla in August 1915. Battles took place on Lake Victoria between the British and Germans for dominance of the ports on the lake and attacks were made by the Germans to disrupt the Uganda Railway.

In the Indian Ocean the German cruiser SMS Königsberg was causing concern and had sunk HMS Pegasus in Zanzibar harbour on 20 September 1914. She sheltered in the Rufiji delta to effect repairs and await a supply of coal. But she was found by the Royal Flying Corps and the South African hunter and scout Pieter Pretorius. After some 18 months Königsberg was finally sunk by two monitors but not before her guns were removed and they and the crew joined Von Lettow-Vorbeck's land forces. Some 35 allied ships were released for service elsewhere by this sinking.

Up to and after the battle of Tanga, control over the British forces in East Africa was in a state of shambles. The War Office controlled strategic direction but Kitchener wanted to avoid war in East Africa, whilst the general staff wanted to fight. The Colonial Office provided local direction and was responsible for costs. They were reluctant to do anything which would involve expense and this included the provision of troops and equipment. The Admiralty controlled delivery of supplies and troops and had to defend the carriers, ports and cargo in the Indian Ocean. The India Office supplied men and material and commanded the two Indian Expeditionary forces in East Africa, which were directed by the War Office and working alongside the staff and forces controlled by the Colonial Office. All of this was sure to lead to total confusion! In addition the Foreign Office was there to ensure that Britain and its allies in Africa all worked in harmony - while the Colonial Office did not really want any other countries involved. This state of affairs was farcical beyond belief.

Overseeing all of this mess was the cabinet which, with Asquith as prime minister, was ineffective as he believed in control by consensus. In December 1916 he was replaced as prime minister by David Lloyd George.

In addition to all the London-based departments there were also many colonies, dominions and other territories overseen by governors, high commissioners and others, all liaising with London. The Governor of East Africa did not want to take his colony to war and so was not very cooperative. The Governor of Uganda did what he could to organize the forces available to protect the Uganda railway. The Governor of Nyasaland also raised local forces to the best of his ability. Portuguese East Africa was neutral until 1916 and was a useful source of communication to both the British and the Germans.

Northern and Southern Rhodesia were British South Africa company territories controlled by the High Commissioner based in South Africa. He was also the Governor General of South Africa and controlled Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. There was a period between July and September 1914 when this post was vacant and the High Commissioner's post was held by Gen James Wolfe Murray of the British Army and that of Governor General by Chief Justice Lord de Villiers and, on his death, the Attorney General Sir James Rose Innes. These people were based in different buildings and London had not realised that two people were now doing the job.

South Africa's involvement in the war and its extent was clouded by the differences between the group led by Botha and Smuts and the group that felt this would divide Afrikanerdom over the probable invasion and takeover of German South West Africa. The result was the Afrikaner revolt of 1914 followed by the invasion and takeover of German South West Africa in 1915. Many South Africans then volunteered for service in the British Armed Services.

Smuts initiated the idea of South Africans going to East Africa. This was supported in South Africa but in London there was mixed reaction. Kitchener wanted the South Africans to go to France to join 1st Infantry Brigade there. The general staff were in favour of the South Africans going to East Africa and there was a deadlock, which was resolved when Kitchener was sent to the Dardanelles and Asquith became Acting Secretary of State for War in November 1915. In December 1915 it was decided that the South Africans would go to East Africa. Kitchener objected and refused to have anything to do with organising the campaign, handing all requests for supplies to the Admiralty and operational matters to Asquith. Smuts was appointed to command the forces in East Africa on 5 February 1916.

The South Africans fought their first battle in East Africa before Smuts arrived, under the command of Gen Smith-Dorrien. The result was the slaughter on 12 February 1916 at Salaita Hill. Von Lettow-Vorbeck's forces were spread across the country. By now they were a finely-honed fighting force which had fought on without any support from Germany. They were largely black soldiers or Askaris, but with some white officers and NCOs and naval personnel from the Konigsberg. They learned to survive on what was available and to live off the land, which simplified logistics considerably. Each unit was independent and did not rely on their commander in chief for instructions.

Opposing them was a polyglot force made up of British, South Africans, Indians, Rhodesians, East and Central Africans, joined later by Gold Coasters, Nigerians and West Indians - some 23 countries involved in the end. They were largely infantry as the climate did not really suit horses. Since 1914 there had been four Commanders in Chief, each with his personal style and idiosyncrasies.

Control and command was centralised as far as was possible with the poor means of communication available. This proved to be a problem when the proper timing of coordinated attacks was essential as part of Smuts' encircling tactics. Maps were scarce commodities for both sides but, until they were pushed south of the central railway, the Germans had a better command of the terrain. In his memoirs, Von Lettow-Vorbeck noted that, each time a map was captured, this was used to update and improve his maps and so eventually get a comprehensive map of the country. This in fact applied to both sides.

Although there were stories of atrocities, these were few and in the early days of the campaign. Later on, prisoners were exchanged, truces called to collect the wounded and bury the dead and letters of complaint regarding treatment of people and ungentlemanly behaviour were exchanged. When von Lettow-Vorbeck was awarded the Pour le Mérite in November 1916, Smuts wrote to congratulate him, knowing that he would not have received the news from Germany as the telegraphic links with Germany had been severed.

Both commanders were both loved and hated. Von Lettow-Vorbeck was known as a strict but humane commander, often marching with his men. Smuts was well regarded by his troops for suffering the same deprivations as his men - unlike many British officers who were perceived to live better than their troops. He was however accused of neglect by some of his more senior commanders for overstretching his supply lines too much - often men were marching and fighting on quarter rations. This probably applied to both sides as German East Africa had very poor roads and railways and animal transport suffered heavily from disease.

Smuts was in East Africa for approximately one year. There seems to have been only one occasion when Smuts and Von Lettow-Vorbeck personally commanded the forces that opposed each other. This was in the lead-up to the battle of Wami in August 1916. It does not appear that they were aware of this. In January 1917, Smuts was recalled and told that he would be attending Lloyd George's Imperial War meetings in London on behalf of Louis Botha.

On his departure Smuts announced that the Germans had been defeated. They had lost control of the most important towns and all that remained to be done were mopping-up operations. This, however, was not the case at all and Gen Hoskins, Smuts' successor, was replaced after three months for inactivity. In fact, he had been repairing much-needed lines of communication during the rainy season, when fighting was almost impossible. In fact there is evidence to indicate that Smuts had been involved in the removal of Hoskins and his replacement by Gen Jaap van Deventer as commander-in-chief. Van Deventer was to see the campaign through to its end, even though he was not at hand to accept the surrender.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck's struggle had taken him deep into Portuguese East Africa (almost reaching the Zambezi River), back into German East Africa and into northern Rhodesia where the last battle was fought on 13 November 1918 at Kasama. The Germans surrendered unconditionally on 16 November 1918 - five days after the formal cessation of hostilities - and the formal surrender took place at Abercorn to Gen Edwards on 25 November 1918.

Smuts was in London representing South Africa at Imperial War meetings and thereafter, at Lloyd George's request, he stayed on as "handyman of the Empire" resolving issues - strikes by Welsh miners, visiting the front, preparing the defence of London against air attack and being part of the process of founding the RAF, among others. As a result of Smuts' request to be allowed to take over Belgian-held territory in German East Africa, the Foreign Office thought it prudent to ascertain the war aims of the various countries involved in Africa. The Belgians and Portuguese were quite concerned that South Africa was after their territory. Smuts was also involved in plans for the creation of a League of Nations and a mandate system.

On 19 January 1919, five years after the date he arrived in East Africa, Von Lettow-Vorbeck was on his way home. The decision not to return German East Africa to Germany had been taken. He had been undefeated and was the only German general to occupy British territory but the German colony would become a British mandate. In 1920, Von Lettow-Vorbeck and Governor Schnee joined forces for the first time (even though the Governor had stayed the course of the campaign in East Africa) to fight for the return of the colony to Germany as they had not been defeated. But it was not to be.

Smuts and Von Lettow-Vorbeck finally met one another at a dinner in London in 1929. They remained in contact with each other and, during the Second World War Smuts and other British friends sent food parcels to Germany to help Von Lettow-Vorbeck through some tough times after Hitler had cancelled all his allowances. Their last contact was two weeks before Smuts died in 1950. In 1953 Von Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Africa to see the changes that had occurred and was welcomed by his surviving Askaris. Ten years later, the year he died, the German government finally decided to pay the surviving Askaris their outstanding salaries - fifty years after they had served the Kaiser.

The time Smuts spent in East Africa facing Von Lettow-Vorbeck has become the most well-known part of the East Africa campaign. The British press, after Tanga and the defeat at Jasin in 1915, carried very few reports. The campaign was regarded as a side show when compared with the European struggles. The arrival of Smuts spurred the campaign into action and his driving, or rather the avoiding tactics of the Germans, enabled him to take control of the German territory. Smuts the politician recognized the power and influence of the press and ensured that he sent regular positive reports back to South Africa and London. Life for the troops under Smuts was hard and improved only slightly later on. Gen Jaap van Deventer carried on the campaign until the end but as the war had become a relentless pursuit of the German forces, there was little to report.

It is estimated that one million lives were lost, including porters. Of the British losses, 75% died from disease and malnutrition. The cost to Britain was 72 million pounds, four times the 1914 military budget. The cost to South Africa was 39 million pounds. Britain achieved what it desired, except for Rwanda and Burundi. India failed to obtain colonial territory and South Africa failed to expand. Belgium gained more than it wanted and only Portugal was happy with what territorial gains they received.

In the final assessment, Lord Kitchener was right. There had been no need to fight the East African campaign. Why Kitchener was against the war in East Africa is the subject for another talk, as is the reason why South Africa has done so little to remember the loss of so many young lives in East Africa. Had it not been for 1916, the one year when Jan Smuts and Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck faced one another, the East African campaign would still be as little-known as the West African and Palestinian campaigns of that same world war.

For members with a special interest in the German East African Campaign, the website of the Great War in East Africa Association is

The Chairman thanked Dr Samson for giving us a rare treat, a preview of her forthcoming book, and remarked that it was a particular pleasure to have a lady speaker for a change. He then presented her with a small gift.


SUBSCRIPTIONS: The honorary treasurer wish to thank the members who have paid their subscriptions in the meantime, but would like to issue a reminder that some subscriptions are still outstanding. If you are in doubt whether you have paid for 2012, please liaise with the honorary treasurer (as he never is in doubt). He will contact all members whose subscriptions are still outstanding, in person, before the end of the year.



Maj Willem Steenkamp is well-known as military historian. He started his professional career as a journalist and was for many years the correspondent on military matters for a local newspaper, which gave him the insight and developed the necessary skills to become the author of note which he is today. He will share thoughts on his latest book, Assegais, Drums & Dragoons: A Military and Social History of the Cape with members of the audience, as well as some of the interesting discoveries he made about the development and role of the ordinary infantry soldier at the Cape between 1510 and 1806. But it also has a personal side - the most startling discovery he made concerns his own ancestors and heritage. He came to the conclusion that the real history of the Cape is indeed very different to what the established historiography to this day reflects.



Mr Stephan Fourie has on previous occasions held the audience spell-bound with his first-person accounts and reminiscences as a National Serviceman taking part in Combat Group Foxbat's epic Blitzkrieg-like advance across Angola during Operation Savannah in 1975 (Newsletter No. 276, March 2001*), followed later by a talk focussing specifically on the Battles of Ebo and Bridge 14 as some highlights of Operation Savannah (No. 355, June 2008). Last year he spoke about his experiences as a volunteer in the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment (No. 389, July 2011). What few people know, is that he subsequently transferred to the elite Selous Scouts after successfully passing the gruelling selection course. In his forthcoming talk he will discuss the concept of "pseudo operations" that was undertaken with great success in some post-WWII insurgency wars, particularly in Malaya against the Chinese Communists, against the Mau-Mau in Kenya, and lastly in Rhodesia, where the concept of "pseudo operators" were perfected and executed with great success. He will end his lecture by sharing some of his personal experiences of his service with the Scouts.

* Back-issues of the Cape Town branch's newsletters are to be found on the Society's national webpage at or by typing "SAMHS newsletters" into the search facility of your favourite internet search engine.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

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