South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker at the July meeting was Mr James Willson, historian, author and First World War battlefield safari guide from Kenya, whose topic was "Retracing the First World War in British East Africa 1914-1916". The talk covered the first twenty months, from August 1914 to March 1916, of the First World War in what is today Kenya. Our speaker noted that the area covered in his talk is where he has lived for most of his working life.

At the time the area south of Kenya was known as German East Africa, now known as Tanzania. Both colonies were lightly garrisoned. Both sides preferred a defensive strategy at this stage of the war but there was action at sea. The British light cruiser HMS Pegasus was in Zanzibar harbour having her boilers cleaned and engines repaired when the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg arrived. She sank the Pegasus on 20 September 1914 while she lay helpless in the harbour. (Our speaker informed the audience that he had acquired and now is the proud owner of the brass footplate of the Pegasus.) This set the scene for a number of British military reverses in the British colony. The British sea routes to India and Australia from the Suez Canal and to the Cape were then under threat.

On 3 November 1914 the British attempted an amphibious landing at Tanga, a port on the coastline of German East Africa, using largely Indian troops commanded by Brig Gen Aitken. This force comprised the Indian Expeditionary Force B and a British battalion, numbering some 18 000 men. The German defenders were Schutztruppen companies led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, an experienced and highly competent officer. The British force was repulsed with a great loss of troops and equipment. This equipment was eagerly seized by the Germans for their own use as they were being blockaded by the Royal Navy. Von Lettow Vorbeck's force numbered some 1 000 askaris but was assisted by swarms of bees which, disturbed by the shooting and shelling, proceeded to attack the invading British with considerable effect.

A further Indian Expeditionary Force C arrived in Mombasa at about this time some 2 000 or so troops were deployed inland to defend the railway to Uganda.

As a result the five ministries in the UK government responsible for the defence of the African colonies decided to follow a defensive strategy. They also agreed that the War Office should take over responsibility for the war effort in East Africa - better late than never. It should be noted that the governors in both German and British East Africa both preferred peace to war and did not really cooperate with their military commanders until circumstances forced them to do so.

The Königsberg attacked British ships in the Indian Ocean but ran short of coal. She took refuge in the Rufiji River delta in the south of German East Africa. The British searched for her but it was the South African big game hunter and scout, P J Pretorius, who located her. The Royal Navy Air Service (R.N.A.S.) through aerial reconnaissance confirmed the location and as a result the mouth of the river was blockaded. The ships available to the RN were all obsolete and outgunned by the Königsberg. Two monitors, HMS Severn and Mersey, were sent from Europe and these, with their six-inch guns, sank the Königsberg. This action took place almost 100 years ago to the day of this lecture. All ten of her 10.5 cm guns were recovered and turned into field artillery, using gun carriages supplied by the blockade runner Marie. One of these guns is in the Military History Museum in Johannesburg. The shells for these guns came from the wrecked Königsberg. The British in the meantime, had recovered the guns from the Pegasus and mounted these as coastal defence guns at the port of Zanzibar.

The land fighting during 1914 to 1916 was confined largely to the area around Mombasa. This is in the south of Kenya along the present-day Kenya-Tanzania border. The strategically important Uganda Railway, which ran from Mombasa to Kisumu on Lake Victoria, ran 160km/100 miles east of the border between the colonies and was a prime target for German saboteurs. The country between the border and the railway was a hot, dry, semi-desert area, known as the Tsavo-Serengeti Plains, and populated by huge herds of wild animals. It was waterless, except for the Tsavo River. The area is infected with malarial mosquitoes and Tsetse flies and is not a healthy environment for humans and domesticated cattle. The British troops fighting in the area described this as fighting in a zoo. Any fighting in such an area needs to have an excellent logistics system, with water supply the most important requirement. The war during the period covered by Mr Willson's talk had no battles on the scale of the Western Front but consisted of low-intensity warfare with patrols, ambushes, skirmishes and attacks on blockhouses, the railway or other defensive positions and, most importantly, gathering information about enemy forces, movements, strength and defences. These activities were ongoing throughout the period in question, with both British and Germans involved along with native troops.

Our speaker chose to select some of the main points of defence set up by the British and discuss these rather than to cover the war in detail. 130 kilometres south of Mombasa is the fishing village of Jasin, astride the border between Kenya and German East Africa. Apart from fishing, the only other activity there was a sisal plantation with its factory. This was defended by the Kashmir Rifles and a few men from the 101st Grenadiers, which were part of the Indian Expeditionary Force C. This was attacked by the Schutztruppen in January 1915. The fighting was fierce until the British force ran out of ammunition and surrendered on 19 January. The Germans lost many men, including a number of irreplaceable German officers and NCO's. Von Lettow-Vorbeck then decided to wage a guerrilla war and avoid a major confrontation with the British.

The main concern of the British, when the war started, was to protect the Uganda Railway, as well as the towns of Nairobi and Mombasa. To do this, they had very few troops - 13 companies in three Kings African Rifles (KAR) battalions, some 2 000 Indian troops (all inexperienced) and a miscellany of volunteer units raised from the small European population.

Opposing them were initially 14 Schutztruppen Kompanien with 2 500 men from the Gendarmerie (police) and 200 ex-KAR men from German East Africa (whose tribal affiliations caused them to change sides), who added a number of companies to the German force. The local settler population and the crew of the Königsberg provided NCO's and officers for the additional companies and men to man the small artillery force - some 30 guns reinforced by those taken from the Königsberg. The number of companies rose to 30, with a varying number of Feldkompanien manned by settlers.

To defend the railway, the British set up defensive positions along the railway line, at Tsavo River Bridge, Voi and other points. Nearer to the border, major defence positions were set up at Taveta, Salaita Hill, Kitshwa Tembo, Maktau and others. These were held by British forces up to company strength that patrolled the country round the various positions. North of Jasin, on the flank of the Shimba Hills, was a post held by the Arab Rifles, commanded by Major Arthur Wavell, a cousin of Field Marshall Wavell and recruited largely from the jails of Aden and Mogadishu. He was later killed just 8km/5 miles from Jasin.

Colonel Herbert Kitchener, elder brother of the Field Marshall, was sent to Kenya to look at the possibility of forming more KAR units. The black units that the Germans raised were, by comparison to the black troops raised by the British, much more efficient as the white leadership core in the German units were proportionally larger - with 1 out of every 10 troops being white. It had become obvious that well-led and -trained African troops were far more effective in bush warfare than troops from Europe, which were anyway needed in the killing fields in France. The Indian troops were not of the highest quality with the best Indian units going to the more active fronts. Kitchener ran foul of the British military hierarchy who more or less banished him to Samburu Railway Station as Inspector of Railway Defences. He took command of the Samburu Railway Protection Unit formed to guard the railway line.

The Germans had by this stage turned to guerilla warfare almost exclusively with small detachments of anything from 5 to 100 men infiltrating from the defensive posts held by them within the Mombasa-Voi command area and attacking the Uganda Railway with mines. The British patrolled extensively to counter this.

After the Tanga debacle in November 1914, the Indian Expeditionary Force B was sent to Mombasa and its troops were deployed to defend Mombasa and Nairobi and were used to strengthen the defences of the railway and the Mombasa-Voi Military Command. The White and Indian troops could not handle the climate and were infected with malaria and other diseases so they were pulled back from the unhealthy low-lying areas to the healthier high lying areas. The unhealthy areas were abandoned.

A major factor from 1914 onwards was the supply problem. The Uganda Railway was used to its full capacity from the beginning of the war. There were few roads, few vehicles and the trucks of the day were not designed to operate on unprepared tracks. Transport was largely carried by a huge number of African carriers each carrying 22,7 kg/50 pounds on his head The limitations of this are obvious. Ox wagons and mule carts used in the area of operations were not really suitable as the area was infested with tsetse fly. The animals died in their thousands.

The military command decided that a railway line should be constructed from Voi, which had been developed into a major supply base, to Maktau (60 km/41 miles) and Taveta (on the border 100 km/62.5 miles). This was a major undertaking as a waterless desert had to be crossed. This, for some or other reason, was opposed by the Governor who it appears, was anti-military. Work started in February 1915, using three Indian Sapper and pioneer battalions and 1 000 local labourers. The construction of roads and bridges over the rivers had also started. The British used the available troops to push the Germans back towards Taveta and the German East Africa border and to defend the new railway line. The British forces had by this time been strengthened by battalions from Rhodesia and the UK.

The transport problem also received attention. The use of motor vehicles became more common as the road network expanded. In Europe 30-cwt and 3-ton Napier and Daimler trucks were used but this proved to be unsuitable as the weight and the solid wheel tyres used by the trucks ripped up the surface of the roads. The solution to this was the Ford Box Body Model T vehicles, fitted with pneumatic tyres, which began arriving in numbers. However, there were never enough of them. So the ox-wagon and porter still featured heavily in the transport scene.

General Aitken had been replaced by General Wapshare and he, in turn, was replaced by General Tighe, a good administrator, in May 1915. They received orders from the War Office from time to time but these were not of much use as the War Office had little or no knowledge of African conditions. London's attitude seems to have been: Fight a defensive campaign as you cannot expect any reinforcements from Britain.

The British forces were being ravaged by sickness and disease with malaria, dysentery and rheumatic fever rampant. Only the KAR units seemed to be immune. The railway reached Maktau at the end of June 2015. Maktau was now expanded as a forward supply depot. With the various races and religions, the supply of rations had become a problem. Rations for the Indians came from India with Hindus not eating beef and Moslems not eating pork. White troops were supplied from the UK or South Africa and the black troops from Kenya.

At this stage, the Germans held a large part of the Mombasa-Voi military area but were slowly being driven back. Taveta had been taken by the Germans on 15 August 1914 and was retaken by the British on 10 March 1916. Work started to develop Taveta as a forward base and the railway advanced to this base a short while later.

The first aircraft operating in Kenya were Caudron G3's which were used to hunt for the Königsberg. The number of aircraft was small - between 5 and 8 serviceable at any given time and there were few pilots and mechanics. They were eventually based at Maktau and, in January 1916, were replaced by 26 SA Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, with both South African and British pilots and mechanics and eight BE2C aircraft, used for reconnaissance and bombing with 2 kg/4.5 pound Hales bombs.

There had been a number of German blockade runners which reached German East Africa, after evading the Royal Navy's patrols. In April 1915, the German blockade runner Kronborg (formerly the impounded British steamer SS Ruben, masquerading under the Danish flag as the SS Kronborg) was scuttled in Manza Bay in German East Africa after being chased by HMS Hyacinth. The engines of the Hyacinth broke down and Kronborg escaped into the bay where the ship was scuttled by its crew after which it was bombarded by the Hyacinth. Damage, however, were much lighter than anticipated by the British and the Germans were able to salvage the greater part of her invaluable cargo. Her cargo included high-grade coal for the Königsberg, 1 800 modern Mauser rifles along with 4.5 million bullets, 200 tents, signals equipment, two 6 cm guns and their ammunition, as well as a supply of high explosives. Thirty men of the now-stranded crew previously had artillery training and made a useful addition to Von Lettow-Vorbeck's force.

A further addition to the British force was a small force of RNAS armoured cars - two small squadrons of Rolls-Royce cars with 3-man crews and, later on, two four-car squadrons of Leyland armoured cars (built on a Leyland truck chassis) with six-man crews. These were used largely for reconnaissance.

By January 1916, increasing numbers of South Africans were arriving and General Smuts was appointed to command of the forces. These were largely infantry and mounted infantry with a number of guns and supporting units. Artillery, with the exception of the mountain guns, was now towed by American-supplied Reo trucks. The columns operating against the German units bent on sabotaging the railway were now enlarged but the problems encountered in supplying these with rations and water had not been solved. On 18 January 1916, the railway from Voi, and its attendant water pipeline, reached Maktau, which was developed into an advanced base. A hospital was also built. There were now 27 500 troops, of which three-quarters were new to African bush warfare. A slow advance towards Salaita, on the way to Taveta, was set in motion.

General Malleson with the 2nd Division launched an attack on Salaita but the inexperienced and inadequately prepared South Africans, were boxed in by the Germans and retreated, covered by the artillery. There was no water so they retreated back to the Serengeti Camp. The Rhodesians, Indians and KAR had fought well.

Smuts arrived at the front and he and General Tighe planned a fresh attack. One force would move from Longida round Kilimanjaro to Moshi, another would move from Serengeti in the east, avoiding German strong points - in all 18 400 men and 57 guns. A further 9 000 men were kept back to defend the lines of communication and five companies of KAR were in reserve. This excludes the many men in medical, veterinary, supply and transport units and the hordes of porters needed to supplement the mechanized transport. Opposing this force were some 16 000 men and 18 guns under Von Lettow-Vorbeck. At the time there was also fighting on Kenya's northern border.

Northwest of Kilimanjaro Gen Stewart with 4 000 men and 18 guns moved south from Longido to threaten the German lines of communication. On 9 March 1916 General Tighe captured Salaita. The flanking force took Taveta on the 10th and Stewart was one day's march from Moshi. The Germans had pulled back ahead of the juggernaut. Smuts now reorganized his force into three two brigade divisions, commanded by Generals Hoskins, van Deventer and Brits. The Taveta base was expanded with many medical facilities as many of the troops were suffering from malaria. The railway to Taveta was completed and extended to Kahe in German East Africa (Tanzania) where it would join the German rail network, thus easing supply problems. This extension was completed in eight days by sappers and miners of the 25th and 26th Railway Companies. The war was now to be fought in German East Africa.

Generals Malleson and Stewart were removed from their positions and General Tighe returned to India. Columns led by Generals Smuts and van Deventer moved south and the Belgians took Dodoma. General Hoskins took over from General Smuts and the war became a long slog to try and pin down the elusive and bush-wise Von Lettow-Vorbeck. This was a difficult task as his force was very mobile. He moved into Mozambique to obtain supplies and this drew the Portuguese into the war. The Germans supplied themselves by capturing what they needed from their opponents. Disease took a heavy toll of the Allied forces, and an undefeated Von Lettow-Vorbeck finally capitulated on 13 November 1918, with the remnants of his army now equipped with British rifles and clothing and equipment. He had proved himself to be one of the finest guerrilla leaders in history.

He had fought the British Empire forces with an army of never more than 16 000 troops - the British had put 300 000 men into the field from Britain, South Africa, Rhodesia, India, the Caribbean and Kenya, as well as Allied troops from the Belgian Congo and Mozambique, together with between 800 000 and a million porters . He was never defeated. Little has been written about the war. Embarrassing for the British? Maybe.

Mr Willson illustrated his talk with a number of slides showing the various places mentioned. Some of these were taken at the time, in 1914 to 1916, and others showed the places as they are now. Many of the old trenches and defences are still there and there is still much debris (bullets, cases, bottles, tins and wire) lying in the trenches and dugouts. There were pictures of the much-contested railway line and the other means of transport used. Others gave a good impression of the countryside - indeed very difficult terrain in which to fight a war.

After a lengthy question and answer session, Mr John Mahncke (previously National Chairman as well as branch Vice-Chairman) thanked the speaker for an interesting talk on a subject few people know much about and presented him with a book published in South Africa on the First World War. Our speaker was most appreciative of the gift as a section also deals with the fighting in East Africa at the time.



We welcome Mr and Mrs J C Groves who joined the branch recently and hope to see them at our coming lectures.




Our speaker is a former Special Air Services (SAS) Operator, and author of the book Viscount Down*, the story of the two Viscount crashes in which 107 passengers and crew were killed in missile attacks on Air Rhodesia Flights RH825 and RH827 in 1978 and 1979 respectively. Although these traumatic events are central to his story, our speaker will, amongst other reminiscences, also relate to the hair-raising account of living alone with a group of 100 mutinous terrorist thugs for six weeks in a secret bush camp, and the struggle to turn them into a highly-disciplined unit of crack undercover assassins needed to break the grip of insurgent terrorist occupation over a large and extremely hostile area surrounding Kariba. His mission included the top-secret hunt lasting almost four months, to track down and eliminate the terrorist group that downed the Viscounts. Of particular military interest is the modern-day focus on "Winning 'Hearts and Minds' in counter-insurgency operations" -which featured prominently in the mission.

The introduction to Mr Nell's personal account of the Rhodesian Bush War will consist of the showing of a DVD (duration 35 min.) that introduces the build-up to the war in Rhodesia and the two Viscount crashes, and following from that, he will also talk about how these disasters changed the history of Southern Africa and in a sense, be viewed as the forerunners of "Strategic attacks on Civilian Aircraft in Flight."

* The book will be on sale at the meeting.

THURSDAY, 10 September 2015: 1066 AND THE THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS by Mr Ian Cameron

Although the Battle of Hastings (14 October 1066) is often labelled a French Invasion of England it actually was a struggle for succession between two contestants who both claimed that they had been promised the Anglo-Saxon crown.

The impact of the battle had a profound impact on England, France, Scotland, Scandinavia and many of the men who fought in the battle founded dynasties that were still present at the time of the British Empire.

Field Marshall Montgomery, for example, who planned the invasion of Normandy in WW2, was ironically descended from a Norman knight who sailed from Normandy, and who fought in the battle.

William the Conqueror claimed that he had been promised the Anglo-Saxon Crown by Edward the Confessor, the half-Norman King of England who died childless.

Harold Godwinson, the powerful Saxon Earl of Wessex, in turn claimed that the dying king had promised the crown to him. The two claimants set about to settle the matter by force of arms - in what became known as the Battle of Hastings. (It was actually fought at a village now called Battle.)

The talk will cover the military history, weapons and traditions of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans. It should be noted that Harold had the best-equipped permanent force in Europe in his personal guard - the Housecarls, and the Normans were recognized as among the best heavy cavalry of the time.

The tactics used in the battle and in the aftermath will also be covered.

The outcome completely changed the dynasties in what became England, and although Scotland was never conquered by the Normans, no less than three lines of Scottish Kings were descended from knights who landed with the conqueror.

The battle's effect on the English language was also significant, as it is worth noting that the original foundation of the English language was derived from the Anglo-Saxon tongue, which had its origins in Northern Germany and Southern Denmark. The Normans further adapted the language but as English evolved, many of the original Anglo-Saxon words at its core stayed in place, albeit with different spellings. Like his previously presented lecture on the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC and the Persian invasion of Greece, Mr Cameron has researched the Battle of Hastings in detail and most certainly should do justice to this interesting topic.

The lecture will be illustrated.


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

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /