South African Military History Society


Regular soldiers can wage guerrilla warfare as successfully as irregular units provided their aims are limited to harassing their enemy and tying up his forces rather than taking and holding territory. In WW1 Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, an officer in the Kaiser's army, conducted an undefeated guerrilla campaign in German East Africa (GEA), now Tanganyika, that contributed handsomely to his country's war effort.

In the curtain raiser to the society's 14 November lecture meeting George Barrell described how he did it. Lettow-Vorbeck was 44 years old when he was appointed military governor of GEA in January 1914, but was already Germany's most experienced colonial soldier. Anticipating the approaching war, he immediately set about familiarising himself with his new command. What he found was a country circled on all sides, including the sea, by its prospective enemies, with a ferocious climate, virtually impenetrable terrain, and an extensive range of tropical diseases. By the time war broke out in August 1914 his command comprised a mere 200 European officers and 2 000 local soldiers, or askaris. He lost no time in organising them into small, well-disciplined companies each with 200 native carriers.

When the Royal Navy opened hostilities by shelling the capital, Dar-es-Salaam, Lettow-Vorbeck overruled the port's civilian governor, who wanted to negotiate, and made it clear he would go on fighting. Three months later a combined British-Indian amphibious landing was attempted at the port of Tanga, close to the border with British East Africa, now Kenya. The Germans inflicted a humiliating defeat on the invaders, and for a few months Lettow-Vorbeck was able to harass his enemy's defences along the railway line between Tanga and Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. At one time he was threatening the Mombasa-Nairobi line in British territory.

The arrival of ex-Boer generals Jan Smuts and Jacob van Deventer to command a combined British-South African force changed the situation. Lettow-Vorbeck was forced onto the defensive. He then began a long retreat, fighting all the way. This eventually took his little army south into Portuguese territory almost as far as the Zambesi, then north again and eventually westward into Rhodesia. There he surrendered on news of the armistice in November 1918.

During this four years of marching and fighting Lettow-Vorbeck and his force had survived unimaginable hardships, living off the country, and keeping themselves supplied with arms and ammunition taken from their enemies. No less than 300 000 troops had fought against them at different times, commanded by a total of 137 generals.

After the war Lettow-Vorbeck served ten years in the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic. Under Hitler he remained a nationalist, although he was never a Nazi. He turned down an invitation to become German ambassador to London. Both his sons were killed in WW2, although he himself lived to be 94.

The subject of the evening's main lecture, given by Dr Walter Murton, was the four battles fought between the Greeks and the Persian in the 5th century BC.

When the Greek cities of Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minor, revolted against the overlordship of the Persians, they sought help from their mainland compatriots. A fleet of ships went to their aid, but left when the threat was lifted. Eventually the rebels were subdued, but the Persian king Darius did not forget the role played by the mainland Greeks against his predecessor, Cyrus. He demanded that the Greek cities submit to Persian suzerainty. Some did, but Athens and Sparta refused.

The Athenians and their allies fought the first battle in 490BC on the Plains of Marathon, about 40 kilometres north-east of Athens. The Spartans were too busy with an annual festival. The Persian landed an army and sent a proportion of their ships round to attack Athens by sea. The Persian army was defeated and the Athenians hurried back to protect Athens. Helped by the weather, the result was a resounding victory for the Greeks.

Four years later Darius died and was succeeded by Xerxes, who pledged to carry on the vendetta. He assembled 210 000 men and 5 300 ships for an invasion through northern Greece across the Hellespont (Dardanelles). The Persian army was intercepted at Thermopylae. This time the Spartans were in the van, while an Athenian fleet sailed to intercept the Persian ships, already damaged by storm. The Greeks were defeated at Thermopylae when the Persians manoeuvred to attack them in the rear. The Athenian fleet thereupon retreated to the harbours of Salamis, a large island facing Athens and separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. Athens was evacuated, and subsequently sacked by the Persians. But under the nose of Xerxes himself, who was watching from a cliff top, his fleet was inveigled into the narrows and destroyed.

Xerxes decided to return home, leaving 40 000 men under the command of Mardonius, his brother-in-law. Mardonius parleyed with the Greeks in an attempt to break their alliance. He failed, and found himself facing a Greek army of 40 000, equal to his own. He fell back to the north bank of the Atopus River. The fourth battle was fought on the Plain of Plataea. It lasted several days and there were numerous changes of fortune. But in the end the superb Greek infantry triumphed, and the Persians were massacred. Mardonius was among the dead.

The victory at Plataea ensured that the Greek cities would never again be threatened by the Persians. Internecine warfare continued, of course, but the four battles presaged a period of peace in which Grecian genius could flourish, and put down the roots on which future western civilisation is based.

Will society members please note that, as is customary, there will be no newsletter for January. The next newsletter will cover January/February and appear after the January lecture meeting on 16 January.



12 December
CR Bob Smith - A Soldier's Life: General Sir Ian Hamilton
ML Hamish Paterson - Charleston to Camden, South Carolina, 1780
16 January
CR Martin Ayres - SNAFU revisited
ML Peter Goodship - The Battle of Helvetia: December 1900
13 February
CR John Bleloch - The Heliograph
ML Achilles Kallos - The Balkan Wars of Independence: 1921-1922


12 December
Annual Dinner at the Westville Club

Cape Town

In recess

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167

Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983

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