Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck


The Great War in German East Africa



General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born in Saarlouis, Prussia, on March 20, 1870. His family is originar from Pomerania, and includes writer Oskar von Lettow-Vorbeck.

He entered the military academy and in 1900 was sent to China with the German Expeditionary Force under Count Waldersee and saw action during the Boxer Rebellion. Later on served in German Southwest Africa (Namibia) during the Hottentot and Herero Rebellion of 1904-08. Wounded, he was sent for several months to South Africa for recuperation. After 25 years of service in the army and a lieutenant-colonel in February 1914, he was appointed commander of the forces in German East Africa, with only a dozen companies of Askari troops. On April 20, 1914 von Lettow took over effectively the command of the colonial force German East Africa at that time.

After arriving in Dar es Salaam in 1914, von Lettow took charge of the colony's white and black defense force, called the "Schutztruppe". He made a reconnaissance of the terrain, personally visiting fourteen field outposts scattered across the colony of Tanganyika.

Following the 1885 Congress of Berlin which delimited European spheres of influence in Africa and so set the ground rules for the scramble for Africa, the territory which became Tanganyika fell within the German sphere. By 1890 German East Africa comprises the modern-day territories of Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

As news of Archduke Ferdinand's assassination spread, and the political situation in Europe slid toward open war, the authorities in German East Africa began to discuss their own options. The civilian governor, Dr. Heinrich Schnee, stood against military action which would certainly endanger his civil projects then underway. He wanted to negotiate a neutrality agreement with the British. General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the commander of the German Colonial Army, had no intention of allowing the British in Africa to conquer German soil without putting up a fight.. Lieutenant-colonel Lettow-Vorbeck was high class officer. Firmly decided to hold on to this jewel of German colonies, he had focused on the defence of the colony since his arrival. During the summer he gathered an army of 11,000 Askaris and 3,000 Europeans.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the British moved to occupy the territory. From the beginning von Lettow realized that he was virtually alone in this struggle against the English. East Africa was considered a sideshow of a sideshow. Her fate, as the fate of the other German colonies was certain to be decided on the battlefields of Europe.

Faced with overwhelming manpower and weaponry, von Lettow devised an brilliant strategy: "Might it not be possible to adopt tactics that would compel the enemy to bring in the largest possible force thereby diverting troops and resources from the arena where they would be most desperately needed?" His strong points were to be speed and time, since hitting power was out of the question. Lettow-Vorbeck's philosophy was simple - by using hit and run tactics he could tie down a huge number of British troops in East Africa and thus prevent them from joining the fighting in Europe. It required a British and Colonial force which at times totalled over 100,000 men to fight and attempt to pin down a few thousand Germans and Askaris, and superior tactics and fighting skill enabled the German leader to hold out until two weeks after the armistice in Europe! Prussian officers, contrary to the popular stereotype of rigid nonthinking disciplinarians, were in fact extremely flexible individualists and Lettow-Vorbeck was a prime example.

German East Africa received the first hits on August 8 on Dar-Es-Salaam from British cruisers. In August, 1914, effectively isolated from outside command, von Lettow-Vorbeck launched a series of effective raids against the British railway in Kenya, and fought off a British amphibious attack on Tanga and captured large amounts of arms and ammunitions to supply his troops. His raiding parties dynamited the Uganda Railway, destroyed bridges, cut telegraph wires and ambushed troop trains. Three weeks later 14 transporters and 2 British cruisers landed 6,000 soldiers around the port of Tanga. Lettow-Vorbeck reacted quickly and pushed them back to the sea on November 4, recovering sustantial material, including 16 machine-guns. Initially the British forces in East Africa were convinced that they would make short work of the Germans in Africa, but they were soon disillusioned. At the battle of Tanga, the Germans, outnumbered 8 to 1, routed the Indian troops sent against them.

After Tanga, Lettow-Vorbeck had easily fought off the separate actions mounted against him by the British and Belgians from their basis in Kenya, Rhodesia and Congo. His army was soon to be reinforced by the sailors of the cruiser Königsberg. It took 27 ships to destroy the German cruiser in a series of running battles on both land and water, and even then the German sailors avoided capture, striking off inland and taking all the ship's 105mm guns with them to play a major role in the land battles that followed. The main guns of the SMS Königsberg were removed and the Dar-es-Salaam machine shops manufactured carriages for them. Von Lettow-Vorbeck managed to salvage the guns from the destroyed ship and was able to use these along with the rigours of the terrain to hold off the offensives of the Allies. For years they were the heaviest artillery present in the African land campaign. Of the Königsberg's original crew of 350 men, only 15, including Captain Looff, survived the war and returned to Germany.

The British campaign in East Africa was a series of frustrating attempts to surround Lettow-Vorbeck's main force or to bring him to fight a decisive battle. They never succeeded. Each time they tried the British were convinced that they would bring Lettow-Vorbeck to bay, and each time he eluded them. He always retreated in the face of overwhelming force, but not before it was necessary, and it was never easy to assemble the required force at the needed point. The Allied commanders-in-chief captured territory, but none succeeded in defeating the German army. Almost throughout the entire war the British underestimated the Germans and their Askaris, black troops who had been well-trained and disciplined by their German officers. It is interesting to mention that 90% of Lettow-Vorbeck's troops were africans.

His success of Tanba assured the relative tranquility of the colony, until the beginning of 1916, when the British, aided by the Belgians, and later the Portuguese, mounted methodical operations against him, to which he responded by manoeuvre. On January 25, 1916, general Jan Christiaan Smuts, former Boer War hero, took charge of the British forces in East Africa, now up to 120,000 and went immediately on the offensive, in March. After the conquest of Tanga, the British and the Belgians met on the Tabora- Dar-Es-Salaam railway and moved further South across the Rufiji River. Having to stop a cause of diseases and the weather, Smuts asked the Germans to surrender, which they refuse. In October 1916, the Germans pushed back 3,000 Portuguese to had cross the Rowuma border river. In December 1916, the Kaiser awarded him the order "For the merit".

Lettow-Vorbeck remained continually on the defensive, gradually working south. In 1917, general Van Deventer, successor of Smuts, attacked once again, having been heavily reinforced. Lettow-Vorbeck was forced to withdraw to the South of the colony, now having no more than 300 Europeans and 2,000 Askaris under his command. On November 27, 1917, he invaded Mozambique, since Portugal was now formally at war with the German Empire. In Mozambique, the Germans routed a numerically superior Portuguese force with almost contemptuous ease, advancing as far south as Quelimane by July 1918. Cut off from their supply lines the Germans lived off the land, using captured weapons and ammunition obtained along the way from the sizeable Portuguese supply dumps. In spite of the hardship the morale of the German force run exceptionally high. In July 1918 von Lettow pushed the courage to such extent that he decided to attack the pursuiving British army at Namacura. After the victory turned back and at the end of September returned on German territory.

In October 1917 the last big battle and the bloodiest of the entire campaign was fought at Mahiva - a set piece battle resembling those on the European front. Again the Germans were victorious, losing only 95 killed, whereas the British lost more than half their men - 2,700 out of a total of 4,900 men. Nevertheless, Lettow-Vorbeck was forced to withdraw as his forces had by then been reduced to less than a thousand men.

On November 2, 1918, he entered Northern Rhodesia. In Northern Rhodesia Lettow-Vorbeck faced a force of Rhodesian police and civilian volunteers strongly determined to block his way. However, the Germans captured and Kasama on 13 November 1918. It seemed likely that he would not stop here but, having captured Kasama, word reached him on 13 November 1918 that the armistice had already taken effect in Europe. After confirmation that the war was indeed over, he and his men laid down their arms, undefeated. Von Lettow called for a cease-fire and surrendered to the British, as demanded in Article 17 of the Armistice of Rethondes between Germany and the Allied and Associated Powers.

On November 14, Lettow-Vorbeck mets at Abercorn, on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, the Bitish general Edwards, to whom he surrendered his army of 155 Germans, of which 20 officers, and 1156 native Africans. Lettow-Vorbeck arranged for the re-patriation of German soldiers and prisoners of war before the departure for Germany in January, 1919. The Germans moved across Tanganyika to Kigoma, from where they took the railway to Dar-Es-Salaam. From here they left for Europe on January 17, 1919.

When he later returned to Berlin, von Lettow was hailed as the hero who had given Germany one great victory. On March 2, 1919, when Lettow-Vorbeck entered with his reminder 144 soldiers, through the Brandenburg Gate, the crowd gathered to give him hero's welcome to the undefeated German army and her commander. Be that as it may, after WW1 Tanganyika became a Mandated Territory under the League of Nations, with the British as the mandated power. (What became Rwanda and Burundi were detatched and came under Belgian rule). Later, Lettow-Vorbeck wrote two books relating his story in the Great War: " Heia Safari " (1919), and " My memories from East Africa " (1920).

The Great War in Africa was on the whole characterised by gentlemanly behaviour and after the Battle of Tanga the German victors and British vanquished met under a white flag with a bottle of brandy to compare opinions of the battle and discuss the care of the wounded. Both sides exchanged autographed photos, shared an excellent supper, and parted like gentlemen. Again, in after the armistice of 1918, the British officers were delighted at last to have the chance to meet the legendary general. Lettow-Vorbeck was not imprisoned, but given the use of a car and invited to dinner by South African general Van Deventer.

Back in Germany, von Lettow became commander of the realm military brigade 9 in Schwerin in 1919. He got involved, alongside other high ranking Imperial officers, in the cutting kapp-Putsch in 1920. He remained in the army and was later to suppress Communist uprising in Hamburg in 1923.

In 1920 he became a politician and served for 10 years in the Reichstag. When Hitler rose to power, von Lettow-Vorbeck tried unsuccessfully to organize a conservative opposition. But as the Nazis strengthened their position, von Lettow, disgusted, resigned his post. Hitler offered von Lettow, a World War I hero, the post of ambassador to England, but von Lettow refused it. In retaliation for this insult, Hitler and his colaborators began a vicious smear campaign against the general, ruining his career. Persecuted and abandoned, von Lettow almost died of starvation during World War II. The old general had lost both sons in the war.

He and Smuts formed a lasting friendship and he sat next to Smuts as guest of honour at the anniversary dinner of the East African Expeditionary Force. Smuts had even took time to congratulate him when he had received the Imperial order in 1916. At the beginning of December 1929, on invitation of general Smuts, von Lettow-Vorbeck participated in London as a guest in a festessen of the East Africa fighters. After the war, Smuts, on hearing of the plight of his former enemy, sent him regular food parcels.

When the war ended, von Lettow regained his former prestige. At the age of eighty-three he even returned to Africa where he met with some old "Schutztruppe" comrades. In 1952 he took the plane to visit his African soldiers and the widow of his collegue Smuts. His birth city Saarlouis in the Saarland accoded him in the Sept. 1956 the honour citizenry. Von Lettow died in 1964. He died on 9 March 1964 at the age of almost 94 years in Hamburg. He was buried on 13 March 1964 with full military honours at Pronstorf.

The German General von Lettow-Vorbeck proved to be one of the most brilliant guerrilla war tacticians of all time.Von Lettow was a master of tactics and a determined soldier. Though vastly outnumbered, the German defenders under von Lettow kept the British troops at bay for four years, frustrating them at every turn. The small German army even planted the German flag on British soil - the only occasion on which a German Commander occupied British territory during the entire war. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck is to be remembered as the leader that made his soldiers be recalled as "the Germans who never lost".