CDG 58 – World War I in Africa, 1914
The September 2013 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “World War I in Africa, 1914.” This CDG placed readers in the role of German army Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the Schutztruppe (colonial security troops) for the colony of German East Africa (present-day countries of Burundi, Rwanda and mainland Tanzania). Lettow-Vorbeck’s mission in November 1914 was to attack and defeat a large British invasion force that landed on Tanga Peninsula intending to capture the important port of Tanga on German East Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. The loss of Tanga would have been a severe blow to German fortunes, likely resulting in Germany losing the war in Africa from the very outset.
After World War I began in Europe in August 1914, the fighting quickly spread to the belligerent nations’ numerous colonies in Africa. In November, Britain launched a two-pronged invasion of German East Africa, consisting of an overland attack in the north near Mount Kilimanjaro by Indian Expeditionary Force C and an amphibious landing at Tanga by the larger (7,800-man) Indian Expeditionary Force B (IEFB) supported by the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Fox.
Recognizing that the amphibious landing posed the most serious threat, Lettow-Vorbeck gathered a 1,000-man force of eight Schutztruppe companies (three companies of German troops and five companies of native Askari soldiers) and rushed to Tanga to deal with the IEFB. On November 3, a small number of German defenders easily repulsed a weak, half-hearted probe toward Tanga, aided by the IEFB’s inexplicably sluggish and disorganized actions and the British force’s lack of aggressiveness. The next day, Lettow-Vorbeck’s eight companies were in position and ready to engage the British invasion force.
Lettow-Vorbeck’s plan combined maximum firepower with an aggressive counterattack envelopment maneuver that gave his men the tactical edge they needed to defeat an enemy force outnumbering them nearly 8-to-1 (CDG COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COUNTERATTACK ENVELOPMENT). Using the firepower of his machine guns protected by two Askari companies positioned behind the elevated railroad embankment, Lettow-Vorbeck was able to block the advance of the two IEFB brigades from Tanga Peninsula. (See Historical Outcome map.) Although the sheer number of IEFB troops threatened to overwhelm the railway embankment line, the timely commitment of two German reserve companies – and the uncoordinated, piecemeal nature of the British advance – prevented a catastrophic breakthrough.
Lettow-Vorbeck then unleashed a four-company counterattack force that swept around the IEFB’s exposed southern flank, successfully enveloping the British force. Although the counterattack struck the IEFB’s best unit, 27th Bangalore Brigade, the German effort was significantly aided by swarms of stinging, angry bees that the British troops had inadvertently stirred up during their advance (giving rise to the engagement’s “Battle of the Bees” nickname). Struck from the flank and rear, the IEFB troops fled in disorder back to their landing beaches, with the panic quickly spreading from battalion to battalion. Soundly beaten, they were forced to re-embark on transport ships and evacuate Tanga Peninsula.
Britain’s official history of World War I called the Tanga defeat “one of the most notable failures in British military history.” The British lost 359 killed, 487 wounded, 149 missing in action, and a large number taken prisoner. However, Lettow-Vorbeck, based on his personal inspection of the battlefield, estimated that perhaps as many as 800-2,000 enemy soldiers died during the fighting.
Meanwhile, Lettow-Vorbeck’s casualties were more modest, with 64 killed (16 Germans and 48 Askaris) and 80 wounded (24 Germans and 56 Askaris and native porters). Significantly, the Schutztruppe also gained numerous captured weapons and many supplies since the British abandoned all their heavy equipment when the IEFB evacuated the peninsula. This windfall included hundreds of uniforms, 16 machine guns, enough modern rifles to replace two-thirds of the Askaris’ obsolescent 1871/84 Mausers, and 600,000 rounds of small arms ammunition.
While Lettow-Vorbeck was winning the Battle of Tanga, a smaller Schutztruppe force defeated the northern pincer of Britain’s two-pronged invasion of German East Africa. At the November 3, 1914, Battle of Kilimanjaro, 600 Germans and Askaris triumphed over 1,500 Indian Service Brigade (ISB) troops from Indian Expeditionary Force C.
The victory at the Battle of Tanga launched Lettow-Vorbeck’s German and Askari Schutztruppe on a brilliant four-year campaign in which they consistently defeated larger and better-supplied British forces in both conventional and guerrilla warfare. Battlefield accomplishments from 1914-18 gained Lettow-Vorbeck a promotion to brigadier general, the Pour le Mérite medal (Germany’s highest award), and well-earned acclaim as the “Lion of Africa.”
After World War I ended in Allied victory, Lettow-Vorbeck was forced to surrender his undefeated Schutztruppe on November 25, 1918. Despite his superb efforts during the war, Germany lost German East Africa along with all of its colonies in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. (See Special Feature, November 2013 ACG.)
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COUNTERATTACK ENVELOPMENT or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of World War I-era colonial warfare. (See “After Action Report.”) Due to the abysmally inept British leadership and the woefully inadequate, panic-stricken performance of the IEFB soldiers, Lettow-Vorbeck might have achieved victory at the Battle of Tanga regardless of which course of action he chose. However, COA Two’s combination of maximum firepower and aggressive, unexpected enveloping maneuver against a vulnerable flank likely would have led to success even against a better-led, more formidable opposing force.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: FRONTAL ATTACK into the teeth of British machine-gun fire – even if successful – would have put Lettow-Vorbeck’s small Schutztruppe force at risk of suffering heavy casualties that it could not afford to lose. The fight on Tanga Peninsula was the opening battle in what likely would be a long, arduous campaign to defend German East Africa, and thus the Schutztruppe needed to husband their resources (manpower, weapons, ammunition, etc.) in order to continue effective combat operations.
Although COURSE OF ACTION THREE: FLANKING INFILTRATION allowed Lettow-Vorbeck to capitalize on the unique bush-fighting skills and combat prowess of his native Askari soldiers, and the plan likely would have surprised and initially disoriented the IEFB troops, it surrendered many of the Schutztruppe’s key advantages to the enemy. Once the Askaris swept into the British camp, the fighting instantly would have become close-quarters melee combat in which the Schutztruppe could not use their superior discipline, training, mobility and small unit leadership to maximum effect. Moreover, due to the sheer number of British troops – 7,800 against only several hundred Askaris – they possibly could have overcome, turned back and defeated the surprise attack, even if it were initially successful.
AFTER ACTION REPORT
Key Points for World War I-Era Colonial Warfare
- Win the trust and loyalty of native troops through fair and humane treatment.
- Train and develop small unit leaders, the key to winning colonial wars.
- Devise and implement tactics that use terrain and climate to the best advantage.
- Combine conventional and guerrilla operations for maximum impact against the enemy.
- Remain highly mobile so as not to give the enemy a fixed target to attack or trap.
- Conserve resources and target enemy logistics as a source of resupply.
- Seize and hold the initiative, improvise and innovate, and force the enemy to be reactive.