CDG 58 – World War I in Africa, 1914
The article below is an abridged version of Combat Decision Game #58, “World War I in Africa, 1914,” written by Andrew H. Hershey. Additional text and illustrations appear in the September 2013 edition of Armchair General® magazine, where you’ll also find additional interactive articles based on the German Glider Assault on Fort Eben Emael, 1940, and Erwin Rommel defending France, 1944. On newsstands now.
This CDG places readers in the role of Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, leading the Schutztruppe (colonial security troop unit) in the colony of German East Africa in an attack on the large British invasion force that recently landed on the Tanga Peninsula.
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WORLD WAR I IN AFRICA, 1914
By August 1914, when World War I erupted in Europe, the European powers’ 19th and early 20th-century “scramble for Africa” had created a patchwork of colonies blanketing nearly the entire African continent. The most numerous and largest colonies – covering fully three-quarters of African territory – were those of Britain, France and Belgium. Germany, a latecomer to the land grab, possessed many fewer colonies, which were also smaller and widely separated.
The war in Europe quickly spread to the African colonies. With Britain, France and Belgium allied against Germany, the scattered German colonies were vulnerable targets for invasion. Although the belligerents’ military forces in Africa were significantly smaller and less well-armed than the massive, powerful armies on World War I’s Western Front, the fighting, which featured European as well as native African troops, was often sharp and deadly. The Allies virtually surrounded the German colonies on land and had the significant advantage of control of the seas, which allowed the British Royal Navy to land Allied troops at will on the coast of each Germany colony.
After successful campaigns in August and September against German colonies in West Africa along the Atlantic Ocean coast, British commanders in early November turned their attention to German East Africa on the Indian Ocean coast. In a two-pronged invasion, a force moved overland from British East Africa across the German colony’s northern border, while a larger force conducted an amphibious landing to capture the important port of Tanga.
Armchair General® takes you back to November 4, 1914, near Tanga, German East Africa, where you will play the role of Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German colony’s Schutztruppe (colonial security troop unit). Your mission is to attack and defeat the large British invasion force that has landed on Tanga Peninsula intending to capture the port and town of Tanga.
This is a truly daunting mission. The British invasion troops outnumber the 1,000 German and Askari (native African) soldiers you have available for the mission by nearly 8-to-1 and are supported by the naval guns of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Fox lying at anchor off the peninsula. You will need all of your tactical and leadership skills if your smaller force is to win the battle for this vital port. If you fail and the British capture Tanga, it will open the way for them to overrun all of German East Africa – and with the fall of Germany’s last colony here, the British will win World War I in Africa. Britain and the other Allied colonial powers will then be free to transfer troops, resources and war materiel from Africa to reinforce their forces fighting on Europe’s Western Front.
GERMAN EAST AFRICA
The formation of German East Africa dates back less than three decades to 1885, when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck confirmed the imperial charter of Kaiser Wilhelm I establishing a German “protectorate” for the region. German East Africa encompasses an area of more than 384,000 square miles and is bordered on the north, west and south by British, Belgian and Portuguese colonies and on the east by the Indian Ocean. This German colony is rich in raw materials such as sisal (the largest cash crop, used for making hemp rope and cordage), rubber, coffee and gold. These are sent to Germany for domestic use and are sold to other countries as well, providing a valuable source of cash revenue.
To reach Germany and other world markets, the resources must travel by rail on the Usambara Railway, which runs from the colony’s western border at Lake Tanganyika to ports on the Indian Ocean coast. Tanga is one of only two ports (the other is Dar-es-Salaam) capable of handling modern trade shipping, which makes it strategically significant – and a target for British invasion.
Tanga comprises some 900 buildings, about 100 of which are stone construction. (See map) The railroad loops around the town on an elevated embankment on the east side, forming a semicircle that terminates at Tanga Harbor’s main jetty. To the northeast of town beyond the embankment lies Tanga Peninsula, a flat coastal plain ending in 30-foot cliffs dropping into the Indian Ocean. Southeast of the three parallel roads leading to the end of the peninsula the landscape is broken into a series of hedge-bordered rubber tree and coconut plantations and numerous beehive farms.
Two days ago, November 2, a British amphibious force aboard 14 freighters protected by HMS Fox arrived off Tanga Peninsula after a month-long sea voyage. However, instead of landing and immediately moving to capture Tanga, the British were slow getting ashore. The following day they conducted only a tentative, easily repulsed probe toward town. They spent the night encamped near their initial landing sites.
The enemy’s absence of any attempt to seize the tactical initiative seems inexplicable to you, but fortunately this lack of aggressiveness gave you the time you desperately needed to move several of your Schutztruppe companies to Tanga to prepare for an attack that will throw the invaders back into the sea.
Your German East Africa Schutztruppe force is a brigade-sized unit of 20 infantry companies. The troops under your command are of two types: schutzen kompagnien (security companies), composed of all German soldiers; and feld kompagnien (field companies), composed of Zulu and Sudanese Askari soldiers led by German officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs).
Your Askari troops are professional soldiers who are extremely loyal to you because of the respect with which you treat them, and they are loyal to the German colonial administration that provides them with proper pay, medical care, housing and military equipment. All of your troops are trained to German army standards in tactics and doctrine, but since you arrived in German East Africa last April, you have rigorously conducted additional exercises to create a highly motivated, extremely effective fighting force.
Leading each company of 150-200 soldiers (plus 150-200 noncombatant native porters who transport supplies and provide manual labor) are 10-16 officers and NCOs. Every company includes a headquarters section, three rifle platoons of 50-60 men each, and a machine-gun section armed with two Maxim-design Maschinengewehr 1908s – the same model used by front-line German troops in Europe.
Fourteen of your Schutztruppe companies are armed with the older but still effective model 1871/84 Mauser bolt-action rifles that fire black-powder cartridges, while the remaining six companies carry up-to-date model 1898 Mausers with smokeless powder bullets. Like your machine guns, the 1898 Mausers are the kind currently used in Europe. Your artillery, however, is older and very meager – fewer than two dozen model 1891 C73 88 mm field guns support your entire Schutztruppe brigade.
Your brigade must defend all of German East Africa. You have already positioned four of your companies at the colony’s northern border near Mount Kilimanjaro in response to the overland invasion from British East Africa. With another eight companies protecting key locations throughout the colony, you have only eight companies left – three German and five Askari, for a total of 1,000 troops – with which to oppose the much larger enemy invasion force at Tanga.
The British amphibious unit, 7,800 soldiers of the Indian Expeditionary Force B (IEFB) commanded by Major General Arthur Aitken, is composed of eight infantry battalions, one pioneer (engineer) battalion, and one company of mountain artillery, supported by a host of supply and service personnel. The IEFB infantrymen are armed with bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifles and Vickers machine guns, both of which are comparable to your troops’ weapons. However, the infantry battalions vary widely in skill, training, experience, leadership and combat effectiveness.
Only five of the eight battalions are “regulars” commanded by British officers and NCOs, and only one (2d Loyal North Lancashire) is made up of European soldiers. The remainder of the battalions consist of soldiers from India, a British colony. Moreover, three of the four infantry battalions in the IEFB’s Indian Service Brigade are led by Indian officers and NCOs, and the training, morale and effectiveness of these battalions are low. The 27th Bangalore Brigade, with its four regular infantry battalions led by British officers, is the IEFB’s most effective combat unit. The IEFB will likely receive additional fire support from HMS Fox’s main armament, consisting of two 152 mm and eight 120 mm naval guns.
Yesterday, November 3, two Askari field companies and some local policemen under the command of Captain Baumstark easily turned back the ineffective British attack on the town of Tanga. After the British attackers scurried back onto the peninsula near their invasion beaches, Baumstark withdrew his two companies four miles west to Kange to rendezvous with you and to combine his men with the six Schutztruppe companies you brought along. You left behind your artillery to get your infantry into action as quickly as possible, but you hope that a few guns will arrive by tomorrow, November 5.
Upon reaching Kange after sundown yesterday and receiving Baumstark’s update on the situation, you commandeered a bicycle and under cover of darkness conducted a solo reconnaissance of Tanga and the surrounding area. You confirmed that the British are encamped on the peninsula near their landing sites and have not tried to move troops into the town despite the fact that Baumstark’s withdrawal left it undefended overnight.
You also spoke with civilian residents closely watching the British landings who report that the off-loading of the British ships has been chaotic, and although several thousand troops are ashore, the British have not yet landed any of the IEFB’s artillery guns. This is key information since it means your attackers will face only rifles and machine guns.
You peddled your bicycle back to Kange as fast as you could and have now arrived about two hours before dawn. You quickly gather your company commanders to present to them three courses of action. While the final decision is yours, you want to hear their frank opinions to help you decide which plan promises the greatest chance of success.
Course of Action One:
“The first plan I am considering,” you begin, “is to seize the initiative and go straight at the British in a frontal attack. We will hit them hard and fast and stampede them into a rout before their officers have a chance to rally them and make a stand. The three German Schutzen companies will lead, attacking abreast of each other along the parallel roads running northeast across the peninsula. Three Askari companies will directly follow the lead companies, while the remaining two Askari companies will advance south of the roads to protect our right flank.”
Captain Baumstark agrees with this plan: “Colonel, if we strike ‘hard and fast’ as you say, this plan will work. Yesterday I beat back their half-hearted attack on Tanga with only a handful of troops. We opened fire on them and they turned and ran like gazelles toward their camp.”
Dr. Auracher, the Tanga district government administrator who is also commander of an Askari company, has doubts, however. “Baumstark,” he interjects, “those enemy troops did turn and run, but they were Indian Service Brigade soldiers, not regulars. After yesterday’s debacle, the British undoubtedly will stiffen their ranks, re-establish discipline and get their men better prepared to fight. Moreover, even if our attack succeeds, we may just be pushing the enemy back under the cover of fire from the British cruiser’s naval guns. Our attacking troops would then be exposed to a heavy bombardment from the ship’s guns.”
Course of Action Two:
“The second plan under consideration,” you continue, “is to allow the British to attack first, and then we counterattack. Two Askari companies and our machine guns will establish a strong defensive position along the elevated railroad embankment around the east side of town – this is the most likely point of attack, as it is the most direct route to town from the peninsula. Behind the defensive position and concealed among the buildings on the south side of town will be our counterattack force composed of a German Schutzen company and three Askari companies. Once our defensive line’s heavy fire has stopped the British attack, our counterattack force will sweep southeast around the enemy’s left flank, envelop the entire British line and cut off its retreat route. Our remaining two German Schutzen companies will be held in reserve, prepared to add reinforcement where needed.”
Captain Schmidt, a German Schutzen company commander, speaks next. “Colonel, this is an excellent plan to destroy the enemy attack force. However, since the restricted width of the area where the British will strike prevents them from using their entire force, they will still have hundreds – perhaps thousands – of uncommitted troops in reserve. These could be thrown against the rear or flank of our counterattack force and disastrously turn the tables on us.”
Baumstark replies, “Since the attack by the Indian Service Brigade failed, today’s assault will surely be launched by the enemy’s best troops, the regulars of 27th Bangalore Brigade. The reserves therefore will be the same demoralized troops that botched the job yesterday. Even if they were to try to attack our counterattacking force from the rear or flank, we could bring forward our reserve German Schutzen companies to deal with them.”
Course of Action Three:
“The final course of action,” you conclude, “capitalizes on stealth, surprise and the superb ‘bush fighting’ skills of our Askari troops, plus takes advantage of the enemy’s inexperience and unfamiliarity with the terrain. Our five Askari companies will silently move in column of companies as quickly as possible along the south side of Tanga Peninsula, infiltrate through the area, and then burst into the British flank positions in a terrifying surprise attack. Our three German companies with the machine guns initially will be positioned along the elevated railroad embankment, prepared to move forward on my order to finish off the troops our Askaris have routed.”
Dr. Auracher seems enthusiastic about this plan. “Yes, Colonel, my Askaris are perfectly suited to this kind of combat – a stealthy approach followed by a violent surprise attack! Many of the enemy troops are already badly shaken by their defeat yesterday and are undoubtedly disoriented by the unfamiliar environment. The terrifying effect of five companies of Askaris screaming battle cries and suddenly appearing as if out of nowhere will send the entire enemy force into a panicked rout.”
You allow Schmidt to have the last word. “Colonel,” he says, “I don’t doubt the terrifying effect a surprise attack will have, and we all know that the Askaris’ close-quarter combat skills and fighting spirit are legendary. However, this plan splits our already outnumbered force into two separate elements. If the British officers manage to rally their troops, their advantage in numbers alone might allow them to overpower one or both of our forces.”
With dawn less than two hours away, you end the meeting and send your company commanders to prepare their troops for combat. “Gentlemen,” you announce as they turn to leave, “I will send you my attack order within 15 minutes.”
What is your decision, Lieutenant Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck?
Click here to download a pdf of the map and submission form for Combat Decision Game No. 58.
About the Author
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
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