The Final Shots in Portuguese East Africa

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Harry Fecitt

SHORTCOL September 1918

On September 1 1918, The German Schutztruppe commanded by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was moving northwards away from a fierce and costly battle fought over the previous two days at Lioma. The Schutztruppe’s strength on 1st September was 176 European officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 1,487 African Askari plus a large group of wives and porters carrying ammunition and supplies. A British column titled SHORTCOL was tasked with following up the German withdrawal. This column was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel W.E Shorthose DSO (The South Staffordshire Regiment) and it contained the 1st Battalion of the 4th Regiment of the King’s African Rifles (1/4 KAR), recruited from Uganda, and the Rhodesia Native Regiment (RNR), recruited from what is now Zimbabwe. The RNR was an amalgamation of its 1st and 2nd Battalions and its strength was 135 European officers and NCOs (95 of these were NCOs, most having been posted in from the British South Africa Police) and over 950 African soldiers. 1 /4 KAR had a strength of approximately 600 men of all ranks. SHORTCOL also had a large transport group of porters.

First contacts

After conferring at Lioma with Lieutenant Colonel G.J. Giffard DSO (The Surrey Regiment), commander of the column titled KARTUCOL (containing the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 2nd Regiment of the King’s African Rifles – 1/2, 2/2 and 3/2 KAR), SHORTCOL moved north through Mutwali towards Malema. KARTUCOL was advancing to SHORTCOL’s east. The terrain was dry and exhausting to march through and Mutwali Boma was reached on 3rd September.

1/4 KAR, under the command of Major E.B.B. Hawkins DSO (The West Yorkshire Regiment), was leading SHORTCOL the following day when the column came under fire from a Lewis gun and a platoon of riflemen (the Germans had captured and were using several British Lewis light machine guns). The ‘enemy’ position was attacked and two men were captured. They turned out to be from a platoon of 1/2 KAR under the command of Lieutenant H.C. Wilbourn, who came in from the bush later, and no doubt received some blunt advice. Both German and British troops were dressed in similar uniforms and in the dense bush young Askari tended to fire first and worry about recognition later. This incident delayed 1/4 KAR’s advance, but shots were exchanged with a genuine enemy party before dusk.

On the 6th September 1/4 KAR pushed on and had repeated fire-fights with an enemy group ahead of it, but also with elements of KARTUCOL to the east. The Germans made things difficult for SHORTCOL by firing the dry bush as they withdrew. Feeling frustrated with its inability to close swiftly with the enemy, 1/4 KAR spent an uncomfortable night surrounded by bush fires. Next morning the RNR moved out as column advance guard. The RNR Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel C.L. Carbutt, felt frustrated himself as he was not happy with some of the decisions being made over his head by KAR column commanders.

The Leleo River action

The two British column commanders now conferred with the result that KARTUCOL crossed over from SHORTCOL’s east flank to its west flank, and headed for the Chache Hills. SHORTCOL continued following up the German rearguard and the RNR came across a strong enemy defensive position on the Leleo River on 5th September. The Germans occupied rocky outcrops above the river bed. Major F.J. Wane attacked with ‘A’ and ‘D’ Companies of the RNR and his fight lasted for two hours during which he took several casualties including Lieutenant F. Hulley who was wounded. The enemy withdrew at dusk when ‘B’ Company RNR outflanked them. 1 /4 KAR supported the RNR in this action by firing machine guns, Lewis guns and a Stokes mortar.

1/4 KAR took over the lead again and next morning ran into strong German opposition on a series of ridges lying north of and parallel to the river. The enemy, believed to be under Captain Spangenberg, was estimated to be deploying three companies with four machine guns and two Lewis guns, and Captain Spangenberg must have been tasked with delaying SHORTCOL’s advance. But the KAR Askari wanted to get to grips with an enemy who had so far always managed to slip away from a decisive fight.

Captain G.E. Hawkins MC commanded the KAR advance guard which consisted of Nos 1 and 4 Companies. No 4 Company was recruited from the Baganda tribe and this was its day. The centre platoons of the company fixed bayonets and charged at each ridgeline as they approached it, forcing the enemy back until the Germans finally broke contact and ran northwards. Hunting horns were blown during the charges. The flanking platoons along with the battalion’s machine and Lewis guns provided supporting fire. The 1/4 KAR battle procedures had worked well. A telephone cable was always run up to the lead company so that the commanding officer in the rear could quickly influence events. All company commanders and detached officers sent regular written situation reports to the signallers manning the forward telephone point.

1 /4 KAR lost two Askari killed and four Europeans and 18 other Askari wounded during the morning’s fighting. Lieutenant A.E. Hollyer of No 4 Company was severely wounded, being hit in two places. 350951 Sergeant A.B. Hanson (7th London Regiment) of No 1 Company was also severely wounded by a burst of machine gun fire. 18137 Sergeant W.T. French (3rd Bn Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry) of No 3 Company and 265863 Sergeant F. Cooper (18th Bn The Yorkshire Regiment) of No 4 Company also received wounds. Both these Sergeants had their wounds dressed and then continue fighting. Later in the day sounds of heavy firing were heard coming from the Pere Hills to the north where KARTUCOL was fiercely engaging the German main body of troops under Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck.

The final shots

On 8th September two companies of the RNR under Major G.J.T. Thornton marched towards Mahua to secure a food dump whilst the remainder of SHORTCOL followed up Captain Spangenburg’s detachment. Another German officer, Captain Koehl, had been operating independently with his company in the British rear area and on 8th September he came into contact with SHORTCOL, engaging the British sporadically throughout the day. SHORTCOL did not respond aggressively, fearing that this was yet another contact with a KARTUCOL unit. One Askari in 1/4 KAR was wounded. These skirmishes were the last fighting that occurred between British and German forces in Portuguese East Africa.

SHORTCOL now concentrated at Mahua on 11th September, after marching for two days on minimal rations. The food dump at Mahua contained only sufficient rations for half a day, and so the column became immobile whilst hunting and gathering parties scoured the countryside.

Leaving Portuguese East Africa

The Schutztruppe marched northwards without hindrance from British or Portuguese forces and re-entered German East Africa at the end of September. 1/4 KAR marched back into Nyasaland and was shipped up Lake Nyasa to confront the Germans again when they entered Northern Rhodesia at the beginning of November (see http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-on-land/other-war-theatres/1041-november-1918-east-africa.html. ) The Rhodesia Native Regiment, having fired its last round in action at Leleo River, also marched into Nyasaland to prepare for disbandment. An influenza epidemic now affected both sides, and many brave soldiers who had survived tough fighting during the previous years sadly died from illness.

SOURCES:

  1. 1st 4th Battalion King’s Africa Rifles War Diaries. (Public Records Office WO95 5328)
  2. No Insignificant Part. The Rhodesia Native Regiment & the East African Campaign of the First World War by Timothy J. Stapleton.
  3. The King’s African Rifles by Lieutenant Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett MBE MA PhD.
  4. The Forgotten Front. The East African Campaign 1914-1918 by Ross Anderson.
  5. Sport & Adventure in Africa by Captain W.E. Shorthose DSO FRGS.
  6. My Reminiscences of East Africa by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
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  • Richard Clements

    Interesting article with some soldiering themes that endure to this day.