Paul Emil von Lettow Vorbeck, German Commander, African Hero

Commerative poster of Von Lettow Vorbeck
Commerative poster of Von Lettow Vorbeck

The East Africa Campaign of World War One threw up a number of great personalities. The Campaign is filled with military and civilian characters that contribute verve and colour to one of the most interesting campaigns of World War I. Not least of these were the two principal commanders, General Jan Christian Smuts and Colonel, later General Paul Emil von Lettow Vorbeck.

Von Lettow Vorbeck was precisely the same age as his campaign counterpart, both men being born in the same year of 1870. Unlike Smuts, however, von Lettow was born into the minor Pomeranian nobility from which vantage he could look back on a family history of military service. He joined the German Corps of Cadets at age twenty and was soon commissioned as a lieutenant in the Imperial German Army.

From there von Lettow was posted in China before seeing action in the notorious massacres of the Herero during a period of suppression in the German African colony of South West Africa. He was later to command the German colonial Shutztruppe in Cameroon before assuming command of German forces in East Africa in April 1913.

The territorial garrison at that time comprised a small core of some 260 German nationals commanding a force of 2500 or so local Askari levies. This, it has since been acknowledged, was the strength of the German military system in Africa at the time. A reliance on native fighting men and good, and at times excellent German command, created a force resilient to local conditions, knowledgeable of local geography and susceptible to good leadership if the right levels of training and indoctrination had been applied.

The weakness at that time was more political than military. Von Lettow quickly realised that the battlefield initiative lay with the Germans if the will existed to seize it. However the terms of the Berlin Conference of 1885 had stipulated that African colonies within the Central African region remain neutral in the advent of war. There was a strong lobby within the colony, led by the Governor Heinrich Schnee, to respect these terms on the general understanding that, as had been the case with South West Africa, the loss of German overseas territories in Africa would necessarily be temporary and that upon a successful prosecution of the war in Europe all would in due course be returned, along, no doubt, with all of Britain’s colonies too.

In spite of this Von Lettow set about making preparations for the defence of the colony against an imminent amphibious assault taking shape off the east coast. The British, on the other hand, planned the assault, aimed at the seaport of Tanga, under the expecatation that the operation would simply be the peaceful occupation of the town after which a civilized handover would take place. Nothing could have been further from the truth. For the next four days an ill prepared Allied force was treated to a severe mauling at the hands of a motivated and emplaced German force. The battle was called off and has in subsequent analysis been credited as von Lettow’s finest hour and the lowest point of the British campaign.

British General Jan Smuts
British General Jan Smuts

Indeed a far from general commitment to the war amongst German nationals in East Africa prior to Tanga solidified into an impressive determination to take the fight to the British in the aftermath. Von Lettow Vorbeck’s strategy was simple. If it was impossible for German forces in the colony to contemplate a victory, then they could certainly deny the British the same. In doing so they would tie up large amounts of Allied manpower and ordinance in order to obstruct their deployment to the Western Front.

Von Lettow Vorkeck then moved the focus of the war northwards towards the lush uplands surrounding Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru where a majority of white settlers lived. This was also the head of the strategically important Usambara Railway that terminated in the town of Moshi and allowed for the effective deployment and re-supply of frontline troops.

Patrols were then concentrated against the Uganda railaway that ran parallel to the Usambara Railway in British territory and which linked the port town of Mombassa to the east shore of Lake Victoria and Uganda. A small Imperial garrison was all that stood between German forces and the regular sabotage of the railway and insistent attacks against Allied positions.

Von Lettow therefore enjoyed dominance of the battlefield and made effective use of his advantage. This state of affairs continued until February 1916 when the fall of South West Africa enabled the Allied to direct large amounts of South African manpower and equipment into the East Africa Campaign which effectively tipped the balance. Adding to this was the fact that the allies were able to bring into the theatre a gifted an enigmatic commander of their own, General Jan Christian Smuts.

Smuts arrived slightly behind his first South African troops, and landed in Mombassa to the news of a costly defeat inflicted on his inexperienced force by a vastly experienced enemy. The Battle of Salaita Hill was another signature German victory and largely unnecessary Allied defeat. Nonetheless Smuts determined thereafter to take the battle to the Germans, and this he did. Von Lettow Vorbeck, however, had anticipated this, and simply switched his strategy from offence to defence, and with greater mobility and generally superior renaissances facilities, he was able to slip out of a finely executed enveloping manoeuvre and set off down the line of the Usambara Railway.

Von Lettow on parade in Berlin 1919
Von Lettow on parade in Berlin 1919

From that point on Allied troops became locked into a game of cat-and-mouse with an elusive German force that seemed always able to melt away against British efforts to mount a definitive action. Thus the campaign degenerated into a guerrilla conflict that ranged across east and central Africa in a series of costly but largely ineffective actions. Early in 1917 Smuts was withdrawn from the field and the closing stages of the campaign saw Von Lettow engaging the enemy effectivly until some weeks after the Armistice.

In the aftermath of the War von Lettow was feted as a hero. He was seen to have extracted at least one victory from what was otherwise a German national catastrophe. Indeed there was something almost miraculous about the way in which von Lettow had held together a diminishing force under great difficulty in circumstances of almost absolute isolation. He had never been brought to heel, and during the span of the war had not been defeated. He earned the respect of his friends and enemies, in particular Jan Smuts, who maintained a unique affection for his old foe until the day he died.

Later von Lettow served as a deputy in the Reichstag but distrusted Hitler and distanced himself from Nationalist Socialist politics. As much as possible. He was thereafter treated with some suspicion by the regime and never actively served in WWII In 1964 the old soldier died at the age of 94. He could look back on a unique epoch of service and involvement in one of the most unique campaigns in the annals of military history.