The 'East African Campaign', often wrongly romanticised as an adventurous and somewhat unimportant side-show to the First World War, came to an end 100 years ago today (November 25th1918) when German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his troops formally surrendered.
The East Africa campaign engulfed 750,000 square miles and drew in soldiers from as far as India, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, the West Indies, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Belgian Congo and Mozambique to fight against the Germans who had conscripted soldiers from modern day Tanzania.
During the war, that raged on for 4 years, important battles were fought in and around the Selous Game Reserve, these days home to Siwandu Camp. Arguably the most famous battle took place in the Rufiji Delta, the river that is the lifeblood to Africa’s largest reserve. After engine failure, the Germans decided to hide the Konigsberg (at the time their most powerful battleship in the Indian Ocean) in the Rufiji Delta while they transported the damaged machinery to Dar es Salaam for repairs. Naturally, the British got wind of the German’s predicament and soon a serious game of cat and mouse ensued. In November 1914 two British battleships blockaded the Konigsberg’s escape route and soon opened fire but they were just out of reach and unable to do much damage to the sitting duck. The Konigsberg pushed as far upstream as conditions would allow them and after camouflaging the ship as best they could there was nothing left to do but sit and wait for the promised spare parts from Dar es Salaam to arrive.
The British employed various tactics, including sinking one of their own ships in the river to permanently block the Konigsberg’s escape route, and firing torpedoes upstream, none of which could reach their target. The Germans, for their part, unsuccessfully attempted to resupply their troops, who by now had run out of food, coal and ammunition by converting a captured British ship into what looked like a Danish vessel, stocking it with Danish-speaking Germans troops and sending it to infiltrate the waters off the coast of East Africa, where they were soon found out and chased away.
By June 1915 the British had managed to tow two shallow-draught ships all the way from Malta and on 11thJuly, supported by planes based on Mafia island, they managed to get close enough to sink the Konigsberg, in the same instant turning the British into the strongest naval power in the Indian Ocean.
The war would rage on for another 3 years and on January 4th1917 Frederick Courteney Selous, the man after whom the Selous Game Reserve is named, died in battle in the Beho-Beho hills - the same hills that can be seen when dining in Siwandu’s raised restaurant.
The news of the Armistice signed on November 11th2018 reached General Lettow-Vorbeck on the 14thof November; and on November 25thhe officially surrendered, bringing an end to the East Africa Campaign.
Dozens of novels and one of Hollywood’s most famous films – 'The African Queen', starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – keep alive the cliché of an adventurous and somewhat unimportant side-show to the real war. Let’s not forget the reality of four years of total warfare, during which nearly 300 000 people lost their lives and millions more suffered its consequences.
Title page image:
The African Soldiers dragged into Europe's War, in BBC Online, viewed 22nd November 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33329661