In World War I Africa, an obscure German officer became one of the world’s best unconventional warriors.
Starting from the Engare-Nairobi, small detachments of eight to 10 men, Europeans and Askari, rode round the rear of the enemy’s camps, which had been pushed up as far as the Longido, and attacked their communications. They made use of telephones we had captured at Tanga, tapping in on the English telephone lines; then they waited for large or small hostile detachments or columns of ox wagons to pass. From their ambush, they opened fire on the enemy at 30 yards’ range, captured prisoners and booty and then disappeared again in the boundless desert. Thus, at that time, we captured rifles, ammunition and war materiel of all kinds.
—My Reminiscences of East Africa, by Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck
When we think of great guerrilla leaders, the image that comes to mind is of unshaven types with burning eyes, dressed in scruffy fatigues, brandishing rifles for the news cameras. Pancho Villa, say, or even Che Guevara. The career soldier who was arguably the greatest guerrilla leader of World War II— Britain’s General Orde Wingate of Burma Chindits fame—fits this irregular image.
What we don’t expect to see is a starchy, one-eyed, glaring German general with bristling moustache and trim uniform— a product of the hard school of Prussian military tradition, with its emphasis on rigid discipline and conventional hierarchy. Successful guerrilla warfare, one might assume, demands just the opposite—flexibility, improvisation, individualism, low cunning and whatever-it-takes pragmatism. But appearances and an orthodox curriculum vita can deceive: This German general—Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck— brought all the right qualities to his successful four-year guerrilla campaign in German East Africa. Historian John Keegan wrote of him, “With Lawrence of Arabia, [he was] one of the few truly individualist leaders of the First World War; in duration and scale, his operations in East Africa far exceeded those of Lawrence in the desert.”
At the outbreak of war in August 1914 Lettow-Vorbeck, then a colonel, was already a seasoned professional soldier with two major colonial campaigns behind him. Born in 1870 in Saarlouis, Prussia, he came from a family of minor aristocrats with a strong soldiering tradition. Lettow-Vorbeck was educated at the Prussian military academies of Potsdam and Lichterfelde, outside Berlin, and commissioned a lieutenant in 1890.
In 1900 Lettow-Vorbeck participated in the international military effort to relieve the American and European legations in Beijing besieged by Chinese nationalist rebels during the Boxer Rebellion. Four years later, he was among the German commanders who put down a rebellion by Herero and Namaqua tribesmen in German-ruled South-West Africa (present-day Namibia). It was a genocidal war of gun vs. spear, and it cost Lettow-Vorbeck his left eye.
In April 1914, following a spell at home commanding a marine battalion in the port of Wilhelmshaven, Lettow-Vorbeck was appointed military commander of the Schutztruppe, the force garrisoning his nation’s largest African colony, German East Africa (centered on present-day mainland Tanzania). Officially, Lettow-Vorbeck was subordinate to the colony’s civil governor, Heinrich Schnee. Acutely conscious that his territory was surrounded by hostile Allied colonies—British East Africa, the Belgian Congo, Southern Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa—when the war broke out, Schnee favored a lowprofile policy of non-provocation in order to preserve the colonial status quo and infrastructure.
In stark contrast, Lettow-Vorbeck decided to annoy and distract the Allies as much as possible. Cut off from his embattled fatherland, he had both the will and the military muscle to ignore Schnee and make his own policy. Lettow-Vorbeck’s mission, as he saw it, was to divert Allied resources and troops from the Western Front and tie them down in the distant backwater of Africa.
We now had two mounted companies, composed of Askari and Europeans mixed, an organization which proved successful. They provided us with the means of sweeping the extensive desert north of Kilima Njaro with strong patrols who went out for several days at a time; they penetrated even as far as the Uganda and Magad Railways, destroyed bridges, surprised guards posted on the railways, mined the permanent way and carried out raids of all kinds on the land communications between the railways and the enemy’s camps. —My Reminiscences of East Africa
In implementing his strategy, Lettow-Vorbeck paid scant respect to Schnee’s precious infrastructure: The colonel-turned-guerrilla and his troops torched villages, demolished bridges, tore up railway tracks and chopped down telegraph poles to cut the wires—all to deny resources to the numerically superior enemy. All were classic guerrilla tactics, not, perhaps, to be expected from a by-the-book product of a Prussian military academy. In his swift adoption of this scorched-earth policy and his defiance of Schnee, LettowVorbeck gave early notice of the qualities that would make him an effective guerrilla leader.
Lettow-Vorbeck’s own military resources were meager. At the outbreak of war, he had at his disposal just 260 German officers, NCOs and local volunteers and about 2,500 German-trained African auxiliary troops known as Askari (Arabic for “soldier”). Recruited from the local Wahehe and Angoni tribes and paid 10 times as much as native troops in British East Africa, the German Askari proved more resilient against the rigors of the climate and the ravages of disease than Europeans and were enduringly loyal. Organized into 14 companies and trained under harsh German discipline, Lettow-Vorbeck’s Askari were widely regarded as the best native troops in Africa.
They demonstrated their abilities at the Battle of Tanga, their first major military test. On November 2, the British cruiser HMS Fox led more than a dozen troop transports into the port city’s harbor, and by the next evening some 8,000 troops of the BritishIndian Expeditionary Force B had landed unopposed at the harbor and south of the city.
Lettow-Vorbeck rushed reinforcements by rail to boost the single company of Askari defending Tanga, and although outnumbered 8-to-1, they beat back the attack—aided by swarms of angry bees, which joined in the pursuit—forcing the British to withdraw to their ships. Lettow-Vorbeck lost 16 Germans and 55 Askari to the invaders’ 360 dead and nearly 500 wounded; Tanga remained in German hands for 20 more months. The retreating British abandoned their equipment, handing Lettow-Vorbeck a rich haul of much-needed military booty, including hundreds of modern rifles, 16 machine guns and 600,000 rounds of ammunition.
After beating another Anglo-Indian force at Jassin on the British East Africa border in January 1915, Lettow-Vorbeck realized that, with one-third of his officers dead or seriously wounded, he could not afford to lose any more staff. He decided to avoid further set-piece actions and switch entirely to guerrilla warfare. When he put the idea to his officers, they were enthusiastically supportive. Lettow-Vorbeck evidently had the personal magnetism and charisma of the classic guerrilla leader. A fluent Swahili speaker who addressed his Askari in their own tongue, he won the respect and loyalty of Germans and Africans alike.
Lettow-Vorbeck next staged a series of destructive raids on British East Africa’s Uganda Railway, melting away into the bush before the British could muster sufficient forces to bear against him. In July 1915, the guerrilla leader carried out one of his most imaginative moves when he cannibalized the 4.1- inch guns of the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg. After a brief career as a commerce raider in the Indian Ocean, the warship had run out of coal and hidden in the Rufiji River Delta. There the shallow-draft Royal Navy monitors HMS Severn and HMS Mersey trapped, blockaded and ultimately bombarded Königsberg.
Before scuttling his ship on July 11, Königsberg’s captain, Max Looff, in an astonishing feat of engineering, ingenuity and sheer grit, transferred his ship’s big guns to land and transported them to Lettow-Vorbeck. Directing the operation was Franz Kohl, in peacetime a land-lubbing Bavarian gunner. With the salvaged cannon mounted on wheels, Lettow-Vorbeck fielded the heaviest artillery in Africa.
Determined to put his newly acquired heavy weapons to use, Lettow-Vorbeck deployed two of the makeshift field pieces to protect Lukuga, the main port city on Lake Tanganyika. Germany still controlled most of the vast lake, which was also bordered by British East Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck put a third gun aboard the lake steamer Graf von Götzen and sent others to defend Dar es Salaam, where they fell into Allied hands after the capture of the colony’s seaside capital in September 1916. Lettow-Vorbeck used yet another gun when attacked at Kahe in March 1916. After a fiveday battle, in his usual “tip and run” fashion (which won him the nickname “Lettow-Fallback” among his grudgingly impressed Allied opponents) the German commander withdrew in good order, leaving behind the disabled gun.
The Germans sometimes used the salvaged naval cannon offensively— to bombard South African lines from commanding positions in the Burungi Heights in May 1916, for example. Lettow-Vorbeck took the guns with him when he invaded Portuguese East Africa in fall 1917, so terrifying defenders of the town of Nangade with the bombardment that they turned tail and fled. LettowVorbeck was compelled to abandon his last two guns that November at Chiwata when threatened with encirclement. He again managed to elude his pursuers.
Owing to the numerical superiority of the enemy in the actions which now took place, Otto’s detachment frequently found itself exposed to an attack on its front while being enveloped on both flanks. The enemy did not always succeed in timing these movements correctly. At Mpapua the frontal attack got too close to our line and suffered severely; and the flank attack, even when directed on the rear of our positions, produced no decisive effect. The short range of visibility always enabled us either to avoid the danger or, if the opportunity was favorable, to attack the troops outflanking us in detail. In any event, these outflanking tactics of the enemy, when followed, as in this case, in extraordinarily thick bush and among numerous rocks, demanded great exertions and used up his strength. —MyReminiscencesofEastAfrica
Artillery was not all Königsberg provided. The scuttled vessel yielded hundreds of sorely needed rifles, and Looff and his 180 surviving crewmen made a useful European addition to LettowVorbeck’s depleted army, which was then in the process of recruiting and training some 14,000 new Askari.
The additional troops would prove vital, for the British—stung as much by Lettow-Vorbeck’s bold attacks as by the bees at Tanga—were determined to bring the German-led guerrilla army to heel. Their solution to the intrepid German commander’s humiliation of the British Empire was to use a guerrilla to catch a guerrilla. Jan Christiaan Smuts—a daring Afrikaner commando leader who had plagued the British in the 1899–1902 Boer War and then turned Loyalist—was given the task of hunting down his German guerrilla counterpart. Smuts’ strategy was to use his 45,000-man force of British, Indian and African troops in a convergent attack from several directions at once— British East Africa, Nyasaland (present-day Malawi), the Belgian Congo and Portuguese East Africa—to surround Lettow-Vorbeck in the interior and force his surrender.
But the dense bush, lakes and muggy marshes of East Africa presented challenges far different from those Smuts’ Boer horsemen had encountered on the wide-open South African veldt. Keeping his diverse army intact and supplied from his distant headquarters at Mombasa posed huge logistical problems for Smuts, and the campaign came to resemble a struggle between an elephant and a gadfly, with a cautious Smuts continually trying to outflank and trap Lettow-Vorbeck. Operating on familiar ground and living off the land, the more maneuverable Germans kept skipping maddeningly out of reach. After one brief visit to the forward theater, a dispirited Smuts remarked “What a dismal prospect there is in front of me.”
Real flies—of the Tsetse variety— proved an even deadlier foe for the British than the Germans, and Smuts lost to the disease-bearing insect thousands of the horses he had unwisely imported from South Africa. Thousands of his men also succumbed, not to combat wounds but to malaria, dysentery and other tropical ailments that flared when heavy seasonal rains turned much of the region into swamps. After a year’s inconclusive campaigning, Lettow-Vorbeck remained at large, and Smuts left for London to join the Imperial War Cabinet.
The German commander had proved especially skilled at turning his enemy’s strengths into weaknesses. Like a lever shifting a heavy weight when applied at the right point, he had refused to hold to fixed positions or untenable territory, thus converting Smuts’ superiority in numbers into a cumbersome disadvantage that slowed Allied progress.
Lettow-Vorbeck’s exploits had made him a hero in Germany, and he was promoted to general after his victory over a largely Nigerian force at Mahiwa in October 1917. The fight cost him more than 500 men, but he inflicted 2,700 casualties on the enemy. For reasons of pride and propaganda, if nothing else, the Allies were determined to crush the German commander and inexorably increased the pressure on the beleaguered guerrilla army.
In November 1917, in a desperate bid to escape the Allied columns inexorably closing in from all sides, Lettow-Vorbeck led his men across the Ruvuma River from German East Africa into Portuguese East Africa. The Germans—including Schnee— had now abandoned all pretence of being an intact colonial administration and had become akin to a tribe of nomads, a wandering caravan living off the land and constantly on the move.
Portugal had only recently entered the war on the Allied side, and in invading these virgin lands, Lettow-Vorbeck knew exactly what he was doing. He pillaged towns and villages, helping himself to whatever he found —including a shipload of antimalarial quinine and more weapons and ammunition than his men could carry— and was able to sustain his forces for almost a year. By September 1918, however, the jaws of the Allied trap were again closing, so once more Lettow-Vorbeck eluded his pursuers by striking out in a new and unexpected direction. Recrossing the Ruvuma, he drove west into Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia), a British colony previously uninvolved in the war.
On November 1, an optimistic Lettow-Vorbeck launched what proved to be his final assault, on the settlement at Fife. By now his artillery was down to an old captured Portuguese gun and a decrepit trench mortar that blew apart when fired. He met unexpectedly strong resistance from a North Rhodesian police battalion and broke off combat after a few hours. On November 12, Lettow-Vorbeck’s adjutant, Captain Walter Spangenburg, leading his advance column, seized a bridge over the Chambezi River and prepared to attack a rubber factory defended only by a few invalids and some convicts released from a nearby jail. Lettow-Vorbeck himself, pursued by the British 1/4 King’s African Rifles, had vanished into the bush after a hot, four-hour firefight. On November 13, the German guerrilla commander took the town of Kasama, which the British had evacuated.
The following day, a message from Lettow-Vorbeck’s British opposite number, South African Lt. Gen. Jacob van Deventer, informed the German commander the Armistice had been signed in France three days earlier. The war was over. Unbeaten, Lettow-Vorbeck proudly marched his men into captivity. His surviving command consisted of 30 German officers, 125 NCOs and other ranks, 1,100 Askari and some 3,500 porters, messengers and assorted camp followers. By war’s end, the Allies had deployed a staggering 350,000 troops to pursue the elusive general and his tiny band. Lettow-Vorbeck had brilliantly fulfilled his goal of tying up Allied forces and resources.
Our feelings were very mixed. Personally, as I had no knowledge of the real state of affairs in Germany, I felt convinced that the conclusion of hostilities must have been favorable, or at least not unfavorable, to Germany.…All our troops, native as well as Europeans, had always held the conviction that Germany could not be beaten in this war, and were resolved to fight on to the last.…The men were well armed, equipped and fed, and the strategic situation at the moment was more favorable than it had been for a long time. —My Reminiscences of East Africa
In March 1919, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck returned to a hero’s welcome in a defeated and demoralized Germany. He, Schnee and Looff led their surviving Schutztruppe in a triumphant parade through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Set against the grim industrialized slaughter on the Western Front, the East African campaign took on the clean lines of an old-fashioned, chivalrous sort of warfare, with Lettow-Vorbeck achieving the distinction of being the only German general to have fought throughout the war and ended it undefeated.
The reality, of course, was grimmer, for Lettow-Vorbeck possessed that other quality necessary in a successful guerrilla chief—utter, single-minded ruthlessness. His scorched-earth methods had left German East Africa devastated and starving, leading directly and indirectly to the deaths of perhaps 1 million Africans. Even the relatively privileged porters employed to carry Lettow-Vorbeck’s supplies existed on fewer than 1,000 calories a day and had a death rate of 20 percent. Dr. Ludwig Deppe, a physician who had campaigned with Lettow-Vorbeck, compared the guerrilla army’s progress to that of locusts: “Behind us we leave destroyed fields, ransacked magazines and, for the immediate future, starvation. We are no longer the agents of culture; our track is marked by death, plundering and evacuated villages, just like…in the Thirty Years’ War.”
A year after his Berlin homecoming, Lettow-Vorbeck—having used his own Freikorps militia to put down a communist rising in Hamburg—took a leading role in the Kapp Putsch, an unsuccessful military coup aimed at returning Germany to an authoritarian, nationalist path. He was compelled to leave the army and took to right-wing politics, later becoming a Reichstag deputy, while scornfully steering clear of the rising Nazis and rebuffing Adolf Hitler’s offer to make him ambassador to Britain. Lettow-Vorbeck lost his two sons in World War II, and by 1945 he had been reduced to destitution and near starvation. He was saved by none other than his admiring former foe Jan Smuts, then South Africa’s prime minister, who sent the old warrior lifesaving food parcels and arranged a pension that sustained him to the end of his long life.
In 1953 Lettow-Vorbeck made a sentimental journey back to the East Africa where he had won military immortality. Honored by the British who had taken over his old colony in 1918, he was able to meet the surviving Askari. Lettow-Vorbeck died on March 9, 1964, at the age of 93. Two Askari were among the pallbearers at his funeral, a ceremony in which Germans paid homage to that 20th century rarity in their country—a military hero they could honor with pride.
For further reading, Nigel Jones recommends: My Reminiscences of East Africa, by Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, and Tip and Run, by Edward Paice.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.