Saturday, May 22, 2010

THE BATTLE OF TANGA Britain’s Most Stinging Defeat

One of the most innovative guerilla commanders of all time, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck invented camouflage, led herds of cattle to feed his army, and tended his native troops with natural herbs and remedies. He never suffered defeat.

A map of the African Continent and its constituent parts as it would have appeared in the opening decades of the 20th century would be seen to bear very little resemblance to the Africa we see today. It had been largely “carved up” into colonies claimed and administered by most of the major European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain all had their names circumscribed over various pieces of the huge landmass. From The Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, the map looked more like a piece of patterned linoleum with international names for the titles of its random subdivisions.
As Europe moved toward World War I, with more than 24 countries declaring sides by 1914, Africa became a piece of that military and political chessboard. To the British it seemed like a good time to make territorial gains by launching an invasion into German East Africa, a land immediately adjacent to their own Kenya (British East Africa). Under the command of General Arthur Aitkin, an 8000 man force made up of both British and Indian troops went ashore on the evening of November 3, 1914 to assault the town of Tanga, a seaport outpost only about 50 miles from the border, defended at the time by only two companies of Germans.
Although he would ultimately outnumber his adversary by an eight to one margin, what Aitkin did not realize was that he was about to come up against one of the most amazing field commanders in military history in the person of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
Trained in the proud Prussian tradition and descended from an old military family, Lettow-Vorbeck had assembled and trained a force of African natives, known as askaris, around a core of only a handful of white German officers and non-com’s. Previous to the upcoming battle, he had kidnapped the sitting German territorial governor in order to keep him from surrendering to the invading British.
From the outset, the British effort was fraught with bad luck. First what should have been a surprise attack was given away by the untimely firing of gunboat cannons, followed by the deployment of the attacking force into swampy terrain in the absence of any advance reconnoitering, ending in disorderly and undisciplined formations. Although the Germans never had more than 1000 troops in the fight, they quickly sent Aitkin’s faltering attackers back toward their boats. Then, to add insult to injury, they ran into squadrons of enraged African bees which attacked the retreating troops unmercifully.
The ill-fated attack on Tanga would forever after be known as “The Battle of the Bee’s”, and a legend would spring up suggesting that the German commander had planted the wild bee colonies as part of his strategy.
The story of this one battle barely scratches the surface of the much larger story of the exploits of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck himself, who without any support from, or even communications with the German high command at home, managed continuously to fight vastly superior forces arrayed against him, without a single defeat for four years. All of this while living off the land as they went, surviving by their wits and local knowledge. At one time, his small but dedicated band faced an army of 45,000 fresh South African soldiers who, time after time failed to extract a victory from their best attempts to encircle him. In all, 130 generals and 300,000 men took the field against him in the course of the war, without ever winning a battle.
The native askari men who soldiered under the German guerilla leader loved him like a father, and he treated them the same way. He lived daily life among them, and led them personally in every engagement, sometimes riding a bicycle into battle to their absolute delight. While scoring an excruciatingly high cost in casualties on the part of his enemies, he managed always to protect his own men from suffering in kind. Rather than burdening his own small force with the need of caring for prisoners, he routinely placed POWs under an oath to renounce fighting in return for a battlefield parole.
Only after successfully taking possession of British territory in Rhodesia (the only time this ever took place in WW I), in November, 1918, did the German Commander learn from a prisoner that an armistice had been signed between the warring parties. Obliged by his honor as a German officer to comply, he ended his war by disbanding his force on November 23rd, 1918 – still undefeated.
General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck passed away in Hamburg, Germany, on March 9th, 1964 at the age of 94. Ironically he would have died penniless but for a small pension granted to him thanks to an old enemy, Jan Christiaan Smuts of South Africa.


  1. Frauke Elisabeth RaminAugust 7, 2012 at 11:22 PM

    One of my grandmother's brothers was one of the 16 Germans who fell at the battle of Tanga. She had 13 older brothers, ALL fell in WWI, in many different countries.

  2. My grandfather was part of the British Indian Army contingent , 63rd Palamcotha Light Infantary. He survived to return to India, then migrated to Pakistan. Always held the Germans in respect for the galant fight they put up.

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.