THE BATTLE OF TANGA
COLONEL Von LETTOW VORBECK
At the start of 1914, virtually the whole continent of Africa had succumbed to European expansion. African raw materials and human resources were heavily exploited for the benefit of foreign industry, most favourably those of France and Great Britain.
As war broke out during that summer, it quickly spread to Africa where all the major European powers possessed significant colonial assets. For its part, Great Britain's objective was to control the sea ports along the entire Eastern coastline. Standing in the way of this goal however was the German colony of East Africa.
The key to seizing this strategic German state was the port of Tanga, by far the regions largest and busiest seaport it also held the importance of being a major rail junction along the crucial Usambara railway line.
During the initial planning stages to capture the port it became quite evident that the British high command regarded the campaign as a minor operation. They felt such a trifling venture could be simply assigned to third rate colonial forces from their Indian Army.
The Secretary of State for India was to take this ignorance a step further by appointing Major General Author Aitken as operations commander. Although Aitken's was a career soldier and had served Thirty five years in India, his military experience was limited to suppressing provincial unrest and civilian rioting against British rule.
Aitken's assault force would number 8,000 men, of these only the 4th Ghurkhas and the North Lancashire Regiment were professional soldiers. The bulk of the troops however were some of the worst in the entire Indian Army, being untrained raw recruits having just recently been issued with the modern Lee - Enfield rifle but with no understanding of how to use the weapon.
There were also soldiers from all parts of India speaking ten different languages, following many faiths, who would be lead by men which had never seen their assigned units before the embarkation. This along with a senior officer corps which were more near mandatory retirement than actual active officers, this cast many doubts amongst the Naval commanders as to the success of the mission.
The fleet disembarked Bombay on October 24th with all secrecy, but the Germans' were well aware that it was on its way. For as supplies for the invasion were loaded onto the transports, the crates stacked in the dockyards were visibly stamped "Indian Expeditionary Force - Tanga East Africa".
While crossing the Indian Ocean the treatment of the Colonial troops served to drain their physical strength and reduce their morale to a low ebb. For the next ten days they were not allowed topside and remained below decks in overcrowded conditions, poor ventilation and appalling heat. No consideration was given to their dietary needs and most spent the voyage suffering from seasickness and diarrhoea brought on by eating food's which they were not accustomed.
As the Task Force approached their objective, General Aitken was convinced that the waterways' in and around Tanga were extensively mined. This false assumption persuaded Aitken to bypass the port and land his forces a further two miles down the coast.
This area would prove to be the worst possible place to land. Just past the beaches lay a massive swamp three feet deep, full of water snakes, leeches, covered in tsetse flies and clouds of mosquitoes. It was into this quagmire the Indian troops were forced to disembark.
SWAMP AREA SOUTH OF TANGA
By the time the British force had fully cleared the swamps and had reached open country, the 1,000 native Askaris troops under the command of German Colonel von Lettow Vorbeck had enjoyed a full two days in which to make preparations for an ambush.
As the British advance now brought them upon the tall brush of the cocoa plantations, German bugles signalled the Askaris lying in wait to charge. Firing their weapons on the run they quickly overran the 500 men of the 13th Rajputs, whose Regiment simply turned and ran, abandoning thirty British officers to be killed on the spot.
Such panic had gripped the Indian troops that they fled the fields and had taken refuge in the swamps. This first German attack had cost the British 350 casualties, virtually destroying the 13th Rajputs as a fighting force.
Upon hearing of the utter failure by his Indian troops, Aitken decided to bring his full strength to bear in the next attack. Spearheaded by his best troops the 4th Gurkhas and 2nd North Lancashires' with the Indian Regiments in support.
Aitken decided to march directly north of the landing zone and utilize the vast cornfields as cover for his next attack. Unfortunately von Lettow had placed crack Askari snipers within the baobab trees on the outer edges of the fields and their superb marksmanship decimated the British officer ranks.
It was the British regulars who first emerged from the cornfields, engaged and routed the defending Askaris and entered Tanga, quickly capturing the town hospital and customs house, marking the achievment by raising a large Union Jack visible to the whole town.
UNION JACK UNVEILED AT TOWN SQUARE
Elsewhere the Indian troops had finally cleared the cornfields only to be confronted by densely wooded brush which impeded their movements even further. Also unknown to the Indian Regiments', was that hanging from the trees above were hundreds of African bee hives.
The native Askaris troops now began to deliberately fire into the hives infuriating the bee's which emerged by their tens of thousands and descended upon the Indian troops. Panic quickly spread through the ranks which now began to flee en mass back through the cornfields and the safety of the sea.
On board the HQ ship, the appearance of hundreds of Indian troops on the beach leaping into the sea astonished and infuriated Aitken, who ordered an immediate Naval bombardment upon Tanga itself. After a half hour the guns stopped and the smoke cleared, the resulting disaster in which Aitken's fateful order had achieved now became evident.
The majority of the shells had fallen on the hospital which was overflowing with British and Indian wounded. The remainder fell upon the retreating Allied forces which caused further casualties. With the landings a complete and utter failure, Aitken's promptly gave the order for his remaining troops to re - embark.
Besides abandoning all their heavy equipment and food stores, the British and her Indian colonial troops also suffered 800 dead, 500 wounded and 300 men taken prisoner. German casualties amounted to 15 German and 60 native Askaris killed. Von Lettow Vorbeck's complete victory at Tanga enabled him to equip and feed his army for the entire coming year of 1915.
Despite very limited resources, British dominance of the sea and neighbouring countries, Von Lettow managed to engage and defeat the allies for the remainder of World War one, surrendering to the British on November 25th 1918, a full two weeks after the general armistice was signed and then only upon hearing of Germany's defeat from a captured British officer.
VICTORIOUS ASKARIS SOLDIER
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