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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