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The Fighting at Lukuledi Mission: German East Africa, 19th-21st October 1917

No 1 Column.

In late 1917 the British forces around Kilwa and Lindi were formed into columns, roughly corresponding to brigades, that were used to try and force Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s Schutztruppe out of this corner of German East Africa.  On 27th September the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Regiment of the King’s African Rifles (1/3 KAR) and the 129th Baluchis were ordered to support No 1 Column whose principal units were the Gold Coast Regiment (GCR), the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment of King’s African Rifles (2/2 KAR), and a section of the 27th Mountain Battery (Indian Army). The 25th Cavalry (Indian Army) was temporarily attached to No 1 Column but one squadron was deployed elsewhere with another column. Colonel G.M. Orr, Indian Army, was the No 1 Column commander and he had marched his men down from the Kilwa area; his mission was to disrupt enemy withdrawal routes by destroying German food depots and watering points.  In this region good water holes were few and far between.  

After stiff fighting at Kihende and on the Mbemba road Ruponde was captured on the 10th October.  An important German stores and workshops depot was seized here.  Two days later Lieutenant Colonel T.O. Fitzgerald, Commanding Officer of 1/3 KAR, was ordered to Chingwea, 15 miles south of Ruponda, along with a squadron of cavalry.  There German buildings were burned and water storage tanks removed before the British troops returned to Ruponda.  The following day 1/3 KAR was sent to seize Mnero Mission which was then garrisoned by a detachment of the battalion, the main body again returning to Ruponda.

Right: A map which will help you place Lukuledi. For a detailed map of the action please scroll to the bottom

The approach to Lukuledi Mission.

On 18th September No 1 Column advanced to seize Lukuledi Mission which lay on the Lukuledi River south of Chingwea.  The column commander’s plan envisaged a direct move southwards down the road by the GCR whilst 1/3KAR deployed through the bush to simultaneously engage the enemy from the west and the rear.  In the event the local guides took 1/3KAR too far into the bush which left the GCR to fight the encounter battle unsupported by other infantry.

“B” Company of the GCR, nearly 160 men strong, advanced to contact down the road accompanied by two Rolls Royce armoured cars of the 7th Light Armoured Car Battery.  Captain E.B. Methven MC, commanding “B” Company GCR, encountered a local boy who advised him that many German troops were at the Mission but it looked as if they were packing up to move. 

On reaching the Lukuledi River “B” Company’s leading platoon under Lieutenant Richard Cheetham Woods advanced up the exposed forward slope below the Mission but could not see any signs of movement.

Captain Methven now advanced his company in line, with his machine gun on the road which acted as the axis of advance, up the hill towards the Mission.  The vegetation on this ground had been burned down and the Gold Coasters were all in plain sight of the Mission compounds; they had entered the German killing ground.  Three enemy companies concealed around the Mission opened a sudden and devastating volume of rifle fire onto “B” Company, knocking several Gold Coasters down immediately.  The remainder of “B” Company struggled to find bullet-proof cover on the exposed slope whilst several of the dead and wounded who could not move received repeat hits from German bullets.  

Captain Methven ordered his machine gun to return fire into the Mission compounds but the enemy fire was so accurate that Colour Sergeant Michael Cunneen who was firing the gun was immediately killed.  Sergeant Major Mama Juma who took his place was hit, as was the remainder of the gun team.  As the platoons of “B” Company struggled to return fire Lieutenant Woods was killed, his place being taken by Sergeant Yessufu Mamprusi.  Captain Methven received three wounds in a leg that had earlier taken a wound during fighting in France.  Another “B” Company officer, Lieutenant R.A. Baillie, was shot in both legs but pulled himself into a clump of grass.  One armoured car had broken down but the other, contrary to orders, advanced into the firing line where its tyres were immediately shredded.  The car’s gunner could not locate the well-concealed enemy and so the vehicle’s machine gun could not influence the battle.

Above: German Askari in action

The Gold Coast Pioneer Company was now sent forward to assist “B” Company which had lost over a third of its numbers as casualties.   After conferring both company commanders agreed that there was little that the Pioneers could effectively do without sustaining heavy casualties themselves.  “B” Company could not withdraw without taking huge losses so Captain Methven’s men just had to endure their ordeal until darkness disrupted the German marksmanship.  The Pioneers sent forward Lieutenant Robert de Bedick Saunderson to take over command from Sergeant  Mamprusi and the Lieutenant led a spirited charge against an enemy position, but he and several of his men were shot and killed before they penetrated their objective.  Sergeant Mamprusi, who received three wounds during the day’s fighting, again took charge and withdrew the survivors back to their fire positions.

Right: A German Askari

The mountain guns of the 27th Mountain Battery now came into action and shelled likely enemy positions.  The gunner Forward Observation Officer, Lieutenant Foster, came forward to Captain Methven and heard of Lieutenant Baillies’ situation.  Despite the continuing very effective enemy fire Lieutenant Foster ran forward to recover Lieutenant Baillie and carry him to the aid post in the rear.  Whilst the unit Medical Officer, Captain H.W. Gush, was dressing Lieutenant Baillie’s wounds, Captain Gush himself was shot through the arm.  Lieutenant Foster later received a Military Cross for his act of gallantry.  

The second armoured car now repaired itself and joined the first one whilst the remainder of the GCR occupied positions on the north bank of the river and fired at enemy targets when they could be located.  Meanwhile 1/3KAR could hear the sounds of the battle but the main body of the battalion was too deep into the bush on the west flank to immediately intervene.  The leading elements of 1/3KAR did manage to enter the Mission compounds but had to withdraw as the Indian mountain gunners, unaware of the KAR’s presence, shelled the platoon position.  In the late afternoon the Germans mounted an unsuccessful counter attack against the GCR west flank that was broken up by the fire of the 1/3KAR forward platoons.   

After last light “B” Company GCR extricated itself and withdrew to the column camp that had been entrenched and prepared by 2/2KAR.  “B” Company GCR  had lost 15 men killed and 35 men wounded.  Captain Methven later received a Bar to the Military Cross that he had previously been awarded for service on the Western Front.

4188 Sergeant Jessufu Mamprusi, Gold Coast Regiment, who had been awarded a Military Medal on the 1st September 1917, received a Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation: “On October 18th (1917) at Lukuledi mission displayed conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.  Although his officer was killed and he himself wounded, he remained with and directed his men, whilst doing so he was wounded twice more.”  

5860 Acting Corporal Issaka Dagarti, Gold Coast Regiment, also received a Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation: “On 18th October 1917 at Lukuledi Mission.  For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty, having been once wounded, he had his wound dressed and returned to the firing line and assisted to bring in a machine gun whose crew had become casualties and which was lying in a very exposed position.”

The defence of Lukuledi Mission.

1/3KAR had dug-in where it was for the night.  At first light patrols went into the Mission compounds and ascertained that the enemy had used the cover of darkness to withdraw eastwards down the Ndanda track.  Major Kraut, the German commander, wished to closely protect food depots in the area.  1/3KAR occupied the compounds and vigorously patrolled the local area, dispersing small groups of enemy.  The column commander now decided to concentrate all the Stokes Mortars in the column and, despite strong protests from Lieutenant Colonel Fitzgerald, 1/3KAR had its mortar taken away.  In the evening orders were issued that the next day 1/3KAR would support the cavalry in a raid on Massasi whilst the remainder of the column moved down the track towards Ndanda.  

At 0530 hours on 21st October the cavalry was leading 1/3KAR southwards out of Lukuledi when enemy machine gun fire was opened from the Massasi track.  The cavalry took cover in the new church and brickyards to the west whilst 1/3KAR re-occupied its positions around the mission building and the Lukuledi Boma, where the water points were.  By 0545 hours the enemy was pouring fire into the British positions from the south.  Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck was himself leading this assault and using six Schutztruppe companies in an attempt to re-take Lukuledi.  

Lieutenant Colonel Fitzgerald sent out a half-company to outflank the enemy but this manoeuvre was beaten back by a complete enemy company.  During this encounter African officer Adam el Hashim Effendi avoided capture by shooting three German whites with his revolver.  Communications with column headquarters had been cut and three messengers who were dispatched by 1/3KAR were all killed or wounded.  Colonel Orr was not aware of the fighting around the mission.  


At 0745 hours the enemy brought up two quick-firing guns and shelled 1/3KAR’s position.  Without his Stokes Mortar Lieutenant Colonel Fitzgerald could not reply to the fire of the enemy artillery.  As the Schutztruppe gradually encircled the boma a terrific fire was concentrated upon the British defenders.  Despite this the KAR porters constantly re-supplied ammunition to the companies and the KAR stretcher bearers continued to bring in the dead and wounded to the Aid Post in the centre of the boma. Here the newly-joined battalion Medical Officer, Captain Murphy, dealt with the wounded single-handedly.  Six porters were killed and 27 were wounded.  Major J.H. de la Pasture was shot through the chest and severely wounded. Also wounded were Captain W.G. Edwards, Captain K. Findlay, Lieutenant A.H. Hutchinson (attached from 3/3KAR) and Adam El Hashim Effendi.  Lieutenant Arthur John Forbes was shot in the head and killed.  Sergeant James Robertson Horsburgh was badly wounded; he died of his wounds three days later. 

Left: A fine looking warrior, an Askari of the KAR

On the eastern side of the boma a KAR machine gun was disabled.  The African NCO in charge of the gun withdrew it to cover to mend it.  On seeing this several KAR Askari retired thinking that a withdrawal had been ordered.  Captain Edwards, the local commander, immediately and decisively rallied these men and positioned them back in their perimeter trenches.  For his gallantry Captain Edwards was later awarded a Military Cross.  

At around 0930 hours a messenger got through to Column Headquarters and Colonel Orr deployed the 129th Baluchis south of the river to prevent the enemy from cutting off 1/3KAR.  The British artillery now opened fire and began to force the Germans away from the 1/3KAR position.  However an enemy group under Major Kraut was active to the north in the column rear area where it attacked the cavalry camp. Several Sepoys and Followers and all the tethered animals were killed and the regimental baggage captured.  The 25th Cavalry Transport Officer, Captain N.J.M. Barry, was also killed.  Captain Barry was a settler from Naivasha in British East Africa and he had originally joined the East African Mounted Rifles.  

By 1130 hours the enemy was withdrawing but before departing he fired six shells into the roof of the new church.  This beautiful building was nearing completion after seven years construction work, but now it burned down in a couple of hours.  At 1700 hours the Germans returned and made a faint-hearted attack on the boma, but now 1/3KAR had got its Stokes Mortar back and this weapon was used to  break up the enemy assault.  The battle was over, and it was one of the toughest fights that 1/3KAR participated in during the war.  As well as the officer and porter casualties already listed, the battalion lost 11 rank and file killed and 36 wounded.  Two German machine guns were captured by 1/3KAR, one of them being surrounded by its dead crew.  After the war these bullet-scarred weapons were displayed in the regimental lines in Nairobi.  German casualty figures are not known but were not light; three German company commanders and a European sergeant major were killed during the fighting against 3/1KAR.  

Colour Quarter Master Sergeant Hamis Bin Juma, 1/3KAR, received a Bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal for: “This NCO throughout the whole action showed considerable gallantry in bringing forward ammunition, repeatedly going backwards and forwards to the Boma over exposed ground under very heavy MG and rifle fire.  His cool and gallant conduct deserves the highest praise.”  

4958 Sergeant Masood Bin Zabir, 1/3KAR, received a Distinguished Conduct Medal for: “This sergeant was in command of a machine gun which was subjected to the most intense rifle, machine gun and big gun fire, but he continued to serve his gun with great devotion to duty until it was eventually put out of action by a direct hit.  He then continued to fire with a rifle that he picked up from a dead man beside him.  He has always displayed the most gallant conduct and set an example of the highest order to his men.”

The British dead were initially buried in the Lukuledi Mission grave yard; after the war they were re-buried in Dar Es Salaam War Cemetery.  On 23rd October No 1 Column returned to Ruponda.  Higher authority had decided that it was impossible to re-supply the column if it remained at Lukuledi as all stores had to be portered from Kilwa, the Lindi re-supply line not yet being open.  The Germans were now free to re-occupy their old mission station.

Above: A map of the Lukuledi Fight

SOURCES:


3KAR Great War Record.
The King’s African Rifles
By Lieutenant Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett.
The Gold Coast Regiment in the East African Campaign
by Sir Hugh Clifford KCMG.
The History of the Royal West African Frontier Force
by Heywood and Clarke.
My Reminiscences of East Africa
by General von Lettow-Vorbeck.
Cavalry in Bush Warfare
(article) by Captain W.K. Fraser-Tytler MC.
Operations on Interior Lines in Bush Warfare
(Journal of the Royal United Services Institution article) by Colonel G.M. Orr CBE DSO.
From Rumbo to the Rovuma
(Army Quarterly article) by Colonel G.M. Orr CBE DSO.
The African Distinguished Conduct Medal
compiled by John Arnold.

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