The Kionga Triangle and Newala, German East Africa
Portugal and the
Although Portugal did not enter the war as an Ally until 9th
March 1916 this had not deterred Germany from attacking neutral Portuguese
posts both in Portuguese West Africa (Angola) and in Portuguese East Africa
(PEA – now named Mozambique). In PEA on
24th August 1914 German Staff Surgeon Doctor Weck led a detachment
of Askari across the Rovuma River into Portuguese territory and seized the post
at Maziua, 400 kilometres inland from Porto Amelia on the Indian Ocean
coast. The post commander, medical
Sergeant Costa, and his Askari garrison were killed. Weck then returned to German East Africa
(GEA) stating that he thought that he had been helping the Portuguese by
attacking a rebel garrison. His
government in Berlin apologized to Portugal.
The German aggression resulted in the Portuguese
government sending military expeditions from Lisbon to protect Angola and
PEA. Unfortunately the white troops sent
to PEA were inadequately trained, poorly equipped and administered for tropical
conditions, and often led by officers inexperienced in modern warfare; this
resulted in their decimation through tropical and social diseases before they
even met the enemy. Belatedly the PEA
military command recruited several new companies of African troops, exactly as
the British were doing further to the north.
Many years previously the Germans had realized the value of well-trained
and well-officered Askari.
Now Portuguese eyes were focused on the Kionga Triangle,
and plans were made to seize it.
Five hundred and fifty square kilometres of GEA extended
across the mouth of the Rovuma River down to Cape Delgado. This had occurred because of European
rivalries during the scramble to colonise Africa. In the latter part of the 19th
Century Britain, Germany, Italy and Portugal negotiated by various means with
the Arab Sultan of Zanzibar who claimed possession of the East African
coastline. The Sultan only wished to
concede to Portugal land south of the river known as the Minangani that ran
into Tungi Bay, but for economic and strategic reasons Portugal wished to also
occupy the land running north through Cape Delgado to the Rovuma River. Germany did not want Portuguese occupation of
this triangle of land and worked with England to share all the Sultan’s
coastline from the Minangani up to the Juba River in what is now Somalia.
Portugal riposted on 18th February 1887 by
ordering the naval ships Afonso de
Albuquerque and Douro to bombard
Minangani and Tungi for five days.
Portuguese landing parties then secured the land running up to the
Rovuma. This high-handed action resulted
in an arbitration between Germany, Britain, Portugal and, in the background,
the Sultan of Zanzibar. The final
decision, unacceptable to the Portuguese, allotted Cape Delgado to Portugal but
the land north of the Cape was at the Sultan’s disposal, and Germany acquired
and occupied it. Since 1887 Portugal had
harboured an injustice at being deprived of the Kionga Triangle.
The seizure of
the Kionga Triangle
On the day following the Portuguese declaration of war the
local commander at Palmas, Major da Silveira, marched a force of 400 men north
into the Kionga Triangle. His troop
composition for the advance was:
3 companies of European infantry
3 companies of African infantry
1 battery of mountain artillery
1 battery of machine guns
As only a few German frontier guards were in the triangle
da Silveira moved in unopposed and dug defensive positions along the south bank
of the Rovuma.
Right: Portuguese postcard of marines in Africa.
From the north bank of the 1,800 metres-wide river a few
small German posts harassed da Silveira’s men with small raids. The Portuguese decided to clear the north
bank of enemy and on 21st May, under covering fire from the cruiser Adamastor and the gunboat Chaimite, marines landed on the north
bank and burnt down a sugar factory and other buildings before withdrawing.
Six days later a Portuguese force returned across the
river, again under naval covering fire, to permanently garrison the north
bank. However by this time a German detachment
from Lindi under the naval Lieutenant Leonhard Sprockhoff had marched down to
the Rovuma. Sprockhoff covertly deployed
his 100 men and 2 machine guns and waited until the Portuguese started to
disembark from their barges. Then the
German machine gunners fired into the packed enemy ranks, killing 33 men,
wounding 24 and capturing 8 including the captain of the Chaimite, along with his and another gunboat. The battered remnants of the Portuguese
landing force went back across the river and stayed there.
There was little action on the Rovuma for the next few
months as the Germans had their hands full dealing with the British and Belgian
advances into German East Africa from the north, west and south-west. The Portuguese garrison on the south bank of
the river suffered due to the climatic conditions and poor administration, as
this account by a Portuguese captain shows:
Above: Portuguese trenches on the south bank of the Rovuma River
life on the swampy bank of the Rovuma, with the deleterious effect of an
unforgiving climate, the nervous depression caused by the proximity of the
enemy, without the compensation of good and regular food drained the strength
of almost all the troops, who were reduced to the most abject physical
state. By night, in the trenches and
posts and lookouts, there was the humidity, the haze of the rainy season, and
the cold; by day, shaking with fever, unable to rest because of the searing
heat in the tents, everywhere became a veritable hell.
The young white troops of the Portuguese Expeditionary
Forces wilted in the harsh and unforgiving African conditions and wasted away
into hospital beds and early graves, or if they were lucky were medically
evacuated back to Portugal.
Seizing the north
bank of the Rovuma
On the 5th July 1916 Major General Ferreira Gil
landed at Palmas, south of Cape Delgado, accompanied by his staff and part of
his infantry. Gil commanded the
Portuguese Third Expeditionary Force that had been sent from Lisbon, but he had
to wait two months before the remainder of his troops arrived. His new white soldiers fared no better than
the previous expeditionary forces, and by the end of July 845 of Gil’s men had
been medically evacuated to the capital Lourenco Marques in the south of
The Allied theatre commander, General J.C. Smuts, wanted
Gil to advance north into GEA and seize the enemy agricultural areas, but Gil
wanted to move up the German coastline, seizing ports and harbours under the
covering fire of the Portuguese navy.
The Royal Navy acted first and occupied the southern GEA coastline by
Gil moved on the 19th September with three
columns crossing the river; he had a total of 2,700 men, 14 mountain guns and
10 machine guns. At Namoto rafts were
used but at Kambire and Nyika the river was waded, it being only around 900
metres wide at these points. The
crossings were unopposed as Sprockhoff’s men had moved further to the
west. The Portuguese hoisted their
national flag and camped along the river bank; lack of transport initially
prevented a move further inland.
Gil and Smuts finally agreed on a suitable plan and on the
25th September Gil started an advance on Masasi in GEA. Captain L. Pinto was sent on a reconnaissance
mission with 2 companies of Askari and 2 machine guns. Pinto marched his men from Migomba along the
north bank of the Rovuma through Mayembe and Nichamwe to Mahuta, which he
reached on the 4th October. But
Sprockhoff was waiting at Mahuta, and he ambushed Pinto’s column, killing
around 14 Portuguese and 53 Askari. The
Germans seized many rifles whilst Pinto retreated back to Kikumbuliro on the
Rovuma. Gil sent two groups of
reinforcements to Kikumbuliro.
Above: A Portuguese machine gun post on the Rovuma
On the 18th October Major J. Pires started
another advance from Kikumbuliro towards Masasi. He took with him:
4 companies of African infantry
2 companies of Portuguese infantry
2 batteries of machine guns
1 battery of mountain guns
mounted infantry detachment
After skirmishing with German patrols along the route, on
26th October Pires reached Newala Fort, a strong and impressive
structure built on the summit of a steep hill at an altitude of 780 metres
above sea level. Whilst halted on the
lower slopes of the hill a German gun in the fort suddenly shelled the massed
Portuguese troops and porters, causing mayhem for a time. Pires halted for the night and next morning
sent out reconnaissance patrols that discovered that the Germans had withdrawn
and the fort was empty. The Portuguese
quickly occupied the fort, but discovered a critical weakness in its defences –
the only source of water was from wells dug at a distance of nearly 2.5
kilometres away from the fort. Pires had
to divide his force so that a detachment always garrisoned the wells.
sent up reinforcements by motor lorry, including another company of Portuguese
infantry. A new commander arrived, Major
Leopoldo da Silva, and he pushed on north to Kivambo, leaving garrisons at the
fort and the wells. But again Sprockhoff
was waiting for the Portuguese, and after several hours of fighting on the 8th
November da Silva was killed. His
successor, Major A. da Cunha, decided to withdraw to Newala
The German attack
When the commander of the German Schutztruppe, Colonel
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, received news from Sprockhoff of the Portuguese move
towards Masasi he organized reinforcements for the area. Captain Max Looff, former commander of the
cruiser Konigsberg, commanded the
reinforcements and he reached Masasi from Utete on the 8th
October. He was joined by 2 platoons of
the 20th Field Company from Lindi, and from Kilwa by Abteilung
Rothe, which consisted of:
No 4 SchutzenKompagnie (former rifle club
volunteers from the settler community)
the Tanga Landsturm (Reservist) Company
3 machine guns
one 3-pounder gun
one 4.2-inch gun from the Konigsberg (brought from Dar Es Salaam
and commanded by Lieutenant Hauser)
The hauling of the guns over rough trails took time, but
on 22nd November Looff’s column containing 524 riflemen and 6
machine guns (including Sprockhoff’s detachment) surrounded Newala Fort. The two German artillery pieces were still
moving forward from Masasi. Located at
Newala now were about 800 Portuguese troops, 7 machine guns and 4 mountain
guns. Many sick men had been evacuated
by da Cunha. That day Rothe’s infantry
captured the wells after a hard 12-hour fight in which over 60 Portuguese
troops were killed. Three dead officers
were amongst the German casualties.
Above: Portuguese soldiers at Lisbon embarking for Africa.
As soon as his guns came up Looff used them against the
fort, and Hauser’s 4.2-inch gun was soon knocking chunks out of the stone
walls. Inside the fort water was running
low and the unfortunate PEA porters were pushed out of the entrance. The Germans pushed them back and these
desperate and unwanted men died of hunger, thirst or wounds below the walls.
In response to wireless calls for reinforcements to break
the siege Gil first sent 100 men from Mahuta who were beaten back by Looff’s
outposts, and then 70 Portuguese, 200 Askari and 2 machine guns under Captain
Benedito de Azevedo. The German platoons
from the 20th Field Company under Lieutenant Herbert Hinrichs had
entrenched themselves on de Azevedo’s route, and the Portuguese were repulsed
losing 4 men killed and 23 wounded.
In the early hours of the 29th November 1916
the Portuguese defenders in the fort used the cover of thick ground mist to
exfiltrate away from Newala and down the slopes of the Makonde Plateau to the
Rovuma River. Next morning the Germans
found the fort emptied of men, but not of serviceable weapons and
equipment. Looff’s men joyfully seized:
4 new 7.6-centimetre mountain guns with
7 machine guns and a quantity of rifles
100,000 rounds of rifle and machine gun
2 Fiat cars
a wireless station
45 supply carts
horses and mules
tons of provisions and medical supplies
Above: Lourenco Marques docks, Portuguese East Africa
Conclusion Demoralisation now set in amongst the Portuguese troops
and nearly all of them were ordered or else made their own way to the
coast. Bad news was not welcome in
Lisbon and Gil was removed from command.
However more than a few Portuguese officers and soldiers had fought
well, often to the death. Captain
Benedito de Azevado, Sergeant Machado and Corporal Ali received the Cruz de
Guerra. As the rains started the Rovuma
River rose and the German southern border was secure. Abteilung Rothe moved to fight in the Lindi
area whilst Looff and his remaining men conducted a ‘pacification’ operation to
subdue rebellious tribesmen on the Makonde Plateau. The next time that the Portuguese
Expeditionary Forces were to fight the German Schutztruppe would be over a year
later inside Portuguese East Africa. Meanwhile
the Germans made good use of their substantial haul of military booty.
Footnote After the war the Treaty of Versaille awarded the Kionga
Triangle to Portugal and it is now a part of Mozambique.
Above: Lourenco Marques prison, Portuguese East Africa
o Official History. Volume I. Military
Operations East Africa August 1914 to September 1916
compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.
o Draft Chapter XIII of the Official
History Volume II. (CAB 44/5 in the UK National Archives.)
o Portugal e a Grande Guerra by
Aniceto Afonso and Carlos de Matos Gomes.
o Tip & Run. The untold tragedy of the
Great War in Africa by Edward Paice.
o My Reminiscences of East Africa by
General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
o Die Operationen in Ostafrika by Ludwig Boell.
o Portugal and the Scramble for
Africa 1875-1891 by Eric Axelson.