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January to May 1915

The border area southeast of Victoria Nyanza in January 1915

Since the German withdrawal from Kisii in September 1914 the area of the border between British East Africa (BEA, now Kenya) and German East Africa (GEA, now Tanzania) had been quiet.  Ross’s Scouts had dominated the region down to the Mara River, but the unit was disbanded probably for disciplinary reasons in mid-January 1915.  However Captain J.J. Drought and 18 others transferred from Ross’s Scouts into the East African Mounted Rifles (EAMR) and stayed on as mounted scouts in the eastern Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria) area.  The resident infantry sub-units in the area were ‘E’ and ‘G’ Companies of the Uganda based 4th King’s African Rifles (4KAR).  Other sub-units from other regiments were moved into and out of the border area as required but the 4KAR Askari were the backbone of the British presence in the region.

Above: Karungu Port

The landing at Shirati

The local British commander in Nairobi was the Indian Army Brigadier General J.M. ‘Jimmie’ Stewart.  He decided to utilize the Royal Navy flotilla on the Lake to seize the small German port of Shirati.   The two KAR companies were to remain inland whilst troops from Nairobi made the Shirati landing.  Major T. McG. Bridges’ No 2 Company of the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (2LNL), the only British Regular Army battalion in the East African theatre, was ordered to move by rail from Nairobi to Kisumu with one machine gun and 100 rounds per man of reserve ammunition  but without tents.  Bridges was accompanied by the two mule-packed 10-pounder ‘screw’ guns of Right Section 28th (Lahore) Mountain Battery, Indian Army, commanded by Captain A.M. Colville.

The 2LNL troops and the Indian gunners embarked on a Lake steamer at Kisumu on 6th January accompanied by General Stewart.  The following morning whilst closing in on Shirati the German defenders engaged the steamers with rifle fire.  The mountain guns fired in support from the steamer’s deck whilst Bridge’s men landed in a bay away from the fire fight.  The small enemy party moved off but stayed nearby to observe the British activity.  The two 4KAR companies then marched into Shirati whilst General Stewart steamed across to the west side of the Lake to observe operations on the Ugandan Kagera River front.



Gurribe Hill


Using Shirati as a base that was easily replenished by the Lake Flotilla British detachments patrolled the border area looking for enemy troops.  On 16th January Captain R.F.B. Knox’s ‘E’ Company 4KAR received reports of a 100 German troops on Gurribe Hill, and Knox attacked.  During hard fighting in thick bush Knox captured the hill and a German light gun that was on it, plus the German supply column.  However the Germans riposted with the help of local informers who told them where Knox’s supply column was; the enemy then seized the British supplies including 22,000 rifle cartridges, 8 pack mules and many discarded porters’ loads.  As Knox could not move the gun he disabled and abandoned it.

Right: Indian mountain gunners near Lake Victoria


Bridges heard of the fight and marched to assist but arrived too late, the enemy, as was his style, had disappeared into the bush.  Knox had lost 4 Askari killed and 5 wounded whilst a medical officer with the supply column was taken prisoner.  German losses were estimated at up to 10 men killed or wounded.  Because of a British reverse on the Indian Ocean coast at Jasin, Bridges and his men and the mountain gunners were then ordered away from the Lake area; the two 4KAR companies reverted to defensive operations based inside British territory.  Shirati was abandoned and the Germans recovered their light gun.

Left: sketch map of the hills fought over

Ekoma and Susuni Hills


February 1915 was a quiet month on the border but increased German activity made it essential that the British responded.  At the beginning of March the Reserve Company 3KAR under Captain W.B. Brook (3KAR was based in BEA) and the KAR Mounted Infantry (MI) Company that was drawn from 3KAR and commanded by Captain H.H. Davis, were sent to rendezvous with the two 4KAR companies and Drought’s EAMR Scouts at Niasoku.  The mountain gunners also returned.  Lieutenant Colonel L.H. Hickson, KAR, commanded this column.


On 4th March Hickson made a night march across the border and attacked Ekoma Hill (spelt Ikoma on the sketch map of hills).  The 4KAR companies delivered the attack and drove off the enemy defenders but not before a German counter attack had been repulsed. 


For courageous leadership displayed during the fight African Officer Yuzbashi Murja Effendi Bakhit, 4KAR, received an African Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation:  For gallant conduct and cool leadership in close bush when counter attacked by superior forces at Ekoma.   Next day the 3KAR Reserve Company attacked Susuni Hill and Brook’s Askari had to fight for eight hours before the Germans finally withdrew.  But a far more serious action was looming.

Above: A hill in the Mwaika area

The fight for Mwaika Hill

The German 14th Field Company based at Mwanza had sent a detachment forward across the River Mara and it was these troops that Hickson had been engaging.  14th Field Company’s commander, the bold and energetic Oberleutnant Freiherr (Baron) von Haxthausen, now marched over 200 men and a machine gun towards the BEA border.  On the 9th March Hickson’s and von Haxthausen’s forces collided at Mwaika, a hill with two parallel ridges on the summit.

Drought’s EAMR Scouts were in the lead on the nearer and higher of the parallel ridges followed by the KAR MI. On seeing the German advance guard approaching from the south, Drought’s men opened fire whist the KAR MI galloped forward and came into action on the right of the Scouts, securing the crest line.  The MI Askari were Abyssinians (Ethiopians) and Somalis, and on this day the two groups were in a competitive mood, each determined to fight more determinedly than the other.  Concurrently von Haxthausen’s men seized and secured the lower ridge. The two 4KAR companies held the left of Hickson’s line. Each side then attempted to capture the opposing ridgeline. 

2510 Sergeant Matakia, Reserve Company 3KAR, received an African Distinguished Conduct MedalFor conspicuous bravery in leading his section to the support of the Mounted Infantry over open country under heavy fire, and later, of returning to his Commanding Officer with very valuable information under heavy fire, at Mwaika, on 9th March, 1915.  

Right: Viewing the Lake from the old German fort at Shirati
Colville deployed his mountain guns on the highest part of the British ridge alongside Brook’s Reserve Company.  From there Colville and a team of gunners manhandled a gun to within 185 metres of a German machine gun and silenced it with a direct hit.  The two commanders then attempted to outflank each other.  Hickson withdrew the MI from the line and sent the 80 mounted Askari behind the German right flank.  4004 Corporal Ismail Ibrahim, KAR MI, performed well and was awarded an African Distinguished Conduct Medal with the citation: For conspicuous bravery and gallant conduct in protecting lead horses; misleading the enemy as to strength and later driving off, with only 7 men, a hostile force at least 50 strong, at Mwaika Hill on March 9th, 1915.

Meanwhile on the left fierce fighting took place over the possession of a knoll on the German ridge.  A 4KAR attack secured the knoll but then a German bayonet charge re-captured it.  Accompanying the mounted troops was a soldier from the 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 9589 Private M. Sullivan.  Sullivan more than pulled his weight on the battlefield and received an Imperial Distinguished Conduct MedalFor conspicuous gallantry on 09 March 1915 at Mwaika Hill (East Africa), in bringing up ammunition to the firing line under close range heavy fire, and subsequently for carrying a wounded man of the 3rd King’s African Rifles under heavy fire into safety.

The KAR MI got behind the contested hillock whilst the 4KAR Askari attacked again frontally, but von Haxthausen’s men did not give ground and they shot down many of their opponents.  Lieutenants G.E.H. Reid (4KAR), Alexander Gordon Sale (3KAR) and A.D. Thompson (4KAR) were killed, as was Sergeant Major Gordon Reid (3KAR MI Coy) and nine Askari; twelve Askari and one Indian gunner were wounded and several Askari were missing in action.  The Germans reported their casualties as two Europeans and two Askari killed and three Europeans and 25 Askari wounded, with one Askari missing; one of the wounded Europeans was taken prisoner.  Von Haxthausen was amongst the wounded.
Above: The graves of Lieutenants  Thompson,GEH  Reid and Sale, and Sergeant Major G Reid, all KAR, lie together in Dar Es Salaam War Cemetery.

Dusk fell with both sides still in possession of the ridges that they had first occupied, but dawn found the Germans gone.  Von Haxthausen had silently broken contact during the night and withdrawn across the Mara River.  The Indian mountain gunners with their well-tended and stout-hearted mules had provided the British with the decisive firepower that their enemy could not match.  But Hickson was in an exposed position and he expected the German advance to be resumed, so he withdrew into BEA territory where his wounded could be evacuated and his ammunition supplies could be replenished.  

The fight on Mwaika Hill was typical of many of the small and now forgotten actions that took place during the Great War East African Campaign.  Brave and tough men, black and white, German and British, marched to a remote location where they by chance met and revelled in fiercely fighting each other to a bloody standstill, despite the tropical heat and the shortage of water on the ground that they fought over. 

Left: Lake Victoria area

This confrontation also signalled the ending of a colonial military era, as the Askari on both sides were seasoned regular soldiers with several years’ operational service gained on campaigns against tribal insurgents.  The KAR infantry Askari were mainly Sudanese Muslims, selected for their physique, reliability with the bayonet and acceptance of strict and sometimes harsh discipline.  The German Askari were of the same ilk, recruited from the martial tribes in GEA.  The Indian gunners had been battle-hardened on campaigns on the North West Frontier.  All of these men had enlisted as career soldiers and they not only expected to but wanted to fight; in their own societies they enjoyed the status of warriors. 

In a year’s time there would be very few sub-units like these left in the East African theatre, as battlefield attrition, postings into new battalions, and for a few, honourable discharge because of engagements completed, would have drastically thinned out the ranks of old Askari.  The future soldier was to be a young recruit enlisted for war-time service only.  We should not forget those warriors of both sides whose last day on earth was at Mwaika Hill on the 9th March 1915.


Right: HMS Winifred at Kisumu


The recovery of the British steamer the SS Sybil

To see the maps go HERE

Before the war the British had run nine steamers on Lake Victoria, mainly to provide a freight and passenger service between Kisumu in BEA and Uganda; Kisumu was the railhead of the Uganda Railway that started at Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast.  Some of the steamers also serviced the ports in German territory such as Bukoba and Mwanza.  The SS Sybil was one of the smaller of these steamers, having been launched in 1904 with a capacity of 700 tons and a speed of 9 knots.  After the outbreak of war SS Sybil, like most of the other steamers, became part of the Royal Navy Flotilla on the Lake.

The Germans armed a tug named the Muansa and with it reacted aggressively against British naval movement on the Lake.  On 5th November, whilst patrolling the Lake, SS Sybil struck a rock at Majita which was in German territory between Musoma and Mwanza.   Sybil could not be immediately salved and she was was beached and left at Majita, but the British did not want the Germans to refloat her.   On 30th March 1915 HMS Winifred, a steamer armed with both a 4-inch and a 12-pounder gun, scored 19 direct hits on the Sybil in an attempt to disable her.  However fears persisted that the Germans might salvage the Sybil, and as no explosives were available to destroy her completely, an operation was mounted to attempt her recovery.

Left: The SS Sybil during recovery

‘B’ Company 3 KAR joined up with 150 men from Nos 3 and 4 Companies of 2LNL, the force being commanded by Major R.E. Berkeley of the latter unit.  At 1800 hours on 11th May 1915 the troops left the BEA port of Karungu, described by one 2LNL Sergeant as consisting of about nine tin huts, aboard HMS Winifred and HMS Nyanza; four other ships sailed in support, all of them having naval guns mounted on their decks.

The flotilla arrived in daylight the next morning to find three Germans with around 30 of their Askari entrenched on the beach.  Whilst the naval guns pounded the beach the troops landed in boats to the west of the Sybil’s location.  The enemy withdrew to some kopjes (rocky hillocks) to the south, pursued by the British infantry.  After some skirmishing during which the Germans lost one man killed and another captured, the enemy  withdrew westwards to a mission building, leaving the KAR and 2LNL soldiers to occupy the kopjes and entrench a defensive perimeter around the beached Sybil.

The naval salvage party worked for the next three days under heavy downpours of rain whilst the infantrymen were constantly attacked by multitudes of mosquitos.  Despite the direct hits that HMS Winifred had previously inflicted on the Sybil the repairs were completed during the night of 13th-14th May.  Then a violent rainstorm filled the Sybil up with water and the next two days were spent in bailing out the hull.  Finally on the 16th the Sybil was refloated and towed to Irugwa Island for two nights whilst further repairs were made, before being triumphantly towed to Kisumu.  The troops were disembarked at Karungu for further operations but the eastern Lake area now quietened down.  Soon every man of the Loyal North Lancashires’ detachment was ill with malaria.  SS Sybil was re-fitted and she continued her career on the Lake, proving to be a useful naval asset.

SOURCES:

Ø     Official History of the Great War. East Africa. August 1914- September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.
Ø     The King’s African Rifles by Lieutenant Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett.
Ø     Records of the 3rd King’s African Rifles during the Great Campaign in East Africa 1914-1918 (WO106/273).
Ø     The African Distinguished Conduct Medal by John Arnold.
Ø     The History of the King’s African Rifles by Colonel T.O. Fitzgerald OBE MC (serialised in the East African Annual).
Ø     Operationen in Ostafrika by Ludwig Boell.
Ø     War Diary: 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.
Ø     The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery by Brigadier General C.A.L. Graham DSO OBE DL psc.
Ø     Jimmie Stewart : Frontiersman by R.M. Maxwell.
Ø     British Intelligence Supplement No 7 (East Africa).
Ø     Diary of 19973 Sergeant F.C. Croxton, 2nd Bn The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

Gratitude is expressed to Per Finsted of Denmark who efficiently translated passages from Ludwig Boell’s book

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