Rhodesia in late 1918
Northern Rhodesia, now named Zambia, saw
a flurry of military activity in the early months of World War I as enemy
troops from German East Africa (GEA), now Tanzania, threatened the northern
border. Askari from the Belgian Congo,
now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, crossed the border from Katanga to
give timely assistance in repelling German raids. In May 1916 columns of troops from Northern
and Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, invaded GEA across the northern border in
concert with Allied invasions from British East Africa, now Kenya, and from Uganda
and the Belgian Congo; the Congolese crossed Lake Tanganyika to enter GEA.
But since then there had been no
fighting on Northern Rhodesian soil and the war effort consisted of recruiting
Askari for the Northern Rhodesia Police (NRP) and the King’s African Rifles (KAR);
KAR recruitment in Northern Rhodesia was concentrated in areas adjacent to Nyasaland,
now Malawi. As there was no permanent
infantry unit in Northern Rhodesia the NRP had a proficient military wing that
fought as infantry. Alongside the
recruitment of Askari Northern Rhodesia had mobilised over 30,000 men to
transport military supplies from the railway line to and beyond the northern
border, using canoes on the waterways in the northeast of the country and
thereafter porters who carried loads to tactical dumps from where other parties
of porters carried the supplies forward to the troops fighting in GEA. This activity had slackened off somewhat by
1918 as the British troops in GEA were then receiving most of their supplies
from northern Nyasaland, but the tactical dumps remained in Northern Rhodesia
at locations such as Kasama and Fife.
To the east in Portuguese East Africa
(PEA), now Mozambique, enemy troops from GEA known as the Schutztruppe had been
leading the Allies a merry dance during 1918.
The German commander, General Paul Von Lettow Vorbeck (right), raided Portuguese
military bases for arms, ammunition and most importantly for bolts of trading
cloth. With the cloth he purchased his
food supplies from friendly villagers who were more used to Portuguese troops
just requisitioning food without payment.
British columns followed or tried to intercept the German trail and they
initiated some fierce battles but the Schutztruppe always broke free relatively
intact and continued zig-zagging across northern PEA. The German key to success was simplicity of
military thought and action; General Von Lettow Vorbeck had no higher
headquarters dictating his movements and actions, and no massive and ponderous
supply chain bringing forward his ammunition and food, as the British had. German decision making was completely
Schutztruppe leaves Portuguese East Africa
On the 28th September 1918 the
Schutztruppe left PEA and entered GEA.
The Allies expected von Lettow to march northwards where he could
recruit more Askari and obtain food, but the German General had a different
plan as his thoughts and ambitions were centred on the vast unguarded territories
to his west. The Germans marched up the
east side of Lake Nyasa and then moved along the border between GEA and
Northern Rhodesia; two Ugandan battalions of the KAR followed them whilst
companies from the NRP tried to intercept them.
The NRP Service Battalion did make an
interception at Fusi, fifteen miles west of Songea in GEA on 4th October
1918. The NRP held a good position that
the Germans were unable to break through; after fighting all day both sides
withdrew but von Lettow out-flanked the NRP, who were now desperately short of
ammunition, and continued his march.
Several Northern Rhodesia policemen
fought well at Fusi and received gallantry awards. No. 229 Serjeant Chichasi was awarded an ImperialDistinguished Conduct Medal with the citation: For Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Fusse’s Village on 4th/5th
October 1918. This non-commissioned
officer set a fine example to his section under heavy machine-gun fire and
rifle fire at close range, and by encouraging the young Askari was largely
instrumental in breaking off the enemy attack.
Medals were awarded to No. 451 Colour
Sergeant Yasi for carrying orders across the battlefield under fire, to No. 421
Private Kunenga for carrying ammunition to troops under fire, and to No. A/205
Sergeant J. Kohr, British South Africa Police (BSAP) attached to NRP.
At Fusi NRP Privates No. 1699 Siyeya
and No. S/33 Mwanabamba were killed in action, whilst Lieutenant N.J. Champion
died of wounds. Thirteen policemen were
wounded in action and one man was missing believed killed. Administrative difficulties then overtook the
British caused mainly by their porters deserting whilst under fire at Fusi; one
KAR battalion followed the Schutztruppe whilst the NRP and the other KAR
battalion withdrew to Lake Nyasa where steamers were bringing up supplies.
Above: Von Lettow's sketch map
action at Fife
The British soon realised that their
supply dumps at Fife would attract the Germans, who also were troubled by the
desertion of porters, and two NRP companies marched to Fife, arriving there on
31st October and 1st November. The Schutztruppe arrived on the afternoon of
1st November with around 1,200 Askari and immediately attacked the vastly
outnumbered NRP who were positioned on a ridge overlooking the dumps. General von Lettow was advancing behind his
leading troops when accurate bursts of NRP machine gun fire forced him to lie
down with the bullets almost parting his hair.
He afterwards recalled this as his most dangerous moment of the war, but
he was able to safely withdraw after 30 minutes when the British fire subsided.
The Germans deployed a captured
Portuguese trench mortar against the British position but fortunately for the
NRP the second round exploded prematurely in the barrel and destroyed the
mortar. When his troops had plundered some
British supply dumps and set fire to others, von Lettow again out-flanked the
NRP and marched his men and 400 cattle deeper into Northern Rhodesia towards
Kasama via Mwenzo Mission, where the Germans were able to replenish their
stocks of quinine.
During the fighting at Fife bravery was
again displayed by NRP personnel and three men were awarded the ImperialDistinguished Conduct Medal.
No. 640 Colour Sergeant Tegete repeated gallantry previously displayed
at Fusi and his citation read: At Fusi
Village on 4 October 1918. While under heavy machine-gun fire he set an
outstanding example to all present, showing complete disregard of danger by
walking up and down the line giving the men targets and controlling their fire. At Fife, 1st/2nd
November 1918, he showed conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.
Machine gunner No. A/327 Private A.G.
Charters, BSAP attached to NRP, was cited: For
conspicuous gallantry in action and devotion to duty at Fife, 1st/2nd
November 1918. He handled his gun with great
ability and coolness, and although under heavy machine-gun fire, continued to
search the enemy’s position, and succeeded in temporarily silencing the enemy’s
Telegraphist No. A/325 Private G.S.
Bouwer, BSAP attached to NRP and a member of the small Fife garrison, was
employed in the dangerous task of a forward scout observing the German advance. He had apparatus to allow him to tap into
telephone wires and his citation read: For
gallant conduct and marked devotion to duty, 30 October 1918. When the post was evacuated he remained in
close proximity, and with a vibrator tapped in until he saw an enemy patrol
approaching. He retired three miles to a
position overlooking Fife, and although his carriers deserted, he remained and
gave valuable information.
After the German departure the 1st
Battalion of 4th King’s African Rifles (Uganda) arrived in Fife and
on 4th November the KAR marched south after the Germans with two NRP companies
attached. One of the NRP companies was
then ordered to break away and march to secure Abercorn, now Mbala, at the
southern end of Lake Tanganyika, but the battalion and its attached ‘B’ Company
of the NRP marched in pursuit of the enemy.
action at Tumba
On 6th November the KAR
Askari under the command of Lieutenant Colonel E.B.B. Hawkins DSO, caught up
with the German rear guard, commanded by Captain Franz Koehl, at Tumba water
holes. The Ugandans pushed forward but
the Germans were deployed on a wide front and one KAR company was sent to turn
a flank whilst another charged forward.
The charge succeeded and two enemy machine guns were captured, but a
wide dambo then impeded the attackers, and the defenders were able to break
contact and move south, leaving one dead German and 11 dead Askari behind. The British casualties were two Askari killed
in action, one severely wounded British officer, two Askari wounded and missing
and 23 Askari lightly wounded.
No. 5800 Acting Lance Corporal Lapach
Oluwar of 4 KAR was awarded an African
Distinguished Conduct Medal: For
conspicuous gallantry in action and devotion to duty at Tumba, north-eastern
Rhodesia on 6th November 1918.
Subjected to a galling machine gun fire, he located the guns and crawled
with two men to the flank, shot two enemy gunners and captured the gun,
continuing throughout with marked dash and determination.
No. 5627 Corporal Amusi Lwanga, 4 KAR,
also received an African Distinguished Conduct Medal: He acted as
Company Serjeant Major in a most masterly manner, his cool soldierly leading
setting a fine example. He took his
platoon forward with the greatest elan.
The conduct of this young non-commissioned officer has always been in
accordance with the best traditions.
Left: Schutztruppe porters
The other enemy machine gun was
captured by No. 8932 Company Sergeant Major T.F. Melhuish, 3rd
Battalion Devon Regiment attached to 1st Battalion 4th
KAR. He received an ImperialDistinguished Conduct Medal: At TUMBA on the 6th November
1918. Under heavy rifle and machine-gun
fire this Warrant Officer led his men with conspicuous gallantry, resulting in
the capture of an enemy maxim gun. He
set a splendid example to his men.
The NRP company remained in support
throughout the Tumba action but on 7th November it led the way
forward to Kayambe Mission, having two men wounded by enemy fire. The Germans had left at the Mission a British
prisoner that they had taken at Fife and four Askari and two porters wounded in
the Tumba fight; two of these German Askari died of their wounds. An unfortunate incident occurred at Kayambe
for the British when one of their Stokes guns (a trench mortar) burst its
barrel when being fired. No. 5782 Sergeant
Henry John Grimbeek, South African Mounted Rifles attached to 4 KAR, and one
Askari were killed and 6 KAR Askari and one NRP Askari were wounded. The following day a local farmer and ex-NRP
officer, Lionel Smith, appeared and offered to guide the British down an old
disused post road that would cut 14 miles off the journey to Kasama; as 4 KAR
had no maps the offer was accepted gladly but the battalion had to wait until
its hospital and supply columns caught up with it. More porters deserted after each action
making the logistical situation precarious.
action at Malima River
By using the old post road the KAR got
south of the German rear guard that was lining the Malima River with all its
machine guns facing north. On 12th
November, whilst soldiers in Europe were enjoying the Armistice, Colonel Hawkins
charged the Germans from the south with eight platoons including the NRP in the
line. The charge was over 600 yards and
caught the enemy completely by surprise, dispersing the three enemy companies
on the south bank of the Malima. The other
three enemy companies on the north bank, where all the German maxims were
located, were able to fire effectively at the KAR and NRP whilst the
Schutztruppe troops there withdrew in reasonable order to Kasama which lay five
miles to the south. German casualties
were unknown, only two corpses being found, but the KAR and NRP lost eight
Askari killed and 14 wounded, most of them seriously. Thirty head of cattle were captured and used
to supplement rations.
Two 4 KAR company commanders who
already held the Military Cross were
awarded a Bar. The citations read:
Captain Thomas Jarvis Murray MC: For marked gallantry and splendid
leadership, with which he inspired the whole battalion, at Tumba, 6th
November 1918 and Malima River, 12th November 1918. Though twice wounded at Malima River he
insisted on returning to command his company, remaining until dark. He has at all times rendered invaluable
Captain William Mackay Sparke MC: At Tumba, 6th November 1918, and
Malima River, 12th November 1918.
With no other officers of his company left, he led his men with marked
ability and courage, and by rapid advances each day completely routed the enemy
with the bayonet. He has always shown
the greatest initiative and devotion to duty.
Lieutenant John Pollock, 4 KAR, was
awarded a Military Cross with the citation: For conspicuous gallantry
and devotion to duty at MALEMA RIVER, North-eastern Rhodesia on 12 November
1918. With great coolness under heavy
Maxim fire he remained behind with his platoon until long after dark covering
the movements of two platoons on his right flank and preventing them from being
outflanked while important movements were being carried out. He has previously
performed splendid patrol work.
No. 5463 Corporal Wombeda, 4 KAR, received
an African Distinguished Conduct Medal: For conspicuous gallantry and
initiative in action at Malema (Malima) on 12th November
1918. He led his men under heavy machine
gun fire controlling their fire with great effect. Although wounded, he refused to leave the
firing line until assured that his officer was safe.
No. 5500 Corporal Mustapha Ajib Sidu, 4
KAR, was also awarded an African Distinguished Conduct Medal: TUMBA 6th November
1918 and Malemba (Malima) River 12th November 1918. For marked gallantry and devotion to
duty. The manner in which he handled his
gun in both actions contributed greatly to the success attained.
Above: Map of the Kasama area
Germans in Kasama
On 9th November, after some
skirmishes the previous day, the German advance guard under Captain Walter Spangenburg
seized Kasama without a fight, as the handful of troops there and most of the dumped
supplies had been moved further south by the energetic activities of the senior
civil authority, Hector Croad, and other stalwarts including government porters. Local inhabitants had looted government
buildings and stores in between the British leaving and the Germans
Morale amongst villagers and the very few
KAR and NRP Askari in and around Kasama was understandably low as it looked as
though the British had abandoned Northern Rhodesia to the Germans. Several Askari deserted. The problem for the Allies was that there
were no troops in Northern Rhodesia who could stop von Lettow from marching his
men down to Broken Hill, now Kabwe, up to Ndola and into the Belgian Katangese
mines, and then westwards into Angola.
Once in Angola the Germans could repeat their PEA activities by raiding
Portuguese bases for arms, ammunition and trading cloth which they would
convert into rations.
Von Lettow arrived at Kasama with the
main body of his troops on 9th November; he was pleased with the
European food stocks that his men had seized which were useful for feeding his
155 Europeans, but he needed much more local food to sustain his total of over
4,200 African Askari, porters, followers and wives. Local informers indicated that he could find
what he needed further south in the Chambezi Rubber Factory, where large food stocks
had been brought by canoe.
action at Chambezi River
On 13th November at 0800
hours Captain Spangenburg’s advance guard approached the Chambezi River and
fired across the water into the Rubber Factory with rifles and captured British
Lewis guns. The few Askari in and around
the factory fired back blindly as the enemy troops were concealed by trees; the
Germans withdrew after about fifteen minutes of firing. One version of events states that a local
farmer was positioned inside the roof of the factory with an elephant gun and
when he fired the sound was magnified by the structure to resemble an artillery
piece, causing the Germans to withdraw.
But it is more likely that the Germans went to find a safe crossing of
the river for their Main Body with its porters, wives and cattle.
Around noon that day Hector Croad heard
of the Armistice in Europe and received a message to be given to the German
commander; Captain Spangenburg was located and given the message to deliver to
his General. On the following day at
0800 hours Hector Croad and General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck met on the north
bank of the Chambezi. After accepting
Croad’s assurances that the Armistice news was genuine the General agreed to free
all Allied prisoners that he was holding and to march his Schutztruppe to
Abercorn, as requested, where the Askari could be rationed and administered and
they could lay down their arms.
The German Askari were pleased that
they were going home and they danced well into that night. The Europeans with von Lettow were not happy
and many wished to continue the campaign – they had shed too much blood and
lost too many companions during the last four years and they had never been
beaten in the field; they did not wish to surrender when they could plainly see
that Northern Rhodesia, Katanga and Angola were theirs for the taking. Luckily for Britain and the Allies German
discipline prevailed and von Lettow’s orders were obeyed – the war had ended.
On his march to Abercorn von Lettow met
up with Colonel Hawkins of 4 KAR who had fought the German rear guard at Tumba
and Milima. Hawkins admitted that he
could not have pursued the Schutztruppe very far across the Chambezi as
logistically he had out-distanced his battalion’s supply column which needed
replenishing anyway. In a fraternal
gesture of respect between battlefield adversaries the Schutztruppe gave the
KAR some of their cattle so that the British Askari did not go hungry.
Above: On 28 September 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck crossed the Rovuma River and returned to German East Africa. With him was Unteroffizier Wetjen, one of von Lettow's "bitter enders". A day after the crossing he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class, the award document can be seen above.
W.V. Brelsford. The Story of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment.
(Government Printer Lusaka 1954.)
Sir Charles Lucas KCB
KCMG. The Empire at War. Volume IV.
Africa. Section IV. Northern Rhodesia and the last phase of the war in Africa.
(Oxford University Press 1925).
Lieutenant Colonel H.
Moyse-Bartlett. The King’s African Rifles.
(Naval & Military Press softback reprint).
Edward Paice. Tip & Run. The Untold Tragedy of the
Great War in Africa. (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2007).
General Paul von
Lettow Vorbeck. My
Reminiscences of East Africa. Chapter VIII. The Advance into British Rhodesia.
(Battery Press reprint).
Tim Wright. The History of the Northern Rhodesian Police.
(British Empire and Commonwealth Museum Publishing 2001).
War Diary from the UK
National Archives. 1st
Battalion 4th King’s African Rifles, October-November 1918. File
Extracts from copies
of the Northern Rhodesia Journal.
Above: The Chambeshi Monument (photo by Carroll Fleming)