This page is courtesy of Walter Nuhn who kindly gave permission to use a chapter of his fantastic history of the campaign in German South West Africa in a translated form. It deals with the fighting at Gibeon Station, the biggest loss suffered by the Schutztruppe in the campaign. We once again meet Freiherr von Hadeln who had invaded South Africa HERE . On this page we see his award document for the Iron Cross 1st Class.
Close to the abandoned railway station at Gibeon is a small graveyard with 41 tombstones
Here lie buried 41 soldiers, German and South African, who died in the fighting at Gibeon Station on the 27th of April 1915. (To see the list of killed, wounded and captured during the battle see HERE)
They are small losses compared to those suffered on the battlefields of Europe, but heavy losses in an African context. It was the biggest single loss suffered by the German Schutztruppen in German South West Africa.
The road to Gibeon
On the nineteenth of April Hauptmann Kleist had left Keetmanshoop, heading north with the troops who had occupied the southern sector.
He had vague orders to make a "fighting retreat, hold the enemy back where possible and avoid being cut off from the main force".
With 6-700 men and two field guns he was faced by 14,500 South African troops; a difficult task, especially when one reckons with the traditional mobility of the South African mounted troops.
Kleist´s force consisted of the reconnaissance sections von Hadeln, Goedecke and Schonert, the 4th Feldkompagnie and the 1st and 3rd Reservekompagnie as well as two field guns of the Halbbatterie Kuntze.
Kleist´s force pulled back along the railway line running northwards.
Leaving Aus and heading for Bethanien, then continuing to Berseba was the South African "Central Force" under General McKenzie. Made up of the 7th, 8th and 9th Mounted Brigades as well as the 12th Citizen Force artillery battery they were suffering from the usual lack of water. As there was little or no water between Aus and Berseba McKenzie had to wait a day between the departures of each mounted brigade in order to let the wells along the way replenish.
Right: German troops at one of the vital water holes.
The first brigade to leave was the 9th which left on the 15th of April following the railway line to Schakalskuppe.
Along the way their reconnaissance troop found a fence that had been erected across the railway line. After a careful search of the area they found 15 mines buried in the sand. If the brigade had tried to bypass the fence they would have suffered heavy losses.
After they had exploded the mines the brigade set up its night bivouac. They continued their march the next day. Thirst became an issue as the wells had run dry before all men and animals had had a chance to drink.
Below left: A German Schutztruppe bayonet serial numbered K.S. 1516 captured by South African forces in German South West Africa
The next stop was at Kubis. Here once again the well ran dry before the brigade had received its water ration.
The march continued the next morning, north of the railway line towards Bethanien. The terrain changed from fine sand to rock surrounded by rugged hills. Many of the horses lost their shoes.
On the third day they reached Bethanien. Early the next morning they continued on to Besondermaid. Here at last they found a large watering hole. They had covered 180km in four days!
McKenzie joined the brigade in Besondermaid and was informed by indigenous spies that a large German unit was approaching Berseba. This was in fact a small Schutztruppe detachment under the command of Merensky and Meyer who were escorting farmers fleeing with their cattle.
McKenzie called for the brigade to saddle up and after just six hours of rest they pulled out that same night, headed for Berseba.
Early on the morning of the 22nd of April the brigade rode into the town where they found a patrol under the command of Lt. d. Res. Ferse. The Germans gallantly opened fire but were soon forced to pull back, the South Africans on their heels. Merensky, along with four men and the farmer column fell into the South Africans hands.
Berseba had a good water supply and the 9th Brigade stayed for a day to allow the other brigades to catch up.
In the meantime Berranges "Eastern Force", which was heading for Itsawisis, had reached and occupied Stammpriet. Joined by the troops of Dirk van DeVenters who were operating on their left flank they headed north-northwest passing Spitzkop, a waterhole 35km east of Keetmannshoop, on to Daweb.
On the nineteenth a patrol spotted German troops at the German training ground at Kabus (eight km east of the railway lines). Berranges columns changed direction and headed for Kabus. The German 4th Feldkompagnie under Schoepffers was assembled here ready to defend the railway line. On the morning of the twentieth they were joined by the 3rd Reserve Kompagnie under Oberleutnant Hepke arriving from Keetmannshoop. The Aufklärungs Abteilung von Hadeln was also present at the fight.
By this time the 1400 men of Dirk van Deventers column were approaching Kabus from the south. They were advancing along the dried river bed and road from Keetmannshoop. They ran into the 3rd Reserve Kompagnie which was in position to the south of Kabus.
In the following exchange of fire the South Africans advancing along the dried riverbed were beaten back. Those along the road pulled back to wait for Berrange´s attack from the east.
Berrange´s spearhead, the Betchuana Mounted Rifles under the command of Colonel Cowen arrived on the battlefield and moved north and northwest to cut off the Germans' path of retreat. Here, at Itsawisis, lay the main body of German troops under Hauptmann von Kleist.
The Germans resisted and after a couple of hours managed to push Cowen's troops back.
At about one pm Kleist sent orders for the defenders of Kabus to break off the fight and pull back to Itsawisis.
The two companies and Reconnaissance Abteiling von Hadeln arrived safely at 15:00 and an hour later the whole Abteilung Kleist moved North. The South Africans pulled into Kabus soon after.
On the evening of the next day Abteilung Kleist arrived at Tses where it set up camp.
On the next day Hauptmann d. R. Meyer who, like Leutnant Ferse had escaped from Berseba, arrived. He reported that Berseba was in South African hands.
Patrols reported that the South Africans in Kabus were not preparing to move and in spite of Hauptmann Meyer´s warnings about the strength of the Union troops in Berseba von Kleist decided to attack.
A flying column under Oberleutnant Goedecke with 150 men was to strike at the occupiers at Berseba then pull back towards Gankobis, a warm spring on the Fish River. Von Kleist would be lying in wait with the rest of the Abteilung to strike a blow at the pursuing South Africans.
At first all went well. Early on the morning of the 23rd Goedecke´s column approached Berseba from the southeast and sent a small group of men into the town to stir up the hornets' nest. It seemed to work. In wild west style the troops rode shooting into the village disturbing the South Africans at breakfast.
They left at full speed, the Union troops hot on their heels.
Leaving the village they rejoined their comrades and spurred their horses, making for the Fish River, the whole of the 9th Mounted Brigade in hot pursuit.
The chase went on for hours over rocky ground. Every now and then an exchange of fire took place each time the South Africans tried to move around the flanks and cut off the German retreat.
Each time the Germans escaped. All in all just nine exhausted stragglers were captured. The column kept an eager eye out for the rest of the Abteilung. They should already be in position and should have heard the gunfire.
At around noon they reached the Fish River. They descended the steep side and crossed the river bed to the other side.
Here the pursuers gave up the chase. A huge cloud of dust caused by the approaching Abteilung Kleist was on the horizon. For reasons unexplained they had not left their encampment the night before to head for the Fish River but had awaited daybreak before starting the march for Ganikobis. They would arrive too late to spring the trap.
The 9th Mounted Brigade had taken up the chase leaving their blankets, coats and rations behind. They were to spend an uncomfortable night in the bitter cold next to the Fish River.
On the next morning (the 24th of April) McKenzie's other two brigades arrived. The hard driving general was forced to give his exhausted brigades a rest. The men, but especially the horses, were able to put the Fish River water and grazing to good use.
The flying column and Kleist's Abteilung had rejoined forces. Considering himself outnumbered Kleist left Ganikobis on the night of the 23rd following the railway northwards towards Gibeon, passing through Aritetis and Gruendorn.
They reached Gibeon at noon on the 24th and set up camp three km to the north of the town.
Right: A proud Schutztruppler with his bayonet.
Kleist came to the conclusion that McKenzie's troops must be exhausted by their forced march from Aus to Berseba and that they would not be able to continue their pursuit. He reckoned he would be able to rest his troops and horses for a day or two.
A terrible miscalculation that did not take the mobility of the South Africans riders into account.
Before the end of the day McKenzie's scouts reported dust clouds near Aritetis. He assumed the German rearguard was retreating to the north.
Rapid action was called for to catch the Germans at Aritetis, just ten km distant.He immediately gave orders to his brigade to saddle up and that night they took up the chase.
A disappointment awaited in Aritetis. The enemy had flown the coop. The next morning the chase continued. Gruendorn was reached that day, but the enemy had already pulled out and had a few kilometers' lead.
Impatient for action a portion of the central force pushed north that night until it reached point 152 on the railway line, just eighteen km from Gibeon.
Arriving here the South African signalers found uncut German telephone lines. They connected their telephone and to their amazement they found the Germans talking openly.
"Where is the enemy?" answered by "We don't know". Then another voice "Patrols report they saw the enemy yesterday, it cannot be. It must have been dust clouds".Then a message from Mariental "The Hauptmann does not believe the Englanders are near Gibeon", then another voice "Last night we heard the Englanders were close to Gibeon. This cannot be true. They must have been dust clouds. As far as we know they have not crossed the Fish River. We intend to take the women to Kalkrand this evening".
Then the most important message from Gibeon to Mariental. "In case the Engländers take this place we will pull back to a new position. The troops are getting ready to march out". Then "Plan to leave Gibeon with the last train tonight. Telephone lines will be destroyed".
The march seems to have been delayed as the departure was then ordered for the morning of the 27th with the destination Kranzplatz.
McKenzie was able to deduce that the enemy was pulling back and that a train was to leave Gibeon Station.
At 19:00 on the night of the 26th a patrol was able to confirm that a locomotive stood under steam at the Gibeon station. There was lively activity at the station as men and supplies started arriving. The time to strike had come. Mckenzie quickly developed a plan of attack.
Two days earlier (on the 24th) the 7th (Camel) Kompagnie had arrived in Gibeon. The high command had sent them from the Malta Heights to join in the defence of Gibeon. Hauptmann von Kleist had sent them onward to do a reconnaissance in the direction of Koes and Hasuur and made an error thinking his left (east) flank was now secure.
Above: A period drawing of an "Officers patrol" by a Schutztruppe reconnaissance section
On the 26th a message arrived from a patrol led by Leutnant d. R. Hoenck with the information that the enemy had not progressed further than Tses. A complacent Kleist decided further patrols and advance guard posts were not neccessary. A fatal error!
That night a soldier of the 4. Kompagnie captured a lone Union soldier who had been seperated from his patrol. Shortly afterwards, at 22pm a series of explosions occurred to the north of the German position. What had happened?
At 20:00, about an hour after he had received the German telephone messages, McKenzie sent Captains Nicholson and Grier with a party of 30 Scouts and Pioneers to the north of Gibeon. They were to blow up the railway tracks to prevent the train from escaping.
Below: A map that is essential for understanding the events below
The night was crystal clear as the patrol rode off; 45 minutes behind them came Lt. Col. Royston's 9th Brigade. They were to curve around Gibeon and ride to the north where they would set up a defensive line to cut off the path of retreat of the German forces.
Mckenzie would then attack from the south.
At first all went according to plan. The Scout/Pioneer patrol made a wide curve around Gibeon station then moved back in to reach the railway line. They then rode three km to the north keeping a wary eye open for the guard posts Kleist should have had in position. Here they blew up sixteen lengths of line before riding back to join Royston who was now about three km to the east of the station.
The Germans were rudely awakened by the explosions. Right away the Abteilung moved northwards on both sides of the railway line. The train moved north as well. After half an hour they had their first contact with the South Africans. Kleist had his men dismount and form a defensive position around the train.
Shortly afterwards, at about 2am, the 1st Reserve Kompagnie and the Abteilungs Schonert and von Hadeln were involved in heavy exchanges of fire with enemy squadrons. The artillery half battery Kunze joined the fight with its field guns.
The squadrons belonged to Royston's brigade. Shortly before midnight they had arrived at their position, six km to the north of Gibeon. He had placed three squadrons along the railway line with one in reserve. He then made a tactical error and placed the rest of the brigade off to the east.
The ground was flat and offered no cover in the bright moonlight. Unfortunately for Royston his scouts had not seen two drainage ditches that ran off from the railway lines not far from his position.
These had been occupied by the Germans and with their machine guns they were able to place the South Africans, caught in the open, under a withering fire.
The fighting went on until about 2am when Lt. Col. Davies, commanding the Imperial Light Horse (the bulk of the squadrons on the railway line) decided to pull back his men and rejoin McKenzie's main force.
This proved difficult as friend and foe lay so close together. The order to pull out was whispered from man to man in order to keep the pullback secret from the Germans.
The move was only partially successful. Three squadrons pulled back but the fourth, a squadron of the Natal Light Horse under Captain Branford, did not get the order due to a gap in the lines.
At dawn, after hesitation on the part of von Kleist, the Schutztruppe attacked and Branford and his squadron were forced to surrender.
Royston, who, at the time Davies ordered the pullback, was off trying to arrange the evacuation of his unit’s horses out of enemy range, joined his troops to the east of the railway lines at about 3am. Here they waited for daylight. Losses had been heavy. 24 dead, 49 wounded and 72 captured.
Oberleutnant von Hepke, on his own initiative took a patrol to the east where he saw dust clouds arriving from the south. The Germans were in danger of being encircled. The suggestion was made that the Abteilung should escape to the north but astonishingly von Kleist refused. he wanted to await the dawn attack and did not want to abandon the train. This, in spite of the fact that there was no material and equipment to fix the rails.
The Germans returned to their former positions with their prisoners, congratulating themselves on their victory. By 6am however they saw four large dust clouds. The dreaded encirclement had become a reality and McKenzie’s troops were arriving from all points of the compass... and in large numbers.
Probably thinking that he only had Royston's troops facing him and underestimating the threat Kleist tried first to save his supplies and gave his men the order to engage the enemy advancing from the station.
At 4am, two hours before sunrise, McKenzie had given his men orders to move from their staging area to start the attack on Gibeon station. he planned to attack from all sides and had one regiment moving in from the south, a second from the west and a third from the east.
Hepke with the 3rd Reserve Kompagnie was the first to be engaged by the South Africans' rifles and machine guns and he was forced to move his troops to the west of the railway lines where Schoepffers 4th Feld Kompagnie was. The 4th was however already under heavy fire from the Union troops on the west flank.
When McKenzie's six field guns opened up and found the range, Kleist gave the orders to abandon the supplies and train and pull back to the high ground between Kranzlatz and the railway line.
This message arrived rather late at the 3rd Reserve and 4th Feld Kompagnie and they ended up taking most of the enemy fire as they fought a rearguard action, all the while pulling back.
Nice to see you make it this far down the page!!
As a treat... von Hadeln's Iron Cross award document above.
The Reuter correspondent Rayner wrote:
"The Germans, keeping a sharp eye on the prisoners, were in a hurry to move as they saw our troops advancing in open order. Only when the 12th Battery opened fire did things change.
Our advance was like a hurricane, the Germans had the choice of fighting or surrendering. Most chose to fight and there were intense rearguard actions. They had excellent machine gunners but nothing could stop McKenzie's advance.
The 12th (Citizen) Battery fired excellently, moving from one position to the next. Their fire knocked out one and then another carriage. Advancing, they managed to capture a field gun and four machine guns that were abandoned due to the destroyed carriages".
The two companies pulled back step by step moving from one position to the next to avoid being encircled but managed to slow down the Union advance.
The troops further north moving to Kranzplatz were also in danger as the South Africans moved in from the east and west.
The ring tightened and Kleist gave up the plan to move to Kranzplatz and ordered a movement northwards. Here they were to march along the Fish River bed road, along the path to Mariental. The pull back began to resemble a rout. Anyone on a slow horse or whose horse was hit by enemy fire had no chance. They were overrun and captured.
A Union soldier wrote:
"No sooner had our artillery opened fire than we were ordered to gallop forward. We were charged with adrenaline and it was amazing how our horses scented this. The poor beasts had been exhausted by the forced marches in the preceding days,but they now took off like oat fed horses on a fox hunt.
We galloped from hilltop to hilltop, jumped over bushes and rocks, and then opened fire on the Germans along the road. We took turns holding the horses so everyone had a chance to shoot. As we rode forward and saw the dead and wounded men and horses we got a shock".
The Union prisoners had to be released when they and their guards came under artillery fire upon reaching the heights near Gibeon.
The chase continued over 35km and ended at 11:30 when Kleist’s heavily decimated troop reached Jakalsfontein where the sunken riverbed came to an end and led up onto a high plain.
At this point the German rearguard took up their positions and after the last stragglers arrived they managed to stop the Union advance.
In view of the total exhaustion of his troops McKenzie was forced to break off the chase. Since leaving Aus they had covered 350 km over very difficult terrain, with miserable rations and very little fodder for the horses.
On both sides the losses had been heavy. McKenzie's force had suffered 24 killed (all at Gibeon railway embankment) and sixty wounded.
The Germans had lost eleven other ranks and one officer killed and eleven wounded. six officers and 180 men had been captured. Much material had been captured; two field guns, three machine guns and many rifles. A locomotive and all the supply wagons of the Abteilung von Kleist had gone into the bag. Also captured were large quantities of ammunition and other supplies.
That evening von Kleist reached Mariental with his troops. From here they marched, unmolested by the enemy, towards Rehoboth which they reached on the 2nd of May.
At Rehoboth they were loaded onto a train and were transferred over Windhoek (Where the 3rd Reserve Kompagnie stayed) to Okahandja. Here they had to disembark as the railway line to Karibib had already been reached by the enemy. From here they continued on foot to the Waterberg where the main German troop body was camped.
After the fight at Gibeon the whole Union Southern Army was dissolved. McKenzie’s Central, Van Deventers Southern and Berrange's Eastern forces moved north to Windhuk without meeting resistance. From here they were shipped back to South Africa. The southern phase of the GSWA campaign had come to an end.
For the German troops Gibeon was the second painful defeat, the first having been at Riet/Pforte. It was the heaviest loss of the GSWA campaign. It was particularly painful as there was no possibility of resupply. The amount of German troops, weapons, horses and material in GSWA was finite.
At first the fight at Gibeon had been to the Germans advantage.
Initially the fact that Royston's reconnaissance (probably due to lack of time) had not seen the drainage ditches had meant that the Germans had had excellent positions for their machine guns and were able to fire very effectively on the Union troops.
"In their joy the men of the Schutztruppe shook hands, danced and sang as they smashed the captured rifles on the wheels of their supply wagons".
Everyone thought it was a victory. The enemy had been beaten. Nobody had the idea that there may be more troops than just Royston's and that the dust clouds may signal the arrival of reinforcements. Three hours later the shoe was on the other foot. Another three hours later and Kleist`s troops were beaten, decimated and demoralized in open flight to the north.
Kleist was lucky that McKenzie had failed in his main mission, cutting off the German retreat to prevent Kleist joining up with the main force.
Above: Better times, the Schutztruppe horselines before the war.
Oberleutnant Schmitt wrote...
"Even if the Abteilung was outnumbered, this second defeat (after Pforte) was unfortunate. It could to a certain degree have been avoided if the commander had taken more care. There were not enough patrols or advanced guard posts. Orders were lacking during the fight. It may seem hard when I (who was not involved) write this, but the negative judgment of Hauptmann Kleist's capabilities was echoed by all his officers and men.It was a great error to entrust the most difficult military task of the moment, i.e. evacuating the Southern Sector, while fighting a rearguard action, and avoiding losses... to an officer so obviously rendered ineffective by the climate and alcohol".
Like at Riet/Pforte the Germans had again critically underestimated the fighting discipline, tenacity, spirit and mobility of the union troops.
"We thought it impossible that the British would achieve what they did... under heavy fire during their advance they kept their formation (especially the Natal Carbineers) and the speed with which they dismounted, fought and were then again in the saddle astounded my comrades and me . When one considers it was a running fight their accuracy was astounding. We had always been under the impression that the South Africans had no discipline, but in view of the excellent way they moved and fought, we realized our error. Their artillery was excellent, the shooting precise. We had thought it impossible to drag field guns over such rough terrain...."
For an alternate map to the events at Gibeon, the South African version is HERE
General McKenzie's report of the battle can be found HERE
I very, very, very much recommend Walter Nuhn's "Auf verlorenem Posten- Deutsch Südwestafrika im Ersten Weltkrieg"