A master of bush warfare, Lettow-Vorbeck fought a four-year guerrilla campaign against the British in East Africa, tying down large numbers of troops, and inflicting heavy casualties upon them.
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Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was born in the German city of Saarlouis. He followed his father into the army, joining the Potsdam cadet school before being commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1900 he was posted to Beijing with the German contingent of the international forces that put down the Boxer Rebellion (1900). Posted to German South-West Africa (Namibia), he then served during the brutal repression of the Namaqua and Herero uprisings, sustaining wounds in the left eye and chest. Following his recovery in Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to major and appointed to the staff of the 11th Army Corps. In 1909 he was given command of a battalion of marines at Wilhelmshaven naval base.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, Lettow-Vorbeck was the commander of a small force in German East Africa (Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda). He was determined to tie down as many Allied troops as he could in the region to prevent them from being deployed elsewhere. During a four-year guerrilla campaign he ran rings around his enemies. With an army that never numbered more than 14,000 men, comprising about 3,000 Germans and 11,000 askaris (African soldiers), he succeeded in occupying ten times that number of Allied troops.
In August 1914 Lettow-Vorbeck raided British positions around Mount Kiliminjaro and Lake Victoria in British East Africa (Kenya). In response, a British-Indian force under Major-General Arthur Aitken landed near the German East African port of Tanga on 3 November 1914. Aitken made no attempt at concealing his plans and Lettow-Vorbeck was given time to reinforce his defences. When they came under fire Aitken’s poorly trained Indians panicked and ran. Although they were outnumbered eight to one, the Germans counter-attacked. Aitken’s troops were driven back to their boats, where they re-embarked on 5 November. At the cost of 150 casualties Lettow-Vorbeck had inflicted 850 casualties and captured hundreds of rifles, machine guns, and 600,000 rounds of ammunition. These supplies helped equip his army for the next year.
Britain commanded the sea and was able to send reinforcements from South Africa. Lettow-Vorbeck, heavily outnumbered and with limited resources, switched to a guerrilla campaign, mounting raids on the railways and forts in Kenya and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The only heavy artillery he possessed were the guns of the scuttled service raider ‘Königsberg’.
In March 1916, General Jan Smuts assumed command of the Allied forces. He attacked from the north out of Kenya, while forces from the Belgian Congo advanced from the west. Another force advanced over Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) from the south-east. All failed to catch Lettow-Vorbeck and all suffered heavy casualties from tropical diseases. For every man the Allies lost in battle, a further 30 were lost through sickness. Lettow-Vorbeck’s askaris on the other hand, were more resistant to local diseases.
Although Lettow-Vorbeck always managed to disengage his forces before they were overwhelmed, by late 1916 he was confined to the southern part of German East Africa. At this time Smuts began to withdraw his South African, Rhodesian, and Indian troops and replace them with Africans, who were more resistant to the climate and local diseases.
In 1917 moves were again made against Lettow-Vorbeck from Kenya, Nyasaland and the Belgian Congo. His forces divided into three groups and two of them managed to escape the offensives but the third, of around 5,000 men, was forced to surrender.
In late 1917 he was promoted to general. As the British closed in, Lettow-Vorbeck crossed south into Portuguese Mozambique. He was still raiding in 1918 when he learned of the Armistice, reputedly from a British prisoner. On 25 November 1918, he surrendered his unbeaten force, now reduced to about 1,500 men, to the British in Northern Rhodesia. During the campaign the British (including African and Indian units) lost over 10,000 men. German losses were about 2,000. East Africans suffered far more. One estimate is that around 100,000 carriers and camp followers died on both sides.
On returning to Germany in 1919 Lettow-Vorbeck was given a hero’s reception, leading his remaining officers on a victory parade through Berlin. During the early chaotic years of the Weimar Republic he took part in the Freikorps’ suppression of the communists in Hamburg and supported the right-wing Kapp Putsch (1920), a decision that led to his dismissal from the Reichswehr. Although he later served as a Reichstag deputy for the German Nationalists (1928-30), Lettow-Vorbeck had little time for Hitler’s Nazis. He died in 1964 and was buried with full military honours at Pronstorf.
An inspirational leader, fluent in East African languages and respectful towards his men, Lettow-Vorbeck was able to maintain the loyalty of his askaris, many of whom he promoted to officer rank. Although his discipline was harsh, the desertion rates of Africans in his army were lower than in Allied units. Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German commander to invade British territory during the war and one writer has called his campaign ‘the greatest single guerrilla operation in history’. He was also chivalrous towards his enemies, forming firm post-war friendships with many, including Jan Smuts.
"..with the means available, protection of the Colony could not be ensured even by purely defensive tactics...it followed that it was necessary, not to split up our small available forces in local defence, but... to keep them together, to grip the enemy by the throat and force him to employ his forces for self-defence."
General von Lettow-Vorbeck describing the defence of German East Africa in 'East African Campaigns' (1957)
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