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WW I in Africa

On August 7, 1914, Britain fired its first shots of World War I not in Europe but in the German colony of Togo. The campaign to eliminate the threat at sea posed by German naval bases in Africa would soon be won, but in the land war, especially in East Africa, British troops would meet far fiercer resistance from German colonial forces that had fully mastered the tactics of bush warfare. It was expected to be a “small war,” over by Christmas, yet it would continue bloodily for more than four years, even beyond the signing of the Armistice in Europe.

Its costs were immense, its butchery staggering (in excess of 100,000 British troops and 45,000 native recruits dead). Utmost among the tragic consequences, though, was the waste laid to the land and its indigenous peoples in what one official historian described as “a war of extermination and attrition without parallel in modern times.” Imperialism had gone calamitously amok.”

World War I: The African Front: An Imperial War on the Dark Continent by Edward Paice

Product Details:

· Pub. Date: July 2008

· Publisher: Pegasus Books

· Format: Hardcover 544pp

· ISBN-13: 9781933648903

· ISBN: 1933648902


The definitive history of World War I’s forgotten front: Britain versus Germany in East Africa to secure the belly of a continent.

On August 7, 1914, Britain fired its first shots of World War I not in Europe but in the German colony of Togo. The campaign to eliminate the threat at sea posed by German naval bases in Africa would soon be won, but in the land war, especially in East Africa, British troops would meet far fiercer resistance from German colonial forces that had fully mastered the tactics of bush warfare. It was expected to be a “small war,” over by Christmas, yet it would continue bloodily for more than four years, even beyond the signing of the Armistice in Europe.

Its costs were immense, its butchery staggering (in excess of 100,000 British troops and 45,000 native recruits dead). Utmost among the tragic consequences, though, was the waste laid to the land and its indigenous peoples in what one official historian described as “a war of extermination and attrition without parallel in modern times.” Imperialism had gone calamitously amok.

This eye-opening account of the Great War in East Africa does not flinch at the daily horrors of an ill-fated campaign—not just the combat but also a hostile climate, disease, the terrible loneliness—nor does it fail to recount tales of extraordinary courage and the kind of adventure that inspired fiction like C. S. Forester’s The African Queen, William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War, and Wilbur Smith’s Shout at the Devil. In all, it demonstrates dramatically why even the most hardened of Great War soldiers preferred the trenches of France to the trauma of East Africa.

Publishers Weekly

Paice, a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, has written what is by a significant margin the best book to date on the Great War in East Africa. Paice integrates an impressive spectrum of archival and printed sources into a comprehensive analysis based on the premise that, for economic and emotional reasons, “Africa mattered to the European powers.” Paice accurately and evocatively describes a campaign in which modern technology was consistently frustrated by terrain, climate and disease. He acknowledges the tactical brilliance of German Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He demonstrates as well that the Germans sustained their operations through systematic brutality that has led too many historians to mistake Africans‘ fear for loyalty. In that respect there was in practice little difference among the combatants. In East Africa horse transport was ineffective; supplies had to be moved by humans. Among more than a million Africans recruited by Britain alone, at least a tenth died. Subsistence economies were wracked by famine and disease, culminating in the influenza epidemic of 1918. While the voices of East Africaa‘s Great War remain largely Western, the burdens were disproportionately borne locally.

16 pages of photos; maps.


Edward Paice was a History Scholar at Cambridge and winner of the Leman prize. After a decade working in London, he spent four years living and writing in East Africa. Paice is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a visiting Fellowship by Magadalene College, Cambridge in 2004. He lives in Kent.
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October 18, 2008: The First World War wrecked not only vast areas of Europe, Russia and the Middle East, but also huge tracts of Africa. Edward Paice?s book studies this almost ignored disaster.

In Africa, the First World War was fought between Britain and Germany across German East Africa, an area five times the size of Germany, which became in 1919 British Tanganyika, later modern Tanzania.

On the British side, at least 100,000 people were killed, including 95,000 African carriers. Britain had recruited a million carriers from the five British-owned territories bordering German East Africa – the majority of the adult males. As one Colonial Office official noted, the campaign only stopped short of a scandal because the people who suffered most were the carriers – and after all, who cares about native carriers?

Germany recruited an estimated 350,000 carriers, who probably also suffered a one in ten death rate. At least 300,000 civilians died in Ruanda, Urundi and German East Africa.

As Paice notes, German East Africa’s most productive areas had been fought over and ravaged by both sides. Both sides stole grain and cattle as well as men. The war devastated the whole of East Africa, weakening the population so that they suffered a great famine in 1918, then the `Spanish flu”, and then another famine.

The imperialist war between the British and German ruling classes laid waste some of Africa’s most fertile land and killed probably half a million Africans, wrecking East Africa’s prospects for decades to come.

SMS Königsberg (1905) and WW I in Africa

SMS Königsberg was the lead ship of her class of light cruisers of the Imperial German Navy, most notable for her activities in and around German East Africa during World War I. After threatening British shipping, she was blockaded for months and eventually sunk in the delta of the Rufiji River.

Before World War I

Commissioned in 1906, Königsberg was then one of the German navy’s most modern ships. Soon after her commissioning, she was tasked for to escort the Royal Yacht Hohenzollern when the Kaiser made a state visit to Britain. In 1914, captained by Commander Max Looff, she arrived in German East Africa via the Suez Canal on a mission to show the flag. She was considered quite impressive by the colonial subjects in Africa, who were stunned by the gleaming surfaces and incredible broadsides of the ship, the likes of which had not been seen before. Most notable were her three funnels, as the Africans equated funnels with naval power, and three was an unprecedented number. The ship acquired the nickname Manowari na bomba tatu, or “the man of war with three pipes.”[1]

As tensions rose immediately preceding the Great War, the cruisers of the British Cape Squadron, HMS Astraea, HMS Hyacinth, HMS Pegasus, arrived with the intention of bottling up Königsberg at the colony’s capital Dar es Salaam. Captain Looff got his ship ready to sail and left port on 1 August 1914, with the apprehensive German population watching the ship depart, not knowing if they would ever see her again – and with the British in hot pursuit determined not to let her out of sight. Looff was able to give the Cape Squadron the slip. When war was declared, Königsberg was a thousand miles away from Dar es Salaam in the Indian Ocean. His high speed sprint away from the British cruisers emptied his bunkers and he had only two options for coal: to have it brought to him by colliers from Dar es Salaam, or take it from ships at sea, “whether they be friendly or unfriendly, whether it be good German or Cardiff coal.”[2]

Offensive career

Königsberg now embarked on a brief and frustrating career as a commerce raider, intercepting a then neutral Japanese liner whose captain was convinced his ship, manifest and cargo had been examined by a British cruiser,[3] then stopped the German steamers Ziethen and Hansa from heading to the Suez Canal (and certain confiscation), chased after the German freighter Goldenfels whose officers mistook Königsberg also for a British cruiser. Then, finally a British ship, the City of Winchester off the coast of Oman, to get at her coal. A boarding party discovered that City of Winchester carried poor quality Indian coal (“Bombay dust”) and Captain Looff certainly did not want to clog his boilers with this inferior product. A demolition team then placed charges in the boiler and engine room and Königsberg’s main battery got in some firing practice.[4] The collier Somali rendezvoused with the raider and positioned itself at predetermined points around the Indian Ocean. “The specter of the cold hearth began to haunt Captain Looff, as days went by without seeing a funnel that could supply him with coal.”[5] Königsberg met Somali again and took on coal for four days of cruising. Somali’s young captain, a knowledgeable local pilot, suggested the Rufiji Delta as a hiding place; he had been part of a survey team and had charted that area of the colony and found the river unexpectedly deep.[6] On 3 September 1914 at high tide, Königsberg passed over the bar at the mouth of the Rufiji and slowly made her way up the river to the settlement of Salele. The villagers watched the ship with concern, thinking Königsberg to be British and having heard of the bombardment of Dar es Salaam by British ships.

On 19 September 1914 Captain Looff learned from “coast watchers” that a 2-funnel warship had entered the harbor of Zanzibar; he assumed it was either Astraea or Pegasus.[7] Königsberg had again full bunkers thanks to lighters from Dar es Salaam and Looff decided to act immediately. With the afternoon tide the ship left the delta and started her run north to Zanzibar. At dawn the next day Königsberg fired salvos for 20 minutes into the stationary Pegasus. With the British cruiser capsized at the bottom of Zanzibar harbor, Königsberg, that very day was back at her anchorage at Salele in the delta, the morale of the crew immeasurably enhanced.[8]

Rufiji Delta refuge

SMS Königsberg at Bagamoyo, June 1914

Captain Looff had chosen as his next target the shipping lanes off South Africa, hoping to get at sufficient coal to eventually make the long journey up the Atlantic to reach Germany.[9] “But a ship is only as good as its machinery,” and it was the machinery rather than her captain or crew that caused Königsberg complications.[10] The long cruises, the intermittent high speed dashes, the lack of dockyard attention, all had taken their toll on the ship’s boilers, “and one of them broke down altogether.” Anchored at Salele, the engineering staff began to disassemble the affected boilers and Looff had these heavy parts taken to the workshops at Dar es Salaam some 100 miles (160 km) away (160 km), placed on wooden sledges for dragging them there and back.[11] During this time, an avenging British squadron spent its time tracking down leads to the cruiser’s whereabouts. Eventually, the search bore fruit when the German East Africa Line ship Präsident, rumored to be supplying Königsberg and Somali, was discovered at Lindi. Although the Präsident was converted to a hospital ship, the British ignored protests and boarded; their investigation uncovered suspicious documentation of the delivery of supplies to the Rufiji Delta. There Königsberg was discovered by the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Chatham at the end of October.

Meanwhile, Looff fortified the water approaches to the ship, dismounting the ship’s 47 mm secondary armament, and emplacing them on the delta’s water approaches, along with observers and troops, nicknamed the “Delta Force”.[12]

Just before the repaired boilers were returned and installed, two additional British cruisers had arrived, HMS Dartmouth and HMS Weymouth to assist with the blockade. While Königsberg might have been able to escape from the superior Chatham, the infusion of strength meant that the German cruiser was now trapped. On the other hand, the bigger British ships had too much of a draft to navigate the delta, meaning that they could not get within effective range of the German ship. This was not for lack of trying, however. On one occasion in early November, Chatham came close to scoring long-range hits; while the Somali was sunk, the Königsberg simply moved further up the river.[13] The situation was at an impasse.

Blockade and sinking

The British now employed a grab-bag of methods to sink or render useless the Königsberg. An attempt was made to slip a shallow-draft torpedo boat (with escorts) within range, an operation easily repulsed by the force in the delta. A blockship, the Newbridge, was successfully sunk by the British across one of the delta mouths to prevent her escape; it was soon realized that the Königsberg could still escape through the delta’s other channels, however. Dummy mines were laid in some of these alternates, but they were considered a doubtful deterrent.[14] A civilian pilot, Denis Cutler of Durban, South Africa, was commissioned into the Royal Marines and convinced to make his private Curtiss seaplane available for the British Empire. Lieutenant Cutler, and the mechanic he hired on the ship transporting the airplane, arrived 15 November 1914 to report to the captain of Chatham. On 19 November Cutler flew his first reconnaissance mission and was able to verify the presence of the elusive cruiser.[15] A pair of Royal Naval Air Service Sopwiths were brought up with the intention of scouting and even bombing the ship. They soon fell apart in the tropical conditions. A trio of Short seaplanes[16] fared a little better, managing even to take photographs of the ship before they were grounded by the glue-melting tropical heat and German fire.[17]

Attempts to use the 12-inch (305 mm) guns of the old battleship HMS Goliath to sink the cruiser were unsuccessful, once again because the shallow waters prevented the battleship from getting within range.

In the meantime, conditions were deteriorating on the Königsberg. There were shortages of coal, ammunition, food, and medical supplies. Although safe from the British, the crew was ravaged by malaria and other tropical ailments. Generally cut off from the outside world, the morale of the sailors fell. However, the situation was marginally improved with a scheme to resupply the ship and give her a fighting chance to return home. A captured British merchant ship, Rubens, was renamed Kronborg. It was given a Danish flag, papers, and a crew of German sailors selected for their ability to speak Danish. It was then packed with coal, field guns, ammunition, fresh water, and the like. After successfully infiltrating the waters of East Africa, it was intercepted by the alerted Hyacinth, which chased it to Manza Bay. The trapped ship was eventually sunk, burnt, and left for scrap. Astonishingly, upon investigation by the Germans, much of her cargo was deemed salvageable, and made its way to Königsberg partially by rail, and for the remainder on the backs of African porters.[18]

Finally, in late May 1915, the equipment necessary for a successful attack was brought together by the British. Two shallow draft monitors, HMS Mersey and HMS Severn, were towed to the Rufiji from Britain by way of Malta and the Red Sea. With non-essential items removed, added armour bolted on, and a full bombardment by the rest of the fleet, they ran the gauntlet. Aided by a squadron of four land planes (two Caudrons and two Henry Farmans[19]) based at Mafia Island to spot the fall of shells, they engaged in a long-range duel with Königsberg, which was assisted by shore-based spotters. Although Mersey was hit and the monitors were unable to score on the first day, they returned again on 11 July. Finally, their 6-inch (152 mm) guns seriously knocked out Königsberg’s armament. By 13:30 the ship was down to two guns, each with two rounds left. One of these last rounds was shrapnel and the gunners hit the British spotter plane, causing it to crash in the river.[20] With fires burning below decks, Captain Looff, now wounded as were many of his crew, ordered the magazines flooded. Two torpedo heads were rigged with fuses to blow out the ship’s bottom. With the British still firing, the charges went off and with cheers from the crew for the Good Ship, the Kaiser and the Fatherland, Königsberg settled into the river just after 14:00, her flag still flying.[21]


The next day 33 German sailors were buried by the 188 remaining crewmen. A plaque was placed near the graves, reading “Beim Untergang S.M.S. Königsberg am 11.7.15 gefallen…[22] followed by a list of the dead. The armament and all other useful equipment and material were removed from the wreck and, together with the ship’s crew, went on to see service in the East African land campaign under Lt.Col. Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck.[23]

The Königsberg 10.5 cm (4.1 in) guns especially played prominent roles for the Germans for the rest of the war, acting as the theater’s heaviest field artillery, used in harbor fortifications (at Dar es Salaam, for instance), and even remounted on the Götzen, the German “capital ship” of the inland Lake Tanganyika fleet.[24] The wreck itself, submerged to the main deck, lay in the river for fifty years and eventually disappeared into the mud in 1966.

One of the Königsberg’s guns is on display outside Fort Jesus at Mombasa, Kenya, complete with its improvised gun carriage (picture on the right).

A new light cruiser built in 1916 was also named SMS Königsberg to honor her predecessor. A third light cruiser Königsberg, commissioned in 1929, was sunk in World War II during the German invasion of Norway (Operation Weserübung).

Captain Max Looff and 15 crew members of Königsberg were left of a complement of 322 to participate in (now) General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s parade through the Brandenburg Gate after their return to Germany in 1919.


1. Miller, Battle for the Bundu, p. 31-32

2. Hoyt, The Germans who never lost, p. 31

3. Hoyt, p. 38; Japan declared war on Germany on 23 August 1914 in accordance with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance

4. Hoyt, p. 40

5. Hoyt, p. 54

6. in short order the naval reserve commission of the Somali captain was activated and he was appointed Königsberg’s pilot [Hoyt, p. 59]

7. Hoyt, p. 58; it was Pegasus as Astraea had been recalled to South Africa for convoy duty

8. Hoyt, p. 59

9. Hoyt, p. 68

10. Hoyt, p. 69

11. Miller, p. 78-80

12. Miller, p. 79

13. to conserve the coal he had left, Captain Looff used coal only to heat the boilers for moving Königsberg in the delta. All other uses, to make fresh water, to heat water, to cook in the galleys, were converted from coal to wood. Crew details cut three thousand pounds of mangrove daily for that purpose [Hoyt, p. 83]

14. Miller, p. 86

15. Hoyt, p. 97; on 10 December 1914 Cutler’s airplane was hit by rifle fire; he managed to crash land at the mouth of the river, swam ashore, was captured by Delta Force and made a Prisoner of War [Hoyt, p. 102]

16. Barnes & James, Shorts Aircraft since 1900, p. 97; one of the Short aircraft, “Short Admiralty Type 81Folder‘” bearing the RNAS serial number 119, had taken part in the Cuxhaven Raid on 25 December 1914

17. Miller, p. 114

18. Miller, p. 112

19. Miller, p. 116

20. Hoyt, p. 149

21. Hoyt, p. 150

22. “fallen during the sinking of SMS Königsberg on 11 July 1915…”

23. after the news of Königsberg’s struggle reached the German admiralty, Max Looff was promoted to Kapitän zur See (full captain); he thus technically outranked Lt.Col. Lettow-Vorbeck at that time, but Looff fully recognized that Lettow-Vorbeck was commander of all forces in German East Africa [Hoyt, p. 168]; Looff was made a Vice Admiral in the Reichsmarine during the Weimar Republic

24. Miller, p. 124


· Barnes, C.H. & James, D.N (1989). Shorts Aircraft since 1900. London: Putnam. ISBN 0851778194.

· Hoyt, Edwin P. (1968). The Germans who never lost. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. ISBN 0090964004.

· Miller, Charles (1974). Battle for the Bundu. The First World War in German East Africa. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc.. ISBN 0025848301.

· Patience, Kevin. Königsberg – A German East African Raider.

· Patience, Kevin. Shipwrecks and Salvage on the East African Coast.

World War I: The African Front: An Imperial War on the Dark Continent by Edward Paice


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