The September 2013 issue of Armchair General ® presented the Combat Decision Game “World War I in Africa, 1914.” This CDG placed readers in the role of German army Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbec commander of the Schutztruppe (colonial security troops) for the colony of German East Africa (present-day countries of Burundi, Rwanda and mainland Tanzania). LettowVorbeck’s mission in November 1914 was to attack and defeat a large British invasion force that landed on Tanga Peninsula intending to capture the important port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean coast. The loss of Tanga would have been a severe blow to German fortunes, likely resulting in Germany losing the war in Africa from the outset.
After World War I began in Europe in August 1914, the fighting quickly spread to the belligerent nations’ numerous colonies in Africa. In November, Britain launched a two-pronged invasion of German East Africa that consisted of an overland attack in the north near Mount Kilimanjaro by Indian Expeditionary Force C, and an amphibious landing at Tanga by the larger (7,800-man) Indian Expeditionary Force B (IEFB) supported by the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Fox.
Recognizing that the amphibious landing posed the most serious threat, Lettow-Vorbeck gathered a 1,000-man force of eight Schutztruppe companies (three companies of German troops and five companies of native Askari soldiers) and rushed to Tanga to deal with the IEFB. On November 3, a small number of German defenders easily repulsed a weak, half-hearted probe toward Tanga, aided by the IEFB’s inexplicably sluggish and disorganized actions and the British force’s lack of aggressiveness. The next day, Lettow-Vorbeck’s eight companies were in position and ready to engage the British invasion force.
Lettow-Vorbeck’s plan combined maximum firepower with an aggressive counterattack envelopment maneuver that gave his men the tactical edge they needed to defeat an enemy force outnumbering them nearly 8-to- 1 (CDG COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COUNTERATTACK ENVELOPMENT). Using the firepower of his machine guns protected by two Askari companies positioned behind the elevated railroad embankment, Lettow-Vorbeck was able to block the advance of the two IEFB brigades from Tanga Peninsula. Although the sheer number of IEFB troops threatened to overwhelm the railway embankment line, the timely commitment of two German reserve companies – and the uncoordinated, piecemeal nature of the British advance – prevented a catastrophic breakthrough.
Lettow-Vorbeck then unleashed a four company counterattack force that swept around the IEFB’s exposed southern flank, successfully enveloping the British force. Although the counterattack struck the IEFB’s best unit, 27th Bangalore Brigade, the German effort was significantly aided by swarms of stinging, angry bees that the British troops had inadvertently stirred up during their advance (giving rise to the engagement’s “Battle of the Bees” nickname). Struck from the flank and rear, the IEFB troops fled in disorder back to their landing beaches, with the panic quickly spreading from battalion to battalion. Soundly beaten, they were forced to re-embark on transport ships and evacuate Tanga Peninsula.
Britain’s official history of World War I called the Tanga defeat “one of the most notable failures in British military history.” The British lost 359 killed, 487 wounded, 149 missing in action, and a large number taken prisoner. However, Lettow-Vorbeck, based on his personal inspection of the battlefield, estimated that perhaps as many as 800-2,000 enemy soldiers died during the fighting.
Lettow-Vorbeck’s casualties were more modest, with 64 killed (16 Germans and 48 Askaris) and 80 wounded (24 Germans and 56 Askaris and native porters). Significantly, the Schutztruppe also gained numerous captured weapons and many supplies since the British abandoned all their heavy equipment when the IEFB evacuated the peninsula. This windfall included hundreds of uniforms, 16 machine guns, enough modern rifles to replace two-thirds of the Askaris’ obsolescent 1871/84 Mausers, and 600,000 rounds of small arms ammunition.
While Lettow-Vorbeck was winning the Battle of Tanga, a smaller Schutztruppe force defeated the northern pincer of Britain’s two-pronged invasion of German East Africa. At the November 3, 1914, Battle of Kilimanjaro, 600 Germans and Askaris triumphed over 1,500 Indian Service Brigade (ISB) troops from Indian Expeditionary Force C.
The victory at the Battle of Tanga launched Lettow-Vorbeck’s German and Askari Schutztruppe on a brilliant four-year campaign in which they consistently defeated larger and better-supplied British forces in both conventional and guerrilla warfare. Battlefield accomplishments by Lettow-Vorbeck from 1914-18 earned him a promotion to brigadier general, the Pour le Mérite medal (Germany’s highest award), and well-deserved acclaim as the “Lion of Africa.”
After World War I ended in an Allied victory, Lettow-Vorbeck was forced to surrender his undefeated Schutztruppe November 25, 1918. Despite his superb efforts during the war, Germany lost German East Africa along with all of its colonies in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. (See Special Feature, November 2013 ACG.)
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COUNTERATTACK ENVELOPMENT or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of World War I-era colonial warfare. Due to the abysmally inept British leadership and the woefully inadequate, panic-stricken performance of the IEFB soldiers, Lettow-Vorbeck might have achieved victory at the Battle of Tanga regardless of which plan he chose. However, COA Two’s combination of maximum firepower and aggressive, unexpected enveloping maneuver against a vulnerable flank likely would have led to success even against a better-led, more formidable opposing force.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: FRONTAL ATTACK into the teeth of British machine-gun fire – even if successful – would have put LettowVorbeck’s small Schutztruppe force at risk of suffering heavy casualties that it could not afford to lose. The fight on Tanga Peninsula was the opening battle in what likely would be a long, arduous campaign to defend German East Africa, and thus the Schutztruppe needed to husband their resources (manpower, weapons, ammunition, etc.) in order to continue effective combat operations.
Although COURSE OF ACTION THREE: FLANKING INFILTRATION capitalized on the unique bush-fighting skills and combat prowess of the native Askari soldiers and likely would have surprised and initially disoriented the IEFB troops, it surrendered many of the Schutztruppe’s key advantages to the enemy. Once the Askaris swept into the British camp, the fighting instantly would have become close-quarters melee combat in which the Schutztruppe could not use their superior discipline, training, mobility and small unit leadership to maximum effect. Moreover, due to the sheer number of British troops – 7,800 against only several hundred Askaris – they possibly could have overcome, turned back and defeated the surprise attack, even if it initially had been successful.
And now for excerpts from the winning Reader Solutions to “World War I in Africa, 1914.”*
DONALD K. GILLEO, ARIZONA: “Concentrate firepower at the decisive point of the British advance. Aggressively pursue the retreating enemy force to prevent its rallying. Collect all captured enemy supplies and equipment, especially arms and ammunition, for use to sustain German forces.”
RICHARD HILL, NORTH CAROLINA:“This option allows them to use the strengths of their force – training, morale, loyalty to the German cause and knowledge of the local terrain. Their knowledge of the terrain will allow them to surprise the enemy and counterattack them where they least expect it.”
DALE MALCHOW, WASHINGTON:“The counterattack is delivered from well-concealed positions and easily shatters the advance and demoralizes the attackers. The ‘right tools’ – well-trained troops led by experienced officers – were brought to the battle by the Germans.”
Thank you to everyone who participated in this CDG. Now turn to page 56 and test your tactical decision-making skills with CDG #60, “French Foreign Legion in Mexico, 1863.” This battle, occurring in April during France’s invasion of the republic of Mexico, places you in the role of Captain Jean Danjou, commander of 3d Company, 1st Battalion, French Foreign Legion. Your mission is to decide how your heavily outnumbered legionnaires will defend against an imminent attack by a much larger Mexican force. Use the CDG map and form on pages 59 and 60 to explain your solution and mail, email or fax it to Armchair General by December 27, 2013. Winners will be announced in the May 2014 issue, but those eager to read the historical outcome and analysis can log on to armchairgeneral.com/cdg after December 30, 2013.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: For each Combat Decision game, ACG typically receives numerous Reader Solutions that have selected the course of action that ACG judges have deemed the best COA for that CDG. However, our judges are required to choose winners and those earning an honorable mention from submissions whose explanations, in the judges’ opinion, best reflect an understanding of the principles and key points of the CDG’s tactical situation.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Armchair General.