‘Battlefield story I know so well’


Leighton resident and author John Newton wrote the following article about the WW1 Battle of Tanga.

During 20 years in East Africa, the 79-year-old, of Taylors Ride, became fascinated by the history of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika.

John Newton

John Newton

He said: “As soon as I discovered that WW1 was a long and difficult campaign in East Africa I began the study which resulted in my first novel, White Sunrise that takes in WW1 in the area. It disappoints me that most writings concentrate on the trenches in France. Many other interesting theatres of war were involved, but Tanga is ignored because we lost so badly.”

John is currently working on his seventh book. He also runs The Writing Room, a writers’ group that meets on the second Monday of the month at 7.30pm at The Barn, Heath & Reach. Call 01525 378193 for details.

Battle of Tanga
November 3, 1914

The countries now known as Kenya and Tanzania were, in 1914, colonies known as German East Africa (DOA) and British East Africa (BEA).

When war broke out, the European soldier/settlers of DOA – veterans of two ferocious colonial wars – were armed and trained. Each province contained a battalion of efficient African troops.

BEA, with a smaller population of untrained farmers and traders had only a few locally raised companies of British officered The King’s African Rifles keeping peace on the northern borders.

Britain decided that troops from India would attack DOA from the sea. At dawn on November 2, 1914 a fleet transports carrying 10,000 Indian soldiers arrived off the town of Tanga.

The cruiser HMS Fox entered the enclosed deep-water harbor and demanded the town surrender or suffer attack, despite flying a white flag.

The German administrator asked for time to consider. He returned ashore, lowered the white flag, raised the Imperial Eagle and called out his company of 200 African troops, and 20 German officers.

They lined the cliffs and opened rifle fire on HMS Fox, which retreated and rejoined the fleet.

General Aitken, the British commander with 35 years in The Indian Army had never commanded fighting troops. He ordered a night landing two miles from Tanga. His men, collected from farms and villages, were mostly untrained Sepoys from different cultures and religions, not yet trained on the weapons they carried.

Overnight a thousand of these poor men were dumped on the beach. Once ashore, they lay on the sand and refused to move.

Finally, at sunrise on November 3, they were mustered into lines ready to attack. Lack of night patrols meant Aitken had no idea of German strength or defences.

Captain Tafel set defences in a railway cutting looking across open ground to thick trees and bush. When the first Indian troops stepped out, Tafel’s whole line opened withering rifle and machinegun fire, decimating all who left the trees.

The Indians turned and ran. Fighting stopped. The British continued bringing troops ashore.

Overnight, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander, arrived by train from Moshi with reinforcements that he positioned along the railway.

The British did not move until 14.30 on November 4, when Aitken attacked with 6,000 troops, his only British soldiers to the left, Ghurkas to the right, untrained Indians in the centre.

Met by a ferocious blast of bullets, the centre melted away. Survivors rushed back, carrying reserves with them. The British and Ghurkas kept fighting, but with the battle lost, they withdrew.

During this time great swarms of African bees, angered by the noise, attacked both sides. Fighting stopped for 30 minutes.

At dawn on November 5 a British officer walked into Tanga with a white flag. The Germans agreed to a simple request: “Please stop shooting and we’ll go away”.

Aitken embarked his shattered force, leaving all landed stores where they lay. Von Lettow-Vorbeck collected everything and took to the bush, fighting the British until late 1918.

He kept a British force of 100,000 chasing his three guerilla columns without success until late November 1918.

He marched his remaining column into Abercorn in honourable surrender, with shouldered arms and flags flying to parade in the main square.

Applauded by the admiring British he dismissed his brave soldiers and returned to Germany a hero and a General.